Lone Pine

There were to be feints that were intended to draw Ottoman attention away from the main assault on the peaks at dawn the next day. The first of these was in the south at Helles, once more the focus of the 88th Brigade of the unfortunate 29th Division, committed to battle at Fir Tree Spur, across the patch of ground known as ‘The Vineyard’. As was customary at Helles, the attack was in broad daylight in the late afternoon of 6 August, the assault at 5pm following a 2½ hour bombardment. Like others before it, it was a failure; trenches were taken and lost to the seasoned Ottoman troops. Inexplicably, the battle was rejoined with another bombardment the following day, the 42nd Division taking the brunt. It too was to achieve nothing. The diversion would drag on until 13 August; the Ottomans were aware of both the feint and the likely British intent, and, unconcerned, committed two divisions from Helles to the battlegrounds of Anzac.

Closer to the point of conflict was another diversion at Lone Pine, the distinctive single-pine ridge across from 400 Plateau, along Second Ridge. The intention here was an all-out assault to distract the Ottomans, while the British were similarly engaged in the south. Yet, at Lone Pine, trench warfare had been developed to a high science. The Ottomans had created a formidable fortification, their trenches reinforced and roofed with timber baulks to prevent losses by shell and grenade. Like the battles at the Vineyard, Lone Pine has become a microcosm of the whole Gallipoli campaign at Anzac; hard-fought, but ultimately futile. So, on 6 August, at 5.30pm the attack was launched by the Australian 1st Division, following an artillery bombardment in ‘lifts’, the line of exploding shells moving progressively inland. Attacking over open ground, they found their route blocked by barbed wire, the roofed trenches with loopholes almost impossible to assault from the front. Not to be outdone, the Australians found their way into the underground maze from the rear, along communication trenches; the resulting hand-to-hand fighting below ground bitter and bloody, its aftermath, a charnel house.

Our casualties in this fighting amounted to 2,000 men, but the Turks themselves acknowledge losses totalling 6,930 in their 16th Division, and of some 5,000 were sustained in a small sector of the Lone Pine trenches. God forbid that I should ever see again such a sight as that which met my eyes when I went up there: Turks and Australians piled four and five deep on one another.

Lieutenant General W. Birdwood, ANZAC

Like the diversion at Helles, this battle was to rage for three days, and though capturing the Ottoman trenches, it failed in its prime purpose. Rather than diverting the attention of the Ottomans at Anzac away from the main assault, it was to attract reinforcement of two regiments from the 9th Division in Helles, and this at a cost of 2,200 Australian casualties, and goodness knows how many Ottomans.

The assault against the peaks of Sari Bair was to be commanded by Major General Godley of the Australian and New Zealand Division. On the night of 6 August, as the two feints were being fought out, the two assaulting columns were to leave the Anzac perimeter, striking out to the west to circle around the westwards facing foothills of the Sari Bair Range. The left-hand column was composed of the Australian 4th Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade; closer to its target the two brigades would separate to form three assaulting columns, the Australians targeting Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe), the Indians Hill Q. The right-hand column was composed of the men of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, its main focus was to be Chunuk Bair. However, both columns were understrength and included men weakened by dysentery, an inevitable by-product of the summer months’ campaigning in Gallipoli.

The two columns moved to the margins of the Anzac perimeter, in the hands of guides who had knowledge of the intricate mass of gullies and ridges caused by the action of wind and water over centuries. Any Ottoman defences soon evaporated, but the left-hand column, commanded by Brigadier General Monash, got into difficulties. Fighting its way through the scrub to a watercourse, the Aghyl Dere, Ottoman resistance stiffened. Exhausted, the 4th Brigade would go no further that night: Hill 971 would have to wait. In fact, the left-hand column would never get close to Hill 971; though resuming the attack approach on the morning of 8 August, there was still confusion about which direction to take. Hill 971 would remain unassaulted. Behind them was the Indian Brigade; slowed up by the tortuous terrain, they too would be dispersed, a long way off their objective.

Only the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles got anywhere near Hill Q, within 200ft of their objective by 6pm. They would make their assault the next morning at 5am, following a naval bombardment. With no other battalions in support – all the others were lost in the gullies – they made a heroic assault on the hill that drove off the Ottomans. Tragically, they would become victims of their own naval support, and with no reserves, they lost their tenuous grip on Hill Q.

The right-hand column of New Zealanders, operating within the more familiar Anzac perimeter, fared a little better – but were still held up by Ottoman resistance. By dawn on 7 August some had reached Rhododendron Ridge, a spur that leads right up to Chunuk Bair; while others were lost in the complex terrain of ridges and gullies. Brigadier General Johnston, commanding the column, waited until he had sufficient men to continue the assault against what was still an unknown level of resistance. This was to prove a costly decision; it was to deeply influence the outcome of the attack by the Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, which was to take place at 4.30am on the 7th.

As the Light Horse were pushing to Baby 700 – the hill that had been the focus of so much attention during the landings – it had been intended that the New Zealanders would be pressing on from their newly captured positions at Chunuk Bair, thereby crushing the Ottoman defenders between them. It was not to be. In the absence of the New Zealanders, the attack at the Nek went ahead on the orders of Godley. Rising out of their trenches, the attackers were armed only with unloaded rifles and bayonets. The Ottomans wrought havoc with their withering fire, and the three successive waves of light horsemen were mown down – 378 casualties out of 600, 230 of them killed. Their bodies would remain on the battlefield, only to be gathered in after the war was finally ended.

For the New Zealanders on Rhododendron Spur, things were difficult. The Ottoman defenders were stiffening, the commander of the 9th Division, Colonel Kannengiesser was in position on the hilltop. Godley issued the terse order: ‘Attack at once’. The Auckland Battalion took heavy casualties; while Johnston ordered the Wellington Battalion into position, its commander refused to attack in daylight. Dug in as best they could, the New Zealanders were reinforced by two newly arrived battalions of the 13th (Western) Division, the 7th Gloucestershires and the 8th Welsh. At 3am, the peak of Chunuk Bair was to be taken by the Wellington men, and the Glosters. The navy had played its supporting role – the Ottomans had no way of digging down into what was hard and rocky soil, and were hopelessly exposed. However, this factor would come to count against the Allies.

The new defenders of the peak now found themselves in Ottoman crossfire, from Battleship Hill to the south and from Hill Q to the north – both of which would have been taken by now if things had gone to plan. By 5am, the Ottomans launched a desperate counterattack, reinforced by the 8th Division recently arrived from the Helles front. As the scale of the assault unfolded, von Sanders appointed Mustafa Kemal as commander in charge of the defence of Sari Bair. By that evening, the New Zealanders and New Army men held on grimly, their casualties mounting – the Wellington Battalion would lose 711 out of 760, the New Army battalions suffering similarly.

With Chunuk Bair holding, Hill Q would be assaulted on 9 August by a mixed force, led by Brigadier Baldwin, of four battalions from the 38th, 39th and 40th brigades of the 13th Division, and two battalions from the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division. Climbing to a flat area called ‘The Farm’, they moved up a feature known as Chailak Dere in order to take the assault to Hill Q, while New Zealanders from Chunuk Bair and the Indian Brigade would also attack the hill. Baldwin’s men met with stiff opposition. The only force to reach Hill Q was a battalion of Gurkhas, but they would be driven off by their own naval artillery fire, delivered from the newly arrived ‘monitors’ (gunships sent out to replace the capital ships) and the ageing battleship HMS Bacchante.

On the morning of 10 August Mustafa Kemal led an overwhelming Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair at 4.30am, narrowly avoiding being wounded. Turkish historian Kenan Çelik has described the action:

When Mustafa Kemal gave the signal, 5,000 men in 22 lines charged on the New Zealanders and the British at Chunuk Bair. One second later there was only one sound – ‘Allah … Allah … Allah.’ The British did not have time to fire and all the men in the front-line trenches were bayoneted. The British troops were wildly scattered. In four hours’ time, the 23rd and 24th Regiments regained the lines at Chunuk Bair. The 28th Regiment regained Pinnacle (the highest point on Rhododendron Ridge). Just after the Turks regained Chunuk Bair, the Navy and artillery began firing. Hell let loose. Iron rained from the skies over the Turks. Everybody accepted their fate. All around people were killed and wounded. While Mustafa Kemal watched the fighting, a piece of shrapnel hit his pocket watch. The watch was broken but protected his life. He had a bruise on his chest, but nothing else. He was destined to save the country.

Kenan Çelik

The exhausted New Zealanders had been relieved by the 6th Loyal North Lancashires, who had arrived at 10pm (a second battalion, the 10th Wiltshires, had not yet arrived). The force of the Ottoman attack was to prove too much; breaking over the British battalions and sweeping them down the slope into the confusion of gullies below. Baldwin’s men at the Farm would suffer the impact of the Ottoman charge. Hill Q was no longer occupied and Chunuk Bair, so fleetingly held by the Allies, was now firmly back in Ottoman hands. The struggle for the heights was over; the campaign effectively finished, dead in the dark waters of the Dardanelles Straits.

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Dreadnought, a Ship whose Time had Come

Strategy should govern the type of ship to be designed. Ship design, as dictated by strategy, should govern tactics. Tactics should govern details of armaments.

EVEN AT the opening of the twentieth century, the Admiralty headquarters and the Royal Navy were large and complex organisations within which each department and specialisation was pursuing its own line of development. Quite suddenly, in 1904 all these separate developments came together, with great enthusiasm, in the concept of the Dreadnought, the ‘all big-gun ship.’ Some of these developments made such a concept desirable or even essential whilst others made it feasible at acceptable cost.

Bacon lists the developments which led to Dreadnought as:

The torpedo menace necessitated longer ranges in action.

Long-range hitting (gun) had become practicable.

The only method known of ranging at long ranges was by firing salvoes.

This necessitated a uniform armament of eight or more guns.

The heaviest gun gave the greatest blow, and was the most accurate at long range.

Developments which made the concept feasible included turbine machinery, lighter and cheaper construction (despite major improvements in subdivision) and the scrapping of old ships which allowed the cost of the new ships to be contained within a budget which was politically acceptable.

Weaving across these separate developments strode the demonic figure of ‘Jacky’ Fisher who, as First Sea Lord, was to provide the drive which brought the Dreadnought into being. His consistent theme for much of his career can be seen in his introduction to the Dreadnought design committee: ‘The battleship is the embodiment of concentration of force.’ The other quotation at the head of the chapter shows that he at least tried to work from a role to a design instead of merely trying to produce a ‘better’ ship than those of the potential enemy. However, Fisher took a long while to decide on how best to achieve his concentration of force; he was almost the last of the key players to support the ‘all big-gun’ concept which he then pushed through with the usual enthusiasm of a new convert. Even as the design commenced, he still did not seem to understand how her heavy armament was to be used. The separate developments will be described before seeing how they came together.

The Need for the Dreadnought

Gunnery-’Hit first, hit hard and go on hitting!’ (Fisher)

Percy Scott’s earlier work, in which he introduced telescopic sights, dramatically increased the rate of fire by his loader training and the rate of hitting at short range by practising ‘continuous aim’ with the dotter. There was a growing realisation in the Navy that rate of hitting was what mattered and that this was not necessarily directly dependent on rate of fire; a point which armchair critics were slow to appreciate. At the end of the nineteenth century target practice was carried out at about 1500yds and in a lecture given by Fisher as C-in-C, Mediterranean, he said that, at that time, the effective range of heavy guns with telescopic sights was then about 3-4000yds and about 2000yds without telescopic sights.

Bacon suggests that the firing trials by the French were the spur to longer-range trials in the RN and by 1898 Sir John Hopkins had initiated such trials in the Mediterranean fleet at the then unprecedented range of 6000yds. These trials were continued by Fisher when he took over the Mediterranean Fleet. These showed that the only effective way of obtaining range was by spotting the fall of shot and, for this to be effective, a salvo of about four rounds had to be fired together so that one or more would be short and others over. Against a moving ship, salvoes had to be fired at reasonably short intervals to correct for changes in range and hence at least eight guns were needed.

In 1901 Captain E W Harding, RMA, who had taken part in the Mediterranean trials wrote a series of articles in the United Services Journal on fire control followed by a second series in Engineering which were combined in a book published in 1903.8 Percy Scott gave an important lecture at the gunnery school in 1904 called ‘Remarks on long-range hitting’. Further, very careful, trials using the Victorious and Vengeance were carried out. over a period of three months in 1903 using Harding’s articles as the basis of planning. Harding’s report on the trials was issued by the Gunnery Branch.

The findings of the earlier trials were confirmed and it was also realised that the splashes from the 6in secondary armament merely obscured the more important splashes from the 12in. The need to spot the fall of shot and apply corrections before the next salvo meant that the effective rate of fire of a 6in at 6000yds was much less than that achieved in short-range target practice; in fact, as range increased, the rate of hitting by the 12in exceeded that from the 6 inch. The effect of a 12in hit was vastly greater than that from a 6in. There was also hope that the 12in BVIII mounting (1904-05 programme ships) could be elevated sufficiently quickly for ‘continuous aim’ as in smaller mountings.

As Director of the War College within the RN College at Greenwich, Captain May carried out a series of ‘war game’ studies in 1902 which had a considerable influence on thinking about the future battleship. His reports on some of these exercises have survived in the PRO; in one such study he investigated the value of speed, concluding that it was of little value compared with guns and armour. Another study showed the value of the big gun.

Prior to the design of the Lord Nelson, the then Controller, Sir William H May, initiated an inquiry into the gun power and protection of battleships and in conjunction with this, the new DNC, Phillip Watts, prepared a wide range of battleship designs of different characteristics. Diagrams were prepared which showed the areas of the ships side which were armoured or unprotected as a base. On this, ordinates were set up showing the thickness of the armour (allowing for curvature, eg barbettes). On a separate, parallel base another set of ordinates were plotted showing the projectile weight which could be delivered from each size of gun in the attacking ship in a given time. Horizontal lines showed the weight of each projectile and areas which could resist the given attack were coloured blue whilst areas which could be destroyed were shown in red.

These diagrams showed very clearly that the extent of damage and rate of damage from the secondary (6in) battery was much less than that due to the main armament and that the damage caused by the big guns was so severe that the secondary armament would be swept away before it could get into effective range. Heavier armour was required over a much larger area than had previously been customary. It was also concluded that the secondary armament of 6in guns was of little value. In consequence, the Lord Nelson was given thicker and more extensive armour and the 6in battery was done away with in favour of a heavy 9.2in secondary armament. A proposal by the battleship section for an all-in armament was not accepted.

The increasing distance at which fire was opened led to the requirement to measure range and estimate its future changes so that projectile and target should meet. Fully integrated fire control systems lie just outside the time scale of this book but Dreadnought had many more mechanical aids to gunnery than is generally realised, all part of the drive to ‘hit first, hit hard and go on hitting’ as Fisher put it. Accurate sights were the first requirement and Dreadnought had the first direct action sights, attached directly to the trunnion, eliminating the backlash in the linkages which had caused many problems.

Rangefinders, devised by Professor Barr, had been introduced in 1892. These instruments had a length of 4ft 6in and had a 1 per cent accuracy at 3000yds. A 9ft range-finder was introduced in 1906 which had the same 1 per cent accuracy at 7000yds and Dreadnought was amongst the first ships to receive these longer rangefinders.

With opposing fleets moving at different courses and speeds, perhaps manoeuvring as well, range and bearing would be altering continually, even during the time of flight of the shell (up to 30 seconds). The Dumaresq was a mechanical computer which could estimate the range rate and deflection when fed with the ship’s own speed and estimates of the enemy course, speed and bearing. Spotting the fall of shot allowed corrections to be made first for deflection, then for range and, once hitting, for rate. The information from the Dumaresq was used to update another instrument, the Vickers’ clock which gave a continuous indication of the estimated range of the target. Dreadnought’s embryonic fire control system had both these instruments. As completed there were two transmitting stations on the middle deck, in the lower conning tower and the lower signal tower. These were very vulnerable and the forward one was moved below the protective deck in 1909.

Dreadnought’s fire control equipment was adequate when neither the range nor its rate was changing rapidly. Once the training and elevation gear was improved, it became both possible and, indeed, essential to examine the far more difficult problem of rapid changes. Fisher was still talking of the need for firing single shots (rather than salvoes) at long range and while Dreadnought was given a big fire control top supported on a rigid tripod, Jellicoe ensured that it was in the hot smoke plume from the fore funnel.

