HMS Hood 1940


The Hood under attack from Italian SM79 bombers in the Western Mediterranean, 9 July 1940. The stern of the battleship Valiant can be seen on the left of this photo which was taken from the flight deck of the carrier Ark Royal.



In the early hours of 9 April 1940, Germany launched her attack on Denmark and Norway. Successful landings were made at Kristiansand, Egersund, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik on the Norwegian coast and after initial resistance Oslo fell later that day. Even so, the German position remained precarious and though the British had been taken completely by surprise the War Cabinet immediately resolved to send troops to intervene. Among the plans formulated in London was a pincer attack on Trondheim in central Norway following landings at Namsos and Åndalsnes, the latter to be named Operation PRIMROSE. It is a measure of how thinly stretched were Britain’s resources that the War Cabinet had to turn to the Navy in order to help man the expedition. In the Hood, berthed at Plymouth, the first inkling that something was afoot came on the morning of 13 April when orders codenamed ‘Primrose’ began reaching the ship. Within a few hours the Hood’s ancient 3.7in howitzer, veteran of countless peacetime exercises and the Palestinian revolt at Haifa in 1938, was being swung out onto the quay. By evening an expeditionary force of 250 officers and men had been mustered under Lt Cdr C D Awdry which at midnight boarded a train for Rosyth with a motley assortment of weapons, stores and ammunition. The Royal Marines under Major H Lumley, who formed two-thirds of the force, were equipped with automatic weapons and Lewis guns. In the words of Mid Ian Browne (1939–41) they ‘gave the impression of knowing what they were about and regarded the seamen with some tolerance bordering on condescension’. The seamen, on the other hand, drawn mainly from second part of port watch, did not cut a particularly warlike figure. Mid Browne:

It must however be said that the seamen contingent hardly inspired confidence as a military force. […] Very few of the sailors had ever fired a rifle or ever handled ammunition. Nor, I fear, were the officers particularly familiar with the .45 revolver. It was discovered on the train that not all the sailors had boots, a fact that they had somehow managed to conceal under their green gaiters. However it was understood that the Gunner’s Mate knew something about howitzers which as it turned out was just as well.

After a day’s journey the party reached Rosyth where most of it boarded the sloop Black Swan, the remainder being distributed with similar contingents from Nelson and Barham in HM sloops Bittern, Flamingo and Auckland. Originally destined for the port of Ålesund, Black Swan’s orders were changed for Åndalsnes after the overloaded flotilla was obliged to put in at Invergordon in heavy seas. The Navy was prepared for opposition, but the Germans had yet to reach Åndalsnes and the subsequent landing on 17 April passed off uneventfully. The nineteen-man howitzer detachment under Sub-Lt D C Salter was immediately sent by rail to Dombås sixty miles away, where on 19 April it scored its only success, assisting in the capture of forty-five German paratroopers, several of whose helmets ended up on the Hood’s messdecks. Another party was taken to Ålesund with the task of setting up a number of 4in guns commanding the Indreled (Inner Leads) while a contingent of Marines under Lt E D Stroud RM was charged with defending an airfield improvised on the frozen surface of Lake Lesjeskog. However, once the Germans became aware that the Åndalsnes area was under British occupation the Luftwaffe began to make operations there untenable. From the 20th the main force in Åndalsnes and its various contingents were subjected to constant aerial bombardment which reduced this and the nearby settlements to ashes and wounded nine of the Hood’s party, two seriously.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of the Allied offensive as a whole began to make evacuation inevitable and as the days passed the various forces ashore slowly fell into disarray, the men having to fend for themselves in caves and the surrounding forests as the Germans closed in. Spirits generally remained high in the Hood’s contingent though some began to wilt under the pressure of constant bombardment and it was with a degree of relief that the order to evacuate came at the end of April. The howitzer detachment was embarked in the sloop Fleetwood at Åndalsnes on 29 April followed by the main body in the cruiser Galatea on the 30th, the rest being taken off from Afaianes shortly after. Among the very last to leave was a Lewis gun section from the Hood which held the final roadblock on the outskirts of Åndalsnes before escaping in the sloop Auckland on 1 May. Its Marine crew under Lt Stroud received a DSC and two DSMs. By 6 May, a little over three weeks after they had set out, the Hood’s party was back at Plymouth for the loss of four wounded men, including OD George Walker of Aberdeen, destined to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Germans, and AB Harris who escaped into the Norwegian hinterland. Also missing was the howitzer which had been sent over a cliff to deny it to the enemy Miraculous though this deliverance was, the Norwegian campaign as a whole had been an utter fiasco, the failure of which now brought on the collapse of the Chamberlain government. As Len Williams put it, ‘So ended our efforts at playing soldiers’.

Early on the morning of 10 May 1940 the German army launched its great offensive in the West. Within two weeks the War Cabinet, its troops outmanoeuvred and its strategy in disarray, was taking the first steps towards the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from the Continent. As these momentous events unfolded across the Channel the Hood was quietly completing her refit first at Plymouth and then at the Gladstone Dock in Liverpool where Mussolini’s declaration of war was greeted with looting of businesses and boarding of Italian vessels berthed there. A boarding party from the Hood was detailed to take over the freighter Erica whose crew promptly surrendered. The party returned soon after with the Italian ensign, an autographed portrait of Mussolini for the gunroom, and generally rather the worse for drink, the British matelot’s unerring nose for alcohol having taken him directly to the spirit store. When the Hood finally emerged from Liverpool on 12 June it was to find the evacuation from Dunkirk past and the Royal Navy girding itself to lift the remnants of the Allied armies from northern and western France. On 17 June, as the Hood lay at Greenock with the liners of convoy US3 about her, the French government asked Germany for an armistice. Five days later the new premier, Marshal Pétain, accepted Hitler’s terms, thereby bringing the Battle of France to a close. That night in one of his periodic broadcasts to the ship Capt Glennie asked his crew to remember that, though ‘we were likely to have certain dislikes for our previous allies, … we were to treat them, even now, as our friends and try to realise their terrible fate in the hands of the Nazis’. There was certainly frustration but also relief that another dismal episode was over, that ‘On consideration, not having to defend France may be a blessing in disguise’. But, as the Hood’s company was shortly to discover, France’s agony was not yet over.

With the entry of Italy into the war the Admiralty began taking steps to fill the void created by the collapse of French power in the western Mediterranean with a significant force of British ships. However, once the terms of the Franco-German armistice became known in London, as they had by 25 June, it was plain that this squadron must have a far more urgent remit. Under the terms of the armistice, the French fleet, still largely intact, was to be ‘demobilised and disarmed under German or Italian control’. This clause did not satisfy the British government which was already moving to prevent scattered units and squadrons of the French navy falling into the hands of the Axis. The officer chosen to enforce this policy in the western Mediterranean was Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville who assumed command of Force H on 27 June. First constituted as a hunting group during the search for the raider Admiral Graf Spee in October 1939, Force H was now transformed into an independent command based on Gibraltar but directly responsible to the Admiralty in London. Over the next eighteen months Somerville’s ‘detached squadron’ asserted a control over the western Mediterranean which would not be relinquished while the war lasted. This accomplishment, together with the many famous actions in which it was involved, gives Force H a special place in the history of the Royal Navy. It was to join this squadron as flagship that the Hood was ordered south from Greenock on 18 June, reaching Gibraltar five days later with the carrier Ark Royal.

The first task to which Force H was committed was the neutralisation of the French Atlantic Fleet at Mers el-Kebir near Oran in Algeria. After two days of earnest deliberation in Somerville’s cabin, Force H sailed from Gibraltar on 2 July stiffened by units of Admiral Sir Dudley North’s North Atlantic Command. There can be no doubt that Somerville’s task was among the most unenviable ever assigned to a British commander. His brief from the War Cabinet was to lay before his French counterpart, Amiral Marcel Gensoul, the following options for the disposal of his fleet, which consisted of two modern battlecruisers, two elderly battleships, a seaplane carrier and six large destroyers: that he (a) put to sea and continue the fight against Germany; (b) sail with reduced crews to a British port; (c) do likewise to a port in the French West Indies, or (d) scuttle his ships at their berths. Should these prove unacceptable a fifth was to be offered, namely that Gensoul demilitarise his force at Mers el-Kebir. Any measure resorted to would have to be enacted within six hours, a proviso which greatly hindered both admirals’ freedom of manoeuvre. In the event of these proposals being rejected Somerville was to present Gensoul with the ultimatum of having his fleet destroyed at the hands of Force H.

Shortly after 0800 on the morning of 3 July Force H appeared off Mers el-Kebir. Somerville had already sent the destroyer Foxhound ahead with his emissary Capt Cedric Holland, but it was not until 1615 that the latter gained direct access to Gensoul. The story of the protracted and ultimately fruitless negotiations between the British and Gensoul, the stirring of the French navy across the western Mediterranean and the mounting pressure from London all lie beyond the scope of this volume. Suffice to say that by 1730, some three hours after the expiry of his original ultimatum, Somerville found himself with no alternative but to open fire. Within a few minutes Boy Signalman Ted Briggs was hoisting the order for instant action to the starboard signal yard. A little before 1800 it was the order to open fire that he bent on to the halyard:

The response was immediate. Just as I turned round to watch, the guns of the Resolution and Valiant roared in murderous hair-trigger reaction. Then came the ting-ting of our firing bell. Seconds later my ears felt as if they had been sandwiched between two manhole covers. The concussion of the Hood’s eight fifteen-inch guns, screaming in horrendous harmony, shook the flag deck violently.

Moments later the harbour at Mers el-Kebir was being crucified by the first salvoes of British 15in ordnance. Within three minutes the battleship Bretagne had blown up with huge loss of life. Her sister Provence and the battlecruiser Dunkerque had to be beached after sustaining repeated hits, the latter mainly under Hood’s fire. The destroyer Mogador lost her stern to a direct hit which left her a smouldering wreck in waters turned black with oil and writhing bodies. With the harbour shrouded in a dense pall of smoke, at 1804, nine minutes after the action had commenced, Somerville gave the order to cease fire. A few minutes later increasingly accurate salvoes from the shore battery at Fort Santon obliged the Hood to return a withering fire while the squadron sailed out of range under a smokescreen. This might have been the end of the affair except that at 1818 reports began reaching Hood that a battlecruiser was emerging from the harbour. Initially dismissed by Somerville and his staff, by 1830 it was apparent that the Strasbourg, unscathed by the holocaust enveloping her companions, had negotiated the mine barrage laid by aircraft from Ark Royal and was making for Toulon with five destroyers. Hood turned to give chase, working up to over 28 knots at the cost of a stripped turbine, while Ark Royal prepared to launch an air strike in the fading light. The Hood again came under attack as the pursuit developed, first from a salvo of torpedoes fired by the light cruiser Rigauld de Genouilly and then by a flight of bombers from Algeria. However, attacks by Swordfish aircraft failed to slow the Strasbourg and at 2020 a dispirited Somerville called off the chase. A second Swordfish strike at 2055 reported two torpedo hits but the Strasbourg’s speed remained unimpaired and she reached Toulon without damage the following day. Three days later an announcement by Amiral Jean-Pierre Estéva at Bizerta, that ‘The damage to the Dunkerque is minimal and the ship will soon be repaired’, brought Force H back to Mers el-Kebir where Swordfish from Ark Royal put paid to her operational career.

So ended one of the most regrettable episodes in the history of the Royal Navy. As Somerville put it in a letter to his wife,

We all feel thoroughly dirty and ashamed that the first time we should have been in action was an affair like this. […] I feel sure that I shall be blamed for bungling the job and I think I did. But to you I don’t mind confessing I was half-hearted and you can’t win an action that way.

It was, he added, ‘the biggest political blunder of modern times and I imagine will rouse the world against us’. Those who expressed an opinion did so largely in the same vein. Writing to his family on 6 July, Sub-Lt Iago echoed Somerville’s fears for the wider implications of the engagement:

I think that the events in Oran were a great pity – they solved the problem of the French fleet but I hope we shall not look back on it as too much of a mistake. Lord Haw-Haw has evidently been rendered speechless with anger – or perhaps it is that we just can’t pick him up on the wireless.

In fact, Lord Haw-Haw, like the rest of the German propaganda machine, made enormous capital out of the incident, christening Force H ‘Somerville’s assassins’ in one particular broadcast. There was grim amusement to be had from this but also anger; anger at the Axis for precipitating the disaster, and anger at Gensoul for not continuing the war alongside the British. Above all there was chagrin and astonishment that matters should have come to such a pass. But for all that there was no shortage of pragmatic opinion in the Hood. Mid Buckett’s was one: ‘Coming back past the harbour we could still see large columns of smoke and small fires coming from the ships and the town behind. We realised, too, how unpleasant the action had been. Nevertheless it had been our duty and we had done it successfully’ There were other voices too, overheard by Somerville and related with some disgust to his wife: ‘It doesn’t seem to worry the sailors at all as “they never ‘ad no use for them French bastards”.’ Though they certainly existed, surviving accounts suggest that such opinions were neither widely held nor deeply felt. It was a vile episode from which no one could derive any lasting pride or satisfaction. Years later Mid Ross Warden recalled the atmosphere aboard as the Hood made for Gibraltar: ‘There was no elation aboard our ship that night. The gunroom was for once subdued, and from the Admiral down to the youngest seaman there were heavy hearts.’

