The End of General Gordon

Days passed without any sign of British steamers, and the morale of the government troops began to droop once more. ‘Gordon Pasha used to say every day, “They must come tomorrow,”’ recalled Bordeini, ‘but they never came and we began to think that they must have been defeated by the rebels after all.’ Gordon had all the ammunition moved along the waterfront, to the Catholic church, where it would be safer behind thick stone walls. He had a mine primed in the church, with a fuse linked to the palace, so that it could be blown if necessary. He had long ago had two massive mines set up in the basement of the palace itself, ready to blow himself to smithereens before the dervishes could capture him. The small steamer Mohammad ‘Ali was kept moored and provisioned at the palace jetty, to provide an escape-route for the consuls and other prominent citizens.

On Sunday 25 January 1885 the sun came up weak and pallid. The morning was cold, and the Nile was at its lowest, a dirty brown trickle between mud-banks and shoulders of dried mud like cracked and broken leather. Gordon was on the terrace with his telescope at first light, scanning the dervish positions. In wad an-Nejumi’s camp at Kalakla, near the White Nile, to the southwest, thousands of dervish warriors had left their positions and were couching and loading camels. Gordon sent his ADC, Khalil Agha Orfali, a Syrian ex-Bashi-Bazuk, to the telegraph office on the ground floor to order the men stood to. He expected an attack. He instructed the officers on the defences to hold their positions until 0800 hours the following morning, when, he assured them, British troops would arrive.

He called his Chief Clerk, Giriagis Bey, and had him convene a committee meeting in his office at the palace. Once again, Gordon did not attend in person. Instead, Giriagis relayed his instructions that every male in Khartoum above the age of eight years must be collected and told to line the defences alongside the troops.

After the meeting Bordeini Bey asked to see Gordon and was shown into his room next door. Gordon was sitting on a divan near a table on which Bordeini saw two full boxes of cigarettes. When the Bey entered, Gordon pulled off his tarboosh and flung it moodily at the wall. ‘I have nothing more to say,’ he told him. ‘People will no longer believe me, and I have told them over and over that help would be here, but it has never come, and now they must see I tell them lies. If this, my last promise, fails, I can do no more. Go and collect all the people you can on the lines and make a good stand.’

Bordeini realized that Gordon was more agitated than he had ever seen him, and in fact had been too upset to attend the meeting. This was why he had sent Giriagis instead. His hair seemed to have turned white overnight. Gordon told Bordeini that if the attack came, he should stay in his house until he sent for him. ‘Now leave me and let me smoke these cigarettes,’ he said. They were Gordon’s last recorded words.

After sunset there were three other visitors: consuls Martin Hansall and Nikolaos Leontides, and a Greek doctor. They remained with him until midnight. After they had gone, Gordon stayed up for another hour, writing, chain-smoking and occasionally pacing the room. At one in the morning he called his ADC, Orfali, and told him to check with the telegraph room to see if there was any news from the defences. Orfali returned minutes later to report that all was quiet.

Half an hour afterwards Gordon heard the sound of gunfire from the southern ramparts. Orfali told him that there had been a minor attack on Burri fort, but that it had been repulsed. Gordon then prepared for bed. After closing all the doors along the corridor, Orfali went down and instructed the duty telegraph clerk to notify him immediately if there were any developments. He then retired to his room.

At about 0300 hours, Orfali roused Gordon and told him the Mahdi had launched an attack from the direction of the White Nile. Gordon threw on his dressing-gown and prepared for action, but the first reports suggested that the attack had been broken off. Soon after, though, both Gordon and Orfali heard shooting, and several orderlies ran down from the terrace and told them that waves of dervishes were flooding into the town.

The Mahdi and ‘Abdallahi had crossed the White Nile by boat shortly after last light, and joined their hordes under ‘Abd ar-Rahman wad an-Nejumi near Kalakla. At midnight, just as Gordon was bidding farewell to Hansall and Leontides, the Mahdi had given wad an-Nejumi the order to attack. The dervishes had advanced so silently on the gap in the defences that the troops manning the ramparts further to the east never heard a sound. They were not aware that an attack was in progress until minutes before the enemy crossed the line. The troops had been expecting an assault from the west, near Burri, believing that the gap was too muddy for an offensive.

The dervishes burst suddenly out of the night, carrying old angarebs to help them breast the deep mud. Some waded waist deep into the slough and allowed themselves to be used as stepping-stones by their advancing companions. Others found the ground in places less muddy than they had expected. Within minutes they were inside the town. Sentries opened fire blindly in the darkness. The starving soldiers awoke to find the enemy scrambling over the parapet in thousands, screaming death to the unbelievers.

The 5th Egyptian Regiment, under Colonel Hasan Bey al-Bahnassi, saw the enemy racing towards them. ‘They came in shouting,’ said Sid ‘Ahmad ‘Abd ar-Razak, a subaltern of the 4th battalion. ‘They broke in near the White Nile. We fired in that direction, and when we saw the enemy were behind us, Nos. 3 and 4 companies formed square, and we remained firing until the square was broken, then we formed groups and fell back on the 1st Regiment. The [dervishes] broke in amongst us and there was a mêlée, then some [of us] were taken prisoner, and others were killed.’

The government Jihadiyya, manning the wall further along, were attacked simultaneously by massed assault parties. They smashed against the Burri gate, west of the palace, and the Masalamiyya gate, to the south. In places the Sudanese troops put up a stiff resistance. ‘Though we went on firing our rifles until they were too hot to hold,’ said a survivor, Yuzbashi (Captain) ‘Abdallah Adlan, ‘[the dervishes] finally poured over the ramparts by sheer force of numbers, and anyone who remained standing was killed. Life was dear, and many of us threw ourselves down among the dead and wounded while the dervishes passed over us into the town.’

Faraj Pasha, the Commander-in-Chief, had been at Buri when the assault began. He rode down the defences on a horse, bawling at his men to hold steady. When he reached the Masallamiyya gate, though, he realized that the dervishes were inside, and that the game was up. According to some witnesses, he threw a civilian coat over his uniform and ordered the sentry to open the gate. He told his men to stop firing, and surrendered to the enemy.

The dervishes surged through the native town and dashed across the open space to the Blue Nile waterfront. Aroused by the noise, the population ran outside to see warriors teeming through the streets. Many civilians were butchered where they stood. The dervishes, wild with victory, broke into the houses, massacring, raping, pillaging and looting. ‘The whole town was now filled with the screams of the people and the shouts of the


,’ wrote Nushi Pasha, in his official report based on eye-witness accounts. ‘They killed everyone they met, attacked the inhabitants in their houses and slaughtered them and ransacked everywhere.’ Other eye-witnesses reported that the Mahdi’s men systematically raped the fairer-skinned women, especially Egyptians, and women of the Ja’aliyyin and Shaygiyya tribes. Some officers shot their wives and children, then put bullets through their own heads, rather than allow them to fall into dervish hands. Mohammad Pasha Hussain, the Head of Finance, saw his daughter and her husband murdered in front of him, and refused to flee with his friends. Instead he hurled curses on the Mahdi at the onrushing warriors until they silenced him permanently.

They caught the Greek consul, Nikolaos Leontides, in his house, and severed both his hands at the wrists before cutting off his head. They smashed their way into the house of another Greek family nearby, shooting the father through the forehead and cleaving his twelve-year-old son’s head with an axe, splattering brain matter and blood over his pregnant wife, who was claimed as a concubine by wad an-Nejumi. Almost all the Egyptian Copts in the town were murdered. Among the dead was the American consul, a Copt called Aser, who died of a heart attack when his brother’s head was struck off before his eyes.

Many people were betrayed by their former slaves and servants. Austrian consul Martin Hansall’s servant led a party to his house. In the courtyard, they found Hansall’s carpenter, Mulatte Skander, whose head they cut off. Hansall himself came downstairs, unarmed, to find Skander’s headless corpse lying in a pool of blood. A second later the warriors hacked off Hansall’s head, and in a killing frenzy stabbed both his dog and his parrot. They took man, dog and parrot outside, doused them in alcohol, set them on fire, and tossed them into the Blue Nile.

Franz Klein, a Hungarian Jew who had converted to Catholicism, and who had been the official tailor to many governors-general of the Sudan, was seized in his house and had his throat cut from ear to ear in front of his Italian wife and five children. His eighteen-year-old son was speared to death, and his daughter raped.

On the waterfront, the brother left in charge of the Catholic Mission, Domenico Polinari, opened the gate a crack. He found the guards chopped to pieces, and thousands of chanting dervishes standing over their bodies, brandishing bloody spears and swords. He slammed the gate shut and fled with some black workers to a hay shed in the corner of the ornate garden. Seconds later, dark figures burst through the gate and swarmed over the high walls. The blacks lost their nerve and quit their hiding-place, only to be caught and dismembered by the dervishes. Every man employed in the Mission grounds was killed. Polinari remained concealed, but could hear clearly their shrieks of terror, and the dry thwack of the dervish swords. A group of warriors came into the hut and poked their spears into the hay. Astonishingly, they missed him.

Dawn was already gathering over Omdurman, blood-red streaks gashing the night sky. Further along the Nile bank, hundreds of Mahdist banners were bobbing around the palace, and scores of dervish warriors were massing. According to one account, they were reluctant to enter, since several former palace servants had told them it was mined. But Gordon had abandoned the idea of blowing himself up, which would have been suicide, and therefore an act of cowardice and a betrayal of faith.

How Gordon actually died is a mystery. The figure of the hero standing on the palace steps in full uniform, sheathed sword at his belt, revolver unfired, with a host of spear-toting dervishes below him, is a familiar icon of the British Empire. The concept of martyrdom, with its Messianic overtones, was dear to the Victorian mind, and that this is how it happened seems somehow obvious to us, mainly because of George William Joy’s famous painting The Death of Gordon. Lytton Strachey’s embellishment in his biographical essay The End of General Gordon, suggesting that there was a dramatic pause while Gordon and the dervishes contemplated each other, has also added to the myth. The 1960s film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as Gordon, has the dervishes actually backing away when Gordon appears.

This image, though, is based on an account by Bordeini Bey, who had last seen Gordon hours before, and seems highly unlikely. Bordeini stated that Gordon was on the roof terrace in his dressing-gown until first light, when he descended to his room and dressed in his uniform. He then stood outside the door of his office, which was situated at the head of the stone steps leading down to the palace entrance.

A moment later, four dervishes came up the stairs. At least one of them had worked as a servant here previously, and knew the layout of the place. According to some accounts, Gordon demanded, ‘Where is your master, the Mahdi?’ The first man, a tribesman of the Danagla named Taha Shahin, ignored the question and bawled, ‘O cursed one, your day has come!’ He ran his spear into Gordon’s body. Gordon staggered, made a gesture of contempt, and turned his back. Taha stabbed him again, between the shoulder-blades. Gordon collapsed in a gush of blood. Taha’s three companions then came forward and hacked at the body with their swords until he was dead.

It might be better for posterity, perhaps, to leave Gordon standing there at the top of the steps, passively waiting for a martyr’s death. His ADC, Orfali, though, describes a very different passing – one that has Gordon fighting to the bitter end. This story cannot be dismissed, because, unlike Bordeini, Orfali was certainly present in the palace when the dervishes entered it, and his account is rich in the sort of convincing detail the other stories lack.

Orfali relates that within five minutes of Gordon learning that the dervishes had broken into the town, he had organized a defence of the palace. He stationed more than fifty soldiers and servants at windows, at the door on the ground floor, and on the roof terraces. Each man was armed with a Remington and had 120 rounds of ammunition. As the dervish mass streamed into the garden, cascades of fire roared out of the windows and rained down from the roof. About seventy warriors were killed or wounded. They were quickly replaced by their comrades, who ran round the walls and climbed over the vine trellis at the back. ‘They were met with the fire from the windows and terraces,’ recalled Orfali. ‘They came in great numbers, very quickly. Some ran to the entrance, killed the guards, and opened the door. Then they all ran to the [ground floor] door and killed the telegraph clerks.’

Some hared up the stairs on the right and began to slaughter the soldiers on the terrace. Others broke down the door into the upper corridor with axes, only to find Charles Gordon waiting for them with a loaded Webley revolver in one hand, a drawn sword in the other, and a grim look on his face. As they staggered back in surprise, he fired five or six rounds, knocking down two of them. He ran his sword through another, then began to reload his pistol, but at that moment some warriors who had entered from the other end of the corridor smashed through the door behind him. Orfali, standing next to him, rushed to block their way. A spearman stabbed him in the face. Gordon ran to help, but was hit by a hurled spear that glanced off his left shoulder. Ignoring the wound, he opened rapid fire. Orfali, with blood streaming down his face, fired blindly at point-blank range. Three bodies hit the floor, and the rest retreated, several of them losing blood.

Gordon was bleeding slightly from the glancing spear wound. Orfali’s face was covered in blood, but the wound was not as severe as it looked. They retired to Gordon’s room and reloaded their weapons. Gordon’s left hand was already black with powder burns from his rapid firing. A moment later, they heard more dervishes clumping up the stairs, and ran out to meet them. Just as they reached the head of the stairs, a dervish leaned out of an office door and rammed a spear into Gordon’s left shoulder from behind. Orfali chopped at the man’s hand, almost cutting it off. The dervish toppled across the corridor and down the stairs, and was impaled on the spear of one of his comrades coming up. At almost the same moment, a warrior on the top step cut Orfali’s leg with his blade.

More warriors were bounding down the corridor behind them. They were trapped on both sides. Another dervish slashed Orfali’s left hand. Gordon hacked him down with his own blade, and kicked him in the head. A tall black man, skulking in the doorway of one of the rooms, stepped out suddenly and fired at Gordon with a revolver. Gordon staggered, hit in the breast. He brought his own pistol up, and snapped a shot at the big warrior, knocking him flat.

Before he had even fallen, dozens more warriors sprinted up the corridor behind him. Gordon and Orfali blasted off their last rounds, then turned and tried to fight their way downstairs with their swords. They forced their way step by step, fighting shoulder to shoulder, cutting and thrusting, until they reached the bottom. By this time, Gordon had lost so much blood that he could scarcely stand. A last thrust from a spearman took him in the right hip, and he sank down on the mat at the base of the staircase. Orfali tried to back into the Finance Office nearby, but was knocked senseless with a club. He lay there among the corpses until afternoon. When he came round, he saw Gordon’s body lying where it had fallen, covered in blood and flies. His head had been cut off.

Orfali’s account is the most detailed of all the versions of Gordon’s death, but may not be the final word. Another eyewitness, a servant of Giriagis Bey, claimed that Gordon was not killed in the palace at all, but shot in the street while leading a party of soldiers and servants towards Martin Hansall’s house. Yet another eye-witness on the dervish side, a former clerk from el-Obeid named Ibrahim Sabir, claimed that Gordon was shot by a standard-bearer called Mursal Hammuda while standing at the top of the steps. Only when the body had rolled to the ground was it identified as that of Gordon. A chief called Babikr Koko came riding up on a horse, cut off Gordon’s head with his sword, stuffed it in a leather bag, and rode away.

What happened to Gordon’s body is uncertain. Most probably it was simply dropped into the Blue Nile. The river to which he had returned over and over again in his life became his final resting place.

The killing, raping, torture and looting in Khartoum continued until 1700 hours, when the Mahdi ordered it stopped. By that time, as many as ten thousand men, women and children may have been massacred.

Rudolf Carl von Slatin, still in chains at the dervish camp in Omdurman, had been up all night. He knew that something was afoot, but had not been told that the dervish army had advanced. He had just fallen asleep at dawn when he was awoken by the clatter of musketry and the roar of artillery-fire from across the river. He realized that the Mahdi must have launched an offensive. ‘Excited and agitated,’ he wrote, ‘I awaited the result with intense impatience. Soon shouts of rejoicing and victory were heard in the distance, and my guards ran off to find out the news. In a few minutes they were back again, excitedly relating how Khartoum had been taken by storm and was now in the hands of the Mahdists.’

