8.8 cm Raketenwerfer 43

The 8,8 cm Raketenwerfer 43 (German: “Puppchen”) was an 88 mm calibre reusable anti-tank rocket launcher developed by the Nazi Germany during World War II.

It was given to infantry to bolster their anti-tank capability. The weapon was fired from a small two-wheeled gun carriage which fired a rocket-propelled, fin-stabilized grenade with a shaped charge warhead. Approximately 3 000 units were completed from 1943 to 1945. It was made in much smaller numbers than either the Panzerschreck, which was based on the American Bazooka, or the Panzerfaust, which was a disposable recoilless rifle firing an anti-tank grenade. This is partly because it was realized that a simple hollow tube with an ignition device was all that was needed to launch the 88 mm rocket, rather than an elaborate miniature artillery piece with carriage and breech.

Puppchen: In 1944 the Anhaltisch/Westfalische Sprengstoff AG of Reindorf (also known as WASAG), submitted a design for the German Army requirement for a light anti-tank gun. This particular design, by Dr. Erich Von Holt, was original in its approach. The idea was to use a “Raketen Panzerbuchse 54”, better known as an “Ofenruhr” or “Stove Pipe”. Similar to the American 2.36 inch Bazooka. The tube, unlike a pipe, had a simple sliding breach block, which, when closed, sealed the rear of the weapon. This gave the specially prepared 88mm hollow charged rocket a greater velocity and range than the standard Panzerbuchse 54, which had a velocity of 110 meters/second and a maximum range of about 150 meters. The Raketenwerfer 43 “Puppchen” (doll), had a considerably better performance with an improved muzzle velocity of 180 meters/second and an effective range of 700 meters. The ring stabilized 88mm rocket projectile was competent to perform admirably alongside its conventional cousin in penetrating armor plate up to 160mm thick with the advantage of a single round only weighing 2.60 kg. About 1,000 “Puppchens” were believed to have been manufactured. The accuracy and the high performance of the weapon were quickly learned by the OKH Oberkommando des Heer, (Army High Command) on July 1st, 1944 stating that “The special badge awarded for single-handed destruction of an enemy was not applicable when a Puppchen was used in its destruction”. So good was this weapon. The advantage of the Puppchen, with the breach loading arrangement, presented several disadvantages over conventional light anti-tank weapons. A relatively high recoil required the weapon to be mounted on a wheeled box section carriage which increased its weight considerably. However, as a mobile weapon it proved itself to be relatively easy to maneuver and bring into action quickly. The Puppchen could be fired with or with the wheels being mounted. On the Russian Front it was often mounted on skis. They were very popular with the German paras, as they were lighter weight and easier to maneuver than the Pak38’s etc they were otherwise issued with. With a rat of fire of 10 rounds a minute and the free-floating nature of the barrel aiming, them to aim and bring it to bear upon a target was lightning quick. Easily pulled by two men, and its small compact size meant it was ideally suited to the bocage fighting. So, the same AT/AP values as the Panzershreck.

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Towards World War

The lives of Europeans since August 1914 have been surrounded, impregnated and haunted by world war. At the time of writing most people on this continent over the age of seventy have passed through at least part of two wars in the course of their lives; all over the age of fifty, with the exception of Swedes, Swiss, Southern Irish and Portuguese, have experienced part of at least one. Even those born since 1945, since the guns ceased to fire across frontiers in Europe, have known scarcely a year when war was not abroad somewhere in the world, and have lived all their lives in the dark shadow of a third, nuclear, world conflict which, as virtually all their governments told them, was held at bay only by the endless competition to ensure mutual annihilation. How can we call such an epoch a time of peace, even if global catastrophe has been avoided for almost as long as major war between European powers was between 1871 and 1914? For, as the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed:

War consisteth not in battle only, or in the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known.

Who can deny that this has been the situation of the world since 1945?

This was not so before 1914: peace was the normal and expected framework of European lives. Since 1815 there had been no war involving all the European powers. Since 1871 no European power had ordered its armed men to fire on those of any other such power. The great powers chose their victims from among the weak, and in the non-European world, though they might miscalculate the resistance of their adversaries: the Boers gave the British far more trouble than expected, and the Japanese established their status as a great power by actually defeating Russia in 1904–5 with surprisingly little trouble. On the territory of the nearest and largest of the potential victims, the long-disintegrating Ottoman Empire, war was indeed a permanent possibility as its subject peoples sought to establish or enlarge themselves as independent states and subsequently fought each other, drawing the great powers into their conflicts. The Balkans were known as the powder-keg of Europe, and indeed that is where the global explosion of 1914 began. But the ‘Eastern Question’ was a familiar item on the agenda of international diplomacy, and while it had produced a steady succession of international crises for a century, and even one quite substantial international war (the Crimean War), it had never entirely escaped from control. Unlike the Middle East since 1945, the Balkans, for most Europeans who did not live there, belonged to the realm of adventure stories, such as those of the German boys’ author Karl May, or of operetta. The image of Balkan wars at the end of the nineteenth century was that of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which was, characteristically, turned into a musical (The Chocolate Soldier, by a Viennese composer in 1908).

Of course the possibility of a general European war was foreseen, and preoccupied not only governments and their general staffs, but a wider public. From the early 1870s on, fiction and futurology, mainly in Britain and France, produced generally unrealistic sketches of a future war. In the 1880s Friedrich Engels already analysed the chances of a world war, while the philosopher Nietzsche crazily, but prophetically, hailed the growing militarization of Europe and predicted a war which would ‘say yes to the barbarian, even to the wild animal within us’. In the 1890s the concern about war was sufficient to produce the World (Universal) Peace Congresses – the twenty-first was due in Vienna in September 1914 – the Nobel Peace prizes (1897) and the first of the Hague Peace Conferences (1899), international meetings by mostly sceptical representatives of governments, and the first of many gatherings since in which governments have declared their unwavering but theoretical commitment to the ideal of peace. In the 1900s war drew visibly nearer, in the 1910s its imminence could and was in some ways taken for granted.

And yet its outbreak was not really expected. Even during the last desperate days of the international crisis in July 1914 statesmen, taking fatal steps, did not really believe they were starting a world war. Surely a formula would be found, as so often in the past. The opponents of war could not believe either that the catastrophe they had so long foretold was now upon them. At the very end of July, after Austria had already declared war on Serbia, the leaders of international socialism met, deeply troubled but still convinced that a general war was impossible, that a peaceful solution to the crisis would be found. ‘I personally do not believe that there will be a general war,’ said Victor Adler, chief of Habsburg social democracy, on 29 July. Even those who found themselves pressing the button of destruction did so, not because they wanted to but because they could not help it, like Emperor William, asking his generals at the very last moment whether the war could not after all be localized in eastern Europe by refraining from attacking France as well as Russia – and being told that unfortunately this was quite impracticable. Those who had constructed the mills of war and turned the switches found themselves watching their wheels beginning to grind in a sort of stunned disbelief. It is difficult for anyone born after 1914 to imagine how deeply the belief that a world war could not ‘really’ come was engrained in the fabric of life before the deluge.

For most western states, and for most of the time between 1871 and 1914, a European war was thus a historical memory or a theoretical exercise for some undefined future. The major function of armies in their societies during this period was civilian. Compulsory military service – conscription – was by now the rule in all serious powers, with the exception of Britain and the USA, though in fact by no means all young men were conscripted; and with the rise of socialist mass movements generals and politicians were – mistakenly, as it turned out – sometimes nervous about putting arms into the hands of potentially revolutionary proletarians. For the ordinary conscripts, better acquainted with the servitude than the glories of the military life, joining the army became a rite of passage marking a boy’s arrival at manhood, followed by two or three years of drill and hard labour, made more tolerable by the notorious attraction of girls to uniforms. For the professional noncommissioned officers the army was a job. For the officers it was a children’s game played by adults, the symbol of their superiority to civilians, of virile splendour and of social status. For the generals it was, as always, the field for those political intrigues and career jealousies which are so amply documented in the memoirs of military chieftains.

For governments and ruling classes, armies were not only forces against internal and external enemies, but also a means of securing the loyalty, even the active enthusiasm, of citizens with troubling sympathies for mass movements which undermined the social and political order. Together with the primary school, military service was perhaps the most powerful mechanism at the disposal of the state for inculcating proper civic behaviour and, not least, for turning the inhabitant of a village into the (patriotic) citizen of a nation. School and military service taught Italians to understand, if not to speak, the official ‘national’ language, and the army turned spaghetti, formerly a regional dish of the impoverished south, into an all-Italian institution. As for the civilian citizenry, the colourful street theatre of military display was multiplied for their enjoyment, inspiration and patriotic identification: parades, ceremonials, flags and music. For the non-military inhabitants of Europe between 1871 and 1914 the most familiar aspect of armies was probably the ubiquitous military band, without which public parks and public occasions were difficult to imagine.

Naturally soldiers, and rather more rarely sailors, also from time to time carried out their primary functions. They might be mobilized against disorder and protest at moments of disturbance and social crisis. Governments, especially those which had to worry about public opinion and their electors, were usually careful about facing troops with the risk of shooting down their fellow citizens: the political consequences of soldiers firing on civilians were apt to be bad, and those of their refusal to do so were apt to be even worse, as demonstrated in Petrograd in 1917. Nevertheless troops were mobilized often enough, and the number of domestic victims of military repression was by no means negligible during this period, even in central and west European states not believed to be on the verge of revolution, like Belgium and the Netherlands. In countries like Italy they could be very substantial indeed.

For the troops, domestic repression was a harmless pursuit, but the occasional wars, especially in the colonies, were more risky. The risk was, admittedly, medical rather than military. Of the 274,000 US troops mobilized for the Spanish–American War of 1898 only 379 were killed and 1600 wounded, but more than 5000 died of tropical diseases. It is not surprising that governments were keen to support the medical researches which, in our period, achieved some control over yellow fever, malaria and other scourges of the territories still known as ‘the white man’s grave’. France lost in colonial operations between 1871 and 1908 an average of eight officers per year, including the only zone of serious casualties, Tonkin, where almost half the 300 officers killed in those thirty-seven years fell. One would not wish to underestimate the seriousness of such campaigns, all the more so since the losses among the victims were disproportionately heavy. Even for the aggressor countries, such wars could be anything but sporting trips. Britain sent 450,000 men to South Africa in 1899–1902, losing 29,000 killed and died of their wounds and 16,000 by disease, at the cost of £220 million. Such costs were far from negligible. Nevertheless, the soldier’s work in western countries was, by and large, considerably less dangerous than that of certain groups of civilian workers such as those in transport (especially by sea) and the mines. In the last three years of the long decades of peace, every year an average of 1430 British coal-miners were killed, an average of 165,000 (or more than 10 per cent of the labour force) injured. And the casualty rate in British coal-mines, though higher than the Belgian or Austrian, was somewhat lower than the French, about 30 per cent below the German, and not much more than one-third of that in the USA. The greatest risks to life and limb were not run in uniform.

