Henschel Hs 129B-2 series

By the end of 1942 the growing capability of Soviet tank battalions made it essential to develop a version of the Hs 129 with greater fire-power, leading to the Hs 129B-2 series which was introduced into service in the early part of 1943. They included the Hs 129B-2/Rl which carried two 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon and two 13 mm (0.51 in) machine-guns; the generally similar Hs 129B-2/R2 introduced an additional 30 mm MK 103 cannon beneath the fuselage; the Hs 129B-2/R3 had the two MG 13s deleted but was equipped with a 37 mm BK 3,7 gun; and the Hs 129B-2/R4 carried a 75 mm (2.95 in) PaK 40L (‘L’ for Luftwaffe) gun in an underfuselage pod. Final production variant was the Hs 129B-3 of which approximately 25 were built and which, developed from the Hs 129B-2/R4, substituted an electro-pneumatically operated 75 mm BK 7,5 gun for the PaK 40 (Panzer Abwehr Kanone 40). The lethal capability of the Hs 129B-2/R2 was amply demonstrated in the summer of 1943 during Operation ‘Citadel’, the German offensive which was intended to regain for them the initiative on the Eastern Front after the defeat at Stalingrad. During this operation some 37,421 sorties were flown, at the end of which the Luftwaffe claimed the destruction of 1,100 tanks. However accurate these figures, not all of those destroyed could be credited to Hs 129s, but there is little doubt that the 879 of these aircraft that were built (including prototypes) played a significant role on the Eastern front. In spite of its small numbers and deficiencies, proved extremely successful in the anti-role, however, it suffered heavy losses and not many examples survived the war.

The Hs 129B equipped three Staffeln of the 8th Assault Wing of the Royal Romanian Air Corps. On 23 August 1944 there was a coup in Romania, as a result of which the country changed from being an ally of Germany to becoming an enemy. These Hs 129Bs, accordingly were used against the German armies, finally being combined into a unit equipped with the Ju 87D Stuka.

In late September 1944, the entire manufacturing programme was abandoned, along with virtually all other German aircraft production except the ’emergency fighter programme’. Total production had amounted to only 879, including prototypes. Because of attrition and other problems, the Hs 129 was never able to fully equip the giant anti-tank force that could be seen to be needed as early as winter 1941-42, an overall effect on the war was not great. Towards the end, in autumn 1944, operations began to be further restricted by shortage of high octane petrol, and by the final collapse of Germany only a handful of these aircraft remained.

The massive build-up in Soviet armour strength with thick-skinned tanks contrasted with the faltering strength of the Sch.G. units, which continued to be afflicted by poor engine reliability despite the addition of properly designed air filters. The overriding need was for more powerful anti-armour weapons, and on 10 January 1944 a special unit, Erprobungskommando 26, was formed at Udetfeld out of previous Sch.G. units to centralise the desperate effort to devise new weapons and tactics. Its Hs 129s soon appeared with various new armament, some of which were too much for what was, after all, a small aircraft.

The outstanding example of the new weapons was the radically different Forstersonde SG 113A. This comprised a giant tube resembling a ship’s funnel in the centre fuselage just behind the fuselage tank. Inside this were fitted six smooth-bore tubes, each 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) long and of 77 mm calibre. The tubes were arranged to fire down and slightly to the rear, and were triggered as a single group by a photocell sensitive to the passage of a tank close beneath. Inside each tube was a combined device consisting of a 45 mm armour piercing shell (with a small high-explosive charge) pointing downwards and a heavy steel cylinder of full calibre pointing upwards. Between the two was the propellant charge, with a weak tie-link down the centre to joint the parts together. When the SG 113A was fired, the shells were driven down by their driving sabots at high velocity, while the steel slugs were fired out of the top of each tube to cancel the recoil. Unfortunately, trials at Tarnewitz Waffenprufplatz showed that the photocell system often failed to pick out correct targets.

Another impressive weapon was the huge PaK 40 anti-tank gun of 75 mm calibre. This gun weighed 3,303 lbs (1500 kg) in its original ground-based form, and fired a 7 lbs (3.2 kg) tungsten-carbide cored projectile at 3,060 ft/sec (933 m/sec). Even at a range of 3,280 ft (1000 m), the shell could penetrate 5 1/4 inches (133 mm) of armour if it hit square-on. Modified as the PaK 40L, the gun had a much bigger muzzle brake to reduce recoil and electro-pneumatic operation to feed successive shells automatically. Installed in the Hs 129B-3/Wa, the giant gun was provided with 26 rounds which could be fired at the cyclic rate of 40 rounds per minute, so that three or four could be fired on a single pass. Almost always, a single good hit would destroy a tank, even from head-on. The main problem was that the PaK 40L was too powerful a gun for the aircraft. Quite apart from the severe muzzle blast and recoil, the sheer weight of the gun made the 129B-3/Wa almost unmanageable, and in an emergency the pilot could sever the gun’s attachments and let it drop.

Air War to Doom…

In December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy was the world’s third largest. It may have been the best. It certainly had the best naval air arm.

Of its 1,500 pilots, nearly all had 600 or more hours of flying time, half of it in the combat aircraft they were flying. Most of the formation leaders had as much as 1,500 hours. The majority were veterans of combat over China, where the Naval Air Service had flown strategic bombing, close support, and air cover missions since the “China Incident” began in 1937.

Their aircraft were fully worthy of their pilots. The A6M Zero was the best carrier-based fighter in the world. The B5N Kate was equally adept at torpedo bombing and level bombing. The D3A Val was at least as good as the notorious German Stuka. The land based G3M Sally and the G4M Betty had long range and were good high-altitude bombers and excellent torpedo bombers. The Japanese rounded out their strength with several types of seaplanes and the H6K Mavis, a four-engined flying boat with incredible range. All of this was supported by a strong corps of some of the most expert mechanics in Japan.

The carrier-based planes, nearly five hundred strong, flew from nine modern carriers, including some of the best in the world. That was not only three times as many as the United States Pacific Fleet had, but more than the whole United States Navy’s carrier strength.

But by the summer of 1945, the Naval Air Service’s planes (too many the same early-war types) squatted under camouflage net ting and in caves, waiting for their mechanics to prepare them for semitrained pilots to take one last flight, crash-diving into a ship of the American invasion fleet-if they got that far. How the mighty had fallen.

But why?

The Japanese Naval Air Service died from the same cause as so much of the Japanese war effort-faulty grand strategy and a weak economic base. To be brief about the second, Japan had to import practically every essential item of a modern war economy except coal. And in 1944 alone, a fully mobilized American air craft industry produced almost as many planes (better ones, too) as Japan produced during the whole period of 1942-45.

The Japanese strategic stumble is less well known. Basically, they planned on a short war leading to a decisive battle that would put the enemy in a position that he would not have the political will to fight his way out of.

This strategy meant hitting by surprise, fast, hard, and often. Specifically, it meant preparing a defensive barrier stretching from the Kuriles in the north in a great crescent down to the anchorage of Truk in the Caroline Islands far to the south. Planes, destroyers, and submarines from these bases would hack away at the American fleet (what other one need Japan fear?) until it approached the Home Islands. Then the Combined Fleet would sortie at full strength and so thoroughly crush American offensive capabilities in the Pacific that the United States would seek a negotiated peace.

The concept of a short war has been attributed to the Samurai mentality; to the code of bushido, emphasizing daring and aggression; and to stark realism. The Japanese had not forgotten how narrowly they escaped running out of men and money at the end of the war with Russia, even after winning the decisive battle at Tsushima.

So their main naval striking force, the aviators, were polished to perfection for a short war. The force had once been composed exclusively of graduates of Eta Jima, the Japanese naval academy, survivors of a four-year curriculum that made Annapolis look like a prep school. In 1929 suitable enlisted men were admitted to the two-year flight training course, which washed out about 80 percent of the candidates. Then in 1931 potential pilots were allowed straight in from civilian life.

Having a larger pilot pool helped somewhat, but it also introduced the hierarchical Japanese class system into naval aviation. Physical punishment was allowed; initiative usually was not. This environment was not calculated to produce the best mind-set among the new lower-class pilots.

The planes they climbed into also had a few limitations. None of them had armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. Radios were in short supply, and so heavy and prone to static interference from unshielded ignitions that some pilots refused to carry them. And of course parachutes were bulky and implied an unthinkable willingness to be taken prisoner, and therefore were refused. They could have saved many pilots’ lives.

So the Japanese Naval Air Service flew off to an initial victory that slowly turned into doom.

They earned their first triumphs. Pearl Harbor was an attack on a scale that no other navy in the world could have executed until well into 1943. And while survivors were still getting first aid, off in the Philippines air strikes from Formosa (now Taiwan) were devastating American airpower in the islands.

General Douglas MacArthur helped the Japanese cause by failing to disperse his planes despite knowing the war had started. The Japanese fighter pilots who escorted the bombers were flying at extreme range, their fuel-air mixtures leaned out as far as they could go without stalling.

These were apparently amazing feats-but there was a scribble of handwriting on the wall at Wake Island. There, four Marine F4F Wildcats proved their toughness by taking to the air full of holes and not only shot down Japanese planes but damaged a light cruiser and sank a destroyer.

The Japanese went on running wild from Burma to the fringes of Australia. But they were losing as many as two hundred planes a month (army and navy) to operational accidents (read: piling up on a runway hacked out of scrub, ankle-deep in mud, and with a few rocks left for good measure). And pilots who died nosing-over in a pothole were just as dead as those killed dropping a bomb on an Allied warship.

The Indian Ocean saw a lot of that kind of bombing in April, when the Japanese carriers went east. The Japanese carriers also saw what a really determined defense could do-over Ceylon they lost forty to fifty planes.

Worse was to follow. Later in the spring the Japanese divided their carriers, sending two south to cover an attack on New Guinea and getting the rest ready. Warned by the code-breakers, the Americans stop-punched them in the Coral Sea, although losing one fleet carrier against one Japanese light carrier. The real blow to the Japanese was that one of their carriers had her flight deck wrecked and the other lost most of her air group-another dent in the supply of experienced Japanese naval pilots.

So both carriers missed Midway, where they might have turned the tide. As it was, the Japanese lost four carriers-giving them a shortage of first-class flight decks, from which they never really recovered. Many pilots survived, but hundreds of the veteran mechanics were not so lucky-and that was another irreparable blow.

The Battle of Midway also let one other plum drop into American hands. In the Aleutians, a Japanese diversionary raid left a flyable Zero upside down on an uninhabited island. Salvaging it, the Americans got it back in the air and tested it thoroughly. It did not influence the design of the F6F Hellcat (already flying when the Zero crashed), but it did allow the U. S. Navy to learn its opponent’s weakness and use its new fighter more effectively.

