The Grand Admiral Part II

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Dönitz’s handling of these problems calls to mind those earlier reports of his ‘ability and quick perception of essentials …’ in staff appointments, and his deftness in dealing with other ministries. This was particularly noticeable in his handling of the Führer himself. In three apparently effortless stages he not only reversed the edict on scrapping the big ships, but turned the whole naval production situation round. The initial steps were taken during his first conference with the Führer on February 8th; Hitler agreed in principle that no more skilled workers engaged in U-boat construction or repairs should be called up for the Army; the next day he agreed that the big ships should be ordered out to battle as soon as a worthwhile target appeared, and that once out they should be allowed to operate on the force Commander’s initiative without any restrictions such as Hitler himself and the naval staff had imposed on earlier sorties. It is interesting that the British naval intelligence assessment of Dönitz’s character led them to predict that his appointment as C-in-C would lead to the big ships being used to attack the northern convoys or to attempt a desperate break-out into the Atlantic.

At his next meeting with the Führer on February 26th, Dönitz said that in his opinion the Archangel convoys with war supplies for Russia would make excellent targets for the surface forces and he considered it his duty, in view of the heavy fighting on the eastern front, to exploit this possibility to the full. To Hitler’s disbelief he went on to propose the despatch of the Scharnhorst to reinforce the Tirpitz—both condemned in his earlier plans—in northern Norway for the purpose.

Hitler objected that he was strongly opposed to any further surface ship engagements since, beginning with the Graf Spee, they had led to one loss after another. ‘The time for great ships is over. I would rather have the steel and nickel from these ships than send them into battle again.’

There were strong grounds for this view; the Pacific war had demonstrated that the gunned surface warship had been mastered by air power, and German naval-air co-operation had not begun to meet the challenge. However, Dönitz countered by implying again that the previous failures of German surface units had been due to restrictions placed on the force Commanders.

Hitler denied that he had ever issued orders of that sort, and contrasted the lack of fighting spirit shown in the surface ships with the bitter fighting by German soldiers on the eastern front and said how unbearable it was to see Russian strength built up continually by the northern convoys.

Dönitz seized his chance: he would consider it his duty, instead of decommissioning the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst, to send them into action whenever suitable targets for them could be found.

After further discussion at which both stuck to their guns, Hitler said finally, ‘We will see who is right. I will give you six months to prove that the big ships can still achieve something.’

There was a price to pay for Dönitz’s victory; as Michael Salewski, author of one of the few scholarly works on the German naval High Command, has pointed out, from that moment on Dönitz was under pressure to use the heavy ships in the way he had promised; their success was in the nature of a wager struck between the two men, the stake the big ships themselves.

In his efforts to gain more steel for the Navy, continuing through the spring, Dönitz fully convinced Hitler of the necessity for his expanded programme but there were so many other urgent priorities for the fighting in the east and so little steel that the matter was only fully resolved when he allowed Speer to take over naval construction. This was what Speer had been attempting to gain from Raeder; that Dönitz agreed to it—with suitable safeguards in the shape of a naval shipbuilding commission under his own nominee, Rear Admiral Topp—demonstrates his excellent sense of priorities. The scheme was fought through in the teeth of the naval construction department under Admiral Fuchs, whom Dönitz wanted to sack, but he could find no replacement for some time. While there was still a chance of rational production it proved itself: Speer had virtually the entire production resources of the Reich at his disposal and could exploit the materials and manpower in this vast empire better than individual services fighting their own corner. The measure also released Dönitz from one of Raeder’s constant frustrations, allowing him to devote more time to operations.

The Battle of the Atlantic was now at its height; from Dönitz’s point of view there were several disturbing developments. The first, noted in January, was the success with which the enemy routed his convoys around U-boat groups and the fact, confirmed by intercepts of allied U-boat disposition reports, that they had a very accurate knowledge of where the groups were. Hessler and the 1A Operations, Kapitänleutnant Schnee, made a detailed analysis of all the information probably available to the allies from bearings of U-boat wireless transmissions, sightings, radar contacts and U-boat attacks on ships, matched this with the allied reports and came to the conclusion that it was possible—except in one or two unexplained instances—for the enemy to have arrived at their precise knowledge by these means.

Dönitz’s suspicion of treachery was strong, nonetheless, and every member of the U-boat staff at am Steinplatz was subjected to investigation within the department; this turned up indiscreet French liaisons but no traitor. Finally only Dönitz and Godt remained to be vetted. ‘Shall I investigate you,’ Godt asked, ‘or will you investigate me?’

Meanwhile, despite the conviction of the communications experts that the enemy could not have broken the Enigma codes, Dönitz had ordered U-boats at sea to use the fourth rotor in their enciphering machine. It was a good move; the cryptanalyists at Bletchley Park had broken in again on the previous December 13th and the accurate situation reports were in fact based on decrypts. The fourth rotor blacked them out for a while, but they soon broke in again. B-Dienst was reading the allied convoy routing signals at the same time and as the speed of both sides’ decrypts varied randomly from a few hours to several days it is hardly possible to say which had the edge, nor is it important; this climax of the U-boat campaign was decided on other factors.

The most potent of these was manifesting itself to U-boat Command by a sharply increased rate of losses of boats on the way to or from their Biscay bases. The war diary for March 23rd noted:

between November 1942 and January 1943 enemy air activity against U-boats had little result but since February its effect has increased to an alarming extent. We cannot tell whether this is due to improved location gear or more suitable types of aircraft …

There had been suspicions for several weeks that a new type of radar location was being used since Commanders were reporting being attacked by aircraft at night or out of low cloud without any warning from their Metox radar search receivers now in use on all boats. It seemed as if the enemy had deliberately developed a location device working on frequencies outside the range of this warning apparatus.

These were indeed the first signs of a very short wave allied radar operating on a wave length of only 10 cm instead of the old 1·5 m, designed not to outwit the boats’ receivers, but to gain greater range and definition. By these early months of 1943 the revolutionary set was being fitted to surface escorts as well as aircraft. As for the aircraft, the Boeings, Beaufighters, Liberators and Fortresses probing Biscay outmatched the few Junkers possessed by the Air Commander, Atlantic, who did not expect anything better in the near future. ‘There will be further particularly painful losses,’ Godt predicted.

Yet, despite all difficulties it was still possible towards the end of March for Dönitz to believe that with more boats and a tremendous effort he could win. The latest battle in the North Atlantic had resulted in the biggest success ever for U-boat packs against convoys.

The operation had been set off by B-Dienst, on top form, supplying U-boat Command absolutely current routing instructions for Convoy HX 229 eastbound off the US coast. On Dönitz’s instructions other operations had been broken off and all boats in the area formed into three patrol lines, Raubgraf (robber baron), Stürmer (daredevil) and Dränger (Harrier) across their route. While the boats were speeding to their positions B-Dienst intercepted new allied routing instructions for the convoy and another nearby convoy, SC122, which was also heading east; these were designed to steer the convoys around the northernmost Raubgraf line, which had revealed its presence by attacking a westbound convoy. The U-boat lines were now re-positioned and early in the morning of March 16th, U 603 of Raubgraf found herself in very heavy weather in the midst of one of the convoys. She reported and shadowed in exemplary fashion and U-boat Command ordered half the available boats towards her convoy, then after an intercept by B-Dienst suggested that the other convoy had passed, ordered all boats at full speed towards her position.

By dusk that evening seven boats were in contact, working their way ahead on the surface into attack positions, and at 10 o’clock U 603 herself opened the action from inside the escorts, scoring one hit. The other boats came in at half-hour intervals throughout the night, hitting another seven merchantmen although reporting rather more. The five escorts, meanwhile, who had to spend much of their time in rescue work, damaged two of the boats in depth charge attacks.

At the same time one of the Stürmer boats, U 388, heading towards the scene found herself in the midst of another convoy, actually SC 122, and attacked, scoring four hits. There was some confusion at U-boat Command about whether this was the second convoy or whether she had made a mistake in navigation, but the situation clarified during the next day, and orders were sent out distributing the boats roughly equally between the two convoys. Meanwhile reports of sinkings amounting to fourteen ships of 90,000 tons and a further six damaged had induced high spirits at U-boat Command, where the staff had been up all night. Godt sent a jaunty signal to all boats in the style of his chief. Dönitz was in Italy at this time, but it is possible he dictated the order by telephone.

Bravo! Dranbleiben! Weiter so!’ (‘Bravo! Keep at it! Carry on like that!’)

The convoys were in the central Atlantic ‘air gap’ now but approaching the extreme limit of very long range Liberators stationed in Northern Ireland, and one of these ordered out that morning reached the leading convoy, SC 122, and forced two of the shadowing boats to dive; she could not stay for long, however, and in the interval before the arrival of another aircraft, U 388 was able to work ahead into position for an underwater attack and she sank another merchantman. Similar underwater attacks were made on the original HX convoy which lacked air cover and three of whose escorts were attending merchantmen crippled the previous night; two more ships were sunk.

More and more boats were homing in meanwhile to both convoys but the appearance of Liberators shortly before dusk forced them to dive, and probably because the weather was still bad and the convoys made the usual dusk alterations throwing off the shadowers contact was not regained until the following day. By this time the actions were moving out of the ‘air gap’ and the boats were constantly forced to dive by the appearance of shore-based aircraft. They hung on nevertheless for another two days and nights, sinking another seven merchantmen until continuous air cover around the convoys made prospects hopeless. Before the operation was finally called off one boat was sunk when attacked by aircraft through squall clouds.

Analysing the results at U-boat Command it was noted that ‘As in so many actions the surprise attacks on the first night were the most successful …’ but then owing to the appearance of land-based aircraft ‘the U-boats from the second day on had a hard struggle’. Results were assessed as 32 ships totalling 186,000 tons and one destroyer sunk, and nine other ships hit. ‘This is so far the greatest success obtained in a convoy battle and more gratifying in that nearly 50 per cent of the boats shared in it.’ The Propaganda Ministry, badly needing good news, boosted the tonnage to 204,000 and early in April, as a further propaganda exercise, Hitler presented Dönitz with the oak leaves of the Knight’s Cross in recognition of the triumph and the total March sinking figures of 779,533 tons (actually 627,300 tons) which closely approached the record set the previous November.

The actual results of the battle were 22 merchantmen of a total 146,596 tons sunk (no destroyer hit) against only one U-boat destroyed; the shock impelled both Roosevelt and Churchill to intervene personally; as a result more destroyers were made available for ‘support groups’ to reinforce the convoy escorts under attack, and more long-range Liberators were provided to close the ‘air gap’. In this sense the U-boats’ undoubted triumph in the four-days’ battle, March 16–19th, hastened their ultimate defeat—for it seems that the allied chiefs of staff needed such a jolt to remind them of the Casablanca Conference decision that the defeat of the U-boats was their first priority.