Thus, if we omit Britain’s South African War, the life of the soldier and sailor of a great power was peaceful enough, though this was not the case for the armies of tsarist Russia, engaged in serious wars against the Turks in the 1870s, and a disastrous one against the Japanese in 1904–5; nor of the Japanese, who fought both China and Russia successfully. It is still recognizable in the entirely non-fighting memories and adventures of that immortal ex-member of the famous 91st Regiment of the imperial and royal Austrian army, the good soldier Schwejk (invented by its author in 1911). Naturally general staffs prepared for war, as was their duty. As usual most of them prepared for an improved version of the last major war within the experience or memory of the commandants of staff colleges. The British, as was natural for the greatest naval power, prepared for only a modest participation in terrestrial warfare, though it increasingly became evident to the generals arranging for co-operation with the French allies in the years before 1914 that much more would be required of them. But on the whole it was the civilians rather than the men who predicted the terrible transformations of warfare, thanks to the advances of that military technology which the generals – and even some of the technically more open-minded admirals – were slow to understand. Friedrich Engels, that old military amateur, frequently drew attention to their obtuseness, but it was a Jewish financier, Ivan Bloch, who in 1898 published in St Petersburg the six volumes of his Technical, Economic and Political Aspects of the Coming War, a prophetic work which predicted the military stalemate of trench warfare which would lead to a prolonged conflict whose intolerable economic and human costs would exhaust the belligerents or plunge them into social revolution. The book was rapidly translated into numerous languages, without making any mark on military planning.

While only some civilian observers understood the catastrophic character of future warfare, uncomprehending governments plunged enthusiastically into the race to equip themselves with the armaments whose technological novelty would ensure it. The technology of killing, already in the process of industrialization in the middle of the century, advanced dramatically in the 1880s, not only by virtual revolution in the speed and fire-power of small arms and artillery, but also by the transformation of warships by means of far more efficient turbine-engines, more effective protective armour and the capacity to carry far more guns. Incidentally even the technology of civilian killing was transformed by the invention of the ‘electric chair’ (1890), though executioners outside the USA remained faithful to old and tried methods such as hanging and beheading.

An obvious consequence was that preparations for war became vastly more expensive, especially as states competed to keep ahead of, or at least to avoid falling behind, each other. This arms race began in a modest way in the later 1880s, and accelerated in the new century, particularly in the last years before the war. British military expenses remained stable in the 1870s and 1880s, both as a percentage of the total budget and per head of the population. But it rose from £32 million in 1887 to £44·1 million in 1898/9 and over £77 million in 1913/14. And, not surprisingly, it was the navy, the high-technology wing of warfare which corresponded to the missile sector of modern armaments expenditure, which grew most spectacularly. In 1885 it had cost the state £11 million – about the same order of magnitude as in 1860. In 1913/14 it cost more than four times as much. Meanwhile German naval expenditure grew even more strikingly: from 90 million Marks per annum in the mid-1890s to almost 400 millions.

One consequence of such vast expenditures was that they required either higher taxes, or inflationary borrowing, or both. But an equally obvious, though often overlooked consequence was that they increasingly made death for various fatherlands a by-product of large-scale industry. Alfred Nobel and Andrew Carnegie, two capitalists who knew what had made them millionaires in explosives and steel respectively, tried to compensate by devoting part of their wealth to the cause of peace. In this they were untypical. The symbiosis of war and war production inevitably transformed the relations between government and industry, for, as Friedrich Engels observed in 1892, ‘as warfare became a branch of the grande industrie … la grande industrie … became a political necessity’. And conversely, the state became essential to certain branches of industry, for who but the government provided the customers for armaments? The goods it produced were determined not by the market, but by the never-ending competition of governments to secure for themselves a satisfactory supply of the most advanced, and hence the most effective, arms. What is more, governments needed not so much the actual output of weapons, but the capacity to produce them on a wartime scale, if the occasion arose; that is to say they had to see that their industry maintained a capacity far in excess of any peacetime requirements.

In one way or another states were thus obliged to guarantee the existence of powerful national armaments industries, to carry much of their technical development costs, and to see that they remained profitable. In other words, they had to shelter these industries from the gales which threatened the ships of capitalist enterprise sailing the unpredictable seas of the free market and free competition. They might of course have engaged in armaments manufacture themselves, and indeed had long done so. But this was the very moment when they – or at least the liberal British state – preferred to come to an arrangement with private enterprise. In the 1880s private armament producers took on more than a third of supply contracts for the armed forces, in the 1890s 46 per cent, in the 1900s 60 per cent: the government, incidentally, was ready to guarantee them two-thirds. It is hardly surprising that armaments firms were among, or joined, the giants of industry: war and capitalist concentration went together. In Germany Krupp, the king of cannons, employed 16,000 in 1873, 24,000 around 1890, 45,000 around 1900, and almost 70,000 in 1912 when the fifty-thousandth of Krupp’s famous guns left the works. In Britain Armstrong, Whitworth employed 12,000 men at their main works in Newcastle, who had increased to 20,000 – or over 40 per cent of all metalworkers on Tyneside – by 1914, not counting those in the 1500 smaller firms who lived by Armstrong’s sub-contracts. They were also very profitable.

Like the modern ‘military–industrial complex’ of the USA, these giant industrial concentrations would have been nothing without the armaments race of governments. It is therefore tempting to make such ‘merchants of death’ (the phrase became popular among peace campaigners) responsible for the ‘war of steel and gold’, as a British journalist was to call it. Was it not logical for the armaments industry to encourage the acceleration of the arms race, if necessary by inventing national inferiorities or ‘windows of vulnerability’, which could be removed by lucrative contracts? A German firm, specializing in the manufacture of machine-guns, managed to get a notice inserted in Le Figaro to the effect that the French government planned to double the number of its machine-guns. The German government consequently ordered 40 million Marks’ worth of these weapons in 1908–10, thus raising the firm’s dividends from 20 to 32 per cent. A British firm, arguing that its government had gravely underestimated the German naval rearmament programme, benefited by £250,000 for each new ‘dreadnought’ built by the British government, which doubled its naval construction. Elegant and shady persons like the Greek Basil Zaharoff, who acted for Vickers (and was later knighted for his services to the Allies in the First World War), saw to it that the arms industry of the great powers sold its less vital or obsolescent products to states in the Near East and Latin America, who were always ready to buy such hardware. In short, the modern international trade in death was well under way.

And yet we cannot explain the world war by a conspiracy of armourers, even though the technicians certainly did their best to convince generals and admirals more familiar with military parades than with science that all would be lost if they did not order the latest gun or battleship. Certainly the accumulation of armaments which reached fearful proportions in the last five years before 1914 made the situation more explosive. Certainly the moment came, at least in the summer of 1914, when the inflexible machine for mobilizing the forces of death could no longer be put into reserve. But what drove Europe into the war was not competitive armament as such, but the international situation which launched powers into it.

 

World War II: Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) I

It is hard to say when SEAD began. Undoubtedly during World War I early combat aircraft probably fired bullets at those taking pot shots at them, but it seems that the first dedicated application of a SEAD effort occurred during the early stages of the Battle of Britain between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe in 1940.

The early development and advances in Radio Direction Finding and Ranging, which became better known as radar, were not lost on the RAF. The efforts of Sir Robert Watson Watt, considered to be the inventor of radar, yielded a network of EW stations positioned around the United Kingdom and given the code-name Chain Home. Chain Home was intended to provide long-range ‘eyes’ for the RAF to warn them of approaching Luftwaffe aircraft. The system was a breakthrough. It gave the RAF as much as 30 minute’s advanced notice of an incoming formation of German bombers, enough time for fighters to be scrambled to meet the aircraft as they neared the British Isles. The Germans of course, put two-and-two together and realised that Chain Home was a de facto force multiplier which could exact a heavy toll on their aircraft. If future missions over the UK were to succeed then Chain Home would need to be destroyed.

The Luftwaffe began their attacks on the radar stations on the 12 August when destruction arrived from a fine and misty sky onto radar stations at Dover in Kent, Dunkirk in northern France, and Pevensey and Rye in East Sussex. The attack was enough to put all but Dunkirk out of action for 6 hours and would herald the Luftwaffe’s battle for air superiority, known as Adler Tag (Eagle Day); the prelude to Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of the British Isles. Yet, despite these successful attacks Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring called off further strikes believing them to be somewhat lacking in effectiveness. Göring’s lack of tactical understanding was perhaps not surprising, he did after all, famously switch the Luftwaffe’s priorities from hitting RAF airfields to bombing London, raining hell on the civilians below but leaving the airfields relatively untouched and the RAF free to destroy his bombers. This unwittingly ignited a debate over the virtues of strategic bombing which has raged ever since. Our Prussian friend would have been appalled, the Chain Homes were a perfect example of a CoG as they allowed fighters to be directed towards the bombers, and their comprehensive destruction could have made the outcome of the Battle of Britain, and the Second World War, very different.

That said, the Allies were also at risk from German air defences. Before the Battle of Britain had begun, the RAF had started to take the war to the Third Reich, performing a bombing raid on Berlin in August 1940. The dangers of AAA increased throughout the war. As such, formations of Allied bombers had to become larger to ensure that, to paraphrase British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, at least some of the bombers always got through to their target. The AAA was exacting a heavy loss on aircrew and aircraft, and subsequently degrading the effectiveness of the Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. One report by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as it was known until 1947, notes that while the damage from enemy fighters wrought on its bombers operating over Europe had been reduced, the devastation caused by AAA or ‘flak’ (an acronym for Flugabwehrkanone; ‘anti-aircraft cannon’) had increased damage ten-fold for bombers compared to damage inflicted by enemy fighters. The puffs of black smoke that exploded around the B-17 Flying Fortresses and Avro Lancasters which threaded their dangerous paths to their targets, were much more harmful than their pint-sized explosions would suggest. Well-placed rounds could damage an aircraft, preventing it from dropping its bombs and, at worse shoot the aircraft out of the sky. Realising the effectiveness of flak, the Luftwaffe saturated its AAA coverage, clustering the weapons in citadel-like structures known as Flaktürme or Flak Towers, their forbidding, slab-like appearance leaving little doubt as to their destructive purpose.

The Germans had also developed the Würzberg gun-laying radar during World War II which was deployed from 1941 and used to connect flak batteries for guiding AAA. The Würzburg had a range of around 18 miles (29 km) and could pick up targets after they had been detected at long range by the Freya system. The fire control radar allegedly got its name from Wilhelm Runge, its inventor, blindly sticking a pin into a map and hitting the city of Würzburg. Production of Würzburg began in 1940 and around 3,000 would be built in three versions; ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ with the accuracy of the system steadily improving as time went by. The accuracy of the Würzburg was particularly good up to a range of around ten miles (16 km) and could give the radar operator an accurate picture as to the location of an incoming formation of aircraft.

