Zitadelle Launched: 5 July, 1943 – Breaking In the Southern Front I

Lieutenant Raimund Rüffer’s previous experience with 78th Assault Division had been in a series of hastily arranged attacks during the winter, which had achieved mixed results. But the 20-year-old found Zitadelle very different.

Ivan bullets zipped around us, I could hear them flying past my ears. I expected to be cut down any moment or blown to smithereens by the shells that slammed about. This was not my first action, but it felt like it. We had been waiting. Oh, what a tortuous wait! As the day arrived our nerves jangled although we tried not to show it. By dawn I was cold, tired and – I don’t mind admitting it – very frightened. We had not seen the enemy since March and in the meantime our bodies and minds had acclimatised to a war of training and fatigue parties. I enjoyed it. The comradeship in our platoon was sublime and, enjoying plentiful rations in the sunshine, it was easy to forget the coming storm.

But as the weeks passed it became increasingly difficult to ignore the inevitable and my thoughts turned increasingly to my parents back in Köln. I was concerned for their safety as Allied raids had been devastating. I had witnessed the destruction during my last home leave and had sobbed as I walked through shattered streets that were barely recognisable. At dinner my mother had tried to engage me in conversation about family matters, but it was clear that she was worried sick about me. She had good reason to be concerned for there were just 10 ‘originals’ drawing breath in my 35 man platoon. She wanted to know about my war – which was understandable – but I grew angry at her questions which reminded me of the inquisitions that she had subjected me to after a day at school. I gave little away and altered the subject. She said that I had changed which made me furious, but my father calmed the situation saying that I was the same as ever, just tired. As a veteran of the trenches he recognised his son’s reticence to talk about his life at the front. I sloped off to the garden and sat smoking – distracted. After a couple of hours my father found me. We sat together for a while and although we did so in silence and without our eyes meeting, a fresh connection had been made. Rising after a few minutes he put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed gently and left me to my thoughts. He understood.

Now, nearly nine months later with 78th Assault Division, I struggled on to the platoon objective, my muscles screaming and uniform drenched with sweat. We worked together without words, a glance was enough, covering the ground as quickly as possible. I heard my old friend Ernest panting seconds before his right arm was torn from his body by an explosion that flung his rifle at my feet. He whimpered as I moved towards him, but was silent by the time that I was at his side. A movement to my right. I twisted to see a camouflaged cover being thrown off a trench.

I instinctively yelled a warning, dropped to one knee and squeezed the trigger of my rifle. The butt kicked and a round was sent hurtling towards a faceless Soviet soldier. In that same instant I was knocked off my feet as though hit by a heavyweight boxer. A Soviet round had struck me in the shoulder, shattering the bone and leaving me gasping for air.

By 0500 hours on the morning of 5 July, despite the Soviet attempt to disrupt the opening of Zitadelle, the Ninth Army was attacking in the north, and the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf in the south. The offensive began with the Germans’ own preliminary bombardment, with the artillery and massed nebelwerfer batteries targeting the trenches and bunkers of the Soviet forward defences. The aim was not so much to destroy Soviet positions and kill the defenders – the 50 minute bombardment was far too short for that – but to dislocate and unbalance the enemy. Model and Manstein wanted to ensure that Soviet guns were neutralized, their command and control was disrupted and the infantry’s heads were tucked firmly below the parapet as their tanks and infantry began to attack. Nevertheless, by the time the bombardment lifted, the artillery had fired more shells than they had during the campaigns in France and Poland combined. ‘At last,’ says heavy gunner Johan Müller, ‘we were taking the initiative. After weeks and months of map work and firing tables, it was good to be in action again. We had plenty of shells to fire and got through them quickly. We were told that our work had been tremendously successful and its accuracy had been remarked upon by headquarters.’ The attacking formations eased themselves forward, covered at first by the ground-based artillery and then by the Luftwaffe in the form of He-111 and Ju-88 medium bombers. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Air Force to destroy the German aircraft on the ground that morning, ground-support missions were being flown in support of the offensive with near impunity.

The Luftwaffe had been alerted to the Soviet threat by the enemy’s early preliminary bombardment, and then by seeing aircraft approaching their airfields on the radar. The 800 aircraft of Luftflotte 4 were spread over several airfields and in the process of being fuelled and loaded with bombs for their first sorties of the day when the sirens began to wail their warnings at 0330 hours. Many of the aircrews were in briefings or at breakfast but they immediately rushed to their machines and took off into the breaking dawn. Oberstleutnant Walter Lehwess-Litzmann, the commander of a German bomber group, recalls:

I had just gathered my commanders to assign them with their last instructions when I received an excited phone call which gave me revised orders. We were to take off immediately, although it was still dark, and attack the Soviet artillery positions.

The sky quickly filled with German aircraft. Over the radio, crews were told about the approach of a massive raid – it actually comprised 132 Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft with a close escort of 285 La-5 and P-39 fighters. The German fighters were to intercept the Soviets, and the aircraft detailed to support the offensive were to start their missions immediately. So began the crucial battle for air superiority on 5 July. Within minutes, Miklós Keyneres, a Hungarian pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109, was locked in combat with Il-2s as German flak burst among the Soviet aircraft. He recalled:

In their great excitement, the flak gunners don’t pay any attention to the close proximity of our own aircraft. But we ignore their fire. We have our eyes only for the four red-starred aircraft . . . The machine [a twin-seat Il-2 with a rear gunner] on the left side peels off from the rest, with me in hot pursuit. The hunt begins. The Russian pushes close to the ground and escapes, hopping over trees. But we remain clung to his tail. On my right hand side, three Germans are pursuing too. One of the Germans dives on it, but fails to bring it down. Now my turn has come. I pull up slightly and, from the far side, I aim ahead of the engine but hold my fire for another moment. The distance is still too great. Then I squeeze both firing buttons. I pull up in an instant to avoid colliding. I skid out to the right. I get on its left side again and from above and behind I shoot at the cockpit. By now the Russian gunner does not return fire. From a close distance I open up with the cannon. The machine shudders and hits the ground with its right wing tip. It slides along a creek, violently burning.

German anti-aircraft defences caused the incoming Soviets considerable problems, as Nikolay Gapeyonok, the pilot of a Pe-2 dive bomber, remembers, when they attacked an airfield west of Belgorod: ‘We ran into a heavy AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] barrage, which disrupted our bombing. Two Pe-2s exploded in mid-air as a result of direct hits, and a third bomber was damaged.’ It was a similar situation in the north where Senior Lieutenant T. Simutenkov, flying an Il-2, ran into a curtain of fire:

As we approached our target I could see the anti-aircraft fire ripping through the sky. I held my course and could just make out some enemy aircraft taking off. This was a shock as we were convinced that we would achieve surprise and record a major success, but before I had a chance to make my attack my aircraft was hit in the fuselage and then the right wing. Smoke began to seep into the cockpit and I struggled to remain in control . . . I feared that the engine would burst into flames but it did not, but it stuttered and lost power. I instinctively swung the aircraft south and within seconds was making a forced landing somewhere within our lines . . . It was still dark and I hit the ground with a fearsome crash which ripped the undercarriage off. But the aircraft skidded to a halt in a field and I was able to push back the cockpit and walk away shaken, but unharmed.

The Soviets had hoped to catch the Luftwaffe cold but instead took considerable losses in an air battle that developed into one of the greatest of the war. The Germans gained air superiority that morning and destroyed 176 enemy aircraft for, perhaps, as few as just 26 machines of their own fleet. Rather than removing a crucial element of the Wehrmacht’s offensive ability, Stalin’s airforce had provided the Germans with the opportunity to weaken the Red Army’s defences. This meant that the Luftwaffe was able to fly nearly 4,500 sorties in support of the ground forces on 5 July, and despite flying 3,385 sorties of their own, the Soviets could not breach the German fighter screen in any numbers. A Moscow-sponsored report into the situation commented later in the year: ‘Our aviation fought air battles primarily against enemy fighters along the approaches to the battlefield, while enemy bombers were operating almost continually against our defending forces immediately over the battlefield along the main axis.’

As the fight for the sky unfolded, Hitler’s army began what was to become its own titanic attempt to crack the Red Army’s defences. In the south, XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps threw themselves at the 6th Guards Army at the junction of the 22nd and 23rd Rifle Corps. Hoth expected the first two lines of Soviet defences – held by the 67th and 52nd Guards Rifles Divisions – to be broken that day, and by the end of the next day to have broken through the third line and advanced half the distance to Kursk. The Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division was the main attacking force, supported on its flanks by the 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions. The Grossdeutschland’s 384 tanks included the usual Panzer IIIs and IVs, but also a heavy company of 15 Tigers and 200 Panthers.

However, these new medium tanks had only just arrived at the front – Battalion 52 on 30 June and Battalion 51 on 1 July – and had had very little opportunity to orientate themselves and conduct the reconnaissance that they required. In line with Guderian’s warning that the tanks were mechanically unreliable, two Panthers were lost to engine fires at the railhead and another six before they crossed the front line. To make matters worse, the two battalions not only lacked combat experience but had conducted just platoon-level battle training and had received no instruction in battalion level radio procedure. The situation led driver Gerd Küster of Battalion 51 to recall:

We arrived for the battle with just hours to spare. We were extremely tired and had to spend all the time available to us arming and servicing our Panther. We had received our tank just a week before and were still learning about its quirks. We were impressed with what we had learned but nervous as we had spent so little time training in her . . . It is very important for any soldier, but particularly a tank crew, to have faith in their weapons. We knew about the reliability issues – and were very aware that the engine could burst into flames – but what worried us most was a lack of ‘feel’ for the tank. How it would manoeuvre, where it could and couldn’t go and the support that we would receive from the infantry and the air . . . In a sense, arriving at the front so late gave us little time to worry about such things. I spent the night [4–5 July] refuelling, lugging shells and trying to overcome a steering problem . . . We went into battle with weary eyes, splitting headaches and not the faintest clue what the battlefield had in store for us.

Backed by a heavy barrage from the artillery and led by 350 tanks supported by infantry, the Grossdeutschland Division advanced on a two-mile front towards the outpost villages of Gertsovka, Butovo and then Cherkasskoye in the first Soviet line. It was an awe-inspiring sight as the formation rumbled towards their enemy’s defences. A German war correspondent described these as typical of the salient:

The Guards Rifle Division [the 67th] dug in here believed that they were safe in their strong fortifications echeloned in depth. They were aware that swampy hollows and valleys, wide mine belts, wire entanglements, flamethrower barriers and tank ditches were in front of them. They also could see that they were deployed in a labyrinth of trenches and bunkers, anti-tank positions, rifle pits and mortar emplacements. Behind them a network of small strong points and defensive works were spread over the countryside.

Advancing into this web over open ground was the division’s Fusilier Regiment, the bulk of the Panthers and a battalion from the panzer regiment. After an initial burst, the attack faltered when 36 Panthers plunged into a minefield. A series of explosions broke a number of tracks, which immediately halted the beasts and rendered them vulnerable to a wall of Soviet anti-tank and artillery fire. What little momentum the division had gained was taken from it as the battlefield was deluged with exploding shells and shrouded in a dense haze. The scene was observed by an officer in the division’s artillery:

Everything is shrouded in dust and smoke. The enemy observation posts certainly can’t see anything. Our barrage is now over . . . it has wandered from the forward trenches farther to the rear. Are the infantry there? We can see some movement, but nothing specific . . . General depression! My high spirits are gone.

The mines needed to be removed and the tank tracks repaired before the advance could continue. Paul Carell, the pseudonym of SS Obersturmbannführer Paul Schmidt, wrote of the mine clearers in his vivid history, Scorched Earth:

The job needed a steady hand and calm nerves. Each anti-tank mine, when the earth had been cleared away around it, had to be lifted carefully just a little way because many of them were additionally secured against lifting by being anchored to a peg by a short length of wire. Yard by yard the parties crept forward – probing, clearing the mines with their hands, lifting them carefully, removing the detonators, and putting the death-traps aside. Down among the engineers crashed Soviet mortar shells. Over their heads screamed the deafening 8.8cm shells of their own Tigers.

The Germans had been trying to remove mines under cover of darkness throughout June. Henri Schnabel was section commander of a hastily trained team that had been specially formed for Zitadelle and sent to the southern salient at the end of May:

The task was time-consuming and without end. The Soviets had sown thousands upon thousands of mines and we could never remove all of them and those that we removed were replaced. We worked at night up to the day of the attack. It was dangerous work because the Soviet mines were unreliable. Many of the mines we found were duds, but some were so poorly made that the slightest movement set them off . . . My team was set to work under heavy fire on the morning of 5th July. We were working with detectors under shell and machine gun fire with the tanks covering us the best that they could. A colleague lifted a mine . . . and it exploded killing him, and sent dirty fragments into my left leg as I worked beside him. I was attended to by a daring medic and continued my work . . . It was understood that each man would continue in his task until he was physically incapable of doing so.

