In America a much more rational designation system was used.
In the project, design, and development stages, a vehicle was given a
designation in the T series (best remembered as T for Test). Thus a vehicle
might be designated T89. Any experimental modification was indicated by a
suffix in the E series (E for Experimental). Thus T1E1, T25E1, or T20E3, in the
latter case the “3” indicating the third experimental modification.
“T” numbers were normally allocated chronologically. When fully
accepted for service by the using arms, the vehicle was “standardised”
and given a designation in the M series. Thus M6 or M8. It was not usual for
the M number to bear any relation to the original T designation, but towards
the end of the war there was a change in favour of this in an attempt to avoid
confusion. Thus the Light Tank T24 became the M24 on standardisation, for
example. In rare instances a design was standardised from the “drawing
board” and never received a T designation; an example was the Medium Tank
M3. There were also many instances where vehicles were put into limited production
and service before being standardised, and in some cases they never achieved
the status of standardisation -an example being the T23 medium tank.
At this stage it must be emphasised that this system of
designation was used for every item of military equipment in the US Army, so
that it was possible to have an M3 Medium tank, an M3 Light tank, an M3 gun
mount, an M3 rifle, an M3 flame-gun, an M3 gun sight and so on. Thus it was
normal practice to qualify each item by its full title. Strictly speaking,
therefore, it is necessary to say Light Tank M3 to distinguish it from Medium
Tank M3 and so on, was indicated by an “A” suffix. An example of this
is seen clearly in the Medium Tank M4 series, where engine and other changes
gave rise to the M4A1, M4A2, M4A3 etc. Modifications confined to the chassis
only were indicated by a “B” series suffix. An example arises in M7
howitzer motor carriage development. The M7 was based on the M3 medium tank
chassis, and the same design based on the M4A3 chassis became the M7B2. Had yet
another chassis been used subsequently, the designation would have been M7B2,
and so on. The “E” series suffix was rarely retained when a design
was standardised, but there were exceptions, one such being Assault Tank
M4A3E2. It should be borne in mind that any special purpose equipment carried
on American tanks was designated separately but following the same system. Thus
an M4A1 tank could be seen fitted with an MI dozer blade or a T34 rocket
Self-propelled artillery in American service was described
by the calibre of the weapon with the term “gun/howitzer/ mortar motor
carriage” as appropriate. Example: 105mm Howitzer Motor Carriage M37.
Other special purpose vehicles were designated similarly to tanks. Example:
Tank Recovery Vehicle T1. Names were not officially used for American tanks
until the M26 heavy tank was called the Pershing. Before that, however, British
names for American equipment (eg, Sherman, Lee) were being used colloquially in
American service and some American vehicles had unofficial but commonly used
names, such as Hellcat for the M18 GMC or Jumbo for the M4A3E2 assault tank.
Instead of being classified as “standard”
equipment, American AFVs were sometimes classified “limited
standard”. This category was given to a vehicle which was not fully
satisfactory for universal service, but which could be used when necessary. A
further classification was “substitute standard”, usually given to
obsolescent or expedient equipment due for early replacement but which could
still be used pending availability of the new design. Finally there was the
“limited procurement” classification given to vehicles for which only
restricted use could be foreseen. As the term implies, such vehicles were
usually produced only in small quantities. Classification could, of course, be
changed as necessary for any given vehicle type.
Launching a Maurice Farman two-seater from the Wakamiya during the
Siege of Tsingtau.
“Plüschow in front of the city wall of Haizhou in
the province of Jiangsu, on November 6, 1914. On that day he had escaped the
besieged Tsingtao by his plane, and after a flight of ca. 200 km to the
southwest, landed at Haizhou, because the plane had no fuel anymore.”
Both sides had elements of an air component; the Japanese
Navy had the Wakamiya Maru with its complement of four Maurice Farman
floatplanes, whilst the army detachment, initially consisting of three
machines, deployed from an improvised airstrip near Tsimo on 21 September.
Japanese aviation was, as was the case in every other nation, a recent
phenomenon in terms of powered aircraft. Previous interest in aeronautics had
centred on the use of balloons for reconnaissance, the first Japanese military
balloons were sent aloft in May 1877, and an advanced kite type was designed
and constructed in 1900 and successfully used during the Russo-Japanese War. A
joint committee, with army, navy and civil input, was created on 30 July 1909
to investigate and research the techniques and equipment associated with
ballooning; the Provisional Military Balloon Research Association or PMBRA.
Nominated by the Japanese Army to serve on the PMBRA were
two officers with the rank of captain, Tokugawa Yoshitoshi and Hino Kumazo.
Both had some experience with aviation. Hino designed and constructed a pusher
type monoplane with an 8hp engine that he unsuccessfully, the engine was
underpowered, attempted to get off the ground on 18 March 1910. Tokugawa was a
member of the balloon establishment during the Russo-Japanese War. Both were
sent to Europe in April 1910 to learn to fly at the Blériot Flying School at
Étampes, France. Having passed the rudimentary course, they purchased two
aeroplanes each and had them shipped to Japan; Tokugawa obtained a Farman III
and a Blériot XI-2bis in France whilst Hino purchased one of Hans Grade’s
machines and a Wright aircraft in Germany.
The first flights of powered aeroplanes in Japan occurred on
19 December 1910 at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Tokugawa flew the Farman III, powered
by a 50hp Gnome engine, for 3 minutes over a distance of some 3000m at a height
of 70m. Hino followed him immediately afterwards in the Grade machine, powered
by a 24hp Grade engine, which flew for just over a minute and covered a
distance of 1000m at a height of 20m.
A naval member of the PMBRA, Narahara Sanji, started on
designing and constructing an aeroplane, with a bamboo airframe and a 25hp
engine, during March 1910. Because of the low powered engine the machine failed
to lift off when this was attempted on 24 October 1910, but with a second
machine, the ‘Narahara Type 2’ powered by a Gnome engine similar to that used
in the Farman III, he managed a 60m flight at an altitude of 4m on 5 May 1911.
This flight, at Tokorozawa, in Saitama near Tokyo, the site of Japan’s first
airfield, is considered to be the first Japanese civilian flight as Narahara
had left the navy when he made it. It was also the first flight by a
The first military flight by a Japanese-manufactured machine
took place on 13 October 1911, when Tokugawa flew in a ‘PMBRA Type (Kaisiki) 1’
of his own design, based on the Farman III at Tokorozawa. These pioneers,
whilst they had made astonishing progress, did not however possess the
necessary research and technological resources to take Japanese aviation
further. Because of this the Japanese decided to import aviation technology
from Europe, though the navy established the Naval Aeronautical Research
Committee in 1912 to provide facilities to test and copy foreign aircraft and
train Japanese engineers in the necessary skills. Via this system, the
foundations of a Japanese aviation industry were being laid; in July 1913 a
naval Lieutenant, Nakajima Chikuhei, produced an improved version of the Farman
floatplane for naval use. Nakajima Aircraft Industries, founded in 1917 after
Nakajima resigned from the navy, went on to massive success.