The Japanese now turned to an advance down the chain of the Solomon Islands, seeking another approach to cutting off Australia. (The Japanese services never agreed on a plan for invading that continent-but then, they hardly ever agreed on much.) They established an air base on the island of Guadalcanal. The United States promptly landed marines to seize the base. The Japanese counterattacked by air, land, and sea.


The Battle of Guadalcanal may have decided the Pacific War. It certainly decided the fate of the Japanese Naval Air Service. Bombing raids from Rabaul and carrier battles at sea took a toll on Japanese planes and pilots. The Japanese lost about seven hundred planes of all kinds, as well as most of their pilots-and many of the lost pilots were the irreplaceable veterans. The United States lost nearly as many planes, but fewer pilots and crewmen, and the U. S. pilot-training program had plenty of three-hundred hour pilots in the pipeline, just waiting for their new planes and carriers. The Japanese, on the other hand, were stretched so thin that to send a veteran pilot back to be a flight instructor would deprive a frontline squadron of an indispensable leader.

Meanwhile, Japanese pilot training hours were dropping below two hundred, few of those in combat aircraft. Most of the new pilots were being either siphoned off into new air groups or thrown straight into the maw of the Solomons campaign.

The Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal in January 1943. That ended Japanese strategic offensives in the Pacific. The rest of the year saw no great fleet clashes, because both sides were building up their strength for the next one.

The United States did a better job, both qualitatively and quantitatively. By the end of the year it could sweep the Gilbert and Marshall islands with strikes from five fleet and six light carriers, which then sailed south to eliminate Truk as a working naval base (along with most of the ships in it and all the planes on its runways).


The elimination of Rabaul as a barrier to the advance on the Philippines also proceeded with reasonable speed. The Japanese surface fleet fought aggressively at night, but the United States ruled sea and sky by day and island-hopped steadily “up the ladder of the Solomons.” In November 1943, it eliminated Rabaul as a fleet base. In the next few months, it effectively eliminated that base’s air power, which included several replacement air groups intended for the carriers of the Combined Fleet. This blockade ended up trapping yet more pilots and mechanics out of the war as effectively as if they had been in POW camps. From the roofs of their bunkers, they could contemplate new and superior American aircraft such as the P-38 and F4U Corsair swatting the last Zeroes out of the sky.

This did not improve a Japanese situation that was going from bad to worse. Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, joined the staff of a land-based naval air group intended to defend the Marianas. He was appalled to discover that the group had fewer than two hundred planes and that the average training time for the new pilots was 120 hours-not enough time logged to let them even fly some of the new planes that were at last reaching the front safely, let alone use them in combat. The mechanics were in equally short supply and equally undertrained, likely to be hopeless with the new planes such as P1Y Frances, D4Y Judy, B6N Jill, and the magnificent long-range flying boat, the H8K Emily.

The Japanese needed more than new planes. They needed flight decks, as they had gained only one fleet carrier in the last year, and they needed fuel for both planes and ships. Unfortunately, while the East Indian oil fields were now producing again, American submarines were taking an increasing toll on Japanese tankers. They were also targeting Japanese destroyers, leaving both convoys and carriers with increasingly thin escorts.

Nor would it have helped Japanese morale to discover that the Americans had a complete set of the plans for the defense of the Marianas, correctly assumed to be the next major objective. Filipino guerrillas had retrieved the plans from a Japanese staff officer who’d swum ashore from a crashed plane.

So when the American Fifth Fleet and a multidivision Marine and Army landing force appeared off the Marianas, the Japanese response held few surprises. The Mobile Force sailed out, with new air groups aboard its five large and four small carriers. Meanwhile, the Americans had systematically eliminated all the Japanese aircraft based on the islands, craft which the Japanese had hoped would be an equalizer, and cratered most of the runways that the Japanese carrier planes were supposed to use for shuttle bombing operations.

Then the Fifth Fleet positioned itself west of the Marianas and waited for the enemy to come to it. On June 19, 1944, the Japanese came-four massive carrier raids, all of which were intercepted, three of which were nearly annihilated. The Japanese lost three hundred planes to American interceptors and anti-aircraft fire. The Americans had one battleship lightly damaged.

That same day, American submarines sank two of the best Japanese carriers. On the next day the Americans delivered a counterstroke, launching two hundred planes at extreme range and knowing they’d have to return at night.

They sank another carrier and two tankers, in addition to wiping out the few remaining Japanese planes. Then they headed for home. Many ditched for lack of fuel. Many more might have except that Admiral Marc Mitscher, commanding the fast carries, threw caution to the wind and ordered his ships illuminated. That grand gesture saved many plans and crews, and provoked no attacks.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea has been discussed in such detail because it was the greatest carrier battle of all time-and the death knell for Japanese naval aviation. The last carrier force it sent to sea was a diversionary force at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, four carriers with only 116 planes, and they were all sunk or lost.

Then Japan’s naval pilots flew into the shadowy land of the kamikazes, where they played an effective role. Certainly many of them must have gone in the same spirit as other pilots who thought that Japan was doomed: life in a defeated Japan would not be worth living, so why not go out doing as much damage to the enemy as possible?

May Americans never have to answer such questions. And may we try not to judge too harshly those who have.

Western Egypt: Operations against the Senussi

Operations against the Senussi. One of Major the Duke of Westminster’s Armoured Cars at Es Sollum, April 1916.

A bogged armoured car of the 1st Armoured Car Battery (Australia), which was operating on the western frontier of Egypt, against the Senussi, being pulled out of the sand over de-ditching boards.

Area of operations, Senussi Campaign, 1915-1918

Very few regiments of the British Army saw service in as many theatres of war from 1914 to 1919 as did the Middlesex. In 1914 and 1915 in Flanders and France and Gallipoli, battalions of the regiment had already crossed bayonets with the enemy, and the story now turns to Western Egypt, where, at the close of 1915, the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions first became involved in operations against the Senussi. The beginning of the rupture between Great Britain and the Senussi — a powerful desert tribe — is thus described in the official despatches: “As early as May, 1915, signs were apparent that the steadily increasing pressure brought to bear upon the Senussi by the Turkish party in Tripoli, under the leadership of Nuri Bey, a half-brother of Enver Pasha, was beginning to take effect. For some time, even after the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Turkey in 1914, the anti-British influence of this party was not strongly felt and the attitude of the Senussi towards Egypt remained friendly. It was not until the advent of Gaafer, a Germanised Turk of considerable ability, who arrived in Tripoli in April, 1915, with a considerable supply of arms and money, that this attitude underwent a change.”

For several months it was evident that the Turkish influence was gaining ground, and on the 16th August, 1915, the first hostile incident of any importance occurred. Two British submarines, sheltering from the weather near Ras Lick on the coast of Cyrenaica, were treacherously fired on by Arabs, commanded by a white officer, and casualties were suffered on both sides. For this incident, however, the Senussi apologised profusely, but in November, other incidents occurred which placed beyond doubt the hostile intentions of this Arab tribe. The crews of two British boats, H.M.S. Tara and H.M.T. Moorina — torpedoed by enemy submarines on the 5th and 6th of the month — landed in Cyrenaica and were captured and held prisoners by the Senussi, who, in reply to strong representations for their immediate release, feigned ignorance. On the night of the 14th-15th, Muhafizia (Senussi regulars) rushed two Egyptian sentries at Sollum and carried off their rifles and bayonets: the following night the company at Sollum was sniped. Again on the 17th, at Sidi Barrani (fifty miles east of Sollum), the Zawia was occupied by some three hundred Muhafizia, and on the 18th, during the night, the Coastguard Barracks at that place were twice attacked, one coastguard being killed. On the 20th a similar attack was made on a coastguard outpost at Sabil, a small post about thirty miles S.E. of Sollum, though, as at Barrani, the attack failed.

There was now no alternative but to recognise a state of war and to take action accordingly. The Western Frontier posts were ordered to withdraw to Mersa Matruh, and it was decided to concentrate in the latter place a force sufficient to deal swiftly with the situation. The Alexandria-Dabaa Railway was to be secured as a secondary line of communication by land with the railhead at Dabaa: the Wadi Natrun and the Fayum were to be occupied as measures of precaution, while the Oasis of Moghara was to be kept under constant observation and reconnaissance.

Orders for the assembly of two composite brigades (one mounted and the other infantry) were issued on the 20th November, after news had been received of the enemy’s attack at Barrani. The Mounted Brigade consisted chiefly of Yeomanry and Australian Light Horse, with a battery of horse artillery. The infantry brigade was made up of 1/6th Royal Scots (T.F.), 1/7th and 2/8th Battalions Middlesex Regiment (T.F.), 15th Sikhs, and some auxiliary troops. The whole force was commanded by Major-General A. Wallace, and the Infantry Brigade by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan.

Both the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex had disembarked at Alexandria from Gibraltar on the 1st September.

A year had passed since the formation of the 2/7th. Middlesex was authorised by the War Office, and during that period the Battalion had passed through varied experiences. After several busy weeks spent in recruiting the men and preliminary training, the 2/7th had left Hornsey on the 24th September, 1914, for Barnet, where officers and men were billeted. On the last day of the month the first consignment of uniforms was received and, by the end of October, the whole unit was in service dress. Another move, this time to Egham, took place on the 20th November, the Battalion joining the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. In Windsor Great Park hard training was continued, though as only fifty rifles were in possession of the Battalion, instruction in musketry presented the greatest difficulties. “All through these weeks of hard work,” said Lieut.-Colonel J. S. Drew, who commanded the 2/7th, “the discipline and soldierly spirit of the Battalion steadily improved.” On the 27th January, 1915, orders were received to embark for Gibraltar at an early date. “This was a great shock, for high hopes had been entertained that the Battalion would be sent to France.” However, the Battalion swallowed its disappointment and, on the 1st February, entrained for Southampton, embarking on arrival at the docks aboard the Grantully Castle, being joined later in the day by the 2/8th Middlesex, who were also bound for “Gib.”

After a rough voyage lasting several days, the two Battalions reached Gibraltar on the 7th February, though they did not disembark until the following day. On the way up the Rock the 2/7th met the 1/7th marching down to embark for France. This was the only occasion on which the two Battalions met throughout the whole course of the War.

For the next six months the Battalion continued its training, especially in musketry, for which special facilities were available. On the 3rd July orders were received to send a draft of 3 officers and 260 other ranks to the 1/7th Battalion in France. Their departure was a heavy blow to the Battalion, which, by this time, had attained a high degree of efficiency. The draft, however, was replaced the same day by the arrival of a similar number of men from England.

