‘No Fly Zone’ to take Tunis I

High above the island of Malta, Australian Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae of 104 Squadron RAF wrestled with the controls of a twin-engined Wellington bomber. He was taking off to raid Sicily’s capital and major port of Palermo. In gusty winds and low cloud, groaning and creaking in its slow climb, the bomber dropped then surged upwards. Bill recalled that:

Shortly after take-off we ran into turbulent cloud. Our course was over the sea on the east of Sicily, then a turn west through the straits of Messina and along the northern Sicilian coast to Palermo.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bill McRae was working for the Bank of New South Wales in the UK. As there were no Australian forces in Britain, he first joined the Royal Artillery before transferring to the RAF to train as a pilot. On completion of his training he had flown the new Wellington Mk VIII torpedo-bomber to Cairo, and later he was posted to Malta. On that night bombing raid to Palermo, despite the increasingly poor weather, Bill was aware of the pressure to get the job done.

As we approached the north coast of Sicily, the cloud cleared and we were able to identify some islands, and work out the bombing run. We circled off the coast at 10,000 feet until ‘blitz’ time, then hugged the shoreline towards the target, Palermo Harbour.

I began to lose height down to 8,000 feet, and increased speed to 160 knots. With the nose down I had a good view, and saw a ship moored at the wharves. At first there was not a lot of flak. We had no trouble in identifying the target and let the bombs go in one stick.

Then I opened the throttles, and with the engines screaming at maximum revs, did a steep climbing turn, trying to get through the flak bursts, which were now targeting the aircraft. When we were back to 8,000 feet, I eased back on the throttles, and pushed the nose down to level off.

Both engines suddenly cut out. In that instant, it seemed that time stood still. It flashed through my mind that we had been hit. Then, after a couple of seconds, the engines picked up.

As usual, when getting clear of a target, Bill found his mouth had gone completely dry. In another operation for McRae and his crew, to cut off German supplies, the target was the port of Sfax in Tunisia.

We took off in daylight, at 1700 hours, and I was delighted to be at the controls of a Wellington, which I was very familiar with from our Egypt based operations. We flew south low over the sea and then turned 90 degrees right towards our target. It was dark as we neared Sfax, and we were able to pin point our position on some islands to the east of the town. We had climbed to 6,500 feet and Ian had obtained the wind for the bombing run. The weather was clear and the buildings in the port were easy to identify.

As we began our run in exactly on the ‘blitz’ time, another aircraft dropped a string of flares. Ian did a couple of bombing runs, and with no guns firing at us, he thought he was back home on a training exercise. Turning over the sea for another run, with the light from the flares we spotted a ship a few miles off shore. We circled round to line up on it but the flares went out. We had our own flares, but Ernie found there were problems with their ripcords not working, which should pull off a cap, and arm the flare. I even took the laces out of my desert boots, and sent them back to Ernie to see if that would help. He launched three more, but none of them lit up.

That ship had a lucky escape. We returned to Sfax and got rid of the remaining bombs. On the way home the aircraft ran like a bird. It seems she must have known it was her last trip, as she went missing the next night along with its pilot, my good friend Flight Sergeant Iremonger, and crew.


The raid by Bill McRae and 104 Squadron RAF on Palermo was just one of many in early 1943 in the elusive search to gain final victory over Axis forces in North Africa. In late-March and April 1943 the bombing raids on infrastructure, supply, Luftwaffe bases, Tunisian ports such as Sfax, Sousse, Bizerte and the capital Tunis, and those in Sicily and southern Italy, were being intensified.

Over the Tunisian battlefields DAF fighter-bombers were no less active. On 7 April No. 3 Squadron RAAF of 239 Wing RAF received orders to undertake bombing and strafing operations against extensive German troop convoys withdrawing towards Tunis along the road from Gafsa to Mezzouna. The convoys were believed to include 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Flying Officer Tom Russell and Flight Sergeant Rod McKenzie flew two of the squadron’s Kittyhawk fighter-bombers on the second of their four missions that day.

We carried six 40lb anti-personnel bombs. Each had a stick about 18 inches long sticking out from the nose, so that they would explode above the ground. In the bombing run we encountered Breda 20mm anti-aircraft gun fire. We claimed four direct hits on vehicles and three near misses, but it was impossible to be sure whose bombs did the damage.

We then turned and came back on strafing runs against the convoys. On my fourth strafing run, just as I crossed the road, I received some strikes on my starboard wing, and some on the fuselage just behind the cockpit. I looked down and saw that the anti-aircraft fire was coming from a gun emplacement. After gaining some height I dived to attack and after a couple of bursts, the fire from the gun post stopped. My report shows that I claimed a gun post, and my log book that I also claimed a troop-carrier.

Squadron Leader Brian Eaton led this mission of twelve Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, which also included Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes. The squadron’s operations record book shows:

Duty: Bombing M/T [motor transport] on road in Maharis area

Time Up: 1045

Time Down: 1150

Details of Sortie or Flight: A/C [aircraft] headed north, and flew over sea towards Maharis then turned in over land, where 40 M/T were seen on the main coast road, and bombed accurately at P/P. U6513 – 4 direct hits and 3 near misses were scored on the road. Slight Breda fire encountered. No E/A (enemy aircraft) were seen or reported.

One of the other missions that day was led by Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes, and the squadron’s Operations Record Book shows:

Duty: To bomb and strafe M/T [motor transport] on Maharis–Gafsa road

Time Up: 1515

Time Down: 1629

Details of Sortie or Flight: A fair concentration of 40+ M/T was bombed, getting one M/T flamer, then strafed with the resulting total strafing claim, 6 M/T destroyed, 16 damaged and 20+ bodies. Medium heavy accurate anti-aircraft and Breda fire was encountered.

A total of twenty-seven pilots flew on the four missions that day, in forty-five individual sorties. No pilots were lost.

It is thought that Colonel Count von Stauffenberg, who drove up to be with the leading tanks and troops of 10th Panzer Division near Mezzouna, may have been wounded in these strafing attacks. He lost his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand and, after evacuation, spent three months in hospital in Munich. Later, he was one of the leading members of the failed plot of 20 July 1944 to assassinate Hitler, for which he was executed.

From 25 April the squadrons of 239 Wing of the DAF were thrown into a concentrated anti-shipping campaign, to prevent supplies reaching the beleaguered Axis forces in Tunisia. The Kittyhawks of 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF would dive from up to 10,000 feet to release a 500lb bomb, sometimes as low as 1,000 feet depending upon the intensity of anti-aircraft fire. Between mid-April and 9 May 3 and 450 Squadrons made 840 sorties against Axis shipping.

Because of the consequent massive destruction of seaborne supplies, by the end of March air-transport flights by the Luftwaffe had increased to around 150 per day between Sicily and Tunis. With a Junkers Ju52 transport able to carry two and a half tons and the giant, six-engined Messerschmitt Me323 more than ten tons, it was estimated they could provide up to a third of the Axis’ daily supply needs. To choke off the enemy’s last remaining lifeline, Operation FLAX was launched at the beginning of April.

Bombers from the North West Africa Strategic, Tactical and Desert Air Forces intensified their raids on the Axis air bases while fighters were thrown in to intercept transport aircraft on the air routes. On 10 and 11 April Operation FLAX began to pay huge dividends, when P-38 Lightnings of the US Twelfth Air Force claimed no fewer than fifty of the Ju52/3m tri-motor transports. Yet even worse losses for the Luftwaffe were to come.

Over Cape Bon on 16 April Neville Duke was flying with two other Spitfires of 92 Squadron RAF when he sighted a formation of eighteen enemy transports flying near to sea level. They were the three-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM.82s. Duke called his leader and then turned into an attacking dive. Because of his speed Duke only managed a short burst on his first target aircraft. He closed on a second Savoia, slowing his speed so that his cannon shells raked the length of its fuselage.

After pulling his Spitfire narrowly over the top of the Savoia he saw it quickly plunge into the sea. Duke also claimed a second SM.82, to reach eight victories in North Africa. Once again Duke’s flying skills were lethal, and he seemed to be indestructible. While five Savoia SM.82s were shot down in the encounter, luck ran out for Wing Commander ‘Widge’ Gleed of 244 Squadron who was lost.

‘No Fly Zone’ to take Tunis II

Two days later, on Palm Sunday, 18 April, the afternoon did seem to be drifting, like its name indicated into a day of relative peace and quiet. Following intelligence reports of German plans to airlift out some of their key staff of the Heeresgruppe Afrika and non-combat troops, on transports returning to Sicily, the USAAF 57th Fighter Group sent out successive patrols through the day to try and intercept any such flights. Pilots continually returned with nothing to report.

