Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Strategic Issues

d’Erlon – out of two battles!

Napoleon’s main criticism was that Ney had failed to concentrate his entire force and that if he had achieved this, Quatre Bras would have been taken and d’Erlon could have safely been sent to the emperor’s support. In his memoirs, Napoleon identifies Ney’s fundamental error:

In other times, this general would have occupied the position before Quatre Bras at 6am, would have defeated and taken the whole Belgian division; and would have turned the Prussian army by sending a detachment by the Namur road which would have fallen upon the rear of the line of battle, or, by moving quickly on the Genappes road, he would have surprised the Brunswick Division and the 5th English Division on the march . . . Always the first under fire, Ney forgot the troops who were not under his eye. The bravery which a general-in-chief ought to display is different from that which a divisional general must have, just as that of the latter ought not to be the same as that of a captain of grenadiers.

Here we see Napoleon explaining that Ney had ignored or not grasped the bigger picture; the changing strategic situation and his part in it. In his growing frustration he entirely failed to understand and keep in mind what in modern military parlance is called his superior commander’s intent; Napoleon’s need to destroy the Prussian army. He thus failed to realise that, once Wellington’s force was fixed in place around Quatre Bras, his part in achieving this was the despatch of d’Erlon’s corps onto the Prussian rear and that he should have adapted his own operations to this end. We can only speculate on the reasons for this, but eyewitness accounts suggest it was his complete distraction with, and absorption in, what was happening in front of him, that resulted in his rash decision to recall d’Erlon without considering the wider consequences.

Ney was transfixed by the need to seize Quatre Bras, rather than the essential need to send d’Erlon to support Napoleon. Having failed to achieve the former, he should have considered how to achieve the latter, which had become the priority. It is therefore rather surprising how little emphasis was put on the eastern flank by either side and where there was little serious fighting. Yet for Ney, the Namur road was the key route for his despatch of a force to support Napoleon against the Prussians, as laid down in Napoleon’s orders of the morning, just as it was the route down which the Prussians were expecting support from Wellington. Ney appears to have allocated fewer than four battalions to secure his eastern flank; far too small a force to clear the allied troops off it and keep it open for his own use. The fighting here was essentially an action between light infantry forces that was unlikely to be decisive for either side. Having failed to secure the route for d’Erlon, the next best thing would have been to send him down the road that he actually took on to the Prussian flank, but from which Ney recalled him.

Ney never appeared to claim any credit for stopping any of Wellington’s army reinforcing the Prussians at Ligny; nor does he appear to have been given any credit for it by Napoleon. All he got from the latter, as we shall see later, was criticism. For Ney, an aggressive commander who liked to be in the front line, it seemed like a defeat and many of his officers and men felt the same (although much of the following comment by them was written with the benefit of hindsight). Chef d’escadron Lemonnier-Delafosse, Foy’s chief-of-staff wrote:

What precious time lost!

At Quatre Bras on the 16th June, a battle was necessary, where, the day before, it would only have been an affair of the advance guard. On this day, in the morning, one could still have succeeded although it would have undoubtedly been more difficult: our troops were full of enthusiasm and could not have been stopped; containing their élan was an irreparable fault. Besides, the pressing orders of the emperor did not allow the marshal to remain in thought before the enemy; he wanted to make up for lost time and without making a proper reconnaissance of either the position or the strength of the English, he threw himself, head lowered, upon them . . . Thus, by an inconceivable feebleness, one had fought to no advantage from 2pm until 9pm.

Even more junior officers who fought there had similar views; Lieutenant Puvis of the 93rd Line penned similar criticism:

It had seemed to us that with the spirit which animated our army, it would have been possible, without too much resistance to fear, to have seized the enemy position. Why was this not done? . . . The old soldiers blamed the hesitation that Marshal Ney displayed before the position of Quatre Bras. Indeed, if he had taken the place the same day we would have gained a march on the enemy.

The view of those supportive of Napoleon, and consequently critical of Ney, is best summed up by Colonel Combes-Brassard, the sous chef-d’etat of the 6th Corps, who, writing much later and having no doubt read all the accounts, wrote in his own history of the campaign:

Marshal Ney was indecisive, irresolute in his attacks during the day of the battle of Ligny. This circumstance is strange in a man whose audacious determination in war was well known. His groping around before an enemy much weaker than himself was inexplicable in a general who was accustomed to saying that the only enemy he feared was the one he could not see.

General Foy, however, seems to give a more balanced, if still rather downbeat, summary of the day:

It was, at least with us, a poor start to the campaign. I do not know what passed elsewhere. Marshal Ney’s attack had been hasty and lacking sense; one does not proceed thus against the English. We were able to colour this affair as we liked, for we had taken two cannon and the enemy had taken none of ours; he had suffered a greater loss than us thanks to the superiority of our artillery; we had maintained, to the end of the day, more ground than we had held before we started our attack. But these arguments are grabbing at straws. We had lost the battle, since we had been stopped from achieving our mission of seizing Quatre Bras.

With the benefit of hindsight, his recall of d’Erlon was Ney’s greatest failure on this day and probably cost Napoleon the campaign. However, we have already stated that Ney failed to achieve either of his two missions. This is not strictly true. In Napoleon’s orders of the morning of the 16th, Ney’s task was merely to advance to the Quatre Bras crossroads and to deploy his troops around it. However, at about the same time as he received these original orders, which did not suggest he would have to fight for the crossroads, he received another order from Napoleon which gave him much clearer direction;

Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and d’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blücher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops towards Quatre Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels.

Whilst this direction is unequivocal, crucially it does not explain why the marshal should do this, beyond the original orders stating he should be ready for the emperor to join him and then march on Brussels. The unstated ‘why’ was that the occupation of Quatre Bras would prevent Wellington’s army from marching to Blücher’s aid and would allow Ney to send troops to Napoleon’s support. In the former point Ney was entirely successful, causing Wellington considerable casualties into the bargain, but he failed in the latter. These were certainly Napoleon’s aims, but he did not specify the former, only the latter in more general terms. Napoleon just expected Ney to obey his orders. We must not pretend that if Ney was clear he was to stop Wellington marching to the aid of the Prussians that he would have acted any differently, and as already stated, in this he was successful anyway. Whilst in modern battle procedure a subordinate would expect his mission statement to lay down what he had to achieve and why, we must make our judgement based on the processes and procedures of the day, and there can be little argument that Napoleon’s orders were not clear.

Looking at the battle from Wellington’s perspective, it was fought solely to give support to the Prussians, and in this he clearly failed. The result of the fighting was a repulse for the French, but for the allies it was a strategic failure. Wellington did not fight at Quatre Bras to deny Napoleon the support of part of Ney’s force; that Ney recalled d’Erlon from his march was that marshal’s disobedience of orders and his failure to fully understand the emperor’s scheme. Most British writers conclude that the battle was a victory for Wellington and make no mention of his failure to support the Prussians, although Chesney at least admits, ‘Truly, in holding his own, the great Englishman owed something that day to Fortune.’

Ney’s failure to concentrate his whole force, his poor decision-making and Wellington’s constant trickle of reinforcements had prevented the French defeating the allied army at Quatre Bras. But Ney’s job was to hold back the British and send support to Napoleon at Ligny. He succeeded in the former, but failed in the latter due to his rash and ill-considered decision to recall d’Erlon. But if it was not a French victory, neither was it an allied victory. Whilst Ney had failed to capture Quatre Bras and send a force to support Napoleon, so Wellington had singularly failed to carry out any manoeuvre that supported the Prussians as he intended and Blücher had requested. The French troops had fought well against increasing odds and had scored some notable successes, and the fact that history has marked the battle as a defeat has far more to do with Ney’s command than the courage or fighting ability of his soldiers. It seems that real efforts were made by the French chain-of-command to adapt their tactics to counter those used by the British in Spain, and although they achieved some tactical success, significantly, they were unable to challenge the significant psychological advantage that the British continued to hold over them.

Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Tactical Conduct

Kellermann’s attack

General Albert Pollio, an Italian historian who wrote an excellent and objective account of the campaign, whilst often critical of Ney’s performance, wrote:

I hasten to add that in my opinion, the battle of Quatre Bras represents for the French one of the best tactical actions that military history relates, as much to the direction as to the execution.

During seven hours of combat, Lord Wellington employed almost double the forces as those of the French and these forces were of excellent quality; and yet after seven hours, things were at the point where they had started.

It is difficult to find in history a tactical direction more skilful, more masterly, more determined, more energetic, than that exercised by Marshal Ney on 16th June 1815.

I firmly believe that no other general in the world could have achieved as much as this giant of battles that was Ney, and with such weak forces! The moral picture of this French general is dazzling!

It is also difficult to imagine a more perfect unity in the action of the three arms, which invigorated this small French force that was immortalised during this day . . .

The courage and resistance displayed by the French troops was truly extraordinary.

The performance of the French cavalry was also extraordinary, the cuirassiers as much as Piré’s division, but the latter even more so than the former . . . I am not aware of a more beautiful employment of cavalry, more tenacious, more intelligent than that of Marshal Ney and General Piré of these squadrons whose effect on this day, literally multiplied their number.

