de Grasse’s fleet at Chesapeake Bay

The French line (left) and British line (right) do battle.

Formation of fleets: British ships are black, French ships are white. The Middle Ground to the left are the shoals that Graves tacked to avoid.

Auguste fighting at the Battle of the Chesapeake.

In mid-August 1781, Admiral Hood’s fleet was at the northern edge of the Caribbean, looking for the arrival of de Grasse’s, when Hood learned from a messenger ship sent from New York that de Grasse was likely to attack New York. The message said that de Grasse would first go to Newport, join with Barras’s fleet, and then both would attack the British stronghold—so Hood should hasten to New York to help fend them off. Departing the Caribbean for the American coast, on August 25 Hood “made the land a little to the southward of Cape Henry.… Finding no enemy had appeared either in the Chesapeake or Delaware, I proceeded [to] Sandy Hook.”

Forty-eight hours later, de Grasse’s fleet arrived at Chesapeake Bay, with twenty-eight ships of the line, four frigates, and three thousand French soldiers.

A small boat came out to meet the Ville de Paris. Despite seeing its fleur-de-lis flags and its sailors dressed in white, not in British blue, those in the small boat asked where Admiral Rodney could be found. The visitors were conveyed to de Grasse’s cabin where they were informed that they were now prisoners. The banquet they had brought, intended for Rodney, was eaten by the French officers while offering toasts to him. To forestall any Cornwallis exit from the peninsula, de Grasse sent some ships to block the York and James Rivers. Shortly Lafayette’s associate Jean-Joseph Soubadère de Gimat came aboard with news that Rochambeau and Washington were marching down the Atlantic seaboard to link with the fleet.

Those two commanders were just then reaching Philadelphia and a profuse welcome. At Washington’s request, Rochambeau loaned to Robert Morris twenty thousand dollars in specie. The term was short—one month. The French general’s own troops’ wages were waiting on cash that de Grasse was bringing from Cuba and the money that Laurens had carried from Versailles. Morris then gave Rochambeau a gift of flour from his warehouses—perhaps after hearing the bakery-deceit story, which Rochambeau became fond of repeating—and added ten thousand dollars of his own to the twenty thousand for Washington. The thirty thousand dollars enabled the commander to surprise his troops with a month’s pay in hard cash. “This was the first that could be called money, which we had received as wages since the year ’76,” the diarist Joseph Plumb Martin recalled: six French crowns each, paid only to line soldiers, not to officers.

The army’s poverty was reflected in its ragtag appearance as the men marched through Philadelphia in a line two miles long, stirring clouds of dust. Continental officers in handsome uniforms provided a bright contrast, though not as startling as that furnished the next day by the French. After a halt at the outskirts to powder wigs and make white uniforms glisten, the French marchers paraded through Philadelphia, resplendent far beyond the British in the 1777–78 occupation. Lauzun’s Legion, riding on draped steeds, wore the most exciting multicolored garb. The Soissonnais Regiment put on a show of intricate rifle handling.

Washington smiled at the guests during the formal receptions in Philadelphia but was “distressed beyond expression,” he confessed in a letter to Lafayette, at not knowing whether de Grasse had made Chesapeake Bay. In moving the land forces toward Virginia, Washington had taken a huge gamble: Should de Grasse not arrive on schedule, or be bested by the British fleet, the American and French armies, rather than Cornwallis’s, might be trapped and the war lost.

By the time Washington reached Philadelphia, his emissary to de Grasse, Duportail, had boarded the Ville de Paris and introduced himself. The admiral was in the process of putting ashore three thousand troops, led by Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon to link up with Lafayette’s forces, which were approaching from Jamestown. Offloading was always a time of peril since the force was not in a good defensive position and therefore was vulnerable. Saint-Simon’s officers were amazed that Cornwallis did not attack. They made haste in the unloading, which stoked de Grasse’s desire to use the combined troops to attack the British immediately.

Not yet, Duportail pleaded, basing his request on a Washington letter that he hand-delivered to de Grasse and likely translated for him on the spot. Washington begged the admiral not only to wait for his and Rochambeau’s arrival before attacking Cornwallis but to detach ships upriver to bring the American and French troops to the Yorktown Peninsula. “I have not hesitated to open my heart to [Duportail] and acquaint him with all my resources and my orders,” de Grasse wrote back, and expressed willingness to wait for a general “whose experience in the profession of arms, knowledge of the country and insight will greatly augment our resources,” but protested that his short time in American waters made it unfeasible to use for transport the vessels needed to block Cornwallis’s supply ships. “Come with the greatest expedition,” Duportail urged Washington in his own letter. “Let us make us[e] of the short stay of the count de grasse here. we have no choice left I thinck, when 27 of line are in Chesapeake, when great americain and French forces are joined we must take Cornwallis or be all dishonored.”

Duportail also wanted Washington to hurry because he feared that de Grasse might flatter Lafayette into an immediate attack. De Grasse did try, telling Lafayette, “I want to contribute everything I can to further your glory and assure you of spending a winter of tranquility [after vanquishing Cornwallis].… With pleasure, I join your admirers.” Lafayette resisted the pressure.

In midmorning on September 5, offloading was continuing when the scout frigate Aigrette signaled a press of sail arriving from the north. De Grasse hoped it was Barras, but as the number of vessels grew, the Aigrette soon signaled that it was the British, with so many ships that de Grasse concluded that both Hood’s and Graves’s squadrons had come after him.

He wanted to sail out in force to meet them. But to do so he had to wait until the Chesapeake Bay tide turned to ebb. The French exit of Chesapeake Bay began at 11:30 a.m., with Bougainville’s flagship leading the vanguard. Although the fleet was anchored in proper three-column formation, it still took several hours for all the ships to exit the relatively narrow channel, which they had to do one by one, and even then de Grasse had to leave behind the four warships positioned to block Cornwallis, along with the eighteen hundred sailors and ninety officers who had been offloading troops. Thus de Grasse’s fleet for this action off the Virginia Capes was smaller than it had been, and shorthanded; and he faced a formidable enemy, in attack formation, that had the weather gage.

*   *   *

At that very same hour, Rochambeau and his retinue were floating down the Delaware River from Philadelphia toward Head of Elk. They had passed Forts Mercer and Mifflin and other important sites of the war. Washington and his retinue had set off overland to meet them at Head of Elk; the commander loved to ride his steed and did not much like being on a boat. As the French approached the town of Chester they saw on the bank an American officer waving wildly at them with a hat in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other. Nearing, they realized it was Washington. “I never saw a man so thoroughly and openly delighted,” Lauzun recalled. What happened next amazed everyone. Washington, upon conveying to Rochambeau that de Grasse had made Chesapeake Bay, enveloped Rochambeau in a full-body embrace. Each general, Closen observed, had reason to be ecstatic, as did the young officers, “burning with the desire to try their strength against the enemy and avid for gloire, as we all were.” There was a sense of everything coming together at last, of a moment to be savored for its melding of American and French hearts and wills in an ultimate conjoint endeavor.

*   *   *

The British fleet facing de Grasse’s was not in as good shape as it first appeared to the spyglasses of the French. When Hood had reached Sandy Hook, he had been insistent on leaving immediately to counter de Grasse, but Graves protested that his New York fleet was not ready to go. His ships were in poor repair and to obtain four hundred able bodies press-gangs had recently had to roust men from their beds. After taking three days to ready his vessels, Graves still left behind five capital ships—and Hood was appalled. At sea it was Graves’s turn to be annoyed, as Hood’s vessels were “the shadow of ships more than substance,” slowing the fleet to three knots per hour. The nineteen ships of the line included only three recent additions, a tenth of the ships the Admiralty had retained in European waters to counter French and Spanish initiatives in the Mediterranean and Dutch ones in the North Sea. By deciding to keep the bulk of British ships in European waters in 1781, a naval historian writes, “The Admiralty had finally sacrificed the parity in naval strength on which the safety of the scattered British army [in America] depended.”

At the start of the Battle of the Virginia Capes, in the early afternoon of September 5, 1781, the British fleet was three miles north of the French, “in a position almost beyond the wildest dreams of a sea-commander,” a naval analyst later wrote, since Graves’s “whole fleet was running down before the wind and his enemy was … working slowly out of harbor. He had only to fall on their van with full force and the day was his.” But standard Admiralty fighting orders decreed that attacking ships had to be in line-ahead formation, a maneuver that took Graves ninety minutes to achieve and that allowed the French to get wholly out of the bay. Only at 3:46 p.m. did Graves give the signal to engage, and shortly issued a different order, with the result that only some British ships, rather than the whole line, were positioned properly.

Both sides then began to blast away.

“Thunder, foam and fire,” Bougainville wrote of that day; “Those few testing moments for which an entire naval officer’s life has been built and for which so many arms have toiled, so much sweat has been poured out in the shipyards to get together all that timber, that iron, those sails.” The foretop bowline of his ship was twice shot off, and sailors repairing it were killed by enemy fire. But his Auguste, while taking sixty-seven casualties, managed to riddle the British Terrible and nearly sank it. The Auguste also put three other British ships out of action.

After ninety minutes had gone by and Graves saw that the French were continuing to advance, he signaled his ships to cease the attack and sail away. By 6:30 p.m. the firing ended for the day. The British ships had suffered more than the French ones, although the French had lost more men. Bougainville had gained new respect for de Grasse, with whom he had been feuding, and de Grasse lauded him, saying, “That’s what I call fighting.” On the British side, Hood became enraged at Graves’s missed opportunities, although analysts also later faulted Hood for dilatoriness in carrying out the commander’s orders.

Through the night the two fleets drifted southeast, in parallel. The morning revealed that the French ships were less damaged than the British. The wind remained negligible, making it impossible for either side to do more than maintain relative positions. On the third day rainsqualls and a British wish to avoid action and complete repairs also resulted in no skirmishes. French naval corporal Simon Pouzoulet marveled in his diary at his commanders’ dexterity in maneuvering for the weather gage, and regretted his ship’s not being close enough to the British to send cannon shot at them. Early on September 8 Graves gave orders to sail to the windward of the French and be ready to attack, but was only able to use the weather gage for a short period, as de Grasse by well-executed maneuvers made Graves cede it. Even so, very little fighting ensued. Another night passed. The next morning, September 9, de Grasse’s men spotted a fleet on the horizon and, thinking it was the British, gave chase. They never caught it, but Graves chased de Grasse, and by day’s end both fleets were nearer to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, than to Cape Henry, Virginia. That allowed the unknown fleet, which was Barras’s, to slip unopposed into the Chesapeake Bay anchorage.

Barras managed this partly because the British did not expect him—they presumed he had already combined with de Grasse and was not sailing independently—but mostly due to his own initiative. With the craftiness imbued in him by a long career in the French navy, where preservation of assets was always highly regarded, and knowing that he carried precious cargo, to avoid encountering the British Barras had chosen a circuitous route. From Newport he sailed east around Long Island, and then due south until he reached a position lateral to Chesapeake Bay, where he turned sharply west and by rapid sailing made it into Chesapeake Bay unopposed. Upon arrival he immediately offloaded the heavy artillery, provisions, and troops from Newport.

Thus, before shots were fired on land at Yorktown, the two French admirals, de Grasse and Barras, had immensely assisted their army brethren’s pursuit of the common objective, the defeat of Cornwallis’s army.

Washington was then in Baltimore, unaware that there had already been a decisive Battle of the Virginia Capes, and also ignorant that Barras had invested the bay. That evening he rode the sixty miles to Mount Vernon, alone but for his personal servant and one aide. He had not been home since May 4, 1775. The next morning he wrote to Lafayette, “I hope you will keep Lord Cornwallis safe, without provisions or forage, until we arrive.”

De Grasse was on his way to the Chesapeake to do just that, having reasoned that the British might lay off the sea action and try to beat him into the anchorage, and not knowing that Barras was already there. A modern French admiral writes that in the seminal Virginia Capes sea battle, while de Grasse was not as aggressive as a Suffren or a Rodney might have been, “la prudence et le sang-froid” (prudence and coolness under fire) had produced the essential victory—complete control of Chesapeake Bay.