The establishment of a ‘central nervous system’ connecting control top, transmitting station (TS) and guns made it possible to destroy the capability of the ship by damage to the connecting wires. This problem was appreciated by her designers who tried to ‘reduce the vulnerability of the system by protecting as much as possible and by duplicating both cable runs and their power sources. It was a general requirement that cables should be behind armour ‘as far as possible’ though in Dreadnought herself the TS were unprotected initially. Cables were led into the turrets along the hydraulic walking pipes and up the central trunk. The main cables were not duplicated but were fed from two switchboards, fore and aft, and below the protective deck, each of which was fed from two motor generators supplied from different sections of the main electrical supply, itself below the protective deck. An armoured tube carried communications to the conning tower; those to the foretop were not duplicated initially (probably later) and were run down inside the tripod legs which gave them some protection against splinters, though not against a direct hit as experienced by Invincible at the Falklands.

On her experimental cruise to the West Indies the communications from the foretop to the forward TS consisted of four voice pipes and two navyphones so that range, range rate, spotting corrections and deflection from the Dumaresq had to be passed verbally. As a result of the recommendations from that cruise, Dreadnought was one of the first eighteen ships to receive ‘step by step’ transmitters to pass range from the finder to the transmitting station and hence to the gun. These required less wiring than earlier communications. The earliest such transmitters were troublesome and Dreadnought had the Vickers Mark II which was generally satisfactory.

The torpedo menace

It is interesting that Bacon (and others) gives the increasing range of torpedoes as one reason for increasing the range at which the gunnery action was to be fought. The latest RGF ‘cold’ compressed air torpedo in service at the time Dreadnought was designed had an extreme range of about 3000yds at slow speed but were normally used at shorter range (1500yds) and higher speed though the introduction of the gyroscope from about 1895 had much increased its accuracy. In 1905 Armstrong demonstrated the first heater torpedo in which fuel was burnt in the air to increase the energy available. Though this prototype was not really practicable, the potential was clear and heater systems were introduced by Whitehead (largely a subsidiary of Armstrong) from 1907.

The Factory, Vernon and all concerned with torpedoes were convinced by 1905 that long range (6000yds or more) torpedoes would soon be available. In turn, this led gunnery experts to see the torpedo as a reason for increasing gun range. The fear of the torpedo was a major factor in forcing the Navy to longer battle ranges though experience in the First World War showed that the torpedo was much less effective than anticipated. At 6000yds, the running time would be at least 6 minutes during which the speed or course of the target was only too likely to change. It was also found much more difficult to launch a co-ordinated attack than had been expected, something which should have been recognised from the Russo-Japanese war.

Other pressures

Fisher and, independently, the DNC battleship section saw standardisation with a single-calibre armament as leading to worthwhile savings in ammunition supply, spares and in training. Narbeth gives a fascinating account of the development of battleship design from Majestic to Dreadnought. In particular, he says that the increased power of secondary batteries in foreign ships led the design section to propose four twin 7.5in turrets be added to the King Edward VII class, changed by White to four single 9.2in. While White was absent sick, his deputy, H E Deadman, proposed a very large battleship. In the next class, the Lord Nelson, the design section proposed an all-12in armament, which was not agreed. It would seem that the design team saw the all big-gun ship as the logical end point of a more powerful secondary armament. It is worth pointing out that prior to Dreadnought the fighting range was about 3000yds at which both the 6in and 12in could hit frequently. The generally-accepted view was that the enemy should be disabled by a hail of 6in fire, using HE shells and then sunk by AP shells from the 12in. The 6in ‘secondary’ armament was an important (to some the most important) weapon in fighting enemy battleships. Lesser guns, 12pdr and below, were provided to deal with torpedo boats.

There were a number of other influences, mainly writers of books and press articles, which may have affected the general climate of opinion. The most important of these was Cuniberti, the distinguished Italian naval constructor, who wrote an article for the 1903 Jane’s advocating the fast, all big-gun ship. Cuniberti seems to have been thinking of fairly close range fighting but he did bring out the destructive power of the 12in gun. His proposal was quite impractical; he envisaged twelve 12in guns in eight turrets, a complete 12in belt and a speed of 24kts, which would require double the power needed for 21kts, much more powerful machinery of heavier, reciprocating design, more guns and armour than Dreadnought, and all on a smaller ship of 17,000 tons!

At the period when naval thinking was moving to the Dreadnought concept, most naval journalists were still preaching the ‘hail of fire’ from 6in guns as the decisive weapon. They misread-or were unaware of-the lessons of long-range firing and saw only that few hits were scored, failing to realise that those few could be decisive and that properly equipped and trained ships could score many more hits. Attention will now be directed to the technical developments which made Dreadnought feasible.

Turbine machinery

The idea of the steam turbine occurred to several people at about the same time but the first to patent a workable design was the Honourable Charles Parsons in 1884 and, as all early RN turbines were of his design, the others need not be mentioned. His early turbines were intended to drive dynamos where their high rotational speed was valuable and one such unit was fitted in Victoria to provide lighting while she was building in 1885.

In 1894 Parsons set up the Marine Steam Turbine Company at Wallsend and, after some very careful model experiments, he built an experimental steam yacht, Turhinia, now preserved at Newcastle. Her steel hull is 100ft long with a beam of 9ft giving a displacement of 44.5 tons. Steam was supplied by a water tube boiler at 210lbs/sq in and, initially, passed to a single, radial-flow turbine developing 960shp at 2400rpm. Despite many trials and modifications she was unable to exceed 19.75kts due to cavitation on the single screw.

In 1896 she was re-engined with three turbines-HP, intermediate, LP-each driving one shaft with three widely-spaced propellers on each shaft. She reached 34.5kts on trials which were attended by White and the Engineer-in-Chief, Sir John Durston, who had done much to encourage Parsons. The following year she gave a demonstration at the Diamond Jubilee Review, steaming up and down the lines some 4kts faster than any warship.

Again, the Admiralty reacted quickly and in March 1898 they ordered the destroyer Viper from Parsons (hull sub-contracted to Hawthorn Leslie) of 370 tons and generally similar to the ‘30-knotters’ but with a contract speed of 31kts. Her hull cost £19,800 and the machinery £32,000 with a further £1200 for auxiliary machinery. On trial she reached 33.38kts at design load and, running light, made a one hour run at 36.5kts. Viper had four shafts each carrying two 20in diameter propellers, the HP turbines driving the wings and the LP, the inner shafts. At 31kts the specific coal consumption was 2.38, as good as the 30-knotters, but at lower speeds her consumption was very high.

In service, Viper could make 26kts with half her stokers at work and, using them all, 31.5kts for a very short time, 30.5kts for half an hour. There was little or no vibration (by the standards of the day), steering ahead was good but, going astern, she could not be kept straight and would circle though there was plenty of astern power. The following year (1901) she was wrecked on rocks off the Channel Islands.

Armstrong built a somewhat similar destroyer for ‘stock’ and she was surveyed by Mr ßall, Assistant Constructor. In his report he noted many structural details which needed improvement to bring her up to Admiralty standards but thought her generally satisfactory. A later report by Mr Pine, Constructor, was less satisfactory, drawing attention to lack of girder strength, particularly aft and this was noted by the very experienced Henry Deadman in a note of 12 February 1900. Despite this and the very high price of £70,000 compared with £53,000 for Viper.; she was purchased for the RN in 1900 as Cobra, subject to stiffening. Her four shafts each carried three propellers – twelve in all, a record. It was decided that she needed forty-eight stokers and a complement of eighty but there was cramped accommodation for only seventy. On trials, in June 1900, with numerous stokers, she reached 35kts. In September 1901 she broke in half on her delivery voyage, discussed later. The loss of both Viper and Cobra delayed the gathering of experience on turbines.

Velox had been laid down by Parsons at Hawthorn Leslie as a private venture but was purchased by the Admiralty in 1901. She, too, had four shafts (eight propellers), the outers being driven by HP turbines while the inners had both LP turbines and small triple-expansion engines for cruising. She was intended for 27kts at design displacement which she achieved on trial (she made 34.5kts light). Fuel consumption was very heavy, even at full speed, and the reciprocating engines which could give 10kts were not very economical either. The real problem was that turbines are efficient only at high rpm whilst propellers function best at low rpm; only the introduction of the geared turbine could resolve this dilemma.

Also in 1901 the Admiralty ordered Eden of the River class to be fitted with turbines. She had three shafts with two propellers on each, running at much higher rpm than her near sisters, which had two shafts, each with one propeller. She had special cruising turbines with the HP on the port shaft and the LP to starboard. At speeds below 14kts steam passed through both cruising turbines and then into the main turbines. Between 14 and 19kts, the HP cruising unit was cut out and above 19kts the main turbines only were used.

With this complicated arrangement she could steam 3.39nm/ton at full speed and 17.33nm/ton at 13.5kts (12-hour trial), the latter figure comparing badly with the reciprocating boats which achieved 24-31nm/ton under similar conditions. Later there was a comparative trial with Derwent, also built by Hawthorn Leslie.

This must have been seen as encouraging as it was the last trial before turbines were selected for Dreadnought.

The next naval trial of the turbine was in the cruiser Amethyst but she had not gone to sea26 when the decision was taken to use turbines for Dreadnought; indeed, she had shed the blading and broken the casing of one of her turbines during a basin trial. In addition to turbine trials in warships there were a number of installations in merchant ships whose success contributed to the decision to use turbines in Dreadnought. Perhaps the most influential was that of the Clyde passenger steamer King Edward, 3500shp and 20.5kts, in 1901. Other important applications were the Cunard Carmania (1901) and the Allen liner Virginia (1902) and in 1903 Cunard, on Admiralty advice, decided on turbines for Lusitania and Mauritania.

Underwater protection

This reduction in weight had been accompanied by an increase of safety. Following the loss of Victoria, there had been a continuing effort to reduce the number of holes in bulkheads such as doors, ventilation trunks and penetrations for pipes and wires. By the Lord Nelson, the main transverse bulkheads were virtually unpierced. Lifts were fitted in the machinery spaces to reduce the effort needed by engineers33 to get from one space to another. The need for such unpierced bulkheads was perceived as a lesson of the Russo-Japanese War but action had already been taken.

The Russo-Japanese War had shown the need for improved protection against mines and torpedoes and it was thought, probably incorrectly, that the heavy internal bulkhead of Tsessarevitch had saved her.34 This was discussed in August 1904 during a visit of the Admiralty Explosives Committee to the Armstrong test sites at Silloth and Ridsdale during which Noble suggested a 4½in bulkhead and proposed secret tests at Ridsdale with a mock-up of a battleship.35 Tests were carried out during 1905-06 with a thick longitudinal bulkhead built into a merchant ship named Ridsdale which was able to withstand a 230lb charge.36 These trials were carried out in great secrecy and no further details have been found. Their importance is shown by a note on the First Lord’s briefing paper for his Parliamentary statement on Dreadnought which said ‘Do not tell House of Commons about special measures to protect magazines and shell rooms as these are the result of very secret experiments carried out at great cost before she was laid down to test the experience of the Russo-Japanese war in submarine explosions.’ There is also a reference in the Ship’s Cover to changes as a result of the Ridsdale tests.

Fisher’s contribution

Fisher is rightly seen as the father of the Dreadnought, supplying the drive and enthusiasm; while others debated, he decided. In detail, his lightning-swift brain was also unstable and his vision changed frequently; only in November 1904 did he settle on the all-12in ship. Fisher’s obsession with the ‘super battleship’ goes back at least to the time in 1881 when, as captain of the Inflexible, he discussed with the young Phillip Watts the design of an improved version with four twin 16in MLR. Much later, in 1900 as C-in-C, Mediterranean, he persuaded the chief constructor of Malta Dockyard, W H Gard, to prepare studies for powerful battleships. Though some of these had a uniform calibre armament, probably 10in, Fisher’s letter to the Admiralty in June 1901 proposed a mixed armament of 10in and 7.5in. Whilst C-in-C Mediterranean, Fisher was still writing that, at the ‘longer’ range of 3-4000 yards, the 6in was superior to the 12in because its higher rate of fire enabled the range to be found more quickly.

Fisher and Gard came together again in 1902 when the former was C-in-C Portsmouth, and the latter manager of the Dockyard. Gard prepared two more studies, one with sixteen 10in and the other with twelve 12in. At that date Fisher favoured the 10in version, still under the influence of Armstrong (who died in 1900) who suggested a new gun with a high rate of fire. Gard was a highly respected officer but his career had mainly been in Dockyards and he lacked recent design experience. While it is easy to sketch a ship with sixteen big guns, it is less easy to produce a realistic design, particularly when the effects of blast are considered. In favour of the 12in was the more extensive damage caused by the bigger shell.

During 1904 Fisher created an unofficial think-tank (Captains H B Jackson, J R Jellicoe, R H Bacon and C E Madden, Commander W Henderson together with Gard and A Gracie, managing director of Fairfields, later joined by an accountant named Boar). Initially they seem to have considered several options for the armament:

Mixed 12in and 9.2in

All 10in or all 9.2in

All 12in

It would seem that Bacon was the leading supporter of the all-12in armament, influenced by the papers of the two Mays,44 and by November, Fisher had decided on this fit though his papers make it clear that he was still thinking of firing one gun at a time at about 6000yds. So far, this account has concentrated on factors which led to the Dreadnought battleship concept but many of the developments involved were also applicable to big cruisers and, by 1904, Fisher was beginning to suggest that the submarine would soon make the battleship obsolete and that the fast armoured cruiser was the surface ship of the future. The concept of the battlecruiser, as it was to become, is discussed later but, to Fisher, they were interacting ideas though his heart lay with the cruiser. In Naval Necessities, he floated the idea of doing without battleships but Lord Selborne quoted Mahan in rejecting such a radical proposal saying the time was not ripe until other navies did so.

Prior to taking office as First Sea Lord in 1904 Fisher produced a manifesto which he titled ‘Naval Necessities’. There were several versions of this paper but the first and most influential is dated October 1904 and sent to the First Lord, Lord Selborne, and the help of the think tank was acknowledged. It was a complete plan for the re-organisation of the Navy. The new ships were to be paid for by savings from the scrapping of old, ineffective units which would also supply the manpower. There were already problems with the 1904-05 Estimates due partly to the unscheduled purchase of Swiftsure and Triumph the previous year and to outstanding payments on Navy Works. There was emphasis on the need to keep both the battleship and the cruiser under 15,900 tons, presumably a magic figure to keep politicians happy.

An argument often advanced against the introduction of the Dreadnought is that it rendered obsolete the older ships in which the RN had such superiority. All navies would start equal with the new type. The counter argument seems valid, that the all-big gun ship was coming anyway and the RN should get in first. As will be seen later, the USN was far advanced with such ships and there were indications that Japan and Italy were thinking on similar lines. Fisher also made the point that 1905-06 was a particularly favourable time to make this inevitable change since the powerful Russian navy had been largely destroyed. A further point which could have been made, but was not, was that the power and speed of Dreadnought depended on turbine machinery and it would be a few years before other navies caught up.

This version of the paper still sees a choice between 10in and 12in (9.2in or 10in for the cruiser; the 12in is ruled out as too heavy) and says that the choice is between sixteen 10in or eight 12in. He claimed that the layouts would permit ten 10in to fire on any bearing but only six 12in. He expected three to four rounds per minute from the smaller gun and ‘nearly two’ from the 12in with about 50 per cent hits at 6000yds. The torpedo threat made it essential to keep outside 3000yds which, with an allowance for manoeuvring meant a mean action range of 5000yds. In a somewhat confusing passage he says that the action will be fought at a range chosen by the faster fleet but accuracy depends on peacetime practice – no mention of fire control – and the important factors are hitting with a low trajectory (suggesting fairly short range) and deliberate fire for spotting. The damage per hit will depend on remaining energy and charge weight whilst rapidity depends on time to load and number of guns limited by spotting time. An all-12in armament is right for a battleship but unnecessarily heavy for a cruiser.