On the 12th August the Battalion was ordered to prepare for Egypt, and, with the 2/8th Middlesex, embarked on H.M.T. Minnewaska. Out at sea the destination of the. ship was changed, and a few days later the vessel steamed into Mudros Harbour, the greatest excitement prevailing on board, as everyone expected to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula. At Mudros, however, it was made evident that the move to that Island was due to a Staff misunderstanding, and that the proper destination of the vessel was Alexandria. So, again choking down their disappointment, the Middlesex men saw their hopes of immediate active service dashed, and the boat put out to sea once more, for Egypt. Alexandria was reached on the 31st August, and on the following day the Battalion disembarked and entrained for Cairo, taking over the Citadel from Australian troops, a strong detachment of the Middlesex being sent off to guard prisoners of war at Maadi.

Ten pleasant weeks were spent at Cairo, and then, early in November, there were rumours of trouble brewing with the Senussi tribes of Western Egypt. On the 20th November the Composite Cavalry and Infantry Brigades were formed, and on the 22nd the 2/7th Middlesex was ordered to join the latter Brigade at once at Alexandria. The Brigade went into camp at Qamaria and refitted.

With the exception of its formation the history of the 2/8th Middlesex is largely that of the 2/7th Battalion.

The 2/8th Middlesex was formed at Hampton Court on the 14th September, 1914, its first C.O. being Lieut.-Colonel L. C. Dams. The Battalion was quartered in the Cavalry Barracks, Hampton Court, Hampton Court House, and other houses in the neighbourhood. Training was carried out in Bushey Park, though no uniforms or rifles were then available. On the 15th November, 1914, the Battalion moved to Staines, becoming (like the 2/7th Battalion) part of the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. From this period onwards there is little in the early history of the 2/8th which differs from that of the 2/7th, though on the day of the departure of the two Battalions from Southampton, great was the excitement aboard the Grantully Castle when, at the last moment, a draft of three officers and a small number of men joined the 2/8th: the men wore scarlet tunics! Like the 2/7th, the 2/8th also sent a large draft of officers and men to France, but to the 1/8th Battalion. When the Battalion left Gibraltar and arrived at Alexandria on the 31st August, the 2/8th was likewise quartered in Cairo, moving back to Alexandria on the 22nd November to join the Composite Infantry Brigade.

By the 23rd November the concentration of the Force under General Wallace was completed, and the troops began to move to Mersa Matruh. It was not, however, until several days later that the two Middlesex Battalions received their orders. The 2/8th was the first to leave Alexandria, the Battalion embarking on trawlers — two platoons per trawler — for Mersa Matruh on the 4th December. The trawlers reached their destination on the 5th, and the Middlesex men were landed and pitched camp close to the village. On the 6th December Battalion Headquarters and “A” and “B” Companies of the 2/7th Middlesex embarked on trawlers and aboard H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ for Mersa Matruh, “C” and “D” Companies remaining at Alexandria.

Concentration of the Force at Matruh was completed on the 7th December, and the village was prepared as a fortified base from which the Senussi could be attacked.

With the 2/8th, the 2/7th Middlesex was allotted a sector of the defences, and at once began digging operations. An insufficient supply of water was only one of the many difficulties. Wells were dug in the beach, but only brackish water was obtainable, and this had to be drunk in the form of tea: even then it was most unpleasant.

The first encounter with the Senussi took place on the 11th December, but neither of the Middlesex Battalions were engaged in the operations, which were carried out by other troops.

At midnight on the 14th December, Colonel Dams was ordered to take his Battalion out to Old Matruh to assist the 15th Sikhs and 6th Royal Scots (under Colonel Gordon), who had gone out in the morning and had been heavily engaged with the enemy. After marching through the night, the 2/8th Middlesex, at dawn, took up a defensive position, through which Colonel Gordon’s force retired. Colonel Dams then threw forward two companies of his Battalion on the flank of the retiring column and engaged the enemy, H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ firing her 6-inch guns over the heads of the Middlesex men into the enemy, who were massed in the hills on the Battalion’s flank. The 2/8th finally formed a rearguard to the force retiring, until the latter reached camp at Matruh. “The whole thing,” said Colonel Dams, “worked like an Aldershot field-day — the Battalion carried out the various movements with drill-book precision.”

For the first fortnight the 2/7th Middlesex, without seeing anything of the fighting, had a strenuous existence. Three times the line of defence was changed, each change necessitating the digging and wiring of several miles of trenches; many stone sangars were also constructed.

On the night of the 18th-19th December the camps of both Battalions, which occupied somewhat exposed positions, were heavily sniped by the Senussi. An advanced post of the 2/7th was also attacked, but beat off its assailants without difficulty. This was the first occasion on which the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex during the War came under rifle fire from the enemy.

The 2/8th Battalion each night mounted picquets round the camp, most of the picquets being situated on a line of hills running parallel with the sea and about half a mile from it. During the night of the 19th December a detached picquet (known as Pinnacle Picquet) was sniped by a small body of Senussi. The Middlesex men returned the fire, but so far as could be seen no casualties were inflicted on the enemy.

From the 15th to the 23rd December no operation of importance was undertaken against the enemy, but in the meantime it was known that he was concentrating in the neighbourhood of Gebel Medwa, about eight miles south-west of Matruh, his forces being estimated at about 5,000, with four guns and some machine guns, commanded by Gaafer.

On the 25th December (Xmas Day) General Wallace attacked these forces. He divided his Command into two columns — the Right and the Left. The former consisted mostly of infantry, which included the 2/8th Middlesex; the latter column was a mobile force of cavalry.

Before dawn on the 25th both columns left camp, and by 7.30a.m. the cavalry had cleared the Wadi Toweiwa, about seven miles south of Matruh. The Right Column moved westwards, and at 6.30 a.m. the advanced guard came under fire from artillery and machine guns from the south-west. But the enemy was soon driven off, and by 7.15 a.m. the main body of General Wallace’s Force had crossed the Wadi Rami, and could see the enemy in occupation of an encampment about a mile south of Gebel Medwa.

At 7.30 a.m. the 15th Sikhs were ordered to attack the enemy’s right flank, the Bucks Hussars and 2/8th Middlesex to co-operate by making a containing attack along his front, to be launched simultaneously with the attack of the Sikhs. Deploying west of the road and despatching one Company to occupy Gebel Medwa in order to secure their right, the Sikhs advanced. At the same time the Bucks Hussars moved forward, while the Middlesex, keeping to the north-east of Gebel Medwa, sent a Company to relieve a company of 15th Sikhs occupying the hill, which thereupon rejoined the Battalion. This Company of Middlesex men was apparently the only one of the Battalion which saw fighting on the 25th December, the action being thus described by an officer then serving with the Battalion: “The whole Battalion took part in a big attack on enemy forces about seven or eight miles inland from the camp. A start was made before dawn on Xmas Day, and the fighting lasted all day. The Battalion bivouacked that night in the desert, and returned to camp the following morning. Only one Company (‘C’ Company, under Captain Alliston) actually found themselves in the front line of the attack, and suffered casualties (three men wounded). The attack was a great success, and a considerable number of the enemy was killed or captured.”

The attack by the Sikhs was successfully carried out, and by 2.15 p.m. the nullahs at the head of the Wadi Majid had been cleared, and by about 4 p.m. the Wadi itself was taken. The enemy’s losses were over 100 dead, 34 prisoners, 80 camels and much livestock, also 30,000 rounds of S.A.A. and a quantity of artillery ammunition.

In this action the 2/7th Middlesex took no part, but from the 28th to 30th December the Battalion formed part of a mobile column intended to attack a Senussi camp some twenty miles distant, at Jerawla. On the approach of the column the enemy forsook his camp and fled, leaving behind large quantities of grain, nearly 100 camels and about 500 sheep. The camp was burned, and on the 30th the column returned to Matruh.

This affair carries the narrative of operations in Western Egypt up to the end of 1915.

Captain Palmer, 2/8th Middlesex R.

Operation Substance

The operation was successfully carried out is due in no small measure to the behaviour of the merchant ships in the convoy. I had complete confidence that orders given to them by me would be understood and promptly carried out. Their steadfast and resolute behaviour during air and E-Boat attacks was most impressive and encouraging to us all. Particular credit is due to S.S. MELBOURNE STAR’S Master Capt. D.R MacFarlane, Commodore of the convoy, who set a high standard and never failed to appreciate directly what he should do. – Vice Admiral JF Somerville Flag Officer Commanding ‘Operation Substance’

Vital convoys kept isolated places like Gibraltar and Malta alive. In the Mediterranean, there were increasing clashes at points where the Axis and the Allied convoy routes crossed. In February 1941, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had arrived in Libya to stiffen the Italian backbone, which meant the Italian and German supply lines now ran north–south between Italy and North Africa, protected by the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica Italiana. The British Empire supply lines ran east–west through the Mediterranean, a thousand miles from Gibraltar to Malta and eight hundred miles from Malta to Egypt.

When the Germans finally captured Crete they stationed swarms of aircraft at Maleme and Heraklion, which imperilled all convoys from Alexandria to Malta. This meant more provisions for the beleaguered island would now have to come from the west, via Gibraltar. But after decryption of German air force signals at Bletchley Park revealed that many Luftwaffe squadrons had been withdrawn from Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy in order to support the invasion of Russia, a window of opportunity opened, and in July 1941 a major British convoy was sent to reinforce and resupply Malta.

The aim of Operation Substance was to ship two infantry battalions, two anti-aircraft units and a battery of thirty field guns, plus masses of ammunition, fuel, food, stores and spares to depleted Malta. If ever the Germans tried an airborne invasion of Malta like the one that took Crete, these forces would stop it.

The heavily laden store ships City of Pretoria, Deucalion, Durham, Melbourne Star, Port Chalmers and Sydney Star, together with two troopships, Leinster and Louis Pasteur, made up the ‘Winston Special’ convoy WSC9, escorted from the UK to Gibraltar by Force X from the Home Fleet. Force X comprised the battleship HMS Nelson, the cruisers Edinburgh, Manchester and Arethusa, eight destroyers and the fast mine-layer HMS Manxman. From Gibraltar onwards, the convoy became GM1 (1st convoy Gibraltar–Malta) with additional protection from Force H: the battle cruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, carrying twenty-four Fulmars and thirty Swordfish, the light cruiser Hermione and eight destroyers. Submarines, six from Gibraltar, two from Malta, were stationed to intercept any moves by the Italian fleet. In addition, Cunningham’s ships were staging an elaborate diversion in the eastern Mediterranean. Three days into GM1’s journey from Gibraltar to Malta, convoy MG1 (1st from Malta to Gibraltar) would set off in the opposite direction, westward, ‘bringing back the empties’, the fleet supply ship Breconshire, a destroyer and six unloaded cargo ships.

