RAF Doctrine 1918

On 7 November, he told the cabinet that despite the turmoil inside Germany, there was no military reason for Germany to surrender. Their Army was retreating in reasonably good order, it was holding a continuous front, and with winter approaching, there was no reason why they should not be able to establish a solid defensive line. There was still time for the RAF to inflict the coup de grâce. The War Cabinet officially approved the Air Ministry plan to transfer as many bombers as possible from the Middle East to Bohemia to attack industrial and ‘moral targets’, but the Foreign Office stopped short of sanctioning a raid on the capital.

On 6 November, a delegation had been dispatched from Berlin with instructions to obtain a ceasefire at any price. On 8 November, they met Foch and were told the price was total surrender. The Germans requested an immediate temporary armistice while they considered the French demands; Foch refused and gave them three days to decide. A raid on Berlin by one plane might appear a mere gesture, but politically Balfour decided that it could send a very strong and direct message to Germany’s leaders. Clearance was given for the RAF to bomb Berlin. The Handley Page V/1500 was to set off on 9 November and the Vimy in France was to follow as soon as it was ready. Poor weather forced the first V/1500 raid to be postponed for forty-eight hours. At dawn on 11 November, the crews prepared for another attempt, but before they could get into the air, news arrived that an armistice would come into effect later that day. There would be no opportunity to bomb Berlin—not in this war at least.

For the Air Ministry, it was an anti-climax and unsatisfactory conclusion to their strategic bombing campaign—the end of the war had come before the value of the strategic bomber could be proven. Indeed, far from being proven, doubts were growing about it having any significant military value. The optimism of mid-summer had been replaced by a growing realisation that little physical damage was being inflicted on the German economy. The ability of the bomber to cripple German industry had been vastly exaggerated. The effect of the bombing on the German population had also been overestimated. Deaths as a result of any one raid rarely reached double figures and less than 1,000 German civilians died in bombing raids during the First World War. Tragic as each individual loss was, given the huge problems Germany faced and the horrendous scale of casualties at the front, the impact of bombing casualties on the population as a whole was slight. The deaths through air bombardment were dwarfed by the 400,000 German civilians who died in 1918 as a result of the flu pandemic.

The deprivations caused by the blockade, the onset of the flu pandemic, the surrender of Germany’s allies and the general hopelessness of the military situation were far more significant factors in the decline of German morale. The scattering of a few bombs over Berlin in the last hours of the war might have added to the sense of hopelessness. Alternatively, the indignation such attacks caused might equally have helped unite a broken nation and stiffen resolve. Most likely of all, it would scarcely have been noticed in a country already racked by despair, disorder and internal dispute.

The war had ended with no evidence that a country could be intimidated into accepting defeat by the air weapon. Haig had apparently been proven right. The bombing of London, or any other city, could not change the course of the war. It was perhaps easier for Haig in France to make this judgement than the politicians and military sitting in London as the bombs fell around them. Haig’s insistence that the Army should get priority over home air defence might seem cold and calculating, even callous, but he simply did not believe the compatriots of his stoic conscript Army would cave in so tamely under the threat of air attack. It is neither difficult nor surprising to find evidence that civilians find bombing extremely distressing, but it is hard to find evidence that it induces a desire to surrender. As well as causing grief, the killing and maiming of innocent civilians inspires resentment and anger. It does not take much, if any, manipulation by the government and media to exploit these emotions to stiffen the determination of a nation to fight on. As Mond had suggested in 1909, ‘No nation would make peace because the enemy was killing its civilians’.

As a last resort, advocates of long-range bombing claimed that even if the bombers did not achieve decisive results, the effort that the enemy had been compelled to put into air defence was a victory for the bomber. The problem was that long-range bombers required far more resources to build and operate than the short-range interceptors that shot them down: ten Snipes could be built for the price of one Handley Page V/1500. Fighters were also more versatile than huge long-range bombers. Interceptors were often the same machines as those operating over the front, but huge and cumbersome Handley Page V/1500 bombers would be as vulnerable as Zeppelins over the battlefield.

Perhaps the biggest error made by the pro-bombing lobby was that bombing was easy and preventing it difficult. By the end of the war it was becoming clear the opposite was far closer to the truth. The defences of both sides were improving quicker than the efficiency of the bomber forces. Even if the defences were overcome and targets found, planners were becoming aware of the countermeasures open to the country under attack. Cities could not be moved but industries could. As a last resort, dispersion and relocation of vulnerable industries was always possible. Tiverton’s greatest fear had always been that a premature and unsuccessful offensive against any particular target would give the enemy time to relocate to a more distant part of Germany.

The German daylight raids on London had provoked a radical shift in British air policy. At the time, it seemed like the dawn of a new era in warfare, but even before the war ended a little more than a year later, there was growing evidence that this had been a massive over-reaction and misjudgement. Long-range bombing was fraught with far more problems than anyone had appreciated and the battle for resources in the last year of war demonstrated that Britain did not have the means to build a long-range bomber fleet and maintain an effective Army and Navy. By November 1918, it was the advocates of strategic bombing who were very much on the back foot, desperate to find last-minute proof, or even just a little evidence, that they might still be right.

Only the politicians seemed to have been won over. Many seemed to have been taken in by some of the extraordinary claims made for the destructive capabilities of very small numbers of bombers. As always, it was the politicians who tended to be most impressed by the morale argument. This is scarcely surprising; it is, after all, the politicians’ responsibility to worry about civilian morale. Defending one’s own civilians from aerial bombardment is a perfectly reasonable priority for any government. The ability to retaliate effectively made politicians feel more confident about securing the support of their own people and less vulnerable to threats from enemies. The political advantages and the military benefits of having an intimidating long-range bomber force would become increasingly muddled in the years ahead.

While the strategic use of air power had failed to make the expected impact, the tactical applications of air power had gone from strength to strength. Aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction developed very rapidly, achieving a degree of operational sophistication and efficiency that, even after four years of war, the long-range bombing advocates could not come close to matching. The problem of the air and artillery combination was that it worked so well: it stifled movement on the battlefield and deepened the stalemate. However, as the war progressed and new tactics began to break the tactical gridlock, air power was able to demonstrate its versatility.

In any sort of conflict, reconnaissance is crucial. If reconnaissance had been the only task aircraft were capable of performing in 1918, it would still have justified the resources poured into the development of military aviation; however, aircraft were capable of much more. Attacking ground targets began to produce significant results once it was appreciated that the more relevant they were to the immediate battle, the more difference they could make. By the end of the war, fighter-bombers were being employed and directed in exactly the same way as artillery. Ground attack was merely an extension of the artillery support an Army corps could expect. By 1918, close air support was not an innovation, it was normal. The expectation was that eventually even a platoon commander held up by an enemy strongpoint should be able to call for air support. Techniques for supporting ground forces more normally associated with the Second World War had become established procedures in the First World War.

In defence, close air support had demonstrated its mobility and ability to deal with emergencies. In attack, it had in extreme circumstances demonstrated the ability to turn retreat into a rout. Most of the time, its impact was far less spectacular. It was just another useful tool available to Army commanders, but this capability alone was valuable enough to justify its existence and should have been enough to guarantee its future.

In 1918, the Army was developing along the right lines. The War Office was developing high-speed tanks that could do more than just crush barbed wire and support the infantry. Armoured close support planes and self-propelled artillery were being developed, which could support deep thrusts into the enemy rear. No longer would the infantry have to wait for the artillery to move into place before advancing. The fast moving tanks still had to be developed and the tactics they would use formulated, but the air element was already in place. Britain had its blitzkrieg air force.

As valuable as the fighter-bomber had proven, the Army appreciated the first duty of the fighter was to establish air superiority. The struggle for air superiority was a battle that proved as crucial as any fought on land or sea. To win it required the right training, tactics, organisation and equipment. In the autumn of 1918, the Germans might have been losing the war, but with their excellent Fokker D.VII and ‘Flying Circuses’, they were ahead of the RAF in most of these respects.

No country could have been quicker than Britain to see the need for an efficient fighter, but developing the correct solution proved to be a very slow process. False analogies with naval warfare had led to an obsession with aerial battleships that could dominate huge areas of airspace. The realities of war eventually forced an acceptance that speed and agility were the key qualities, more important even than firepower. No other item of First World War military equipment had such a rapid turnover as the fighter. A new design might only dominate the skies for months before becoming obsolete. No item of military equipment was considered more important. The Fokker D.VII was considered such a vital element of the German war machine, it was the only item of military equipment specifically mentioned by name in the list of war material the Germans had to hand over as the price for an armistice.

The flying qualities required of an air superiority fighter are simple to list: ease of control; ability to turn tightly and change direction quickly; high horizontal, climbing and diving speeds; high acceleration; and high service ceiling. The problem is that many of these qualities are contradictory and one can only be achieved at the expense of another. The first Martinsyde F.3/4 fighters to reach the RAF would have found themselves opposed by the Fokker D.VIII. No two fighters could be more different than the light Fokker and the powerful Martinsyde. Each had its advantages and it would have been an interesting contest between the two.

Developing the correct fighter tactics had been a particularly hard struggle for the RFC and RAF, but theories about providing indirect protection by dominating the enemy rear had eventually given way to more focused fighter operations in the battle zone. Fighters had to operate where they were likely to encounter the enemy, not where theories dictated the battle ought to take place. If patrols flying low over the battle area needed higher level patrols to protect them, then an independent battle for air superiority between the opposing fighter forces might well emerge, but fighter resources could not be wasted looking for a battle that served no purpose. The first priority was to establish superiority in the immediate vicinity of friendly forces, whether they are troops in the front line or reconnaissance and bombing machines penetrating enemy airspace. Once this has been established, then it might well be profitable for fighters to patrol further afield. Trenchard’s offensive patrols would have been an excellent way of extending and reinforcing air superiority already achieved over the battlefield, but they were not a way of achieving that air superiority.

Ironically, given that much air force strategy was based on naval practice, the Navy and RAF ended up making the same mistakes and having to learn the same lessons. The Navy began the war believing a broad offensive policy aimed at dominating the oceans would enable individual vessels to move freely. The policy had failed and been replaced by the more pragmatic approach of concentrating shipping in convoys that were protected by strong naval escorts. Exactly the same had happened in the air.

It was the expansion of the strategic bomber force, not the tactical air force, which was in most doubt when the war came to an end. If the war had continued into 1919, the RAF, with a large Army in the field to support, would undoubtedly have continued to develop as a powerful tactical force. The development of a powerful strategic bombing force would have been far more problematic. Britain did not have the resources to build a strategic and a tactical air force. If the war had continued, the huge expense of the strategic bomber, in terms of manpower and resources, and the needs of the Army and Navy, would probably have continued to restrict the development of the Air Ministry’s independent bombing ambitions.

Much had happened in four years. In 1914, the British had committed a small professional Army supported by four RFC squadrons to a European conflict that was expected to be of limited duration. Instead, the war had lasted for more than four years and a huge conscript Army had been raised. Plans for the spring of 1919 envisaged fifty divisions of the British Army supported by a tactical air force with 400 day and night bombers, 400 low-level fighter-bombers, 300 two-seater fighter-reconnaissance planes and 700 armoured corps planes, all protected by 1,200 single-seater fighters. In 1919, the British soldier would not have lacked air support. It was a level of support that British soldiers fighting future battles in future wars would be denied. Why they did not get it is another story.

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Battle-Group Langkeit in the fighting east of the River Oder, January 1945

Willy Langkeit (2nd from left)

Willi Langkeit was wounded in the fighting that took place in that area around Schaulen. He was hospitalized and sent to the homeland to convalesce, where he was placed in charge of the division’s replacement brigade in Cottbus. But he was not there for long.

By the end of January 1945, he was again leading armored forces, this time an element composed of forces from the replacement brigade, as well as cadre from the armor school in Wünsdorf. The Kampfgruppe was dispatched to the Eastern Front, where it reported to General der Infanterie Busse’s 9. Armee, which was facing the Soviets approaching the Oder.