Fisher quotes Noble on the need for 4in anti-torpedo boat guns; the 12pdr was to small to disable the target quickly. The 12pdr dated back to the 1894-95 shore trial, discussed in the previous chapter. The Russo-Japanese War suggested that a 4.7in was the smallest suitable gun which was followed up in the firings against Skate leading to the 4in gun but with the heavier 3lib shell replacing the 25lb.

All Fisher’s concepts were high-speed ships, generally some 3-4kts faster than contemporary designs. He offered no analysis to support this choice of speed – but analysis was not common in those days-nor did he appreciate that the advantage would be lost when other navies built faster ships. When C-in-C Mediterranean in Renown he though that ship fast enough to roll up enemy cruiser lines. He insisted that the speed must be ‘real’, achievable at sea and required a high forecastle to this end. He was still envisaging triple-expansion engines but made no comment on the inability of such machinery to sustain high speed.

Fisher’s paper contains an interesting section on ‘Unsinkability’ which, surprisingly, is rarely quoted. He suggests unpierced bulkheads with no doors, pipes or wires except the steam pipes which were to be high up. Each machinery compartment was to be self-contained with lifts for access and an increase in engineering staff would be accepted. Ventilation and drains would be separate for each compartment. The magazines were to be clear of the outer bottom and protected by a thick longitudinal bulkhead. The 10in design was to have a 9in belt and 12in in the ship with 12in guns. There would be a 7in upper belt but no armour above the 2in protected deck. Any hatches in this deck which had to be opened in action should have a coffer dam to 5ft above the waterline. The unprotected deck above would provide light and airy mess decks; he wanted square ports. Examination of the plans suggest that there were no vital spaces on this deck once the transmitting station had been moved down.

Bunker doors were a hazard in action and he proposed the use of oil fuel when in action though retaining coal for cruising. No wooden decks were to incorporated, corticene being used on the upper deck and bridge. He wanted the foremast taken down to the armour deck as a communication tube, 6in thick. Boats were to be worked by crane as in Vulcan. Fisher does not seem aware that most of these ideas were already incorporated in the Lord Nelson design.

Napoleonic Navy ‘Ashore’

Isar River, Freysing, Bavaria, April 1809

Capitaine de Vaisseau Pierre Baste was `supervising’ a recovery operation after the officers’ baggage of his command, sailors of the Battalion of the Danube and the 44e Bataillon de Flotille, had been dumped into the river. The train troops who had been carrying the baggage swore that the dumping and soaking of the baggage had been nothing but an accident. How much Baste believed that was still to be seen. He was standing tight-lipped on the river bank while details were fishing in the river for the baggage, bringing it up one piece at a time.

The officers and senior NCOs of the train were not as subdued as Baste. They were swearing and shouting for their men to get a move on and recover the baggage as soon as possible, for they had already been behind schedule and they knew that Baste had a reputation for blistering invective as well as being a disciplinarian and they did not want to experience his naval vocabulary, among other unpleasant things.

Some of the naval ratings had thought the incident hilarious but were quickly and efficiently silenced by their officers and NCOs, and now were quietly sitting back from the river eating their rations. Baste had stopped their officers from taking out their frustrations on the train troops, who were in enough trouble. Some of the naval officers were attempting to dry out their sodden clothing from the recovered baggage.

It took the sullen train troops over five hours to recover all of the lost baggage, and once again it was being loaded on the vehicles to continue their march to rendezvous with the Army of Germany. Baste mounted his horse, nodded to his senior maitre, and the two battalions fell in and began crossing the pontoon bridge on their way to the rumbling guns.

Napoleonic Navy ‘Ashore’

Whatever the French Navy did or failed to do on the high seas, elements of it served usefully with the French Army. In 1796 in Italy, Napoleon improvised gunboat flotillas on Lake Mantua and Lake Garda, using local boats armed with captured cannon and bedecked with showy flags. A young naval officer named Pierre Baste, who would later command the sailors of the Imperial Guard and die in action as a general at Brienne in 1814, helped to organize them. There was another squadron of gunboats operating along the west coast of Italy; Desaix mentioned meeting a Capitaine de Frigate La Sybille, 16 who commanded all three squadrons when he visited Napoleon in 1797. These small craft were always handy for scouting and shifting small bodies of troops. Thus, during the touch-and-go battle of Rivoli in January 1797 Murat used them to bring a demi-brigade across Lake Garda in time to help cut off the Austrians’ retreat. (Later Murat would jingle the odd-seeming title of Grand Admiral of France among his horseman’s honors, but at least he had this one small claim to it, which was more than many of its princely holders, before and after, could match.)

One battalion of navy artificers (soon designated the “Battalion of the Danube”) and the 44th Bataillon de Flottille followed the Grande Armee into Austria as part of the engineer parc. Baste, now a capitaine de vaisseau, commanded them both. The campaign started awkwardly with their train troops managing (by accident, let us trust) to drop the officers’ baggage wagons off the Freysing pontoon bridge for a five-hour soaking. Thereafter, and possibly therefore, things started clicking. The amount of work done by the two battalions is amazing. Each company of naval artificers had brought a tool wagon; each of the flottille sailors carried (or was supposed to carry) a tool, each squad in each company lugging a different type. They built bridges, boats, landing craft, 20 and a floating battery, and organized a water transport system on the Danube to speed up supply. Baste led them on small-scale reconnaissances and raids, one of which located and destroyed an Austrian fire boat. At the same time they blocked Austrian attempts to reconnoiter Napoleon’s activities, giving Napoleon complete control of the Danube in the Passau-Vienna area. During the night crossing before Wagram, they ferried the first French assault units across and helped to “throw” the pontoon bridges between Lobau Island and the north bank of the Danube, while their gunboats ran in to provide shortrange gunfire support and smother the remaining Austrian outposts along the north bank. They took one Austrian-held island by boarding it, just as if it had been an enemy warship. All that was done, and thoroughly, by men mostly new to combat. Yet, unfortunately, popular opinion somehow attributed it all to the sailors of the Guard, who arrived a couple of weeks after Wagram had been fought and won!

Another problem in 1809 could be handled in more routine navy fashion. Concerned over the threat of English light warships to the sea communications between Eugene in Italy and Marmont in Illyria, Napoleon dispatched two frigates and several corvettes and brigs to patrol the upper Adriatic in the Venice-Ancona-Ragusa area and a detachment of naval artillerymen to stiffen the defenses of Venice. He also continued the heartbreaking task of trying to develop a combat-worthy Italian Navy.

To return to the 44th Bataillon de Flottille, its luck ran out. Massena took it and the 43d Bataillon to Spain in 1810 and left the 44th to guard his overcrowded hospital when he moved to envelop Wellington’s ridgeline position at Bussaco. Trant’s Portuguese militia and irregulars swooped down, ammunition ran out, and there was nothing to do but surrender. Despite Marbot’s accusations, Trant seems to have restrained his amateurs’ baser impulses, but if few French throats were cut, many French pockets undoubtedly were. The 43d Bataillon did well at all sorts of odd jobs, including infantry combat.

In February 1811 the navy found itself suddenly short of sailors. An “extraordinary” levy took four hundred from Corsica and two hundred from the Ionian Islands. The admiral commanding at Toulon was permitted to select two hundred apprehended refractaires who had been born near the sea.

The shortage may very well have been due to the increasing diversion of navy personnel to the land armies. One battalion of naval artificers, named Bataillon Espagne, also went to Spain in 1810, serving there until early 1813. Two battalions, Danube and the 1st Bataillon de I’Escaut (Scheldt), were assigned to the Grande Armee’s engineer part in 1812. They totaled close to 1,800 men, supposedly the pick of their service. Some of them were with Eble at the Beresina bridges; those that got out of Russia ended with the beleaguered garrison of Danzig, where they doubtless manned Rapp’s improvised squadron of gunboats.

Meanwhile Baste with the 4th and 17th equipages de flottille had been laboring on the Grande Armee’s line of communications, moving supplies along streams, canals, rivers, and the sheltered waters of the Baltic coast. A few of those sailors also were at the Beresina.

Eighteen-thirteen was a year of Navy woe and lamentation. To build his new army, Napoleon ruthlessly converted sailors into soldiers. Before Russia, the naval artificers had totaled some seven thousand officers and men; approximately five thousand remained. One thousand of their biggest and best were plucked for replacements for the sapeur and pontonnier battalions. Espagne was recalled for service in Germany; it ended at Torgau with another battalion, apparently the 2d Escaut. Serving equally as infantry or gunners as the situation might require, they proved the most reliable element of the garrison of that disease-ravaged fortress. Napoleon hoped to get another battalion of them for the Grande Armee, but Decres reported only some three thousand ouvriers left. None had more than two years of service, and most were weakly apprentices.

The artillerie de la marine went the same hard road. With the exception of a battalion sent to Portugal with Junot, it had seen little combat service since 1801-02 and had some eight thousand well-trained men averaging twenty-three years of age. Napoleon transferred them to the army and reformed them-with some conscript padding-into four infantry regiments (often called “naval infantry”), the number of battalions in each regiment being doubled. The necessary officers were provided by promotions within the regiments, recent St. Cyr graduates, and Velites out of the Imperial Guard. Five hundred of the best (probably the oldest) gun captains were left with the navy, their regiments carrying them on special rosters as on detached service. Once formed, those regiments were milked for cadres for eight companies of foot artillery and four hundred more men for the artillery of the Guard. The army issued them overcoats and three pairs of good shoes; the overcoats happened to be blue, like those of the Old Guard.

Most of this naval infantry was assigned Marmont’s VI Corps. He found them splendid material, though their senior officers-elderly, sedentary “homesteaders” with “bourgeois” interests that did not include being shot at-rather frightened him. Once shaken down under competent army generals of brigade, however, the naval gunners made excellent infantrymen. Their steadiness under heavy fire at Lutzen, plus those blue overcoats, fooled the Allies into thinking they were part of the Guard. They served capably through the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 despite heavy losses at Lutzen and Leipzig. In 1814 the Bourbons gave them back to the navy as a three-regiment Corps Royal des Canonniers de la Marine.

During 1813 and 1814 the navy as a whole had been further screened for able-bodied men, to be used as filler replacements for the infantry, artillery, and engineers or as poorly recorded independent units. There is bare mention of a 1st Bataillon de Marins (Battalion of Sailors), mostly men from the ports of the Somme River, which broke up a Russian rear guard in a night bayonet attack at Etoges in 1814.

The Bourbons had little time for the navy during their 1814-15 period of confusion before the Hundred Days. On his return, Napoleon formed most of the available navy personnel into regiments for the defense of the naval bases so that army units in garrison there could be withdrawn for duty with the armies in the field. Fourteen had formed or were forming by the day of his second abdication; at least some of them had army-style elite companies. Two battalions of the artillerie de la marine were summoned to Paris, and one was sent to Lyon, to assist in emplacing fortress artillery; the speed and skill of their work were judged remarkable. Other battalions served efficiently with punitive columns in Vendee.

The 14th Regiment de Marins, stationed on the Ile d`Aix near Rochefort, were the last French troops to cheer their Emperor before he trustingly asked asylum from the British government. By odd chance, in his threadbare cadet boyhood he had been thought good material for a naval officer and had taken some time deciding to be an artilleryman on land rather than a cannoneer afloat.

Tobruk Besieged: 4 May 1941 – 25 October 1941 Part I

By the beginning of May 1941 the situation on the Egyptian border, the losses incurred in the recent attack and more crucially supply problems ruled out further German attempts to seize Tobruk in the immediate future. German and Italian forces in Libya required an estimated 30,000 tons of supplies per month purely to remain operational, with an additional 20,000 tons to build up stocks for future operations. However, there was only sufficient coastal shipping capacity to move 29,000 tons per month, the bulk of which had to be unloaded at Tripoli and then moved the remaining 1,000 miles or more to eastern Cyrenaica by road. Damaged docks, RAF bombing and Royal Navy activity meant Benghazi could handle only small coastal vessels on an intermittent basis, Buerat and Sirte were too small and Derna could only be accessed relatively safely by submarines carrying ammunition. Rommel’s activities had strained this tenuous logistic linkage to breaking point; as Generaloberst Halder, head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), noted in his diary: ‘By overstepping his orders Rommel has brought about a situation for which our present supply capabilities are insufficient.’ Rommel became aware of OKH’s displeasure with the Libyan situation on 3 May, after Generalleutnant Paulus had rendered his initial report. As well as reprimanding him for his reckless and wasteful conduct to date, OKH explicitly forbade Rommel from renewing the attack on Tobruk or anywhere else and specifically ordered him to hold in place. Rommel’s reaction to this can be well imagined, but the news came as a considerable relief to the Tobruk garrison; Morshead received an intercepted copy of the signal, hand carried by a destroyer captain, on 6 May. Rommel therefore had no option but to resort to the more traditional siege tactics of containing the Tobruk garrison while starving the fortress of supplies and reinforcements. Responsibility for carrying out the process thus passed to Fliegerführer Afrika, Generalmajor Stefan Fröhlich.

The Luftwaffe had been active over the Tobruk perimeter in support of ground forces from early April 1941 reconnoitring the perimeter defences and dropping leaflets urging the garrison to surrender, while dive-bombers from Sturtzkampfgeschwader (StG) 3 had engaged in harassing artillery positions and attacking the harbour. Mass raids on 14 and 17 April were followed by smaller, sustained attacks on 18 April on a variety of targets inside the perimeter including El Gubbi airfield. In all, between 11 and 30 April twenty-one separate dive-bombing attacks were recorded, involving a total of 386 aircraft. Luftwaffe activity followed a similar pattern in support of Rommel’s May Day attack, with eight separate attacks on British artillery positions in the vicinity of Fort Pilastrino between 28 April and 2 May. Attacks on targets in what was dubbed the forward area of the perimeter then fell away, apart from reprisal attacks in response to damage inflicted by the garrison’s artillery. This was due to the Luftwaffe shifting its attention to Tobruk harbour, although this was not a totally new departure. The harbour had been attacked on 12 and 13 April, sinking one merchantman and damaging another, and again on 18 and 19 April. It is unclear whether these attacks were part of a deliberate effort to alternate attacks between the perimeter and Tobruk proper or provoked by the presence of shipping in the harbour, but the latter was where the bulk of Tobruk’s anti-aircraft (AA) strength was concentrated; three aircraft were claimed shot down on 12 April and three more and two probables on 20 April, for example. The statistics gathered by the defenders illustrate the intensity of the struggle between the Luftwaffe and the AA gunners at this early stage of the siege. Between 10 and 30 April 1941 Tobruk’s AA guns claimed to have downed thirty-seven attackers, sixteen probables and to have damaged a further forty-three for the expenditure of 8,230 rounds of 3.7-inch and 25,881 rounds of 40mm and 20mm ammunition.

While the 4th AA Brigade and Luftwaffe were fighting their own war over Tobruk and the adjacent harbour, the Tobruk garrison was becoming accustomed to existence within the perimeter. A billet in Tobruk meant relatively comfortable and fairly civilised living conditions but with the ever present danger from the Axis air attacks that came in day and night. Troops on the perimeter, on the other hand, were rarely troubled by aircraft but had to be constantly on the alert for enemy patrols and the like while enduring extremely primitive and uncomfortable living conditions. The greatest trial was the fine, powdery dust that permeated food, weapons, vehicle engines and moving parts, clothing and living quarters to the extent that the men ended up eating and breathing it as a matter of course. This was especially troublesome for the troops stationed on the Blue Line and inward, due to the constant passage of vehicles, and matters were exacerbated overall by the dust storms that occurred every few days that reduced visibility to near zero and made movement difficult if not impossible. The dust was exacerbated on the perimeter and in units stationed in the open desert by large numbers of voracious fleas and clouds of flies. One NCO from an AA crew claimed the former were more of a tribulation than enemy bombs, and the latter were attracted to refuse, food, bare flesh and broken skin with manic tenacity, clogging eyes, ears and nostrils and making eating a one-handed trial. The arid conditions meant there were no mosquitoes and thus no malaria, and generally the health of the garrison remained good. The exception was the occasional outbreak of dysentery caused by failure to observe sanitary arrangements and drinking unchlorinated water, but this was largely eliminated with rigorous enforcement of the rules following an outbreak in June that laid low 226 men in a single week. The lapses with regard to water were understandable if not excusable, given that the daily water ration up to 19 June was four pints per man for all purposes; after that date it increased to six pints.