In another sense, the balance was bound to tip against Dönitz at some stage, and the process was already well under way. On the very day that the U-boat Command war diary noted ‘the greatest success so far obtained in a convoy battle’ the British Commander of the Western Atlantic defences, Admiral Sir Max Horton, wrote to a friend, ‘I really have hopes now that we can turn from the defence to another and better role—killing them.’ He went on:

The real trouble has been basic—too few ships, all too hard worked with no time for training… The Air of course is a tremendous factor, & it is only recently that the many promises that have been made show signs of fulfilment so far as shore-based air is concerned, after three and a half years of war … All these things are coming to a head just now and although the last week has been one of the blackest on the sea, so far as this job is concerned I am really hopeful.

The U-boats’ successes had been made possible by the diversion of allied resources to the North African landings, the Pacific campaign and to bombing raids over Europe, aimed first at knocking out the U-boat bases and, when it proved impossible to penetrate the giant concrete shelters provided by Todt and Speer, to crippling German industry in the Ruhr. There were already more than enough long range Liberators to cover the whole North Atlantic convoy routes, and if a fraction of the effort devoted to these ‘offensive’ raids had been spent on the protection of convoys Dönitz’s gloomy forecasts of the late summer of 1942 must have been fulfilled and a great many allied ships and fives saved—not to mention civilians in France and Germany who also paid the price for the mistaken bombing policy. In this sense the crisis in which the allies found themselves in the spring of 1943—and which Dönitz and most German authorities on the U-boat war have used to claim that the Atlantic battle was a close-run thing—was entirely self-induced. There was never a possibility that the U-boats which Dönitz was throwing into the attack could have cut the Atlantic lifeline; directly they threatened to do so, allied resources must have been re-allocated from so-called offensive operations to the defence of this vital artery, and since the contemporary German U-boat had been rendered obsolete by improved aircraft performance and weaponry, his surface and group tactics by radar, this must have proved fatal.

Storming the “Halls of Montezuma”

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After the Mexican War battle of Churubusco on August 20, 1847, Mexico’s General Santa Anna tricked U.S. General Scott into two unfavorable maneuvers. First, he agreed to declare a truce to establish peace negotiations, but this was a ruse. Even while Santa Anna sold supplies to the American invaders, he quietly reinforced his army to 18,000 men while the American force was down to 8,000 effectives.

The second trick was passing false intelligence to Gen. Scott. Santa Anna led Scott to believe that at Molino del Ray, the stronghold west of Mexico City and one mile west of the Hill of Chapultepec, housed a cannon foundry where they were melting brass church bells into heavy cannon. The Americans attacked Molino, and it turned into a costly victory where 750 Americans were killed, and every remaining wounded American was murdered by the Mexicans. After inspection, Scott discovered that there was no foundry there. The heavy losses at Molino brought the six companies of U.S. Marines into battle.

Mexico City was a formidable target. Surrounded by marshes and with approaches via eight causeways, Scott faced obstacles similar to those Cortez had experienced 329 years earlier. Since the southern approach to the capital was heavily fortified, the American plan was to attack from the west at the two garitos or gates to the city. Each garito bristled with cannon positioned to rake the roadway. Scott’s line then was Molino, then Chapultepec, then the two gates leading into the city. One causeway was the Garita de Belen, another headed north two miles to the Garita de San Cosme.

The Hill of Chapultepec, 200 feet above the surrounding plain, was 600 yards wide, surrounded by a ditch and a 12-foot wall, and topped by a palace that had been made into a military school. It was fortified into a makeshift fortress as the Americans advanced on the capital.

The castle had once been a resort of the Aztec princes. The hill was steep all around except for a slope on the west where the Marines decided to attack. It had a sand-bag barricade at the entryway, and the hillside was mined with charges that were fused to be set off from the fortress.

Generals Scott and Worth regarded the fortress as impregnable. Even though it was vulnerable to American bombardment, both officers were grim on the prospect, and Gen. Worth thought, “we shall be defeated.” The hill was a fearsome objective to assault—but if taken, the army would then be able to move onto the causeways leading into the capital.

Two storming parties of 250 men each were assembled. The Marines were assigned to the 4th Division commanded by Army Brigadier General John Quitman, a Mississippian. The Americans moved out of the tree cover and faced the mined hillside that led to the retaining wall of the castle terrace.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, September 13, the attack began. Quitman’s men attacked the southern side of Chapultepec. Captain Silas Casey led an assault party of 120 hand-picked soldiers and Marines under Marine Major Levi Twiggs, and 40 Marines commanded by Marine Captain John Reynolds. They faced 1,000 Mexican troops inside the fortress.

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U.S. Marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag.

The Halls of Montezuma

Chapultepec, also known as “the castle,” was an ancient Mexican shrine as well as a recent fortress. Three hundred years before the U.S. war, this had been the summer palace, replete with fountains, of Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor. In 1783, a Spanish viceroy built a new citadel on top of the ruins of the old palace. Surrounded by a huge retaining wall was a broad terrace that made for excellent cannon placement.

Around 1840, the Mexicans made this structure into their National Military Academy. Like at West Point, the young cadets learned military arts in their gray uniforms and tasseled blue caps. About one hundred of the cadets, though ordered to evacuate their school, stayed on and proudly fought to defend this memorial to Mexican history.

Six cadets became the boy heroes of Chapultepec. Those who died were: Vicente Suarez, age 13; Francisco Marquez, 14; Fernando Montes de Ora, 17; Agustin Melgar, 18; Juan de la Barrera, 20; and Juan Escutia, 20.

Cadet Escutia reportedly took the Academy flag from its staff, wrapped it around his body, and valiantly plunged to his death on the rocks below the castle rather than see the flag surrendered to the Americans.

 

Two of Chapultepec’s guns were soon disabled by American battery fire, and the disheartened Mexican soldiers began to desert. From the terrace came a murderous rain of grapeshot and musketry. General Pillow was struck in the ankle, but the whole American force flowed over the redoubt. The Americans were able to cut the canvas powder line that led to the mines and none exploded.

The Marines struggled up the steep southern side, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets and clubbed rifles. Corporal Hugh Graham and five Marines were killed.

Casey and Twiggs fell wounded, the latter fatally, and they stopped 200 yards short of the guns. Scaling ladders finally reached the Americans. They bridged the ditch and their first wave was mowed down by the Mexicans. So many ladders rose, seemingly at once, that 50 men were up abreast. “And with a shout of victory, the great body of troops rushed over” the walls and gained the castle.

The Americans turned the Mexican guns around, relieving the pressure on Quitman’s column. The Mexicans fell back and the Americans charged the castle’s main gates. The Mexicans fled so hastily that they “jumped down the eastern side of the rock, regardless of the height.”

The young cadets who had refused to desert the school fought to the end. The six boys were killed, as an American correspondent put it, “fighting like demons.” They were to be called Los Ninos Heroicos—the heroic children.

Mexican officers watching their defeat from a distance said, “God is a Yankee,” as Americans from both sides reached the castle. At 9:30 a.m., an American flag was raised over the fortress.

Marine Captain George Terrett led First Lieutenant John Simms, Second Lieutenant Charles Henderson (son of the Commandant), and 36 men to skirt the heights and pursue the retreating enemy northeasterly towards the city itself. Terrett and his Marines raced up the road under heavy fire. Twenty infantry, led by Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, the future General and American President, joined them as they fought their way up the San Cosme causeway. They were the spearhead of the army contingent.

Casualties were severe until the Americans remembered the tactic they used at Monterey—breaking their way through the walls of buildings and hauling their guns through them. This tactic also enabled them to fire from the roofs.

General Worth’s bugles sounded recall. Terrett went back to report, but Simms and Henderson attacked with 85 men. The gate was too heavily defended to rely on a frontal assault alone, so Marine Lieutenants Simms and Jabez Rich led seven marines to attack from the left. Four were hit. Henderson, wounded in the leg, attacked from the front. Two more men were hit, but together, the two groups seized San Cosme gate as darkness fell.

Worth again sounded recall and the Marines and soldiers withdrew. Six Marines had been killed. Once Chapultepec fell, Quitman moved his division under fire east on the Belen causeway with the Marine battalion right behind a South Carolina regiment. At the Belen gate, they were stopped by enemy fire and Marine Private Tom Kelly was killed. Finally, at 1:20 p.m., the Marines and infantry carried the gate. At dawn on the 14th, Quitman and Worth prepared to assault the city through the two entrances—but Santa Anna had already pulled out.

Though Scott was angry at Quitman for the costliness of his attack on Belen, he felt the Mississippian and his Marines had earned the honor of formally taking the city. Within hours, he would appoint Quitman Mexico City’s military governor.

The Americans hardly looked the part of a conquering army. The victorious General Quitman wore only one shoe as he marched at the head of his ragged, blood-stained troops. Only about six thousand Americans remained on their feet—little more than half of those who had left Puebla.

Quitman’s men walked through the crowded streets into the Grand Plaza and took the National Plaza, where before had stood the halls of Montezuma. The Marines were stationed to guard the Palace. The U.S. Marines were now patrolling the halls of Montezuma. In the spring, the veterans were joined by a new 2nd Marine battalion of 367 men commanded by Major John Harris.

On February 2, 1848, the Mexicans accepted peace as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Even though the U.S. was victorious, they agreed to pay Mexico 15 million dollars in cash for the land they coveted. Mexico had lost half her territory—an area larger than France and Germany combined. The American boundary with Mexico would run from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Rio Grande, to the New Mexican border. Then it would continue west to the Pacific at a point one league, or three miles, south of San Diego.

The outspoken Duke of Wellington called Gen. Scott “the greatest living soldier.” It had been Scott’s flexibility and imagination, his attention to reconnaissance, and his tendency to strike from an unexpected side that supplied the tactics that won the war. In addition, he had the support of solid officers like Thomas (later Stonewall) Jackson, Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, P.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis. Only 13 years later, all of these men would become major players in the American Civil War.

With this victory, the expansion of the continental United States from coast to coast was now complete. And, in addition to Mexico, the Marines had also captured the opening words to their future Marine Hymn.

MUSTANG IN KOREA

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Lt A.E. Helseth, a young American U.S. Air Force pilot with barely 200 hours of Mustang flight time in his logbook, was flying in a section of Republic of Korea Air Force F-51s led by Major Dean Hess on the afternoon of July 10th 1950. Lt. Helseth was one of a group of American volunteer pilots serving with the ROKAF in the early days of the Korean War. The small force was heading for Chonan when Helseth realized that his radio was not working. At the same moment he happened to spot two North Korean tanks on a road below and tried without success to attract the attention of the others in his flight. He then broke away from the formation, dove and attacked one of the tanks.

After putting his target out of action, he became lost and looked around for a landmark he recognized. Instead, he found and proceeded to shoot up nine trucks and a half-track as he followed the road south. Still lost, and rapidly running out of fuel, Helseth chose to belly-land the Mustang before lack of fuel would force him down. As he approached the town of Haedong, he spotted what appeared to be a park and safely set the fighter down on the grass. That had been the easy part of the mission. Walking and hitchhiking back to his base at Taegu took him the next five days.