This analysis seems to fly in the face of most assessments of the way the French fought this battle, so perhaps it is worth basing our own analysis on this passage.

Whilst Pollio’s suggestion that Ney fought outnumbered for seven hours is misleading, it is certainly useful to examine the balance of forces as the battle progressed. The figures below show how both sides received reinforcements;

We can see that although Wellington was always outnumbered in cavalry, and also in guns until late in the afternoon, from 4pm he enjoyed an increasing superiority in infantry, and although it can be argued that some of his original force had become combat non-effective, the French had had to fight without any reinforcements from 3pm. It is somewhat surprising that from 5pm, when Wellington had an appreciable superiority in infantry, he did not become more aggressive in order to open the Namur road and endeavour to support the Prussians by putting the French under more pressure. Ney’s aggressive tactics no doubt had something to do with this and kept Wellington on the defensive until shortly before the end of the battle.

Whilst Ney stands accused of not attacking much earlier than he did, when he had an appreciable advantage in numbers, there is no doubt that, during the battle, Wellington received timely reinforcements at the two most critical moments. Without the arrival of Picton and the Brunswickers at about 3.30pm, Ney would undoubtedly have taken Quatre Bras, and two hours later Wellington was again saved by the arrival of Alten. Twice Ney had come within a whisker of winning the battle.

Pollio also praises the combined arms approach used by Ney. Whilst it is fair to say that each of the three arms fought well, and in the case of the cavalry and artillery outstandingly well, it is hard to agree that all three combined to best effect. The aim of combined arms tactics is that each compliments the other, making best use of their strengths whilst compensating for each others’ shortcomings, so that their combined effectiveness is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Thus the artillery prepares the attack by concentrating its fire on the point selected for the assault and causing heavy casualties; the cavalry advances to force the enemy infantry into square, in which formation they become more vulnerable to artillery fire and are at the mercy of an infantry assault; the enemy breaks and the cavalry pursue.

Allied accounts all describe the accuracy and overwhelming firepower of the French artillery and it has already been shown that for much of the battle the French had a much higher number of guns available than the allies. It is especially noticeable how effective their guns were in counter-battery fire. The use of the Bossu wood by the allies to hide their troops, the undulating ground and the tall crops, all made engaging infantry targets difficult. The French artillery therefore seemed to concentrate their fire on the most easily identifiable targets, their allied counterparts. Dutch and British accounts describe a number of guns dismounted, limbers and caissons destroyed and high casualties in both gun crew and horses, all of which seems to fly in face of the commonly accepted view that counter-battery fire was not especially effective.

The French artillery also showed an impressive desire to manoeuvre and they were quick to move guns forward as ground was secured by the infantry advance in order to engage the allied line at shorter range. They were helped by the rolling terrain, the low ridges which offered good fire positions and allowed them to shoot over the heads of their infantry. The power of the French artillery contributed to the repulse of Picton’s attack and ensured the allied counter-attack at the end of the battle remained slow and cautious. The fact that Quatre Bras was not a typical Wellingtonian position, with most of his force hidden in dead ground behind a ridge, exposed more of his force and allowed the French guns to manoeuvre closer to his main line.

Pollio rightly commends the handling and courage of the French cavalry and particularly Piré’s lancers and chasseurs. These showed an aggression and courage which quickly earned the respect and admiration of the allied infantry. Perhaps only at Albuera did the French cavalry so roughly handle British infantry. Piré commanded his division with great daring, exploiting every opportunity to charge and making repeated efforts to break the allied squares, coming close to succeeding on a number of occasions. Several batteries were overrun and battalions ridden down, although French casualties were high. It is true that there were only inferior numbers of allied cavalry to oppose them and these were inevitably overwhelmed, leaving the allied infantry with little dependable cavalry support and giving Piré’s troopers freedom to manoeuvre, but this should not detract from an admirable performance.

A study of what detail we know of the fighting also reveals a tactical innovation used by Piré that does not appear to have been seen on a previous battlefield. This was the way in which the chasseurs and lancers were used to complement each other. Although brigaded separately, almost all accounts reveal one regiment of chasseurs appearing to operate with one of lancers. Thus it seems that the chasseurs were used in front, to break the momentum of the opposing charge or disorder an infantry unit, and the lancers followed up to exploit the discomfited unit; a task well suited to lancers who were always most effective when the opposition had lost their close formation, as the Union Brigade were to find out at Waterloo. Tactical innovation will be seen again in the way the French fought during this battle.

Kellerman’s cuirassiers made a much briefer, but no less impressive, contribution to the battle than Piré’s light cavalry. Leaving them no time to reflect on what they were being asked to do, Kellerman led them in an all-out charge that smashed into the very centre of the allied line. The French cavalry rarely charged at more than a trot, but the circumstances were exceptional; just two regiments, counting less than 800 sabres, launched a virtually unsupported charge against nearly 30,000 men. The charge managed to destroy the 2/69th Regiment and capture one of their colours. Several other British infantry regiments were thrown into disorder, a battery was overrun and the cuirassiers came close to breaking right through the allied line, reaching Quatre Bras itself. Whilst the courage and determination of this fine cavalry must be applauded, and whilst Piré’s exhausted troopers charged again in its support, crucially it was not well seconded by the infantry and its final repulse and panicked flight should not overshadow its achievements. Indeed, given the lack of support, Kellerman described its flight in the following words, ‘The brigade, having suffered enormous casualties, and seeing itself without support, retired in the disorder inevitable in such circumstances.’

In his own study of cavalry in the Waterloo campaign, General Sir Evelyn Wood VC also lavishly praises the French cavalry for their battlefield performance at Quatre Bras. However, he is less complimentary about their failure to carry out their primary role as light cavalry: reconnaissance.3 Piré’s cavalry were one of Ney’s foremost elements on the morning of Quatre Bras and well placed to send out patrols in order to give Ney a full description of the strength and deployment of the small allied force there. Given the relatively narrow frontage that the Prince of Orange was covering and his lack of cavalry, Piré’s troops had plenty of time and opportunity to outflank the Netherlands force and gather sufficient information to allow Ney to have made some much better-informed decisions on when and how to act. Indeed, this single, apparently small point, could well have changed the result of the day.

A study of French infantry tactics at Quatre Bras seems to reveal a unique way of operating, which suggests there had been some tactical discussion prior to the battle on how to counter the British tactics that had so often bettered them in Spain. Ney, Reille and Foy (as well as d’Erlon) had all fought the British there and it would be surprising if such a discussion had not taken place. During the Peninsular War, Wellington had developed a tactical system designed to counter the French tactics that had been so successful against the other military powers of Europe: a thick line of skirmishers countered the French skirmish line and prevented the French from knowing the exact deployment of the main British line, which was hidden on the reverse slope of a ridge or some high ground. This would only reveal itself at the last moment, pour in one or more devastating volleys and then charge downhill with bayonets lowered against a surprised and staggered enemy.

As always the French infantry displayed much courage and élan, fighting hard right up to the end of the battle when they were considerably outnumbered. However, whilst the French artillery and cavalry quickly earned the respect of the allied soldiers, the ubiquitous French infantry columns always seem to be described as hovering in the background rather than pressing forward their attack.

The most successful and commented on tactic of the French infantry was the effectiveness of their skirmishers. All allied accounts describe the heavy casualties taken by officers and gun crews; as an example, in the British 44th Regiment, Colonel O’Malley, the commanding officer, was the only unwounded field officer in the battalion, and of twenty-five officers present, only the colonel and six others were untouched: by the end of the battle, four companies were commanded by sergeants. The tirailleurs fought in numbers that overwhelmed their allied counterparts, and as they never seemed to be able to achieve this in five years in Spain, it is hard not to conclude that a greater number were deployed as a deliberate effort to achieve this. This then left them free to cause attrition on the main allied line, aiming specifically at officers to weaken the cohesion and resolve of the enemy units. When these felt sufficiently weakened or threatened, they withdrew; the French tirailleurs would follow them up, giving them no respite, whilst the following columns would occupy the ground recently surrendered. The columns themselves appear to have done little fighting, but were merely used to occupy ground and reinforce the skirmisher screen as required. But most importantly, the columns were uncommitted and available to counter any sudden appearance of the main British force which had unfailingly caught them out in the Peninsula.

The key problem with these tactics is that a screen of skirmishers, no matter how strong, is never likely to be decisive. At Quatre Bras they were successful against the inexperienced troops of the Netherlands and Brunswick units, but not so against the British. In order to break an enemy’s will to resist it either needs to have suffered an unbearable level of casualties due to heavy volley fire, or its cohesion must be shattered by a failure to meet an opponent’s mass that threatens to overwhelm it. Skirmisher fire was annoying and might cause significant casualties amongst officers, but this was unlikely to break a unit’s cohesion, just as it lacked sufficient mass and momentum to enter or threaten a decisive hand-to-hand fight. Thus this type of advance might push the enemy back, but was unlikely to break him, and, particularly significant for the French on this day, the advance was likely to be a slow one. Ney needed a quick, decisive attack if he was going to seize Quatre Bras before Wellington had concentrated sufficient troops to deny it to him; this secure, but rather laboured approach was unlikely to achieve his aim.