Würzburg was joined by the Freya long-range EW radar system which had a range of 100 miles (160 km), and over 1,000 were constructed during the war. The radar was linked to Germany’s network of ground observers to provide an embryonic Integrated Air Defence System (IADS). The first engagement that the RAF had with a Freya radar was on 18 December 1939, when eighteen RAF Wellington bombers were performing a daylight bombing attack on Germany. The radar was able to detect the bombers and direct fighter aircraft to intercept them.

The long-range radar could detect the incoming formation of aircraft and alert the Würzburg operators as to their expected avenue of attack. Würzburg would then watch the skies and once it had detected the formation, hand the targets off to flak batteries which could bring accurate fire to bear on the formation. The Germans invested heavily in radar technology, and it would not be long before networks of radar were positioned throughout occupied Europe covering many directions of possible advance.

The British took strenuous efforts to seek and destroy German radar and a high priority was placed on the Würzburg sets. During a reconnaissance sortie on 22 November 1941, an RAF photo-reconnaissance unit (PRU) Spitfire had taken a picture of a German radar installation at Bruneval near Le Havre on the French coast. Reginald Victor Jones, the British Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) and radar expert, had stressed the need for an intensive effort to hunt down German radar systems after the acquisition of the famous Oslo Report by the British in 1939 which, amongst other things, detailed the characteristics of German EW radar technology.

The installation at Bruneval prompted further interest and another PRU sortie was performed on 5 December, this time with Flight Lieutenant Tony Hill at the Spitfire’s controls. Flt. Lt. Hill’s pictures revealed a 10 ft (3 m) diameter radar dish which resembled the Würzburg design. The British government decided that the Bruneval site would be attacked (codenamed Operation Biting) by a commando force of 120 troops from C Company, 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment led by Major John Frost and including Flight Sergeant Charles Cox, a technician, who would assist with dismantling and carrying any parts of the Würzburg that the force could carry. The troops would parachute from twelve Armstrong-Whitley-V bombers commanded by Wing Commander PC Pickard from RAF 51 Squadron.

Once on the ground the force met some heavy resistance and suffered two killed and four taken prisoner. That said, Major Frost’s force was able to photograph the radar and take some components back to the United Kingdom for examination. One of the most important things revealed by the analysis was that the radar was susceptible to countermeasures. However, one unwanted side-effect of the raid was that the Germans fortified their radar sites, determined that they would not be attacked in this way a second time. However, the positive side of this was that the fortified structure made enemy radar installations easier to locate. Operation Biting was notable in its use of commandos to assist the defence suppression task and was arguably the first example of the joint approach to SEAD, something that would later be utilised by the Israelis with great effect during the 1960s.

While the British performed commando raids to assist the defence suppression fight, aircraft were also brought to the fray, particularly hitting the factories which produced the Würzburgs. On 20 June 1943, RAF bombers were sent to attack the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen which was thought to house a Würzburg production line. This was following photographs that had been taken in June 1943 which appeared to show a collection of radar reflectors outside the factory. Two days after Winston Churchill had personally viewed the photographs at RAF Medmenham, home of the RAF PRU, orders were sent to the RAF’s No.5 Group to attack the Zeppelin works with their Lancaster bombers during the next full moon. The raid, which occurred on 20 June 1943, was a success and the Würzburg assembly line was smashed.

Thoughts also turned to defensive methods. This was still the early days of defence suppression, before the principles of surprise, weight, mass, balance and persistence were defined for the mission, but the germ of these ideas were present in how the Allies chose to confront the flak menace. True, the Germans had robust air defences around their cities and their key targets, but they were just as susceptible as any other defender to the rule that you cannot protect everywhere at once. Those prosecuting the bombing campaign therefore realised that one solution could be to fly around the flak emplacements on their way to and from the target. Another recommendation was for the crews to fly their bombers as high as possible. However, the use of altitude to frustrate flak also had to be squared with the need to see the target being attacked, so hiding behind cloud cover could not be an option. A major railway marshalling yard may be quite visible and characteristic from a considerable height, but a ball-bearings factory may not and what is more, the latter may look rather like surrounding buildings which do not have a military function. The other idea was to space bombers at certain intervals or within designated sections of airspace that would enable them to take full advantage of the emerging radar countermeasures that the Allies were starting to field.

A snapshot of the losses suffered by the Eighth Air Force over one month, August 1944, illustrates how devastating radar-guided flak could be. The USAAF sent almost 45,600 aircraft over their targets. Of those aircraft, almost 11,700 suffered hits from flak, around 26 per cent of the total. In 250 cases, the flak was sufficient to destroy the aircraft. Of all Eighth Air Force aircraft lost during August 1944 in the European theatre to all causes, flak claimed 70 per cent. In terms of damage suffered to Eighth Air Force aircraft in theatre, flak was responsible for 84 per cent of that damage. The fighter menace may have begun to dissipate as the Allies smashed up the Luftwaffe, but undoubtedly ground-based air defence was still a considerable force to be reckoned with.

However help was at hand from a surprisingly simple invention. Chaff, or Window as it was initially called by the British, was used from 1943; initially as part of Operation Gomorrah, the bombing of Hamburg. It was dispensed by aircraft and would provide a confetti of thousands of tiny metallic strips of aluminium foil which would lazily drift around the air and eventually down to earth. As they did this, they would reflect radar beams back on themselves. The result was that these millions of metal strips would show up as a series of returns on the radar operator’s scope. Situated well-away from the action, the operator could not be sure if the strips were a deception or a formation of bombers heading for a target. Window was famously used on the eve of D-Day on the 4 June 1944 to create a phantom bomber force attacking in the direction of Calais rather than Normandy to fool the Germans as to the locations of the Allied landings by convincing the operators of the Würzburg and Freya radar that a huge force of bombers was heading in that direction.

Window gave bomber crews protection from radar provided that they flew within 2,000 ft (609 m) of the cloud of metallic foil. Guidance to the bomber crews of the USAAF Eighth Air Force directed that they should not attack on a heading of more than five degrees difference from the Window dispensing aircraft to ensure that they did not appear as a separate radar return and thus a lucrative target. However, the system worked for a while, but eventually German radar operators got wise to Window and learned to differentiate between the cloud of foil and the bomber formations. Initially, The British Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Alexander Lindemann had counselled against employing Window on raids over Germany fearing that once the Germans realised that the foil strips were accompanying bombing raids where their air defence radar was being disrupted, they would see the ruse and use similar techniques during their raids on the UK. Ironically, the Germans had developed their own version of Window called Düppel, and held off using it over the UK for very similar reasons.

Window was not the only defence against radar, it was joined by Carpet. Unlike its cousin, this was not a physical countermeasure, but was instead one of the first ECMs to be used by attacking aircraft. In essence, Carpet transmitted radio waves to jam the Würzburgs thus depriving the flak batteries of their eyes which told them where the attacking bomber formation was located. However, like Window, the efficacy of Carpet was degraded the farther a bomber was operating from the aircraft carrying the equipment. Therefore, the spacing of the bomber formation vis-à-vis the Carpet-equipped aircraft became a matter for dextrous handling.

Carpet was the product of the rigorous research that both British and American scientists were performing to defeat the radar menace. The effort was two-fold: not only were countermeasures designed, but for these countermeasures to be effective, the scientists had to develop a comprehensive understanding of how German air-search radar actually worked as part of getting inside the German air-defence network’s mindset. In modern parlance, this is known as building an understanding of the enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle.

World War II: Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) II

One of the methods of doing this was to use specially-equipped aircraft, known as Ferrets. These aircraft, were modified B-17F Flying Fortresses which carried no bombs, but were instead fitted with an APA-24 Direction Finding antenna which would listen and record the radio frequencies that German radar used. This enabled the Carpet system, and later the Mandrell radar jamming equipment, then to be tuned to that wavelength to produce interference to disrupt the radar and thus make the flak inaccurate. The equipment would be mounted in the lead aircraft of a bomber formation and was credited with some considerable success in spoofing the Luftwaffe’s radar. The USAAF had the 16th Reconnaissance Squadron based at Foch airfield, Tunisia, and used Boeing B-17F Ferrets on bombing raids into Europe.

B-17F Ferret missions began in 1943 and had several objectives in mind. The first was to monitor the radar stations and locate their position which could then be attacked by other bombers. The immediate effect would be to cost the Germans precision in their flak direction, thus rendering it less effective. However, the destruction of the radar would have other effects. Radar was a time-consuming and intricate thing to build. Line replacement units could not be mass produced like artillery shells and, therefore, it would take time to replace equipment that had been destroyed and would lead to a subsequent gap in coverage which the Allies could then exploit. Secondly, once they realised that they were the target, the morale of the German radar operators was bound to suffer, as was the morale of the personnel manning the flak emplacements as they realised that their fire would be increasingly inaccurate. Finally, the strikes on the radar stations would kill experienced German radar operators, thus depriving the Luftwaffe of the training cadre who could pass their wisdom onto younger generations who would need to learn the mysteries of radar afresh. Moreover, radar and personnel which survived the attacks would become increasingly overloaded as other units were lost and therefore less effective. Thus, the German air search radar was the CoG in their flak system.

The first Ferret missions by the 16th Reconnaissance Squadron were performed on 21 April 1943 from Tunisia and the unit continued to perform its missions notably supporting Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion of Italy, when it supported landing operations on the island of Salerno in September 1943. As the year drew to a close, the squadron would have a total of thirty-five B-17F Ferret aircraft at its disposal. The unit came to the fore during the Big Week bombing campaign of 20-25 February 1944 which unleashed a massive campaign against the German aviation industry and helped the Allies to achieve air superiority prior to Operation Overlord in 1944.

The USAAF was not alone in developing specially equipped aircraft for radar hunting. The RAF was working on Project Abdullah by 1944. Abdullah was the codename for an electronic radar hunting device that was fitted to three Hawker Typhoon aircraft which belonged to 1320 Special Duty Flight in May 1944. Abdullah consisted of a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) which was connected to a radar homing receiver. This receiver could be tuned to the known operating frequencies of German radar. The equipment would be switched on and the Typhoon would fly around the area where radar was suspected and wait for the Abdullah equipment to pick up the radar transmissions. Once Abdullah alerted the pilot that radar was active, the pilot would visually try to acquire the target. They would then fly towards it and fire smoke rockets to mark the target for their accompanying escort of ground-attack aircraft. These tactics were not unlike those which would be used by the earliest Wild Weasel aircraft in the Vietnam War.