The Hood emerged largely unscathed from her second action. Towards the end of the engagement she was straddled by a salvo from Dunkerque which blinded AB Patsy Ogan in one eye, wounded Lt G E M Owens in the arm and caused splinter damage to the funnels and starboard side. But that was all and again it seemed that she had got off lightly. For the crew, however, it was a different matter. The engagement off Mers el-Kebir was the Hood’s first prolonged experience of battle and it left an impression on all who endured it. From the time the Hood cleared Gibraltar at 1700 on 2 July to her return at 1900 on the 4th there was barely a moment’s rest for any of the crew. The hands, changed into clean underwear, were piped to the usual dawn action stations at 0445 on the 3rd and then again at 0830 as Force H closed Mers el-Kebir. Then the waiting began. Grog was issued followed by a lunch of soup and bully beef sandwiches for the men and stew and rock cakes for officers in brutal heat, but, as Mid Buckett wrote in his journal, ‘the anxiety of waiting for the French admiral’s decision began to have its effect on us in the afternoon’. At 1600 the ship briefly went down to Defence Stations, giving the Rev Beardmore an opportunity to hand out cigarettes and offer what encouragement he could as the men waited at their posts:

… I remember we had been closed up at action stations since dawn, having had meals at our action stations, but the ship did not open fire until 6pm; thus, the canteen having been shut and the men confined in one space, cigarettes were hard to come by as the evening approached, so that when I went round during a lull in the action and handed out cigarettes, they were as welcome as another meal.

By 1630 he was back at his post as broadcaster on the bridge, after which the ship was in action almost continuously until 2100. The intervening period gave the Hood her first taste of heavy-calibre gunfire as the Dunkerque and then the Strasbourg began to range on her. Ted Briggs:

Suddenly pinpoints of amber light punctuated the blackness. Above the roar of our guns came the high-pitched, blood-curdling, crescendoing, low whine of being under fire ourselves by warships for the first time. There were vivid red flashes as a salvo fell just short of the starboard side. Within seconds came a series of blue flashes.

Peering through the periscope of …B’ turret, OA Bert Pitman watched the French salvoes burst in towering geysers of red and blue water, ingeniously coloured to assist the officiers de tir in spotting their fall of shot. Meanwhile, battened down under armoured hatches in a damage-control party on the lower deck, AB Len Williams struggled to conquer his fear:

It was not a pleasant experience to be fired on, particularly when it is known that the projectiles coming your way weighed almost a ton. I, and most everyone else, was scared stiff. To begin with, my action station was three decks below, in an electrical repair party, and although we could hear the shells passing over us like express trains, we could not see what was going on. We did see our two wounded men being helped down to the dressing station below us, and their blood-stained appearance did not help us any. I had often searched my soul to try and analyse my feelings should I ever be faced with this sort of situation. How would I react? Would I show my feelings? Could I take it? Yes, fear was present without a doubt, but I was consoled by the fact that none of the others looked very happy either! And this made me realise that it was only a question of mastering it, and not breaking down under the strain. Had we been given something to do, it would have helped. We just had to wait for a shell to come through the deck and if it did not either kill or wound us, we could then proceed to repair the damage. We talked when we did not feel like talking and we walked up and down in the limited space at our disposal, and in this way we tried to forget what was going on above us. We were all very thankful when the gunfire ceased and we were told that the action was over. Our highly strung nerves relaxed and we began to live again. It was some time before the memory of Oran faded from our minds.

In the torpedomen’s mess, meanwhile, AB Joseph Rockey and his companions were distracted by one of the ventilation fans, which began to disintegrate in clouds of rust once the Hood’s main armament opened fire.

After it was over came the exhaustion that only battle can bring. Ted Briggs describes the crew’s first rest in perhaps sixty hours of exertion, tension and combat:

When I finally got below at 22.00 [on 4 July] the messdecks were quiet. Everyone was dog tired, and off-duty watches were collapsed all over the ship. Many, like myself, were too exhausted to sling their hammocks. I joined a bunch of friends dozing on top of the hammock stowage. They were still fully dressed, with anti-flash gear on.

It had been, Mid Buckett concluded, ‘a very terrifying experience for all of us, but a very necessary one’.

Seventy years on, the events of 3 July 1940 continue to resist judgement, a mark of the immensely complex situation from which they evolved. In retrospect, the tragedy of Mers el-Kebir accurately reflects the scale of the disaster that had befallen Britain and France in the space of less than two months. It also foreshadowed the dark night of war that lay ahead for both countries. For the Hood there was the lingering sadness that her guns had received their baptism of fire against not only an ally but, in the case of Dunkerque, a companion in arms. The return by the Dunkerque’s officers of souvenirs presented to them by members of the Hood’s wardroom in happier times made this all the more poignant and unpropitious. With them came this bitter note:

The captain and officers of the Dunkerque inform you of the death for the honour of their colours on 3 and 6 July 1940 of nine officers and 200 men of their ship. They return to you herewith the souvenirs they had of their comrades in arms of the British Royal Navy, in whom they had placed all their trust. And they express to you on this occasion all their bitter sadness and their disgust at seeing these comrades having no hesitation in soiling the glorious flag of St George with an ineffaceable stain – that of an assassin.

Azande Warfare


The reasons for this remarkable record of success against invaders armed with firearms are complex. Despite the lack of any overall political authority, the individual Azande chiefdoms tended to be well organized and tightly controlled. The larger ones at least consisted of a central ‘royal domain’ under the direct control of a king, plus a variable number of peripheral ‘provinces’ or clusters of villages, each ruled by a governor appointed by the sovereign. The governors allocated day-to-day responsibility for each section of their frontiers to a local headman, who established his headquarters in a spot along the border chosen for its strategic position. This would often form the nucleus of a fortified village inhabited by the headman’s retainers and relatives. Each kingdom was therefore demarcated and protected by a ring of these villages, outside which was an uninhabited buffer zone separating it from neighbouring kingdoms. It was one of the duties of the frontier villagers to patrol this no-man’s-land and report any suspicious activity to the king, which was no doubt one reason why foreign armies were never able to surprise the Azande in their own territory. According to Captain Guy Burrows, who campaigned in Azandeland in the 1890s, the villages were very different from the compact, stockaded type common among other tribes, but applied on a smaller scale the same defensive principles as the kingdoms themselves. The chief’s house would be on a small hill surrounded by scattered huts, with smaller groups of huts further away, usually situated behind a bend in the path so that they could not be seen from a distance. These outlying habitations served as sentry posts, and it was the responsibility of their occupiers to prevent the main village being taken by surprise.

Most of what is known about traditional fighting methods comes from the work of Evans-Pritchard, who in the 1920s was able to interview several surviving veterans of the great wars of the nineteenth century. He estimated that a large Azande kingdom might deploy up to 20,000 warriors. The professional core of such an army consisted of permanently embodied companies known as ‘aparanga’, recruited from unmarried youths, and ‘abakumba’, or married men. In normal circumstances each company varied in strength from around twenty to over a hundred, but in an emergency all the able-bodied men of the kingdom could be called up and attached to the existing companies, which might therefore be much larger when they actually took the field. Azande warfare was strongly influenced by the topography and vegetation of the country, which impeded the movement of large bodies of troops but provided ideal cover for ambushes. Evans-Pritchard’s informants emphasized the difference between raids, ‘basapu’, and full-scale campaigns, or ‘sungusungu vura’. Raids were directed at neighbouring settlements – usually, if not always, those of fellow Azande owing allegiance to a rival king – and followed a formal overall pattern.

Before any campaign was undertaken it was first necessary to consult the poison oracle or ‘benge’, in which, says Burrows, the Azande had ‘absolute and unshaken faith’. The procedure involved administering a certain poison to chickens, accompanied by statements along the lines of ‘If this bird lives the war will be successful’. It appears that the poison was highly variable in its effects, so the outcome was unpredictable enough to be taken as an indication of the views of the supernatural powers. Of course the potential for manipulation is obvious – for example by altering the dose or composition of the poison or using a chicken already known to be resistant – but nineteenth-century accounts are unanimous that the Azande genuinely believed in the oracle, so it is impossible to tell how far it was actually manipulated. There were certainly instances where chiefs followed the advice of ‘benge’ even when it might seem to have been against their interests. In 1870, for example, a slaving party accompanied by Georg Schweinfurth was saved from almost certain annihilation when a prince called Wando declined to support his allies in attacking it because the oracle was unfavourable.

Assuming that the result of this procedure was satisfactory, a war party would approach an enemy village in three or four separate units, two or three of which would be deployed in ambush along the path leading to their own village. The remaining warriors entered the target village quietly, under cover of darkness, and took up positions outside the doors of the huts. As dawn broke they would call out, challenging the men inside to come out and fight. Usually they did so, fearing that otherwise their assailants would set fire to their huts. Inevitably the defenders were at a disadvantage as they emerged into the open, and a few might be fatally speared. Most escaped with minor wounds and were not pursued, as the real aim of the raid was not to kill but to plunder. Internal Azande conflict was not always so innocuous, however, and chiefs were often deliberately murdered by political rivals during these affrays, or captured and later put to death. Discussing one family, the Nunga, Evans-Pritchard observes that during the late nineteenth century ‘hardly a prominent person died a natural death’.

The Azande kept no livestock apart from chickens, so the booty consisted mostly of portable goods and the women and children, who were carried off as slaves or for ransom. Non-combatants were never killed deliberately, although there might be casualties if the raiders set fire to the huts and grain stores to cover their retreat. The attackers then fled as rapidly as they could along the trail leading to their own villages, which usually led through the tall, dense grass typical of the country in the rainy season. By this time their victims were rallying and were beginning to beat drums to summon help from friendly villages. As Azande villages were generally situated close together, reinforcements might start to arrive within a few minutes. The defending warriors then went in pursuit, and – being unencumbered by booty and captives – would catch up with the fleeing raiders fairly quickly. But meanwhile the first of the attackers’ ambushes was being prepared. Although the pursuers of course knew what to expect, their options were limited. The thick grass made it very difficult to manoeuvre off the established paths, and in any case it was a point of honour to come briefly to blows with at least the first ambush, so that their own ruler could not accuse them of cowardice. In the words of one of Evans-Pritchard’s informants:

The warriors in ambush trod down the grasses a few yards back from the path, parallel to, and at one side of it, so that they might have concealment and also room for movement. They crouched in this clearing with about six yards between man and man. The leader of the company was alone exposed. He stood in the middle of the path to observe the approach of the enemy and give the signal for attack, but on a curve in the path and at the tail of the ambush, so that the pursuers might be well into the ambush before they saw him . . . . The retreating raiders arrived at a trot at the point where the leader of the first ambush stood on the path and they passed under his raised arms, the last of them maybe running hard with the enemy in close pursuit. They continued through the second and third ambushes to where the prince was waiting. Here they were stopped by a man holding a spear across the path and shouting to them to halt as the prince was present. No one would retreat past him. Meanwhile when the first of the enemy, in hot pursuit of the raiders, was well into the first ambush its commander hurled a spear at him and gave a shout; and at once the warriors lying in wait began to hurl their spears.

If the ambushers inflicted enough casualties in the ensuing exchange of missiles, their opponents would turn back and the fighting would end there. Otherwise the men making up the first ambush would retreat, and draw the pursuers into the second ambush a little further back. At this point the pursuers usually contented themselves with a token skirmish before returning to their village.

A full-scale war between rival Azande kingdoms was conducted very differently. It involved more troops and was more thoroughly planned, but no attempt was made to achieve surprise. Schweinfurth witnessed a formal declaration of a war of this kind in the form of an ear of maize, a chicken feather and an arrow hung from a branch above a path. This, he says, was interpreted to mean that ‘whoever touched an ear of maize or laid his grasp upon a single fowl would assuredly be the victim of the arrow’. In fact the intention of the invading force was to provoke a pitched battle, which was fought according to traditional rules designed to minimize casualties. A battle always began late in the afternoon, so that the losing side could take advantage of darkness to slip away. Each side deployed with a centre and two wings, and the aim was to push back the enemy wings and threaten to envelop his centre. Burrows refers to a crescent formation like that of the Zulus. However, the victors were careful not to encircle their enemies completely, but always left a gap in their rear so that they could escape. The only eyewitness account of internal Azande combat by a European observer is given by the Italian explorer Carlo Piaggia, who confirms the impression of ritualized conflict involving little real bloodshed:

Only the men go to war, with a few women – the most daring, who do not wish to abandon their husbands and lovers. The others go and hide for fear of becoming the prey of their enemies, should they be victorious . . . . It is rare for the battles to last many hours, or for them to cause much carnage, because as soon as five or six men can be seen dead on the field the fighters run away full of trepidation, and their opponents claim victory. The latter, satisfied by their efforts after this skirmish, return calmly to their villages. (Evans-Pritchard)

In contrast, Piaggia continues, wars against ‘foreign tribes’ were far more ferocious. These, he says, ‘foster the thirst for “vendetta” so far as to make [the Azande] eat the flesh of their dead enemies. Piaggia was a witness to one of these wars, from which comes their reputation for being cannibals.’ Whether the Azande were really habitual cannibals is uncertain. The whole subject remains controversial in anthropological circles, but there is a great deal of evidence that cannibalism did occur among the rainforest tribes further south. Among the Azande this passage is the nearest we have to a first-hand report. However, Piaggia does not explicitly say here that he witnessed acts of cannibalism, merely that he knows how the accusation arose. A few years later Schweinfurth heard the A-Banga, who were relatives and allies of the Azande, taunting Sudanese invaders with ‘the repeated shout, “To the cauldron with the Turks!” rising to the eager climax, “Meat! Meat!”’ Perhaps the closest we can get to the truth is to say that the Azande may have eaten human flesh occasionally as an act of revenge, but that cannibalism was not an established part of their culture. They were no doubt happy to foster their reputation as a psychological weapon against their enemies, especially the Arabs, who for religious reasons attached great importance to the burial of their dead intact.