Late in the day, when the last patrol was organized, no contacts had been made with enemy aircraft. This final operation was a combination of 57th Group and 244 Wing RAF, whose Spitfires of 92 Squadron would provide top cover. At 1705 forty-eight Warhawks from all four of 57th Group’s Fighter Squadrons, 64th, 65th, 66th, and 319th, began lifting off, led by Captain James ‘Big Jim’ Curl, the experienced flight leader of 66th.

Once they had met up with the Spitfires, Curl led the formation north-west over Cape Bon. Almost six miles out to sea dusk was gathering when Curl turned them back southwards to return home. He knew the light would not last much longer. Then he saw something, maybe 4,000 feet below them, close to the sea. At first he thought it might be a very large flight of migrating geese. The shapes became clearer under his gaze. He was looking at what he estimated to be about 100 of the Ju52/3m transports. They were all in a camouflage green colour, making them hard to pick out against the sea in the twilight, and were flying north in a giant ‘V-of-Vs’ formation. What came next was at first nicknamed by the American pilots as a ‘goose shoot’.

While the Spitfires took on some escorting Bf109s, the forty-eight Warhawks descended onto the cumbersome Ju52s like falcons swooping on a flock of fat pigeons. In the mayhem Curl claimed two Ju52s and a 109. He described the engagement as chaotic, the sky filled with turning, wheeling aircraft. The Warhawks twisted around in the melee, firing at a mass of enemy aircraft that had no escape. Captain Roy Whittaker, flight leader in 65th Fighter Squadron, shot down two Ju52s and two 109s. His four victories took him up to a total of seven, which made him the highest scoring pilot in the 57th.

Lieutenant Richard O. Hunziker, of the 65th Fighter Squadron, on only his second combat operation, found himself in a baptism of fire. He was astounded at the number of enemy aircraft.

The enemy formation looked like a thousand black beetles crawling over the water. On our first pass I was so excited I started firing early. I could see the shots kicking up the water.

Hunziker went after a Ju52 near the front of the ‘V’ and saw his shots hammer along its tail and fuselage, and simultaneously realized he was being shot at by two Ju52s on either side of him.

It looked as though they were blinking red flashlights at me from the windows – Tommy-guns, probably. The ship I was firing at hit the water with a great sheet of spray and then exploded. As I pulled up I could see figures struggling away from what was left of the aeroplane.

Next Hunziker responded to a radio call for help against some Bf109s 5,000 feet above him. At first he struggled to latch on to the enemy fighters in the whirling dogfights. Taking evasive action he found himself crossing over land. Then, with his first burst of fire at one of the 109s, he blew its nose off, sending it into a steep dive to crash into the ground in flames.

The total losses and damage inflicted by 57th Fighter Group on the Luftwaffe transports and escort fighters were:

Not surprisingly the media reported the one-sided air battle as the ‘Palm Sunday Massacre’.

However, the clashes between the fighters, the Warhawks and the Bf109s, were far from one-sided. The Bf109s were able to operate thousands of feet above the Warhawks, which were ineffective above 15,000 feet. This enabled the 109s to wait for an opportunity to mount a diving attack, ideally out of the sun on the American fighters. To counter the German fighters’ advantage, 57th Group pilots, such as Lieutenant Mike McCarthy of 64th Fighter Squadron, knew that a 109 could not out-turn a properly flown P-40 Warhawk, ‘We had to know where they were every moment, to time the ‘break’ call, and turn hard into them so we could bring our guns to bear and shoot.’

On 22 April DAF Spitfires and Kittyhawks pounced upon some twenty Me323s which were flying a wide V formation. The main cargo of these six-engined giant transports was fuel. They were escorted by ten Bf109s and Macchi C.202s. Lieutenant ‘Robbie’ Robinson of 1 Squadron SAAF downed two 109s, which made him an ace. His fellow pilots sent six more of the 323s, engulfed in petrol-fed flames, plunging into the sea.

Out of a fleet of around 250 of these huge workhorse planes, German records show that between 5 April and 12 May 1943, 166 aircraft and their cargoes of critical supplies were lost. Between 18 and 22 April Allied fighters claimed to have shot-down some 120 of the Luftwaffe’s Ju52 and Me323 transport aircraft. After 22 April the Luftwaffe was forced to fly air transports only at night, and with continuing losses to Allied night-fighters, in ever reducing numbers.


In contrast the Allies had no such supply shortages. On the ground they had more men, more guns, more tanks, and in the sky the decisive advantage – air superiority. Yet the Germans still held the vital passes through the hills surrounding Tunis, inflicting terrible losses as they withstood every Allied attack. In the southern and northern coastal corridors, it seemed impossible to concentrate sufficient forces to break through. The Medjerda Valley was blocked by German defences on Longstop Hill. After the Germans had defeated desperate Allied attacks on 25 December 1942 to retain Longstop, they had dug in extensive and formidable defences on what was for them, their Weinachtshügel (Christmas Hill).

At last, in the closing week of April the long-sought breakthrough came. Eighth Army captured Longstop Hill and other enemy strongpoints in the Medjerda Valley. Here was the opportunity to concentrate forces for a hopefully decisive thrust at Tunis. The German generals knew a major offensive was coming, but not whether it would be Eighth Army from the south-east, First Army in the centre, or the Americans in the north-west.

The final plan was for a spearhead attack in the centre in early May by First Army combined with elements transferred from Eighth Army. Battle-hardened British infantry battalions from the 1st Armoured, 4th and 78th Divisions would first break the German lines. Then 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, after funnelling their way through the Allied-held strategic market town of Medjez el Bab, would smash their way down the Medjerda Valley through Massicault and St Cyprien to Tunis.

However, in the redeployment and concentration lead up, there was great risk. The inherent weakness of the plan was that the tanks and their support vehicles transferred from Eighth Army in the south would have to move in open view through the hills north to Medjez el Bab. Then endless columns of tanks, infantry, and supplies would have to crawl across the one and only bridge over the Medjerda River at Medjez.

Only then could the attack concentrate across a narrow 3,000-yard front on the valley floor to drive towards Tunis. In the days of repositioning and concentration, Allied forces would be glaringly susceptible to German reconnaissance, and consequent ground and air attack. Once again the question was: how could this be done without the Germans knowing, and countering with their own troop redeployments? Despite the huge losses imposed on the Luftwaffe, even late into April, with whatever aircraft they had left, the Germans had the capability to mount a desperate ‘last throw’ raid.


The Axis positions in the hills around Enfidaville were very strong, and from the air it was difficult to identify targets amongst the orchards, fields and plantations within the ridges and hilly terrain. It was very different from the desert and enemy vehicles were avoiding the use of roads during the day. In one operation the anti-tank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron, despite seeing the coloured smoke of Eighth Army positions, were unable to identify Axis forces hiding amongst olive groves. Rather than visible targets, pilots had to be briefed with designated areas on air photographs, which required a new approach and training.

From the sea north of Enfidaville Axis forces had established a defensive line through the hills north-west to Medjez el Bab in the Medjerda Valley, then north again through the mountains to the coast about twenty miles west of the port of Bizerte. The plain in front of Medjez in the Medjerda Valley was clearly the most favourable for an armoured attack to break through to Tunis. Alexander and Montgomery agreed that Eighth Army should restrict its efforts to maintaining pressure on the Enfidaville defences in a holding operation. On 18 April 1st Armoured Division and the King’s Dragoon Guards, and later on 30 April the 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions, 201 Guards Brigade and some artillery, moved across to join First Army near Medjez.

A joint planning conference determined that DAF would return to army/air close support to cover the armoured drive down the Medjerda valley to Tunis. The first moves of forces from Eighth Army began on 30 April. Because of DAF pilots not being experienced with the terrain of the battle area, and communications being channelled through both First Army and Eighth Army HQs, targets for DAF squadrons were drawn up and agreed in advance. A massive letter ‘T’ 150 yards long was marked out in white on the ground, as well as red and blue smoke, to assist the pilots’ navigation.

The air support plan and timelines for an ‘air blitz’ on 6 May were:

0540: Eighty-four medium bombers of the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF) would bomb Axis ground positions directly in front of the Allied troops advance path.

0730–0800: 126 light bombers of DAF would attack their pre-selected targets further back.

0830–0930: Eighty-four medium bombers of TBF would bomb targets a further distance away.

0930–1200: Fighter-bombers of 242 Wing RAF would attack targets of opportunity in the battle area.

1200 onwards: 108 light bombers of DAF would be in readiness to hit enemy reserves, while DAF fighter-bombers would look for Axis force movements in roads and valleys.

Contrary to some expectations, the initial move of the armoured divisions from the south to Medjez, protected by DAF’s dominating air cover, was achieved without the knowledge of, or hindrance from, the enemy. It was a clear demonstration of how air superiority could enable ground forces to reposition without interference.

The armoured thrust for Tunis began with six divisions, and all their supplies, in a slow crawl across that single bridge at Medjez. Air power was tasked with imposing a protective screen, an umbrella over the valley route to make it impenetrable to any enemy reconnaissance or air attack. It seemed to scream out for one Stuka dive-bombing raid to hit that one and only bridge at Medjez, and cut the offensive in two.