Spearheaded by masses of Russian-built T-34 tanks, units of the North Korean army rolled across the 38th parallel in an assault against Kaesong and Chunchon in South Korea on the morning of Sunday, June 25th 1950. As the Japanese had done less than a decade earlier at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the North Koreans chose to attack on a Sunday morning, when any response or resistance was likely to be minimal.

The Second World War had ended less than five years before this outbreak of new hostilities in Asia. On that June Sunday, 897 F-51 and thirty-eight RF-51 Mustang fighters remained in the U.S. Air Force active inventory. A further 764 Mustangs were then being operated by the U.S. Air National Guard. The F-51Ds had sufficient supplies of spare parts, so they were chosen to go back to war and again, as in 1942, they went in a close-support role.

The first Mustangs to enter combat in the Korean Conflict, as it was then known, were the F-82 Twin Mustangs of the 68th and 339th All-Weather Fighter Squadrons. Ed Schmued: “Many people think the F-82 is nothing but two P-51 fuselages joined together by the wing. This is not the case. It was a completely new design. Nothing of the P-51, except the design principles and powerplant group, was used on this new venture. All the things that were good on the P-51 were also applied here. We developed designs of a low-cost trainer, low-cost fighter, and of a twin-fuselage fighter. We built a mock-up to find out if the off-center position of the pilot in a rapid roll would affect the two crewmen in any way. We found that there was no effect whatsoever. The pilot always had the feeling that the ship was rotating around his own fuselage.”

On June 27th, F-82s shot down three enemy Yak-9 fighters, in the first Korean air combat action by the Americans. On the 29th, ten F-51Ds were assigned to protect Suwon Airfield, where General Douglas MacArthur was arriving to take command of the defense of South Korea. The Mustangs were led by Dean Hess and, as MacArthur watched, four enemy planes attacked the airfield and were all shot down by the American fighters.

U.S. President Harry Truman directed in late June that the American 5th Air Force achieve air superiority, isolate the battlefield through interdiction, and provide close air support for the ground forces. Getting qualified Mustang pilots to Korea, however, was proving a bigger problem than getting Mustangs there.

By July F-51D Mustangs of the US Air Force from Japan, from the Royal Australian Air Force and from the South African Air Force, were all operating in Korea on tactical reconnaissance and ground support tasks.

Collectively, they accounted for the downing of nineteen enemy propeller-driven planes and twenty-eight enemy aircraft on the ground. In July the Mustangs based at Taegu and Po’hang carried the load for the Allied forces in those early days of the conflict.

In the early months of the Korean War, accidents and mechanical troubles were responsible for several Mustang losses among the ROKAF units. In late December two such events occurred. Lt James Gillespie suffered engine failure and had to bail out of his F-51 near the front lines. An American infantry patrol located him and got him back to his base within two days. In another incident that week, Captain George Metcalf experienced engine trouble that same week while taking off from his base at Taejon and crash-landed near the end of the runway, injuring his back and suffering facial cuts. Both of these incidents resulted from fuel contamination, water in the fuel lines.

Only two days later Metcalf was flying an armed reconnaissance mission when his flight was asked to provide cover for the rescue of a downed pilot. The Mustangs came under heavy anti-aircraft fire as they dove to strafe enemy soldiers near the location of the friendly pilot. The soldiers were attempting to reach and capture the pilot and, as Metcalf pulled up from a strafing pass, ground fire struck his F-51, blasting nearly three feet from the leading edge of one wing and damaging one aileron. Firmly bracing himself against the cockpit structure, he had to keep unremitting pressure on th stick and rudder to hold the Mustang in a controlled flight attitude. When the airspeed of the damaged fighter fell to near 250 mph, Metcalf felt the plane approaching a stall. He was forced to land the aircraft at high speed to maintain directional control, but brought it in safely.

Not all of the hazards faced by Mustang pilots in Korea were mechanical or directly combat-related. In the colder months especially, they had to contend with icing at relatively low altitudes from which recovery was nearly always impossible when the over-loaded aeroplane entered a stall or spin. Their Mustangs were not equipped with deicing systems and accumulating wing ice was a virtual death sentence for the pilots flying these ground support missions in winter. In addition to the threats they met in the air, the Mustang pilots had to cope with more mundane, but equally challenging situations on the ground. Shelter and living conditions on their bases were primitive and miserable. The brutal cold of the Korean winter caused a few airmen to rig some less than reliable heating arrangements involving oil and 100 octane aviation gas, and resulting in some serious fires, explosions and loss of life.

335 F-51D Mustangs were lost in the Korean War, with 264 pilots killed or missing. Of these losses, 172 fell to enemy ground fire, ten to enemy jet fighters, with forty-four missing and unaccounted for, and the remainder to accidents. Ed Schmued: “Unfortunately, the P-51 was a high-altitude fighter. [In Korea] it was used in ground support work, which is absolutely hopeless, because a .30-caliber bullet can rip a hole in the radiator and you fly two more minutes before your engine freezes up. Flying a P-51 in ground support was almost a suicide mission. It is unfortunate that the airplane had been used for ground support, but in the Korean conflict we were short of airplanes and anything had to do. This was the reason for using the P-51 in low-level operations.”

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Pilot James Hilary (Jim) Flemming standing on the wing of a 77 Squadron P-51 Mustang aircraft (A68-757). This aircraft was Flemming’s ‘personal’ aircraft that he flew regularly for three years, prior to the Korean War, and in which he flew on the first operational mission flown by 77 Squadron over North Korea. [AWM P03595.001]

Pilots of the Royal Australian Air Force flew Mustangs in Korea as a part of the United Nations force there and on September 9th 1950, RAAF 77 Squadron Flt. Lt. Roscoe Coburn was attacking a target at Kigye, using rockets, when his F-51 was struck in the cooling system by ground fire. Coburn and his mates were operating from a base in Japan called Iwakuni and he headed back for it, accompanied by Flt. Lt. Jack Murry. As the two pilots flew across the Strait of Tsushima, the serious damage to Coburn’s plane worsened. Streaming glycol coolant fumes were seeping into his cockpit and condensing on his canopy, eliminating his side vision and forcing him to begin flying on instruments. Soon Murry saw glycol streaming from Coburn’s radiator shutter.

As the pair approached the Honshu coast, Coburn’s engine temperature redlined and the Merlin started running roughly. Sparks began trailing from the engine exhaust stacks and Coburn knew he had only seconds to bail out. He quickly trimmed the aeroplane for hands-off flight so he could leave it. At that point the engine seized. The action caused the big four-blade prop to shear off and go spinning into space. For a brief period the Mustang continued on in a fairly steady glide while the loose prop spun slowly ahead and then downward towards the sea.

Ross Coburn bailed out as the plane crossed the coast and was soon in the hands of some Japanese farmers who escorted him to his base. Jack Murry was relieved to find Coburn safely back at Iwakuni later. He had not seen Coburn bail out, as he had been following the descent of the wayward propeller at the instant Coburn exited his Mustang.

Early in October, 77 Squadron was relocated to a field designated as K-3 at Po’hang in South Korea, cutting more than 300 miles off the lengthy combat missions of the unit. The living conditions at K-3 were considerably poorer than the pilots had been used to at Iwakuni. In Korea they now lived in drafty, flimsy, uncomfortable tents and were dependent for both heat and lighting on napalm burning in tin cans. The tough Aussies had not lived in cold like the approaching Korean winter and were particularly miserable at night when the temperature dropped dramatically. They soon requested and were given American Air Force clothing, which proved far more useful in the conditions than their own uniforms.

In November the squadron was again relocated, this time to the Yongpo airfield near Hamhung, K-27, closer to their targets. With the move came the full force of Korean winter. However, Yongpo had been built by the Japanese during the Second World War and the Australians enjoyed the relative comforts of life in their permanent brick and stone buildings. Still, they suffered in the plummeting temperatures and heavy snows of the isolated base there on the coastal plain. It was worse for the ground crews toiling, in the zero daytime temperature and -20 degrees at night. The pilots shared some of the chores with their mechanics, sweeping accumulated snow from their planes, and helping with the arming and fueling.

The daily routine that winter had the Aussie pilots taking off at dawn to strike at enemy targets forty miles away near Chang Jin. They would return quickly to Yongpo to rearm and refuel before continuing the shuttle missions in support of U.S. Marines, until nightfall. Moving day came again on December 3rd when the men of 77 Squadron were required to take their Mustang fighter-bombers south to K-9, at Pusan, where the living standard was somewhat lower than that at Yongpo, but certainly better than the tents of Po’hang. Now they were quartered in wooden huts with concrete floors and gasoline-stove heating.

Operating from K-9, however, posed some special problems for the 77 Squadron pilots. With menacing, rocky hills on three sides of the field, and the western channel of the Korean Straight on the fourth side, prevailing winds required the Aussies to take off in their heavily-loaded F-51s towards the hills, with the corresponding danger, and to make their landing approaches over the sea, frequently causing depth perception disorientation. The other major problem in operating from K-9 was thick dust, clouds of it that found its way into their eyes, food, clothing, and their Mustangs. Vital equipment was affected; radio tuners were jammed, air filters clogged, and fuel contaminated.

In January, the pilots of 77 were assigned to bomb the Chinese Army Headquarters at Pyongyang, known to be the most heavily defended target in North Korea. The plan called for two flights of six Mustangs each, with one bringing bombs and the other napalm. Each Mustang was also carrying four rockets. The bomb-carrying ’51s were to attack the target first and then use their rockets to suppress enemy anti-aircraft fire. The second flight would then strike with its napalm. The mission would test the maximum range of the Mustangs.

The first flight arrived as scheduled and dropped their bombs, but the second flight was delayed by deteriorating weather, arriving late over the target area. Their lateness found them dropping their napalm in the midst of a rain of bombs from several B-29s above them.

Australian Flt. Lt. Gordon Harvey’s Mustang was damaged as he bore in on his napalm attack. One of his weapons was trailing a streak of the jellied compound as he continued his run. He then reported that his engine was losing power and he was going to try to belly-land along the edge of the Taedong River. He managed to put the plane down successfully and was observed running to hide in a haystack. His fellow pilots circled in a rescue protection effort, but little hope was held out for Harvey, who had come down 150 miles into enemy territory. The next day a rescue helicopter arrived in the area where Harvey had landed, but found only his wrecked Mustang and some footprints in the snow. In 1951 the North Koreans released a list of prisoners of war they were holding and Harvey’s name appeared on it. On August 29th 1953, he was released from captivity.

In the nine months of their combat operations in Korea, 77 Squadron flew more than 3,800 combat sorties. They lost ten pilots in combat, two in a fire at Po’hang, two in accidents, and one who became a prisoner of war.