Among the hundreds of soldiers being transported in Operation Substance to join the Central Infantry Brigade on Malta was my own maternal grandfather. In the spring of 1941, at Duns in Scotland, Lieutenant Colonel G. F. Page DSO had taken command of the thirty-two officers and 742 other ranks of 11th Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, an enthusiastic but very new battalion raised in Rochdale in October 1940. They arrived in Gibraltar from Gourock aboard HM Troopship Louis Pasteur, a new French liner which had carried two hundred tons of gold from Brest to Nova Scotia and then been commandeered by the British government to carry troops.

The soldiers had not been informed they were to transship in Gibraltar and most of their kit was locked behind watertight doors that could not be opened en voyage. They saw nothing of the Rock, but did set foot on its detached mole. In three and a half hours, using two lighters, the battalion moved itself and all its baggage, plus twenty tons of ammunition, along the mole and into the cruiser HMS Edinburgh. ‘Some 5 tons of phosphorus bombs for mortars were carried as deck cargo and did not conduce to the safety of the ship,’ Lieutenant Colonel Page wrote in his report. ‘Once aboard, I cannot speak too highly of the arrangements made for the accommodation of the troops. I doubt if another man could have been carried but every man had somewhere to sleep and meals were regular and ample.’

Convoy GM1 sailed on 20 July 1941, at night, in fog. The smaller troopship Leinster, carrying a thousand men including RAF personnel from Gibraltar, ran aground in the strait and took no further part in Operation Substance. Spain had the right to intern all the uniformed passengers stranded on its territory, but chose to turn a blind eye to the Leinster. British destroyers took the shipwrecked soldiers and airmen back to the Rock after their bizarrely brief excursion. At the hospital, the stranded medic Reg Gill met a monocled British RAMC colonel who was wearing his German medal given by Hitler for helping the Deutschland wounded in 1937 and who was now only too eager to demonstrate an enormous fly-trap he had invented.

Substance proceeded eastward. On board the fast cruiser HMS Edinburgh, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Neville Syfret, 18th Cruiser Squadron, the captain’s day cabin became the Lancashire Fusiliers’ orderly room and the battalion was organised into working parties to keep the men busy on their way to Malta. Soldiers and sailors would fight side by side. The keenest-eyed soldiers were assigned to the pom-pom guns and the bridge as extra lookouts for enemy aircraft and submarines. From first light to last light, under the direction of the ship’s gunnery officer, the Lancashire Fusiliers deployed sixteen Bren light machine guns, each with a team of six (two men per gun and one NCO per team on duty at a time, working two hours on and four hours off), to supplement Edinburgh’s already formidable anti-aircraft defences: a dozen four-inch AA guns, two eight-barrelled two-pounder pom-poms and sixteen Vickers .50 machine guns. The Mortar Bomb Disposal Party was tasked with throwing overboard any phosphorus smoke bombs ignited by enemy action before they caused excessive damage. The Gun Crew Action Ration Party was to keep ship’s gun crews supplied with food and drink when they were unable to leave their posts during ‘action stations’. The Shell Supply Magazine Parties were to help naval personnel get the cordite charges and semi-armour-piercing shells to the turrets of the twelve six-inch guns, and to shift the 55 lb fixed rounds from the four-inch magazine.

All ranks detailed for ship duties were told they were under the command of the navy (or their own officers liaising with the navy) in order to achieve their objective of disembarking at Malta. Admiral Somerville had sent out a mission statement to all ships, ending: ‘THE CONVOY MUST GO THROUGH.’ As for the German and Italian enemy, the Lancashire Fusiliers were told there were ‘the normal routine hazards of submarines and mines’ but ‘attacks by aircraft from high level and torpedo- or dive-bombing are almost certain’. Everyone was ordered to keep their field dressing in the front pocket of their KD (khaki drill) shorts and carry a gas mask. Those above deck during action were to wear steel helmets.

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Page was a regular soldier with a neat moustache, a good regimental officer now in charge of a green if keen battalion. He was a firm disciplinarian, not unkind to young soldiers, but they did have to ‘keep steady’ and follow orders. There were few bad soldiers, he thought, just poor officers. His own mode was studied imperturbability; his 1916 DSO in Macedonia was for calmness and good leadership under heavy fire. He was an impatient man, so that required some will-power. Now he took up his position on the bridge with the captain.

At 9.20 a.m. on the third day, Wednesday 23 July, hands went to action stations. The convoy was in the gap between Sardinia and Algeria when the Regia Aeronautica Italiana flying from Cagliari pounced. Firing began at 9.45. The attack was well synchronised: while the nine CANT Z.1007 high-level bombers drew eyes upwards, the seven Savoia-Marchetti SM.79s flew in low, carrying deadly torpedoes. The Force H destroyer HMS Fearless was hit by one such ‘kipper’ or torpedo at 9.54 and caught fire. Thirty-five men were killed and the rest of the crew abandoned ship, rescued by the Dakar veteran HMS Forester, which then sank the burning Fearless by gunfire.

The cruiser HMS Manchester managed to dodge three torpedoes, but in avoiding a collision with Port Chalmers was caught port aft by another 45 cm torpedo, whose explosion killed and wounded another forty-four men. The damaged cruiser, carrying 750 soldiers from the 8th Battalion, King’s Own Royal Regiment, could still make nine knots, but because that would slow everyone else down, Admiral Somerville ordered Manchester with its soldiers back to Gibraltar, escorted by the destroyer HMS Avon Vale. Convoys could not afford to dawdle. Manchester herself had signalled the day before: ‘S stands for Straggler and Sunk.’

Meanwhile, battle raged in the air. The barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire from the ships brought down three of the SM.79 Sparviero torpedo bombers, and the Fairey Fulmars from the Ark Royal shot down two more, plus a brace of high-level bombers, for a loss of three of their own. When a soldier from the Cheshire Regiment aimed his rifle purposefully at some downed Italian fliers in their rubber dinghy, his officer tapped him on the shoulder: ‘We don’t do that in the British army.’

Now the convoy was reaching an even more dangerous stretch, the Sicilian Narrows between Cape Bon in Tunisia and Sicily, the passage known to the sailors as ‘Bomb Alley’. At around 5.30 p.m., the big ships of Force H turned back to cover the damaged Manchester, leaving Hermione and two destroyers with the convoy, as well as the Ark’s fighters, flying top cover until Beaufighters from Malta could take over. Rear Admiral Syfret in Edinburgh was now in command of Substance. They endured two more bombing attacks on the 23rd, at 7.00 and 7.45 p.m. People under hatches on Edinburgh knew what was happening because the ship’s Air Defence Officer on the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Talbot, ‘piped’ information over the ship’s broadcasting system. ‘Torpedo bomber attacking starboard’ would be followed by the din of the guns: the booms of the four-inch, the bang-bang-bang-bang of the pom-poms, the hammering chatter of the machine guns, the squirts of Bren, then ‘Cease firing’ and ‘Friendly fighter coming down portside’, followed by ‘Lancashire Fusiliers four-inch guns emergency supply party fall in on flight deck’ and so on. The running commentary ‘was much appreciated and greatly assisted morale’, Lieutenant Colonel Page wrote. The convoy was running in two lines, each led by a destroyer with its minesweeping paravanes out and streaming. Firedrake, the destroyer heading the port column, was holed in the second bombing attack and had to be towed back to Gibraltar by Eridge.

Admiral Syfret took the convoy northeast to avoid mines and an air attack at dusk. Enemy aircraft were searching for them along the original line of advance and around midnight the sailors on watch could see parachute flares being dropped by planes twenty miles to the south. Syfret ordered the convoy to change course south again to pass close by the island of Pantellaria.

In the darkest hour of the night, just before 3 a.m. on Thursday 24 July, there was a roar of engines over the sea and the convoy was attacked three times by Regia Marina speedboats. The Italian torpedo-armed motor boat – motoscafo armato silurante or MAS – carried two torpedoes and a machine gun and was the fastest thing afloat, capable of forty-five knots. The British warships, rapidly at action stations, turned on their searchlights and soon red tracer was stitching the blackness.

When Edinburgh illuminated a fast Italian craft eight hundred yards away, a splashing broadside from the four-inchers, the multiple pom-poms and the machine guns seemed to blow the thing to pieces. However, another Italian speedboat – MAS 532 – got through and put a torpedo into the largest cargo ship, the eleven-thousand-ton MV Sydney Star. Soon the Sydney Star had thirty foot of water in the hold and although Captain T. S. Horn stayed on board to nurse the ship home, HM Australian Ship Nestor came alongside to take off all the soldiers from a light anti-aircraft unit.

This operation took fifty minutes, in the darkness, three miles off enemy-held Pantellaria. Hermione stood by to help with cover and, sure enough, as the sun came up, a flight of Ju 87 Stukas attacked the three ships from the east. It was the first of four air attacks that day. The action log of the Fusiliers on HMS Edinburgh recorded:

0734 Enemy aircraft approaching. Range 10 miles.

0740 Firing commenced.

0743 Friendly Beaufighters passing down port side.

0747 ‘This is the Captain speaking. We are now on the last part of our journey. Have opened up speed to 26 knots. Making straight for Malta. Expect to arrive 1130 hrs.’

At 11.30 a.m. on 24 July, the first three ships of convoy GM1, HMS Arethusa, Edinburgh and Manxman, steamed into the Grand Harbour of Valletta, four hours ahead of the transports. The old walls were black with Maltese people: what looked like the whole populace had turned out to welcome them in, and the Royal Navy intended to make a show of it. The ship’s company and the Lancashire Fusiliers were all standing to attention, lining the port and starboard guardrails of HMS Edinburgh, while on the turret of the aft six-inch gun the band of the Royal Marines was pumping out ‘The British Grenadiers’ and other patriotic marches. Lieutenant Colin Kitching RNVR, one of the Edinburgh boarding party who had ‘pinched’ Enigma papers off the German weather-ship München, was on deck when they arrived in Valletta with all the people cheering them in. ‘The emotion of the moment was so great that I found tears were rolling down my cheeks, a reaction which seemed to apply to everyone around me.’

An order went out over the ship’s tannoy: ‘Lancashire Fusiliers. Adjutant calling. The Navy is returning the way we came. Clean the mess decks. Leave lifebelts on board. Don’t forget your haversack rations.’

