ALLIED COUNTER-OFFENSIVES 1918

German Order of Battle, Western Front, 6.7.18, showing front line and German formations in red, Divisions in green; Divisions of poor quality in red outlined in green. The situation at the turning point of the war, as the Allied counter-offensives were beginning. Scale of original: 1:1 million.

German Order of Battle, Western Front, 11.11.18. 11.00, at the moment of the Armistice. Scale: 1:1 million.

Battle of Château-Thierry

French counter-attacks developed rapidly. On 18 July, the Battle of Château-Thierry opened when the French Tenth and Sixth Armies and American infantry were launched out of the Villers-Cotterêts Forest on a twenty-five-mile front between Fontenoy and Château-Thierry. Their objective was to hack into the flank of the Marne salient, and they were supported by predicted artillery fire and 750 Renault light tanks and protected by smoke. The Germans were forced to withdraw, and by 7 August had pulled out of the salient, back to the river Aisne. The Allies were now strengthened in numbers and morale by the infusion of American blood. German morale was correspondingly lowered.

Ludendorff cancelled his intended Flanders operation, and German soldiers, and those of their allies, were only too aware that the war was now lost. The French were now exhausted, and most of their tanks were destroyed, damaged or unserviceable. So Foch insisted that the task of carrying out the next blow should fall to the British, who had recovered from their setbacks earlier in the year and were benefiting from a massive increase in their war production.

Battle of Hamel

On the British sector of the front, counter-offensives were in any case being organized. On 4 July the Australians, supported by an American infantry company, captured Hamel and Vaire Wood, east of Amiens, in an imaginative and spirited set-piece attack involving the cooperation of predicted artillery fire, infantry, tanks and air support.

To minimize casualties, Monash, the Australian Corps Commander, insisted that his men should be well covered by the artillery. There was a massive concentration of British and French batteries for this small operation, amounting to about 600 guns and howitzers, with an emphasis on counter-battery fire as well as bombardments in the days before the attack. For the attack itself, surprise was achieved by the barrage opening with a crash. This successful little attack became the model for a much larger offensive, the Battle of Amiens. This in turn opened a series of Allied offensives, in which the British, French and Americans all played a major part, known as the Battles of the Hundred Days. This succession of offensives only ended with the Armistice on 11 November.

Battles of Amiens and Montdidier

Benefitting from the experience of the Hamel attack, the Amiens offensive, launched on 8 August on a fourteen-mile front, was made by Rawlinson’s Fourth Army, and spearheaded by the Canadian Corps. The aim was to disengage Amiens, which until now was within the range of German guns, and to free the Paris-Amiens railway. A deception plan was put into operation, involving a Canadian wireless station, two casualty clearing stations and two infantry battallions, to make it appear that the Canadian Corps was now in the Kemmel area in Flanders. The operations on the French sector of the attack frontage were known as the Battle of Montdidier.

Rawlinson’s Fourth Army pushed forward rapidly on a nine-mile front, supported by the French on the right, and then the Canadians and Australians, with the British 3rd Corps on the left. They were under accurate predicted bombardment and creeping barrage fired by over 2,000 guns and howitzers, and supported by 456 tanks, including many of the new Mark V models. Following the precedent set by the Germans in March, all supports and reserves began to move forward simultaneously at zero. The artillery had done very well at counter-battery work, aided in particular by the sound-rangers who could locate moving German batteries in haze and mist, unlike the flash-spotters and the air force.

British offensive tactics, after the slogging of 1915–18, were now more mobile and efficient. An advance of eight miles was made on the first day, but many tanks, still slow and vulnerable to mechanical breakdown, were lost to direct artillery fire. On the second day of the battle, the British only had 145 tanks still ready for action. Armoured cars and relatively fast Whippet tanks exploited in the rear areas, and cavalry helped to gain and hold some positions until the infantry arrived.

German resistance stiffened, the attack soon lost impetus, and there were no new reserves to feed the battle. But a new attack doctrine had by now evolved. As soon as one attack lost momentum, artillery and reserves were switched to another front and the blow repeated. Predicted fire, based on accurate survey and mapping, maintained the element of surprise, keeping the Germans off-balance. Wherever possible, tanks were also used to strengthen the attack. Rawlinson’s Army captured 400 guns and inflicted 27,000 casualties on the Germans, including 12,000 prisoners, for the loss of 9,000 men.

Battles of Albert, Bapaume and the Drocourt–Quéant Line

Following the Amiens operations, which lasted until 12 August, the weight of the British offensive was switched, at Haig’s insistence, to the northern sector of the Somme battlefield. Foch’s preference had been for a continuation of the Amiens battle. The Battles of Albert and Bapaume, from 21–31 August, turned the flank of the German position on the Somme and forced the Germans to pull back to the east bank. This series of blows continued when the new German position was then turned from the north from 26 August to 3 September in the Battles of Arras and the Drocourt–Quéant Line. That position being ruptured in an attack in which the Canadians and Americans took a major role, the Germans were forced to fall back to the outer defences of the Hindenburg Line. As the direct result of these battles, the Lys Salient further north was evacuated by the Germans, and the British captured Lens, and recaptured Merville, Bailleul and Mount Kemmel, and freed Hazebrouck and its vital railway junctions, which had been under German artillery bombardment.

Battle of St Mihiel

It had always been the aim of General Pershing, the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, to concentrate American forces in a field army under his command, rather than see them scattered piecemeal to reinforce other Allied armies. At St Mihiel, and then more particularly in the Meuse–Argonne battle, he achieved this. Between 12–16 September the Americans, led by Pershing, with a French corps and 267 light tanks also under his command, fought the Battle of St Mihiel to eliminate the German-held St Mihiel Salient, south of Verdun. Pershing planned to break through the German lines and capture the fortress of Metz, and as his attack caught the enemy withdrawing from the Salient, with their artillery also pulling back and most batteries therefore out of action, it proved more successful than expected. In a day and a half Pershing’s army, at the cost of 7,000 casualties, captured 15,000 prisoners and 450 guns.

While the success of the American attack impressed the French and British, the operations demonstrated the difficulty of supplying large armies in a war of movement. The attack ground to a halt as artillery and ration trucks bogged down on the muddy roads. The US air service played a significant part in this battle, although American fliers had been serving with the Escadrille Lafayette since 1916. The intended attack on Metz did not in the end take place, as the Germans took up a strong rear position and the Americans turned their efforts further north, to the Verdun and Argonne Forest regions.

Battle of Epéhy and the Meuse–Argonne Offensive

In the Battle of Epéhy on 18 and 19 September, British forces broke through the outer Hindenburg defences and established jumping-off positions for the attack on the main Hindenburg position. Foch’s grand offensive now gathered pace along the whole Allied front. On 26 September, Pershing’s American First and Gouraud’s French Fourth Armies began the Meuse–Argonne offensive, on the front from Verdun to the Argonne Forest, with Pershing’s right flank on the river Meuse and the French attacking on his left. Twenty-two French and fifteen American divisions were involved. This, the largest American operation of the war, lasted from 26 September to the Armistice on 11 November. In the difficult Argonne Forest terrain of tangled woods, gullies and ridges, it was almost impossible for tanks to operate, and the Americans found themselves engaging in a bloody slog through a succession of strongly held German positions.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

In their operations from 8 August to 26 September (the eve of the great attack on the main Hindenburg Position), the BEF suffered 190,000 casualties. Between 26–29 September, one Belgian, five British, and two French armies attacked the Hindenburg Line and German positions extending north to beyond Ypres. Attacks were made by fifty British and twelve Belgian divisions, as well as the French and Americans further south. On the whole of the Western Front, 217 Allied divisions faced 197 German.

The attack on the Hindenburg Position, whose defences were up to three miles in depth and included the St Quentin Canal which made a superb anti-tank ditch, was made in the Battles of Cambrai and St Quentin, from 27 September until 10 October. The French First Army attacked on the right of the British Fourth Army (Rawlinson). In view of the strength of this well-sited and long-prepared position, Rawlinson and his artillery commander Budworth decided on an intense fifty-six hour preliminary bombardment in addition to the now-usual predicted crash and creeping barrage starting at zero hour on 29 September. Over 1,630 guns were used on a 10,000-yard front, firing an extremely effective counter-battery and destructive programme beforehand, with a high proportion of high-explosive shell, and neutralizing fire during the attack. Operational and artillery planning was helped by a set of captured enemy defence maps, showing all the trenches, pill-boxes, dugouts, machine gun emplacements, battery positions, etc. The German defenders were stunned by the artillery, and overwhelmed by the attack.

In ten days of heavy fighting in the crucial sector from St Quentin to Epéhy, and especially north of this on a four-mile frontage between Bellicourt and Vendhuille, where the St Quentin Canal ran in a tunnel, the British and Americans eventually broke through the last and strongest of the Germans’ fully prepared positions. A critical situation initially developed in the tunnel sector when the American 2nd Corps’ two divisions (27th and 30th), supported by three Australian divisions, were delayed by the strength of the German defences and lost the barrage. Tanks became ditched in the deep trenches, and as the inexperienced Americans neglected the vital task of ‘mopping up’ German pockets as they went forward, the Australians had to fight through this ground again as they in turn moved up. Further south, at Bellenglise, the British 46th Division managed to cross the canal, using rafts and lifebelts, protected by a pulverizing barrage, punching a three-mile gap in the German defence and turning the enemy flank to the north in the sector facing the Australians and Americans. Advances were also made further north, on 27 September, between Péronne and Lens, on the fronts of the British Third and First Armies, and by 5 October the attacking Allied armies had broken through the whole Hindenburg Position. This opened the way for a war of movement and an advance towards the vital main German communications routes.

This group of assaults was undertaken in three phases. First came the storming of the Canal-du-Nord position on the left in the Battle of the St Quentin Canal, and the advance on Cambrai. Following this came the shattering blow which, after a stupendous artillery bombardment and with the help of hundred of tanks, broke through the Hindenburg Line and turned the defences of St Quentin. Lastly came the exploitation of these successes by a general attack on the whole front which broke through the last of the enemy defences and captured the Beaurevoir Line, to the rear of the Hindenburg Line, and the high ground above it, by 10 October. The Germans were forced to evacuate Cambrai and St Quentin and pull back to the river Selle. These three battles created a huge salient in the German position.

Fifth Battle of Ypres and Battles of Courtrai, Selle and Maubeuge

Meanwhile, further north, in the Fifth Battle of Ypres on 28 and 29 September, King Albert of Belgium’s Army Group of twelve Belgian divisions, Plumer’s Second Army (ten British divisions), and Degoutte’s Sixth Army (six French divisions) forced the Germans back from Ypres and drove yet another salient into their lines, endangering the German position on the Belgian coast. In one day these armies swept over the ground that had taken two British armies, assisted by a French army, three months to capture the previous year.

Meanwhile Ludendorff, receiving news on 28 September of the Bulgarian request for an armistice, and after the Allied attack in Flanders had begun, suffered a temporary mental and physical collapse, a crisis of nerve in which he crashed to the floor and even foamed at the mouth. The succession of gloomy reports from the Western Front can hardly have helped. At 6 p.m. he told Hindenburg that an armistice was imperative. On the twenty-ninth, an armistice on the Macedonian front was signed with the defeated Bulgarians and the way was now open for an Allied attack from the south into Austria. Hindenburg, at a war council meeting, told the German leaders that, to prevent a catastrophe (this was the day the Hindenburg Line was broken), peace must be sought using Wilson’s ‘fourteen points’ as a basis. Ludendorff now realized the game was up and, while he found six divisions to putty up the Serbian front, started to prepare the ground for peace proposals. On 3 October the Germans asked President Wilson for an immediate armistice.

Meanwhile the success at Ypres was extended by the Battle of Courtrai, from 14–31 October, which widened and deepened this wedge and resulted in the capture of Halluin, Menin and Courtrai. This series of great battles had, as their immediate result, in the south the evacuation of Laon and the German retirement to the river Aisne; in the centre the withdrawal to the river Scheldt, which liberated Lille and the great industrial district of northern France around Roubaix and Tourcoing; and in the north the clearing of the Belgian coast, including the submarine bases of Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges. The Germans were now back on the line of the Scheldt and Selle rivers. The Battle of the Selle, from 17–25 October, forced the Germans from the latter and drove yet another wedge into their defences. Germany’s remaining allies were now falling away; Turkey signed an armistice on 30 October, and Austria–Hungary did the same on 4 November, after which Germany was isolated.

The Battle of the Selle was followed by the final blow, the Battle of Maubeuge, from 1–11 November, which struck at and broke the Germans’ last important lateral communications, turned their positions on the Scheldt and forced them to retreat rapidly from Courtrai. At the same time, the Americans attacked again, the French armies were cautiously moving forward (Foch was naturally unwilling for too much French blood to be spilled at this stage), and the British had not halted in their series of successful operations. This victory completed the achievement of the great strategic aim of the whole series of battles, by effectively dividing the German forces into two, one part on each side of the natural barrier of the Ardennes forest. The German fleet had mutinied on 29 October, while the German army, while it had been experiencing increasing indiscipline and desertion in the latter part of 1918, had been comprehensively defeated in the field. Revolution broke out in Berlin. The pursuit of the beaten enemy all along the line was only halted by the Armistice at 11 a.m. on 11 November. The Kaiser abdicated on 9 November, and the following day the desperate German authorities told their armistice delegation to accept any terms put in front of them. Fittingly, the Canadians entered Mons, where the BEF had fought its first battle in 1914, on the morning of the eleventh.

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The Strategic Errors of Nicholas I

Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias: Nicholas I

The diplomacy of Nicholas I, then, all too often consisted in using inadequate means to try to reach the unattainable. Nicholas’s approach to the use of his military power was also faulty. Consider, for example, his practice of using his army as an instrument of deterrence and intimidation. It is always risky to stage such threats; instead of cowing one’s enemies into submission, they may galvanize them into action. Such was often the case during the reign of Nicholas I. His blustering against the Turks, for instance, led them to declare war on Russia first in 1827 and again in 1853. The bellicose posturing of the Russia was also counterproductive in its relations with the French and, most particularly, the British. The Tsar’s conversations with the British Ambassador in early 1853, when he had suggested the need for an agreement with London in advance about how to fill the vacuum of power that would occur should the Ottomans collapse was misinterpreted by the British as evidence of Russian annexationist designs. The Russian destruction of the Turkish fleet at Sinope the following November—which the Tsar had intended to use to force Turkish capitulation—inflamed British public opinion against Russia and set the stage for the British declaration of war. Nicholas’s practice of trying to bully and intimidate his neighbors with his military might often backfired, much as similar Soviet efforts did under Brezhnev in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Still further, mobilizing the army to send signals or to make military demonstrations was often fundamentally detrimental to Russia if war broke out. Deploying forces as a signal could make the prosecution of a real war much more difficult. The requirements of intimidation and the requirements of warfighting at times radically diverged. Take, for instance, Russia’s occupation of the Danubian principalities in 1828 and 1853. On the former occasion Russia marched into the principalities, despite the fact that Turkey had already declared war, in the hope of scaring the Porte to the bargaining table. Not only did the gesture fail to achieve its purpose, but it also complicated the execution of the Russian campaign plan, as the occupation of the principalities subtracted 20,000 men (almost one-third of its strength) from the ranks of the army. Nor was Russia any more successful in 1853, when as before it seized the principalities and then stopped. That action both antagonized the Austrians and provided the Turks with a breathing space of several months in which to organize their defenses. In international relations, no less than on the street, it can be perilous to draw a gun if one does not really intend to use it.