The French were the world leaders in military aviation, with
260 aircraft in service by 1913, whilst the Russians had 100, Germany 48, the
UK 29, Italy 26 and Japan 14. The US deployed 6.55 It comes as no surprise then
to note that during the campaign against Tsingtau all the aeroplanes deployed
by both Japanese services were French. Four Maurice-Farman MF7 biplanes and one
Nieuport 6M monoplane formed the Army’s Provisional Air Corps, flying
eighty-six sorties between them, whilst the navy deployed one Maurice-Farman
MF7 floatplane and three Henri-Farman HF7 floatplanes. The navy planes flew 49
sorties and dropped 199 bombs.
A floatplane from the Wakamiya Maru flew over Tsingtau on 5
September, causing something of a surprise to the defenders, on a
reconnaissance and bombing mission, releasing three bombs that caused no harm.
It wasn’t the first aerial bombing ever – that had taken place during the
1911–12 Italo-Ottoman War – but it was a total surprise to the defenders. The
reconnaissance element of the mission was more useful, being able to ascertain
that Emden was not in harbour but that there were several other warships
present. It was to be the first of several visits by both army and navy
aeroplanes, against which the Germans could offer little defence, though the
fact that the defenders had their own air ‘component’ was to result in what was
probably (there are other contenders) the first air-to-air combat in history.
Indeed, despite the remoteness of the campaign from the main theatre, this was
only one of a number of such ‘firsts’.
Aviation on the German side was represented by one man and
one machine; Kapitänleutnant Gunther Plüschow and his Rumpler Taube. Plüschow
had served in the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, at the time under the command
of Vice Admiral Carl Coerper, as a junior officer aboard SMS Fürst Bismarck in
1908. Assigned to the Naval Flying Service in autumn 1913, he arrived on 2
January 1914 at Johannisthal Air Field near Berlin to commence pilot training,
and, having first taken to the air only two days previously, acquired his
licence on 3 February 1914. The Naval Air Service, which had been created in
1912 and divided between aeroplane and airship sections the following year,
was, in 1914, something of a misnomer; naval aviation was in a greatly
underdeveloped state with sole assets consisting of two Zeppelin airships, four
floatplanes and two landplanes. This was largely due to Tirpitz, who, despite
his later assertions that, prior to 1914, he saw the aeroplane as the weapon of
the future as against the airship, was not prepared to, as he saw it, divert
funds from the battle-fleet in order to develop the technologies and techniques
Having not seen it for some six years Plüschow arrived in
Tsingtau by train on 13 June – an extremely long and undoubtedly tedious
journey across the Siberian steppe – whilst two Rumpler Taube aeroplanes with
100hp engines, especially constructed for service in China, travelled by sea
arriving in mid-July 1914. The second machine was to be piloted by an army
officer assigned to the III Naval Battalion, Lieutenant Friedrich
Müllerskowski, and the arrival of the two aviators and their machines took the
total ‘air force’ available in the territory to three men and aircraft. The
third aviator was Franz Oster, a former naval officer who had settled in
Tsingtau in 1899, but returned to Germany in 1911 and learned to fly. He returned
to the territory in 1912, via Ceylon (Sri Lanka) complete with a Rumpler Taube
equipped with a 60hp engine. During his sojourn in Ceylon he attempted a flight
at Colombo Racecourse in a Blériot Monoplane on 30 December 1911 that ended in
near disaster; the machine was wrecked and Oster was hurt. He nevertheless,
after having returned to the territory and replaced the engine in his Taube
with a 70hp Mercedes unit, made a series of flights from the Tsingtau
racecourse, the first being on 9 July 1913.
Plüschow and Müllerskowski took charge of reassembling the
two aeroplanes delivered by sea and the former successfully made several
flights from the extremely small and dangerous landing ground at the racecourse
on 29 July 1914. A further two days were needed to get the second aeroplane
constructed, and on the afternoon of 31 July Müllerskowski set off on his first
flight. It ended in disaster; after only a few seconds in flight, and from an
altitude estimated to be 50m, the machine lost control and plunged over a cliff
onto the rocks below. Müllerskowski was seriously, though not mortally, wounded
and the Taube completely wrecked.
Whether it was just bad luck or whether there were
atmospheric conditions pertaining at the time that made flying problematical we
cannot know, but it would seem to have been a combination of the two that
afflicted Plüschow on 3 August. Having taken off successfully and flown a
reconnaissance mission over the territory, his first ‘important’ sortie, he was
experiencing difficulty in attempting to land when his engine failed and he
crash-landed into a small wood. He was unhurt but the Taube was badly damaged
and, upon accessing the spare wings and propellers sent out with the
aeroplanes, he discovered that the replacement parts had rotted away or
suffered moistureinduced damage during the voyage. He was fortunate that the
engine, for which replacement parts could only have been extemporised with
difficulty, was still serviceable and that there were skilled Chinese craftsmen
available; the latter fashioned him a new composite propeller from oak. Despite
this device having to be repaired after every flight, having been assembled
with ordinary carpenter’s glue it exhibited a disconcerting tendency to revert
to its component parts under the strain of operational usage, it remained
serviceable throughout the rest of the campaign.
Plüschow’s machine was out of action until 12 August, but on
the 22 August an attempt was made to augment it with Oster’s aeroplane; he
attempted to lift off from the racecourse in his older craft but stalled and
crashed, occasioning damage necessitating several days of repair though
remaining unhurt personally. Another attempt was made on 27 August with the
same result, though this time the damage was more severe with the aeroplane
‘completely destroyed’ to such an extent that ‘reconstruction was no longer
viable’. It seems however that Oster did not concur as the diary entry for 13
October 1914 made by the missionary Carl Joseph Voskamp, records Oster once
again, and apparently finally, attempting and failing to take off, and notes
that this might be due to unfavourable atmospheric conditions.
Plüschow and his Taube, by default the sole representatives of German aviation, could not of course provide anything much in the way of air defence against the Japanese. Nor could they achieve a great deal in the way of keeping open communications with the world outside the Kiautschou Territory. What was possible though, within the operational capabilities of man and machine, was reconnaissance, and the clearing up somewhat of the weather on 11 September allowed an aerial sortie to take place two days later. Plüschow flew northwestwards to investigate rumours of the Japanese landing and advance, and discovered their forces in some strength at Pingdu; the marching elements of the Japanese force reached Pingdu between 11 and 14 September. He also received his ‘baptism of fire’ from the infantry, returning with around ten bullet holes in his plane and resolving not to fly below 2000m in future in order to preserve his engine and propeller.