Upon de Grasse’s arrival in the bay, Barras, although more senior and entitled to command, graciously yielded it. Appreciative of the gesture, de Grasse quickly did what Washington had wanted but that he had not earlier felt able to oblige: sent ships to fetch French and American troops and matériel, using Barras’s transports and some captured British ones that were able to operate in shallow waters.

The Battle of the Virginia Capes concluded when a Graves reconnaissance frigate reported that the French were all over Chesapeake Bay. The British commanders then agreed, as Graves wrote to London, that due to the enemy’s superior position, the poor condition of the British ships, the impending hurricane season, “and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis,” they must return to New York and refit. With some luck they would return before Cornwallis was starved out and forced to surrender.

An Alternative Strategy I

WWII: The Struggle for Europe

The Axis triggered the Turks to declare war, quickly reinforced them and created a Southern Caucasus front against the Soviets in Spring 1942. . . going to be a challenging game for the Russians. . .

‘What if, in the summer of 1941, Hitler had chosen to make his major attack not into Soviet Russia but across the Eastern Mediterranean, into Syria and the Lebanon?’ John Keegan

When Göring was asked by Ivone Kirkpatrick1 in June 1945 what Germany’s greatest mistake was, he replied: ‘Not invading Spain and North Africa in 1940.’

There are two great rules of strategy which have endured throughout history. Each is dependent on the other. The first is to select your primary object correctly. This is the master rule. The second rule is so to concentrate and deploy your forces that you achieve the object. From 1941 onwards these rules were honoured by Hitler more in the breach than in the observance. That Hitler was faced with a strategic dilemma after his direct attack on England had failed is not to be denied. It was in failing also to comprehend where the war’s centre of gravity had shifted to, where the true line of operations lay, that Hitler contravened the two great strategic principles. Had he considered the whole situation, not only from his own point of view, but from the British position too, he might have come to a different conclusion.

Even before the Battle of Britain, whereas Churchill with, of course, a much simpler strategic aim – that of survival – was clear as to what had to be done, Hitler was confusing the issue with reasoning, which might be politically comprehensible but was militarily flawed. Thus we find Churchill making one of his most memorable speeches in the House of Commons, a speech which was later broadcast to the nation. It was 18 June 1940:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands . . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years men still will say. ‘This was their finest hour.’

Look here upon this picture and on this. Hitler was certainly conscious of the need to subdue Britain. Yet in his arguments to his Commanders-in-Chief a month after Churchill’s peroration, in July 1940, the Führer turned the priorities upside down:

In the event that invasion does not take place, our efforts must be directed to the elimination of all factors that let England hope for a change in the situation . . . Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture, America, too, is lost for Britain, because the elimination of Russia would greatly increase Japan’s power in the Far East . . . Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle . . . The sooner Russia is crushed the better . . . if we start in May ’41, we will have five months in which to finish the job.

Of course there are those who have argued that Hitler’s primary object was always clear – to defeat Russia – and that he concentrated his forces to do so, thereby conforming to the two great strategic rules. The argument falls down when set against the strategic circumstances of the time. In late 1940 and early 1941 he was not at war with Russia, and either would not or could not see that England’s subjection was not subsidiary to an attack on Russia. It was an indispensable condition of victory.

Whether Hitler could see it or not, there were others who did. One of them was his Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Raeder. He had produced and went on producing reasons why Germany should concentrate on war against England, particularly in the Mediterranean, which, he maintained, was the pivot of their world empire. Since Italy was weak, Britain would be bound to try to strangle her first, and to make her attacks on Italy easier would aim to get control of North-west Africa. Therefore Germany must take steps to forestall any such move. In cooperation with Spain and Vichy France, Gibraltar must be seized and French North Africa secured. Then, together with the Italians, German forces should capture the Suez Canal and advance through Palestine and Syria to Turkey. ‘If we reach that point,’ Raeder concluded, ‘Turkey will be in our power. The Russian problem will then appear in a different light. Fundamentally Russia is afraid of Germany. It is doubtful whether an advance against Russia in the north will then be necessary.’

In short, conquer Egypt, get control of the whole North African coast and Middle Eastern oil, strike a blow at British sea power, which enabled Britain to preserve a degree of initiative, and how would she be able to conduct offensive operations, other than by air? It is just as well that Hitler did not take this view for his failure to do so allowed British forces to build up a new centre of gravity of their own. From this would develop a Mediterranean strategy, essentially subsidiary, it is true, to the defeat in Europe of the German armies – which alone could bring the war to an end – but providing none the less a stepping-stone to this eventual undertaking.

Michael Howard summed the whole matter up when he wrote that

if there were no prospect of a successful decision against Germany herself there was a subsidiary theatre where British forces could be employed to harass the enemy and perhaps inflict serious damage. Italy’s entry into the war had turned the Middle East into an active theatre of operations. As a centre of gravity of British forces it was second only to the United Kingdom itself.

Although Hitler was contemplating his attack on the Soviet Union as early as July 1940, it was clear from his War Directive No. 18, dated 12 November 1940, that he had not altogether overlooked other theatres of strategic importance, for this directive included references to French North Africa, Gibraltar, Libya and Greece. The French must secure their African possessions against Britain and de Gaulle’s forces, while the actual participation of France in the war with Britain might develop. Measures to bring Spain into the war would be pursued with a view to capturing Gibraltar and driving the English from the Western Mediterranean. Even more significant, German forces would be prepared to assist the Italian offensive against Egypt. A Panzer Division would stand by ready for service in North Africa and the necessary shipping would be positioned in Italian ports. The Luftwaffe would make plans for attacks on Egypt and the Suez Canal. This directive, however, was soon overtaken by two more. War Directive No. 21, issued in mid-December, might be said to have determined the outcome of the whole war. Its opening sentence must have sent a shiver down the spines of those who read it at Hitler’s HQ and the three Service HQs, in fact of all those who remembered a former war on two fronts: ‘The German Armed Forces must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England, to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.’ Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, would start on 15 May 1941.

But there was another factor to be considered which to some extent thwarted the Führer’s planned timetable, yet paradoxically presented him with an opportunity which, despite the other strategic distractions, might, if seized, have spelled out a war-winning formula. The armed forces of his ally, Mussolini, were not doing well either in Tripolitania or on the Albanian-Greek front. Accordingly German support for battles in the Mediterranean area would be forthcoming. Rommel’s Afrika Korps went to Libya, X Fliegerkorps remained in Sicily, and an entire Army Corps would assist the Italians to break through the Greek defences. This move in turn caused Churchill to support Greece, and in doing so gravely weakened Wavell’s winning hand in his campaign in the Western Desert, which up until then had been triumphantly successful. Not strong enough either in Greece or Tripolitania, British forces were obliged to evacuate the former and withdraw from the latter. Yet amidst all these defeats, one glimmer of comfort could be discerned. Hitler had declared in November 1940 that the Mediterranean question must be liquidated during that winter, so that he would get his German troops back in the spring, not later than 1 May. In fact, he did not get them back then and Barbarossa did not begin until 22 June 1941, more than a month later than Hitler had intended. Although the effect of this delay was not felt immediately, it was a different story in November 1941, with the drive on Moscow bogged down and the icy winter threatening to turn this particular version of Blitzkrieg into another retreat from Moscow. It was the turn then of the Wehrmacht to experience something like despair and paralysis.

It was also in May 1941, well before the attack on Russia, that Raeder renewed his proposal for a ‘decisive Egypt-Suez offensive for the autumn of 1941 which would be more deadly to the British Empire than the capture of London’. Raeder and his staff accepted Hitler’s priorities but insisted that while the attack on Russia ‘naturally stands in the foreground of the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the Armed Forces)] leadership, it must under no circumstances lead to the abandonment of, or to delay in, the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean’. Rommel and his panzers had brought a new set of rules to desert fighting and in March and April 1941 had bundled the British right out of Cyrenaica back into Egypt, leaving only Tobruk in their hands, and Rommel too was clear as to what Germany should have done – keep her hands off Greece and concentrate on North Africa to drive the British right out of the Mediterranean area. Malta should have been taken, thus robbing the British of the base from which they harassed Rommel’s supply lines. Capture of the whole British-held coastline would have isolated south-east Europe. It could all have been done for no more than the cost of the Balkan campaign. The prize would have been not just the Balkans but oil and bases for attacking Russia. When we think what Rommel was able to do with a mere handful of German divisions, the prospect of his having, say, an extra Panzerkorps from the huge force which attacked Russia, must give us pause.

Churchill himself was in no doubt about the grave consequences of losing Egypt and the Middle East. In a telegram to Roosevelt earlier that same month he did not endorse the President’s view that such a loss would be ‘a mere preliminary to the successful maintenance of a prolonged oceanic war’. Even if the United States entered the war, exclusion of the Allies from Europe and much of Africa and Asia would mean that a war against this mighty agglomeration would be a hard, long, and bleak proposition. Therefore the British would fight ‘to the last inch and ounce for Egypt’. The desert flank was in Churchill’s view ‘the peg on which all else hung’ and he was soon to urge Wavell to return to the attack there once more. But Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief were harder pressed and more stretched in their resources at this time than perhaps at any other. The East African campaign was not quite finished; Greece and Crete had taken their toll of men and material; Malta must be maintained, Tobruk turned into a fortress and supplied; Rashid Ali’s pro-German revolt in Iraq had to be suppressed; Syria, where the Vichy French were being difficult, had to be invaded and occupied, and Rommel attacked. What might not have been achieved by the Wehrmacht if they had been allowed to concentrate their might against the British at this moment?

Churchill had surely been right in his prognostication to Roosevelt. If British forces had been turned out of the Middle East, by what means – no matter how defiant our spirit and staunch our leadership – would we have prosecuted the war against Germany? We were still virtually alone. Any attempt to engage German armed forces on land in Europe was out of the question. No doubt the growing strength of the Royal Air Force would have permitted the bombing of German targets. No doubt the Royal Navy would still have preserved integrity of the British Isles. But what would our strategy have been if we had been turned out of the Mediterranean and the Middle East? As the war progressed, with Germany so involved in Russia that the stuffing of the Wehrmacht was gradually knocked out of it, our entire strategic posture was based not merely on strengthening our Middle East position but reinforcing it – first, by taking on Rommel’s Panzerarmee and eventually inflicting severe losses on it; second, in conjunction with the United States and the Free French, by occupying North-west Africa and so becoming masters of the North African shores and of the Mediterranean; third, by using Africa as a stepping-stone to Sicily and Italy, thus knocking Italy out of the war, and by sheer attrition, as opposed to free manoeuvre, tying down sufficient German forces to enable Anglo-American armies to invade north-west Europe. All this was feasible only because the bulk of the Wehrmacht was engaged in a titanic struggle with the Red Army. None of it would have been possible if Hitler had paid more attention to Raeder.

Yet Hitler had not put the idea out of his mind. War Directive No. 30 read:

Whether, and if so how, it may be possible, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, finally to break the British position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf is a question which will be decided only after Barbarossa.

Raeder’s whole point was that had it been done first, Barbarossa in the form it took would not have been necessary. Even as late as eleven days before Barbarossa was launched on 22 June 1941, Hitler issued one more Directive relating to this matter, No. 32, remarkable not for its execution but for its conception. It laid down how the war was to be conducted after Russia had been conquered. Hitler was actually planning to fulfil his former promise to Raeder to finish Britain off. The British position in the Middle East would be strangled by converging attacks from Libya through Egypt, from Bulgaria through Turkey, and from Transcaucasia through Iran. In addition, the Western Mediterranean would be closed by seizing Gibraltar. Planning was to begin ‘so that I may issue final directives before the campaign in the east is over’. It may sound like an exercise in ‘making pictures’ – as Marmont commented on Napoleon’s unrealistic imaginings – yet there was to be one more opportunity, one more chance, for Hitler to have struck a deadly blow to the British position in the Middle East, and this was to come when the campaign in Russia was already a year old.