On 6 May, day one of the advance through Medjez, Allied aircraft flew some 2,500 sorties, attacking Axis forces in their rear bases, and bombing and strafing their defences in the path of the Allied attack. By 0800 on 6 May the British infantry had cleared a path through German positions and their minefields, taken objectives such as Frendj, and dug in. In an example of the air-ground support, and in co-ordination with an artillery bombardment preceding the lead infantry and tanks, DAF light bombers and Kittyhawks hit Axis positions at Bordj Frendj and St Cyprien, halting a convoy of 100 enemy trucks.

Then the armoured divisions burst through to take Massicault before nightfall. On 7 May the armour rolled into Tunis, taking many Axis forces by surprise. Some enemy troops even emerged from bars and restaurants, with stunned stares, and surrendered without a fight.17 Allied air power had made the skies above Medjez and the Medjerda valley another no-fly zone.

It was the combination of an ‘air blitz’, air support, artillery and massed armour that, on 7 May, enabled the 7th Armoured Division to burst through to Tunis. In the north American forces took the port of Bizerte. Axis air forces were powerless to help their troops on the ground. On 8 May the front lines were advancing so rapidly that First Army only allowed specific requests for air support.

On 8 May the Luftwaffe could fly just sixty sorties, some from only two operational air bases they retained in the Cape Bon peninsula. On 9 May there were even fewer Luftwaffe sorties, and on 10 May there were none. The Germans had fled the Tunisian skies, evacuating what planes, equipment and personnel they could.18

Small boats attempting to evacuate Axis troops by sea were attacked by fighters. A large evacuation exercise on 9 May, when attacked by Tactical Bomber Force light bombers and DAF fighters, quickly surrendered. Large formations of Axis troops were surrendering, but some still moved towards the coast, despite no ships being able to leave. In the mountains north of Enfidaville on 10 May, the Italian First Army, including the German 10th Panzer, 90th Light and 164th Infantry Divisions, was still holding out. The 90th Light Division held the coast road, and was blocking First and Eighth Armies from joining up.

On 12 May a light bomber raid on 90th Light Division was planned. Allied troops were only 1,500 yards from the enemy, so an artillery bombardment of yellow smoke was laid on both north and south of 90th Light’s positions. The bombings were spot on, and very quickly white flags were everywhere. It proved to be the last air attack on ground forces of the North African campaign.

The capture of Tunis brought the Axis surrender and 250,000 prisoners. It was on the same scale as the German defeat at Stalingrad, and hailed as the turning of the tide. And once again air power had been the decisive ‘game-changer’.

The success in North Africa of DAF’s support for the army was based upon gaining air superiority, which in turn rested upon winning the air war first. The integral foundation of winning the air war flowed from the RAF’s strategic decision to purchase fighters rather than dive-bombers. And, of course, the superior performance of the Spitfire in aerial battles of fighter against fighter was a significant factor.

Perhaps most important were the army/air support control systems through the AASC groups, pioneered and improved between army and air force from 1941 to 1943. In the Tunisian campaign, in terrain so different from the desert, ‘flash’ messages from AASC at Army HQ to ALOs at DAF airfields were introduced. This much improved the ALOs’ ability to communicate and explain new developments in the battle area to the pilots. DAF developed a platform in this area on which air superiority could be won and hopefully sustained in the planned Allied invasion of Italy.


One of the first breech-loading weapons that saw military service was the Ferguson rifle. This was designed by Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment (Surrey Regiment). In March 1776 he took out a patent in London for a flintlock screw-plug breech-loading rifle. Ferguson acknowledged his debt to Chaumette but incorporated in his design certain modifications that were intended to overcome the fouling problem that had bedeviled the design up to that point. He introduced a smooth section cut across the threads that faced the chamber when the weapon was loaded and closed, he had vertical grooves cut into the threads, and he had a small reservoir behind the breech plug.

The system operated in a very simple, soldier-proof fashion, in that one turn of the trigger guard opened the mechanism to the full extent. The soldier then put a ball into the hole on top of the rifle and let gravity feed it to the forward part of the chamber. He then poured powder in to charge the weapon and simply rewound the trigger guard to close the weapon. He could then brush any surplus powder left on top of the breech directly into the pan or, if it was windy or there was no surplus, could charge the pan, cock, and fire.
The Ferguson rifle was a remarkable piece of engineering in that the matched screw threads of the male (the rotating plug) and the female (the breech hole) were mated exceptionally well, making the action extremely smooth to operate. The example (by Durs Egg) held in the Weapons Collection of the Small Arms School Corps (at the School of Land Warfare on the outskirts of Warminster, Wiltshire, England) is still operable, and even fireable, and the rotating lever action functions perfectly.

The weapon was a rifleman’s dream at the time, being easy to load and fire and relatively easy to clean and maintain. It also has a pleasing balance. It was a weapon that would have made the British Army, had it adopted it wholesale, the leading force in rifle use and would have served the army far better than the rag-tag of weapons that were used in its stead.


The rifled arm as a military weapon did not truly come into use until the eighteenth century. However, the Landgraf of Hesse had a troop of riflemen in 1631, and ten years later Maximilian of Bavaria had several troops armed with rifled arquebuses. Louis XIII armed his bodyguard with rifles, and later ordered that two men from every light cavalry regiment should be so armed. These men were later formed into a regiment of carbineers, but the first issue carbine did not appear until 1793. The English learned the value of the rifle when it was used against them in the American War of Independence; they hired Continental Jäger to take on the American backwoodsmen, whose accuracy was streets ahead of the musket armed infantry of the line.

There are other examples of small rifle armed units in the eighteenth century, such as the Austrian chasseurs, sharpshooters, and skirmishers who were issued with a rifle in 1759. Austrian border guard sharpshooters were issued with special over-and-under rifles in 1768, with a smoothbore lower barrel and a rifled upper barrel for firing patched ball. The rifle was fired resting on the hook of a long pike, which served as a protection if the riflemen were attacked. The Russians issued a similar weapon between 1776 and 1796.
As far as the British Army was concerned, it received its first firearms in 1471, when the hand cannon was introduced. This was followed by the matchlock, which remained in use (only a few wheel locks were ever issued on the grounds of cost and complication) until the reign of James I (1603–1626), when some flintlocks were issued to the leading regiments. Muskets came into general use in the reign of William III; from these muskets developed the “Brown Bess” weapon, which served the British Army for over 100 years.
Brown Bess fired a ball two sizes smaller than its caliber, to allow for easy loading, but range and accuracy were laughable. Greener commented that “the immense escape of explosive matter past the ball prevented the possibility of any velocity worthy of the name being given to the ball, and the range is the most contemptible of any gun I know: 120 yards is the average distance at which the balls strike the ground when fired horizontally at five feet above the level.”

Rifles were issued to the British Army as early as 1800, but in such small numbers as to be ineffective. The 95th Foot, the Rifle Brigade, was the first regiment to have this new weapon, which it used, it seems, without being officially noticed by the British War Office, until the Brunswick rifle was introduced in 1835.


Rees’s 19 Division, the first to cross, was also the first to achieve its object:

The recapture of Mandalay.

The 4/4 Gurkhas had taken the summit of Mandalay Hill, but in the subterranean chambers bored in the hillside the Japanese defenders survived and came out to snipe at the attackers who were waiting for them to emerge, thumbs ready to press the buttons of vigilant machine guns. It was the engineers who solved the problem, and in a particularly gruesome way. Under the surface of this hill, with its temples dedicated to an ideal of tranquility and non-violence, they burst open the concrete casings with explosive, poured petrol through the gaps and then fired Very lights into them. Anti-tank projectiles were used to blow down steel doors, through which petrol drums were rolled and exploded with grenades. This ghastly inferno was the key to victory. By 12 March, Mandalay Hill was clear. It would have been cleared earlier, the Indian Army Official History states, but ‘Major-General Rees had decided not to bomb the sacred places, the pagodas, though [a] lot of machine-gun fire was poured on the garrison from the air. Rees had served in Mandalay as a young officer, and no doubt knew its importance as a religious centre. But the casuistically distinction between aerial bombardment and explosives igniting petrol drums is not easy to follow. Or perhaps the purpose was aesthetic rather than moral: when Compton Mackenzie toured Mandalay in 1947 in preparation for his Indian Army History, a Gurkha battalion commander explained to him the difficulties of removing the Japanese without destroying the hill, and, he commented, he could wish that ‘the Americans had always been as scrupulous in Italy. ..I could not help contrasting the lot of Mandalay Hill with that of Cassino.

