SIEGE OF SANCERRE (1572–1573)

Siege de Sancerre, early 17th century print by Claude Chastillon.

Portrait du maréchal de La Châtre

Huguenot Gendarmes 1567.

In a blistering moment of France’s Wars of Religion, the hilltop town of Sancerre would suffer an agonizing siege. It was a Huguenot stronghold, walled in and built around a fortress. Overlooking the Loire, the town was located about a hundred miles west of Dijon. The siege came at the end of a chain of murders involving the slaughter of more than three thousand Huguenots in different parts of France. But the killing orgy had started in Paris on August 23–24, 1572, the Eve of St. Bartholomew’s Day, with the massacre of about two thousand people.

That autumn Sancerre took in five hundred Huguenot refugees—men, women, and children. The town’s remaining Catholics fell to a small minority. In late October, a prominent nobleman from the region, Monsieur de Fontaines, turned up suddenly, hoping to enter and seize control. Refusing to promise the Huguenots the right of worship, with the claim that he had no such charge from the king, he was refused entry to the town, whereupon he replied that he knew what he would have to do. It was war. Less than two weeks later, a tempestuous attack on the citadel was repelled.

Now, fearing a siege, the Sancerrois began to examine their stocks of food and other resources. I draw the following narrative from one of the most remarkable eyewitness chronicles in the history of Europe: Jean de Léry’s Histoire memorable de la Ville de Sancerre, published in the Protestant seaport of La Rochelle less than two years after the siege.

Born in Burgundy, at La Margelle, Jean de Léry (1534–1613) became a Protestant at the age of eighteen and spent the better part of two years (1556–1558) as a missionary in Brazil, about which he published a famous account, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite l’Amerique. Later, after a second stint of study in Geneva, he returned to France to preach the word of God as a Calvinist minister. Fearing for his life in the wake of the August massacres of 1572, he fled to Sancerre in September. And here Léry would become one of the foremost leaders in the Huguenot campaign of resistance.

Since the kings of France were prime movers of the Italian Wars (1494–1559), Italy became a school of warfare for thousands of French noblemen, with the result that France’s religious wars would be captained by seasoned officers on both sides of the confessional divide. Sancerre had more than enough of these in November 1572, in addition to 300 professional soldiers and another 350 men who were being trained in the use of arms. There were also 150 smalltime wine producers who would serve as guardsmen along the town’s defensive walls and gates. At the peak of the fighting, the night watch would even include a number of bold-spirited women armed with halberds, half pikes, and iron bars. They concealed their sex by wearing hats or helmets to hide their long hair.

From November onward, the countryside around Sancerre rang out with frequent and bloody skirmishes, provoked mostly by the Huguenot defenders, who made daring sorties into the surrounding country to fight the enemy, seize supplies, or gather provisions for the coming siege. By December they were stealing grain and livestock in night raids. On the night of January 1–2, for example, they broke into a neighboring village and returned to Sancerre with “the priest of the place as their prisoner and four carts loaded with wheat and wine, plus eight bullocks and cows for feeding the town.” Raids of this sort went on right through the winter, but became bloodier, less frequent, and more dangerous as the gathering royal army swelled and tightened its ring around Sancerre. Meanwhile, the town itself would know internal wrangling as the mass of refugees provoked disagreements, or blaspheming soldiers offended Huguenot ears, and the pride of competing officers clashed.

By the end of January, the enemy forces massed around the base of the Sancerre “mountain” numbered about sixty-five hundred foot soldiers and more than five hundred horsemen, not counting volunteer gentlemen and others from the surrounding area. By January 11, the people of Sancerre had resolved, in a general assembly, “that the poor, a number of women and children, and all those who could not serve, apart from eating, should be put outside the town.” But the men charged with this repugnant task failed to carry it out, “partly because of giving way to the outcry raised. And so they put no one outside the town gates.” This, Léry observes, was a grave error, because at the time the unwanted could easily have departed and gone wherever they chose, “which would have prevented the great famine … and which [later on] caused so much suffering.”

The Sancerrois did not even bother to answer the regional governor’s call to surrender, made on January 13. Claude de La Châtre informed them that his troops were there to subjugate Sancerre, in accord with the king’s orders, so he and his men now began to dig in seriously, both by building a network of trenches and fortifying the houses in the village of Fontenay, at the foot of towering Sancerre. They hauled in artillery early in February and soon began a daily bombing of the Huguenot fortress. In four days, from February 21 to 24, the town took more than thirty-five hundred cannon shots. Léry speaks of “a tempest” of bombs, debris, and house and wall fragments “flying through the air thicker than flies.” Yet very few people were killed—it was God’s doing, he opines—and the attackers were dumbfounded.

That winter, Léry points out, the weather was dreadfully cold, with a great deal of ice and snow, and for this the Huguenots praised God, because it was especially hard on the encamped enemy soldiers. La Châtre, nonetheless, was already having Sancerre undermined, with an eye to planting explosives and blasting breaches in the town walls.

Léry’s comments on the weather were revelatory. In the Europe of that day, there was an all but universal feeling in towns under attack that time destroyed besieging armies by working through hunger, painful discomfort, disease, and desertion. Living in squalid conditions, mercenaries were likely to succumb to malnutrition, wounds, and sickness; and desertion was a tempting solution, particularly when men stole off in pairs or in small groups. One thing was almost certain: Though a besieging army might begin with money in its pockets, as the weeks passed, that money ran out and desertion became more and more enticing. So, when not negotiating an immediate surrender, the best hope for a besieged town was to hold out for as long as possible until, in despair, the ragged remainders of the besieging army pulled away. To hold out, however, the besieged had to have ample stores of food.

Warned by a prisoner, the Sancerrois were ready to receive and repel a major assault on March 19, preceded by mine explosions and a furious bombardment. The assault was repelled, and Léry, in his description, touches fleetingly on a girl who had been working near him, carrying loads of earth for the defenders, when she was hit by a cannon shot and disemboweled before his eyes, “her intestines and liver bursting through her ribs.” Dead on the spot. His own survival, he felt, was God’s work. The defenders lost seventeen soldiers and the girl, but enemy casualties amounted to 260 dead and 200 wounded.

The bombardment of Sancerre continued, but always, Léry observes, with little loss of life in the town. When the royalists erected two towering, wheeled structures near the walls, with arquebusiers on the top, aiming volleys at the defenders on the walls, groups of Huguenot soldiers made stealthy nighttime attacks and set fire to them. Throughout their many armed engagements, seeking to maintain unity and to keep up their spirits, the besieged Huguenots sang hymns, flagging their evangelical bent. Yet all the while a silent enemy was slowly taking shape, and it was to be more fatal than the daily cannonades of the royalists. It was taking form around their dwindling food supplies. There was wine galore, but beef, pork, cheese, and—most important—flour were running out, with the remaining stocks turning, in value, to gold.

The Sancerrois sent messengers to Protestant communities in Languedoc to plead for military help, but there, too, the Huguenots were at war. Step-by-step, in the teeth of shrill complaint, Sancerre’s town council was forced to commandeer all wheat still in private hands and to put it into central storage for communal bread.

In March and April, they slaughtered and cooked their donkeys and mules, used for transport up the town’s steep rise of more than 360 meters, until all had been eaten up by the end of April. Later, as the siege continued, they would regret having consumed their pack animals with such greedy abandon. In May, they began to kill their horses, the council ruling that these had to be slaughtered and sold by butchers. Prices were fixed at sums that were lower than would have been allowed for by the tightening pincers of supply and demand. But in July and August, as Sancerre went to the wall, prices for the remaining horse meat soared, despite strict policing; and every part of the horse was sold, including head and guts. Opinion held, Léry observes, that horse was better than donkey or mule, and better boiled than roasted. He was coldly reporting, but also, possibly, adding a sliver of gallows humor.

Then came the turn of the cats, “and soon all were eaten, the entire lot in fifteen days.” It followed that dogs “were not spared … and were eaten as routinely as sheep in other times.” These too were sold, and Léry lists prices. Cooked with herbs and spices, people ate the entire animal. “The thighs of roasted hunting dogs were found to be especially tender and were eaten like saddle of hare.” Many people “took to hunting rats, moles, and mice,” but poor children in particular favored mice, “which they cooked on coal, mostly without skinning or gutting them, and—more than eating—they wolfed them down with immense greed. Every tail, foot, or skin of a rat was nourishment for a multitude of suffering poor people.”

June 2 brought a decision to expel some of the poor from the town, although their numbers had already been reduced by starvation and disease. That very evening “about seventy of them departed of their own accord.” And the essential ration was now lowered to one half pound of daily bread per person, irrespective of rank or social condition, soldiers included. Eight days later this ration was reduced to a quarter pound, then to one pound per week, until flour supplies ran out at the end of June.

But the imagination of the starving Sancerrois found more to eat than any of them could ever have dreamed of, and it was in the leather and hides that came from “bullocks, cows, sheep, and other animals.” Once these were washed, scoured, and scraped, they could be gently boiled or even “roasted on a grill like tripe.” By adding a bit of fat to the skins, some people made “a fricassee and potted pâté, while others put them into vinaigrette.” Léry goes into the fine details of how to prepare skins before cooking them, noting, for example, that calfskin is unusually “tender and delicate.” All the obvious kinds “went up for sale like tripe in the market stalls,” and they were very expensive.

In due course, the besieged were eating “not only white parchment, but also letters, title deeds, printed books, and manuscripts.” They would boil these until they were glutinous and ready to be “fricasseed like tripe.” Yet the search for foods did not terminate here. In addition to removing and eating the skins of drums, the starving also ate the horny part of the hooves of horses and other animals, such as oxen. Harnesses and all other leather objects were consumed, as well as old bones picked up in the streets and anything “having some humidity or taste,” such as weeds and shrubbery. People mounted guard in their gardens at night.

And still the raging hunger went on, pushing frontiers. The besieged ate straw and candle fat; and they ground nutshells into powder to make a kind of bread with it. They even crushed and powdered slate, making it into a paste by mixing in water, salt, and vinegar. The excrement of the eaters of grass and weeds was like horse dung. And “I can affirm,” Léry asserts, all but beggaring belief and alluding to Jeremiah’s lamentations, “that human excrement was collected to be eaten” by those who once ate delicate meats. Some ate horse dung “with great avidity,” and others went through the streets, looking for “every kind of ordure,” whose “stink alone was enough to poison those who handled it, let alone the ones who ate it.”

The final step was cannibalism, which must already have been taken, sooner than Léry himself could know. He turns to the subject by first citing Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, with their references to the starving who ate their children in sieges, and then says that the people of Sancerre “saw this prodigious … crime committed within their walls. For on July 21st, it was discovered and confirmed that a grape-grower named Simon Potard, Eugene his wife, and an old woman who lived with them, named Philippes de la Feuille, otherwise known as l’Emerie, had eaten the head, brains, liver, and innards of their daughter aged about three, who had died of hunger.” Léry saw the remains of the body, including “the cooked tongue, finger” and other parts that they were about to eat, when caught by surprise. And he cannot refrain from identifying all the little body parts that were in a pot, “mixed with vinegar, salt, and spices, and about to be put on the fire and cooked.” Although he had seen “savages” in Brazil “eat their prisoners of war,” this had been not nearly so shocking to him.

Arrested, the couple and the old woman confessed at once, but they swore that they had not killed the child. Potard claimed that l’Emerie had talked him into the deed. He had then opened the linen sack containing the body of the little girl, dismembered the corpse, and put the parts into a cooking pot. His wife insisted that she had come on the two of them as they were doing the cooking. Yet on the very day of their arrest, the three had received a ration of herbal soup and some wine, which the authorities had regarded as enough to get them through the day.

Looking into the life of the Potards, the town council found that they had a reputation for being “drunkards, gluttons, and cruel to their other children,” and that they had lived together before they actually married. It was found, indeed, that they had been expelled from the Reformed Church, and that he, Simon, had killed a man. The council now took swift action. He was condemned to be burned alive, his wife to be strangled, and l’Emerie’s body was dug out of its grave and burned. She had died on the day after their arrest.

Lest any of his readers should think the sentence too harsh, Léry remarks, they “should consider the state to which Sancerre had been reduced, and the consequences of failing to impose a severe penalty on those who had eaten of the flesh of that child,” even if she was already dead. “For it was to be feared—we had already seen the signs—that with the famine getting ever worse, the soldiers and the people would have given themselves not only to eating the bodies of those who had died a natural death, and those who had been killed in war or in other ways, but also to killing one another for food.” People who have not experienced famine, he adds, cannot understand what it can call forth, and he reports a curious exchange. A starving man in Sancerre had recently asked him whether he, the unnamed man, would be doing evil and offending God if he ate the “buttocks” (fesse) of someone who had just been killed, especially as the part seemed to him “so very pleasing” (si belle). The question struck Léry as “odious” and he instantly replied that doing so would make the eater worse than a beast.