At the time of Langkeit’s arrival, the Soviets were rapidly advancing with two large armored forces in the Oder-Warthe Bend, the main effort directed at Frankfurt an der Oder and Küstrin. Immediately after his arrival, Langkeit received orders to move through Frankfurt towards Reppen and bring the Soviet forces there to a standstill. It was imperative that the high ground east of the Oder, which dominated the entire region, remained in German hands.

Langkeit advanced with his forces, reached the high ground and turned back the Soviet forces. Langkeit’s actions were one of the few bright spots in the otherwise dismal situation facing the Germans all along that sector of the front. Busse later wrote about Langkeit’s operation:

The failure of the Soviet effort in that sector was primarily thanks to the noteworthy bravery of Oberst Langkeit, who personally got involved with complete disregard for himself and, as a result, helped rally the forces that had been hastily assembled and had not yet developed any cohesiveness. I personally witnessed his exemplary actions.

Langkeit’s feat of arms prompted Busse to submit the armor officer for promotion to Generalmajor ahead of his peers: “for recently demonstrated leadership performance and again demonstrating extraordinary bravery.”

On 20 April, the Armed Forces High Command approved the recommendation, especially since Langkeit had also been taking all of the forces pouring into his sector to form a new division-Panzergrenadier-Division “Kurmark”-which he was also earmarked to command. Indeed, he seemed the perfect choice for the upcoming struggle that was to decide the fate of Germany.

Generalmajor Langkeit experienced the final weeks of the war with his ad hoc division, first fighting his way out of encirclement west of the Oder and then taking it to Beelitz to the rear of General der Panzertruppen Wenck’s 12. Armee. During the last days of April, he received the third level of the Tank Assault Badge for having participated in 75 or more armored engagements.

On 7 May 1945, the young general went into captivity with his division, surrendering to U. S. forces.

Following the war, Langkeit entered the Bundesgrenzschutz-Federal Border Protection Service-in 1951. He helped form the coastal protective services of that agency and led them for a long time as a Brigadegeneral.

Willy Langkeit passed away in Bad Bramstedt on 27 October 1969.

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It was not on the Western Front alone that the armies of the Third Reich suffered military defeats in the autumn and winter of 1944. An Allied advance in Italy, slow but maintained, drove the German defenders from below Cassino, northwards and almost to the plain of Lombardy, while in Greece Loehr’s Army Group began its long overdue withdrawal. Every theatre of operations had witnessed disasters but it was on the Eastern Front that Hitler’s hosts suffered their severest defeats in that autumn of reverses.

By the end of 1944, the vast expanse of Soviet territory which the Wehrmacht had conquered during 1941 and 1942, had been retaken by the Red Army until only a thin buffer, the western half of Poland, separated the spearhead forces of the Red Army from Germany’s eastern provinces. The Soviet summer offensive of 1944, Operation “Bagration”, had smashed Army Group Centre (soon to be renamed Army Group “A”) and had brought the Russian forces to the province of East Prussia which STAVKA was now preparing to take out in a major offensive. The once powerful Army Group North, by this time reduced to just a handful of divisions in Courland, had been forced back until it had the sea behind it and the Russians to its front and on both flanks.

Colonel-General Guderian, Chief of the General Staff at OKH, demanded that Hitler use the 30 experienced divisions in Courland to break through the Russian encirclement and to link up with other German formations in East Prussia where they, and the forces in East Prussia, would threaten the northern flank of any Soviet advance towards Berlin. Hitler rejected Guderian’s demand with the result that by December 1944, the encircling Red Army was so strong that an attempt at a link-up between the German forces in Courland and those in East Prussia had absolutely no chance of success. Guderian then proposed that Army Group North be evacuated by sea from Courland and moved to bolster the last remaining German-held sectors of western Poland. That suggestion, too, was turned down by the Fuehrer.

General Gehlen, head of the General Staff Department (Foreign Armies East) and a recognised expert on the Soviet Union, produced figures which showed that the Red Army’s Supreme STAVKA had planned for its nine military fronts to launch attacks between the Carpathian mountains and the Baltic Sea. The first blow would be undertaken by the 2nd and 3rd Byelo-Russian Fronts against East Prussia. The second blow would be launched from a start line in the bend of the Vistula by Zhukov’s 1st Byelo-Russian and Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Fronts. STAVKA’s strategy on that sector, was to isolate and destroy Army Group A (formerly Army Group Centre) and to advance as far as the River Oder, a distance of some 300km. The STAVKA effort would employ 2.25 million soldiers on just Zhukov’s and Koniev’s Fronts. Between them they would control 163 infantry divisions, 32,143 guns and 6,500 AFVs. On the narrow but vital Baranov sector of the Vistula bend where the main attack was to be made, the Soviets enjoyed a superiority over the Germans of 9:1 in infantry, 6:1 in armour and 10:1 in guns. The Order of Battle of Army Group A was 9th and 17th Infantry Armies and 4th Panzer Army, controlling a force of 30 infantry, four Panzer and two motorised divisions. Strong though that Army Group seemed to be, most of its divisions were burned out and they were, in any case, too few in number for the battle which lay ahead.

In an effort to increase front-line strengths, Guderian ordered a thorough comb-out of rear echelon units and this, together with a regrouping and a thinning-out of formations produced 14 divisions. These he formed into a strategic reserve for he proposed, when the current Russian offensive eventually lost its momentum, as it must do after the mighty advances of the previous autumn, to launch a counter-offensive. That riposte would not be able to match the Red Army’s effort in size and weight, but the Chief of Staff was confident that it would gain Germany a valuable breathing space. Guderian was not able to deploy and use that strategic reserve as he wished. Hitler who had planned the offensive on the Western Front, which has become known as the Battle of the Bulge, promptly ordered that Eastern reserve to be sent westwards, assuring his Chief of Staff that its divisions would be returned as soon as it was clear that the Battle of the Bulge was being won. Hitler also comandeered all the construction and road building battalions which Guderian had assembled, together with the heavy artillery he had brought together to support the sectors of the battle line which in his opinion were most under threat. With the removal of so many of the formations essential to its defences the Eastern Front, already under strength, was so dangerously weakened that it would be certain to shatter when the new, major, Russian assault was launched.

Gehlen then reported that the Soviets had concentrated in their 90km-wide bridghead at Baranov, in Poland, five infantry armies and six armoured corps as well as a number of independent infantry and armoured formations. The imbalance of forces had now risen in favour of the Red Army to 11:1 in infantry, 7:1 in AFVs and 20:1 in artillery. The Russian superiority in artillery was so high that the local commanders could mass 250 guns on each kilometre of front. Back in the Ardennes it had become clear by the end of December that Hitler’s gamble had failed and that the German forces, which had advanced in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, were now withdrawing in disorder. Guderian demanded the return of his Panzer divisions to enable Army Group A to meet the imminent Russian offensive. Hitler refused and instead reduced Guderian’s forces still further by despatching Panzer Corps Gille, Guderian’s sole reserve in the bend of the River Vistula, southwards into Hungary where he planned to open a new offensive.

The Chief of Staff sent Hitler a final piece of intelligence: “The new Russian winter offensive will open on 12 January”. Still the Supreme Commander refused to reinforce the Eastern Front. Then in the early hours of that day a barrage opened on the Baranov sector which lasted from 01.30 to 06.00hrs. When it ceased a deep silence endured for 30mins after which the bombardment began again. Behind the barrage as it marched across the cratered landscape, special Red Army detachments, punishment units put in as a human sacrifice, advanced to kill those German soldiers who had survived the shellfire. Behind the so-called “Strafbats”, an armada of tanks rolled forward followed by divisions of conventional Red Army infantry. That huge assault broke through the front of 4th Panzer Army and crushed all but the most minimal resistance in the front line sectors. Here and there a German machine gun went into action against the flood of Soviet soldiers marching across the open plains. But it was only machine guns which retaliated. Not one piece of German artillery had survived to fire back at the oncoming Russians. However, the rear units of 4th Panzer Army were not affected by the Russian attack and were able to retreat westwards.

Realising, at long last, the need to take action on the Vistula sector Hitler ordered the elite “Grossdeutschland” Panzer Corps, together with a few divisions from Hungary and the Western Front, to restore the situation in 4th Panzer Army’s area. It was a movement undertaken by too few forces and too late in time. Zhukov’s armies were advancing along a thrust line which aimed directly at Frankfurt-am-Oder and were moving with such speed that the probability existed they would reach the east bank of the river before the slower-moving German units and would destroy them before those units could cross to the safety of the west bank. Supreme STAVKA had planned the battle of Berlin as the final operation of the war in Europe and, to prepare the ground for that advance, Zhukov ordered his armies to race for the Oder and to establish bridgheads on the river’s western bank — springboards out of which the Red Army would make the advance to the Reich’s capital.

 

The race to the Oder can be said to have begun when, in the second week of January 1945, Zhukov’s armies stormed across the Vistula. Within a matter of days there was no longer a solid German battle line in that area. On 20 January, Colonel-General Schoerner, the new commander of Army Group A, committed 11th and 24th Panzer Corps to a counterattack to knit up the ruptured front of 4th Panzer Army. It was an effort too weak to achieve any sort of success. The Red Army counter-attacked 24th Corps and cut it off. It then became a “wandering pocket” trying to fight its way back to the German lines. “Grossdeutschland” was ordered to rescue 24th Corps and its assault made such good ground that by 22 January the advance guards from both formations had gained touch.

The Eastern Front was collapsing and, faced with that catastrophe, the only solution which suggested itself to the Reich’s leadership was that the creation of a few large and flexible battle groups would have greater offensive/defensive potential than several smaller battle groups. The latter had always lacked heavy weapons and had also experienced difficulties in the matter of supplies and replacements. In accord with that solution High Command directed “Grossdeutschland”, resting after its rescue mission, to create a strong all-arms battle group. Kampfgruppe Langkeit was created on 26 January 1945 and its chief infantry constituent, Corps Panzer Grenadier Replacement Brigade, was a unit unusual for that time since it was at almost full establishment. The other component of Langkeit’s KG was Major Petereit’s Alarm Group Schmeltzer, which also had sufficient soldiers to flesh-out the new, elite and very specialist battle group.

To counter the Russian race to the Oder, the German military commanders, lacking sufficient men or weapons, had only the advantages of familiarity with the terrain and an awareness that their officers and men were determined to defend their native soil. It was believed that a system of field fortifications had been set up to the east of the Oder, resting upon a chain of lakes, the so-called Tirschtiegel positions. A water barrier, such as a lake system, has the advantage that it compels an attacker to advance across areas of ground — land bridges — which the defenders can hold in strength. In the case of the Tirschtiegel positions this was not the case. There had been almost no work undertaken and responsibility for constructing the trench lines had been left to Nazi Party political officers who had deserted their posts and fled as the Reds approached. Such positions as had been constructed were rudimentary — a few trench lines, dug-outs and in some places an anti-tank ditch. All showed evidence of hasty and unplanned work. A second line of trenches and dug-outs was in a worse state than the first line, with only the most basic work begun but not completed. The military commanders withdrawing into the Tirschtiegel positions were thus faced with the dual problems that they must not only somehow find sufficient labour to complete the trench systems, but must also man those positions before the Soviet offensive reached them. The only military units immediately available were local militia and Volkssturm detachments, made up of poorly armed men who would be no match for Zhukov’s veterans. In an effort to fill the defence lines with troops the High Command raised units out of any available bodies of men. In some cases officers were appointed to take up Staff positions in formations which had been given grandiose titles but which had no troops. To begin with it was a nightmare scenario but slowly the efficiency and pragmatism of the German military system manifested itself and order was produced out of chaos.