Such was the density of the minefield that clearing it took several hours. The infantry, meanwhile, tried to advance across it, keen to get to grips with the enemy who was delighting in causing the men of Grossdeutschland such distress. Their casualties were heavy and included the Fusiliers’ commander, Colonel Kassnitz, who was leading the attack on the division’s left. Those tanks and troops that could be pulled back to the start line were quickly withdrawn. For Lieutenant-General Walter Hoernlein, the Grossdeutschland’s frantic commander, the situation was intolerable and yet he was powerless to do anything but look on and allow his subordinates to do their jobs. As one of his staff officers, Hauptmann Gunar Francks, has testified:

We understood that this attack was going to be unlike our previous successes in France and Russia back in 1941 when we had moved far and fast. We had made many representations to Corps and Army that the defences were likely to sap our power, that for an armoured bludgeon to work it needs to be swung – it needs a run at the defences – but we were told that we had to make the best of the situation. I do not believe, however, that our superiors believed that the attack would be anything other than a bloody struggle.

Had the Red Air Force enjoyed air supremacy as expected, the carnage would very likely have been much worse. As it was, most Soviet aircraft seeking to target the German advance either failed to break through the Luftwaffe’s fighter cordon or were prevented from conducting sustained attacks. Thus, although XLVIII Panzer Corps reported that morning: ‘The entire corps sector is under heavy attack by Soviet Il-2 ground-attack planes and bombers’, this was only relative to what it was used to facing. Moreover, many more enemy aircraft were repelled than managed to break through and those that caused initial concerns were swiftly chased away by the arrival of Bf-109s.

Zitadelle Launched: 5 July, 1943 – Breaking In the Southern Front II

Nevertheless, Grossdeutschland endured a difficult morning, and the Wehrmacht was forced to confront a reality that they had not expected. The formation’s official history – disparaging of the Zitadelle plan, although understandably fulsome in its praise for the troops – admits:

It was enough to make one sick. Soldiers and officers alike feared that the entire affair was going to pot. The tanks were stuck fast, some bogged down to the tops of their tracks, and to make matters worse the enemy was firing at them with antitank rifles, antitank guns, and artillery. Tremendous confusion breaks out. The Fusiliers advance without the tanks – what can they do? . . . [and] walked straight into ruin. Even the heavy company suffered 50 killed and wounded in a few hours. Pioneers were moved up immediately and they began clearing a path through the mine-infested terrain. Ten more hours had to pass before the first tanks and self-propelled guns got through.

On the release of his division from the minefield’s clutches, and desperate to regain impetus, Hoernlein ordered the Fusiliers and tanks forward to restart the attack on eastern Gertsovka. This time his force was halted below the village by the marshy ground surrounding the swollen Berezovyy stream. Sensing another opportunity, the Soviet airforce endeavoured to put pressure on XLVIII Panzer Corps, leading its commander, Otto von Knobelsdorff, to report to Manstein:

Soviet air forces repeatedly attack the large concentrations of tanks and infantry near the crossings at Berezovyy. There are heavy losses, especially among the officers. Grossdeutschland’s Command Post received a direct hit, killing the adjutant of the grenadier regiment and two other officers.

As the stricken armour awaited rescue by recovery vehicles, the Grenadier Regiment on the division’s right advanced more successfully towards Butovo. Leading the way were Tigers, which were employed in a classic arrow formation (Keil ), with lighter Panzer IIIs, IVs and assault guns fanning out to the rear. They were followed by the infantry and engineers. These would support the armour by attacking anti-tank teams, destroying obstacles and clearing Soviet trenches. Near Cherkasskoe, Ukrainian machine-gunner Mykhailo Petrik waited in a bunker that he had constructed out of earth, wood and some metal sheeting:

Now was the moment that we had been waiting for. The Germans came. First, their shells and then their armour and infantry. Tanks and men across the front. With the noise of the shells exploding the sound of the attack was muffled. A fellow standing next to me looked over with a blank face, said something that I could not hear, and then looked back out over the parapet . . . We were nervous in our trench but readied ourselves. Ammunition and grenades at our elbow. We did not expect to survive and now we knew death was arriving and I could not catch my breath.

Striking the first blow and blazing a trail that others would follow placed a great deal of responsibility on the tank crews. Many panzer commanders preferred to use hand signals between themselves in battle to communicate, but on this occasion the dust and smoke obscured vision to such an extent that they had to rely on radios. Commanders listened to unit instructions and gave clipped orders to their own crews over the intercom. Each member of the team was addressed by his job title for clarity and was expected to remain silent unless he had something of importance to say. There was no time for distracting chit-chat in battle. The formation remained concentrated until the enemy was sighted, and then widened out but kept its shape. The commanders scanned the ground for threats. Dug-in armour was difficult to spot, and the low profile of anti-tank guns made them particularly tricky to pick up if covered by camouflage. Working in a minimum of pairs, and often in clutches of four or five, anti-tank guns could be devastating to most tanks at close range. The Tigers were well protected and had the critical role of winkling out and destroying these potentially destructive weapons. It was such a difficult job that, according to experienced tank commanders, the elimination of an antitank gun ‘counted twice as much’ as a tank kill.

Attacking ground troops would request an air strike while they were still a safe distance from the enemy. The request was radioed to a control centre by Luftwaffe liaison officers in the front line. It was an excellent system, for as Major-General Hans Seidemann, the commander of Fliegerkorps VIII, has testified:

Providing quick and effective ground support necessitated smoothly functioning communications between the attacking armies, corps, and divisions and the headquarters at Fliegerkorps VIII. The Luftwaffe had maintained a corps of liaison officers since the beginning of the war, composed of men who had strong experience in ground support operations. As usual during this offensive, we attached these teams directly to Army Group South’s corps and division headquarters, and they accompanied their units directly onto the field of battle. There the Luftwaffe officers also acted as dive-bomber and fighter guides, using their radios to direct approaching formations to their targets indicated by the ground commanders, correct their fire, and provide updates on the current tactical air situation in the local area.

These arrangements were far better than the Soviet system, which depended on air-support signals being sent to an officer at a remote headquarters, where he had little understanding of the developing battle and could not assist the accuracy of any subsequent strikes. Thus while the Soviet airforce maintained its reputation for launching attacks on its own troops, waves of Stukas were expertly rolled on to their targets. They circled for around 20 minutes as each aircraft individually dived at 370 miles per hour at an angle of between 60 and 90 degrees and released its 550lb fuselage bomb and two wing-mounted 110lb bombs at around 1,500 feet. As one wave finished its work, another would arrive to replace it, and so it continued until the enemy had been neutralized or destroyed. Such attacks aided the advance of the tanks and grenadiers on the right of Grossdeutschland, which swept through Butovo in cooperation with Major-General Mickl’s 11th Panzer Division and by the early afternoon was threatening Cherkasskoe. Chistyakov had reinforced the village that morning as soon as the Germans had shown their hand. His troops now engaged the approaching tanks and infantry with venom and the confrontation was brutal. Mykhailo Petrik fought for his life, his machine gun ripping through ammunition at an enormous rate, but his battle came to a sudden end:

We had the enemy pinned down, but there was little cover and they tried to attack. Every time they moved, we shot them. A small pile of casualties grew. But then we saw that they had a mortar and before I could open fire, we had been hit. That mortar round knocked me unconscious and, in so doing, saved my life. When I came to that evening my partner was dead and I was covered in blood from a bad head wound. I was a mess. Deaf, confused and unable to stand. Despite this I can still recall the mixture of damp earth, cordite and blood which filled my nostrils as I assessed my situation. Clearly the Germans had passed by thinking us both dead . . . That evening, having gathered myself, I headed north through the German lines and into the arms of comrades where I was patched up, given a rifle and sent to a trench. I did not last long. It was only hours later that I collapsed again. A shard of metal had, unknown to me, entered my neck from the mortar. My battle was over.

Cherkasskoe fell that afternoon. Swiftly redeployed Fusiliers and Panthers from Grossdeutschland’s stalled attack advanced along with a detachment of Flammpanzer IIIs (flame-thrower tanks). Their blazing fuel oil suppressed the Soviet defences to allow combat engineers and the infantry to break in and mop up. Under intense pressure, the defenders buckled and the survivors fell back to the second line under covering fire, a 15 man rearguard fighting from the village’s smoking ruins. The capture of Cherkasskoe, when added to the success of the 3rd Panzer Division on Hoernlein’s left flank, which had managed to seize both Gertsovka and Korovino, meant that a considerable hole had been torn in the Soviets’ first line of defence.

On XLVIII Panzer Corps’ right, linked by 167th Infantry Division, which was held around Trirechnoe, was the second part of Hoth’s main strike force – Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps. Up against the 52nd Guards Rifle Division were the three SS-Panzergrenadier divisions: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH), Das Reich and Totenkopf. All three were strong, élite, highly motivated divisions with fearsome reputations. Indeed, Lieutenant-General I.M. Chistyakov, commander of the 6th Guards Army, had warned his men: ‘Be careful, comrades! Before you stands Hitler’s guard. We must expect one of the main efforts of the German offensive in this sector.’ Expecting Hoth’s main effort to be towards Pokrovka (not to be confused with Prokhorovka 25 miles to its northeast) the Soviets sent considerable reinforcements south of the town in June, to add ballast. One of them, gunner Michail Khodorovsky, recalls:

I was not afraid of going into battle, but I did fear the SS or, rather, I feared being captured by the SS. Days before the battle we had received a lecture from our political officer warning us that the SS tortured prisoners and were likely to treat anyone that fell to them very badly. We were advised to fight to the last man, defend our comrades from these fascists. It fell to us, we were told, to stop Nazism rampaging across Mother Russia. We believed it. Every word of it, and so we fought like we had never fought before.

Confident in their business and utilizing tactics that were reminiscent of German stormtroopers in 1918, the infiltrating SS grenadiers had secreted themselves in no-man’s-land during the night of 4–5 July. Having cleared lanes through the Soviet minefields, they sprang into action as their guns bombarded the Soviet front line at dawn, and they fell on the battered positions before the defenders had time to regain their poise. Led by a Keil of 42 Tigers, 494 tanks and assault guns attacked across a seven and a half mile front and slammed into the Soviet line. Totenkopf, the strongest of Hausser’s divisions, screened the right flank of the attack with an advance to Gremuchii; LAH on the left advanced towards Bykovka and Das Reich moved in between via Berezov. Martin Steiger, commander of a Totenkopf Mark III, recalled the advance of the Tigers in front of him:

It was 4:15 am. A rustle, a hiss, a whistle! Columns of smoke rose like gigantic organ pipes into the sky. Artillery and mortars open the battle. A few minutes later heavy veils of smoke from the artillery explosions darkened the early morning sun. Stukas came and came, twenty-seven . . . eighty-one . . . we lost count. Stukas, heavy bombers, fighters, long-range reconnaissance planes; it was as if the air itself had begun to sing and hum. Finally, the order came: ‘Panzers marsch!’ Our attack was under way!

In LAH, SS-Untersturmführer Roger Hoch felt the tension in his platoon. After a busy evening in which he had little sleep, he was pleased to get into battle:

I could not stand another delay and was delighted when we were told that the attack was on . . . The men looked relieved when I told them and there were a few brutish comments about what they would do with the enemy when they caught up with them. Much of it was bravado, I could tell that they were nervous. I would use the word ‘frightened’, but that was a concept that the men liked to see attached only to the others – the non-SS troops. But we all felt fear, I am sure, and the only way to banish it was to face it and defeat it by going into battle . . . As soon as we crossed the line, nerves vanished, anxious thoughts were dissolved, our minds were on the task in hand.

Although some of the tanks found the going difficult initially due to areas of wet ground, the corps gained momentum quickly. The main road to Bykovka was bordered by flat ground, which was covered by lanky, wavering, silvery-grey grass along with wheat and rye crops – the colour of the armour’s recently prescribed yellow-olive-red-brown camouflage. The corps soon reached the cleared lanes of the minefield and as it advanced, the defenders’ artillery, anti-tank guns and machine guns opened fire. As with XLVIII Panzer Corps, the three divisions were supremely well supported by the Luftwaffe, which sent high explosives and fragmentation bombs cascading into the Soviet positions. The Soviets did not panic, despite the speed of the onslaught and the razor-sharp metal splinters jagging through the air. Several guns took direct hits and lay in twisted heaps beside their mangled crews. Those gun crews who remained active found that their rounds failed to penetrate the Tigers’ armour and, having given away their positions, they became victims of the tanks’ 88mm guns.