In stark contrast to both the cavalry and artillery, and even their own skirmisher screen, the infantry columns seem to have been handled with caution. Whilst the French skirmishers outperformed their allied counterparts, the battle re-emphasised the superiority of the British infantry over their French equivalents. This was not just a tactical issue, the superiority of the line over the column, but also a moral one. The British had clearly not lost the moral ascendency that they had acquired in the Peninsula, and always seemed to have the confidence that they would win whatever the French threw at them. It may be that there were times when things were not looking good for the British troops, but whenever they were called upon to hold firm or move forward, whatever the odds, they always seemed to answer the call. The French infantry were noted for their élan and enthusiasm, and this is noted by many allied eyewitnesses, and yet when they launched what appeared to be their main attack, virtually the whole of Bachelu’s division was thrown back by three British battalions. Without wishing to denigrate the young and relatively inexperienced Dutch and Brunswick battalions, they were overwhelmed by the French, but despite their apparent élan, the French columns appear to have lacked the determination and resilience to really come to grips with the British infantry, and this lost them the battle.

Both allied and French eyewitnesses describe the French infantry using line in both the advance and in defence; this was virtually unheard of in Spain and perhaps reflects another effort to counter British fire superiority by those French commanders who fought them there. Without it being mentioned specifically, this may suggest the French use of ordre mixte, a formation favoured by Napoleon which was an attempt to exploit the firepower of the line and the momentum and mass of the column. An allied account of the battle describes some of Foy’s troops advancing ‘a battalion in line, supported by two columns’, suggesting this was the formation used.

But perhaps the most notable failure of the French infantry was their reluctance to advance in support of the cavalry. Both Piré’s and Kellerman’s troopers achieved considerable success in disordering a number of battalions and pinning others in square where they would have been vulnerable to an infantry assault. This was a failure of co-ordination. Piré’s main charge was an opportunistic one and Kellerman’s was hastily launched, but both Ney and the infantry divisional commanders failed to spot the opportunity and launch a determined infantry assault when the allies were most vulnerable. The failure of the infantry to support the attacks of the cavalry undermines Pollio’s praise for the combined arms aspects of the battle and is reminiscent of the great cavalry charges that were to come at Waterloo.

Ney’s direction of the battle is also interesting. Once again we see his legendary heroism and courage; prepared to expose himself to the hottest fire and always wanting to be in a position that gave him the best view of what was going on, urging his troops forward. But a truly effective commander needs more than courage. At the beginning of the day, Ney’s mission was to seize Quatre Bras, concentrate his entire wing around the crossroads and to defeat any allied troops that he encountered. By the afternoon, that mission had evolved; not least because Napoleon presumed that his first mission had been achieved. His new mission was that having seized Quatre Bras he was to send d’Erlon’s 1st Corps onto the Prussian right rear at Ligny. It appears that Ney failed to achieve either of his stated missions.

After delivering the emperor’s orders to Ney on the morning of the 16th, General Flahaut, the emperor’s ADC, remained at the battle for the rest of the day and was thus a witness to proceedings. In his account of the campaign, Thiers writes:

. . . Count Flahaut, who had left Ney during the night after having witnessed the events at Quatre Bras, arrived at General Headquarters at 6am [on the morning of the 17th]. Without wishing to insult Ney, whose heroism touched even those who did not approve of his manner of operations, he did not conceal from the emperor how the dispositions of the marshal had been mediocre at the combat at Quatre Bras; how above all he seemed struck by agitation in his thoughts, adding that he was clearly energetic in his devotion, but that this affected the clarity of his military judgement . . .

Although Thiers should not normally be considered as authoritative, this account was specifically endorsed by Flahaut in a letter to Thiers dated London, 27 August 1862. From this passage we must assume that Flahaut was trying to respectfully say that Ney was not thinking or planning clearly and his direction of the battle was poor. Flahaut himself wrote:

There was no cohesion to the affair. It was like attempting, as the saying goes, to ‘take the bull by the horns’. Our forces were thrown into battle piecemeal as they arrived upon the scene, and in spite of the bravery they displayed no result was obtained.

No doubt based on Flahaut’s report, Napoleon had the following letter written to Ney the following morning:

The emperor is disappointed that you did not concentrate your divisions yesterday; they acted individually and so you suffered casualties.

If the corps of Counts d’Erlon and Reille had been together, not an Englishman of the corps that attacked you would have escaped. If the Count d’Erlon had executed the movement on Saint-Amand that the emperor had ordered, the Prussian army would have been totally destroyed and we would have made perhaps 30,000 prisoners.

The corps of Generals Gérard, Vandamme and the Imperial Guard were always concentrated; one exposes oneself to a reverse when detachments are made.

Zerstörer, Hurricane and Defiant

The backbone of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain was made up of the single-engined single-seater Hawker Hurricane. In the 1930s this was the RAF’s first monoplane fighter, but in 1940 it was growing increasingly outdated in comparison to more recent aircraft.

Above all, the Hurricane was relatively slow. Top speed was 520 km/h at an altitude of 5,500 metres, which meant that it was about 35-40 km/h slower than the Bf 109. But the Hurricane’s larger rudder gave better stability during sharp manoeuvres, making it more manoeuvrable for less experienced pilots, and it could turn much more sharply than both the Bf 109 and Spitfire. In addition, the quite robust construction of the Hurricane made it able to sustain much more damage than both the Spitfire and the Bf 109. Another advantage – especially compared to the Spitfire and the Bf 109 E-1 – was its armament. Similarly to the Spitfire, the Hurricane was equipped with eight 7.7mm Browning .303 machine guns, but these were fitted closer together in the Hurricane, which gave a more concentrated firepower than that of the Spitfire, which had its four guns in each wing more spread out.

In the case of the Hurricane versus the Messerschmitt 109, most pilots agree – the latter was clearly better. Peter Brothers, who flew with Hurricane equipped 32 and 257 squadrons during the Battle of Britain, said: ‘As a pilot of a Hurricane you always had a certain respect, and even fear, for the Messerschmitt 109s. Firstly, they could dive faster. If the pilot of a Messerschmitt 109 saw you, he dived down and gave you a burst of fire, whizzed past, pulled the stick and climbed away very rapidly. You had no chance to follow him.’ According to ‘Al’ Deere, the Hurricane was, ‘although much more manoeuvrable than both the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109, pitifully slow and an extremely lazy climber.’

The second German fighter, the twin-engined two-seater Messerschmitt Bf 110, has been the subject of many myths and misconceptions. A fairly common notion is that it didn’t suffice as a day fighter, that it performed poorly in combat, and because of this had to be assigned with fighter escorts of Bf 109s. However, none of this stands up to closer scrutiny.

The Bf 110 was the result of the wargames conducted under Göring’s supervision in the winter of 1933/1934. These showed that the by then prevailing view that ‘the bombers will always get through’ – the notion that regardless of intercepting fighters and air defence a sufficient number of bombers always would get through to their assigned targets, where they were expected to cause enormous damage – was incorrect. In the summer of 1934, the leadership of the still secret Luftwaffe presented a study that suggested what at that time was quite revolutionary – a twin-engined fighter, heavily armed with automatic cannons as well as machine guns, to protect the bombers against enemy fighter interception. The idea was to dispatch these twin-engined fighter aircraft in advance, at a high altitude over the intended bombing target area, to clear the air of enemy fighters before the bombers arrived. Several of the more traditional thinking staff officers opposed this proposal, but Göring understood how far-sighted this was. Thus the fighter escort doctrine was born – the one that most air forces would adopt, although it would not be until ten years later that the Western Allies understood its benefits. Göring immediately in 1934 assigned the German aviation industry the task of constructing a new aircraft according to these principles. The new aircraft was designated ‘Zerstörer’ (destroyer). Göring eventually chose a design by the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, Bf 110.

It is commonly cited that the Bf 110 could not turn as tightly as the single-engined fighters. Good manoeuvrability was of course a significant factor in the fighter combats of the Second World War, but not to the same extent as in the First World War’s so-called ‘dogfights’ between slow biplanes and triplanes that circled in the same area. The fighter combats of the Second World War more often had the character of a kind of ‘Big Bang in miniature’: when both sides clashed, their flight formations dissolved explosively, with all the aircraft careering off at high speed in different directions. In such a melee, speed, climb and diving performances were at least as important as manoeuvrability. The tight turn is in itself a defensive feature – it makes it easier to avoid being hit by the fire of a pursuer. But in the offensive, the fighter pilots of the Second World War were able to use more powerful engines.

Hubert ‘Dizzy’ Allen, who flew a Spitfire with No. 66 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, wrote: ‘We were better at dogfighting than the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe, but only because both the Spitfire and Hurricane were more manoeuvrable than the Messerschmitt 109 and 110. In fact, dog-fighting ability was not all that important during the war. Fighter attacks were hit-and-run affairs on average. Either you dived with the sun behind you and caught him napping, or he did that to you.’