The newly-created Kampfgruppe Langkeit was one of the formations which should have manned the Tirschtiegel positions. Its infantry component was renamed Kluever’s Panzer Grenadier Regiment, with Schmeltzer’s Alarm detachment, three Grenadier companies and a machine gun company forming its 1st Battalion. The men, although chiefly young recruits, had veteran instructors, officers and NCOs. Schoettler’s 2nd Battalion had three Grenadier companies, a machine gun and a mortar company. Few of that battalion’s rank and file were “Grossdeutschland” soldiers. No 7 Company, for example, was made up of men from other units who had been taken off trains passing through Cottbus, and taken onto the strength of the “Grossdeutschland” unit. The battle group’s artillery component had been, to begin with, just two heavy field howitzers. Then a battery of light field howitzers was formed and, finally, a light Flak battery with four 2cm guns, four twin-2cm guns and four 3.7cm motorised anti-aircraft pieces, came onto strength. A small SP gun detachment was also created. To obtain AFVs, Langkeit was not so much pragmatic as piratical. He comandeered machines from the factories in which they had been made and requisitioned other vehicles from the “Grossdeutschland” training depots. Many of these latter were powered by charcoal gas engines, others had no turrets and some had no guns — in short, the only factor which made them AFVs was the plating they carried. Nevertheless, Hudel, commanding the Panzer detachment, had soon created an HQ squadron, a Panzer company, a recce platoon, two tank destruction troops each armed with Panzerschreck rocket launchers, and two more troops armed with Panzerfausts. There was also an anti-tank company and a motor cycle company.

During the night of 26-27 January the Kampfgruppe, in no way completely raised or forming a homogeneous group, began to move towards the front. The divisional history records that despite the obvious shortcomings and deficiencies in equipment, the morale of the men marching out to give unequal battle was first-class. They were determined to win, even though they knew the enemy was vastly superior to them in number and equipment. Langkeit was ordered to concentrate his Kampfgruppe around Reppen and then to strike north-eastwards into the flank of the Red Army forces advancing upon Stettin. Following on from that operation the KG was next to take up its allotted positions in the Tierschtiegel defences. A few days later the entire battle group set out for Reppen, to undertake its first mission, to attack the flank of the Red Army advancing towards Stettin.

On its approach march it was surprised and attacked by strong Russian forces. The principal reason for the surprise encounter was that Langkeit had been given no information on the location of the Soviet forces. His battle group fought back and restored the situation and was then advised that Bittrich’s SS Corps was encircled somewhere near Sternberg. On 30 January, Langkeit sent a battle group, the 2nd Battalion of his Panzer Grenadier regiment, to break through the Soviet encirclement and to bring out Bittrich’s trapped formations. The battalion reached Pinnow and formed two small motorised battle groups to carry out the rescue operation. The Grenadiers were heartened as they carried out their attack to hear the sounds of small arms and artillery fire, believing these to be made by the SS. About midday the true explanation of those battle noises came when Soviet tanks appeared from the north-east and began firing into Pinnow. Patrols then reported to Langkeit that Russian armour and infantry, outflanking the Kampfgruppe to the north, were making for Reppen. Langkeit decided that his priority was to bring out the SS Corps and ordered 2nd Battalion to continue with its attack. By last light on 30 January, the Panzergrenadiers had smashed the Red ring and gained touch with the SS. Not long after that an independent tank-destroyer company of armoured vehicles also broke the encirclement, was immediately taken onto the strength of Bittrich’s group and went into action.

Covered by a rearguard formed by 2nd Battalion, the remnant of SS Corps, escorted by the tank-destroyer company, then pulled back towards Frankfurt. Langkeit’s 2nd Battalion then prepared to defend Reppen. Meanwhile, the situation in which the main body of the Kampfgruppe was placed had deteriorated with the report that Russian forces had now outflanked it both to the north and the south. There could now be no question of an advance to Sternberg and 1st Panzergrenadier Battalion, backed by 88mm guns and other artillery weapons, moved towards Reppen to reinforce the 2nd Battalion.

It had a nightmare journey. The Reppen road was blocked by columns of slow moving refugees who panicked when JS tanks appeared on the crest of the ridge north of the road and opened fire upon them. North of the road where there was good going, the Red Army commander concentrated the mass of his tanks. To the south of the road where thick woodland made the terrain unsuitable for armoured operations, he put in his infantry. At a point well behind Langkeit’s Kampfgruppe, Russian tank columns cut the road so that the battle group which had been put into action to smash one encirclement was now itself in danger of being surrounded and cut off. It was also dangerously split up. The 2nd Panzergrenadier Battalion was in Reppen, 1st Battalion was on the road to that place and the heavy vehicles and tanks of the main body were isolated from both those battalions.

Langkeit formed that main body into two columns and intended to lead them in a mass charge to break the Soviet ring. Such an attack did not and, indeed, could not, succeed because the columns could not deploy off the road and into open country. Trapped fast among the civilian carts they were the principal targets of Soviet infantry and tank gun-fire from north and south of the road — fire that smashed down into the press of carts and people and created enormous casualties. Here and there a few Panzers forced their way out of the press of civilian carts and charged the enemy road blocks but died in the concentrated fire of the Soviet tank guns. Back in Reppen the Panzergrenadiers of 2nd Battalion, squatting in their slit trenches, patiently endured strafing from the air and barrages from mortars and from tank guns. The houses in the town were soon in ruins. The Red commander, thinking that the German troops were now either dead or demoralised, ordered tanks and infantry to mop up the remnants. His decision gave the Panzergrenadiers the chance at last to exact revenge for the punishment they had suffered. A wave of 10 T34s was shot to pieces by the 88s and a Red Army infantry battalion which came in against No 6 Company was wiped out almost to a man. But it was clear the battalion’s ability to resist was nearly at an end and Langkeit ordered it to destroy its vehicles and fight a way through to the main body. During the night of 31 January, covered by a barrage, the heavy weapons were destroyed and the Grenadiers and artillerymen marched to join the main body.

The situation in which the KG was placed was desperate and Langkeit decided to make a break-out attempt through the woods south of the road. Once his units had grouped in the forest they would be faced with a difficult, tiring march but the Russian infantry in the woods were less strongly armed than the tank units on the main road. It should, therefore, be easier for the Kampfgruppe to fight its way through and escape. The battle group’s last surviving eight-wheeled armoured car went into the forest to reconnoitre the route and, although the first reports were encouraging, the situation deteriorated again during 1 February. The units filtering along forest rides and secondary roads, once again became closely entangled with civilian columns and came under fire from Soviet infantry forces which had now entered the woods in strength. Langkeit’s light Flak groups, heavy machine guns and Pak poured fire along the edge of the forest to beat back the Red Army units and to aid the slow-paced withdrawal. Stuka aircraft of Colonel Rudel’s tank-busting squadron were brought in to aid the escape but their efforts had little success.

Langkeit’s “O” Group during the night of 2 February, heard a bleak report. The guns were down to two rounds each and the break-out through the woods had not succeeded. He proposed that the Kampfgruppe make a swift, direct thrust along the road. This might succeed so long as it was covered by a strong rearguard. Spearheaded by a Panzer detachment, the first attack was made in the early hours of the morning of 3 February, but failed to smash through. Meanwhile, on the northern side of the road, 1st Grenadier battalion attacked and destroyed the Russian forces opposing them in hand to hand combat and drew the attention of the Red commanders to that sensitive area. That gave the chance for the “Hetzers” of the tank destroyer unit and the last of Hudel’s Panzers to carry out a second, and this time successful, thrust up the road. By 14.00hrs the Soviet ring had been ruptured and the westward withdrawal began. It was a shortlived move. At Kunersdorf more Soviet tanks had cut the road but, once again, the Panzer/SP group struck and destroyed them. During that battle Sergeant Riedmuller won the Knights Cross for destroying four T34s with successive shots and when the lie of the land prevented him from destroying the fifth, climbed out of his Panzer and “killed” it with a Panzerfaust.

A stream of military and civilian vehicles was now pouring through the broken ring and 2nd Battalion gave flank protection to the main body of the battle group as it pulled back towards Frankfurt. The artillery units, positioned in the streets of Damm, a suburb of that city, fired barrages to cover the retreating formations. Some detachments of KG Langkeit were first held in Damm but were then ordered to cross to the Oder’s western bank and take up defensive positions there. The remainder of the battle group continued to hold the bridgehead.

That eastern group fought bitterly to prevent the capture of Kunersdorf airfield which the Soviets needed as a forward base for the next stage of their offensive. In that fighting the bridgehead group suffered severe losses and even their most determined defence and skillfully mounted attacks could not prevent the Red Army from eventually crushing the Damm perimeter. On 3 February, an order was issued upgrading Kampfgruppe Langkeit to “Kurmark” Panzergrenadier Division. It is at this place, therefore, that we leave the battle group and consider another one which fought in the east when the Third Reich was in its death throes.

Grossdeutschland was sent to rescue the trapped units, but the front around them was crumbling. In response, the OKH was prompted to created some large Kampfgruppen to provide greater flexibility in defence. One of these new battle groups, Kampfgruppe Langkeit under the command of Oberst Willi Langkeit, was formed on 3 February 1945 and was made up from the Corps Panzergrenadier Replacement Brigade which was almost at full strength and Alarm Group Schmeltzer. It was organised as a Type 44 Panzergrenadier Division, with its Panzergrenadier battalions organised on the 1945 model, with three self-propelled gun companies equipped with Jagdpanzer 38s and one company with Pz IVs. The artillery battalion was organised from the 3rd Battalion, 184th (mot) Artillery Regiment. The Panzergrenadier regiment apparently had only a staff, a staff company, and two Panzergrenadier battalions. The order of 4 February 1945 gave the division an authorised strength of 4,559 men including 128 Hiwis.

Arthur Wellesley’s First Battle I

Wellesley in India, wearing his major-general’s uniform. Portrait by Robert Home, 1804.

Arthur Wellesley’s appointment to the Hyderabad army led to immediate controversy. Of the four major-generals whom Harris had brought with him from Madras, three had considerable commands, but the most junior, David Baird, had only a brigade. Though Baird’s brigade did consist of three European battalions, he had essentially the same responsibility as five colonels and two lieutenant-colonels, some of them EIC officers. Baird was strong, brave and a sound professional soldier. He was also a squabbler with limited political and diplomatic abilities. Late in 1795 and in 1796 he had handled badly a position requiring such abilities in Tanjore and had to be removed from his military command. He disliked most Indians and got on with them less well than almost any other contemporary senior British officer in India.

Characteristically, Baird protested to Harris and demanded that in accordance with seniority he should have been assigned to the Nizam’s army. He even wanted Lieutentant-Colonel Browne’s semi-independent command in Coimbatore. It would have been hard to find a worse man than Baird for assisting Meer Allum with the Hyderabad command. Even if the Nizam’s chief minister had not requested Wellesley, Harris would almost surely have chosen him. Among many other things, there was an EIC regulation about full colonel being the top rank in any subsidiary force. Arthur Wellesley had already proven his ability to control efficiently a large mixed command and get on with people; Baird had made a good start at proving the opposite. Wellesley treated Indians as equals because he thought of them as such. There was mutual respect and sometimes friendship between him and the Indians with whom he worked, although he understood their weaknesses. Baird was the type of man who made British rule in India more difficult. Harris made the right decision.

Before following the journey towards Seringapatam from Amboor where Harris’s armies stayed for two days, we should note that the Governor-General appointed a Mysore Commission to assist General Harris with political decisions, in particular to help him decide what to do should Tipoo offer less than complete compliance with British demands. This first commission was composed of Close, Malcolm, Agnew (Harris’s Military Secretary), and Arthur Wellesley; all except Wellesley were EIC officers and had devoted at least a part of their time to political relations.