Fort Dufferin was next. 5.5 inch howitzers breached the walls, Thunderbolts bombed the bridge on the south side of the moat, 8/12 Frontier Force Regiment and 1/6 Gurkhas probed the approaches. But the Japanese reacted strongly. Their guns stopped the tanks accompanying the Gurkhas and the attack came to a halt. For several days the British guns continued to pound the walls, but the 50-foot earth ramparts behind them simply absorbed the shells.

Rees then decided to use a tactic remarkably similar to those of the Japanese ninja, the silent, invisible killers of samurai fiction. ‘Exercise Duffy’, as it was called, was meant to achieve a secret entry into the fort, to establish a foothold which could then be exploited. Rees was insistent that it was to be inexpensive in terms of casualties:

“The operation I intend is one of surprise; a silent start and rapid seizing of the bridgehead, NOT the forcing of an entry at all costs by bludgeon methods. If the surprise operation at reasonably light cost is not possible owing to enemy vigilance and preparations, then it will not be pressed home at all costs.”

The operation was entrusted to 1/15 Punjab and 8/12 Frontier Force of 64 Brigade (Flewett). They were to leave behind their steel helmets and change their boots for rubber-soled shoes. They would be brought to the walls in the darkness by engineers manning assault boats, with scaling ladders at the ready, and six man-pack flame-throwers and a machine-gun company would augment their firepower when the attack went in, which was at 10 pm on 17 March. They reached the north-east and north-west corners of the Fort in the darkness, but as they made for the breaches the guns had opened, the Japanese opened fire, sinking one of the boats. In the early hours of the 18th, a platoon which had a foothold on the railway bridge in the north-west corner (the railway ran right through the west side of the Fort) was met by automatic fire and driven back. The flame- throwers never got near enough to be of use. Realizing that any of his men caught on the walls by the morning light would be mercilessly shot down, Rees called off the attack at 3.30 am.

After the failure of ‘Exercise Duffy’, the battering began again. The RAF bombed the north wall, to little purpose, and 6-inch howitzers made seventeen more breaches in the north and east walls, on the theory that the Japanese could only man a small number of breaches and in the end would not be able to defend them all. B25s used skip-bombing with 2000lb bombs, the kind of thing that had been used against the Mohne Dam. The result was a 15-foot hole in the wall, and nothing more.3 Rees described for ” the BBC, again, a typical day’s assault on the Fort in the earlier phase -10 March-:

“Let’s get under cover. The Frontier Force are attacking Mandalay Fort now. You can probably hear the noise of the shelling, mortaring, shooting. I’m fairly close to the walls myself, standing, looking half round a concrete wall. Our chaps are advancing steadily, bunching a little more than I’d like to see them. They’re going very well. The tanks are advancing, firing very hard at the walls. You can see where our medium guns, firing direct, have made breaches in the walls of the fort. You can see the bullets flicking the ground just ahead of me. I think actually they’re our own tank bullets. The tank Besa’s co-axial firing just ahead of the infantry, smothering the operation. I can see one of our infantry running across now, just near the fort wall.

I’ll get my glasses on. I can see the breach, but there’s a big moat, this side. I can now see some of our leading infantry. They’ve just doubled to behind a concrete shelter which the sappers have built before the war, because we’re standing now in the sapper lines just north of Mandalay Fort, actually called Fort Dufferin, with a palace in- side.

Tremendous lot of noise going on. A whole lot of smoke now, near the wall itself, which is a very good thing for our infantry. I’m not quite sure which of the firing is the enemy firing. I can see some of our infantry running round the tanks. Not always a wise thing to stand near a tank. Now I can see more of our infantry going across now, they’re running across near the tanks, they’re in slouch hats, Australian hats, Gurkha hats, very clear to see.

Rees’s instructions from the Corps Commander to avoid unnecessary damage to Mandalay were proving increasingly difficult to observe. Slim was confident the Fort could be bypassed, and considered its capture to be a matter of news value rather than military advantage. Rees did not want a repetition of the stalemate at Myitkyina, and sought desperately for ways of substituting cunning for the bludgeon of artillery and air strikes. ‘Duffy’ had failed, but he remembered that, as the Governor of Burma’s Military

Secretary in pre-war days, he had explored the Fort and discovered a culvert which went beneath the moat. He decided to find it again, and an assault unit was got ready to follow a Burmese who knew the plan of the Mandalay sewers. Sappers found that it was possible to approach the Fort from underneath, as they waded through the sewers, up to their thighs in mud.

It would have been a nauseatingly filthy attack. Happily, it was not necessary. In the early afternoon of 20 March, after yet another air-strike had taken place, four Anglo-Burmans – civilian prisoners held by the Japanese – carrying a white flag and a Union Jack came out of the north gate. Already harassed by the incursion of 17 Division into Central Burma, and not wishing to see the morale of his troops deteriorate, the GOC 15 . Army, Katamura, relaxed his order to the defenders. 51 and 60 Infantry Regiments were ordered to put in a final attack on 19 Indian Division and then withdraw. The order was given on 18 March. 60 Regiment occupied the Government Farms Buildings area (called in the Japanese texts ‘the Agricultural College’) on the south edge of the city. During the night of 19 March, the main body of 15 Division withdrew from Mandalay. They were as well informed as Rees: they came out through a drain under the moat.

Slim was at Monywa when the news came through. Air Vice-Marshal Vincent at once detailed a Sentinel light plane from the L5 detachment of 194 Squadron, RAF, to fly him into Mandalay to take the salute at the victory parade, escorted by two Spitfires.

2 British Division got in on the act; but only just. Brigadier Michael West, of 5 Brigade, had been told to link up with his opposite number from 19 Division in Mandalay, and he drove up on 21 March, taking Colonel White, the Commanding Officer of the Dorsets, with him, a troop of Grant tanks, and some armoured carriers. There was no one at the crossroads rendezvous, except a puzzled military policeman, who sent them on to the Fort. They drove through the shambles of the city -White was oppressed by its air of desolation -past the ruins of King Thibaw’s Palace, and on to the parade ground where they found 19 Division drawn up on the site of Government House, in the presence of Slim, Messervy, and three divisional commanders. ‘It was perhaps most fitting’, White wrote later, ‘that the Dorsets gate-crashed this party to represent the 2nd Division, as we and the troop of the 3rd Dragoon Guards with us were the only troops of the Division to fight in Mandalay itself.’ All the more appropriate since the Dorsets wore the battle honour’ Ava’ for the Burma War of 1824-6, during which they had not entered Mandalay. By another odd coincidence, the fourth Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, who was with a Field Broadcasting Unit, was killed in an ambush between Ava and Fort Dufferin on 23 March.3 The flag was hoisted over Fort Dufferin, as soon as 72 Brigade went in, by Rees himself – according to Slim – or by a gunner of 134 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery -according to the Official History. The ceremony was repeated by Slim at the formal parade to make sure everyone realized that more than one division had collaborated in the capture: ‘The capture of Mandalay had been as much the result of operations at Meiktila and elsewhere as of those around the city itself. Every one of my divisions had played its part; it was an Army victory. I thought it would be good for everyone to have that fact demonstrated.’

From: Allen, Louis. Burma: The Longest War 1941-1945. London: Phoenix Press, 1984. ISBN: 1 84212 260 6. Pb. 686p. Illus. Maps. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pages 420-24.



After about 6 weeks of fighting on the bridgehead the pressure began to ease, as our Division in the South began “breaking out” of its bridgehead and the enemy began to retreat towards Mandalay. First, the shelling eased off somewhat. Then night attacks became less ferocious and we began aggressively patrolling. They had constructed strong bunker positions around our perimeter and the Indian Airforce attacked these with varying success.

From dead Japanese we gathered notebooks and written messages and these were sent to Divisional H.Q where they were interpreted by C.I.S.D.I.C. personnel. These were Japanese Americans who were loaned to us. One such message from a Japanese Sergeant killed on our wire said “tonight we attack the hated British for the last time – tonight we die, this is glorious!”

Then we started to move South. This time, of course, on the East side of the Irrawaddy. The advance was pretty horrible in Teak forest where the undergrowth had been burnt and we trudged through deep ash. We moved in two echelons, each with its artillery so that one could support the other.

Madaya was the next big town before Mandalay. The Japs had fought here too. There were mines and booby-traps everywhere for the unwary. We were constantly involved with Japanese stragglers and worse, enemy suicide patrols. Bill Minto, our quartermaster, was involved in quite a battle when ambushed bringing forward our rations with Peter Sibree. He was awarded a Military Cross for his action. Bill Minto never failed us, feeding the battalion under the most trying circumstances.

Thoughts were always for a rest but not for us. Transport became available and we were carried towards Mandalay. Mandalay Hill eventually hove into sight; a very beautiful one but to any attacking infantry soldier, a daunting one.

The hill, covered with temples and shrines dominated, everything. It was obvious when we de-bussed and marched towards the battle area that the Division was not having it all its own way.