For the Germans, it was crucial that the infantry moved quickly to clear the area, for as Wilhelm Roes, a Tiger radio operator, argues: ‘The worst was the anti-tank hunting detachments which came in between T-34 attacks. You had to pay them particular attention – if they got through you were finished. An explosive charge and up you went.’ Mansur Abdulin was a member of one such team, armed with magnetic mines, sticky bombs and Molotov cocktails. He advised: ‘You should always act in pairs. The tank must ride over you, over your trench, then one soldier fires at the accompanying infantrymen, while the other throws the bottle or grenade.’ The tanks defended themselves from the threat posed by these teams by rolling up to trenches, turning on the spot and collapsing the earth walls on to their occupants. Combat engineers and grenadiers undertook the gruesome business of demolishing obstacles and emptying trenches. This phase of the battle had something of 1918 about it as well, for the SS men often eschewed their rifles in favour of hand-to-hand fighting with entrenching tools, bayonets, knives, pistols and grenades. Where available, flame-thrower teams led the way, as Hans Huber testifies:

[W]e worked our way forward into the trenches ahead of us. I fired a burst of flame as we approached every zig-zag in the trench and every enemy strong point. It was a strange feeling to serve this destructive weapon and it was terrifying to see the flames eat their way forward and envelop the Russian defenders. Soon I was coloured black from head to foot from the fuel oil and my face was burnt from the flames which bounced back off the trench walls or which were blown back at us by the strong wind. I could hardly see. The enemy could not fight against flame-throwers and so we made good progress, taking many prisoners.

When there were no flame-throwers available, the infantry jumped down into the traverses and cleared the trenches systematically, using well-rehearsed drills. SS-Mann Stefan Witte has said:

I left my heavier kit and advanced with a fighting knife and grenades . . . Dropping into a trench system, my section threw grenades around the corners and into dug-outs which were then cleared out by men with sub-machine guns . . . My knife was my only personal weapon and I used it once when I came across a Russian desperately trying to load his rifle. Without thinking I lunged forward and drove my knife into his stomach and twisted it, just as we had been trained. The man screamed, dropped to his knees and then fell onto his face. I moved on.

Zitadelle Launched: 5 July, 1943 – Breaking In the Southern Front III

Slowly but surely, the SS divisions made their way through the first Soviet defensive line, but the defenders, recognizing that nothing was to be gained from surrendering, fought on. It was a violent tussle, as one observer describes:

The Tigers rumbled on. Anti-tank rifles cracked. Grenadiers jumped into trenches. Machine-guns ticked. Shells smashed sap trenches and dug-outs. The very first hours of fighting showed that Hausser’s divisions were encountering a well-prepared and well-functioning opposition.

Even so, by 0900 hours the II SS Panzer Corps had cracked the Soviets’ first line of defence. The final breakthrough occurred so quickly that Chistyakov, who was enjoying a ‘second breakfast’ of vodka and scrambled eggs in the open, was forced to flee to the relative safety of Lieutenant-General M.E. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army. By 1100 hours, the three divisions were busy engaging the positions between the Soviets’ first and second main lines. It was a methodical advance – the artillery was brought forward, the tanks reorganized and the infantry sent forward to skirmish, identify Soviet positions and begin eliminating them. A war correspondent who was attached to the Tigers that were leading SS-Gruppenführer Walter Kruger’s Das Reich, wrote of the subsequent advance:

This is the hour of the tank. Unnoticed we assembled at the bottom of a balka, the Tigers flanked by medium and light companies. Our field glasses searched the horizon, groping in the smoke that covers the enemy bunkers like a curtain. The leader of the Tiger half company, an Obersturmführer from the Rhineland whose calmness ennobles us, gives the order to attack. The tank engines begin to howl as we load the guns. The heavy tanks slowly roll into the battle zone. At 200 metres, the first anti-tank fires at us. With a single round, we blow it up. All was quiet for a while as we rolled over the abandoned enemy trenches. We waved to our brave infantrymen from our open hatches as we passed them. They were taking a short rest after having just stormed the enemy heights. We then moved into the next valley.

As the tanks continued their surge, isolated Soviet infantrymen scattered. The correspondent’s report continued:

Our machine gunners fired on [the enemy] and forced them to take cover. As both of our machine guns rattled, approving shouts of the crew accompanied the aim of the fire. A heavy enemy truck was seen in the woods on our right attempting to escape. We fired upon it and it burst into flames.

In this way, the divisions moved forward, carefully, but maintaining momentum. The tank commanders, their heads swivelling slightly as they scrutinized the terrain through open hatches, eventually spied the approach of enemy tanks. At 1300 hours Das Reich’s armour came under fire from two T-34s, and although they were quickly despatched, 40 more appeared over the horizon, firing on the move. Several Tigers were hit but not damaged. Reacting quickly and taking up firing positions, the German armour selected targets and sent their armour piercing rounds hurtling towards the enemy. Red Army tanks burst into flame as the panzers moved to new locations, stopped and repeated the process. After an hour of fighting, the field was covered in blazing hulks. Any survivors of the initial calamitous shell strike had just seconds to evacuate the tank before it was engulfed in flame, which threatened to ignite the fuel and ammunition. Nikolai Zheleznov was knocked to the turret floor when his T-34 was hit. The white-hot explosion had shattered his driver’s head, torn the loader’s arm from his body and sent scores of large metal shards into the gunner’s unprotected body. A fire sucked the oxygen out of the compartment and set light to Zheleznov’s uniform as he struggled to open the commander’s hatch. Eventually pushing it free as the flames leapt up around him, he fought to pull himself out of the void but his left leg had been broken at the knee. Passing comrades pulled him clear of the tank just before it exploded but he had sustained horrendous burns.

Soviet tank man Vladimir Alexeev recalled that the panzers were very efficient: ‘move, pause and fire – a very lethal combination’. Powerful guns, mounted on fast-moving, motorized turrets, gave the Tigers a considerable advantage while the thickness of their armour provided excellent protection. This led Ivan Sagun to suggest that any contest between T-34s and Tigers was unequal:

I had an encounter with just such a tank. He fired at us from literally one kilometre away. His first shot blew a hole in the side of my tank, his second hit my axle. At a range of half a kilometre I fired at him with a special calibre shell, but it bounced off him like a candle; I mean it didn’t penetrate his armour. At literally 300 metres I fired my second shell – same result. Then he started looking for me, turning his turret to see where I was. I told my driver to reverse fast and we hid behind some trees.

The Soviets sought to negate the Tigers’ advantages by fighting at close quarters, but without radios, keeping overall control was extremely difficult. Tactics had to be simple. Vladimir Alexeev told his T-34 platoon, ‘Follow me – do as I do.’ Yet without intercom, crews found it difficult to carry out their commander’s orders – particularly in the heat of battle – and so they had to improvise a method of communication. Ivan Sagun developed a simple system: ‘I directed the driver by tapping him on the shoulder with my foot. On the right shoulder meant go right, on the left shoulder go left. A prod in the back meant stop.’ When battle was joined, he made signals to the gunner with his hands: ‘A thumb up meant an armour-penetrating shell, two fingers for a shrapnel shell. The index finger also meant I needed a shrapnel shell; if we were facing another tank, he often knew which shell to use.’

Das Reich’s battle with the T-34s lasted four hours. Although the 1st Guards Tank Army had failed to halt the division’s advance, this had not been its aim. The tanks had been tasked with slowing the enemy’s onslaught and, having achieved this, they withdrew. The ‘armoured speed bump’ had bought the time the second line of defence needed to prepare itself – the infantry was reinforced and more anti-tank guns were brought up – and plans were tweaked to take account of the challenge that now faced the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps. Das Reich, having had its sting drawn by the initial thrust, probed forward once more in the early evening, and was soon confronted by the minefield protecting the Soviets’ second line.

Meanwhile, SS-Gruppenführer Wisch’s LAH, operating on Das Reich’s left, had taken Bykovka at 1610 hours and pushed on towards the Psel and Oboyan. Among the LAH Tiger commanders was SS-Untersturmführer Michael Wittmann. The 29-year-old Bavarian’s skills had been honed during nine years in the army. He had seen action with LAH in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece and Russia. A recent graduate of officer and tank school in Germany, he had returned to the Eastern Front and by the launch of Zitadelle was commanding a platoon of five Tigers. In common with Das Reich’s armoured spearhead, LAH had been involved in intense tank combat throughout the day. Although Wittmann’s tank had been hit several times during a battle in the late morning, it had not been immobilized and he had charged several antitank guns and crushed them before registering his first tank kill: ‘The T-34’s turret was blown clear of the rest of the vehicle, and flames enveloped the wreck.’ Already drained by their efforts, Wittmann and his crew could not afford to rest and in the afternoon went to the aid of a fellow platoon, which had been cut off by several T-34s. One well-aimed shot smashed his Tiger’s track and wounded his driver, requiring the replacement of both. Wittmann surged on and by the end of the day he and his crew had notched up eight Soviet tank kills and destroyed seven anti-tank guns.

By that time, the leading elements of LAH had moved up to the second line at Yakovlevo, just south of Pokrovka, but attempts to break through and make a dash to the Psel were rebuffed. The day’s work had cost the division 97 dead, 522 wounded, 17 missing and around 30 tanks. But with Das Reich, the division had forced a wedge deep enough into Chistyakov’s defences that it could, with care and some good fortune, be used to split the front wide open.

The limited success of SS-Gruppenführer H. Priess’s Totenkopf on the right of II SS Panzer Corps, however, meant that Hausser’s position was not as useful as it might have been. After taking Gremuchii, the division needed to press on to dominate the ground north of Belgorod and protect the corps’ developing penetration. However, having detached the 155th Guards Regiment from the 52nd Guards Rifle Division, Totenkopf ’s attempt to drive it into the flank of the neighbouring 375th Rifle Division failed. Taking a stand on the Belgorod–Oboyan line, the regiment was reinforced by 96th Tank Brigade and held on. T-34 gunner Nicolai Andreev describes the scene:

We sped westwards to assist the right flank of the division [375th Guards Rifle Division] and fought a tough battle to stop the Nazis from enveloping them . . . The battlefield was already littered with burning wrecks by the time that we arrived but we held them. By targeting the tracks on the Tigers we could at least stop them and their lighter tanks did not prove so much of a problem to destroy . . . We worked closely with the infantry who seemed to be everywhere. That was our strength – numbers. Whenever the enemy thought that they were about to break through, we plugged the gap.

Its northern movement stifled by a tributary of the Lipovyi–Donets and movement farther east fiercely contested by the Soviets’ armoured reinforcements, Totenkopf ’s attainments on 5 July fell far short of what had been expected of it. Hausser called on III Panzer Corps on his right flank to lend some support but was told that this was unlikely because Army Detachment Kempf had significant problems of its own. This formation had to cross the Northern Donets before it could engage the 7th Guards Army’s defences. Although bridged overnight by engineers, the crossing points were targeted by the Soviet guns during Vatutin’s pre-emptive bombardment, which was particularly punishing in this area. At the Mikhailovka bridgehead just south of Belgorod, the one place where Kempf had already established a crossing, eight infantry battalions from III Panzer Corps’ 6th Panzer Division were subjected to a disconcertingly heavy bombardment. Then, when a company of Clemens Graf Kageneck’s 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion – split one company per panzer division – began to cross the 24 ton Mikhailovka bridge, it too was targeted by the Soviet artillery. Kageneck watched aghast as the front exploded before him:

[S]uddenly, a ‘red sunrise’ arose on the far side as hundreds of Stalin’s organs hurled their rockets exactly onto the crossing site. The bridge was totally demolished and the engineers, unfortunately, suffered heavy losses. Never have I hugged the dirt so tightly as when these terrible shells sprayed their thin fragments just above the ground.

It became clear immediately that Kempf’s plans had been compromised, and enjoying first-class observation from high ground on the east bank of the Northern Donets, the Soviets were in a strong position to unhinge his attack. The Tigers managed to cross and link up with the beleaguered battalions waiting for them on the east bank, but the remainder of 6th Panzer Division had to redeploy and try to use a bridge supporting the southern part of the bridgehead. The formation’s commander, Major General Walter von Hünersdorff, was already anxious that he was falling behind the agreed timings but he became incandescent with rage when he found the designated bridge was already clogged with traffic. The formation went in search of another crossing, but failing to find one suitable, remained on the west bank of the river on 5 July.

Meanwhile, at the original crossing point, the Tiger-led attack on Stary Gorod (east of Belgorod) ran into a poorly cleared minefield and strong resistance, and stalled. It was a similar story farther along the line where the 19th Panzer Division crossed the river and ran immediately into Soviet mines, which ensnared a dozen of the attached Tigers. Kageneck was furious at what he deemed to be the ‘widespread bungling’ that had placed his tanks in such great danger. He cited unmapped Soviet minefields, commanders using inadequately marked maps and poor staff work. The division did recover to advance to a depth of five miles on its left, but the 19th Panzer Division’s attack was not impressive and some aspects were indeed incompetent. The same charges could be levelled initially at 7th Panzer Division, whose bridges were strong enough to carry Mark IIIs and VIs but not the Tigers. Everywhere Kageneck looked, his assets seemed to be hamstrung by either enemy action or poor preparation. Attempts were made to drive the 60 ton monsters across the river to support the infantry and lighter tanks that were already taking a tremendous pounding on the opposite bank, but that plan was unsuccessful, as Tiger gunner Gerhard Niemann explains:

The Russian artillery opens fire. We drive through a village. We are to cross a river via a ford near Solomino . . . The leading tank has reached the ford. The others remain under cover. All around shells burst from enemy artillery. ‘Stalin’s Organ’ also join in. It’s a hellish concert. The lead Tiger, number 321, disappears to above its fenders. Slowly it pushes through the water. Then it becomes stuck on the far bank. Its attempts to get free fail. The marshy terrain is impassable for the sixty-ton tank. Widely spaced, the Tigers take up positions on the open plain before the Donets. The Russian artillery is concentrating on the crossing point . . . The first wounded infantry are coming back. They can’t comprehend that the Tigers are still here standing around inactive.