There was little wildlife in the perimeter apart from a species of small brown mouse and the odd jackal or gazelle, but the troops adopted a number of starving dogs and cats that had belonged to Tobruk’s evacuated civilian population. There was also a lone, aged sheep nicknamed ‘Larry the Lamb’ by the AA unit that adopted him as a mascot; the gunners had to post extra guards to prevent Larry augmenting the rations of some prowling Australian. The latter threat was not an idle one, and not merely because bully beef was the staple ration item for the first three months of the siege and beyond, occasionally replaced with canned bacon, herrings and M&V stew. The canned rations were augmented with bread from the ex-Italian bakery in Tobruk, margarine, sugar and jam, although the latter two were in short supply. The rations were barely adequate and nutritionally deficient even with the issue of concentrated vitamin C tablets in lieu of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the limited diet eventually began to take its toll, most markedly in the shape of ugly and painful desert sores. The ration situation improved from mid-July 1941, with fresh meat being served to troops in reserve positions once a month, fresh fruit and vegetables on a weekly basis and more regular issues of the latter in cans. Even so, when the 9th Australian Division’s infantrymen were examined after being relieved it was discovered that each man had lost up to twenty-eight pounds in weight.

The garrison routine settled into a pattern that would have been instantly recognisable to the First World War veterans in its ranks, with units being rotated regularly between the perimeter, the Blue line, reserve and manning the exposed positions facing the Ras El Medauar salient. Troops in the perimeter split their time between patrolling, and maintaining their positions, while units in the Blue Line were not only employed in digging defensive positions, but in laying mines, erecting and maintaining barbed wire entanglements and creating a third line of defence dubbed the Green Line. While in reserve the troops were allowed a few days’ rest by the sea, where they could launder their clothing, swim and simply soak up the sun in relative safety. It was not unusual for units in reserve to suffer more casualties from air raids than they incurred while manning the perimeter; on one occasion a platoon from the 2/43rd Battalion lost two killed and three wounded to bombs while engaged in road repairs, for example. There was thus no real escape from danger and the concomitant mental stress anywhere within the Tobruk perimeter, although significant efforts were made to maintain morale primarily via the provision of cigarettes, comforts and mail. A weekly issue of fifty cigarettes per man was made from the beginning of the siege, augmented with another fifty from unit canteens to those with the funds to pay for them from June. Additional cigarettes were distributed for free by the Australian Comfort Fund (ACF), an organisation set up during the First World War to support the troops by providing canteens, clubs, hostels and the comforts to stock them. The ACF also provided the Tobruk garrison with pre-stamped air-mail letter cards, writing paper, envelopes and stamps, with £3,200 of the latter being sold in one month alone. The mail was handled by an Australian postal unit located in what had been Tobruk’s bank which received an average of 700 bags of mail and despatched half that number per week through the siege, equivalent to 5,000 parcels and 50,000 letters; by August 1941 the unit was moving fifty tons of assorted mail per week.

The infantry were not employed solely in standing watch and maintaining their positions during their stints on the perimeter. Morshead implemented a policy of aggressive action and patrolling, partly to offset the enervating effects of boredom and partly to tie down as many Axis troops as possible to relieve the pressure on the Egyptian border. In essence Morshead’s policy amounted to a revival of the First World War practise of dominating no-man’s land, and this was literally the case on the southern and eastern sectors where the enemy positions were rarely more than a mile from the perimeter. Patrols up to twenty strong, carrying only weapons, ammunition and grenades leavened with Thompson guns and usually a single Bren for support were despatched almost every night, with socks over their leather-soled boots for stealth; special rubber-soled footwear and camouflage clothing became available in the later stages of the siege. If the target was an enemy position the patrol would navigate their way on compass bearings in the darkness, picking their way stealthily through the protective barbed wire, booby-traps and mines without alerting the sentries before attacking from the flank or rear. As well as inflicting casualties and unsettling the enemy a frequent objective for the patrols was to capture a prisoner for intelligence, often by penetrating beyond the enemy front line. On one occasion a patrol from the 2/23rd Battalion led by Captain Rattray captured a lone Italian sentry near the Bardia road after attracting his attention with a combination of low whistles and calling him comrade in his native tongue as they drew close enough to seize him. Among the most adept at this hazardous nocturnal activity were the dismounted armoured crewmen from the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment, who gained a fearsome reputation among friend and foe alike. Many moved silently on rubber sandals fashioned from discarded vehicle tyres, and one group is reputed to have presented their commander with two sacks of severed enemy ears when the veracity of their post-patrol reports was questioned.

The most intense activity took place facing the Ras El Medauar. The creation of the salient added an additional five and a half miles to the perimeter that had to be built from scratch under the noses of Infanterie Regiment 115 holding the hill. The extra frontage obliged Morshead to press personnel from support units stationed in Tobruk into service as substitute infantry; the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion held a section of the line until mid-May, for example. Initially the new line was sketchy, with random patrolling by both sides between front lines to half a mile apart, but on 13 May the 18th Australian Brigade was ordered to take over the salient and push forward until in close contact with the German line. Conditions on the salient were the worst in the entire Tobruk perimeter, not least because the terrain was almost completely solid rock under a thin layer of fine sand. This meant that the troops were unable to dig in properly and had to make do with makeshift positions that were part sangar, part shell scrape, with no overhead cover. The latter deficiency was especially grievous because the presence of German observers on the Ras El Medauar made daylight movement impossible, and the troops holding the line were obliged to remain totally motionless throughout the hours of daylight, totally exposed to the sun and enemy artillery or mortars.

Allied activity on the front line in the salient thus became totally nocturnal, revolving largely around the arrival of rations from the rear. Breakfast was served at 21:30, hot meals at midnight and just before dawn, the latter being accompanied by hard rations for consumption during the coming day. Units could not bear such conditions for long, and men emerged from a week long tour on the salient undernourished, weak and frequently racked with dysentery. The traffic was not all one-way. On 12 May the 2/13th Battalion shot up a number of Germans who had taken up the habit of taunting the previous unit by walking around and shaking their bedding in the open, and A and B Companies from the same battalion sprang a successful hasty night ambush on German troops attempting to occupy some partly-completed positions in no man’s land fourteen days later. The Germans had to bring up five ambulances after first light to remove the resulting casualties, and the Australians made good use of the brief truce to openly examine their surroundings from a standing position in daylight.

The salient was also where Morshead’s strategy to keep the maximum number of Axis troops occupied on the perimeter was most successful, not least because Rommel had to keep hold of it as a springboard for future attacks into the Tobruk perimeter. The order for the 18th Australian Brigade to close up to the German front line on 13 May was part of a ploy to persuade Rommel that the garrison were about to attempt a break-out, in order to draw German troops away from an upcoming British attack on the Egyptian border. Throughout 14 May vehicles were driven back and forth near the south-western sector of the perimeter to simulate a pre-attack concentration, supported by spurious radio traffic. The following morning three Cruiser tanks and two platoons from the 2/12th Battalion attacked positions held by elements of the Pavia Division near defence Post S15, and in the afternoon the 2/10th Battalion launched another limited attack further north to straighten out its section of the line. The attacks succeeded in their intent. The Pavia Division infantry abandoned their positions, and RAF reconnaissance on 15 May noted German mechanised units moving toward Tobruk from Sollum to the east, and Axis armour concentrating west of Tobruk near Acroma.

In one way the deception succeeded rather too well, insofar as it provoked a strong German pre-emptive strike. After a two hour preparatory artillery and mortar bombardment the Germans attacked Posts S8, S9 and S10 in the late evening of 15 May supported by five Panzers, while the Italians counter-attacked S15. The attack was well organised, using coloured tracer ammunition to guide the troops toward their objectives, and went on throughout the night. One party penetrated into S9’s anti-tank ditch before being forced back by a counter-attack. The Germans did succeed in overrunning S10 with the aid of flame-throwers and close support from the Panzers, taking a number of the Australian defenders prisoner and cutting off S8 and S9. The Panzers withdrew before first light but German infantry held onto S10 and beat off a counter-attack by a platoon from the 2/12th Battalion just after dawn. Another attack at midday finally retook the post, capturing twenty-eight Germans and liberating three wounded Australians. Contact was re-established with S8 and S9 after dark on 16 May and in the nick of time; the posts had beaten off numerous attacks through the day, but by dusk were running dangerously short of ammunition.

Having gained the Germans’ attention, Morshead set about keeping it with a larger attack on 17 May that had the secondary intent of eroding the size of the German salient by taking S6 and S7, and S4 and S5 as secondary objectives. The attack was assigned to the 2/23rd Battalion, supported by nine Matildas, and began at 05:27 with an artillery bombardment from thirty-nine guns, thickened with indirect fire from twelve Vickers medium machine-guns from the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, a smoke barrage on the Ras El Medauar to blind German observation posts and a fortuitous early morning mist. Things did not go according to plan from the outset. The Matildas failed to reach the start line in time, lost touch with the infantry despite the efforts of the reserve platoons to attract their attention and abandoned attempts to find their way forward after becoming disoriented by a German counter-smokescreen. The Germans hit the attacking infantry with every weapon they could bring to bear, with AA guns firing shells fused to detonate overhead being especially troublesome. S7 was seized by Captain Ian Malloch’s Company in spite of this, but the troops could not be reinforced and by 07:30 the Germans had retaken it using Panzers. To the left Major W. H. Perry’s Company secured S6 and moved on to take S4, taking a total of twenty-three Germans prisoner, but were then cut off by the weight of German defensive fire. An attempt to reach them at 07:40 was driven off despite support from four Matilda tanks, although two Bren Carriers succeeded in delivering ammunition and rations to S6 under cover of the mist and dust.

With no further contact, 2/23rd Battalion HQ wrote off Perry and his men after Panzers were seen in the vicinity of the recaptured posts at around 09:00, until the Company Clerk, Corporal Fred Carleton, succeeded in reaching Battalion HQ three hours or more later. By this time Sergeant-Major W.G. Morrison and twenty-three men were holding out in sangars 200 yards from S6, and Morrison was able to break up several attacks during the course of the afternoon by calling down artillery fire via a field telephone line repaired by Private H.P Clark under heavy German fire; at one point Morrison was obliged to call down fire virtually on top of his own position. The little band was finally ordered to withdraw from their embattled outpost at dusk after a relieving attack was abandoned for want of tank support and Panzers were seen advancing on the sangars. Despite being ordered to abandon his five wounded after an attempt to lift them with two Bren Carriers was thwarted by a German anti-tank position, Morrison brought them and his fourteen able-bodied survivors out after a hair-raising crawl along an old Italian pipeline trench under constant German machine-gun fire; his was the only organised sub-unit to survive the day’s action. Only two of the ten officers from the two companies that spearheaded the attack escaped injury. Of the remainder, four were killed, one was seriously wounded and three were wounded and taken prisoner. In all the 2/23rd Battalion suffered twenty-five dead, fifty-nine wounded and eighty-nine missing, at least half of whom were believed killed. The Tobruk garrison thus paid a heavy price, and arguably one it could ill afford, for the privilege of diverting Axis attention from events on the Egyptian border, which did not meet expectations either.

The attack the Australian diversionary operation was intended to assist was Operation BREVITY, commanded by Brigadier Gott. Contemporary accounts cite the Operation as an attempt to relieve Tobruk, but Wavell’s typically wide-ranging and arguably contradictory instructions for the attack show this was not the case. Gott was ordered to recapture Sollum and Fort Capuzzo, inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy while not endangering his own force, and to exploit any success as far toward Tobruk as the logistic chain would permit. With large-scale reinforcements en route from the UK, Wavell allotted Gott all the armour and mechanised forces that could be mustered; two Squadrons of Cruiser Tanks from the 2nd RTR totalling twenty-nine vehicles, and two Squadrons of Matildas from the 4th RTR totalling twenty-four vehicles, along with the 22nd Guards Brigade mounted in vehicles borrowed from the 4th Indian Division, and the 7th Armoured Division Support Group. Artillery support was provided by the 8th Field Regiment RA, air cover by Hurricanes from No. 274 Squadron, and close air support by fourteen Blenheims from No. 14 Squadron. The attack began in the early hours of 15 May, and was initially successful. The Halfaya Pass, lost to Oberstleutnant Maximilian von Herff at the end of April, was retaken by the 2nd Scots Guards and a Squadron from the 4th RTR, the 1st Durham Light Infantry and more tanks captured Fort Capuzzo and the 7th Armoured Division Support Group made good progress toward Sidi Azeiz, ten miles north-west of Fort Capuzzo. Progress had not been easy or universal, however. The attackers were unable to clear enemy forces from the crucial approaches to the Halfaya Pass, and the various actions cost Gott’s force nine tanks destroyed or otherwise put out of action.

However, BREVITY had been compromised by poor signal security which allowed Rommel to send the Ariete Division to El Adem as a backstop, and more pertinently permitted the local German commander, Oberstleutnant von Herff, sufficient time to organise a response in advance. Thus after initially giving ground Herff launched a counter-attack with a battalion from Panzer Regiment 5 that recaptured Fort Capuzzo, from where he launched a second attack on 17 May after receiving reinforcements including another battalion of tanks from the newly arrived Panzer Regiment 8 from 15 Panzer Division. The reinforcement was not straightforward for Panzer Regiment 8 ran out of fuel after reaching Sidi Azeiz at 03:00 on 16 May and remained stranded for fourteen hours but Herff was able to begin his counter-attack in the early afternoon of 17 May, which forced the 7th Armoured Division Support Group back toward Bir El Khireigat, over ten miles south of Fort Capuzzo. Herff halted as ordered on a line running south and west from of Sollum, which efficiently screened and further British moves toward Tobruk. Overall BREVITY yielded only the recapture of the Halfaya Pass in return for six RAF aircraft lost, five Matildas destroyed and thirteen damaged. This was equivalent to the loss of three-quarters of the Matildas committed, while the 1st Durham Light Infantry suffered a total of 160 casualties in the fight for Fort Capuzzo. On the other side of the ledger German losses totalled three Panzers destroyed, twelve killed, sixty-one wounded and 185 missing, along with an unknown number of Italians taken prisoner. There matters rested, with a small British all-arms force built around the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards holding the Halfaya Pass, for nine days while the Germans organised fuel supplies for their Panzers. Von Herff then retook the Pass with an attack that began on 26 May and forced the British back with the loss of five Matildas, twelve assorted guns and 173 casualties.

With the end of the fighting on the western sector of the perimeter the struggle for Tobruk shifted to the sky, most intensely over the harbour. Tobruk’s AA defences grew out of a relative handful of guns deployed to protect the harbour after Operation COMPASS, augmented with reinforcements brought in by sea. Between 6 and 12 April 1941 the 4th AA Brigade HQ and five fresh AA units arrived by ship, along with an additional twelve 40mm Bofors and eight 3.7-inch guns configured for static emplacement; all the latter were immediately co-opted for harbour defence despite a shortage of personnel to construct the necessary emplacements and man them. By 11 April the commander of the Brigade, Brigadier John Nuttall Slater, had at his disposal the 51st Heavy AA Regiment with two batteries of 3.7-inch guns, the 14th Light AA Regiment with a total of seventeen 40mm Bofors, the 306th Searchlight Battery and a number of signal and workshop units. These were supplemented with forty-two Breda 20mm automatic cannon, one twin 37mm Breda, four 102mm guns and two searchlights, all captured from the Italians; the static 3.7-inch guns were later formed into a third battery.

Within fifteen days of the 4th AA Brigade’s arrival, the 3.7-inch guns had been deployed around the harbour in six Sites labelled A, B, C, D, G and H, with B and D Sites being equipped with predictor apparatus for use against high-level targets and for night barrages. The newcomers soon found themselves directly targeted as the Luftwaffe attempted to suppress Tobruk’s AA defences. On 14 April 1941, for example, six to eight Junkers 87s attacked a 3.7-inch Site, killing two, wounding nine and destroying two battery vehicles. As a result of this 4th AA Brigade HQ ordered all gun positions and control posts to be dug in and reinforced, the preparation of alternate gun positions and purely dummy positions to confuse the high-level and dive-bombers; the former tended to make pre-planned attacks based on aerial photography, while the latter identified targets visually during their attacks. The dummy gun positions were sophisticated affairs carefully constructed to be indistinguishable from the real thing, complete with mocked-up guns, flash and dust simulators, vehicle tracks and dummy ammunition dumps. A defensive tactic nicknamed the ‘porcupine’ was also formulated, which involved attacked gun positions pointing all guns outward and firing at maximum rate at an elevation of sixty-five degrees or above. The wisdom and effectiveness of these precautions was to become apparent in due course.