The initiative was an impressive step forward but, as with Sir Issac Newton’s dictum that every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, the presence of the Abdullah aircraft would lead the German radar operators to switch off their radar once they had learned that keeping it switched on invited attack. The Germans pioneered this technique which would be used time and again by radar operators in every conflict henceforth. Keeping radar activated invites attack, switching it off invites safety. However, Abdullah had other shortcomings. The radar receiving equipment had to be preset to a particular German radar frequency before the aircraft took off for its mission. If the Germans changed their radar frequency, then the Abdullah aircraft would have no way of locating the radar.

One of the most notable SEAD raids occurred during Operation Market Garden in September 1944, made famous by Cornelius Ryan’s book A Bridge Too Far, which relates the brave Allied attempts to seize the bridges over the Waal and Rhine rivers at Njimegen and Arnhem respectively to open the next stage of a land route into Germany following the liberation of Belgium and France. The operation was to feature a significant effort by the Eighth Air Force to perform SEAD against German flak emplacements posing a grave threat to the airborne landings of the First Allied Airborne Army and their accompanying 1,438 C-47 Dakotas, and over 3,000 gliders which were to dispense the American, British and Polish airborne forces to take bridges at Son, Veghel, Grave, Njimegan, Arnhem and Oosterbrook across a north-east/south-west axis. The airborne operation to seize the bridge was absolutely imperative to the overall success of Market Garden as they awaited the arrival and reinforcements of the British XXX Corps. The flak emplacements were a clear and present danger.

The Eighth Air Force’s orders were to bombard ‘the antiaircraft installations along the routes to be followed by the troop carrier aircraft and in the areas surrounding the drop and landing zones. The B-17s belonging to the 1st and 3rd Bombardment Divisions based in the UK, were earmarked for the task. Photographic reconnaissance had provided those planning the operation with up to 112 targets for the B-17s. Needless to say, this was to be a classic example of the mass approach to SEAD. The aircraft were to carry fragmentation bombs as they would be attacking from altitude and thus area attacks to hit the flak emplacements would be more appropriate. Low-level attacks were the preserve of the faster, more agile fighter-bombers.

Prior to the airborne operation on 17 September, an armada of 872 bombers heaved themselves into the late summer air and made their way to towards their targets in the Netherlands. Over the bombardment area, these aircraft dispensed their ordnance onto the AAA emplacements below, but that did not stop them suffering damage from their indented victims.

The Flying Fortresses were not alone; they were joined by P-47 Thunderbolts from the Eighth Air Force. Their task was to get in close and hit flak emplacements which covered the southern ingress routes for the Dakotas. These aircraft were joined by a further four groups of P-47s from the Ninth Air Force. The P-47 was the ideal tool for the task. With its rugged, sturdy construction the aircraft could take a fair degree of punishment which was very important given the strength of German anti-aircraft artillery in the area of operations. But these aircraft gave as good as they got. They were outfitted with eight 0.5-in (12.7-mm) M2 Browning machine guns and they could also dispense up to 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs on the emplacements. During the Market Garden anti-flak operations they dispensed a total of 287 × 260 lb (118 kg) bombs and fired over 122,600 rounds. The tally for the Thunderbolt pilots was eighty flak positions damaged and fifty-nine destroyed.

Market Garden was not the success that was hoped for and still remains a subject of controversy. There is not the space here to discuss the merits and shortcomings of this operation, which can be left to other historians, but there is room to look at the SEAD lessons learned from the operation. The USAAF 56th Fighter Group, which flew Thunderbolts in the operation, noted that thirty-nine of its aircraft began a mission to attack flak targets in the vicinity of Turnhout, south of the Belgian-Dutch border. Weather over the target area, which included fairly low cloud cover and a haze which frustrated the pilot’s visibility scotched hopes of locating the AAA targets from higher altitudes. Moreover, the flak bombardment being suffered by the unit dispersed the formation and claimed the scalps over sixteen aircraft as they were forced down into the weeds both to locate their targets and to press home their attacks. The lesson was obvious, but it was also instructive. The closer the attacking aircraft got to the flak, the more intense the fire became and the likelihood that the aircraft would be shot down increased. Yet, for the bombers the higher altitude the aircraft flew, the less accurate was their bombardment against the flak emplacements unless area weapons were used and these aircraft also had to contend with significant anti-aircraft fire.

The results of AAA suppression during Operation Market Garden were 118 anti-aircraft gun emplacements destroyed and around 127 damaged. However, the cost of this was 104 aircraft lost to flak over 4,320 sorties. AAA suppression sorties, of which the Allies performed 646, cost thirty-seven aircraft. The conclusion from Market Garden was that the use of low-flying attack aircraft for AAA suppression was largely curtailed in favour of passive measures such as chaff and evasive manoeuvres. Another approach was to use artillery to suppress the flak positions before aircraft approached a target. Such measures had already been put into operation during the encirclement of Cherbourg, France, following the Operation Overlord invasion of June 1944. However, the results of the artillery-AAA suppression were mixed. That said, artillery would be used for defence suppression in other conflicts over the next sixty years, notably in the Middle East and later during Operation Desert Storm in 1992.

This joint approach was taken to the issue of flak suppression in March 1945, as the Allies began their Operation Varsity offensive to cross the Rhine at Wesel. The area was surrounded by 922 AAA gun barrels and the Allies suppression efforts saw 8,100 tons of bombs dropped on German AAA emplacements during 3,741 sorties spread over three days. Of these German AAA positions, ninety-five were attacked with 24,000 rounds of artillery though only a few hits were scored using this method. The German flak was not completely suppressed and still claimed 381 American and 160 British gliders of the airborne assault out of a total of 1,125 gliders: over 50 per cent. In addition, AAA also claimed sixteen transport aircraft and fifty-two towing planes. Despite the all-out joint offensive against the German air defences, flak had managed to exact a heavy toll on the Allies. Before the advent of the high-speed Anti-Radiation Missile, SEAD would be a mass affair which would consume large numbers of aircraft and artillery for often limited results.

Major strides were made in defeating AAA along with locating air defence radar as the curtains drew on the Second World War. However, the end of the conflict also betrayed another danger which was waiting in the wings. As the horrors visited on continental Europe by Nazi Germany were being uncovered, so were the technological advances that the Germans had made in the fields of rocketry. Londoners knew to their cost the destruction that these advancements would bring having suffered attacks from the V-1 Flying Bomb proto-cruise missiles, and later V-2 ballistic missiles. However Dr. Werner Von Braun, who led the Nazi rocket research programme, together with his scientists and an army of press-ganged slave labourers had made other key advances in the world of missiles. These included anti-shipping missiles such as the ‘Fritz-X’ but most ominously for pilots, guided anti-aircraft rockets. History tells us that German scientists had perfected the Wasserfall SAM but that Adolf Hitler’s arrogance had scoffed at the project claiming an interest only in offensive weapons, causing it to be neglected until 1943.

It was in this year that the project was revived in the face of increasing Allied bombardment against Germany and the slow death of Luftwaffe air superiority. So it was that on 8 January 1944 that the Wasserfall took to the skies for a test flight. The missile was huge, standing over 25 ft (7.6 m) in height and weighing a staggering 7 tons, yet its speed was in the region of 1,600 ft (500 m) per second and it had a range of 12 miles (20 km). The weapon’s guidance system had been based on the Rheintochter SAM which had been ordered by the German Army in November 1942. The test firings of the weapon, named after the mythical maidens of the Rhine from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen opera, had begun in August 1943, making the weapon the world’s first SAM and eighty-two test firings were completed and an air-to-air version was also developed, but the weapon would never equip the Army and the project was cancelled on 6 February 1945.

Wasserfall had a radar-based guidance systems. Once in the thick of a formation of aircraft it would detonate. The logic of the weapon was not unlike the later nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles such as the American MIM-14 Nike Hercules which appeared during the Cold War and was designed to use a shotgun approach by detonating a huge quantity of, in this case nuclear, explosive in the middle of a formation to destroy as many enemy bombers or incoming missile warheads as possible. Certainly, Wasserfall was far ahead of its time, but none were ever fired against Allied aircraft. Yet the importance of Wasserfall was that it demonstrated that the Surface-to-Air Missile was a viable concept. This was not lost on the United States and Soviet Union which would use captured German technical documents and German scientists to kick start the development of Cold War missile technology.

Israel 1948

Davidka mortar displayed in the Givati Brigade Museum, Metsudat Yoav, Israel.

of the Yishuv and now reflected the character of the IDF. Necessity was the mother of invention, and the newly born state, knowing that Jewish blood would flow if it were defeated, was both ingenious and industrious at numerous points during the war. At the Burma Road, for instance:

Using bulldozers, tractors, and manual labor, the engineers began the nearly impossible task of creating a passable road to the bluff at the head of the orchard and a road to the valley below. At night, against the background of Jordanian shelling, the scene was almost unreal: hundreds of porters silently carrying food and supplies down the hill to waiting trucks and jeeps and even mules. Even herds of cows were led along this route because we desperately needed to ship beef into the city.

Using this alternate route, the Harel Brigade (under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, then twenty-six years old) succeeded in resupplying and defending the western parts of the city—but they were still unable to recapture the Old City.

The Burma Road was hardly the only example of this sort of creativity and ingenuity. Short of heavy weaponry during much of the war, the Yishuv also relied on the Davikda, a homemade three-inch mortar, which more often than not missed its target or failed to explode. If the Davidka had any redeeming value, it was that when it did explode, no matter how inaccurate, the bomb caused a bright flash and an exceptionally loud noise, which then triggered mass panic among the local Arab populations. The Davidka was most effective in the battles for Jerusalem and Safed, because the panic it triggered led the local population to leave or to surrender more quickly. In the battle for Safed, from May 6–9, the Davidka’s loud sounds convinced the local Arabs that the Jews were using “atom bombs.” “A Haganah scout plane, flying overhead, reported ‘thousands of refugees streaming by foot toward Meirun.’ . . . The Arab neighborhoods, literally overnight, turned into a ‘ghost town.’”

The air force employed similar creativity. In addition to genuine bombs loaded onto planes, the ground crews also began loading whatever empty soda bottles they could find—on base or from surrounding areas. They had heard that the falling empty bottles created a loud whistling noise that sounded to those on the ground like a bomb shrieking its way earthward and that the tactic was weakening the enemy’s resolve.

The fledgling Jewish state was still outgunned, however, and desperately struggled to hold on. Casualties were high. Israel was desperate for heavy weaponry that had been purchased but that had yet to arrive. And the Egyptians controlled the skies. Israel had barely finished declaring independence, and its fate hung in the balance.

The international community, concerned about the bloodshed, was eager to impose a break in the fighting. On May 22, the United Nations Security Council demanded an immediate cease-fire; the UN secretary-general appointed Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, to negotiate the truce.