An Alternative Strategy II


By this time the whole course of the war had been altered by the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and Malaya. Britain and the United States at once became Allies against Japan, and within a few days – because of Hitler’s almost incredible blunder of declaring war on America – Allies against Germany and Italy. Some weeks later the Allies agreed a broad strategic policy to concentrate first on Germany’s defeat, tightening the ring round her by sustaining Russia, strengthening the Middle East and getting hold of the whole North African coast. Curiously enough, at the Führer Naval Conference four days after Pearl Harbor Hitler asked Raeder whether it was likely that the United States and Britain would abandon East Asia for a time in order to crush Germany and Italy first. At times Hitler’s strategic vision was acute. Raeder, while assuring him that the British could not put India at risk and the Americans would not abandon the Pacific to the Japanese Navy, took the opportunity to press his former strategy. While the Allies were preoccupied elsewhere, he argued, now was the time to seize Malta and the Suez Canal and prepare for a great linking-up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean: ‘The favourable situation in the Mediterranean, so pronounced at the present time, will probably never occur again.’ In fact it did occur again as a result of Rommel’s great offensive which began in January 1942, and as a result of poor generalship and a greatly weakened 8th Army, which had been robbed of promised reinforcements by the demands of the Far East, culminated in the fall of Tobruk on 21 June. Rommel’s Order of the Day was a stirring and triumphant document:

The great battle in the Marmarica has been crowned by your quick conquest of Tobruk. We have taken in all over 45,000 prisoners and destroyed or captured more than 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles and nearly 400 guns . . . you have through incomparable courage and tenacity dealt the enemy blow upon blow. Your spirit of attack has cost him the core of his field army . . . Now for the complete destruction of the enemy. We will not rest until we have shattered the last remnants of the British Eighth Army. During the days to come, I shall call upon you for one more great effort to bring us to this final goal.

The loss of Tobruk was a great blow to Churchill, although it enabled him to extract from Roosevelt 300 Sherman tanks and 100 105-mm self-propelled guns, weapons which were greatly to influence future battles in the desert. Churchill must have longed for a general of Rommel’s character and ability, who brought Blitzkrieg to the desert and had the uncanny tactical awareness, the Fingerspitzengefühl, which enabled him time after time to wrest the initiative from his slower-thinking and slower-moving adversaries. He insisted on the mixed Panzergruppen of tanks, armoured infantry, anti-tank guns and artillery, supported by Stukas, whose lightning manoeuvres so bewitched, bothered and bewildered the 8th Army. Besides, he led from the front, something which seemed to have little appeal to British generals.

Yet it was the very magnitude of his achievement in June 1942 which blinded Rommel to the true priorities. Having Tobruk in his hands, with all the fuel, trucks and stores his Panzerarmee so badly needed, he closed his ears and mind to the absolute necessity of having Malta too, if his supply and reinforcement prospects were to have even a chance of matching those of the British, so much closer to their well-nigh invulnerable lines of communication. Thus the tiny fortress of Malta, the key to mastery in the desert, was chucked aside at the very moment when its possession might indeed have opened the gates of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Persian Gulf with all its oil, so priceless to the Axis. When we consider that a few months later Hitler poured his troops and aircraft into Tunisia in order to counter the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, it is clear enough that the resources to exploit Rommel’s capture of Tobruk and defeat of the 8th Army existed, if only the strategic opportunity to reinforce success had been seized. As it was, Auchinleck took a grip on the 8th Army which was being steadily reinforced, and Rommel’s attempt to win the first battle of Alamein with inadequate resources failed. The last chance of bringing off Raeder’s great plan had gone, and shortly Churchill would appoint a battle-winning team, composed of Alexander and Montgomery, who with an even more powerful 8th Army and Desert Air Force would see to it that Rommel, the Desert Fox, would no longer be in search of quarry. He himself would be the quarry.

In his essay ‘How Hitler Could Have Won the War’, John Keegan asks this question: ‘What if, in the summer of 1941, Hitler had chosen to make his major attack not into Soviet Russia but across the Eastern Mediterranean, into Syria and the Lebanon?’ He goes on to refer to War Directive No. 30 and No. 32, which, as already shown above, referred to operations that would be considered after Barbarossa had been launched, and would deal with potential offensives to break the British position in the Middle East. He then poses the further question as to what might have happened if a thrust from Bulgaria and Greece had been chosen as the principal one instead of Barbarossa. Keegan then puts forward two variants. The first envisages making use of the Dodecanese islands, other Greek islands and Cyprus as stepping-stones to land in Syria and Lebanon. The 7th Airborne Division would be employed in, say, capturing Cyprus instead of being wasted, as it was, in an assault on Crete. Once established in the Levant, panzer columns would set about conquering Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, thus solving Hitler’s oil problem. Furthermore, success in this way would enable Germany to threaten Russia’s Caspian Sea oil resources. One advantage of this plan was that it respected Turkish neutrality, but on the other hand was so dependent on adequate shipping and protection from British naval and air attack that it might well have foundered. It certainly takes little account of the British potential to interfere.

Keegan’s second option involves the violation of Turkish territory, in short, an invasion first of European Turkey from Bulgaria and Greece, to be followed by seizing Istanbul, crossing the Bosphorus and gaining control of Anatolia: all this would not have involved the same demand for shipping and command of the sea, and could have led to a powerful strategic advantage whereby German forces could both secure Turkey’s frontier with Russia at the Caucasus and advance into Iran and Iraq to menace Arabia. Keegan concludes that had Hitler exploited his Balkan victories by plumping for this second option and so threatening Russia’s southern flank, as well as her western one, a pincer-type Barbarossa might have succeeded, thus robbing Britain, and later the United States, of the one ally who seemed to have inexhaustible supplies of time, space and manpower. Moreover, Britain’s hold on the Middle East could have been fatally damaged.

Yet there is both a third and a fourth option, as already implied above. In the first place, had Hitler listened to Raeder in 1941, seized Malta with his airborne forces and deployed even a part of the huge panzer and Luftwaffe forces that he was assembling for his attack on Russia; in short, if the Afrika Korps in February 1941 with Rommel still in charge had been a much more powerful one, supported by all the air and naval strength that Germany and Italy between them could have mustered, it is difficult to see how Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief, with their resources already overstretched, could have resisted a full-scale assault on Egypt, the Canal and beyond. But this is to suppose, as John Keegan did, that Hitler could have been persuaded to abandon or postpone his great strategic and ideological aim – to crush the Soviet Union with a direct attack from the west.

We shall therefore let this hypothesis slip, and turn instead to the actual circumstances of June 1942, with 8th Army at bay and Rommel and the Afrika Korps riding in triumph, not through Persepolis, but through the surrendered Tobruk garrison, when a major switch of the Wehrmacht’s power could have turned the scales in the battle for North Africa, and so allowed Rommel’s veterans to have enjoyed both the spoils of opportunity and Egyptian daughters of the game: what then? The answer is provided for us by our own Official History of the Middle Eastern campaign:

Had the Eastern Mediterranean arena not been successfully held during the lean years (in which case, for want of bases, no British fleet or air forces could have even disputed the control of the Mediterranean sea communications) the task of the Allies in gaining a foothold in Europe would have been rendered immensely more difficult; indeed it might well have proved to be beyond their powers.

Thus we may perhaps endorse Churchill’s emphasis on the importance of the desert flank as ‘the peg on which all else hung’. This last opportunity of seizing the Middle East may justly be thought of as the tide in Hitler’s affairs which should have been taken at the flood if his dream of Weltmacht, world power, were to be realized. If Rommel had taken Egypt and surged on from there, there would have been no Anglo-American invasion of French North-west Africa. Indeed, it is not easy to imagine what the Western Allies’ strategy for challenging the Axis would have been. But Rommel and his men were not to savour the delights of Cairo and Beirut. At the Cairo conference of August 1942 Churchill had made known his passionate concern with winning the desert war: ‘Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! What else matters but beating him?’ It is to the beating of Rommel that we must now turn our attention, and by doing so introduce another ‘if by chance’.

BB Tirpitz

Tirpitz and the ill-starred Bismarck were planned during the first years of the Nazi Regime as part of a class of heavy battleships which were to have a standard displacement of 45,000 tons; they followed the 33,000 ton battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as a further stage in the re-birth of the German Battle Fleet. It was intended to follow Tirpitz and Bismarck with six super-battleships of 60,000 tons, four large battlecruisers of 35,000 tons, six large fleet aircraft carriers, and all the battlecruisers, destroyers and other attendant craft needed to make a bid for supremacy on the high seas. Tirpitz was laid down at Wilhelmshaven in October, 1936, launched in April, 1939, and completed in November, 1940. She commissioned on 25 January, 1941, and spent the remainder of the year carrying out extensive trials, overcoming the inevitable teething troubles and working up into an efficient fighting unit. During this period she visited Kiel, Gdynia and Danzig, returning to Kiel at intervals for repairs and adjustments.

Meanwhile attention was being paid by the Germans to the future employment of their heavy naval units. In spite of the reverses suffered in the loss of, first, the pocket battleship Graf Spee and then the battleship Bismarck and also the blockading of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which had been at Brest since mid-March, 1941, there still remained formidable operational units for deployment. In August, 1941, Admiral Raeder (Commander-in- Chief of the German Navy) recommended the concentration of heavy ships in northern waters as promising strategic results. In December, 1941, Hitler demanded a concentration of battleships and pocket battleships in northern waters because latest intelligence had firmly convinced him that a British landing in northern Norway was imminent; he was deeply concerned at the possible catastrophic results of such a landing and said “The fate of the war will be decided in Norway”. The outcome was that in mid-January, 1942, Tirpitz sailed for Norway and approximately a month later Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made their historic dash through the English Channel in a successful effort to regain German ports.

Tirpitz’s first sortie was made from Trondheim in March, 1942, after a Russia-bound convoy had been shadowed by German reconnaissance aircraft. Torpedo carrying Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm made contact with the ship off the Lofoten Islands on 9 March and launched an unsuccessful attack following which Tirpitz retired at high speed. She returned to Trondheim and remained in that area until early July, 1942. On 7 July, British reconnaissance aircraft sighted Tirpitz off Tromsø and on 8 July the Russians claimed to have attacked her off North Cape with torpedoes fired from a submarine. The ship was next located at Bogen Fjord, near Narvik, where she remained until October, 1942, when machinery defects which had developed during the previous months made it desirable for her to return to Trondheim for repairs before the onset of the Arctic winter.

On 11 January, 1943, Hitler, furious at the failure of an attack on a convoy by Hipper and Lutzow, announced his intention of decommissioning the large ships. He told Raeder that the present critical situation demanded the application of all available fighting power, personnel and material, and that the large ships must not be permitted to be idle for months. On Hitler’s instructions Raeder produced a memorandum on the decommissioning of the large ships; he strenuously contested the decision but to no effect. Following this, Raeder resigned and was succeeded by Dönitz. Decommissioning of certain ships was put into effect, but following strong representations from Dönitz, Hitler agreed to keep Tirpitz and Scharnhorst in commission; Dönitz reasoned that these heavy units, together with Lutzow and six destroyers, would form a fairly powerful task force. On 2 February, 1943, Hitler issued an order for the cessation of work on the building of large ships.

The machinery repairs to Tirpitz appeared to have been completed (with spares brought from Germany) by the end of February, 1943, at which time she was reported as undergoing exercises in Trondheim Fjord. She left the Trondheim area in March, 1943, and joined the Scharnhorst and Lutzow in the Narvik area. The three ships left Narvik in company on 27 March and arrived in the Kaa Fjord, between Tromsø and North Cape, on 2 April. They stayed in this area until 7 September. On 9 September they carried out a raid on the Norwegian Islands of Spitzbergen with the object of destroying Allied bases and installations which were alleged to have been set up there. This raid indicated that the German battleship was likely to become more active and plans were therefore made to attack her with the X-Craft which had just come into operational service.