Major Louis Sebille commanded the 67th Fighter Squadron, USAF, and was leading a four-Mustang section out of Ashiya air base, Japan, on August 5th 1950, to provide close air support for a UN operation near Pusan, Korea. His planes carried two 500-pound bombs and four rockets each.

As they crossed the Sea of Japan, one of the F-51 pilots radioed Sebille that he was having a mechanical problem and was returning to Ashiya. The other three fighter-bombers continued on course towards Pusan. There they were redirected by a ground controller to Hamchang at a point on the Naktong river where North Korean troops were crossing. Many of these troops were on a sand bar in the middle of the river when Sebille attacked them. He released his bombs, but one of them would not dislodge. With the hung-up bomb still attached to his wing, he joined the other two Mustangs as they strafed enemy vehicles that were partially concealed under trees on the western river bank.

Circling in their rocket attacks on the vehicles, the ’51s were exposed to small arms fire and Sebille’s plane was struck in the radiator, which then began bleeding glycol. One of the other Mustang pilots, Captain Martin Johnson, radioed Sebille to warn him of the coolant loss. At first, there was no reply or acknowledgment from the Major. Then Johnson heard his commander say, “They hit me.” Johnson suggested that Sebille head south-east for the UN base near Taegu, but the Major rejected the suggestion and said that he was going to “get that bastard.” Johnson watched as Sebille’s Mustang descended towards the target, guns blazing. He was shocked by the immense explosion as Sebille’s plane, and its remain ing bomb and rockets, detonated on contact with the enemy vehicle. Major Sebille was the first of four U.S. Air Force men to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the Korean conflict, and the last Mustang pilot recipient of the award.

SBS in the Aegean – Late-1943

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Colonel Ian Lapraik of the SBS being welcomed on Cos.

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Greek caique Armadila leaving Co.

There is little doubt that the announcement of the Italian armistice had surprised the German Balkan Command in Salonika just as much as it had the British GHQ in Cairo, and if the latter did have a few extra hours’ notice, the former had the enormous advantage of a system of efficient military formations already developed throughout the Aegean. Moreover, the commanders of those formations had not long to wait for clear directions, for Hitler, faced with a threat to an area which provided him not only with bauxite, copper and chrome but also protection from Allied bomber attack on the Ploesti oil-fields, hardly hesitated for a moment. The whole Aegean area and especially the Dodecanese would be held, he proclaimed, either by a continuation of co-operation between the Italian and German troops in the area, or, if the Italians showed signs of obeying the orders of the renegade Badoglio government, then by German forces alone, who would not hesitate to use force to take and exert command. Within hours, German officers were interviewing their nearest Italian counterparts in the islands and requesting specific assurances of loyalty from them.

It is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the Italian garrison commanders. Most of them were middle-aged or even elderly senior officers whose service careers had been rewarded during recent years by appointments to these pleasant and sometimes delicious islands, where danger had been minimal, supplies from the homeland regular and of good quality, and duties easy enough hardly to disturb the even tenor of what resembled a happy retirement.

Suddenly they were faced with real danger and the necessity to make hard choices. Many of them, given the chance, would have been only too ready to welcome the British for whom they felt regard and indeed some affection, in place of the Germans for whom they felt only respect tinged with fear — but few of them knew for certain the attitudes of their subordinates (Samos was not the only island which held a contingent of Blackshirts), and for many of them there were even more urgent reasons to temporise. The British and American armies might be ashore on the foot of Italy, but their own wives and families lived far away up in the north in such places as Bologna or Milan — and how long would the Allies take to get there?

Even more urgently, how long would it take the Allies — in this case the British alone — to arrive here in these islands in sufficient strength to beat off not only the German forces already present with their abundant transport, excellent weapons and efficient organization, but also the reinforcements which would undoubtedly arrive from Greece should German control of the area appear in doubt? Admiral Campioni’s actions might in the eyes of history appear equivocal and pusillanimous compared with those of some of his compatriots, say in Cos or Leros, but how great a distance separated them, when the choice had to be made, from the nearest German military formation?

This was the main consideration which affected control of the Aegean immediately following the Italian armistice. Those islands which previously had held only an Italian garrison — Cos, Leros, Samos, Simi, Stampalia, Icaria — fell easily under the British influence once they had been visited by men of the quality of Lassen or Lapraik; Lemnos and Mytilene to the north, Chios, Kasos, Kythira, the northern Sporades, the Cyclades except Icara and, most significantly, Crete and Rhodes remained firmly in the Axis camp under German control. And once the situation stabilized and the battle-lines could be drawn, Admiral Fricke in Athens and General Klemann on Rhodes could see quite clearly that they held the strongest cards and that if they played them well they could win the whole pack.

The first essential for them was to secure control of the air above the Aegean by occupying every island which contained a practicable airstrip. Extra Me 109 fighters and Ju 87 dive-bombers had quickly been flown into Marizza and Calato, and on September 17th the Jus had begun a programme of attack on the nearest of the airstrips, Antimachia on Cos. Cos by this time had already received substantial Allied reinforcement — more South African Spitfires, more ground crew, a large contingent of the RAF Regiment, and a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry as main garrison troops. These last had spent months in Malta and thus knew all about shelter from air-raids, and if their spirits were somewhat cast down by so rapid a reappearance of the sights and sounds of siege warfare, they nevertheless set about propping up damaged buildings with dour goodwill and efficiency, and helping the RAF ground staff to fill in craters.

Their presence had also allowed the withdrawal of the paratroop company to Cyprus, and of the SBS, some of whom had gone back to Castelorizzo, while the bulk had gone to Kalymnos in preparation for a series of raids against German-held islands, especially, as has been mentioned, the one against Rhodes.

But that enemy convoy mentioned in David Sutherland’s diary for October 2nd had not, as he and his companions had thought, been ‘Bound for Rhodes’ at all. It had been bound for Cos, and it constituted the transport for Kampfgruppe Mueller which, by 0500 on the morning of October 3rd, had put a battalion of the 65th Panzer Grenadier Regiment ashore to drive across the neck of the island and meet the 16th Panzer Grenadiers, who had been landed near Cape Foca. Then German Fallschirmjäger from the Brandenburg Regiment dropped around Anti-machia, heavy Stuka attacks blew apart the defence posts, Me 109s shot up the Spitfires while they were still on the ground or taking off — and chased away the Beaufighters which came across from Cyprus in an effort to bring succour to the hard-pressed defenders.

These by the evening had almost all been overwhelmed by Kampfgruppe Mueller in a series of brilliant but violent actions, and by midnight the Germans controlled all of Cos except the dock area, upon which they focused searchlights and sniped and bombed everything that moved. Small parties of British and Italian soldiers sneaked their way out of town to climb the hills and make for a rendezvous at Cardamena with the admirable intention of carrying out their last orders, which were to try to continue the fight in guerilla fashion — but most of them were to be rounded up after a very short time.

Meanwhile, all day long Sutherland, Milner-Barry and the men of the SBS on Kalymnos had been horrified spectators of the battle, watching its inexorable progress: the silencing of one defensive position after another, the continuous arrival by sea of German reinforcements, and the unending flights of Luftwaffe aircraft overhead, both virtually uninterrupted. During the morning they had prepared themselves and their weapons to undertake some form of interference in the onslaught taking place only a mile away across the water, but by the time orders arrived for them to land and aid the defenders of Antimachia it was quite obvious that they were already too late; and against the heavy weapons of the Panzer Grenadiers the small arms of a raiding force would in any case have been inadequate.

When the more violent sounds of battle died down and only the occasional crack of rifle shot pierced the night, Milner-Barry and his patrol put to sea aboard a caique of the Levant Schooner Flotilla. They crept around the eastern end of Cos and went ashore on the south coast in a small bay where they immediately ran into a party of RAF men from Antimachia, who told them in detail of the events of the day. After sending the RAF men away in the caique and arranging for its return on the night of 7th/8th, Milner-Barry and his men found a small wadi a little way inland and took up residence there, the rest of that night and the early hours of the morning being spent bringing up from the beach the rest of their own gear, the wireless set and its infernal batteries.

During the following day watch was kept from a high point at the end of the wadi and a dozen assorted army and RAF men were found and brought in, but during the afternoon Private Watler vanished and search parties failed to find him. Then at dusk German infantry were seen approaching in line, driving Italian troops in front, and soon the wadi was full of ‘hysterical Italians who attached themselves to us, and the Germans began to mortar the wadi at both ends.’

In desperation, Milner-Barry moved away with his own men, all the British he had collected and about fifty Italians whom he could not shake off, and a short distance along the coast he found some rafts, built apparently by either British or Italians but then abandoned. As there was no hope of a ship coming in that night to take anyone off, Milner-Barry and a dozen of the more stout-hearted boarded the rafts and for three hours paddled eastwards along the coast in the direction of Turkey; but in time the rafts became waterlogged and they had to abandon their equipment and swim for the shore.

They spent the next three days making contact with the men who had prudently elected to remain behind and collecting more refugees from Cos and Antimachia — a process made more difficult than it might have been by the fact that after the débâcle aboard the rafts, the party had only three pairs of boots between them. However, Lieutenant McLeod’s caique duly arrived on time, made two trips to the Turkish mainland and deposited most of the SBS men (who joined one of their own patrols busily setting up a clandestine raiding base in one of the bays in that deeply indented coast) and the bulk of the refugees.

But there were still British soldiers and airmen at liberty on Cos, and on the night of October 8th/9th Milner-Barry accompanied by Lance-Corporal Watson and Gunner Geddes, returned to the island in McLeod’s caique. They immediately found and sent off another batch of eighteen men who had gathered in the bay, and then began looking for yet more stragglers — a gratuitously generous action which proved very fortunate for Lieutenant-Colonel Browne and nearly forty other officers and sappers of his unit, all of whom, plus a Greek peasant whose bravery and help during this time would have placed his life in jeopardy if ever he was caught, were brought out on the night of October 12th/ 13th.

Altogether, McLeod’s crew and Milner-Barry’s patrol rescued sixteen British officers and seventy-four NCOs and men, together with a very large number of Italians and a few brave Greeks. It had been a nerve-racking operation, and at the end of it Milner-Barry was flown back to Alexandria to go into hospital suffering from exhaustion and a bad case of ‘desert sores’, while the rest of his patrol went to Castelrosso — for Kalymnos and the ‘Sponge Queen’ had been reluctantly abandoned to the Germans.

So had Private Watler — though this was not a decision which he, as a man who had already wandered about behind enemy lines in the desert for eighty days, had been prepared to accept.