Once shooting war broke out, Nicholas’s ideas about how to wage it also had harmful results. In the first place the Tsar, who had a grotesquely distorted opinion of his own military talents, meddled far too much in the military planning and operational decision-making. The letters and memoranda he showered on his commanders analyzed the military options available to them in excruciating detail. The Tsar’s gratuitous advice and exhortation naturally enough hobbled his generals, stifling even what little initiative they had. Some of Nicholas’s military recommendations were simply boneheadly wrong, as the proposal he seriously made in February 1854 for a suicide naval attack should the British and French fleets enter the Black Sea and anchor off Feodosiia. Further, the Tsar’s constant insistence on the need for speedy victory, although founded on a shrewd estimation of the limitations of Russian power, often resulted in spreading forces too thin or incurring unacceptable risks. During the Turkish campaign of 1828, for instance, Nicholas ordered simultaneous sieges of three Turkish forts—Varna, Silistriia, and Shumla—despite the intelligent counsel of General Wittgenstein that it would be better to concentrate all effort on merely one objective. As Wittgenstein had foreseen, Russia did not have the forces with which to capture all three fortresses at once. Shumla and Silistriia successfully resisted Russian sieges, and although Varna fell, it took eighty-nine days to do so, principally because of the minuscule resources the Russian army was able to devote to investing it. Nicholas’s decision here was clearly one of the capital blunders of the campaign. Although his purpose had been to accelerate the progress of the war, arguably he only succeeded in protracting it. Nicholas’s demand for rapid results was not much of an asset to the Russian army during the war with Shamyl in Transcaucasia, either. It inclined at least some commanders to reckless haste, such as Viceroy Vorontsov, whose forces Shamyl trounced at Dargo in 1845 for that very reason. It took Nicholas too long to grasp the fact that pacification of guerrilla tribesmen in the extraordinarily difficult terrain of the Caucasus would perforce have to be accomplished gradually and slowly.

A final flaw in Nicholas I’s appreciation of warfare was the pernicious influence upon it of the image of the War of 1812. As we saw in the previous chapter, a considerable gap existed between the reality of the Fatherland War and the myth. The Fatherland War had not in fact seen the forging of unshakable national unity. Nicholas thought that it had. He considered its chief lesson to have been that the Russian army was invincible when in defense of its own territory. That was a dangerous belief for the Tsar to hold, for it engendered overconfidence no less than his erroneous reliance on alliances with the German Powers. Unrealistic expectations befogged the Emperor’s mind during the Crimean War. It was as if he expected his troops to be able to compensate for every advantage the enemy possessed by dint of gallantry alone. That gallantry, although evident on many occasions, was inadequate to the task.

Weaknesses in the Armed Forces

Nicholas’s use of military forces to gain his objectives often misfired. Part of the trouble lay in the quality of the military instrument itself. Grave inadequacies in the army, many stemming from Nicholas’s preference for using it to threaten, not fight, crippled the execution of Russia’s wartime strategies.

Of all of the problems of the Nicholaevan army, perhaps the most severe was that of manpower. Nicholas’s army was larger on paper than it was on the parade ground or in the field. In every war waged by Russia throughout the reign, its generals were chronically embarrassed by a shortage of troops. During the Turkish War of 1828–29, for instance, the Second Army mustered only 65,000 men, roughly half what it was supposed to contain by statute. Adjutant General Vasil’chikov, entrusted by the Tsar with drafting a report on the failure of the 1828 campaign, concluded that it had occurred in large measure because of insufficient military manpower. Ninety thousand men, he wrote, were simply too few with which to occupy Wallachia and Moldavia, block the Danubian forts, and conduct the sieges of Brailov, Varna, and Shumla. Three years later, during the Polish war, the situation was no different. The initial contingent of Russian forces earmarked for field operations consisted of only 120,000 men, and it required two months to assemble even that number. When Paskevich begged for reinforcements in August 1831, Nicholas replied that only 10,000 infantry men were immediately available and that there would be no more at least until the spring. Still later in the reign, when Russia went to war against Britain, France, and Turkey, it experienced grave (and notorious) difficulties in bringing its military power to bear in the chief theater of conflict. Out of total military forces that were supposed to amount to 1.4 million soldiers, fewer than one hundred thousand were initially available for the defense of the Crimean peninsula. Indeed, Russia’s military effort in the Crimea would be crippled throughout the two and a half years of war by inadequate numbers of troops.

What explains the fact that in Nicholaevan Russia, the outbreak of any war was immediately attended by a crisis of military manpower? Several factors were responsible. In the first place casualties were always high whenever the Russian army embarked on a campaign, and for the traditional reasons: miserable weather, bad hygiene, and inferior military medicine. During the Persian campaign of 1827 Russian losses from heat prostration (temperatures hit well over 100 degrees F. that July) so weakened the army that the siege of Erivan had to be postponed. During the subsequent Turkish war, disease in combination with extreme cold during the terrible winter of 1828 resulted in the loss of 40,000 men, virtually half the army. Operations in Poland in 1831 were stymied by an epidemic of cholera, which carried off the Tsar’s Viceroy and his commander-in-chief along with thousands of common soldiers. Excessive mortality and morbidity were also features of the campaigns in the Caucasus. Conditions of service in the Black Sea forts that Russia built to blockade the coast were so harsh that a soldier’s life expectancy there was estimated at three years. D. A. Miliutin, who was a participant, remarked that the rapid spread of sickness among the Russian soldiers during the siege of Akhulgo in 1839 was the result of “prolonged encampment in the same positions, on sunparched cliffs and in air poisoned by corpses.”

We should note, inter alia, that poor hygiene and bad food plagued the health of the troops in peace as well as in war. The Ministry of War admitted, for instance, that dysentery “was a frequent, even common” ailment suffered by the troops every summer. Official statistics indicate that more than 16 million cases were treated in military hospitals and clinics from 1825 to 1850. Over the same time period, whereas 30,000 Russian soldiers perished in combat, more than 900,000 succumbed to diseases of all kinds.

Another strain upon available military manpower in war was the widespread use of military units to perform a variety of nonmilitary services within the empire. During the first twenty-five years of Nicholas’s reign some 2,500 battalions of troops were at some time employed in state works for the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Communications, the Engineers, or the military colonies. Elements of the Russian army performed such essential tasks as the road repair and bridge-building. A still more serious headache for military planners was the deployment of large numbers of troops as permanent garrisons throughout the empire for the maintenance of internal order. In addition to the fifty battalions of the Internal Guard, troops were also stationed in quantity for this purpose in Finland, Orenburg, and Siberia. During the Crimean War forces detached for internal duty (and consequently excused from combat) may have numbered as many as 500,000. Also complicating the manpower problem during 1853–56 was the need to deploy troops in auxiliary and potential theaters of war other than the Crimean peninsula. The struggle against Shamyl’s murids tied up the entire 200,000-man army of the Caucasus; 300,000 soldiers were emplaced in the northeast to defend against possible attacks on the Baltic coast; and Paskevich insisted on retaining sizable forces in Poland to deter potential Austrian intervention.

A final limitation on military manpower inhered in the defects of recruitment. Throughout the reign of Nicholas, Russia continued to replenish its armed forces on the basis of the old Petrine conscription system. In times of peace the state decreed levies of from two to three soldiers per 100 taxable men in the empire. The system was naturally burdensome to the Russian economy, and Nicholas, for one, was troubled by that fact. Although early on he rejected the idea that the military colonies should be enlarged so as eventually to create a captive pool of manpower equal to the army’s entire annual needs, he was keenly interested in reducing the strain of recruitment on the population of his empire. He experimented with various reforms, including dividing the country into halves from which conscripts would be taken only in alternate years. Yet none of his reforms came up to the Tsar’s expectations, principally because the system as it was almost guaranteed that the quality of recruits would be poor. To be sure, selection of recruits by means of lotteries, which was gradually made mandatory for state peasants (gosudarstvennye krestiane) under Nicholas, was a reasonable safeguard against the tendency of that segment of the population to defraud the army of quality men. But for the majority of peasants—the proprietary serfs—selection of recruits was still in the hands of local landlords and village communes. Both the landlords and the communes still had every incentive to fob the dregs of the village off on the army. Because the conscription laws were often quite slackly enforced during peacetime, the consequence of the system was that the Russian army began each of the wars it fought under Nicholas seriously under strength. When the Turkish war broke out in 1828, for instance, the army was undermanned by no less than 40 percent. Since Nicholas almost never foresaw the outbreak of any war (expecting his military bluster to prevent it), the army was always severely short of men at the precise moment when operations began. The government therefore had no choice but to institute draconian recruitment procedures, including a doubling or tripling of the conscription levy, in order to fill the ranks of the army as quickly as possible. Yet despite all of the emergency efforts of the recruitment officers, numbers of recruits dispatched to the theater of war always lagged behind army requirements. The forced marches the new recruits endured, in addition to their almost total lack of training, seriously impaired their military value once they arrived on the battlefield. During wartime, in Nicholas’s words, the regiments “either did not receive reinforcements or received naked, unshod, and exhausted recruits; the regiments melted away, perished, and behind them stood nothing.”

It was precisely because he was alive to this problem that Nicholas had tried to overhaul the recruitment system by introducing provisions for “unlimited furloughs” in 1834. As already noted, the purpose of the reform was to build up a supply of trained reservists who would be available for recall to the army in the event of a crisis. After fifteen years of blameless service, a demobilized soldier was assigned to a reserve battalion that was in turn linked to an actual field regiment. On one level the “unlimited furloughs” were doubtless a boon to the Russian army, for having reserves was clearly preferable to having none. For example, in 1848 and 1849 the state succeeded in calling up more than 175,000 men in this category. Unlimited leaves were probably beneficial to army morale as well. Surely the prospect of an early discharge from the ranks was a powerful incentive for good behavior.

But the “unlimited furlough” system imposed costs on the state as well. In granting up to 17,000 men a year indefinite leave, the Russian government in effect created a legally anomalous and impoverished new class. Where, after all, were these discharged men to go? State peasants on indefinite leave might rejoin their communities, but for the majority of men on leave, former proprietary serfs, there was no welcome at home. Now legally free, they had nonetheless lost all of their claims on land or property within the village the moment they had entered the army. If they tried to rejoin their families, the latter were burdened with feeding them and paying their taxes. Thus neither their relatives nor their former landlords, for that matter, wished to see them return. The result was that many apparently took to begging, vagabondage, or crime. The plight of those miserable outcasts properly ought to have been a matter of grave state concern; in actuality, the Russian government was even more worried lest the former soldiers prove to be an unstable element in the villages and towns where they took up temporary residence. One prominent general warned Nicholas that “a man who is not attached to society by either property or family ties, wandering without work or goals, easily gets involved in disorders.” The head of the political police himself reported to the monarch in 1842 that in his opinion indefinite leaves had produced “an undesirable change in the morals of the Russian soldier.”

In any event, the reform of 1834 was a palliative, not a solution. Although it was able to provide the army with enough reservists to undertake the punitive expedition into Hungary in 1849, the program was too small in scale to satisfy the army’s need for reinforcements in case of a major war. All the 200,000 reservists on the books had been called up within the first year of the Crimean War. As that number was insufficient, the government once again had to resort to ad hoc emergency levies, which inducted possibly as many as 800,000 men into the ranks of the army during the conflict. Even that quantity proved in the end to be too small.

Problems other than inadequate manpower sapped the combat strength of the Russian army. The omnipresent evils of corruption and peculation are an example. On all too many occasions, officers devised ingenious methods for robbing both the state and the soldiers under their command. They ranged from outright theft, to doctoring the books, to substituting inferior goods for state supplies and pocketing the difference. To be sure, soldiers themselves stole as well. Then, too, as one scholar has recently emphasized, in view of the haphazard issuance of pay, the snail’s pace of logistical deliveries, and in general the relatively small state resources expended on its maintenance, the Russian army could not even have survived without some corruption. Still, egregious thieving could not but be detrimental to the morale of the troops. Some colonels were known to have syphoned off as much as 60,000 rubles from the regiments in a single year. It was not uncommon for soldiers to be deprived of such necessities as rations and firewood because of the criminal greed of their commanders. Abuses like those, a War Ministry report of the 1850s commented, “have a harmful effect on discipline”—an understatement if there ever was one.

Bad consequences arose also from what has been termed the “platz parad” (parade ground) tradition during the reign of Nicholas I. The tradition has often been portrayed as more dysfunctional than it actually was: goose-stepping and meticulously executed drill really did make the army look fearsome and imposing, which is how the Emperor wanted to look to potential enemies abroad or potential dissidents at home. Still, as was the case also with military deployments, drill that served the interest of military intimidation often did not prepare the troops for war. At inspections and exercises troops were required to observe petty rules: ranks had to be perfectly dressed; intervals between each man had to be identical; and boots had to be polished just so. Failure to measure up could incur many blows of the stick. In general, disciplinary measures were brutal. Army authorities meted out harsh punishments (including often fatal sentences of running the gauntlet) for quite trivial offenses. Although better off than common soldiers, officers themselves were not spared the rigors of Nicholaevan discipline. One young officer complained in his diary that as he found it physically impossible to fulfill all of his service obligations, he was under intolerable mental strain, fearing that any moment he might be visited with summary punishment for dereliction of duty.

In any event, contemporaries often bemoaned the deleterious effects of this rigorous and punctilious training on the health of the troops. Tight uniforms and incessant parading are said to have born fruit in disease. Parade ground exercises also wreaked havoc with military equipment. The manual of arms, which required a soldier to slam his musket violently onto the ground, often dislocated the firing mechanism, which could later result in the breech exploding in his face when he tried to take a shot. At least one commander placed such an emphasis on the smartness of his unit when on parade that his men’s gun barrels were actually worn thin through excessive burnishing.

Drill can obviously be of great military use. It can teach civilians to think of themselves as soldiers and can help build confidence and esprit de corps. There can, however, be too much drill. Pushed too far, as it was under Nicholas I, drill contributed little to preparing the soldiers for battle. Still worse, if soldiers attempted to perform in the field as they had been trained to on the Champs de Mars, the results could be disastrous. Intelligent young officers assigned to the Army of the Caucasus during Nicholas’s reign quickly discovered that it behooved them to forget everything they had learned on the parade ground—that is, if they wished to remain alive.

A final set of difficulties stemmed from the state’s efforts to economize on the maintenance of its army. Take, for example, the military colonies. One of the principal reasons for establishing them was the desire of the government to keep the military budget under control. Yet despite the fact that the colonies allowed (and indeed encouraged) soldiers to marry and raise families, both the soldiers and the peasants settled in the colonies regarded them as little more than hells on earth. Count A. A. Arakcheev, the driving force behind the colonies, was a sadistic martinet, and the administration of the settlements bore the imprint of the deformities of his character. Every aspect of life and behavior in the colonies was regimented; each colonist was attired in military uniform; hours of drill were demanded on top of backbreaking agricultural labor; discipline was both harsh and capricious. Conditions in the colonies, frankly unendurable, resulted in high incidences of suicide and eventual rebellion. In 1831 military colonists in Novogord suddenly rose up in revolt and massacred more than two hundred bailiffs, nobles, and officials; 3,600 men and women implicated in the atrocities were tried and punished.

The rebellion forced the state to ameliorate the regimen that existed within the colonies. In the immediate aftermath of the 1831 uprising many of the colonists were reclassified as “farming soldiers.” That relieved them of the responsibilities of military drill and placed them more or less on a par with the state peasants. Their children were no longer automatically enrolled as cantonists. Those reforms, however, represented a retreat from the principle of squeezing the colonies to provide food, money, and conscripts for the army.

Although Nicholas’s regime was unquestionably militaristic and although the Tsar personally was devoted to his army, the fact remained that the state simply did not possess enough revenue to support its armed forces or its ambitious military policies. Despite all the efforts of the Ministry of Finance, the state ran a budgetary deficit almost constantly during the reign of Nicholas I. Although the army continued to claim a high proportion of total governmental outlays, the bad harvests of 1839–41 compelled St. Petersburg to cut even its military spending.