Axis aircraft were an almost permanent feature in the skies above Tobruk during the siege, with high-level bombing raids a daily occurrence from the outset. Their frequency increased markedly from the end of May 1941, with ten to fifteen raids per day on some occasions, and fell off abruptly in October with only four in the first ten days of that month. In all, between 9 April and 10 October a total of 301 separate attacks were recorded reaching a peak with eighty-seven raids during July. The vast majority were directed against the harbour, Tobruk town and surrounding dumps and installations, although at least two high-level attacks were made against troops in the western side of the perimeter. Most were made from 18,000 to 25,000 feet, sometimes in formation and sometimes independently. Bombing from such altitude permitted most attacks to deliver their loads before the AA defences were aware of their presence, which was exacerbated by the location of most of the 3.7-inch gun Sites. While accuracy did not compare to that achievable by dive-bombing they did enjoy some success. The tail end of a stick of bombs destroyed a large dump of captured Italian ammunition four miles south-west of Tobruk town at the beginning of August, for example. For a while the bombers were able to confuse the AA fire control system by attacking in spaced increments; this was overcome by devolving fire control instructions from battery to gun section level, and the handicap of poor early warning was offset to some extent by authorising all guns to engage any target within range without waiting for permission.

There was no respite during the hours of darkness. The port was on the receiving end of a total of 908 night bombing raids between 9 April and 9 October, the peak month being August with 205. For the first two months raids averaged between one and three raids per night, and apart from a handful of aircraft dropping mines into the harbour, involved scattering Italian AR-4 anti-personnel devices across the town and harbour side. The devices were nicknamed ‘Thermos Bombs’ due to their resemblance to the vacuum flask of the same name and were dropped from low level, often in a tight pattern of thirty to forty at a time. The attackers launched a concerted attempt to block the harbour and approaches with mines on the nights of 21, 27 and 30 July, coming in at a variety of heights and directions to confuse the AA defences; this was the first time that the night attacks presented a serious threat to Tobruk. The raids refocused on the town and harbour installations in August, while the bulk of attacks in September took place on moonlit nights and were more balanced between mining missions and attacks on the town; the latter alternated between dropping Thermos devices and larger bombs, with some raids also dropping very large, parachute-delivered aerial mines. On 1 October the attackers dropped incendiary bombs on the town for the first time, but to little effect; as the official report dryly noted, by this point there was little left in the town to burn. The incendiaries nonetheless set parts of the town ablaze, but other enemy aircraft did not appear to make much use of the resulting illumination. Overall the night attacks did not present the AA defences with any special problems, apart from some minor modifications to fire control procedures. By the end of the siege the night barrage was employing twelve Bofors, seventeen 3.7-inch guns along with the five ex-Italian 102mm guns and twin 37mm Bredas.

However, the most intense struggle in the sky above Tobruk took place in daylight, between the AA defences and Sturtzkampfgeschwader 3’s dive-bombers. The contest began on 27 April with an attack on the AA positions covering the harbour by approximately fifty Junkers 87s, with twelve dive-bombers targeting each site. The gun positions went into porcupine mode, engaging all visible targets, and the tactic worked well for the A and C Sites; no bombs landed closer than fifty to a hundred yards and the newly dug gun pits effectively shielded guns, crews and ancillary equipment; only one man was killed and another wounded another. The B and D Sites were not so fortunate. The guns were not manned, the lookouts failed to spot the dive-bombers approaching from out of the sun, and the guns were not properly dug in, with flimsy parapets made of empty oil drums. The attack killed five, wounded over forty and put four of the 3.7-inch guns out of action for forty-eight hours; in addition the cables linking the individual guns to the predictor gear were shredded and the predicting equipment at both Sites was damaged. The B Site was hit again on 12 May, along with the G Site. According to the official report, the latter failed to defend itself with sufficient vigour while the B Site personnel panicked instead of manning their guns. Two men were wounded, one of whom died later, and four guns were put out of action for between twelve and twenty-four hours.

The process of measure and counter-measure set in these early encounters continued in the months that followed. The poor performances of 27 April and 12 May led 4th AA Brigade HQ to order all personnel in gun positions under attack to take part in the fight using small-arms, with only the unarmed being permitted to seek cover. Each gun pit was issued a Breda machine-gun for this purpose, although these had to be sited some distance away to avoid being unsighted by the dust kicked up by the larger guns. In addition, all gun pits and control posts were modified to withstand the impact of a 1,000 pound bomb landing within ten yards, and after members of a gun crew were injured by a primed 3.7-inch shell detonating after being struck by shrapnel, ammunition storage was modified so that stored shells faced outward. Observation showed that dive-bombing attacks were most accurate when delivered at a seventy to eighty degree angle, but this left them vulnerable to fire from light AA guns when pulling out at low level. Many attacks were thus made at shallower angles in the region of forty to fifty degrees, which allowed the dive-bombers to retain the safety of altitude at the cost of reduced bombing accuracy; bomb releases at altitudes as high as 6,000 to 8,000 feet were noted over Tobruk harbour, for example. It was also noted that accurate AA fire could provoke attackers to opt for the shallow angle attacks, and gun crews were encouraged to assist this tendency whenever possible.

By June 1941 the dive-bombers were becoming noticeably reluctant to press home their attacks. All of the Junkers 87s involved in attacks on AA positions on 1 and 2 June stayed above 3,000 feet, for example, with none of their bombs coming within 150 yards of their targets as a result; eyewitnesses also reported some aircraft jettisoning their bombs into the sea. The 2 June attack was accompanied by three Henschel 129 observation aircraft, presumably to gather information on the AA defences, and their presence was noted in subsequent raids too. The Luftwaffe tried a number of innovations during July. Some raids were preceded by small groups of Junkers 88s as a diversion, and on 4 July the dive-bombers avoided the 3.7-inch barrage by approaching from the west rather than south. Unfortunately this took them directly over a Bofors emplacement which promptly shot down five with a sixth being downed by a direct hit from a 3.7-inch shell. On 10 August Tobruk’s AA defences deployed a new weapon against an attack by eighteen dive-bombers, the Unrotating Projectile Rocket Barrage, consisting of salvos of 3-inch rockets containing contact-fused parachute mines on 400-foot cables. The mines were ejected automatically when the rocket reached an altitude of 1,000 feet, and the attacking aircraft were supposed to obligingly snag the cables and pull the mines onto themselves. Overall the system was not a success, although on this occasion its spectacular firing disrupted the incoming formation, two dive-bombers detonated mines with unknown results and another ended up with a mine parachute wrapped around its tail.

Over the next two weeks the attackers tried attacking through low cloud, approaching simultaneously from three different directions and preceding the latter with a diversionary gliding attack on the harbour. On the other side of the fence, the presence of the Henschel 126 prompted the AA defence to amend the porcupine defence by ordering only half the guns in any Site to fire at any one time; the reduction in the intensity of the barrage was considered worthwhile in order to avoid revealing the true gun strength of the defences. On 1 September the Luftwaffe roped in the Regia Aeronautica to assist in an attempt to overwhelm the AA defences by sheer weight of numbers. An estimated mixed force of 120 Junkers 87s, Fiat BR20s and Savoia Marchetti SM.79s attacked the harbour and surrounding AA positions, while additional aircraft bombed positions on the perimeter; this was the single heaviest air raid on Tobruk during the siege. The AA gunners claimed one Junkers 87 shot down, three probables and a number damaged in return for one killed, six wounded and up to five 3.7-inch guns put out of action by shrapnel, all of which were back in action by 16:30. In the event, this mass raid proved to be the penultimate major dive-bombing attack on Tobruk. The last, on 9 September, turned out to be something of an anti-climax, with only one Junkers 87 making a shallow angle attack on the harbour. The remainder of the formation were seen to jettison their bombs on finding no worthwhile shipping targets. Altogether Tobruk withstood sixty-two separate dive-bombings in the course of the siege, and over the same period the AA defences suffered a total of 158 casualties, forty of which were killed in action. In return they claimed ninety enemy aircraft shot down, seventy-four by light AA, a further seventy-seven probables and 183 damaged.

Tobruk Besieged: 4 May 1941 – 25 October 1941 Part II

An aspect of the struggle between the Tobruk garrison and the Luftwaffe that has gone virtually unremarked is the role played by camouflage and deception. The man behind it was Captain Peter Proud RE, who arrived at Tobruk after an eventful journey from Cyrenaica during the Benghazi-Tobruk Handicap. He was appointed ‘G3 (Camouflage) Desert Force Attached to the 9th Australian Division’ at some point shortly before 16 April 1941, and on that date wrote to a Major Barkas at GHQ Middle East explaining the importance of his work and recommending the formation of a dedicated force to help him carry it out; at the time of writing he was co-opting Indian Sikh troops in increments of 200 on a day-to-day basis. The latter were employed gathering and preparing a stock of materials that included approximately 2,000 coloured nets, 20,000 yards of natural Hessian, 250 gallons of assorted paint, a number of stirrup pumps for use as improvised sprayers, and an ex-Italian workshop with tools and an electrically powered band saw among other equipment. The nets were modified with strips of Hessian referred to as ‘garnish’ and part painted to match the terrain, the colour of which was likened to the shade of the foundation cosmetic Max Factor No.9. The nets were then configured for specific applications, such as covering pre-manufactured metal frames artillery gun pits. Sufficient equipment was provided to permit artillery sites to place all gun pits, crew bivouacs, slit trenches, ammunition storage and latrines under camouflage.

The latter idea was adapted for other purposes, with smaller frames being manufactured in the workshop to suit positions and even individual slit trenches out on the perimeter, and not just there. A large net was made to cover the gunboat Gnat when occupying her berth in a narrow cove on the south side of the harbour, the vessel’s mast and searchlight top being removed to ease its deployment, and a similar expedient was employed to protect A Lighters while berthed in the harbour. The Lighters were run into the shore bow first near a small headland projecting into the harbour and covered with garnished nets pegged to the shore. The open end of the net was then draped over cables stretched taut behind the Lighters and allowed to dangle down to the water; from the air the camouflaged vessels looked like an innocuous extension of the headland. A system for camouflaging aircraft was also formulated, using three thirty-five foot square camouflage nets linked in a T-shape, pegged out over specially made support posts mounted in sand-filled petrol cans. Blast walls and slit trenches for ground crew were constructed under the netting.

Many of Proud’s initiatives were equally simple but effective. A drive-through paint-spray booth was set up for vehicles at the building Proud had commandeered as a combined store house and workshop. To stretch the limited supply of paint, vehicles were sprayed with used engine oil scrounged from the garrison’s REME vehicle workshops before being driven outside for a second coat of sand and dust that blended perfectly with the surrounding terrain; instructions, oil and other kit were available for units to camouflage their own vehicles on request. The booth was later augmented with a mobile spray unit, using a captured Italian compressor mounted on a 15 cwt truck, equipped with fifty gallon oil drums as a paint reservoir and a folding ladder for spraying tall buildings and tents. Fuel dumps were concealed by distributing the fuel cans in irregular linked patterns stacked only one or two cans high to avoid casting tell-tale shadows. These were then flanked by berms formed from supply boxes filled with sand and then coated with oil and more sand to protect the fuel cans from shrapnel.

In addition to merely hiding things from enemy view, Proud supervised the construction and execution of a number of novel and in some instances highly sophisticated deception measures. At the lower end of the scale wrecked vehicles were positioned to the south of weapon pits in order to cast them in shadow, and discarded Italian uniforms were stuffed to create dummy personnel to man dummy positions. Decoy tanks were constructed from camouflage nets covering a stone sangar to the front surmounted by a wooden frame and pole to simulate the turret and gun. Proud’s workshops also produced a more sophisticated version of wood and canvas with painted running gear and folding mudguards fashioned from petrol cans along with a 3 ton truck of similar construction, some mounted on wheels to ease movement. There was also a plan to produce dummy fighter aircraft of similar construction, complete with compressors to simulate propeller wash, although it in unclear if they were actually produced. Convoy movements were simulated by single vehicles towing a number of weighted sledge-like devices, while sea water was used to damp down the dust created when moving guns between locations.

On a grander scale, a fake fuel dump was constructed, complete with a convoy of wrecked Italian vehicles towed into position on the supposed approach road. The dummy AA positions with gunfire simulators and other equipment constructed in the vicinity of the harbour have been mentioned above, and a similar site was constructed 1,000 yards from one of the 51st Heavy AA Regiment’s positions facing the Ras El Medauar in mid-May. The dummy incorporated four unserviceable guns and was sufficiently convincing to draw German artillery fire directed by a Henschel 126, while the real site was left unmolested. Perhaps the most spectacular was a scheme to deceive the enemy into thinking that Tobruk’s coal-fired power station had been damaged and put out of action. During a daylight raid smoke bombs were set off near the station and one of its tall chimneys was brought down by a demolition charge, empty crates were scattered in the vicinity along with pieces of corrugated iron and other bits of scrap metal; sheets of hessian painted to represent bomb holes were hung on the building itself later.

Unfortunately camouflage and deception was of limited value to the vessels carrying supplies into the besieged port and evacuating the wounded and prisoners on the return trip. Air attacks thus took an increasing toll on shipping in the approaches to Tobruk and the harbour itself. On 1 May the minesweeper Milford Countess was machine-gunned while picking up the crew of a downed Blenheim, and a high-level bombing attack on two A Lighters being reloaded for the return trip on their designated beach in the north-east corner of the harbour killed one crewman and wounded another; other A Lighters nearby beneath Captain Proud’s camouflage netting remained unnoticed. As a result of the incident it was recommended that A Lighters only be used for embarkation at Tobruk in an emergency. On the afternoon of 2 May a dozen Stukas attacked shipping therein and two days later, in a rerun of the events of 14 April, another dive-bombing attack set the engine-room of the Hospital Ship Karapara ablaze on the vessel’s second trip to the port after being redirected from Aden; she was towed out of danger and reached the safety of Alexandria on one engine and with jury-rigged steering. On 12 May another mass afternoon raid by thirty Stukas and eight Junkers 88s caught the gunboat Ladybird at the western end of the harbour. One bomb hit a 2-Pounder AA gun on the vessel’s stern, killing its crew and wounded two men manning Italian 20mm weapons mounted nearby, and another detonated in her boiler room blowing out the ship’s bottom and setting her fuel oil tanks ablaze. As the Ladybird listed heavily to starboard her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Jack Blackburn, ordered the wounded evacuated while the forward 3-inch and 2-Pounder guns continued to engage the attackers; the latter remained in service after the gunboat had settled upright in ten feet of water.

In all eight ships were lost during May, and not all of them in Tobruk harbour or its environs. The sloop HMS Grimsby and merchantman SS Helka, carrying a cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk, were sunk after being caught by dive-bombers forty miles north-east of the port on 25 May; the anti-submarine trawler Southern Maid which was also accompanying the Helka shot down one of the attackers and damaged another before ferrying the survivors to Mersa Matruh. By the end of May it was virtually impossible to use Tobruk harbour in daylight, and vessels were instructed to avoid approaching the port before dusk and to be well clear before first light. Matters were complicated yet further by Axis aircraft assiduously sowing the harbour and approaches with mines, usually at night, which had to be painstakingly cleared by the minesweepers Arthur Cavanagh, Bagshot, and Milford Countess. Axis torpedo bombers also proved adept at attacking at night, and the movement of petrol and water carriers like the ill-fated Helka was restricted to no-moon periods as a result. A variety of small craft were pressed into service as supply carriers by the Inshore Squadron, and warships visiting Tobruk invariably carried supplies in and wounded out.