Against Arabs and Europeans the Azande went to war with the same ruthless attitude as Piaggia describes in their conflicts with other outsiders, in combination with the skirmishing skills learned in their internal conflicts. Several commentators describe their desperate courage and their willingness to accept heavy casualties. In the words of Guy Burrows:

Their courage and pluck are admirable; their contempt for death is supreme. They will stand a fire that is dropping them by dozens, charging time after time until absolutely compelled to retire. Coming upon seven or eight men armed with rifles, they will throw away their own arms and rush their opponents, though they may lose twenty or thirty men in the attempt, knowing that ultimately the rifles will be theirs.

The men interviewed by Evans-Pritchard also provided much fascinating detail on exactly how Azande weaponry was used, and the minor tactics which were employed when two hostile forces clashed at close range:

A battle consisted of individual combats between warriors on either side all along the line and at short range, usually only a few yards separating the combatants, for the spear had to pierce a man’s shield before it could pierce the man . . . . The Zande shield, however, protected two-thirds of the body, and when a man crouched behind it, as he did if a spear or knife was aimed high, his body was fully covered. If the missile came at him low, he jumped into the air with remarkable agility to let it pass under him . . . men have demonstrated to me with old shields or ones I had made for me, how they moved in fighting, and it was a most impressive display in the art of self-defence, in the movements of the body to give the fullest protection of the shield, and in the manipulation of the shield to take the spear or throwing-knife obliquely.

The skirmishing fights typical of internal Azande wars were always accompanied by the shouting of challenges and the names of the kings and princes commanding the various contingents. According to Schweinfurth the fighting would be interrupted by long intervals during which men would climb to the tops of ant-hills and exchange insults. He describes the large basketwork shields of the Azande as ‘so light that they do not in the least impede the combatants in their wild leaps’, and goes on to praise the skill and agility of their users in a much-quoted passage:

Nowhere, in any part of Africa, have I ever come across a people that in every attitude and every motion exhibited so thorough a mastery over all circumstances of war or of the chase as these Niam-niam – other nations in comparison seemed to me to fall short in the perfect ease – I might almost say, in the dramatic grace – that characterized their every movement.

The so-called throwing knife was a characteristic weapon of the region north of the Congo rainforest, from the Sudan in the east to northern Nigeria in the west. It took many different forms, not all of which were suitable for use as missiles, and in many places ‘throwing knives’ seem to have been used for ritual or magical purposes, as status symbols or as currency, rather than as weapons. Among the Azande, however, the multi-bladed knife or kpinga was certainly an effective weapon of war. Nineteenth-century explorers were unfamiliar with this type of artefact, and often had difficulty in describing it for a European readership. Hence Petherick, writing in 1858, refers to ‘singularly-formed iron projectiles, resembling a boomerang of rather a circular form, bearing on their peripheries several sharp projections’ (Petherick, Egypt, 1861). In his report to the Royal Geographical Society in 1860 he also mentions an ‘iron boomerang’ which was designed to return to the thrower’s hand, but this rather unlikely story is probably a misinterpretation based on the visual analogy with the well-known Australian weapon. Schweinfurth calls these throwing weapons ‘trumbashes’, and explains that ‘the trumbash of the Niam-niam consists ordinarily of several limbs of iron, with pointed prongs and sharp edges’. Fortunately we also have detailed drawings by Schweinfurth and others, as well as surviving artefacts in museums, which enable us to reconstruct their appearance accurately.

Evans-Pritchard says of the kpinga that ‘when correctly thrown, one of its several blades was certain to strike the objective squarely, and the sight of the blades circling towards one in the air must have been frightening’. He did not, however, believe that it would have been a particularly effective weapon against a warrior armed with a shield, as the multiple blades would dissipate the impact on the shield and the spinning motion cause it to bounce off. By contrast the early twentieth-century anthropologist Emil Torday speculated, in his account of the Kuba or Bushongo kingdom of southern Congo (which he believed had been founded by an offshoot of the Azande), that throwing knives might have given the newcomers a decisive advantage in battle: ‘all of a sudden, some objects, glistening in the sun as if they were thunderbolts, come whirling with a weird hum through the air. The enemy warriors raise their shields; the shining mystery strikes it, rebounds into the air and returns to the attack; it smites the warrior behind his defence with its cruel blades.’ Torday’s theory of the Azande origin of the Kuba is discounted nowadays, and consequently this passage is usually dismissed as a product of his fertile imagination. But tests carried out with reproduction throwing knives tend to confirm his assessment of their capabilities. In one such test, staged for the Ancient Discoveries television series, the missile did indeed bounce off the top edge of a shield attached to a dummy, but its momentum carried it forward to strike the target in the middle of the forehead with enough force to embed it several inches deep. The psychological impact of the ‘weird hum’, magnified several hundred times as an Azande regiment threw its weapons in unison, may also have been a significant factor.

The amount of metal as well as the skilled craftsmanship required to make a kpinga made it a valuable piece of equipment, and these weapons were usually the property of the ruler, stored in royal arsenals and issued only to regular troops for specific campaigns. Evans-Pritchard was told that before a man hurled a throwing knife he would shout a warning that he was going to do so, because men did not want to risk being accused of throwing them away in panic. Spears seem to have been far more common, and receive far more mentions in battle accounts than throwing knives. In fact Burrows, writing of the 1890s, refers exclusively to spears and shields as ‘the national Azande weapons’. He adds that a single broad-bladed stabbing spear was the usual weapon of the western principalities, while further east lighter throwing spears were favoured, with each man carrying between four and six. Schweinfurth’s symbolic arrow notwithstanding, the Azande did not use bows, which they regarded with contempt as ‘Pygmy weapons’.

In 1858 John Petherick had found that the Azande were completely unfamiliar with firearms, and reacted with terror when he demonstrated his gun by shooting a vulture: ‘before the bird touched the ground, the crowd was prostrate and grovelling in the dust, as if every man of them had been shot’. But they quickly recovered from the shock, and by the time Schweinfurth arrived in 1870 most of the important rulers had at least a small bodyguard of musketeers. Evans-Pritchard’s informants described four different types of gun. The first were muzzle-loading smoothbore flintlocks or ‘biada’, in widespread use among the Arabs in the 1860s and usually acquired from them by trade or capture. Alongside these were ‘orumoturu’, also muzzle-loaders, but using percussion caps rather than flints for ignition. In the mid-1870s the Remington breechloader or ‘sipapoi’ began to make an appearance. This was the standard infantry weapon of the Egyptian army, and was supplied by the Egyptians to friendly princes such as Zemio. Finally there was the ‘abeni’ or Albini. This was a variant of the Snider breech-loader used by the Belgian King Leopold’s Congo Free State forces from the late 1880s, and was captured in large numbers as well as being supplied by the Belgians to friendly princes.

The Remington was invariably the weapon of choice among the Azande, however, partly no doubt because its unique ‘rolling block’ action made it difficult for inexperienced users to burst or jam it. By the 1890s some Azande chiefs even maintained regular units of riflemen, dressed, armed and drilled in European style. The Belgian Lieutenant de Ryhove described Rafai’s small standing army as wearing ‘startling’ white uniforms, and carrying brightly polished rifles (Levering Lewis). He expressed his astonishment that ‘After having encountered so many naked people with heads dressed with plumes, bodies covered with tattoos and rigged out with bizarre or grotesque accoutrements, I was able to see people clothed, armed, disciplined, and manoeuvring with military correctness in the sunshine – and in the very heart of Africa.’ Unfortunately no detailed description of the appearance of such units seems to have survived, but it is likely from the description that the men seen by de Ryhove had been outfitted in surplus Egyptian army equipment.


April 7 1945—Sonderkommando Elbe


Sonderkommando Elbe (Special Command Elbe), one of the most bizarre units in the Luftwaffe, flew its only mission on April 7. The unit was the brainchild of Oberst Hajo Herrmann, who resurrected his once-rejected proposal for a bomber-ramming formation in January, after he had joined Gemaj. Peltz’s command. With Peltz’s approval, Herrmann got Chief of Staff Koller’s permission to present his proposal to Göring. He wrote a letter for Göring’s signature that solicited volunteers from the advanced training, fighter training and operational fighter units for a special operation “from which there is only the slightest possibility of your return.” Somewhat to Herrmann’s surprise, since it implicitly condemned Göring’s own conduct of the war, the Reichsmarschall signed it. Göring’s letter was read to the fighter units on March 8, and volunteers soon began reporting to Stendal, the Elbe base. On the radio the unit was always referred to as Schulungslehrgang Elbe (Training Course Elbe), which confused Allied intelligence as to its purpose.

Although the operation qualified as a Selbstopfer (suicide) plan, the pilots did have a real chance of survival. The plan called for the exclusive use of Bf 109 variants with high-altitude engines and metal propellers, to be used as scythes. The tactical unit for the mission was to be the Schwarm, each led by an experienced pilot. It was anticipated that the other pilots would be novices. The fighters were to climb to 11,000 meters (36,000 ft.), out-climbing any escorts encountered, and would receive their orders from the IX. Fliegerkorps (Jagd) transmitter at Treuenbrietzen, which had a 200-km (120-mile) range to this altitude. The fighters would then dive on their targets singly, from above. The bombers’ wings and engines were suggested as the aiming points, but Obfw. Willi Maximowitz, an ex-Sturmstaffel “ramming expert” brought in to lecture the pilots, claimed that clipping off the tail section would surely bring down the bomber with less hazard to the German pilots, and that advice was taken by most of them, even though they considered his own experiences in a heavily armored Fw 190 irrelevant to their own situation. Most of the Bf 109s were lightened by removal of their radio transmitters, all guns but a single cowling-mounted MG 131 machine gun, and most of the ammunition. Most pilots also had their Revi gunsights removed, to facilitate bailing out.

Koller scaled down Herrmann’s ambitious plan, code-named Werwolf (Werewolf), considerably. The requested 1,000 aircraft were reduced to 350, and then to 180. The number of volunteers was restricted to 300. Very few commissioned officers, and no experienced, decorated fighter formation leaders volunteered, so Herrmann was forced to draft some experienced officers from his non-operational KG(J) units. Command was given to Major Otto Köhnke, a bomber pilot who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross in KG 54, and had lost a leg in combat. Common characteristics of the true volunteers, according to unit survivor and author Arno Rose, were a lower-middle class, non-religious background; low rank; youth (most were less than 21 years old); loyalty to comrades and the Reich; obedience; and a desire to continue flying rather than be ordered to the infantry. Many sought revenge against the Terrorflieger who had destroyed their homes and killed their families. Their training at Stendal was very scanty, comprising anti-Semitic and nationalist movies, political lectures by college professors, and a single lecture on tactics by Maximowitz. The food and drink at Stendal were very good, however, and were recalled fondly by the survivors.

On the night of April 4–5 the pilots were taken from Stendal to the seven bases chosen for the operation, where they waited for the next major Eighth Air Force raid. This took place on the 7th. Herrmann, in the Treuenbrietzen control room, ordered the Elbe pilots to scramble. It was a clear, very cold day, good considering his pilots’ limited flying skills, but bad for their comfort; they were not issued flying suits, and most wore only their light service uniforms. Unfortunately for Herrmann, the Americans had a large number of targets, and the stream split up into no fewer than 60 small formations, creating chaos in his control room as his officers attempted to sort them out. The pilots heard nothing but nationalist songs and exhortations over their one-way radios until and unless they were finally given target instructions. Their fuel tanks had been only partially filled for their one-way flights, and some had to break off their missions early and return to base. Whether successful or not, the day marked the high point of most of the young pilots’ military careers, and many survivors have recorded their impressions. We chose Uffz. Klaus Hahn’s account as representative:

I transferred with 30 comrades to Sachau/Gardelegen on the night of April 4–5. I was given my own Bf 109G-6 or G-14 the morning of the 7th. The radio couldn’t transmit, only receive the Jägerwelle. The tank was half full. My machine was armed with one machine gun with 60 rounds. We took off on the green flare, but I couldn’t maintain speed, and fell behind my comrades in the climb. I had no thought of turning back, but kept on. I heard only marches on the radio. My aircraft suddenly gained speed, and I climbed to 10,000 meters [33,000 ft.], entirely alone. I approached four 109s, which proved to be Mustangs. One got on my tail, damaged the aircraft and wounded me in the throat. I decided to bail out despite the -50 degrees C temperature and lack of oxygen. But I saw a Fortress Pulk below, and decided to take one with me. My airplane was smoking, and the Mustangs didn’t follow. I was able to get up-sun, and dove on the far-right B-17 in the Pulk. I don’t know what happened next. There was a loud crash. I bailed out automatically, pulled the cord at 1,000 meters [3,300 ft.], apparently lost consciousness with the shock, and hit the ground hard, throwing both thighbones out of their sockets. Witnesses say the bomber didn’t crash, but I never found out exactly where I landed. I was wounded severely in one shoulder, arm, and hand. My left arm was amputated in a British POW hospital in June due to an infection. A quick recovery followed, and I was released in August [1945]. I later tried to find the village where I landed, but couldn’t—it must be between Steinhuder Meer and Verden, east of the Weser. I’m no longer interested, because the people who helped me are probably all dead now.