At 12.25 p.m., the Lancashire Fusiliers started disembarking on Malta, where they would stay for the next three lean years. Personnel and baggage were all unloaded in two hours, and at 3.30 HMS Edinburgh departed, heading back to Gibraltar.


Their troubles were not over. The arrival of the Substance convoy in Malta prompted the Italian navy to order its small craft and submarine assault unit, Decima Flottiglia MAS, the 10th Light Flotilla, to attack Valletta Harbour.

The British made many jokes about ‘the Eyeties’, ‘the Macaronis’, ‘the Ice-creamers’, like the one about more reverse than forward gears on their tanks, but no one could doubt the bravery of the Italian sailors who made this assault. There was a narrow channel under the three-pillared steel bridge between the Sant’Elmo mole and the Maltese mainland that in peacetime used to allow small vessels into the main harbour. A wartime anti-torpedo net of interlocking steel rings now blocked this gap, but the Italians planned to blow the net open with a two-man piloted torpedo, known as a maiale or ‘hog’, letting eight fast speedboats into the harbour to attack the cargo ships. Another two-man maiale would enter the western bay nearby, Marsamxett, the wintering harbour where British submarines were moored side by side, and attach its explosive charge to a hull to try and sink one or two of the ‘boats’.

The night of 25 July was moonless, and the sea calm. British radar spotted the raiders. All the guns and searchlights waited. Both the Italian torpedo ‘hogs’ got engine trouble and missed their deadline, so it was the explosive speedboats that set out to breach the steel net. The MT (Motoscafo Turismo) was essentially a torpedo embedded in the shell of a carvel-built, mahogany-hulled seacraft, powered by a six-cylinder, ninety-five-horsepower Alfa Romeo engine. The single operator sat at the back in a wooden seat that was ejected from the boat at the pull of a lever. He aimed his craft at the target and, about a hundred metres away, he was supposed to lock the steering and throw himself off. When the craft hit the target at speed, the hull would split open and the fuse (set for impact) would trigger the 330 kg explosive torpedo.

The two leading MT speedboats aimed for the net at around 4.45 a.m. Sub-lieutenant Roberto Frassetto threw himself off about fifty metres from the net but his boat was not going fast enough to split open and detonate. Sub-lieutenant Aristide Carabelli saw what had happened, set his own fuse to ‘impact’ and drove straight at the net at full speed, heroically, suicidally. His detonation set off Frassetto’s boat too and the double explosion not only shredded Carabelli but brought down the bridge overhead, completely blocking the way in.

None of the other MT speedboats would have made it anyway. Valletta’s searchlights blazed on and a two-minute hail of gunfire from six-pounders, Bofors guns and machine guns annihilated the Regia Marina flotilla. As the sun rose, British Hurricane fighter planes attacked their support ships. Only eleven Italian sailors made it back home. Twenty of their unit were killed, including some of the leading commanders, and eighteen others were captured. Two maiali, eight MT boats and three other vessels were lost. But Decima Flottiglia MAS would keep trying, and their next attack would be on Gibraltar.

Grumman TBF/M Avenger

An early production Grumman TBF-1 Avenger similar to those flown by the shore-based element of the USS Hornet’s VT-8 at the Battle of Midway. There was not, normally, a crew position in the ‘glass-house’ behind the pilot, the radio-man’s station being in the ‘tunnel’ below the turret.

Although the torpedo squadrons received a new aircraft after the Battle of Midway the striking weapon remained the same for some time, the slow Bliss-Leavitt 21in Mark XIII torpedo, seen here immediately after release from a TBF-I Avenger of the USS Ranger’s VT-4. The Avenger’s weapons bay doors are open, each door was in two sections, the outer of which folded outwards and upwards and the inner inwards and upwards, a complicated arrangement made necessary by the aircraft’s lack of deck clearance when on its wheels.

The Battle of Midway, which began on 4 June 1942, was among the early and very vital actions of the Pacific war. In this savage encounter the Japanese fleet lost four aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga and Soryu, these representing the spearhead of Admiral Yamamoto’s naval strike force. Without them the Japanese fleet was deprived of its initiative and became a defensive rather than the innovative offence force which had brought chaos to Pearl Harbour less than seven months earlier. As in the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought rather less conclusively some four weeks earlier, the attack and defence of both the Japanese and United States naval forces had been almost entirely the prerogative of carrier-based aircraft. US Navy carriers involved in the Battle of Midway comprised the USS Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown, the last being so severely damaged in the action that she became an easy target for a Japanese submarine two days later.

Forming a proportion of the naval aircraft which were involved in this action were the first of the US Navy’s monoplane torpedo-bombers, the Douglas TBD Devastator, and the first operational examples of the newly developed torpedo-bomber intended to replace it, the Grumman TBF Avenger. For both of these aircraft types the operation was a disaster with two squadrons of Devastators almost completely destroyed, and of the six Avengers in action only one survived. The Devastators were no match for the Japanese aircraft against which they were ranged and were thereafter withdrawn from operational service. The Avengers, which had been intended to reinforce Squadron VT-8’s TBD-1s aboard USS Hornet, arrived at Pearl Harbour after the carrier had sailed. Instead, they flew to Midway Island and went into action from there.

Clearly, the Devastator was obsolete and the Avenger’s crews lacked adequate experience, for they had been equipped with these aircraft at Norfolk Naval Air Station only four weeks earlier. To highlight this latter point, it is necessary to point out that the Avenger continued in operational use without the need for any significant modifications as a result of their deployment at Midway, remaining in US Navy service for some 15 years.

The TBF had originated in early 1940 when the US Navy initiated a contest to procure a more modern torpedo-bomber to replace the Douglas TBD Devastator, ordering two XTBF-1 prototypes from Grumman on 8 April 1940, and two competing XTBU-1 prototypes from Vought a couple of weeks later. This latter aircraft was to enter production, built by Consolidated as the TBY Sea Wolf, but only about 180 of them were built. The XTBF-1 represented something of a challenge for the Grumman design team headed by Bill Schwendler, for although the company had produced a number of successful carrier-based fighters, this was the first attempt to evolve a torpedo-bomber.

First flown on 1 August 1941, the prototype was seen to be a hefty mid-wing monoplane of ail-metal construction, except for fabric-covered control surfaces. Leading-edge slots forward of the ailerons and split trailing-edge flaps were provided to ensure good low- speed handling characteristics, despite a comparatively high wing loading. On the Avenger the wing loading was to be as much as 37 lbs/sq ft (180 kg/m2) by comparison with 24 Ibs/sq ft (118 kg/m2) for the TBD Devastator. For carrier stowage the outer wing panels could be folded, or unfolded, with the locking pins actuated in correct sequence by hydraulic power, controlled from the pilot’s cockpit. The fuselage and tail unit were of conventional construction, the retractable landing gear of the tailwheel type. Attachment points for catapult launch, and an electrically actuated arrester hook were standard. Later versions had RATO (rocket assisted-take off) provision. The powerplant consisted of a 1,700 hp (1268 kW) Wright R-2600-8 Cyclone 14 radial engine, driving a three bladed constant-speed propeller. Accommodation was for a crew of three (pilot, bomb-aimer and radio-operator/gunner) with a long transparent canopy covering all positions. All important, of course, was the armament which comprised of a 7.62 mm (0.30 in) machine gun firing forward through the propeller disc and controlled by the pilot; a ventral machine-gun of the same calibre under control of the bomb-aimer; an a 12.7 mm (0.50 in) gun in a power-operated dorsal turret controlled by the radio-operator as well a large fuselage weapon bay with hydraulically actuated doors to accommodate a 22 inch (559 mm) torpedo or up to 2,000 lbs (907 kg) of bombs.

Flight testing of the prototype by Grumman was followed by US Navy evaluation which ended satisfactorily in December 1941. But 12 months prior to that the us Navy had placed its first production order for 286 TBF-1s, and the first of these began to enter service on 30 January 1942. Despite the inauspicious start to the Avenger’s career at Midway, the US Navy procured this aircraft in large numbers, and between first delivery at the end of January 1942 and December 1943, Grumman were to build a total of 2,293. These included TBF-1s, basically the same as the prototypes, and TBF-1Cs, which differed by having two additional 12.7 mm (0.50 in) machine-guns mounted in the wings, and provision for the carriage of drop tanks. Grumman also built XTBF-2 and XTBF-3 prototypes with XR-2600-10 and R-2600-20 engines respectively.

Of the above the Royal Navy received 402 aircraft under Lend-Lease, mostly procured as TBF-1Bs for this purpose, with No. 832 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm being the first to be equipped on 1 January 1943, the aircraft being designated Tarpon I in British service until January 1944, when they became re-designated Avenger I. No. 832 Squadron took delivery of its aircraft at Norfolk Naval Air Station where their crews completed familiarisation with the type before embarking aboard the USS Saratoga in April 1943. Two months later they were deployed operationally in support of US Marine Corps landing in the middle of the Solomon Islands chain, and this is regarded as the first occasion that FAA (Fleet Air Arm) aircraft were flown into action from a US Navy carrier. Subsequent to the equipping of No. 832 Squadron, seven more FAA squadrons took delivery of their aircraft at US Navy air stations in the USA, completing training before embarking on escort carriers for the long journey to Britain. The TBF-1 version was also supplied to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, which received a total of 63 aircraft.

With the demand for Avengers considerably exceed- ing Grumman’s productive capacity, the Eastern Division of General Motors, which had established production lines for the Grumman F4F Wildcat, was selected as a second source of supply. Avengers with the designations TBM-1 (equivalent to TBF-1) and TBM-1C (TBF-1C) began to flow from their lines in September 1942, and the company had produced a total of 7,546 of these and subsequent versions when its production lines closed down in June 1945. Of these early versions from General Motors, the Royal Navy received 334 TBM-1s, these duly being designated Avenger IIs.

General Motors had produced an XTBM-3 prototype with an R-2600-20 engine, generally similar to the XTBF-3 built by Grumman. It differed, however, by having strengthened wings to allow the carriage of rocket projectiles, drop tanks or radar pod, and many were supplied without the heavy power-operated dorsal turret. Designated TBM-3, delivery of this version began in April 1944, and of these the Royal Navy acquired 222 which were identified as Avenger III. These latter aircraft were particularly useful to the FAA which, despite the torpedo-bomber categorisation, had rarely deployed its Avengers in such a role. Instead they had been deployed on anti-submarine patrol, bombing missions, as rocket-firing strike aircraft and, occasionally, for mine-laying operations.