Several of our tanks had been knocked out and were burning before the hill. As we arrived the Baluch Regiment were retreating, having been given a bloody-nose. The Recce. Regt. named “Stiletto Force” was stuck around the lower part of the Hill and were pinned down.

We, the 4/4, spread out in what is called “extended order” over a large area and watched feeling vaguely sorry for the troops at the “sharp end”. It was always thus. We were actually lying in an area of cultivated land on which delicious tomatoes were growing. They were the Italian type of tomato and I had never seen them before. We gorged ourselves, as we watched the battle ahead.

The Jap occasionally sent over the odd shell but in the main he concentrated on those troops actually attacking.

A hare, an animal, which I don’t think I ever saw before in Burma, was suddenly put up and began to dash through our position towards the enemy. Gurkhas are like children when something like this happens, particularly when “Shikar” (game) is concerned. There were shouts of excitement and laughter as attempts to catch the poor thing were made. Eventually, it was caught and tossed into the air amid great shouts of “shabash”! All this time the battle raged.

Orders were then given for the Royal Berkshires, with us in support, to make a frontal attack supported by tanks. The General intervened and Col. MacKay our C.O. asked for us to lead and tackle the Hill with a night attack. Hamish, having served in Burma, knew the area well and his plea was accepted.

Our plan was to march at night by compass bearing to the army rifle-butts that lay to the East of the Hill. From here, we would make our assault at night. As the Intelligence Officer in charge of navigation, it was my responsibility to get us there. The intelligence section were well trained at this, but it was always dodgy because they had to be near the leading scouts to guide them.

The battalion started off with our mules but we ran into trouble because we were unable to cross a number of chaungs (canals) quietly enough. At one point we could hear the enemy shouting on the Hill and they were too close for comfort.

It was decided to send the mules back and go onto a ‘man-pack’ basis. This is not pleasant as it means that very heavy weights; ammunition, mortars, bombs etc. had to be carried by men, who would shortly be required to climb a very steep hill, to attack the Japanese who were waiting for them. B Company were sent back with the mules.

Fortunately for me, A Company arrived exactly on target, formed a strong base and sent out patrols.

It was D Company’s turn to lead and C prepared to follow in support. The attack started at 3.00 am and D started off. Fighting started almost immediately and A Company’s base was attacked at the same time. The Japs were driven off with heavy losses.

As dawn broke there was a shout of “Ayo Gurkhali” as they stormed the summit and David Hine, the gunner O.P. with them, directed excellent and accurate fire on the Defenders. It was a tremendous battle; Khukris bayonets and hand-grenades before the hill was ours.

As usual they immediately counter-attacked and sustained losses.

Some Japs took up positions in the many temples and barrels of petrol were rolled down slopes and fired with phosphorus grenades. The Royal Berkshires took over the mopping-up of those who survived our assault.

We carried on fighting around the hill and actually suffered greater casualties than we did in taking the hill.

The moated Fort Dufferin lay at the foot of the hill and contained a beautiful palace. I am glad that I saw this building before it was destroyed. Whether the Japs, the RAF or our gunners did the damage is not known but it was soon reduced to rubble.

The capture of the Hill was a battle honour for the Fourth Gurkha Rifles and together with the fact that we were the first to cross the Irrawaddy caused the General to describe us as a “magnificent battalion” in the despatches. There is a memorial on the Hill to the 4/4 G.R casualties (see photograph).

Lt. Col John Masters, a famous author after the war, a 4th Gurkha in it; was the G.I. of 19 Indian Division. The G.I. is the principal staff officer and is the General’s chief planner and advisor.

In his book “The Road Past Mandalay” he tells the story of the battle for the hill as follows:-

“The lion-like bulk of Mandalay Hill climbed over the southern horizon. Rising nearly a thousand feet above the plain, the spine of it is covered from end to end by temples, linked by a covered stairway. Under the temples lie cellars and dwellings and storage rooms. The Japanese held the whole complex, in strength, and from it their artillery observers directed a heavy gunfire on to our leading troops.

Pete and I spent an unpleasant hour under its western slope on two successive days. Every movement, particularly of vehicles, drew prompt and accurate fire from 105s and 155s. On our first visit a shell made a direct hit on a jeep twenty feet from us. After picking ourselves up we ran forward to help the man lying there beside the burning wreckage, but he was dead, incredibly shrunk so that I thought it must be a child; but it was a mangled mess of adult humanity, an Indian sepoy, red flesh thrown anyhow into torn green trousers. A dozen more shells were on their way and we left him.

We could make no further advance until we took Mandalay Hill. The general allotted the task to 98 Brigade, and they to the Royal Berkshires. But the 4th Battalion of the 4th Gurkhas was in that brigade, and its commanding officer came forward to protest. Hamish Mackay, very quiet and shy-seeming, in reality full of fire and fey humour, pointed out that he knew the area well having been seconded to the Burma Rifles from 1937 to 1942. Hamish thought he could take the hill with his battalion, that night, using little known paths of approach. The orders were changed, and Hamish was given his head.

On the night of March 10-11 (again, our Regimental Day), the battalion went up to the assault, led by Subadar Damarsing and Jemadar Aiman. All night they fought up the steep, up the long stairway and along the flanks of the ridge. At dawn they took the summit. An hour later Pete and I stood on the highest point of Mandalay Hill, looking down into the city and into the palace of the ancient kings of Burma. Once they had been spacious beautiful, with avenues of shady trees; now three and a half years of war had battered them, and columns of dust rose in the streets where our shells fell, and half the houses had no roofs, and to the south acres of corrugated iron, which had once been a warehouse or factory, glittered dully in the early sun. The Irrawaddy ran wide and yellow on our right and immediately below us the old splendour still lived in the brilliant white of the pagodas climbing down the ridge towards the moat and the wall of the fortress.

We stood, so to speak on top of Mandalay. We also stood, at much closer range, on top of a good many Japanese. The temples, cellars, and mysterious chambers covering Mandalay Hill were made of reinforced concrete. The 4th Gurkhas had taken the summit, and no Japanese was alive and visible; but scores of them were alive, invisible, in the subterranean chambers.

A gruesome campaign of extermination began, among the temples of one of the most sacred places of the Buddhist faith. Sikh machine-gunners sat all day on the flat roofs. Their guns aimed down the hill on either side of the covered stairway. Every now and then a Japanese put out his head and fired a quick upward shot. A Sikh got a bullet through the brain five yards from me. Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through the concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Verey light down the holes. Sullen explosions rocked the buildings and Japanese rolled out into the open, on fire, but firing. Our machine-gunners pressed their thumb-pieces. The Japanese fell, burning. We blew in huge steel doors with PIATs (bazookas), rolled in kegs of petrol or oil, and set them on fire with tracer bullets. Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and licking sheets of fire from the flame-throwers. Grimly, under the stench of burning bodies and the growing pall of decay, past the equally repellent Buddhist statuary (showing famine, pestilence, men eaten alive by vultures) the battalions fought their way down the ridge to the southern foot – to face the moat and thirty-foot-thick walls of Fort Dufferin.

Pete brought up the medium artillery, and the 5.5s hurled their 60-pound shells at the wall, over open sights from four hundred yards. The shells made no impression. He called in the air force. P-47s tried skip bombing, B-24s dropped some 1,000 pound bombs, some inside the fort and some outside – among our troops.

We found a municipal employee who knew where the sewers led out of the fort, and prepared an assault party. All the while the infantry fought in the brick and stone rubble of the burning city, among corpses of children and dead dogs and the universal sheets of corrugated-iron. The night the sewer assault was to go in the Japanese withdrew from Mandalay. Next morning coal-black Madrassi sappers blew in the main gate, and Pete walked in, surrounded by a cheering, yelling mob of a dozen races. Just as Pete – but not his superiors – had planned, the ‘Dagger’ Division had taken Mandalay. At the same time Jumbo Morris took Maymyo. Jumbo Morris was commander of 62 Brigade.”

Subadar Damarsing, Jemadar Aiman and Capt. David Hine were all awarded military crosses. Col. Hamish Mackay was given another bar to his D.S.O.

As Mandalay fell to 19 Indian Division, 2 British Division and 5 Indian Division crossed the Irrawaddy to the South of the town and so began the destruction of the Japanese in Burma.


(1816-1912), count (1878), political and military figure, military historian, and Imperial Russian war minister (1861-1881).

General Adjutant Milyutin was born in Moscow, the scion of a Tver noble family. He completed the gymnasium at Moscow University (1832) and the Nicholas Military Academy (1836). After a brief period with the Guards’ General Staff, he served from 1839 to 1840 with the Separate Caucasian Corps. While convalescing from wounds during 1840 and 1841, he traveled widely in Europe, where he decided to devote himself to the cause of reform in Russia. As a professor at the Nicholas Academy from 1845 to 1853, he founded the discipline of military statistics and provided the impulse for compilation of a military-statistical description of the Russian Empire. In 1852 and 1853 he published a prize-winning five-volume history of Generalissimo A. V. Suvorov’s Italian campaign of 1799. As a member of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society he associated with a number of future reformers, including Konstantin Kavelin, P. P. Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, Nikolai Bunge, and his brother, Nikolai Milyutin. An opponent of serfdom, the future war minister freed his own peasants and subsequently (in 1856) wrote a tract advocating the liberation of Russian serfs.