Bernadotte was an interesting choice, to say the least. During World War II, in his role as head of the Swedish Red Cross, he had saved many thousands of Jews from the death camps, but he had also met with senior Nazi leaders, notably Heinrich Himmler, seeking back channels to end the conflict. By the time he stepped into his role as negotiator at the peak of the war in Palestine, he was seen as “the gung-ho Swedish aristocrat, ‘optimistic . . . and eager for action,’ . . . the ‘humanitarian’ Don Quixote.” Charged with ending the war, Bernadotte took on a task that no one had thus far been able to accomplish. He was undaunted, however, and set out to secure a break in the fighting, and afterward, to seek a more permanent peace.

In part due to Bernadotte’s political maneuvering and in part due to the exhaustion of all parties engaged in the fighting, the two sides eventually agreed to a truce. Originally scheduled to begin on June 1, the truce proved so complicated to implement that it officially took effect only ten days later, on June 11.

The terms of the respite dictated “a blanket embargo on arms and additional military personnel on Israel and the Arab states,” but both sides violated these conditions. The Arab states fortified their combat units and intermittently fired across the Israeli lines. The Israelis used the lull in the fighting to import massive amounts of weapons, including some they had purchased from the United States as well as from other Western powers. The Yishuv also received a massive shipment of arms from Czechoslovakia, including “more than twenty-five thousand rifles, five thousand machineguns, and more than fifty million bullets.” In what was surely an ironic twist, some of the Czech arms were standard German Mauser rifles and MG machine guns, and—having been produced for the Germans before May 1945—arrived with swastikas on them (as had the uniforms that the volunteer pilots had been given). Guns manufactured for the Germans during World War II were now in the hands of Jews desperately seeking to inaugurate a new chapter of Jewish history.

It was not only weapons that arrived from abroad. At the start of the war, Israel had no military aircraft at all and very few pilots. The American armed forces, on the other hand, had surplus planes by the hundreds after World War II, and Jewish veterans who had flown for the United States. Israel began a clandestine project of seeking out these pilots, many of whom were highly assimilated. Something about the Holocaust, however, awakened a sense of Jewish commitment in some of these men, and a few, in violation of American law, helped purchase American surplus planes and fly them to Europe and then to Israel. They were outfitted with used uniforms, which like some of the guns of those fighting on the ground had Nazi insignias—in this case, Luftwaffe patches—on them.

Germany had built factories for the manufacture of Messerschmitt warplanes in Czechoslovakia, which continued to produce the planes even after World War II ended. The American pilots flew some of these Messerschmitts to Israel to join the battle.

Almost immediately upon landing in Israel, the Americans were told that Egyptian forces were a mere six miles from Tel Aviv, and that if they did not attack immediately, there would be ten thousand Egyptian troops in Tel Aviv the next morning. So they took off, flying primitive, single-engine planes on their first bombing missions, and quickly changed the tide of battle. Later, air attacks on the advancing Iraqi forces convinced them to stay put and not to continue into Israel.

In all, some 3,500 people from around the world volunteered to come to Israel and helped with the war effort. Many, interestingly, were not Jewish. Some 190 of the volunteers served in the air force. Several of the pilots lost their lives in action. After the war, most of the Americans returned home. Others, though, decided that it was Israel that was home, stayed, and flew for El Al or worked in Israel’s aircraft industry.

Benny Morris notes that in addition to its military significance, this wave of volunteers helped Israelis understand that though they were outnumbered, they were not alone. It was a dramatic change in Jewish fate from the Holocaust and boosted the morale of the country significantly.

The desperate need for rearmament led to one of the most potentially catastrophic events of the war. On May 26, David Ben-Gurion had brought the Haganah out of “clandestine status” and declared in a simple one-page typewritten memo of twenty brief lines that it would now become the Israel Defense Forces, the official army of the new state of Israel. The memo also stipulated that no other armed groups would be permitted to operate. In what was an indication of both the degree to which the country was being stitched together day by day and the broad powers Ben-Gurion was taking for himself, the prime minister wrote, “Any action taken in accordance with this order shall be considered legal even if it contradicts another directive in an existing law.”

Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin had reached an agreement that stipulated that Irgun members would enlist in the newly created IDF. Their arms and equipment, as well as installations for the manufacture of arms, would be turned over to the army. There would be no special Irgun units within army brigades, and separate purchasing activities would end. Ben-Gurion understood that if Israel were to be a legitimate state, it could not be home to competing militias.

Begin understood and agreed that the Irgun would cease operating as a distinct military unit within the State of Israel. Yet some of Begin’s Irgun fighters remained in beleaguered Jerusalem, which was not then technically part of Israel and therefore not governed by Begin’s agreement to fold his force into the IDF. With their ammunition running dangerously low, Begin was committed both to equipping his men, and more broadly, to doing whatever was possible to hold on to Jerusalem.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to Begin, the American arm of the Irgun—with which Begin had long been at odds—purchased an old ship and named it Altalena (the Italian word for “seesaw,” which had been Jabotinsky’s nom de plume as a journalist). The ship eventually docked in France; the French, hoping to curb British influence in the Middle East, donated munitions valued at 150 million francs (more than half a billion dollars in today’s currency). The arms loaded on the Altalena included 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 bazookas, and 10 light armored vehicles called Bren carriers. In addition to much-needed arms, some 940 immigrants, many of them survivors of the war, as well as some veteran members of the Irgun—including Yechiel Kadishai—also boarded the ship. Originally scheduled to reach Palestine by May 14, the ship departed late and sailed for Israel on June 11—the day the cease-fire banning the import of arms had gone into effect.

Begin was committed to upholding the truce and had not been informed of the ship’s departure. By the time he learned that it had sailed, the ship was very close to Israel’s territorial waters. He desperately tried to reach its captain, Eliyahu Lankin, to instruct him not to enter Israel’s territorial waters. But the communication equipment malfunctioned, and when Begin realized that there was nothing he could do to turn the ship around, he informed Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion understood that the ship’s arrival would constitute a highly visible breach of the truce, but at the same time was loath to give up on such a desperately needed arms cache. The ship, which reached the Israeli shore on June 20, was ordered to sail to Kfar Vitkin (just north of Tel Aviv), where it was assumed UN observers might not see it. Yet there was no agreement between Ben-Gurion and Begin regarding what would happen with the arms. While Begin offered the vast majority to the IDF, he insisted on keeping 20 percent for his Irgun fighters, still struggling to hold out against the Jordanians in Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion dismissed the proposal out of hand. He feared that allocating any arms at all to the Irgun (even the Irgun in Jerusalem) would lend legitimacy to the idea of an army within an army.

News of the ship spread quickly, along with a rumor that Begin himself might appear on the beach at Kfar Vitkin. Irgun soldiers, anxious to meet the man who had been in hiding as they had been fighting under his command, deserted their units and made their way to Kfar Vitkin. This only confirmed Ben-Gurion’s suspicion that Begin was up to something nefarious, so the next day, he called a meeting of the cabinet. Ben-Gurion told his ministers—falsely—that Begin had hidden the Altalena plan until the ship was already at sea. His long-standing mistrust of Begin now governed everything he said and did. He said to his cabinet:

There are not going to be two States and there are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do whatever he feels like. We must decide whether to hand over power to Begin or to tell him to cease his separatist activities. If he does not give in, we shall open fire.

Yisrael Galili, the army’s chief of staff, ordered IDF pilots—many of whom were those Americans and other volunteers who had been Allied pilots during World War II—to strafe the ship. They refused. “We came here to fight for the Jews, not against the Jews,” they said.

By this time, Begin had boarded the ship and had instructed the Irgun men to use the cover of darkness to begin unloading the cargo. Begin received an ultimatum to hand over all the weapons to the IDF, but did not respond to it; he later claimed that the ultimatum was thoroughly unrealistic and gave him virtually no time to respond.

A firefight broke out between the Haganah forces and those loyal to the Irgun. The Altalena pulled away from shore and sailed south, toward Tel Aviv, and—in full view of hotel guests and beachgoers, reporters and UN observers—ran aground and could not move. Suddenly, Palmach fighters on the beach (the Palmach were the most hostile to the Irgun; among their commanders was Yitzhak Rabin) fired on the Altalena. Irgun fighters returned fire. Jews had begun to fire on Jews. Barely five weeks old, the Jewish state was on the verge of civil war.

More cannon fire stuck the ship, still heavily loaded with ammunition. Throughout, Begin instructed his men not to return fire. The ship was hit and the munitions on board began to explode. Begin, still on board, gave the order to abandon the ship; though he wanted to stay until the very end, his men forced him off the ship and got him to shore. As he was making his way to shore, bursts of gunfire were directed in his direction; many of those present were convinced that the Haganah men were trying to kill Begin. Shortly after Begin left the ship, the remainder of the ammunition caught fire, and the ship exploded. IDF soldiers, no doubt deeply ambivalent about what was unfolding so soon after Israel had declared independence, leaped into the water to save the Altalena’s passengers.

Meanwhile, on shore, the fighting continued. With Haganah and Irgun soldiers shooting at each other, the beginnings of a Jewish civil war moved from the waters of the Mediterranean to the streets of Tel Aviv. There were casualties on both sides. But Begin had insisted that his men not fire on Jews, and men on both sides understood that Israel could not afford a civil war. The firing ended.

All told, factoring in the firefight in Kfar Vitkin, the death toll included sixteen men from the Irgun and three from the IDF. One of those killed was Avraham Stavsky, who had been charged with the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosoroff but was later exonerated. He had been one of the passengers on the Altalena and died just off the beach where Arlosoroff had been killed fifteen years earlier.

Begin took to the airwaves and delivered a radio address to his Irgun community that lasted over an hour. He reiterated his claim that the Irgun had done nothing wrong, yet even so, he reminded his men time and again, “Do not raise a hand against a brother, not even today.” In what emerged as a refrain, he insisted that Jew not fight Jew, for “it is forbidden that a Hebrew weapon be used against Hebrew fighters.” “There must not be a civil war with the enemy at our gates!” he virtually shouted in his radio address.

Ben-Gurion, incensed, refused to allow the dead Irgun men a burial in Tel Aviv.

Begin was vilified by some for having imported the arms. Yet others praised him for his pivotal role in bringing the fighting to an end (just as he had refused to attack the Haganah during the Saison). He would later claim that his greatest contribution to Israel was his having averted all-out civil war. Ben-Gurion also remained defiant in the aftermath, insisting that he had saved the country from a militia’s uprising. The cannon that sank the Altalena, he insisted in a comment that was oft repeated, was so sacred that it deserved to “stand close to the Temple, if it is built.”