Harris began to advance west from Amboor on 21 February. The valley was broad and flat; the British army was in column on the right, with the Nizam’s force similarly deployed on the left about three miles away. Between them was a slowly moving stream of more than 100,000 non-combatants of all descriptions, including merchants and the families of sepoys. There were even more animals than human beings, at least 100,000 bullocks and thousands of mules, camels, horses and elephants. On the march through the Baramahal the expeditionary force resembled a migrating people rather than an army. Progress was slow, on the average less than ten miles a marching day. The whole combination stopped in camp about one day in three. This rate of progress was maintained without incident through the British territory of the Baramahal. For the country and the time the road was good; Lieutenant-Colonel Read had it in excellent condition, especially the stretch through the Ryacotta ghaut or pass which was better than that used by Cornwallis through Kistnagherry, a town and fort of considerable importance. Harris and his massive command arrived at the entrance to the pass below Ryacotta on 3 March 1799. The slow-moving rectangle changed into a number of straggling columns. All wheeled vehicles, including the heavy carriages of the siege pieces drawn by as many as sixty bullocks harnessed four abreast used the road, but pack animals found their way up the ghaut both north and south of the road.

On 5 March the major portion of Harris’s army stayed in camp at Ryacotta while some light troops took minor hill-forts guarding Tipoo’s border. The next day the main force began its march through enemy territory. Harris was advancing on Bangalore as Cornwallis had done in 1791. The latter, however, had laid siege to and captured the place in order to use it as a fortified base for his further advance on Seringapatam. Harris already knew that Tipoo had destroyed most of Bangalore and demolished its defences. The Sultan adopted a strategy of defending his capital with maximum force – Harris had abundant information of new walls and new big guns – but destroying everything else of value to his enemies. This included not only Bangalore, but also a wide band of territory through which Tipoo thought Harris’s armies would move.

The scorched-earth concept was sound. The British and Hyderabad armies could carry enough food for men to last for about three months, but they were dependent upon the country for most of their animals. If Tipoo’s cavalry could destroy enough bullock food for a considerable percentage of animals to die of starvation, the entire conglomeration of men, animals and baggage, including the siege train, would come to a resounding halt. The British army was probably unbeatable in battle, but could be turned back easily if it could not feed its animals. The strategy was, of course, two-edged. The inhabitants of the areas where the forage was destroyed and stores of grain taken away would certainly lose their own animals and perhaps starve themselves. But Tipoo appears to have cared little about his people and would willingly sacrifice them by the thousand. It was, however, difficult to destroy all food for bullocks. These beasts ate many things, most of them growing wild. Enormous amounts of human labour would have been required to strip an area of all natural grasses; it was impossible to do it indiscriminately over many square miles. This part of India cannot just be set on fire.

Harris’s route was of extreme importance. If he moved predictably, his army would be in a long narrow corridor of devastated territory and surrounded by an elastic ring of Tipoo’s fine light cavalry. His bullocks could not support themselves for long. Indeed, as soon as the border was crossed and the armies were headed for Bangalore, Mysore cavalry were in sight almost continuously. Forage was in short supply, although even here there were some small parcels of unburnt grass, straw and hay. The country was wild and not fully cultivated, but it was not real jungle. On 9 March the entire force camped near the village of Kelamangalam, no more than about fifteen miles from the border. Some 4,000 of Meer Allum’s Hyderabad troops, though none of the EIC subsidiary force, were detached to stay with Read. Even at this time Harris was worrying about a resupply of food; Read’s most important mission was to collect grain and move it to Cauveryporam.

Soon after dawn on the 10th the great conglomeration began to move out; Arthur Wellesley and Meer Allum now were on the right while Harris’s own army was on the left, closer to the centre of Mysore. The country was ideal for harassing movements by enemy cavalry, open enough to give proper footing, but with topes (groves of trees) spread about for cover. Within two hours Wellesley’s guns were in action three times, once at the head of the column and twice towards the rear. The enemy was trying to break through to the central baggage. Wellesley understood their objectives and deployed both his advance and rear guards to extend inward. They were each composed essentially of a half company of the 33rd, a half company from each of his six EIC battalions, and a similar force from each of Malcolm’s four units. Detachments of Mogul (Hyderabad) cavalry were with each of the two forces.

Suddenly firing broke out in earnest in the rear. Wellesley spurred Diomed towards the threatened point. An enemy column of 2,000 horsemen had used a covered approach route and charged one section of his rear guard. Wellesley quickly took counteraction. The two 6-pounders with the ‘pickets of the day before’, went into action with the surviving infantry which now had time to form. Grape from the cannon and regular volleys from forty muskets of the 33rd and about five hundred of Colonel Wellesley’s Indian units emptied saddles and killed horses. Wellesley personally led the rear-guard cavalry in a bloody counter-attack which completed a costly defeat for the enemy. Harris’s armies were to march all the way to Seringapatam, but opposing cavalry was not again to try anything similar in this strength or actually close with British troops at all. Although Mysore casualties were considerably larger, Wellesley’s force did not escape unscathed. The half company of 1/11 Madras Native Infantry (MNI) under Lieutenant Reynolds was overrun before it was properly formed into line. Reynolds was severely wounded, and all of his men were either killed or wounded. Total British casualties, nearly all of them in this unfortunate unit, were twenty killed and thirty-seven wounded.

Harris continued north in a man-made semi-desert as far as Achel. Enemy horsemen were thick in front and to either flank so that only a strong foraging party could leave the line of march. There were other problems. Both grain and ammunition were disappearing. Gunpowder, lead projectiles for small arms and even cannon balls were stolen. They were valuable objects in India. Even the Brinjarries were having troubles. If Harris had continued to Bangalore, all these problems would have accompanied him and he would have lost thousands of bullocks. On the 19th, however, he turned abruptly south-west towards Cankanelli on the most direct route to Seringapatam. Within two miles he was in untouched territory. Forage stood in abundance along this route and was harvested in various ways, often directly by the animals themselves. Tipoo’s cavalry was not even sighted in strength for two days.

Apart from the rearguard action outside Kelamangalam there had so far been no real fighting. Floyd’s disciplined and organized European and Indian cavalry were in front and too powerful for the Mysore cavalry. The lighter, less disciplined enemy horsemen would not stand and fight, but they could not be caught. A few stragglers from both sides were cut off, but nothing more serious occurred. No enemy infantry or artillery had as yet been seen. On the other hand, Harris was moving in a near vacuum. He was cut off from regular dispatches both from the Governor-General at Madras and from Stuart on the west coast, although some were soon to be brought in secretly.

But in spite of plenty of forage and the relative absence of all enemy action, the progress of Harris’s army north-east of Cankanelli was unsatisfactory. It took five days to cover the distance that Cornwallis in 1791 had marched in two.1 The cause is easy to determine, labour trouble. The contractors who rented bullocks to the EIC and their Indian drivers were dissatisfied with new regulations. Both were exercising ‘all their ingenuity, notwithstanding their large means of transport, in opposing a thousand obstacles to every advance’.

We should now leave Harris and join Stuart. As has been mentioned, the British strategy as it had perhaps first been put into concrete form by Arthur Wellesley months before called for movements against Seringapatam from both coasts. Tipoo could be defeated most easily and quickly by taking his capital at Seringapatam. Separate but coordinated thrusts from Madras and Malabar were best. There were, of course, compensating disadvantages, those referred to by military strategists in the context of ‘interior lines’. Tipoo just might be able to defeat one army or the other by using all his forces against it. Harris’s army was big and powerful, but perhaps Stuart’s to the west was not. Both the Governor-General and Harris had taken this into consideration. Stuart, who had no adequate cavalry, had been ordered to move from Cannanore only as far as the top of the Western Ghauts. He was to wait for a cavalry escort from the main army before moving the last fifty miles through the open plain to Seringapatam.

Stuart moved from Cannanore on 21 February 1799 and reached the Western Ghauts on 2 March. He was in the principality of Koorg; the Rajah of Koorg was a firm friend of British India and had joined Stuart with his irregular troops. The Bombay army was to take up a strong defensive position ‘above the ghauts’ and wait for further orders. Stuart and his second-in-command, General Hartley, found these directions almost impossible to carry out. Aided by the Rajah of Koorg, they established a lookout with a position for two EIC battalions under Colonel Montresor to support it, but not a place for the whole army. If the entire army came up the ten-mile pass, it could be cut off from the Malabar coast fairly easily. Stuart therefore left the rest of his army in a more secure position twelve miles away ‘below the ghauts’.

On 5 March the Rajah of Koorg and others on the lookout station saw unusual activity in the direction of Periapatam and Seringapatam. Contemporary accounts claim that from this point it was possible to see east ‘almost to Seringapatam’. In the flat land below, the Rajah saw the erection of a large green tent and recognized it as Tipoo’s. An attack the next day was obviously possible. Stuart and Montresor immediately realized their danger, but a precipitate retreat back down the ghaut was undesirable. Stuart ordered forward another battalion of Bombay Indian infantry which arrived early in the evening. Montresor had his entire command under arms and ready an hour before dawn.

Tipoo attacked about nine o’clock on the 6th. His troops hit the three British battalions from both front and rear. Montresor, apparently one of the best British officers in India, had cleared his long, narrow camp area as best he could three days before. He had, however, no field fortifications. He formed his men so as to use mobile controlled firepower against both attacks and employed his six 6-pounders advantageously. Grape from these was particularly effective; it had a range of more than 300 yards and could tear through thickets of scrub. British artillery in India – the gunners were all European – was extremely skilful.

The fight went on for hours against heavy odds, but Montresor’s men were never even close to defeat. In spite of a numerical superiority of about five to one, Tipoo accomplished nothing. Montresor kept his forces flexible and was able to reinforce where necessary as well as rest some of his companies from time to time. Each enemy thrust that made headway and progressed through the artillery fire was met by sepoys in line who fired precise volleys and then came forward with their bayonets.

Stuart personally brought the King’s 77th Foot and the flank companies of the King’s 75th up the pass and arrived about three o’clock in the afternoon. The fresh European infantry hit the rear of Tipoo’s troops who were still attacking Montresor’s rear. The soldiers of Mysore broke completely and carried away in their panic their companions who had been attacking Montresor in front. The Bombay army was left in undisputed possession of a bloody battlefield said to contain the bodies of 2,000 of the enemy. During the night, however, Stuart pulled back down the ghaut to consolidate his entire force in one place and avoid the risk of having his communications with Cannanore cut off.

Tipoo stayed briefly in the area and then retired to the east without firing another shot. His strategy was certainly sound; he was trying to take advantage of his ‘interior lines’. He may have been following the advice of French professional soldiers in his employ; but the execution was faulty. Rumours about the battle of Sedaseer (the name of the closest village) reached Harris’s army on 15 March. They were confirmed by prisoners taken by Floyd’s cavalry on the 18th. Harris heard directly from Stuart on 24 March when Tipoo and his main army were known to have moved back east.

After his sudden shift of direction north of Anicul Harris’s army had moved freely. In spite of its labour problems, it was making fair progress along the main Bangalore–Seringapatam road. This route was bordered by ‘thick jungle’, though it was not as thick as the nearly impenetrable vegetation ‘below the ghauts’. Arthur Wellesley and others were later to exclaim: ‘If Tipoo had resisted with his infantry in this thick area we could not have got through before the monsoon!’ Before giving battle, however, the Sultan of Mysore appears to have waited for more open territory where his control of his forces would be better.

Arthur Wellesley’s First Battle II

Battle of Mallavelly

The main British army was at Cankanelli on 21 March 1799 and moved through nearly continuous tope country for four days – a total of about twenty miles. On the 26th they came out on cleared, almost flat land east of the considerable village of Mallavelly. Before evening the British saw some of Tipoo’s artillery and infantry in the distance. There were elephants and cannon on a skyline.