FAA Avengers thus saw a variety of action and proved a valuable and reliable addition to the Royal Navy’s carrier-based forces. Avengers were involved in the Arctic convoys to supply the Russian ally, during which Avengers of No. 846 Squadron shared in the sinking of two German submarines (U-288 and U-355) and took part in D-Day preparation and operations, primarily in an anti-shipping strike role, but their major contribution came in the Far East, operating as a component of the East Indies ahd Pacific Fleets. Almost certainly their most important actions were the two attacks made by 48 aircraft of Nos. 820, 849, 854 and 857 Squadrons on the Japanese oil refineries at Palembang, Sumatra, on 24 and 29 January 1945, reducing the output of the two plants to the merest trickle at a moment when every drop of fuel was critical for both the Japanese army and navy. Many people are unaware of the co-operation and support which the FAA gave to the Americans in these closing stages of the Pacific War. Avengers from the carriers HMS Formidable, Illustrious, Indefatigable, Indomitable and Victorious gave intensive support in bombing operations against such targets as Formosa and the Japanese home islands. No. 820 Squadron actually launched an attack on Tokyo.

Apart from the main production stream of TBF-1/-1C and TBM-1C/-3 aircraft, there were also small numbers of special versions which resulted from modification programmes introduced during 1944-5. These included the TBF-1D with special radar equipment, the TBF-1E with electronics equipment, the TBF-1L which carried a searchlight in the bomb bay, and the TBF-1CP equipped with cameras for a reconnaissance role. More or less equivalent versions were modified from General Motors production aircraft under the designations TBM-3D, TBM-3E, TBM-3L and TBM-3P respectively. There was, in addition, a TBM-3H version equipped with search radar. General Motors also built the prototype of what had been anticipated as the next production version and this, designated XTBM-4, differed primarily by having a strengthened fuselage. No production aircraft were built, however, following contract cancellations after VJ-Day.

But the termination of production and the end of World War II did not bring to a halt the career of the Avenger, which still had valuable service to offer during the difficult postwar years. The major operational version in US Navy service was the TBM-3E, by then carrying even more advanced radar equipment for the search and location of submarines, and it is in this area of activity that the Avengers were used extensively until the introduction into service of newly developed and highly specialised aircraft. These were developed to cater for the growing threat from deep diving nuclear-powered submarines which, in the nuclear-weapons age, were then becoming regarded, somewhat prematurely, as the ultimate weapon. Thus TBM-3Ws and TBM-3W-2s carried APS-20 radar in a large underbelly radome and, in US Navy service, were paired eventually with TBM-3S and TBM-3S-2 strike aircraft to create submarine hunter-killer teams. Other postwar conversions included TBM-3Ns for night and all-weather operation, TBM-3Qs for electronic countermeasures against enemy radar emitters, TBM-3R seven-seat Avengers for COD (Carrier On-board Delivery) of priority personnel or urgently needed supplies, and target-towing TBM-3Us.

In Royal Navy service the wartime Avengers remained operational in only small numbers after the end of World War II, serving last with No.828 Squadron until 3 June 1946, but even that did not end the Royal Navy’s operational use of Avengers. As in the USA, there was a growing awareness of the threat from new-generation submarines, leading to the acquisition from 1953 of TBM-3Es which entered service first with Nos. 815 and 824 Squadrons under the designation Avenger AS.4. These aircraft, supplied under the Mutual Defence Aid Program (MDAP) were followed by later examples, modified more specifically to Royal Navy requirements, which entered service as Avenger AS.4s or AS.5s, these remaining in first-line service until replaced by Fairey Gannets in 1955.

Also under the MDAP, Avenger variants were supplied after the war for service with the French Aeronavale, Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force, Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Netherlands Navy. Many post-war Avengers saw continued civilian service as fire bombers. The Canadian province of New Brunswick used many of these aircraft (with the weapons bay converted over to carry a large water tank) until the year 2000, when finally replaced by more modern aircraft. It is one of these “retired” New Brunswick aircraft that the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, is trying to acquire to replace the one lost, ironically, in a hanger fire a number of years ago.

Nicknames: Chuff; Turkey; Pregnant Beast; Tarpon (RAF).

Grumman TBF/M Avenger

Crew: three

Length: 40 ft 11½ in (12.48 m)

Wingspan: 54 ft 2 in [18] (16.51 m)

Height: 15 ft 5 in (4.70 m)

Empty weight: 10,545 lb (4,783 kg)

Loaded weight: 17,893 lb (8,115 kg)

Powerplant: 1 × Wright R-2600-20 radial engine, 1,900 hp (1,420 kW) Performance

Maximum speed: 275 mph [19] (442 km/h)

Service ceiling: 30,100 ft (9,170 m)

Rate of climb: 2,060 ft/min (10.5 m/s)



1 × 0.30 in (7.62 mm) nose-mounted M1919 Browning machine-gun or

2 × 0.50 in (12.7 mm) wing-mounted M2 Browning machine-guns

1 × 0.50 in (12.7 mm) dorsal-mounted M2 Browning machine-gun

1 × 0.30 in (7.62 mm) ventral-mounted M1919 Browning machine-gun


up to 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs or

1 × 2,000 lb (907 kg) Mark 13 torpedo

WW2: U-boats losses caused by Soviet Armed Forces

Kriegsmarine was (in)famous for the massive use of their submarine’s fleet during the War, despite most of the U-boats were used against Allied shipping, some were deployed against the Soviet Navy. That’s the list of the Soviet anti-submarines successes.

NOTE: this list include also U-boats lightly damaged in action. This kind of damage was often a success because could force the submarine to abandon a patrol.

A submarine with the holed periscope can’t attack a merchant after all! Many merchants were potentially saved attacks that caused this kind of damage.

2 U-boats surely sunk by Soviet forces (one by submarine, one by depth charges) with other 4 of uncertain loss. At least 3 U-boats suffered soviet attacks with heavy damages as result (caused by depth charges and ramming) and needed time to be repaired.

In Arctic, the Soviets made successful use of Allied Lend-Leased ships (destroyers and minesweepers) and aircrafts (Catalina and B-25 Mitchell), against German U-boats.


18 June 1815 Part I

Marshal Ney of France leading a charge.

To be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death.


The historian Jac Weller is said to have complained that the Ifs of Waterloo made him wince. I fear we must make him wince again. No doubt these Ifs are countless, but for our purposes here, we will choose five chances which contributed to Napoleon’s defeat and examine the consequences had chance taken another course. First, Napoleon’s chance meeting with Ney as he moved forward on the Charleroi road and his capricious and fatal appointment of Ney as field commander; second, even given this mistake, the interference by Ney in countermanding Napoleon’s order to d’Erlon to join him at Ligny when Ney himself was dithering at Quatre Bras; third, the thunderstorm on the night of 17/18 June which delayed Napoleon’s attack; fourth, the gates of Hougoumont, the closing of which Wellington somewhat arbitrarily claimed was the decisive element of the battle; and fifth, the Emperor’s imprecise orders to Grouchy, together with Grouchy’s own incomprehensible error of judgement, which led to his 33,000 men taking no part in the decisive encounter. We will look at what effect on the battle there might have been if any of these five occurrences had been different. Such speculation will lead us to two further questions: what if Napoleon had won? What if he had been killed?

Napoleon’s choice of subordinate commanders for his last campaign must strike us as capricious, to say the least. Of course, the field was somewhat limited. There were few of the old hands who supported the Emperor on his triumphant return from Elba. Marmont, St-Cyr, Victor and Macdonald stuck to their new Bourbon loyalties. Augereau and Berthier had gone to ground. Soult, on the other hand, despite his former allegiance to Louis XVIII, had rejoined the Emperor. So had Mortier and Suchet. Masséna, perhaps wisely, chose to be unwell. Murat, King of Naples – who would never have allowed the cavalry to be handled as Ney did – impetuous as ever, on hearing of his brother-in-law’s resumption of power, committed the egregious folly of turning on his Austrian friends and attacking them with Neapolitan soldiers, who of course ran away, leaving Murat to fly ignominiously to Toulon. Napoleon had created one more Marshal – Grouchy – who might have turned the scales at Waterloo had he acted as a Marshal of France should. The Emperor had one other worthy supporter, the iron, uncompromising Davout, who accepted the Ministry of War. If instead he had been with Napoleon in the field, either as Chief of Staff or as the Emperor’s immediate lieutenant, what a world of difference he might have made. The Ministry could have been left to Soult, for however devious Talleyrand and Fouché might have been, they would never have risked a coup against Napoleon while he was in command of the army. But all in all it must be conceded that the Emperor would not be fielding the first eleven for the battle to come.

Those who have suggested, as Andrew Roberts in his recent book has reminded us, along with that eminent Napoleonic expert, David Chandler, that Napoleon deliberately appointed a second eleven in order to enjoy the greater share of glory himself after a victorious campaign, are surely wide of the mark. Napoleon’s whole future, and that of France, was at stake. Not to have taken every step to promote success would have contradicted Napoleon’s entire creed. He may have been a gambler, but he was not in the habit of throwing away aces in the middle of a game. This is what makes it all the more extraordinary that he should have chosen Ney to be his field commander before the battle got under way. Ever since the battle of Borodino, when the fiery, red-headed Marshal had launched his tirade against his Commander-in-Chief for not being right up at the front and for refusing to release the Imperial Guard, Ney, despite his heroic rearguard action in the Russian campaign and unfailing courage at Leipzig, had been unbalanced, at times hysterical. Although temporarily in disgrace because of his promise to Louis XVIII to bring the usurper back to Paris in an iron cage, Ney was to be entrusted by Napoleon with absolutely crucial responsibility in the forthcoming battle, a responsibility which Ney was temperamentally and psychologically incapable of fulfilling. Not once, but twice, he made decisions, or was guilty of indecision, which robbed the Emperor of almost certain victory. And then his actual appointment had been such a chance, so thoughtlessly haphazard. On 12 June 1815, when Napoleon set out for the Northern Front, the army consisted of five corps, commanded by d’Erlon, Vandamme, Gérard, Reille and Lobau. The only Marshals with the army were Soult, Chief of Staff, Grouchy, commanding the Reserve Cavalry, and Mortier, who was taken ill and fell out at Beaumont. Ney, dressed in mufti, had accompanied the army, bitter and aggrieved at being left out; he acquired two of Mortier’s horses and hung about near Napoleon’s staff. By chance, while looking at a map outside a tavern by the Sambre, the Emperor happened to glance up, caught sight of Ney, and at once asked him to take command of two army corps and the regiments of cavalry, some 50,000 men in all, together with over seventy guns. ‘It was,’ observed A. G. Macdonnell, ‘a strange and casual appointment.’ Apart from anything else, why did Napoleon not choose to command in person? He had in the past overseen the operations of more than two corps in a series of successful encounters with the Austrians, Russians and Prussians. Had he wished to outshine all those in subordinate positions, what more certain way of doing so? But the whole idea of his not wishing to share the credit for success may be dismissed by remembering his former instant and generous recognition of his corps and divisional commanders. His praise for Augereau at Castiglioni, for Lannes at Arcola, Masséna at Rivoli, when Napoleon greeted him as l’enfant chéri de la victoire, is enough to give the lie to such calumny. When we add the Emperor’s acknowledgement of Davout’s saving the day at Auerstädt, of his creating Macdonald a Marshal on the field of Wagram, of his unstinting commendation of Ney’s rearguard action during the retreat from Moscow – Bravest of the Brave, Prince of the Moscowa – no more evidence is needed. But to have chosen Ney, who was suffering from what we would now call battle fatigue, and whose ability coolly to weigh the tactical odds, however unquestionable his courage, was sadly deficient, constituted the first of a series of blunders that Napoleon would never have made in his heyday.