In the meantime, there had been another purge of poor folk. Many of them had been ejected from the town in June. As expected, however, the besiegers blocked their passage at the siege trenches, killed some, wounded others, no doubt mutilating the faces of a few, and then, using staves, battered the rest back to the walls. Unable to reenter Sancerre, the outcasts lived for a while by scrounging about for grape buds, weeds, snails, and red slugs. In the end, “most of them perished between the trenches and the moat.” But the inner spaces of the town itself offered no guarantees. There, too, people died at home and in the streets, children more often, and those “under twelve nearly all died,” their bones sometimes “piercing the flesh.”

Murmuring was to be heard by late June. The rabidly hungry, their voices rising, wanted Sancerre to surrender. The town, however, was in the clasp of religious hard-liners, of the better-off, and of soldiers. Hence the complainers were ordered to shut up or get out of town. Otherwise, came the warning, they would be thrown from the town’s soaring walls. Sancerre was an island in a vast countryside of hostile Catholics. Yet the starving kept stealing away, passing over to the enemy even when threatened with death, knowing, in any case, that they faced a sure death in that walled-in fortress. As late as July 30, seventy-five soldiers paraded through the streets in testimony of their will to hold out for “the preservation of the [true] Church.” But they were a minority, for at that point Sancerre still had at least another 325 soldiers. Then, on August 10, affected by rumors about Huguenot losses in other parts of France, the despairing garrison captains announced that the army was ready to surrender, that they preferred to die by the sword rather than hunger. A debate in council ignited passions, differences broke out, tempers flared, and men drew out swords and daggers. But by the next day common sense had prevailed.

Informal negotiations with the enemy, already broached, revealed that the commander of the siege, La Châtre, was ready to spare all their lives. Talks went on for over a week. The countryside was a waste for thirty miles in all directions around Sancerre. Surrender terms were finally fixed and approved on the nineteenth.

In a changed climate and in accord with the king’s new mandate, the Sancerrois could go on worshipping as Huguenots. The honor and chastity of their women would be respected. They retained full rights over all their goods and landed properties. There would be no sequestrations. However, they had to face a fine of 40,000 livres, intended as pay for the besieging army. It was a sum that would undo the well-off families; hence residents were given the bitter right to sell, alienate, or remove any or all of their goods.

On the twentieth of August, bread and meat began to arrive from the outside. And now, in the moving about of people, Léry was the first man to be let out of Sancerre. Although he had negotiated the surrender agreement for the besieged, he was provided with a special pass and accompanied by several soldiers, because La Châtre feared that he might be assaulted, owing to his office as pastor. The enemy also maintained that he was the one who had taught the Sancerrois how to survive on leather and skins. Léry was followed out of Sancerre by the Huguenot soldiers, some of whom were accompanied by wives and children.

La Châtre seems to have offered his surrender terms in good faith. But he was rushing off to a royal assignment in Poland, and in the furies of the time, it was going to be next to impossible for the king’s ministers to guarantee the terms. Hatreds were intense, and Sancerre presented a chance for plunder.

Priests and monks entered the town at the end of August. Catholics began to dismantle walls and defensive points. They removed the town clock, the bells, “and all the other signs” of a busy municipality, in effect reducing Sancerre to the level of a mere village. Many houses, especially the empty ones, were robbed and stripped of their furniture. In due course, residents who sought to leave Sancerre were compelled to pay ransoms. And those who remained, although seeing some of their possessions confiscated, had to pay special taxes, leaving them, in the end, all but destitute. In time their church was suppressed. The destiny of Calvinism in France would be hammered out in Paris, La Rochelle, Rouen, and other cities.

Once it was published, Léry’s memoir transformed the siege of Sancerre into an event of legendary resistance, particularly among Huguenots. But the strange foods of the famine intrigued all who heard about them. Had the eating of “powdered slate” actually taken place? Some of the foods seemed to lie beyond the utmost limits of the imaginary. Paris was to learn a thing or two from Léry’s recipes.

Since the Huguenot pastor soon rushed his memoir into print, it is likely to carry moments of exaggeration and even of fiction, particularly with regard to the scale of the cannonades directed against Sancerre. His general outlines of the siege, however, and of the wild workings of hunger, are perfectly in accord with the consequences of sieges in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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AIREY NEAVE

Airey Neave in the fake German uniform he used to escape Colditz.

Colditz the TV Series

On 24 May 1940, Lt Airey Neave and his men found themselves fighting a rearguard battle against overwhelming German Forces of the 10th Panzer Division, in the town of Calais. Neave was part of the 30th Infantry Brigade, whose job was to try and slow down the German advance on Dunkirk, so that the British and allied soldiers trapped there could be got away. Running from house to house as the German tanks pounded the buildings, Airey Neave realised that this was a hopeless cause, but continued to try and delay the German advance. As he ran across the road, tracer bullets from one of the German tanks followed him, and one struck his thigh sending him crashing to the ground.

Dragging himself into the relative shelter of a nearby house, he was picked up by other British soldiers who took him to a small French hospital for treatment. All that day and the following night, he and many other wounded men lay in the cellar of the hospital listening to the almost continuous bombardment of the town. Then, as he heard that the Germans were closing in around the town, despite his painful wound, Airey Neave decided that he was going to make a break for it and regardless of protestations from the hospital staff tried to make his way out of the hospital. It was then, and only then, that he realised how seriously wounded he was and that there was no way for him to escape without help.

The offer of help came from a French soldier by the name of Pierre d’Harcourt, a medical orderly who Neave discovered later was a member of a tank regiment that had been decimated by the German Panzers. He had taken on the role of a medical orderly in order to effect an escape when he could. His idea was to substitute Airey Neave with a dead soldier who had died in the hospital. The driver of the ambulance that took the bodies away for burial was a loyal Frenchman and was more than willing to help.

Unfortunately, they discovered that the Germans examined very carefully every body that was being removed. Before any of Pierre d’Harcourt’s ideas could be put into action, word came through that all wounded prisoners were to be transferred to another hospital at Lille. Pierre d’Harcourt decided it was time he left and headed for Paris. Some time later, when Airey Neave returned to England and worked for MI9, he heard that Pierre d’Harcourt was helping run an escape line through France and had aided a number of allied airmen and soldiers to escape.

The wounded from the hospital were placed in German trucks and the convoy headed for Lille. On reaching Baillieul, the truck carrying Airey Neave broke down. The walking wounded were allowed to walk around the small town unaccompanied and at almost every house the door opened and the men were invited in and offered food and wine. Their generosity was overwhelming and, despite the risks, some even offered to hide them and then help them escape.

Airey Neave accepted all the townspeople had to offer regarding the food and wine, but not their offer to help him escape. He knew that his physical condition at the time would be a serious stumbling block in any attempt to escape and it would probably cost those who helped him their lives if he were to be caught.

With the truck repaired, the journey continued on to the hospital at Lille. Within days of being there a young French nurse offered to help Airey Neave and Corporal Dowling of the Durham Light Infantry, to escape. Plans were made to obtain civilian clothes and some French money, but with no travel documents or identity papers it was going to be difficult. Somehow the Germans seemed to get wind of an escape attempt and told all the wounded prisoners, in no uncertain manner, that anyone escaping would cause severe reprisals to be carried out on those left behind. It was the threat of the latter that caused Neave and Dowling to shelve their plans for the time being.

The following week all the walking wounded were collected and the long trek to Germany started. After travelling through Belgium the prisoners were placed on a coal barge and taken up the Schelde and then into the river Waal. They passed under the bridge at Nijmegen in Holland, a bridge that was to pass into history some four years later when the 1st Airborne Division were involved in the Battle of Arnhem.

As the barge entered Germany, Airey Neave felt the first pangs of despair, realising that any chance of escape was slowly disappearing with every mile covered by the barge. Two days later they reached the prisoner of war camp at Spangenburg near Kassel – Oflag IXa. Settling down to recover from his wounds, Airey Neave started to look around at his surroundings with the intention of leaving at the first opportunity. A number of escapes had already been attempted, but none had been successful. In fact some of the escapees had been captured and severely beaten by local civilians.

The morale among the junior officers was extremely low, mainly because of the negative attitude of some of the senior British officers. They considered that escape attempts were hopeless, disrupted the smooth running of the camp and upset the Germans, who retaliated by issuing meagre rations. However the noncommissioned ranks in the Stalags, who went on working parties outside the camp, were given additional rations because of their work environment. These men also had access to the outside world and were able to assess the terrain, the roads, railway stations, in short anything that would aid an escape attempt.

Red Cross parcels started to filter through the system, which made life in the camps more bearable and raised morale considerably. Then in February 1941, the prisoners at Spangenburg were moved to an old fortress on the banks of the river Vistula, just outside Thorn, Poland. The fortress was damp and cold and the rations barely enough to sustain them. The reason for the transfer was given as retaliation for the alleged ill treatment of German prisoners of war in Canada. This was of course total nonsense and was just an excuse to undermine the morale and well-being of the prisoners.

As the train pulled into the station at night at Thorn, German Field Police met the prisoners with snarling Alsatian dogs, whilst searchlights lit up the area brighter than day. Surrounded by tanks, the men were marched to the fortress and deposited in the dark, damp cellars. The conditions were harsh to say the least and the chance for exercise and fresh air extremely limited. From a possible escape perspective, the fact that they were now in Poland lessened the chance of escape, because it was one of those countries of which very little was known at the time.

Airey Neave then discovered that just 3 miles from the fortress was another prisoner of war camp, Stalag XX-A, a camp for NCOs and other ranks. Among the inmates were a number of men from his own company who had survived Calais. Working parties from the Stalag came to the fortress every day and it was through them that Airey Neave gradually discovered that there was an escape committee in existence.

The fact that he knew a number of the men personally helped him to devise an escape plan. Together with Flying Officer Norman Forbes, it was intended that the two of them visited the camp dentist, a British Army officer, whose surgery adjoined the Stalag. They would escape from the surgery and hide in the hut occupied by warrant officers. They had already been approached with the idea and had agreed to help. The two men had obtained civilian clothes from Poles working with the work parties and the intention was that they would slip out with one of the working parties.

With the planning in place, the two men, with a number of others, were marched the 3 miles to the dentist’s surgery, which adjoined the Kommandant’s office and was opposite the main gate into the compound. The two men went into the surgery, removed their uniforms and slipped into the civilian clothes. They then picked up some bundles of wood and at a given signal walked into the Stalag compound whilst other prisoners engaged the guards in conversation. Once inside the compound they were taken to the warrant officers’ hut where they stayed.

The Germans soon realised that two of the inmates from the fortress were missing and immediately started searching for them outside, not realising that the two men were hiding inside the Stalag. For the next five days the NCOs hid the two men. The two men watched with amusement as they stood just inside the wire, watching and listening to SS men being given orders on where to search for the two escapees, not knowing that the two men were standing just literally feet away. During roll call they stayed under the beds of the warrant officers.

When it became obvious that the Germans had scaled down the search, believing the men had escaped, the two men left the compound in a work party to fill pallisasses with straw from a local farmer’s barn. As the work party filled them, the two men slipped away and hid under the straw. Two others who had been hidden in a ration truck took their places. When the work was finished the work party returned to the Stalag with the same number of men as went out.

The two men slipped out of the barn under cover of darkness with the intention of heading for Warsaw. There was an airfield nearby and as Forbes was a pilot, they had considered sneaking in and stealing an aircraft, but as neither of them were navigators they decided to head for Warsaw instead. The terrain consisted of thick, dark forests and rocky, rough tracks. After four days of struggling through this terrain, exhausted and hungry, the pair suddenly found themselves at a control point and were promptly arrested.

Handed over to the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) they were taken to their headquarters in the town of Plock. Airey Neave realised that he had a drawing of the airfield at Graudenz in his pocket, but managed to tear it up before it was found. Unfortunately he forgot about another one that he had in a matchbox, and that one they found. Airey Neave was justifiably worried as the possession of this map made him look like a spy. The interrogators immediately started to ask questions and accused him of spying for the Russians. What Neave did not know, was that the airfield at Graudenz was a bomber station and that preparations were under way for a massive bombing campaign against Russia, which was to take place two weeks later.

The two men were then taken in front of a civilian member of the Gestapo interrogation team. Dressed in a dark suit, the man had blond hair and cold, blue eyes, and spoke excellent English. He started by accusing them of working for the British Secret Service and when told that the map they had was to aid them to escape to Sweden, he screamed that they were lying. They then told him that they had received the information from three Canadian pilots who, in home-made German Luftwaffe uniforms, had been captured trying to steal an aircraft from the base at Graudenz.

Only the Germans and fellow prisoners at the camp could have known the detailed information regarding the attempted escape by the Canadians. The Gestapo decided to check the story and Neave and Forbes were thrown into a cold damp cell. They pondered their fate throughout the night, drifting in and out of sleep.

The following morning they were dragged from their cell and taken separately into interrogation rooms. Fearing the worst, Airey Neave steeled himself, but was surprised when his civilian interrogator offered him a cigarette and addressed him as ‘Herr Leutnant’. Immediately suspicious, he listened as his interrogator told him that he too had been in the army and had been in the forefront of the attack on Poland. He had later been transferred to the Gestapo because of his ability to speak English. His attitude was almost pleasant, but then he started to press Neave for information regarding the map of the airfield and how he had managed to escape from the prison camp.