Soon after daybreak on 27 March the allied armies began their slow plodding towards Seringapatam. Mallavelly was six miles away; it was the next campsite at which there was ample water. The order of march was about the same as in the Baramahal, the British and the Hyderabad armies in column to each side with the vast conglomeration of baggage between them. Each army was preceded by cavalry and the infantry pickets. Contacts between the allied cavalry advance guards and the enemy were heavier than normal; when the heads of the main infantry columns were no more than a mile from Mallavelly, they came under long-range artillery fire for the first time in the campaign. Tipoo’s guns, said to be brass 18-pounders, were in position on some low hills a mile west of the village. The enemy was not attacking, but they did seem to be solidly in position and ready to fight defensively.

The day was well advanced and the Quartermaster-General’s party was already laying out the Mallavelly camp. Harris felt, however, that the opportunity to defeat Tipoo in the field was so valuable that he made every effort to close. His two armies were not fatigued and in superb condition; the terrain would give no considerable advantage to the enemy. In the open Tipoo could not possibly match British discipline, firepower and controlled mobility.

Soon after the Mysore guns opened, both the 25th Dragoons under Stapleton Cotton and the British pickets of the day under John Sher-brooke were engaged north-west of Mallavelly. The cavalry held in check a larger body of Mysore light horse by using their new ‘galloper’ 6-pounders; the infantry drove back some rocket boys and their supporting horsemen.

Bridges’s right wing led the British infantry column; it passed just to the north of the village of Mallavelly without halting. This unit was formed 5th Brigade, 1st Brigade and finally 3rd Brigade. Harris ordered it into line en echelon left in front, which meant that Baird’s all-European Brigade should have been in the centre of the line. Somehow the 1st Brigade got ahead of the 5th Brigade; the actual formation appears to have been an arrowhead V with one brigade up and two back. All were moving at speed; less than two hours of daylight remained.

The Hyderabad army under Meer Allum and Arthur Wellesley was level with Harris’s but at least a mile further south. Initially Wellesley had an infantry column of eleven battalions, led by the King’s 33rd. About 3.30 p.m. he received Harris’s order to continue his advance and endeavour to force the enemy to fight. In order to save time, he also formed line from column en echelon to the south on the 33rd which continued to advance. This meant an oblique line of battalions still in column of half companies at quarter distance each about 200 yards behind the one on its right and about 200 yards south. It is likely that only the King’s 33rd and six EIC battalions were in this formation. Malcolm’s four Hyderabad units probably formed a reserve. In Wellesley’s area the terrain had been a trifle more open than in Baird’s; the movements of the southern army are less confused.

Wellesley galloped to the south – he was mounted on Diomed – to make sure all his units were properly spaced. The six EIC battalions were to go from column into line simultaneously with the 33rd and continue their advance. Then he quickly returned to the 33rd. He was pleased to see that his army was now about a quarter mile ahead of Baird’s brigade of the main force. Everybody realized that Tipoo might not remain for long in a position where he could be attacked. As Wellesley and the 33rd approached the low ridge where the enemy could be clearly seen, he ordered his regiment to form line from column to the left. The first half company continued as it was, but slowed its pace; the others obliqued various distances to the left and double-timed to catch up. In less than two minutes the whole battalion was in a two-deep line about 350 files long. The EIC units to the south-east also executed this manoeuvre. What a thrill it must have been for a young colonel to see his command perform in this manner. He had been in the Army for twelve years, but had not yet taken part in a real battle.

Tipoo’s line was still mostly to be identified by the sudden puffs of cotton white which preceded the sound of each artillery discharge. Occasionally a ball would pass close enough for men involuntarily to bob their heads. Suddenly Wellesley saw a heavy column of Mysore infantry, between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers, emerge from Tipoo’s hilltop line and advance toward the centre of the 33rd with unusual bravery. Every man in the 33rd must have realized that this was their moment of truth. For nearly six years they had drilled and practised under their present commander. This was their first opportunity to use their experience for maximum advantage in battle. The enemy column was still coming straight for the British colours; they were not much more than a hundred yards away. An incisive, well-known voice rang out: ‘Thirty-third, Halt! Half-right, Face! Make ready!’

The enemy column was more numerous by three to one and moving fast. Surely the heavy mass could penetrate the thin red line, even though it extended further on both flanks. The last time the veterans of this British regiment had fought in earnest had been more than four years before in cramped frozen country against the French. Now there was no congestion; the formation allowed every man to fire with perfect ease at the head of the approaching column. There were no cold fingers either. The clamour from the enemy was almost deafening; they were so close together that they seemed able to exert shock by sheer mass in motion. The incisive voice came again: ‘Present!’ Up came two lines of polished brown wood stocks and bright steel barrels. The muzzles of the rear rank muskets projected well past the faces of the soldiers in front. The glittering bayonets were probably already fixed. Outwardly Wellesley was calm and steady as a rock, but he must have asked himself, ‘Are they close enough?’ Surely! He could see clearly the frenzied dark faces. The enemy was no more than sixty yards away.

‘Fire!’ Seven hundred cocks drove flint against hard serrated steel frizzens. Flame spurted from every pan; a line of fire and then white smoke jumped from the muzzles. There was the single resounding crash of a well delivered volley. The head of Tipoo’s column collapsed almost to a man from the impact of heavy British bullets. Those behind were brought to a stand; men in column could not advance over their own dead and wounded. The 33rd, still completely under control, recovered, faced back to the front and advanced in a disciplined formation. The flanks moved a bit faster to cup round the head of the enemy column. Tipoo’s men had displayed exceptional courage in opposing disciplined European soldiers in the open, but as Wellesley said later they ‘did not quite stand’ to receive the bayonets. As the unfortunate Mysore infantry streamed back in disorder, they were overtaken by the 1st Brigade of Floyd’s cavalry under Colonel James Stevenson. It was the type of action where disciplined horsemen with long practice with the sabre could be most damaging. Tipoo failed to support his brave men; they were nearly exterminated.

While Wellesley’s army had been engaged as described, Baird’s brigade of the main force had been attacked first by Mysore cavalry trying to get at the British baggage and later perhaps by infantry. The King’s 74th, Baird’s central regiment, momentarily got itself into a little trouble by being too impetuous, but Baird personally corrected this. To the north the enemy was repulsed as completely as it had been to the south.

Tipoo made these attacks on Harris’s army to gain time for the retreat of the rest of his forces, especially the artillery. The sight of Harris’s army and of Wellesley’s coming forward en echelon probably caused the Mysore commander to change his mind about fighting a battle. It is interesting to note that Colonels Sherbrooke and Cotton were already moving around Tipoo’s left flank and were soon in a position to attack his rear or cut off his retreat, had he actually fought. However, the enemy went back too fast and too far for this to be effective. A British pursuit could not be carried far because of the approach of darkness and the presence of still unbroken masses of enemy cavalry.

Mallavelly was not large as battles go. The 33rd lost just two men, and even Baird’s brigade lost only twenty-nine. But it was surely creditable from the British point of view. They could hardly have gained more from it considering the enemy commander’s early change of heart and the mobility of his forces, including his artillery drawn by fine big white bullocks. Sedaseer and Mallavelly together were so disheartening to Tipoo that he lost confidence in himself, his forces, and his military ability.

SIX DAYS 1967 I

Six Days War – The race to The Mitla Pass, 7 June 1967

The key to the Israeli victory in the war was long-term planning. Every maneuver, every battle plan had been drilled and re-drilled for years. Intelligence had been gathered on the routine activity of Arab armies for over a decade. And Israeli planners used this information to good effect, building a strategy and war machine that could exploit the weaknesses on the other side of the border. Their achievements enabled Israel to defeat armies much larger than the IDF. There was no equivalent degree of preparation and planning in Arab countries, the primary reason for which was the differing relations that the militaries in Israel and in the Arab countries had with their respective governments. First and foremost, Arab armies were built to ensure the survival of the regime. They were better suited to serve as internal police than as a fighting force. The regimes that sustained these armies held loyalty in higher esteem than efficiency or battle readiness.

The constant purges of officers – to deter coups – prevented the development of capable cadres. In the Syrian army, for instance, 2,000 officers and 4,000 non-commissioned officers had been purged from the ranks since 1966. That was also the reason why the Egyptian and Syrian armies could not make efficient use of the military technology they had received from the Soviets. In Israel, though party affiliation did play a role in appointments within the IDF, in general officers were promoted according to their abilities and skills. Ezer Weizman, for example, had reached the rank of major general and was appointed deputy chief of staff despite being known to be a supporter of the main opposition party, Herut. The Israeli army had no other function but to prepare for the next war.

The IDF achieved all its aims in June 1967. After cracking open the Arab lines of defense, Israeli formations pushed forward at a surprising speed. As Arab generals tried to take back control of the situation, they discovered that the Israelis had already moved deep into their territory. Since the Arab armies were needed at home to ensure that the regimes would survive the humiliation of defeat, Arab leaders in Amman, Cairo, and Damascus were quick to order a hurried retreat after just a few days’ fighting. They were unwilling to sacrifice their armies to halt the Israeli ground forces. Whenever regime survival was in conflict with state interests, Arab governments chose the former. Arab regimes preferred to cede territory in order to save what was left of their Praetorian Guard.

“Moked”

The commander of the Egyptian Air Force, Lieutenant General Sidqi Mahmud, had known for two years that Egyptian radar systems were unable to detect planes flying at low altitude (500 meters and below). Mahmud was part of Amer’s loyal guard and he had been serving as commander of the air force for over a decade. Despite the fact that in 1956 British bombers had destroyed 200 Egyptian planes while they were on the ground, Mahmud remained in office, protected from Nasser’s rage by Amer, who valued loyalty above all else. Under Mahmud, the air force did nothing more than appeal to the Soviets for more advanced radars. No attempt was made to create a doctrine that would address this chink in Egypt’s armor.

Conversely, the IAF built its entire war plan around Egypt’s Achilles heel. For countless hours Israeli pilots trained to fly in full radio silence at low altitude. Nothing was left to chance. Numerous experiments were made in order to reach the conclusion that the best way to shut down Egyptian airfields would be to bomb runways first and planes only later. Each Israeli bomber was loaded with special bombs, purposely designed to explode after being dropped at low altitude. Various scenarios for the attack were run through a computer no less than 1,500 times, accurately predicting that at least 10 percent of Israeli aircraft would not make it back.

On the morning of June 5, two Israeli Votour planes flew at high altitude through the Sinai sky, carrying devices whose electronic signals suppressed the activity of the Soviet-made SA-2 missiles and jammed Soviet-made radar systems. Egyptian radar operators were aghast as that morning their screens went blank. Reports from Egypt also claim that on that day the Bedouin, who had been on the Israeli intelligence’s payroll, used special electronic equipment to jam radio communications between Egyptian land forces in Sinai and headquarters in Cairo. The giant military force that Amer had so painstakingly created in the desert lost its nerve system in the first hours of the war.

The Israeli air attack went smoothly and Egyptian losses were considerable: 286 out of 420 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed. After smashing the Egyptian Air Force to pieces, the IAF went ahead and did the same to the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi air forces. Weizman, who was in the pit when it all happened, called his wife and declared triumphantly: “We won the war!” Reuma responded: “Ezer, have you gone insane? At 10 a.m. you finished the war?!” Weizman was partially right: the IAF performed magnificently in the first hours of the campaign and Israel did go on to win the war. Coincidence, however, does not equal causation. Fighting the IDF without air cover was certainly a major handicap for Arab armies, but had they stood their ground, they could have halted the onslaught of Israeli ground troops. Despite the looming presence of Israeli aircraft, Arab armies could move forces by night, unmolested. Israeli ground forces, wary of being hit by friendly fire, preferred that Israeli aircraft attack the rear area of the front rather than the main battle zones. As it was, the most decisive land battles on the Sinai and West Bank fronts were won by Israeli land forces in the first twenty-four hours of the war while Israeli planes were busy achieving air superiority.