Thus by the end of May 1,688 men had been carried into Tobruk and 5,198 lifted out, the latter including wounded, POWs and unnecessary administrative personnel. In addition, 2,593 tons of assorted supplies had also been delivered, a daily average rate of eighty-four tons and fourteen tons above the estimated daily requirement. Even so, at the beginning of June the loss rate had become prohibitive and Eastern Mediterranean Fleet HQ in Alexandria temporarily decreed that only destroyers should be employed on Tobruk supply runs because their speed permitted them to make the round trip in darkness. The wisdom of this decision was highlighted on 24 June, when an attempt to get another cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk aboard the SS Pass of Balmaha, escorted by the sloops HMS Auckland and HMAS Paramatta, again ended in disaster. The little flotilla was attacked by torpedo bombers approximately twenty miles north-east of Tobruk, and then by a total of forty-eight Junkers 87s in three groups. The Auckland was abandoned after being badly hit and sank after almost breaking in two while the Paramatta was picking up survivors. The Pass of Balmaha was also badly damaged and temporarily abandoned, but was eventually towed into Tobruk after dark by the destroyer HMAS Waterhen. Even then, night runs provided insufficient protection for the destroyers as Axis aircraft proved adept at locating them and attacking with the aid of moonlight, and the fast runs had to be further restricted to no-moon periods. Runs were made by up to three destroyers per night and the fast minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona once a week; during the no-moon period in August 1941 the minelayers made seven round trips to Tobruk and the destroyers twenty-seven.

The regular Spud Runs by the A Lighters and other small vessels continued throughout. The latter, consisting of a number of small, aged merchantmen and four captured Italian fishing schooners, were responsible for carrying in most of Tobruk’s food. The schooner Maria Giovanni, commanded by Lieutenant Alfred Palmer RNR, was perhaps the most famous, making runs into Tobruk loaded to capacity with assorted victuals, sometimes including live sheep and bristling with jury rigged weaponry. She was lost after a German decoy lured her onto the shore in mistake for the light marking the entrance to Tobruk harbour; Palmer was shot and wounded trying to escape and was repatriated to his native Australia two years later. The A Lighters were based at Mersa Matruh from June 1941, carrying vehicles, ammunition and fuel into Tobruk and, time and enemy activity permitting, returning with cargoes of damaged equipment for repair in Egyptian workshops, wounded and prisoners. Attack could come at any time. One A Lighter was sunk by a magnetic mine as it approached its unloading point inside Tobruk harbour, and on another occasion two more were attacked by dive-bombers off Sidi Barrani. A four hour fight ensued during which the A Lighters fired off over 1,000 rounds, in the course of which one was sunk by multiple bomb hits. Only one crewman survived, after forcing himself through a small scuttle as the vessel went down, breaking all his ribs in the process. The second was taken in tow by a tug from Tobruk, but was so badly damaged she broke up and sank en route.

Neither were mines and aircraft the only threat. In the evening of 9 October a convoy of three A Lighters, A2, A7 and A18, left Mersa Matruh loaded with tanks, intending to rendezvous with an anti-submarine trawler and air cover at around noon the following day. At 04:00 on 10 October they were attacked by a U-Boat on the surface, whose gunfire damaged the A18’s bridge, cut her degaussing cable, carried away her mast and badly wounded her navigator. The A Lighter responded with its own armament and A7, commanded by Sub-Lieutenant Dennis Peters, part lowered her bow ramp with the intention of ramming but the U-Boat disappeared. The convoy then became split, with A18 limping back to Mersa Matruh while the other two A Lighters pushed on to Tobruk. The remainder of the voyage was far from uneventful. The air and sea cover failed to materialise and the A Lighters came under attack from a dozen aircraft at 17:00, from two more at 22:00 and from enemy coastal guns at around midnight; to round things off Tobruk was undergoing a heavy air raid when they finally arrived at 01:30 on 10 October. After unloading A2 and A7 sailed back out of Tobruk harbour at dusk on 11 October. They were ambushed at around midnight by U-75 lurking inshore, again using guns rather than torpedoes. A7 suffered several hits that set her engine room and mess deck on fire, while return fire forced the U-Boat to submerge. The A2 took the A7’s wounded aboard and put the vessel in tow when the latter’s commander, Sub-Lieutenant Bromley, declined to scuttle her. The U-75 then reappeared and sank both vessels with gunfire. Only one crewman of the thirty-seven men aboard the two vessels survived, being picked up by the same U-Boat after twenty-four hours in the water. Eleven days later the gunboat Gnat was torpedoed by the U-79 off Bardia; she was towed back to Alexandria by the destroyer Jaguar where she was beached and written off.

The first attempt to relieve Tobruk came in mid-June, using recently arrived equipment from the UK. When the presence of 15 Panzer Division in Libya was confirmed in mid-April 1941 Lieutenant-General Wavell had appealed to London for reinforcements, and on 21 April Churchill and the Defence Committee authorised the despatch of a special convoy. Codenamed TIGER, the convoy consisted of five fast merchant vessels, the Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Clan Campbell, Empire Song and New Zealand Star, carrying a total of 295 tanks and forty-three Hurricane fighters. By mid-May Wavell’s need had grown even more acute, as the failure of Operation BREVITY reduced the Western Desert Force’s armoured strength to a single Squadron of Cruiser Tanks located at Mersa Matruh and up to forty vehicles undergoing workshop repair. Arriving at Gibraltar on 5 May, TIGER was directed through the Mediterranean rather than taking the longer Cape route in order to cut forty days from the journey time; this was the first convoy to run the gauntlet since January 1941 when Fliegerkorps X had badly mauled Operation EXCESS, sinking the cruiser Southampton and seriously damaging the cruiser Gloucester and aircraft-carrier Illustrious. Virtually the entire strength of H Force and the Mediterranean Fleet operating from Gibraltar and Alexandria respectively was mobilised to protect TIGER, including the battleships Barham, Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Warspite, and the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Formidable. The convoy docked in Alexandria on the morning of 12 May, after fighting off numerous day and night air attacks and accompanied by a telegram from Churchill quoting Scripture: ‘For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of Salvation have I succoured thee; behold now is the day of salvation.’ The TIGER convoy did not escape totally unscathed. The New Zealand Star and Empire Song detonated mines at around midnight on 8 May. The former suffered minor damage but the latter caught fire, blew up and sank at 04:00 on 9 May, taking fifty-seven tanks and ten Hurricanes with her.

The Western Desert Force thus received a total of 238 tanks: twenty-one Mark VIC Light Tanks, thirty-two Cruisers, fifty of the latest Mark VI Cruisers dubbed ‘Crusaders’ and 135 Matildas. These were immediately earmarked for Operation BATTLEAXE, for which Wavell issued his orders on 28 May. The attack was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, and carried out by Major-General Frank Messervy’s 4th Indian Division and the ubiquitous 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh. The first phase was to be a three-pronged attack to recapture the frontier area with the 4th Indian Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade securing the Halfaya Pass, Sollum, Bardia and Fort Capuzzo, while the 7th Armoured Division looped around to the south to deal with the Panzers believed to be concentrated in the vicinity of the Hafid Ridge, just west of Fort Capuzzo. With this done the attack force was to relieve Tobruk and destroy any enemy forces in the region of El Adem before exploiting as far west as possible toward Mechili and Derna. Although the TIGER convoy arrived on 12 May, it took some time to unload the new vehicles, disperse them to workshops and modify them for desert service, and 10 June 1941 was earliest possible date for launching BATTLEAXE. In the event several days were added to allow the crews time to train with their new tanks, and for the 7th Armoured Division to train as a formation, having not operated as such for several months. In parallel with this the RAF stepped up its day and night attacks upon Axis airfields, the port of Benghazi and the columns carrying supplies and munitions up to the border area, right up to the point where the BATTLEAXE force left its concentration areas for its start lines near Buq Buq and Sofafi on the afternoon of 14 June. It was going up against a number of fortified positions strung out between Sidi Azeiz and Halfaya, equipped with mines and anti-tank guns. The line had been ordered by Rommel as a precaution after BREVITY and was backed by newly arrived Generalleutnant Walther Neumann-Sylkow’s 15 Panzer Division, with the Trento Division under command; 5 Leichte Division was held in reserve south-east of Tobruk.

The attack began at dawn on 15 June. The 7th RTR had taken Fort Capuzzo by the early afternoon, and after being reinforced by the 22nd Guards Brigade, succeeded in repelling a series of small counter-attacks by elements of Panzer Regiment 8. Other elements subdued a German position atop a height to the south known as Point 206, after a hard fight that saw one Squadron from the 4th RTR reduced to a single Matilda, while a battalion from the 22nd Guards Brigade occupied Musaid to the south-east. However, the attack to secure the Halfaya Pass was stopped by a combination of mines, anti-tank guns and armoured cars despite numerous attempts by tanks and infantry to push forward. The 7th Armoured Brigade reached the Hafid Ridge at around 09:00, but then ran into dug-in German anti-tank guns that the Cruisers lacked the firepower to deal with; at least four of the German guns were 88mm pieces. An attempt to outflank the guns from the west in the late morning was halted when the complexity of the enemy positions became apparent, losing a number of tanks in the process. At around 17:30 the Crusader-equipped 6th RTR launched a hasty attack after receiving reports that the German anti-tank screen was withdrawing; the withdrawal was a ploy and eleven Crusaders were knocked out in a well-executed ambush. The British withdrew under cover of long-range gunnery and the action tapered off with the onset of darkness despite the arrival of a number of Panzers from the north. By nightfall the attack had achieved only one of its initial objectives, and at some cost. The 7th Armoured Brigade had thus been reduced to forty-eight tanks, and the 4th Armoured Brigade had only thirty-seven Matildas left of the hundred or so it had begun the battle with. Many of these were repairable but the withdrawal made retrieval difficult.

The pendulum swung to some extent on 16 June. Panzer Regiment 8 launched a pincer attack on Fort Capuzzo at 06:00, led by Generalleutnant Neumann-Sylkow in person. The attack was fought off by dug-in Matildas and 25-Pounder guns brought up during the night; by 10:00 approximately fifty Panzers had been put out of action, and Neumann-Sylkow broke off the attack at around midday. British attempts to renew the attack on the Halfaya Pass were stymied again, while the 7th Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Support Group fought a day-long running battle with 5 Leichte Division that ran south for the fifteen miles from Hafid Ridge to Sidi Omar, and then east toward the Cyrenaica–Egypt border. The Panzers skilfully orchestrated the superior range of their 50mm and short 75mm guns, using the latter to knock out the British 25-Pounders to clear the way for the Panzer IIIs, which then exploited the superior range and penetrating power of the former against the 2-Pounder armed Cruisers Tanks. By evening the 7th Armoured Brigade had been pushed well east of the border, and only darkness saved it from a strong German attack launched at 19:00. Rommel, meanwhile, had decided to concentrate his force to encircle and destroy the 7th Armoured Brigade, and at 16:00 ordered 15 Panzer to leave a screen at Fort Capuzzo and move south-east through the night to join 5 Leichte Division.

The redeployment of 15 Panzer Division threatened to leave the 4th Indian Division and 4th Armoured Brigade high and dry in the vicinity of Fort Capuzzo and Sollum. Fortunately for them Messervy learned of the German move during the night of 16–17 June and ordered a withdrawal on his own initiative, instructing the surviving Matildas to form a protective screen to cover the infantry. The Panzers resumed their advance at 04:30, and by 08:00 5 Leichte Division had reached Sidi Suleiman, twenty miles or so inside Egypt and due south of the Halfaya Pass. Two hours later they made contact with the armoured screen protecting the withdrawal of the 11th Indian Brigade and the 22nd Guards Brigade, sparking a battle that went on for the rest of the day. The British armour held the Panzers back until 16:00, by which time Messervy’s infantry had successfully evaded the developing trap.

Thus by 17 June Egypt lay virtually undefended once again, and Rommel was once again incapable of exploiting his advantage, having overtaxed his tenuous supply line. Operation BATTLEAXE cost the British 122 dead, 588 wounded and 259 missing, along with sixty-four Matildas and twenty-seven assorted Cruisers and Crusaders; many of the tanks were only damaged or broken down but had to be abandoned on the battlefield during the withdrawal. Overall, Afrikakorps tank losses were substantially lower for although a total of fifty Panzers were put out of action in the course of the battle, only twelve were totally destroyed. The remainder were returned to service by recovery and repair crews, underscoring the importance of retaining control of the battlefield. There was less disparity in the human cost with German units suffering a total of ninety-three killed, 350 wounded and 235 missing, while the Trento Division lost an additional 592 casualties. The failure of BATTLEAXE also prompted a major reshuffle among the British senior commanders. Dissatisfied with Wavell but unable to simply remove him for political reasons, Churchill arranged a sideways exchange with the Commander-in-Chief India, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, with effect from 1 July 1941. Beresford-Peirse was replaced as Commander Western Desert Force by Lieutenant-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, and Creagh was supplanted as commander of the 7th Armoured Division by newly promoted Major-General William Gott.

While the Ras El Medauar salient saw the most intense fighting of the siege, matters were far from quiescent elsewhere on the perimeter due to Morshead’s First World War policy of dominating no-man’s land. On a day-to-day basis this consisted of maintaining outposts forward of the main defence line, manned by two or three men equipped with a field telephone during daylight and carrying out aggressive patrols during the night, with larger raids to pre-empt enemy action or keep him off balance being mounted where necessary. On 13 May, for example a company from the 2/43rd Battalion, supported by eight Matilda tanks and seven Bren Carriers launched a dawn attack on an Italian strongpoint straddling the Bardia Road a mile east of the perimeter, and on 30 May a clash between a patrol of three Light and four Cruiser Tanks and a force of enemy tanks on the southern side of the perimeter sparked a roving skirmish that lasted most of the day. The garrison also disrupted the largely Italian construction of minefields and defences along the southern sector, not least by lifting and stealing newly laid enemy mines. On 1 July Lieutenant-Colonel Colonel Allan Spowers of the 2/24th Battalion led a party of fifty with three trucks that returned with 500 German anti-tank mines, and exactly a month later a patrol from the 2/13th Battalion occupied a partly built position during darkness and ambushed the Italian working party as it came forward to work, killing four, taking one prisoner and scattering the remainder. It was not all ambushes and hostility on the perimeter, and in another echo of the First World War a live-and-let-live system developed between friend and foe. Local truces to allow the dead and wounded from clashes to be evacuated were common, and on the sector straddling the El Adem road both sides observed a daily semi-official cease-fire for the two hours before midnight, the end of which was signalled by a burst of tracer fired vertically into the air.

Such niceties were not unknown on the Ras El Medauar sector, but relations between the Australians and the German units manning the salient had an edge not apparent in the formers’ relatively benign attitude to the Italians. Sniping was a popular pastime, and the commander of 2 Bataillon, Infanterie Regiment 115 referred to the remarkable marksmanship of his opponents, who he credited with killing a number of NCOs doing their rounds in front-line positions. Morshead launched another attempt to reduce the Ras El Medauar salient at 03:30 on 3 August, after intensive reconnaissance patrolling had mapped out the defences. The attack was again a two-pronged affair intended to envelop the feature carried out by the 2/28th Battalion to the north and the 2/43rd Battalion to the south. The latter failed to get beyond the anti-tank ditch protecting Post R6, and while the former managed to secure S7 the small party holding it were again cut off and overwhelmed by a German counter-attack the following night. The attack cost the attackers a total of 188 casualties from the 264 men involved, while the defenders from Infanterie Regiments 104 and 115 lost twenty-two killed and thirty-eight wounded. The 3 August attack proved to be the final Australian attempt to retake the Ras El Medauar.