Determined not to give any information about the Polish farmer who had helped them, Neave repeated his story regarding the map and said that they had escaped from the dentist’s surgery at the camp and lived off food from the Red Cross parcels. For the time being Neave felt that he was being believed and he was returned to his cell after another two hours of questioning. Up to this point neither man had been mistreated, but the interrogators had created a sinister and threatening atmosphere throughout their questioning, leaving Neave and Forbes wondering when the interrogation would become physical.

Up until this point, there had been no training given to British soldiers on what to expect when being questioned, so this was new territory. When Neave finally escaped and joined MI9, he made certain that troops were given information regarding the interrogation techniques used by the Germans.

The interrogation continued for the next ten days and all the time the threat of violence continued to build. At night both men, now in separate cells, wondered whether or not they would be shot as spies, as this appeared to be the underlying implication of the questioning. Then after the tenth day they were told that they were being returned to the prison camp and that guards from the camp were coming to collect them.

On their return the Kommandant placed both men in cells deep inside the fortress and in solitary confinement. The cells had no ventilation or windows and were lit by a solitary dim electric light bulb. After spending one month in these conditions, the men were returned to the main body of the camp, but within weeks Airey Neave had been transferred to another camp Oflag Ivc – Colditz.

At the beginning of May 1941, Airey Neave and Norman Forbes arrived at Colditz, also known as a Sonderlager (Special Camp). The inmates of this infamous prison camp were deemed to be persistent escapees or enemies of the Reich. The huge castle near Leipzig, once the palace of Augustus the Strong, was an intimidating sight as it dominated the skyline of the Saxon countryside. The security in and around the castle was said by the Germans to make it impregnable, which immediately made the inmates all the more determined to prove them wrong and achieve freedom.

The only thing on the minds of most allied prisoners of war was escape. Within days of the first inmates being incarcerated each nationality had formed their own escape committees. This was not because they planned all their escapes according to their nationality, but because they were separated and imprisoned in different parts of the castle. They all co-operated with each other and helped each other in any way they could. For example Captain Van Doorninck, a Dutch officer, had once been a locksmith and was an expert in repairing instruments and watches and often did work for the German guards. Consequently they allowed him to collect a large range of tools necessary for the work, the same tools he used to fashion keys for the cell block locks and other doors.

For weeks Airey Neave observed the movements and mannerisms of the German guards. It was during one of these observations that he became aware that anyone entering the inner courtyard, where the prisoners were kept, was required to collect a numbered brass disc from the guardhouse and return it when they left. Then a visiting workman was bribed to part with his disc, however on leaving he reported to the guardhouse that he had lost it. All guards were then warned to be on the lookout for the disc or anyone presenting it.

With the obstacle of the disc overcome, the escape committee arranged for duplicates to be made in preparation for future escape attempts. One other problem arose, and that was that all the German guards carried a rifle with a fixed bayonet, and making a fake weapon would be extremely difficult. The answer, as far as he was concerned, was to try and pass himself off as a soldier on special duty. This however required him to carry a bayonet in a scabbard. Fortunately one of the other prisoners was a skilled woodcarver and fashioned him one from a bed board. He then created a buckle out of tin foil and placed it all on a cardboard belt.

Airey Neave had one advantage over most of the inmates in that he spoke German very well. The camp had a theatre in which inmates put on shows but which also gave them access to costumes, paints, dyes and props. Neave put forward a proposal that he would dress as a German corporal, using a converted Polish officer’s uniform painted with some scenery paint. The insignias were made out of cardboard and although very realistic at some distance, would not pass close scrutiny. He would take advantage of a theatrical performance, which large numbers of inmates and guards attended, and then just walk casually out of the main gate.

Everything was set and the evening performance started. Neave, dressed as a German corporal, mingled with the other guards and slipped out of a side door. Walking past the first sentry on the inner perimeter, he approached the second sentry and into the arc lights that illuminated the area. Speaking in fluent German he handed over the brass disc and told the guard that he had a message for the Kommandant from the duty officer. The guard watched Airey Neave march away then looked again at the number of the disc, then realised that the number ‘26’ was the one that had gone missing. The guard then raised his rifle and shouted ‘Halt’. The guardroom personnel were quickly called out and it was then that Airey Neave saw to his dismay that the paint on his uniform had turned bright green under the arc lights, not the field grey that it looked under normal lighting.

Bundled inside the guardroom, Airey Neave was threatened with a firing squad for insulting the German army. He was then taken to solitary confinement. The next morning he appeared in front of the Kommandant who sentenced him to one month’s solitary confinement in the town jail. He was also photographed for German Police records as a criminal. He was then taken from the castle, over a drawbridge across a dry moat and into the town jail. All the time he was being marched there, Neave was taking in the surrounding area and making a mental note of a possible escape route for future use.

That moment came on 5 January 1942 when, together with a Dutch officer by the name of Anthony Lutyen, he effected an escape. The two men, dressed in painted German officer’s uniforms with cardboard insignias attached, clambered down through a trapdoor beneath a stage, made a hole in the ceiling into a storeroom and then went down the stairs and through the guardroom. Anthony Lutyen, who spoke fluent German, chatted nonstop as the pair sauntered out of the guardroom, past the sentries and across the drawbridge. What Airey Neave did not know until after the war was that there was a police photograph of him pinned to the wall of the guardroom.

As the pair stepped out of the guardroom they were met with freezing temperatures and driving snows which, although it aided them considerably as they walked past the guards, also numbed them with cold. After walking over the drawbridge, they clambered down into the dry moat and struggled up the other side, slipping and sliding in the frozen snow. On reaching the top of the moat, they then had to clamber over a 12ft-high outer perimeter wall. Airey Neave stood on Anthony Lutyen’s shoulders and grasped the ice-covered top. With great difficulty, but aided by the urgent desire to escape, he managed to pull himself onto the top of the wall, then reaching down he grasped the hand of Lutyen and pulled him up. The pair dropped heavily onto the ground on the other side, their fall cushioned slightly by the deep snow.

Taking off the German greatcoats, they buried them as deep as they could in the snow, pulled their converted uniforms and ski caps made from blankets on, and set off through the driving snow. Their forged papers identified them as Fremdarbeiters (foreign workers) with permission to travel from Leipzig to Ulm.

After two days of travelling through the snow they arrived at Leipzig and bought two railway tickets to Ulm. They had acquired the money by selling Red Cross chocolates and cigarettes to the German guards back at Colditz. Cash from the escape fund of the escape committee had also supplemented them. Safely aboard the train the two men settled down for the 100-mile journey and a chance to get warm. Once at Ulm, they went to purchase tickets to the small town of Singen, which was close to the frontier, but after showing their travel documents they were arrested by the railway police. Despite this setback, the two men managed to convince the police that they were genuine Dutch foreign workers and they were taken to the office that dealt with foreign workers.

Placed in a room whilst further checks were made, the two men quickly made their escape through a window. They hid in a forest nearby until the following day when they jumped aboard a train going to the small town of Stockach near Ludwig. They then headed across country and through forests towards Singen. The snow had ceased, but the temperature continued to drop. Hungry, frozen and on the point of exhaustion, they were stopped by some elderly woodcutters who were on their way to work. Neave and Lutyen identified themselves as ‘Polish’ labourers from a nearby labour camp, but this was met with disbelief because none of the woodcutters knew of any labour camp in the area. Realising they had been rumbled the two men headed off into the forest, whilst the woodcutters went for the police. For the rest of that day and through the night, the pair struggled through the deep snow.

As dawn broke, they stumbled upon a small hut deep in the forest and after smashing a window to get in, collapsed into a deep sleep. Waking at dusk, somewhat refreshed, they ate what was left of their meagre chocolate ration and planned their last leg of their journey to freedom. They had been given a rough map of the area by one of the inmates of Colditz just before they left. Looking around the hut, they discovered a couple of white coats and some shovels. Putting the coats under their clothes and carrying the shovels, the two men set off for the frontier trying to give the impression that they were returning from the forest after work.

As they approached the lights of Singen, they were stopped by two young boys in Hitler Jugend uniforms, who demanded to know who they were. Anthony Lutyen explained that they were workers from Westphalia who were staying in Singen. All the time Airey Neave gripped the handle of his shovel tightly and admitted later that he would have had no compunction in killing the two boys had there been no option. Satisfied with their explanation, the two boys admitted that they were on the lookout for two British prisoners of war who were on the run and trying to cross the frontier that night.

Watching the two boys cycle off through the snow, the men heaved a sigh of relief, and glancing down at their compasses, headed to the north of Singen. They tramped through more forests, then swung south until they crossed the railway and then on to the road to Schaffhausen. Then in the light of the moon they could see the German frontier post just 100yds away. Putting their shovels down and donning the white coats, the two men edged their way closer. The temperature was falling rapidly and both men were beginning to suffer from exposure and frostbite.

Airey Neave and Anthony Lutyen could hear the voices of the frontier guards clearly. To get to the frontier they would have to cross the road and then get across an area of no-man’s land before reaching the Swiss border. Suddenly clouds obscured the moon and the wind got up, blowing snow into drifts. Taking advantage of this the two men crawled across the road slowly, under the fence and through the deep snow covering no-man’s land. The white coats and the driving snow prevented the guards from spotting them.

After struggling for over an hour, they suddenly reached the Swiss border fence and clambered over. A few yards further on was a road, which they knew led to the small town of Ramsen, Switzerland. With renewed effort, bolstered by the realisation that they had made it, they walked into the town and handed themselves in, with great relief, to a Swiss frontier guard. They were taken into a guardhouse and given hot drinks before the Swiss police arrived to take them away and place them under ‘hotel arrest’. The following morning they were taken to Berne where, eighty-four hours after escaping from Colditz, Airey Neave was drinking tea with the British Military Attaché.

Semovente 90/53

The Semovente 90/53 was a heavy Italian self-propelled gun and tank destroyer, used by the Italian and German Armies during World War II.

It was created by mounting a 90 mm Cannone da 90/53 anti-aircraft gun on top of an enlarged chassis of a M14/41 tank. Only 48 of these vehicles were produced, all in 1941. This low production was due to Italy’s limited industrial capability at the time, as well as high demand for the 90 mm gun for regular anti-aircraft duties.

The Semovente 90/53 was primarily developed in response to demands by Italian forces on the Eastern Front for a vehicle-mounted anti-tank weapon that could take on Soviet T-34 and KV tanks. Italian armored forces on the Eastern Front were equipped only with the L6/40 tank and Semovente 47/32 self-propelled gun; neither of these had the firepower to cope with the Soviet medium and heavy tanks. However, no Semovente 90/53 were ever sent to the Eastern Front.

The major drawback of the Semovente 90/53, as with many self-propelled gun types of World War II, was the open top and rear of the gun compartment, which left the gun crew exposed to shrapnel and small arms fire. In addition, the Semovente 90/53 had little or no armor in most areas. Because these vehicles were designed to operate far enough away from enemy vehicles to not be subject to incoming fire, this was initially not considered a problem. The small ammunition capacity of the vehicle was also a problem; only six rounds could be carried. This necessitated the creation of special ammunition carriers out of Fiat L6/40 tanks, one accompanying each Semovente 90/53 in the field. The L6 ammunition carrier itself carried 26 rounds along with an additional 40 rounds in a towed trailer. It fired Effetto Pronto, or HEAT rounds, which could pierce 70 mm armor plating at a range of 2,200 meters.

None were ever sent to the Russian Front. In the North African Campaign, the Semovente 90/53 proved to be an effective weapon and its long range was well suited to the flat and open desert terrain. 24 Semovente 90/53s saw service against the Allies in the 10° Ragruppamento Semoventi, which was stationed in Sicily during the Allied invasion in 1943. Following the surrender of Italy in September 1943, the few surviving Semovente 90/53 were seized by the German Army, but were of little value in the mountainous terrain of Northern Italy where they operated. As a result, most finished their careers as long-range artillery.

LINK

CARRO ARMATO M 11/39 MEDIUM TANK

Directly evolved from the Carro Armato 8ton of 1935 vintage and of similar dimensions, with the same diesel engine and 37mm gun. It differed in having superior sprung bogie suspension, the 37mm gun remaining in the superstructure. Impetus for its adoption came after early operations by Italian-equipped Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 had shown up the inadequacy of the little CV 35 light tanks. A redesign of the Carro Armato 8ton prototype was ordered, Ansaldo and Fiat being asked to build 100 of the new vehicles under the designation Carro Armato M11(8T). First deliveries were made in early 1939 and were completed by 1940. The M 11/39 was of riveted construction with rear engine, front drive, side access doors, and the manually operated turret was offset to the left. There was a stowage box formed within the hull at the rear. Owing to its very light armour and small size the M 11/39 was obsolescent by the lime it went into action in Libya in 1940.