The Bf 110 was designed to strike down on enemy aircraft like hawks striking doves. With superiority in speed and altitude it could perform an attack effectively, without allowing itself to be drawn into turning combat – in exactly the same way as the Bf 109 pilots later learned to combat the much more manoeuvrable Soviet Polikarpov fighters on the Eastern Front. In these conditions, the Bf 110’s at that time unrivalled fire power often was decisive. In terms of flight speed, the Bf 110 models of 1940 were on pair with both the Bf 109 E and the Spitfire Mk I, and were significantly faster than the Hurricane. The Bf 110 was equipped with the same engines as the Bf 109, the DB 601 A, with fuel injection, and thus could outdive any British fighter. It also outclimbed the Hurricane and climbed almost as well as the Spitfire – unless it attacked the British in a quick dive from above; in doing so, the accumulated speed of the ‘110 made it impossible to follow in pursuit when it rapidly pulled up again.

In these kind of lightning attacks, the Bf 110’s armament at that time was unprecedented: two 20mm MG FF cannons and four 7.92 mm MG 17 machine guns concentrated in the nose. In addition, this aircraft had relatively ample room for ammunition. Its automatic cannons were loaded with 180 shells each, three times more than in a Messerschmitt 109, giving a total firing time of twenty seconds. The firepower of the Bf 110 was something that all RAF pilots soon learned to fear. Since the ‘110 was twin-seated, it was also equipped with a rear machine gun. This single, flexible 7.92mm MG 15 did not have any greater firepower, but this was often compensated by the extensive gunnery training of the radio operator who manned the machine gun.

The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was not only superior to the ‘109 regarding armament, but it also had a significantly larger operational range – which was a significant factor in the Luftwaffe operations over the British Isles. There was an important difference in principle between the two Messerschmitt fighters: as we have seen above, the Bf 110 had been developed according to Hermann Göring’s ‘Zerstörer Concept’, and thus was intended for the offensive. The original concept for the Bf 109, however, was defensive; it was meant as an Objektschutzflugzeug, an object cover aircraft, i.e., a short-range interceptor designed to patrol over for example an important industrial area to protect it against air strikes.

The results of the Bf 110’s operations during the Battle of Britain show that contrary to common perception it was at least as effective as the Bf 109 when it was used in free hunting – in other words according to the concept for which it was designed. Hans-Joachim Jabs, who as an Oberleutnant flew a Bf 110 with II./ZG 76 – the famous ‘Haifischgruppe’ – during the Battle of Britain, described his favourite method with the aircraft: ‘With a Messerschmitt 110 on free hunting you could strike down on the British and destroy them with the aircraft’s heavy armament. Then we could use the speed accumulated during the diving to climb to a higher altitude again. If we were attacked by British fighters when we had such a high speed, we could easily outclimb them. Then we could use our dive speed for a renewed attack to shoot down another one of them who was not careful enough.’

Mainly through this tactic, Jabs scored nineteen victories with his Bf 110 up until September 1940, and for this he was awarded with the Knight’s Cross. By that time, II./ZG 76 was the Luftwaffe’s most successful fighter Gruppe in terms of of victories.

Robert Stanford Tuck served as a Flight Lieutenant with 92 and 257 squadrons during the Battle of Britain and developed into one of the RAF’s first big fighter aces. He describes the Bf 110 as ‘an airplane that was very unpleasant to face, because of its quite heavy armament in the nose’. Tuck continues: ‘Rule number one was: Make sure you do not get a 110 on your tail. If that happened, you could be sure to get a whole lot of ammo over yourself, concentrated. In addition, [the Messerschmitt 110] had a rear gunner, and I had a feeling that their rear gunners were quite good at aiming and very determined. They continued to fire at you until the last moment, until your bullets had wounded them fatally.’

Neither did the Bf 110 have such a bad manoeuvrability as has often been claimed. Indeed, it could not make as tight turns as the Hurricane or the Spitfire, but in the hands of a skilled pilot it could turn almost as tight as a Bf 109 at high speed above medium flight altitude. Several combat reports by RAF pilots from the Battle of Britain testify to this. Eric Marrs, who flew a Spitfire with No. 152 Squadron, describes a dogfight with a Bf 110:

‘We circled around each other for a bit in tightening circles, each trying to get on the other’s tail, but my attention was soon drawn by another ‘110 … I milled around with him for a bit … I rolled on my back and pulled out of the melee and went home.’

Major Walter Grabmann, who commanded Bf 110-equipped ZG 76 during the Battle of Britain, flew mock combats with Bf 110s against captured British fighters on several occasions, and came to the following conclusions: ‘Concerning the performance of the Bf 110: I myself carried out very many comparison flights with the Bf 109, Bf 110 C against Bf 109 E. Speed equal, Bf 109 somewhat better in a climb, Bf 110 somewhat faster in a shallow dive. Dogfighting: 50:50. It was the same against the Spitfire.’

What mainly made the Bf 110 actually more suited for the special demands of the Battle of Britain than the Bf 109, was its large operating range. From bases in northern France the Bf 110 could reach all the way to Scotland – a longer distance than all German bomber types except the Ju 88. The Bf 109 on the other hand could at best reach to London’s northern outskirts, then the fuel in its small tanks began to run out, and the pilot had to hurry home. If the Bf 109s became involved in fighter combat, or if they were assigned to provide the bombers with close escort – which forced the pilots to orbit above and around the slow bomber – the fuel would run out of even earlier. German bomber formations were repeatedly dealt heavy losses over England because the Messerschmitt 109s had been short on fuel and had to leave the bombers, while there were too few Bf 110s. Of the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes in the summer of 1940, only about one-fifth consisted of Bf 110s and the rest were Bf 109s. (The ‘He 113’, frequently mentioned in the British combat reports from this period, was nothing but a German propaganda trick; ‘Heinkel 113’ never existed – in cases where such an aircraft was mentioned it was merely a case of confusion with Bf 109s.)

The RAF also had a couple of twin-engined fighters, but none of them could be compared with the Bf 110. The most common was the Bristol Blenheim. The Air Ministry’s decision to build a heavy fighter version of the Blenheim bomber soon proved to be a mistake. The Bristol Blenheim IF was slow – the top speed was in line with standard medium bomber, even lower than that of the Ju 88. How it compared with the Bf 110 was made clear by the Zerstörer fliers of I./ZG 1 on 10 May 1940, when they shot down five out of six Blenheims from 600 Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight without own losses. One consequence of this was that the Blenheim IF was shifted to mainly night fighter operations.

The other twin-engined British fighter was Westland Whirlwind – quite a small aeroplane (a length of only 9.83 metres, compared with the Bf 110’s 12.3 metres). With a top speed of 580 km/h at 4,500 metres’ altitude – more than 10 km/h faster than the Bf 109 at that height – and an armament of four automatic cannons in the nose, the Whirlwind might seem to have been a great fighter plane. But its disadvantage was its low speed at high altitudes – which would have been a great disadvantage if it had been deployed during the Battle of Britain. Deliveries of the Whirlwind began slowly during the Battle of Britain, and on 17 August 1940 only five aircraft were at hand. Fighter Command’s Dowding decided not to use the aircraft in combat throughout the Battle of Britain – probably a wise decision.

Another less common British fighter that was used in the Battle of Britain was something as unusual as a single-engined but twin-seated fighter with an armament consisting of four 7.7mm machine guns in an electric-powered dorsal turret – the Boulton Paul Defiant. This machine probably was better than its reputation. Indeed, because of the extra weight of the turret it was relatively slow – the top speed was 490 km/h at 5,200 metres’ altitude, whereas the Bf 110 reached 530 km/h and the Bf 109 550 km/h. However, the plane may be considered a ‘slugger’. With the right tactics – where the planes flew in a ‘Lufbery-circle’ – it could take control over a fairly large airspace where it was quite dangerous for any enemy aircraft. But even if the Defiant has received an undeservedly bad reputation because of erroneous tactics, it could not be compared with the two German fighters planes.

Eastern Onslaught

WINTER 1943/44–AUTUMN 1944

By incredible efforts and courageous fighting the German Army managed to slow down the Russian offensive on the central sector of the Eastern Front. Throughout July Army Group Centre was withdrawing steadily through Poland. Its weary soldiers had been forced back towards Kaunas, the Neman River and Bialystok. The last of the German infantry units capable of retreating along the Warsaw highway over the Vistula at Siedlce was undertaken and assisted by the crack Waffen-SS division Totenkopf and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Division. The whole German position in the east was now crumbling, and any hope of repairing it was made almost impossible by crippling shortages of troops. German infantry divisions continued desperately trying to fill the dwindling ranks. However, by the end of July the Red Army was already making good progress towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. On 7 August 1944 the Soviet offensive finally came to a halt east of Warsaw. Feldmarschall Model sent Hitler an optimistic report telling him that Army Group Centre had finally set up a continuous front from the south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the River Vistula near Pulawy. The new front itself in Poland stretched some 420 miles and was manned by thirty-nine divisions and brigades. Although the force seemed impressive the German Army was actually weak; the divisions were under-strength, and were thinly-stretched. With these, the Germans were compelled to hold large areas along the Vistula River, which included Warsaw. What made matters worse was the fact that they faced a Russian force that was a third of the total Red Army. To the Germans, Warsaw possessed great strategic importance due to the vital traffic arteries running north-south and east-west, which crossed into the city. The Germans knew that if they wanted to keep control of the Eastern Front, they must hold onto the city at all costs.