The company eventually crossed the river in the afternoon, following some swift work by engineers who constructed a bridge strong enough to take their tanks’ weight. Engineer Rolf Schmidt ‘worked like the devil himself’ to ensure that the crossing was completed in ‘record time’:

The Tigers were extremely anxious to cross and put us under tremendous pressure saying things like ‘men are dying over there. Faster, faster!’ Some of the crews assisted us with some of the cables but on two occasions we were left waiting for sections that were held up in the rear. We later heard that enemy shelling had caused all sorts of delays . . . In the end we finished the bridge extremely quickly considering the conditions. We lost two men to Soviet shells that afternoon . . . When we gave the all clear to cross, the Tigers were all ready in a line, their engines running.

Once they had crossed the Northern Donets, the heavy tanks found the grenadiers pinned down by enemy fire and immediately set about destroying the Soviet bunkers. Niemann continues:

My foot presses forward on the pedal of the turret-traversing mechanism. The turret swings to the right. With my left hand I set the range on the telescopic sight; my right hand cranks the elevation handwheel. The target appears in my sight. Ready, release safety – fire. The target is shrouded in a cloud of smoke. ‘Driver advance!’ A slight jolt and already another picture presents itself. The first Red Army soldiers appear ahead of the tank. Masses of brown clad uniforms rise up. Standing and kneeling, they fire against the tank’s steel armour. The machine-gun opens fire. One after another, high explosive shells detonate among them. They throw their arms in the air and fall. Only a few find cover in a depression in the earth. They are overrun by the following infantry.

Despite a poor start, the 7th Panzer Division eventually broke through the first defensive line and pushed on between Razumnoe and Krutoi Log. At six miles the division’s advance was the best achieved by Army Detachment Kempf. On its right, the two infantry divisions of Corps Raus – spread over 20 miles and devoid of tanks – had little success. The advance began well with the river successfully crossed and the spearheads of the 106th and 320th Infantry Divisions deftly negotiating the cleared lanes in the minefield to fall hard and fast on the 72nd Guards Rifle Division. With the two front lines so close together at this point, the defenders had little time to ready themselves in the outposts, as Erhard Raus later wrote:

[T]he advancing infantry surprised them and had no difficulty ferreting them out. But when the infantry reached the two- to three-mile deep zone of battle positions prepared in the preceding months, they had to make extensive use of hand grenades in order to mop up the maze of densely dug-in trenches and bunkers, some of which were a dozen or more feet deep. At the same time, artillery and flak fired counter-battery missions against the enemy’s heavy weapons that had resumed fire from rear positions, on reserves infiltrating through the trench system, as well as against Russian medium artillery.

The first Soviet line and the village of Maslovo Pristani were taken after a fierce battle with some hand-to-hand fighting. The lodgement was nearly lost when a Soviet counterattack supported by 40 tanks clattered into the tired Germans, but it was eventually rebuffed with the assistance of divisional artillery and medium flak batteries. However, still facing considerable resistance and having suffered 2000 casualties during the day, the divisions could penetrate no farther and dug in for the night.

By the end of 5 July, Manstein’s attack against the Voronezh Front had not achieved anything like the success it needed for the Soviets to be psychologically damaged and their defences irretrievably dislocated. In some places the attacking formations had barely breached the first Soviet line, and although the two main attacking corps had blown gaps in the defences, they remained short of the Soviets’ second line, were not joined up and displayed vulnerable flanks. The Germans had significantly underestimated Vatutin’s defences and this immediately undermined Manstein’s timetable, despite Zhukov’s displeasure at the results of the pre-emptive bombardment.

Across the front, Army Group South’s thrust had been slowed, which allowed the Soviets time to react as soon as Manstein’s intentions had been confirmed. Vatutin and his commanders were able to prepare their second echelons to meet the expected renewed German onslaught on 6 July. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army was reinforced with two rifle divisions from the reserve while the 15th Guards Rifle Division was moved into position behind the second-line defences opposite III Panzer Corps. The 6th Guards Army, meanwhile, moved two divisions in front of Pokrovka – the 51st Guards Rifle Division to the east, and the 90th Guards Rifle Division to the west – while 1000 tanks of the 1st Tank Army and the separate 2nd Guards and 5th Guards Tank Corps were brought forward to add an armoured backing to Chistyakov’s rifle divisions. Behind them, the 93rd Guards Rifle Division was positioned astride the Pokrovka–Prokhorovka road. These deployments made Vatutin’s priority extremely clear – the enemy would be denied the roads and communications hubs necessary to maintain his impetus, and reinforcements would be moved forward as needed to provide unremitting pressure on his main axes. Manstein’s offensive was to be robbed of all momentum, ground down and snuffed out.


German Tank Hunters

irst weapon of the German Panzerjäger ( armour hunters or tank hunters) was the humble Panzerbüchse which was in service from 1917 through to 1943. Panzerbüchse literally means “armour rifle” and German anti-tank rifles originated back in 1917 with the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr, the world’s first anti-tank rifle. It was created as an immediate response to the appearance of British tanks on the Western Front. A single shot manually operated rifle, it enjoyed moderate success, with approximately 15,800 rifles eventually produced. The Panzerbüchse 39 (PzB 39) was the main German anti-tank rifle used in World War II. It was an improvement of the unsuccessful Panzerbüchse 38 (PzB 38) rifle.

German Panzerbüchse development resumed in the late 1930s. In an effort to provide infantry with a man-portable lightweight anti-tank rifle. The task fell to Dipl.-Ing. (certified engineer) B. Brauer at Gustloff Werke in Suhl who designed the Panzerbüchse 38 (PzB 38). It was a manually loaded single-shot weapon with a recoiling barrel. When fired, the barrel recoiled about 9 cm, which opened the breech and ejected the spent cartridge casing. The breech block was then arrested in the rear position, remaining opened for the gunner to manually insert a new cartridge. The gunner then released the cocked breech with a lever at the grip. The breech and barrel would then move forward again and the trigger was cocked in preparation to fire. This rather complicated mechanism was prone to jamming as the system easily fouled in field use.

Although manufactured with pressed steel parts that were spot-welded, because of the complicated vertical breech block mechanism the Panzerbüchse 38 was difficult to manufacture and only a small number of 1,408 PzB 38 rifles were built in 1939 and 1940 at the Gustloff Werke plant; only 62 of these weapons were used by German troops in the invasion of Poland in 1939.

The Panzerbüchse 39 was the next development, and was found to be a major improvement as a result the Panzerbüchse 38 declared obscelescent and production was immediately switched to the Panzerbüchse 39. However it too featured a vertical breech block mechanism and used the same cartridge. It retained the barrel of the PzB 38 and had an only slightly increased overall length of 162.0 centimetres (63.8 in); weight was reduced to 12.6 kilograms (28 lb). Its performance data was basically the same as that of the PzB 38. To increase the practical rate of fire, two cartridge-holding cases containing 10 rounds each could be attached to both sides of the weapon near the breech – these were not magazines feeding the weapon, they simply enabled the loader to extract the cartridges (that he still had to manually insert into the gun) from the conveniently placed magazines. 568 PzB 39 were used by the German army in the invasion of Poland; two years later, at the beginning of the war against Russia, 25,298 PzB 39 were in use by German troops; total production from March 1940 to November 1941, when production ceased, was 39,232 rifles. The PzB 39 remained in use until 1944, by which time it had become hopelessly inadequate against all but the lightest armored vehicles.

OKW recognised the need for a more powerful form of anti-tank weapon and the design of a horse-drawn, 3.7 cm anti-tank gun (designated 3.7 cm Pak L/45) by Rheinmetall commenced in 1924 and the first guns were issued in 1928. However, by the early 1930s, it was apparent that horse-drawn artillery was obsolescent, and the gun was modified for motorized transport by substituting magnesium-alloy wheels with pneumatic tyres for the original spoked wooden wheels. Re-designated the 3.7 cm Pak 35/36, it began to replace the 3.7 Pak L/45 in 1934 and first appeared in combat in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. It formed the basis for many other nations’ anti-tank guns during the first years of World War II. The KwK 36 L/45 was the same gun but adapted as the main armament on several tanks, most notably the early models of the Panzer III.

The Pak 36, being a small-calibre weapon, was outdated by the May 1940 Western Campaign, and crews found them inadequate against allied tanks like the British Mk.II Matilda, and the French Char B1 and Somua S35. Still, the gun was effective against the most common light tanks, such as the Renault FT-17 and saw wide service during the Battle of France and the T-26 during Operation Barbarossa. The widespread introduction of medium tanks quickly erased the gun’s effectiveness; miserable performance against the T-34 on the Eastern Front led to the Pak 36 being derisively dubbed the “Door Knocker” (Heeresanklopfgerät, literally “army door-knocking device”) for its inability to do anything other than advertise its presence to a T-34 by futilely bouncing rounds off its armor.

Not surprisingly The Pak 36 began to be replaced by the new 5 cm Pak 38 in mid 1940. The addition of tungsten-core shells (Pzgr. 40) added slightly to the armour penetration of the Pak 36. Despite its continued impotence against the T-34, it remained the standard anti-tank weapon for many units until 1942. It was discovered that Pak 36 crews could still achieve kills on T-34s, but this rare feat required tungsten-cored armour piercing ammunition and a direct shot to the rear or side armour from point-blank range.

As the Pak 36 was gradually replaced, many were removed from their carriages and added to SdKfz 251 halftracks to be used as light anti-armour support. The guns were also passed on to the forces of Germany’s allies fighting on the Eastern Front, such as the 3rd and 4th Romanian Army. This proved particularly disastrous during the Soviet encirclement (Operation Uranus) at the Battle of Stalingrad when these Romanian forces were targeted to bear the main Soviet armoured thrust. The Pak 36 also served with the armies of Finland (notably during the defence of Suomussalmi), it was also deployed in Hungary, and Slovakia.

In 1943, the introduction of the Stielgranate 41 shaped charge meant that the Pak 36 could now penetrate any armour, although the low velocity of the projectile limited its range. The Pak 36s, together with the new shaped charges, were issued to Fallschirmjäger units and other light troops. The gun’s light weight meant that it could be easily moved by hand, and this mobility made it ideal for their purpose.

The replacement for the outdated Pak 36 was the 50cm Pak 38. The longer barrel and larger projectile produced the required level of kinetic energy to pierce armour . The PaK 38 was first used by the German forces during the Second World War in April 1941. When the Germans faced Soviet tanks in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, the PaK 38 was one of the few early guns capable of effectively penetrating the 45 mm (1.8 in) armor of the formidable T-34. Additionally, the gun was also equipped with Panzergranate 40 APCR projectiles which had a hard tungsten core, in an attempt to penetrate the armor of the heavier KV-1 tank. Although it was soon replaced by more powerful weapons, the Pak 38 remained a potent and useful weapon and remained in service with the Wehrmacht until the end of the war.

The 7.5 cm PaK 40 (7.5 cm Panzerabwehrkanone 40) was the next generation of anti-tank gun to see service. This German 7.5 centimetre high velocity anti-tank gun was developed in 1939-1941 by Rheinmetall and used extensively from 1942-1945 during the Second World War. It was the PaK 40 which formed the backbone of German anti-tank guns for the latter part of World War II. Development of the PaK 40 began in 1939 with development contracts being placed with Krupp and Rheinmetall to develop a 7.5 cm anti-tank gun. Priority of the project was initially low, but Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and the sudden appearance of heavily armoured Soviet tanks like the T-34 and KV-1, increased the priority. The first pre-production guns were delivered in November 1941.

In April 1942, Wehrmacht had 44 guns in service. It was remarkably successful weapon and by 1943 the PaK 40 formed the bulk of the German anti-tank artillery.The PaK 40 was the standard German anti-tank gun until the end of the war, and was supplied by Germany to its allies. Some captured guns were used by the Red Army. After the end of the war the PaK 40 remained in service in several European armies, including Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Norway, Hungary and Romania.

Around 23,500 PaK 40 were produced, and about 6,000 more were used to arm tank destroyers. The unit manufacturing cost amounted to 2200 man-hours at a cost of 12000 RM. A lighter automatic version, the heaviest of the Bordkanone series of heavy calibre aircraft ordnance as the BK 7,5 was used in the Henschel Hs129 aircraft.