Many vehicles were swiftly knocked out and the type was withdrawn from service early in 1941. 11tons; crew 3; 37mm gun plus 2 MG; armour 6-30 mm; engine (diesel V8) 105hp; 21mph; 15.5ft x 7.08ft x 7.33ft. Other users: Few captured and used temporarily by Australian forces in the Western Desert, early 1941.

M11/39s in Compass

A handful of surviving M11s were used at Tobruk – a brisk Italian counterattack there being led by a few M11s. There were 9 M11s in running order inside the fortress, forming what was left of the 1st Battalion, 4th Tank Regiment, under Capt. V. La Rosa. Most officers of the Battalion were killed or wounded in action. An M11 platoon instead was employed in the Derna sector, January 1941, against the advancing Australians of Robertson’s brigade. According to the Australian Official History the tanks played practically no role in the battle as their crews were put out of combat by sniping fire while they were standing outside their tanks.

Additionally, my understanding of the organisation of the two M11/39 battalions in Nth Africa is three companies of two platoons of 5 tanks each and a platoon commanders tank and a battalion HQ company of 2 tanks making 35 tanks in each battalion. The 24 tanks in East Africa were two coys of 11 tanks and an HQ coy of two tanks. At the start of Libyan campaign, the Italian army have on hand a lot of L battalion and only two M11/39 battalions. This two battalion were: 1st and 2nd armoured battalion M 11/39 of 32. o Reggimento Fanteria Carrista of 132. a Ariete Armoured Division. They have a theoretical composition of 37 tanks (each) subdivided in two companies of 13 tank each. An Hq company with 10 tanks and a single Hq tank. For the Sidi Barrani offensive the Italian HQ grouped this two armoured battalion with other L battalion to form two provisional “ad hoc” “Raggruppamenti carristi” with this composition: 1. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 21. o, 62. o and 63. o and 1. o battaglione carri M11/39 2. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 9. o, 20. o and 61. o and 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 The 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 and the 60. o battaglione carri L 3/35 give, a company each to “Raggruppamento Maletti” to form a provisional tank battalion. After the Sidi Barrani offensive 23 M11/39 tank went to the divisional repair station for repair. At the start of December in Marsah Lucch the Italian HQ start to group some tank battalion to for a provisional armoured brigade. This one grouped: 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39, 3. o battaglione carri m 13/40, 21. o e 60. o battaglione carri L and some Bersaglieri and artillery units.

At the start of Compass offensive, the 2nd battalion M 11/39 (with only 22 tank) was attached to “Raggruppamento Maletti”. The unit was entirely destroyed between December/9/1940 and January/5/1941 1941. The 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 with only 5 tanks was detached to Ain el Gazala airport. All its “out” tanks went to Tobruk for repair. With the loss of Tobruck all these tanks were lost. After some days also the remnants of 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 were lost. I believe 322a Compagnia carri M11 had some in service in AOI until May 1941. More or less.

Africa Orientale Italiana

The Italian tanks at Agordat were L3 tankettes and a small number of M11/39s (there were 24 M11/39s in all in East Africa in June 1940). The tanks clashed frontally, with predictable results.

The last operational mention of M11 tanks in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East Africa) I know about is the battle of Agordat, January 1941. I have seen a photo of a relinquished M11 “in Massawa” (so reads the caption): Massawa fell in April 1941. I am unsure, though, whether M11s took actually part in some fighting near Massawa or elsewhere after Agordat. – For the defense of Massaua, only 2x L3 tankettes of 1a Compagnia were available (not sure they had any useful role!); they had recently been sent from Asmara, probably after repairs.  No mention of M11/39 at Massaua.  But it could be that some damaged M11 had been afterwards transported to Massawa by the Allies and photographed there. –

There were many small scale engagements involving the M11/39 of 322e Comp., but I was thinking of its participation in the Raggruppamento motorizzato “Buonamico” (a hodge-podge of small motorized units commanded by Colonel Giuseppe Buonamico), and then with the 25th Colonial Division late in the AOI campaign.

In late April 1941, General Gazzera ordered a diversionary attack towards Adama.  322a Comp. was part of this, with 10x M11/39, but the advance was stopped short.  The column was exposed to air attacks, but apparently the tanks saw no serious action there. At the Bubissa river (11 May 1941), the M11 made a successful counterattack though (see Gazzera, p. 128). And later (19 May), near the Billate river, the M. 11 (reduced to 5) were involved in a fight against South-African troops.  25th Col. Division commander, Colonel De Cicco, was killed while riding upfront on a M. 11 (along with the crew); he was awarded posthumously a “Medaglia d’oro alla valor militare” (Gazzera, p. 103; Le operazioni in AO, II, p. 401). 322a Comp. disappeared at Soddu (22 may), along with the remains of 25th Col. Div.

Some M11s were used in the Battles of the Lakes, but I believe 10-12 were used along with some L3s and armoured cars. The South African Official history has quite a bit of information concerning operations in this area. HQ coy it should be two tanks making 35 tanks per M11 battalion a total of 70 tanks in Libya and 24 tanks in IEA and 6 left back in Italy which I gather were sent to the Adriatic some time later in the war. Italian and German OH’s clearly state 74x M11/39 sent to Libya and 24 to East Africa. Try again. Here’s some more information on the AOI M11/39’s that might be of interest:

24 were present at start of campaign along with 36-39 tankettes 10 were lost at Agordat (1 medium tank damaged /destroyed Bubissa hill after being hit by artillery fire May 1941 3 medium tanks captured at Colito 19 May 1941 6 medium tanks plus 4 tankettes captured at Soddu 22 May 1941 additionally 9 tankettes were captured at Dadaba 13 May 1941.

Download British 1943 Report on M11/39

Mikoyan MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ (1977)

A MiG-29 (9.12) ‘Fulcrum-A’ of the 237th Composite Aviation Regiment, stationed at Kubinka in the Moscow Military District in the early 1990s. This historic unit still serves as the Air Force’s Aviation Equipment Demonstration Centre.

Three views of the prototype of the original, abortive MiG-29M armed with advanced weapons including Kh-31 (AS-17 ‘Krypton’) anti-radar missiles and R-77 (AA-12 ‘Adder’) air-to-air missiles.

The original MiG-29M launched efforts to create a genuine second-generation ‘Fulcrum’, including flyby-wire flight controls, advanced structure, improved powerplant, avionics and weapons systems. The 9.15 yielded five prototypes.

Developed by the USSR in response to increasingly sophisticated Western warplanes, the MiG-29 soon established a formidable reputation as an agile dogfighter. Despite its shortcomings, it has continued to undergo development with efforts to extend its range and the addition of a multi-role capability.

Although it entered Soviet Air Force service as a lightweight counterpart to the heavyweight Su-27 fighter, the MiG-29 traces its roots back to a design for a heavy fighter. This was later scaled down to meet a requirement for a ‘frontal’ fighter that would primarily serve in a short-range air defence role, but would also offer a secondary ground-attack capability. Detailed design work began in 1974. In order to keep pace with Western fighter development, the MiG-29 was to make use of a look-down/shoot-down capability and be able to operate in an electronic countermeasures environment. Other important elements of the design were undercarriage and engine intakes optimized for operations on rough and semi-prepared forward airstrips.

Employing a blended high-lift, low-drag wing and forward fuselage, the MiG-29 was tailored for high angle-of-attack performance, providing superb low-speed and high-Alpha agility. The first of 11 prototypes completed a maiden flight in October 1977. After eight pre-production machines, the initial production version began to be delivered to the Soviet Air Force’s Frontal Aviation elements in 1983, and was known to Mikoyan as the 9.12 and to NATO as the ‘Fulcrum-A’. In this original form, the primary mission sensors comprised an N019 pulse-Doppler radar and an infra-red search and track system. The pilot was provided with a helmet-mounted cueing system. The similar 9.12A version was delivered to Warsaw Pact countries and other close allies, while the further downgraded 9.12B was produced for export to non-Warsaw Pact operators.

A two-seat combat trainer was developed and fielded as the 9.51 MiG-29UB ‘Fulcrum-B’, with radar deleted and a second seat under an elongated canopy. In 1984 Mikoyan flew a first example of the improved 9.13 ‘Fulcrum-C’ that retained the basic MiG-29 nomenclature, but which carried additional fuel and avionics in an enlarged spine. A further improved ‘Fulcrum-C’ was the 9.13S model, the key features of which were a more advanced flight-control system and an improved N019M radar with multi-target tracking/two-target engagement capability and compatibility with advanced R-77 (AA-12 ‘Adder’) air-to-air missiles. Underwing fuel tanks were also now offered as standard.

After the Cold War, the 9.13 formed the basis of a family of increasingly advanced MiG-29s aimed at the export market, and with enhanced capabilities that included expanded multi-role flexibility and Western communications systems. The first of these upgrade configurations was the baseline MiG-29SE, with the improvements developed for the Soviet MiG-29S, together with the option of Western-style displays and instruments and Western navigation, identification friend or foe (IFF) and radio equipment. The MiG-29SD includes NATO-compatible IFF and navigation/communications equipment, improved radar, R-77 compatibility and provision for a bolt-on retractable in-flight refuelling probe. The MiG-29SM focuses on enhanced air-to-ground capabilities, and includes a new cockpit display, radar modifications and weapons system improvements allowing the use of TV- and radar-guided bombs and missiles. Most advanced of these upgrades is the MiG-29SMT featuring a ‘glass’ cockpit, enhanced air-to-ground capabilities and a new, even larger dorsal spine to accommodate extra fuel.

During the 1980s Mikoyan had ambitious plans for a second-generation MiG-29 that would employ an all-new airframe design. This took the form of the land-based 9.15 MiG-29M and the carrier-based 9.31 MiG-29K. However, post-Cold War funding cuts saw these programmes abandoned in the early 1990s.

As the manufacturer’s fortunes improved in the twenty-first century, MiG returned to advanced MiG-29 variants, and brought to market a new, unified family of MiG-29 multi-role fighters derived from the 9.15 and 9.31.

The latest variants are based on the navalized MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB (9.41 and 9.47) developed for the Indian Navy. The land-based equivalents are the MiG-29M/M2 variants, and all feature open architecture avionics, Zhuk-ME radar with a slotted planar array, and new RD-33MK engines with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC).

Further enhancements are incorporated in the MiG-35 and two-seat MiG-35D, which boast a multi-mode phased-array radar, a new electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance system, an improved IRST sensor and a new defensive aids system. All of the new versions are also offered with thrust-vectoring engines.

During the 1980s Mikoyan had ambitious plans for a second-generation MiG-29 that would employ an all-new airframe design. This took the form of the land-based 9.15 MiG-29M and the carrier-based 9.31 MiG-29K. However, post-Cold War funding cuts saw these programmes abandoned in the early 1990s.

As the manufacturer’s fortunes improved in the twenty-first century, MiG returned to advanced MiG-29 variants, and brought to market a new, unified family of MiG-29 multi-role fighters derived from the 9.15 and 9.31.

The latest variants are based on the navalized MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB (9.41 and 9.47) developed for the Indian Navy. The land-based equivalents are the MiG-29M/M2 variants, and all feature open architecture avionics, Zhuk-ME radar with a slotted planar array, and new RD-33MK engines with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC).

Side number 712 is the Product 9-67 MiG-35D/UB two-seater prototype/demonstrator.

Further enhancements are incorporated in the MiG-35 and two-seat MiG-35D,

which would have boasted a multi-mode phased-array radar, a new electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance system, an improved IRST sensor and a new defensive aids system, plus thrust-vectoring engines. [see below]

The first batch of six RAC (Russian Aircraft Corporation) “MiG” MiG-35 multi-role combat aircraft will soon be delivered to the VKS (Russian aerospace forces), according to Ilya Tarasenko, director general of RAC MiG, in an announcement made at the production plant at Lukhovitsky on November 28. He also said that an active phased-array radar would be offered as an option and stated that a prototype equipped with such a radar had already been completed.

The contract for the production of this initial batch of six MiG-35s was signed during the 2018 Army Forum on August 22. Delivery of these aircraft will allow completion of all planned tests in early 2019, after which serial production will begin at the Sokol Nizhnii Novgorod Aircraft Plant. In 2013, Novosti reported that 37 MiG-35s would be purchased, but 170 aircraft are now planned for the Russian air forces.

The MiG-35 is part of what RAC MiG calls a unified family of multi-role fighters, consisting of the carrier-borne MiG-29K/KUB for India and MiG-29KR/KUBR for the Russian Navy, the MiG-29M/M2 for Egypt, and the MiG-35 for the Russian air forces. All use the same basic airframe, with tandem cockpits (the single-seaters have extra fuel in place of the rear cockpit but still employ a two-seat canopy) and a bigger wing compared to the MiG-29, with bigger flaps and horizontal tails. Carrier versions have an arrester hook and folding wingtips, while land-based variants have a braking parachute and no wing-fold.

The MiG-35 designation was originally applied to an earlier attempt to produce an advanced version of the MiG-29. Six MiG-29M prototypes were produced between 1986 and 1991, and the MiG-29M was briefly re-branded as the MiG-35 before being abandoned.