Financial pressure had obvious consequences for military preparedness. Nicholas I was, for instance, very interested in constructing or improving fortifications along the western perimeters of his empire from Åland Island to Aleksandropol. Yet while Nicholas started nine large-scale fortress-building projects during his reign, he completed few. Of the three forts deemed indispensable for the defense of Poland—Novogeorgievsk, Ivangorod, and Brest—only the first had been finished when Nicholas died.

Revenue problems were still damaging to the armed forces during the 1840s and after. During that time Russia’s European competitors increasingly adopted advanced (and expensive) military technologies. Impoverished Russia lacked the money with which to compete. The navy was the first to suffer. In the early years Nicholas had been concerned with upgrading and improving his fleets. Indeed, sea power had served Nicholas well at Navarino in 1827 and at Constantinople in 1833, to mention but two occasions. Yet when the transition from sail to steam began, the Russian navy lagged behind. Russia did not acquire its first steamship until 1848. When the Crimean War began, there were only ten small paddle-wheelers in the entire Black Sea fleet, and they were completely outclassed by the French and British ships-of-the line, driven by their screw propellers. Russia was to suffer for that naval inferiority throughout the entire war. It was the reason that Russia felt it had to detach such a high proportion of troops to guard its Baltic coast in the 1853–56 period. It also meant that certain Russian possessions had to be abandoned. In December 1854 the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich ordered the governor-general of Eastern Siberia to evacuate all Russian troops from the island of Kamchatka in view of the impossibility of defending it against an amphibious invasion. Technological inferiority was also a great problem for the army. The smoothbore muskets and cannon employed by the defenders of Sevastopol were no match for the rifles and improved ordnance of the enemy. French and British guns could fire faster and farther than Russian ones. The allies, moreover, were more abundantly furnished with ammunition; during the siege the French and the British fired at least 400,000 more shells on Sevastopol than the Russians were able to fire back. There is something in the end pathetic about Nicholas’s requests during the war that captured enemy rifles and shells be brought to Petersburg for his personal inspection; he was making an all too belated acquaintance with the implications of nineteenth-century technological progress. Allied technological superiority was in the end to be decisive in the Crimean War.

The Crimean War

As Russia interpreted them, the terms of the Peace of Kuchuk Kainardzhi of 1774 gave it special rights to protect the interests of Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. In 1850, however, the government of France began to pressure Constantinople to grant it exclusive rights over the Churches of the Holy Sepulcher and the Nativity, in Jerusalem and Bethlehem respectively. Those demands were advanced even more forcibly after 1852, when, by means of a coup d’état, Louis Napoleon had swept away the Second Republic and proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. As Emperor, Napoleon III was eager both to enhance his international prestige and to curry favor with Catholic opinion in France by posturing as the most devoted defender of the Roman Catholic faith.

Napoleon’s negotiations with the Turks put Nicholas I in a difficult position. While the Holy Places per se were of little concern to him, he was unwilling to be perceived as backing down in the face of the French. Then, too, he believed that Imperial France was about to embark on a revolutionary policy, designed to win influence in Turkey at Russia’s expense. After much abortive negotiating, Nicholas finally dispatched his Minister of Marine, Prince Menshikov, to Constantinople as his personal emissary. Menshikov’s mission was to demand that the Turks reconfirm the special privilege of the Russian Tsar to protect the status of the 12 million Orthodox believers who were Ottoman subjects. Regarding this as tantamount to a surrender of sovereignty, the Turkish government rejected the demand, counting on the support of both France and Britain. Napoleon III was only too glad to oblige. And the coalition government of Lord Aberdeen, which included the Russophobe Palmerston as Foreign Minister, was increasingly inclined to view Russia’s activities as a prelude to an aggressive assault on the Near Eastern balance of power.

After the fiasco of the Menshikov mission Nicholas I attempted to threaten the Turks, as we have previously seen, by staging an invasion of Wallachia and Moldavia, two provinces under the nominal suzerainty of the Sultan. The Turks, however, were not inclined to give way. When a last-minute attempt at mediation by the Austrian Chancellor, Count Buol, also failed, Turkey declared war on October 4, 1853.

Although Russia intended to stand on the defensive against the Turks on land, it undertook offensive naval action early. In November its Black Sea fleet caught a Turkish naval flotilla in the Black Sea port of Sinope and sent it to the bottom. Fearing that Turkey was now in danger of toppling, France and Britain sent naval squadrons into the Black Sea and shortly thereafter (March 1854) declared war themselves.

Although the Russians had successfully repulsed Turkish attacks in the Balkans and the Caucasus during the first months of the war, the correlation of forces was now different. In September 1854, under the cover of the Royal Navy, an Anglo-French expeditionary force landed on the Crimean peninsula roughly 30 miles north of the strategic fortress of Sevastopol. On September 20 combined French, British, and Turkish forces ran into a Russian detachment of 36,000 men at the Alma River. The battle of the Alma, which featured senseless frontal assaults on both sides, resulted in a costly victory for the allies. The Russians were forced to retreat into the fortress of Sevastopol itself, reinforcing the 20,000-man garrison.

The Russians now made extensive preparations for the defense of the city. Under the direction of the brilliant engineer Colonel Totleben, Russian troops constructed an intricate system of earthworks and fortifications on the southern or inland side of the town. Those works were so formidable that the allies hesitated to risk an assault on them. Finally, in early October 1854 the allies launched the first of their attempts to take Sevastopol. The allied fleet bombarded the seaward side of the fortress with more than 40,000 rounds, while siege guns dragged into positions inland hammered at Totleben’s fortifications. The struggle, however, proved inconclusive, for if many of Sevastopol’s guns were silenced, several allied warships also took heavy damage.

But food and ammunition supplies were running low inside Sevastopol. Precisely because of powder shortages, Menshikov, the commander of the garrison, now ordered a Russian counterattack in the hope of raising the siege. The Russians selected as their target Balaclava, the site of a great concentration of British food and stores. The upshot was the Battle of Balaclava (October 12, 1854). The Russian 12th Division under Liprandi early on captured four Turkish redoubts on the British right flank. It soon appeared that the entire battle would turn on the British efforts to retake them. This was the engagement that witnessed the notorious Charge of the Light Brigade. Misunderstanding its orders, which were to harass the Russians on Causeway Heights, Cardogan’s light brigade instead attacked directly into the massed Russian artillery, with predictably catastrophic results. Despite wholescale carnage on both sides, Balaclava was also curiously indecisive. Although the Russians had failed to break through the allied lines, their military position actually improved after this defeat, for they shortly received a large number of reinforcements.

On October 24 Menshikov once again tried to break out of the allied encirclement by assaulting the forces of the British right flank on Inkerman Heights. Initially hard pressed by the Russian assault, the British troops were saved by the timely arrival of French troops from Bosquet’s corps of observation. The Russians were once again rebuffed, taking 11,000 casualties—roughly 40 percent of the men they had committed to the battle.

The war now settled into the dreary pattern of siegecraft, bombardment, and sorties. But time was not on the Russian side. Finally, after losing the suicide engagement at Black River (August 4[16], 1855), the Russians decided that Sevastopol had to be abandoned. The outgunned and outnumbered Russian soldiers and sailors began the evacuation; Sevastopol fell to allied forces at the end of August. Russia was now at the point of exhaustion. It was fighting a coalition composed of France, Britain, Turkey, and Sardinia. Sweden was growing increasingly hostile. When the Austrian government presented its ultimatum, demanding that Russia negotiate or face war, the new Emperor, Alexander II, felt that he had no choice but to agree.

The Crimean War represented the death knell of the Nicholaevan system. That system, and much of what it stood for, was thoroughly discredited. The Crimean defeat put into motion a process of reassessment that eventually resulted in such important reforms as the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Efforts by Russian diplomats to undo the humiliating Peace of Paris, which ended the war, were to occupy them for years afterward. But the impact of the war on the Russian military establishment was no less momentous. For more than a hundred and fifty years, the Russian military system with its impressed peasant army had proved equal to almost any challenge that could be brought against it. The Russian army had been an extraordinarily reliable instrument of the state’s grand strategy. But the Crimean War demonstrated that this was not necessarily the case any longer. The old military system was no longer of value under the changed conditions of warfare. That system now had to be reinvented—taken apart and replaced with something else that would permit Russia to be victorious on the battlefield once again. The problem was complex. What new sort of military system ought Russia to have? How could Russia integrate modern military technologies into its armed forces? Finally, how could it pay for it all? In one way or another, those questions continued to bedevil Russian statesmen for the next eighty years, until Stalin finally and conclusively resolved them in the 1930s. But a first attempt to answer them came in the reign of Alexander II. It is to this subject that we must now turn.

Rebellions in Four Nations

https://store.warlordgames.com/collections/the-english-civil-wars-1642-1652

Warlord Games English Civil Wars 1642-1652 Montrose Irish.

Catastrophe came about in 1637. King Charles I’s determination to enforce uniformity on his churches led him to strengthen the episcopal element in the kirk. At his much-delayed coronation in Scotland in 1633 he insisted that the Scottish bishops ape the English bishops he had brought with him. Moreover, the Englishmen were given precedence. To follow through this instruction in superiority, the king had his Scottish bishops draft a liturgy, a prayer book modelled on the alien English Book of Common Prayer. On 23 July 1637, this book was ready and was to be read from pulpits across Scotland. At St Giles, Edinburgh, the congregation was furious—to them this was a foreign doctrine at best, it was English at worst, and appeared to be popish. Folding stools were hurled at the dean. Crowds outside hammered on the doors. Across Scotland, ministers were attacked and churches stormed by angry men and women.

Charles’s response was to treat this as an unwarranted rebellion. Even his loyal minister, the earl of Traquair, tried to convince him that the prayer book was a mistake, but to little avail. The Scottish council was packed with Charles’s appointees, men with little personal authority or experience of government, there because Charles expected their elevation to power would ensure loyalty. As a result they had little sway with the wider political world and less with the Scottish people. Even if inexperienced in executive government, many had been wise enough to stay away from St Giles that Sunday, to avoid trouble and being associated with the prayer book.

As riots occurred across Scotland, members of the Council discussed the matter with leading opponents of the prayer book. Charles’s refusal to discuss the matter in any meaningful way drove opponents to present him with a Supplication and Complaint in October 1637, which put the blame on the Scottish bishops. Charles reacted by threatening to arrest the supplicants, and hoped to end criticism by claiming direct responsibility for the prayer book; he believed that they would shy away from attacking the monarch. Instead, by February 1638, a National Covenant had been drafted. This Covenant was a reference to the 1581 Confession of Faith, which bound Scotsmen and women and James VI together in defence of the kirk. The Covenant went further, asserting that the religious changes imposed by James VI and Charles I were illegal because they contravened the basis of the kirk. The National Covenant was first signed at Edinburgh and then circulated throughout Scotland for men and women to sign at their own church doors.

The Covenanters demanded a General Assembly and Charles acceded, expecting his agents to be able to influence the choice of representatives. He even ordered that the General Assembly should meet at Glasgow, that he thought would circumvent opposition. Charles was hopelessly out of touch and his agents were not in control. The General Assembly, which met in November 1638, rejected the prayer book and abolished the office of bishop. The king’s commissioner, the marquis of Hamilton, Traquair’s replacement, failed to influence the assembly, and when he attempted to end the session by storming out he ran into a locked door. Even after Hamilton had managed to leave, the debates continued. Charles’s reaction to his loss of control and influence was to prepare for war against his rebellious subjects.

By May 1639 an English and Welsh army gathered at the border. Elaborate plans for amphibious landings on the Scottish coast were drawn up and Hamilton prepared a fleet. In Ireland, where there was support for the Covenanters amongst the Presbyterian ministers in Ulster, Lord Deputy Wentworth imposed a series of oaths aimed at forcing Scots settlers to abjure the Covenant. At the same time, the marquis of Antrim, chief of the Clan MacDonald (known as MacDonnell in Ireland), proposed to take advantage of the situation. He offered to raise a clan army to invade western Scotland where his lost ancestral estates were situated and controlled by the Campbells. The Campbells, although led by the marquis of Argyll, a supporter of the king, were also associated with the Covenant through Argyll’s heir, Lord Lorne. Wentworth suspected Antrim’s motive and rejected the plan, preparing an Irish army instead, with Protestant officers and Catholic soldiers.

The first Bishop’s War in 1639 was short. The amphibious landings were abandoned. Attempts to land at Aberdeen were called off when the earl of Montrose and a Covenanter Army captured the town. At the eastern border on 4 June, a section of the king’s army was defeated in a skirmish near Kelso. This became something of a rout, and in its wake the Covenanters put forwards proposals for discussions. That summer a truce, the Pacification of Berwick, was negotiated, but all the while Charles I planned for war.

A new General Assembly of the kirk met in August and confirmed its predecessor’s work. Later that same month the Estates also assembled, and they too confirmed the actions of the General Assembly. The Estates had been effectively controlled by Covenanters who had minimised the role of the king in influencing the selections of members, and steps were taken towards further controlling the business of the sessions. By the beginning of 1640, both the king and the Covenanters were preparing for renewed war.

Charles sought to improve the financial support for his government and war effort. He planned a two-pronged approach. Wentworth summoned a Parliament in Dublin, that he expected to manipulate into voting four subsidies for the king. In April a Parliament would meet at Westminster and was expected to follow suit. In March 1640 the Dublin Parliament met and all went according to plan, but the Westminster Parliament refused to discuss finance unless a series of grievances was addressed. The grievances were bound up with the collection of taxation in the 1630s, religious issues, and the way in that the 1629 Parliament had been closed. When he failed to influence the Parliament at all, Charles dissolved it on 5 May.

Plans for war went forward, but opposition to the king had developed in the wake of the Parliament. Soldiers mustered for the army went on the rampage, destroying altar rails and religious images, and people across the country began to refuse to pay taxation. Support for the Scots was to be found across England, where people who objected to the religious reforms of Archbishop Laud refused to pay for them to be imposed in Scotland. In Ireland, many Scots in Ulster refused Wentworth’s oaths and left the country, leaving tracts of countryside untilled.

The war in the summer of 1640 saw the defeat of the king’s army at the Battle of Newburn and the occupation of northern England by the Covenanter Army. This time peace negotiations were conducted on the Scots’ terms. They demanded freedom for the kirk, but also wanted a Parliament at Westminster to confirm the terms. This gelled with calls within England and Wales for a new Parliament. With an army in occupation for that he was to provide pay, the king had no option but to accede. Parliament met on 3 November and the king’s few supporters were overwhelmed.

Three Parliaments now worked in opposition to the king. The Dublin Parliament had met in the summer and began to unravel the financial arrangements it had put in place in March. It then went on to question the relationship between itself and the lord deputy and even questioned its subordination to the Privy Council in London. Moreover, Irish and Scots politicians presented evidence about Wentworth’s government of Ireland and his planned invasion of Scotland. This was taken up by Westminster and in November Wentworth, now known as the earl of Strafford, was impeached and imprisoned along with Archbishop Laud.

As the Dublin Parliament began to deconstruct the government in Ireland, the Estates began to reduce the power of the king in Scottish government. The Westminster Parliament began to take apart the machinery of government that had sustained the Personal Rule. As well as impeaching Strafford and Laud, Parliament aimed its ire at ministers Lord Finch and Francis Windebank, who both fled to France to escape. Ship Money was abolished and forest fines were banned. Two acts prevented another period of Personal Rule: One established that there should be Parliaments at least every three years; the other made it impossible for Parliament to be dissolved without its own consent. In May 1641, against the background of a plot hatched amongst some of the king’s army officers, Strafford was executed. This effectively settled the issues raised by the Personal Rule, but Parliament presented the king with Ten Propositions demanding a further role in government by having the right to nominate ministers and to have a say in foreign policy.