At first he was not inclined to believe them. Crawling out of his tent, though, he saw that the camp was jam-packed with thousands of exultant warriors, most of them gathered before the pavilions of the Mahdi and the Khalifa ‘Abdallahi. Suddenly, Slatin noticed a slave marching directly towards him followed by a crowd of crying people. The slave, one of ‘Abdallahi’s warriors, whom Slatin recognized as a southerner called Shatta, was carrying something wrapped in a bloody cloth. Shatta halted before Slatin and made an insulting gesture. Then he unwrapped the cloth, and showed Slatin the severed head of Charles George Gordon. ‘Is this not the head of your uncle, the unbeliever?’ he leered.

Slatin was staggered. For a moment his heart seemed to stop. Then he recovered his self-control. He studied Gordon’s familiar features, looked the slave in the eye, and said quietly, ‘What of it? A brave soldier, who fell at his post. Happy is he to have fallen. His sufferings are over.’

From Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure by Michael Asher.

Taiwan Air Force – Taiwanese Straits

F-86F Sabre ‘Thunder Tigers’ Taiwan Air Force

The military forces of the Republic of China in Taiwan were established by and with the personnel that retreated to Taiwan with the Guomindang (GMD) and the Nationalist armed forces (guo jun; approximately 800,000 troops) under Chiang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi’s) leadership in 1949. The major branches of the military include the army, navy, marine corps, air force, military police, combined logistics command, and reserve command. Among the unique strategies of the Ministry of National Defense (Guofang Bu) was the establishment of the General Political Warfare Department (Zong Zhengzhi Zuozhan Ju) with divisions in all military branches. This department was charged with the responsibilities of propaganda campaigns, the policing of the loyalty of military personnel, and military intelligence against mainland Chinese infiltrators. Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo (Jiang Jingguo) presided over this unit.

From this time through the 1970s, Chiang Kai-shek and the military strategists defined the primary mission of the military to be retaking mainland China (fangong dalu) and reuniting China (tongyi Zhongguo), as exemplified by the speeches and programs of annual National Day military parades (October 10) and fueled by full-scale military conflicts with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Taiwan’s Quemoy (Jinmen), a group of offshore islands just eight miles off the coast of mainland China, from 1954 to 1955 and 1958 to 1959. Hao Po-tsun (Hao Bocun), then commander of the Army’s Ninth Division, played a major role in defending Quemoy in 1958 and became the first, albeit controversial, instance of an activeduty military member to be involved in the political scene (he served as premier of the Executive Yuan from 1990 to 1993).

The ROC troops worked closely with the Seventh Fleet of the U. S. Navy, sent as part of the U. S. blockade during the Korean War (1950-1953) to prevent conflicts across the Taiwan Strait. Officers in Taiwan’s military have also been regularly sent to the United States for training. In regard to regional collaborations, Taiwan’s military has helped to train thousands of Singaporean soldiers since 1975. There had been no other serious conflict until the so-called third Taiwan Strait crisis from 1995 to 1996, when the PLA conducted a series of missile tests in the waters in the vicinity of Taiwan and live-ammunition exercises to warn Taiwan’s president Lee Teng-hui (Li Denghui) against his departure from the one-China policy. The ROC military did not respond in kind and remained low key.

ROCAF General HQ was established in June 1946. From 1946 to 1948, during the Chinese Civil War, the ROCAF participated in combat against the People’s Liberation Army engaging in air-to-air combat on at least eleven occasions in the areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait. The ROCAF reportedly enjoyed a 31:1 kill ratio against the PLA. GHQ was evacuated to Taiwan along with the rest of the ROC Government in April 1949 following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. The ROCAF assisted in halting the PLA advance at the Battle of Kuningtou on Kinmen the same year.

The ROCAF regularly patrolled the Taiwan Straits and fought many engagements with its Communist counterpart (the PLAAF). The ROCAF received second hand equipment from the US at that time, such as the F-86, F-100 and F-104.

During the Cold War, the ROCAF was involved in combat air patrols over the Taiwan Strait and engaged the PLAAF and PLAN-AF on several occasions. The ROCAF was also the testbed of American technology at this time. The first successful kill scored by an air-to-air missile was accomplished by a ROCAF F-86 Sabre with then experimental AIM-9 Sidewinder. ROCAF pilots also flew U-2 recon overflights of the PRC during this time with assistance from the USAF. Known as the Black Cat Squadron they flew a total of 220 missions, with 102 missions over mainland China, losing 5 aircraft. All five were shot down by SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, the same type of surface-to-air missile that shot down Gary Powers over the USSR in 1960. The 34th “Black Bat Squadron” flew low level missions into China as part of its mapping PRC growing air defense networks, conducting ESM and ECM missions, inserting agents behind enemy lines, and air drop resupply missions.

MiG-15 PLAAF shoots down a Lockheed F-5 Lightning [photo-recon P-38] RoCAF over Taiwan

Chinese MiG-15s were constantly in action against ROCAF and USAF /USN aircraft. According to Chinese official sources, PLAAF MiGs destroyed or damaged around 200 enemy aircraft between 1954 and 1958, including Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51s, F-84s, F-86s, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24s, B-25s, and other types. In reality, however, half of these were claimed by anti-aircraft artillery crews. The biggest operation that PLAAF Fagots participated in after the Korean War was the Taiwan crisis of late 1958, which almost resulted in a new major war. Over the course of the conflict, the MiGs fighters shot down or damaged 42 ROCAF aircraft, losing 15 of their own. The Taiwan crisis marked the first operational use of air-to-air missiles. Using this new weapon, Taiwanese fighters shot down four MiGs in a single battle.

Later, the MiG-15 was used for reconnaissance flights over Taiwan, which led to more shootdowns. A number of Fagot-Bs were delivered to Taiwan in 1958-91 by defecting Chinese pilots. Many of these and other aircraft obtained in this fashion were used for reconnaissance flights over mainland China, masquerading as bona fide PLAAF aircraft.

Taiwan Straits Conflicts (1950-1967)

    29 July 1950 – Antiaircraft fire from Xiamen shoots down a RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt killing its pilot.

    16 June 1953 – Antiaircraft fire from Dongshan Island shoots down a RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt killing its pilot.

    17 December 1953 – Antiaircraft fire in Jejiang shoots down a RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt killing its pilot.

    22 May 1954 – in an engagement involving six PLAAF MiG-15 “Fagots”, RoCAF pilots Chien and Yen shoot down one of the MiGs with machinegun fire from their P-47N Thunderbolts.

    26 May 1954 – Antiaircraft fire from Fujian downs an RoCAF B-17 Flying Fortress with all of its four crewmen killed.

    3 June 1954 – A La-11 “Fang” of the PLAAF downs an RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt killing its pilot.

    6 July 1954 – Cannonfire of a MiG-15 “Fagot” of the PLAAF downs an RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt killing its pilot.

    12 September 1954 – Antiaircraft fire from Xiamen downs an RoCAF PB4Y Privateer killing all nine crew.

    19 January 1955 – Antiaircraft fire downs an RoCAF F-84G Thunderjet over the PRC killing its pilot.

    21 January 1955 – Antiaircraft fire downs an RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt over the PRC killing its pilot.

    9 February 1955 – During the evacuation of nationalist Chinese from the Tachen islands covered by aircraft launched from USS Wasp (CV-18), a USN AD-5W Skyraider on antisubmarine patrol from VC-11 is heavily damaged by PRC Antiaircraft fire and forced to ditch at sea. its crew of three are rescued by patrol boats of the ROC.

    22 June 1955 – A MiG-17 “Fresco” of the PLAAF shoots down an RT-33A of the RoCAF killing its pilot.

    4 July 1955 – A MiG-15 “Fagot” among a group of four PLAAF Mikoyan is shot down in combat with four F-84G Thunderjets of the RoCAF.

    16 July 1955 – Antiaircraft fire from Kinmen downs an RoCAF F-84G Thunderjet killing its pilot.

    15 October 1955 – A PLAAF MiG-15 “Fagot” is shot down by Tzu-Wan Sun of the RoCAF in his F-86 Sabre.

    14 April 1956 – A MiG-15 “Fagot” among a group of four PLAAF Mikoyan is shot down in combat with four F-84G Thunderjets of the RoCAF.

    22 June 1956 – A RoCAF B-17 Flying Fortress is shot down during a nighttime mission by cannonfire from an intercepting MiG-17 “Fresco” of the PLAAF. All eleven crew on board perish.

    Roundel of the USAF 20 July 1956 – A MiG-15 “Fagot” among a group of four PLAAF Mikoyan is shot down in combat with four F-84G Thunderjets of the RoCAF.

    21 July 1956 – Two MiG-15 “Fagots” among a group of three PLAAF Mikoyan are shot down by pilot I-Fang Ouyang flying among four RoCAF F-86 Sabres.

    10 November 1956 – During an airdrop over Jejigxi a C-46 Commando of the RoCAF is shot down by a PLAAF MiG-19 “Farmer” killing its nine crewmen.

    1 July 1957 – Antiaircraft fire downs an RoCAF P-47N Thunderbolt over the PRC killing its pilot.

    18 February 1958 – A MiG-15 “Fagot” of the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force brings down a RoCAF RB-57D above Shandong killing the pilot.

    29 July 1958 – Four MiG-17 “Frescos” engaged four F-84G Thunderjets patroling near Nan Ao Island resulting in the downing of two Thunderjets by pilots Gao ChangJi and Zhang YiLing of the PLAAF 54th Regiment.

    14 August 1958 – Three PLAAF MiG-17 “Frescos” are shot down by a group of four RoCAF F-86 Sabres, With pilots Ping-Chun Chin and Chung-Li Li each shooting down one themselves. A third Mikoyan being brought down by two other Sabres flown by Hsien-Wu Liu and Fu-The Pan. afterwards Sabre No. 307 involved in the shootdown failed to return to base.

    25 August 1958 – Two PLAAF MiG-17 “Frescos” are engaged and shot down by RoCAF F-86 Sabres piloted by Tien-En Chiang and Hsu-Hsiang Ku

    8 September 1958 – Seven PLAAF MiG-17 “Frescos” are shot down by numerous F-86 Sabres of the RoCAF. Five pilots, Ping-Chun Chin, Yi-Chien Li, Chin-Chung Liang, Chung-Tsi Yu and Wai-Ming Chu each being credited one kill, Hsien-Wu Liu downs two more himself. On the PLAAF side pilot Zhang Yi destroys one F-86 Sabre in his MiG-17 “Fresco”

    18 September 1958 – Above Haicheng Guangdong Six PLAAF MiG-17 “Frescos” are shot down by a number of RoCAF F-86 Sabres flown by Wan-Li Lin, Yang-Chung Lu, Che-Shing Mao, Tzu-Wan Sun, Kuang-Hsing Tung and Hsin-Yeh Liu with each downing one Mikoyan. One Sabre is brought down by cannon fire from a PLAAF MiG-17 “Fresco” piloted by Chang Zhu You.

    24 September 1958 – Shortly after their aircraft had been retrofitted by technicians of the United States Marine Corps to carry the AIM-9B Sidewinder air to air missiles, Numerous missile armed RoCAF F-86 Sabres took off and gave chase to a group of PLAAF MiG-17 “Frescos” that had cruised above them. Due to the superior rate of climb, vertical maneuverability, thrust to weight ratio and service ceiling the Fresco pilots did not perceive any danger in doing this as they were unaware of this newly installed armament. Sabre pilots began to fire their missiles at the MiG’s destroying some. Others broke into a dive and entered a horizontal turning engagement with their pursuers who held an advantage in horizontal turn-rate allowing them to engage with guns shooting down more of the PRC jets. Pilots Jing-Chuen Chen, Chun-Hsein Fu, Jie-Tsu Hsia, Shu-Yuen Li, Ta-Peng Ma, Hong-Yan Sung shot down one MiG-17 each, Yi-Chiang Chien shot down two himself and two pairs of pilots Tasi-Chuen Liu with Tang Jie-Min and Hsin-Yung Wang with Yuen-Po Wang shared in the downing of one MiG by each duo. During this engagement one further Fresco sustained notable damage being impacted by an AIM-9 that did not detonate. It escaped with an intact missile within the airframe that was extracted after returning to its base and hesitantly transferred to the Soviet Union for reverse engineering.

    2 October 1958 – Antiaircraft fire from Kinmen knocks down a C-46 Commando killing all five crewmen.

    10 October 1958 – Over the PRC four RoCAF F-86F Sabre Pilots engage and shoot down four MiG-17 “Frescos” of the PLAAF, As one of the Fresco burn it explodes launching chunks of debris towards and striking one of its attackers causing heavy damage, An RoCAF pilot ejects and is captured and placed in detention until his release on 30 June 1959.

    29 May 1959 – Above Guandong a PLAAF MiG-17 “Fresco” intercepts and shoots down a RoCAF B-17 Flying Fortress killing all 14 on board.

    5 July 1959 – Above the Taiwan Straits twenty four PLAAF MiG-17 “Frescos” are engaged by four F-86 Sabres of the RoCAF ending in the destruction of two Frescos.

    7 October 1959 – Above Beijing an RoCAF RB-57D piloted by Wang Ying Chin is the first plane to ever be shot down by a surface to air missile. Chin dies after his plane was destroyed by an SA-2 Guideline missile.

    6 November 1961 – Above Shantung province an RB-69A Neptune is destroyed by an SA-2 Guideline missile killing all 13 aboard.

    9 September 1962 – Fifteen Kilometers south of Nunchang an RoCAF Lockheed U-2A is shot down by an SA-2 Guideline missile. Pilot Chen Huai Sheng bails out and is captured after landing but dies some time later in a PRC hospital.

    14 June 1963 – Above Nanchang a RoCAF RB-69A Neptune is shot down by 23 mm NR-23 cannon-fire from a PLAAF MiG-17PF “Fresco” killing all 14 crew aboard.

    1 November 1963 – Above Jiagxi an SA-2 Guideline shoots down an RoCAF Lockheed U-2C. Pilot Yeh Chang Yi was returning from an intelligence mission where he took aerial photos of Jiayuguan missile test site and Lanzhou nuclear weapons plant. After detecting the first Guideline had been launched at him he made evasive maneuvers and avoided the first only to be struck by a second missile moments later knocking off his right wing. after bailing out and falling into captivity of the PRC he was held until 10 November 1982 when he was released into Hong Kong, He was eventually admitted into the United States after ROC officials denied his attempts to be repatriated.

    11 June 1964 – Near Yantai on the Shantung Peninsula Coordination between a MiG-17F “Fresco” and an Iluyshin Il-28 “Beagle” of the PLAAF supports the nighttime interception of an RoCAF RB-69A Neptune by dropping flares to illuminate the target plane allowing the fighter to shoot it down with cannon-fire.

    7 July 1964 – Flying above Fujian, RoCAF pilot Lee Nan Lee is shot down and killed after his Lockheed U-2G is targeted and struck by an SA-2 Guideline missile.

    18 December 1964 – Above Wenzhou, an RoCAF RF-101A Voodoo piloted by Hsieh Hsiangho is shot down by a People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force Shenyang J-6. He is captured by fishermen when he ejects above the ocean and detained until July of 1985.

    10 January 1965 – Southwest of Beijing, On a mission to capture aerial photos of Paotow uranium enrichment plant using an infrared camera RoCAF pilot Chang Liyi is shot down after being struck by an SA-2 Guideline missile. He survives the crash with both legs broken, Captured he is held until 10 November 1982 when released into Hong Kong. He was eventually admitted into the United States after ROC officials denied his attempts to be repatriated.

    18 March 1965 – Above Guangdong near Shantou, a PLAAF MiG-19 “Farmer” piloted by Gao Chang Ji shoots down and kills RoCAF pilot Chang Yupao flying an RF-101C Voodoo.

    10 January 1966 – Above Matsu, PLAAF MiG-17 “Fresco” shoots down an RoCAF HU-16 Albatross attempting to carry defectors to Taiwan.

    10 January 1966 – A HU-16 of the Republic of China Air Force was shot down by People’s Republic of China PLAAF MiG-17 over Matsu whilst transporting defectors to Taiwan.