Some years later the fourth MiG-29M prototype (Side number 154) was converted to two-seat configuration, becoming the MiG-29MRCA in 2005/06 for the Indian Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, and was subsequently re-designated the MiG-29M2. In January 2007 it became the MiG-35 demonstrator. Soon afterwards, the fifth MiG-29M prototype was rebuilt to become the MiG-29KUB (Product 9-47) prototype, while the sixth MiG-29M was modified as the thrust-vectoring MiG-29OVT testbed.

The MiG-35 was originally conceived as having a range of advanced systems and capabilities, and the MiG-35 demonstrator was fitted with an NIIR Zhuk-AE AESA radar in December 2008. Two further MiG-35 demonstrators flew in the autumn of 2009, converted from MiG-29K/KUB airframes originally intended for India. The single-seater was known as the Product 9-61 (MiG-35) and the two-seater as the Product 9-67 (MiG-35D). They were delivered to the VKS for flight testing in November 2016.

In 2011/2012 two further aircraft were built to meet a Syrian order, which was subsequently canceled. The Syrian version featured a basic Zhuk-ME radar (as used by the MiG-29K/KUB) and was designated the MiG-29M in single-seat form and as the MiG-29M2 in two-seat form. In March 2014 Egypt decided to buy 24 MiG-35s, but changed its order to the “Syrian” MiG-29M/M2 variant before signing a contract for 46 aircraft in April 2015. They were delivered from September 2017.

Russia also quietly “dumbed down” the specification of its planned MiG-35, and when the first MiG-35S and MiG-35SD series production prototypes were unveiled by RSK MiG at Lukhovitsky on January 27, 2017, they lacked the once-planned thrust-vectoring and AESA radar. The MiG-35S/SD is now closely comparable to the export MiG-29M/M2 with the exception of a few additional advanced weapon integrations. State trials began in January 2018.

The single-seat MiG-35S prototype was rolled out in January 2017.

Polish ‘Fulcrums’

A NATO member, the Polish Air Force remains an enthusiastic MiG-29 operator. Poland first ordered nine MiG-29As and three MiG-29UBs, the first of which were delivered in 1989. In 1995 Poland decided to purchase 10 surplus MiG-29s (nine MiG-29As and one MiG-29UB) from the Czech Republic. With the withdrawal from service of Luftwaffe MiG-29s, 22 former East German aircraft (18 MiG-29Gs and four MiG-29GTs) were offered to Poland for a symbolic Euro. The offer was accepted and in September 2003 the first aircraft arrived in Poland. In order to operate within NATO, and to extend their service lives, Polish MiGs are being upgraded with a new digital databus with open architecture, a cockpit using imperial units of measurement, a laser inertial platform with embedded GPS and INS, digital video recorder and data transfer system, an up-front control panel, a new UHF/VHF radio, an upgraded IRST sensor and modernized NO19 radar with increased target detection and tracking range.

 

“I have seen the Australians” Part I

British, American and Australian troops lunching in a wood near Corbie the day before the attack at Hamel.

Early in July, now under General John Monash, the Diggers win a model victory with his new tactics. Weeks later the AIF and Canadians lead an Allied attack which inflicts a resounding defeat on Ludendorff’s army. In the ensuing offensives, the advancing AIF carves a corridor of victories. With pace and initiative, the Australians keep piercing strong defences, and finally they break the Hindenburg Line. Controversy from these gruelling days, and the last experiences of the Diggers, complete our odyssey with these big-hearted Australians. The defeated Kaiserreich surrenders, and 11 November 1918 is a historic day for the AIF and the navy.

By the end of May, the Australian Corps of five hardened divisions had a new commander: John Monash, the gifted citizen-soldier. Born in Melbourne a year after his Jewish parents arrived from Prussia, he became the most outstanding German-descent Australian in the AIF. After Gallipoli he trained and led the new 3rd Division, and its performances against the Germans were soon earning the respect of the older divisions. Broadly educated, with a brilliant mind and fresh ideas, Monash was highly effective and insisted on the careful, practical follow-through of plans – which he communicated clearly. Building on his experience and the limited-objective method of attack, he was ready to expand into bigger offensives, where all available weapons and the latest technology would work together for maximum effect.

Attack on Hamel-Vaire 1918, by A. Henry Fullwood

Hamel

Monash showed an early interest in the new, improved Mark V tank, and if he could get these, with extra artillery and aircraft assistance, he knew he could take Hamel (5 km north of Villers-Bretonneux) and its nearby strongpoints. But with Germans on the Wolfsberg ridge, right behind Hamel, watching the preparations, and a flat battleground for the Diggers to cross, Fritz had such defensive advantages that a Gough-style attack would have been cut to pieces. Monash understood this, and was the last man who would order a rush-and-hope job. He even altered his original, tank-dominant plan to satisfy MacLagan’s 4th and 11th infantry brigades. The 4th had been decimated in Gough’s tank fiasco at Bullecourt, and 15 months later its men still hated tanks. So did most Diggers. But Monash and the tank chiefs showed the men what damage these better, stronger Mark V tanks could do and see what they could withstand; the Diggers trained with them and soon took a liking to them, as the infantry’s concerns and problems were given high priority, and a new confidence was built.

Artillery and aircraft were employed in a variety of ways, and low-flying aircraft made a lot of noise for several days to cover the sound of approaching tanks. And there were Yanks as well as tanks. Adopting their celebrated 4 July as the day of battle, Monash and Rawlinson acquired some US companies to be attached to all ten Australian battalions, and the Diggers became tutors to these enthusiastic Americans. The arrangement was good for everyone, as Ted Rule wrote:

It bucked our lads up wonderfully … the novelty of war had long vanished for our boys [and] before such a fight one now sees only set grim faces, but on this occasion, everyone was smiling … they were determined to let the Yanks see what Aussies were capable of …

Unfortunately, Pershing heard about this breach of his policy, and most of the Americans were belatedly pulled out. “Those with my platoon had to withdraw,” said Rule, “and I never saw such disgust and disappointment in my life. Our boys were just as disappointed”. But with a timely display of backbone (which put the wind up Rawlinson) Monash insisted it was too late to pull out the last four companies of Americans, and they took part in the battle.

Zero hour was 3.10 am, and 300 guns flashed in the pre-dawn fog. Aircraft flew in “swarms” while the infantry and tanks advanced with the creeping barrage, but despite Monash’s coordination, his exemplary all-arms attack could not be all like clockwork. At the formidable Pear Trench, when the tanks got lost, the Diggers reverted instantly to their old ways. Henry Dalziel, a Gallipoli veteran, led the way in furiously attacking and silencing machine-gun nests. Uncut wire also faced other Diggers, who didn’t wait for their tanks, and got through a gap under fire. Cpl Thomas Axford’s blood was up, and he attacked the machine-gunners with bombs and bayonets, killing ten and capturing others, who were happy to be prisoners. Both Axford and Dalziel won the VC. Meanwhile the Mark Vs were not idle. To the Diggers’ delight they were smashing machine-gun posts. At the Wolfsberg objective, the tanks rumbled forward, crushing and blasting the last machine-gun obstacles. The Diggers charged in, capturing dugouts containing scores of men and a headquarters. Impressively, the 90-minute plan was carried out in 93 minutes. Over 1000 Australians and 176 Americans were casualties, but the enemy lost 2000 dead and wounded, 1600 prisoners and weapons galore.

As a key player within a cooperative all-arms attack, the Mark V tank was a roaring success. Rawlinson and many a BEF general realised that these greatly-improved tanks, working together with the other fighting elements, could make a huge difference. Out of one well-defended German trench, which survived the artillery, 26 machine-guns were excavated – after a single tank had crushed that trench. While saving heavy infantry losses, tanks could support more momentum on the battlefield, as well as having their own ferocious impact. This, and above all Monash’s skilful coordination of his “all-arms offensive” (like conducting some lethal orchestra) provided a sound model that inspired confidence, and many a BEF commander hastened to study it in anticipation of coming offensives.

The Supreme War Council, including Clemenceau, Lloyd George and a host of Allied leaders – which happened to be meeting at this time – were delighted by this auspicious victory. Congratulations began flowing to Monash and the AIF, but the old “Tiger” delivered his personally. On the following Sunday, he came and stood before a gathering of the Diggers, and said:

When the Australians came to France [we] did not know … you would astonish the whole continent … I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen ‘I have seen the Australians … I know that these men will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children.’

Der Schwarze Tag – “the black day” of the German army

If Hamel, for the Australians and for Rawlinson, augured well for the Allies’ big Amiens battle in August, a truly stunning affirmation of the Allies’ prospects was delivered soon afterwards. It was Foch’s counter-offensive of 18 July, which transformed the Second Battle of the Marne. This tremendous blow, by 5 August, had sent the Germans reeling back 40 km, and out of the entire Blücher salient they’d earlier seized.

In combination, the Second Marne and Amiens victories would pave the way to a vast Allied counter-offensive, which would inflict almost continuous defeats on the Kaiserreich’s armies. Anglophone history says little – too little – about the Second Marne, but Ludendorff heard too much, and he blamed the “surprise” of 18 July on France’s “small, low, fast tanks” attacking with their mounted machine-guns through the wheat fields. There was a lot more to it than that. On 18 July alone, the main attack had eighteen divisions (four times as many men as all the Diggers in France) led by those 300 light tanks; and on its flank nine more divisions and 145 tanks joined in. At Hamel, Monash had used about 2.5 per cent of Foch’s resources, but his two brigades had 60 heavy British tanks. Thus, Monash’s ratio of tanks to men had been stronger, and it suggested to British commanders what might be done in future. Demand soon overtook production, maintenance and transport facilities; and there were other problems, such as attrition among the limited supply of tank men. Before all that, however, the improved Mark V tanks would have their greatest success on 8 August, east of Amiens, where almost every Mark V in France participated.

“August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.” In this famous line, at least, Ludendorff’s memory was accurate, for the German army was never as impressive again. But the disaster happened on his watch, and in his 1919 memoirs, he was quick to shift the blame – onto the troops, of course. They should have coped, he wrote, because they were in good shape. He had to say that because, on the eve of battle, he’d given them this ill-informed and arrogant assurance:

… we occupy everywhere positions which have been very strongly fortified … Henceforth, we can await every hostile attack with the greater confidence [and] we should wish for nothing better than to see the enemy launch an offensive.

Whether this reflected complacency or ignorance – “very strongly fortified” was not the description his troops would have used for their shallow and inadequate defences – the Allies had a much better idea of how things might go. Rawlinson’s main concern was Haig who, having got over his big fright of March and April, reverted to his old ways and called for another distant objective, 43 km away. Rawlinson hadn’t forgotten the bad old Somme days, when Haig had rejected his offensive plan, imposed distant goals, dissipated the artillery’s effectiveness and caused the disaster of 1 July 1916. This time, however, Haig’s intervention was contained, and did not waste the formidable power and accuracy of the BEF’s 1918 gunnery. Rawlinson was careful to humour the chief by inventing a job for his obsolete cavalry, which in Haig’s dreams might still ride to glory. At Amiens in August, the initial aim was to drive the Germans well away from the city and its railway hub; but Rawlinson, Monash and others wanted to do more, and deliver “a stunning blow to German morale.” This they achieved, so well that the battle is still described as “the BEF’s greatest victory of the war”.

It was a victory spearheaded by the Australians and their Empire comrades, a point Ludendorff himself made, in a distorted way. The battle began “in a dense fog [when] the English, mainly with Australian and Canadian divisions [attacked] with strong squadrons of tanks, but otherwise in no great superiority” – and yet his men “allowed themselves to be completely overwhelmed”. Allowed themselves? As if they could have chosen to repel this terrific assault; they were outnumbered as well as outgunned. But Ludendorff didn’t want to know what it was like to be one of his weary soldiers, who had somehow just survived a deadly shelling, and now found himself in the path of the war’s heaviest tank attack; or what it was like to be in a trench as a 29-ton Mark V tank bore down on him, and his armour-piercing ammunition (if his platoon had any) simply bounces off the monster.

The attack drove east along the Somme, with the British III Corps fighting north of the river. The Australian Corps stretched from the south bank, on a starting line that ran past Hamel right down to the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. On their right, below the railway were those solid Dominion cousins, the Canadians, and alongside them was a larger French force. In the Australian line, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions attacked side by side, and later, to maintain momentum, they were leap-frogged by the 4th and 5th Divisions. The 1st Division, brought back to rejoin the rest, was in reserve. “All the Australians were gathered together,” Jimmy Downing recalled, “and we had the advantage of being with men on whom [we] knew we could rely”.

Among the 2nd Division was Joe Maxwell and his irrepressible mate Doc, hard fighters who somehow always survived. When the sun broke through, one German pilot seemed bent on ending their lucky streak. His aircraft machine-gunned them and then dropped a cluster of bombs with deadly effect, but Joe and Doc slowly emerged, covered in dust, but still intact. Next day, the fight on the ground got just as close and personal. Joe’s company lost thirteen of its sixteen officers, but, after winning a bar to his MC (as he later heard) Maxwell was still in one piece, as well as Doherty.