Most of the Elbe pilots attacked B-17s of the leading 3rd Air Division, which according to American records lost nine bombers to ramming and three to Me 262s. Four of the ramming victims were from the 452nd Bomb Group, which was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for its 40-minute-long combat. The only Luftwaffe fighters seen by the trailing 1st Air Division were two Me 262s, but the 2nd Air Division received some attacks, and according to the Americans lost four B-24s to ramming, two of these in a single attack that is well-documented from both sides. Gefreiter Willi Rösner dove on the 389th Bomb Group B-24 leading the division and rammed into its nose. Either the B-24 or the Bf 109 then careered into the deputy commander’s aircraft. Both B-24s crashed. Rösner bailed out, blacked out, regained consciousness on the ground with a broken collarbone, and returned to Stendal on the evening of the 7th. He was promoted to Unteroffizier and was awarded the Iron Crosses Second and First Class and the German Cross in Gold for this single mission, in violation of all directives.

The OKL war diary contains a bare-bones summary of the mission. Of the 183 fighters prepared for takeoff, 50 returned; 106 pilots had reported in by day’s end, claiming 23 successes. There were as yet no reports from 77 pilots. IX. Fliegerkorps (Jagd) was to order the remaining pilots to be released—the operation would not be repeated.

The Elbe mission remained somewhat of a mystery for decades after the war. The survivors were considered naive fools by other Luftwaffe veterans and, often, by their own families. But many of the Elbe-Männer eventually concluded that they had a right to take pride in the sacrificial mission for which they had volunteered, and began communicating with one another and cooperating with historians. As a result this is now one of the best-documented Luftwaffe missions of the war. Fritz Marktscheffel was an Elbe volunteer who did not fly on April 7 because he was too junior to be given one of the limited number of airplanes. He has for decades collected documents and pilot’s accounts pertaining to the mission, and his figures can be considered the best available. Marktscheffel concludes that about 188 Bf 109s were prepared for the mission at five bases in Germany and one outside Prague. About 143 fighters actually took off; 21 returned early due to technical defects; 15 from Stendal were never given a target and returned to base for lack of fuel; and those from Prague were recalled when the bombers turned north, putting them beyond range. About 90 contacted the enemy; as many as 40 attempted ramming attacks. Marktscheffel can identify the pilots in 18 ramming attacks on B-17s, three on B-24s, and three on unspecified heavy bombers. In addition, one B-17 and one fighter were claimed shot down by the single machine guns of the ram fighters. Casualties to the Elbe-Männer were surprisingly light: 18 pilots were killed, six failed to return and remained missing, and 13 were wounded. Sixteen bailed out and landed successfully; two died when their parachutes failed to open; and four were shot and killed by American fighter pilots while hanging on their chutes. Another pilot was shot at but suffered only a hard landing when his chute was shot through. Known Bf 109 losses total 13 to American escorts, three to German Flak, and 21 in ramming attacks; 14 force-landed for operational reasons after contacting the enemy.

The Elbe plots were told that they would be protected from American fighters by Me 262s, but there is no evidence that the jet pilots knew anything of this. Their primary mission was to attack bombers, not fighters, and this is what they did. Fifty-nine jets from JG 7 and I./KG(J) 54 were scrambled. JG 7 pilots claimed one F-4 (a reconnaissance P-38), two P-51s, one B-17, and one B-24, for no known losses. I./KG(J) 54 reported four victories over B-17s, and lost one Me 262 to a B-17 gunner.

Although the Eighth Air Force lost 17 bombers, the greatest loss on a bombing mission since February 3, and 189 more bombers returned to base with damage, it was certainly not in the Americans’ interest to publicize a successful suicide mission in the ETO while the Kamikazes were causing great concern in the Pacific, and the casualties due to ramming were downplayed. Allied intelligence professed no knowledge of a special operation. The Eighth Air Force mission summary concluded that,

While there were a number of instances of fighters ramming bombers, there is no evidence that these were intentional. In all cases the enemy aircraft was either out of control after being hit, or was manned by an inexperienced pilot trying a fly-through attack against a tight formation.

The sacrifices of the Elbe-Männer were thus not even acknowledged by the Americans, and certainly did not affect their morale, as Herrmann had hoped. Like Operation Bodenplatte, Werwolf was only a futile, bloody gesture.

Japanese Army fighter operations over Western New Guinea



During March 1942 the 5th Sentai, based at Kashiwa, near Tokyo, converted to Ki 45kais. On 10 July 1943 this unit’s 28 aircraft set off for Malang, Java, arriving on 20th. Using Ambon, Lauten in Timor, the Aru Islands, Namlea and Babo as advanced airfields, the Sentai provided the air defence of this vast area. On 21 September two of the 2nd chutai’s aircraft took off from Langgur, intercepting nine B-24s over the Kai Islands. Here Capt Yoshiaki Yamashita shot down one bomber with 37mm cannon fire, the crew of ten surviving to become POWs.

Three more of this chutai’s aircraft patrolled over two transport vessels sailing from Java and Timor during 15-16 December. Whilst so engaged they claimed one attacking Beaufighter shot down, although one transport was damaged and was forced to beach itself, and the second was set on fire. On 5 January 1944 five Ki 45kais of the 1st chutai intercepted about ten B-24s over Ambon, claiming five shot down and two probables, for which the unit was awarded a citation from the officer commanding the 7th Flying Division.

Meanwhile the 13th Sentai, which had again re-equipped with Ki 45kais at Wakde, moved to Wasile, Halmahera, in April 1944, where it once more converted to Ki 43-IIs. It then moved to Noemfor Island on 23 April with 26 of these aircraft, but lost four during interceptions on 16th and 17 May; when Allied forces landed on Biak Island on 27 May, only ten Hayabusas remained available. On learning of the landings on Biak, Maj Katsushige Takada, commander of the 5th Sentai, led five Ki 45kais fitted with bombs from Jefman to attack. All failed to return, and this was subsequently considered to have been the first suicide attack unit, receiving a further citation on 10 June 1944, this time from OC, Southern Army.

Having recuperated in the homeland from its service in eastern New Guinea, the 24th Sentai moved to Kau, Halmahera, coming under the command of the Imperial Navy. Eight of this unit’s Ki 43s led by Capt Kojima, attacked Biak Island on 27 May, but lost four of their number. The unit continued to operate over Biak until 25 June, then withdrawing to Wasile, Halmahera. During these operations the unit lost six more aircraft on 16 June, plus several more on the ground. The Hayabusa was considered to be inferior to the Navy’s Zeros, and on 1 July the unit departed Navy command.

The 13th Sentai was in action on 28 May, escorting one of the attacks on Biak, but on 1 June this unit lost nearly all its Ki 43s during an Allied air attack on Momi. The Sentai then sought to recuperate on Halmahera, rising to intercept the first raid on this island on 27 July, but losing four of their number in so doing.

Following attacks on Biak on 3rd and 4 June, the 5th Sentai withdrew to Ambon, then flying convoy patrols over the Ambon-Timor area during which four or five B-24s were claimed probably shot down during July. At the end of August however, the Sentai withdrew to the homeland. The 19th Sentai departed Nielson Field, Luzon, on 8 July, escorting a convoy to Ambon. Here on 19 July the unit engaged 11 B-24s, claiming one shot down. However four of the fighters were damaged, whilst two more suffered damage on the ground.

Allied air raids on Halmahera now proliferated, causing the 13th Sentai to be moved back to Ambon, whilst the 24th Sentai withdrew to Langoan airfield, Menado, Celebes. Ambon too, came under attack during August, and here the Hayabusas again proved no match for the P-38s, the morale of the resident 13th Sentai falling to a low ebb. Towards the end of the month the unit withdrew to Kendari. From here it commenced operating some of the new Ki 84 fighters on interceptions and sorties to Morotai from 15 September onwards. However, in early October the Sentai was withdrawn to Japan. The 24th at Menado also intercepted air raids and participated in attacks on Morotai.

Following the US invasion of Leyte in the Philippines, the JAAF units in Negros were subjected to air attacks by Morotai-based USAAF units. In an effort to contain this activity, heavy bombers and 21st Sentai Ki 45kais were ordered to attack the bases on this island. On 5 November 1944 the 21st departed Palembang, arriving at Ambon, which is reasonably close to Menado. From here during the night of 7 November, three Ki 45kais led by Capt Kanda, attacked Morotai with Ta Dan (60kg incendiary bombs), repeating this attack during the nights of 9th and 10th. On 21st and 28 November the Sentai also made attacks on Morotai from Wasile on Halmahera, but on each occasion one or two aircraft failed to return, falling victim to intense AA fire. Attacks on Morotai recommenced on 9 December, but only small numbers of sorties could be flown. Now however, Ambon and Wasile were becoming frequent targets for US attacks. On 27 December Lt Tomonori Onuma led three Ki 45kais from Ambon to fly to Wasile, but whilst underway they were attacked by a dozen P-47s, and all were shot down.

This brought to an end the attacks on Morotai, and indeed of Japanese Army fighter operations in this part of South East Asia.


Ki 43-II flown by Captain Shigeo Nango, executive officer of the 59th Sentai in New Guinea.

The 59th Sentai over Australia

After the Dutch East Indies had been secured, the 59th Sentai was based in Java. Here during September a 3rd chutai was formed, tasked with the air defence of Palembang and Timor.

In mid February 1943 the unit converted to Ki 43-IIs and commenced flying the ‘finger four’ or ‘Rotte’ formation, instead of the outdated and inefficient three aircraft “vic” which had previously been employed. From January onwards the 59th engaged Hudsons, A-20s, B-24s and Beaufighters of the USAAF and RAAF around Timor, where on 9 February Maj Tsuguroko Nakao, the commanding officer, was killed whilst intercepting a formation of nine Hudsons. On 20 March the new commander, Maj Takeo Fukuda, led the 1st chutai to Babo, remaining there for two weeks, undertaking convoy patrols over the Banda Sea.

On 20 June 1943, 22 Ki 43-IIs were led by Maj Fukuda to escort 18 Ki 21s of the 61st Sentai and nine light bombers of the 75th Sentai to bomb Darwin. Here Spitfires engaged, the unit claiming nine shot down and six probables for the loss of one Ki 43 and one Ki 21. 1st Lt Shohei Inaba claimed two of these victories despite one leg of his aircraft’s undercarriage having failed to retract. Two days later 20 of the unit’s Ki 43s were led by Capt Shigeo Nango on a fighter sweep near Darwin, but no defending interceptors were encountered on this occasion.

Following these two missions the 59th was transferred to New Guinea. The unit arrived at But in mid July with 27 aircraft, replacing the 11th Sentai, which had departed in late June, and the 1st Sentai, which left during August.


ONOZAKI, Hiroshi Captain

Hiroshi Onozaki was born in 1917 in Tochigi Prefecture. He entered Kumagaya Flying School in February 1936 with the 3rd Juvenile Flying Soldier intake, passing out in November 1937 at the head of the course, for which he was awarded a silver watch. Following fighter training at Akeno, he was posted to the 5th Rentai, but in November 1939 was transferred to the 59th Sentai in China. Joining the 1st chutai, he accompanied the unit to Indochina in December 1941, from here patrolling over Kota Bharu airfield, Malaya, on the first day of the Pacific War, and then strafing aircraft on the ground here. Over Kuala Lumpur on 21 December he first met the enemy in the air, claiming a Buffalo shot down. Moving to Malaya, he took part in raids on Singapore, and then on Palembang, Sumatra, and targets in Java. During these operations he added eight Hurricanes, a Blenheim and a Dutch Ryan trainer to his score, becoming the 59th Sentai’s top scorer at the time. In May 1942 he returned to Japan to attend the Army Flying Military Academy, returning to the Sentai in November as a 2nd Lt. Twice during January 1943 he shared with his wingmen in the destruction of B-25s over Dili, Timor, whilst on 20 June 1943 he took part in one of the JAAF’s attacks on Port Darwin, Australia, as an element leader, claiming two Spitfires shot down. Following a return to Java, the Sentai was ordered to New Guinea in July, flying in via Babo. On 15 August Onazaki (pictured back row, left) claimed a P-38 over Tsili Tsili for his 14th victory (discounting the two shared B-25s). Three days later he managed to escape unscathed from a formation of about 20 P-38s over But, but he then fell ill with amoebic dysentery, and was evacuated home. After recovery, he served as an instructor at Akeno, later being posted to the 7th Flying Training Unit at Matsumoto, where he was serving when the war ended.