Reconnaissance duties devolved then on to the air component,
represented by Plüschow and his Taube. There was also a balloon detachment
consisting of two observation-balloon envelopes and the necessary ground
infrastructure. The German observation balloons of 1914 were known as Drachen,
a name commonly adopted for all sausage-shaped kite-balloons, and had been
developed by Parseval-Sigsfeld. Adopted for use in 1893, they represented a
significant investment in terms of equipment and manpower for the Tsingtau
garrison, the standardised balloon section in 1914 consisting of 1 balloon
(plus 1 spare envelope), 4 observers, 177 enlisted ranks, 123 horses, 12 gas
wagons, 2 equipment wagons, a winch wagon and a telephone wagon. The balloon
had made several ascents from Tsingtau during the course of the conflict, but
the observer had been unable to see anything of value. In order to attempt to
remedy this the device was moved closer to the front and another ascent made on
5 October. It was to be the last such, as the Japanese artillery immediately
found its range with shrapnel shell and holed it in several places. A ruse
involving the spare balloon was then tried; it was sent up to draw the
attackers’ fire and so reveal the position of their guns. According to Alfred
It contained a dummy looking fixedly at the landscape below
through a pair of paste-board glasses. But there happened to arise a strong
wind which set the balloon revolving and finally broke it loose and sent it
pirouetting off over the Yellow Sea, the whole exploit, I learned afterwards, being
a great puzzle to the British and Japanese observers outside.
Plüschow flew reconnaissance flights every day that the
weather, and his propeller, permitted, sketching the enemy positions and making
detailed notes. He achieved this by setting the engine so as to maintain a safe
altitude of over 2000m, and then steering with his feet, the Taube had no
rudder and horizontal control was achieved by warping the wings, whilst peering
over the side of his cockpit. The Japanese had extemporised a contingent of
antiaircraft-artillery – the ‘Field-Gun Platoon for High Angle Fire’, with the
necessary angle achieved by dropping the gun-trail into a pit behind the weapon
– and although the shrapnel barrage thus discharged proved ineffective it was
deemed by Plüschow to be troublesome nevertheless. Where he was at his most
vulnerable was on landing, and a battery of Japanese artillery was tasked
specifically with destroying the Taube as it descended to the racecourse, which
of course was a fixed point at a known range. Little more than good luck, and
what he called ‘ruses’ such as shutting off the engine and swooping sharply to
earth, saw him through these experiences, but remarkably both man and machine
came through without serious injury.
Whatever inconveniences Plüschow and the fortress artillery
might inflict upon the force massing to their front, they could do nothing to
prevent the landing of men and materiel at Wang-ko-chuang and Schatsykou, nor
could they prevent the deployment of these once landed. The previous efforts by
the navy in terms of minelaying did though still pay dividends, as when the
Japanese ‘aircraft carrier’ was badly damaged. As the report from the British
Naval Attaché to Japan put it in his report of 30 November:
[…] a few minutes after
8 a.m. [on 30 September] the ‘Wakamiya Maru’ struck a mine in the entrance of
Lo Shan Harbour, and had to be beached to prevent her sinking; her engines were
disabled owing to breaking of steam pipes, No. 3 hold full, and one man killed
– fortunately no damage done to aeroplanes though it is feared that a spare
engine may be injured. […] As the Aeroplane establishment is all being moved
ashore at this place this accident will not affect the efficiency of the
In order to achieve the enormous amount of digging that the
plan required, the organic engineering component of the 18th Division, the 18th
Battalion of Engineers, was augmented by two more battalions; the 1st Battalion
of Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Koga) and the 4th Battalion of
Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama). The infantry that would
man the siege works were also provided with weaponry specifically suited to
trench warfare; two light platoons and one heavy detachment of bomb-guns
In order to gain detailed knowledge of the defences the
naval and army air components were tasked with flying reconnaissance missions
over the German positions. They also flew bombing missions, which caused little
damage, and attempted to discourage their single opponent (though they were
initially uncertain how many German aircraft they faced) from emulating them;
the latter with some degree of success. Plüschow records that he was provided
with extemporised ‘bombs’ made of tin boxes filled with dynamite and improvised
shrapnel, but that these devices were largely ineffectual. He claimed to have
hit a Japanese vessel with one, which failed to explode, and to have succeeded
in killing thirty soldiers with another one that did. It was during this period
that he became engaged in air-to-air combat, of a type, with the enemy
aeroplanes. Indeed, if Plüschow is to be believed, he succeeded in shooting
down one of the Japanese aeroplanes with his pistol, having fired thirty shots.
It would appear however that even if he did engage in aerial jousting of the
kind he mentions the result was not as he claimed; no aircraft were lost during
the campaign. The Japanese did however do their utmost to prevent him
reconnoitring their positions, as they were in the process of emplacing the
siege batteries and, if the positions became known, they could expect intense
efforts from the defenders to disrupt this process. Experience showed the
Japanese that the time delay between aerial reconnaissance being carried out
and artillery fire being concentrated on the area so reconnoitred was around
Indeed Watanabe insisted that his batteries were emplaced
during the hours of darkness, despite the inconvenience this caused, and
carefully camouflaged to prevent discovery. That the threat from Plüschow,
albeit indirect, was very real had been illustrated on 29 September; he had
overflown an area where the British were camped and noted their tents, which
were of a different pattern to the Japanese versions. This had resulted in heavy
shelling, causing the camp to be moved the next day to the reverse slopes of a
hill about 1.5km east of the former position. He also posed a direct threat
though perhaps of lesser import; on 10 October he dropped one of his homemade
bombs on the British. It failed to explode, but the unit concerned moved
position immediately – such an option was not available to 36-tonne howitzers
that required semi-permanent emplacement.
The Japanese Navy began sending in vessels to shell the city
and defences again. On 25 October the Iwami approached, though staying outside
the range of Hui tsch’en Huk. By listing the ship to increase the range of her
main armament, Iwami was able to fire some thirty 305mm shells at Hui tsch’en
Huk, Iltis Battery and Infantry Work I. The next day the vessel returned in
company with Suwo and the two vessels bombarded the same targets. On 27 October
Tango and Okinoshima replaced them, and the same ships returned the next day to
continue the assault. Because of the distance involved, some 14.5km, this fire
was inaccurate in terms of damaging the specific installations in question, but
nevertheless was destructive of the nerves of the trapped garrison. It was
particularly frustrating in terms of the gunners at Hui tsch’en Huk who were
unable to effectively reply.