As news reached Warsaw that the Russians were approaching, the Polish Home Army rose against the German forces in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising. In the north of the city the 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions, together with the Herman Göring Division, saw extensive action in trying to repulse the uprising. While the fighting raged inside the capital, north of the city Soviet troops had already made some impressive gains by pushing the 2nd Army towards the Narew River. Fortunately for the German troops the Red Army were too exhausted and the offensive ground to a halt.

But the lull in Poland was not mirrored elsewhere. In the north, Soviet forces were already in East Prussia threatening the German forces in that area by reaching the Baltic and cutting off Army Group North. In southern Poland the 1st Ukrainian Front captured Lemberg, while Romania fell to the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts. Soviet forces had also penetrated Hungary, and its powerful armoured forces soon reached the capital, Budapest. On 20 August, the 2nd Ukrainian Front broke through powerful German defences, and the Red Army reached the Bulgarian border on 1 September. Within a week, Soviet troops arrived along the Yugoslav frontier. On 8 September, Bulgaria and Romania then declared war on Germany. It seemed that nothing but a series of defeats now plagued the German Army during the summer of 1944.

In a radical effort to stem the series of setbacks, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General staff, proposed that thirty divisions of Army Group North, which were redundant in Kurland, be shipped back to the Homeland so they could be resupplied and re-strengthened to reinforce Army Group Centre in Poland. Hitler, however, emphatically refused Guderian’s proposal.

As a consequence of Hitler’s negative response, by October Army Group North was, as predicted, cut off, leaving 4th Army with only four weak corps to defend East Prussia against the full might of the Soviet forces. In Army Group Centre the 3rd Panzer Army and 4th Army were holding tenaciously to a weak salient in the north, while to the southwest, along the Narew River, the 2nd Army was still holding the river line. Army Group A had dug a string of defences from Modlin to Kaschau, with the 9th Army positioned either side of Warsaw along the Vistula. The 4th Panzer Army had dug in at Baranov and was holding positions against strong Russian attacks. The 17th Army had fortified its positions with a string of machine gun posts and mines between the Vistula and the Beskides, while the 1st Panzer Army was holding the area of Kaschau and Jaslo.

For the remaining weeks of 1944 the German Army defended Poland with everything it could muster. The bulk of the forces left to defend the frontlines were exhausted and undermanned. With reserves almost non-existent the dwindling ranks were bolstered by old men and low-grade troops. Struggling to find more manpower, convalescents and the medically unfit were also drafted into the ranks into what were known as ‘stomach and ear’ battalions because most men were hard of hearing or suffered from ulcers. Poland it seemed would be defended at all costs, despite the age and quality of the soldiers that manned the lines.

WINTER 1944/45–MAY 1945

The year 1944 ended with the German Army still fighting on foreign soil trying desperately to gain the initiative and throw the Red Army back from its remorseless drive on the German frontier. But despite the skill and determination shown by the German soldiers in late 1944, most of them were aware that 1945 would be fateful – the year of decision.

In January 1945 along the Vistula Front hope dawned among some of the more fanatical commanders of the German Army. The strongest of the forces deployed along the Vistula against the Russians were in Army Group Centre. Its battle line ran more than 350 miles. However, each division that was placed on the front lines was perilously under strength and would not be able to contain a Russian attack for any appreciable length of time. On 13 January 1945 the Soviet offensive opened up and soldiers and Panzer crews from the 4th Panzer Army bore the brunt of the attack on the Vistula. Almost immediately the army was engulfed in a storm of fire. Across the snow-covered terrain Red Army troops and massive numbers of armoured vehicles flooded the battlefield. By the end of the first day the battle had ripped open a breach more than twenty miles wide in the Vistula Front. The 4th Panzer Army was virtually annihilated. Small groups of German soldiers tried frantically to fight their way westwards through the flood of Red infantry and tanks.

As the whole German military campaign in the east began collapsing it was proposed that all German forces located between the Oder and Vistula rivers be amalgamated into a new army group named ‘Army Group Vistula’. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was to command the new army group. German soldiers together with elite formations of the Waffen-SS were supposed to prevent the Soviets from breaking through. However, the once mighty German Army was now suffering from an unmistakable lack of provisions. By January 1945, the problems had become so critical that even children and old men were being thrown into what was now being called the last bastion of defence for the Reich. In Army Group Vistula the German Army could no longer function properly.

There was no contact between units on the battlefield, battalions were out of touch with their companies, and regiments had no link with their divisions. Successive blows by the Red Army began to tear apart Himmler’s Army Group and send scattered German formations reeling back westward towards the Oder or north-westwards into Pomerania. As the whole front began withdrawing both the 9th Army and 2nd Army’s right wings lost contact with each other. In a drastic measure to restore the disintegrating situation General Weiss, commanding the 2nd Army, tried to stabilise the front on the Vistula between the town of Thorn and Graudenz. But still Soviet forces were overwhelming many German positions and pushing back Hitler’s exhausted forces.

Despite the best efforts of the German Army to bolster its dwindling ranks on the Eastern Front, nothing could now mask the fact that they were dwarfed by the superiority of the Red Army. It was estimated that the Russians had some six million men along a front which stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic. To the German soldiers facing the Russians, the outcome was almost certain death. They were well aware that what they had done in Russia and the occupied territories had caused the Red Army to exact a terrible revenge.

As the Nazi empire was sheared off piece by piece, Dr Josef Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda chief, begun to switch from terror-mongering to reassuring the population that victory was just around the corner. However, in an atmosphere of near panic, stirred up by refugees and their stories of Russian atrocities, there was little to console them. Many stories had already reached the German front lines as to how the Red Army had raped and murdered women. The widespread panic among the civilians was causing the German command many problems, especially with supply and troop movements. In some areas the roads had become so congested with civilians and soldiers that many miles were brought to a complete standstill.

Out on the battlefield, the realisation among troops that they might lose the war was seldom admitted openly; but most of the soldiers already knew that the end would come soon. Troops were not convinced by their commanders’ encouragements especially when they were lying in their trenches subjected to hours of bombardment by guns that never seemed to lack shells. Poorly armed and undermanned, infantry and Panzer divisions were exhausted shadows of their former selves.

The last great offensives that brought the Russians their final victory in Eastern Europe began during the third week of January 1945. Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front surged into Silesia after the capture of Radom and Krakow. On the night of 27 January, the German divisions of the 17th Army pulled out of the region towards the Oder River. The principal objective of the Red Army during late January 1945 was for an all-out assault along the Baltic to crush the remaining under-strength German units that had formed Army Group North. It was these heavy, sustained attacks that eventually restricted the German-held territory in the north-east to a few small pockets of land surrounding three ports: Libau in Kurland, Pillau in East Prussia and Danzig at the mouth of River Vistula. It was here along the Baltic that the German defenders attempted to stall the massive Russian onslaught with the few weapons and men they had at their disposal. Every German soldier defending the area was aware of the significance if it were captured. Not only would the coastal garrisons be cut off and eventually destroyed, but also masses of civilian refugees would be prevented from escaping from the ports by sea. Terrified civilians eager to board the next ships to the homeland queued night and day until the next vessel came in. They were so desperate to leave that they stood out in the open, enduring constant bombing and strafing by low-flying Russian aircraft, whose presence was now unchallenged in the sky.

For the next several weeks thousands of civilians risked their lives in order to escape from the clutches of the Red Army. Even to the end of March 1945, as Soviet troops fought their way into the outskirts of Gdynia, the German Navy continued rescuing many refugees before the Russians could get to them. German soldiers too, even remnants of elite Waffen-SS units, found themselves faced with a similar experience. Thousands of dishevelled troops streamed towards the coast, mingling with countless numbers of terrified women and children. Just along the coast in Danzig, the Russians stormed the ancient Teutonic city, smashing into the rear of fleeing German troops who were making their way desperately along the Vistula estuary. To the German soldiers that saw Danzig fall, it marked a complete disaster along the Baltic. Russian soldiers, however, saw Danzig as a way of exterminating Teutonic culture, which had long since been despised. All over the city, they blew up old buildings, set alight churches and randomly executed groups of soldiers that had not raised the white flag of surrender, but had fought on until they ran out of ammunition.