Siege of Rochester Castle I


Rochester Castle

On 11 October 1215, a crack troop of a hundred knights arrived at the gates of Rochester Castle and demanded to be admitted. The constable of the castle, Sir Reginald de Cornhill, did not hesitate, for he had been expecting them. The drawbridge was lowered, the doors swung open, and the horsemen swept inside.

These men were rebels, come into Kent on a highly dangerous mission. Earlier in the year, along with scores of other noblemen, they had seized control of London in defiance of their king. In recent days, however, they had started to sense that the tide was turning against them, and had therefore decided to take action. Selected by their fellows as the bravest and most skilled in arms, they had ridden south-east to open up a second front. If London was to hold out, they knew they had to distract the king, and draw his fire away from the capital.

Their plan, in this respect, was brilliantly successful. Two days later, a royal army drew up outside the walls of Rochester. King John had arrived.

John was the youngest son of Henry II, and the runt of his father’s litter. He is familiar to all of us as the bad guy from the Robin Hood stories – the snivelling villain who betrayed his elder brother, ‘Good’ King Richard the Lionheart, and made a grab for the English throne. It will hardly surprise most people to learn that this picture of John is a caricature – the Robin Hood legends originated long after the king was dead. Nevertheless, even if we scrape off all the mud that has been flung at John over the centuries, he still emerges as a highly unpleasant individual, and a man unsuited to the business of ruling. Contemporaries might not have recognized the hideous, depraved monster of legend, but they would have acknowledged the basic truth of the matter – John was a Bad King.

To find out what people really thought about King John, we have to leave the stories of Robin Hood, and turn instead to another piece of writing, very different but no less famous. In 1215, shortly before they set off to seize Rochester Castle, John’s enemies compiled a list of complaints about him, and presented it to the king in the hope of persuading him to behave better in the future. The list was drawn up in the form of a charter and, because it was so long, the charter itself was very big. People soon started referring to it simply as the Big Charter; or, in Latin, Magna Carta.

So, by looking at Magna Carta, we can work out why people were annoyed with King John. What aggravated them most, it seems, was the way in which he constantly helped himself to their cash; the first clauses of the Charter are all concerned with limiting the king’s ability to extort money. In 1204, five years into his reign, John had suffered a major military and political disaster when he lost Normandy, Anjou and Poitou to the king of France. These provinces had formed the heart of John’s empire, and trying to get them back had kept him busy for the past ten years. Ultimately, however, by plotting his recovery, John was paving the way to his own downfall. The cost of building an alliance to strike back against the French king was enormous, especially because it was John’s misfortune to rule at a time when inflation was causing prices (of mercenaries, for example) to soar. With increasing frequency, John passed the costs on to his English subjects, imposing ever greater and more frequent taxes, fining them large sums of money for trivial offences, and demanding huge amounts of cash in return for nothing more than his grace and favour. Very quickly, John managed to create a situation where the people who didn’t want him in charge outnumbered those who did – a dangerous scenario for any political leader.

In some respects, however, the rebellion that the king faced in 1215 was not entirely his own fault. Both his father and his brother had governed England in much the same fashion, expanding their power at the expense of the power of their barons. One very visible way of measuring their success is by looking at their castles. At the start of Henry II’s reign in 1154, only around 20 per cent of all castles in the country were royal. The two decades before Henry’s accession had seen a proliferation of private castles (mostly motte and baileys) built without the king’s consent. One of Henry’s first actions as king was to order (and, where necessary, to compel) the destruction of such fortifications. Moreover, Henry and his sons, as we have seen, built new castles – big, impressive stone towers like Newcastle, Scarborough, Orford, and Odiham. By the time of John’s death, the ratio of royal castles to baronial ones had altered drastically; almost half the castles in England were in royal hands. Castles, therefore, provide a good index of the king’s power against the power of his barons.

It is evident that the rebels brought long-term grievances such as this to the negotiating table in 1215, because John tried to address them in Magna Carta.

‘If anyone has been dispossessed without legal judgement from his lands or his castles by us,’ the king said, ‘we will immediately restore them to him.’

But John went on to add that his subjects should make allowances for anyone who had been similarly dispossessed ‘by King Henry our father, or King Richard our brother’. Such hair-splitting, however, ignored the basic truth of the matter, which was that Henry and Richard were simply better kings than John. They were skilled warriors, while he was condemned for his cowardice. Although he proved a capable administrator (John could be dynamic and efficient when it came to collecting taxes), he was a bad manager, unfit to command the loyalties of his leading subjects, unable to check or channel their ambitions, and uneven in his distribution of rewards. Most of all, John was just an unpleasant guy. He sniggered when people talked to him. He didn’t keep his word. He was tight-fisted and untrusting. He even seduced the wives and daughters of some of his barons. Henry and Richard might have acted unfairly from time to time, but overall people liked them; almost nobody liked John.

It was John’s personality, in the end, that doomed Magna Carta to failure. There was little point in persuading John to make such an elaborate promise, because he was bound to try and wriggle out of it. Sure enough, no sooner had negotiations ended than the king was writing to the Pope, explaining how the Charter had been forced out of him, and asking for it to be condemned. By the time the Pope wrote back, however, John’s opponents had already worked out for themselves that Magna Carta was not worth the parchment it was written on. The king would never keep his promises, and they had no way of compelling him to do so. They too abandoned the Charter as a solution, in favour of the much simpler plan of offering John’s crown to someone else. By the autumn of that year, both the king and the rebels were openly preparing for war.

This war was eventually fought right across the country. The South-East of England, however, and especially Kent, was the most important arena of conflict, because both parties were seeking assistance from the Continent. The rebels, for their part, had decided to offer the crown of England to Prince Louis, eldest son of the king of France. They had already made overtures to him in the course of the summer, and were hoping he would soon arrive and stake his claim in person, bringing with him much-needed reinforcements. John, meanwhile, was also looking across the Channel for help, but in his case from Flemish mercenaries. The king had recently despatched his recruiting agents overseas, and was hovering anxiously on the south coast, trying to secure the loyalty of the Channel ports, and waiting for his soldiers of fortune to arrive.

In such circumstances, control of Rochester Castle, which stood at the point where the main road to London crossed the River Medway, became all-important. John understood this as well as anyone, and for this reason had been trying to get his hands on the castle since the start of May, when the rebellion against him had first raised its head. The king had already written to the Archbishop of Cantebury twice, asking, in the nicest possible way, if he would mind instructing his constable to surrender the great tower into the hands of royal representatives. Both times, however, the request fell on deaf ears. The archbishop was one of John’s leading critics and, realizing only too well what the king’s intentions were, had promptly done nothing. Likewise, there was no love lost between the king and Rochester’s constable, Sir Reginald de Cornhill. He was one of the hundreds who were heavily in debt to the Crown, and John had recently deprived him of his job as Sheriff of Kent. Cornhill’s response was probably more decisive; the likelihood is that he got a message through to the rebels in London, pledging his support, and expressing his willingness to help them.

When they realized that Rochester was theirs for the taking, the rebels in London formulated their plan. A detachment of knights would be sent to occupy the castle and hold it against John, and the man to lead it would be Sir William de Albini. Sir William is quite a dark horse: we don’t have a great deal of information about him. Of course, the fact that he was chosen (or volunteered) to lead the mission indicates that he must have been a skilled and respected warrior. One contemporary writer calls him ‘a man with strong spirit, and an expert in matters of war’. More puzzling is the fact that he does not seem to have had any of the personal grudges harboured by John’s other opponents. On the one hand, he was clearly one of the leaders of the rebellion: back in the summer he had been named as one of the twenty-five men who were to enforce Magna Carta. On the other hand, Albini only joined the other rebels a week before the Charter was drafted. Whatever his own motivation for taking up arms against his king, in the weeks that followed there was no doubt about the strength of his commitment to the rebel cause.

Albini and his companions arrived at Rochester on a Sunday. On entering the castle, they found to their alarm that the storerooms were badly provisioned. Not only were they short on weapons and ammunition; there was, more worryingly, an almost total lack of food. They quickly set about remedying the situation, plundering the city of Rochester for supplies. In the event, however, their foraging operation only lasted forty-eight hours. By Tuesday, John and his army were outside the castle gates.

In such circumstances, we might not necessarily expect there to have been much of a fight. Just because one side in a dispute occupies a castle, and the other side turns up outside with an army, it does not automatically follow that a siege must take place. The defenders inside a castle might peer over their battlements at a colossal army, rapidly calculate the odds, and conclude that surrender is in their own best interests. Likewise, in many cases the prospective besieger will roll up with his army, assess the defences to be far too strong to break, and move on to take easier, softer targets. In this dispute, however, with each side playing for the highest stakes, and Rochester being so crucial to their respective plans, the king and his enemies exhibited an uncommon degree of determination. The rebels in the castle, in spite of their poor provisions, decided they were going to tighten their belts and stick it out. King John, pitching his camp outside the castle, looked up at the mighty walls of Rochester, and vowed he was going to break them. The scene was set for a monumental siege.

Ralph of Coggeshall, provides us with an account of the preliminary encounter between John and the rebels. The king’s aim on arriving in Rochester was to destroy the bridge over the Medway, in order to cut off his enemies from their confederates in London. On the first attempt he failed; his men moved up the river in boats, setting fire to the bridge from underneath, but a force of sixty rebels beat them back and extinguished the flames. On their second attempt, however, the king’s men had the best of the struggle. The bridge was destroyed, and the rebels fell back to the castle.

This kind of reporting is invaluable, and some of the additional details that Ralph provides are no less compelling (he tells us, for instance, in the shocked tones that only an outraged monk can muster, how John’s men stabled their horses in Rochester Cathedral).

For the first time in English history, however, we do not have to rely entirely on writers like Ralph. From the start of John’s reign, we have another (and in some respects even better) source of information. When John came to the throne in 1199, the kings of England had long been in the habit of sending out dozens of written orders to their deputies on a daily basis. But John made an important innovation: he instructed his clerks to keep copies. Every letter the king composed was dutifully transcribed by his chancery staff on to large parchment rolls, and these rolls are still with us today, preserved in the National Archives. The beauty of this is that every letter is dated and located. Even if John’s orders were humdrum, we can still use them to track the king wherever and whenever he travelled. We know, for example, that on 11 October the king was at Ospringe, and that by 12 October he had reached Gillingham. His first order at Rochester was given on 13 October, and on the following day, he wrote to the men of Canterbury.

‘We order you,’ he said, ‘just as you love us, and as soon as you see this letter, to make by day and night all the pickaxes that you can. Every blacksmith in your city should stop all other work in order to make [them]… and you should send them to us at Rochester with all speed.’

From the outset, it seems, John was planning on breaking into Rochester Castle by force.

In the early thirteenth century, siege warfare was a fine art with a long history, and a wide range of options were available to an attacker. Certain avenues, however, were closed to John, because the tower at Rochester had been deliberately designed to foil them. The fact that the entrance was situated on the first floor, and protected by its forebuilding, ruled out the possibility of using a battering ram. Equally, the tower’s enormous height precluded any thoughts of scaling the walls with ladders, or the wheeled wooden towers known as belfries. Built of stone and roofed in lead, the building was going to be all but impervious to fire. Faced with such an obstacle, many commanders would have settled down and waited for the defenders to run out of food. John, however, had neither the time nor the temperament for such a leisurely approach, and embarked on the more dangerous option of trying to smash his way in. But simply getting close enough to land a blow on the castle was going to be enormously risky. We know for a fact that the men inside had crossbows.

Crossbows had been around since at least the middle of the eleventh century, and were probably introduced to England (along with cavalry and castles) at the time of the Norman Conquest. In some respects, they were less efficient killing machines than conventional longbows, in that their rate of ‘fire’ was considerably slower. To use a longbow (the simplest kind of bow imaginable), an archer had only to draw back the bowstring to his ear with one hand before releasing it; with a crossbow, the same procedure was more complicated. The weapon was primed by pointing it nose to the ground, placing a foot in the stirrup and drawing back the bow with both hands – a practice known as ‘spanning’. When the bowstring was fully drawn, it engaged with a nut which held it in position. The weapon was then loaded by dropping a bolt or ‘quarrel’ into the groove on top, and perhaps securing it in place with a dab of beeswax.

Siege of Rochester Castle II


Rochester 1215, illustration by John Cann.