In addition to this display of naval force, Japanese air
power had been much in evidence over the period, their operational activity
increasing with sorties over the German lines and rear areas.
Almost every day these craft, announcing their approach by a
distant humming, came overhead, glinting and shining in the sun as they sailed
above the forts and city. At first they were greeted by a fusillade of shots
from all parts of the garrison. Machine guns pumped bullets a hundred a minute
at them and every man with a rifle handy let fire. As these bullets came
raining back upon the city without any effect but to send Chinese coolies
scampering under cover, it was soon realised that rifle and machinegun fire was
altogether ineffective. Then special guns were rigged and the aeroplanes were
subjected to shrapnel, which seemed to come nearer to its sailing mark each day
but which never brought one of the daring bird-men down. One day I saw a
biplane drop down a notch after a shell had exploded directly in front of it. I
looked for a volplane [glide with engine off] to earth, but the aviator’s loss
of control was only momentary, evidently caused by the disturbance of the air.
During the bombardment these craft circled over the forts like birds of prey.
They were constantly dropping bombs, trying to hit the ammunition depots, the
signal station, the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth, the electric light
plant, and the forts. But […] these bombs were not accurate or powerful enough
to do much damage. A few Chinese were killed, a German soldier wounded, tops of
houses knocked in, and holes gouged in the streets, but that was all. The bombs
fell with an ominous swish as of escaping steam, and it was decidedly
uncomfortable to be in the open with a Japanese aeroplane overhead. We are more
or less like the ostrich who finds peace and comfort with his head in the sand:
In the streets of Tsingtau I have seen a man pull the top of a jinrickisha over
his head on the approach of a hostile aeroplane and have noticed Chinese
clustering under the top of a tree.
They also managed an aviation first on the night of 28–9
October when they bombed the defenders’ positions during the hours of darkness.
Attempts to keep Plüschow from effectively reconnoitring were largely
successful, even though the efforts to dispose of him or his machine
permanently were ineffective. However, because problems with the Taube’s
homemade propeller kept him grounded on occasion, and because the Japanese
positions were worked on tirelessly, when he did take to the air he found the changes
in the enemy arrangements – ‘this tangle of trenches, zigzags and new
positions’ – somewhat bewildering and difficult to record accurately. Precision
in this regard was not assisted by the Japanese attempts to shoot him down or
otherwise obstruct him.
The artillery coordinating position on Prinz-Heinrich-Berg
reported itself ready for action on 29 October and Kato sent four warships in
to continue the naval bombardment whilst acting under its direction. Between
09:30hr and 16:30hr Suwo, Tango, Okinoshima and Triumph bombarded the Tsingtau
defences, adjusting their aim according to the feedback received from the
position via radio. They withdrew after discharging some 197 projectiles from
their main guns, following which SMS Tiger was scuttled during the hours of
Plüschow managed to get airborne on the morning of 30
October and was able to over-fly the Japanese positions before the enemy air
force could rise to deter him. This might have been lucky for him as one of the
aeroplanes sent up had been fitted with a machine gun. He was able to report
the largescale and advanced preparations of the besieging force, information
that the defence used to direct its artillery fire. This was repaid when Kato’s
bombarding division returned at 09:00hr to recommence their previous day’s
work. Despite the communication channel working perfectly, and the absence of
effective return fire from Hui tsch’en Huk – they had established the maximum
range of this battery was 14.13km and accordingly stayed just beyond its reach
– the firing of 240 heavy shells again did little damage.
The 31 October was, as the defenders knew well, the birthday
of the Japanese Emperor and by way of celebration Kamio’s command undertook a
brief ceremony before, at about 06:00hr, Watanabe gave the order for the siege
train to commence firing, or, as one of the correspondents of The Times put it:
‘daylight saw the royal salute being fired with live shell at Tsingtau’. The
Japanese fire plan was relatively simple.
On the first and second days, in addition to bombardment of
the enemy warships, all efforts would be made to silence the enemy’s artillery
so as to assist the construction and occupation of the first parallel.
From the third day up until the occupation of the second
parallel (about the fifth day) the enemy artillery would be suppressed, his
works destroyed and the Boxer Line swept with fire in order to assist in the
construction of the second parallel.
Following the occupation of the second parallel, the
majority of the artillery fire would be employed in destroying the enemy’s
works, whilst the remainder kept down hostile infantry and artillery that
attempted to obstruct offensive movement in preparing, and then assaulting
from, the third parallel.
After the Boxer Line had been captured, the artillery would
support the friendly troops in securing it from counter-attack and then bombard
his second line; Iltiss, Moltke and Bismarck Hills.
There were, roughly, twenty-three Japanese artillery tubes
per kilometre of front, a density that was comparable to that attained during
the initial stages of the war on the Western Front, though soon to be dwarfed
as artillery assumed the dominant role in positional warfare. The land-based
artillery was augmented, from about 09:00hr, by the naval contribution as Kato
once again sent his heavy ships into action.
The combined barrage soon silenced any German return fire
because, even though they had refrained from pre-registering their siege
batteries, the Japanese knew where the fixed defensive positions were and
shortly found their range; fire was also brought to bear on any targets of
opportunity. The German batteries were suppressed less by direct hits than by
their positions being submerged in debris from near misses. This was to prove
of some importance for the defenders were able in several cases to return their
weapons to service, largely due to the relative antiquity and thus lack of
sophistication of much of the ordnance, without the need for extensive repairs.
Indeed, despite the crushing superiority enjoyed by the attackers, the
defensive fire was to continue to some degree throughout the day and into the
night. The most obvious sign of the effects of the bombardment, at least to
those observing from a distance, were the huge plumes of smoke caused by hits
on the oil storage tanks adjacent to the Large Harbour. Two of these, owned by
the Asiatic Petroleum Company – the first Royal Dutch/Shell joint venture – and
Standard Oil respectively, had been set afire early on and their contents in
turn caused other fires as they flowed around the installations, these proving
beyond the capacity of the local fire brigade to control. In fact the
destruction of the Standard Oil installations was accidental. The General Staff
History records that a note had been received via the Japanese Foreign Office
from the US government asking that they be spared. Accordingly the objective
was struck out of the plan but to apparently no effect, perhaps demonstrating
the relative inaccuracy of the fire.
There were a number of independent observers of the
operations at this stage; correspondents from various journals and foreign
military observers had arrived in the theatre in late October. Though the
Japanese were intensely secretive they could not conceal the fact of their
bombardment or the plainly visible results.