Abu-Ageila

A prime example of a skirmish won without air support was the battle of Abu-Ageila, which was fought during the first night of the war. For the Israeli army, everything was at stake. First was the need to penetrate the Egyptian defense line. This task was made easier thanks to an Israeli deception plan and Nasser’s and Amer’s intervention. In the tense ten days that preceded the war, the two armies had been watching each other through binoculars and conducting reconnaissance flights. The Egyptians shadowed the Israelis. They responded to any change in Israeli redeployment with a shift of their own troops. If the Israelis augmented their presence in the northern Negev, the Egyptians assumed that the Israelis would invade from that direction and moved more tanks to northern Sinai. The Israelis took advantage of that and launched Operation “Red Tongue.” Two transport planes, four or five lorries that shifted position, and several chatty soldiers who talked on the radio all the time simulated the movement of a full division to the southern Negev. They were able to fool the Jordanian and Egyptian intelligence services: the Jordanians even claimed that they witnessed the movement of 500 lorries in the direction of Eilat. The success of “Red Tongue” was impressive. On May 25, the Egyptians had positioned 663 tanks along the northern and central axis of Sinai through which the IDF planned to invade. By June 4, the Egyptians deployed only 404 tanks along these routes. While on May 25 there were only 35 tanks along the southern axis of Sinai, by June 4 there were 397 tanks.

But the fatal shift of troops to the southern axis – where they were of little use once the invasion was underway – can only partly be credited to Israeli acumen. Amer sent reinforcements to the southern axis also because he had not relinquished his plan to attack Eilat. He pushed forward units to positions by the border so they would be available for offensive operations. Nasser had also intervened in this debate on May 25 by insisting that the loss of Gaza would be harmful to Egypt’s prestige. Gaza was predominantly populated by Palestinians, explained Nasser, and if Israel conquered that territory it would seem that Egypt was not loyal to the Palestinian cause. The defense force at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser said, also needed to be fortified. The end result of that debate was that more troops were sent to Gaza and Sharm al-Sheikh.

As a result of all these changes, the “Qaher” (Arabic for conqueror) plan became disorderly. This elaborate defense plan devised by Soviet advisers was hollowed out. The third line of defense at the passes was thinned down to four battalions of reserve soldiers who were inexperienced in fighting. Brigades that should have been in the second line of defense were pushed forward to the first defense line, which now stretched a further 100 kilometers. The Egyptian army simply did not have enough troops to man the full length of the front and empty spaces were opened up along the border. The role of the first line of defense, according to the “Qaher” plan, was to blunt Israel’s attack. Then, units in the second line of defense were to launch a counter-offensive and wipe out the enemy. As things stood in early June, too many brigades were located in areas that were far away from the main roads in Sinai and were therefore unable to stop the advance of Israeli forces. There were not enough brigades in the second line of defense to mount counter-offensives. If the Israelis broke through the first line of defense, the road to Suez would lie open. Um-Katef, overlooking the road to Ismailia, was a prime location to target. But there was another reason to strike at Abu-Ageila: namely, the aspiration to envelop and annihilate the Egyptian army. The Egyptian compound controlled one of the shortest routes to the passes; blocking them was a key element in the annihilation plan. Arriving there before the Egyptian brigades were able to escape would be crucial.

The battle at Abu-Ageila was Ariel Sharon’s brainchild. General headquarters wanted to avoid a frontal attack on the most heavily fortified compound in Sinai. But Sharon insisted. He lobbied aggressively, as only he could, to attack along this route and demanded enough troops to carry out the mission. Sharon’s division was strengthened with forces belonging to Major General Avraham Yoffe, commander of the 31st Brigade, who was more passive. Sharon knew everything about the compound. The painstaking efforts of Israeli intelligence services to collect every morsel of information on enemy fortifications, and the numerous reconnaissance flights flown by the IAF planes over Sinai, had paid off. Sharon knew the compound so well that he was able to build a small-scale model of it. Abu-Ageila was what the Romans called pars pro toto – a part representing the whole. It was basically a miniature version of the “Qaher” plan, with three consecutive lines of trenches that were dug into the slopes of a ridge. The trenches were manned by a 16,000-strong infantry brigade. In the rear was an 87-gun artillery battalion which was fortified by 83 tanks. In the front there was a 4 kilometer-long strip strewn with mines and barbed wire. Even before the invading force reached that strip it would have to deal with further outposts and three smaller compounds at the rear. Both flanks of the rear were surrounded by two seemingly impassable terrains: one mountainous, the other consisting of treacherous dunes. Impregnable? Not for Sharon.

Israeli generals identified the key weakness of the Soviet doctrine as practiced by Arab armies: it made troops static. The best way to deal with these formidable fortifications was to attack them from the rear and to outflank them. Sharon also planned to attack by night to use darkness as another element of surprise. Both Rabin and Gavish asked Sharon to wait until early light so that the IAF could soften the area with massive bombing, but Sharon was so confident that he declined. Besides, waiting the night meant giving the enemy a chance to escape, and Sharon would have none of that.

As early as the afternoon of the 5th, an infantry brigade was ordered to start marching 15 kilometers over the dunes in order to reach their marked position by nightfall. Their mission was to attack Egyptian infantry in the trenches, and it was their actions that would decide the fate of the battle. Israeli infantry carried stick lights with them so they would not be hit in the dark by friendly fire. The enemy’s artillery battalion was to be neutralized by an airborne attack by paratroopers. A battalion of Centurion tanks was to complete a deep maneuver in the northwest and end by attacking Egyptian cavalry from the rear. Another attack was to commence from the front by Sherman tanks, but only as a deception.

At 10 p.m. Sharon told his artillery officer: “let the ground tremble.” “It will tremble alright,” said Yaacov Aknin. Within twenty minutes, 6,000 shells fell on the compound. Sharon was pleased. “This is hellfire,” he appreciatively remarked to Aknin. “I’ve never seen such an inferno.” An Egyptian officer caught in the midst of it all was interrogated after the battle and described it as “like being enveloped by a snake of fire.” Then all of Sharon’s forces attacked from all directions. There was one moment of panic when the Centurion tanks were held up by a minefield. Combat engineers kneeled down and plucked mines out of the ground with their bare hands as if harvesting potatoes. Within half an hour, the tanks could break through. By dawn the battle was winding down, and Yoffe’s brigade could pass through on the Ismailia road.

Withdrawal

Sometime in the afternoon of June 6, the second day of the war, Abd al-Hakim Amer made the decision that sealed its fate. At this stage the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed and the first line of defense had been breached. But the majority of Amer’s troops were yet to see a fight, including three brigades and two mechanized divisions. Amer could have pulled his troops from southern Sinai and had them regroup by the passes to stop the IDF from advancing. When Stalin found himself in a similar situation in the summer of 1941 he gave his troops a simple order that considerably slowed the advance of the German army: “Not a step back.” Anyone who dared to retreat was shot by a firing squad. The Man of Steel was willing to shed the blood of millions of Red Army soldiers to buy precious time. Then again, the Red Army was not the only source of his power: Stalin had the party, the NKVD, and the heavy industry lobby at his side. Amer, though, was nothing without his army, especially his officers, who were not simply military men; Amer was their patron and they were his clients. Without them, Amer was a Samson shorn. To sacrifice them for the sake of “Egypt” would simply mean that, immediately after Egypt’s defeat, Nasser would make Amer the scapegoat and finally get rid of him (as indeed happened). To survive politically, Amer had to bring his officers back.

In his memoirs, Fawzi – who was the chief of staff, and bore at least some of the responsibility – chose to describe Amer as suffering a mental meltdown, thus laying the blame squarely on his superior. Yet, in retrospect, Amer was simply a very political general. When he discovered, on the morning of June 5, that the pilot of his plane was flying him back to Cairo instead of landing him in Sinai, Amer suspected he was the victim of a plot. The onset of the war was far from his mind: Amer’s attention was completely devoted to political intrigue.

Further, Amer had the past in his rearview mirror, not the future. And in the past – in 1956, to be exact – Nasser and Amer had given the Egyptian army the order to beat a hasty retreat, which had meant that most of the troops returned to the Suez Canal’s western bank unscathed. In popular memory this came to be seen as an Egyptian Dunkirk. But there was one big difference between 1956 and 1967. Then, the Israelis wanted the Egyptians to escape and focused instead on taking territory. Now, the Israelis had no intention of letting the Egyptian soldiers slip away. When Amer made his decision, he did not know that.

But that was part of the problem. There was an asymmetry of knowledge on the level of command between the Israelis and Arabs. For instance, Sharon knew everything about the Abu-Ageila compound, while the Egyptian commander, Major General Sadi Nagib, had no clue as to how the Israeli attack would unfold. Israeli intelligence services were busy spying on the Arabs; Arab intelligence services were busy spying on their citizens and on each other. Israeli pilots on the morning of June 5 knew every last detail about the airfields they bombed, while all their counterparts had were aerial photos from 1948. Israel had invested millions of dollars in the years that preceded the war to create a special commando unit – Sayeret Matkal – whose main role was to attach bugging devices to telephone lines in Lebanon, Syria, and Sinai. And Israeli intelligence had at least two high-level spies working inside Damascus and Cairo. Elie Cohen and Wolfgang Lutz arrived at the Syrian and Egyptian capitals, respectively, between 1960 and 1961. Thanks to lavish funding from the Mossad, they hobnobbed with the political and military elite. Up to their capture in 1965 both were able to send back top-drawer information about political and military affairs. Their reports painted a picture of a political elite too busy with petty corruption to prepare efficiently for war. In 1961, Lutz had a frank talk with Egyptian General Abd al-Salam Suleiman. Drunk on whisky, Suleiman offered an assessment of Egypt’s armed forces that proved prescient:

We [in Egypt] have enough military equipment to conquer the whole Middle East, but equipment isn’t everything. The army right now – in terms of training, military competence, and logistics – will not be able to win a battle against a fart in a paper bag . . . the trouble is that Gamal [Abd al-Nasser] and the Marshal [Abd al-Hakim Amer], together with the other generals . . . are rejoicing in the new equipment – the new Russian aircraft and tanks – like a bunch of kids with a new football. But the best ball ain’t worth a damn thing if you don’t know how to kick it.

SIX DAYS 1967 II

Israeli reconnaissance forces from the “Shaked” unit in Sinai during the war.

Israeli paratroopers flush out Jordanian soldiers from trenches during the Battle of Ammunition Hill.

Most Egyptian and Israeli generals agree that had Amer decided to fight until the last bullet, the war would have ended differently. Protracted land warfare would have developed in the desert. The Israelis would have conquered part of Sinai but not the whole of it. Then a UN-sanctioned ceasefire would have been imposed. The Israelis might have been more cautious in the West Bank, biting off chunks of territory in the environs of Jerusalem. With fierce fighting still going on in Sinai, Israel would not have dared to start a campaign to take the Golan Heights.

But none of these things happened, because in the afternoon of June 6 Amer gave Fawzi a categorical order to retreat from Sinai within one night. Troops were to grab their personal weapons and flee. What increased the confusion and chaos still further was that the order was not reported in an orderly manner. Operations branch distorted what Amer said and reported that a retreat was to take place within three nights. Then it was amended to two. Different units heard different versions of the order at different times. For this reason some units fell apart while others continued to fight. On top of it all, Amer contacted his favorite officers and encouraged them to hop on a vehicle and rush back to Cairo. A young Egyptian officer described accurately what happened to the troops on the third day of the war as a result of Amer’s order: “Everyone lost their heads . . . It was a massacre, a disaster. Israel never would have achieved a quarter of its victory if not for the confusion and chaos.”

Annihilation

On the third day of the war, June 7, Israeli brigades conducted a frantic race against time to reach the passes before Egyptian units got there. The convoys of Israeli and Egyptian troops sped down the roads shoulder-to-shoulder and sometimes it was hard to tell which was which. Whenever possible, Israeli aircraft strafed and bombed Egyptian convoys trying to escape. The IAF had a special routine to ensure the lethality of its attacks. Aircraft would make one sortie over the convoy to assess its size and speed. In the second sortie, Israeli planes would make sure that they were bombing the head of the column to stop the movement of the whole convoy. Then they would drop napalm bombs on the vehicles. Egyptian tanks and lorries caught fire and black smoke filled the sky.