Given that Ney was appointed, however, we now come face to face with perhaps the biggest If of all, for when Napoleon was engaging the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June, Ney, with a most unfortunate coalition of indecisive manoeuvring and petulant action, was undermining the Emperor’s strategy – with the gravest consequences. Had Ney carried out Napoleon’s orders promptly, that is, to seize Quatre Bras, he would have been in a position to threaten the Prussians’ right flank and so enable Napoleon to finish Blücher’s part in the affair. Because he had been slow and indecisive, Ney received orders from the Emperor to despatch d’Erlon’s Reserve Corps to complete the business at Ligny. Again, had this been done, Blücher’s army would have been so knocked about that it would not have been able to come to the aid of Wellington two days later. As it was, Ney, finding the fight for Quatre Bras becoming ever more severe because his own delay had allowed Wellington to bring up reinforcements, countermanded the Emperor’s order and brought d’Erlon back towards Quatre Bras. In the event, d’Erlon took no part in either battle, so that the great If here is this: had Ney allowed d’Erlon to help finish off the Prussians at Ligny, there would have been no need to detach Grouchy with his 33,000 men, who would then have been available for Napoleon in his confrontation with Wellington at Waterloo. We will look further at Grouchy later on, but there is a further aspect of Quatre Bras to consider first.

An eagle is ascendant in spirit, swift in flight, sudden in decision and ruthless in deed. It was Napoleon’s unique marshalling of these characteristics that made the eagle so aptly his symbol. His whirlwind tactics of rapid marching and vital concentration of force, which he employed in the Italian campaign of 1796/97, were what shook the European armies to their foundations. The astonishing way in which he redeployed the Grande Armée from the coastal areas near Boulogne to surround Mack’s army at Ulm was a classic example of deception and rapid concentration, leading to the triumph of Austerlitz. It was the speed and violence of his pursuit of the Prussian army after Jena and Auerstädt which utterly confounded what was left of Frederick the Great’s legacy. And when the Emperor learned that Sir John Moore was threatening his communications with France by chasing Soult with his English leopards in Old Castile, he at once abandoned his idea of advancing into Portugal and hurled his force of 80,000 men northwards to entrap Moore’s small army. Vitesse was always the watchword. Napoleon himself had once conceded that he might lose ground, but would never lose a minute. This great sense of urgency seems to have deserted him in the Waterloo affair. Not only did he lose countless minutes on 17 June, he threw away the best chance of winning the campaign. For a kind of lethargy seemed to overcome him. In spite of ordering Ney to take Quatre Bras that morning and, when surprised by Ney’s wavering reluctance to act decisively, sending him a second order, couched in uncompromising terms – ‘There is no time to lose. Attack with the greatest impetuosity everything in front of you’ – Napoleon did not ensure that his orders were obeyed. Indeed, as Andrew Roberts has emphasized, if instead of wasting his time waiting for information as to Wellington’s movements and hanging about near Ligny, Napoleon had joined Ney in a joint attack on Wellington, who had only some 50,000 troops at Quatre Bras, he would have won the campaign there and then. ‘This loss of the initiative,’ wrote Roberts,

was disastrous, and still worse was his decision at around 11 a.m. to split his forces by sending Marshal Grouchy off with 33,000 men and no fewer than ninety-six cannon to follow the Prussians in what at least initially turned out to be the wrong direction.

Concentration had been a cardinal principle of Napoleon’s conduct of war, yet here he was breaking his own rules.

Now let us look at another aspect of chance – the intervention of fate and fortune.

‘Can such things be,’ demanded Macbeth, ‘And overcome us like a summer’s cloud, Without our special wonder?’ It was the breaking of a summer’s cloud, we might say, that overcame Napoleon on that night of 17/18 June 1815. Listen to Victor Hugo on the point:

It had rained all night, the ground was saturated, the water had accumulated here and there in the hollows of the plain as if in tubs; at some points the gear of the artillery carriages was buried up to the axles, the circingles of the horses were dripping with liquid mud. If the wheat and rye trampled down by this cohort of transports on the march had not filled in the ruts and strewn a litter beneath the wheels, all movement, particularly in the valleys, in the direction of Papelotte would have been impossible.

The battle began late. Napoleon was in the habit of keeping all his artillery well in hand, like a pistol, aiming it now at one point, now at another, of the battle; and it had been his wish to wait until the horse batteries could move and gallop freely. In order to do that it was necessary that the sun should come out and dry the soil. But the sun did not make its appearance. It was no longer the rendezvous of Austerlitz. When the first cannon was fired, the English general, Colville, looked at his watch, and saw that it was twenty-five minutes to twelve.3

Victor Hugo’s conclusion is that if it had not rained in the night of 17/18 June 1815, Europe’s fate would have been different. His reason? The battle of Waterloo could not be started until half past eleven and this gave Blücher time to come up. In support of this view we may note that Napoleon had set up his headquarters at Le Caillou and breakfasted there with his generals at eight o’clock on the morning of 18 June. Had the ground been completely dry, that is had there been no thunderstorm the previous night, his attack could have started at least four hours earlier than it did. We must note too that even when the French artillery did begin its bombardment at half past eleven, the ground was still wet, causing round shot to bury itself rather than ricocheting for many hundreds of yards with deadly effect. Moreover, shells were also robbed of their effectiveness by the sodden ground. But leaving this aside, it was time that would have been the crucial factor.

‘Ask me for anything but time,’ declared Napoleon. Had there been no thunderstorm, some precious hours would have been available to him. It was not until the climax of the battle, the evening of 18 June, that the Prussians intervened. This climax would have been reached well before that. Moreover there are subsidiary Ifs. An earlier start to the battle might have brought Grouchy on the scene; it might have revealed to Napoleon and Ney – and to Jérôme Bonaparte leading the attack on it – that the Château of Hougoumont had either to be taken, or screened and outflanked, if the principal assault on Wellington’s position was to be successfully made.

18 June 1815 Part II

Chateau Hougemont under attack by the French.

Sous Lieutenant Legros wielding his axe through the North Gate, Hougoumont.

The role played by Hougoumont will always arouse admiration and invite controversy. Victor Hugo went so far as to say that its conquest was one of Napoleon’s dreams and that, had he seized it, it would have given him the world. Extravagant language, but perhaps not to be rejected out of hand. Hougoumont had two doors to its court, one to the château itself on the southern side, one belonging to the farm on the north. It was this latter door that was smashed open by a huge French officer who, followed by some of his jubilant men, rushed into the courtyard. They were instantly set upon by soldiers of the Coldstream Guards, who then succeeded in closing the doors and barring them with a vast wooden beam. Wellington was later to observe that his success at Waterloo had depended on closing these doors. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that a successful defence of Hougoumont was a crucial part of Wellington’s strategy. It was because he appreciated its significance and had seen the scale of the French attack on it that he reinforced the garrison with four companies of the Coldstream Guards, thereby doubling its complement of Foot Guardsmen. Their remarkable achievement may be judged when we consider that, as Victor Hugo put it, they held out for seven hours against the assaults of vastly superior numbers.

After the initial failure of Napoleon’s brother, Prince Jérôme, to take Hougoumont, neither he nor Napoleon himself took the decision to bypass this stubborn centre of resistance and get on with the main business of attacking Wellington’s main line. Jérôme, in short, allowed what was a diversionary, albeit important, objective to take his eye off the main tactical purpose which was to pierce Wellington’s centre. Instead of getting this principal attack under way, Jérôme poured more and more troops into the desperate struggle for Hougoumont. The divisions of Foy, Guilleminot and Bachelu hurled themselves against it; nearly all Reille’s corps took their turn and failed; Bauduin’s brigade was not strong enough to force Hougoumont from the north, while Soye’s brigade, although making the beginning of a breach in the south, could not exploit it. Jérôme had been making one of the classic errors of war – reinforcing failure – and on such a scale that he was robbing the French army of the strength to sweep Wellington aside before the Prussians came up to support him. Wellington, on the other hand, had reinforced success. Thus the contribution which Hougoumont’s defenders made to victory at Waterloo was incalculable.

What would have happened if the gates had not been closed? For the purposes of speculation, we must assume that the French would have taken Hougoumont, for if, even though the gates were not closed, the British had still defied the French attacks and held on to the château, and if Napoleon had also permitted the same continued attempts to persevere, there would have been no change of circumstance. So we must ask ourselves what Napoleon would have done after capturing Hougoumont, had this happened; and in answering the question let us assume further that this capture was effected early on, in other words before Jérôme had dissipated his main forces against it. Napoleon then has two possible courses of action: to persist in the frontal assault on Wellington’s centre, which in the event is what he did do, or try to outflank the Allied right and so roll up Wellington’s position. This would have been the sure touch of Napoleon at his tactical best, as in former days when he instantly saw that the key to taking Toulon was to capture the Le Caire peninsula and so bring artillery fire to bear direct on the Royal Navy’s ships; or when at Austerlitz he seized the fleeting opportunity to strike at and destroy the Austro-Russian centre, roll up their left wing and finish the thing off. In short, if the chance of closing the Hougoumont gates had not befallen, and the château had fallen early on into French hands, Napoleon’s attack would not have been delayed or impeded. He would have been presented with great freedom of tactical choice, and provided he had taken a proper grip of the battle there and then, he must surely have prevailed. We will see shortly what might have come about had Napoleon defeated Wellington, but for the time being we may concede that the latter’s comment about the closing of Hougoumont’s gates, while an over-simplification as to what brought about success, does at least deserve serious consideration. Yet even given Hougoumont’s retention in British hands, and the fact that Napoleon exerted himself far too late to rescue his army from the tactical blunders made by his subordinates, there was still one more chance, one more If which will always persist in the minds of those who ponder great battles.