When the battle ended, the achievement south of the river had been astonishing. The Australians, Canadians and French had shattered the German army across their 25-km front. The Dominion troops had broken stiff defensive efforts and powered so far forward that they were now more than 20 km east of Villers-Bretonneux. Just as they’d done at Hamel, but this time with their entire Corps, the Diggers had been all over Fritz, capturing him and his guns. Monash had told them they were about to “inflict blows upon the enemy which will make him stagger” and they had done even more. Within hours, jubilant Diggers were calling out “G’day Fritz” and “You were lucky” to flocks of prisoners heading to the rear. By early afternoon, the Australians had captured over 7000 Germans and 173 of their guns. They were also ready to work with the Canadians. Elliott’s 15th Brigade gave exemplary support in one hot action – during which Pompey got his ample backside grazed by a bullet. With his trousers down, Elliott had himself patched up while continuing to shout out his directives. The sight of their burly brigadier “with his tailboard down” amused his soldiers mightily. Later the superb Canadian general, Currie, told Monash, “there are no troops who have given us as loyal and effective support as the Australians”.

Over four days, the Allies took 499 guns and 30,000 prisoners, while more than 40,000 enemy troops were wounded or killed. Seven German divisions were “completely broken” and Ludendorff saw his hopes of victory (and the Kaiserreich’s dreams of conquest) disappear. “Our only course,” he wrote, “was to hold on”. Fearing a collapse of morale on both home and battle fronts, he dared not retreat all the way to the Hindenburg Line. As his reinforcements marched up to the front, some of the mauled survivors were calling out to them, “You’re just prolonging the war”. This, in the German army, shocked Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and they knew the game was up: the 8 August battle had “put the decline of [our] fighting power beyond all doubt” and a comeback was impossible.

“The war must be ended,” Ludendorff concluded, but this end had to be delayed. It was – and hard fighting continued, on a large scale. Despite lowered morale and indiscipline along the supply lines, most German troops were in essence loyal to a Fatherland which might soon suffer an Allied invasion. This built-in patriotism, in effect, maintained (for some three months) the support for that Prussian regime that had deceived and exploited them. Fritz, therefore, remained a tough opponent, and the Allies still assumed that final victory would not arrive until mid-1919. As for the Prussian warlords, they needed the German soldier to defend stubbornly, above all at the Hindenburg Line – to secure tolerable peace terms, whenever the ultimate Schwarze Tag arrived.

“I have seen the Australians” Part II

Mont St Quentin and Péronne From Near Maisonette, 1918 (Art.IWM ART 2289) image: A view of Péronne and Mont St Quentin with artillery fire on the peak of the hill. The town lies at the foot of the hills, and the river below this. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13250

Corridor of victories …

After 8 August 1918, with some excellent leadership, the Diggers headed eastward, on both sides of the river. The Allied victory at Amiens proved to be the starter’s gun for an extraordinary Australian offensive up the Somme valley – roughly 35 km to the Péronne area where, around the river’s bend, enemy defences exploited the complex terrain. Once through all that, the Australians kept pressing on over a similar stretch, to their final attack. In these eight weeks, up to early October – with skilful fighting and a speed that allowed the enemy no recovery time – the Australians carved a great corridor of victories through the German defences.

Simultaneously, right along the western front, the Allies combined to force the enemy ever backwards. To the north, the replenished British armies hammered the thunderstruck Ludendorff. That he would suffer beatings at British hands was a thing he couldn’t comprehend. Yet the BEF’s “Hundred Days” (up to November) of continuously defeating the Kaiserreich’s army was, as historians have shown, the British Army’s most sustained success in modern times. In the late summer of 1918, the BEF made short work of Ludendorff’s intended “Winter Line”, the Canadians smashed the powerful “Drocourt-Quéant” defences, and the Germans were driven further back into a sector of the Hindenburg Line. South of the Somme the French were also hammering forward and doing the same in Champagne, where Foch’s attacking general, Mangin, was relentless. South of Verdun, 550,000 Americans, 110,000 poilus and 267 French tanks were all too much for the defenders of the St-Mihiel salient, who cleared out for the loss of 450 guns. Pershing’s army then took on a much tougher prospect in the steep and wooded terrain of the Meuse-Argonne (north of Verdun). Here he had to slug it out with a harder set of defenders, who fought bitterly for every metre of the region, with well-placed machine-guns.

In the Australian zone, by late August, the Diggers had reached the great bend in the river at Péronne, where the north-flowing Somme swings westward. Here were marshes, streams and higher-ground defences, above all at Mont St Quentin, overlooking Péronne. By taking “the Mont” and Péronne itself, the Australians could force Fritz out of this awkward zone and right back to the Hindenburg Line. This they did, and with minimal forces. With rapid bridge-building and brilliant manoeuvres, the Diggers surprised a renowned Guards division at the Mont. In furious fights, parts of the summit were taken, defended, lost, and then finally secured by the 6th Brigade’s second assault. Though “tired” and numerically small, the Australians had nonetheless “captured one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front and taken over 500 prisoners”.

And by 3 September, the whole Péronne area had been taken. Elliott’s 15th Brigade, like others, had played its part to the full. At one stage, the impatient Pompey tried to cross the Somme canal via a broken bridge. He slipped, fell in, and for a large man he did well to get out onto the bank. While his embattled trousers were drying, the unabashed brigadier stalked around in his shirt-tails giving out fresh orders. His signallers gleefully spread the news: “Pompey’s fallen in the Somme.” Among official signals, Haig sent congratulations for the capture of Mont St Quentin and Péronne. And from Fourth Army, Rawlinson, who believed Monash lacked sufficient resources but had still allowed him to try, expressed his delight at this magnificent feat – which drove Fritz out of the position he’d expected to maintain, and into another demoralising retreat.

… and troubles

One great task remained for the Australians who, like Monash himself, were now close to exhaustion; to break through the Hindenburg Line. Beyond its sheer difficulty, it was a gamble. Would the Diggers’ physical and mental reserves be enough to overcome the gruelling ordeal and the heavy losses this task would take? AIF battalions were now a shadow of their earlier strength, for the Diggers had been paying a heavy price for their swift advance: over 35,000 casualties in the final three months, with reinforcement seriously inadequate. Battalions were down to a quarter of their proper manpower. On paper, a battalion had four companies, each about 210 men; but by mid-September, most AIF battalions had been reduced to glorified companies, except that they did have more firepower, and more men carried Lewis guns.

Firepower was welcome, but these remorseless losses were starting to haunt the Australians. For the men still in action, a “casualty” was a well-known comrade until yesterday, or last week; he was a staunch mate who fought with you at Broodseinde, or Bullecourt, or back in the madness of Mouquet Farm; but he was gone, and you just had to fight on without him. And with bodies close to exhaustion, the Diggers’ minds were now troubled by a new kind of demon. It was an idea, a possibility, that had never before confronted them so starkly. And it was deeply unsettling: the way things were looking, by the time these never-ending attacks were over, a man’s own battalion would be completely wiped out.

As an Australian volunteer on the western front, your battalion was something special. Families and loved ones were far away; but your own unit was here, full of spirited young men who’d made the same choice as you. You were there among them in March and April’s desperate fights, and you had counted on each other. You belonged in this battalion, you were proud of it. So despite relentless attrition, the terrors of gas and heavy shelling, army food, sleep-deprivation, miserable dark winters, a world without women, and the boredom of trenches between actions … you wouldn’t swap your battalion for anything. You all shared the same conditions, ran the same risks and enjoyed the irreverent humour. This band of men was going to taste the victory, and carry home the battalion banners – and somehow, you would always be part of that. Or so you’d assumed. But now, when you looked around in September, you saw your battalion cruelly whittled down, you received no word of relief, and you began to hear the murmurs: they’re going to keep us at it until there’s none of us left. And that, along with your own fate, meant your battalion would be rubbed out. Extinct – and soon forgotten.

In this situation, a form of mutiny – refusing to attack as ordered – was no longer unthinkable. With battalions down by 75 per cent, and unless the constant pressure ceased, it could only be a matter of time before the camel’s back broke. The last straw, as it turned out, came down on a proud battalion which had fought ever since the Landing. Of its 973 Gallipoli soldiers few remained, and by mid-1918 the 1st Battalion had lost its entire strength three times (over 3000 casualties). Now, three quarters of its fourth life cycle was gone. At the Hindenburg Outpost Line in mid-September, having attacked for five days, this rump battalion was about to head off for its scheduled rest – until these Diggers heard they would have to do another attack, at dawn. On British turf. Once again Diggers would be doing III Corps’ job, and bailing out that teflon dud, General Butler.

To an exhausted battalion remnant, this order to cover for an adjacent corps that couldn’t keep up – and the order’s timing – were too much. Given their condition, as one corporal told a court martial, he was “dumbfounded” by the idea; and, he added, when he and other NCOs tried to report the men’s disturbing reactions, the officer leading his company dismissed their approach with the comment “I can’t tell the colonel this.” Instead, he told the NCOs to go and get their men ready for the extra dawn attack.

The reaction of over half the battalion, 119 men, was to execrate this order and refuse to do the attack. One author considered it “telling” that 50 per cent of these mutineers had only joined the battalion after May 1917 (Second Bullecourt). He added, “The majority [of the battalion] were short on experience and not sufficiently imbued with … esprit de corps.” Yet twelve of the 119 men enlisted in 1914-15; the other 107 must have included Pozières/Mouquet Farm/Flers/Bullecourt survivors; even among the other 60, some were probably at Broodseinde, and the repulse of Ludendorff offensive. Because the battalion, from mid-1917 to Monash’s fighting advance, earned nine more battle honours. Short on experience? Surely it was too much experience, battle experience. This, together with the cumulative effect of all the losses, and sheer exhaustion, had overloaded these men. As one wrote at the time, “all the boys are fed up … they won’t give us any rest”. Yet it was only an ill-timed, unfair and (as they saw it) shabby arrangement that pushed them over the edge. In all the non-stop fighting, other battalions were also pushed close to their physical and mental limit. It happened to be the 1st Battalion which got that last straw.

Their action was mutiny – a capital charge even in the AIF. Maybe that’s why these men were charged with desertion. But desertion, with its whiff of cowardice, was still a very severe penalty. These volunteers naïvely assumed a civilian right to strike over unfair treatment, but they didn’t run away; and given the intensity of the fighting, real deserters would have scarpered long ago. And as long as fit men in Australia could refuse all combat with impunity, was it just to criminalise men who’d been putting their lives on the line? If such mitigating factors were taken seriously, this is poorly reflected in the outcome. The NCOs, who drew attention to the men’s grievances, got the roughest justice: five to ten years jail, while the men got three. After the armistice, they were all pardoned, but as “pardoned deserters” they went home in disgrace. It was a miserable conclusion to arduous, brave, volunteer service, which effectively junked their previous fighting record. Their ostracism continued, bitterly, in their postwar lives. These men had fought Fritz to the point of exhaustion, and at a fateful moment, they refused to be pushed any further.

Before this incident, the 1st Battalion had no reason to believe their battle duty was over – but they did expect, and badly needed, the standard “six days rest and a bath” which, Monash said, restored the Digger’s “elasticity” and had him “quite ready to fight again”. But by mid-September, that formula didn’t address a new threat to morale in every battalion: the Digger’s growing suspicion that, at the current rate, his whole unit would be destroyed. The AIF soldier accepted his risk of death or a bad wound, but he was deeply angered by the prospect of his battalion being driven to oblivion. Joe Maxwell VC and his mates, in this situation, certainly felt this way: “We began to reflect that it was merely a matter of time [before] we would all be killed off.”

This unease was also expressed within a very different “mutiny”, whose Diggers gained widespread sympathy in other units. To raise and equalise the strength of battalions, eight brigades were told to disband one of their battalions to enlarge the others. This directly challenged that key AIF loyalty in which a Digger’s battalion was almost his clan. The earlier dissolving of three battalions had been very unpopular. Now, to have another eight broken up was too much. Only the 60th Battalion obeyed, after a strong appeal by Elliott, its brigadier. The other seven battalions, after their officers had left a final parade, simply carried on with normal duties, with their NCO’s and other elected leaders keeping up excellent discipline. Food supplies kept mysteriously reaching them from other units, and they declared themselves willing to fight in the hardest parts of the next battle, as long as they kept their identity. Monash agreed – he had disliked the disbandment order himself – and a confrontation was avoided. But as those who were earmarked pointed out, the army had always told them that the esprit de corps and honour of their battalion were paramount. After the final battles of the Hindenburg Line’s locality, the measures took place quietly. By then the 37th Battalion, which had strongly opposed its disbandment, was down to 90 men – 10 per cent of its proper strength. The affair wasn’t called a mutiny; it was anything but desertion; and there were no more repercussions.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

All the while, the Australian advance kept going. Once the Diggers got close to the Hindenburg Line, they could see some of its multiple trenches and endless belts of barbed wire. Along with older works and related lines, the main defence was over 5 km wide, with integrated canals, obstacles and a vast network of tunnels and passages. What an attacking infantryman could see, he knew, would be only part of this evil labyrinth. Among the veterans who eventually saw it were Maxwell and Doherty, who had recently come through the victorious action on the slopes of Mont St Quentin. What they observed, on reaching the vicinity of the Hindenburg Line, was enough to dampen even Doc’s jauntiness. No wonder: miles of murderous fire could meet the Diggers in this place; in fact, it was “the most formidable defensive position in the history of warfare”.