The thunder of the great guns broke suddenly upon that
stillness which only dawn knows, and their discharges flashed readily on the
darkling slopes. The Japanese shooting, it is related, displayed remarkable
accuracy, some of the first projectiles bursting upon the enormous oil tanks of
the Standard Oil Company and the Asiatic Petroleum Company. A blaze roared
skywards, and for many hours the heavens were darkened by an immense cloud of
black petroleum smoke which hung like a pall over the town. Shells passing over
these fires drew up columns of flame to a great height. Chinese coolies could
be seen running before the spreading and burning oil. Fires broke out also on
the wharves of the outer harbour.
Many of the Japanese shells, no doubt due to the lack of
pre-registration, were over-range and landed in Tapatau and Tsingtau, though
the former received the worst of it. It has been estimated that at least 100
Chinese were killed during this period and a deliberate targeting exercise
carried out later in the day on the urban areas. The bombardment continued with
varying levels of frequency throughout the daylight hours of 31 October, and at
nightfall the Japanese gunners switched to shrapnel – by bursting shrapnel
shell over the defenders’ positions they made it difficult, if not impossible,
for repairs to be carried out. Such fire also covered the forward movement of
the Japanese engineers as they extended their saps towards the Boxer Line and
began constructing the parallel works some 300m ahead of the advanced
At daylight on 1 November the high-explosive barrage
resumed, again concentrating primarily on the German artillery positions though
many of these were now out of action. The secondary targets were the defences
in the Boxer Line, particularly the infantry works and the extemporised
defences between them. The ferro-concrete redoubts withstood the bombardment
without any serious damage, and, though they were scarred and badly battered externally,
none of the projectiles penetrated any vital interior position. The
communication trenches and other intermediate field works were however
obliterated and this, together with the destruction of much of the telephone
system, isolated the personnel manning the works, both from each other and from
the command further back. The targeting of the signal station further hindered
communication of every kind, and with the bringing down of the radio antenna
even one-way communication from the outside world was terminated. Shutting this
down was probably a secondary objective; the primary reason for targeting the
signal station was to prevent it jamming and otherwise interfering with
Japanese wireless communications which had become a problem.
After nightfall the sappers returned to their task of
advancing the siege works whilst infantry patrols went forward to reconnoitre
and probe the defences. One such probe crossed the Haipo and a four-man party
entered the ditch near Infantry Work 4, which was under the command of Captain
von Stranz, and began cutting the wire. They remained undetected for some time,
indicating the lack of awareness of the defenders who stayed under cover, but
were eventually heard and forced to retire with the loss of one man after machine-gun
fire was directed at them. A second patrol took their place a little later and,
under the very noses of the defence, completed the wire-cutting task before
they too were detected.
The defenders conceived that an assault in strength was
under way and called down artillery fire in support from Iltis Battery and
moved a reserve formation made up of naval personnel, whose ships had been
scuttled, towards the front. The Japanese patrol withdrew, leaving the
defenders under the erroneous impression that they had defeated a serious
attempt at breaching the line, rather than, as was the case, an opportunistic
foray. However, what the probe had revealed to the attackers was that the
defenders were remaining largely inside the concrete works, leaving the gaps
between them vulnerable to infiltration. This was confirmed by the experiences
of a separate patrol that reconnoitred near Infantry Work 3, also known as the
‘Central Fort’ to the Japanese; the knowledge gained being of some potential
worth. Also of value was an understanding of the nature of the barbed-wire
obstacles. These were permanent fixtures, with extra heavy wire holding barbs
‘so closely together that it would be difficult to get a pair of pliers in a
position to cut it’. It did prove possible to cut the wire, but the stakes it
was strung on, made from heavy duty angle-iron secured to a square baseplate
some 300mm per side and sunk into the ground to a depth of about half a metre,
proved almost impossible to dislodge. Initial intelligence had indicated that
the wire was charged with 30,000 volts, but direct examination showed this not
to be the case.
Apart from repelling the Japanese attack, as they thought,
the defenders spent the night of 1–2 November destroying further equipment that
might be of use to the besiegers. Chief amongst this was Kaiserin Elisabeth;
shortly after midnight, having fired off her remaining ammunition in the
general direction of the Japanese, the vessel was moved into deep water in
Kiautschou Bay and scuttled. Explosive charges extemporised from torpedo
warheads ensured that the ship was beyond salvage even if the wreck was
located. The Austro-Hungarian cruiser was only one of several vessels scuttled
that night, including the floating dock, which was seen to have disappeared the
next morning. Only the Jaguar remained afloat at sunrise at which point the
rapid rate of advance of the attackers, up to the edge of the Haipo River
between Kiautschou Bay and the area in front of Infantry Work 3, was revealed
to the Germans.
Revealed to the Japanese, by their action during the hours
of darkness, was the precise position of the Iltis Battery and this was
promptly targeted and put out of action by counter-battery fire. The
remorseless battering by the siege train also resumed, and the German inability
to respond effectively due to the accuracy of Japanese return fire began to be
exacerbated by a shortage of ammunition. The Japanese bombardment, though
intense, was perhaps not as destructive as it could have been. What seems to
have mitigated the effect to some extent was the high rate of dud shells. One
press correspondent that entered Tsingtau after the conclusion of operations
noted the proliferation of ‘giant shells, some three feet long and a foot in
diameter, [that] were lying about on side-walk and street still unexploded’.
Burdick, working from contemporary German estimates, calculates that between 10
and 25 per cent of the Japanese ordnance failed to explode. This shortcoming,
being attributable to faulty manufacture, played a major role in sparing the
defenders a worse ordeal than they had to endure anyway.
Also sparing the defenders to some extent on 2 November was
the onset of rain, which affected the assailants more than the defence inasmuch
as the attackers’ diggings became waterlogged and collapsed in some cases.
Further alleviation was attributable to the reduction of the rate of fire of
the 280mm howitzers. Their temporary emplacements suffered from the immense
recoil and had the potential to render firing both dangerous and inaccurate.
The remainder of the siege train concentrated its fire on the Boxer Line,
particularly in an attempt to destroy the wire and obstacles in the trench and
thus mitigate the need to resort to manual methods with their inevitable human
cost. The power station was also targeted, with the result that the chimney was
brought down in the evening, thus rendering the city dependent on primitive
forms of lighting.