    13 January 1967 – Four F-104G Starfighters of the RoCAF are engaged by Twelve MiG-19 “Farmers” of the PLAAF. Two Farmers are claimed shot by Hu Shih-Lin and one by Bei-Puo Shih. F-104G No. 64-17779 involved in the engagement does not return and is believed to have been shot down.

Thunderbolt in Chinese/Taiwanese Service

ROCAF Combat Losses Since 1950

`Locomotive Battery for Field of Battle with a Steam Engine’

Boydell’s steam tractor, with its ‘footed’ wheel, was a practical attempt to enable vehicles to cross soft, uneven ground and the inferior roads of the 19th century.

Steam traction engines were also used to tow guns on other occasions during the second half of the 19th century. In the meantime, prompted probably by the Crimean War, J. Cowan proposed another use of steam traction for military purposes in 1855 in Britain by taking out patent No. 747 for a `Locomotive Battery for Field of Battle with a Steam Engine’ – a wheeled vehicle with a turtle-like iron carapace out of which protruded several guns and at the side of which were scythes for mowing down any troops that might attack it.

All he proposed was the adaptation of the existing steam tractor of James Boydell (first patented in 1846) to mount cannon behind a dome-like, iron outer casing and travel where other types of wheeled vehicles could not move. The Boydell tractor was a practical example, used in the Crimea, of a portable railway – in this case a vehicle which did not sink into the ground because its wheels were fitted with detached pivoted rails, or feet. These were laid down and then picked up as the wheel turned, to spread the vehicle’s load. Had it been built, the Cowen’s crews would almost have baked alive behind their armour, yet they might have survived against the enemy in this genuine proposal for a practical, self-propelled vehicle uniquely incorporating mobility, firepower and protection. Certainly the Boydell footed wheel triggered many inventors to begin experiments with `continuous tracks’.

Cowan’s vehicle was never built, but during the South African War of 1899-1902 the British Army used about 50 traction engines for towing supply trucks and guns. In 1900 two of the engines built for use in South Africa by John Fowler and Co. of Leeds were armoured, as were the trucks they towed, to protect them against Boer attacks when they were used for carrying supplies. Eventually the number of the armoured Fowler engines sent to South Africa rose to four. The armour of the Fowler engines and of the trucks was provided with loopholes through which rifles could be fired, and a field gun could be hauled onto a truck instead of being towed. In principle, there was only a small step from this to a steam-powered, gun-armed armoured fighting vehicle. Such a vehicle had in fact already been envisaged by Cowan and was depicted in 1883 by A. Robida in a French journal La Caricature.

The ideas of Robida, like those of Cowan, were never implemented, but 20 years later steam-powered armoured vehicles were the subject of a story by H. G. Wells, the science fiction writer, which was published in the Strand Magazine in December 1903 under the title `The Land Ironclads’. This story is often presented as a prophetic vision of future armoured vehicles and as having influenced, albeit indirectly, the development of the first British tanks several years later. In fact, Wells’ `ironclads’ did not represent an advance on Fowler’s armoured steam engines built three years earlier so far as their means of propulsion were concerned, and this was equally true of their armament, which still consisted of rifles. Nor did they foreshadow future armoured fighting vehicles in other respects, except for being envisaged to operate off the roads over broken ground. However, what was to make this possible was not very practicable, as it was based on the use by the `ironclads’ of Pedrails – another type of footed wheel devised around 1899 by B. J. Diplock. This wheel has been confused with the Pedrail track, which was not brought out by Diplock until 1910, and has led to the erroneous belief that Wells foresaw tracked armoured vehicles

Cowen’s ‘Locomotive Land Battery’ or ‘Devastator’

Spanish Armoured Frigate, Numancia

In South America in March 1866, the French-built Spanish ironclad Numancia bombarded Valparaiso, Chile, in the presence of the warships of several nations including the U. S. “seagoing” monitor Monadnock. Numancia then went on to bombard the Peruvian port of Callao on 2 May 1866.

Spanish armoured frigate, built 1861-64. Numancia was one of the last survivors of the ironclad frigates that were built in considerable numbers for most navies in the 1860s. The French had built the first, Gloire, in the late 1850s and Numancia was built by the French shipyard of La Seyne. She was laid down in 1861, launched in 1863 and completed in November 1864, and was an iron hulled, fully-rigged three-masted broadside ironclad frigate. She had a ram bow, a single slightly raked funnel, and a raised forecastle and quarterdeck. Her original armament of 34 68-pdr guns was carried on the main deck broadside. She had a complete waterline belt which extended up over the main deck battery. It was 130 mm (5.1 in) thick over the guns and 120 mm (4.7 in) over the machinery, but tapered to 100 mm (3.9 in) at the ends. Her French-built compound reciprocating engine drove a single six-bladed screw, and she made 12.94 knots with 3708 ihp on trials.

She was rated as a line of battle ship by the Spanish, and immediately after delivery was sent to join the Spanish Squadron in the Pacific, which had been sent out to harass the coast of Peru. In company with the unarmoured wooden steam frigate Reina Blanca she fought an inconclusive action with the joint Chilean-Peruvian squadron off Tubilda near Huite on March 1, 1866, and she also took part in the bombardments of Valparaiso and Callao later in the same year, after which the squadron returned to Spain.

Juan Bautista Antequera: He distinguished himself in the the rebellions Alicante and Cartagena (Murcia), for which he was granted the Cross of San Fernando. In command of the brig Galiano in Havana he fought against pirates. During the war of Africa, in 1859, took part in the battles of River Martin, Larache and Arcila, being granted promotion to Colonel of Marine Infantry. During the Spanish-South American War of 1865, he took command of the armored frigate Numancia under the orders of Admiral Casto Méndez Núñez present at the bombing of Valparaíso and the battle of Callao. He later made the circumnavigation trip around the world back to Spain with Numancia.

By the 1870s her original armament had been replaced by a smaller number of 254- mm (10-in) and 203-mm (8-in) Armstrong RML (rifled muzzle-loading) guns. In 1873-74 she was seized at Cartagena, Colombia by the Intransigentes during the three-sided civil war, and in 1873 she rammed the Spanish corvette Fernando el Catolico, which sank.

After this she saw little service for the next 20 years, but the thick iron hull remained in good condition, and she was completely rebuilt at La Seyne between 1896-98. Her rig was reduced to two pole masts with fighting tops, she was reboilered, and was rearmed with four 200-mm (7.9-in), three 150-mm (5.9- in), ten 140-mm (5.5-in) QF, 12 47-mm (1.85- in) four 70-mm (2.76-in) and two 37-mm (1.46-in) guns and two 36-cm (14-in) torpedo tubes. Fortunately for the United States, perhaps, she was not ready in time to take part in the Spanish-American war, and in the early years of the twentieth century she became a gunnery training ship. She was reduced to harbour duties, and then scrapped in about 1920.


In the 1860s relations between Spain and its former colonies Peru and Chile deteriorated into open warfare after the Spanish seized Peru’s guano-rich Chincha Islands. Admiral Casto Mendez Nuñez steamed from Spain on board the newly built ironclad Numancia to take command of a Spanish squadron off the coast of Chile. He bombarded the port of Valparaiso in February 1866, then moved north to Peru, choosing the fortified naval base at Callao as his target.

The fighting Peruvians brought up two home-built ironclads, the Virginia-style casemated Loa and Victoria, which was purportedly a monitor-type ironclad powered by a locomotive engine. However, it is doubtful that the Peruvians, ingenious as they were, could manufacture a revolving-turret ironclad with their resources. More effective were the Peruvian turret shore batteries, whose return fire killed 43 Spaniards, compared to 200 Peruvian dead. The Spanish fleet had 245 guns on board, arranged in broadside. The Peruvian armament totaled around 90 guns, including some very heavy shore guns in armored emplacements. On the morning of May 2, the Spanish ships advanced within range and a ferocious gun duel began; it lasted six hours. The Spanish vessels received many hits, especially Numancia, deliberately positioned by Mendez Nuñez in the place of greatest danger. More than 40 Spanish officers and men were killed and a further 160 were wounded, including the admiral. But the Spanish had the better of the duel, silencing almost all the shore guns with their more skilful shooting. There were some 600 Peruvian casualties, including the minister of war Juan Galvez, killed in the destruction of an armored strongpoint. The Spanish squadron subsequently left for the Philippines, leaving the bombardment without consequence. Returning home to Spain, Numancia became the first ironclad to circumnavigate the globe.In Spain, during the Cartagena Revolt (July 1873), revolting Cantonists seized the naval base, taking control of globe-circling ironclad frigate Numancia, as well as Vitoria, Tetuan, and the ironclad corvette Mendez Nunez. The Spanish government, now bereft of most of its navy, hit upon the idea of declaring the insurgents pirates. Thus when the Cantonists threatened to bombard Almiera if a ransom were not paid, the German turret ironclad Friedrich Karl and the British box battery ironclad Swiftsure seized two insurgent unarmored warships and returned Vitoria to the Madrid government. Vitoria then clashed with the insurgent-held Tetuan. Badly damaged in the encounter, Tetuan was blown up in Cartagena harbor by the rebels to avoid capture. That October, the entire rebel ironclad fleet put to sea to engage the government squadron, which now included its one remaining ironclad, Vitoria. That single government ironclad apparently was enough to beat off the rebel fleet in an ironclad naval battle almost lost to history. After some coastal bombardments by government ironclads and unarmored warships, the civil war finally ended in May 1876.

Name: Numancia
Namesake: Numantia
Builder: Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, La Seyne,
Laid down: 22 April 1862
Launched: 19 November 1863
Completed: 17 December 1864
Commissioned: 1865
Refit: 1897–98
Struck: 1912
Fate: Sank while under tow, 17 December 1916
General characteristics (as built)
Type: Broadside ironclad
Displacement: 7,305 metric tons (7,190 long tons)
Length: 95.6 m (313 ft 8 in)
Beam: 17.3 m (56 ft 9 in)
Draft: 7.7 m (25 ft)
Installed power: 3,770 ihp (2,810 kW)
Propulsion: 1 shaft, 1 Horizontal return connecting rod compound steam engine 8 boilers
Sail plan: Ship rig
Speed: about 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph)
Range: 3,000 nautical miles (5,600 km; 3,500 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 561
Armament: 40 × 68-pounder smoothbore guns
Armor: Belt: 100–130 mm (3.9–5.1 in) Battery: 120 mm (4.7 in)

Sickle Cut through France I

Knights of our times . . . Tank units, mobile, fast and hard hitting, and directed by wireless from headquarters, attack the enemy. This armoured machine paves the way to victory, flattening and crushing all obstacles and spitting out destruction.

Signal, 1940

Although Britain and France had declared war on Germany in September 1939, nothing much happened on the Western Front until the Germans invaded France in May 1940. This was the period known to the Germans as the Sitzkrieg (sit-down war) during which time both sides faced each other across the frontier, the Allies waiting for the Germans to make the first move. The Germans for their part were surprised that the French had not attacked while the bulk of the Wehrmacht was engaged in Poland. Indeed not only had the Germans stripped the West of all of their tanks and almost all of their infantry, they had no defence line worthy of the name to delay any French thrust. But the French chose instead to renege on their military pact with Poland and do nothing to help their ally.

The French did launch a half-hearted attack from the Saar with nine divisions on 9 September, in what was to be the only major French offensive of the war. But these divisions were ordered to halt after just three days and were withdrawn completely by early October, largely due to an unwillingness to provoke the Germans. The Western Front then settled into a period of prolonged inactivity, broken only by occasional artillery duels and the continual patrols mounted by each side to discover the strengths and dispositions of the other. Activity in the air was limited to reconnaissance and leaflet dropping, both sides wary of encouraging retaliation on civilian centres.

At least part of the reason for French inactivity can be attributed to their Commander-in-Chief, the 68-year-old General Gamelin, a relic of the First World War with an over-inflated reputation. He seemed to regard his real enemy to be not the Germans, but his own government. Gamelin set up headquarters in a thirteenth-century castle without radio or telephone communication and admitted it normally took forty-eight hours for his orders to reach the front. He was also on poor terms with his chief of staff. Clearly the French High Command was neither technically nor psychologically prepared for the pace of the battle ahead.

The Germans had used the winter of 1939–40 to convert the four Leichte divisions to full panzer status, thus forming the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th panzer divisions. The general shortage of tanks meant that once upgraded, they were equipped with only one tank regiment whereas the earlier divisions all had two and about half of the 220 tanks each of these new divisions contained were Czech-built. There were now ten panzer divisions. The process of replacing the obsolete Pz Is and IIs with the new Pz IIIs and IVs was also accelerated, but the low numbers of tanks being produced meant that relatively little progress had been made on this by May 1940.

On 1 March 1940 Hitler issued a directive for the occupation of Norway and Denmark which he codenamed Fall Wesserubung. It was a daring operation, devised from a Baedecker guide by General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst and the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) staff and conducted largely by naval forces landing infantry at the main ports. The attack was launched on 9 April and Denmark capitulated almost immediately with Norway subdued by early May. Although the Panzerwaffe played only a very minor role in the campaign, it is still worthy of a mention.

A special tank battalion, Panzer Abteilung zur besonderer Vervendung 40, was formed for use in Norway by taking one company each from the 4th, 5th and 6th panzer divisions. Two of these companies were initially used in Denmark and the bulk of the third was lost at sea when its transport went down. An experimental formation called Panzerzug Horstmann was also dispatched to Norway, comprising three Neubaufahrzeug Panzerkampfwagen VI – these were prototypes sent with the specific intention of convincing the Allies that the Germans already possessed heavy tanks. With this purpose in mind, staged propaganda photographs were taken of the three tanks leaving the harbour. Whether the ruse worked or not must remain a matter of conjecture, as before the campaign had ended Hitler had struck in the West.

The total number of German tanks used in the northern campaign never exceeded fifty and was composed largely of obsolete Panzer Is and IIs. Despite the limited nature of the Panzerwaffe’s participation in the Norwegian campaign, the Germans learned some valuable lessons. The prototype heavy tanks were found to be suitable only for supporting infantry operations and never went into production. Indeed one proved so heavy it bogged down at a fjord crossing and had to be destroyed by army engineers – it was replaced with a sheet-steel mock-up in order to maintain the subterfuge. Experience in dealing with mountainous terrain was studied and put to good use when the panzers struck in the Balkans a year later.

The Allies, while slow to honour their pact with Poland, had devised a plan to counter the likely German assault on France. The plan, codenamed Plan D after the River Dyle, was to advance into Belgium to meet the invading Germans there. It was based on two simple premises: an expectation that the Germans would attack along the lines of the famous von Schlieffen plan which had come within an ace of success in 1914 and that the Allied southern front was adequately covered by the supposedly impassable Ardennes forest and the Maginot line fortifications. A German attack across the plain of Flanders offered ready access to France’s greatest prizes, Paris and the industrial region near the Belgian border. To counter this expected revival of Schlieffen, the Allied plan called for a wheel-like advance along the Belgian border to establish a defensive line along the rivers Dyle and Meuse. The overall objective of Plan D was to gain time, not outright victory. The Allies aimed for a battlefield deadlock until their own armament production got into full swing and they could then launch a massive offensive of their own in late 1940 or early 1941.

The French Seventh Army was allocated the bulk of motorised units as it was expected to advance along the coast, at the rim of the imaginary wheel, and hence had the farthest to travel. The ten motorised infantry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupied the centre of the front with the French First Army, to their south. Corap’s French Ninth Army was at the hub of the wheel and was composed of second-rate reservists and older troops. Their advance was to be the shortest as these troops were not up to the rigours of the long forced marches expected of their northern comrades.

Little or no consultation was taken with the Belgian military, as the Belgians, keen to maintain a neutral stance, did not want to provoke the Germans with overtly belligerent behaviour – an attitude hard to reconcile with the fact that all her defences, including the fortress of Eben Emael, pointed toward the Reich. As a result no common defence plan, central command or framework for co-operation was agreed on for use in the event of a German attack. This unhelpful Belgian attitude to their own allies hampered the successful prosecution of Plan D, as the twenty-two Belgian divisions would be badly missed if they were destroyed in the initial stages of a German attack.