Three of the six X-Craft which were despatched to make this attack in the Kaa Fjord, to which Tirpitz had returned after the Spitzbergen raid, successfully negotiated the inner defences around her on 22 September and two of them laid their explosive charges on the sea-bed under or near the ship before being destroyed. At least two of these charges detonated as intended and the resultant damage immobilised Tirpitz for six months. At the end of this period, that is mid-March, 1944, she was reported as running trials in the Altenfjord and arrangements were made to lay on a bombing attack by Fleet Air Arm Barracudas from the Home Fleet Carriers. The first attack was made on 3 April by 40 Barracudas in two waves escorted by ship- borne fighters, just as Tirpitz was on the point of leaving her berth to run an extensive series of sea trials to test the repairs. The attack was a complete surprise, 14 hits were scored in spite of very low cloud, a smoke screen and the difficulty of attacking over mountains, and though the material efficiency of the ship was not seriously impaired, the heavy casualties meant that she would not be able to fight an action for some time.

Tirpitz was still in Kaa Fjord when she was again attacked by Fleet Air Arm aircraft on 17 July and 22, 24 and 29 August. Observer posts, which had been set up some distance from the anchorage, were able to give warning of these raids and a thick smoke screen, heavy anti-aircraft fire and low cloud prevented the attacks being pressed well home. Two hits were scored on 24 August but again no vital damage to the ship resulted.

The urgent necessity of releasing for the Far East the capital ships held at Scapa to counter the menace of Tirpitz made it imperative to render the ship inoperative at an early date. On 15 September, 1944, she was attacked at her anchorage in the Kaa Fjord with the new 12,000 lb. M.C. bombs (Tallboys) which had been developed primarily for land demolition purposes. 21 Bomber Command Lancasters, operating from a Russian base, found the ship almost completely obscured by smoke. Only one hit (at the fore end) was registered owing to the extreme difficulty of carrying out a high level bombing attack in the poor visibility conditions prevailing, but severe damage was caused and Tirpitz was henceforth incapable of being a threat to shipping. However, this fact did not become known to the Allies until the termination of the war, and the attacks continued.

Following this latest damage the Germans held a Conference at which they decided that as it was no longer possible to make Tirpitz ready for sea and action again, the ship’s remaining fighting efficiency should be utilised as a reinforcement of the defences in the Polar Area. On 15 October Tirpitz was moved to a berth near Tromsø and arrangements were made to protect her with anti-aircraft and smoke defences and land-based aircraft. This berth was supposed to conform to special requirements laid down at the Conference, one of which limited the maximum depth of water in the anchorage to a figure which would have prevented the ship from capsizing; the depth at the position in which Tirpitz was finally moored exceeding this limit and a hasty attempt was made to build up the sea-bed by depositing dredged material around and under the ship, which became known as “The Floating Battery”.

On 29 October, 1944, Lancasters again attacked with 12,000 lb. bombs. Heavy cloud obscured the Tromsø anchorage and militated against accurate high level bombing but a near miss off the port quarter produced flooding aft.

Finally, on 12 November, 1944, the somewhat inactive operational career of Tirpitz was brought to a close when Lancaster aircraft bombed her with 12,000 lb. Tallboys for the third time, scoring hits which – aided by one near miss – caused the world’s only “unsinkable” battleship to capsize in about ten minutes with the loss of some 1,000 lives.

Ship Description

There was nothing sensational about the design of Tirpitz; she was merely a very large battleship, designed on conventional lines, propelled by three screws driven by steam turbines and mounting eight 38 cm. (approx. 15-in.) guns in twin turrets, arranged in the conventional way, two forward and two aft. This German mastodon was designed to a standard displacement of 42,600 tons, although the displacement reported for Treaty conditions was 35,000, the same as that of the King George V and Washington classes of battleship, which were genuinely designed to this size. In the deep condition she displaced 50,000 tons and had a draught of nearly 34 ft. Other things being equal this greater displacement would have been accompanied by greater ability to withstand damage. Although she measured 822 ft. overall, her most impressive dimension was her beam of 118 ft. which would have prevented her from passing through the Panama Canal. It was always thought that this implied a very deep “bulge” for protection against underwater attack, but it is now known that there was nothing remarkable about her underwater protection which was, in fact, inferior to that fitted in both British and American contemporary Capital Ships. The very large beam was adopted to provide an abnormally high initial stability. Such measures, however, may often reduce the resistance of the ship to the more severe states of damage. It is doubtful whether Tirpitz was at all better than her allied counterparts in this respect.

Information gained from a survey of the wreck and numerous drawings brought from Germany confirm that Tirpitz’s reputed fine watertight subdivision, and consequent “invincibility”, were a complete myth; her subdivision was very similar to that of our own Capital Ships, and indeed those of all major sea Powers. Her watertight integrity was in several ways subordinated to requirements of convenience; for example, every transverse watertight bulkhead in the ship was pierced by watertight doors on the lower and middle platform decks, a menace which has been eliminated from H.M. ships for many years, and the engine rooms seemed to contain far more space than was needed.

Some of the available weight was used to secure a very high speed. Tirpitz was designed to develop 150,000 shaft horse-power which enabled her to make over 30 knots in the average action condition, and she was capable of developing 165,000 shaft horse-power for sudden bursts of over 31 knots. Her range based on an oil fuel capacity of 5,000 tons was over 10,000 sea miles. More fuel could be carried in an emergency.

More of the extra displacement in Tirpitz was accounted for by the fact that her 38 cm. guns were mounted in twin turrets rather than the weight saving triple and quadruple arrangements used in modern American and British Capital ships. Also the Germans fitted separate low angle and high angle secondary batteries rather than the dual purpose mountings used in Allied ships. She thus had twelve 15 cm. (5.9-in.) low angle guns in twin turrets, three on either side of the amidships superstructure, and sixteen high angle 10.5 cm. (4.1-in.) guns in twin mountings – four on each side. A further battery of sixteen 3.7 cm. (1.46-in.) mountings for close range anti- aircraft work was also provided.

This powerful armament was controlled by range-finders and director sights on the forward and after conning towers, and on the fore top. There were smaller range-finders for the secondary armament, one on each side of the bridge. The 10.5 cm. H.A. armament was controlled by four special gyro stabilized directors, one to port and one to starboard of the bridge, and two on the centre line abaft the main mast.

Tirpitz’s general layout is illustrated by the small-scale drawings below. It will be seen from the drawing that the machinery spaces, consisting of six boiler rooms, three engine rooms and miscellaneous compartments housing auxiliary machinery, the magazines and shell rooms, and other vital compartments such as fire control rooms, were well protected by a long armoured citadel. The sides were of 320 mm. (12.6-in.) thick cemented armour plates from 8 ft. below the waterline up to the battery deck and thinner plating of 145 mm. (5.7-in.) thickness to the upper deck. In addition, the third deck down was armoured with 80 mm. (3.15-in.) non-cemented plating over the machinery spaces and 100 mm. (3.94-in.) over the magazines between the torpedo bulkheads, while the sloping deck armour between the centre portion and the base of the side armour was 110 mm. (4.33-in.) in way of machinery spaces and 120 mm. (4.72)-in.) in way of magazines. There were extensions of the citadel by thinner armour, the lower belt being 60 mm. (2.36-in.) plating forward and 80 mm. (3.15-in.) aft and the upper belt being 35 mm. (1.38-in.) forward and aft. While there was no deck armour before the forward magazines, deck protection aft over the steering gear compartments was 110 mm. (4.33-in.) in thickness. This armoured citadel, re-inforced by a strength deck (the upper deck) which was 50 mm. (1.97-in.) thick generally, afforded efficient protection against splinters and all but the largest bombs dropped from a considerable height. Barbettes, and turret sides and roofs, and greater ability to withstand damage. Although she measured 822 ft. overall, her most impressive dimension was her beam of 118 ft. which would have prevented her from passing through the Panama Canal. It was always thought that this implied a very deep “bulge” for protection against underwater attack, but it is now known that there was nothing remarkable about her underwater protection which was, in fact, inferior to that fitted in both British and American contemporary Capital Ships. The very large beam was adopted to provide an abnormally high initial stability. Such measures, however, may often reduce the resistance of the ship to the more severe states of damage. It is doubtful whether Tirpitz was at all better than her allied counterparts in this respect.

Information gained from a survey of the wreck and numerous drawings brought from Germany confirm that Tirpitz’s reputed fine watertight subdivision, and consequent “invincibility”, were a complete myth; her subdivision was very similar to that of our own Capital Ships, and indeed those of all major sea Powers. Her watertight integrity was in several ways subordinated to requirements of convenience; for example, every transverse watertight bulkhead in the ship was pierced by watertight doors on the lower and middle platform decks, a menace which has been eliminated from H.M. ships for many years, and the engine rooms seemed to contain far more space than was needed.

Some of the available weight was used to secure a very high speed. Tirpitz was designed to develop 150,000 shaft horse-power which enabled her to make over 30 knots in the average action condition, and she was capable of developing 165,000 shaft horse-power for sudden bursts of over 31 knots. Her range based on an oil fuel capacity of 5,000 tons was over 10,000 sea miles. More fuel could be carried in an emergency.

More of the extra displacement in Tirpitz was accounted for by the fact that her 38 cm. guns were mounted in twin turrets rather than the weight saving triple and quadruple arrangements used in modern American and British Capital ships. Also the Germans fitted separate low angle and high angle secondary batteries rather than the dual purpose mountings used in Allied ships. She thus had twelve 15 cm. (5.9-in.) low angle guns in twin turrets, three on either side of the amidships superstructure, and sixteen high angle 10.5 cm. (4.1-in.) guns in twin mountings – four on each side. A further battery of sixteen 3.7 cm. (1.46-in.) mountings for close range anti- aircraft work was also provided.

This powerful armament was controlled by range-finders and director sights on the forward and after conning towers, and on the fore top. There were smaller range-finders for the secondary armament, one on each side of the bridge. The 10.5 cm. H.A. armament was controlled by four special gyro stabilized directors, one to port and one to starboard of the bridge, and two on the centre line abaft the main mast.

Tirpitz’s general layout is illustrated by the small-scale drawing (Figure 2) which has been prepared for this report from larger scale drawings found in the Naval Arsenal at Kiel. It will be seen from the drawing that the machinery spaces, consisting of six boiler rooms, three engine rooms and miscellaneous compartments housing auxiliary machinery, the magazines and shell rooms, and other vital compartments such as fire control rooms, were well protected by a long armoured citadel. The sides were of 320 mm. (12.6-in.) thick cemented armour plates from 8 ft. below the waterline up to the battery deck and thinner plating of 145 mm. (5.7-in.) thickness to the upper deck. In addition, the third deck down was armoured with 80 mm. (3.15-in.) non-cemented plating over the machinery spaces and 100 mm. (3.94-in.) over the magazines between the torpedo bulkheads, while the sloping deck armour between the centre portion and the base of the side armour was 110 mm. (4.33-in.) in way of machinery spaces and 120 mm. (4.72)-in.) in way of magazines. There were extensions of the citadel by thinner armour, the lower belt being 60 mm. (2.36-in.) plating forward and 80 mm. (3.15-in.) aft and the upper belt being 35 mm. (1.38-in.) forward and aft. While there was no deck armour before the forward magazines, deck protection aft over the steering gear compartments was 110 mm. (4.33-in.) in thickness. This armoured citadel, re-inforced by a strength deck (the upper deck) which was 50 mm. (1.97-in.) thick generally, afforded efficient protection against splinters and all but the largest bombs dropped from a considerable height. Barbettes, and turret sides and roofs, and conning towers were protected by armour on the same generous lines.

Four sea-planes which were carried for spotting and reconnaissance were accommodated in special hangars abreast the funnel and under the main mast. They were launched by a fixed athwartships catapult between the funnel and the main mast.