Elsewhere along the Baltic coast isolated areas of German resistance continued to fight on, but still they had no prospect of holding back the Russians. Hitler made it quite clear that Army Group Kurland was not to be evacuated. To the Führer, Kurland was the last bastion of defence in the east and every soldier, he said, was to ‘stand and fight’ and wage an unprecedented battle of attrition. In fact, what Hitler had done in a single sentence was to condemn to death some 8,000 officers and more than 181,000 soldiers and Luftwaffe personnel. Those soldiers who managed to escape the destruction of Army Group Kurland retreated back towards the River Oder or returned by ship to Germany.

On other parts of the Eastern Front fighting was merciless, with both sides imposing harsh measures on their men to stand where they were and fight to the death. Since September 1944, Hitler had appreciated the importance of holding the city of Breslau from the approaching Red Army and declared it a fortress. As with other towns and villages lining the approaches to the Homeland, Breslau’s infantry formations consisted mainly of old men and young boys who were poorly-equipped and hastily trained for combat. Four months later in January 1945, the city was still poised for the arrival of the Russians. By February, the sound of approaching Russian guns brought the city to panic stations. It was the 269th Infantry Division, withdrawing in the face of the massive Soviet advance, that was given the objective of forming the main defence of Breslau.

To test the defenders of Breslau, the Red Army launched a series of probing attacks into the city. Four Soviet divisions then carried out a furious assault that penetrated Breslau’s defences. Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, Waffen-SS and various formations from the 269th Infantry Division put up a staunch defence with every available weapon they could muster. As the battle raged, both German soldiers and civilians were cut to pieces by Russian fire. The Red Army drive was so powerful and swift that by 14 February the city was cut off and isolated, miles behind the Russian front.

During these vicious battles, which continued into May 1945, after Berlin had fallen, there were many acts of courageous fighting. Cheering and yelling, old men and boys of the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend advanced across open terrain into a barrage of machine gun and mortar fire. By the first week of March, Russian infantry had driven back the defenders into the inner city and were pulverising it street by street. Lightly-clad Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend were still resisting, forced to fight in the sewers beneath the ravaged city. Almost 60,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded trying to capture the city, with some 29,000 German military and civilian casualties. When Breslau finally capitulated, the Red Army was bitter and vented its anger against the civilians.

As the massive Russian forces pushed ever westward, the German Army, along with the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend formations, withdrew under increasing pressure nearer and nearer to the Homeland. With every defeat and withdrawal came ever-increasing pressure on the commanders to exert harsher discipline on their weary men. The thought of fighting on German soil for the first time resulted in mixed feelings among the men. Although the defence of the Reich automatically stirred emotional feelings to fight for their land, many soldiers were quite openly aware that morale was being completely destroyed. They had all received a message from the Führer telling them to fight to the death, and they no longer had the manpower resources or strength to wage a bloody war of attrition. More young conscripts began showing signs that they did not want to die for a lost cause.

Conditions on the Eastern Front were miserable not only for the newest recruit, but also the battle-hardened veteran who had survived many months of bitter conflict against the Red Army. The cold harsh weather during February and March prevented the soldiers digging trenches more than a few feet deep. But the main problems that confronted the German Army during this period of the war were shortages of ammunition, fuel and vehicles. Some vehicles in the divisions could only be used in an emergency and troops were strictly prohibited from using them without permission from the commanding officer. The daily ration on average per division was for two shells per gun. Thousands of under-nourished civilians, mostly women and slave labourers, were marched out to expend all their available energy to dig lines of anti-tank ditches. For the benefit of the newsreel camera, which was intended somehow to help bolster the morale of the troops, Hitler made a secret visit on 13 March 1945 to the Oder Front. In fact, Hitler did not meet one ordinary soldier at the front and was surrounded by well-armed SS guards. During his brief war conference on the terrible situation faced by his Army, he gave a formal speech on the necessity of holding the positions. He told General Busse, commander of the 9th Army, to use all available weapons and equipment at his disposal to hold back the Russians.

However, nothing could stop the Red Army’s drive. Out on the Vistula Front, German troops were now barely holding their wavering positions that ran some 175 miles from the Baltic coast to the juncture of the Oder and Neisse in Silesia. Most of the front was now held on the western bank of the Oder. In the north the ancient city of Stettin, and in the south the town of Küstrin, were both vital holding points against the main Russian objective of the war – Berlin.

By late March, the situation in Army Group Vistula had become much worse. Not only were supplies dwindling, but rations too were becoming so low that some soldiers were beginning to starve. In the ranks rations were more abundant: most days each soldier received an Army loaf and some stew or soup, which was often cold and not very appetising. But the main problem was the lack of clean drinking water. As a result of this, many of the soldiers suffered from dysentery.

The bulk of the Vistula front was manned by inexperienced training units. Some soldiers were so young that in their rations they were handed sweets instead of tobacco. More experienced soldiers observed that the Soviets were playing with them like ‘cat and mouse’. Sitting in their trenches, cowering under the constant Soviet shelling, almost all of the men seemed fixated on one thing: ‘the order to hurry up and retreat.’

Despite all its weaknesses on the Vistula Front, the German Army could still be a formidable opponent. Both young and old alike fought together to hold some kind of line in the face of the massive Russian onslaught.

In the last months of the war on the Eastern Front, German infantry divisions tried their best to form some kind of defensive line along an increasingly shrinking front. Exhausted and demoralised skeletal units that had been fighting for survival in previous weeks were now fully aware of the impending defeat in the east. Yet the German General Staff was still determined to fight at all costs, even if it meant throwing together unfit or badly depleted regiments and battalions.

In late March 1945, east of Berlin, German infantry and Panzer troops were compelled to hold the front against superior Soviet artillery and aviation. The German soldier had neither the manpower nor the weapons to hold the Russian onslaught, in spite of determined resistance along some sectors of the Front.

The Eastern Front, over which the German soldier had marched victoriously into heartlands of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, was now no more than 100 miles from the Reich capital. Between Berlin and the River Oder was a motley assortment of German soldiers, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend and Luftwaffe troops preparing for the final onslaught of the Russian Army. When the final attack began on the River Oder on 16 April 1945 the German soldier was overwhelmed within days, and was slowly beaten back to the gates of Berlin. It was here that the German soldier fought out the last days of the war in the east until he was either captured or destroyed.


Tom Hardy’s character’s experience in the Dunkirk movie most closely resembles that of New Zealand Spitfire pilot Alan Christopher Deere.

Dunkirk (2017) History vs. Hollywood

When Allied defense against the German FALL GELB operation broke, London organized Operation DYNAMO: a desperate withdrawal of 340,000 British, Commonwealth, and other Allied (120,000 French and 20,000 Belgian) troops from the beaches and port of Dunkirk. The operation lasted from May 25 to June 2, 1940. Many clamored aboard rescue ships without even basic equipment, while all tanks, trucks, and heavy weapons were abandoned on the beaches. This massive amphibious retreat was made necessary by a German breakthrough that split the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some French and Belgian divisions from the rest of the French Army which forced surrender by Belgium on May 28. There was significant misunderstanding and hostility at first between British and French troops in the enclave, as most of the French who were evacuated were not embarked until nearly all British troops had already left. The main reason was that the French High Command refused to accept the need for any evacuations until after the Belgian surrender on May 28, but later used the British evacuation as an excuse for military failure and signature of the armistice on June 22.

The evacuation was accomplished with the aid of hundreds of civilian craft of all types and sizes, the famed “Little Ships” that included personal yachts, London river barges, and fishing vessels. But mainly it was carried out by Royal Navy minesweepers, destroyers, and other warships. A heroic rearguard defense was made by elements of French 1st Army and selected British and Canadian units, while the RAF fended off Luftwaffe attacks on the beaches and ships and the Royal Navy fought off German E-boats. The RAF lost nearly 200 fighters over nine days defending the Dunkirk enclave; the Luftwaffe lost 240 planes attacking it. The Allies also lost 9 large warships ships and 9 destroyers, with 19 more destroyers damaged. Daylight ship runs stopped on June 1. Another 60,000 French troops and elements of the British perimeter force were evacuated under cover of night on June 2.

Escape of over 320,000 enemy soldiers from Dunkirk was made possible by Adolf Hitler`s “stop order.” For two critical days, May 24-25, he forbade Panzer forces to pursue a retreating and badly demoralized enemy. But it is important to note that the generals of the OKH agreed with Hitler: their attention was drawn south to what they believed would be a large battle in front of Paris. Hitler and the OKH alike wanted to preserve worn and tired Panzer divisions for that fight and to let slower arriving German infantry and the Luftwaffe finish the job along the coast. About 120,000 British troops remained in France after Dunkirk. Smaller evacuations got some men out, but most of the 51st Highland Division was compelled to surrender on June 12. Over 156,000 British, Canadian, and Polish troops were then evacuated from Cherbourg. although 3,000 died when their departing liner was bombed by the Luftwaffe just off the French coast. Behind the German lines, Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS carried out several massacres of French civilians-a sign of occupation practices to come. There were also instances along the perimeter of British troops shooting unarmed or individual surrendering Germans. Dunkirk was not the first time that British forces were chased from Europe by the Wehrmacht and forced into desperate evacuation by sea-British failure in northern Norway was contemporaneous. More dark days and forced amphibious departures from Greece and Crete still lay in the future for the British Army and its Commonwealth and minor European allies. And as Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”


France, the battle launched on 10 May 1940 when German forces attacked through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and forced the capitulation of France on 22 June. Some 40 Australian airmen took part in this brief campaign as members of Royal Air Force squadrons, and ten of them were lost in action. Three were killed while flying protective sorties over the Dunkirk beachheads during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in late May and early June. While none of these pilots were in formed units of the Royal Australian Air Force or retained a formal association with that service, many had received their initial flying training in the RAAF before being seconded (and then usually transferred) to the RAF.