The French for their part had invested a lot of money and effort in the Maginot Line, the series of underground fortifications built along the central part of her north-eastern frontier during the 1930s. These forts were the physical manifestation of the French static warfare mentality. It is often said that generals always expect the next war to be fought in the same way as the last one and in the case of the French, this was certainly true. They anticipated the battle ahead would be First World War, Mark II with a deadlock on the battlefield forcing both sides to dig into defensive positions like the trenches of 1914–18. They seemed to have forgotten that Napoleon had once said that the side that stays within its fortifications is beaten.

Each of the large forts was the equivalent of a two-storey building sunken into the ground with only the big guns on its roof visible. They were designed to be self-sufficient and indestructible, the larger ones capable of housing up to 1,000 defenders for a prolonged period. Some were interconnected by tunnels and the guns were given a good range of fire, even capable of firing at neighbouring forts if they fell into enemy hands. This impressive piece of engineering formed a formidable obstacle stretching along the French border from Luxembourg to Switzerland. However it must be stressed that large parts of the line were less well defended and consisted of minor secondary works.

There was only one problem with the Maginot Line: it was clearly in the wrong place. No invader of France had ever followed the route it defended – from the time of the Romans they had always come further north. The Germans had come through Belgium in the First World War and even the Allies expected them to do so again in the coming attack. Why then was the Maginot Line not extended as far as the Channel coast?

The main reasons were political. For one thing, building a defensive line between Belgium and France would mean abandoning the Belgians to their fate. If it had been built, it would have left the Belgians to fight the initial German advance alone, while the Allies stood by and watched the Belgian Army’s inevitable destruction from behind their defensive walls. More importantly, Allied military thinking was based on the notion of advancing into Belgium to meet the Germans there, thus keeping the fighting off French soil altogether. There were also the peacetime considerations of the detrimental effect such a barrier would have on trade, industry and communications.

Once war broke out, the French did begin work on extending the defensive line to the sea, but it was much too late by then and it didn’t take the panzers long to breach these flimsy westward extensions when they met them in May 1940. In the end the Maginot Line proved more of a propaganda success than a military one. One commentator later stated that the Maginot Line did prove a formidable barrier, not to the Germans but to ‘French understanding of modern war’.

In September 1939, Hitler had ordered his army to produce a plan for the conquest of France. The work was allocated to the planning staff of the OKH (Oberkommando das Heer – Army High Command) led by Generaloberst Franz Halder, Chief of the General Staff. The bureaucratic, pince-nez-wearing Halder, a typical product of the German General Staff, looked and behaved more like a pedantic school-master than a soldier. This colourless functionary had no real faith in the possibility of a successful Western offensive, and aided (or hindered) by a 58-page memo from Hitler, the OKH under Halder’s guidance produced an unambitious plan which bore some resemblance to the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, but fell far short of promising the quick and decisive victory Hitler needed in France.

The plan proposed a strong right hook across Holland and Belgium led by Generaloberst Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B. Holland would be overrun by Armee-Abteilung N (an army detachment – this was a small army made up of two or three army corps) while the three armies under von Bock were expected to engage and defeat the Allied armies in Belgium somewhere in the region of Liege. For this task Bock’s Army Group was to receive eight of the ten panzer divisions and over half of the available forces in the West. At the same time Army Group A under Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt was to cover the southern flank of these operations using two armies and a single panzer division, but with little hope of getting much farther than the Meuse. Army Group C, commanded by Generaloberst Ritter von Leeb, was left to hold the Siegfried Line. Although the attack on Holland was repeatedly dropped and re-included over the coming months, the plan in essence remained the same.

Neither Hitler nor his army chiefs had any great faith in the ‘Fall Gelb’ (Case Yellow) plan. If the Germans failed to defeat the Allies outright in Belgium, all they could then hope for was to push them back to the Somme, at the same time aiming to seize as much of the Channel coast as possible for future operations by the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. What was to happen after that was unclear, but it looked as if the battle would then settle into a protracted First World War style war of attrition, which the Germans knew from experience they couldn’t win. Victory had to be quick if war in the West was to be viable.

The launch of Fall Gelb was postponed nearly thirty times, generally caused by poor weather prospects, but one wonders how much Hitler’s basic dislike of the plan influenced these postponements. In the months before the attack he constantly sought modifications and improvements. Finally a new and radical plan came to his attention and he enthusiastically adopted that instead.

In October 1939 the Fall Gelb plan fell into the hands of General von Manstein, now Chief of Staff to Army Group A under his old boss, von Rundstedt, and he wasn’t at all impressed. Manstein, who had ably proven his own planning credentials during the Polish campaign, remarked in his memoirs that he felt deep disgust that the General Staff could do no better than try an old formula, and even then on a less ambitious scale: ‘I found it humiliating, to say the least, that our generation could do nothing better than repeat an old recipe, even when this was the product of a man like Schlieffen.’ By the end of the month he had formulated an entirely different plan.

Manstein was of the opinion that what was required was a decisive result from the campaign, not merely grabbing as much of Belgium as possible – he wanted to defeat the Allies completely. The strategic surprise so obviously lacking in Fall Gelb could only be attained by attacking through the Ardennes. With these ideas in mind, he proposed a feint attack in the north through the Low Countries and Belgium, as the Allies no doubt expected, by Army Group B. The new Schwerpunkt would now however lie along the front of Army Group A, reinforced with an extra army and most of the armour. Army Group C would continue to harass the Maginot Line and man the Siegfried defence line. Once the Allies had been lured north into Belgium to meet the threat of Bock’s armies, phase two would be set in train. Rundstedt’s forces would strike out for the Meuse and once that obstacle was overcome, would thrust in the direction of the Channel coast, thus severing the Allies’ communications and supply lines and trapping their best troops in a pocket.

Manstein conferred with Guderian when the tank expert’s new command, the XIX Panzerkorps, was transferred to Army Group A on Hitler’s order to conduct an attack south of Liege. Guderian assured him that the terrain through the Ardennes was not in fact tank proof as all serious military experts assumed. He had personal experience of the Ardennes and the Meuse river valley from the First World War and study of the maps did nothing to discourage his view. He therefore became an enthusiastic supporter of Manstein’s plan, realising that the panzer divisions were the ideal force to deliver the surprise blow needed. Armed with this assurance, Manstein now attempted to get his plan adopted.

Although in essence events evolved as Manstein had foreseen, the real struggle for France was in getting the Supreme Command to accept his proposals. Manstein bombarded the OKH with a whole series of memoranda, all countersigned by von Rundstedt, but to no avail. Halder and the Army’s weak-minded Commander-in-Chief, Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch, lacked the imagination to appreciate the subtle genius of the plan. Manstein’s persistence eventually led to him being sidelined to command an obscure infantry corps, which later backfired on the arch plotter Halder and his vacillating Commander-in-Chief.

On 10 January 1940 German plans received a serious setback when a Luftflotte II liaison officer was forced to land his plane in Belgium during a storm. In strict contravention of standing orders, he carried a full set of plans detailing Fall Gelb. Despite his frantic efforts to destroy the documents, they were captured relatively intact and sent post haste to Paris and London. In any event, the Allied High Command chose to dismiss them as a deliberate plant and made no effort to change their dispositions, but the Germans couldn’t have known this and had to assume that the element of surprise was lost.

Only now were conditions ripe for the adoption of the Manstein plan. On 17 February Manstein and all other newly appointed corps commanders were summoned to meet Hitler for lunch. As they rose to leave, Hitler asked Manstein to remain and expound on his ideas for a thrust through the Ardennes. Manstein outlined his ideas succinctly, calling for a shift in emphasis to Army Group A, which would then attack across the Meuse towards the lower Somme, while Army Group B attacked the Allies frontally in Belgium. Once Army Group A reached the Channel coast, the Allied forces would then be surrounded and destroyed. He argued that for this Rundstedt now needed three armies: one to intercept the Allied forces driven back by Bock; a second to cross the Meuse at Sedan and destroy any French forces massing for a counter attack and a third to cover the southern flank of the Group. He also insisted that Guderian’s XIX Panzerkorps was insufficient to force the Meuse crossings and demanded the motorised infantry of Wietersheim’s XIV Armeekorps to reinforce them.

Hitler was attracted to his proposals for three reasons. Firstly, they were audacious and appealed to Hitler’s liking for the unorthodox; secondly they tied in with his earlier calls for an attack south of Liege; and thirdly they were in complete contrast to the proposals of the hated General Staff. Whatever his shortcomings as a warlord, Hitler can never be accused of lacking imagination and a taste for novel schemes. Manstein himself received precious little credit for his masterstroke; he was to command a mere infantry corps in the second wave of the attack while Hitler later claimed the idea for the plan as his own.

On 20 February Manstein’s Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut) was officially adopted, although not without much opposition from within the High Command. The pedantic Halder declared the plan ‘senseless’ and wanted the panzers to wait on the Meuse till the infantry and artillery caught up for what he called ‘a properly marshaled attack in mass.’ Guderian was violently opposed to this. The vain and ambitious General Bock, appalled at the erosion of his Army Group, developed an irrational jealousy of Rundstedt that was to have dire consequences for the entire Wehrmacht within eighteen months. Even Rundstedt seemed doubtful that his Army Group could carry out its task and uncertain about the capabilities of tanks. In fact there was so little enthusiasm for the plan among the High Command that Guderian states in his memoirs that only three people believed it would actually work – himself, Manstein and Hitler.

On the eve of battle the German Army in the West comprised 136 divisions. These forces were opposed by 135 Allied divisions: 94 French, 10 British, 22 Belgian and 9 Dutch divisions. There was rough parity in the numbers of troops, about 2.5 million men each. The Germans were outnumbered however when it came to most important weapons: in field artillery pieces they had 2,500 versus the French’s 10,000 and in tanks they fielded 2,600 to the French 4,000. The only place the Germans had superiority was in the air where they could pit 5,500 planes against the Allies’ 3,100.

Of course as it turned out the tank was to be the crucial weapon in this campaign – not so much because of their quantity or quality, but because of the way they were handled. The BEF, though small, was entirely motorised and the French had a total of 7 armoured divisions; these were the 3 Divisions Légères mécaniques (DLMs), mechanised cavalry divisions which carried out the traditional roles of cavalry, and the 4 Divisions Cuirassées Rapides (DCRs) which acted as infantry support units. There were also 25 independent light tank battalions engaged in infantry support. In total 1,300 of France’s tanks were concentrated within these armoured divisions, which were spread across the front in line with the fatal French reluctance to concentrate their armour.

The French main battle tanks included 300 massive Char B1 heavy tanks, bigger and better armoured than anything the Germans had and carrying two guns, a 47 mm in the turret and a low-velocity 75 mm in the body of the tank. They proved almost impossible to destroy and the Germans who encountered them dubbed them Kolosse; their only vulnerable point proved to be a small ventilation grill in the side – it took a steady and calm gunner to hit it at close range. The French were also able to field over 250 Somuas, widely regarded as the best tank in Europe at the time and the model for the American Sherman; like the Char B1, it mounted the superb 47 mm gun and at least 55 mm of armour. The French also had plenty of light tanks, including 800 Hotchkiss H35s or H39s, nearly 1,000 Renault R35s and about 2,500 of the tiny First World War vintage Renault FTs. All these light tanks were armed with 37 mm guns and mainly used for infantry support.

The Char B1 was the only French tank with four crewmen. The Somua had three, all the rest only two. This proved to be a major disadvantage, especially as many of the French tanks incorporated a one-man turret where the commander was expected to choose targets and then load, aim and fire the gun all by himself; in the German turrets there were three men to carry out these tasks. Also, very few of the French tanks had radios, making formations hard to control in battle.

The French Army had neglected higher formation staff training for tank officers such as was needed for handling several divisions at once. This was in keeping with their belief that tanks should function either as infantry support or in the traditional cavalry roles. The French had completely failed to grasp the possibilities offered by tanks deployed independently and in concentration, instead sticking to the tired old formula of ‘penny packeting’ their armour.

Sickle Cut through France II

There was no armoured division in the BEF, but the British did have almost 450 tanks in France, including about 150 A10 and A13 Cruisers and 75 of the heavy A12 Mark II Matildas, which proved virtually impenetrable to the German PaKs (Panzerabwehrkanone – anti-tank guns) because of their 75 mm (3-inch) armour. All these tanks used the same high-velocity 2-pounder (40 mm) gun. The BEF also had around 200 Mark II machine-gun tanks.

The Germans had a total of 2,600 tanks available for the attack, but these were all organised into ten panzer divisions and not frittered away in penny packets like the Allied tanks. This was in keeping with Guderian’s adage that ‘You hit with your closed fist, not with your fingers spread.’ Concentrated together for an attack en masse, tanks could punch a hole right through the enemy front and then keep going. Of this tank total, 525 were Pz Is armed only with machine-guns and 955 were Pz IIs mounting a weak 20 mm cannon. These obsolete light tanks were really only a match for the lightest Allied armour, such as the Renault FT, but they did have the effect of terrorising infantry, who at that time had no adequate weapons for defending themselves against tanks.

Of the more modern German tanks, only 350 Pz IIIs and 280 Pz IVs were available for the attack on France. The Pz III carried a 37 mm gun and the Pz IV a poor velocity 75 mm. To make up for the clear deficiencies in gun power, Czech-built tanks made up a high proportion of the Panzerwaffe: there were 228 Pz 38(t)s and Pz 35(t)s. These tanks had the same calibre gun as the Pz III, yet only weighed half as much. So the panzers were clearly not only outnumbered, but outgunned – 1,500 of their 2,600 tanks carried only machine-guns or puny 20 mms, whereas the vast majority of the Allied tanks had at least a 37 mm. German armour too was inadequate when compared to that of its opponents, being never thicker than 30 mm while the Char Bs had 60 mm and the Somuas 55 mm.

One-way radio was available to all medium tanks and unit commanders possessed two-way sets to issue orders. All the German tanks except the Pz Is and IIs had 4- or 5-man crews with 3 men working in the turret. This kind of teamwork greatly enhanced battlefield efficiency as even in the heat of action no one felt overworked or isolated. On the battlefield the tanks were controlled by 135 Panzerbefehlswagens (command vehicles), built either on the Pz I or Pz II chassis.

As is clear from the figures, the Panzerwaffe was heavily outclassed, both qualitatively and quantitatively and so their success would ride solely on their men, tactics and leadership.

Prior to the assault the 10 panzer divisions were organised into 5 panzerkorps and allocated to the various attacking Armies. Bock’s Army Group B got 2 of the 5 panzerkorps, although this added up to only 3 panzer divisions: the XXXIX Panzerkorps under Schmidt contained the 9th Panzer Division and was to take part in the attack on Holland, while Hoepner’s XVI Panzerkorps contained the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and would thrust for Brussels and Liege. Reflecting the importance of its new role, Rundstedt’s Army Group A received the remaining 7 panzer divisions formed into three panzerkorps. Hoth’s XV contained the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions and was positioned at the northern end of the Ardennes. Reinhardt’s XLI, containing the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions, took up the centre. Most hopes were pinned on Guderian’s XIX which was positioned at the southern end of the Ardennes and was made up of the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions as well as the crack motorised infantry regiment, Gross Deutschland.

Guderian’s Panzerkorps and Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps were both placed under the command of Panzergruppe Kleist, along with General Gustav Wietersheim’s XIV Armeekorps, which contained 3 motorised infantry divisions. This Panzergruppe had 1,200 tanks, including the largest share of Pz IIIs and IVs and the first Schutzenwagens (armoured half-tracks for carrying infantry), and formed part of Generaloberst List’s Twelfth Army. General der Kavalerie Ewald von Kleist, an efficient but cautious officer, had commanded a Panzerkorps in Poland, but as an old cavalryman was not known as a follower of the new school of tank theory. His appointment was made in an effort to reign in what the OKH saw as Guderian’s impetuousness, an expectation Kleist certainly fulfilled during the campaign.