The king went to Scotland in the summer months of 1641 to ratify the Treaty of London, which had ended the war, and also to ratify the acts passed in the Estates, which diminished his role in Scottish government. The Estates had passed a series of measures that had been the inspiration for the Westminster Parliament’s work during the spring. Charles also harboured hopes of nurturing a royalist party in Scotland that could overthrow the Covenanter government. The earl of Montrose, the Covenanter general, had become disillusioned with the Covenanter cause and had questioned the ambitions of the earl of Argyll (formerly Lord Lorne). By the time Charles went to Edinburgh, however, Montrose was imprisoned. An attempted coup d’état, known as the Incident, was exposed and Charles became implicated in it. With his attempts to overturn the Covenanter government in tatters, the king returned to London. Within days of his arrival news broke of a rebellion in Ireland.

The Irish Rebellion

In the wake of the successes at Edinburgh and Westminster, Catholic Irish and long-established English settler families began to press for similar changes at home. Autonomy for the Dublin Parliament was one aim, but others related to religious issues and the tenure rights of the Catholic population. Rights to practice their religion openly was a major demand and the king had tentatively suggested that it might be possible. The Catholic population too had insecure tenure on their estates having never been granted firm property rights because of their religion. These two issues were bound together and known as the Graces.

Given the king’s powerlessness, the Irish felt able to press their cause. Although the Scots had secured the safety of the kirk, however, and the Welsh and English had freed themselves from Laud’s reforms, religious rights for Catholics were not acceptable to the Protestant Parliaments in Edinburgh and Westminster. Frustrated groups began to discuss the possibility of a rising in Ireland, and exiled Irishmen became involved in these discussions. By October the discussions had crystallised into a plan to seize strongholds throughout Ulster and Dublin Castle.

On 22 October rebellion broke out, but although the forts in Ulster were captured by Sir Phelim O’Neill and others, Dublin remained in government hands. By November, rebellion had spread throughout Ireland and the Old English settlers had joined with the Catholic Irish rebels. The government forces managed to hold onto pockets around the Irish coast, but supplies and reinforcements were necessary if there was any possibility of remaining there. In Edinburgh and Westminster the governments began to discuss military and financial plans for reconquering Ireland. Whilst King Charles outwardly discussed these issues with the Westminster Parliament, he also plotted to seize prominent leaders. Charles was assured that there was now a significant group of M.P.s who supported him rather than his opponents.

In late November, after heated debate, Parliament had passed the Grand Remonstrance. This was a sort of petition that had set out the evils of the 1630s and the remedies that had been applied; finally, the remonstrance proposed further reforms. No sooner was this passed by the Commons than it was published. This broadcasting of Parliament’s position was disliked by many M.P.s. Christmastide 1641 was a period of riots in London and Westminster by mobs supporting the aims of the Grand Remonstrance, and in particular the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords in a move similar to the exclusion of bishops from Scottish government. On 5 January Charles marched into Westminster to arrest five leading M.P.s and Lord Mandeville. This coup d’état, like that in Scotland the previous October, failed (the proposed victims had fled), and it provoked continued rioting that in turn drove the king and his family out of the capital.

Over the next months Charles and Parliament grew further estranged, agreeing only on the need to fund the war against the Irish rebels. The raising of an army to fight in Ireland drove the final wedge between the king and Parliament, however. It was felt that the king, implicated in an army plot and two coup d’états, could not be trusted if given the military command. He suggested he would have to go to Ireland, especially as the rebels there claimed to have the king’s warrant for their rebellion. With the Militia Ordinance, Parliament took away the king’s military powers in March. In April the king responded by trying to seize the arsenal deposited at Hull during the Bishop’s War. He was denied entry into the city. In May Charles began the recreation of obsolete county-based commissions of array to regain control of the Trained Bands. Throughout the summer of 1642 both he and Parliament battled to raise armies, each hoping to overawe the other.

In Ireland the war had taken two turns of fortune. Money and troops had begun arriving in the spring. The marquis of Ormond took command of the English forces and began to make inroads into rebel territory in Leinster province. In eastern Ulster a Scottish army landed and took control of the region in May. As summer drew on, however, attention in England had turned inwards and the supply of resources to Ireland dried up as king and Parliament commandeered the money for their own use. War broke out in England and Wales in August.

Wars and Civil Wars, 1641–1653

War raged in the four nations for the next 11 years: In Ireland there was a constant state of war; in the other three nations war was more sporadic. Each war impinged on the others and all were closely related to the needs of Charles I, who sought to offset failure in one nation with success and resources from at least one of the others.

In England and Wales, the war that broke out in August 1642 began as both sides, royalists and parliamentarians, assembled field armies, first, to try and overawe their enemy, and then, second, to inflict military defeat in one cataclysmic battle. Neither scenario was to be enacted. By October the king had moved from his initial musters in the North Midlands towards London, whilst Parliament’s commander in chief, the earl of Essex, moved westwards from the East Midlands to stop him. Scouting techniques were so underdeveloped that the king got between the earl and London, and then the two armies bumped into each other whilst searching for quarters. On 23 October 1643, the first major battle of the war in England took place at Edgehill. Partly due to the inexperience within the two armies, the battle was drawn and the war had to take on a new complexion.

After the king failed to press his attack on London in mid-November, both sides now began a fight for territory and the resources to maintain a nationwide war. The winter was spent in regional battles as local commanders began to seize castles and towns in that to establish garrisons. By the spring, the king controlled much of the south-west and north-east of England and had a significant presence in both the North and South Midlands. The royalists also held onto the vast majority of Wales. Parliament controlled all major ports, the south-east and the Lancashire and Cheshire area, as well as significant Midland areas of England, and a good proportion of Pembrokeshire in Wales. The king believed himself to be in a strong position within the country and as such did not take the opportunity to negotiate the end of the war, which arose in spring 1643.

Attempts to dislodge the royalists from their strongholds in the north, the south-west, and the South Midlands failed in the summer of 1643. In the south-west, parliamentarian general Sir William Waller, who had met with great success at the end of 1642, was defeated at Rowton Down in July. The earl of Essex’s attempt to capture Oxford was curtailed in June, and that same month the earl of Newcastle defeated the Yorkshire parliamentarians Lord Fairfax and his son, Sir Thomas, and bottled them up in Hull. Both Parliament and the king sought outside help at this point. At first, Scotland remained aloof from the conflict in England and Wales. The Covenanters had offered to act as mediator but the king had rejected their approach. The leading parliamentarian, John Pym, had exploited the Scots’ fear of the Catholic forces in Ireland. He suggested that the king was negotiating with the Irish, and that there might be Irish landings on the Scottish coast as a result of such discussions. He also hinted that if the king, who appeared to have the upper hand in England and Wales, were to win, then he might turn on Scotland.

The Development of the Wars

In Ireland, stalemate had developed after the funding from across the Irish sea had dried up. The English and Scots forces held significant areas of territory in Ulster (in Down and Antrim), around Dublin in Leinster, and around Cork and Youghal in Munster. There were also a few garrisons in Connacht held by the English. The Irish meanwhile had unified their forces and their administration. Provincial armies had been created from the disparate forces and generals appointed. A government was formed with an executive, the Supreme Council, and a legislative, the General Assembly, which consisted of elected representatives of the shires and boroughs. Each county had a council of its own that sent representatives to provincial assemblies. Despite this organisation, resources were few and the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny was unable to defeat the English or Scottish garrisons and armies.

Negotiations with the English began in 1643, with the aim of getting royal recognition for the Catholic religion and for the property rights of the Catholic peoples. The king’s representative, the earl of Ormond, was unwilling to make major concessions, but by September at least a cease-fire had been arranged. This Cessation allowed for the return home of the English forces sent to Ireland in 1642, and these men were co-opted as royalist forces. This in turn enabled Pym to show the Scots that he had been right about the suspected negotiations, and the Scots became convinced of the need to join the Westminster Parliament against the king. In 16 January 1644 the Army of the Solemn League and Covenant, named after the treaty between Edinburgh and Westminster, invaded north-east England. The English and Welsh people under the control of Parliament would fund the invading army and there would be consideration given to the creation of a Presbyterian church in England and Wales.

Even before the Scots crossed the border, the war had taken a different complexion. In September three royalist armies were weakened by fruitless attempts to capture the prominent parliamentarian strongholds of Hull, Gloucester, and Plymouth. Failure to capture any of them had wasted resources and reduced the numbers of effective soldiers through disease and injury. It took time to assemble the forces necessary to hold back the Scots, and in the end it was fruitless—defeat at the Battle of Selby on 11 April led to the collapse of the royalist hold on the north. The marquis of Newcastle and his once powerful army became bottled up in York. Royalist attempts to encroach on south-east England came to an end in the spring. Yet Parliament’s attempt to capture Oxford again failed and a series of campaigns followed in that both Sir William Waller and the earl of Essex were defeated by the king. Waller’s army had been caught in Oxfordshire and destroyed. Essex had marched off into royalist territory in the far west only to be trapped and defeated at Lostwithiel in Cornwall at the beginning of September. On 2 July, the Northern Army and a rescue force led to its aid by Prince Rupert were defeated at Marston moor near York. With this defeat the royalists lost control of the north.

The king’s victories in the south, and the failure of three combined parliamentarian armies to defeat him in the fall, temporarily offset the loss of the north. It also led to a false confidence that led some royalists to ridicule Parliament’s reorganisation of its war effort and the creation of one field army from the three assembled in the autumn. This New Model Army was created in early 1645, and in June it defeated the king at Naseby and then set about conquering the south-west. Together, it and the Northern Association Army won the war during the summer of 1645. During the ensuing autumn and winter the New Model and local forces ended royalist resistance in the south of England, whilst the Northern Association forces and the Scots cleared the north and North Midlands of major royalist strongholds. In Wales, Welsh parliamentarians cleared the south of the country whilst Lancashire and Cheshire parliamentarians captured central and northern royalist strongholds.

Fighting had broken out in Scotland during 1644. Alasdair MacColla had led a force of Irish and Highland troops from Ireland to the Western Isles in July 1644. The Catholic Confederation hoped that this force would oblige the Scots to withdraw forces from Ulster; the marquis of Ormond, who lent support to the expedition, hoped that the Scots would withdraw forces from England. MacColla, who was of the MacDonald clan, probably hoped for both, but also had an eye for regaining clan land lost to the Campbells. In August 1644 MacColla was joined by the earl of Montrose, by now a fully fledged royalist. Montrose had a commission to raise the loyal Scots against the Covenanter government. Together, the two commanders embarked on a campaign that over the next year saw them defeat all the home armies the Edinburgh government sent against them. At Kilsyth, on 15 August 1645, Montrose defeated the last of these armies and Scotland appeared to be his to command. He summoned the Estates to Glasgow and began to receive tributes from politicians. Ironically, it was to be one of the early aims of the war that was to defeat Montrose. A section of the Army of the Solemn League and Covenant did leave England. On 13 September David Leslie and a section of the Scots Horse caught Montrose’s men at Philliphaugh and destroyed them. The month-old royalist domination of Scotland was over: But guerrilla warfare was to continue in the country until 1647.

In Ireland, the king had sought a treaty not because he was able to accept any of the Confederation’s demands, but because he needed their military help. Ormond, part of the Protestant group that hitherto controlled Ireland’s political world, was unwilling personally to accept the freedom Catholics wanted for their faith. Charles sought to circumvent him by sending the earl of Glamorgan, a Welsh Catholic, to negotiate secretly with the Confederation. Glamorgan’s terms were more acceptable at Kilkenny, but a papal representative, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, arrived just before the terms were agreed. He was wary about the secret nature of the discussions and urged holding out for public acknowledgement. Before he could renegotiate the treaty personally with Glamorgan, a copy of the secret treaty fell into enemy hands. Upon the Westminster Parliament’s horrified publication of the terms, Charles I repudiated them and Ormond arrested Glamorgan.

Thunderbolt in Chinese/Taiwanese Service

P-47D-23-RA Unit: 11th FG Serial: P-47014 Kangwan Field, Shanghai, circa 1947.

P-47D-30-RA Unit: 43rd FS, 11th FG Serial: 432917 (44-32917) Circa 1947.

P-47D-28-RE “Lady Maurene” Unit: 43rd FS, 11th FG Serial: P-47036 Nationalist’s P-47s were used during the Chinese Civil War.

P-47 Communist China CPR

ca. 1954, Taiwan — Pilots Looking at Instructions — Image by © Horace Bristol/CORBIS

After World War II, the Chinese Nationalist Air Force received 102 P-47Ds used during the Chinese Civil War. The Chinese Communists captured five P-47Ds from the Chinese Nationalist forces. In 1948-57, the Chinese Nationalists employed 70 P-47Ds and 42 P-47Ns brought by Taiwan in 1952. P-47s were used extensively in aerial clashes over the Taiwan Strait between Nationalist and Communist aircraft.

Although P-47 production ceased just weeks after Japan’s surrender, Thunderbolts (re-designated as the F-47) continued to serve for years (and in some cases decades) after World War Two. America pulled the plane from front line service in 1949, but NATO allies like Turkey, Portugal and Italy maintained squadrons of Thunderbolts into the 1950s, as did Iran. Taiwanese F-47s routinely engaged communist fighters off the coast of China. Surplus models were also liberally distributed throughout Latin America during the same period. Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic all maintained fleets for years. Peru didn’t retire its Jugs until 1966. When designing its formidable A-10 tank buster in the early 1970s, engineers at Fairchild Republic tore a page from history and dubbed their new twin-engine attack jet the Thunderbolt II in honour of the P-47. Today, at least 15 original wartime Jugs are still airworthy and can be seen on the North American air show circuit each summer.

Republic of China Air Force [ROCAF] General HQ was established in June 1946. Starting in August 1948, the Air Force started moving its equipment and institutions to Taiwan. This operation alone was a massive one. It took what is today the Air Force Institute of Technology 80 flights and three ships over four months to relocate. This did not include the other academies, training facilities, manufacturing plants, radio stations and military hospitals, which moved separately.

Chin-chang Chen writes that during this period, an average of 50 or 60 planes flew daily between Taiwan and China transporting fuel and ammunition.

By May 1949, the Air Force Command Headquarters was operating out of Taipei, having transported 1,138 officers, 814 pilots, 2,600 family members and about 6,000 tonnes of equipment and classified documents. The last group of pilots barely made it out of Shanghai as the Communists stormed the airport. Other military branches made their exits as key locations in China fell.

In October 1949 five battalions of the PLA’s 61st Division began an assault on the Nationalist-held Dengbu Island. But even with their crushing superiority, the PLA units could not prevent the introduction of enemy reinforcements by sea, and after suffering 1,490 casualties, the Communist troops retreated  in defeat. Later that same month, the PLA Tenth Army attacked the island of Quemoy, and again lost the battle at sea. It could not reinforce the initial invasion force. Taking more than 9,000 casualties, the stranded force perished, and ever after its defeat for lack of sea and air support constituted an oft-repeated “bloody lesson”.

From 1946 to 1948, during the Chinese Civil War, the ROCAF participated in combat against the People’s Liberation Army engaging in air-to-air combat on at least eleven occasions in the areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait. The ROCAF reportedly enjoyed a 31:1 kill ratio against the PLA. GHQ was evacuated to Taiwan along with the rest of the ROC Government in April 1949 following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. The ROCAF assisted in halting the PLA advance at the Battle of Kuningtou on Kinmen the same year.

The ROCAF regularly patrolled the Taiwan Straits and fought many engagements with its Communist counterpart (the PLAAF).