Normandy and England

William of Normandy’s own history to some extent mirrored that of his elder cousin in England, Edward the Confessor. Like Edward, William had been orphaned at an early age. His father, Robert of Normandy, had died in 1035, returning from a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land, when William was only seven or eight. Like Edward, William was dependent during his youth upon much older and more powerful men. Like Edward, William clearly suffered his own share of indignities, not least the murder of some of his closest counsellors in the ducal court, acts of public violence which suggest, like the murder in England of Edward’s brother or the upheavals of 1051–2, not only a society loosely governed under the law, but one in which the ruler struggled hard and often ineffectively to make his rulings stick. Such was the fear of assassination that William himself had to be hidden by night in the cottages of the poor, to escape the plots of his enemies.

Here, however, the comparisons between England and Normandy end and the contrasts begin to assert themselves. The rulers of Normandy, like those of England, exercised the same late-Roman proofs of public authority: for example, jurisdiction over roads, public crimes such as murder, rape or arson, the minting of coins and the disposal of treasure. Even today, much of the authority invested in the person of Queen Elizabeth II – over the Queen’s highway, treasure trove, the Queen’s counsels and the law courts in which they act, the royal mint – derives from far more ancient precedents than the Roman emperors or even the rulers of ancient Babylon might have recognized as specifically ‘royal’ prerogatives. Yet, in the eleventh century, there was a considerable contrast between Normandy and England, both between the extent to which such prerogatives were exercised and between the instruments by which they were imposed.

Normandy could boast nothing like the wealth of England. The English coinage, for example, with its high silver content, stamped with a portrait of the reigning English King, regularly renewed and reminted as part of a royal and national control over the money supply, has to be contrasted with the crude, debased and locally controlled coinage of pre-Conquest Normandy, at best stamped with a cross, at worst resembling the crudest form of base-metal tokens, the sort of token that we would use in a coffee machine rather than prize as treasure. In Normandy, the dukes had local officials, named ‘baillis’ or bailiffs, but nothing quite like the division of England into shires, each placed under a shire-reeve in theory answerable to the King for the exercise of royal authority through the meetings of the shire moot, the origins of the later county courts. In particular, whilst in England kings communicated directly with the shire by written instruments, known as writs, instructing that such and such an estate be granted to such a such a person, or that justice be done to X or Y in respect of their claims to land or rights, there is no evidence that the dukes of Normandy enjoyed anything like this sort of day-to-day control of local affairs. Not until the twelfth century were writs properly introduced to the duchy, fifty or more years after the Conquest and in deliberate imitation of more ancient English practice. Norman law itself was for the most part not customized or written down into law codes until at least the twelfth century. Above all, perhaps, the dukes of Normandy were not kings. Although they underwent a ceremony of investiture presided over by the Church, intended to emphasize their divinely appointed authority, they were not anointed with holy oil or granted unction as were the kings of England, raising kings but not dukes to the status of the priesthood and transforming them into divinely appointed ministers of God. The Bayeux Tapestry shows William of Normandy wielding the sword of justice, sometimes seated upon a throne, sometimes riding armed into battle. By contrast, both in the Tapestry and on his own two-sided seal, Edward the Confessor is invariably shown seated, enthroned, carrying not the sword but the orb and sceptre, far more potent symbols of earthly rule. William had to do his own fighting. Edward the Confessor, as an anointed king, had others to fight for him.

Thus far, the contrasts between England and Normandy seem all to be to the advantage of England, a much-governed and more ancient kingdom. Yet there is another side to the story. Precisely because they were newcomers, parvenus, risen from the dregs of a Viking pirate army, the heirs of Rollo were spared much of the dead weight of tradition that tended to gather around any long-established dynasty. To take only the most obvious example here, in England no king could afford to ignore the established power of the great earldoms of Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria. Earls were in theory the appointed delegates of the King. In practice, when Edward the Confessor attempted to appoint his own men to earldoms – Ralph of Mantes to Herefordshire, Odda of Deerhurst to western Wessex, Tostig to Northumbria – the fury of local reaction was such that these appointments were either swiftly revoked or risked head-on confrontation with local interests. Normandy had a secular aristocracy, but it was one that had emerged much later, for the most part in direct association with the ruling dynasty, in most instances from the younger sons and cousins of the ducal family. By the 1050s, under William, most of the higher Norman aristocracy were the duke’s own cousins or half-brothers. This tended to intensify the rivalries within a single, all powerful family, and William faced far fiercer and more frequent rebellions against his rule than ever Edward the Confessor faced from the English earls. Yet the very ferocity of this competition tended to focus attention and an aura of authority upon William himself as successful occupant of the ducal throne. The more fighting there is over a title, the greater the authority that such a title tends to acquire. From both of the great crises of his reign, in 1046 when there was concerted rebellion against his rule in western Normandy, and again after 1051, when the malcontents within Normandy threatened to make common cause with outside forces including the counts of Anjou and the King of France, William emerged victorious. At the battles of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047, Mortemer in 1054, and Varaville in 1057, he himself triumphed over his enemies, in the process gaining not just an aura of invincibility but significant practical experience of warfare. Edward the Confessor, by contrast, for all his fury and petulance, had never fought a battle and emerged in 1052 from the one great political crisis of his reign with his authority dented rather than enhanced. There was no Norman equivalent to the Godwins, threatening to eclipse the authority of the throne.

William of Normandy enjoyed distinct advantages, not only in respect of the secular aristocracy, but in his dealings with the Church. In England kings were anointed as Christ’s representatives on earth. Patronage of the greater monasteries and the appointment of bishops were both distinctly royal preserves. King and Church, Christian rule and nationhood had become indivisibly linked. Even in his own lifetime, Edward was being groomed for sanctity. As early as the 1030s, there is evidence that the King, by simple virtue of his royal birth, was deemed capable of working miracles and in particular of touching for the king’s evil (healing scrofula, a disfiguring glandular form of tuberculosis, merely by the laying on of his royal hands). There was nothing like this in Normandy. William, as contemporaries were only too keen to recall, was descended from ancestors who had still been pagans almost within living memory. Ducal patronage of the Church was itself a fairly recent phenomenon: William’s tenth-century ancestors had done more to loot than to build up the Norman Church. And, yet, in the century before 1066, it was this same ducal family that went on to ‘get religion’ and in the process refound or rebuild an extraordinary number of the monasteries of Normandy, previously allowed to collapse as a result of Viking raids.

They also introduced new forms of the monastic life, above all through their patronage of outsiders: men such as John of Fécamp who wrote spiritual treatises for the widow of the late Holy Roman Emperor, and the Italian Lanfranc of Pavia, one of the towering geniuses of the medieval Church, first a schoolmaster in the Loire valley, later prior of Bec and abbot of St-Etienne at Caen in Normandy, promoted in 1070 as the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury.

In England, the West Saxon kings might have their own royal foundations and their own close contacts with monasteries such as the three great abbey churches of Winchester, or Edward’s own Westminster Abbey, but members of the ruling dynasty were not promoted within the church. To become a bishop, a man had first to accept the tonsure, the ritual shaving of a small patch of scalp. Perhaps because the tonsure was associated with the abandonment of throne-worthiness (in the Frankish kingdoms it had been the traditional means, more popular even than blinding or castration, of rendering members of the ruling dynasty ineligible for the throne), there is little sign that any West Saxon prince was prepared to accept it.

In Normandy, by contrast, William not only patronized the church and founded new monasteries, but promoted members of his own family as bishops. At Rouen, for example, the ecclesiastical capital of the duchy, Archbishop Robert II (989–1037), son of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and founder of a dynasty of counts of Evreux, was succeeded by his nephew, Archbishop Mauger (1037–54), himself son of Duke Richard II. William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo, was promoted both as bishop of Bayeux, in all likelihood future commissioner of the Bayeux Tapestry, and as a major figure in ducal administration. As the Tapestry shows us, not only did Odo bless the Norman army before Hastings, but he rode into the battle in full chain mail. For priests to shed blood was regarded as contrary to their order. Odo therefore went to war brandishing not a sword or spear but a still very ferocious looking club. The Tapestry shows him at the height of battle, as its contemporary inscription tells us ‘urging on the lads’. In the aftermath, Odo was appointed Earl of Kent. His seal showed him on one side as a bishop, standing in traditional posture, tonsured, dressed in pontifical robes and carrying a crozier. On the other side, however, he is shown as a mounted knight riding into battle with helmet, lance and shield, unique proof of the position that he occupied, halfway between the worlds of butchery and prayer.

William himself might not have been anointed as Duke of Normandy, but in the eyes of the Church he commanded perhaps an authority not far short of that wielded by the saintly Edward the Confessor. In particular, the fierce penitential regime of William and his father lent an aura of religiosity to what might otherwise be construed as their purely secular acts of territorial conquest. William’s father, Duke Robert, died whilst returning from a penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the ne plus ultra for anyone concerned to advertise their Christian piety and remorse. Jerusalem at this time, of course, was still firmly under Islamic rule. To visit it, and to walk in the places where Christ had trod, was both an arduous and an expensive undertaking. William himself, by marrying his own cousin, Matilda of Flanders (thereby forging an alliance with the greatest of the magnates on Normandy’s northern frontier), was obliged to undergo penance by the Church. It was penance, however, that both broadcast a particularly powerful image of the duke himself and paved the way for further acts of territorial expansion. To atone for his sins, William built the massive Benedictine monastery of St-Etienne at Caen. Matilda, at the same time, paid for the construction of a sister house, a no less massive monument on the other side of Caen, intended for nuns, the abbey of La Trinité. In the space between these two great monasteries, William laid out a vast ducal castle, surrounded by ramparts, the whole complex of abbeys and castle itself surrounded by a new town wall. As an advertisement of ducal power, the planning and construction of Caen took place on a truly epic scale. To lead his new abbey, William promoted the outsider Lanfranc: a clear bid to demonstrate his commitment to the reforming party within the Church as a whole, and a means of strengthening ties between Normandy and the reforming Church in Rome.

By the 1060s, the Norman Church basked in papal approval. The English Church, however, became ever further severed from continental tendencies, not least through the promotion by Queen Edith of Stigand, Bishop of Winchester and a member of the Godwin affinity, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Thereafter he ruled both Canterbury and Winchester as a pluralist, against the dictates of the Church, and, more seriously still, blessed as archbishop of Canterbury not by the rightful pope of the reforming party but by a rival, whom the Roman aristocracy had briefly established on the papal throne. In the eye of the papacy, Stigand was a scandal. William of Normandy, by contrast, was later to claim that his invasion of England was undertaken as a holy war, intended to cleanse the polluted Anglo-Saxon Church and to bring enlightenment to a nation sunk in sin. The Pope, Alexander II, certainly sent William a banner, as a token of friendship and special favour. Whether Alexander realized that William would use this banner to lead his men in the conquest and slaughter of fellow Christians across the English Channel is another matter entirely. The banner, like William’s close relations with Rome, was a powerful tool of propaganda. Propaganda itself, however, does not necessarily accord with ‘truth’.