All in all, Rundstedt’s Army Group A had 7 panzer divisions, 3 motorised infantry divisions and 35 ordinary infantry divisions, while farther north the reduced role of Bock’s Army Group B meant that it had 3 panzer divisions, 1 motorised infantry division and 24 ordinary infantry divisions.

Early on the morning of 10 May 1940, Sitzkreig gave way to Blitzkrieg. Late on the 9th the codeword ‘Danzig’ had been flashed to the German units waiting at the frontier and they had begun to move west, heading for Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. At 0530 hrs the invasion of France began when Generalleutnant Guderian took the 1st Panzer Division across the Luxembourg border – the attack that had been postponed so many times was finally under way. To be close to the fighting, Hitler had moved to a new headquarters nearer the frontier, which he called ‘Felsennest’ (Eyrie).

Even though all the really significant events were happening in the south, for the first few days all eyes were on the north, just as the Germans had intended. The German attack in Holland and northern Belgium was likened by Liddell Hart to a matador’s cloak, the intention of which was to dazzle the bull, or in this case the Anglo-French armies, so that they didn’t see the real thrust coming.

First the Luftwaffe launched surprise raids on fifty Allied air bases. This was followed up on the 10th by Fallschirmjägers (paratroops) being dropped into Holland in a daring attack with the objective of capturing and holding the bridges on the Maas over which the 9th Panzer Division would move on its way to Rotterdam. They succeeded and by the 13th, Hubicki’s panzers had reached the Dutch city. On the 11th, glider-borne Fallschirmjägers had landed on the roof of Eben Emael, the much-vaunted Belgian fortress near Maastricht, quickly putting it out of action. The road to Brussels and Antwerp was now open for Hoepner’s XIV Panzerkorps.

Of course events in the north were just a feint, a mere side-show put on to persuade the Allies that this would be the Schwerpunkt, the point of main German effort. It worked brilliantly and the Anglo-French armies moved north to meet Army Group B, aided by the fact that the Luftwaffe purposefully didn’t attack them on the way. Meanwhile the seven panzer divisions of Army Group A that had assembled on the Luxembourg frontier over the previous days were now threading their way through the Ardennes on their way to the Meuse, 70 miles away. The 1,500 tanks that made up the three panzerkorps stretched back one hundred miles from the frontier.

According to Oberst Günther von Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief planner, the Germans saw the advance through the Ardennes as more of an approach march than an operation. Staff officers had had to put in a huge amount of preparatory work, poring over maps and aerial photos to make out what passable roads existed and then designating specific routes of advance for each division. Once they did get moving, effective traffic management was essential to keep the armoured train moving smoothly and quickly on the steep, narrow and winding roads. Despite all the planning, inevitably there were traffic jams, delays and stoppages, one of which lasted a whole day and was only sorted out when an officer went up in a plane to act as an aerial traffic warden.

But contrary to Allied expectations, the Ardennes, while steeply hilled, densely wooded and serviced by only a few narrow roads, was far from impassable as the panzers were quickly proving. Following on after the panzers came the three motorised infantry divisions under General von Wietersheim and thirty-five ordinary infantry divisions, the latter marching cross country in order to leave the few roads solely to the vehicles. Eighty battalions of motorised infantry took part in the invasion, yet only two of these were equipped with the newly-built 251 half-tracks, all the rest travelling by truck. The infantry were also supported by four 6-gun Stug batteries.

For the purpose of movement the panzerkorps were divided into three layers, the first two made up of armour, the third of motorised infantry. It must have been quite a sight to behold, this cavalcade of tanks trundling through the scenic countryside, followed up by the ganglia of supply in lorries and horse-drawn wagons, and flanked on either side of the road by grey-clad infantry marching through the woods. Allied pilots did spot the armoured columns and reported them to their superiors, but inexplicably were given no orders to attack.

As they had expected, the Germans met very little resistance as they travelled through the Ardennes, easily brushing aside the weak opposition of the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais and two French cavalry divisions. The panzers moved with all possible speed, because the whole plan pivoted on their getting across the Meuse before the Allies realised what was going on. The defenders had mined, blocked or demolished many of the approach roads, but while these caused some delay to the onrushing tanks, they failed to hold them up for very long.

In those early days Guderian’s greatest fear was not of enemy attacks on the ground, but from the air. He knew that bottled in as tightly as they were, with their movements channelled by the few available roads, the armoured columns were extremely vulnerable to air attack. But no air attacks came in those early days and didn’t begin until the Germans had already reached the Meuse; by then the planes were already too late and suffered heavy losses as a result. Still the Allies had not realised that this German armoured thrust in the south was the Schwerpunkt of their whole attack and represented a deadly danger to their armies in the north.

Despite the clear lack of opposition, the natural caution of Guderian’s commander, von Kleist, asserted itself on the 11th when he ordered that the 10th Panzer Division change its direction so as to meet a reported force of French cavalry. Guderian, unwilling to dilute his forces by one third just to meet a hypothetical threat, ignored the order. The French cavalry never appeared, but this was just the first of many halt orders Guderian was to face along the way.

By the evening of the 12th, the three panzerkorps were ranged along the eastern bank of the Meuse on a 64-km (40-mile) front stretching from Dinant to Sedan. They were surprised to discover how relatively feeble the French Meuse defences were, having expected extensive field fortifications bristling with heavy artillery and well manned by troops. On paper indeed the Meuse looked well defended, with 150,000 troops housed in concrete blockhouses along a 150-km (95-mile) front. But in reality these defenders were inferior troops of poor fighting quality, consisting mainly of elderly reservists and soldiers unfit for more active service, all the better divisions having been sent north to meet the German threat there. Those left behind lacked modern weaponry, in particular anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.

The weakness of the Meuse defences meant that the panzers would be able to start crossing the river almost straightaway instead of having to wait for the infantry corps to come up and launch an attack; this could have taken as long as a week, a pause that the French were counting on and during which time they could have brought up reinforcements.

By the evening of the 12th, Guderian’s Panzerkorps had reached the Meuse valley and captured Sedan, scene of another French military disaster in 1870 when they were roundly beaten by the Prussians. Now another Prussian was on the verge of inflicting a second painful defeat. Guderian and his trusty Chief of Staff, Nehring, set up their headquarters in a nearby hotel, but were soon forced to abandon it when an enemy air attack brought a stuffed boar’s head mounted on the wall crashing down within inches of the shaken Corps Commander.

Kleist ordered him to attempt to cross the river with his panzer divisions the next day. Guderian now altered and reissued orders from war games at Koblenz so as to minimise delay and the night preceding the attack was spent in bringing the artillery into position. The Germans had practised river crossings with tanks on the Moselle in Germany, but not while under hostile fire. No one really knew what to expect the next day, but the whole operation pivoted on the panzers getting across the river quickly.

At 1600 hrs on the 13th the Germans opened up on the defenders with artillery and Guderian positioned his Pz IVs and 88 mms so as to fire directly into the French concrete blockhouses that dominated the heights on the other side of the river. Then he called in waves of Stuka dive-bombers to terrorise the defenders. Guderian had requested the commander of the Luftwaffe’s Third Airflotte to launch continual attacks for the entire duration of the Meuse crossing, rather than just a large, one-off attack, thus giving the attackers continual air support while keeping the defenders’ heads down. As a result, twelve squadrons of dive-bombers were used in the Sedan sector and they continued to fly missions all that crucial day. In this way, aircraft took on the role more traditionally filled by artillery.

Meanwhile the panzer divisions’ engineers laboured to build pontoon bridges. Guderian went to the crossing place of the 1st Panzer Division and crossed the river himself in an assault boat. On the opposite bank he met Oberstleutnant Hermann Balck, commander of a Schutzenregiment (rifle regiment), who greeted him with the words: ‘Joy riding in canoes on the Meuse is forbidden!’ echoing Guderian’s own words during a practice run on the Moselle. Balck and his men had formed the first German bridgehead across the Meuse, crossing the river in rubber boats under cover of the air attack and seizing enough ground to allow the engineers to begin building a pontoon bridge for the tanks.

Balck, like Guderian, was a Prussian with proud military antecedents. He had distinguished himself in the First World War as a company commander on the Western and Eastern fronts, winning the Iron Cross First Class and being wounded seven times. Retained in the Reichswehr after the war, he had twice turned down appointments to the General Staff, preferring to remain as a front-line officer. During the Polish campaign he’d been responsible for refitting and reorganising the panzer divisions and was to prove an inspired panzer commander himself.

Elements of the Gross Deutschland (GD) Regiment, the most prestigious unit in the German Army, crossed the river and headed for the Marfee Heights, a commanding position held by the French. Guderian’s attack was aimed specifically at the junction of two French armies, the Ninth and the Second, always the weakest point in any defensive line. The morale of these garrison troops soon collapsed under the continual bombardment. The French 55th Infantry Division was routed and went into headlong retreat, telling stories of thousands of German tanks, even though Guderian’s panzers hadn’t even crossed the Meuse yet. So far the tank was having more effect on morale than it was actually having as an offensive weapon.

Sickle Cut through France III

The 7th Panzer, one of the two armoured divisions in Hoth’s Panzerkorps, had been able to skirt much of the forest and reached the river near Dinant on the afternoon of the 12th, finding when they got there that the retreating French cavalry had blown up all the bridges. The commander of the 7th was an obscure 48-year-old Generalmajor who was later to become very famous: Erwin Rommel. An ambitious and tough Swabian from a modest, non-military background, he had won Imperial Germany’s highest award, the Pour le Mérite, for his exploits as an infantry commander at Caporetto in the First World War. The textbook he wrote based on these experiences, Infanterie Grieft An (Infantry Attacks) so caught Hitler’s eye that he made Rommel commander of his bodyguard battalion during the Polish campaign. As a reward, Hitler had granted Rommel one of the much-desired panzer commands for the coming campaign in the west.

Although he’d been an ardent infantryman all his career and had only taken over the panzer division the previous February, Rommel had extensively drilled and exercised his new division in the months leading up to the attack and had mastered all the necessary techniques. During the battle of France he was to prove a natural tank commander. His was one of the 4 panzer divisions created during the winter of 1939 by the conversion of the ‘light divisions’; it had a complement of about 220 tanks, half of them Czech-built.

By the 12th Rommel was on the bank of the Meuse, personally directing the building of a pontoon bridge. Small-arms fire from the defenders on the opposite bank was proving dangerous so he gave orders that they be plastered with fire and nearby houses set alight to provide a smokescreen. He then crossed the river himself in a rubber boat and personally led a battalion assault. When French tanks attacked, Rommel and his men drove them off with small arms and flare pistols. He was to continue to show reckless courage and disregard for enemy fire throughout the campaign, just as he had in the First World War; both Rommel’s adjutant and a battalion commander were to be killed by gunfire while standing next to him, events which added to his aura of invincibility.

Early on the 13th, some of his motorcyclists crossed the river via a stone weir and put the French defenders to flight. Then on the 14th, using a cable ferry and the bridge he’d built, Rommel began moving tanks over the Meuse, under the protective guns of a few Pz IVs. At least one tank went to the bottom of the river, but by the day’s end thirty were across. That same day, Rommel got into trouble when his command tank came under heavy fire and crashed down a slope within easy range of the enemy. He quickly abandoned the Pz III, bleeding profusely from a facial wound caused by a shell splinter hitting the tank’s periscope. On the 15th, Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division began to thrust west, bypassing the French defenders, and on the first day covered 48 km (30 miles).

Rommel was to successfully employ several unorthodox techniques during his advance west. For one he indicated the route of his advance with ‘DG7’ signs marking all the relevant roads so that slow and straggling units could catch up with the vanguard, even though this was strictly prohibited by the High Command. He also ordered his panzers to fire while on the move, even when there was nothing to fire at, another activity frowned on by his superiors, but as Rommel had observed, ‘the day goes to the side that is the first to plaster its opponent with fire.’ Sometimes he even chose to continue the advance at night, a risky activity, but one which paid off.

Rommel had instinctively grasped the techniques of tank warfare and the new demands it made on a commander. He realised that the Divisional Commander’s place was not back in his HQ miles from the front, but at the head of his troops, giving direct orders on the ground. As a result he rarely saw his divisional staff, who sat in HQ far in the rear, wondering where their commander was and getting the odd radio message from him. To simplify radio traffic he agreed a ‘line of thrust’ with his operations officer and artillery commander, which they then marked on their maps. This made it easier to specify any particular location along the route of advance.

Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps had fared less well than its neighbours. The approach roads of the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions were extremely narrow and twisting, causing massive traffic jams, and the troops had met particularly fierce enemy resistance which held them up for three days. On the 13th, some of Reinhardt’s riflemen reached the river at Montherme and tried to cross. However they ran into withering fire from the defenders and there was no hope of getting tanks across, at least for the time being.

By the afternoon of the 14th, Guderian’s three panzer divisions were across the Meuse (the following infantry corps didn’t reach there till the 15th). That same day the Allied air forces launched a heavy attack on his bridge, but the German flak brought down over 100 planes and the crucial bridge stayed standing. Now the broad, flat plain of northern France beckoned, ideal tank country that led directly to the Channel, 150 miles away. Guderian took the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions and headed west, leaving the 10th Panzer Division and the GD Regiment behind to guard his flank. By nightfall they had crossed the Ardennes canal and opened up a bridgehead 10 miles deep.

On that same night, the commander of the French Ninth Army, General Corap, alarmed by the breakthroughs achieved by Guderian and Rommel, gave orders that the Meuse be abandoned and the defenders withdrawn to a line farther west – a retreat which soon degenerated into a general rout. On the 15th Guderian had intercepted an order from the French Commander-in-Chief, Gamelin, which declared melodramatically ‘The torrent of German tanks must finally be stopped!’, although at this stage the torrent was still only a trickle. Yet that same night Kleist tried to get Guderian to halt again so as to consolidate the bridgehead. Guderian would have none of it and a heated discussion ensued. Eventually Kleist permitted him to advance for another twenty-four hours and ‘Hurrying Heinz’ made the most of it, advancing a full 80 km (50 miles) farther west.

Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps was still on the wrong side of the river by 15 May, bottled up in a Gordian knot of a traffic jam and pinned down by the French defenders. Fortunately for Reinhardt, the French Ninth Army began to withdraw and so early on the 15th the 6th Panzer Division broke through the French bunker line at Montherme and put the remaining defenders to flight. Eager to catch up with the other panzer divisions, it ploughed on west, covering a record-breaking distance in one day. On the way it overran and destroyed most of the disorganised French 2nd DCR Armoured Division, which had become cut off from its supply and technical support echelons, and scattered the remnants over 40 km (25 miles).

At this stage all three panzerkorps were racing side by side through the plain of northern France in a 65 km (40 mile) wide ‘panzer corridor’, Guderian having crossed the Meuse at Sedan, Hoth at Dinant and Reinhardt at Montherme. After clearing the water obstacle and breaking through the western extension of the Maginot Line swiftly and relatively painlessly, the seven panzer divisions now seemed to have an unstoppable momentum. The French defenders in their way, Corap’s Ninth Army, were in full retreat and the Germans were to meet no really significant opposition in their race for the Channel. What little resistance they did meet on the way was spasmodic, weak and uncoordinated. When the panzers ran out of fuel, they filled up at French roadside petrol stations or were airdropped fuel by the Luftwaffe.

The French contemplated counter attacks, but trapped in a static warfare mindset, kept postponing them in the belief that the Germans would adhere to as sluggish a timetable as their own. That the German tanks crossed the river without waiting for several days for their artillery and infantry to catch up had come as a terrible shock to the French – this was just not the done thing in their book of warfare. But their book was out of date, having been written in the trenches of the First World War. This was a new kind of war and the Germans were calculating their timetables by a new measure of speed – that of the tank, not the infantryman.

Again on the 17th, the Panzergruppe commander, General von Kleist, tried to put the brakes on Guderian, ordering him to halt his advance so that Wietersheim’s motorised infantry could catch up. A furious Guderian, living up to his nickname ‘Brausewetter’, offered his resignation. Rundstedt sent the commander of the Twelfth Army, General Wilhelm von List, to mediate. It was pointed out to Guderian that the order came directly from the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – Armed Forces High Command) where Hitler himself was worried about the vulnerability of the armoured columns as they raced west, leaving their flanks wide open and their reinforcements far behind. He feared a French counterstroke could sever the armour from its supplies and communications. Although Hitler had completely endorsed the Manstein Plan, including Guderian’s proposed deep penetration by armour, he was now getting alarmed by its very success.