Such an involved readying routine meant that crossbows were not suited to every type of warfare – in the thick of battle, for example, they were of limited use. For men under siege, however, with ample time to span, load, aim and release, the crossbow was the weapon of choice. What the crossbow lost in speed, it more than made up for in range and penetrative power. Spanning created far greater tension in the bar across the top of the bow (the prod) than the equivalent action with a longbow. By John’s day, moreover, the crossbow had become even more deadly, because prods were being constructed using a new technique. Earlier versions were made from a simple strip of wood – typically yew or ash. From the end of the twelfth century, however, crossbow-makers were producing laminated or ‘composite’ prods, made not only from wood but also from strips of whalebone and animal sinew, glued together and wrapped in parchment (dried sheepskin). These new composite prods created a weapon with an enormous range – anything up to 900 feet was attainable. In terms of penetrative power, they were lethal. A knight dressed in a mail shirt and carrying a wooden shield might have stood some chance against conventional archery (unless, like poor old King Harold, he got hit in the eye). Against a well-aimed crossbow bolt, however, he had no hope: the bolt would shatter his shield and pierce right through his mail. All of a sudden, survival in warfare was much more of a lottery, even for those rich enough to afford the most expensive armour. Small wonder that the Pope condemned crossbows, and that people claimed they were invented by the Devil.

According to Matthew Paris (a monk of St Albans, and one of the more tabloid chroniclers of the thirteenth century), King John came closer than he knew to being killed by a crossbow during the siege of Rochester. From inside the tower, the king was spotted by a rebel crossbowman, who promptly drew a bead on his royal target, and made ready to shoot. Before he pulled the trigger, however, he asked William de Albini for permission, and the rebel leader refused. As mere men, said Albini, it was not for them to end the life of kings – only God could decide how to deal with John. The story shows every sign of being made up; the monk wrote it down almost twenty years after the siege, and immediately followed it up by pointing out a biblical parallel. But even if we can’t take the tale at face value, it shows at least that contemporaries were aware of the huge potential of the crossbow – even a lowly foot soldier, armed with such a weapon, could contemplate killing a king. John of all people would have been well aware of this. In 1199, the seemingly invincible Richard the Lionheart had been felled by a single crossbow bolt to the shoulder, and the festering wound had later ended his life. As well as his own legendary cowardice, the memory of his big brother’s untimely death probably persuaded John to stay well out of crossbow range in 1215.

But if John was kept on his guard by his opponents, he was not content merely to cower behind his own defences. On the contrary, the king had also come equipped with the latest in siege technology, and his new toys were far bigger. Another very reliable and well-informed chronicler, the anonymous Barnwell Annalist, tells us that the king came to Rochester with ‘five throwing machines’. Without doubt, these machines were the heaviest artillery of the age: trebuchets.

Trebuchets were giant slingshots or catapults, deliberately designed and built to smash down castle walls. The idea of creating such a weapon was not new; machines that hurled missiles at masonry had been around for hundreds of years. Trebuchets, however, were a new twist on this old idea, a product of a revolutionary piece of thinking in the late twelfth century.

The men inside Rochester Castle were now asking themselves much the same thing: would the walls of the tower, twelve feet thick, hold out against King John’s trebuchets? The Barnwell Annalist says that the bombardment of the keep did not cease by day or night. There is no suggestion, either from Barnwell or from any of the chroniclers, that the defenders were subjected to the kind of psychological and biological horrors we often hear about in other sieges. Sometimes rotting animal carcasses or the heads of fallen comrades were hurled over the walls of a besieged city or castle, in an attempt to spread plague and terror. John may not have resorted to such tactics (though one would hardly put it past him), but he knew, in any case, that the relentless barrage was piling psychological pressure on his enemies. As the stones rained down on them, as their food ran short, and as the winter cold began to set in, surely they could not hold out much longer?

And yet they did. Part of the reason for the rebels’ dogged determination was an earnest belief that the cavalry would arrive – either in the shape of Prince Louis, or in the more likely form of their London associates. According to one chronicler, the knights who remained in the capital had sworn to Albini and his colleagues that, should Rochester be besieged, they would ride to their aid. Up to a point, they kept their promise. Two weeks into the siege, a force of seven hundred horsemen left London and headed towards Rochester. Halfway there, however, their nerve failed; at Dartford, they turned and headed back. Why they did this is unclear, but it is possible that their scouts had returned with news of the size of the John’s army. We don’t know how large the king’s force was, but we can get some idea from the fact that seven hundred fully armed knights turned in fear and fled.

John would have learned soon enough that his other enemies had retreated back into their hole, and the news must have gladdened him somewhat. It was only a small consolation, however, because the fact remained that Rochester Castle and its defenders were still holding out, despite everything his expensive siege engines could throw at them. With every day that passed, it was becoming increasingly, maddeningly clear that the trebuchets were not going to work. The king, therefore, placed all his faith in his last remaining option: to drive a mine under the great tower, in the hope of bringing it crashing to the ground.

The technique of undermining was not a new one; the Romans and the Vikings are known to have used mines when laying siege to cities. The aim was to drive one or more tunnels under the foundations of the walls, supporting the ground above with timber props, which were then burnt away to create a collapse. But this wasn’t always possible. If the defences were built on solid rock, tunnelling underneath them was virtually impossible. Water defences, or even just soft or waterlogged ground, also meant that mining was out of the question. And even if the conditions for mining were ideal, conditions for miners themselves were anything but. The environment in which such men worked was dark, damp and dangerous: the process could easily end in disaster if the soil above them suddenly subsided.

Digging a mine in peaceful circumstances was difficult enough, but doing so during a siege was doubly dangerous, since the besieged would do everything in their power to frustrate the miners’ progress. Just getting close enough to begin digging would involve dodging a shower of arrows and crossbow bolts, so miners took care to approach under the cover of a ‘tortoise’ or ‘cat’ – a wooden canopy, moved on wheels, and covered in damp animal hides to prevent it being set on fire. Even once they were underground, the miners were still in danger of attack. Roman writers speak of defenders flooding enemy mines and drowning their assailants. A more common approach was for the defenders to dig a counter-mine, either in the hope of causing a collapse, or simply with the intention of meeting their opponents head on, and engaging them in subterranean hand-to-hand combat.

Luckily for John, his engineers reported that the ground around Rochester was suitable for mining. Even so, it was far from being an easy task. Despite having at their disposal all the picks that the men of Canterbury could manufacture, the operation was set to take weeks. At one point, progress ground to a halt when the miners came up against solid stone foundations – not those of the keep or the bailey walls, but the old Roman walls of Rochester. Only by making a detour could they continue with their tunnelling.

For the defenders trapped inside the keep, it was an agonizing waiting game. There is no indication that they tried any of the advanced techniques of counter-attack above, beyond of course trying to pick off miners with crossbows when they emerged from tunnelling. As with the trebuchets, they could only pin their hopes on the solidity of the tower and its foundations. These, we know, were profound; excavations in the late nineteenth century failed to find the bottom of the walls. Getting right underneath the keep must have been a hellish task.

Finally, however, John’s miners managed it. By 25 November, the mine was ready. Hundreds of tons of masonry were now supported only by wooden pit props. On the same day, John sent a letter to his trusted servant, Sir Hubert de Burgh. ‘We order you,’ he said, ‘to send us forty bacon pigs.’ This was not, however, the makings of a thank-you dinner for the hardworking miners – even a glutton like John would have struggled to finish that many ham sandwiches. The kind of pigs the king wanted, he went on to specify, were ‘the fattest and least good for eating’. It was not food that John was after, but fuel. The unfortunate animals were needed ‘to set fire to the stuff which we have put under the tower at Rochester’.

Once the mine was finished, it would have been stuffed with brushwood, straw and kindling to feed a great fire. How the pig fat was introduced is a matter of debate. An older generation of more imaginative historians envisaged the forty-strong herd being driven into the tunnels while still alive, burning torches tied to their tails. Sadly, modern military experts now think this unlikely; the idea of live pigs running around with firebrands attached is just too farcical, even for King John. It is now believed that the pigs were slaughtered and rendered down for their fat, which was subsequently poured into barrels and rolled into the mine.

With or without an accompaniment of squealing pigs, the scene that followed must have been both horrifying and spectacular. Torches were introduced to the tunnels. Deep underground, the kindling caught and the pig fat crackled. Flames started to lick the fatty wooden props and, as the fire grew to a roar, the props started to snap. Suddenly, the ground above the mine fell away. The great keep shuddered and split. With a final deafening roar, a quarter of the building came crashing to the ground.

The dust had hardly settled before John’s men were pouring into the keep through the gaping hole. Amazingly, in spite of the terror and confusion that the collapse must have caused, the men inside fought on. The south-east corner of the keep had been reduced to rubble, but its great cross-wall remained standing; using this, the rebels mounted a last, desperate line of defence. It was successful: try as they might, the king’s men were still unable to force their way in.

At the start of the siege, John had openly derided his opponents’ stamina.

‘I know them too well,’ he allegedly spat. ‘They are nothing to be accounted of, or feared.’

Having now spent seven weeks besieging them, the king must have felt like eating his words.

In the end, despite all John’s military ingenuity, it was starvation that finally forced the rebels to surrender. By this stage the men in the keep were totally out of supplies, and had been reduced to living on the flesh of their own expensive war-horses. This, says the Barnwell Annalist, ‘was a hard diet for those who were normally used to fine food’. At first the defenders tried to cut their losses by sending out ‘those who seemed the least warlike’: perhaps those too exhausted to fight, or possibly non-military personnel, such as clerics or blacksmiths. John, however, was in no mood for such half-measures. When these men emerged he had them mutilated, lobbing off their hands and feet in an effort to persuade those still inside to surrender. Eventually, lacking the strength to fight on any longer, the remaining rebels gave themselves up. By curious coincidence, it was 30 November – the feast of St Andrew, Rochester’s patron saint. The struggle for the city’s castle had lasted for the best part of two months.

‘Living memory does not recall,’ concluded the Barnwell Annalist, ‘a siege so fiercely pressed, and so staunchly resisted.’

After such a long, costly and bitter struggle, John was apparently in no mind to be merciful. According to one of the chroniclers, the king intended to celebrate his victory by having every member of the rebel garrison hanged. This would not have been entirely out of character – the king was famous for gloating when he had the upper hand. However, according to the same writer, one of John’s foreign captains persuaded him to show clemency in the name of self-interest. The war, he argued, was not yet over. What if John or his allies were themselves captured at some later stage? Better the king should imprison his enemies, rather than start a round of tit-for-tat killing that might end up with his own neck in a noose.

It is doubtful that John really needed to have the logic of this argument explained to him by one of his own men. Showing mercy towards a defeated opponent was perfectly normal behaviour in the early thirteenth century. Ever since 1066, warfare in England had been regulated by the code of chivalry. In John’s day, this had nothing to do with later perversions like laying your cloak over a puddle, or letting your enemy strike the first blow. It meant, in essence, that political killing was taboo. Naturally, this did not apply to the non-noble members of society. John had already demonstrated as much when he ordered the mutilation of the ‘less-than-warlike’ members of Rochester’s garrison during the final stages of the siege. After the surrender, he proved the point a second time by hanging one of the rebel crossbowmen (apparently punished for his treachery – the lowborn bowman had been raised in John’s household). Chivalry was not about a high regard for human life in general; it was a code that condemned killing among the upper classes, based on exactly the kind of enlightened self-interest advocated by John’s foreign captain.

Chivalric self-interest, moreover, extended beyond insuring against future reprisals. The man who spared his noble opponents stood to make a significant profit in the form of ransoms. Prisoners were valuable assets, as John fully appreciated. When the rebels were being clapped into chains, the king personally confiscated the most important ones for himself. For example, William de Albini was despatched to the king’s castle at Corfe, and ended up with a price on his head of £4,000. Having appropriated the choicest prisoners in this manner, John generously distributed the less important individuals among his cronies as gifts.

For the rebels themselves, the defeat at Rochester was a massive blow to their cause, and it left the remaining barons in London feeling totally discouraged. The Barnwell Annalist, concluding his section on the siege of Rochester, commented that ‘there were few who would put their trust in castles’, and he was absolutely right. When John moved into East Anglia at the start of 1216, the castles of Colchester, Framlingham and Hedingham fell in quick succession. All three were mighty stone castles, and before Rochester, men might have hoped to defend them. After the great siege of that autumn, there was no longer the will to do so.

Collaboration of British POWs


Two early recruits to the BFC:SS-Mann Kenneth Berry and SS-Sturmmann Alfred Minchin, with German officers, April 1944.

Collaboration has always been a topic that arouses fierce emotions, and those POWs who went over to the other side or in some way supported the Axis cause have received much coverage. But their numbers were minuscule, and their overall effect minimal. The only real damage came from those who willingly gave information to their captors under interrogation, or acted as stool pigeons to discover intelligence from other unsuspecting prisoners. Although the Germans did use stool pigeons, the prisoners’ fear of them was possibly exaggerated. Bob Prouse certainly believed that he and his comrades were victims of one such informer, who worked his way into their confidence while they were digging an escape tunnel from the work camp at Niederorschel. When the man suddenly disappeared, the tunnel was discovered. A similar occurrence was experienced at Spangenberg, when an unknown officer departed as suddenly as he had arrived, to be followed by an intensive search by the Germans that revealed the presence of a tunnel and much otherwise well-hidden escape material.