As a major general within the War Ministry during the Crimean War, Milyutin concluded that the army required fundamental reform. While serving from 1856 to 1860 as chief of staff for Prince Alexander Baryatinsky’s Caucasian Corps, Milyutin directly influenced the successful outcome of the campaign against the rebellious mountaineer Shamil. After becoming War Minister in November 1861, Milyutin almost immediately submitted to Tsar Alexander II a report that outlined a program for comprehensive military reform. The objectives were to modernize the army, to restructure military administration at the center, and to create a territorial system of military districts for peacetime maintenance of the army. Although efficiency remained an important goal, Milyutin’s reform legislation also revealed a humanitarian side: abolition of corporal punishment, creation of a modern military justice system, and a complete restructuring of the military-educational system to emphasize spiritual values and the welfare of the rank-andfile. These and related changes consumed the war minister’s energies until capstone legislation of 1874 enacted a universal military service obligation. Often in the face of powerful opposition, Milyutin had orchestrated a grand achievement, although the acknowledged price included increased bureaucratic formalism and rigidity within the War Ministry.

Within a larger imperial context, Milyutin consistently advanced Russian geopolitical interests and objectives. He favored suppression of the Polish uprising of 1863-1864, supported the conquest of Central Asia, and advocated an activist policy in the Balkans. On the eve of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, he endorsed a military resolution of differences with Turkey, holding that the Eastern Question was primarily Russia’s to decide. During the war itself, he accompanied the field army into the Balkans, where he counseled persistence at Plevna, asserting that successful resolution of the battle-turned-siege would serve as prelude to further victories. After the war, Milyutin became the de facto arbiter of Russian foreign policy.

Within Russia, after the Berlin Congress of 1878, Milyutin pressed for continuation of Alexander II’s Great Reforms, supporting the liberal program of the Interior Ministry’s Mikhail Loris- Melikov. However, after the accession of Alexander III and publication in May 1881 of an imperial manifesto reasserting autocratic authority, Milyutin retired to his Crimean estate. He continued to maintain an insightful diary and commenced his memoirs. The latter grew to embrace almost the entire history of nineteenth-century Russia, with important perspectives on the Russian Empire and contiguous lands and on its relations with Europe, Asia, and America.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Brooks, Edwin Willis. (1970). “D. A. Miliutin: Life and Activity to 1856.” Ph. D. diss., Stanford University, Stanford, CA. Menning, Bruce W. (1992, 2000). Bayonets before Bullets: The Imperial Russian Army, 1861-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Miller, Forrestt A. (1968). Dmitrii Miliutin and the Reform Era in Russia. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Admiral Lazarev class monitor

The Admiral Lazarev class was a pair of monitors built for the Imperial Russian Navy in the late 1860s (designated frigates by the navy). Four ships were ordered, but the last two were significantly modified and became the separate Admiral Spiridov class of ships. Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Greig became the first turreted warships in the Russian Navy.

The ships were similar in size to earlier Russian ironclads. They had a shorter beam due to the turret, rather than broadside weaponry. A longer draft made the ships more stable at the sea. Due to the heavy weight, the masts of the ships were significantly lighter and smaller than initially planned, but the more powerful 2,000 horsepower (1,500 kW) engine made the ships somewhat faster than earlier monitors, with the top speed of 11 knots (20 km/h).

The ships were protected by a 4.5 in (114 mm) armor belt and turrets by 6.5 in (165 mm) armor. The main armament was three gun turrets, each with two 9-inch (229 mm) guns. Later, all four ships had turrets refitted with 11-inch (279 mm) guns, one gun per turret. With the new guns, the Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Spiridov classes became among the most powerful ships of the Baltic Fleet.


British Naval Conflict 1940 I

HMS Hood

Germany had conquered much of Europe and even seized British territory, but the might of the Royal Navy, still the largest maritime force in the world, continued to represent a formidable obstacle to the Reich’s ambitions. Whereas the British army was much weaker and smaller than the German army, the Royal Navy was far stronger than the Kriegsmarine. As Grand Admiral Raeder wrote later of the first serious discussions within the Reich’s High Command about Operation Sea Lion,

A German invasion of England would be a matter of life and death for the British, and they would unhesitatingly commit their naval forces to the last ship and last man, into an all-out fight for survival … We in the Navy doubted that we could establish conditions that would guarantee even reasonably safe protection for a crossing of the Channel … It could not be expected that our Air Force could make up for our lack of naval supremacy.

The man charged with upholding that supremacy was the uncharismatic Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord since 1939. A stolid, uninspiring figure, dogged by the poor health that would kill him within three years, he was also dedicated and reliable, having never failed in any of the commands he had held since becoming a captain in 1914.

He had a colossal force under his command. Whereas Britain had thirteen battleships and battlecruisers in mid-June 1940, Germany had just two, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, both of which had suffered serious damage in Norwegian waters and were undergoing major repairs. The chasm was even wider when it came to destroyers. After the heavy losses of Norway, the Kreisgmarine had just 10 in operation, whereas the Royal Navy could deploy 169. Nor was it just a matter of quantity. Although many of Britain’s capital ships were of First World War vintage, they had undergone substantial reconstruction in the 1930s and could be highly effective in combat. Contrary to the fashionable idea that all Britain’s armed forces were run down by penny-pinching, appeasing, insular governments during the 1920s and 1930s, Britain’s navy had been significantly modernised. In the interwar years, it was building more ships than any other navy: during the period in which the Royal Navy constructed five aircraft carriers, the Germans built none.

Moreover, Britain possessed a tremendously powerful force in its own waters to tackle any invasion threat. At the start of July 1940, the operational Home Fleet comprised five battleships, three battlecruisers, eleven cruisers and fifty-three destroyers, with a further twenty-three destroyers based in Liverpool, which were designated for convoy duties but could be available in an emergency.

Even this is to underplay the Navy’s strength. The total potential destroyer force in home waters was actually 115 ships, including vessels under repair and refitting, many of which had sustained damage at Dunkirk but would soon be operational again, as well as those from the Royal Canadian Navy. In support of this were a huge number of other vessels, including 700 armed coastal fast patrol craft, of which between 200 and 300 were always at sea between the Wash and Newhaven, seen as the most likely points for a German landing. There were also 25 fast minesweepers, 20 corvettes (a light, manoeuvrable warship), and 140 minesweeper trawlers operating between Sunderland and Portsmouth. For wider reconnaissance, the Admiralty could deploy 35 submarines, as well as the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm.

With the invasion threat deepening, the Admiralty expanded the Royal Navy Patrol Service, which was largely staffed by former merchant seamen and trawlermen operating auxiliary vessels for minesweeping, reconnaissance and escort duties. With its headquarters in Lowestoft on Suffolk coast, the RNPS had around 800 adapted trawlers, drifters and other, smaller boats, as well as 100 harbour defence patrol craft that also operated on inland waterways.

Further maritime defences came from the erection of mine barrages. One, stretching along parts of the east coast, was laid 30 to 70 miles offshore and was made up of 35,000 mines. Another barrage of 10,000 mines was laid just outside Dover. By the end of June, the Admiralty had also installed 150 6-inch gun batteries along the eastern and southern coasts, manned by 8,000 naval ratings and Royal Marines.

The officer in charge of the Home Fleet was Sir Charles Forbes, appointed in 1938. Technically able, outspoken and forthright in his views, he was even willing to stand up to Churchill on occasions. In the summer of 1940 a serious controversy arose when his ideas on the disposition of the Home Fleet clashed with those of other senior members of the Admiralty. At the crux of this row was Forbes’s reluctance to place a sufficiently strong naval force in the most vulnerable areas along the southern and eastern coasts.

Pound and other senior admirals felt that the Home Fleet had to be ready to strike quickly if the Germans came across the Channel or the North Sea. This meant, in particular, building up strong naval protection in the Nore Command, which covered the English coast from the Humber to Dover. At this point of maximum danger, the Admiralty wanted a minimum of thirty-six destroyers, which were to be divided into four flotillas based at the Humber, at Harwich in Essex, and at Sheerness and Dover in Kent. The Nore Command, which was led by the splendidly named Sir Reginald Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, was also to be supported by five cruisers and other vessels taken from escort duties, including sloops, corvettes and anti-aircraft cruisers.

But Forbes was less worried about the enemy threat in the south and east; his priorities were the protection of the western approaches to the Atlantic and keeping his fleet, especially the big capital ships, intact. Indeed, it was over the issue of the battleships and battlecruisers that he clashed most fiercely with the rest of the Admiralty.