Guderian argued that the objective of Blitzkrieg was to reinforce success and so in line with his own maxim, ‘Klotzen, nicht Kleckern’ (‘Boot ’em, don’t spatter ’em’), the panzers should continue to push west in concentration and at full speed, making the most of their early advantage. Knowing the French still embraced the outdated doctrine of positional warfare, he didn’t believe they would attack until they knew his exact location, so the best thing was to keep moving. Guderian also knew that if the wedge driven by the panzers was deep and wide enough, they wouldn’t have to worry about their flanks at all.

A compromise was reached by which Guderian was allowed a ‘reconnaissance in force’ which he interpreted as a continuation of the headlong dash west, while the motorised infantry would stay behind and hold Sedan. To prevent being issued any more senseless halt orders, Guderian laid down a telephone cable between him and his advance HQ, so the OKH could no longer fix his exact position by radio intercept. To his troops he sent: ‘Fahrkarte bis zur Endstation!’ (ticket to the last station), by which he meant keep going till the final objective is reached, in this case the Channel.

Now the French armoured divisions were thrown into the battle, but to little effect. The three DLMs had been sent into Belgium and were so badly mauled by Hoepner’s XVI Panzerkorps that they had no more impact on the campaign. The four DCR’s now entered the fray. Reinhardt’s panzers had already smashed the French 2nd Armoured Division during its breakout from Montherme. Now early on the morning of the 15th, Rommel’s 7th Panzer, along with the 5th Panzer Division fell upon the French 1st Armoured Division while it was still refuelling. By the evening the French were in full retreat, having lost 90 per cent of their tanks. Rommel continued his thrust westwards, leaving the 5th Panzer to finish off the French armour.

The French 3rd Armoured Division had been formed only six weeks before and was equipped with Hotchkiss H39 tanks with high-velocity 40 mm guns, as good as anything the Germans had. Ordered to Sedan on 12 May, it didn’t get there until the 14th and then instead of counter-attacking Guderian’s very exposed flank, it formed itself into a 13-km (8-mile) defensive line of static pillboxes in what it called a ‘defensive success’.

That left just the 4th Armoured Division, so new that its units were still only forming. It was commanded by France’s leading tank expert, Colonel Charles de Gaulle, and was a rag-tag formation cobbled together from all the remaining armour the French could lay their hands on. Ironically de Gaulle was now moving towards the more professional army he’d written of in the 1930s. Badly mauled by the Luftwaffe while still assembling, the Division attacked near Marle on 17 May but was quickly brushed aside – Guderian didn’t even bother reporting the incident back to headquarters. Yet this minor skirmish bulked large in post-war Gaullist propaganda.

So much for the French armour. Despite strong tank complements and some high-quality tank models, the French armoured divisions were disorganised, badly supplied, ineptly led and totally squandered in battle. In particular they lacked radio communication, infantry and supporting arms and seemed to be permanently short of fuel.

All this time Rommel’s 7th Panzer were advancing well, from crossing the river at Dinant on the 13th to reaching Cambrai, scene of the first major tank battle of the First World War, on the 18th. The division was travelling too fast to take prisoner the huge numbers of French troops who were surrendering to them all along the way, although one French lieutenant colonel they encountered showed more fighting spirit; according to Rommel ‘his eyes glowed hate and impotent fury and he gave the impression of being a thoroughly fanatical type’. Three times he curtly refused to accompany the Germans and so ‘there was nothing for it but to shoot him’. Once they reached Cambrai, Rommel’s Division and the neighbouring 5th Panzer were ordered to stay there and protect the northern flank of Guderian and Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps while the infantry caught up.

Three days after the meeting with List, Guderian’s panzers had crossed the Somme and went on to take Amiens on the 18th and Abbeville on the 20th. A battalion from the 2nd Panzer Division travelled on to Noyelles and so became the first German unit to reach the Atlantic. The day before Weygand had replaced Gamelin as Commander-in-Chief, illustrating the state of crisis in the French military. It had taken the panzers just ten days to reach the sea, thus encircling a million Allied soldiers in the north – Guderian had ably proven his own maxim that the tank’s engine was as important a weapon as its gun. The pocket – pressed from the east by Bock’s Army Group B and flanked in the south by the panzers of Army Group A – contained nine British and forty-five French divisions as well as the entire Belgian Army. The trap had been successfully sprung. Now the second phase of Sichelschnitt was set to begin – that of destroying the enemy forces trapped in the pocket.

Meanwhile the British decided to counter-attack the long exposed flank of the German armoured thrusts. They assembled a motley collection of units including two infantry battalions, some field artillery and a tank brigade containing 16 Mk II Matildas armed with 2-pounders (40 mm) and 58 Mk Is armed with machine-guns; the French supplied 60 Somuas, the remnants of a light mechanised division. But the counter-attacking force was hampered from the start by a lack of maps and inadequate radio communication. It also lacked sufficient infantry and artillery support and had no air support at all. The British commander also made the elementary mistake of splitting his forces, deploying them into two separate columns with little communication between them.

Despite all these disadvantages, the force acquitted itself well in battle. On the afternoon of 21 May it attacked southward near Arras, clashing first with the motorised infantry of Rommel’s 7th Panzer which was just preparing to move out. The Germans soon discovered that their 37 mm anti-tank guns were useless against the 3-inch armour of the Matildas and so had to send in their own tanks. The SS motorised infantry division, Totenkopf, which Himmler had recruited from the ranks of concentration camp guards, took fright and fled. Meanwhile Rommel brought 88 mm anti-aircraft guns to bear against the British tanks, personally directing the firing. After forty-eight hours, the doughty British withdrew, by which time they had lost nearly half of their tanks, but had inflicted about 400 dead and wounded on the Germans. Rundstedt later commented that none of the French counter-attacks carried as serious a threat as this one did.

Despite its failure, the Arras counter-attack bought time for the Allied divisions in the north by delaying the German advance. It also spooked the normally unflappable Rommel who reported he’d been attacked by ‘five enemy divisions’ and ‘hundreds of tanks’. This in turn alarmed the OKW, who ordered Rommel to halt his division for rest and repairs. For a while the Germans feared the attack was the long-anticipated Allied counterstroke. Arras does show what a determined, well-led and properly supported Allied attack could have achieved even at that late stage, especially given the inadequacy of the German anti-tank weapons and the length of their exposed flank.

But it was soon too late for the Allies in the north to do anything. While the Arras fighting had been going on, Guderian had captured Boulogne on the 23rd and was heading for Calais. Dunkirk was now the only port left from which the BEF could be evacuated and the panzers would soon reach that too, cutting off their last hope of escape. Then on the 24th there came an event which was to have a major influence on the whole course of the war: Rundstedt ordered Guderian to halt temporarily so that the motorised infantry could catch up, whereupon Hitler stepped in, extending the order for three crucial days. The panzer divisions were told not to advance beyond the canal and that Dunkirk was to be left to the Luftwaffe, a decision Guderian attributed to Goering’s vanity.

Halder noted in his diary that as the panzers approached Dunkirk, Hitler grew more and more nervous and inclined to ‘pull the reins’. The Führer couldn’t believe the operation really had been as successful as it seemed to be and kept anticipating a massive French counter-attack, which of course never came. Originally the panzers were to be the fast-moving hammer that would smash the Allied armies on the anvil of Bock’s stationary armies, but the German attack now lost its velocity, with the panzers standing idly by for nearly three days, despite all their protests, as the BEF was busy being evacuated. After the war, von Thoma echoed the sentiments of most of the panzer officers present at Dunkirk when he angrily declared that Hitler had thrown away the chance of victory.

Debate has raged since about Hitler’s controversial halt order at Dunkirk with various explanations put forward. One is that Hitler wanted to preserve the armour for the coming battles in the south; already Kleist’s Panzergruppe had lost half of its tanks and the built-up areas around the port were bound to be costly for armour. Also Hitler was reluctant to send tanks into what he called ‘the Flanders marshes’ surrounding the port, claiming the terrain to be unsuitable for tanks, although panzer generals on the ground foresaw no great difficulty there. Goering, hungry for glory for his own arm, had given Hitler his personal guarantee that the Luftwaffe could destroy the Allied armies in the pocket all on their own. This boast proved impossible to fulfil, just as two years later when the Reichsmarshal promised to supply Stalingrad from the air, but as a top Nazi he held more sway over Hitler then did any of the panzer generals.

Another motive sometimes put forward is a political one: that Hitler had a grudging respect and admiration for Britain and so wanted to spare her honour for what he believed were the inevitable surrender negotiations by leaving her army intact. Whatever his motives were, the result of Hitler’s halt order was that 340,000 Allies were successfully evacuated by sea between 28 May and 3 June, including the bulk of the BEF, although minus most of their equipment. It is also almost certain that if the panzers had been allowed to advance, very few Allied soldiers would have left Dunkirk beach. Of course at the time no one could have foreseen just how successful the evacuation would be. Just a few days after its completion Hitler himself conceded to Kleist that the halt order might have been a mistake, but asserted that the British would play no more part in the war.

The capitulation of the Belgians on the 28th opened up a 30-km (20-mile) hole in the British northern flank. Bock’s ordinary infantry made for the gap with all possible speed, but they were too slow to get there before the hole was plugged by two British motorised divisions; the Allies now had formed a strong defensive ring around the port of Dunkirk. The armour was moving again by 27 May, but against increasing resistance and in worsening conditions for tanks. Guderian’s Panzerkorps found it hard going and so was withdrawn on the 29th for refitting, on Guderian’s own suggestion. The Germans had little time for recriminations about the halt order, as there was still a lot of fighting ahead in the south.

The second phase of the attack was ‘Fall Rot’, the final conquest of France. After events in the north had seen 60 of the best Allied divisions beaten, it was largely a fait accompli anyway. The French were in a hopeless situation, having lost one-third of their army and with only 50 second-rate divisions left, barely 200 tanks and no air force with which to defend a front longer than the original one. As well as this, the French political and military command was in complete turmoil, with neither the will nor the ability to prolong the struggle for very long.

The campaign that followed proved to be of a much more conventional and traditional type than the radical Fall Gelb. It saw a reversion to the tried and trusted German technique of ‘Kesselschlachten’ (small encirclements) and greater involvement by ordinary infantry. The German forces redeployed swiftly along a 400-km (250-mile) front stretching from the English Channel to the Maginot Line and then began to push south. Guderian, as reward for his successful Channel dash, was given a new command, Panzergruppe Guderian, containing two panzerkorps, each one consisting of two panzer divisions and a motorised infantry division. These panzergruppen were armies in all but name, but were denied army status so as to maintain the traditional status quo and to keep the panzermen in their place. Guderian ordered a large white letter G painted on all his vehicles for identification purposes.

‘Fall Rot’ began on 5 June when the Germans attacked along the Somme and the Aisne and saw a few days hard fighting before the French defensive line was breached. But once it was, the Germans met less and less resistance as they moved south. The armour carved its way through France, leaving the defenders isolated in defensive pockets, which the infantry then finished off. On 14 June the Germans entered Paris, but it was not the vital objective it had been in the First World War. On that same day the Germans attacked the much-vaunted Maginot Line, but from the rear, the kind of attack its designers had never anticipated. It was quickly breached, this outdated relic of static warfare in which the French had reposed so much hope and money, although 22,000 defenders held on impotently within its walls until 1 July.

From the 16th on, there was a general collapse of the French front. Marshal Pétain formed a cabinet and appealed for armistice terms. By 17 June, Guderian’s 52nd birthday, his Panzergruppe had reached the Swiss border. In an impressive military manoeuvre the previous day, he had ordered two of his panzer divisions to make a 90-degree turn in a north-easterly direction into Alsace, thus encircling the 400,000 men of the eastern French armies. It was the kind of feat for which Montgomery and Patton would be ‘acclaimed to the rooftops’ in years to come, but which was merely routine to Guderian. Speaking of those famed Allied tank commanders, Guderian’s biographer Kenneth Macksey wrote, ‘It was to another that tribute should have been made for designing the methods which made their triumphs possible.’

When Guderian first radioed the OKW to report his position on the Swiss border, Hitler radioed back: ‘Your signal based on an error. Assume you mean Pontailler-sur-Saone,’ unable to believe that Guderian had covered as much ground as he said he had. Guderian replied: ‘No error. Am myself in Portarlier on Swiss border.’ In less than two weeks his Panzergruppe had captured 250,000 prisoners and a massive amount of enemy equipment. Guderian was now a hero back home in Germany and Goebbels persuaded the reluctant tankman to make a radio broadcast to the nation. Campaign films taken at the time were later turned into a documentary extolling Guderian and his Panzertruppen.

The campaign also brought more glory for Rommel. On 5 June he’d crossed the Somme, a decisive stroke which accelerated the French collapse, and had reached the sea near Dieppe on the 10th – his panzer regiment commander crashed through the sea wall in a Pz IV and drove down the beach until the waves were lapping around the tank’s tracks. Rommel sent a laconic message back to the OKW: ‘Am at sea.’

Rommel’s panzers were the first German unit to cross the Seine and went on to cover 150 km (90 miles) in just four days. On 12 June St Valery fell to Rommel along with 40,000 Allied prisoners, the prisoners including 11 British generals and a French corps commander. Rommel’s campaign ended on the 19th when he took the fortress of Cherbourg. The total number of prisoners captured by the 7th Panzer was almost 100,000 and the Division had destroyed or captured a massive amount of enemy equipment, for a loss of just 42 of its own 220 tanks. The French campaign had made Rommel a legend and earned the 7th Panzer a nickname: ‘The Ghost Division.’

On 22 June the French signed an armistice with Germany in the same railway carriage that had been used for the 1918 armistice. The panzers had pulled off a startling victory, but not without high cost to the Germans: 27,000 killed, over 100,000 wounded and 18,000 missing. The two newest weapons, the Panzerwaffe and the Luftwaffe, had suffered the heaviest casualties. Half of the tanks were out of action, either for good or until repaired. These figures prove that Blitzkrieg, while swift, was far from bloodless and also illustrate the fact that the campaign in France was no pushover for the Germans. Of course the losses they inflicted on the Allies were even higher: 100,000 dead, 250,000 wounded and 2 million either captured or missing. The tank had finally achieved its true potential.

The lightning victory won by the Wehrmacht can be attributed to an innovative plan – sublimely executed – combined with an enemy who was not so much incompetent as outmoded. The senior Allied commanders, and indeed many German staff officers like Halder, took it for granted that any war in the West must inevitably develop once more into static warfare. Such officers generally belonged to the older arms of service and believed that the defensive had finally overcome the offensive. They considered that modern artillery, with its creeping barrages timed and measured to fractions, machine-guns and pistols, gas, barbed wire and mines had all banished the infantryman from the attack.

They were partly right of course, but they failed to realise that the tank could be the new vehicle of assault. Everyone feared a return to the senseless slaughter of the Somme, but only one man, Manstein, had the vision to look for alternatives. Only one man, Guderian, had the expertise to execute that plan and only one man, Hitler, had the will to set it in train. The only believers in the Manstein plan were the same men who brought it success.

In short the Blitzkrieg in the West was proof that ingenuity, resourcefulness and audacity can sometimes be as decisive as firepower. The Germans’ opponents had failed to counteract the threat of Sichelschnitt because its unorthodox brilliance and speed was anathema to their concept of waging war. They believed that the pace of battle was dictated by the speed of marching infantry and the time needed to assemble vast supply dumps. The Allies were convinced that all they had to do was to hold out and eventually a resource-starved Germany would collapse, just as in the First World War. But in Hitler they encountered an enemy who had grasped that war can be a continuation of economics by other means. He realised Germany couldn’t hope to win a trial of brute strength against the Allies, especially under the constant threat that the Russian Bear might pounce, and instead he leapt at the opportunity to strike a decisive blow.