One informer with an unusual story was RAF Sergeant Michael Joyce, initially held at the Dulag Luft transit and interrogation camp. The fact that he was a cousin of the infamous collaborator William Joyce – ‘Lord Haw Haw’ – may not have helped his cause, but he aroused suspicions among other prisoners and did nothing to allay their doubts by his friendliness towards the German camp staff. Joyce eventually asked to be transferred from the camp, and in May 1942 he was taken to Rome and then to North Africa via Crete. There he posed either as a representative of the Red Cross, issuing bogus Red Cross forms, or as a fellow POW shot down in North Africa. He was not particularly successful in gaining information from genuine British and American airmen, and following a bout of dysentery he was returned to Germany.

Joyce’s tale then took a bizarre turn when he was ordered to infiltrate one of the civilian escape networks whose lines began on the Luxembourg–Belgium border. Kitted out as a newly downed airman, Joyce managed to contact an escape line, but instead of slipping away to inform his German superiors of the network’s existence he simply carried on down the line to Bordeaux, before arriving in Britain in November 1942.

Joyce kept quiet about his activities as an informer, and was commended for his bravery and initiative, being awarded the Military Medal and promoted to flight lieutenant. It was only after the war that the truth came out. Joyce escaped prosecution, but lost both his MM and his commission.

Another informer became too well known for his own good. Sub Lieutenant E. W. Purdy, a member of the British Union of Fascists before the war, was recruited by the Germans in the Marlag naval camp. He was taken to Berlin, where he joined a number of other British renegades broadcasting anti-British propaganda. While in Berlin he fell out with his German minders and in March 1944 he was sent to Colditz, where he offered his services to the camp officer, Reinhold Eggers. The prisoners in Colditz were always wary of new arrivals unable to vouch for themselves, but Purdy’s misfortune was to be identified as a German sympathizer by Julius Green, then in Colditz but formerly the dental officer at a number of other camps, including Marlag. After interrogation by the security committee and the SBO, Purdy broke down and admitted his past. The SBO, Colonel Willie Todd, then told the commandant that unless Purdy was removed from the camp he would be unable to guarantee his safety. It would seem that this was no idle threat, as, according to one account, some of the Colditz officers had decided that Purdy should be hanged as a traitor there and then. Their intentions were frustrated when Purdy was whisked away after spending just three days in the castle.

The idea of raising a military unit from British POWs to fight on the German side was first raised by the renegade John Amery, a committed fascist who broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda to Britain from Berlin. Although sceptical of the idea, the Germans gave Amery permission to begin recruiting for his grandly titled League of St George in April 1943. He managed to recruit just one member, a 17-year-old ship’s boy from the Saint-Denis internment camp outside Paris. Interest from Hitler saved the project, which was then taken over by the SS. In January 1944 the renamed British Free Corps (BFC) came into being, with the initial intention of raising a platoon of thirty men who could be trained and sent into combat.

Two ‘holiday camps’ had been set up by the Germans, attached to Stalag IIID outside Berlin. Special Detachment 999 was for officers and was establised in a suburban villa at Zehlendorf, but later moved to a country house in Bavaria. Although suspicious of the whole set-up, British officers accepted the offer of short breaks of up to six weeks in pleasant surroundings. To their surprise, no attempt was made to suborn them to the Nazi cause, and it would seem that the ‘holiday’ was just that. (The Anglophile German Foreign Office official and 1944 July Plot conspirator against Hitler Adam von Trott zu Solz implied that he was the inspiration behind the holiday camp, thereby suggesting a benign motivation.)

The camp for other ranks – Special Detachment 517 at Genshagen – was rather more sinister. The camp staff included a few of the men who were to become the nucleus of the BFC, their role being to persuade incoming POWs to join them in the ‘Crusade against Bolshevism’. But little attempt, if any, was made to screen appropriate recruits before arrival, and the vast majority of POWs simply ignored the staff and enjoyed the superior conditions of Genshagen before returning to their parent camps.

Another factor militating against success for the Germans was the presence of camp leader BQMS John Brown, one of the more intriguing and seemingly contradictory figures in the POW system. An Oxford graduate, committed Christian and pre-war member of the British Union of Fascists, Brown was captured in 1940 and sent to the Blechhammer work camp. He used his position as a senior NCO to become a highly successful racketeer, whose blatantly pro-German sympathies were bitterly resented by many of his fellow prisoners. But he was in fact acting as a double agent, having at some point been given access to one of the MI9 letter codes. He was able to get himself sent to Genshagen to run its administration – something beyond the riff-raff who made up the BFC. According to his own account, he managed to sabotage the recruitment efforts of the BFC while sending back reports of the activities of British pro-Nazi sympathizers, including John Amery, to MI9.

During 1944, BFC recruiting leaflets were distributed to POW camps, but were treated with contempt. As Bob Prouse noted, ‘They insulted the intelligence of POWs by expecting us to believe this nonsense. The only result in our lager was one of ridicule and laughter.’ In a few cases BFC members managed to talk to prisoners directly, but once again with very limited success. Despite the recruitment drive the BFC was never able to reach its very modest target of thirty men (it peaked at twenty-seven in January 1945), and, although it began infantry training, it never saw any front-line action. Its members – an assortment of pre-war fascists, malcontents, opportunists and the mentally confused – drank, womanized and quarrelled among themselves until the end of the war. From a German point of view they were a waste of time and resources.

In 1939 the IRA ‘chief of staff’, Sean Russell, suggested to the Germans that they raise an anti-British force from Irishmen in the British Army. The Germans were initially doubtful, but in September 1940 they made some tentative moves towards organizing an Irish Brigade with recruits drawn from German POW camps. Although the initiative received some response, none of the volunteers seem to have had any interest in the German cause. Some went along to monitor what was happening and to report back to the British authorities; others were tempted by the idea of greater freedom and improved conditions. Of nine officers who were sent to a camp for possible recruitment, three were code-writers in contact with MI9. The officers were soon returned to their camps, with the exception of one man who was not even Irish but a journalist looking for a story. Realizing that the Irish were a lost cause, the Germans effectively abandoned the project in 1943.

From a German perspective, a more promising source of recruits was provided by POWs from the Indian Army. The genesis of the Free Indian Legion resulted from the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Germany in January 1941. Bose, an Indian nationalist leader under virtual house arrest in Calcutta, had slipped out of India and, after travelling through Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, had reached Germany in the hope of lobbying Hitler for military support against the British in India. While Hitler and the German Foreign Office debated the issue, the sudden capture of over 1,000 Indian troops in North Africa in May 1941 transformed Bose’s plan to that of raising a German-equipped Free Indian Legion. The number of Indian POWs steadily increased to around 15,000 by the end of 1942, providing a well-stocked pool of potential recruits.

Batches of Indian POWs were sent from Italy and North Africa to the German camp at Annaberg, where they were subjected to an intensive recruitment campaign by civilians from the German-sponsored Free India Centre. Those POWs thought suitable were sent to another camp at Frankenberg for further attempts at persuasion and, if successful, military training. There was certainly an anti-British undercurrent within the Indian POW population that the Free India propagandists were able to exploit with some success: roughly a quarter of those captured went over to the German side – approximately 4,000 men. The figures would have been higher if Bose had not insisted that all recruits start on the bottom rung, thereby alienating NCOs and Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs – ranks roughly between a senior NCO and an officer), who, in addition, had dependants back in India relying on their British pay and subsequent pensions.

Bose’s modernizing zeal extended to abolishing the traditional distinctions of religion, region and caste. Although in many ways commendable, these changes tended to unsettle many of the Indian Legion soldiers. Another unsatisfactory reform was Bose’s choice of Hindustani as the language of command, replacing the Urdu of the British Indian Army. As a consequence, German, English, Urdu and Hindustani were all spoken at various times.

Despite these problems, recruitment and training continued, the intention being to raise a force comparable to a German infantry regiment of three 1,000-strong battalions. A small German staff of senior NCOs and officers would provide overall leadership. By February 1943 the Indian element of the Legion stood at 2,270, and by the summer of 1944 it had reached a maximum strength of 3,115 Indian troops, which with the German staff made a total figure of around 3,500 men. The deployment of the Legion remained a problem. Initial hopes that victory on the Eastern Front would enable it to be used as a spearhead to invade British-occupied India were irrevocably dashed by the spring of 1943. Designated Infanterie Regiment 950, the Legion was initially deployed in the Netherlands in May 1943, performing construction duties, before being transferred to France as part of the German occupation force.

Morale steadily declined. There were outbreaks of violence between different religious groups, and at least one mutiny. The men of the Legion began to feel increasingly isolated from all that was familiar to them. Discipline began to waver, and there were accusations of drunkenness, looting and rape while in France. The historian Milan Hauner wrote of the Legion in France, ‘Without spiritual guidance many Indians saw “Europeanization” as a process of throwing away their own religion and habits. The imitation of Europe sometimes took rather grotesque forms when some of the Indians preferred to speak broken German among themselves rather than Urdu, for instance.’ After the Allied breakout from Normandy the Legion was withdrawn from France – a transfer that included skirmishes with the French Resistance, the Legion’s only form of military action. Stationed first in Alsace and then near the Swiss border in Germany, it took no part in the final battles of 1945 and tamely surrendered to the Americans in April 1945. While the ringleaders of the Legion were court-martialled in India after the war, it was felt by the British that too many men had been either tricked or coerced into joining the Legion to merit any further disciplinary action.

For the Germans, the Free Indian Legion had seemed to show genuine promise, but as it ultimately failed in both the military and propaganda spheres it turned into the largest of their collaborationist white elephants. Perhaps anticipating failure, the Germans seemed half-hearted in their attempts to bring over Allied POWs to their cause. They had some undoubted successes with camp informers, but even there results were limited. The history of Allied POWs in Germany and Italy is one not of collaboration but of sustained and spirited resistance.

Novik – Russian Destroyer Class


Imperial Russian destroyer Novik at anchor in one of the Baltic Fleet ports during peacetime.


The four sub-classes and some variants of these 52 Novik class destroyers are depicted on the following chart.

The Russo-Japanese War taught the Russians some very hard lessons which they took to heart. The first was that naval mines were both an offensive and a defensive weapon. The Japanese had successfully used them to aid in the offensive blockade of Port Arthur and the Russians had used them defensively to keep the Japanese fleet from closing in and shelling the ships in the port. Both sides lost ships and men to mines. The second lesson was the effectiveness of destroyers and torpedo boats as force multipliers to a fleet, especially at night. In the Battle of Tsushima Strait the Japanese employed 21 destroyers and 37 smaller torpedo boats in a night attack that cost the Russians two battleships and two armored cruisers while costing the Japanese merely 3 torpedo boats sunk and a destroyer damaged in a collision with one of the sunk Russian cruisers.

Russian national pride had been badly stung and while nobody sided with discredited Rear Admiral Nikolai Ivanovich Nebogatov, his words to the fleet at their surrender on May 28, 1905 rang true. “You are young, and it is you who will one day retrieve the honor and glory of the Russian Navy.”

One of the first orders of business in rebuilding the Imperial Russian Navy’s honor was to see that they had the means to build their own ships. With the help of the German company AG Vulcan – Stettin they built the Putilovsky shipyard in St. Petersburg. Next the Russian Navy, hampered in their rebuilding efforts by a depleted Imperial Treasury raised funds from the public to help restore the devastated fleet. The navy needed all sorts of ships to replace what they had lost to the Japanese. The easiest class of ships to build for a fledgling shipyard are the smallest ships, fleet torpedo boats, or as they became more popularly known as “destroyers.”

Up to this time “destroyers” were divided into two sub-classes, British style gunboat-type destroyers and German style torpedo boat type destroyers. The first were better armed with one or two 4″ (102 mm) guns plus 3″ (or 12 pounder, 76 mm) secondaries and were designed to protect the fleet from the second type of destroyer, torpedo boats. In fact the first sub-class were sometimes termed “anti-torpedo boat” destroyers and still carried torpedoes, usually in one double or two single launchers. The true torpedo boat destroyers sacrificed artillery armament to merely two 3.5″ (88 mm) guns to instead carry more of their deadly “fish,” but usually no more than four torpedo tubes (four singles or two double tubes) to such a destroyer. Destroyers averaged from 500-600 tons (normal) displacement on the smaller classes such as the German G136 class to 900-1000 tons (normal) displacement on the larger classes such as the first British Royal Navy Tribal class. Despite the attempts to design fuel oil only ships, such as the Tribals, most destroyers were still coal fueled limiting endurance. And while the British tried to reach 38-39 knots with the large Swift class Destroyer Leaders in reality they barely managed to best 35 knots briefly during two years of experimentation and sea trials. Most destroyers were merely 30-32 knot ships.

The Russian Navy called for something radically different from any of the destroyers then being built in the world. First they decided they would actually achieve the Royal Navy’s goal of a 38-39 knot destroyer with a ship that was more seaworthy, had both more guns and torpedoes than either of the two sub-classes of destroyers and would be capable of laying large number of naval mines from the stern at high speed. The specific parameters were a 1200 ton (normal), 1500 tons (maximum) displacement meaning a larger destroyer than contemporary designs, what other navies would call a destroyer leader but what the Russians termed a “universal destroyer” type. A design contest was held and teams reached out to the best shipbuilders in the world. The top design would be built not in a foreign yard but in Russia using equipment from the company that designed it. The resulting prototype would be the basis for all future Imperial Russian destroyers for a generation.