An original thinker as well as an outspoken one, he fought hard to keep his heavy ships in the far north at Scapa Flow, rather than send them south to Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, as was proposed, closer to areas where, according to the naval staff, the enemy might be expected to land or attack. It was Forbes’s profound conviction, however, that the Germans had no intention of mounting an invasion at all, and therefore it would be foolish to put men and resources at risk against a non-existent threat. The naval staff stubbornly believed that if the Kriegsmarine commanders knew that the Royal Navy had ‘no heavy ship south of Scapa Flow’, they would attack and ‘retire long before any equal British force could arrive to bring them to action’. Summing up the Admiralty’s view, Captain Cecil Harcourt, the Royal Navy’s Director of Operations, urged strongly that the main capital ships be based at Rosyth.

Ever more convinced of his position, Forbes sent a long, three-page memorandum to the Admiralty on 4 June, seeking to justify his deep scepticism about the possibility of a German invasion of England while praising the skill with which the Royal Navy had just evacuated 338,000 men from Dunkirk despite the Luftwaffe’s supposed dominance in the air. A far greater, more immediate priority than anti-invasion measures, he concluded, was the protection of supply lines and communications across the Atlantic. ‘The enemy has realized that he can only defeat this country if he can sever lines of communication.’ With the benefit of hindsight, several historians have held Forbes’s document to be a magisterial, cool-headed refutation of the invasion fever that gripped the British authorities in the summer of 1940, though at the time most of his colleagues found him stubbornly complacent.

The dispute raged on, while Forbes continued to show his independence of mind, writing to Pound with a tone of condescension on 15 June: ‘I should have thought that the German Army was fully employed in France, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium and Denmark and would therefore not be likely to stage an overseas invasion on the East coast during the next few weeks,’ and again insisting that most heavy ships remained in the north.

By now the naval situation was rapidly changing because of the collapse of France, which made the southern and eastern coasts even more vulnerable and also raised the possibility that the huge French fleet could fall into the hands of the Germans. Just as disturbingly, Italy was now an enemy in the Mediterranean, while there was a danger that Spain could also opportunistically join the Axis powers, thereby threatening Gibraltar. For the Admiralty as a whole, the developments in Europe made Forbes’s strategy for the Home Fleet all the more problematic, provoking further intense debate.

The deepening sense of urgency within the Admiralty about a potential invasion was reflected at a high-level meeting, chaired by Pound, on 30 June, where it was agreed that maritime reconnaissance had to be improved, patrols around Dover reinforced, better liaison with Ironside’s Home Forces established, and the destroyer force in the south and east increased. ‘Invasion might be attempted during the next fortnight,’ warned Pound, ordering his staff to ‘sift every commitment or application for destroyers most rigorously, as in his opinion as many destroyers as possible should be made available for anti-invasion duties.’ But Forbes’s stubbornness also bore fruit. Pound, who had never been as unequivocal about Rosyth as many of his subordinates, now signalled his willingness to reach a compromise, based on the intelligence that on 20 June the Gneisenau, the Kriegsmarine’s only operational battlecruiser, had been badly damaged by a torpedo attack and was undergoing repairs in Norway. When asked why the main Home Fleet had still not moved to Rosyth, Pound replied that ‘this seemed unnecessary so long as the only effective enemy battlecruiser was believed to be at Trondheim,’ an argument that ran counter to everything that most of his colleagues had been saying to Forbes for weeks. Pound had to admit to the Chiefs of Staff on 2 July that the measures ‘are not entirely in accordance with those recommended as necessary to meet the invasion’: in particular, ‘no battleships are at Rosyth’ and ‘the destroyer force available in the Nore Command is only little more than half the considered necessary number.’ Churchill himself said that he was ‘a little anxious’ at the decision to keep the capital ships at Scapa and ‘would prefer to see’ two of the vessels at Rosyth. Looking back on the mood in military circles during that period, the historian Basil Liddell Hart remembered that ‘the Navy’s dispositions did not promise a very prompt intervention in the Channel, for the admirals were almost as anxious about the menace of the German Air Force as the German admirals were about the interference of the Royal Navy.’

Forbes seems to have been completely sure in his convictions, shocking a naval strategy conference in the early summer of 1940 by stating that his heavy ships would not operate south of the Wash ‘under any circumstances’. Rather than exploding at this comment, Churchill, who was chairing the meeting, said that ‘he never took much notice of what the Royal Navy said they would or would not do in advance of an event.’ He continued in this mildly jocular tone: ‘Since they invariably undertook the impossible whenever the situation demanded, he had not a shadow of doubt … we would see every available battleship storming through the Straits of Dover.’

But Forbes did not get his way over the cruiser and destroyer forces. Throughout the summer, he kept asking for the coastal defences to be reduced so as to provide more support in the western approaches and on the Atlantic routes, a request he made with ever greater urgency as British shipping losses mounted. In June, Britain lost the equivalent of 284,000 gross tons of shipping to German U-boats, followed by 196,000 tons in July and a gross tonnage of 295,000 in August. Pound and the other admirals stuck to their strategy of maintaining as strong an anti-invasion force as possible in the south. From late July onwards, the Nore Command could deploy at least four cruisers, thirty-two destroyers and seven sloops, the bulk of them being out on patrol every night. In the same period, twelve destroyers and a cruiser were stationed at Portsmouth, as well as at least forty vessels, including motor torpedo boats, at Dover, while cruisers continuously patrolled the east coast from the Forth to the Thames. Churchill backed up this policy, stating that ‘the losses in the western approaches must be accepted’, although this made him press Roosevelt all the more strongly for a large batch of US destroyers.

His case at the White House was helped by one of his most ruthless, controversial decisions of the entire war, reverberating throughout the world and impressing upon both Hitler and Roosevelt the seriousness of Britain’s determination to continue the struggle. It was driven by fears that, following France’s conquest, the French fleet would be taken over by the Axis nations. Such a step would not only transform the balance of maritime power in Europe but would also increase the potential risk of invasion, since the Kriegsmarine would be massively reinforced by the arrival of Gallic ships.

In June 1940, France still had a potent navy. Led by Admiral Jean François Darlan, it consisted of seven battleships, twenty cruisers, two aircraft carriers and several dozen destroyers. Its flagship, the Richelieu, had been launched in 1939 and was one of the biggest, most modern vessels on the seas, weighing 35,000 tons and carrying seventeen 6- and 15-inch guns. For Pound, it was ‘the most powerful battleship in the world today’.

As early as 7 June, when it was obvious that the French were heading for defeat on land, the Admiralty had discussed the problem. According to the official note of the meeting, Pound took the view that, in the eventuality of an armistice, ‘the only practical way to deal with the matter was to sink the French fleet’, since he was doubtful that the French government would ‘turn it over to us’. The one other possibility that would help Britain would be a decision by the French to scuttle their own ships.

Through diplomatic channels, the US warned France that if its fleet were to surrender to Germany, the government would lose American goodwill. During the days leading up to the official armistice, Darlan tried to reassure America and Britain that there was no risk of any German seizure of the fleet, declaring, ‘I will never surrender it – I do not yet know where it will go or whether it will be destroyed, but the Germans will never have it.’ Attempts were made to persuade the French government to send the fleet to British ports, without success, although the French promised that ‘the ships would fight the Germans and if necessary scuttle’ rather than surrender.

In fact, Hitler, never very interested in naval affairs, viewed the French navy as something of an irrelevance. The agreed peace terms reflected this attitude. The French fleet, with the exception of the vessels based in the colonies, was to be assembled in France’s home ports, where the ships would be demobilised or disarmed. Furthermore, under Article 8 of the armistice, the Germans ‘solemnly and expressly’ declared that ‘they have no intention of making any claim to the French war fleet at the time of the conclusion of the peace.’

Soon after the armistice’s signing, Churchill told the Commons that Article 8 ‘makes it clear that French warships pass into German and Italian control while fully armed. What was the value of the solemn declaration that they would not be used for their own war purposes? Ask half a dozen countries what is the value of such a solemn assurance.’ Nor did the government have much trust in Admiral Darlan, whose anti-British credentials were later displayed when he became a minister in Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime.

As concern intensified about French and German intentions, Churchill was inundated with advice about the French fleet. The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw urged him to ‘to declare war on France and capture her fleet (which would gladly strike its colours to us) before AH [Adolf Hitler] draws breath’. The unorthodox idea was even put forward of purchasing the fleet, but it was recognised that the money would have gone straight to the Reich.

Rigorous action was required, the Admiralty decided, a view that was increasingly shared by Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff, who said that if the French ships reached their home ports, Britain should be ‘under no illusions as to the certainty that, sooner or later, the Germans will employ them against us’. Uncertainty about the French fleet must end so that the Royal Navy could concentrate on measures ‘to meet the imminent threat of invasion’.