Bestfong decals: Airplane 1930~1950 ROCAF

ROCAF Combat Losses 1950-7 [F-47 = P-47]

1957
11/05 34 Sq 3 POW B-26 Downed in
Fujian. The
crew were
released 8
months later.
07/01 3 Sq KIA F-47N “699” Downed by
PLA AAA
04/15 12 Sq KIA RF-84F Crashed
when
diverted
to South
Korea
following
pursuit by
PLA MiG
1956
11/10 6 Sq 9 KIA C-46 Downed by
PLA MiG in
an airdrop
mission over
Jejiang
06/22 Spec. Op.
Unit
11 KIA B-17 Downed by
PLA MiG-17
in Jiangxi
1955
07/16 1 Sq KIA F-84G “118” Downed by
PLA AAA
near Kinmen
06/27 12 Sq KIA RT-33A “7” Downed by
PLA MiG-15 off coast of
Fujian
02/20 3 Sq KIA F-47N “142” Downed by
PLA Navy
AAA
01/21 43 Sq KIA F-47N “209” Downed by
PLA Navy
AAA
01/19 1 Sq                            KIA F-84G “315” Downed by
PLA AAA.
First jet
aircraft lost.
1954
11/17 12 Sq KIA RT-33A “2” Crashed into mountains in
Fujian
when evading PLA MiG-15
11/01 5 TFG KIA F-47N “380” Crashed in a
bombing
mission in
Fujian
10/15 27 Sq MIA F-47N “227” Failed to
return
09/12 35 Sq 9 KIA PB4Y “12” Downed by
PLA AAA
near Xiamen
09/04 8 Sq KIA F-47N “369” Damaged by
PLA AAA in a
bombing
mission.
Crashed near
Kinmen.
07/06 43 Sq KIA F-47N “313” Downed by
PLA MiG-15
06/03 26 Sq KIA F-47N “222” Downed PLA
La-11
05/26 Spec. Op.
Unit
4 KIA B-17 Downed by
PLA AAA
over Fujian
03/18 26 Sq KIA F-47N “219” Downed PLA
MiG-15
02/09 27 Sq KIA F-47N “267” Downed by
PLA AAA
1953
12/17 26 Sq KIA F-47N “193” Downed by
PLA AAA
over Jejiang
07/16 41 Sq KIA F-47N “335” Downed by
PLA AAA
over
Dongshan
Island
1951
11/08 41 Sq MIA F-47N “129” Failed to
return from a
recce mission
over
Guandong
1950
07/29 41 Sq KIA F-47N “126” Downed by
PLA AAA
over Xiamen
04/02 22 Sq KIA P-51 Downed by
Soviet
aircraft
stationed in
Shanghai
03/16 23 Sq KIA P-51 Downed by
PLA AAA
03/14 12 Sq 6 KIA F-10 “07” Downed by
PLA aircraft

ROCAF Combat Losses Since 1950

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part I

Allied air power lights the flame of Operation TORCH

As axis forces retreated from El Alamein westwards across Lybya, the sea off Algiers harbour on 9 November 1942 was covered with a forest of ships. Small boats and landing craft were shuttling back and forth with troops, tanks, vehicles, and other equipment and supplies of war. High above the ships a Ju88 reconnaissance bomber probed daringly into the Allies’ airspace. Two Spitfires quickly found the enemy intruder, and sent it into a smoking dive into the waves. The fighters’ interception would prove to be too late.

As twilight gathered later that day, three waves of Ju88s and Heinkel He111s began their bombing runs over the anchored invasion fleet and above Maison Blanche airfield. Spitfires from No. 81 Squadron RAF and Hurricanes from No. 43 Squadron RAF scrambled to intercept. More Spitfires from No. 242 Squadron RAF, who were escorting two B-17 bombers flying US General Mark Clark from Gibraltar across to Algiers, were also called on to attack the enemy raiders.

The Luftwaffe bombers were soon in disarray. Pilots of 242 Squadron claimed their first victories, Sergeant Mallinson an He111, Pilot Officer Goulding and Sergeant Watling a Ju88 each, while Flight Lieutenant Benham and Pilot Officer Mather shared a Ju88 kill. Five other pilots claimed half-kills and damages on the German aircraft.

Squadron Leader ‘Ras’ Berry, Commander of 81 Squadron, and his section shot down an He111 over Maison Blanche airfield, and fellow pilot, Canadian Flight Lieutenant James Walker, did the same for a Ju88. Having achieved two previous victories in the skies of UK and Russia, it was Walker’s third kill, and perhaps a unique record in those three theatres of air warfare.

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The Spitfires’ engagement with the Ju88s came a day after Allied landings in North-West Africa.

At around midnight on 7/8 November 1942, Operation TORCH, the first major Allied operation of the Second World War invaded Morocco and Algeria. Only a few days after the start of the third battle at El Alamein on 26 October, the Anglo-American invasion fleets had sailed from the east coast of USA and the west coast of Scotland. The enormous task force was in excess of 100 ships, and over 107,000 troops.

Although the battle of Stalingrad was an immense distance from the Middle East, the German Army’s struggle to overcome the Russians’ stubborn and desperate defence was not immune to the impact of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein, nor to the Operation TORCH invasion. Despite their defeats on the Russian Front, the Germans felt forced to transfer their Luftflotte II (Air Fleet) to Italy and Tunisia. If Rommel, or any others in Hitler’s Reich, still harboured dreams of dominating the Mediterranean, and occupying the oilfields of the Gulf, Iraq and Persia, they were now collapsing.

Operation TORCH was made up of three invasion fleets – the Western, Central and Eastern Task Forces. The Western Task Force, commanded by Major General Patton, and under the protection of the US Navy, sailed from east coast USA to land at Casablanca. US Navy aircraft carriers, off Casablanca and Oran, provided the air cover with ship-borne fighters. The Central Task Force, with some British but predominantly American troops, set out from Britain under the command of Major General Fredendall, heading for the port of Oran on the north-west Algerian coast.

The US Army’s Twelfth Air Force, commanded by the already legendary Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle, also provided air cover for the Oran-bound fleet. General Doolittle had commanded the first US air raid on Japan after Pearl Harbor, when B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from aircraft carriers, without sufficient fuel to return. After releasing their bombloads over Japan, the B-25s flew on westwards to land at friendly bases in China.

The closest landing to the Tunisian border, by a convoy despatched from the Clyde in Scotland, was to be made by the Eastern Task Force. Although it carried a small number of US troops with designated officers to assist negotiations with the Vichy French authorities, this invasion force comprised elements of the British First Army under command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson. While the Royal Navy escorted both the Oran and Algiers invasion fleets, air support for the Algiers landings was provided by the RAF Eastern Command. To strengthen air support at Algiers, on 6 November two Desert Air Force [DAF] squadrons, the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron RAF and the torpedo-carrying Wellington bombers of No. 221 Squadron RAF, flew from Egypt to Malta.

One of those pilots in 221 Squadron was Australian Flying Officer William ‘Bill’ Stocks from Sydney. After a period in the Empire Training Scheme in Canada, Bill had arrived in Britain in November 1941 and, after training on Wellington bombers, in April 1942 he joined No. 221 Squadron at Sidi Barrani. In one anti-shipping operation with 221 Squadron, at a height of around 500 feet, Stocks made two severe hits on an enemy vessel. In another interdiction flight his wireless transmitter, rear turret and petrol gauges became unserviceable. Despite great difficulties he continued and completed the operation successfully. In what seems so typical of so many bomber pilots, Stocks’ leadership, coolness and efficiency would in due course see him become a squadron leader in No. 28 Squadron RAF, and be awarded the DFC.

Despite the widest dispersal of troop landings over 130 miles north and south of Casablanca, General Patton’s US Western Task Force encountered the stiffest resistance. The Vichy French were alert to the invasion. At approximately 0700 on 8 November their naval air force, Aeronavale, had their Dewoitine fighters strafing the landing beaches. However, in three days the Vichy French lost 119 aircraft out of 200, as well as having their airfields put out of action. The US Army Air Forces lost only forty-four aircraft out of 164, and all the US Navy aircraft carriers remained intact. Early on 11 November the French Commander in Casablanca surrendered and signed an armistice.

At Oran in Algeria at 0100, also on 8 November, the US 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions went ashore. Before dawn the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, HM Ships Furious, Biter and Dasher, launched ten Seafires, eight Albacore torpedo-bombers, and twelve Sea Hurricanes. During 8 and 9 November considerable air combat ensued with the Aeronavale over Oran’s la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

This provided cover for American tanks to capture Tafaraoui on 9 November, which then enabled a Hurricane squadron and some Spitfires from the RAF’s 31 Fighter Group to fly in from Gibraltar. When one Spitfire was shot down on its landing approach by a Dewoitine fighter, a quick response claimed three of the French fighters. The surviving French aircraft at la Senia took off and escaped to Morocco.

Later, when the Tafaraoui airfield came under fire from an approaching column of the French Foreign Legion and its artillery battery, the Spitfires were again called up. Their strafing attack blew up a truck carrying troops, spattering one Spitfire with body parts, and causing the French to withdraw quickly. By the end of the day on 9 November the French authorities declared a cease-fire to end any threat to the la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

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Farther east along the coast near to Algiers, also in the early hours of 8 November, the troop landings of the British First Army went ahead. Operation TORCH gambled on a land spearhead that in the main comprised only 11 and 36 Brigades of the 78th Battleaxe Division, some light tank units of Blade Force, and an American field artillery battalion. The task force, under command of 78th Division, was being used in an urgent but risky drive to occupy Tunis.

While all three landings were equally important in order to occupy northwest Africa, in the short term those at Algiers were critical. A proposal to land farther east at Tunis had been rejected because of the threat of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attacks from their bases in Sicily. Yet the immediate goal of the Allies’ ground forces was to squeeze the Axis armies in a pincer movement between Operation TORCH and Montgomery’s Eighth Army. A rapid advance was planned to gain control quickly of the major port of Tunis before German forces could be landed there, and before the start of winter and the rainy season in late December.

The decision not to land at Tunis itself, or even the Algerian port of Bone near the Tunisian border, was driven by a fear of enemy air attack. Axis bombers based in Sicily could easily reach both Bone and Tunis with fighter escorts, whereas the British and American air forces could offer little support to any landings there. Even after air bases were established at Algiers and Bone, Allied fighter aircraft would be at the extremity of their range to reach Tunis, which would allow little time over the battlefield to support ground forces. In the event the capability of the Germans to react quickly and transport well-equipped troops, tanks, guns and aircraft to Tunis, was grossly underestimated by the Allies.

At the moment of the landings, there were no garrison troops in Tunis, and the German and Italian High Commands were taken completely by surprise. But Axis reaction was swift, and effectively assisted by the conduct of Admiral Esteva, the French Resident-General. The first German troops arrived by air at El Aouina airfield, near Tunis, on November 9, only a day after the Allied landings.

They seized the key points of the two cities; they executed or imprisoned the known and suspected Allied sympathizers; they took over the ports of Sousse, Sfax and Gabes and the inland town of Kairouan. Within a week there were 5,000 front-line troops in and around Tunis and Bizerte; they had tanks; and they were still flying in Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters.

The landings at Algiers were not only the most crucial to the Operation TORCH strategy. They were the most risky, and no-one knew what the Vichy French authorities would do. The French possessed dangerous squadrons of both fighters and bombers at their Algiers airfields of Blida and Maison Blanche. In addition, while the Allied ships and troops were going ashore, they would be within range of Luftwaffe bombers.

When a French Douglas DB-7 bomber from the Blida air force base threatened the invasion fleet, two Seafire fighters from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable shot it down. Successive flights of Martlet fighters from HMS Victorious then attacked Blida airfield in waves, shooting up aircraft on the ground and those attempting to take off. Around 0830, when the Blida air base signalled its surrender, naval fliers landed and took control.

Luckily bad weather had kept many French aircraft grounded, such as fifty Dewoitine fighters, and six Potez bombers, preventing them from causing mayhem amongst the invading forces. The French Air Force base of Maison Blanche, where there had been no order to hold fire, was captured by 0900. Apart from a failed attempt to capture Algiers harbour, troop landings along the coastal beaches went well. Many Vichy French army units had been ordered not to resist.

During the morning of 8 November Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron RAF, and Spitfires of 81 and 242 Squadrons RAF, flew from Gibraltar and landed at Maison Blanche. But, as the day neared its end, a Luftwaffe raid of fifteen Junkers Ju88 bombers attacked the ships off Algiers, damaging three Seafires on a carrier.

On the ground at the Maison Blanche air base, relations between Allied forces and the Vichy French were tense. British troops stood guard over parked French fighter planes. The newly landed Hurricanes and Spitfires remained on the tarmac for lack of fuel. Cold and hungry, their pilots huddled by their planes facing a Tunisian winter’s night.

Next day, 9 November, fighters of both 43 and 81 Squadrons had enough fuel left in their tanks to scramble against another Luftwaffe raid and were joined by Spitfires of 242 Squadron, already aloft, to disrupt and fight off the German bombers. When the fighter pilots returned to Maison Blanche their combat stress was no doubt quickly forgotten when the first food since their earlier arrival from Gibraltar was awaiting them.

The decisive impact of Allied air power in support of the Operation TORCH landings has not been well recognized. Even with a large number of inexperienced pilots, within two days Allied air forces had overwhelmed their French counterparts across Morocco and Algeria. Most important of all, the airfields at Maison Blanche and Blida near Algiers, and soon after at Bone, the closest to the Tunisian border, were captured with little damage. French ground forces, with their air support eliminated, and their leaders in disarray with conflicting loyalties, were left with no options. Allied forces were pouring in by air and sea. On 13 November General Eisenhower reached a final agreement with French authorities in Algeria under Admiral Darlan and hostilities came to an end.

The Royal Navy aircraft-carriers lost a total of forty-five aircraft over Oran and Algiers – fifteen Sea Hurricanes, eight Martlets, eight Albacores, two Fulmars and at least twelve Seafires. Despite a large number of inexperienced pilots, they had destroyed or driven the Vichy Air Force from the skies. Allied air power was clearly a huge factor not only in protecting the invasion fleets and troop landings, but also in gaining air superiority to force the early ceasefire by Vichy French Authorities.

Although it was not known at the time, the early successes in Morocco and Algeria had a consequence. By the end of November there would be some 20,000 Axis troops in Tunis, specifically the 334th Infantry Division, the Italian 1st Division, and 10th Panzer Division. The Germans continued building up and, on 8 December, General von Arnim arrived in Tunis to take command of their forces which, on that date, were designated the Fifth Panzer Army. Perhaps the German reaction to Operation TORCH had been foreseen by the Allies as a possibility, but with a hope that it would not happen so fast.

In contrast, the Allies’ initial attacking force from 78th Division with the two brigade groups and Blade Force to make the first thrust at Tunis totalled only 12,300 men. It was recognized as a gamble. With air bases close to Tunis, as anticipated the Luftwaffe quickly established air superiority in Tunisian airspace. It meant that Allied ground forces came under regular attack from enemy fighters and dive-bombers.

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Unlike the Desert Air Force (DAF), which had been based in Egypt, and had experience in extending its supply lines and moving to temporary airfields with Eighth Army, the air force squadrons sent from the USA and Britain to support Operation TORCH had to be self-sufficient on arrival. In comparison, the Germans were flying in ground forces and aircraft from Sicily, only about 100 miles distant from Tunis, to all-weather airfields close to the port of Bizerte and the Tunisian capital, such as Blida and Maison Blanche.

In early-December winter rain and mud made many dirt airfields inoperable. To support the army’s advances with air support and get within range of Tunis, Allied squadrons had to make use of temporary landing grounds and often had to roll out a dirt strip themselves. As the British First Army moved to within striking distance of Tunis, their closest operable air base was 114 miles to the rear at Bone. This meant that Spitfires were at the limit of their range, resulting in restricted patrol time over Tunis and German positions before having to turn for home.

RAF photo reconnaissance flights on 12 November revealed at least 120 Luftwaffe aircraft at Tunisian airfields, including forty Stukas and some Fw190s at Bizerte and Tunis. The Focke-Wulf Fw190 was fast, with a maximum speed above 380mph, well-armed and, apart from the Spitfire, superior at that time to other Allied fighters in North Africa. In addition there were some 270 German bombers based in Sicily and Sardinia that were raiding Algiers every night.