The Pak 40 was effective against almost every Allied tank until the end of the war. However, the PaK 40 was much heavier than the 50 cm PaK 38, It was difficult to manhandle into position and its mobility was limited. It was difficult or impossible to move without an artillery tractor on boggy ground.

The PaK 40 debuted in Russia where it was needed to combat the newest Soviet tanks there. It was designed to fire the same low-capacity APCBC, HE and HL projectiles which had been standardized for usage in the long barreled Kampfwagenkanone KwK 40 main battle tank-mounted guns. In addition there was an APCR shot for the PaK 40, a munition which eventually became very scarce.

The main differences amongst the rounds fired by 75 mm German guns were in the length and shape of the cartridge cases for the PaK 40. The 7.5 cm KwK (tank) fixed cartridge case is twice the length of the 7.5 cm KwK 37 (short barrelled 75 mm), and the 7.5 cm PaK 40 cartridge is a third longer than the 7.5 cm KwK 40.

The longer cartridge case allowed a larger charge to be used and a higher velocity for the Armour Piercing Capped Ballistic Cap round to be achieved. The muzzle velocity was about 790 m/s (2,600 ft/s) as opposed to 750 m/s (2,500 ft/s) for the KwK 40 L/43. This velocity was available for about one year after the weapon’s introduction. Around the same time, the Panzer IVs 7.5 cm KwK 40 L/43 gun and the nearly identical Sturmkanone (StuK) 40 L/43 began to be upgraded with barrels that were 48 calibers long, or L/48, which remained the standard for them until the end of the war.

In the field, an alarming number of L/48 cartridge cases carrying the hotter charge failed to be ejected properly from the weapon’s semi-automatic breech, even on the first shot (in vehicles). Rather than re-engineer the case, German Ordnance reduced the charge loading until the problem went away. The new charge brought the muzzle velocity down to 750 m/s, or about 10 m/s higher than the original L/43 version of the weapon. Considering the average variability in large round velocities from a given gun, this is virtually negligible in effect. The first formal documentation of this decision appears on May 15, 1943 (“7.5cm Sturmkanone 40 Beschreibung”) which details a side by side comparison of the L/43 and the L/48 weapons. The synopsis provided indicates very little difference in the guns, meaning the upgrade had little if any benefit.

All further official presentations of the KwK 40 L/48 ( “Oberkommando des Heeres, Durchschlagsleistungen panzerbrechender Waffen”) indicate a muzzle velocity of 750 m/s for the gun. As for the PaK 40, the desire for commonality again appears to have prevailed since the APCBC charge was reduced to 750 m/s, even though case ejection failures apparently were never a problem in the PaK version of the gun.

For reasons which seem to be lost to history, at least some 75 mm APCBC cartridges appear to have received a charge which produced a muzzle velocity of about 770 m/s (2,500 ft/s). The first documented firing by the U.S. of a PaK 40 recorded an average muzzle velocity of 776 m/s for its nine most instrumented firings. Probably because of these results, period intelligence publications (“Handbook on German Military Forces”) gave ~770 m/s as the PaK 40 APCBC muzzle velocity, although post war pubs corrected this (Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 30-4-4, “Foreign Military Weapons and Equipment (U) Vol. 1 Artillery (U) dated August of 1955-this document was originally classified).

In addition, German sources are contradictory in that the Official Firing Table document for the 75 mm KwK 40, StuK 40, and the PaK 40 dated October, 1943 cites 770 m/s on one of the APCBC tables therein, showing some confusion. (“Schusstafel fur die 7.5cm Kampfwagenkanone 40”).

The 88 mm gun (eighty-eight) was a German anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun from World War II. It was widely used by Germany throughout the war, and was one of the most recognized German weapons of the war. Development of the original models led to a wide variety of guns.

The name applies to a series of guns, the first one officially called the 8,8 cm Flak 18, the improved 8,8 cm Flak 36, and later the 8,8 cm Flak 37. Flak is a contraction of German Flugzeugabwehrkanone meaning “anti-aircraft cannon”, the original purpose of the eighty-eight. In informal German use, the guns were universally known as the Acht-acht (“eight-eight”), a contraction of Acht-komma-acht Zentimeter (“8.8 cm”). In English, “flak” became a generic term for ground anti-aircraft fire.

The versatile carriage allowed the eighty-eight to be fired in a limited anti-tank mode when still on wheels, and to be completely emplaced in only two-and-a-half minutes. Its successful use as an improvised anti-tank gun led to the development of a tank gun based upon it. These related guns served as the main armament of tanks such as the Tiger I: the 8.8 cm KwK 36, with the “KwK” abbreviation standing for KampfwagenKanone (“fighting vehicle cannon”).

In addition to these Krupp’s designs, Rheinmetall created later a more powerful anti-aircraft gun, the 8,8 cm Flak 41, produced in relatively small numbers. Krupp responded with another prototype of the long-barreled 88 mm gun, which was further developed into the anti-tank and tank destroyer 8.8 cm Pak 43 gun, and turret-mounted 8.8 cm KwK 43 heavy tank gun.

Vehicle designs

Designs of the Panzerjäger vehicles varied based on the chassis used, which could be of three types:

  • Early war open-topped superstructure on a light tank chassis
  • Mid-war fully enclosed crew compartment on a medium or heavy tank chassis, as an added-on entity not usually integral to the original hull armor
  • Late war unarmoured or shielded mounting on a half-track chassis

Notable tank destroyers in the Panzerjäger classification were:

The later Jagdpanzer designation was used from the beginning for the following more integrally armored vehicles:


Visiting Harfleur today, it is almost impossible to believe that this quiet little backwater was once one of the most important ports in northern Europe. Virtually nothing remains of the town Henry V saw on that August day in 1415; it is now merely a suburb of Le Havre, the port founded by François I in 1517 when Harfleur’s own waters silted up. The great walls that were once its pride and glory have been replaced by a labyrinthine road system of flyovers and roundabouts that are almost as impenetrable as its medieval fortifications. The salt marshes on its seaward side have became a vast industrial wasteland of smoking chimneys, oil terminals and container ports; the valley above the town, through which the river Lézarde flowed to join the Seine, is now an industrial estate and retail park linking it to Montivilliers. The lazy loops of the river itself were “redressed” by French engineers in the 1830s and replaced with rectilinear canals and quays; the fortifications that made the harbour one of the wonders of medieval Europe were demolished in the nineteenth century and the harbour itself filled in. Even the great church of St Martin, rebuilt in celebration after the English were expelled in 1435, with a delicate spire that can still be seen for miles around, is a sad and decaying historic monument for which the key literally cannot be found.

And yet the heart of the town remains defiantly picturesque: a medieval jewel lost in the swamp of Le Havre. Though Henry V’s own guns destroyed almost every building within the walls, much of the rebuilding that took place in the fifteenth century remains. Half-timbered houses crowd the narrow cobbled streets and little squares that still echo to the sound of footsteps; the more important public buildings, including the library and priory museum, though heavily restored, sport militaristic towers; and here and there, half hidden in the undergrowth, one can still find impressive vestiges of the massive walls and gates.

French contemporaries were justifiably proud of the medieval town of Harfleur. For the monk of St Denis, sheltered in his convent outside Paris, it was “the most admirable port in Normandy, sending out ships to all corners of the world and bringing back every type of foreign merchandise to provision and enrich the whole kingdom.” Enguerrand de Monstrelet, a military man, recognised its strategic importance. For him, as for Henry V, it was “the key to the sea of all Normandy.” Lying on the north bank of the tidal Seine estuary, Harfleur controlled the access to France’s most important inland waterway. Some forty miles up river, travelling as the crow flies, lay the ancient city of Rouen, where the first dukes of Normandy were buried in the tenth century and the Capetian kings of France established their royal naval yard in 1294. Around eighty miles further up river lay Paris itself, capital city, royal residence and administrative centre, with the Seine flowing through its heart. If the English could capture Harfleur, they could establish a stranglehold on military and commercial traffic using the Seine and block one of the main arteries of France.

There was a second strategic purpose to be achieved in capturing the town. Of all the places on the northern coast of France, Harfleur posed the greatest threat to English interests. In recent years it had become the base of choice for attacking the south coast of England: Don Pero Niño, the “unconquered knight,” had retreated to its safety with his prisoners and plunder after raiding the coast of Cornwall in 1400, and Louis d’Orléans had gathered an invasion fleet there in 1404. French troops sent to aid Owain Glyn Dŵr’s revolt in Wales and the Scots in their campaigns against the English had all sailed from Harfleur. In England the town had also acquired the reputation of being a nest of pirates: many of the attacks on merchant shipping in the Channel had been carried out by French and Italian vessels which took refuge within its harbour and found a ready market for their prizes there. For all these reasons, Henry V had identified Harfleur as the target for his invasion. Its capture would serve a dual purpose, increasing the safety and security of English shipping and establishing another bridgehead, like Calais, for any future campaign in France.

Harfleur’s strategic importance had ensured that it enjoyed the best protection that medieval military might could devise. Great stone walls, some two and a half miles in circumference and fortified at intervals with twenty-four watch towers, encircled the whole town and its famous harbour. These were relatively modern fortifications, built between 1344 and 1361, and the plan was polygonal, with semicircular flanking towers at each angle, which were harder to demolish by cannonade or undermining than traditional square towers. The walls themselves were thicker at their base than at the top, sloping outwards so as to deflect shots from guns and catapults back into the enemy, and the many towers provided vantage points from which flanking fire could be rained on anyone approaching the walls. There were only three gates, guarding the entrances into the town from Montivilliers to the north, Rouen to the south-east and Leure to the south-west. A remnant of one of the towers at the Rouen gate, which also commanded the harbour, or clos-aux-galées as it was known to the French, is the sole survivor today. Though a ruin, its former might is still readily apparent in the depth of its great stone walls, strengthened by arches inside, the absence of any flat external surface and the many small embrasures, at varying heights, for crossbows and guns. Each of the three gates was protected by a bastion (a fortification projecting beyond the line of the walls), a portcullis and a drawbridge over a water-filled moat; these permanent defences had also been strengthened against missile attack by thick tree trunks, driven into the ground and lashed together on the outside, and earth and timber shoring up the walls on the inside.

The defence of Harfleur had been entrusted by Charles VI to Jean, sire d’Estouteville, who held the honorary office of grand butler of France. He had with him a garrison of some one hundred men-at-arms, which, even with civilian assistance, was not a large enough force to be able to offer any prolonged resistance to a determined English assault. Nevertheless, all the natural advantages of the site had been exploited to the full. The town lay about a mile from the Seine, at the head of the tributary valley of the river Lézarde. The southern approach was protected by the ebb and flow of the Seine tides over treacherous salt marshes. The waters of the Lézarde, which entered Harfleur midway between the gates of Leure and Montivilliers, had been partially diverted along a series of ditches and culverts to create a great moat which encircled more than half the town, from the north-east to the south-west, and defended it against attack from the upper reaches of the valley. Controlled by sluices, the river waters powered two mills for grinding corn, which lay just within the walls, and then flowed down a series of culverts through the middle of the town before broadening out to form the harbour and joining the Seine. The great advantage of these sluices from a defence point of view was that they could be closed completely. When this happened, the Lézarde was effectively dammed at its entrance to the town and therefore burst its banks, flooding the entire valley bottom to the depth of a man’s thighs. Forewarned that the English were landing close by, the men of Harfleur broke all the bridges across the river and closed the sluices, creating a vast lake to protect the northern side of the town.

The clos-aux-galées was probably even more strongly fortified than the town. It was created in the 1360s by constructing a massive wall, more than six and a half feet thick and standing fifty feet high above ground and thirty-six feet below, around a loop in the Lézarde to the south of the town. This was then flooded to create a twelve-acre harbour that was both commercial port and royal military arsenal. Protected to the north by the town walls and on either side by its own higher wall, surmounted by defensive turrets, its seaward entrance was guarded by two massive towers, with chains strung between them to prevent unauthorised access. When the English invasion threatened, the French had taken emergency measures to provide additional defences, planting great sharpened stakes around the entrance and under the walls facing the sea, so that, when the tide was up and enemy ships could sail right up to the walls to launch an attack, they ran the risk of being driven onto the stakes and foundering.