Preparations for Invasion

In Normandy, meanwhile, the preparations for invasion involved an immense expense of money and effort. Alliances with other French lords had to be negotiated to secure an army sufficient to the task. One modern commentator has calculated that an army the size of William’s represented a logistic miracle. Allowing for 10–15,000 men, and 2–3,000 horses, the force that waited throughout August and early September on the estuary of the river Dives to the north of Caen would have consumed a phenomenal quantity of grain and other foodstuffs. Had the troops slept in tents, then these alone would have required the hides of 36,000 calves and the labour of countless tanners and leather workers. The horses would have produced 700,000 gallons of urine and 5 million tons of dung. We seem to be back in the world of the tannery, far from the more exalted claims that were advanced on William’s behalf and a long way from the shadow of the papal banner under which William’s army is supposed to have marched. Even if we treat these figures as inflated or wildly speculative, the sheer scale of the operation cannot be ignored. That there was indeed an epic quality to William’s preparations is suggested by the Life of William by William of Poitiers, which deliberately echoes the words of both Julius Caesar and Virgil in its account of William’s Channel crossing, here likened to the expedition of Caesar to conquer Britain, and to Aeneas’ flight from Troy to Rome, to the foundation of a new world order.

An even more ancient myth may have been present in William’s own mind. In June 1066, shortly before embarking for England, William had offered his own infant daughter, Cecilia, as a nun at the newly dedicated abbey of La Trinité, Caen. Was he thinking here, perhaps, of the sacrifice of a daughter by an earlier king, by Agamemnon of his daughter Iphigenia, intended to supplicate the Greeks and hence to supply a wind to speed the Greek expedition against Troy? If so, then by associating himself with the Greeks, outraged by the abduction of Helen, William not only broadcast his own sense of injury against the treacherous King Harold but trumped even Virgil in his appeal to classical mythology. Aeneas had founded Rome as an exile from ravaged Troy. William would be the new Agamemnon, precursor to the exploits of Alexander, fit conqueror not just of Troy or Rome but of the entire known world.

Medieval rulers were rarely blind to the classical footsteps in which they trod, or blithely unconscious of the epic nature of their deeds, and the Norman Conquest of England was certainly an expedition of epic scale. Having mustered his army in early summer, and camped at the mouth of the river Dives for over a month, presumably on the river’s now vanished inland gulf, protected from attack by sea, some say waiting for a wind, others for news that Harold’s fleet had dispersed or been diverted northwards, William moved his army to St-Valéry on the Somme and from there set sail on the evening of 27 September, hoping that a night-time crossing would enable his fleet to slip past whatever English force was waiting for them in the Channel. Once again, it was surely no mere coincidence that his landing at Pevensey took place on 28 September, the vigil of the feast day of Michaelmas, commemorating the same warrior Saint Michael, the scourge of Satan, whom Edward the Confessor had honoured thirty years before, while in exile in Normandy, in the hope of Norman support to secure him the English throne.

The Normans in England

The ensuing campaign, in so far as there was one, can be briefly told. William immediately embarked on a scorched-earth policy, harrying and foraging as was the general rule for medieval warfare, burning villages, terrorizing the local population, advertising his own position and at the same time assembling the sort of resources in food and provender that would be required to maintain his vast army should the enemy refuse immediately to engage. The harvest was newly gathered in, so resources were not hard to find. But the prospects, if the English held back, were not propitious. A Norman occupation of Sussex might dent Harold’s pride, not least because his own family stemmed from precisely that part of England, but would not in itself have delivered a fatal blow to the English state. By contrast, the chances that William’s army could be held together for any period of time without proper supplies and without engaging the enemy, were slim indeed. Even the greatest warriors have to eat, and no lord in the eleventh century could afford to leave his own estates unprotected for long, especially at harvest time when the pickings were richest. The Norman army was now in entirely foreign territory. Very few, even of its leaders, had any experience of England. Without the benefit of Ordnance Survey maps or signposts, they would have depended entirely upon local spies and intelligence-gathering, but the local people no more spoke French than William’s soldiers could read Anglo-Saxon.

William moved east towards Hastings, building a temporary castle at Hastings itself, positioning his own army across the main road to London. Hastings was already a major centre of English naval operations, and its occupation was to some extent equivalent to the later seventeenth-century Dutch burning of the Medway dockyards. But this in itself was not sufficient to provoke Harold to battle. Rather, hubris persuaded Harold, having just marched his army southwards from Yorkshire, to leave the safety of London and immediately embark upon another campaign, risking the third pitched battle in three weeks. Perhaps precisely because battle was so rare, and because Stamford Bridge had proved so total a victory, Harold, the experienced commander of more than a decade of warfare in Wales, believed himself invincible.

Myths of the Conquest

The first is that mercenaries or knights serving for money fees played no real role in English military organization prior to the late thirteenth century. On the contrary, not only were large numbers of mercenaries maintained even for William of Normandy’s army of conquest in 1066, but thereafter the mercenary was a standing feature of most armies. A list of the payments made from the household of William de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, as early as the 1180s, records a whole series of money fees paid as annual retainers to unlanded knights, conveniently divided between those attached to the earl’s household either in England or in France, supplying yet further proof of the tendency, within a century of the Conquest, for the two parts of the Norman empire to go their own separate ways. Secondly, although, after 1066, the baronial honour and its court served as a significant instrument of social control, and although, on a local scale, such courts functioned in many ways as royal courts in miniature, we should not exaggerate either their cohesion or their sense of group loyalty. Once a generation had passed, the original loyalties upon which they had been formed soon dissolved in forgetfulness and changeability. Like all revolutions, the Norman Conquest of 1066 did not establish an unchanging social order of its own. On the contrary, it led inexorably towards yet further and more profound social change.

NVA attack on Hue I

No one dreamed that the Communists would launch a major assault anywhere in South Vietnam during the Tet truce. It was well known that something might happen just before or just after the three-day truce, but the Communists had never seriously violated Tet.

Weeks of intelligence gathering indicated that the 4th and 6th NVA regiments were, respectively, ten kilometers south and twenty kilometers north of Hue—a day’s march. The two NVA units had both been in evidence for some weeks and had not directly engaged any ARVN or U.S. units except Sergeant Jack Lofland’s tiny CAP patrol. Elements of the 5th NVA Regiment, which was hiding in the hills west of Hue, were not detected at all.

No one seemed to know why two crack regiments had suddenly appeared in the vicinity of Hue, nor how or when they had arrived. But they were not bothering anyone or even making threatening moves. The NVA regiments were tracked, but they were not molested. The 1st ARVN Division was spread too thin to challenge the NVA, and all the American combat units anywhere near Hue were too busy with moving-in problems to take decisive action.

That no special precautions—much less active attacks—were undertaken despite strong evidence pinpointing two elite NVA regiments violated one of warfare’s most enduring tenets: One must never base actions on what the enemy’s intentions might be; all action must be based upon the enemy’s capabilities. No one guessed what the 4th and 6th NVA regiments might be doing near Hue, but no one posited, either, what they could accomplish if they went into action. A mild report about the NVA regiments was issued to local military agencies, but neither ARVN nor any U.S. headquarters overseeing the sector promulgated an alert.

The first shots of the Hue offensive were fired at 2200 on January 30. The unwitting culprits were members of the South Vietnamese Regional Forces (RF) company defending a pontoon span at Nam Hoa, south of Hue, where the Ta Trach and Huu Trach rivers join to form the Perfume River. It is doubtful the typically jumpy RFs actually saw any Communist troops on their way toward Hue. They probably opened fire on shadows or images from their worst nightmares.

Lieutenant Nguyen Thi Tan’s 1st ARVN Division Reconnaissance Company was patrolling an area several kilometers west of Hue. Tan heard the shooting and routinely deployed to search the immediate area. This was fortuitous, because the reconnaissance troops discovered immediately that they were directly in the path of a large-scale military migration. As Lieutenant Tan and his Australian Army advisor crouched in the scrub growth, scores of dark forms filtered silently past them toward the city. Tan instantly warned his thirty-five ARVN soldiers to stay under cover and remain still and silent. Then he radioed the 1st ARVN Division CP and whispered his report of the contact and every detail he could make out. Before long, two enemy battalions had passed the reconnaissance company’s position.

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The Communists’ contemplated seizure of Hue was only one part of Resolution 13’s nationwide “decisive victory,” but it was a major part. Except for the massive assault scheduled to take place in and around Saigon, no attack on any city in South Vietnam would involve more Communist troops than the attack on Hue. Bright jewel of Vietnam’s briefly glorious past, Hue bore a symbolic importance greater than its size. The lightning victory the Communists expected to win there would be memorialized by special victory celebrations, including a triumphal parade by crack NVA regiments. They would march and celebrate and receive the accolade of the “risen” masses.

The Communists planned to seize Hue in one blow, a bluntly straightforward coup de main. To this end, they had gathered a force of over 5,000 crack NVA and VC soldiers under the direct leadership of the commanding general of the Communist Tri-Thien-Hue Military Region (encompassing Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces). The Hue assault and occupation force comprised the elite, independent 4th, 5th, and 6th NVA regiments; the 12th NVA Sapper (engineer assault) Battalion; at least one other unidentified NVA sapper battalion; one NVA rocket battalion; local VC combat units of various types and sizes; and the VC’s crack Hue City Sapper Battalion. Elements of all these units were to take part in the initial assault on the city, following a precise tactical plan developed from close study of a scale model of Hue painstakingly constructed from cast-off American ration boxes. The eight-foot-square model was so detailed that even replicas of major radio antennas were included.

By the evening of January 30, VC spearhead companies had already slipped into the city in the guise of civilian pilgrims. They were to re-form at designated meeting sites, and, together with NVA units scheduled to slip into the city en masse during the night, attack and overrun a stunning variety of military and civil objectives. There were 314 immediate objectives in all, from the 1st ARVN Division CP to the home of Hoang Huu Pha, a schoolteacher and member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party.

The planning, thorough to the last detail, had been the work of many weeks. Hundreds of infantry weapons—including .51-caliber heavy machine guns and perhaps hundreds of tons of ammunition, demolitions, and supplies—had been smuggled into Hue disguised as civilian goods or, at the last minute, in gift-wrapped parcels.

The initial attacks were timed to create maximum confusion and prevent mutual support by city-based GVN National Police and ARVN units. As the military and civil targets fell, VC political cadres supported by NVA infantry units were to fan out through the city, arresting political figures and civil workers and calling on the people of Hue to rally to the Communist cause. Once the city was completely subdued, the victorious VC and NVA units would have their glorious victory parade, after which they would help fortify the entire city to stand off possible counterattacks.

Because the seizure of Hue was to be part of a huge matrix of Communist assaults that same night, outside support was expected to be minimal inasmuch as all ARVN and American military units in the area would be under attack at once. The large U.S. and ARVN bases north and south of Hue would be heavily bombarded, and ARVN and American checkpoints and choke-points along Highway 1, such as passes and bridges, would be directly attacked or bombarded to sow maximum confusion and delay counterattacks.