Basing themselves at first at the Maison Blanche airfield outside Algiers, the Spitfire pilots of No. 154 Squadron RAF, led by New Zealander Squadron Leader Don Carlson, quickly made their name known. On 15 November Carlson shot down a Ju88 bomber. Adding this to his four victories with 74 Squadron in 1941 it made Carlson one of the first Spitfire ‘aces’ over North Africa. In their first two weeks, 154 Squadron claimed nineteen Luftwaffe bombers shot down, and nine more at least hit and damaged.

In mid-November 81 and 111 RAF Squadrons, with Spitfires, were able to move farther east to Bone, 275 miles from Algiers but only fifty miles from the Tunisian border. The Bone airfield, not much more than a landing ground, had been captured on 12 November by 300 British paratroopers, flown in by C-47 transports of the USAAF 64th Group. Next day more C-47s brought in anti-aircraft guns and fuel, which enabled the escorting P-38 Lightning fighters to land and base themselves at Bone. The airfield was very basic and under continual bombing and strafing attacks from the Luftwaffe bases at Bizerte.

For the Spitfire pilots the arrival of winter rain, together with the Spitfire Mk VC’s inferior performance to the Bf109, made the life or death struggle in the air even worse. The fight for supremacy of the skies was a tenacious struggle which would have profound consequences for the armies on the ground.

On 14 November Canadian Flying Officer Harry Fenwick of 81 Squadron RAF began a momentous five days of dogfights when he was shot up by a Bf109. Luckily, he managed a forced landing with a leg wound. On 16 November he was back in the air, first inflicting damage on a 109, only to be shot up himself again by another 109. Once more he found a way to return safely to base. The next day he made his first kill with a Macchi 202 and on 18 November his revenge was complete when he shot down a Bf109.

Although two Spitfires at any one time were required to be in constant patrol over the Bone airfield, and two more fuelled with pilots in the cockpit ready to go, not all Axis air raids could be countered. Soon after arriving at Bone on 19 November, No. 72 Squadron RAF lost eight Spitfires to a bombing and strafing attack by twelve Bf109s.10 On 20 November thirty Ju88s bombed Maison Blanche airfield heavily, destroying the RAF reconnaissance aircraft.

On patrol on 28 November over an Allied convoy near Algiers, Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ Chambers of 154 Squadron sighted five Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero aircraft, which were beginning a bombing run at the ships. Chambers closed with the SM.79s from behind and above. One by one he picked them off, to send four spiralling into the sea. Out of ammunition and his plane damaged, Chambers broke away. Flying Officer Alan Aikman shot down the remaining bomber, so that in this engagement both pilots reached their fifth victory and became Spitfire aces.

On 3 December, close to Tebourba and Djedeida and about twenty miles from Tunis, 78th Division was being driven back by German Panzers. Over the battle area Pilot Officer ‘Robbie’ Robertson of 72 Squadron spotted some approaching Fw190 fighter-bombers. Diving to attack them he was shot at mistakenly by an American P-38 Lightning fighter. Despite the friendly fire Robertson shot down an Fw190 for his fifth victory. His success in becoming an ace seemed to continue on 18 December when he accounted for another Bf109. Soon after on the same sortie he took a hit from a cannon shell in the cockpit.

A splinter penetrated one of Robertson’s eyes, leaving him bleeding and half-blinded. Somehow, Robertson kept control of the Spitfire to make a forced landing, but he lost the eye to finish him as a fighter pilot. Yet Robertson and the other pilots of 72 Squadron had taken a toll of the Axis air forces. In four weeks the squadron had racked up a score of twenty-one enemy aircraft destroyed, and another eight damaged or worse.

On 6 December Flying Officer Fenwick, with fellow Canadian James Waller, shared a kill of an Italian Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II fighter. Fenwick then shot down a Bf109 of his own. These two victories took both Canadians to ace status.14 Every sortie could end in a life or death struggle, with the incidence of death or maiming of aircrew increasing on both sides. A pilot could become an ace one day, and then be dead or invalided out on the next.

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It is a common but false perception that the Tunisian campaign was fought in the desert. In fact, the major part of the fighting took place in the mountains and valleys of northern Tunisia. Much of it was in the cold and rain of winter, and the icy winds of the Atlas Mountains. The bad weather also disrupted the Allies’ longer range bombers, which were using airfields even farther away in Algiers.

Unaware of the enemy’s gathering strength, by 27 November leading elements of 78th Division and Blade Force had advanced down the Medjerda River valley, through the strategically placed market town of Medjez el Bab to Tebourba. They were literally within sight of Tunis, no more hills could be seen, only a flat plain less than twenty miles wide lay between them and the Tunisian capital. Major General Evelegh, the 78th Division commander, hoped to be reinforced very quickly and even had thoughts of entering Tunis on the next day.

Before noon on 28 November such thoughts were gone when 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked with some fifty tanks. Also the Luftwaffe’s near freedom of the skies at this time enabled their Stuka dive-bombers to hit troops of the spearhead 11 Brigade of 78th Division at will. As well as defending their build-up in and around Tunis, the Germans were also intent on driving the Allies back beyond Medjez. Although by 4 December the superior German armour with unchecked air support sent the Allies reeling back from Tebourba, a week of stubborn resistance by 78th Division, and the American forces, gave First Army time to withdraw, and consolidate stronger forces at Medjez el Bab.

In response to the Army’s desperate plea for urgent air support, on 4 December Wing Commander H.G. Malcolm led off ten Bisley light bombers of No. 18 Squadron RAF, in daylight without any fighter escort, to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield. They were intercepted and also outnumbered by Bf109s. The ten Bisleys, obsolete, slow and poorly armed, were all lost. It was an illustration of the many selfless efforts by Allied airmen to stem the German ground onslaught. Wing Commander Malcolm received the posthumous award of the VC.

A lack of forward airfields, and almost non-existent co-operation processes between the Army and RAF spelled disaster. That same day, 4 December, twelve other Allied aircraft were lost, five P-38 Lightnings, a Boston bomber and six Spitfires destroyed on the ground. To add to the Allies’ setbacks, on 6 December the rains came. ‘It rained for three days and three nights,’ said Cyril Ray the official historian of 78th Division. ‘There was no cover for the men and the slit trenches filled with liquid mud.’

Despite the Tebourba setback the Allies regathered in Medjez and planned another assault on Tunis. Political pressure intensified and the festive season was ignored. The offensive was to resume on the night of 23 December 1942 with a plan to capture Djebel el Ahmera, a mountainous ridge some six miles north of Medjez, known as Longstop Hill. Until it was seized nothing could move down the valley to attack Tunis.

The torrential rain swamped airfields, grounding planes. At times the mud was too heavy for even mules to move supplies. The Tunis offensive was cancelled. Even so it was decided that an attack on Longstop Hill must go ahead. During the night of 23 December and all of the next day, Christmas Eve, the Coldstream Guards and the US 18th Infantry Division fought in waves to gain Longstop’s peak. And like the ebb and flow of the tides, they first gained the summit, lost it, recaptured it, and lost it again. On Christmas morning, after the second German counter-attack, the Allies withdrew to Medjez with over 500 casualties, and another bitter, and costly defeat.

This failure to take Longstop Hill, combined with the rain and mud, brought the Allied advance to a shuddering halt. To add to that was the lack of close air support. It all meant that any further move on Tunis was impracticable. The forced back down from the plan to capture Tunis and the nearby port of Bizerte before the end of December meant that Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, which was retreating across Libya to Tunisia from the pursuing Eighth Army, was likely to join up with von Arnim’s growing Fifth Panzer Army. The only option was for the Allies to build up their strength during the winter.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part II


Acting Wing Commander Colin Gray, the top scoring New Zealand pilot with 27 kills, pictured with his Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IX EN 520 (FL-A) at Souk-el-Khemis, Tunisia while commanding No 81 Squadron, Royal Air Force in North Africa. c. May 1943

Air Vice Marshal Tedder knew that the Allies must first win the air war before a spring offensive on the ground could succeed. In their gamble to capture Tunis by the end of December 1942, the Allies’ lack of air superiority in Tunisia had been a major contributory factor in the failure. Or in the converse perspective, if the Allies had enjoyed air superiority, the outcome may well have been different.

The battle for air superiority also now had to be fought and won on two fronts, over Tunisia and the Libyan desert. The DAF was continually on the move in step with Eighth Army, from one isolated desert airstrip to another. While the Allies had lengthening supply lines and temporary airfields, the Axis had permanent airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. To undermine this advantage, air power and interdiction were seen as the key by choking off the enemy’s supply routes, whether by sea freight or air transport across the Mediterranean.

DAF to the rescue of French forces at Ksar Rhilane

Dust swirled in the wake of the German armoured columns. They comprised two groups of Panzers, half-tracks and support trucks as they powered across the desert. It was 10 March 1943 near Ksar Rhilane in southern Tunisia and General von Arnim had sent the Panzer force racing to intercept the Free French forces of General Leclerc. The French had recently driven across the desert from Lake Chad to join General Montgomery’s Eighth Army in a ‘left hook’ to outflank and help break the Axis defences on the Mareth Line. At about this time the combined Axis forces in Tunisia, now designated Heeresgruppe Afrika/Gruppo d’Armate Africa (Army Group Africa), were put under the command of von Arnim. He was desperate to prevent a link up of the British First Army of Operation TORCH with Eighth Army, which was pressing hard against the German-Italian Panzer Army (previously Panzer-armee Afrika) in the south of Tunisia.

Above the lines of German armour and motor transport, Pilot Officer Arthur Dawkins, of No. 450 Squadron RAAF, eased his Kittyhawk fighter-bomber around to survey the burning vehicles, which his bombs had just struck. He peered through the murk of smoke and dust for more targets which he could strafe. Then one of the trucks coming up in his flight path suddenly blew up in an immense explosion, enveloping him in a fog of black smoke, dirt and debris. It must have been an ammunition truck, he thought. Dawkins fought to keep control, feeling the plane being dragged down. Emerging again into bright sunlight, he was astonished to see, wrapped around one of his wings, a length of a truck’s canvas tarpaulin. The base airfield at Nefatia some fifteen miles away, at once seemed much further distant.

Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, twelve each from Nos 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF, were bombing and shooting up the German armoured columns, while escorting Spitfires chased off some Stuka dive-bombers, which were heading for the French. Five attacks were made on the German forces, three by Kittybombers and two by Hurricane fighters of No. 6 Squadron RAF, known as the ‘Flying Can-openers’ due to their use of 40mm-cannon-armed tank-busting Hurricane IIDs (each Hurricane carried two 40mm cannon under its wings). The 250lb wing bombs, and the 500lb bombs under the fuselages of the Kittyhawks, together with the heavy cannon strafing of the Hurricanes, destroyed fifteen vehicles, and damaged others which were driven away by enemy recovery teams during the night. Despite losing six aircraft the fighter-bomber operation was a great success.

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In northern Tunisia during January and February 1943 the Allies’ front lines, which in late December 1942 had been pushed back to the south from the edge of Tunis, remained entrenched close to Medjez-el-Bab in the Medjerda valley. In the face of the German offensive pressure, a lack of air support, and the onset of winter rain and mud, any renewed attack on Tunis had been postponed until spring. The rain turned many roads into quagmires, making them impassable for wheeled transport. The result was that the Medjez el Bab sector of the front became a salient protruding into Axis-held territory. A stalemate set in as both sides tested each other’s lines while rebuilding.

Into January 1943 the Allied infantry companies had spread out into widely dispersed positions and taken on reinforcements in tough patrolling engagements. By being able to use local airfields near Bizerte and Tunis, the Luftwaffe exploited their air superiority in air-to-ground attacks, which meant that the infantry were often restricted to patrolling at night. German fighters had free range to fly through the valleys, attacking any vehicles or movement. General von Arnim repeatedly initiated attacks, sending in his troops and tanks to break through First Army’s lines. In winter temperatures, which could drop to freezing, and even snow in the high hills, Allied troops spent many days and nights in cold, wet and hastily-dug trenches. Mountains and strongpoints were continually fought over, gained, lost, and regained, with no significant advance.

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On 3 February 1943 Wing Commander Hugh Dundas DFC arrived at Souk el Khemis in northern Tunisia to take up a temporary position as commander of the Spitfire squadrons of 324 Wing RAF. Dundas was still only twenty-two years old, a decorated veteran fighter pilot of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and more than sixty missions over northern France with the legendary Douglas Bader. He was startled, as all pilots were at first, to see the airfields of bulldozed mud, and the primitive living conditions faced by squadrons and their pilots:

The Spitfires were operating off strips of wire matting, laid on top of rushes which in turn had been laid on the mud. The strips were between 800 and 1,000 yards long and only 25 yards wide. They were connected with the squadron dispersal areas by more strips of matting, laid in narrow lanes. A pilot who put a wheel off the runway while landing – and it was all too easy to do so when coming down in a gusty cross wind – was certain to capsize his plane. Alongside these makeshift airfields the squadrons’ officers and ground crews lived and ate in tents.

Hugh Dundas was from Barnborough in South Yorkshire and, on leaving school, first learned to fly in the Auxiliary Air Force. In May 1940, at only twenty years of age, he was in combat in the skies over Dunkirk and a few months later he was flying his Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. In those intense days of continual fighter dogfights he was shot down, cheating death by baling out just before the aircraft hit the ground. Once out of hospital he flew again in that aerial struggle for Britain’s skies, and in more than sixty sorties in Bader’s squadron over France in 1941, before his posting to Tunisia in early-1943.

By mid-February 1943, Axis aircraft strength in the Mediterranean region had risen to around 1,570, of which approximately 300 were based in Tunisia. Poor maintenance and supply difficulties, however, meant that only 50 per cent were generally serviceable for operations at any time. By contrast RAF Middle East, with under 1,000 aircraft, enjoyed a typical 75 per cent rate of availability. In addition Allied air forces were expanding rapidly.

On Eisenhower’s instigation in early February all Allied air forces, including the USAAF across North Africa, were placed under the command of Acting Air Marshal Tedder, as AOC-in-C Mediterranean. In a series of discussions and meetings in Algiers, Eisenhower and Tedder had found a meeting of minds, for a working relationship and in their views of the role of air power. Tedder was appointed as Deputy to Eisenhower, and AVM Coningham took over as AOC Tactical Air Forces in North Africa. Tedder put great emphasis on maintenance and supply, which he saw as the essential backbone of air power.

Once Tripoli had been captured by Eighth Army on 23 January, RAF Middle East moved its whole maintenance and supply organization from Egypt to the Libyan capital. Maintenance and supply services, together with mobility and improvisation, were seen as integral and fundamental to maintaining the strike power of aircraft and their aircrew. The Axis air forces, on the other hand, suffered from supply shortages of every kind, particularly fuel, causing a lack of flexibility and an overall reduced number of sorties.

A major cause of Axis supply difficulties, as they had been for Rommel in the lead up to El Alamein, was the interdiction of Axis air routes and shipping by Allied aircraft. A typical example was provided by the two RAAF Squadrons, No. 454 flying Baltimores and No. 459 flying Hudsons, in the eastern Mediterranean. During March 459 Squadron undertook ninety convoy support sorties mainly at night, typically taking off soon after midnight, and 454 Squadron commenced operations against U-boats and E-boats.

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In the first weeks of 1943, although the Allies continued to pour troops, guns and supplies into Algeria and feed them through to Tunisia, there was some disarray and indecision at the highest levels in London and Washington. In January Churchill and Roosevelt met in Casablanca, appointed General Alexander to command all Allied land forces in North Africa (18 Army Group) and as deputy to Eisenhower, and reaffirmed their resolve to win the Tunisian campaign.

There was a mixture of optimism and belief that it was only a matter of time before they would defeat the Axis forces by pinning them between Montgomery’s Eighth Army and the Anglo-American forces of Operation TORCH. However, no-one could foretell how long it would take, or at what cost. The invasions contemplated by the Allies for Italy and north-west Europe rested upon first defeating the Axis powers in North Africa. There was fear of the Tunisian campaign dragging on and on. Under some criticism and pressure by the political leaders and high commands in London and Washington, Eisenhower made a brave statement to Churchill and Roosevelt by promising victory in Tunisia by mid-May 1943.