The story of the siege of Harfleur might have been very different had it not been for the courage and resourcefulness of one man. Raoul, sire de Gaucourt, was a French version of Sir John Cornewaille, and, like him, a medieval chivalric hero whom the modern world has forgotten. He came from a noble Picard family with a long and distinguished record of service to the crown. Like his father before him, he was deeply attached to the Armagnac cause and had strong personal connections with Charles d’Orléans, Charles d’Albret and Marshal Boucicaut. More importantly, de Gaucourt was a man who aspired to live out the knightly ideal. He was knighted on the field of Nicopolis as a twenty-six-year-old crusader against the Turks, and, with Boucicaut, was captured and put to ransom in that disastrous battle. In 1400 he was one of the fourteen founding members of Boucicaut’s short-lived knightly Order of the White Lady on a Green Shield, who swore “to guard and defend the honour, estate, goods, reputation and praise of all ladies and maidens of noble line” and to fight à outrance against their oppressors. Nine years later, when Boucicaut was governor of Genoa, de Gaucourt led a small French army to his assistance. The two men campaigned together in Italy throughout the summer of 1409, besieging and capturing Milan, and when Boucicaut made his triumphal entry into the city, de Gaucourt was at his side. In the armed struggle between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, de Gaucourt distinguished himself in 1411 by capturing the bridge of St Cloud on behalf of Charles d’Orléans, but was later defeated in battle at the same place by a combined English and Burgundian force. As the chamberlain of Charles d’Orléans, he played a prominent role in the negotiations that led to the withdrawal of the duke of Clarence’s army from France in 1412 and served as captain of several Armagnac castles.

On 1 January 1415, de Gaucourt was one of sixteen knights and esquires who were chosen by Jean, duke of Bourbon, to be the founding members of another new order of chivalry, the Order of the Fer du Prisonnier, or Prisoner’s Shackle. Like Boucicaut’s order, the duke of Bourbon’s was intended to uphold the honour of women of good birth: the golden shackle, with its chain, being a symbolic representation of the bonds of love, which fettered the knight to his mistress, rather than a reference to criminal activity. In accordance with the order’s constitution, de Gaucourt swore to wear a golden shackle and chain on his left leg every Sunday for two years, “in the expectation that, within that period, we may find an equal number of knights and esquires, of worth and ability, all of them men without reproach, who will wish to fight us all together on foot to the end, each to be armed with what armour he will, together with a lance, axe, sword and dagger at least, and with clubs of whatever length he may choose.” The arms of all the members of the order were to be hung in a chapel where, throughout the two years, a candle would burn, day and night, within another golden shackle used as a candlestick, before an image of Our Lady of Paris. If the challenge was accomplished, then the candle was to be endowed in perpetuity, together with daily masses, and each member would donate to the chapel his shackle and a picture of himself in the arms he wore that day. Anyone who forgot to wear the shackle on the designated Sundays had to pay a fine of four hundred shillings to charity for each offence.

De Gaucourt’s membership of this order raises the interesting possibility that he was wearing his golden shackle on Sunday 18 August, as he performed the far more serious challenge of leading three hundred men-at-arms to the relief of Harfleur. Constable d’Albret and Marshal Boucicaut had not been entirely idle during the English landing. As soon as it became clear that Harfleur was Henry V’s objective, they sent a stream of supplies, including weapons, cannon and ammunition, to reinforce the town. They must also have decided that they needed an experienced and trustworthy knight to take charge of the defences, which is why Raoul de Gaucourt was chosen for the task. Whether he came from Honfleur or Caudebec, the only route he could take into the town was through the Rouen gate on the eastern side. Time was of the essence. He had to get there before the English. His arrival, only the day after Henry laid siege to the western side of Harfleur, is an indication of the desperate pace of his dash across Normandy. Fortunately for his mission, the flooded fields that denied him access to Harfleur from the Montivilliers road also protected him, for the moment, from the English troops encamped on the hillside before the Leure gate. They could only watch helplessly as de Gaucourt coolly rode unopposed down the other side of the valley and into the town. It was not often that Henry V was outmanoeuvred and, as de Gaucourt was to discover to his cost, the king was not a man to forgive or forget such actions.

Henry’s inability to prevent de Gaucourt and his men getting into Harfleur demonstrated that it was imperative that no further reinforcements should reach the town by the Rouen road. He now entrusted this important task to his brother the duke of Clarence, whom the chaplain described as “a knight no less renowned for the practice of war than for personal courage.” In this instance, he proved himself worthy of both Henry’s confidence and the chaplain’s praise. Under cover of night, he led a large force of men and an artillery train on a difficult ten-mile detour that took them above, up and around the flooded Lézarde valley. During their march they even managed to intercept more reinforcements arriving from Rouen and captured “certain carts and wagons belonging to the enemy, with a great quantity of guns and powder-barrels and missiles and catapults.” At dawn the following day, to the consternation of the besieged, Clarence and his men appeared on the opposite hillside above the town, facing Henry and his troops.

While all these preparations were being made to lay siege to Harfleur by land, the seaward side was not neglected. Most of the merchant ships that had transported the army to France were allowed to go home after completing their disembarkation, though some returned again, bearing further supplies and reinforcements, including the men who had been left behind when the fleet first sailed. The fighting ships and the royal fleet were not released from service but moved in to blockade Harfleur, barring all access from the Seine or the sea; a number of small boats, carried overland and taking up position on the flooded Lézarde, did the same from the north. Trapped between the two armies to west and east, and blockaded by water to north and south, Harfleur was now completely encircled.

Before the great guns began their bombardment, Henry, punctilious as ever, gave the people of the town one last chance to surrender. He sent one of his heralds to proclaim that in accordance with the twentieth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy (which Henry had already quoted to Charles VI in his letter of 28 July), he offered them peace—if they would open their gates to him freely and without coercion, and, “as was their duty,” restore to him the town, “which was a noble and hereditary portion of his crown of England and of his duchy of Normandy.” If this offer was refused and Harfleur was captured by force, Deuteronomy authorised Henry to exact a terrible vengeance: “you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and every thing else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you.” Though de Gaucourt and d’Estouteville knew as well as Henry what the consequences of their refusal to surrender would be, their duty and honour would not allow them to do anything other than reject his offer out of hand, and defy him to do his worst.


Medieval Prints by Graham Turner
Reproduced in full colour on good quality art paper from Graham Turner’s Medieval paintings, featuring not only the dramatic battles of the Wars of the Roses and 100 Years War, but also more peaceful scenes from this turbulent period of history. Dimensions shown indicate the overall size, including a white border containing the title and any descriptive text.

The siege that followed was literally a textbook one, based principally on the ancient classical treatise on military tactics by Vegetius, De Rei Militari, which dated from the fourth century but had been translated and glossed by every medieval writer on the subject, including the fourteenth-century Egidius Romanus, known to the English as Master Giles, and Henry V’s own contemporaries, Christine de Pizan and Thomas Hoccleve. Following standard military practice, Henry ordered that the suburbs of Harfleur should be burnt and cleared, so that he could bring his cannon and siege engines within range of the walls. As the chaplain proudly pointed out, the king “did not allow his eyelids to close in sleep,” but laboured day and night to get his artillery in position. Many “great engines” to assault the town were constructed on site, as were “cunning instruments” for the protection of his own forces. Hordes of carpenters were employed in erecting huge wooden screens to protect the guns and catapults from enemy assault: an ingenious pulley-based device, operated from behind, allowed the gun crews to raise the base of the screen to set the gun’s projectory and fire it. The gunners themselves were protected by trenches built either side of their cannon and by ramparts, hastily constructed from the excavated earth thrown over bundles of sticks.

Once the assault on Harfleur began, it was devastating. For days on end, the seventy-eight gunners kept up an incessant bombardment; they worked in shifts, as soon as one team tired, another immediately taking its place, so that there was no respite for the besieged during the hours of daylight. The English cannon and catapults were trained on the main points of resistance—the bastion guarding the Leure gate, the towers and the walls—and as the ten thousand gun-stones they had brought with them did their deadly work, the fortifications of Harfleur gradually crumbled. The noise was terrible: the explosion of cannon-fire, the thud of gun-stones crashing into their targets, the splintering of timber defences and the rumble of falling masonry. One of the cannons, the monk of St Denis was told, was the biggest anyone had ever seen before. When it was fired, it discharged huge blocks as big as millstones with so much black smoke and such a terrifying report “that they seemed to issue forth from the fires of hell.”

In the face of this overwhelming assault, de Gaucourt and his men fought back with courage and determination, keeping up a retaliatory bombardment using guns, catapults, and crossbows as long as the bastion, towers and walls remained defensible. (One English man-at-arms, Thomas Hostell, was “smitten with a springolt [that is, a crossbow bolt] through the head, losing one eye and having his cheek bone broken,” though this injury did not prevent him from continuing to fight.) When it was no longer possible to defend the broken remnants of fortifications, the French doggedly fought on, “from inside the ruins also, from behind screens, and through shattered openings in the walls, and from other places where shelter would not have been thought possible.”

At night, when the guns were silent, the siege engines still and the English slept, there was no rest for the besieged, who laboured to repair their defences as best they could. Under de Gaucourt’s direction, and presumably with the aid of the civilian population, the crumbling walls were shored up with timber props, bundles of sticks and tubs packed with earth, dung, sand or stones. The lanes and streets inside the walls were also covered with a thick layer of clay, earth and dung to soften the impact of gun-stones falling or shattering inside the town and causing death or injury to the besieged. There was neither time nor energy to spare for repairing the civilian buildings, which suffered terribly under the bombardment. The parish church, St Martin’s, lost both its steeple and its bells. Many “really fine buildings,” as the chaplain noted with regret, even those almost in the middle of the town, were completely destroyed or so badly damaged that they were on the point of collapse.

While the artillery wreaked its devastation from the air, Henry’s Welsh miners were hard at work burrowing under the fortifications of Harfleur. The greatest efforts were made on the Rouen side of the town, where Clarence was in command, because at this point there was no moat to be crossed. Here the walls were protected only by a double ditch, the depth of the inner one being an unknown quantity, as no spy or scout had been able to get close enough to investigate.

Military mining had been introduced to Europe from the east during the Crusades in the thirteenth century. It involved digging a tunnel, or a web of tunnels, under the weakest point of a fortification, which was usually a corner or a gatehouse. The walls and roof of the tunnels, like those in a conventional mine, would be shored up with timber props which, at the right moment, would be set alight to make the tunnel collapse. Unlike a conventional mine, where those digging for coal or metal ores had to follow a seam and could work on their hands and knees if necessary, military mines had to be large enough to be able to bring down tons of masonry. This meant that they were usually wide and tall enough to take at least a man standing upright, and in some cases must have resulted in the creation of a vast underground chamber.

The most effective way of preventing a successful mining operation was for the besieged to counter-mine, or dig their own tunnels beneath and into the enemy mines to make them collapse before they reached the walls. Where the sheer weight of earth failed to do this, brushwood and incendiary devices were dropped or thrown in to set the props alight, smoke out the miners and bring down the tunnels. (Christine de Pizan even recommended placing large tubs of boiling water or urine at the entrance to the mine, which could be emptied on the unfortunate miners to scald or maim them.) Occasionally, mine and counter-mine would meet, providing the opportunity for a curious subterranean version of the feat of arms, which, given the difficulties to be overcome, was highly prized by chivalrous knights and esquires as a demonstration of exceptional personal valour. In the narrow and gloomy confines of the mine, lit only by the flickering flames of torches, two men-at-arms would fight with whatever weapons they had to hand—swords, daggers, axes and maces—until one of them conceded defeat or an impasse was reached. One cannot imagine men of the calibre of Sir John Cornewaille and Raoul de Gaucourt neglecting such an opportunity to distinguish themselves, and the chroniclers report that there were daily encounters in the mine: “And who most manly fought in the same, supposed himselfe to have achieved greate victorie. And so that mine that was begun for the sudden invasion of the Towne was changed into the exercise of knightlie acts.” So dangerous and prestigious was such combat held to be that those who fought an encounter of this kind were judged to share a special bond and could become brothers-in-arms, even though they came from opposing sides. The most spectacular instance on record took place during the long siege of Melun in 1420, when Henry V himself is said to have fought the captain of the garrison, the sire de Barbazan, on horseback within the mines. When Melun finally fell, Henry announced his intention to execute Barbazan as a rebel. Barbazan responded by invoking the law of arms, claiming that they were brothers-in-arms because they had fought together in the mine, and that his life should therefore be spared. Henry accepted the validity of this claim and did indeed refrain from executing him.

Despite the English efforts, the French successfully thwarted every attempt to undermine their walls. Henry V had ordered a “sow” to be made, this being a protective mobile shelter under which the miners could take cover as they did their work. All the military textbooks recommended that mining should be conducted out of sight of the enemy, but this was impossible at Harfleur because of the lie of the land. As soon as the French saw that the sow was in place and that a mine was in progress, they took retaliatory measures, digging counter-mines and employing “other technical skills” that were evidently superior to those of the less experienced Welsh miners. Two attempts to undermine the walls were foiled and a third failed to achieve its objective. The only compensation for this lack of success was that the operation had been a useful diversion and forced the French to divide their forces in the town’s defence.