Each section of Hue was literally an island isolated by the waters of the Perfume River, its complex of feeder streams and canals. Therefore Hue was an ideal military target. Each section could be isolated with great ease by attacking and holding the limited number of bridges. Efforts by surviving ARVN or National Police units inside Hue to reinforce one part of the city from another could be stopped by defensive positions at any of these obligatory crossing points. In the event of outside attack, each of Hue’s islands could be separately fortified and, because most of the waterways were narrow, supported by infantry weapons fired from adjacent islands. Moreover, except for in the wartime shantytowns, nearly all the buildings inside the Citadel and in the modern city were of stout concrete or masonry construction. Each building was a potential pillbox or bunker that could be fortified to withstand direct assault by even the most heavily equipped modern infantry.

But the Communists never really expected that they would have to defend Hue against a threat from the outside. Throughout South Vietnam, large components of the ARVN were expected to mutiny—many might even rally to the Communists. In swift course the hated Americans would be herded toward Vietnam’s ports, whence they would be free to sail away forever, as had the French in 1954. TCK-TKN would culminate in decisive victory, the reunification of Vietnam under the Communist banner. The Communists had no doubt about it.

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Because the Hue City Sapper Battalion had to cross especially rugged terrain, it was the first of the Communist combat units staged on the outskirts of Hue to begin its move into the city. The battalion left its jungle camps on the morning of January 29. The unit had to be broken up into very small groups so it could be safely ferried across the deep Ta Trach River, south of Hue, that night. The crossing went according to plan.

That same night the crack VC sapper unit was followed to the Ta Trach ferries by elements of an NVA sapper battalion and the 4th NVA Regiment’s 804th NVA Battalion, which were slated to attack and overrun the MACV Compound. These units also crossed the Ta Trach without incident. They followed the Hue City Sapper Battalion toward the southern outskirts of the city.

The 4th NVA Regiment’s plan and timetable came a cropper on the afternoon of January 29, when troops of the NVA sapper battalion and the K4C NVA Battalion were detected on the south bank of the Ta Trach. Though this component was bombarded by artillery for two hours, no ARVN or American infantry force was dispatched to investigate. The NVA dragged their casualties back into the jungle, regrouped, and waited until the next afternoon, January 30, to resume the crossing operation. A full day behind schedule, this major assault force did not have a prayer of attacking its objective in concert with the rest of the Tet assault forces. Thus the main body of the 7th ARVN Armored Cavalry Battalion, south of Hue, would be spared an early disabling blow.

Despite the discovery of one NVA force, ARVN and American units completely missed the next NVA arrival. The K4B NVA Battalion and an NVA sapper battalion, which were charged with seizing the heart of the modern city, moved into a village on the south bank of the Ta Trach and remained there under cover through January 30. They began crossing the Ta Trach and advancing on Hue at dusk.

The 810th NVA Battalion, a component of the 4th NVA Regiment, was apparently not slated to enter Hue until around noon on January 31. At any rate, it was not detected in Hue until then.

The four-battalion composition of the 4th NVA Regiment was strange, and it gives some credence to reports that the K4B and K4C battalions were actually amalgams of NVA and VC main-force companies-Indeed, the unit designations are more in line with the VC order of battle. It is possible that the amalgams were conceived to present the appearance of a general uprising— that is, to suggest that southern troops were involved in the liberation of Hue. Alas, what the NVA and VC did in 1968 to obscure their orders of battle from U.S. and ARVN intelligence also obscures it from historians.

(Though it confuses the issue, it must be said that all NVA battalion designations given here are somewhat speculative. To mask their true order of battle and the battlefield situation, VC and NVA regularly relabeled their units when identifying them in documents or broadcasts. It is virtually certain, however, that four battalion-size infantry units and two sapper battalions were employed to invest the city south of the Perfume River, and that all were operating under the 4th NVA Regiment.)

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To the north and west of Hue, the 6th NVA Regiment began moving out of its jungle camps at 1000, January 30, about the time Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong was putting his intuitive alert into effect. By 1800, shortly after dark, the lead element of the 6th NVA Regiment left the cover of the jungle and proceeded in orderly columns toward the city. The lead unit stopped on a high hill at 2000 and prepared the evening meal: a special Tet treat of dumplings, Tet cakes, dried meat, and glutinous rice mixed with sugar. After the meal the soldiers received one canteen of tea apiece, and the officers checked the troops’ gear. Many soldiers took the opportunity to change from their jungle clothing into fresh khakis, complete with unit tabs and decorations—a sign of their confidence that they would meet little opposition before the planned victory parade.

As soon as all preparations had been completed, the 6th NVA Regiment broke up into three assault groups. The first, composed of forty crack troops and a hand-picked infantry company, crossed Highway 1, passed through a large village, waded across a stream, and approached the northwest wall of the Citadel. When the general attack commenced, this force was to penetrate directly into the ARVN CP compound by way of an old water gate that ran through the center of the compound’s northeast wall.

The 6th NVA Regiment’s second element, the 806th NVA Battalion, crossed Highway 1 and prepared to attack and occupy an ARVN checkpoint and highway bridge at the western corner of the Citadel. Once its objectives had been seized, this force could fend off counterattacks from the direction of PK 17.

The battle plan called for the 806th NVA Battalion to attack the temporary camp of the 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion also. This camp was just northwest of the Citadel. But on January 29 the crack ARVN airborne unit had been routinely transferred to another location, out of reach to the north of the city. The Communists were unable to alter their plans on such short notice. Consequently the 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion and the accompanying 3rd Company, 7th ARVN Armored Cavalry Battalion, remained a potentially dangerous mobile force that would have to be countered if it moved on the city.

The 6th NVA Regiment’s main body, composed of the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions, waded across a wide creek due west of the Citadel. This was the force that had nearly walked over Lieutenant Tan’s 1st ARVN Division Reconnaissance Company. It was the only Communist force that any ARVN or American unit had pinpointed in advance. However, no action was taken to prevent it from reaching its jump-off positions.

After crossing the creek the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions proceeded to Ke Van Creek, which formed the Citadel’s southwestern moat. They crossed this barrier without incident and went to ground in the shadow of the Citadel wall. As soon as NVA and VC units opened the Hue offensive inside the Citadel, the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions were to fan out and seize the Chanh Tay and Huu gates, which were in the southwestern wall; attack Tay Loc Airfield; and then secure the Dong Ba and Thuong Tu gates, at the Citadel’s eastern corner.

As the 6th NVA Regiment’s infantry and sapper units moved toward the Citadel, an 82mm medium-mortar company veered off in the direction of PK 17. When the attack began inside Hue, this unit was to pin down the 3rd ARVN Regiment’s CP, thus preventing a coordinated counterattack by unengaged 3rd ARVN Regiment units before the city was fully in Communist hands.

As the 4th and 6th NVA regiments and other NVA and VC units tightened the rings around their objectives, the senior command group of the Tri-Thien-Hue Military Region broke out special treats at its command post, high atop Chi Voi Mountain, about twelve kilometers southeast of the Citadel. A special Tet message from Ho Chi Minh was read. Then the senior commanders convened in the operations room to monitor the kickoff of the assault.

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By 0115, January 31, the entire 6th NVA Regiment and 12th NVA Sapper Battalion, the Communist force assigned to seize the Citadel and the northern approaches to Hue, were poised to launch simultaneous assaults. Spearhead elements had already penetrated the Citadel by climbing the northwest Citadel wall directly opposite the 1st ARVN Division CP compound. The village of An Hoa, right outside the western corner of the Citadel, had been quietly and completely occupied by the 806th NVA Battalion. And the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions, approaching the Citadel’s southwestern wall from the west, had stopped in front of Ke Van Creek to reorganize and deploy.

At 0130, January 31, a small NVA sapper detachment crossed Ke Van Creek and advanced across Highway 1 to occupy a bridge across a sluice about halfway along the Citadel’s southwestern wall. At the point where the sluice breached the wall, members of the sapper detachment moved up to cut several strands of barbed wire, the only barrier.

North and south of the Perfume River, all the NVA and VC units that could reach their attack positions on time were settled in by 0310, awaiting the signal to attack. The signal was to be a sheaf of rockets fired at Hue from the western hills at 0330.

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G hour, as the Communists had dubbed the assault kickoff, came and went. Nothing happened. No rockets were fired; no assaults were launched.

As a thick fog covered the approaches to Hue and parts of the city itself, the commander of the Tri-Thien-Hue Front waited at his observation post atop Chi Voi Mountain. Another minute passed in dead silence. And then another. At 0333, a staff officer called the 6th NVA Regiment commander by radio and asked if he had seen the signal yet. The regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Trong Dan, gave a tense, nervous response indicating that he had seen nothing. The front staff officer called an observation post and received this reply: “I am awake; I am looking down at Hue. The lights of the city are still on; the sky is quiet. Nothing is happening.”

Silence returned to the Tri-Thien-Hue Front command post, where everyone waited anxiously. What could have gone wrong?

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After entering the Citadel through the sluice in the southwestern wall, four Communist soldiers—two members of a local VC unit and two NVA sappers—approached the Chanh Tay Gate, the northernmost entrance along the Citadel’s southwestern wall. The four, who were dressed in ARVN uniforms, were to overwhelm the gate guards and, from inside, open the way for the assault battalion lying in wait right outside the wall.

The team leader, Comrade Thanh, had scouted the guard post during the day, when twenty civil guardsmen had been on duty. Now, less than a handful would be there. As the four neared their jump-off position opposite the guard post, Comrade Thanh ordered the others to put out their cigarettes and stand in the shadows to await the signal to attack.

In his bedroom in the MACV Compound, Colonel George Adkisson, commander of MACV Advisory Team 3, awoke with a start. Alerted by some subconscious signal, he sat up in bed and fumbled for his field telephone, but the line was dead. Agitated now by an unremitting internal alarm, Colonel Adkisson put on his trousers, combat boots, and pistol belt. Then he started out the door of his room.

At 0340, January 31, 1968, the NVA 122mm rocket battalion—burrowed in firing positions in the hills west of Hue-launched the first salvo. Before the first rockets even landed, NVA mortars south of the Perfume River and east of Highway 1 opened fire at multiple targets.

Colonel Adkisson stepped briskly through the door of his bungalow. At that instant, two or three 82mm mortar rounds fired from within nearby Tu Do Stadium detonated directly on the tile roof of a building nearby. Seconds later, several 122mm rockets detonated in the MACV courtyard. Colonel Adkisson stepped back into the doorway just as several more rockets fell. His first thought was that Hue Sector Headquarters, directly across a back street from MACV, was under attack.