Even with the shrewdest, most comprehensive plan, assaulting the Hindenburg Line meant a big, ferocious battle for the Australians (as it did for allies well to the north and south). With his manpower limited, Monash gave some supporting US units a lot to accomplish; though courageous to a fault, they took heavy losses and struggled to make headway in conditions of smoke and fog. Across the whole battle area, setbacks and well-placed, toughly-defended positions were expected, and beaten, at a cost. The Diggers were thinly stretched but yet again did more than seemed possible for their resources. In a crucial move, the unsung British 46th North Midlanders Division (with brilliant artillery support) made a brave and famous crossing of the St Quentin Canal, a murderous complexity in the enemy system. On 29 September this achievement gave the Diggers a fighting chance to break right into the Hindenburg Line. In its fiendish maze of trenches and traps they gradually outfought, outflanked and overcame the enemy. By 1 October 1918 the AIF 3rd and 5th Divisions had captured one of the most vital sectors of the great Hindenburg Line.

By now, did the German troops not see that all hope was gone? The bulk of them probably did. With their ranks horribly thinned, with morale deteriorating (into serious trouble along the supply lines) the German army had been sliding to its doom since July. Its soldiers sensed this, and the figures show it: in the final four months, there were another 800,000 German casualties. Most revealing are the prisoners: in these months the Allies captured (or simply escorted to the rear, in hundreds) 385,000 German soldiers: over half of all their western front POWs of the previous 47 months. Yet with all that, and the punishment they kept taking on the battlefront, the resilience of the fighting German was extraordinary.

The tragic truth was that “the discipline of the Field Army largely held” until early October, when news rapidly spread that Berlin had contacted President Wilson with a “peace note” and asked for a prompt armistice. Once this became known among German fighting divisions, what was the point of dying? Countless men, old comrades, were already slain: as one young Prussian-Silesian woman, Ruth Höfner, cried out, “For what have German mothers sacrificed their sons?” No-one, least of all any Prussian warlord, was going to tell her that. At the front, the soldiers’ loyal tenacity finally started cracking, like a great dam, and the large-scale surrenders multiplied. Nonetheless, in many areas, bitter fighting did continue right up to the point of armistice.

All this news came too late for the Diggers and their grim adversaries at the Hindenburg Line. When that great obstacle was beaten, the Germans still had a tough fallback, the Beaurevoir Line. On 3 October, the AIF’s 2nd Division returned to the fray to attack it. Maxwell and Doherty would need another slice of their overstretched luck, a big one. Their supporting barrage, with badly-worn barrels, was “atrocious” and some shells dropped short, with lethal results, among the Australians. Then there was Fritz and his infernal wire. As Joe recalled:

I had never seen such wire entanglements as confronted us. Belt upon belt of it barred our way [and] our artillery made no impression on it … From the enemy came a hail of machine-gun fire … The whole of our advance was held up …

What happened next is understated in Maxwell’s memoir (but not in his army record). His company commander was hit and Joe took over. With everyone pinned down, facing the wire and machine-guns, he spotted a close German gunner and crawled forward. “Bonzer”, his young Lewis gunner, got in first by shooting the German. In a flash Joe exploited the confusion: moving fast and leaping up onto thickly-wound reams of wire, this lightweight fighter bounded across them like a kelpie, to land in the machine-gun nest with his revolver. He shot three gunners, subdued four, and called his company up; the next company was also pinned down, so he tore along the trench and silenced that crew as well. There was an ugly struggle with yet more Germans who had feigned surrender, but he found a way to outwit them. For his “personal bravery, excellent judgment and quick decision,” Joe was awarded the VC. He was just as happy for his game and quick-witted Lewis gunner, Bonzer, who had fought furiously, destroyed another gun crew, survived, and received the DCM.

This was the last time Maxwell, Doherty and their mates went into action. Just as well, they reckoned: of their 103-strong company in that morning attack, only seventeen were standing. Night fell, and with a battered old guitar and their company’s rum ration, they tried to put this day of wrath behind them. And the rum flowed “till nobody cared whether Hindenburg himself led an assault”. Two days later it was the task of the next brigade to capture nearby Montbrehain village, the very last objective in the AIF’s great run of victories. Joe and Doc later walked up to the liberated Montbrehain, which had been in German hands since 1914:

Worn and haggard by their long serfdom, the French residents of this little hamlet presented a pitiable sight when we pushed into its main street. The old people wept for joy at our entry … On 6 October we left the front line for ever.

Having broken the Hindenburg and Beaurevoir Lines, the surviving Australians were finally sent off to rest. Their swathe of victories now stretched back 65-70 km down the Somme valley, through Mont St Quentin and Péronne to Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux. The Diggers returned to the front early in November, but before they could fire another shot, the war was over. The enemy had just signed a ceasefire agreement – the armistice of 11 November.

Theodor Tolsdorff

Theodor Tolsdorff was born in Lehnarten, East Prussia, on November 3, 1909. He volunteered for the service in 1934 and was commissioned in the 22nd Infantry Regiment at Gumbinnen, East Prussia (now Gusev, Russia), in 1936. He was still in the 22nd on November 1, 1943, when he assumed command of the regiment. From 1939 to 1945, he rose from a lieutenant commanding a company to a lieutenant general commanding a corps. In the meantime, he earned the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds-mostly on the Eastern Front. He was wounded fourteen times. Tolsdorff assumed command of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division on September 1, 1944, and fought in the Siegfried Line battles. He took charge of the LXXXII Corps on April 1, 1945. After the war, he lived in Wuppertal-Barmen and died in Dortmund on May 5, 1978.

340th Volksgrenadier Division

Col. Theodor Tolsdorff

694, 695, and 696 VG Regiments

340 Artillery Regiment

340 Antitank Battalion

340 Engineer Battalion

(committed in late December at Bastogne under the 1st SS Panzer Corps)

Having absorbed the remnants of another division, the division had more veterans than most, but since it had only recently come from the line near Aachen, it was considerably under strength.

Kampfgruppe Tolsdorff Vilnius

The Home Army intended to use the arrival of the Red Army as an opportunity to seize control of parts of Poland from the Germans, with coordinated uprisings in several cities under the codename Burza (`Tempest’ or `Storm’). In Vilnius, the operation was codenamed Ostra Brama (`Gate of Dawn’), after a famous landmark on the south-east edge of the old heart of the city. Late on 6 July 1944, the Home Army tried to seize Vilnius in an attempt to gain control of the city before the arrival of the Red Army. In the preceding days, the Home Army had effectively secured much of the countryside around the city, but the unexpectedly fast advance of the Soviet forces – about a day ahead of Polish expectations – resulted in Krzyzanowski moving his own timetable forward. Consequently, Krzeszowski had fewer troops at his disposal than he might have wished, and his men were left in possession of only the north-east part of the city. Much of the Polish 77th Infantry Regiment found itself held at arm’s length to the east of Vilnius, its movements further hampered by a German armoured train. Elements of the Polish 85th Infantry Regiment took up positions to the west, beyond the River Vilnia, threatening the German lines of retreat. It is striking that despite years of Soviet and German occupation and tens of thousands of arrests, the AK continued to organise itself into formations that drew their ancestry from the pre-war Polish Army.

Soviet forces arrived outside Vilnius at about the same time that the Poles launched their attack. 35th Guards Tank Brigade, part of General Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, was involved in heavy fighting with the German paratroopers at the airport, from where fighting gradually spread into the city. On 8 July, Krylov’s 5th Army reached the city outskirts, while the Soviet armour gradually encircled the garrison.

It had been General Aleksander Krzyżanowski’s [Polish Home Army] intention to secure the city for Poland before the arrival of the Red Army, but the planners of Burza had always intended that the Poles would cooperate at a tactical level with the Soviets, though they would attempt to set up their own Polish civil authorities before the Red Army could establish pro-Soviet administrations. Unlike in many of the other `fortresses’ that Hitler insisted were defended to the last man, the Vilnius garrison put up a stiff fight, inflicting heavy losses on their opponents. Rotmistrov’s tanks had suffered considerable losses in Minsk, and now found themselves engaged in close-range combat against a determined enemy, equipped with weapons such as the Panzerfaust, that were at their most effective in this environment. Nevertheless, there could be no question of the Germans holding on for long.

Relief was on the way. The rest of 16th Fallschirmjäger Regiment arrived by train near Vilnius early on 9 July, and almost immediately it was assigned to an ad hoc battlegroup, Kampfgruppe Tolsdorff, which went into action outside the western outskirts. Another formation dispatched to try to stem the Soviet flood was 6th Panzer Division, which had been recuperating in Soltau in Germany after suffering heavy casualties earlier in the year. As the men of the panzer division arrived, they were hastily organised into two battlegroups. Gruppe Pössl consisted of a battalion of tanks from the Grossdeutschland division, a battalion of 6th Panzer Division’s panzergrenadiers, and artillery support; it was ordered to advance to make contact with Tolsdorff ‘s group on the outskirts of Vilnius, and thence to link up with the garrison. Gruppe Stahl, with two panzergrenadier battalions and artillery support, would attempt to hold open the line of retreat.

The attack began on 13 July, with Generalleutnant Waldenfels, the commander of 6th Panzer Division, and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt, commander of 3rd Panzer Army, accompanying Pössl’s group. The thin screen of Soviet and Polish forces to the west of Vilnius was unable to stop the thrust, which reached Rikantai, about eight miles outside the city. Here, contact was established with Gruppe Tolsdorff, which in turn had a tenuous connection with the Vilnius garrison. During the afternoon, German wounded were evacuated from Vilnius and along the road to the west.

The Soviet response to the German breakout was slow. Late on 13 July, uncoordinated attacks along the narrow escape route were repulsed, but the following day there were several crises as increasingly strong Soviet pincer attacks cut the road repeatedly. Finally, as darkness fell on 14 July, the Germans withdrew to the west. About 5,000 men from the garrison were able to escape, but over 10,000 were lost.

The Soviet authorities proclaimed the liberation of Vilnius on 13 July, but there was still the question of what to do with the Polish Home Army forces that had fought both against the garrison and against Gruppe Tolsdorff to the west of the city. Krzyzanowski and his fellow officers wished to use their men to recreate the pre-war Polish 19th Infantry Division, itself a controversial unit in that it was raised by Poland in the Vilnius region after that area was seized by Poland.

Rudolf Witzig

Witzig’s 1st Battalion of the 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment at Vilnius

The 954 soldiers of the 16th Parachute Regiment entrained for Vilnius, in the south-eastern corner of modern Lithuania, in July. The German High Command considered the defence of Vilnius imperative. If the city fell, it would be impossible to maintain contact between the two German army groups in the Baltic States and to stop the Red Army’s advance towards East Prussia. It had thus been declared a ‘fortress’ city by Hitler and was to be held to the last man. Schirmer’s regiment was subordinated to Field Marshal Model’s Army Group Centre and the Third Panzer Army. Under the direct control of Major General Stahel, an air-defence officer and commander of Vilnius, the 16th Parachute Regiment joined a hotch-potch of units in defence of the city, including the 399th and 1067th Panzergrenadier Regiments, an independent panzergrenadier brigade, the 16th SS Police Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, 240th Field Artillery Regiment, the 256th Anti-Tank Battalion and the 296th Flak Battalion. In addition, elements of the 731st Anti-Tank Detachment, with 25 Hetzer tank destroyers were also available, as well as the 103rd Panzer Brigade with 21 Panther tanks, the 8th Assault Gun Detachment and the 6th Panzer Division with 23 Panzer IV tanks and 26 Panthers.

Poised to advance on the Lithuanian capital were elements of the Soviet 5th and 5th Guards Armies of the Third Belorussian Front. The Soviet attack on the city began on 8 July 1944, with Russian tanks and infantry attacking across Lake Narocz towards the airfield, which was defended by the paratroopers. After bitter fighting, the Soviet 35th Tank Brigade took the airfield. Intense street fighting then commenced as the Soviets attempted to reduce German defences. By midday, the Red Army had fought its way into the city, overrunning the initial line of anti-tank obstacles and destroying a number of the ad hoc German battle groups. The following day, the Germans reported 500 dead and another 500 wounded. By 9 July, Vilnius was encircled. Two days later, the German High Command ordered a break-out. The following night, the defenders broke contact with the enemy and crossed the Vilnia River. Some 2,000 Landsers made it across. With the fall of Vilnius the Wehrmacht’s position in the Baltic States became untenable.