Clarence was also forced to abandon his attempt to fill in the ditches below the Rouen gate walls. For this purpose, he had been gathering bundles of wood and piling them up in front of the ditches. He then discovered that the French had also been busy, stockpiling barrels of flammable powders, oils and fats on the walls. They were only waiting for the English to begin crossing the ditches before setting fire to the barrels and flinging them onto the ready-made bonfires below so as to burn Clarence’s men alive. But this threat did not prevent his men from taking possession of the outer ditch. Having advanced to this new position, Clarence appointed masters-of-works to supervise the digging of a trench, a section of which every man-at-arms and archer in his force was assigned to complete. The excavated soil thrown up on the front facing the enemy was further fortified with a palisade made of tree trunks and stakes, from behind which the gunners and archers could operate in comparative safety. Shielded behind their new defences, the English were now in range and able to drive the defenders off the walls with a barrage of missiles and gun-stones.

Although these operations were all carried out under Clarence’s orders, the king himself was in direct control and issuing the commands that his brother obeyed. It was a situation fraught with difficulties, not least because every message carried between the two divisions of the army had to be taken either by boat across the flooded Lézarde valley or by land on the long detour round the valley head. This was a problem that demanded an urgent solution and Henry had applied himself to finding one. According to Master Jean de Bordiu, one of the most senior clerks in the royal household, “Our king cut off the water supply before Montivilliers, which they had retained so that it could not run into the sea.” Though this rather mysterious phrase is open to interpretation, it suggests that Henry dammed the Lézarde higher up the valley, closer to Montivilliers, which was less than three miles away from Harfleur. This would have had two effects. First, it would have deprived the people of Harfleur of their main supply of fresh water, which was a priority of any besieging army hoping to make life on the inside increasingly wretched. Second, it must also have led to the draining of the flooded fields above the town. No chronicler mentions such engineering works, or, indeed, that the flood waters created by closing the sluices at Harfleur gradually evaporated or drained away during the course of the siege, but it is difficult to find any other explanation for de Bordiu’s explicit statement.

Henry was indefatigable in his personal supervision of the siege. No one, not even his brother, knew when or where he would appear next. “The Kinge daylie and nightlie in his owne person visited and searched the watches, orders, and stacions of everie part of his hoast, and whome he founde dilligent he praised and thanked, and the negligent he corrected and chasticed.” Jehan Waurin, the fifteen-year-old illegitimate son of the seneschal of Flanders, believed that “King Henry, who was very cunning, often went around the town in disguise to identify the weakest and most suitable place by which he could take it.” Whether true or not, the circulation of such stories was a tribute to the power of the king’s character and a highly effective way of keeping his men up to the mark. (They also would inspire Shakespeare’s “little touch of Harry in the night” scene.) This was increasingly important as the siege entered its third week and the battering inflicted on Harfleur had not yet forced its surrender.

Henry, however, was convinced that its fall was imminent. On 3 September Master Jean de Bordiu, who was well placed to know the king’s plans, wrote to the citizens of his native Bordeaux in English Aquitaine:

Please know that the town of Harfleur, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, will be in the king’s hands before 8 days at most. For now it is well and truly breached on the landward side and on two flanks, and everything destroyed inside . . . And when he has taken it, I have heard it is not his intention to enter the town but to stay in the field. In a short while after the capture of the town, he intends to go to Montivilliers, and thence to Dieppe, afterwards to Rouen, and then to Paris.

On the same day, Henry himself also wrote to Bordeaux, cheerfully informing the citizens that “ourselves and all those of our company [are] in good health and disposition.”

For this, in all humility, we give thanks to our lord God the Almighty, hoping that, by His grace, He will give us, in pursuit of our right, the fulfilment of our desire and undertaking, to His pleasure, and for the honour and comfort of us and you, and of all our other faithful lieges and subjects. To this end we shall do our duty, so that, with God’s help, our enemies will be henceforward less powerful to cause you trouble and harm than they have been in the past.

Henry had underestimated the determination and ingenuity of de Gaucourt and his men. Harfleur would not fall in eight days, but in eighteen. And those ten extra days were to wreak havoc in the English army and force the king to change his plans.


The Siege of Harfleur, 1415 by Brian Palmer. (GL)

King Henry V of England leads his army at the siege of Harfleur in 1415.

The problem was dysentery, the scourge of every army on campaign, which was known to the English as “the bloody flux” because its main symptom is bloody diarrhoea.

All the conditions for an outbreak were present at Harfleur, both within the beleaguered town and in the besieging armies. The weather was hot and humid and the salt marshes and standing water of the flooded fields in the valley bottom were breeding grounds for bacteria and insects. If Henry had indeed succeeded in damming the higher reaches of the Lézarde, this may well have contributed to the problem by reducing the amount of running fresh water available to his own men. The marshy nature of the land also made it more difficult safely to dispose of not only human and animal faeces but also detritus, such as animal carcasses, which was the inevitable consequence of feeding so many troops. Trenches were dug for privies and burial pits for other waste, but these could not be sealed and the problem of sanitation would only increase the longer the siege went on. Nor should it be forgotten that the many thousands of horses in the army, each needing to drink four gallons a day, would probably have contributed to the contamination of the water; we know that many of them, too, died of murrain, an infectious disease.

The physicians and surgeons in the king’s army were not unaware of the dangers of diseases associated with campaigning. The king’s personal physician, Nicholas Colnet, possessed a copy of Bernard Gordon’s influential and popular treatise, Lilium Medicinae, which set out the following highly relevant and practical advice:

But if the physician is in an army, then the King’s tent and the tents of the physicians and surgeons should be on higher ground, facing a favourable wind; on no account should the tent be at a lower level where all the refuse gathers. Good fresh air, without any stench of corpses or any other things, should be chosen. In summer, the tent should face south and the physicians should carefully take into account everything that might bring sickness on the army and eliminate it as far as possible; such things are heat, rain, rotting corpses, diseases, nuts, cabbages, trees, plants, reptiles, swamps, and such like.

In accordance with this advice, the king and his brother had pitched their tents on the hillsides above Harfleur. What neither they nor anyone else in the army could do, even if they had understood how the disease was transmitted, was avoid all contact with those who were infected.

Exactly when the first cases of dysentery appeared in the English army (or in Harfleur) is not recorded. The presence of the disease only comes to the chroniclers’ attention on 15 September, when its most prominent victim died. Richard Courtenay, bishop of Norwich, was a man who, despite his profession, had put his extraordinary abilities wholly at the service of his king rather than his God. A doctor of civil and canon law, twice elected chancellor of the University of Oxford, of which he was a generous and learned patron, diplomat, financier and a constant companion and advisor to Henry V, the only thing he had never found time to do was to visit his diocese, where John Leicester, archbishop of Smyrna, lived in his palace and performed his ecclesiastical duties for him. For the English chaplain (who was unaware of the bishop’s spying activities), Courtenay was “a man of noble birth, imposing stature, and superior intelligence, distinguished no less for his gifts of great eloquence and learning than for other noble endowments of nature, . . . regarded as agreeable above all others to members of the king’s retinue and councils.” He was also, the chaplain said, “the most loving and dearest” of the king’s friends, which is perhaps a more remarkable epitaph, since there were few men who could claim such a relationship with Henry V. That it was justified is indicated by the fact that the king himself attended his deathbed, bathed his feet for him and closed Courtenay’s eyes when he died. Courtenay was just thirty-five years old. His body was sent back to England where, on the king’s personal command, he was buried among the royal tombs behind the high altar in Westminster Abbey.

Three days later, on 18 September, the king lost another devoted servant to the same disease. Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, “a knight of the most excellent and kindly reputation,” was fifty-four years old, had accompanied Henry’s father on crusade to Prussia, and after he became king served him in all his expeditions “by See and by Lande.” The war in France which brought about his premature end would also claim the lives of four of his five sons. His eldest son Michael, who was not yet twenty-one and was also in the army at Harfleur, was killed at Agincourt. Joan of Arc proved to be the nemesis of the rest. Alexander met his death at the battle of Jargeau on 12 June 1429, and in the same battle his three remaining brothers were taken prisoner; two of them, John and Thomas, died in captivity. The de la Poles paid a high price for their loyalty to the Lancastrian kings of England.

On 15 September, the same day that Richard Courtenay died, a second serious setback occurred. Either because Courtenay’s death had distracted them or, more likely, because they had simply relaxed their guard after almost a month of siege, the men besieging the Leure gate fell victim to a surprise attack by the French. Remarkably, those responsible for this dereliction of duty included Sir John Holland, Sir John Cornewaille and his brother-in-arms Sir William Porter, who had all shared the privilege of being the first to land at Chef-de-Caux. Seizing the moment, the French made a desperate sally out of the gate and managed to set fire to the English defences before being driven back with heavy losses. (It is tempting to think that Raoul de Gaucourt was behind this doomed but gallant gesture, not least because it took place on a Sunday, the day when he wore his golden prisoner’s shackle and chivalric deeds were uppermost in his mind.) Though the attack had inflicted only minor damage in military terms, it was a significant morale-booster for the beleaguered garrison, who taunted their foes as being only half-awake, lazy and failing to keep a better watch.

There could be only one response to such insults. The following morning, Holland and Cornewaille began an all-out assault on the gate. Arrows, wrapped in tow, dipped in pitch and set alight, were rained upon the fortified position to drive those guarding it away and wreak further destruction. Under cover of night, at Henry V’s command, the ditch separating the English from the gate had been filled with bundles of sticks, so that they could now cross over, torch the gun-shattered remnants of the outer walls and attack the French defenders. Holland’s standard was carried into the centre of the bastion and his men streamed in after it. The French put up a fierce resistance in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, but eventually, exhausted by their futile attempts to put out the flames, surrounded by smoke and conflagration and overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers, they were forced to abandon their position and retreat behind the town walls. Even now they did not give up their efforts, but swiftly blocked the entrance behind them with timber, stone, earth and dung, so that the English, having gained the bastion, were still unable to enter the town. It took them several days to extinguish the flames, but the remains of the shattered fortification continued to smoke for another fortnight.

Evidently hoping that this success would have broken the spirit of the French, Henry sent a herald into Harfleur the next morning, 17 September, with a safe-conduct for de Gaucourt and a group of representatives of the town council, so that they could come into the English camp to discuss terms. Henry was at his most charming and persuasive: he greeted them in person and advised them, in his kindliest manner, to surrender the town. He reminded them that Harfleur was part of the duchy of Normandy, which had belonged to the English crown by right since ancient times, and of the fate that would befall them if they continued to resist him. De Gaucourt was exhausted, half-starved, suffering from dysentery himself and staring death in the face, but he still had his pride and his sense of duty. He refused to surrender. Defiantly, he informed Henry that he had not received his office as captain of the town from him and did not recognise his authority: he knew that the king of France would not allow the siege of Harfleur to continue much longer and that any day he would arrive at the head of his army to drive the English away.

It is impossible to know whether de Gaucourt believed these proud words himself. He may have had a blindly optimistic faith that his king would not allow such an important place as Harfleur to fall without striking a blow in its defence. On the other hand, a man of his military experience must have known that, in tactical terms, it was probably better to allow Harfleur to fall and recapture it after the English had left, rather than risk everything on the unpredictable outcome of a pitched battle.

Cut off from the outside world by the besieging armies, it must have been difficult for de Gaucourt to get any intelligence, let alone up to date information, about what efforts were being made on his behalf. Constable d’Albret and Marshal Boucicaut had now, apparently, united their forces at Rouen. There they had spent huge sumspurchasing a small boat, filling it with food and other necessaries and entrusting it to one Jehan Lescot, a local mariner, with instructions that he should take it to the relief of Harfleur. Astonishingly, Lescot (who may have been a pirate and was highly paid for his services) succeeded in getting through the English blockade not once, but twice, for de Gaucourt later arranged for him to escape in secret from the town, so that he could report back to d’Albret on conditions there. D’Albret also sent Robin de Hellande, the bailli of Rouen, to Paris, entrusted with verbal messages to the king, dauphin and council “touching the descent and arrival of the English and the provisions that ought to be made against them, for the salvation of the said town of Harfleur and of the countryside around it.”

De Gaucourt may also have been aware that in addition to d’Albret and Boucicaut, some of the local nobility—among them the young seneschal of Hainault, who had once been so eager to test his valour against Englishmen in jousting challenges—had raised their own troops to resist the English. Frustrated by the failure of any officially organised resistance, they had determined to take matters into their own hands, continually harrying the English troops, especially those camped with Clarence before the Rouen gate, and attacking any small groups of Englishmen they found scouting or foraging away from the army. One force of some five hundred or six hundred local knights, led by the sire de Lille Adam and Jacques de Brimeu, decided to make a grand gesture. The plan was that a small party would ride within sight of the enemy camp so that the English would raise the alarm and then give chase on horseback, leaving their archers behind. When they had been drawn sufficiently far away from the main army, they would be ambushed and slaughtered by de Lille Adam and de Brimeu. Unfortunately for the French, de Lille Adam made his move too early and was seen by the English men-at-arms. Realising it was a trap, they immediately abandoned the chase and returned to the safety of their camp. The disaster was compounded by the capture of both de Lille Adam and Brimeu.