Under these arrangements, the pilots concerned were permitted to wear out their RAAF uniforms before being required to replace them with RAF clothing. It is recorded that at least one man, Flying Officer Leslie Clisby, was still wearing his RAAF tunic-although in an advanced state of disrepair-when shot down over Neuville, France, on 14 May. At the time of his death, Clisby was officially credited with having destroyed fourteen enemy aircraft in combat (his unofficial tally was reportedly nineteen, and possibly higher). Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Clisby was arguably the first `Australian’ air ace of the Second World War.

Lex McAulay (1991) Six Aces: Australian Fighter Pilots 1939-45, Brunswick, Vic.: Banner Books

Siege of Matarikoriko

Note. The interiors of the covered Pits were lined with Fern &c. and used as sleeping places. Food was also cooked in them.
J. R. Jobbins.

Matarikoriko, one of the pas (forts) comprising the main Maori stronghold on the Waitara River in New Zealand’s Taranaki district, was besieged by troops under Major-General Thomas Pratt (commander-in-chief of British forces in Australia) on 29-31 December 1860. Located eight kilometres from the sea, on the river’s southern shore, it was the first-encountered of three formidable fortifications sited on the Kairau plateau and was accordingly the first tackled by Pratt when he took to the field on 28 December. Moving up with 900 men and four guns, the next day the British began constructing a redoubt able to accommodate 500 men about 730 metres from the Maori positions. This was intended to serve as a depot and start-point for a sap to facilitate an attack against the pa, and also for an attack on the next Maori work at Huirangi.

Under a brisk fire from well-concealed rifle pits less than 150 metres away, the British troops laboured all day and received little rest during the night from incessant Maori harassing fire. The exchange of fire on this day was remarkably heavy, with the British alone using an estimated 70,000 bullets along with 120 artillery rounds. The next day, Sunday, a white flag was flown over the stockade and its defenders insisted that they did not wish to desecrate the Sabbath by shedding blood. An armistice was accordingly arranged for the rest of the day, although this did not stop the British from working to finish and improve their redoubt’s parapets, and in preparing barbettes and platforms for mounting two 8-inch guns. Next morning it was found that the Maoris had abandoned the pa, leaving twelve of their dead buried within it. The cost to Pratt’s troops had been three killed and twenty wounded.

The action is principally of note because of the involvement in the British force of a naval brigade of 138 officers and men. Included in this corps were two officers and 30 sailors from the Victorian government’s auxiliary-screw warship Victoria (variously described as a barque, sloop or corvette), this being the first military operation carried out by any Australian armed unit overseas.

James Cowan (1922-23) The New Zealand Wars, 2 vols, Wellington, NZ: W. A. G. Skinner; Tom Gibson (1974) The Maori Wars, Wellington, NZ: A. H. & A. W. Reed; Colin Jones (1986) Australian Colonial Navies, Canberra: Australian War Memorial


Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross, watercolour by Charles Doudiet, Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Depiction of the Eureka Stockade by Beryl Ireland (1891)

The spark that detonated rebellion came in October 1854 with the murder of a digger. The culprit, his mates had good reason to think, was the publican of the Eureka Hotel at Ballarat and a known crony of the goldfields police. A mob of 5000 angry diggers burned the pub down. Three diggers who were marginally involved in the bonfire and riot were arrested: yet another injustice. When a deputation of diggers-Humffray, Black and Kennedy-went to Melbourne to petition for their mates’ release, Governor Hotham promised to look into the affair but then ordered police and companies from two regiments, the 12th (East Suffolk) and the 40th (Somerset) to march to Ballarat, a decision that broke any trust the diggers had in him.

On 29 November 1854 thousands of diggers gathered in the sunshine on Bakery Hill, beneath a flag of their own devising, the Southern Cross. The German Friedrich Vern called upon them to burn their licences rather than submit to the government. Peter Lalor spoke next, reminding the men that here was tyranny as bad as that in old Ireland. The Italian Raffaello Carboni, who had come to Australia to find happiness, wine and song, called on them to fight tyranny. Not for the last time in dramatic episodes in Australian history, the grog had been freely passed around, and when a couple of diggers burned their licences hundreds more threw theirs into a great bonfire.

Next day, when Commissioner Rede and his force attempted to inspect licences he was greeted with jeers, oaths and laughter. ‘We’ve burned them! ‘ the diggers shouted and marched in a mob through the heat to Bakery Hill. Here, in the late afternoon, Lalor again hoisted the Southern Cross and called upon all those among the 2 0 0 0 assembled who were willing to fight, to stand together. Kneeling in the dust, he led them in an oath: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’ It was stirring, but it was treason. Others shouted for the vote, for short parliaments, for democracy.

1854: Eureka Stockade Battle

Over the next two days the diggers built a fortress from timber slabs on Bakery Hill-the Eureka Stockade-and fashioned crude pikes from staves and knives. Lalor organised them into ‘divisions’ like an army, under the command of his confederates, Ross (a Canadian) and Thonen (a German). Few of the rebels had guns. By Saturday night only 150 diggers were still with Lalor, the rest having melted away.

It was Sunday, 3 December 1854, and this battle was being fought on the goldfields of Ballarat, Victoria, between Peter Lalor and his band of goldminers sheltering in a makeshift fortress-the Eureka Stockade-and the freshly arrived forces of the British colonial government of Victoria, troops from Melbourne with police in support.

The government forces had crept out of their nearby camp under the cover of darkness and quietly assembled within striking distance of the stockade by 3 a. m., when they started their surprise attack.

These troops were just as ruthless as Major Johnston’s had been in 1804, cunningly waiting till most miners had left the stockade on Saturday night to return home to families and attend church on the Sabbath. Although 800 miners had been guarding the stockade, only 200 had stayed-including Lalor-in case of attack.

Captain J. W. Thomas now began advancing stealthily towards the stockade leading his party of 276 men, all armed to the teeth with the latest weapons. They included 152 infantry, 24 cavalry and 100 mounted and foot police.

The troops had timed their attack well, as most of the remaining miners were sound asleep, but one alert sentry saw their shadowy shapes and fired a shot.

Captain Thomas warned his men: `We are seen. Forward and steady, men! Don’t fire, let the insurgents fire first. You wait for the sound of the bugle’. Meanwhile, the miners woken by the sentry’s shot leapt to their feet, groped for weapons and rushed to man the barricade with rifles, revolvers, cutlasses, swords, pikes, pitchforks or whatever they could lay their hands on.

Just 300 metres short of the stockade, Thomas ordered his centre section to prepare for a full frontal assault, one section to advance on the right flank and another on the left, to prevent miners-such as Lalor-escaping. He also ordered a final section to remain behind as reserves.

Then the troops charged, running across the open ground straight for the makeshift fortification which they could just see in the dark, along with the glint of the gun barrels and blades brandished by determined defenders. These defenders waited until the troops got to within 150 metres of the stockade and then opened fire, sending a scattered volley into the uniformed ranks, felling several men, who fell clutching their wounds.

Taking aim at an officer directing the troops, one of the miners shot Captain Henry Wise, who stumbled wounded to the ground. Picking himself up, the bleeding captain bravely pushed on only to be shot again, a wound that would prove fatal eighteen days later.

The miners let out a whoop of joy. Their first hit at officer level. Things were looking good. The army bugler then sounded his long-awaited signal and the disciplined troops opened fire in the pre-dawn light, from the front and both flanks, pouring lead into the stockade and the poorly armed souls defending their wooden fort.

Miners lucky enough to have rifles or revolvers tried to shoot back; others, like the Irish pikemen, had to wait for hand-to-hand combat. But the miners had neither the training nor the weapons of the troops and could not stop them targeting miner after miner, filling the stockade with wounded and dying men.

Firing his rifle at the fast-approaching troops, Lalor was shouting encouragement to his men when he was shot in the left arm and knocked to the ground. Knowing he would be a prime target once the troopers scaled the stockade, Lalor took refuge under a pile of timber, then called out to a couple of comrades to help whisk him away before it got light. Amid the smoke, noise and confusion of the battle, the two smuggled their wounded leader out through an opening at the rear of the stockade.

Realising they were overwhelmed, Lalor urged others to escape. But it was too late. When the troops scaled the barricades they shot or bayoneted any miners resisting them. Captain Thomas demanded the miners surrender. Routed, they threw down their arms.