The operation had carried grave operational risks, but the front-line commanders assessed correctly that the Allied command wasn’t capable of carrying out the necessary countermoves. The Arras counter-attack showed what could have been achieved had the Allies been a little more flexible and a little less prone to farming out their armour in penny packets.

Blitzkrieg was never successful again. Ironically, its very success meant it couldn’t work a second time. The vanquished assimilated its bitter lessons and began to develop tank forces of their own along the lines of the Panzerwaffe. The victory had been partly spoiled by Hitler’s short-sightedness in halting the Panzers from cutting off the BEF at Dunkirk, yet paradoxically his support had allowed them to be in a position to overcome the world’s best-equipped army in just six weeks. Hitler’s flaws as a warlord were to become more and more evident as the war progressed.

The victory in France had one overwhelmingly negative effect: Hitler, claiming the operation as his own brainchild and feeling vindicated in his belief that he knew more than his generals, was now convinced that he was the greatest military genius of all time. As such he now took an even keener interest in the running of his armed forces, and in particular the Panzerwaffe. His patronage had brought them to their zenith and now his interference would lead to their nadir.

“Stalin Has Been Deceiving Me All Along”

Zentralbild/Heilig 11.8.1954 Dr. Otto John sprach vor der Internationalen Presse Am Mittwochvormittag, dem 11. August 1954, legte der ehemalige Präsident des Bundesamtes für Verfassungsschutz, Dr. Otto John, vor den Pressevertretern des In- und Auslandes die Gründe dar, aus denen er mit der Politik der Adenauer-Regierung gebrochen hat. UBz: Dr. Otto John bei seinen Ausführungen.

Otto John (19 March 1909 – 26 March 1997) was the first head of West Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, from 1950 to 1954. He is best known for his controversial move to East Germany in 1954, which has been interpreted as treason or an abduction.

Initially, the only information available to the Allies on the failed twentieth of July attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life had been what the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, chose to tell the German people and the world, a story of almost divine salvation of the Führer. A narrow window into the plot opened two months afterward. Otto John, a lawyer with Lufthansa, the German passenger airline, who worked undercover for the Abwehr and who was a member of the conspiracy, provided an eyewitness account. Previously, while moving between Berlin and Lisbon, John had delivered intelligence to the Allies on German atomic research and on rocket and missile testing conducted at Peenemünde. He had managed to escape to Madrid four days after the coup collapsed. There he told his story to the OSS chief in Spain, an account subsequently relayed to FDR.

John described how he had arrived in Berlin on July 19, 1944, to play his part in the overthrow of the Nazis. The next day, at 6 P.M., he went to the Bendlerstrasse, the German General Staff headquarters. There he saw Lieutenant Colonel Count Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who, five and a half hours before, had planted the bomb to kill Hitler at the Wolfsschanze, the Führer’s military headquarters in East Prussia. After Stauffenberg had returned to the Bendlerstrasse, he announced confidently that the Führer had been killed. “I myself saw Hitler being carried out dead,” he said, which was not true. But thereafter his authority was accepted unquestioningly by far senior officers. John was struck by Stauffenberg’s cool self-possession as he reeled off orders and made phone calls to set in motion a strategy to seize the levers of government. John was especially surprised to hear Stauffenberg take a call from Albert Speer, the Reich’s armaments czar and Hitler favorite. In an organization chart that the conspirators had drawn up for their new government, Speer’s name appeared in a box marked “Armaments.” If Speer was coming over to them, the plotters reasoned, that would spell success.

They had, however, already committed fatal blunders. Despite Stauffenberg’s assurances, Hitler was not dead, not even seriously hurt. Secondly, the plotters failed to cut communications between the Wolfsschanze and Berlin. Consequently, Stauffenberg’s orders were countermanded almost instantly by Hitler’s chief military aide, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Sensing that the plot was unraveling, John slipped out of the Bendlerstrasse. Upon his arrival home, as he recounted, “I heard the radio announce a message by Hitler. I could not believe my ears and was convinced that the Nazis were using a double.” They were not. The conspirators had also failed to seize control of Berlin’s radio stations, and Goebbels quickly exploited the blunder by putting the Führer on the air.

Upon telling his story to the OSS in Madrid, John turned over a list of the plotters and their sympathizers, adding a fervent plea: “The following information must not be used as propaganda. It must be placed only at the disposal of such persons who will promise that the names followed by X will remain secret, as the fate of these persons is still uncertain, and they would run the risk of being exposed to reprisal action by the Nazi terror if their names were to be linked in a general way with the attempt against Hitler.”

John’s and Ambassador Oshima’s were the only insider accounts available to Roosevelt until Allen Dulles obtained a report from Hans Bernd Gisevius. The hulking, half-blind Abwehr agent and conspirator assigned to the German consulate in Zurich had, without a word to Dulles, suddenly disappeared back into Germany on July 12. Three weeks after the failure, a German undercover courier arrived at Herrengasse 23 with a message for Dulles from Gisevius. The American was happily surprised. He had assumed that the man had perished in the massacre the Gestapo was conducting against the plotters. Yes, the coup had failed, Gisevius wrote, but conditions within Germany were still unstable. “… [I]t is only necessary for the Allies to strike hard and the entire German structure will collapse,” he claimed. When five more months passed and nothing further was heard, Dulles again concluded that Gisevius had been caught and executed. Just days after the thwarted coup, Dulles had cabled Washington, “The blood purge will be ruthless.” The Gestapo had indeed continued its remorseless manhunt, arresting anyone however distantly connectable to the plot while the Nazi People’s Courts dispensed drumhead justice. The vendetta ultimately cost the lives of 4,980 officers and civilians, with Count von Stauffenberg and Otto John’s brother among the earliest victims. In the end, all that the twentieth of July plot achieved was to enable the Gestapo to solidify its grip on the German populace.

The courier from Berlin returned again, and Dulles was amazed to learn that Gisevius was still alive, hiding in the apartment of his girlfriend, Gerda. The Bern spy chief notified the OSS mission in London, which set a rescue strategy in motion. The plan demonstrated how far OSS technical sophistication had advanced in just two and a half years. Since Gisevius had once been an early member of the Gestapo, the London station forged papers to cast him again as an agent of that organization. The first obstacle was to locate a photograph. Gisevius’s face could be found only in a group shot. The London counterfeiting section managed to enlarge the image of his head to passport size. Stationery seized from Gestapo headquarters in liberated areas was rushed to London and used to produce phony orders. The thorniest challenge was to replicate the Gestapo’s Silver Warrant Identity Disk, a gray medallion of unknown alloys, and serially numbered. Possession of the medallion provided the bearer with unlimited access anywhere and the power to arrest.

On January 20, 1945, the six-month anniversary of the failed plot, Gisevius heard the bell ring in Gerda’s apartment. He opened the door a crack and spotted a package on the doorstep. In it he found the medallion, Gestapo ID, a German passport, and orders to proceed from Berlin to Switzerland as Dr. Hoffmann of the secret police. Thus armed, the huge and imperious Gisevius managed to bully his way through several checkpoints, and by January 22, he was at Herrengasse 23 giving Allen Dulles the fullest firsthand account yet of what had happened at the Bendlerstrasse. Five days later, the conspirator’s report was on the President’s desk. Gisevius explained that the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life had been the third that month. An earlier bomb had been set to go off during the Führer’s visit to Munich on July 6, but an Allied air raid upset this plot. Ten days later, General Helmuth Stieff brought a concealed explosive into the Wolfsschanze, but at the last minute lost his nerve and left. Four days later, Stauffenberg carried out the attempt that Hitler miraculously survived. Gisevius confirmed Otto John’s identification of the fatal flaws in the coup, particularly the failure “to destroy Central Information office including all communications installations of East Prussian Headquarters to prevent any communication. So that even if Hitler was not killed, he would not be able to make this known until plotters had control of the situation.”

Gisevius’s most startling revelation was contained in another report Donovan relayed to FDR on January 27, five days after the German’s escape. It dealt not with the mechanics of the plot, but with its politics. Until now, the assumption in the White House had been that anti-Nazi conspirators were interested only in making peace with the Western Allies in order to keep the Russians out of Germany. But Gisevius revealed that Count von Stauffenberg intended to conclude a peace with the Soviets if the putsch were successful, and proposed to announce the establishment of a “workers and peasants” regime in Germany. “The present situation on the Eastern Front and the general trend of the situation in Germany,” Gisevius concluded, “indicate that an eastern solution of the war may be more attractive to Germany.” He claimed further that Stauffenberg had been in secret contact with the Seydlitz Committee, led by General Walter von Seydlitz, who was captured at Stalingrad and had gone over to the Russians. Seydlitz had assured Stauffenberg that the Soviet Union would accept fair peace terms and not demand that the Wehrmacht disarm completely. The Seydlitz conditions could have been extended only with Moscow’s approval and made one thing clear: for all of FDR’s scrupulous determination never to give even the appearance of abandoning the Soviet Union, Stalin was evidently willing to consider a separate peace that would leave Britain and America to fight on alone.

Donovan urged the President to change course. FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender, the general argued, could drive Germany into the Russians’ arms. He suggested “a subtle psychological approach” to turn anti-Nazi Germans toward the West while still sticking to unconditional surrender. Under Donovan’s formula, if the German officer class would give up a hopeless struggle and end further bloodshed, “Wehrmacht officers who contribute to such a constructive policy… would be treated with the consideration due their rank and according to the services which they render in the liquidation of the Nazi regime… . “ Roosevelt disregarded Donovan’s recommendation to soften unconditional surrender by so much as a word, just as he had rejected every other suggestion that might conceivably trigger Stalin’s distrust.


The fact that Hitler had utterly crushed his opponents after the conspiracy became manifest five months later when he was able to mobilize the Wehrmacht for its stunning offensive through the Ardennes. Even before the Battle of the Bulge, OSS Bern had produced troubling evidence of Hitler’s intention to fight to the death. The Germans were reportedly building a “National Redoubt” centered in the Salzkammergut, rugged and inaccessible mountain terrain in western Austria and bordering southern Germany. There, according to Bern, “vast underground factories, invulnerable in their rocky depths,” were being hewn from the mountainsides. Preparations were said to be under way to enable Nazi leaders to withdraw into this impenetrable fastness where elite troops, sustained by huge, buried stores of food, fuel, arms, and ammunition, would carry on the struggle. Bern predicted that subjugation of the Redoubt could extend the war from six months to two years and exact more casualties than all the previous fighting on the western front.

The superheated rhetoric of an Alpine rampart “defended by nature and by the most efficient secret weapons yet invented” had the ring of thriller fiction. General Eisenhower, however, did not dismiss the threat. “If the German was permitted to establish the Redoubt, he might possibly force us to engage in a long, drawn-out guerrilla type of warfare, or a costly siege,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Thus, he could keep alive his desperate hope that through disagreement among the Allies, he might yet be able to secure terms more favorable than those of unconditional surrender.” Eisenhower concluded: “The evidence was clear that the Nazi intended to make the attempt… .”

Oddly, the signals of a last-ditch Nazi stand were contradicted by intelligence also coming out of OSS Bern. “This whole project seems fantastic,” Dulles cabled Washington. He had become more interested, not in a Nazi scheme to prolong the war, but with an opportunity presented to him to hasten its end. He had word that the commander of German forces in northern Italy, the former Luftwaffe star tactician, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, might consider a secret surrender. The struggle up the Italian boot had been long and bloody with Kesselring conducting a brilliant withdrawal and giving up every mile grudgingly at a steep price to the Allies. If such a surrender could be arranged, it would remove one of the most stubborn German forces from the field, and, coincidentally, represent a major coup for the OSS.

The possibility of a secret surrender on the Italian front, so seemingly desirable at first blush, was to initiate a particularly acrimonious chapter in the long saga of East-West distrust. A split among the Allies remained the dying Nazi’s last hope against obliteration. That objective became apparent in a long Ultra intercept picked up between Berlin and Dublin and relayed to the White House in February 1945. Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had prepared a policy directive to be transmitted in the Enigma code to all German embassies in neutral countries. Each chief of mission was to attempt a high-level contact from among enemy representatives. As Ribbentrop instructed, “… [R]estrict yourself to one particularly important English and American channel through a secret agent.” This go-between was to leak Berlin’s current thinking, which ran: “The new and greatest fact that this war has brought out is the military power of the Soviet Union. Stalin has subjected [sic: subjugated] all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Hungary)… . Russia has no intention of ever releasing them again… . it intends to make these countries finally communistic states as part of the Soviet Union… . The offensive against Germany, however, shows that Stalin is pursuing a much greater objective even beyond that: he wishes to conquer and occupy Germany and thus complete the conquest of Europe.” Ribbentrop further directed his ambassadors to tell their Allied targets that “Germany is today the only power still fighting the Soviet Union… . If Stalin should succeed in overcoming German resistance on the East Front, the BOLSHEVIZATION of Germany, and consequently of all Europe, would be once and for all an irrefutable fact.” Lest the British and Americans think they would be spared, Ribbentrop told his emissaries to make clear that “Stalin hates England. After the conquest of Europe, therefore, the destruction of the English Island by the Soviets would only be a question of time… . The Bolshevization of the U.S.A. itself would then only be a question of time. The only political and spiritual counterpoise against the undoubtedly strong doctrine of Communism is National Socialism, therefore just the factor which the English and Americans want to exterminate. The English Crown, the English Conservative Party and the American governing class should therefore have only the wish that nothing should happen to Adolf Hitler.” The Nazi foreign minister directed his representatives to express dismay at the pigheadedness of Western leaders. They were to say to their contacts, “One marvels in Berlin that in London and Washington no one is willing to see this and that the present policy of the English and American governments must lead not to securing a long period of peace, but quite to the contrary, to producing a state of perpetual war.” Ribbentrop anticipated that any agent peddling this line would be asked about the fate of the Jews. “The question of the Jews,” they were to answer, “is a German domestic affair which, if Germany doesn’t want to fall to Communism, must be solved in Germany. The Jewish question in other countries does not interest Germany.” He neatly sidestepped the fact that millions of non-German Jews from all over occupied Europe had already perished in Nazi extermination camps.

While the foreign minister’s instructions were to make his arguments known through high-level Britons and Americans, his message reached the most prominent American of all within days. The Ultra cable delivered to FDR by the British comprised a remarkable stew of lies, truth, and prophecy. Ribbentrop’s forecast of the postwar fate of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, then being overrun by the Red Army, and the emergence of “perpetual war” between East and West, at least a cold war, proved remarkably on target.

Roosevelt has left no indication of his reaction to Ribbentrop’s intercepted stratagem. However, its existence made not a dent in his determination to stick by the Soviet Union, a resolve that was tested just days later by the latest news out of OSS Bern. Two months had gone by since the first hint that Field Marshal Kesselring might be receptive to a separate German surrender in Italy. Then, on February 25, Dulles learned through Baron Luigi Parilli, an Italian industrialist, that Karl Wolff, an SS general associated with Kesselring, wanted to meet with him secretly. According to Parilli, General Wolff claimed that the Germans in Italy were demoralized by their remorseless retreat up the Italian peninsula. They wanted to quit.

Dulles put Wolff to the test. The Germans had captured two leading Italian resistance fighters, Ferruccio Parri and Antonio Usmiani, the latter also an OSS spy in Milan. Dulles would talk to Wolff only if he released the two men. Three days later, he received word to present himself at a hospital in Zurich. On his arrival, he was taken to a room where he met the unshaven, unkempt, but beaming Parri and Usmiani. They had been blindfolded and driven over the Italian-Swiss border on Wolff’s orders the very day that they were condemned to be shot. In giving up the two Italians, the SS officer believed he had proved his good faith. He next sent Dulles a message from Italy suggesting they meet in Switzerland to start discussing a surrender.