While the local nobility did what they could to resist and harry the English invaders, the princes of the blood royal seemed incapable of decisive action. It was not until 28 August, a week and a half after the siege of Harfleur had begun, that the king’s council at last issued the general call to arms in defence of the country, which it was the duty of every man capable of bearing weapons to obey. The king’s letters authorising the proclamation of the summons in every town and at every public meeting were sent out to the baillis and seneschals of each district with instructions that the muster should take place at Rouen. Letters were also sent directly to towns such as Verdun, Tournai and Amiens, which had their own city militias, ordering them to send assistance to Harfleur. Fifty crossbowmen did indeed belatedly leave Tournai on 17 September, but they did not get as far as Harfleur and returned home two months later, never having encountered the English at all. On 1 September embassies were sent to both Charles d’Orléans and John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, requesting them to send five hundred men-at-arms each. It was a measure of how deep the rift between them remained, despite the peace that had been celebrated only a few months previously, that both dukes were asked not to come in person with their troops.

On 1 September the dauphin set out with his household from Paris, arriving a couple of days later at Vernon, just over halfway to Rouen, where he remained for the rest of the month. Charles VI himself was not capable of leading his army into war, but on 10 September he made a personal pilgrimage to the great royal abbey of St Denis and there collected the sacred oriflamme from the high altar. It was then entrusted to Guillaume Martel, sire de Bacqueville, who took the customary oath as its bearer, before setting off to join the king’s army gathering at Rouen. A citizen of Paris was sufficiently stirred by these events to note the preparations and departures in his journal. It was perhaps indicative of the general mood in Paris that it was not the plight of his fellows in far-off Harfleur which stirred his indignation, but the tax imposed to finance the campaign. It was, he complained, the heaviest ever seen.

As the situation in Harfleur became increasingly desperate, de Gaucourt sent message after message to the dauphin, pleading for assistance. “Your humble subjects, so closely besieged and reduced to great distress by the English, beg your highness that you will make haste to send them help to raise the siege, so that they are not compelled to surrender this most renowned and valuable port and thus bring shame on the majesty of the king.” The dauphin was either embarrassed by these pleas, or simply indifferent to them, for the messengers found it almost impossible to gain admittance to his presence. When they did, they were fobbed off with assurances that “our father the king will deal with these things at an opportune moment.” All they could do was report back that a vast army, forty thousand strong, it was claimed, was gathering at Rouen. What they could not do was say whether it would arrive in time to save the courageous defenders of Harfleur, or merely to avenge them.


Kelly Turner, the commander of Task Force 62, the amphibious force, was forged from the same hard brass as his mentor, Ernest J. King, whom he had served as director of war plans in the war’s first months. Turner was hard on subordinates, and carried himself with an edgy intensity. “Whenever he became disgusted,” a sailor who knew him wrote, “he would emit a small spitting sound, stamp his foot lightly and say ‘Balls!’ ”

But he could show warmth when he needed to. “I have seen him ‘blow up’ a junior officer and I was taken in,” a magazine reporter said, “till I saw the look in his eye and the smile that finally came.… He is aware of men’s sensitivities and he recognizes their abilities even when they occasionally annoy him. His men admit he is tough—he admits it himself—but they love to work for him.”

Given the problems that plagued the supply effort at the beach, Turner was fortunate that ground resistance was so light. His cargo ships did not have enough men embarked to haul crates and equipment for forty-eight hours straight. Without the benefit of docks, cranes, or other cargo-handling facilities on the virgin beach, it was impossible to unload directly to shore. Small boats had to ferry the cargo in, and when they reached the beach, hundreds of them gunwale-to-gunwale, human hands did the heavy lifting. Beyond the backbreaking nature of the work itself was the problem of organization and triage. According to the commander of the transport Hunter Liggett, “After dark, conditions reached a complete impasse.” It took waiting boats up to six hours for a chance to land.

The tremors of the interservice argument that would define the first two weeks of the operation arrived quickly. “No small share of the blame for this delay,” the commander continued, “which prolonged by nearly twenty-four hours the period when the ships lay in these dangerous waters, would seem to rest with the Marine Corps personnel and organization. The Marine Corps Pioneers, whose function it was to unload the boats and keep the beach clear, were far too few in numbers.” An officer from the transport Barnett described men “lounging around under the palm trees eating coconuts, lying down shooting coconuts from the trees; also playing around and paddling about in rubber boats. All of these men were Marines that should have been unloading boats.” Even Kelly Turner, whose fondness for his seagoing infantrymen was peerless, pointed to “a failure on the part of the First [Marine] Division to provide adequate and well organized unloading details on the beach. The Marine officers on my staff feel very strongly on these matters—as strongly as I do.”

Time was of the essence, but speed faced many obstacles. Many of the small craft used to bring in supplies were loaded so deeply by the head that they couldn’t make it all the way up the beach. When their ramps were lowered, they filled with water and their straining engines drowned. Compounding the trouble was the way the big transports offshore had been loaded in Wellington: for commerce, efficiently and in volume, not for combat, enabling quick access to food and ammunition. In the Chesapeake Bay area and on the West Coast, the Navy was still establishing specialty schools to teach these skills to their beachmasters. At Guadalcanal, on-the-job training would have to suffice.

Early in the evening of August 8, in his flagship McCawley, Turner was wrestling with these frustrations, minding the possibility of further attacks, when Frank Jack Fletcher did what Turner had been dreading for two weeks. In a message to Admiral Ghormley, Fletcher was requesting permission to withdraw his three aircraft carriers, now serving as Task Force 62’s umbrella and shield, from their supporting positions near Guadalcanal.

The reasons Fletcher cited were various—that his F4F Wildcat fighter force had, after two days of action against Japanese bombers, been whittled from ninety-nine planes to seventy-eight; that his ships’ fuel reserves were dwindling; and that the presence of torpedo-armed enemy aircraft posed a threat to his carriers. Fletcher’s reasoning was never clear or consistent. When he asked Admiral Noyes, the tactical commander of the carrier force, for his opinion about a withdrawal, a shortage of fuel was not among his expressed concerns. But when Ghormley notified Nimitz of the decision, fuel was the only concern he mentioned.

Turner never forgot the contentious planning conference on the Saratoga, where he and General Vandegrift pushed for the carriers to remain on station through August 9. Fletcher’s defenders say he only ever promised two days of air support—through August 8. Either way, the argument continued. Passions about the use of the carriers ran so high that they even got to the gentlemanly Marine commander. Vandegrift would be moved, in his memoirs, to accuse Fletcher of rank cowardice: “This was the Koro [Saratoga] conference relived, except that Fletcher was running away twelve hours earlier than he had already threatened during our unpleasant meeting. We all knew his fuel could not have been running low since he refueled in the Fijis.”

Though Ghormley approved his request solely on the basis of a fuel shortage, Fletcher’s carriers had enough fuel for several additional days at cruising speed. His destroyers were at about half capacity, with enough fuel for about thirty-six hours of high-speed operation. The larger ships on hand could have topped them off. Since he had yet to receive Fletcher’s final operations plan, Ghormley had no independent knowledge of the actual risks to the carriers and felt bound to take Fletcher at his word. “All knew that the enemy could arrive in force and catch our Task Forces short of fuel,” Ghormley wrote. “This had to be considered very seriously. When Fletcher, the man on the spot, informed me he had to withdraw for fuel, I approved. He knew his situation in detail; I did not.”

Weeks earlier, in joining MacArthur’s call to delay the invasion, Ghormley had expressed the need for a continuous presence by carrier aircraft. As MacArthur put it to King, “It is the opinion of the two commanders, arrived at independently and confirmed after discussion, that the initiation of this operation at this time without a reasonable assurance of adequate air coverage during each phase would be attended with the gravest risk as has been thoroughly demonstrated by the Japanese reverses in the Coral Sea and at Midway.” The Navy’s successes were also cautionary tales. If “assurance of adequate air coverage” was indeed essential, one might wonder why Ghormley did not more closely monitor the carriers’ actual fuel needs or simply insist they stay on hand, within range of shore.

Fletcher was the most battle-seasoned senior officer in Operation Watchtower. The experience of combat had taught him its costs. At both Coral Sea and Midway he had had a great carrier, the Lexington and then the Yorktown, sunk from under him. At a time when the Pacific carrier fleet numbered just four, three of which were assigned to Watchtower, he was fearful of further losses. During the day, the Enterprise, Wasp, and Saratoga operated from a position about twenty-five miles south of the eastern end of Guadalcanal. From there, naval aircraft on patrol were but a quick few minutes from the beaches. Though Japanese planes from Rabaul six hundred miles away would have little capacity to strike them even if they could find them, the danger posed by the Japanese carriers and submarines was considerable. The paramount question was whether the carriers were foremost in Fletcher’s mind, or the overall operation.

In his original July 2 operational order to Nimitz, King had specified the conditions under which the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) could order the carriers withdrawn. “The withdrawal of the naval attached units of the U.S. fleet may be ordered by the U.S. chiefs of staff upon completion of any particular phase of the operation in the event that (1) conditions develop which unduly jeopardize the aircraft carriers (2) an emergency arises in other Pacific areas which dictates such withdrawal” (emphasis added). In King’s view, completion of a particular phase of the operation—for instance, the landings—was a necessary precondition to a high-level decision to remove the carriers. Not even a serious threat to the carriers themselves excused their departure prior to the completion of a phase. Though it is unclear exactly what constituted a “phase,” and while the criteria for a withdrawal ordered by the JCS were not the same as for one ordered by the tactical commander, it does seem unlikely that Admiral King ever envisioned a withdrawal before the initial unloading of supplies was done. The second precondition allowing the carriers’ withdrawal—undue jeopardy to them—required that Fletcher view his losses of fighter planes and consumption of fuel, both rather predictable outcomes of operations, as excessive.

Fletcher was said to be the only U.S. flag officer who understood that Watchtower would provoke the Japanese to a major naval counterattack. “His major job,” wrote author Richard B. Frank, “was to win the carrier fleet action that would decide the fate of the Marines.” If that was the case, it would have been reckless to risk his carriers before that threat actually appeared. He knew he would have to win that battle without ready reinforcement to make up his losses. No new carriers were due from the shipyards until late 1943.

A well-situated referee to the controversy over Fletcher’s decision making was Marine colonel Melvin J. Maas. If his position on Fletcher’s staff makes his sympathy for his boss unsurprising, his status as a leatherneck inclined him to balanced perspective. He believed the only way the Japanese could retake Guadalcanal was through a major amphibious counteroffensive. “Marines cannot be dislodged by bombers,” Maas wrote. Because he saw the carriers as the key to preventing an enemy landing, he favored a withdrawal of the carriers, even at the expense of his brothers.

“To be able to intercept and defeat [Japanese troop landings], our carrier task forces must be fueled and away so as not to be trapped here.… By withdrawing to Nouméa or Tongatabu, we can be in a position to intercept and pull a second Midway on their carriers. If, however, we stay on here and then, getting very low on fuel, withdraw to meet our tankers, and if they should be torpedoed, our whole fleet would be caught helpless and would be cold meat for the Japs, with a resultant loss of our fleet, 2/3 of our carriers, and we would lose Tulagi as well, with all the Marines there and perhaps all the transports.

“It is true, Marines will take a pounding until their own air gets established (about ten days or so), but they can dig in, hole up, and wait. Extra losses are a localized operation. This is balanced against a potential National tragedy. Loss of our fleet or one or more of these carriers is a real, worldwide tragedy.” There is little doubt Fletcher’s view of the situation off Guadalcanal took a serious accounting of the strategic significance of this scarcity of carrier power.

So would go the debate. The amphibious commanders met on the evening of August 8 to discuss what to do, Kelly Turner summoning Vandegrift and Crutchley to his flagship, the McCawley. Vandegrift arrived by launch from the beach. Shortly after 9 p.m., Crutchley, the cruiser force commander, pulled his flagship, the heavy cruiser Australia, out of formation in the southwestern covering force and set course for Lunga Point. This left the other two cruisers in that force, the Chicago and the Canberra, to guard that entrance to the sound. Crutchley left the commander of the Chicago, Captain Howard D. Bode, in interim command of his group.

The Australia anchored off Lunga Point, and Crutchley took a whaleboat to the McCawley. During the meeting, Vandegrift was struck by both Turner’s and Crutchley’s absolute physical weariness. There had been no break in the pressure they faced. Two days of air attacks and continuous difficulties with logistics ashore had worn them down to the threshold of exhaustion. Turner announced a tentative decision that he had been reluctant to make: In view of Fletcher’s withdrawal, he would remove the transports and all of the cargo ships from the area, too. They would leave at sunrise on the ninth. Turner asked Vandegrift if enough stores had been unloaded to last his forces for a while. He asked Crutchley whether the cruiser screen could hold for a day or two without the protection of carrier-based fighter planes. Turner heard their grumbling affirmations and let’s-hope-sos and adjourned the meeting at eleven forty-five.