The 3 and 4 November saw further progress in the advancement
of the siege works and continuing bombardment, though useful targets for this
were now at a premium as little of the defences remained other than the
concrete Infantry Works. The defenders had begun destroying their batteries on
2 November as they ran out of ammunition, and in any event returning the
Japanese fire was a hazardous business due to the rapidity and accuracy of the
response. The lack of defensive fire allowed some reorganisation of the siege
artillery and several of the batteries were moved forward and swiftly
re-emplaced with the minimum of disruption. On the far right of the Japanese
line the sappers attached to 67th Infantry Regiment had advanced their works to
within a short distance of the Haipo River, and thus close to the city’s water
pumping station situated on the eastern bank. The decision was taken by 29th
Infantry Brigade to attempt to take the station on the evening of 4 November
and a company sized unit, comprising infantry and engineers, was assembled. It
had not been bombarded by the siege artillery; the idea seemingly being to
preserve it for future use by the occupying force. So the engineers cut through
the defensive wire with Bangalore Torpedoes, thus allowing the infantry to
surround the place, whilst a box artillery barrage insulated it from any
Despite its relative isolation the pumping station was
actually a wellfortified strongpoint. The machinery rooms, stores and personnel
quarters were located underground and well protected by ferro-concrete. The
whole was surrounded by a bank of earth some 6m in height, itself protected by
a ditch, about 12m wide and 2m deep at the counterscarp, that was filled with
barbed-wire obstacles. The leader of the platoon investigating the area, 2nd
Lieutenant Yokokura, later reported that the personnel manning the station had
locked themselves inside behind ‘iron doors’ and were still working the pumps,
but when they realised that the enemy were upon them they opened the doors and
surrendered. The haul amounted to one sergeant major, twenty rank and file, two
water works engineers and five Chinese, together with twenty-five rifles. The
station was immediately fortified against any counter-attack and with its loss
Tsingtau was without a mains water supply and thus dependent on the several,
somewhat brackish, wells within the city.
Elsewhere along the line the nocturnal ‘mole warfare’
techniques advanced the saps and trenches ever nearer to the ditch in order to
construct the third parallel – the final assault line. This progressed
everywhere apart from the British sector of front, where enemy fire prevented
the final approach being made. As Barnardison reported:
On 5 November I was
ordered to prepare a Third Position of attack on the left bank of the river.
This line was to a great extent enfiladed on both flanks by No. 1 and 2
Redoubts, especially the latter, from which annoying machine-gun fire was
experienced. The bed of the river […] had also to be crossed, and in doing so
the working parties of the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers suffered
somewhat severely, losing 8 non-commissioned officers and men killed and 24
wounded. The 36th Sikhs had only slight losses. Notwithstanding this a good
deal of work was done, especially on the right flank. I considered it my duty
to represent to the Japanese Commander-in-Chief the untenable nature, for
permanent occupation, of the portion of the Third Position in my front, but
received a reply that it was necessary for it to be held in order to fit in
with the general scheme of assault.
Though most diplomatically phrased, it is possible to
distinguish in the final sentence of this quotation a hint of asperity in the
relations between the Allies. Indeed, though suppressed for political reasons
at the time, the British military contribution did not impress the Japanese in
any way, shape or form. Reports from the front revealed the perception that the
British were reluctant to get involved in the fighting and ‘hard to trust’.
More brutal opinions had it that they were no more than ‘baggage’ and ‘decoration’
on the battlefield. The nature of these observations filtered through to the
Japanese press, one report stating that: ‘Only when nothing happened were
British soldiers wonderful and it was like taking a lady on a trip. However,
such a lady can be a burden and lead to total disaster for a force when the
Daylight on 5 November saw three Japanese aeroplanes overfly
the German positions dropping not explosive devices, as might have been
expected, but rather bundles of leaflets carrying a message from the besiegers:
To the Respected
Officers and Men of the Fortress.
It would act against
the will of God as well as humanity if one were to destroy the still useful
weapons, ships, and other structures without tactical justification and only
because of the envious view that they might fall into the hands of the enemy.
Although we are certain in the belief that, in the case of
the chivalrous officers and men, they would not put into effect such
thoughtlessness, we nevertheless would like to emphasise the above as our point
On the face of it this message seemed to clearly indicate
that the besiegers, perceiving that they would shortly be in occupation of the
city, desired that as much of it be preserved as was possible. If so they
adopted a rather contradictory attitude inasmuch as shortly after dispensing it
a naval barrage, delivered by Mishima, Tango, Okinoshina and Iwami from Hai hsi
Bay to the west of Cape Jaeschke, was directed onto the urban area of Tsingtau.
Backed by the land batteries, this bombardment caused great damage to the city,
though one shot, apparently misaimed, struck one of the 240mm gun positions at
Hui tsch’en Huk, destroying the gun and killing seven of the crew. Without a
mains water supply the possibility of fire-fighting in Tsingtau was greatly reduced
and several buildings were burned down, though because of the relative
spaciousness of the city fires did not jump easily from building to building
and so there was no major conflagration. Tapatau, the Chinese quarter, was not
constructed on such generous proportions, though the relatively smaller size of
the dwellings and their less robust structural strength meant they collapsed
rather than burned, and it too was spared an inferno. Because the German
artillery was now virtually silent the sapping work continued during daylight
hours without fear of interruption, and the third parallel was completed during
the day close up to the defensive ditch. Unable to effectively counter these
moves the defenders, also ignoring the Japanese plea as contained in their
airdropped leaflet, began putting their coastal artillery batteries out of
action, which in any event, other than Hui tsch’en Huk, had proved mostly
ineffective. It was clear to all that the end was not far off, and only the
ferro-concrete infantry works remained as anything like effective defensive
positions, though a report from one to Meyer-Waldeck ‘reflected the universal
The entire work is shot to pieces, a hill of fragments,
without any defences. The entire trench system is knocked out; the redoubt
still holds together, but everything else, including the explosives storage
room, is destroyed. Only a single observation post is in use. I shall hold the
redoubt as long as possible.
Given the impossibility of offering effective resistance to
the besiegers, Meyer-Waldeck was under no illusions as to the length of time
left to the defence force. Evidence for this may be adduced from his ordering
Plüschow to make a getaway attempt the following day. He was to carry away
papers relating to the course of the siege and several symbolic items such as
the fastenings from the flagpole, as well as private letters from members of
The attackers saw the elusive Taube take to the air the next
morning, and, according to Plüschow himself, make a last circuit of Tsingtau
before setting off southwards; ‘never,’ as the Japanese General Staff history
put it, ‘to come back’. Though the Japanese artillery made what was to turn out
to be their final efforts to shoot him down, hostile aircraft did not attempt
to follow and he made good his escape towards neutral China, eventually
reaching Tientsin where he was reunited with the crew of S-90. As he left his
ground crew destroyed any remaining equipment, but his place over the city was
soon taken by the Japanese aeroplanes who sortied in force, dropping numerous
bombs onto the defenders’ positions, as a less than effective adjunct to the
efforts of the artillery. As the bombardment from land and air went on the
Japanese infantry began to move into their final assault positions in the third
parallel. The British however, still troubled by the fire from the German
machine guns, only occupied their sector with a thin outpost line. The
Governor, noting the proximity of the attackers and expecting an imminent assault,
ordered a general alert for the afternoon.