Watler had been seen by two Germans during his period of guard duty at the head of the wadi, and realizing that to open fire on them would attract unwelcome attention while to return towards safety would betray the position of the rest of the patrol, he had moved away further inland. He had quickly succeeded in shaking off his pursuers but was then captured when approaching the only water-supply, and two days later he found himself with about 1,000 other British prisoners in Cos Castle, about to be shipped off to Greece — a fate he avoided by feigning the symptoms of malaria. A week later he was out of hospital and back in the castle, which now held only some forty prisoners among whom was a signals corporal who helped him obtain a long length of electric Hex, down which they both slid the following night.

They were only at liberty for five hours, but six days later they were out again — down the same length of flex, which the Germans had unaccountably failed to find — to creep through the darkness down to the sea and swim out some 200 yards. They then turned and made their way along the coast until they were beyond the outskirts of the town, whereupon they returned to land and climbed to a small Greek village where they were well looked after. From there they made short forays in search of other strays like themselves, and on one such search they found a dump containing 100-octane petrol in forty-gallon drums, one of which they pierced with nails, though in view of the uncertainty of their own future, they refrained from setting alight the resultant puddle.

They then heard that British small craft were stealing nightly into a nearby bay to find people such as themselves, and, their luck improving, they were picked up and Watler soon found himself back at Castelrosso, where, having reported the position of the petrol dump, he promptly volunteered to go back and help destroy it. But three weeks later when he and his patrol went ashore to search the area, the petrol had gone — and much else besides, for the Germans were preparing for another operation.

Gratified by their success on Cos, they had turned their main attention to the next important island still in British hands: Leros, with its naval port and fortress, long proclaimed by the Italians to be the crucial base from which naval command of approaches to Salonika and the Dardanelles could be exercised. But first, there was a flank to be cleared — a small matter of a wasps’ nest close at hand which might prove a nuisance. The island of Simi must be occupied, the threat it posed eliminated, and a radio station installed there with which to monitor and exercise control over communications in the southern area.

The Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane

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Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane Wars, 1817–1828

Until the late eighteenth century the Bantu-speaking mixed farmers south of the Limpopo River lived in small chiefdoms. By the 1830s, when white people began to invade southeastern Africa beyond the Fish River in substantial numbers, however, society throughout the region had been drastically transformed. The nucleus of change lay in northern Nguni country. There, in the country between the mountain escarpment and the Indian Ocean, the Zulu kingdom had incorporated all the northern Nguni chiefdoms. The royal family and its Ntungwa clan constituted a new ruling class. They controlled a standing army of conscripted warriors and exacted tribute from the commoners. Moreover, in a process known as the Mfecane (Zulu) or Difaqane (Sesotho), meaning time of troubles, emigrant bands from modern KwaZulu had created new kingdoms as far north as modern Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. The Mfengu, who arrived among the Xhosa and became allied with the Cape Colony, were among the refugees displaced by these events.

This transformation was in essence an internal process within the mixed farming society in southeastern Africa. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the relation between the population level and the environment was changing. Previously, the society had been expansive and the scale of political organization had remained small in spite of the tendency of the population to increase, because members of ruling families had frequently split from their chiefdoms with their followers and founded new chiefdoms between or beyond existing settlements. Gradually, however, the population of the region had been increasing to a level where that expansive process was no longer possible. Farmers were reaching the limits of land with arable potential on the verge of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and in the rugged mountains at the southern end of the highveld. Throughout southeastern Africa, as the possibilities for further expansion diminished, competition for land and water supplies grew more acute.

Changing climatic conditions exacerbated the crisis. Rainfall decreased significantly throughout the region during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, with an exceptionally severe drought between 1800 and 1807, followed by another between 1820 and 1823. The problem was especially serious in the northern Nguni area. There, the terrain is marked by steep hills and deep valleys, which create widely different environments within short distances, and it was necessary for people to move their cattle seasonally from one type of pasture to another. As the land filled up, pastures began to deteriorate through overstocking and people began to interfere with the customary movements of cattle. By the end of the eighteenth century, strong chiefdoms were subduing their neighbors and incorporating them into loosely structured kingdoms. Then came the first great drought of the century, which people remembered as the time when “we were obliged to eat grass.”

By the 1810s, there were two rival kingdoms in the area: the Ndwandwe kingdom, led by Zwide, and the Mthethwa kingdom, led by Dingiswayo, who created a standing army composed of age regiments. The two kingdoms clashed repeatedly and with unprecedented ferocity. The outcome of the crisis was shaped very largely by Shaka. The eldest son of Senzanga-kona, the chief of the small Zulu chiefdom, Shaka was illegitimate, since his father never married his mother, Nandi. Rejected by his father, Shaka grew up among his mother’s relatives. In Zulu tradition, he was “a tall man, dark, with a large nose, and was ugly,” and “he spoke with an impediment.”

When he was about twenty-two, Shaka joined the army of Dingiswayo, king of the Mthethwa, where he acquired a reputation as a brave warrior and a man of original ideas and became commander of his regiment. When Senzangakona died in about 1816, Dingiswayo helped Shaka succeed to the Zulu chieftaincy over the heads of his numerous legitimate half-brothers. Shaka then equipped the Zulu warriors with short stabbing spears in addition to the traditional long spears and trained them to fight in close combat. A year or two later, the Ndwandwe captured and killed Dingiswayo. The Mthethwa kingdom then disintegrated and Shaka’s Zulu conquered and incorporated its chiefdoms. In 1818, the Zulu defeated the Ndwandwe in a decisive battle at the Mhlatuse River and became the dominant power throughout northern Nguni territory. By the mid-1820s, Shaka’s Zulu had established control over most territory from the Pongola River in the north to beyond the Tugela River in the south and from the mountain escarpment to the sea.

The transformation of the northern Nguni was accentuated by external factors. Some historians believe that foreign trade was crucial in the rise of the Zulu kingdom. Traders from the Portuguese settlement on Delagoa Bay were increasingly active in this period, bartering beads, brass, and other imported commodities for ivory and cattle. Creating competition for control of the trade route, they probably intensified the conflicts and the centralizing process. The available evidence, including the recorded oral traditions of the African informants, however, does not seem to warrant the conclusion that the trade was sufficient to have been the primary cause of the transformation.

One historian has gone so far as to assert that external forces—white slave traders and white colonists and their Coloured allies—bore most of the responsibility for the transformations in southeastern Africa. According to him, the export trade in slaves from Delagoa Bay precipitated the changes among the northern Nguni, and Griquas and Whites from the Cape Colony were the principal disrupters of the African chiefdoms in the modern Transvaal and Orange Free State. The first claim is palpably false: scarcely any slaves were being exported from Delagoa Bay before 1823; subsequently there was a rise in slave exports, but that was a result, not a cause, of the warfare in the area. The second claim draws attention to a previously underestimated factor: Griquas did cause considerable havoc in some parts of the highveld; nevertheless, the main agents of that disruption were Nguni emigrants from modern KwaZulu.

The Zulu kingdom was the end product of radical changes in northern Nguni society that had begun in the late eighteenth century. It was a militarized state, made and maintained by a conscript army of about forty thousand warriors. Instead of the initiation system, which had integrated young men into the discipline of their particular chiefdoms, men were removed from civil society at about the age of puberty and assigned to age regiments, living in barracks scattered throughout the country. During their period of service they were denied contact with women and subjected to intense discipline. They were employed on public works for the state, but their most conspicuous duties were military. In warfare, their standard tactic was to encircle the enemy and then, in close combat, to cause havoc with short stabbing spears. They celebrated a victory by seizing booty, principally in cattle, and, sometimes, by massacring women and children. Survivors were incorporated into the Zulu kingdom under chiefs whose tenure depended on their loyalty.

In earlier times, there had been no standing armies, women and children were seldom killed, and defeated chiefdoms were rarely incorporated. Men, women, and children had lived in their homesteads throughout their lives and had forfeited only a relatively modest amount of their produce to their chiefs. Under Shaka, grain and cattle flowed in larger quantities to the royal residence and the regimental barracks; and, with a high proportion of their mature men absent, women had greater responsibility for rural production and for managing the homestead.

To foster loyalty to the state, Shaka and his councillors drew on the customary Nguni festivals. They assembled the entire army at the royal barracks for the annual first-fruits ceremony and before and after major military expeditions, when they used spectacular displays and magical devices to instill a corporate morale. The traditions of the Zulu royal lineage became the traditions of the kingdom; the Zulu dialect became the language of the kingdom; and every inhabitant, whatever his origins, became a Zulu, owing allegiance to Shaka. Nevertheless, as Carolyn Hamilton, drawing on Zulu evidence, points out, “The process of centralization was far from smooth. . . . . There were . . . great inequalities within the Zulu kingdom, deep-seated divisions and considerable disaffection. . . . [0]utbreaks of rebellion . . . prompted continued coercive responses from the Zulu authorities. These included merciless campaigns and stern sentences for individual rebels. . . . The Zulu authorities fostered this image through carefully managed displays of despotism and brutal justice at the court, using terror as a basis for absolute rule across a huge kingdom.”

During the 1820s, the Zulu kingdom became increasingly predatory. Shaka sent the army on annual campaigns, disrupting local chiefdoms to the north and the south, destroying their food supplies, seizing their cattle. Tensions within the royal family came to a head on September 24, 1828. While the army was away on a campaign to the north, Shaka’s personal servant and two of his half-brothers assassinated him. One of those half-brothers, Dingane, eliminated his rivals and succeeded to the kingship, maintaining Shaka’s domestic and external policies, though he lacked Shaka’s originality and panache.

Meanwhile, militant bands of people who had been driven from their homes by the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, and the Zulu created the widespread havoc throughout southeastern Africa that became known as the Mfecane. By the early 1830s, organized community life had virtually ended in some areas—notably, in modern Natal, south of the Zulu kingdom, and in much of the modern Orange Free State between the Vaal and the Caledon river valleys, where the only human beings were small groups of survivors trying to eke out a living on mountaintops or in bush country. Settlements were abandoned, livestock were destroyed, fields ceased to be cultivated, and in several places the landscape was littered with human bones. Demoralized survivors wandered round singly or in small groups, contriving to live on game or veld plants. Some even resorted to cannibalism—the final sign of society’s collapse. A self-proclaimed former cannibal later told a missionary: “Many preferred to die of hunger; but others were deceived by the more intrepid ones, who would say to their friends . . . : here is some rock rabbit meat, recover your strength; however, it was human flesh. Once they had tasted it, they found that it was excellent. . . . Our heart did fret inside us; but we were getting used to that type of life, and the horror we had felt at first was soon replaced by habit.”

By that time, a rival Nguni kingdom controlled much of the central highveld. In about 1821, one of Shaka’s allies, a chief named Mzilikazi, fled over the escarpment to the highveld with a small band of warriors. There, they became known as Ndebele (Nguni) or Matabele (Sotho). Using Zulu military methods, they carved out a state between the Vaal and the Limpopo rivers, conquering several Sotho and Tswana chiefdoms and incorporating many of their people as subordinates, exacting tribute from others, and, like the Zulu, sending impis out to terrorize more distant communities.