Within days, Dulles found himself in a country inn outside Zurich where a tall, thin man, with a knife-edge profile and self-important air, rose to greet him. Karl Wolff, dressed in civilian clothes, first engaged Dulles in small talk, boasting of how he had managed to relieve the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, of his coin collection. Dulles, nevertheless, knew that he was dealing with no Nazi bon vivant. Ultra intercepts suggested that Wolff was a key participant in sending Italian Jews to their death at Auschwitz. Finally, the SS general got down to business. Germany had lost the war, he admitted to Dulles. He believed that his superior, Field Marshal Kesselring, an independent spirit and no Hitler sycophant, would not only be willing to take his forces out of the fight, but would do so unconditionally. After the two men parted, Dulles returned to Bern and informed Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in Italy, of his conversation with Wolff.

And then Wolff’s hopes seemed to be dashed. Hitler’s personal plane unexpectedly arrived at Kesselring’s headquarters and whisked the field marshal away to become the Wehrmacht commander on the western front. Kesselring’s replacement was to be General Heinrich von Vietinghof, an unknown quantity as far as his attitude toward surrendering his troops. Wolff managed to get a message through to Dulles that he would need a couple of weeks to work on Vietinghof. There the matter hung while General Donovan briefed FDR on what could be the OSS’s greatest triumph of the war.

The threat of a National Redoubt was tied closely to what happened on the Italian battlefront. If the Germans in Italy fought on, they would provide a shield behind which the reported fortress in the Alps could be built. If they surrendered, the Redoubt would be exposed on its southern flank. Churchill, ever the geopolitician, saw that determining the truth or falsity of the Redoubt was crucial. Diverting troops to conquer it could reduce the Western Allies’ chances of taking Berlin and would leave the city to the Russians. Who occupied the German capital, Churchill believed, would decisively influence who dominated postwar Germany. But the reality of the Redoubt remained confused. Just as Churchill was preparing to leave London for a mid-March trip to the western front, the Americans provided him with a Magic decrypt in which the Japanese ambassador to Bern informed Tokyo that the Germans were indeed turning the Alps into an impregnable stronghold. Dulles’s operation, however, continued to send mixed signals. On March 6, FDR received a dispatch radio-telephoned from Bern reporting the publication in Swiss newspapers of maps showing the borders of the Redoubt and descriptions of vast stores piling up in underground bunkers. Another OSS assessment reported, “It is believed that eventually the Redoubt will hold 15–25 divisions composed of SS Storm Troop detachments, Hitler Jugend [Youth], and the special OKW Führer Reserve created for service in the Redoubt.” Yet the same Bern operation concluded, “Much of this is probably fiction… . Talk of building in the mountains great new underground factories is nonsense. It would take years.” Allen Dulles cabled Washington, “I do not believe … that months of elaborate preparation have been devoted to fortifying, arming, and stocking a great German reduit.”

Sharing this skepticism, Churchill showered Roosevelt and Eisenhower with pleas not to abandon Berlin to the Soviets. On April 1 he sent the President a “Most Secret” message questioning Eisenhower’s shifting of armies southward. “I say quite frankly that Berlin remains of high strategic importance. Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces of resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin. It will be the supreme signal of defeat to the German people… . The Russian armies will no doubt overrun all Austria and enter Vienna,” he told Roosevelt. “If they also take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contribution to our common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?” He advised FDR, “… [F]rom a political standpoint we should march as far east as we can into Germany as possible and that should Berlin be in our grasp, we should certainly take it.” But Eisenhower was nevertheless diverting forces southward should the Redoubt prove real.


Bill Donovan’s fortunes continued to gyrate. The OSS might succeed in arranging the early surrender in Italy of a tough, stubborn foe. Yet Vessel had been blown the day before Donovan gave FDR his first report on General Wolff’s overtures for an Italian surrender. And then, not long after the Trohan stories had painted him as a potential American Gestapo chief, another potential disaster arose.

The OSS’s employment of Communists had proved a tangled affair. On a simplistic level, it seemed obvious that no one should be employed by the United States whose allegiance was to a party favoring the overthrow of the government. But a world at war created ambiguities. Donovan, staunch Catholic, Wall Street Republican, thoroughgoing establishment figure, was using Communists knowing that they were virulent anti-Nazis. He had once remarked, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.” Since the fall of the previous year, Donovan, in his determination to penetrate the Reich itself, had allowed his officers to recruit refugee labor leaders, including Socialists and Communists. In a remote corner of liberated France, the OSS ersatz German infantry company, the Iron Cross mission under Captain Aaron Bank, was continuing to train to parachute into southern Germany and capture high-ranking Nazis expected to flee into the Redoubt.

Still, FDR’s journalistic nemesis, the McCormick-Patterson chain, was not about to let any Roosevelt vulnerability go unexploited. That March, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald published the names of ten Army officers alleged to be Communists or to have close Communist ties. Four of the ten belonged to the OSS. A subcommittee of the House Military Affairs Committee summoned Donovan to explain the presence of Reds on his payroll. In preparation, Wild Bill had Otto Doering, another alumnus of his New York law firm, now an OSS aide, check federal law on the hiring of Communists. Doering briefed his boss the day before the general was to testify and told him that he stood on solid legal ground. The War Department had issued instructions saying, “[M]ember-ship in the Communist Party will not affect the status of Army personnel if it is established that their loyalty to this country is greater than any other loyalty.” Furthermore, Doering could point out that the Supreme Court had recently stated it had not yet decided whether or not the Communist Party actually advocated the overthrow of the government by force.

On March 13 an Army sedan flying the two-starred flag of a major general halted under the Capitol portico. For the first time since the creation of the OSS, Donovan faced congressional interrogation. He well knew the prejudices he confronted. The OSS had a reputation as the place where the well-connected could play at war. With its personnel recruited from the old-boy network, prestigious law firms, old-line banks, the academic elite, those who had been educated abroad, and friends of friends of these people, the agency’s image as an enclave of privilege was inevitable. Far preferable for a draft-age American with influence to wrangle an OSS commission and comment mysteriously at Georgetown dinner parties, “I’m simply not in a position to discuss what I do,” than to crouch in a foxhole at Anzio. To its enemies, the OSS was a preposterous fraternity of tycoons, scholars, football stars, scientists, financiers, playboys, pickpockets, counterfeiters, and safecrackers. Rumor even had it that the OSS sprang useful criminals from jail. The truth was rather less colorful. As for imprisoned counterfeiters, the OSS chief of document forgery observed, “These people were a bunch of dilettantes, amateurs. If they were any good, they wouldn’t have been caught. We wanted professionals.” In a probably accurate assessment of Donovan’s personnel, one OSS veteran concluded, “In half of my comrades, I knew the bravest, finest men I would ever meet. The rest were phonies.”

Taking this elite organization down a peg or two appealed enormously to anti–New Deal Republicans on the House Military Affairs subcommittee. But once in the hearing room, Bill Donovan, fixing his interrogators with cool blue eyes, speaking with the quiet authority that had become his trademark, stood by his people. “These four men I’ve been in trenches with,” he testified, “I’ve been in the muck with, and I’d measure them up with any men. I did not find that they were Communists. I found that they were not.” The hearings ended without any action taken against the ten officers, including the four from the OSS. Still, the anti-Roosevelt members of the subcommittee achieved a marginal victory. They had fresh ammunition for their old accusation, however denied, that the Roosevelt administration was riddled with Reds.

The general’s protégé Duncan Lee, placed initially in the OSS front office and by now chief of the Japanese section, was not among the four allegedly Communist OSS officers named in the original newspaper story. By the time Donovan appeared before Congress, Lee had broken off his contacts with Communists. While Donovan knew the four officers against whom the charges had been lodged, he doubtless would have been staggered to learn that a member of his law firm whom he personally had brought into the OSS was reported to have spied for the Soviets.

Though he had come out of the congressional investigation with only flesh wounds, Donovan thereafter became more cautious in the use of Reds. Parachuting 175 well-armed German Communists into the Reich just as the country teetered on the rim of collapse might prove difficult to justify. The Iron Cross mission was scrubbed. Far better to display OSS’s mettle by achieving the surrender of whole German armies in northern Italy than snagging a few Nazis on the run in the Alps. The former possibility grew when Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, agreed that the pursuit of a separate peace in the Italian theater could go forward. On March 12 he notified the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, who represented all Allied forces, that he was prepared to negotiate. An encouraged Allen Dulles gave the enterprise a code name, Operation Sunrise. The Combined Chiefs, however, notified Alexander to hold off until the Russians could be informed. FDR thereafter instructed Averell Harriman, his ambassador in Moscow, to alert the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, that peace negotiations on the Italian front were imminent. Molotov replied that Russia would immediately dispatch three Red Army officers to join the talks. The Americans rejected this move out of hand, as did Field Marshal Alexander. The Combined Chiefs of Staff concurred, suggesting that with the Soviets involved, something that might take “four hours would take four months.” Harriman was instructed to advise Moscow that, at this preliminary stage, no point would be served by direct Soviet participation. Russians could attend, but only as observers. Molotov shot back that, under those conditions, they chose not to send anyone.

Operation Sunrise began to provoke an extraordinary exchange between the leaders of two presumed allies. Molotov, besides rejecting Soviet officers as mere observers, was now demanding that the talks be called off completely if the Russians could not take part. On March 24, FDR sent a “Top Secret” cable to placate Stalin. In it, he was not above dissembling. He told Stalin, “The facts are as follows: some few days ago unconfirmed information was received in Switzerland that some German officers were considering the possibility of arranging for the surrender of German troops… in Italy.” He reminded Stalin that the Soviet government had immediately been informed of this development. Ignored in this message was the fact that two of Field Marshal Alexander’s high-level officers had already been dispatched incognito to Switzerland to meet with General Wolff. FDR also maintained that if an enemy facing American troops appeared willing to surrender, his generals were bound to pursue the opportunity. “It would be completely unreasonable for me to take any other attitude or to permit any delay which must cause additional and avoidable loss of life in the American forces.” He appealed to Stalin “as a military man” to understand his reasoning. FDR reminded the Soviet leader that his position was no different than Stalin’s upon the recent entrapment of German troops by the Red Army at Koenigsberg and Danzig, a Russian matter in which FDR had no reason to involve the United States. Secretary of War Stimson put it more bluntly to the President. The surrender of German armies in Italy was, he said, “a matter in which Russia has no more business than the United States would have at Stalingrad.”

Stalin’s response was swift and the harshness of tone shocking. “I agree to negotiations with the enemy,” he cabled Roosevelt, “only in the case where these negotiations will not make the situation easier for the enemy, if there will be excluded a possibility of the Germans to maneuver and to use these negotiations for shifting their troops… to the Soviet front… . I have to tell you,” Stalin went on, “that the Germans have already used these negotiations… in shifting three divisions from Northern Italy to the Soviet front.” As for Roosevelt’s analogy of Koenigsberg and Danzig, Stalin curtly dismissed it. The Germans in these sectors were surrounded, he said, and “if they surrender, they will do it in order to avoid annihilation. They could not be shifted elsewhere.” As for the Italian front, Stalin could not understand “why representatives of the Soviet command were refused participation in these negotiations and in what way could they cause inconvenience to the representatives of the Allied Command.” Stalin’s reaction was not entirely paranoid. The Soviet leader understood that if the German army did surrender in Italy, every soldier, gun, and tank not immediately penned in by the Allies could be expected to be thrown against the Russians.

The shrillness of Stalin’s message alarmed Roosevelt. He fired back, “I must repeat that the meeting in Bern was for the single purpose of arranging contact with competent German military officers and not for negotiations of any kind.” He intended to set Stalin straight on one further point: “I feel that your information about the time of the movements of German troops from Italy is in error.” He acknowledged that three German divisions had indeed been shifted from Italy to the Russian front. But “the last division of the three started moving about February 25, more than two weeks before anybody heard any possibility of surrender” in Italy. Roosevelt was so taken aback by Stalin’s hostility that he asked Harriman to find out if the words represented the Soviet leader’s thinking or merely that Stalin had signed a draft originating in the Kremlin bureaucracy. Harriman reported back that both the words and the sentiments were Stalin’s. The President, who believed he could woo and win anybody and who had invested so much capital in charm and persuasion to establish mutual trust with the Soviet dictator, now began having second thoughts. His fear, he confided to an associate, was that “Stalin has been deceiving me all along.”

The Soviet leader was not yet finished. On April 3 he fired an even more brutal salvo. He cabled FDR regarding the peace maneuvering in Italy: “You insist there have been no negotiations yet. It may be assumed that you have not been fully informed.” Not only had negotiations been held, Stalin insisted, but the German commander on the western front “has agreed to open the front and permit Anglo-American troops to advance to the East, and the Anglo-Americans have promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms.” This was not the first time that Stalin’s deep-dyed distrust had surfaced. In March the American 9th Armored Division had been astonished to find the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the Rhine near the town of Remagen intact and had poured troops across it. The Russians did not regard this breakthrough as an American military triumph. German thoroughness and efficiency were legendary. How was it possible, the Russians reasoned, that the enemy had not blown a bridge pointing straight into Germany’s heartland, unless they wanted the Americans to cross it? Stalin regarded the bridge’s capture as further proof, as he put it to FDR, that “the Germans on the Western front have in fact ceased the war against England and the United States. At the same time they continue the war against Russia.” The fact that Hitler had had four officers responsible for the loss of the bridge shot and that the Luftwaffe had bombed it into the Rhine were merely inconvenient facts interfering with Stalin’s preconceptions.

An angered FDR called in Admiral Leahy and General Marshall to help him draft his reply to Stalin’s cable of April 3. “I have received with astonishment your message,” the response began, “containing an allegation that arrangements which were made between Field Marshal Alexander and Kesselring, ’permitted the Anglo-American troops to advance to the East and the Anglo-Americans promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms!’ “Roosevelt repeated his argument that thus far no actual negotiations had taken place. “… [Y]our information,” FDR went on, “must have come from German sources which have made persistent efforts to create dissention between us… . If that was Wolff’s purpose in Bern your message proves that he has had some success. Frankly,” Roosevelt concluded, “I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.”

Stalin now held out a slim olive branch. Three days after the President’s retort, he cabled back, “I have never doubted your honesty and dependability… .” But he was still not done pressing his major premise, that Russia was being abandoned to carry on alone. The Germans, he noted, “continue to fight savagely with the Russians for some unknown junction, Zemlianitsa in Czechoslovakia, which they need as much as a dead man needs poultices, but surrender without any resistance such important towns in central Germany as Osnabrück, Mannheim, Kassel. Don’t you agree that such a behavior of the Germans is more than strange and incomprehensible.” He had one more charge to unload. Back in February, he claimed, General Marshall had tipped off the Red Army staff to expect major German attacks at two points, in Pomerania and at Maravska Ostrava. Instead, the Germans struck in a completely different sector southwest of Budapest, “one of the most serious blows in the course of the war… .” Here Stalin was accusing the chief of the American Army not simply of bad faith but of treachery. These exchanges marked the nadir in the three and a half years of wary alliance and threatened to create the only outcome that could give Hitler any hope of salvation, a rupture between the East and the West.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945

FDR still faced the threat that Hitler would hole up in the Alps for a fanatic Armageddon. In the midst of the Roosevelt-Stalin countercharges over Operation Sunrise, General Marshall sent the President an estimate on April 2 that the “will to fight of these [German] troops will depend largely on whether Hitler and his subordinate Nazi leaders, or the German High Command will have transferred their headquarters into the ’redoubt’ area. If Hitler does so, a fairly formidable military task requiring a considerable number of divisions may still confront the Allies… .” Now was hardly the time to risk the alliance, especially since the Russians had made their first installment on their promise at Yalta to enter the war against Japan. On April 5 they broke their peace pact with the Japanese. Through a Magic decrypt it was as if FDR were in the room in Moscow when the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, delivered the blow to the Japanese ambassador, Naotake Sato. Sato answered, hopefully, “The Japanese government expects that even after the abrogation of the treaty by the Russian government there will be no change in the peace in the Far East from what it has been in the past.” Molotov gave a chilling answer: “At the time when this treaty was concluded Russia was not yet at war with Germany… . After that Japan began war with England and America which are allies of Russia.” And, as Molotov well knew, the Americans, pursuing Project Hula, were already well along in turning over ships and training Soviet seamen to enter the war in the Pacific.