Finally, in the late afternoon, an Israeli cavalry battalion was able to reach the Mitla Pass and assume position on the slopes. As night was falling, the soldiers decided to set a lorry on fire to supply some light. Suddenly they realized that a long Egyptian column – three Egyptian divisions, totaling more than 30,000 men – was moving toward them and the Canal, trying to escape. The Israelis charged their cannon and did not stop firing until dawn broke. Another major annihilation battle took place the next day when 6th Armored Division tried to escape westwards from the south. Sharon, leading the forces of 38th Division, laid an ambush at the Nakhal oasis. The forces opened fire on the retreating Egyptians, blowing up 70 tanks and 400 lorries and killing about 1,000 Egyptians. The stench of burning bodies filled the air. At 2 p.m. Sharon could proudly report to Gavish: “We have finished off an enemy brigade . . . The enemy was totally annihilated. It’s an unusual scene. I would urge you to come and see.”

The desire to wipe out Nasser’s army was not confined to Dayan or Sharon. It percolated down to the lower echelons. A week before the war, Colonel Shmuel Gorodish, commander of 7th Armored Brigade, gave a speech before his soldiers in which he explained that “Nasser wants to annihilate us. We should therefore annihilate him . . . Do not waste cannon shells on [Egyptian] infantry! Run over them wherever they are. Kill, kill the enemy. We will not repeat the mistakes of [the 1956] Sinai [campaign], when we did not run over them.” This was something that Yael, Dayan’s daughter, who was embedded with Sharon’s division as a journalist and witnessed the battle of Abu-Ageila, also recognized:

now we were to destroy enemy forces wherever they were – another carrier, another tank, another company. An unpleasant task, perhaps, but a preventive one. Eleven years ago we were in this area and the enemy was defeated rather than fully destroyed. This time we had to ensure maximal destruction.

As one Israeli reserve corporal wrote in his diary on the third day of the war: “There’s nothing to worry. The sky is clear. The Egyptians are running toward the [Suez] canal. [We] don’t let them. [We] want to annihilate them.” Another wrote to his girlfriend: “We have turned the Sinai peninsula into a charnel house, into one big cemetery. People without weapons, who raise their hands [to surrender], are shot despite the orders . . . I saw so many instances of murder that I can no longer cry.” There were 100,000 Egyptian soldiers and officers in Sinai when the IDF began its campaign; by the end of it, 10,000 of them had been killed. One in ten Egyptians who had crossed the Suez Canal in mid-May 1967 lay dead at the war’s end.

Jerusalem

Israel’s central command was at a disadvantage in the beginning of the campaign, as most of the IDF’s brigades were in the south. Thanks to the rapid disintegration of the Egyptian army, the southern command could let central command use some of its forces, especially Motta Gur’s paratroopers brigade. The Israelis thus reached parity with the Jordanians, with both sides commanding 56,000 troops.

What played into the hands of the Israelis was King Hussein’s decision to appoint a foreign officer, Egyptian General Abd al-Munim Riad, as commander of the Jordanian army. On the opening morning of the war, Eshkol wrote a letter to Hussein urging him to sit out the fight. For Hussein, it was too late: he was no longer in command of his troops. As the war started in the south, the Jordanian army launched its weapons from all its positions in Jerusalem. Its Long Tom gunners opened fire on Tel Aviv (although most of the shells landed in the sea). In the afternoon Jordanian troops entered the UN compound in Jerusalem at Jabel Mukaber. It was a reckless move that played right into the hands of the hawks in Israel. Dayan used Riad’s orders to convince Eshkol to authorize two attacks that would kick off the campaign to conquer the West Bank: one in Jenin, and the other in the environs of Jerusalem.

What made matters worse conflict that Riad conducted the war according to Egyptian interests. As the old guard in the Jordanian army knew, their best chance was to concentrate troops around Jerusalem and try to encircle the Jewish part of the town in order to hold it to ransom. Instead, Riad ordered Jordanian troops to deploy in the southern areas of the West Bank in expectation of an Egyptian attack on the Negev. Jordanian troops were supposed to complete a pincer movement that would cut off the southern Negev. But the Egyptian attack on the Negev never happened. Instead, this move threw the north and center of the West Bank open to Israeli attacks in Jenin and Latron. One of the veteran Bedouin officers threw down his kafiyah (a headscarf) in despair after seeing how clueless Riad was in directing the war.

By the second day of the conflict, the IDF was able to encircle Jerusalem and invade deeper into the West Bank. Inside the city, secured in their trenches and positions, Jordanian soldiers fought bravely, giving as much as they got. The Israelis were at a disadvantage here, as they dared not call in the IAF for fear of destroying holy sites. However, supplies of ammunition could not get through to the Jordanian forces and little by little the Israelis wore them down. By midday on June 6, the IDF had conquered the whole of Jerusalem except the Old City. Elsewhere, the Jordanians fared even worse, losing all key tank battles in which they engaged. When they tried to transfer their troops from the south of the West Bank to the Jerusalem area, the IAF strafed and bombed them. As with the Egyptians, the Jordanians panicked too soon. In the morning of the second day of fighting, Riad warned Hussein that “If we don’t decide within the next 24 hours, you can kiss your army and all of Jordan good-bye!” The claim was exaggerated. Hussein had enough troops to delay Israeli advances until the UN imposed a ceasefire. But, just like Amer, King Hussein was nothing without his army. Its annihilation would spell the downfall of his monarchy.

At this point, Hussein decided upon a desperate course of action: he tried to offer a ceasefire. This could have been an opportunity for Israel to avoid having to conquer the West Bank, with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in it. At that time, Dayan was insisting that Israel had to conquer the West Bank in order to bring about the fall of Jerusalem. In retrospect, this was not the case: Israel could have destroyed the annoying Long Tom cannon, whose shells reached the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Zahala, in which most senior officers resided, by bombing it from the air, and conquered Jerusalem without taking over the whole of the West Bank. Yet, Narkiss and other senior commanders had been dreaming of and planning for that goal for such a long time. Although in the first hours of the war central command did not believe that the West Bank could be taken in this round of hostilities, the plans were in place and the circumstances were propitious: an accommodating minister of defense; a hawkish cabinet now dominated by Dayan, Begin, and Allon; and a king careless enough to give Israel a perfect pretext. Israel effectively turned down Hussein’s proposal for a ceasefire. Dayan was most resolute in his opposition, telling Rabin: “First we finish the work he [Hussein] imposed on us, then we’ll send him an appropriate reply.”

By noon the next day, Motta Gur’s paratroopers were able to enter the Old City and reach the Western Wall. Lior called central command asking whether Eshkol would be able to come and make a special announcement. He was told that it would be unsafe as there were still Jordanian snipers lurking around. At about the same time, Dayan, accompanied by Narkiss and Rabin, entered Jerusalem through the Lions’ Gate and headed toward the Western Wall. Dayan, with his distinctive talent for public relations, had made sure that a gaggle of reporters and photographers accompanied his arrival at the Old City.

As in 1956, Dayan’s ability to control his troops was limited: Gaza was taken on the first day of the war despite his instructions not to waste men on that mission, and over the next two days IDF forces advanced in Sinai up to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal despite Dayan’s explicit order not to head there. But his ability to control the PR machine was unmatched. An iconic photo was taken documenting the three conquistadors – Dayan, Narkiss, and Rabin – marching side by side through the gate. Narkiss and Rabin were in uniform, of course. But so was Dayan. Since May 23, a uniform and helmet had accompanied him everywhere, even after he had become minister of defense. The picture of the three generals entering the old city symbolized where power lay in those days. It was the generals’ war, and they had won it. At the Western Wall Dayan declared: “we have reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part it again.” The paratroopers cried, ultra-Orthodox Jews danced. It was all so moving. Except for Eshkol, who sat frowning in his office. He visited the Western Wall the next day and made an anodyne speech. This event drew far less attention.

The Heights

For four years, Syria had been the heart of the problem. It was unstable, and it spread its instability across the region. Its proclamations of its intentions to divert the waters of the Jordan River and the help it provided to Fatah units played into the hands of the hawks in Israel and embarrassed the doves in the Arab world. It would be wrong to suggest that the Syrians were sitting idly by, but they had not pulled out all the stops to help their Arab brothers. Syria tried to launch an offensive from the Golan Heights on the morning of the second day of the war. But its efforts in that field proved pathetic.

The Syrian attack, planned by Soviet advisers, was code-named Operation “Nasser” (victory). There was a considerable disparity between the operation’s promising name and its actual implementation. As in Egypt, the doctrine of the Syrian army was defensive. Syrian troops were trained to defend the Golan Heights. Although there had been planning for offensive operations, a drill to acquaint officers and soldiers with how to mount an attack never took place. As in Egypt, the Soviets took care to supply the Syrian army with defensive weapons and helped them build massive fortifications. Syria’s high command held little esteem for the professional abilities of its officers and did not believe Syria could emerge victorious should it launch an offensive against Israel.

A diversionary attack on the kibbutzim in the Galilee on June 6 was repulsed by groups of Israeli reserve soldiers, pensioners, and high-school students. Meanwhile, three Syrian brigades prepared for a major offensive that would begin with crossing the Jordan River and end in the Israeli city of Safad, about 20 kilometers west of the Israeli–Syrian border. Incredibly, it was at that moment that commanders of the brigades found out that their tanks were too wide to pass over the bridges. Other units that were to participate stayed in their camps and refused to leave. Accurate hits by Israeli artillery and one sortie by Israeli bombers was enough to convince Syria’s high command to order a withdrawal. Fifty-one Syrians were killed during Operation “Nasser.” After this ignominious failure, Syrian military headquarters did not try their luck again, other than to bomb nearby Jewish settlements the next morning.

David “Dado” Elazar, the commander of the northern front, continuously lobbied for permission to start activating the “Makevet” plan. Even before the beginning of the war, Dado had met with Allon and promised him that not only would he be able to break through the Syrians’ fortified positions on the Golan Heights, but he was certain he would be able to reach Damascus. Allon tried to cool the enthusiasm of his young protégé and told him that aiming for the Syrian capital was too much. On June 7, the third day of the war, Dado had secured permission to start a limited offensive but cloudy skies, which precluded air support, and the fact that two brigades that had been promised by general headquarters had failed to materialize, made him hesitate. He decided to postpone the attack until the next day – but then it transpired that Moshe Dayan was opposed. The minister of defense supported the war of annihilation in the south and the conquests in the east, but he could live with letting Syria emerge from the war unscathed. He had little sympathy for the settlers in the north: they never supported Dayan or Rafi anyway.

Angry, Dado took a helicopter to Tel Aviv to plead his case with the prime minister. Talking to Eshkol, it quickly became clear to Dado that he was preaching to the converted. The matter, however, would have to go before cabinet. For some reason, the only one manning the phones in Eshkol’s office that day was his wife, Miriam; perhaps the other secretaries needed a rest. Dado chatted with her about his predicament on his way out. Miriam tried to encourage him: “Look, I have a birthday soon and I want the Banias [River, which runs through the Heights] as a birthday present.” Dado smiled. “Miriam, I’ll do everything to make that happen but you should work for it too.”

The cabinet convened that night to discuss whether to authorize Dado’s request. Eshkol resolved that he too could be as hawkish as Dayan, and embraced the cause of the kibbutzim. To embarrass Dayan, Eshkol permitted representatives of the kibbutzim to enter the cabinet meeting and lobby for the attack on the Golan – something not done before or since. Years later, Dayan claimed that when those settlers entered the room, he could see the lust for land on their faces. Most of the ministers were for the Golan campaign. It simply seemed improbable to them that the Syrians, who did so much to destabilize the Middle East, should emerge from this war unpunished. But Dayan fought like a lion. He warned the ministers that the Soviet Union would react harshly to an attack on Syria. A more reasonable course of action would therefore be to move the settlers 10 or even 20 kilometers from the border. Dayan’s prestige was such that even though he was in the minority, the cabinet decided not to venture into the Golan Heights – a decision that effectively ended the war, as the fighting on all the other fronts had already died down.