In the event, the 9th Australian Division was not to see Tobruk relieved either. Sir Robert Menzies’ Government had despatched the 2nd AIF to the Middle East in 1940 as a complete Corps, and on the understanding that its constituent divisions and sub-formations would continue to serve in that capacity. To this end the commander of the 2nd AIF, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, reported directly to the Australian Minister of Defence and was tasked to ensure the integrity of his command. With the exception of the 18th Australian Brigade’s temporary posting to the UK in the wake of Dunkirk, the understanding was respected until circumstances conspired against it in 1941, with Blamey’s Corps HQ and the 6th Australian Division joining the Greek expedition while the 7th Australian Division fought the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria and the 9th Division went to Cyrenaica before being trapped at Tobruk. Blamey began agitating for the reassembly of his Corps after the Greek evacuation, and officially requested Wavell relieve the 9th Australian after the failure of BATTLEAXE, to join its sister divisions in Palestine. He was supported in this by Menzies and the Australian Government from at least 20 July 1941, when Menzies raised the matter with Churchill, which he did again on 7 August. The Australian Government’s interest was driven at least in part by public opinion, which gained the erroneous impression from news reports and German propaganda that Morshead’s men were fighting the Desert War single-handed, and there was also widespread and exaggerated concern over the privations they were suffering. The resulting furore forced Menzies to resign on 28 August. By that time Auchinleck, loath to lose seasoned units on the front line, had reluctantly agreed to the relief of part of the garrison and the operation had been going on for nine days.

The first lift of the relief was codenamed Operation TREACLE, allegedly because the RN personnel charged with carrying it out thought it would be a ‘sticky business’. The lift was carried out across the no-moon period beginning on 19 August in order to avoid moonlight air or surface attack. The RAF bombed Axis airfields after dark, loitering to prevent the airfields operating their runway lights, while the RN and the garrison’s own guns bombarded enemy artillery positions near Bardia. The latter was also intended to suppress ‘Bardia Bill’, the garrison’s nickname for a heavy gun or guns that had taken to dropping shells into Tobruk harbour. Most sources are vague on the details with the weapon or weapons being described as being of 8-inch calibre of possibly German or Italian provenance. The guns may have belonged to Artillerie Kommand 104, a siege artillery train despatched to Libya on Hitler’s orders to assist with the reduction of Tobruk. Commanded by Generalmajor Karl Böttcher, the unit was deployed around Belhammed, five miles south-east of the perimeter and was equipped with almost 200 assorted guns, including nine 210mm pieces. In Tobruk the harbour defences were strengthened by moving mobile 3.7-inch AA guns back from the perimeter, and two wrecked vessels were pressed into service as improvised jetties; according to one account they were connected to the shore by pontoon bridge. In addition the small vessels and A Lighters from the Inshore Squadron in the harbour on the nights of the lift were held back to assist with unloading. The lift was carried out by the minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona and the destroyers Encounter, Havoc, Jarvis, Jaguar, Kimberley, Kipling, Latima and Nizam.

For ten consecutive nights two destroyers, carrying 350 troops apiece and one of the cruisers, carrying an additional 400, entered Tobruk harbour, accompanied by a third destroyer carrying up to 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser was unloaded at anchor out in the harbour by the A Lighters and small vessels, and the supply destroyer moored alongside the permanent quay while the troop-carrying destroyers exchanged their human cargo over the improvised jetties. According to an eyewitness, the destroyers completed their exchange in ten minutes, and all four vessels were underway again with their new passengers within thirty minutes. This was not an arbitrary time period, for if the ships spent any longer in Tobruk harbour they would not be clear of Sollum and thus the clutches of the Luftwaffe by dawn. By 29 August General Stanislaw Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade had been delivered safely to Tobruk. Formed in 1940 from Polish regular troops who elected to continue the fight with the French, the Brigade had been posted to Syria and defected to the British in preference to serving the Vichy French regime after the fall of France in 1940. In exchange Brigadier George Wootten’s 18th Australian Brigade had been carried to Alexandria, along with the 16th Anti-Tank Company, the 2/4th Field Company, the 2/4th Field Ambulance, the 51st Field Regiment RA and the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment. The lift did not go totally unscathed. The destroyer Nizam was damaged by an air attack, and the cruiser HMS Phoebe, part of the treacle covering force, was so badly damaged by an Italian torpedo bomber on 27 August that she had to be sent to the US for repair.

Churchill and the British senior command appears to have hoped that returning the 18th Australian Brigade to its parent 7th Australian Division in Palestine would placate the Australian Government, but it soon became apparent that only the relief of the 9th Australian Division in its entirety would do. Menzies’ successor Arthur Fadden took up the gauntlet with Churchill within days of taking office, and reiterated the Australian position in no uncertain terms to the Dominions Office ten days later. Auchinleck appears to have been resigned to the fact by 10 September, given that he was discussing options with the War Office on that date. In the event, the 9th Australian Division left Tobruk in two lifts. Operation SUPERCHARGE ran from 19 to 27 September, and saw the 24th Australian Brigade and the 2/4th Field Park Company carried to Alexandria in exchange for the 16th Infantry Brigade and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade Forward HQ. The latter was augmented by four Light Tanks and forty-eight Matildas from the 4th Armoured Brigade, carried into Tobruk by A Lighter. C Squadron 4th RTR came in aboard Lighter A7, part of the convoy with A2 and A18 that ran into the unknown U-Boat on the night of 9−10 October. The tank crews were sleeping on the tarpaulins covering their vehicles, and when the gunfire began they unshipped their Matildas’ co-axial Besa machine-guns and went on deck to join the fray. A Trooper Weech was credited with scoring hits on the U-Boat when it appeared fifty yards off the Lighter’s port side, along with Sub-Lieutenant Peters wielding a Thompson gun on the bridge. According to one account C Squadron’s commander talked Peters out of trying to ram the U-Boat by pointing out the importance of delivering his tanks intact, and the two shared a celebratory whisky on the bridge after the U-Boat finally disappeared.

The third and final lift, codenamed CULTIVATE, ran for thirteen days beginning on 12 October, the extension being necessary because the lift had been expanded to include the remaining two-thirds of Morshead’s Division. Thus the 9th Australian Division HQ, Australian 4th Field Hospital, 20th and 24th Australian Brigades were taken off and replaced with the 14th and 23rd Brigades, the 62nd General Hospital and the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion, which was attached to General Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade. Moving the Australian infantry off the front line and getting the newcomers in place without weakening the defences or alerting the enemy was a complex and fraught business, and the timetable and organisation was a triumph of staff work in its own right. The Operation nonetheless proceeded as smoothly as its two predecessors until the final individual lift scheduled to move the 20th Australian Brigade HQ and the 2/13th Battalion on the night of 25−26 October. The convoy, consisting of the cruisers Abdiel and Latona and destroyers Encounter and Hero were spotted on the inbound leg near Bardia, possibly by a U-Boat, and underwent fifteen attacks by aircraft between 19:00 and 23:00. The Latona was hit in the engine room and the resulting fire grew out of control. The Hero closed in to take off the cruiser’s troops and crew and suffered structural damage from three bomb near-misses in the process. The Latona sank two hours later after a magazine explosion, possibly with the assistance of Encounter; thirty seven of Latona’s crew died in the attack. By the time all this was over it was too late to proceed safely to Tobruk and the convoy thus returned to Alexandria leaving the 2/13th Battalion stranded in Tobruk, a victim of its battalion number according to some of its men. The unit therefore returned to its positions within the perimeter where it remained until Tobruk was relieved by ground forces at the end of the following month; through this accident the 2/13th Battalion thus earned the distinction of being the only Australian unit to serve with the Tobruk garrison throughout the siege.

In all Operations TREACLE, SUPERCHARGE and CULTIVATE successfully shuttled in the region of 15,000 men out of Tobruk and carried a similar number into the port over a total of thirty-one nights. The shortest, SUPERCHARGE, took out 5,444 men and in excess of 500 wounded, and brought in 6,308 and 2,100 tons of supplies in just eight nights. Apart from the stranded 2/13th Battalion, the Australian role in the story of Tobruk now came to an end, although a large number of Morshead’s men would not be leaving under any circumstances. Between April and October 1941, the 9th Australian Division lost 744 men killed, along with 1,974 wounded and a further 476 missing. In the process they and their comrades established a legendary reputation based on standing firm in the face of stifling heat, sandstorms, thirst, hunger and everything Rommel could throw at them. It was now up to their replacements to carry out the final act in the siege.

The Battle of Somosierra: 30 November 1808

One of the most famous light cavalry charges of the era was made by the Polish Chevaux-Legers regiment at Somosierra, during the 1808 campaign in Spain. This charge demonstrates not only the abilities of light cavalry on the battlefield, but also the dramatic impact that a cavalry charge could have upon an enemy force and how a well-conducted charge could completely unhinge even the most formidable defensive position.

In 1807, Portugal broke with Napoleon’s Continental System, under which an economic embargo was placed on Britain, and a French army was deployed to force it back into line. The French war in Portugal required that Napoleon secure a long supply line across the territory of his ally Spain by placing garrisons and depots in strategic towns. The Spanish grew resentful of the large number of French troops marching across their nation with impunity.

With the situation growing increasingly volatile, Napoleon deposed the Bourbon monarch of Spain and placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) on the throne, thereby making Spain a vassal state of his sprawling empire. The Spanish had no great love for their former king, but swiftly grew to revile Joseph Bonaparte – and the revolutionary political and social system which he represented – even more. In May 1808, an insurrection broke out against Joseph’s rule and he was forced to flee Madrid. The revolt spread, and soon the Spanish Army itself took the field against its erstwhile ally.

Napoleon determined to squash this uprising before it could gather momentum. He formed the Army of Spain and personally led it across the Pyrenees to restore his brother to the throne. Napoleon scored a series of small victories over the Spanish, and in the autumn of 1808 he led a main strike force of approximately 40,000 men on Madrid. His army advanced on the Spanish capital from the north, where the main road wound up through a high mountain pass, at the top of which sat the village of Somosierra.

Spanish general Benito San Juan (d. 1809) attempted to buy time for the Spanish army to organize resistance and defend its capital while hoping for British military support to arrive. Napoleon wanted to make a quick advance, seize the capital and restore his brother to the throne there as a critical first step to returning order to the country. Besides, speed was vital to the French cause, since the longer Madrid remained in Spanish hands, the more the insurrection would be encouraged and grow in strength.

On 29 November 1808, the lead elements of Napoleon’s army approached the pass at Somosierra, only to find it occupied by Spanish artillery, arranged in three batteries of two guns each that blocked the road at intervals, plus 10 guns mounted in an improvised fort that straddled the road at the very top of the pass. Approximately 9000 Spanish infantry were also ensconced along the road, on the slopes of the mountains overlooking the pass and in the fort itself. Napoleon ordered General Francois Ruffin’s (1771-1811) infantry division, part of General Claude Victor’s (1764-1841) corps, to take the pass and clear the road.

Ruffin’s men came under a galling fire from the well-positioned Spanish and made little headway on the position. As daylight began to fade, Napoleon decided to call off the attack and resume it in the morning, when the rest of his army would have closed up and thus be prepared to exploit the anticipated breakthrough.

Early on the morning of 30 November 1808, General Ruffin’s men moved to the attack, yet once more they were driven to ground by cannon and musket fire from the well-placed Spanish defenders. The steepness of the slopes forbade any rapid movement to flank the position, and the road itself was narrow and winding, twisting back and forth to help ease the ascent, forcing an attacking army to linger under the Spanish guns. Napoleon rode forward to a point of observation, escorted by the third squadron of the Polish Chevaux-Legers (light cavalry) regiment.

Enter the Poles

The ancient state of Poland had been systematically dismembered in the late eighteenth century by the combined assaults of Austria, Prussia and Russia, culminating in the final blow of 1792 when Poland disappeared from the map. The kingdom was divided as spoils of war amongst the three great powers, and while Poles served in the armies of their occupiers, they yearned for freedom. When Napoleon defeated Austria, Prussia and Russia during his brilliant series of campaigns from 1805 to 1807, the Poles believed they had found their deliverer. Shortly after his conquest of Poland’s ancestral capital of Warsaw, they began to flock to Napoleon’s cause.

In 1808, Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw as a satellite state of the French Empire, amidst general rejoicing throughout the Polish lands. Although Napoleon stopped short of granting Poland full independence (mainly because of his delicate relations with Russia), he was sympathetic to their cause, and the Poles loved him for it. In order to show their support for the French Empire, a cavalry regiment was formed from the sons of the finest noble families in Poland and incorporated into the ranks of the Grande Armee. This was the Polish light cavalry regiment, and Spain was to be its first campaign.

As Napoleon was busy reconnoitring the Spanish positions near the pass, cannonballs crashed to earth near the emperor and his staff. The enemy fire angered rather than frightened him, since he could not believe Ruffin’s infantry was being held in check by Spanish troops, which he believed to be far inferior to his own. Growing increasingly frustrated, he ordered General Hippolyte Pire (1778-1850) to provide cavalry support for the attack. The French horsemen rode forward into the fight, but the combination of constrictive terrain and heavy enemy fire conspired to drive them backwards. At length an exasperated Pire rode back to Napoleon and told him it was impossible to force the pass.

An already simmering Napoleon flew into a rage at this news. He slapped his riding crop against his boot and exclaimed: ‘Impossible? I don’t know the meaning of the word.’ He then turned to Colonel Jan Kozietulski (1781-1821), commander of his Polish escort squadron. The emperor pointed towards the pass and ordered: ‘Take that position, at the gallop.’

In all likelihood Napoleon was only referring to the first Spanish gun emplacement, which had brought his staff under fire and was the only emplacement that he could see in the fog and smoke of battle. In reality, the Spanish position consisted of three successive gun emplacements spaced along the road, with supporting infantry units, crowned by a fort mounting a total of 10 guns at the summit.

The Charge Begins

Although the exact meaning of the order was unclear, Colonel Kozietulski made no attempt to clarify his instructions. Instead he saluted Napoleon then galloped to the front of his command and addressed the men. French officers overheard the exchange and thought the order madness – a single cavalry squadron to attack what an infantry division had failed to move? Yet in front of their incredulous eyes, the Poles arranged themselves into columns of four, in order to climb the narrow road they had to use, and prepared for battle. Impetuously, a number of French officers joined the Polish horsemen, as did another platoon of Polish horsemen who had just returned from a reconnaissance mission.

Officers shouted commands for the rest of the Polish regiment as well as other French cavalry units to deploy forward to back up the attack, but Kozietulski did not await this support. Instead, he placed himself at the head of his small command and shouted to his men: ‘Forward you sons of dogs, the Emperor is watching.’ A great cheer of ‘Vive l’Empereurl’ swept through the ranks, and the Polish horsemen drew their sabres, then dug spurs into the flanks of their horses as the squadron surged forward.

A hail of musketry and cannon fire greeted the cavalry’s approach. Horses and riders were sent tumbling, but onwards they came. As they wound their way up the hill, their horses laboured to increase their speed on the steep slope. Astonished Spanish gunners hurriedly shifted their pieces to place fire on this new threat as the cavalry swept past Ruffin’s incredulous infantrymen.

Grapeshot whizzed through the air from the three Spanish two-gun batteries on the road, and saddles were emptied, but the charge went forward. The Poles hacked to left and right with their sabres and in a rush overran the first battery, giving no quarter and expecting none in return.

Beyond the Call of Duty

Although they had already fulfilled the mission set out for them by Napoleon, the cavalry did not halt. Instead, they continued their climb up the pass. Musketry exploded into them from either side of the road from supporting Spanish infantry and more horsemen fell. The second battery now came into view and the Poles roared through it at full gallop, scattering gunners and infantry before them as they plunged deeper into the Spanish positions. As at last they reached the crest of the pass, the ground levelled and the Poles urged their frothing mounts into a thundering gallop that exploded into the final Spanish battery. The surprised gunners were cut down where they stood, but with their horses blown and over half their number down, the Polish squadron collapsed in a heap, still short of their final objective.

Their charge, however, had unhinged the Spanish defensive positions. With all eyes fixed on the Poles, General Ruffin’s infantry were at last able to move forward and they came on at the trot with bayonets fixed. Then, from the rear, the blare of bugles resounded as the remainder of the Polish regiment and a French cavalry regiment came roaring up the road. Together with the infantry they struck the final Spanish defensive position at the summit like a thunderbolt and blew through this last line of resistance to make themselves masters of the pass of Somosierra. As the remnants of the Spanish army clambered for safety across the hills and melted away as an effective fighting force, the battle was won and the road to Madrid lay open.

Slaughter in the Pass

Napoleon had observed the attack through his spyglass, and as he saw the French colours mount the summit of the pass, he snapped his telescope shut and gave the order for a general advance. He then spurred his horse forward, as aides and cavalry rushed to keep up with him. He galloped up the winding road, noting the twisted bodies of men and horses, some still struggling for life, which lay strewn about.