It will be seen from this description that the Tirpitz and her sister ship, the Bismarck, were formidable – if conventional – fighting units which required our best ships and weapons to counter them, and which were capable of defeating attacks by heavy shell and all but the heaviest bombs. While Tirpitz remained in the Norwegian Fjords, powerful British units had to be kept in Home waters to protect our shipping.

THE HUMBLING OF THE TANK


In the tank staging areas along the Artillery Road, company commanders were giving final briefings when a wailing on the radio net signaled enemy air penetration. Bombs struck the compounds before the tanks could get away but none was hit.

Speeding toward the canal, they covered the distance in twenty to thirty minutes but in most cases lost the race. The sand barriers behind which they were to take up firing positions—the “fins”—were already covered by figures in sand-colored uniforms. From observing Dovecote exercises, the Egyptians knew exactly where the tanks would be heading.

“Infantry to the front,” shouted tank platoon commanders. “Attack.” It was a drill they had rehearsed repeatedly—racing forward to shoot, stampede, and literally crush the enemy. The Egyptians, however, had prepared a scenario of their own. Commandos rising from shallow foxholes with RPGs on their shoulders hit the lead tanks. Some of the commandos were cut down but others held their ground. Surprised at the resistance, tank commanders pulled back beyond effective RPG range, about three hundred yards. It was not far enough.

A platoon commander saw a red light waft lazily past him and explode against a nearby tank. The commander of the impacted tank was propelled from the turret by the pressure, like a cork from a bottle. Other lights floated in from the Egyptian rampart across the canal. The platoon commander had no idea what they might be. The answer came over the radio net. “Missiles,” said the company commander, the first to recognize the Sagger. Their three-thousand-yard range was ten times that of the RPG and their impact more deadly.

For the first time since tanks lumbered onto the battlefields of the First World War, the greatest danger they faced was not from enemy tanks or antitank guns but from individual infantrymen. Bazookas had been used by infantrymen in previous wars but never in such quantity as the RPGs were being used now or with the range and lethality of the Saggers. The Egyptian troops had been provided antitank weapons in prodigious numbers. At Shazly’s orders, Saggers were stripped from rear units and transferred to the spearhead forces. Each of the five attacking divisions had 72 infantrymen armed with Saggers and 535 with RPGs. In addition, 57 antitank guns and 90 recoilless weapons added a more conventional but no less deadly tank-killing capability. This added up to close to 800 antitank weapons per division apart from the 200 tanks attached to each division. Never had such intensive antitank fire been brought to bear on a battlefield. In addition, Israeli tank commanders, who rode with their heads out of the turret for better visibility, were vulnerable to the massive Egyptian artillery fire and to rifle and machine gun fire from infantrymen all around them. The profusion of fire was stunning. So was the grit with which the infantrymen defied the charging tanks.

The decision by Israel not to raise the embankment on its side of the canal to mask the Sinai bank from the Egyptian ramparts severely aggravated its situation. Tanks, Saggers, and antitank guns on the ramparts opposite dominated not only the Israeli forts but an area up to two miles inland from the canal. Israel’s idea of neutralizing the ramparts with long-range fire from the shelter of the fins had no validity now that Egyptian RPG teams were dug in all around them.

The air force, on which Elazar had rested his confidence, was unable to stem the Egyptian tide. Because of the SAMs, the planes could not circle over the battlefield and choose targets. Where defenses were heavy the planes resorted to “toss bombing,” in which the aircraft pulled up sharply at a calculated distance, speed, and angle to release their bombs without overflying the target itself, which could be as much as four miles away. The IAF carried out 120 sorties on the Egyptian front this day and lost four planes but the snap attacks had little impact. The Egyptian infantrymen were more vulnerable to artillery but the IDF had only a few dozen artillery pieces along the hundred-mile-long front and these were under heavy counter-battery fire.

The Bar-Lev strongpoints proved virtually useless as a defense line. For the most part, the boats simply crossed between them, out of view. The Egyptian high command had been prepared for 10,000 dead in the crossing operation but the number killed, according to the final Egyptian count, would be 280.

Defense of the Suez front fell in the opening hours on Colonel Reshef’s 91 tanks, constituting the forward brigade of General Mendler’s Sinai Division, and the 450 men in the sixteen Bar-Lev forts. Mendler’s two other brigades were at their base in central Sinai, fifty miles away, and would not reach the front for three hours.

The four northern forts on the canal were strung along a causeway between the canal and a lagoon. The northernmost, Orkal, was because of its remoteness the only one to have tanks permanently assigned—a platoon of three. With the onset of firing, pairs of tanks were dispatched by the northern battalion commander, Lt. Col. Yom Tov Tamir, to the three other causeway forts via a road through the lagoon. The pair rushing to Fort Lachtsanit, just below Orkal, were ambushed. An RPG hit the lead tank, killing its commander, but the driver bulled through and reached the entrance to Orkal. There the tank was ambushed again and another crewman killed. Soldiers came out of the fort and led in the two surviving crewmen. The second tank reached Lachtsanit but was destroyed there.

Pairs of tanks managed to reach the two causeway forts south of Lachtsanit but each pair was ordered in turn to proceed to Lachtsanit, whose radio had gone silent. All four tanks were ambushed. One crew managed to escape on the road through the lagoon on foot. The crewmen came across a downed Israeli pilot with a broken leg who refused to be carried so as not to slow them down. He was taken prisoner before a rescue vehicle reached him.

Battalion commander Tamir led the rest of his force toward two forts south of the lagoon. Several tanks bogged down in marshes, difficult to discern because they were covered by sand. Others were disabled by surface mines or hit by RPGs or Saggers.

Responding to distress calls from Fort Milano, Tamir dispatched three tanks to its assistance. Milano lay alongside the ghost town of East Kantara, abandoned in the Six Day War. Egyptian soldiers, who had now returned to the town, knocked out two tanks.

As dusk approached, Tamir was ordered to send tanks again to Lachtsanit. He sent almost all his remaining tanks together with infantrymen on half-tracks. This force too was ambushed. The war was only four hours old and Tamir’s battalion was almost entirely wiped out.

The fortunes of Reshef’s two other battalions on the line were better, but not by much. In the central sector, where most of Egypt’s Second Army was crossing, Israeli tanks scored some initial successes. Destruction of four Egyptian tanks on the enemy ramparts sent a surge of optimism along the radio net. At 4 p.m. Egyptian infantrymen were spotted already three miles east of the canal. A small armored force stopped them just before darkness and drove them back.

In the southern sector, where Egypt’s Third Army was crossing, Lt. Chanoch Sandrov halted his tank company six hundred yards from Fort Mafzeah and surveyed the terrain. There was no enemy in sight and no sign of activity on the rampart across the canal. As the company started forward again, RPG squads rose from the sand and set the lead tank afire. Sagger missiles erupted from the Egyptian rampart and an artillery barrage descended.

A rescue tank approaching the burning tank was hit by a Sagger which killed the loader. The tank’s commander was cut down in the turret by bullets. The gunner rose to take his place and was hit too. The driver turned back with his three dead or dying comrades.

Sandrov was blinded in an eye by shrapnel and pulled back briefly to have a crewman apply a bandage. Resuming command, he ordered his deputy, Lt. Avraham Gur, to comb the area south of the fort with half the tanks while he swept north with the rest. When Gur passed close to the Israeli embankment, an Egyptian with an RPG rose on the slope above. Gur, standing in the open turret, ordered his driver to turn right. As the tank swung, throwing up a cloud of dust, the RPG shell exploded alongside. “When the dust settles,” Gur shouted, “fire.” A moment later the gunner said, “I see his face,” and fired. Gur saw the Egyptian soldier lifted into the air and disintegrate.

Gur rejoined Sandrov’s force just as a missile coming off the Egyptian rampart struck the company commander’s tank. Gur ran to it and found Sandrov and his loader dead. The lieutenant took the other two crewmen, both wounded, into his own tank. A tank fifty yards away was struck by a missile and Gur climbed onto that too. The tank commander was slumped inside. Gur took his wrist but there was no pulse. Calling for artillery cover, he began evacuating the wounded.

In late afternoon, the canal-side embankment began to fill again as Egyptian infantry clambered up from boats. Lt. Col. Emanuel Sakel, commanding the southern battalion, formed armored personnel carriers into line with Gur’s remaining tanks and led a charge. The Egyptians broke, many of them throwing away their weapons. The waterline had been regained in this sector but only two tanks remained in action, Sakel’s and Gur’s. Sakel told Gur to begin towing damaged tanks to the rear. The battalion commander’s tank remained near Mafzeah to cover the fort against infantry attack.

Five miles south, another of Sakel’s companies, commanded by Capt. David Kotler, broke up an infantry attack on Fort Nissan. But no matter how many Egyptians were hit, others sprouted in their place. Kotler’s deputy, Lt. Yisrael Karniel, saw a Sagger wafting toward his tank just as he was shot in the shoulder. Falling back into the turret, he shouted “hard right” and passed out. The tank swerved sharply and the missile exploded harmlessly beyond it. A platoon leader went to Karniel’s aid but his own tank was struck a blow that brought it to a shuddering halt. A Sagger had hit just above the gun, where the metal was thickest. It did not penetrate and the driver was able to restart. Reaching Karniel, the officer tied a stretcher to the hull of his own tank and strapped him on it. As they started toward nearby Fort Mezakh, the tank was hit again, this time by an artillery shell. The stretcher was lifted into the air and slammed back down. The platoon leader was certain that Karniel was dead until he heard him groan. They reached the fort without further incident.

Toward evening, the doctor at Mezakh asked for urgent evacuation of the wounded. The fort, the southernmost on the Bar-Lev Line, was located on an artificial spit of land projecting into the Gulf of Suez. Kotler headed there together with Lt. David Cohen. As they approached, Cohen’s tank hit a mine. The commandos who had placed it rose from foxholes and fired at the stricken tank. Kotler drove them to ground with machine gun fire and closed up behind Cohen’s tank. At Kotler’s signal, Cohen and his crew leaped aboard while Kotler kept the Egyptians’ heads down. At a rear staging area, Cohen took over a tank whose commander had been wounded. By now, all that remained of the eleven tanks Kotler had started out with three hours before were his and Cohen’s.

Reshef’s brigade was being relentlessly eroded as it tried to enforce Elazar’s dictum of “killing them on the canal.” The aim was to deny the Egyptians territorial gain and thus discourage future attacks. But this was turning out to be a grievous miscalculation, particularly in view of the enormous disparity of forces. Instead of demonstrating the power of armor, the Israeli tanks were engaging in a wild brawl they could not win. They were up against masses of infantry armed with weapons that could kill a tank as easily as a tank could kill them.

A report half an hour before sunset of bridge sections being assembled in the water near Purkan was the first clear indication to Reshef that the Egyptians were intending to put their army into Sinai. He dispatched a newly arrived company led by Lt. Moshe Bardash to attack the bridging site. The setting sun was in Bardash’s eyes as his eight tanks approached the canal. There was an indistinct vision of infantrymen on the road, then a hail of RPGs. Several tanks were hit. The tankers fired blindly into the haze. Bardash, wounded, ordered his tanks to pull back.

At a safe distance, the tanks halted and Reshef’s operations officer, who had been guiding Bardash’s force to the bridge site, assembled the tank commanders to explain what they were up against—the copious use of RPGs, the boldness and overwhelming number of enemy infantry, and, particularly, the Sagger missile.

Such impromptu lessons were going on all along the front as new units took the field alongside tank crewmen who had survived the day.

Saggers, the “veterans” explained, were a formidable danger but not an ultimate weapon. They could not be used close-up since they required several hundred yards of flight before they “acquired” their target. They could be seen in flight and were slow enough to dodge. It took about ten seconds for a missile to complete its flight—at extreme range it could be twice that—during which time the Sagger operator had to keep the target in his sights as he guided the missile by the bright red flare on its tail. From the side it was easy for the tankers to see the flare. As soon as anyone shouted “Missile” on the radio net all tanks would move back and forth in order not to present a stationary target. The movement would also throw up dust that would cloud the Sagger operator’s view. Simultaneously, the tanks would fire in the operator’s presumed direction, which in itself could be sufficient to throw him off his aim.