Kamio now had all his infantry where he wanted them, with
the exception of the British contingent, and all his equipment in place. His
orders for the night of 6–7 November did not however call for a general
assault, but rather stipulated small scale, though aggressive, probing of the
Boxer Line to test for weak spots, together with the usual artillery barrage.
He emphasised flexibility and the exploitation of success. As darkness fell the
sappers dug forward from the third parallel and, using mining techniques,
burrowed through the counterscarp before blowing several breaches in it. This
allowed the infantry direct access to the ditch without the need to leave the
entrenchments. It was also discovered that the ditch in front of Infantry Works
1 and 2 differed somewhat from the saw-tooth version already noted, being a
conventional channel in section. It was also found to be subject to flanking
fire from the Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).
Wire that had remained intact following the previous
attention of the artillery was cut or covered, allowing more or less
unrestricted access within the ditch, and patrols moved across it and out onto
the German side as darkness fell. At around 23:00hr a firefight broke out around
Infantry Work 2 as a patrol from the 56th Infantry Regiment attempted to
infiltrate and bypass it. The defenders were more alert than they had been on 1
November and sallied out to meet them. Eventually, after about an hour of
fighting, the Japanese retreated and called down an artillery barrage onto the
defenders for their pains.
More or less concurrently Infantry Work 3 (Central Fort)
under the command of Captain Lancelle was the object of similar tactics. The
results were however rather different. Engineers from the 4th Independent
Battalion, preceding units from the 56th Infantry Regiment, discovered that
they met with no resistance whatsoever when they began cutting two ‘roads’
through the entanglements in both the inner and outer ditches in front of the
fortification. Accordingly this work was completed expeditiously, and the
information on the apparent passivity of the defenders in that sector passed up
the chain of command. Major General Yamada, commander of the 2nd Central Force,
immediately decided to attempt an assault to take the work, but sought the
sanction of Kamio before so doing. The division commander concurred, so a
company sized unit under Lieutenant Nakamura Jekizo of the 56th Infantry
Regiment crossed the ditch at about 01:00hr.
The plan required some courage on the part of the
participants, who were all volunteers. They comprised twenty engineers and six
infantry NCOs who were armed with hand grenades, whilst further infantry units,
complete with mortars, stood ready in immediate support. The whole regiment was
also awaiting developments and was ready to advance at a few minutes’ notice.
Formed into two detachments, the raiders used ladders to climb into the ditch
away from the breach and, unseen, safely reached the German parapet which they
scaled before moving to reform. The plan called for a stealthy advance until
the occupants of the redoubt opened up on them, and then a charge forward
throwing the grenades in an attempt to disable the defenders and damage the
machine guns. This procedure was modified when it became apparent that the
fortification was, effectively, unguarded and Nakamura instead sent his men
left and right around it to the rear (or ‘gorge’ in fortification terms) where
they occupied the shelter trenches.
Detailing ten grenadiers and an NCO to resist any German
potential counter-attack, he used the rest of his men to block the redoubt’s
exits and then sent for reinforcements. Before these could arrive however the
Japanese were detected by defence posts on the flanks of the fortification,
whereby a hot fire with machine guns was opened. Several volleys of grenades
stemmed that, and in the meantime the redoubt’s telephone wires were cut and
access was forced into the signal room where, after the occupants were overcome,
the power was cut. This plunged the whole work into darkness and prevented any
further telephoning or signalling.
By this time two platoons of reinforcements had begun to
arrive; half of them formed a defensive line behind the redoubt whilst the rest
broke into it. It was claimed that they found the occupants in bed, but
whatever the truth of the matter Lancelle immediately surrendered the work
complete with its complement of about 200 men to Nakamura. It had taken forty
minutes and been, to quote Burdick’s words, ‘ridiculously easy’. It was
undoubtedly a famous and daring victory, and Nakamura was awarded the Order of
the Golden Kite (4th class) which he undoubtedly deserved.
In practical terms however, there was now a large and
growing gap in the very centre of the Boxer Line, and word quickly got to
Meyer-Waldeck who ordered his reserves to counter-attack under cover of a
German barrage. Whilst such a move was theoretically sound, it was,
practically, almost impossible. There was simply not enough artillery left to
provide an effective bombardment, and precious little manpower, particularly in
comparison with that available to the attackers, to seal the breach. The effort
was made, but the counter-attackers, including a contingent of Austro-Hungarian
sailors landed from Kaiserin Elisabeth, were simply too weak to throw back the
rapidly reinforcing Japanese.
The Boxer Line, being a linear defence, was vulnerable to
being ‘rolled up’ from the flanks once breached at a given point. The Japanese
having made the breach now proceeded to widen it by moving against Infantry
Works 2 and 4 on either side. Both works held out for some hours, assisted by
the Jaguar, the last German warship afloat, which fired away her remaining
ordnance in support. The outcome however could be in no doubt and both works
surrendered after about three hours of resistance. The Boxer Line was now
useless, for with no defence in depth the penetration meant the route to
Tsingtau was now as good as wide open. The Japanese infantry surged through the
gap and began a general advance on Tsingtau and various strategic points, such
as Iltis and Bismarck Hills. The batteries on the former fought the attackers
for a time before surrendering, whereas the artillerymen on the latter, having
fired away the last of their ammunition, set charges to destroy their guns and
vacated the position at about 05:00hr. This final destruction of land-based
artillery had its counterpart on the water; Jaguar, after attempting to repulse
the infantry attack, had been scuttled in Kiautschou Bay.
At 06:00hr Meyer-Waldeck held a meeting at his headquarters
in the Bismarck Hill Command Post where the latest information was assimilated.
It had long been an unwritten rule of siege warfare that a garrison could
honourably surrender following a ‘practical breach’ being made in their
defences. The Japanese, using classic siege warfare methodology, had now
achieved just such a breach. Whether the Governor was aware of the ‘rule’ is
unknown, but he had now only two options; surrender or a fanatical ‘fight to
the last man and last bullet’ scenario. Meyer-Waldeck was no fanatic. Brace put
If the governor had
permitted the unequal struggle to go on his men would have lasted only a few
hours longer. It would be an Alamo, and the name of the German garrison would
be heralded throughout history as the heroic band of whites who stood against
the yellow invasion until the last man. On the other hand the governor had with
him a large part of the German commercial community of the Far East which
Germany had built up with such painstaking care.