By the time the troopers let up-twenty-five minutes after the battle began-they had killed fourteen miners outright (most of whom were Irish) and wounded another eight who later died of wounds. They also wounded twelve others (including Peter Lalor), who all escaped and recovered, and also captured 100 prisoners.

After the battle the government forces killed at least two more. Witnesses said some of the troops `ran amok’ and killed two bystanders before destroying the miners’ tents and property. The miners were so outclassed that defenceless women ran forward and threw themselves over the injured to prevent further indiscriminate killing by the troops.

Some of the wounded fled to surrounding bush, where they died a lonely death without being counted in the toll. The official record of deaths in the Ballarat District Register shows twenty-seven names associated with the stockade battle at Eureka.

By 8 a. m. Captain Pasley, the second-in-command of the British forces, sickened by the carnage, saved a group of prisoners from being bayoneted and threatened to shoot any police or soldiers who continued with the slaughter. But some soldiers and police did go wild, destroying tents and property without reason, bayoneting the wounded and even shooting two innocent bystanders. Because of this aftermath, some witnesses called Eureka a massacre.

Lalor certainly agreed, writing:

As the inhuman brutalities practised by the troops are so well known, it is unnecessary for me to repeat them. There were 34 digger casualties of which 22 died. The unusual proportion of the killed to the wounded is owing to the butchery of the military and troopers after the surrender.

The battle might have been overwhelmingly one-sided and brief, but the miners put up a brave fight in their short-lived attempt to defend their stockade and the call for freedom that the fortress represented. They did better than their Irish predecessors at Vinegar Hill in 1804.

Seventeen soldiers and one trooper were killed or wounded, twenty-four diggers lay dead; another twenty or more wounded (including Lalor, who was hidden by a priest and later had his arm amputated). The 114 prisoners were thrown into gaol to await trial. The bourgeois shuddered at word of Eureka. Even Henry Parkes called the revolt an ‘un-British error’ probably caused by foreigners. He was correct: of the fourteen diggers killed on the day, eight were Irish and two German. One was an Englishman and only one was Australian-born. Hotham made one last error: he ordered that thirteen of the ringleaders be charged with high treason, the only penalty for which was death. The trial became a farce and the sentences were lenient. David Syme’s Age pronounced the general feeling: It was the government that was rotten, not the people. When Governor Hotham caught a chill and died in early 1855, much of the bitterness of Eureka was buried with him.

Eureka would live on in folklore as the day of the Good Fight. ‘Stand up my young Australian, in the brave light of the sun, and hear how Freedom’s battle was in the old days lost-and won,’Victor Daley (another Irish nationalist) would write in ballad. ‘Ere the year was over, Freedom rolled in like a flood/They gave us all we asked for-when we asked for it in blood.’

Late-War Churchill

The Visit of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill To Caen, Normandy, 1944

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the successful outcome of the war, at this stage, was his insistence on the right timing for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northwest Europe. This was necessary for the defeat of Germany, and Churchill made sure it worked and was achieved with minimum loss of life for so immense and hazardous an operation. He argued that an opposed air-sea landing against formidable defenses manned by large, prepared German forces was perhaps the most difficult military undertaking of all. With the costly failure of Gallipoli always in his mind, he insisted that D-day should not take place until overwhelming strength was established and there was a near certitude of success. The Russians had asked for the second front to be opened in 1942. The Americans were willing to risk it in 1943. The “dress rehearsal” at Dieppe in 1942, where Allied losses were unexpectedly high, had shown what hazards lay ahead. Churchill’s conditions could not be met until the early summer of 1944. Even so, Overlord might have failed or proved extremely costly had not a highly successful deception plan persuading the Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint and that the real invasion was planned for the Pas de Calais area—another idea of Churchill’s—prevented a massive German counterattack in the early stages. Thanks to Churchill, and his memories of the Dardanelles, Overlord was a dramatic success. He wished to be present on the first day to enjoy his triumph. It was the last major occasion on which his desire to participate in military action manifested itself. All those concerned in the operation were horrified. Indeed, the desire was foolish in the extreme, a grotesque exhibition of the childish side of his nature. But he persisted, despite unanimous opposition from the service chiefs, the cabinet, his own staff, and the White House. In the end it was only the opposition of King George VI, who said that if his prime minister risked his life he must do so himself, which scotched the plan.

The delay occasioned by Churchill’s ensuring the invasion succeeded necessarily meant the Western forces were behind the Russians in pushing into the heart of the Nazi empire. This had grave political consequences. Churchill sought to mitigate them by demanding a full-speed drive to Berlin by the Anglo-American forces. This was supported by Montgomery, the army group commander, who was sure it was possible and would end the war in autumn 1944, with the West in Berlin first. But Eisenhower, the supreme commander, thought it was risky and insisted on a “broad front” advance, which meant that the war continued into the spring of 1945, and that the Russians got to Berlin first—and Prague, Budapest, Vienna, too. In his last weeks of life, FDR, despite Churchill’s pleas, did nothing to encourage Eisenhower to press on rapidly. Montgomery wrote sadly: “The Americans could not understand that it was of little avail to win the war strategically if we lost it politically.” That was exactly Churchill’s view.

But if he was unable to stop Stalin from turning much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans into Soviet satellites, he did snatch one brand from the burning—Greece. He used British troops, against much well-meaning advice, to intervene decisively in the civil war raging there between Communist guerrillas and forces loyal to the Crown. The politics were complex and made it difficult to decide whom to back among the contending loyalist leaders. Eventually Churchill decided in favor of the republican, anti-Communist general Nikolaos Plastiras. He joked, “The evidence shows we must back Plaster-arse. Let us hope his feet are not of clay.” “Tommy” Lascelles, King George VI’s secretary, remarked, “I would rather have said that than written Gray’s Elegy.”

Churchill also saved Persia by negotiating a highly satisfactory deal with the Russians, which enabled the British eventually to reduce their influence to a minimum. He kept a tight grip on the Persian Gulf and its oil fields. Of course, by saving Greece, he also enabled Turkey to stay beyond the reach of the triumphant Soviet forces. What is more, by picking a first-class general and backing him with adequate forces, Churchill also made a major contribution to victory in the Far East. Field Marshal William Slim was, next to Montgomery, the ablest of the British generals produced by the war. His Fourteenth Army was often called “the Forgotten Army,” in contrast to Montgomery’s famous Eighth Army. But it was not forgotten by Churchill. With his encouragement and support it conducted a hard and skillful campaign in Burma, ending in complete victory, which did a great deal to restore British prestige so cruelly damaged by the Singapore disaster. Indeed within four years Britain was able to get back Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. Of course the restoration of Britain’s power in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East could not be permanent. But for most of a generation, and in some cases longer, Britain was able to enjoy the economic advantages brought by her investments in Gulf oil, Malay rubber and tin, and the mercantile wealth of Hong Kong. For this, Churchill’s energy, foresight, and ability to seize on the essentials deserve much of the credit.

As the war drew to a close in the early months of 1945, Churchill visibly held back his efforts. His aggressiveness declined. He enjoyed his brief and successful intervention in Greece. But destruction now sickened him. He sent a memo to Harris to slacken off the attack on German cities as opposed to strategic targets, “otherwise,” as he put it, “what will lie between the white snows of Russia and white cliffs of Dover? ” Much of his imaginative energy was spent in trying to get the sick Roosevelt to do the sensible thing. “No lover,” he said, “ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” The death of FDR, however painful to Churchill, came as a relief, especially as Harry S. Truman, brisk, decisive, much better informed on strategy, proved infinitely easier to deal with. When Churchill was tired, he talked, often off the point. He refused to read his papers. Colville noted on April 26: “The PM’s box is in a ghastly state. He does little work and talks far too long, as he did . . . before his Greek adventures refreshed him.” The businesslike and monosyllabic Clement Attlee, his deputy premier, sent him a sharp memo of complaint. Churchill is credited with many jokes about the Labour Party leader. “Yes, he is a modest man. But then he has so much to be modest about.” “An empty taxi drew up outside the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out.” Sometimes they were mean and savage: “Attler, Hitlee.” One of Attlee’s staff used to whistle, a habit Churchill could not bear. His antipathy to whistling is curiously apt, for Hitler was an expert and enthusiastic whistler: he could do the entire score of The Merry Widow, his favorite operetta. It seems expert whistling by music lovers was a feature of pre-1914 Vienna: Gustav Mahler and Ludwig Wittgenstein were whistler maestros.

Tired as he was, Churchill treated the surrender of Germany with suitable rhetoric and champagne popping. He drank a bottle of his prize 1928 vintage Pol Roger. He was relieved by Hitler’s suicide. He had not relished the prospective task of hanging him. As Beaverbrook said, “He is never vindictive.” His saying had always been—it is one of his best obiter dicta—“In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill.” Magnanimity came naturally to this generous, jovial old man (he was seventy at the end of the war). Lord Longford, the British minister for postwar Germany, showed notable compassion for the German people. Churchill came up to him at a Buckingham Palace garden party and said, slowly, “I am glad that there is one mind suffering for the miseries of the Germans.”