The RPG would prove deadlier this day than the Sagger. As long as the Israelis were fighting near the water’s edge, the Saggers were fired during daylight from the Egyptian rampart. But RPG teams lying in shallow foxholes were a close-up threat day and night as the tanks attempted to reach the canal-side forts. The profusion of RPGs took the Israelis aback. Tank commanders learned to examine the terrain for possible ambushers before moving forward. There could be no such precaution at night.

Even before the sun set on Yom Kippur day, it was clear to the tank crews on the front line that something revolutionary was happening—as revolutionary, it seemed, as the introduction of the machine gun or the demise of the horse cavalry. Tanks, which had stalked the world’s battlefields since the First World War like antediluvian beasts, were now being felled with ease by ordinary foot soldiers. It would take time before the implications of this extraordinary development were grasped by higher command. Meanwhile, the tankers were figuring out for themselves how to survive.

Emerging from a rabbit hole when the shelling lifted, Sgt. Shlomo Shechori saw soldiers trying to get through the barbed wire surrounding his outpost near Fort Lituf. He thought they were reinforcements from the main fort until he noticed the sand-colored uniforms and heard shouts in Arabic. When the Egyptian squad was ten yards away in the winding trench, he rose and emptied his magazine at them before slipping through a hole in the fence. Halfway to the main fort, he dropped to the ground. Lituf was surrounded by an Egyptian company pouring fire into it.

Shechori made his way to the nearby road and saw three Israeli tanks racing toward the fort, firing as they came. His dark uniform identified him as Israeli and the lead tank stopped alongside. Capt. Boaz Amir beckoned Shechori aboard. The officer, who commanded the northernmost of Sakel’s three companies, posted the sergeant in the turret alongside him. Shechori tried to hug him but the officer stopped him. “Save the kisses till this is over,” he said, handing the sergeant a grenade. Other grenades were stashed within reach. “Anyone you see is Egyptian,” said the officer. “Throw grenades and use your Uzi.”

The tanks swept through the fort compound, spewing fire and running over enemy soldiers who tried to hit them with RPGs. Within minutes, the surviving Egyptians had pulled back. Amir decided that he too would have to withdraw because of fire from the Egyptian rampart.

As he left the compound, he saw three Soviet-make APCs. Soldiers aboard them waved in greeting. The IDF had units made up of Soviet vehicles captured in the Six Day War but these vehicles were the sand color of the Egyptian army. On the other hand, the Egyptians could not have put up bridges across the canal this quickly. Captain Amir radioed headquarters and reported what he saw. Is there any Israeli unit with Soviet-made APCs in the vicinity? he asked. “No,” came the reply. A moment later the three APCs were smoking hulks.

Lifting his gaze, the company commander saw a mass of APCs and tanks approaching. They constituted the southern wing of the amphibious brigade which had crossed the Bitter Lake. Amir was moving his tanks into firing positions when Lituf called again for assistance. He sent two tanks to the fort and with the four remaining opened fire. In the ensuing exchange, twenty-six Egyptian vehicles, mostly APCs, were set aflame, with the loss of one Israeli tank.

The Egyptian infantrymen who escaped the APCs deployed with Saggers and RPGs. His ammunition depleted, Amir ordered the three remaining tanks to fire short machine gun bursts to keep the infantrymen at bay until reinforcements arrived.

The Israeli command would conclude that the amphibious force was intended to link up with commandos landing at the Gidi Pass in order to block Israeli reserve forces on their way to the front. The large number of personnel carriers may have been intended to bring the commandos back after completing their mission. But most of the helicopters had been shot down.

The sounds of Amir’s battle reached 1st Sgt. Haim Yudelevitz on the roof of a building in the Mitzvah staging area, several miles to the rear, where he was keeping lookout. A dozen soldiers, mostly technicians and medics, sheltered in a bunker from the intermittent shelling. A tank had returned from the front earlier with its wounded commander. A second tank arrived now from a maintenance workshop at the rear. It had no machine guns and no crew except for the driver, Sgt. Moshe Rosman, who joined Yudelevitz on the roof. Toward evening, the pair saw a cloud of dust heading in their direction. As it drew closer, the sergeants identified ten Egyptian amphibious vehicles, including at least one tank.

Sergeant Rosman told the crew of the wounded officer’s tank that he was taking command. He removed the tank’s two machine guns for use by the men at Mitzvah to defend the post and set out in the tank with the rest of the crew to meet the approaching force. Yudelevitz had meanwhile gathered two nonfunctioning machine guns from a storeroom and, cannibalizing parts from one, made the other operable. He hauled it up to the roof along with ammunition belts. The Egyptian APCs halted a mile away. Officers formed the soldiers into line and then advanced, first slowly and then at a trot. Yudelevitz opened fire at two hundred yards. Many Egyptians went down, either hit or taking cover. Others began to edge around to the flank. Yudelevitz descended and deployed the men along the perimeter fence, ordering them to fire short bursts at random in the gathering dusk from the machine guns Rosman had provided.

Rosman meanwhile spotted a line of APCs at 1,500 yards. His gunner hit two. The others dispersed among the dunes. Rosman took up pursuit and hit two more. Yudelevitz returned to the roof and ranged him in by radio on a tank a mile away which Rosman’s gunner set aflame.

Darkness now descended. It seemed that the Egyptian force, what was left of it, had pulled back. Rosman and his crew remained in their tank seven hundred yards from the compound. After half an hour, Yudelevitz reported that he could hear vehicles nearby. Rosman turned and saw two armored personnel carriers at the entrance to the compound. His gunner dispatched them with two shells. Flames from the burning vehicles briefly lit the area.

Rosman positioned the tank at the compound entrance and remained there with the engine off, the better to hear. Half an hour later, he sensed movement to his front. Thirty Egyptian soldiers appeared out of the darkness, the closest only three yards away. They plainly regarded the silent tank as incapacitated. In a whisper, Rosman told the driver to start the engine. As it sprang to life, he tossed grenades and shouted, “Run them down.” Those Egyptians left alive pulled back into the desert.

Two tank maintenance sergeants, acting on their own initiative with a pickup team of soldiers, had broken the Egyptian drive in this sector.

Major Surface Combatants Modern US Navy

The US Navy has brought sixty-two Arleigh Burke class destroyers into service to date. The earlier ships – Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) herself is shown at the top – lacked a helicopter but the later Flight IIA ships – depicted by Gravely (DDG-107) above – were modified to provide this facility and additional VLS cells. These can be used to fire a range of munitions, notably Standard and ESSM surface-to-air missiles, Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles and the ASROC anti-submarine weapon.

Arleigh Burke Flight I ship USS Fitzgerald with TACTAS (tactical towed array sonar) in the center of the fantail, no helicopter hangars, and distinctive stacks.

Arleigh Burke Flight IIA ship USS Mustin without TACTAS in the center of the fantail, but with aft helicopter hangars, Phalanx CIWS mount and different exhaust stacks.

The last twenty-five years have seen a marked reduction in numbers of major surface combatants in service across the world’s navies. This trend has been combined with a tendency for these remaining combatants to have grown greatly in size and sophistication. The reasons for the numerical decline – the end of the Cold War and a sharp reduction in the need and willingness of the main protagonists to pay for such ships – are not hard to understand, but the trend towards larger, more complex ships warrants further explanation. So far as size is concerned, design influences such as improvements to accommodation and other crew facilities, the additional space utilised by stealth techniques, and even the impact of greater use of modular equipment. The increased focus on expeditionary activities, far from home bases, has also tended to emphasise further the benefits of volume for accommodation, fuel and stores.

Meanwhile, greater sophistication has been driven by evolving threats and the availability of technology, increasingly assisted by developments in consumer electronics, to provide an effective counter. Of these threats, that posed by saturation attack from anti-ship missiles had commonly been perceived as the most severe by the latter half of the Cold War. During this time, the expansion of the Soviet naval bomber force armed with stand-off air-to-surface missiles had particularly exercised US Navy planners. The capability of such systems, albeit of Western origin, were vividly demonstrated by the success of Argentine Exocet missile attacks on Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor in the 1982 Falklands War. By this stage, however, the US Navy was already on the point of deploying its new Ticonderoga (CG-47) class cruisers, which provided a potent answer to the problem.

Existing warships had been vulnerable to air attack because defensive missiles needed a dedicated fire-control radar to guide them onto any target identified by the main search-and-surveillance radar. Essentially, each engagement required a separate fire-control radar throughout its entire course and only a small number of such radars could be carried. The Ticonderoga class were the first equipped with the Aegis weapons system, including its associated AN/SPY-1 electronically scanned or ‘phased’ radar arrays. The greater flexibility and precision of phased arrays – which use electronics to form and direct their radar beams – allowed Aegis to direct modified Standard series missiles (the Standard SM-2) towards incoming threats via mid-course guidance. This avoided the need for a separate fire-control radar until the final stages of an engagement. At this stage, ‘slaved’ illuminators were used to guide the semi-active Standard missiles onto the relevant target. This permitted a far greater number of incoming targets to be engaged than previously. The system’s precision and automated nature also allowed for fast reaction times. This is useful against ‘pop-up’ missiles – such as those fired from a submerged submarine – that may be a more likely threat in post-Cold War naval scenarios.

It was to be some years before other navies deployed weapons systems of equivalent capability to Aegis. Congressional reluctance to release the technology outside the US Navy meant that ten years were to elapse before Aegis was deployed by a foreign navy – onboard Japan’s Kongou (DDG-173) in 1993 – and only a handful of fleets have acquired the system to date. Moreover, Aegis’ sophistication was such that it was to be a further decade still before equivalent systems were developed by the main European navies, commencing with the Dutch De Zeven Provinciën in 2002. Initially largely installed in dedicated air-defence ships, phased arrays and their associated control systems are now increasingly common in all types of new surface combatants as the relevant technology becomes more affordable. Some of the emergent navies are also developing similar systems, rather than relying on imports from the United States or Europe. Notable examples include China’s Type 346 series of active phased arrays and the Israeli EL/M-2248 MF-STAR.3 The latter is being used in conjunction with the Indo-Israeli Barak 8 surface-to-air missile system onboard the new Indian-built Kolkata class destroyers.

Whilst this expansion of warship building and associated maritime technology industries to new countries has been another trend in 21st-century warship construction, it is important to note that its influence on major surface combatant design remains quite limited. With the exception of China – and possibly India – most major warship classes remain heavily influenced by prototypes and, certainly, weapons and systems developed in the traditional naval hubs of the United States and Europe. Even China, it is reported, has first relied on technology extracted from Russia and the West to build its own indigenous capabilities. Although it seems likely that this will change in future as emergent economies continue to broaden their skills, it remains a fact that the majority of the twenty-first century’s major surface combatant designs are essentially of Western or Russian origin.

Construction of major surface combatants for the US Navy since the end of the Cold War has been dominated by series production of the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class destroyers. Displacing nearly 9,000 tons in their original guise, the class is a multimission combatant with an emphasis on anti-air warfare. Preliminary design studies for the class started in the late 1970s as part of plans to replace older surface escorts. An important aim was to develop an affordable complement to the Ticonderoga class cruisers, the target cost being three-quarters of that of the larger cruiser. Principal sacrifices to achieve this aim included a reduction in fire-control illuminators (used in the final stages of an engagement) from four to three, omitting a helicopter hangar and air-warfare command and control facilities and a reduction in Mk 41 VLS missile cells to ninety from 122. Otherwise, the ships benefitted from being a purpose-designed platform for the Aegis system – the Ticonderoga class was a modification of the existing Spruance (DD-963) class hull – with a broader, more stable hull, improved survivability features and a significantly reduced radar cross-section. Propulsion is by means of a traditional COGAG plant. The lead ship was procured under the FY1985 construction programme. She was launched in September 1989 and commissioned on 4 July 1991.