Other states were developing on the periphery of the areas dominated by the Zulu and the Ndebele. Several militant bands of refugees from the northern Nguni area, enthused with similar zeal for conquest, struggled to establish themselves in modern Mozambique. The most successful were those led by Soshangane, who created the Gaza kingdom there and drove out others led by Zwangendaba and Nxaba, who eventually carved out new chieftaincies for themselves in parts of modern Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. Similarly, a Sotho community known as the Kololo, harrassed by the Ndebele, fled northward from the highveld and eventually founded a kingdom in modern Zambia. In mountainous territory northwest of the Zulu, meanwhile, an Nguni chief named Sobhuza, who had been driven out of land near the Pongola River by Zwide’s Ndwandwe, absorbed several Sotho as well as Nguni communities and created a durable kingdom that became known as Swaziland after Sobhuza’s son and heir, Mswati.

Perhaps the most significant of the new states was Lesotho. Its leader was Moshoeshoe, the senior son of a Sotho village headman, who gathered the survivors of the wars in the Caledon River valley. Besides Sotho, who had belonged to numerous different chiefdoms before the invasions began, they included people who had arrived in the area as members of invading Nguni bands. From headquarters on a flat-topped mesalike mountain named Thaba Bosiu, the Basotho warriers warded off attacks by a series of aggressors, including an Ndebele impi and Griqua raiders.

Lesotho differed fundamentally from the Zulu kingdom. It was the scene of postwar reconstruction on pacific rather than coercive principles. Although Moshoeshoe placed his sons and other relatives over chiefs of other lineages, he never created a standing army, he remained on easy, familiar terms with all and sundry, he encouraged his people to debate public questions freely in public meetings, and he tolerated a great deal of local autonomy. “Peace,” he said, “is like the rain which makes the grass grow, while war is like the wind which dries it up.” With its humane leader and its central position in southern Africa, Lesotho played an important role throughout the next half-century.

In transforming the farming society of southeastern Africa, the Mfecane wrought great suffering. Thousands died violent deaths. Thousands more were uprooted from their homes. Village communities and chiefdoms were eliminated. A century later, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, a Motswana, started his novel Mhudi with tragic incidents in the Mfecane. Yet, in Thomas Mokopu Mofolo’s well-known novel Chaka, written in Sesotho and translated into English, German, French, and Italian, and in an epic poem by Mazisi Kunene, the name of Shaka has passed into African literature and the consciousness of modern Africans as a symbol of African heroism and power.

Besides the destruction, the immediate consequences of the wars were twofold. First, thousands of Basotho and Batswana from the highveld, as well as Mfengu and Xhosa from the coastal area, poured into the Cape Colony in search of subsistence, which they were able to obtain by working for white colonists. Second, the wars provided Whites with unprecedented opportunities to expand into the eastern part of southern Africa. In much of the central highveld, the population was sparse throughout the 1830s. The surviving inhabitants, fearing further disruptions, tended to conceal themselves from intruders, which gave white travelers the impression that the area was uninhabited and unclaimed. In fact, however, the rulers of the newly created Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, and Sotho kingdoms assumed that, jointly, they had dominion over the entire region, though they contested its distribution among themselves. In particular, Dingane and Mzilikazi continued to send impis through the sparsely occupied southern highveld.

Fighting Pirates at Quallah Battoo

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Quallah Battoo Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

Less than ten degrees north of the equator, on the island of Sumatra, lies the rich pepper-growing region of Acheh. Beginning in the 1790s, New England trading ships would stop along the island’s western coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice, needed not only to flavor and preserve food, but for the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade with Europe.

American ships, based primarily in Salem, had made nearly a thousand voyages carrying away 370 million pounds of pepper worth 17 million dollars at wholesale—almost half the pepper produced in Acheh during this period. A pound of pepper then sold for $13.

The American ships were faster, and the Dutch and British disliked their competition in this lucrative business. They pressured the Sultan of Acheh, Muhammed Shaw, to detain American ships in violation of trading laws. The British went so far as to try to entirely exclude American trade from Acheh. It is unclear how much of the piracy on American ships was pure robbery and how much was influenced by the colonial power games of the period.

In January 1831, one of these American merchant vessels—the Friendship—dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper. A band of Malay pirates in three proas, or ships, boarded the Friendship, murdered a large part of the crew, looted the cargo and drove the craft ashore. Their plunder included four chests of opium which was used in medicine, and 18,000 Spanish dollars.

The Malay pirate fleets along the Straits of Malaka were considered the “Vikings of the East.” Their proas were 50 feet long, fast, and nimble, using both oars and light sails, and were armed with swivel guns mounted on bulkheads. The pirates, dressed in scarlet and chain-mail, brandished krises—a sword with a wavy blade—two-handed swords, and flintlocks. They were famous for either murdering every soul on board, or selling the few survivors to slavery.

The Captain of the Friendship, Charles Endicott, had been ashore during the attack. When he made a complaint to the local chieftain, Mahomet, insult was added to injury for Mahomet then put a price on the head of both the Captain and his officers. With the help of a friendly native chief, Po Adam, Endicott enlisted the help of three other merchant captains who agreed to help him recover his vessel. Although the ship was recaptured and returned, her owners sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.

President Jackson declared that “a daring outrage” had been committed on the seas of the East Indies involving the “plunder” of one of its merchantmen engaged in the pepper trade at a port in Sumatra. There appeared to be no room for diplomatic action, as Jackson believed that “the piratical perpetrators belonged to tribes in such a state of society that the usual course of proceedings between civilized nations cannot be pursued. I forthwith dispatched a frigate with orders to require immediate satisfaction for the injury and indemnity to the sufferers.”

At New York, the frigate Potomac, equipped with forty-two 32-pounder cannon, was rigged and ready to sail for the punitive expedition. The frigate had orders to “inflict chastisement” and carried a detachment of Marines and three detachments of seamen under Commodore Downes to punish the natives for their treachery.

Originally under orders to proceed to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific, the Potomac’s route was changed to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean as a result of the protest by the Friendship’s owners and the outcry from the general public. On Feb. 5, after sailing for five months, the Potomac, disguised as a Danish East Indiaman, anchored five miles off Quallah Battoo.

At 2 a.m. the next day, 282 Marines and sailors embarked on the ship’s boats and hit the beach for the attack. Divided into groups, the men were assigned to each of the four forts guarding the town. At dawn, the column led by Marine Lieutenants Alvin Edson and George Terrett moved forward. The Marines heading for Tuko de Lima nestled in the jungle behind the town.

Within minutes of the Marine approach, the Malays were alerted and the fighting became intense. The enemy met the Marines with cannon, muskets and blunderbusses (early shotguns). Charging forward, the Marines’ “superior discipline and ardor seemed fully to compensate for their want of numbers.” They broke through the outer walls, blew up the stockade gate, and captured the fort. Edson, with a small guard, pushed through the town to join in the attack on the remaining fort.

As smoke from the other forts drifted overhead, Edson, his Marines, and a detachment of sailors smashed through the bamboo walls of Duramond’s fort and engaged the kris-wielding Malays. Dressed in full blue uniform, Lt. Edson parried the lunge of a defender with his Mameluke sword while a Marine at his side parried with his bayonet. In this hand-to-hand combat with the Marines, the Malays fought to the death. Within minutes, the fort was taken, with only a few Malays left to flee into the jungle.

With the forts dismantled, the town ablaze, a few Malays hiding in the jungle, and the surf rising, the Marines and sailors were recalled. Over 150 Malay pirates, including Mahomet, were killed, with the Americans suffering just one sailor and two Marines killed and 11 wounded.

This successful attack would deter the Malays and others from similar aggressions for quite some time. In addition to their skill with cold steel, the Americans had emerged victorious due to their long-range, light-caliber cannon and their ability to deliver rapid rifle fire.

Under cover of a Marine guard, the boats embarked for the Potomac. Later in the day, all hands gathered on deck to witness the burial of their three shipmates killed in the attack.

Other rajas from nearby states sent delegations to the ship pleading that Downes spare them from the same fate they had suffered at Quallah Battoo. Downes informed them that if any American ships were attacked again, the same treatment would be given to the perpetrators.

The next morning, the Potomac moved within a mile of Quallah Battoo, ran out her long 32-pounder cannon and bombarded the town, killing another 300 natives before raising sail and heading for sea. This was the first-ever official U.S. military intervention in Asia. This was the second time—after Tripoli—that the Marines had been called in to protect American business and retaliate for the murder of American citizens.

It is interesting to note that 180 years later, American forces are once again engaged in similar situations with modern-day pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Heroic Stand at Bladensburg

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The Final Stand at Bladensburg Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

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The defense of Washington was a shameful affair. It was the most serious defeat of American arms ever experienced. The army had broken and fled, but Barney’s men and Marines, even though overrun, had held their ground to heroic glory. The Marines had eight killed and 14 wounded. Miller and Sevier were brevetted majors. The Americans lost 26 killed and 51 wounded. The British attackers lost 500 killed and wounded.

By June of 1814, the British had been blockading the American coast for 18 months. With 4,000 regulars, Royal Marines, and negroes bribed with promises of freedom, they were also poised to invade Washington. The British commander, Vice Admiral Cochrane, was being urged by Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, to burn the city in retaliation for the Americans’ burning of Canadian Parliament buildings in York and for the burning of Newark.

The Navy ordered Commandant Wharton to raise a battalion of Marines to help protect the Chesapeake Bay from incursion; President Madison assigned Brigadier General Winder to lead a composite force of infantry, state militia and volunteer riflemen to defend Washington and; Commandant Joshua Barney, a tough, 54-year-old Revolutionary War veteran was assigned to the naval defense.

In June, Barney found himself still blockaded after a number of skirmishes with the 21-ship British fleet up the Patuxent River. The Marines under Captain Sam Miller had cooperated with Barney, supplying artillery fire from the shore, but he was unable to break through.

The British entered the Patuxent River on August 17, and two days later landed unopposed at Benedict, Maryland. Barney, outflanked and outmaneuvered by 40 British barges, had blown up his flotilla of 13 gun barges. The British started their 40-mile march to Washington.

Barney and his flotilla men joined Winder’s men. Capt. Miller, with 110 Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, along with five artillery pieces, also joined them. The Marines now had two 18-pounders and three 12-pounders.

On Wednesday the 24th, the British approached Bladensburg four miles northeast of Washington at a bridge that crossed the eastern Potomac. Earlier, Gen. Winder had thought the British would attack Washington from the east in combination with their fleet passing Fort Washington south of the city.

Winder marched out of Washington and ordered Barney—much to Barney’s disgust—to stay behind and guard the Eastern Branch Bridge (now the Sousa Bridge). At the bridge, Barney was able to personally complain to President Madison and had his orders changed. This was the only American battle where the President and his cabinet—the Attorney General, the Secretary of War, and Secretary of State—were all on the battlefield. The bridge was blown and Barney, his sailors, and Marines with their artillery, marched to the battle.