SIX DAYS 1967 III

Dado was informed of the outcome, and he went to bed gloomy and depressed. In fact almost all the protagonists – Eshkol, Rabin, Allon, and Begin – retired for the night; as far as they were concerned, the war was over. But one man could not sleep. At about 6 a.m., Dayan’s assistant entered the pit and asked that the ops room be prepared for the arrival of the minister of defense. “I thought he was kidding,” recalled one of the officers in the room. He was not. Tormented by his own self-doubt, Dayan entered the ops room. An officer told him there was evidence to suggest that the Syrians were deserting their fortifications and retreating. Restless, Dayan started poking around the intelligence tray. He spied a translated telegram from Nasser to the Syrian president recommending that he immediately accept a proposal for a ceasefire to save the Syrian army. There was also an aerial photograph which showed that the bases around Quneitra, the only city on the Heights, were empty – though there was no way of knowing whether that was because all the troops had withdrawn to Damascus or because they had all advanced to the front. The intelligence memo attached to the aerial photograph, written by analyst Elie Weisbrot, nevertheless claimed that this was proof that the Syrian army on the Golan Heights was retreating. The end of the memo was also highly unusual: “It is unclear,” Weisbrot wrote, “if such a situation would happen again.” That was not a professional but a political assertion.

Yariv had seen the memo before it went out. Yariv was certainly for taking the Golan. He, Rabin, and Dado had been waiting for the right opportunity for years; it is just that he was not sure that what Weisbrot wrote was true. “Elie, are you certain that the Syrian army is ‘collapsing’?” an incredulous Yariv had asked Weisbrot. Regardless, Yariv let the memo be distributed with Weisbrot’s unorthodox comments in it.

Dayan, for whom Weisbrot’s memo had really been written, decided that this was incontrovertible proof that the Syrian army was collapsing. Later, Dayan confessed that this was simply a pretext. “I capitulated,” he admitted. He did not want to bear the sole responsibility for not having conquered the Heights. Like Rabin and Eshkol, Dayan, the tough and cunning general, succumbed to the pressure of the generals–settlers coalition. At 7 a.m., without consulting anyone else, Dayan called the ops room at northern command. Bewildered, shirtless, and half-naked, Dado ran to the phone. “Dado, can you attack?” asked Dayan. “I can attack immediately,” replied Dado. “Then attack,” said Dayan. The minister of defense tried to explain that the Syrian army was falling apart but Dado cut him short: “I don’t know if it’s collapsing or not. It doesn’t matter. We are attacking. Thank you very much.” Dado hung up the phone and yelled: “They will not stop me now!”

In the following two days the Israeli attack on the Golan Heights gathered pace. With warfare on the other fronts settled, all the might of the IDF was turned on the 50,000 or so Syrian soldiers and officers locked in their fortresses upon the mountain. At the start of the Six-Day War, Dado had only one infantry brigade and one armored brigade under his command. Following the end of hostilities on the West Bank, three armored brigades and two infantry brigades were sent by the General Staff to the northern front. On the eve of the Golan offensive, Dado had at his disposal 30,000 men and 500 tanks. Moreover, the IAF had no other business to attend to other than helping to ensure the success of the Golan campaign. Dado had asked Hod to slam everything he had into the Golan and Hod complied. In four hours, the IAF made 300 sorties over the Heights, dropping no less than 400 bombs. Clouds mushroomed over the land, gray from the napalm bombs and black from the regular ones. A Syrian officer in the 12th Brigade reported fifty-two dead, eighty injured, and six missing. The military hospital in Quneitra was a mess. It quickly filled up with casualties with napalm burns.

Dado’s forces proceeded to use the tried-and-true methods of the Israeli doctrine, driving tanks through impassable terrain and attacking Syrian compounds from their rear or flanks. The fighting in the first twenty-four hours of the campaign was intense and bloody. As it turned out, Dayan was wrong: the Syrian army was not collapsing – yet; it was fighting back. Also contrary to expectations, the Syrians did not send their best units to the front. The ones that were considered the most effective and loyal, like the 70th Brigade, which was equipped with the sturdy T-54 and T-55 tanks, were retained near the capital to keep the Baath regime safe from its internal enemies. All in all, three of the best brigades in the Syrian army – two armored and one mechanized – were camped near Damascus, the troops being used to secure the party’s headquarters, as well as the TV and radio stations. Even at this point, the regime feared its internal enemies more than it feared its Israeli foe. Thus, units considered less loyal, such as the ones manned by Druze soldiers, were sent to the front. In the Zaura and Ein-Fit outposts, Alawite soldiers suspected the Druze of delivering secret information to the enemy and, in retribution, they tied up Druze soldiers outside the trenches, where they were exposed to Israeli bombing. “Die at the hands of your masters!” the Alawites shouted at their victims.

Soon the Syrian forces in the Golan began to disintegrate under the weight of the formidable Israeli war machine. Troops on the Golan Heights suffered from low morale before the war had even started. The regime made sure to transfer families of Alawite Baath members from the front to the Damascus area. Hundreds of trucks were used for this purpose while the troops at the front were having serious trouble with logistics. When non-Alawites turned to the local governor and asked to be evacuated from the Quneitra area as well, he refused their request and threatened them with execution. Such behavior inflamed the hatred between Alawites and non-Alawites.

Despite orders by Syria’s high command to shoot anyone who tried to retreat, on the evening of June 8 commanders of first-line units were no longer certain that headquarters was determined to hold the line. Rumors started spreading about a retreat order that had already been given. Baathist senior officers received an invitation to come to an urgent party meeting in Damascus: they took that as a coded message that allowed them to retreat. Colonel Ahmed al-Mir, commander of the Golan front, left his headquarters at Quneitra on the back of a donkey, because he was worried that if he used a military vehicle Israeli planes would spot and strafe him. When officers called on regional headquarters at Quneitra and found that it was empty, they took that as permission to flee.

While rear units withdrew, front-line troops were cut off, unaware that the regime had deserted them. They discovered they were fighting alone only on June 9, the first day of fighting on the Golan. Some of these units fought bravely that day and Israeli ground forces were able to advance no more than 13 kilometers along an 8-kilometer front. Nevertheless, on the night of June 9–10, Syrian soldiers and officers retreated under cover of darkness, mostly from the northern and central Golan, where the bloodiest battles of the previous days had taken place.

Colonel Izzat Jadid’s story is illustrative of that time. He commanded the 44th Armored Brigade that was equipped with T-54 tanks, which Syrian officers considered superior to the Israeli Sherman and Patton tanks. On June 9, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Awad Bar gave Izzat an order to move his brigade to the front line during the night and launch a counter-offensive on the morning of the 10th. Darkness should have helped the tanks of the 44th to redeploy without fear of the marauding Israeli planes. Instead of obeying, Izzat contacted his powerful cousin and Syrian strongman, Salah Jadid, and told him he was afraid that Bar would court-marshal him for disobedience. Salah promised to protect Izzat. As a result, on the night during which the 44th was supposed to drive to the front, it retreated to Damascus.

The retreat of army units occurred amid a broader civilian flight. On June 10, tens of thousands of people, both civilians and soldiers, were attempting to flee from the Golan. As in Sinai, the conceit of the General Staff had led to the transfer of second-line units to the first line of defense in preparation for the attack on Israel that failed miserably on the second day of the war. Syrian General Staff failed to order troops to move back to man the second line of defense. The result was that once the first line had disintegrated, there was nothing to stop the Israelis from rolling forward to Damascus.

This is precisely what Syria’s high command believed that the IDF wanted to do on the morning of June 10, the last day of the war. The fear of Israel’s military prowess was now considerable. The Syrians knew they were fighting an army that had already chewed up the Jordanian and Egyptian forces and had conquered Sinai and the West Bank in a mere four days. Fear of an Israeli conquest of Damascus was so great that the central bank, the archives of the secret services, and Syria’s foreign currency and gold reserves were hurriedly evacuated from Damascus to northern Syria under heavy security. In these circumstances, it made more sense to pull units away from the front in order to make a last-ditch effort to defend the capital. As in Sinai, the order to withdraw was given in a haphazard manner, which led to a loss of faith in the high command.

In the early morning, observers in Quneitra erroneously identified a Syrian battalion as an Israeli force that had breached the city’s defenses. (At that point, the Israelis were still four hours away.) At 8.30 a.m. Radio Damascus was ordered by the regime to announce that the Israelis had taken Quneitra. At 11 a.m. Syrian high command realized that they had made a mistake and Radio Damascus aired a correction, but it was far too late to have any effect. Syrian soldiers were already running away. Front-line desertion turned into a rout.

At around the same time as the mistaken message was broadcast, units in the southern Golan, yet to see any major battle, were given orders to withdraw. The officers drove along the road connecting the trenches and called out to the soldiers to take their personal weapons and leave. They were to go on foot up to the village of Hital and launch a counter-offensive from there.

Instead, the soldiers preferred to cross the border and flee to Jordan. The same thing happened in the central area of the front. A retreat order was given at 8.15 a.m., but the chaotic flight from front-line positions preceded the order by two hours. The first to flee were the senior officers, then the junior ones. Finally, the soldiers took off. Just as in Sinai, any attempt to conduct an orderly withdrawal failed. The Syrian General Staff was receiving partial and mostly unreliable reports from front-line units and therefore could not monitor their movements. The Israeli war machine was moving too fast and the generals in Damascus were too slow in responding.

As in Sinai, the Israelis knew everything about the Syrian positions: their size, location, structure, the type of weapons that were installed, and the number of troops in each position. Information was collected using agents, observations, and reconnaissance flights. Conversely, the Syrians, in the words of the Soviet advisers who were embedded in the Syrian army, “had zero intelligence on their enemy.” As in Sinai, the first priority of the Baath regime was to save its own neck. Preserving the Golan was a secondary issue. Doubtless, Minister of Defense Assad and Chief of Staff Ahmed Sawidani were thinking about the following day. Sawidani commanded the loyalty of the ground forces, and Assad those of the air force. Neither could afford to sacrifice his troops or pilots: they would be needed for the internal battle that was bound to follow the defeat. Thus, because of the internal rivalries at the top, the Syrian front line in the Golan had crumbled. The speed at which that happened explains the low number of casualties among the Syrian troops: only 450 out of 50,000 were killed.

The Superpower Moment

The road to Damascus was now clear. The only thing the Syrians could do was to call on their Soviet patrons and cry for help. On the last day of the war, at 7.30 a.m., the hotline teletype at the White House started ticking a threatening telegram from Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin: if the Israeli assault did not cease, the Soviet Union would sanction all measures, including military.

In fact, there was a fierce debate going on in the Kremlin as to what to do. Nikolai Yegorychev, then head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party, recalled that when he had called Brezhnev’s office sometime during the Six-Day War, he heard in the background a stormy debate in which Kosygin was shouting: “And what if they use atomic bombs against us? Is it worth it?” According to another report, Kosygin and Gromyko squared off with Grechko and Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, when Andropov and Grechko pushed for involving Soviet units in the war by landing a force on the shores of Sinai. During the war itself, Soviet units received conflicting orders. For example, the Soviet navy in the Mediterranean was given an order to prepare for landing on the Israeli coast, followed by another order rescinding it. Soviet pilots in airfields in the proximity of the Middle East also recalled sitting in their cockpits after the hostilities had started and receiving contradictory orders from Moscow. In each case, however, the final order given by the Kremlin was to avoid any involvement in the June 1967 war.