Twenty-eight of the original Flight I and slightly modified Flight II Arleigh Burkes were completed between 1991 and 1999 before production switched to the modified Flight IIA design. These ships are around 500 tons heavier than the early ships and remedied a major perceived weakness of the original design by incorporating a hangar for two helicopters. They also have an additional six VLS cells. Thirty-four of this upgraded variant, benefitting from a series of incremental improvements as production progressed, were delivered from 2000 to 2012 before construction was halted in favour of the radical new Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class. However, a subsequent decision to terminate the Zumwalt programme – largely on cost grounds – meant that further orders were placed for the Flight IIA type from FY2010 onwards for delivery from 2016. Eleven additional ships will be built to this design before construction switches to a further improved Flight III variant, which will incorporate Raytheon’s improved air and missile defence radar (AMDR) in place of the SPY-1 arrays. AMDR – now designated AN/SPY-6 – will be particularly useful in improving capability against the threat from ballistic missiles. Ballistic missile defence (BMD) has become an important additional role for Aegis in the twenty-first century given the proliferation of first-generation tactical systems such as the Russian ‘Scud’. The greater potential of more recent ballistic weapons – not least China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile – means that an array conceived with this threat in mind is now desirable.

The longevity of DDG-51 class production is a tribute to the flexibility inherent in the original design, which now has the longest production run of any post-Second World War US Navy surface combatant. This has also brought the benefits of economies of scale from a long production run, with current ships costing around US$1.6bn – US$1.7bn per unit. However, there are signs that scope for further growth in the current design is now limited in terms of both internal volume and electrical generation and distribution capabilities. For example, although generation and cooling capacity is being increased in the Flight III ships, the version of the AMDR to be shipped is smaller and less-capable than that initially envisaged in a purpose-built ship. The Arleigh Burkes are also arguably expensive to operate compared with more modern, optimally-manned designs in spite of efforts to reduce crew size. For example, current complement of a little over 300 in the Flight I variant compares with c.190 in a British Type 45 air-defence destroyer.

The US Navy did have the answer to many of these issues in the Zumwalt class, a lean-manned (c.150 crew) cruiser-sized vessel of c.15,500 tons full load displacement incorporating a series of innovations in terms of hull form (use of a tumblehome hull), propulsion (integrated full electric propulsion), signature reduction, weapons systems and sensors. Armament includes two 155mm Advanced Guns Systems (AGS) optimised for shore bombardment and twenty quad Mk 57 peripheral VLS cells that are distributed around the ship’s outer shell to enhance survivability. A Dual Band Radar (DBR) similar to that specified for the new carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was also originally planned but Raytheon’s AN/SPY-3 array has now been modified to perform all the functions intended for DBR as one of a number of cost-saving measures.4 However, an original programme that envisaged twenty-four ships being procured from FY-2005 onwards has ultimately seen production truncated at just three vessels as costs have spiralled upwards. Current estimates suggest total programme expenses of over US$12bn or more than US$4bn per ship. All-in-all, it seems that the US Navy were overly ambitious in attempting to introduce too many innovations simultaneously in one class of ship. At the same time, a renewed effort will have to be made to progress from the basic Burke hull sometime soon if the US Navy is not to lose its qualitative edge to foreign designs.

In the meantime, the DDG-51 design has formed the basis of Japan’s Kongou and Atago (DDG-177) classes, as well as the somewhat larger South Korean KDX-III Sejongdaewang-Ham type. The Aegis/SPY-1 combination has also been used in Spain’s F-100 Álvaro de Bazán class ‘frigates’ and their Australian Hobart class near-sisters. Finally, a ‘cut down’ version of the system, featuring smaller SPY1-F arrays with fewer than half the individual elements found in the standard panels, has been used in Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen class anti-submarine orientated frigates.

Aleksandr Vasil’evich Rogachev

On 20 April at the graduation exam, I commanded a live-firing exercise – I calculated the data and directed the firing. We graded out at the top. I acquired the rank of lieutenant, while those who had passed with a `Good’ mark or a `Satisfactory’ were made junior lieutenants. Five days later we were posted to the Red Army’s Commander of Artillery in the city of Kolomna, Moscow Oblast. We were given a monetary bonus – 700 rubles, which we spent literally over the course of a week.

We arrived in Kolomna. We again were placed behind a high palisade in barracks with wooden bunks. The food was bad. Some kind of gruel . thin, so that guys didn’t linger, but longed for the front. Every day representatives of units would arrive and select recruits from our reserve pool. Those needed by some unit who agreed to go departed. Representatives often came from the destroyer anti-tank artillery regiments. The older guys, the front-line officers now in the reserve, sought every possible way to avoid serving in these units. They were accustomed to being with the howitzers 1.5 to 2 kilometres behind the front-lines. But to wind up in an anti-tank regiment, God forbid with 45-mm anti-tank guns! . Although it was hard sitting in the rear, they wouldn’t go: `We’re not prepared.’ However, such a semi-famished existence had lit a fire under us, six young guys from the Tomsk school, so we decided, `Enough sitting around here in the reserve, let’s go, guys, and join the destroyer antitank artillery regiment.’

We were taken by truck to Korobcheevo, 7 kilometres away from Kolomna. There, the 1513th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment was forming up. Actually, several such anti-tank artillery regiments were then forming in the environs of Kolomna. Major Vasilii Konstantinovich Zyl’, who subsequently became a Hero of the Soviet Union, was the acting commander of our regiment. The regiment received its equipment – 45-mm Model 1942 anti-tank guns – and we began training.

In March 1943, the Urals Volunteer Tank Corps was forming in the Urals. According to its TO&E, each tank brigade in this corps was to have a destroyer anti-tank artillery regiment. However, the 62nd Tank Brigade in Cheliabinsk didn’t have one. The corps commander Lieutenant General Georgii Semenovich Rodin came to visit us near Kolomna. We were raised on a combat alert. We were led out onto a field and given an order – to hit an embrasure at a range of 800 metres. With our third shell we hit it. Our battery graded out as `Excellent’, as did the other four batteries. Based on these results, our regiment joined the 30th Urals Volunteer Tank Corps.

Now let me talk about the `45′ for a bit. In the regiment there were five batteries, each with four guns. They were towed by American Willys jeeps, to which first the trailer was hitched, and then the gun to the trailer. The Willys was a marvellous machine – mobile, powerful and with a low profile. You could drive it right up to the firing position. The gun itself was a very good one. Its sight had a 4 x scope. It fired very accurately, like a rifle. At 500 metres it was almost impossible to miss an embrasure. If the aim was accurate, the shell would fly true with a flat trajectory. Of course, in combat much depends on the gunner. He had to have strong nerves. There would be explosions around him, bullets would be whistling past, a comrade next to him would be wounded and fall on the gun trails, and he had to lay the gun coolly. The platoon commander would be located 1.5 metres to the right of the gun during a battle, the gun commander – to the left. I would give a command, and the gun commander would repeat it: `To the left of landmark such and such. Sight, such and such. Shell, such and such. Fire!’ But when you fire, you hear your shot; it is deafening, especially the armour-piercing rounds. In fact it isn’t frightening to you – you can no longer hear the enemy fire; only watch as someone falls wounded or dead. Then you become so absorbed in the battle: you make corrections, give commands, fire again, and you forget that the other side is firing back at you. You’re thinking only about hitting the target.

During a battle, we never had it so that only the gunner and loader were at the gun – there, all the crew is needed and everyone works. The gun crew consisted of six men. I’ve already mentioned that the gun commander stood to the left of the gun. The position for the No. 1 man – the gunner – was to the left of the gun’s breech. The breech operator, the crew’s No. 2, stood to the right of the gun. The loader, the No. 3 of the crew, stood behind the gun layer. Behind him were the No. 4 and No. 5 men, the trail handlers who stood side by side. The crew had no machine gun. The personnel were armed with submachine guns, both ours and German. I myself carried a PPSh, a TT and a German Walther. There were always a lot of weapons.

In a standard ammunition load, we had ten armour-piercing discarding sabot shells, ten canister shells, and thirty high-explosive and armour piercing shells. We knew no limits on our ammunition in 1943 or later. The velocity of the high-explosive shell was 800 metres/second. It was clearly visible in the binoculars as it flew toward the target. The armour piercing shell’s velocity was 1,200 metres/second, while the armour-piercing discarding sabot reached 1,300 metres/second. The latter could penetrate 90-mm of armour. We easily dealt with Pz-III tanks. Of course, the shell couldn’t penetrate the frontal armour of heavy tanks, but nevertheless we still had the task to fire at it from the front facing. We fired at its side armour when it showed it to us, otherwise we’d aim at the tracks – a hit would break the track, the tank would pivot in place, which would then allow you to fire at its flank.

In the first place it is important just to hit a tank, which is difficult when it is moving. If your shell hit and penetrated, you considered it shocked or knocked out. Normally the crew wouldn’t wait for a second shell and they’d leap out of the tank. What was important was that it stopped and ceased firing. When the tank stopped, it was now easy prey.

The high-explosive shell was quite effective against infantry. Of course, its explosive force was small; therefore we more often relied on the fragmentation setting. The crater left by such a shell was tiny – only 10 centimetres – but the fragmentation damage was quite large. Moreover we fired at the infantry at a very rapid rate. As soon as they raised their heads, a second shell would be on its way.

We did have occasion to fire canister. I will talk about this later. Here the gunner aims the gun through its barrel at the legs of the attacking infantry. The canister cuts down the attacking line of infantry like a scythe. It is terrible fire. As the first wave is cut down, the second wave is already crawling away. Therefore we weren’t given many of these shells – ten per gun.

When driving up to the firing position, we immediately tossed the ammunition cases from the Willys and unhitched the gun. I would indicate where to place the vehicle so that it wouldn’t be too far from the firing position, but at the same time it would be sheltered by folds in the terrain or screened by vegetation. The drivers would drive them away and construct revetments. The battery’s guns were placed at a distance no greater than 20-30 metres from each other. If you placed them farther apart, it became impossible to control them – commands were given by voice. Sometimes, like at Korsun-Shevchenkosky, the guns stood at a distance of just 5 or 6 metres from each other.

As soon as we arrived, we checked the aim point. For this the gun’s muzzle had four notches, vertical and horizontal. Through these notches we would extend threads and use them to line up the barrel at some cross-shaped target no nearer than 500 metres from the gun. Then we would align the sight with this target. If there was time, we would always without fail grease the wheel bearings, because if you forgot, a wheel might jam. We rigorously adhered to this. Otherwise, the gun required no special care. We’d grease the breech mechanism, but never dismantle it, because this was a complicated procedure. Sometimes the artillery mechanic would take away guns with worn-out barrels and bring back new ones. That was all.

So, we arrived at a firing position. I as the battery commander (I became a battery commander at the end of July 1943) would choose a position for the guns. This was a holy cause. The lives of my subordinates and their opinion of me as a commander depended upon how I selected positions. Of course, the fact that I had passed through the infantry in 1941 helped me quite a bit. The men of the battery would say, `Our battery commander has come over from the infantry!’ Before the gun would take its firing position, I would order, `Gun commander, follow me.’ He would creep behind me by about 5 metres, and my orderly would be on my right. I myself would crawl out, choose a position, and say to the gun commander, for example to Chichigin, `Put your gun right here.’ When I myself personally crawled around and pointed out to each where to deploy his gun, then the gun commander would say with confidence, `Our battery commander has selected the firing position, now everything depends upon us.’

I was considered lucky and the soldiers greatly respected me. At the same time, in the regiment I was known as the Shtrafnik- a man who is serving in a penal battalion or company. All the batteries and personnel would be knocked out, so they would then form a single battery from the remnants of the five and I would be appointed as its commander. The remaining battery commanders now got something like a rest, while I continued to fight. Later, when the Germans destroyed all my guns, only then would the entire regiment be withdrawn into the reserve for re-forming. My peers had already rested up, while I would get only a week before the equipment arrived.