‘On a perdu la France’ was Napoleon’s comment to d’Erlon, referring to Ney’s mistakes at Quatre Bras when he joined him there at midday on 17 June. The comment might equally well have applied to Grouchy. When on that same day Napoleon detached Grouchy and his 33,000 men to follow up and harass the Prussians, Grouchy himself and Soult tried to dissuade him, but the Emperor insisted. Not only was he giving himself too many objectives, he was dissipating his forces. A single aim – the defeat of Wellington – and a concentration of force to do so would have served him better. Moreover, his instructions to Grouchy were far from clear. Grouchy was required to pursue the Prussians and reconnoitre their movements so that Napoleon could determine their intentions. He needed to know what Wellington and Blücher meant to do. During the early hours of 18 June, Napoleon received a despatch from Grouchy announcing his intention to follow the Prussians towards Wavre and prevent their moving towards Brussels and Wellington’s position. The Emperor’s reply confounded confusion and contained these words: ‘His Majesty desires you will head for Wavre in order to draw near to us [my italics] . . .’ This in itself was contradictory for whereas Wavre was to the north of Grouchy, Napoleon was to the west. Had Napoleon’s former Chief of Staff, Berthier, been there instead of Soult, he would never have permitted such sloppy phrasing. But Soult did at least press for the instant recall of Grouchy, only to have his intervention dismissed by the Emperor. The full impact of Grouchy’s detachment was still to be felt.

In his most agreeable account of Marcellin Marbot’s adventures as a cavalry général de brigade, based on Marbot’s own memoirs, Vyvyan Ferrers suggests that these memoirs gave Conan Doyle the inspiration for writing his stories about Brigadier Gérard. Ferrers also notes that the choice of the name Gérard was surprising, for as already recorded, one of the corps commanders at Waterloo was General Etienne Gérard, and on the fateful afternoon of 18 June he was with the newly appointed Marshal Grouchy, who was vainly attempting to follow up Blücher’s army to Wavre and engage it. It was while Grouchy was pondering what to do that the thunder of guns at Waterloo was heard. If ever the initiative inherent to any great military commander needed to be employed, it was now. To march to the sound of the guns – at a time when your own force was contributing nothing to the battle’s resolution – was so fundamental that Grouchy should have given instant orders to do so. Yet at this very moment General Gérard intervened and publicly told Grouchy that it was his duty to march upon the guns. Despite his own indecision, the one thing Grouchy was not prepared to tolerate was a lesson in command from one of his own subordinates, and after an ill-tempered dispute, the Marshal made it plain that his duty was to carry out the Emperor’s orders and proceed to Wavre. And so he turned his back on the struggle which was to determine Europe’s future. Had he marched to the guns with his 33,000 or so men, he would have intercepted the Prussian movement towards Waterloo and reinforced Napoleon at a moment when such reinforcement would have been decisive. Napoleon would not then have had to respond to Ney’s plea for more troops with a petulant: ‘Troops? Where do you expect me to find them? Do you expect me to make them?’ They would have been to hand at the very moment when Ney was poised to execute the coup de grâce.

It is clear, therefore, that the various Ifs that we have looked at so far spring from mistakes made by Ney, Soult, Grouchy and Napoleon himself. Vincent Cronin names three blunders committed by the Emperor before the main battle had even begun: first, not crushing Wellington on the morning of 17 June, when the Prussians were retreating and the French could have brought overwhelming numbers against Wellington; second, his misjudgement both of the quality of British soldiers and the tactical skill of their commander; third, his gross overconfidence – had he taken the whole affair much more seriously, he would not have delegated Grouchy on his fruitless errand and ignored his subordinates’ plea to get Grouchy back in time for the main attack.

  1. G. Macdonnell finds fault not so much with Napoleon as with Marshals Ney, Soult and Grouchy. We have examined Grouchy’s fatal indecision; Soult fell down by not stemming the tide of mistakes; Ney lost the battle by his ill-tempered countermanding of the Emperor’s order on 16 June to send up d’Erlon’s corps so that Napoleon could have destroyed Blücher’s army rather than simply mauling it and pushing it back. Had this been done, Grouchy would have remained with the main body and Napoleon would have had an extra 33,000 men to dispose of Wellington, who in turn would have received no last-minute support from the Prussians. The mere fact that Wellington called it a close-run thing indicates how easily the scales might have been turned. Yet when all is said, we may be sure that Napoleon would have taken the credit for victory, and so must bear responsibility for defeat.

But what if he had won? In his essay ‘Ruler of the World’ Alistair Horne argues that victory at Waterloo would not have brought about Napoleon’s ultimate success.

There were vast fresh forces of Russians, Austrians and Germans already moving towards France. A second battle, or perhaps several battles, would probably have followed Waterloo. But even if the ultimate engagement had ended in the likely defeat of Napoleon, with Britain out of the war, it would have been a continental and not a British victory. What followed would have, therefore, been a peace dominated by Metternich’s Central European powers – by Russian, Austria and Prussia instead of Great Britain.

I am not so sure. On hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and with the Allied resolution to outlaw him, Czar Alexander of Russia had told Wellington at the Congress of Vienna that it was for him to save the world again. With Wellington and Blücher beaten, would the resolve of the other powers have held firm? We have to imagine a triumphant Emperor entering Brussels at the head of his troops, frantic enthusiasm from the Belgians, who instantly declare for him, the Netherlands also changing sides, then Napoleon’s return to Paris, acclaimed by all, even Talleyrand and Fouché – whose heads Napoleon might or might not have demanded – overtures for peace pouring out from the Tuileries, promises of democratic reform, the formerly circumspect Marshals rallying to their Commander-in-Chief, France jubilant, Napoleon overhauling the Grande Armée and preparing for the defence of the country’s frontiers. In spite of the gathering Allied armies, their leaders might have recalled Napoleon’s former ability to defeat them one by one or two at a time. They might have recalled the Emperor’s pulling on his long boots in 1813 and 1814, winning battle after battle at Lützen, Bautzen, Champaubert, Château-Thierry, Vauchamp, Montereau – and these victories won with a small army of some 50,000 men. What he might now do with an army of four or five times that number, commanded by the most valiant and able set of lieutenants under his own unique direction, would surely have given the Allied sovereigns pause for reflection and compromise.

Besides, it is so agreeable to picture yet one more Congress of Vienna, convened by Metternich, who by then would have appreciated that Napoleon was not un homme perdu after all, a Congress at which not only did dancing gild the scene and amorous intrigue rule the plot, but at which Napoleon and Wellington finally met, with Talleyrand – whose cynical observation that treason was simply a matter of dates would have come full circle – hovering in the background, and Alexander once more falling under the spell of his brother Emperor. Would Marie Walewska have been there to consort with Napoleon, or would the wicked, dashing Hussar General, Count Neipperg, have been constrained to escort the Empress of France, Marie-Louise, to Vienna, bringing with them the King of Rome, Napoleon’s son, destined six years later – if we assume that the Emperor still met his death in 1821 – to succeed his father as Napoleon II? If we are going to rewrite history, we might as well do it with a flourish.

There is perhaps one further diversion here. However insubstantial the Ifs of history may be, we must all applaud Stendhal’s captivating suggestion that had Napoleon won at Waterloo, not only would there have been no liberals to be afraid of in the 1820s, but all the ancient sovereigns of Europe would only have kept their thrones by marrying the daughters of Napoleon’s Marshals. Judging by the mettle of these Marshals, the sovereigns in question could have done a great deal worse. There would have been one further benefit from Napoleon’s winning – George IV would not then have boasted that he had been present on the battlefield.

And what if Napoleon had been killed at Waterloo – the ‘good death’ that he pondered on St Helena?6 Why, the whole of France would have honoured him. Marshal Ney’s comment as he gazed at Bessières’ corpse on the field of Lützen, ‘C’est notre sort. C’est une belle mort,’ would have echoed round the world in honour of the General, whom Wellington called ‘un grand homme de guerre’, the greatest ever to appear at the head of a French army, and the magnificent ceremony, which took place in 1840, with Louis-Philippe on the throne of France, when Napoleon’s coffin, returned from St Helena, was received by Marshal Moncey, Governor of Les Invalides, would have been enacted twenty-five years earlier.

There is one last If we may perhaps contemplate when we recall A. P. Herbert’s delightful book, Why Waterloo?, in which he argues that Napoleon did not break out of Elba but was driven out. Had the French government honoured the treaty of Fontainebleau with regard to money, had Marie-Louise joined her husband on Elba, had Talleyrand been less malignant, or Colonel Campbell more vigilant, had Royal Navy frigates blockaded the island properly, there would perhaps have been no escape, no Hundred Days, no Waterloo. A. P. Herbert concludes that no single person could be arraigned for the tragedy that ensued. Yet he adds this: ‘The Emperor of Austria, if he had had more humanity; Louis XVIII, if he had had more sense and honesty; Marie-Louise, if she had had more faith and fortitude, could have altered history and let one of the world’s great men die peaceful and happy.’

It was while Napoleon was still on Elba that his brother, Lucien, wrote to Masséna: ‘Voilà donc enfin le drame terminé. Tant de gloire perdue par la plus lâche fin. Bon Dieu! Que de souvenirs. Que de regrets.’ It was when on that other island that Napoleon himself could not resist a resort to the ‘what ifs’ of history. Had he appointed some other general instead of Grouchy. Blücher would not have arrived in time to save Wellington from defeat. Yet we must recall that Napoleon, who was so often to reiterate, ‘Be clear and all the rest will follow,’ broke his own rule in his confusing instruction to Grouchy. On St Helena the Emperor, like Lucien, has his regrets. He should have had Talleyrand and Fouché hanged. What a difference that might have made to the Hundred Days. Then again: ‘To die at Borodino would have been to die like Alexander: to be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death; perhaps Dresden would have been better; but no, better at Waterloo. The love of the people, their regret.’

He regrets, too, ever having left Egypt. He would have preferred to be Emperor of the East than of the West. The desert had always fascinated him and his own name meant lion of the desert. Besides, to have been master of Egypt would have been to be master of India. What rascals the English were! ‘If I had been able to get to India from Egypt with the nucleus of an army, I should have driven them from India.’ Now the English would have to see what would come to them from Russia. ‘The Russians, already in Persia, have not far to go to reach India.’ It was this last point of Napoleon’s which some twenty years later was the cause of concern in the minds of the Englishmen who ruled India, and the cause also of their beginning to play the Great Game.