Whilst the Allied commands planned and reorganized during January, their fear of being bogged down in Tunisia threatened to become a nightmare. For Rommel and his German-Italian Panzer Army, with their long, controlled retreat across Libya and then into southern Tunisia behind them, had already begun to combine with General von Arnim’s forces in the north. Rommel established strong defences on the Mareth Line, which had been built in the south by the French to guard against Italian attacks, to fend off Eighth Army. He was also intent on preventing the Americans from advancing from the Atlas Mountains in the south-west, and driving a wedge between his Panzer force, and von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army in the north.

On 8 February Rommel met with von Arnim and Field Marshal Kesselring, who was in command of all German forces in the Mediterranean, and convinced them that the best strategy was a drive to the west to destroy the main Allied supply bases, at Tebessa in Algeria, and le Kef farther north-west inside Tunisia. Kesselring wanted to push the Allies back into Algeria, but Rommel and von Arnim agreed between them that it could only be a limited action. Rommel wanted time to focus on defence of the Mareth Line against Eighth Army.

At Sidi Bou Zid on the evening of 13/14 February 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions launched Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND (Spring Wind). This was a surprise night attack through the rocky terrain of the Faid Pass, previously thought to be unsuitable for tanks.4 In two days, 14 and 15 February, they surrounded and then inflicted a crushing defeat on the US 2nd Armored Division, which lost 100 tanks, 88 half-tracks and artillery, and some 1,600 casualties.

On 20 February 1943, after driving US forces into flight from Sbeitla, 10th Panzer Division then drove the Americans back some twenty-four miles west of Kasserine town itself, and gained control of the Kasserine Pass. Over the next three days, on mountainous roads threading through the western dorsal towards Tebessa and le Kef, the German Panzers with superior guns and tactics blasted their way forward through poorly-prepared American and British positions. By the close of 22 February at a height of 3,300 feet they were close to taking Thala, and only forty miles from le Kef.

The obvious and only option for an immediate counter was to turn to the DAF. As it always seemed to be, it was ready to respond. In day and night attacks DAF bombed Luftwaffe forward airfields, supply dumps, and troop concentrations on the Mareth Line and near Gabes. First Army began to move some forces down from the north to assist the Americans, and RAF wings in northern Tunisia sent fighter patrols to the area to counter Luftwaffe raids.

Wing Commander Dundas’ 324 Wing was one of those ordered into these operations in support of US forces. Like all new pilots on arrival from UK, he faced an intense learning period in regard to both the climate and an unknown geographical terrain. Despite this, Dundas felt the need to quickly lead a two-squadron operation on one of these patrols. Once in the air he soon had some regrets that he had not prepared more thoroughly.

As Dundas led the formation of twenty-four Spitfires to the south, they flew into rain squalls and broken storm clouds, which hid the tops of mountains. Seeing the terrain for the first time, he found it hard to pick out the landmarks recommended at the pre-flight briefing. Their orders were to keep the ground under observation, so he had to resist the urge to climb to a safer altitude.

Aware that he must not make a mistake, which could be disastrous in the conditions, he dismissed a fleeting temptation to turn back. Dundas knew that such a decision would undermine his credibility so soon in his command. He kept going and they reached the designated patrol line without encountering any enemy aircraft. He turned the group around to the north on the homeward return leg, and into even worse weather.

Because of the mountains and the weather, radio contact with their base was disrupted. Even if a reliable communication could be made, Dundas also recognized that his fellow pilots would be expecting him to lead them home without having to resort to a request for a homeward bearing. He found himself praying to a higher authority that he was leading the group on the correct course. At last they emerged from the clouds to see the landing strips of Souk el Khemis ahead. By the time he had taxied to a stop, and switched off the engine, Dundas felt drained, as if he had survived a ferocious dogfight with an enemy fighter.

Through those mountains below the patrolling Spitfires, Rommel’s Panzers pressed on relentlessly, brushing aside inexperienced American troops. Once through the Kasserine Pass their Panzers were within one day’s easy downhill drive to le Kef, the Allies’ major supply base. Despite American and British troops fiercely contesting the approach to Thala, the Allied command expected Rommel to launch the final attack on the morning of 23 February, and there was little confidence that it could be resisted. Then there would be nothing to stop the Panzers devouring the flat terrain all the way to le Kef. However, despite Kesselring flying to the front to urge them on, Rommel’s advice to pull back was accepted.

The Panzer columns had thinned themselves out in three separate thrusts. They lacked the strength to stretch out further without hope of reinforcements of men and supplies, and their extended columns were now running short of fuel. In the hours before dawn on 23 February Rommel turned the Panzers around, and returned to his defensive positions on the Mareth Line. Clearly the bombing by DAF of German bases and supply lines, and a counter-attack by the British 6th Armoured Division, added fuel to Rommel’s fear of an attack by Eighth Army on his rear.

The flexibility, mobility and high serviceability of the DAF maintained by their ground crews, brought ever increasing capability for close co-operation with the army. In addition by March 1943 the numerical strength of the Desert Air Force over the Axis air forces, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, had grown even greater.

DAF had become a unique mix of the Allies’ national air forces. Both air crew and ground support airmen from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, were to be found across the DAF squadrons. Postings and transfers increasingly ignored individual and national preferences, and responded to the demands of the front-line squadrons to replace casualties and meet operational demands.

In the Mareth area in March 1943 the main DAF groups, wings and other formations comprised:

Ptable

Although the Germans withdrew from Kasserine back to Gafsa, their Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND had inflicted a series of major battle defeats on the Americans, who lost more than 6,000 men dead or wounded, and another 3,000 taken prisoner out of 30,000.

Despite many brave Allied attempts to halt the Panzers, the Germans suffered fewer than 1,000 casualties, and only 201 dead. The Allies were lucky to narrowly avoid a strategic defeat, and their main supply depots at Tebessa and le Kef remained intact. Nevertheless, there was to be no respite elsewhere.

On 3 March a recce flight over the Mareth Line by 239 Wing’s 450 Squadron reported a build-up of German armour. Ignoring his supply shortages, Rommel did not intend to rely solely on static defence. Although the Luftwaffe had been unable to mount a preceding bombardment, on 6 March, supported by Focke-Wulf Fw190 and Me210 fighter bombers transferred from Sicily, German armour attacked Eighth Army at Medenine.

Acting upon the DAF reconnaissance information, Eighth Army’s artillery was prepared, and positioned ready for the Axis thrust. First sandstorms, then cloud cover restricted overall air activity, but eight times on 6 March alone, DAF Kittybombers in three-squadron formations with Spitfire escorts, struck at the attacking Panzers. The combination of artillery pounding, and DAF’s aerial bombing inflicted heavy losses on the German armoured columns, and forced the enemy’s withdrawal. On 9 March an ill and exhausted Rommel, worn down from the constant attacks by Eighth Army in the long retreat from Alamein, flew home to Germany to recover. Von Arnim was forced to place all Axis forces onto a defensive footing. With hindsight it seems to have been a tipping point.

As a cover for Eighth Army’s preparation to undertake a left flanking offensive around the Mareth Line, the Allies’ Free French Force under General Leclerc began moving to the north from Ksar Rhilane. Early on 10 March they were threatened by approaching columns of German armour, supported by both Luftwaffe fighters and dive-bombers. Cloud cover had restricted DAF patrols and reconnaissance, but an enemy move against the French had been anticipated, and some squadrons were already briefed and on standby.

Once a signal was received from the French of the approaching German attack, squadrons scrambled into a combined DAF response. The preparations for Montgomery’s ‘left hook’, a contingency plan to outflank the Mareth Line if it was needed, could only be protected by air power. Waves of DAF fighters and fighter-bombers rushed to the rescue. Kittyhawks and Spitfires, including the Kittyhawk of Pilot Officer Dawkins in 450 Squadron RAAF, forced the German armour to turn back and withdraw from their attack on the French at Ksar Rhilane. It was a remarkably successful intervention by fighter-bombers, which would have far-reaching implications for air power tactics and strategy into the future.

Yet the Mareth Line still held up a frontal offensive by Eighth Army. The fortified Mareth Line followed the northern edge of the Oued Zigzaou wadi for about thirty miles across the narrow coastal plain between the Matmata Hills and the sea. However, there was the possibility of a way around this Tunisian equivalent of the Maginot Line. Based upon information provided by the French, some patrols by Eighth Army’s Long Range Desert Group had confirmed that the Tebaga Gap, a valley between the Chott el Fejaj salt lake and the Matmata Hills, was a viable route around the Mareth Line for troops and armoured columns experienced to desert conditions. To outflank the German defences, Montgomery decided to plan another version of his renowned ‘left hook’ tactic, and attempt to send a strong, armoured force onto these narrow mountain tracks to the west.

Fighter-bombers lay on an ‘air blitz’ at El Hamma

In early March 1943 Flight Lieutenant Neville Duke of No. 92 Squadron, 244 Wing RAF, who was already an ace from 1942 with eight victories, claimed six more, as the struggle by DAF to assert superiority over Axis air forces continued. On 1 March 1943 Duke shot down two Macchi C.202s, and claimed four more victories within a week. At times it seemed that every squadron’s operation culminated in a clash of the opposing fighters.

On every sortie each pilot faced a private battle, a battle against fear. And at the end of each day, if he had won that private battle, and also a battle against an enemy aircraft, he knew that there was no end to it. There was both physical and mental strain building continually for every pilot. A night’s good sleep free from nightmares reliving the aerial combat, or a day or two off, could alleviate the physical fatigue. The mental stress for many fighter pilots often built day after day, no matter what. Every man had a breaking point at some indeterminate point, where time away for recovery was the only option. Of course, to get that opportunity he had to survive long enough. Up to this time Duke had done just that, and much more.

Neville Duke, from Tonbridge in Kent, was twenty-one years old. Throughout his schooldays he had been an aviation enthusiast, and intended to apply for an RAF Short Service Commission once he was eighteen. This he did in June 1940 and in April 1941 joined 92 Squadron RAF, where he gained invaluable experience flying as No. 2 to Wing Commander A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO DFC. Duke was first posted to Egypt in November 1941, where he joined No. 112 Squadron RAF flying P-40 Tomahawks. After 161 sorties and 220 operational hours, he was ordered to take up instructor duties for a rest and recovery period, before, in November 1942, he gained a posting back to his original 92 Squadron, then based in Gambut, Egypt.

On 19 and 20 March 244 Wing flew escort cover in close support for the fighter-bombers supporting Eighth Army as it moved into its offensives at El Hamma and Medenine. A few days later Duke and his fellow pilots were delighted when 244 Wing received twelve Spitfire Mark IXs, including six for the Polish Fighter Team of No. 145 Squadron RAF, and four for Duke’s 92 Squadron. It was well timed, not only to support Eighth Army trying to break the Mareth Line, but also to counter the arrival of the Focke-Wulf Fw190. Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst, who had been appointed to succeed Coningham on 30 January, had persuaded the RAF in the UK to send out some of these latest Spitfires. The Spitfire Mk IX had a top speed of 408mph, a faster climb rate and a higher service ceiling than the Fw190. They outclassed the German fighters, whose pilots believed that DAF had been more widely re-equipped with Mk IX Spitfires.

Broadhurst by this time had also under his command two American fighter groups, 57th and 79th, both equipped with Warhawk fighters, the American name for the P-40, plus a bomber group with the B-25 Mitchell light bomber. Broadhurst persuaded the two fighter groups, approximately equivalent to RAF wings, to integrate their operations with the Desert Air Force under his command. For the Mareth air battles, because of the Americans’ relative inexperience of air fighting or ground attack, a typical operational formation was half a squadron of Australian pilots in their RAAF Kittyhawks leading half a squadron of American pilots in Warhawks.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Beaufighter MkX RAF 144Sqn Sqt PG Fletcher Tunisia 1943

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part III

In the mountains of northern Tunisia First Army continued its fight to gain control of the eastern dorsals of the Atlas range. They were still suffering from enemy bombing and strafing, since the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica were flying readily from local airfields around Tunis. During the day Bf109 fighters and Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers often careered through the valleys, seemingly at little more than tree-top height, shooting up transport and anything that moved.

In contrast, in the south, because of DAF forcing the German armour to turn back and withdraw from Ksar Rhilane, the next day, 11 March, the French were able to move up to their positions. From the Mareth Line 2nd New Zealand Division with other forces went westwards also without suffering any enemy strikes, despite the many miles of redeploying traffic, which would have been easily observed by Axis positions in the hills. The increasing dominance of DAF, due to its ability to operate from hastily prepared airfields close behind Eighth Army’s front lines, was allowing the repositioning of ground troops with impunity. It was a significant advantage over Axis forces, and meant that Eighth Army’s plans for an attack outflanking the Mareth Line, through the Matmata Hills, were falling into place.

After the success of DAF at Ksar Rhilane, it was agreed that the US Twelfth Air Force and No. 242 Group RAF from Algeria and Tunisia, would concentrate on bombing German air fields round the clock. DAF would confine itself to close support of Eighth Army, and its offensive against the Mareth Line, through a western out-flanking ‘left-hook’ tactic, to the west as well as a direct assault in the east.

During the night of 19/20 March, 50th (Northumbrian Division) and 23 Armoured Brigade of XXX Corps began to move up for the frontal attack on the Mareth Line’s formidable defences in the Wadi Zigzaou near the coast. Simultaneously 200 tanks and 27,000 troops of the New Zealand Division and 8 Armoured Brigade began the left hook around the south-west end of the line. When the French built the Mareth Line defences they thought the terrain of this area to be too difficult for any sizeable force to negotiate. The Free French on 19 March had taken positions across the Wadi el Outio, north of Ksar Rhilane, so that overnight on 19/20 March the New Zealanders skirted south and west around the Mareth Line, and then began to head north towards the Tebaga Gap.

As Axis forces in response reacted to hurry west to meet the outflanking threat, on the evening of 20/21 March Eighth Army mounted a frontal attack on the eastern end of the Mareth Line. In support DAF commenced the ‘shuttle service’ bombing by light bombers on 21 March around Mareth. During the day fighter-bombers went out on armed reconnaissance searching for targets of opportunity, and the tank-buster Hurricanes of DAF’s No. 6 Squadron did their work again claiming thirty-two hits on enemy vehicles.

When Eighth Army’s 50th Division had to pull back to the south side of the Wadi Zigzaou on 23 March they had suffered very heavy casualties with some brigades down by a third. Montgomery ordered 1st Armoured Division to reinforce the New Zealand Division, transferring the main impetus to his left hook.

Having seen that Axis forces were being fully drawn into battle in the east, Montgomery ordered the left flank attack to press forward towards El Hamma. If successful this left hook would reach behind the Mareth Line, and force the Axis General Messe to pull back all his troops to the north. As the first attack on the eastern sector of the Mareth Line struggled to make a breakthrough, the 4th Indian and 1st Armoured Divisions moved to the west to bolster Montgomery’s ‘left-hook’ tactic. The Luftwaffe, hammered by the bombing campaign against its airfields, was unable to attack the miles and miles of dusty columns. It confirmed that the Allies had gained air superiority, which allowed Eighth Army to redeploy its forces without fear of Luftwaffe attacks.

The problem with the ‘left-hook’ strategy was that Axis forces were entrenched in strong positions at El Hamma, in the Tebaga Gap’s confined approach. Eighth Army’s tanks would be vulnerable to the German 88mm guns, which were well dug-in, and lethal against armour. A direct frontal attack by Eighth Army could be a disaster.

The New Zealanders were held up by very strong Axis positions which comprised extensive minefields and dug-in artillery, in a 6,000-yard-wide defile code-named the ‘Plum’. The ‘Plum’ defile ran between Djebel Melaba on the north edge of the Matmata Hills and Djebel Tebaga, and Axis forces had also made use of a Roman wall which crossed the valley.