In the meantime, the 16th Parachute Regiment had been followed to the Baltics by Witzig’s 1st Battalion of the 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, which arrived from France. The battalion, which had an authorized strength of 21 officers and 1,011 other ranks, had been conducting night parachute training at the Salzwedel airbase when it was alerted for movement to Lithuania. ‘By means of a railway movement of several days duration via Berlin and through the peaceful and marvellously sunny summer countryside of Brandenburg and West Prussia and then through East Prussia the battalion reached the border with Lithuania,’ wrote Witzig. ‘The first deployment took place in the Kaunas area.’ Witzig’s battalion reached their planned defensive positions between Schescuppe and Wilkowischen, located only 10 km from the East Prussian border, at the end of July and began to entrench. Within a few days of arriving, the unit was reinforced with an artillery detachment and elements of an assault gun brigade.

Due to the length of the front we were deployed from right to left as follows: Parachute Engineer Battalion, 2nd Battalion, 1st Battalion, and the 3rd Battalion with the 13th Company in reserve and an assault gun brigade [recorded Witzig]. After a while the regiment, which was only equipped with its infantry weapons, received four 75-mm anti-tank guns, which were distributed among the frontline battalions. This position was held the whole of August and September 1944.

Initially the Russians were nowhere in sight. Instead, the men of Witzig’s battalion witnessed the massive westward exodus of Nazi civilian leaders and their families fleeing for their lives to escape the advancing Red Army. The German population in the path of the Russians was thus left leaderless. ‘This was the beginning of the breakdown of law and order,’ remembered Witzig.

After changing positions several times, the battalion finally made contact with the Russians. Witzig’s 3rd Company relieved the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, a punishment battalion:

Only the commander and a few members of the staff had the required rank. All of the company, platoon, and squad leaders were demoted SS officers and NCOs, who wore only an arm badge with their official position. These men had conducted a jump in a coup de main against the headquarters of Yugoslav partisan commander Marshal Tito, only a few weeks earlier. Only with great effort and at the very last moment had he managed to escape.

On the day of their relief, the SS paratroopers bloodily repulsed a Russian tank attack.

On 20 July 1944, a bomb planted at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters barely missed killing the leader of the Third Reich. In the confusion that followed the attempt, the vast majority of the Wehrmacht’s leaders swore their loyalty to the Führer, while those opposed to the regime were hunted down, cruelly tortured and brutally murdered. A small number committed suicide; only a few survived. Hearing the news at an impromptu parade complete with loudspeakers, Witzig and his men were stunned and felt betrayed. ‘Can you imagine how you would feel if you learned, fighting in the middle of a war, that someone had tried to kill your president?’ one veteran asked the author, when recounting the incident.

But the war went on. According to Witzig, the Red Army attacked his positions about once a week, usually in division strength. Twice Soviet armour, in regimental strength, broke through the German positions:

The majority of tanks, and especially the accompanying infantry, were destroyed by our forward companies in close combat, while the tanks which penetrated deeper were shot by our assault gun brigade. The position was reformed after each attack.

Witzig noted that the Soviets had a large superiority in artillery, which they used liberally. As a result, the terrain surrounding the German defensive positions ‘looked liked the World War I Verdun battlefield’. From time to time the artillery detachment attached to the regiment neutralized a Soviet battery, but it was a losing battle. Nonetheless, Witzig’s battalion, which was deployed as infantry, fought with great determination.

In one particularly hard-fought battle, Witzig’s battalion was mentioned in communiqués for destroying 27 Soviet tanks and stopping the advance of an entire Red Army tank division. On 25 July 1944, the battalion covered a movement to, first, the Kaunas–Daugavpils road and, later in the evening, still further to the north-east to Jonava and entrenched there. ‘A few days ago a strong concentration of enemy tanks was observed and reported in this area,’ reported Witzig, ‘so it was assumed a major attack was imminent.’ The 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, was attached to a battle group commanded by a Colonel Theodor von Tolstorff for this deployment. Tolstorff was, according to Witzig, an excellent officer, and he would win the Swords and Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross the following year as commander of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division.

As had been so often the case, one of Witzig’s companies was detached from the battalion and Witzig was forced to defend with his three remaining companies. The ground on which the battle was fought was open, although the battalion’s flanks were covered by a large forest. The 1st Company, commanded by Lieutenant Kubillus, deployed on the left of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road, while the 2nd Company, commanded by Lieutenant Walther, deployed on the right as it was clear that the Soviets would focus their attacks on this road. Elements of Lieutenant Schürmann’s understrength 4th Company were attached to the 2nd Company, while the remainder served as a battalion reserve. The 3rd Company, commanded by Lieutenant von Albert, was detached from the battalion to serve as a corps reserve in the rear. According to Witzig, several assault and anti-tank guns were deployed with the battalion, located at the edge of a wood and in battle positions in a cornfield, but were not attached to it. The battalion’s own T-mines, stored in stacks of a hundred, had been left in the woods in forward positions. Witzig notes that every squad was equipped with anti-tank weapons of some sort, including at least one Panzerschreck and three to five Panzerfausts.

The Panzerschreck (‘Tank Terror’) or Ofenrohr (‘Stovepipe’) was similar to the American Bazooka rocket-launcher. More than 1.5 metres long and weighing more than 11 kg it was a handful for any soldier to carry, much less use effectively. However, its 88-mm, 3-kg, anti-tank rocket was capable of stopping any Allied tank at ranges of up to 120 metres. The Panzerfaust, on the other hand, was the world’s first truly disposable anti-tank recoilless launcher. Weighing only 6 kg and easy to use, this shoulder-fired launcher shot a hollow-charge anti-tank grenade, which could pierce 200 mm at ranges of 30–80 metres. This was literally point-blank range against a tank and it took a great deal of raw courage, steady nerves and patience to use the weapon effectively. By 1944, both weapons had acquired a fearsome reputation. In the last year of the war, the Allies would find themselves losing hundreds of vehicles a week to the Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust.

During the night of 25/26 July, Witzig’s companies entrenched in fighting positions optimized for anti-tank defence, with two to three men in each position. To defend against surprise attacks, a string of forward outposts had been established, especially in the 1st Company sector. These preparations all took place against a backdrop of the constant sound of Russian tanks moving into place just forward of the battalion’s positions. ‘The defensive position was too exposed,’ complained Witzig, who was convinced that the Russians would attack in strength. The battle began that night, with a combat patrol by the 4th Company, which surprised and captured a Soviet tank crew and a commissar. A short time later, a Russian patrol evened the odds by capturing two outposts of the 2nd Company. Shortly afterwards, a third outpost disappeared. ‘Another outpost was gone,’ remembered Witzig. ‘Only the soldier’s rifle was left in his foxhole.’ The sound of tanks massing continued throughout the night and at the crack of dawn the next day they were visible across a wide front some 1,200 metres from the battalion’s positions.

At the break of dawn on July 26, 1944 the men of the battalion were aware that a day was starting that would demand the greatest efforts from them. With a provoking directness an armada of steel and iron, aware of its superiority, deployed so that even the bravest individual felt depressed. Countless T-34 tanks, artillery pieces and the dreaded ‘Stalin Organ’ [multiple rocket launcher] and assault guns were deployed to break through the defensive positions of the parachute engineers. Yet not one round was fired. There was an uncanny silence on both sides, the calm before the storm.

The silence, however did not last long. ‘And then, flashes from the other side, from thousands of barrels simultaneously’, and shells were pounding the German positions unmercifully: ‘Again and again, pounding, hammering, shattering, pulsating, bursting and cracking,’ recorded Witzig. The incessant barrage lasted for an hour without any reduction in intensity, inflicting numerous casualties on the battalion. As it began to lift, Witzig’s men noticed that the German assault guns had abandoned their battle positions and were nowhere to be seen. But there was nothing that could be done, for the Russian tanks, heavily laden with foot soldiers, were already advancing on the paratroopers through the smoke and the dust with more infantry running alongside the tanks.

Witzig’s men held their fire until the first line of enemy tanks were only twenty metres away, then unleashed a devastating barrage of antitank rounds. At this range, nothing, not even the thickly armoured Josef Stalin tank, was immune from the deadly German volley:

The men of the 1st [Company] took heart and set themselves against this colossus. It came to furious fighting directly on the highway. Lieutenant Fromme fired his Panzerfaust at a T-34 which ground to a halt, engulfed in flames. He himself was wounded. Then Lieutenant Kubillus, the company commander, who had hastened to the highway after realizing the focal point of the attack, went down seriously wounded. Sergeant Weber took command of the company. He himself blew apart three tanks, which stood burning and shattered in front of the company foxholes. Then he saw Sergeants Scheuring, Hüchering and a few other engineers, whom he could not recognize because of the dust and smoke, obliterate another three tanks. Within a short period, the men of the 1st Company, using Panzerfausts and Ofenrohr, had turned fifteen tanks into burning, smouldering iron.

As the enemy tank attack was broken up, leaving dozens of T-34s and Soviet assault guns engulfed in flames, the Russian infantry sprang from their carriers to the ground, intent on making the paratroopers pay. Instead, they were cut down at close range by MG 42s. Caught in the open and without their tanks to suppress the machine guns, the Red Army soldiers were slaughtered. Within minutes, the first Russian attack had collapsed under the massed and accurate anti-tank and machinegun fire of Witzig’s parachute engineers. But the battalion, in turn, suffered heavy losses, with the 1st Company reduced to thirty men.

In the meantime, to the south of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road the 2nd Company, reinforced with the understrength 4th Company, was having a more difficult time containing the Russian assault. A group of some fifty T-34s succeeded in fighting their way through the company positions and cutting off the road behind the two companies. ‘The mounted infantry were taken under fire first and forced to jump off,’ wrote Witzig. ‘Engineer Stauss engaged a tank with his Ofenrohr and suddenly a second tank was also on fire. But the remainder rolled westward without bothering about their infantrymen left behind.’ The German assault guns, which might have defeated the Russian tanks, had already left the battlefield and these had been followed by the surviving anti-tank guns, leaving the paratroopers to fight unsupported. ‘I engaged the tanks which were passing close by my right as the Russians did not attack head on,’ remembered Sergeant Hans-Ulrich Schmidt, from Hamburg, relating his escape in the midst of the advancing Red Army:

After the first echelon passed by, I discovered about five Russian soldiers on every T-34. At the same moment another T-34 showed up about 100 metres to the right of me. I fired one shot with my Ofenrohr and hit it, but after two minutes it began moving and firing again. I charged my Ofenrohr with a second shell immediately as I heard the noise of battle behind me. I tried to establish contact to the right and left of me, but no one had remained in their positions. So I left the position and ran back into the cornfield behind me. Here I found myself between several Russian tanks, which surrounded me. I raised my Ofenrohr, aimed and fired, but the electrical firing trigger failed. One of the tanks discovered me and fired with its gun. I was knocked to the ground by the blast of the shell and hit my forehead against the Ofenrohr. That was my salvation. I pretended to be dead and the tanks moved on. After they were out of sight I ran as fast as I could to the rear, concealed by the cornfield.

By this point in the battle, there were Russian soldiers to the front, on the right flank and behind the battalion’s position. Now it was only a matter of breaking contact with the Soviets as quickly as possible, withdrawing before the battalion could be encircled and annihilated, and regrouping on defensive positions to the west. But the Soviet tanks which had broken through had been followed by masses of Russian infantry, which attacked the German paratroopers as they sought to cross the 2 km of open ground to reach the safety of the forest and cover. Now it was the Russian machine guns which fired unremittingly, mowing down the German paratroopers as they sought to escape. Few made it. Only twelve unwounded survivors of the 1st Company made it to the battalion rally point, along with only ten men from the 2nd Company. Major Witzig led the remnants of his battalion through the forests, bypassing the Soviets and avoiding battle until the survivors reached the German lines.

We set out towards the north under heavy fire along a small trail [remembered Private Anzenhofer]. For some time we strayed through the forest in column formation led by Major Witzig, meeting remnants of the battalion. The commander led us, through Russian tank and crowded troop formations, back to our own lines without further losses. To this day, everyone who survived still gives him credit.

Witzig himself had only praise for his men, especially his medical personnel, as he wrote after the war:

Their sense of duty saved the lives of hundreds of German and Russian soldiers. Only someone who has been in the inferno of death and destruction can measure how these men fought. Selfless and fearless, animated by the thought of helping their wounded comrades, no matter which uniform they were wearing and bringing them back safely as quickly as possible.

Many of the German medics were killed or seriously wounded, while others disappeared, never to be seen again.

Over the course of the next several days, other paratroopers rejoined the battalion, which, according to Witzig’s account, numbered sixty-five men. Witzig used these to establish blocking positions and prevent the Russians from breaking through. This remnant of Witzig’s battalion was committed again and again in a futile attempt to stop the Red Army. By the end of August, the 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, had a total strength of 8 officers and 274 men. Of these, however, only 4 officers and 184 men were frontline soldiers. Karl-Heinz Hammerschlag, who fought under Witzig in Lithuania, remembered that from a battalion of more than 1,000 men in the summer of 1944, only 30 remained by September. ‘We had no tanks, no field artillery, no anti-tank artillery and no Luftwaffe,’ he told the author. ‘We fought mostly with Panzerfausts and anti-tank mines.’