Once we chose a position, we would dig an emplacement for the gun, but it often happened that we didn’t have time to do this. Then with the sappers’ spades we would dig channels the width of the gun’s wheels, so that the gun would rest directly on its lower shield. We camouflaged the guns. We concealed the positions as far as possible with whatever we could find.

On the attack, when supporting an attack the gun was always loaded with armour piercing shells with the trigger locked. The forward shield would be removed in order to reduce the height of the gun. In that way the gun’s height was lowered to just over 50 centimetres. We’d stop, dig the wheels in, and the gun would settle even lower. We’d quickly cut several branches of a bush or maybe stalks of corn, if in or around corn fields. Everything was done to ensure the tanker didn’t see you prior to your first shot. You’d let the tank approach to within 400, 300 or 250 metres and open fire – we couldn’t hit it out to a kilometre, or even 500 metres. If we were supporting infantry, we’d manhandle the gun forward, keeping it faced toward the enemy. The command would be, `The gun with the barrel forward, march!’ The crew would grab the gun trail from the left and the right and start rolling it – on wheels it moved quickly. The gun would already be loaded with an armour-piercing round, in order to fire immediately at a tank or a machine gun. Even if you don’t hit it, when a fireball goes flying right past you, your hands start shaking. At first we’d give the machine gun an armour-piercing shell, and then we’d set the range on the high-explosive shell and quickly blanket the target.

How did we aim at tanks? The Model 1942 gun had a direct fire range of 800 metres. We usually opened fire at around 400 metres. If the tank was moving laterally to you, you’d look in the binoculars, approximately determine its speed and calculate the lead. You’d command the gunner, `Aim at the base of the turret, aiming offset one tank.’ If I guessed the speed wrongly, the shell would fly in front of or behind the tank. Then you’d make a correction and fire again. At Kursk there were a lot of tanks, and they came straight at us. We primarily fired at the tracks, to make the tank pivot. While the tankers tried to figure out where the fire was coming from, in order to turn the turret, we give it a second shell in the flank; but normally they didn’t wait and they’d leap out of the immobilized tank.

We remained at Kolomna until the middle of June 1943. Over this time we were given new uniforms, and all the officers received Finnish puukko knives with a decorated handle, while the soldiers received ones with black handles. 1 We also had a motorized rifle brigade, in which the men wore bulletproof vests. It was heavy – it weighed around 12 kilograms.

In the middle of June an order was announced that made our regiment part of the 4th Tank Army. Under our own power we drove to Naro-Fominsk, and from there on to the town of Kozel’sk. We arrived in Kozel’sk on 23 July. Just a few days later, we entered the fighting as part of the Briansk Front. What can I say? It was hot. The temperature rose to 25-27° C. It was arduous. You understand, if a man gets killed, his corpse is already reeking within 2 hours. Such a stench, and then they’d bring up a meal – you couldn’t force down any food, so we drank water. There were constant attacks. There was a lot of aircraft overhead, both ours and those of the Germans. Air battles were going on constantly in the sky. We became so enraged by the constant air attacks that I deployed our guns on a hill and fired armour-piercing shells at them. My commander later let me have it: `Look, you’re not an anti-aircraft gunner; don’t waste your shells firing at aeroplanes.’

On 7 August 1943, I happened to take part in a ferocious battle. I was ordered to support an attack by a tank company and infantry toward the village of Zuevskaia. I appeared before the commander of the tank company and reported that I was at his disposal. During battles the regiment headquarters often assigned separate batteries to infantry or tank companies and in essence turned over the command of us – we’d have no communications with it. The senior lieutenant tank commander told me:

The infantry will start out now, and I’ll advance behind it by around 50-100 metres, with a 20-40 metre interval between the tanks. You advance not more than 50-80 metres behind my tanks. You have a better field of vision, so your job is to silence anti-tank guns and tanks.

I returned to my platoon commanders, explained our assignment, and ordered the guns to be loaded and hitched to the jeeps.

The attack on the village began around noon after a short artillery preparation. The infantry moved out, and behind it the tanks. We were moving across a field of tall, ripe grain. Allowing our tanks to approach to within 300- 400 metres, the Germans opened up with heavy fire. Several of the tanks burst into flames. We unhitched the guns approximately 300 metres from the outskirts of the village and returned fire. The infantry at first had become pinned down, but then came running back. The tanks began manoeuvring and were gradually drifting to our left, and we remained alone out in the open. We managed to dig little trenches for the wheels and threw off the gun shield. The guns practically sank into the rye. I ordered the commander of the 2nd Platoon to concentrate his fire on a mortar battery that was dropping a lot of shells around us, while I directed the fire of the No. 1 and No. 2 guns at tanks and anti-tank guns. The rye caught fire from the shell explosions. The smoke hindered our aim, but it partially screened us from the Germans. Then another tank started burning about 20 metres to my right. The Germans launched a counterattack with tank support, but all I was thinking about was the 100 shells inside that burning tank. Which way would it jump from the explosion and where would the turret land? I was continuing to fire, but I was keeping my right eye on the burning tank, waiting for it to explode. When the onboard ammunition did ignite, the turret was blown off, but thank God it didn’t land on the gun. Gunfire, smoke and flames. Oh, it was terrible!

We let the German infantry approach to within 50 or 60 metres and opened fire with canister. Of course, we also supplemented it with submachine-gun fire. They went rolling back to the village. That’s when our infantry went back on the attack with the support of the remaining four tanks and seized the village. In this battle the battery destroyed two medium tanks, three assault guns, four mortars and around two platoons of infantry. In the process we lost two guns together with their crews, and one more gun was damaged. Only the No. 1 gun and crew, with which I was positioned, took no losses. Two of the Willys drivers were killed when their jeeps were destroyed. We lay there enfeebled by the heat and this combat near the gun.

Suddenly I felt clapping on my shoulder, and I opened my eyes. The regiment commander was standing there: `You’re alive?! Rogachev! Drink up!’ From somewhere there appeared a bottle of water. I and the No. 1 gunner Mikhailichenko pounced on it together. I don’t recall how much water we guzzled down . For this battle I was decorated with the Order of the Red Star.

How many in all did I have to my credit? I wasn’t counting, but over the entire war my battery destroyed more than twenty tanks and armoured halftracks.

The guys from the Urals were heroic men. They advanced, regardless of anything. There was a lot of courage and bravery, but little combat experience, so the losses the corps took were quite large. Of those five guys from the reserve that together with me took command of anti-tank gun platoons in the 30th Urals Volunteer Tank Corps’ anti-tank artillery regiment, none of them survived the war.

In August 1943, the 4th Tank Army was withdrawn for rest and refitting.

SOVIET ANTI-TANK GUNS WWII

As an expedient solution, the 45mm Model 1937 was redesigned with a new, longer barrel, resulting in the 45mm Model 1942. Although it could not penetrate the thicker frontal armour of the improved German tanks of 1943, it could still inflict damage against the lighter side armour.

The Red Army introduced the excellent ZiS-2 57mm anti-tank gun into service in 1941 but its production was abruptly cancelled by Stalin’s cronies owing to intelligence mistakes about German tank armour. Production was revived in 1943 to deal with the heavier German tank armour. The 57mm Model 1943, as seen here, used the same tubular trails as the related ZiS-3 76mm divisional gun, while the Model 1941 used rectangular trails.

The excellent ZIS-2 was, in turn, superseded in 1944 by the semiautomatic 100mm Field Gun M1944 (BS-3). Originally based on a naval design and mounted on a dual-tire split trail carriage, the M1944 fired a 35-pound high-explosive shell to a maximum range of 22,966 yards and an antitank projectile to an effective range of 1,093 yards. With a crew of six, the M1944 was capable of firing up to 10 rounds per minute. Although the 100mm T-12 eventually replaced the M1944 in Soviet service, many remain in use around the world.

The Red Army at the outset of the war in 1941 was armed primarily with a single type of anti-tank gun, the 45mm Model 1937. This was a derivative of the German Rheinmetall 37mm PaK 36, the standard German anti-tank gun of the period, which had been manufactured in the Soviet Union under licence since 1931 as the 37mm anti-tank Model 1930. The Red Army desired a larger calibre both to improve anti-armour performance and so as to have a gun which could fire a useful high-explosive projectile. The German 37mm projectile was too small for a good high-explosive round. It was modified to use the tube of the standard Soviet 45mm Model 1934 tank gun, with suitable strengthening of the trunnion and trails. The 45mm Model 1937 anti-tank gun proved to be a versatile weapon and quite potent for its day. With the advent of the T-34 and KV tanks in 1940-1, and the beginning of the armour race on the Eastern front, its utility in fighting tanks rapidly diminished as the Germans began to uparmour their vehicles. Nevertheless, the 45mm anti-tank gun remained in production through 1944. Although the Red Army recognized its shortcomings, it was cheap to produce and its light weight made it ideal for infantry units where motor traction, and often horses, were absent. By the middle of the war it was more often used in the pre-war infantry gun role, for direct-fire support using high-explosive ammunition rather than the anti-tank role.

The Red Army planned to replace the 45mm anti-tank gun with the new ZiS-2 57mm anti-tank gun in 1941. However, a controversy broke out among the Red Army’s leaders over the purported thickness of German tank armour and its production was cancelled shortly after the outbreak of the war, with only 320 produced, in favour of producing new 85mm and 107mm anti-tank guns instead. As it turned out, German tank armour had been grossly exaggerated and the 85mm and 107mm anti-tank guns were much too large, heavy and expensive. Instead of the excellent 57mm ZiS-2, the Red Army had to make due with the increasingly obsolete 45mm anti-tank gun for the early years of the war.

By late 1942 it was evident that the usefulness of the 45mm Model 1937 anti-tank gun was rapidly diminishing. The capture of German ‘arrowhead’ hyper-velocity armour piercing (HVAP) ammunition led to Soviet adaptation of the technology. Called ‘subcalibre’ rounds by the Red Army, a new round for the 45mm Model 1937 became available in April 1942. The ZiS-2 57mm anti-tank gun was resurrected and put back into series production in June 1943. However, the ZiS-2 was too large and heavy for most rifle divisions which did not have adequate motor or horse transport; as a result, the 45mm gun was modernized by developing a new barrel to give the projectile higher velocity and better penetration.

While not adequate to deal with the heavier German tanks such as the Panther or Tiger, it improved its lethality against the more common PzKPfw IV and StuG III. Production of the 45mm Model 1942 began in 1943, eventually replacing the 45mm Model 1937 anti-tank gun. While not intended for anti-tank fighting, Soviet field artillery, especially the widely used ZiS-3 76.2mm divisional gun, was often called upon to fight tanks. As a result, these units were issued with armour-piercing ammunition that was identical to the types used in contemporary tank guns. In August 1942 a sub-calibre round began to be issued as well. The Soviet Union also copied German-shaped charge (HEAT) ammunition. This was most commonly used with howitzers and low velocity guns, such as the 76mm regimental gun and the M-30 122mm howitzer.

The battle at Kursk was a clear indication of the orientation In German armour development, and the growing numbers of Panther and Tiger tanks made it clear that a more potent weapon than the ZiS-2 57mm anti-tank gun would be needed. As a temporary expedient, some units were formed using 85mm anti-aircraft guns in the anti-tank role. As a long-term solution, work began on both 85mm and 100mm towed anti-tank guns in 1943. Ultimately, the BS-3 100mm anti-tank gun was selected for series production, which began on a limited scale in May 1944. Only 591 of these weapons were produced before the war ended, and only 185 were in troop service in January 1945 at the beginning of the final offensive operations against Germany.

There was considerable experimentation with other anti-tank guns during the war but the only other weapon to reach limited production was the 37mm ChK-Ml Model 1944 anti-tank gun. This was a special lightweight, low-recoil weapon intended for paratrooper operations. A total of only 472 were manufactured in 1944-5 and only 104 were issued to the troops. The Red Army received 63 37mm and 653 57mm anti-tank guns from the US, as well as 636 2pdr anti-tank and 96 6pdr guns from Britain, but none of the types were much appreciated or widely used.