First Armoured Division began to follow the track now marked by the New Zealanders. It wound its way through the edges of the Matmata Hills for some 200 miles, and it would take two days. Meanwhile the New Zealanders called for DAF air support. At the same time there were concerns that the firepower of 1st Armoured when it arrived would be insufficient, and General Messe could reinforce Axis positions further in the meantime. Montgomery and Broadhurst agreed in principle to DAF mounting a ground attack operation to blast a way through the ‘Plum’, later to be referred to as the El Hamma Line (or ‘Mareth switch-line’). An Army-Air conference on 24 March agreed that, instead of light bombers in formation attacks, fighter-bombers and strafing attacks would be used in front of the ground attack.

The DAF success in attacking Axis armour at Ksar Rhilane must have impressed Eighth Army’s planners. For the first time it was decided that the full DAF attack role would change. Instead of their typical tactics of strikes against supply columns and dumps, airfields and troop concentrations, DAF fighter-bombers would fly sorties in close collaboration with Eighth Army’s ground attack. The plan was for the Kittyhawk fighter-bombers to go in low, bombing and strafing enemy lines, in the direct path of, and ahead of the 2nd New Zealand, 4th Indian and 1st Armoured Divisions. In terrain so favourable for the defenders, it was really the only hope for Montgomery’s plan to succeed.

The reasoning for using the fighter-bombers was based upon a number of factors, including the light bomber crews not knowing the new battle area, and that the effectiveness of pattern bombing against dug-in targets was doubted. It was thought that the fighter-bombers would be better at pinpointing enemy positions, and their use would allow the light bombers to continue with their night-bombing raids in the east. Perhaps the most influential factor was that Broadhurst wanted the fighter-bombers, with their bombs and cannon, to lay on a ‘low flying blitz’.

The modification of fighters so that they could carry bombs, either under their fuselage or wings, in a fighter-bomber role, was a recent development. It was controversial, with conflicting arguments for and against. Flying with 450 Squadron RAAF of 239 Wing RAF at this time was Flight Lieutenant Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath from a rural area in New South Wales, Australia. Kierath was one of a number of pilots who had flown a Kittyhawk in a fighter-bomber role, known as a Kittybomber, in the action at Ksar Rhilane. The first trial of a Kittyhawk in such a role had been undertaken in early 1942 by a fellow Australian, Clive Caldwell, a fighter ace with No. 112 Squadron RAF. On 24 March 1943, the lives of the spearhead troops, and the turning of the Mareth Line, depended upon the likes of Rusty Kierath and other flyers in DAF to deliver the cutting edge of the new air – ground support tactic.

Besides tactical considerations on the ground, there were unavoidable strategic reasons for mounting an air blitz. Having been unable to break the Mareth Line near the coast in a frontal attack, to try again there invited further defeat and heavy losses. The only other possible way was through the defile at El Hamma. Yet the Axis had been able to reinforce its defences to make the El Hamma gap just as unattractive. To sustain its supply needs Eighth Army must break through, keep moving forward, and reach the main port of Sfax farther up the coast to open up easier access to shipping cargoes.

The El Hamma strongpoint sat in a funnel of a valley, with German gun positions on the hills either side, and protected by mines and countless dry river beds. DAF was being called upon to destroy the trap.

The proposed plan for an ‘air blitz’ by DAF in support of Eighth Army caused a reaction from AVM Coningham, who was now AOC-in-C of Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF). NATAF comprised the Desert Air Force, XXII Air Support Command and the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF). Coningham was resistant to committing fighters to major ground attack operations. It was against established RAF doctrine, because of the risk of losing large numbers of fighters, and consequently air superiority. Coningham sent his senior air staff to remonstrate with Broadhurst, who was not deterred. Backed by Montgomery, Broadhurst got his way.

Immediately after the Army-Air conference on 24 March, fighter-bombers and the tank-destroyer Hurricanes attacked the enemy’s tanks and transport, which were confronting the New Zealanders. Also more detailed planning for the ‘air blitz’ to break the El Hamma Line of the Axis forces got under way at once. With the stalemate at Mareth, the Axis 21st Panzer and 164th Infantry Divisions, already at El Hamma, could be reinforced by 10th and 15th Panzer. The principal elements of the air support plan drawn up for the El Hamma blitz were:

25/26 March: Night raid bombing on Axis HQs and telephone centres to keep the enemy awake and confused.

26 March 1530: Attacks on tank concentrations first by Hurricanes of the tank-buster No. 6 Squadron, followed by two squadrons of fighter-bombers.

26 March 1600: A creeping artillery barrage behind which 8 Armoured Brigade and New Zealand infantry would begin to advance.

The creeping barrage would create an advancing bomb-line. From sixteen fighter-bomber squadrons available for the operation, two squadrons at a time would bomb and strafe the enemy positions in front of the bomb-line for more than two hours continuously.

On the ground a large letter E marked the infantry’s start line, with red and blue smoke next to it. As the troops moved forward they would indicate their positions with yellow smoke. Although this would be of use to enemy artillery in the valley’s hillsides, there was a real concern to avoid the blitz hitting Allied troops. The New Zealanders provided locations of Axis gun positions, which Allied artillery would target regularly with smoke shells to further help strafing and dive-bombing by DAF fighters.

The ‘air blitz’ plan called for continuous strikes by Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, commencing thirty minutes before the Army ground attack, to be maintained in two-squadron formations at a time for two hours. Could this revolutionary new tactic work? To break the Mareth Line the ‘left hook’ attack of Eighth Army must succeed. If the new DAF tactics did not achieve the planned effect, the ground attack would almost certainly be repelled. If it failed, it would take a more drawn-out offensive to drive the Axis forces back from the Mareth Line. General Eisenhower’s commitment to London and Washington to defeat Axis forces in Tunisia by May 1943 and subsequent plans for the invasion of Sicily would be in tatters.

To assist the DAF bombing runs, smoke and army vehicles were deployed on the ground approaches: red and blue smoke for the start point, trucks drawn up in the form of code letters for DAF pilots, yellow smoke for Eighth Army positions, and white smoke shells bursting onto enemy positions. The first ever experiment of Army/Air wireless communication was instigated, using selected flight lieutenants with radios sitting in armoured cars in the front lines.

On the morning of 26 March dust storms allowed the New Zealand troops and 1st Armoured Division, to concentrate for the attack with good cover against enemy observers. At 1530, in a late change, an unscheduled wave of light bombers of 3 Wing SAAF pattern-bombed enemy positions. When the dust and smoke from this raid cleared the anti-tank Hurricanes of 6 Squadron went in against 21st Panzer. Despite intense flak no aircraft were lost.

At 1600, as planned, the creeping barrage began, with smoke shells targeted as indicators on Axis gun positions. Then the waves of Kittybombers began their attacks, about 400 aircraft continuously over more than two hours. Squadrons would first drop their bombs on enemy positions, then dive down again to strafe with cannon and machine guns. By the end of the onslaught 21st Panzer and 164th Infantry Divisions had suffered significant losses of artillery guns and ‘soft skinned’ vehicles, as against thirteen Kittybombers lost.

Over 24 to 26 March, day and night, DAF light bomber strikes had pounded Axis positions again and again south of El Hamma. On the afternoon of 26 March, despite serviceability constraints brought on by those two days of low-flying, DAF threw in 412 sorties in pattern-bombing against enemy telephone communications. Before the German troops could begin to re-organize, DAF fighter-bombers struck again, bombing and strafing at low level. The DAF bombing campaign, culminating in the fighter-bomber attack, fully achieved its aim of keeping the enemy’s heads down before the ground attack.

At the end of the air blitz 8 Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand infantry drove through the enemy minefields and defensive positions. First Armoured Division carried out a considerable advance in the hours of darkness, to ensure that the valley’s natural features could not be used to mount an ambush on the tanks. Over the next two days Axis forces fought rearguard actions, until they could retreat north with 15th Panzer from Mareth. As well as destroying large numbers of guns, tanks and other transport and imposing a toll of dead and wounded, by 28 March the Allies had taken 700 prisoners. The combined DAF and artillery blitz had turned the Mareth Line, and the Axis troops could hold no longer.

DAF lost seventeen Kittybombers in the operation, out of some 400. To achieve the major success of breaking the Mareth Line at El Hamma it was an acceptable loss. Those who were involved had no doubts about the worth of this innovative use of air support. Yet Broadhurst’s decision to use fighter-bombers was still criticized in higher circles. Perhaps most important was the demonstration it gave of how fighter-bombers in close army-air support, where circumstances were favourable for their use, could change the tide of battle on the ground.

By late-March and early-April 1943 the rains began to lessen. Planning and preparations were underway again for the spring offensive to take Tunis. With temperatures on some days around a maximum of 25–28°C, it allowed the bringing forward of more troops and supplies.

At the same time as the First Army infantry fought in the Oued Zarga mountains in the north, in the south on 7 April the first forward detachments of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army made contact with leading patrols of II US Corps. The Allied pincer movement was beginning to close in on the Axis forces. Speed was now critical on all fronts to exploit the encirclement, and prevent the enemy from controlling his retreat and withdrawing his forces to Italy.

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The struggle for air supremacy in early-April continued unabated. DAF squadrons began to come within range of RAF airfields in Tunisia, and all Allied air forces were put under the unified command of AVM Coningham. Every avenue was being explored to strengthen air superiority and Wing Commander Dundas of 324 Wing was presented with orders to undertake a bizarre mission. At the Bou Saada oasis in the desert, some 250 miles south of Algiers, a Vichy French air force unit remained isolated. They had been resisting all entreaties to collaborate with the Allies. Besides the opportunity to add another wing-size group to Allied air power, there was a demand to eliminate any threat they might pose. As the Allies ratcheted up the pressure on the Axis, and closed on Tunis, the last thing they needed was a rogue strike on their rear areas by some disgruntled Vichy French flyers.

Dundas’ orders were to fly down to Bou Saada and talk the French CO into joining the Allies. He was to offer them the temptation of being re-equipped with Spitfire fighters. For a long flight over desert and the Atlas Mountains, and to guard against one of them having to make a forced landing for engine trouble or some other unforeseeable event, he took with him a Canadian, Jimmie Grey, commander of No. 243 Squadron RAF. In their two Spitfires they finally located the landing strip, close to an oasis settlement. The green palms and white of the houses and Foreign Legion fort sparkled in the sunset against the surrounding desert. As they descended Dundas saw a figure emerge from a tent and peer skywards:

I told Jimmie to go on circling while I landed and taxied in. I would call him if I wanted him to follow. With great caution – and a little trepidation – I landed and taxied over to the tent. The man I had seen ran towards me, waving and smiling. I called Jimmie and told him to come down. Our one man reception committee was a young lieutenant in the French Air Force. He was evidently astonished to see us, but he was courteous and friendly.

So as to portray his authority to negotiate Dundas introduced himself to the young French lieutenant as a lieutenant colonel, accompanied by Commander Grey. The young French officer was astounded that they had attained such senior ranks at their youthful age and was very envious. He then drove Dundas and Grey to his HQ where they met the French commander, a major well into middle age. Without enquiring the reason for their visit, he invited Dundas and Grey to dine with him and other senior French officers. During the dinner the focal point of the conversation was the Spitfire fighter, and their desire to get into the action.

Maybe it was the wine working on me, but I decided that they were the sort of people we wanted with us, and I told their CO that I was authorized to offer them the opportunity to come and fight alongside us in the final liberation of Tunisia from the ‘sale Boche’. This information aroused great enthusiasm – maybe the wine was working on them too …

Next day Dundas and Grey made an uneventful return flight to their home base but without gaining any clear indication from the French commander of his intentions. Further communications took place at a senior level between the Free French authorities and the Allies and, in due course, the French airmen from Bou Saada joined the Allied cause. They duly got their Spitfires and were flying operations in the final battle for Tunis.

Despite the growing evidence that Allied air power was winning the air war, for the troops on the ground, to most of whom the air force was an unseen hand, it was not at all clear where and when a final victory in Tunisia would come. The problem remained: how and where could the Allies break through to close the trap? In the far north, on the coastal approaches to Bizerte, the Americans were held up at mountain strongpoints such as Green Hill and Bald Hill. In the south the armoured strength of Eighth Army after the breakthrough at El Hamma had become neutralized by Axis defences in the hills around Enfidaville to the south of Tunis.

In the central north, in the Medjerda river valley, there seemed to have been little change since December. North of Medjez el Bab the Germans were immoveable. On ridges such as Djebel Bou Aoukaz and Longstop Hill, they stubbornly endured every attack by the Allies’ First Army. With the terrain favouring the enemy’s defences, the fear was that for some months yet the Axis could grind out a lengthy war of attrition before they succumbed.

Interdiction, an air blitz and a ‘No Fly Zone’ to take Tunis

High above the island of Malta, Australian Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae of 104 Squadron RAF wrestled with the controls of a twin-engined Wellington bomber. He was taking off to raid Sicily’s capital and major port of Palermo. In gusty winds and low cloud, groaning and creaking in its slow climb, the bomber dropped then surged upwards. Bill recalled that:

Shortly after take-off we ran into turbulent cloud. Our course was over the sea on the east of Sicily, then a turn west through the straits of Messina and along the northern Sicilian coast to Palermo.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bill McRae was working for the Bank of New South Wales in the UK. As there were no Australian forces in Britain, he first joined the Royal Artillery before transferring to the RAF to train as a pilot. On completion of his training he had flown the new Wellington Mk VIII torpedo-bomber to Cairo, and later he was posted to Malta. On that night bombing raid to Palermo, despite the increasingly poor weather, Bill was aware of the pressure to get the job done.

As we approached the north coast of Sicily, the cloud cleared and we were able to identify some islands, and work out the bombing run. We circled off the coast at 10,000 feet until ‘blitz’ time, then hugged the shoreline towards the target, Palermo Harbour.

I began to lose height down to 8,000 feet, and increased speed to 160 knots. With the nose down I had a good view, and saw a ship moored at the wharves. At first there was not a lot of flak. We had no trouble in identifying the target and let the bombs go in one stick.

Then I opened the throttles, and with the engines screaming at maximum revs, did a steep climbing turn, trying to get through the flak bursts, which were now targeting the aircraft. When we were back to 8,000 feet, I eased back on the throttles, and pushed the nose down to level off.

Both engines suddenly cut out. In that instant, it seemed that time stood still. It flashed through my mind that we had been hit. Then, after a couple of seconds, the engines picked up.

As usual, when getting clear of a target, Bill found his mouth had gone completely dry. In another operation for McRae and his crew, to cut off German supplies, the target was the port of Sfax in Tunisia.

We took off in daylight, at 1700 hours, and I was delighted to be at the controls of a Wellington, which I was very familiar with from our Egypt based operations. We flew south low over the sea and then turned 90 degrees right towards our target. It was dark as we neared Sfax, and we were able to pin point our position on some islands to the east of the town. We had climbed to 6,500 feet and Ian had obtained the wind for the bombing run. The weather was clear and the buildings in the port were easy to identify.

As we began our run in exactly on the ‘blitz’ time, another aircraft dropped a string of flares. Ian did a couple of bombing runs, and with no guns firing at us, he thought he was back home on a training exercise. Turning over the sea for another run, with the light from the flares we spotted a ship a few miles off shore. We circled round to line up on it but the flares went out. We had our own flares, but Ernie found there were problems with their ripcords not working, which should pull off a cap, and arm the flare. I even took the laces out of my desert boots, and sent them back to Ernie to see if that would help. He launched three more, but none of them lit up.

That ship had a lucky escape. We returned to Sfax and got rid of the remaining bombs. On the way home the aircraft ran like a bird. It seems she must have known it was her last trip, as she went missing the next night along with its pilot, my good friend Flight Sergeant Iremonger, and crew.

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