Among the first of the imperial headquarters staff to arrive at the pass was Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815). A dying Polish officer lying on the ground raised himself on an elbow and, pointing to the captured batteries, gasped out: ‘There are the guns, tell the Emperor.’

At length, Napoleon himself reached the pass. Amidst the debris of the third Spanish battery, the apex of the Poles’ wild charge, Napoleon found Lieutenant Andrzej Niegolewski (1787-1857), who had been wounded 11 times in the course of the charge, sitting on the ground, barely conscious, propped against one of the captured guns. The emperor called for a surgeon and then dismounted. He knelt beside Niegolewski, clasped his hand and thanked him for the courage he had shown that day. He then removed the Legion d’honneur from his own breast and pinned it to Niegolewski’s chest. The emperor stood and in a loud voice proclaimed that the Poles were the bravest cavalrymen in his army. As the survivors reformed and moved to the rear, they passed the serried bearskins of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Under orders from the emperor, the Guardsmen, moving with their customary machine-like precision, presented arms as the shattered remnants of the Polish regiment passed.

In his official report, Napoleon gave full credit for the victory to the Polish horsemen. In recognition of their courage, he later awarded the Legion d’honneur to 17 Poles who had taken part in the charge. Napoleon ordered the Poles, later reequipped with lances, to become part of his Old Guard. They would faithfully follow their emperor across Europe and onto numerous other battlefields.

Even after his defeat and exile in 1814, the Poles remained loyal to Napoleon and rallied to his cause once more during the Hundred Days of 1815. Yet none of the host of battles they would later engage in would ever remain as gloriously preserved in the national memory of Poland as the wild charge they made at Somosierra.

K-Verbände

The origin of the Seehund began with the salvage of the two British X class submarines HMS X6 and X7 which had been sunk during Operation Source, an attempt to sink the German battleship Tirpitz. Hauptamt Kriegschiffbau subsequently produced a design for a two-man submarine based on inspection of the British boats, designated Type XXVIIA and named Hecht (“Pike”).

The first contract for Seehund construction was placed on 30 July 1944. Enthusiasm for the submarine was so high that most of the contracts and hull numbers were allocated even before the design was completed. A total of 1,000 boats were ordered, Germaniawerft and Schichau-Werke to build 25 and 45 boats per month respectively. Other centers involved in Seehund production were CRD-Monfalcone on the Adriatic and Klockner-Humbolt-Deutz at Ulm.

However, Dönitz would not consent to the production of the Type XXVII U-boat being held up for Seehund construction, while shortages of raw material, labor and transport problems, and conflicting priorities in Germany’s economy all combined to reduce Seehund production. In the end Seehund production was undertaken by Germaniawerft at Kiel using a facility which was no longer needed for Type XXI or Type XXIII production.

A total of 285 Seehunds were constructed and allocated numbers in the range U-5501 to U-6442.

From the Allied point of view the Seehund’s small size made it almost impossible for Asdic to get a return from her hull, while her very quiet slow speed running made her almost immune to detection by hydrophone. As Admiral Sir Charles Little, Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth put it, “Fortunately for us these damn things arrived too late in the war to do any damage”.

Seehunds operated mainly around the German coast and in the English Channel, and could attack on the surface in turbulent weather, but had to be almost stationary for submerged attacks. From January to April 1945 Seehunds performed 142 sorties, during which they sank 8 ships for a total of 17,301 tons and damaged 3 for a total of 18,384 tons; 35 Seehunds were lost in action.

The last Seehund sorties took place on 28 April and 2 May 1945, when two special missions were performed to resupply the cutoff German base at Dunkirk with rations, the boats carrying special food containers (nicknamed “butter torpedoes”) instead of torpedoes, and on the return voyage using the containers to carry mail from the Dunkirk garrison.

These small, special-purpose naval units, known as the K-Verbände, were established under Konteradmiral (later Vizeadmiral) Helmut Heye in April 1944, and were the nearest thing the German Navy had to a commando/SBS type force. Mention of these units generally brings to mind the one-man torpedo or midget submarine units, and indeed these formed a major part of the K-V, but there were other equally fascinating aspects to this force.

As far as the mini-subs are concerned, several types were planned and built, but in the event, none achieved any significant combat success. The Neger was a very simple device consisting of an electrically powered, manned torpedo, in which the operator sat with a flimsy plexiglass dome for protection against the sea. Below this propulsion unit was slung a live G7e torpedo. When placed into the water, the unit became invisible but for the small plexiglass dome. The unit had no capacity to submerge fully. This was a very basic, and very dangerous, piece of equipment, which was liable to become swamped, difficult to control in anything more than a moderate swell, and easily spotted by vigilant lookouts on enemy vessels. They were, however, used operationally, the first combat use being at Anzio against the Allied invasion fleet. Losses, however, were high, with only 13 returning from a total of 23 launched, and the results did not really justify their use, as not a single Allied ship was damaged.

An improved version, the Marder, was given a limited dive capability and used against the Allied invasion fleet at Normandy on 5 July 1944. A total of 26 Marder were launched, of which 15 were destroyed, for a loss rate of over 50 per cent. This time, however, two British minesweepers were sunk. Three nights later, a further attack by 21 Marder succeeded in sinking a further minesweeper and permanently disabling a light cruiser. Subsequent attacks sunk the British destroyer Quorn, as well as a small number of landing craft, transports and other auxiliary vessels. Although some successes had been achieved, they were at the cost of considerable losses. Many considered their use almost suicidal, and problems in obtaining enough volunteers began to be experienced. One Neger operator, however, Schreibermaat Walter Gerhold, was decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and survived the war.

More advanced designs such as the Biber, a miniature submarine carrying two external torpedoes, had even less success. In one operation in December 1944, 18 Biber set off from their base in Holland. One small ship of just less than 5,000 tons was sunk, but every Biber was lost. The Biber had a disastrous record of losses. One senior naval officer caustically commented that no opinion on their successes could be calculated, as none had ever returned from an operation. From one recovered vessel, it was discovered that petrol fumes from its engine had suffocated the crewman. Many others of those who never returned may have suffered a similar fate. The Seehunde, was a slightly more technically advanced minisubmarine, and slightly less dangerous to its operator. One even survived an attack by a British torpedo boat. Nevertheless, rewards for its efforts were scant, with only four enemy ships being sunk in well over 30 sorties by the Seehunde type of mini-submarine.

Some idea of the ineffectiveness of these weapons can be gleaned from the fact that in March 1945, from a total of 56 sorties by Biber and the newer Molch types, over 40 vessels were lost for the sinking of just 250 tons of enemy shipping.

In addition to the mini-submarines, the K-V also used Linsen, small, fast motor torpedo boats which were packed full of high explosive and propelled at top speed towards their target. Several Linsen and one control boat would be used. The Linsen operator would dive overboard at the last possible moment, leaving the boat to be steered to its target by radio from the control boat, the explosives packed into its hull detonating when it hit its target. The Linsen crewmen would then be picked up by the control boat. These motor boats were to be used against ships and targets such as bridges, etc. These boats were used operationally but did not achieve many successes, a large number of the boats being lost to mechanical problems or to heavy seas long before the target areas were reached. Like the Neger operators, personnel using these boats stood a very high chance of being killed or seriously wounded.

Despite the very low success rate achieved by the Kleinkampfmittelverbände, there can be no doubting the bravery of the K-men themselves, working in tiny, cramped, primitive vessels, in freezing cold, with choking fumes and with very little prospect of survival. A special insignia, consisting of a sawfish superimposed over a knotted rope, was introduced as a decoration for the men of the Kleinkampfmittelverbände. The extreme rarity of original examples is testimony to how difficult it was 50 to earn, and perhaps also of how few survived.

Constantinople and Her Navy

Perhaps no defensive structure summarizes the truth of siege warfare in the ancient and medieval world as clearly as the walls of Constantinople. The city lived under siege for almost all its life; its defences reflected the deepest character and history of the place, its mixture of confidence and fatalism, divine inspiration and practical skill, longevity and conservatism. Like the city itself, the walls were always there, and for anyone in the eastern Mediterranean, it was assumed they always would be. The structure of the defences was mature in the fifth century and changed little thereafter; the building techniques were conservative, harking back to practices of the Greeks and Romans. They had no particular reason to evolve because siege warfare itself remained static. The basic techniques and equipment – blockade, mining and escalade, the use of battering rams, catapults, towers, tunnels and ladders – these were largely unchanging for longer than anyone could recall. The advantage always lay with the defender; in the case of Constantinople its coastal position increased that weighting. None of the armies camped before the land walls had ever succeeded in effecting an entry through the multiple defensive layers, while the city always took prudent measures as a matter of state policy to keep its cisterns brimming and its granaries full. The Avars came with an impressive array of stone-throwing machinery but their looping trajectory made them far too puny to breach the walls. The Arabs froze to death in the cold. The Bulgar Khan Krum tried magic – he performed human sacrifices and sprinkled his troops with seawater. Even its enemies came to believe that Constantinople was under divine protection. Only the Byzantines themselves were ever successful in taking their own city from the land, and always by treachery: the messy final centuries of civil war produced a handful of instances where gates were flung open at night, usually with inside help.

There were just two places where the land wall could be considered potentially weak. In the central section the ground sloped down a long valley to the Lycus River and then up the other side. As the wall followed the downward slope, its towers no longer commanded the high ground and were effectively below the level occupied by a besieging army on the hill beyond. Furthermore the river itself, which was ducted into the city through a culvert, made it impossible to dig a deep moat at this point. Nearly all besieging armies had identified this area as vulnerable, and though none had succeeded, it provided attackers with a vestige of hope. A second anomaly in the defences existed at the northern end. The regular procession of the triple wall was suddenly interrupted as it approached the Golden Horn. The line took an abrupt right-angle turn outwards to include an extra bulge of land; for 400 yards, until it reached the water, the wall became a patchwork structure of different-shaped bastions and sectors, which, though stoutly built on a rocky outcrop, was largely only one line deep and for much of its length unmoated. This was a later addition undertaken to include the sacred shrine of the Virgin at Blachernae. Originally the church had been outside the walls. With a typical Byzantine logic it had been held initially that the protection of the Virgin was sufficient to safeguard the church. After the Avars nearly burned it in 626 – the shrine was saved by the Virgin herself – the line of the wall was altered to include the church, and the palace of Blachernae was also built in this small bight of land. Both these perceived weak spots had been keenly appraised by Mehmet when he reconnoitred in the summer of 1452. The right-angle turn where the two walls joined was to receive particular attention.

As they patched up their walls under Giustiniani’s direction and paraded the sacred icons on the ramparts, the people of the city could be pardoned for expressing confidence in their protective powers. Immutable, forbidding and indestructible, they had proved time and again that a small force could keep a huge army at bay until its willpower collapsed under the logistical burden of siege, or dysentery or the disaffection of the men. If the walls were decayed in places, they were still basically sound. Brocquière found even the vulnerable right angle to be protected by ‘a good and high wall’ when he came in the 1430s. The defenders however were unaware that they were preparing for conflict on the cusp of a technological revolution that would profoundly change the rules of siege warfare.

‘Navigantium fortitudo mihi soli inest’, is a remark made by Nicephorus II (as reported by Liutprand). Nicephorus could make this boast in truth, since the emperors of High Byzantium succeeded gradually in building up a fleet of such power as to check the depredations of Arab pirates almost completely in the eastern Mediterranean. During the latter part of the eleventh century, however, the Venetians and the Genoans gradually caught up with the Byzantine marine power and, despite the strenuous efforts of the Comnenian emperors to increase their naval forces, these represented the stronger force by the death of Manuel I, while the Byzantine naval presence after the death of Michael VIII was derisory and in time it vanished altogether, so that John VIII had to make his way to the Council of Ferrara-Florence by hired craft. The fleet of the naval era was divided into two main sections: the Imperial fleet and the fleet of the themes. The former was organized into two divisions, one for the personal use of the Emperor and Empress, and for the defence of the capital, the other for use on regular military expeditions and for policing the seas against pirates.

The fleet of the themes was kept up at the charge of various maritime themes, particularly those of the Greek islands (Aegea, Samos, Cephalonia), Greece and the Cibirriote theme in Asia Minor. The regular servicemen from these themes were paid in feudal land, as were the land forces in the army of the themes. An alteration was however made in the reign of Manuel I, whereby the monies expended by the themes on the upkeep of the fleet were diverted straight into the Imperial treasury, and the Emperor assumed the direct responsibility for the maintenance of the whole naval service. This was probably intended as an assurance for the better order of the ships, but, as might have been foreseen, it proved a disaster, as the money was repeatedly spent on wasteful civil-service projects, while the navy was starved of even necessary funds.

The fleet often employed foreign mercenaries, and Russian or Varangians who entered the Imperial service often began their time in the navy, this being a form of service which would have suited the temper of the Norse seamen. From what is recorded of Haraldr Siguroarson we may deduce that his first period of Varangian service will have been spent thus. The strategos of each maritime theme commanded his section of the thematic fleet, while the supreme commander was the commander of the Imperial fleet, who was titled in the High Byzantine era the Droungarios, and was of the rank of patrician. This official appears to have been known in the reign of Alexius I as the Grand Duke (Megas Doux), and his deputy as the Thalassokrator, while later still Pseudo-Codinus refers to an Admiral of the (by then insignificant) Fleet. These supreme commanders had other officers under them, and officers of the Hetairia were set to command the foreign naval mercenaries. In the tenth century 77 ships constituted the thematic fleet against 100 in the Imperial fleet, while the force manning the latter was 23,000-24,000 strong, against 17,500 in the former.

The capital ships of the Byzantine fleet were the dromoi, which differed considerably in size, but were built on the same pattern, with a wooden castle (xylokastron) on the deck, and carrying various military engines. In the bows was a figurehead of gilt bronze, usually the shape of the head of a wild beast, the lion being a popular motif, in which were housed the siphon and pumping mechanism to spray out the Greek Fire, the terrible Byzantine secret weapon which burned alike on land and water. This substance was also carried in fragile bowls or spheres of glass, which could be hurled on to the enemy ships and which then set everything that the stuff touched ablaze. The rowers were arranged in two banks, with a normal complement of 25 to each row; there were also on average some 50 soldiers on each dromos. It is calculated that there will have been around 220 persons to the full complement on a capital ship, or even more, since the account of the Cretan expedition of 902 refers to 230 oarsmen and 70 others, or in all a crew of 300 on each dromos. The Chelandia were smaller vessels, one class of which were named Pamphyloi’, they were often manned by foreign mercenaries, and their complement would be 130-160 men. Finally there were the light supporting vessels, the so-called ousiai, on which Varangians were frequently employed; these were swift and easily manoeuvred ships, which were especially useful for coastguard duty or for chasing and overtaking pirate vessels. The Taktnkca speaks of 50-60 soldiers forming the complement of each of these ships, and their total crew will there- fore have been c. 110 strong. On formal expeditions two ousiai generally accompanied each major vessel.

The commander of each dromos bore the title of Kentarchos, while over each division of 3-5 capital ships there was placed a homes? though the titles komes and droungarios are later used without discrimination of the captains of single ships. The fleet had its banner, the sign being a cross surrounded by four fire-siphons.

It appears that admission to the Imperial fleet, and especially appointment to one of the ships based on the capital, or in the personal service of the Emperor and his court, was very much sought after by personnel in the other divisions of the Byzantine navy. As the pay was higher, and the serving personnel could more easily obtain high court distinctions in these ships, this is understandable, and it is very likely that it was necessary to purchase such appointments in the same way as ones in the land Hetairia. It is, however, even more difficult to calculate the naval rates of pay than those of the land forces, though some inkling may be derived from the above mentioned narratives of the two naval expeditions to Crete. The pay of the Russians and Varangians in the sea-forces will certainly have been far smaller than that of those in the Hetairia. If it is true, however, that the commanders of the coastal protection vessels were entitled to keep a considerable proportion of the goods confiscated from pirate vessels, then this could obviously make a very sizeable difference to their emoluments. It is noted in Haraldar saga Siguroarsonar that he was to pay the Emperor 100 marks for every pirate vessel that he was able to capture, but could keep the rest for himself and his men. This could obviously be a very valuable source of income.