World War One

Following sea trials and commissioning in the Imperial Russian Navy the Novik was assigned to the Baltic Fleet first as a member of the Cruiser Brigade and based alternately out of Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland or Kronstadt, Russia. When World War I broke out the Russian Imperial Navy executed war plans to stop the commerce of vital war materials from Sweden to Germany, in particular Swedish steel and iron ore. The most effective way they saw to blockade the Germans and to sink merchant ships was through naval mine warfare, a specialty of the Novik.

The plan was simple, Novik and other destroyers would slip out of port at early evening reaching the target area after dusk. Navigating carefully in the dark they sail parallel planting naval mines across a grid and exit the area before the Germans were the wiser. When there were opportunities to attack enemy shipping the Russians would take it. By morning the tired crews would be safe back in port. The Germans had the same idea only to mine Russian ports. This inevitably led to encounters between the two forces.

Novik’s first combat sortie was as an escort to the armored cruiser Rurik, flagship of the Cruiser Brigade. On September 1, 1914. A large flotilla of German destroyers of the IV Battle Group led by a the SMS Augsburg, a Kolberg-class (Tier III in WoWs) light cruiser was laying mines in the Eastern Baltic. The Germans spotted the Russians and immediately began to withdraw as they were outgunned. For forty minutes Novik pursued Augsburg, but the sea state was too high to allow the Russians to overtake the Germans.

Later that same month it was Novik’s turn to lay mines in enemy waters. Leading four other destroyers they repeatedly headed into the south-western and southern parts of the Baltic Sea. This was the Kaiserliche Marine’s training grounds as well as having sea lanes for transports between Germany and Sweden. The minelaying was successful as several German ships were damaged or sunk by mines during the ensuing months including the old armored cruiser SMS Friedrich Carl which was sunk on November 17, 1914 and light cruisers SMS Augsburg and SMS Gazelle which were damaged on the night of January 24-25, 1915.

The mine-laying was not without its’ hazards and losses, even from the Russians’ own mines. On December 12, 1914 the Russian destroyers Isopolnitelni and Letuchi were both lost. The two old Lovki class torpedo destroyers (1906, 400 tons, two 21″/457mm tubes) are lost during a snow storm off Odensholm Island during a planned minelaying operation southwest of the Russian port of Liepāja, (Libau in German) Latvia (Courland to the Germans, see map above). Ispolnitelni sinks after one of her own mines explodes upon hitting the water. Letuchi flounders and then rolls in the heavy seas trying to turn to rescue the freezing crew from the water. Few if any men survive from the two ships.

In Spring, 1915 Kaiserliche Marine had been attacking the Russian held port city of Libau while the German Army pushed to take the city by land. By this time Novik had been transferred to become the flagship of the Baltic Fleet’s Destroyer Division based in the Gulf of Riga, Latvia. Novik on the night of May 6-7, 1915 led ten destroyers to mine the approaches to Libau so the Germans would get a rude surprise when they moved in after capturing the port. The Russian cruiser covering force engaged the Germans and did minor damage to the Bremen class light cruiser SMS München but the real damage was to the Dutch built torpedo boat destroyer V-107 which had its bow blown off as it attempted to enter the harbor. V-107 becomes a total loss. After capture by the German Army Libau becomes an important base for the German Baltic Fleet.

On July 1, 1915 Novik was back escorting the Rurik on a sortie. They were to rendezvous with the Cruiser Brigade but missed them in a fog. Meeting the rest of the force on July 2nd, Novik and Rurik intercepted a German convoy escorted by cruisers and destroyers. Due to a false submarine sighting reported to the flagship the Russians turned away and the German vessels were able to escape. Remember, these early Russian ships didn’t have hydrophones or depth charge racks, the latter would’ve been in the way of the mine-laying tracks.

On August 8, 1915 the German High Seas Fleet attempted to put an end to the Russian Baltic Fleet. After transferring several major combat units they assembled 4 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 6 cruisers, 4 light cruisers and 56 destroyers plus 31 minesweepers and torpedo boats to the fleet of ships attempted to break through the Russian minefields into Riga Bay, sink the major Russian capital ships, especially the battleship Slava and mine Moon Sound (Muhu Sound) to trap the rest of the Russians. The Germans failed to accomplish their objects in the Battle of the Gulf of Riga except to slightly damage the Slava and for the Imperial Russian Navy it was a great victory against a superior force. Novik was there in nearly every major action of the campaign.

As part of the campaign, on the night of August 17-18th, 1915 the Germans attempted to put a stop to mine-laying by Novik’s flotilla and if possible, torpedo the damaged Slava. Two of Germany’s newest destroyers were dispatched into the Riga Bay to find and sink the Russian destroyers. These were the V-99 and V-100, built with Blohm und Voss equipment that was made for four new Novik class destroyers already laid down in the Putilovsky shipyard but the boilers and engines were seized by the Germans at the start of the war. The V-99 class Torpedo Zerstroyers were a nearly a match for the Novik class in size and speed reaching 36.5 knots and are similarly armed with four main guns and two twin torpedo tubes plus two single torpedo tubes for six in all.

In the dark the two German destroyers encounter two Russian destroyers laying mines. Immediately both sides opened fire but in the pitch black missed each other and so they broke contact.

At 2300 hours one of the destroyers radios a warning to be on the lookout for the German ships. Novik on patrol in Irben Strait, the Western exit from the Bay of Riga, acknowledges the warning along with the rest of the flotilla on their stations.

At 0010 hours the alerted Russians in two more of Novik’s flotilla spot the V-99 and V-100, lighting them up with their spotlights. At a range of 600 meters both sides open up on each other but again the gunnery is ineffective. The Russians even fire torpedoes but in their haste they didn’t correctly set the depth and so the fish run under the keels of the enemy. After three minutes the Germans run out of the range of the searchlights and are gone.

The Germans couldn’t negotiate the Russian minefields in the dark so they play cat and mouse with the pursing Russian destroyers till morning when they can escape. At one point they are challenged in the predawn darkness by the Mikhailovsky lighthouse keepers but when they failed to give the proper recognition signals their route is known and sent out. As luck would have it the pair found their nemesis, Novik in the morning light barring their escape. At a range of 8.8 km Novik opens fire. The bigger 4″/60 caliber (102 mm) guns of Novik outrange the German 88’s (3.5″) guns. Soon V-99 is damaged from the volleys fired by Novik’s gunners with hits that punch holes in the center funnel collapsing it and starts a fire on the quarterdeck. V-100 comes to its stricken sister-ship’s aid by trying to lay a smokescreen but Novik’s gunners shift their fire to V-100 soon setting blazes on her deck and superstructure. All three ships are maneuvering wildly and the firing rate diminishes as both sides’ vision is obscured by the smoke and their gun crews tire. Just when it looks like the Germans may escape to their allies the pair veer into the Russian minefields and V-99 strikes a mine sinking quickly. The V-100, heavily damaged, limps home miraculously avoiding the mines that claimed her comrade. Novik has won without a single sailor lost and only minimal damage to the ship.

The next day the German fleet, licking their wounds, withdrew from the Gulf of Riga. The campaign was over. The minor damage to the battleship Slava and slight damage to destroyer Novik were the only accomplishments the Germans had besides breaching the Russian minefields themselves. It cost them the battlecruiser SMS Moltke damaged by a British submarine HMS E-1, destroyer V-99 sunk plus V-100 badly damaged by Novik and the T-46, T-52 and T-58 minesweepers sunk.

Following this action Novik continued his stellar combat career. During the night of November 20, 1915 Novik led seven Russian destroyers to attack German patrols off Windau. Novik sank the auxiliary patrol boat Norburg by first disabling it with gunfire and then torpedoing it. The flotilla escaped before German reinforcements could arrive.

On November 25, 1915 the Germans lose another cruiser to Russian mines, this time the SMS Danzig, a Bremen class light cruiser that is knocked out of action south of the Island of Gotland, Sweden by a newly laid minefield. On December 17, 2015 the SMS Bremen and the destroyer V-191 are both lost to mines off German-occupied Courland between Windau and Lyserort. A few days later on December 23rd the destroyer S-177 also hits one of the Novik flotilla’s mines and sinks.

On January 13, 1916 it a third of the Bremen class light cruisers’ turn, the SMS Lubeck, to be severely damaged on one of Novik flotilla’s mines. Finally the Baltic freezes enough to give the Germans a brief two month reprieve until the sea ice breaks up enough for naval operations to resume.

On the night of May 13, 1916, Novik led two of his flotilla in search of German iron ore convoys sailing along the Swedish coast. They found a convoy of ten freighters escorted by four auxiliary patrol boats near Häfringe Island. The freighters fled for Swedish waters while the escorts turned to engage the Russians. The Russians sank the auxiliary cruiser Hermann but believing the rest of the convoy escorts to be far stronger than they actually were they allowed the freighters to escape.

On May 27, 1916 the Germans lose another ship, this time a U-boat, U-10, believed to have struck a Russian mine off of the Island of Dago in the Gulf of Finland.

On August 15, 1916 the dense Russian minefields in the Irben Strait guarding the southern passage into the Gulf of Riga continue to take a toll of German warships. Screening minesweeping operations, V-162 hits a Russian mine and goes down off Lyserort on the Courland coast.

The First Russian Revolution of 1917

In Spring 1917 after the St. Petersburg March Revolution the Duma forces Czar Nikolas II to abdicate. The Provisional Government continues the war against the Central Powers but morale is sinking faster than ships on mines. The Germans see this as an opportunity and plan to exploit it. The begin planning Operation Albion to finally knock the Baltic Fleet out of the Bay of Riga. It will involve a naval invasion of the West Estonian Archipelago (Moonsund Archipelago) by 20,000 army soldiers supported by the fleet. It is set for October, 1917.

During the Battle of Moon Sound (Muhu Sound) the German fleet attempted to destroy the forces trapped in the Riga Bay following the German’s successful capture of the islands at the mouth of Riga Bay on October 16, 1917. There was a running naval battle for the next three days in which Novik helped cover the retreat of the fleet. While many other ships were lost Novik escaped unharmed.

The Second Russian Revolution of 1917

On October 26, 1917 the crew of the Novik joined the October Revolution on the Bolshevik side. Novik spent the last few days of 1917 under the command of the revolutionary Bolshevik Baltic Fleet participating in the defense of the Strait of Muhu. During the winter of 1917-1918, Novik took part in the Ice Cruise of the Baltic Fleet, Novik left Helsinki for the port of Kronstadt. Novik was laid up from September 9, 1918 until the end of the Russian Civil War.

When the Soviet Navy was organized in January 1923 the Novik was still on the Navy List. Novik was extensively rebuilt between September 26, 1925 and August 30, 1929 in preparations to turn the ship in a Flotilla Leader and recommissioned as the Yakov Sverdlov (Яков Свердлов).

Yakov Sverdlov’s rearmost set of twin torpedo tubes was removed, the three 4″/60 caliber (102 mm) guns on the quarterdeck were moved forward and a 3″ (76 mm) “Lender” anti-aircraft gun was mounted at the very rear of the quarterdeck, which seriously obscured the arc of fire of the rear 4″ gun. The three remaining twin sets of torpedo tubes were exchanged for triple launchers and repositioned, increasing the total number of torpedo tubes from eight to nine. The bridge structure was enlarged and the deckhouse immediately aft of the fourth funnel was removed and a new, larger deckhouse was added about 30 ft (9 meters) aft of the fourth funnel. The masts were repositioned and reinforced with supporting legs while the forward funnel was heightened by 6.6 ft (2 meters) to further protect the bridge crew from heat and fumes.

During the interwar years Yakov Sverdlov served in the Baltic Fleet as a second class destroyer. Yakov Sverdlov was overhauled again at the end of the 1930’s receiving two to four 45 mm (1.8″) model 21-K AA guns. This again increased her tonnage. On 23 April 1940 the Yakov Sverdlov was redesignated as a training ship and assigned to the training squadron of the M.V. Frunze Higher Naval School in Leningrad.

World War Two

When the Germans invaded in 1941 the destroyer reactivated and was assigned to the Baltic Fleet’s 3rd Destroyer Division.

In late August, 1941, while under the command of Captain 2nd class A.M. Spiridonov, the Yakov Sverdlov took part in the evacuation of the Baltic Fleet from Tallinn to Kronstadt (112 ships, 23 support vessels). During the 15 evacuation ships were sunk (5 destroyers, two submarines, two patrol boats, 3 minesweepers, one gunboat, destroyer leader and a cruiser,) also 51 transport ships and support vessels were lost. During the escape the destroyer was assigned to the protection of the flagship, the cruiser Kirov. While providing escort on August 28, 1941, the Yakov Sverdlov struck a German mine near Mohni Islands in the Gulf of Finland and was sunk.