With the temperature at 100 degrees, the Americans were drawn up in three lines on the Washington side of the Potomac. The first line to encounter the advancing British were riflemen under Major Pinkney and two companies of militia under Captains Ducher and Gorsuch, and Captains Myers and Richard Magruder with 100 artillerymen and six 6-pounders from Baltimore.

The second line was composed of Bruch’s artillery and Sterett’s 1,350 men from the 5th Baltimore Volunteer Regiment under Lieutenant Colonels Ragan and Schutz.

The 3rd line—the heaviest—was made up of 1,200 men from a regiment of Maryland militia under Colonel Beall and 300 district militia from the 12th, 36th and 38th under Colonel Magruder (not to be confused with the junior officer, Captain Magruder from Baltimore). The center was held by Barney’s flotilla men and the Marines’ battery along with Scott and Peter’s battery. Brent, with the 2nd Regt. of Smith’s brigade and Waring’s battalion of Maryland militia, were posted behind Peter’s battery. A total of 7,000 men and 26 cannon were set to receive the British attack but of these, only 900 were enlisted men; the rest were untried militia.

Barney positioned his 500 flotilla men in the center, on a rise commanding the bridge and the road along which the British would come. On his right were 114 Marines and 370 sailors, all serving as infantry. Barney commanded the guns and Marine Captains Miller and Alex Sevier supervised the infantry.

The British crossed the bridge under heavy American fire and then retreated. They attacked again and took heavy casualties from American cannon. The American riflemen with their Pennsylvania rifles poured a deadly fire—but the British were continually being reinforced by more brigades joining the fray.

The Americans fell back to the 2nd line. The Yankees charged with the bayonet and once again pushed the British back. Then another British brigade came on line, turned the American left flank and started their rocket attack on the untrained militia. Ragan and Schutz’ men were frightened by the rockets and fled. The 2nd line collapsed and now the British took on the 3rd line.

Barney’s fire had a terrible effect on the redcoats. When the British moved to hit their right flank, they met Miller’s Marine fire from the 12-pounders. The U.S. Marines were well trained in handling the great guns and wreaked havoc upon the enemy. The British were cut up, losing several officers including Colonel Thorton, who was severely wounded, and General Ross, who had his horse shot from under him. The Marines were obstinate and maintained their position against fearful odds.

Because they were heavily outnumbered, the Americans charged Navy-style. With the shout, “Repel boarders,” the Marines attacked with bayonets and the Navy with cutlasses. The charge broke two British regiments, but the British light infantry took both of the Marines’ flanks, wounding Barney severely and killing his horse. Miller was down, badly wounded in the arm and out of action. The British flanked wide, forded the river, cut through the militia and overran the Americans. The American militia had failed to stand their ground because of a rumor launched by the British that the negroes had risen up on the day of the battle to fight for their freedom—the additional worry that their homes and families were in danger being more than they could bear. The Navy flotilla men stood their ground, retired in order, and left their dead and wounded. Both Barney and Miller were captured. The battle was over in four hours, and Gen. Winder was forced to order a general retreat.

The American lines with their troop dispositions would almost certainly have been competent to roll back the invasion except for the interference of the President and his cabinet. James Monroe, the Secretary of State, was credited with the American defeat after he moved the 2nd line a quarter-mile to the rear against Gen. Winder’s wishes. This movement caused the 1st line to be unsupported, and exposed the 2nd line to rocket fire. This fickle civilian interference with Army decisions was seen again in Vietnam 152 years later.

The defense of Washington was a shameful affair. It was the most serious defeat of American arms ever experienced. The army had broken and fled, but Barney’s men and Marines, even though overrun, had held their ground to heroic glory. The Marines had eight killed and 14 wounded. Miller and Sevier were brevetted majors. The Americans lost 26 killed and 51 wounded. The British attackers lost 500 killed and wounded.

Word got out to the Washington city inhabitants that “the British were coming,” and 8,500 citizens began a sudden and confused exodus. The government, the Army, and even the Commandant of the Marine Corps fled the city. The national records and Army records were put in linen bags and taken to Leesburg, Virginia. Commandant Wharton took Captain Crabb and the Marine Barracks guard to Frederick, Maryland. The Marines guarded the paymaster whose flight from Washington scandalized the Corps.

That evening, the British marched six miles into Washington. Reduced to a pillaging party of 200 torch bearers, they entered the city of 900 buildings like barbarians. Admiral Sir George Cochrane delighted in torching cities and thirsted for plunder but thought Washington would pay a ransom to save the city from destruction. Ross sent an agent to discuss the ransom, but no one was there to negotiate with him. So the torches were lit.

The British burned some private buildings: The National Intelligencer, an anti-British newspaper; a rope-walk; and a tavern among them. Any house that fired a shot at the column was destroyed, just as had been done by Napoleon in Moscow. Ross’ horse was killed in one such attack. After two nights in Washington, the British burned most of the public buildings: the unfinished Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Treasury buildings, the Arsenal, the barracks for 3,000 troops, and the President’s house. The White House got its title later when the blackened building was whitewashed to cover up the scorch marks. In all, a total of two million dollars worth of property had been destroyed. Only the Patent Office was spared. Also burned were national shipping stores and buildings at the Navy Yard totaling one million dollars.

The British enacted martial law over the Washingtonians who had to remain indoors from sunset to sunrise under pain of death. At the Navy Yard, the Americans hid a quantity of powder and shot in a well. One British soldier peeking in the well with a match blew the place up, along with an adjacent powder magazine, killing 12 British and wounding 30. The light of the fired city was seen 40 miles away in Baltimore.

Supposedly, the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I Street was spared by the British because of the heroic U.S. Marine stand at Bladensburg, though some historians dispute this account.

The British would have burned more of the city save for a tornado and lightning storm that actually killed British soldiers and drove them off to their ships. Many believed this was divine intervention. It did seem as though God wanted democracy to prevail.

Houses were unroofed and the enemy left they way they had come, through Bladensburg. They left their dead on the battlefield and gave 90 of their wounded to Barney’s men for care. They embarked at Benedict and three days later attacked Alexandria, Virginia.

The British had no intention of holding Washington. Their reason for staying in the U.S. was to invade Louisiana and take possession of the Mississippi valley. England and Spain both intensely disapproved of the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S. From Napoleon—so when the British attacked New Orleans, a cadre of civil servants came along with the British army to rule over the coveted territory.

The Battle of Bladensburg left little to celebrate—but Dolly Madison, the First Lady, did manage to save some of America’s national treasures, most notably George Washington’s famous portrait. The heroic stand of the Marines and Navy had allowed precious time for the removal of American documents to safety, including the Declaration of Independence.

1916 Somme Air War I

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The Somme Offensive was the crucible in whose heat the RFC and the Luftstreitkräfte found their definitive shapes. The series of actions launched by the Allies in an attempt to break through the German lines called for maximum effort by the RFC and Aviation Militaire; which in turn put pressure on the Luftstreitkräfte to exert itself to the utmost. From the outset air activity was greater than at Verdun. The British put 185 aeroplanes into the battle; the French, 200. The long preparatory bombardment, which lasted a whole week, gave the enemy ample warning; they mustered 130 aeroplanes to try to control the air space.

The Allies, then, began with an advantage; which, even before the artillery barrage opened on 1st July, was made all the greater by the removal of their two most formidable opponents: one permanently, the other temporarily. In April, Immelmann, known by now as “The Eagle of Lille”, with thirteen kills to his credit, had been granted a regular commission. His brother officers celebrated the event by hiring a band to play at dinner in their mess. Hundreds of troops gathered on the road to listen and to cheer the hero. The Crown Prince of Saxony had decorated him with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of St Heinrich, which, being a Saxon, Immelmann rated higher than the Pour le Mérite, a Prussian order.

He was still as unsophisticated as when he joined the Service. He wrote to his mother: “Now I am a full lieutenant and all of a sudden one of the senior comrades. It has been a quick business. I think my career is unparalleled. Only a year ago I was an acting officer without any distinction … and today!!”

On 18th June, he took off to attack an FE2B of 25 Squadron which had crossed the German lines, flown by Second Lieutenant McCubbin with Corporal Waller as observer. After his first diving pass, Immelmann zoomed into the half-loop that was the first phase of the turn he had invented. As he was about to roll upright at the top, Corporal Waller fired at him. The Fokker broke in two and fell to the ground.

The RFC awarded Waller the kill. The Germans insisted that Immelmann had shot off his own propeller. They said his gun was not synchronised. It had been fitted just before he took off and a new propeller had been bolted on; in the wrong position, they claimed: there had not been time to ensure that the two were in harmony. The matter has never been resolved. A 25 Squadron pilot took the risk of flying over the enemy airfield at fifty feet to drop a wreath “To a gallant and chivalrous opponent”.

It was a great compliment to the Vickers FB5, the Gunbus, that in the enemy records the encounter was entered as having been with “a Vickers”. So impressed were the Germans with the Gunbus that they used to refer to the DH2 as “a Vickers” and to the FE2 as “a Vickers two-seater biplane”.

Immelmann’s death was a demoralising shock to both his Service and his nation. Determined that Boelcke, who was now a captain and still in the thick of the fighting, should not be the reason for further damage to pride and confidence, the Kaiser ordered him to be grounded and sent on a public relations tour of the Eastern Front.

A radical reorganisation of the German Air Service, to combat the Allies’ air superiority over the Somme, brought him back within two months. The flying units were to be renamed “Jagdstaffeln”, literally hunter squadrons — fighter squadrons, in fact — and their establishment was increased to fourteen aircraft. Jagdstaffel No. 1 existed only on paper, so the first to be formed was Jagdstaffel (shortened to “Jasta”) 2 and Boelcke was given command of it. While visiting the Eastern Front he had renewed acquaintance with Manfred von Richthofen, whom he had met in 1915 in the dining car of a train on which both were travelling on leave.

Boelcke at that time had four victories. Richthofen, who was still an observer, asked him how he did it. His reply was the same as Fonck or Navarre, Ball or Mannock, Rickenbacker or Baracca might have given: “Well, it’s quite simple. I fly close to my man and aim well, and then of course he falls down.”

“I have done that, Herr Oberleutnant, but my opponents don’t go down.”

“The reason is that you are in a large machine and I fly a Fokker monoplane.”’

Richthofen often recalled those words. On their second meeting he made such a good impression that Boelcke invited him to join Jasta 2.

The FE2B and D, the Gunbus and the Martinsyde Scout, before its relegation to bombing and reconnaissance in October 1915, had shot down many Fokkers, even though they in turn had suffered worse. The Sopwith two-seater 1 ½ – strutter, which the RAF and the RNAS began to receive in 1916, was the first Allied aircraft with a machinegun firing through the propeller arc. Initially, the Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear was fitted for the pilot’s gun, but was soon replaced by the Scarf-Dibovsky gear. Originally, also, the Lewis gun for the observer in his rear cockpit was on a Nieuport mounting: which was exchanged for the more efficient Scarff ring. But it was the DH2 that mastered the Fokker on the British Front, while the Nieuport II was doing the same in the French sector.