Importantly, the White House also informed Britain that America would not object to any steps that kept the French fleet out of German control. Following an interview with President Roosevelt, the British ambassador Lord Lothian reported to London, ‘I asked him whether this meant that American opinion would support forcible seizure of these ships. He said certainly. They would expect them to be seized rather than they should fall into German hands.’

At this stage, the bulk of the French fleet was widely spread across Europe and North Africa, with by far the most important element being the main striking force or Force de Raid, which was gathered in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, near Oran. Commanded by Admiral Marcel Gensoul, a figure described by one senior British officer as a ‘somewhat pig-headed, negative touchy French admiral who, like many small men in big positions, was rather full of his own importance’, the Force de Raid was made up of six destroyers, an aircraft carrier and no fewer than four capital ships, including the modern battlecruisers the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg. It was the sheer weight of this naval power that convinced the British that they had to act.

British Naval Conflict 1940 II

French shells fall between HMS Hood and HMS Valiant during the attack on Mers-el-Kébir

Negotiations were opened with Gensoul about the possibility of handing over his Oran fleet to the Royal Navy, but came to nothing. Churchill’s government therefore conceived a plan called Operation Catapult, in which the Royal Navy would use its influence to neutralise, by physical coercion if necessary, the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. The War Cabinet agreed that, at the same time as Catapult was implemented, the French vessels in Britain and Alexandria would either be seized or disarmed.

By late June, the Admiralty had already assembled a powerful formation, commanded by Vice-Admiral James Somerville and known as Force H, to strengthen the Royal Navy in the western Mediterranean and reinforce the defence of Gibraltar,

When they met at the office of A.V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty, before Force H sailed, Pound told Somerville that he would have to ‘secure the transfer, surrender or destruction of the French warships at Oran so as to ensure those ships did not fall into German and Italian hands’.22 Alexander later recalled, ‘Somerville understood clearly the position and what had to be done. He said to me in my room at the Admiralty, “I quite recognise that, however repugnant this job may seem, the Government know it has got to be done, in the interests of the safety of the nation.” ’

That night, Pound and Churchill met in Downing Street to agree the ultimatum that Somerville would deliver to Admiral Gensoul once the Royal Navy arrived at Mers-el-Kebir. Four choices were to be given to the French. First, they could ‘sail with Britain and continue the fight for victory against the Germans and Italians’. Second, they could ‘sail with reduced crews to a British port’, after which their men would be quickly repatriated. In both these cases, the British promised to ‘restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war, or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile’. The third option was ‘to sail with us with reduced crews to some port in the West Indies – Martinique for instance – where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated’. But the fourth option was far more belligerent. If all these ‘fair offers’ were refused, then the French would be instructed to sink their ships ‘within six hours’. Failing that, Somerville was to warn that he had ‘the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands’. These instructions were sent by Pound to Somerville the next day, 2 July.

The die had almost been cast, but for Churchill, a lifelong Francophile, the episode was a deeply painful one. That afternoon, he was seen in Downing Street by Beaverbrook, who told the prime minister that boldness was the only course. Beaverbrook later recalled their tense discussion in the garden of Downing Street. ‘There was a high wind blowing … Churchill declared that there was no other decision possible. Then he wept.’

The climax of Operation Catapult was now approaching, as Force H headed towards the Algerian coast. Further east in Alexandria, Admiral Cunningham, thanks to his easy authority and his close relationship with the French admiral René-Emile Godefroy, was able to negotiate an amicable settlement, whereby the French ships were to be disarmed by having the firing mechanisms removed from their guns and their tanks emptied of fuel. In Britain the takeover of the French ships caused more friction. Most of the Frenchmen surrendered their vessels without any resistance, but the story was very different aboard the submarine the Surcouf, where some of the crew refused to obey the Royal Navy’s instructions and in the ensuing skirmish four men died.

But the clash aboard the Surcouf paled beside the slaughter that was to unfold at Mers-el-Kebir on Wednesday 3 July. The advance part of Force H reached its destination just after dawn, and at seven in the morning Captain Cedric Holland, in the destroyer Foxhound, asked for permission to enter the harbour to negotiate with the prickly, status-conscious Admiral Gensoul. Holland handed over the letter with the British government’s four alternatives. Somerville, whose entire Force H had arrived at Mers-el-Kebir by noon, sent a signal to Gensoul, warning that no French ship would be allowed to leave the harbour unless the British terms were accepted. To show that this was not a bluff, he ordered a series of magnetic mines to be laid across the harbour entrance by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish biplanes from the Ark Royal.

Conflict seemed inevitable. In the early afternoon, Somerville sent a further signal, warning the French that unless the conditions were accepted by 3.30 p.m., he would open fire. The French employed delaying tactics, hoping to spin out discussions until darkness descended, then try to reach Toulon. Meanwhile their ships were raising steam ready to go to sea and all their direction-range finders were trained on Force H. Tensions continued to escalate.

After a further wait, Somerville sent a warning to Gensoul that unless the British terms were accepted by 5.30 p.m., he would open fire. The talks came to an end, with Gensoul confirming his rejection of the ultimatum and Holland returning to his destroyer.

At 5.54 p.m., as soon as the Foxhound was clear of the harbour, the three battleships of Force H opened up from a range of 17,500 yards, launching thirty-six salvoes of 15-inch shells at Gensoul’s fleet, a total of 144 shells, each of them weighing three-quarters of a ton. It was one of the most concentrated, deafening broadsides in British naval history. The thunderous roar from the guns filled the bay, huge columns of black smoke from the explosions soon rising from the harbour, with the French guns, on board the ships or from shore batteries, making their own contribution.

As Ronald Phillips, a sub-lieutenant on the HMS Hood, recalled, ‘The destruction wrought in that short period was terrible but necessary and inevitable.’ Apart from the sinking of the Bretagne, the British shells severely damaged Dunkerque, the Provence and a destroyer. Amidst the carnage, 1,297 French seamen were killed, a death toll that caused deep regret to some of the English sailors. Others felt differently, such as Morgan Morgan-Giles, an officer aboard the destroyer the Arethusa. ‘It has always been represented afterwards as a most harrowing thing, that we had tears in our eyes at having to attack our former allies. But the fact is that it was not like that. It was a purely professional thing we had to do.’

But Force H did not completely succeed in its objective. Despite the bombardment, the mine barrier and torpedo attacks from the Swordfish aircraft of the Ark Royal, the Strasbourg, two destroyers and three frigates managed to reach Toulon, having used the cover of heavy smoke to break out of the harbour.

The importance of Oran was not so much in its practical outcome for the Royal Navy but as a symbol of Britain’s ruthless determination to continue with the war. Perhaps even more than Dunkirk, the attack on the French fleet dramatically improved Britain’s prospects of survival. Public morale was lifted, Churchill’s position was strengthened and the American attitude to Britain’s war effort was transformed. The Ministry of Information recorded overwhelming public support for the Royal Navy’s action, finding on 4 July that ‘this strong action gives welcome evidence of Government vigour and decision’. This mood was also reflected in the Commons, where the attitude of many Tory backbenchers had remained equivocal towards Churchill because of lingering affection for Chamberlain. But by showing his true fighting spirit, the prime minister won over all the doubters. For the first time since taking power in May, he had almost the entire political class behind him. When he reported on the action at Mers-el-Kebir, the reception the House gave him was far more enthusiastic than anything that had followed his great orations in May and June.

John Colville, who watched the performance from the public gallery, recorded in his diary, ‘He told the whole story of Oran and the House listened enthralled and amazed. Gasps of surprise were audible but it was clear that the action taken was unanimously approved. When the speech was over all the Members rose to their feet, waved their order papers and cheered loudly. Winston left the House visibly affected.’29 The MP John Martin, who was also present, recalled that ‘there had been nothing like it, people said, since Munich. Churchill himself was quite overcome and his eyes filled with tears.’

The reaction among Americans was just as warm. Churchill’s ruthlessness was a source of inspiration rather than condemnation, demonstrating that Britain was willing to take the fight to the Reich. Roger Ingersoll, the editor of PM magazine, wrote: ‘I want to record what a deep satisfaction it was to me to read the news that someone stood up to Adolf Hitler, taking dangerous toys away from him. When an Allied officer gives an ultimatum and it isn’t a bluff, that’s news.’ Ingersoll concluded, ‘I’m all for sending supplies to England as long as it’s governed by a Churchill who will fight.’

In political terms, Oran portrayed Britain in a new heroic light, directly contradicting the stream of defeatist opinions that Ambassador Kennedy had continued to relay to Washington. This was crucial because it meant that the White House was now willing to circumvent the neutrality laws in providing all the support it could, particularly in the form of destroyers, aircraft and weapons.

Most important of all, the encounter at Mers-el-Kebir had a dramatic impact on Hitler’s attitude towards Britain. No longer could he hold to the belief that the enemy was about to crumble.