Not until a few months before the Somme Offensive did a British pilot first receive the same adulation in the press as Boelcke, Immelmann, Guynemer, Nungesser and Navarre. Albert Ball was nineteen years old when he joined No. 13 Squadron on 18th February 1916 to fly the BE2C, which was by now outclassed by practically every other aeroplane in the Flanders sky. Here was a young man who epitomised the most dangerous military material: sent out into the world straight from the strict discipline of boarding school, where he had been imbued with obedience, respect for authority, religious faith and the high ideals of bravery, patriotism and honour. It was not the lad who had been hardened by a life of deprivation in the back streets of an industrial city or London’s East End, in which he had had to survive by his wits, his resilience, his fists and his boots, who was potentially the most lethal in battle. It was the public school product who was potentially the readiest and most determined killer: instantly acquiescent to the orders of his superiors, made strong and healthy by compulsory games, cross-country runs, cold baths and a sensible diet; with a strong sense of responsibility and an awareness of a privileged upbringing that imposed obligations of leadership and self-sacrifice on him.

At this point it comes instantly to mind that the twenty most successful fighter pilots of the war include several Frenchmen and Germans who had never even heard of the British public school system. Britons such as Mannock and McCudden, and Canadians like Collishaw, Bishop and Barker had never set eyes on a boarding school of any kind. And if the fighting on the Austrian Front had been on a bigger scale, and if America had entered the war sooner, there would have been Italians and Americans with more than forty victories who were the product of very different systems of education from that of the British middle and upper classes, with its rigorous insistence on unquestioning obedience, Spartan conditions and frequent corporal punishment. Among the average sort of soldier, sailor or airmen, however, the ones who took most easily to obeying orders and putting on a brave face when their bowels were deliquescing with fear, which is the essential requirement in action, were those with a background like Ball’s. Autres temps, autres moeurs: we are considering a breed of an era long past.

Ball went from Trent College, in Nottinghamshire, into the Sherwood Foresters and transferred to the RFC on 29th January 1916. He had already learned to fly. While in camp on the outskirts of London in 1915, he had taken lessons at Hendon, airborne at first light so as to be back on parade at 6 a.m. Although 13 Squadron’s main task was artillery spotting, in April he enabled his observer to shoot down one hostile machine and force down two more. On 7th May he was posted to No. II Squadron, which had eight FE2Bs, four Vickers Fighters, three Bristol Scouts; and was being re-equipped with Nieuport IIs, of which three had arrived. It was on this last type that he began to score conspicuous successes.

His letters to his parents reveal his immaturity as well as his self-discipline and sense of duty. There is nothing in them to suggest the fighter pilot prowling about the sky like a predatory beast, powerful, menacing, confident. There is nothing in their style, either, that indicates an expensive education. Before leaving England: “I do hope that as you say, I shall come home fit and well, and work hard at my work, but one job at a time is enough for a boy of my age. I simply long to have a smack, but my turn is really a long time coming.”

On reaching his first squadron: “At last we are in for the sport and really look like having plenty of it. The machine I am flying is a BE2C, so I do not consider my luck very good, however I shall have a good smack. Oh! I can see heaps of sport ahead, but it really is mad sport.”

Three months later: “I must say that although my nerves are quite good, I really do want a rest from all this work. I can stand a lot, but really I have been coming on in leaps and bounds in the last few days, and it is just beginning to tell on me. I always feel tired. I have struck a topping lot of chaps in this squadron and they look after me fine. But they all think me young and call me John. Well, this is no hardship and I am really very happy.”

A few days after that, having scored his first solo victory: “Well, I have just come off my patrol on the new machine. You will be pleased to hear that I brought down a Hun Albatross [sic]. He was at 5000 over his lines. I was at 12,000. I dived down at him and put 120 shots into the machine after which he turned over and was completely done in.”

In July: “No. 13 has lost four machines and passengers in the past week and our squadron two, and four crashes. However, mad Lonely One is still going strong. They call me John the Lonely One now.”

He was already going off on his own to hunt the enemy. His maiden kill was made with a Nieuport II and is indicative of his skill. The Albatros was a fearsome recent arrival at the Front. A handful had appeared late the previous year and were now proliferating as a deadly successor to the Fokker. It carried two machineguns firing through the propeller, was faster and a better climber than the Fokker, but less nimble. The Nieuport IIs rate of climb and top speed were superior to the Fokker’s. But the Albatros D1 was the most beautiful aeroplane of its generation, as its successive marks were of theirs. The most hackneyed description of it was “sharklike”. In fact, it was torpedo shaped, the space between its upper and lower mainplanes was very narrow and it had the sweet, rakish, murderous lines that were unmatched until the Spitfire was seen in the sky more than twenty years later. It is an old axiom in the aviation industry that “if it looks right, it’ll fly right”. The Albatros amply confirmed this.

A faster Nieuport, the Mk 17, had come into service with the French and a very few had started to reach some British squadrons. No II had just received one and Ball was itching to take it up and make his next kill.

Air fighting falls into few categories. Descriptions of air combat become repetitious and tedious to read. Most actions consisted of one killing dive out of sun; a dive that missed and necessitated an immediate zoom with gun firing; a twisting, switchbacking duel between two adversaries; one aeroplane, or a section, outnumbered and fighting off concerted attacks. Ball’s favourite method was to stalk his victim patiently, slide up astern and beneath, and despatch him with a short burst from a Lewis gun mounted on the upper wing and pointing obliquely upwards. The machinegun on a Nieuport could be moved by hand on a Foster mounting, named after a sergeant on II Squadron who had designed it. This was a quadrant down which the gun was slid to facilitate changing the magazine. It could be returned to the horizontal, pointing dead ahead, or at any upward angle. Ball’s canny furtive approach was interestingly in contrast with his frankness of manner and straightforward attitude. It worked extremely well, although its practice evidently imposed considerable nervous tension on him.

His home letters divulge as much about his daily life, intimate emotions and combats as any second party could try to convey by going into details. To his father, l0th July: “You ask me to let the devils have it when I fight. Yes, I always do let them have all I can, but really I don’t think them devils. I only scrap because it is my duty, but I do not think anything bad about the Hun. He is just a good chap with very little guts.” This is not a judgment that all Allied Aircrew would have endorsed. “Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you can see it is either them or me, so I must do my best to make it a case of them.”’

18th July: “At night I was feeling quite rotten and my nerves were quite poo-poo. Naturally I cannot keep on for ever. So at night I went to see the CO and ask him if I could have a short rest.” The Major referred this to the Corps Commander, who ordered Ball detached to No 8 Squadron to fly BE2Cs: not only retrogressive after Nieuport 17s, but also highly dangerous. But Ball was lucky. Vindictive, ignorant and cruel though the General was, his failure to understand the mental strain imposed on fighting airmen might have been worse. The usual response to such a request was to send the pilot into the trenches. “This is the thanks after all my work …” Ball’s score had been mounting. “It is a cad’s trick.”

He soon asked to return to II. He was posted to No. 60, under Smith Barry, where he cultivated a garden outside his tent. “The peas are topping.” He had several crashes. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He wrote on 31st July: “Re rests, I am afraid that they are out of the question, for they don’t give you a rest unless you are quite a crock.” He forgot that 14th August was to be his twentieth birthday, until his parents sent him a present. Thanking them, he said he would be glad to be home for good.

29th August, to his mother: “A French major called to congratulate me yesterday. He says I have now got more Huns than any pilot out in France. They make it out to be sixteen crashed in eighty-four flights and also a balloon. The major had a long talk with me today. He is very pleased and says I may have leave. Oh! won’t it be AI. I do so want to leave all this beastly killing for a time.”

On 15th September he was in action again. At 3 p.m. he took off in a Nieuport armed with one fixed Lewis gun on an offensive patrol at 7000 feet. An Albatros, Type A, with guns front and rear, flying at an estimated 80 m.p.h., came in sight. Here is his Combat Report. “Albatros seen going south over Bapaume. Nieuport dived and fired one drum when within 50 yards after which the gun on the Nieuport came down and hit me on the head, preventing me from following the H.A. (hostile aircraft) down.” This was a hazard of the Foster mounting when firing at high elevation.

Later that evening he was up again, this time armed with Le Prieur rockets in addition to his Lewis gun. “Five Rolands seen over Bapaume in formation. Nieuport dived and fired rockets in order to break up formation. Formation was lost at once. Nieuport chased nearest machine and got under it, firing one drum at 20 yards. H.A. went down quite out of control and crashed N.E. of Bertincourt.”

These reports are made out in the name “Lieut. A. Ball, MC.”

Before his next fight, 21st September, his Distinguished Service Order was gazetted, to add to his Military Cross, for the Combat Report of that date is accredited to Lieut. A. Ball, DSO, MC. Decorations came more quickly than in 1939-45.

He met six Rolands flying at about 90 m.p.h. “H.A. seen N. of Bapaume in formation. Nieuport dived and fired rockets. Formation was lost. Nieuport got underneath nearest machine and fired a drum. H.A. dived and landed near railway. Nieuport then attacked another machine and fired two drums from underneath. H.A. went down and was seen to crash at side of railway. After this the rest of the H.A. followed the Nieuport towards the lines and the Nieuport turned and fired remainder of ammunition after which it returned to the aerodrome for more. Second machine was seen to crash by Lieut. Walters.”

On 25th September he ran into two formations of Rolands and Type A Albatroses, and saw them both off. “Nieuport could not see any H.A. over Bapaume at a reasonable height, so it went along the Cambrai road. After being there for a few minutes, two formations came along. Nieuport attacked the first. The H.A. ran with noses down, but, when another formation came near it turned towards the Nieuport. The Nieuport fired one drum to scatter the formation after which it turned to change drums. One of the drums dropped into the rudder control and for a few seconds the Nieuport was out of control.

“Nieuport succeeded in getting drum on gun and attacked an Albatros which was then flying at its side. Nieuport fired 90 rounds 1 in 3 Buckingham at about 15 yards range underneath H.A. H.A. went down quite out of control and crashed. The remainder of H.A. followed Nieuport, but in the end left. In order to keep them off at a safe range Nieuport kept turning towards them. Each time this was done H.A. made off with noses down.”

Combat at so close a range risked collision, or his own aeroplane catching fire when he set alight to an enemy with Buckingham incendiary rounds.

He had been promoted. This report is by “Capt. A. Ball, DSO, MC.”

On 18th September, between whiles, he had written most touchingly to his father: “Oh, you did make my leave a topper, and if I live to be a hundred I shall never wish for a more happy time.”

He would not live to be twenty-one.