The Governor ordered the white flag hoisted on the signal
station and over the German positions and composed a message to Kamio: ‘Since
my defensive measures are exhausted I am now ready to enter into surrender
negotiations for the now open city. […] I request you to appoint
plenipotentiaries to the discussions, as well as to set time and place for the
meeting of the respective plenipotentiaries. […]’ The carrier of this message
was Major Georg von Kayser, adjutant to Meyer-Waldeck’s Chief-of-Staff, naval
Captain Ludwig Saxer – the latter being the Governor’s appointee as German
plenipotentiary. Despite Barnardiston’s contention that all firing ceased at
07:00hr Kayser had difficulty getting through the lines in safety, but he was
eventually allowed to proceed under his flag of truce to the village of
Tungwutschiatsun, some 4km behind the Japanese front line, more or less
opposite the celebrated Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).81 It was agreed that a
general armistice would come into play immediately, and that formal
negotiations for the capitulation would commence that afternoon at 16:00hr in
While the military system of Gustav Adolf served as the
basis for European warfare in the eighteenth century, few were able to apply it
fully. While the external aspects of his ideas were practitioners failed to
understand his flexible employment of the combined arms team on the
battlefield. Arnold J. Toynbee refers to an historical cycle of invention,
triumph, lethargy and disaster.
Walter Goerlitz writes that the strategy of the time was
that of a chess board which concentrated on felicitous maneuvering and avoided,
wherever possible, the more painful decisions of a direct encounter. One of the
foremost military historians of that age, Count Wilhelm von Schaumberg Lippe,
writes in his Mémeoires sur la Guerre Défensive that the aim of the art of war
should be to avoid war altogether, or when that was not possible, to lessen the
evil aspects of war. Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill and Orrery, wrote in the 1670s:
Battells do not now decide national quarrels, and expose
countries to the pillage of the conquerors, as formerly. For we make war more
like foxes, than like lyons, and you will have twenty sieges for one battell.
As so often in history, economics dictated how wars were
fought. The professional armies of the western powers were expensive
instruments that could not be quickly replaced. Long periods of training were
required to perform the mathematically prescribed deployments and maneuvering
with precision. The infantry under Marlborough and Eugène of Savoy (1663– 1736)
fought in long thin lines often several kilometers in length. The infantry were
trained to march directly into several sets of triple deployments, one behind
the other and each three or four ranks deep. These lines were expected to
retain their perfect alignment even during the heat of battle. The soldiers
were drilled to carry out intricate movements and to keep strictly in step in
their ingenious wheeling and maneuvering.
It is not surprising that in such an environment there were
few advances in weapons technology. Identifiable progress was primarily in
refinements of weapons already in existence. The flintlock musket with the ring
bayonet remained the basic infantry weapon, with only minor alterations.
There was practically no change in artillery. The Swedish
technology of the early seventeenth century quickly spread across Europe,
spurred on by a lively export from Sweden to the arms merchants in Amsterdam of
at least 1,000 pieces annually starting in the 1650s. The weapons manufacturers
in other countries were quick to copy.
Cavalry had a diminished role. They were used primarily as
skirmishers, to fight enemy cavalry, as flank security, and for raiding the
enemy’s lines of communications.
The most notable achievement was in the field of siege
craft—both the construction of fortifications and in breaking through them. The
credit for these achievements belongs to Marshal Sébastian le Prestre de Vauban
(1633– 1707). Space forbids going into his accomplishments, but two books are
recommended for those who wish to pursue this subject further.
The new fortresses created problems that were not easy to
solve. As pointed out by Parker, a fortress or walled town with a strong
garrison and supported by strategically located strongpoints was too dangerous
to bypass and had to be taken. Most of the pitched battles therefore took place
between the besiegers and armies sent to help the besieged. The number of
sieges increased while the number of pitched battles declined dramatically.
Marl-borough fought only four major battles during his ten campaigns but was
involved in thirty sieges.
The expanse of the battlefield and the extent of campaigns
were dictated by three factors—the reduced role of cavalry, the limited range
of weapons, and logistics. Supplies were gathered in a limited number of
magazines. The location of these magazines and their distances from the
battlefield dictated the scope of campaigns and put a limit on wars.
What did the Swedes think about the western form of warfare
in the early eighteenth century? They were not very impressed, to say the
least. Frost writes that the Swedish General Staff had nothing but contempt for
the linear tactics of contemporary European armies. In the view of the Swedes,
western warfare was too defensive and precluded any final decisions by arms.
Frost believes that the differences between western linear
tactics and those of the Swedes are overdrawn and that western tactics were not
as defensive as depicted. However, as an excellent historian, Frost qualifies
his statements by pointing out that western observers were baffled by Swedish
There were considerable differences between the western
approach to warfare and that of Sweden, driven largely by Karl XII’s war aims
based on two centuries of endless wars in the Baltic. Swedish war aims were the
total defeat of its enemies, not the acquisition of a fort, city, or even a
province, and the Swedish army was trained and organized to achieve those
objectives. In short, the Swedish forces were geared for offensive war.
The Swedish army was as well equipped as its western
counterparts. They were superbly trained and had a high level of discipline.
This discipline was not based on severe corporal punishment or death as in the
armies in the west, but on exemplary leadership. Karl XII shared the life of
his soldiers, including sleeping in the open, eating the same rations as his
men, and enduring the same hardships as they did. This example was followed by
the other officers in the army. The king and his officers exposed themselves to
hostile fire as much as the men. The king was invariably to be found at the
hottest place on the battlefield, and his rashness was often deplored but the
men liked it. He was truly loved and respected by his men, and this was
sufficient to instill in them a discipline and aggressive spirit that seldom
made disciplinary measures necessary.
The Swedes retained the pike while it had been discarded by
western armies. This was not because modern infantry weapons, including
bayonets, were lacking—in fact Frost points out that the Swedish bayonet was
superior to many found in the west. The Swedes simply considered that the pike
still had a role to play.
During Gustav Adolf’s time the Swedish infantry attack on
enemy infantry was conducted at a steady pace behind continuous musket salvos
delivered by each forward rank as one passed through the other, moving ever
closer to their enemy. The Swedish infantry regulations under Karl XII had the
infantry engaging the enemy infantry on the run, in some cases without
unslinging their muskets. There was no pretension of any fire and maneuver, as
the first—and in most cases the only salvo—was delivered as close to the enemy
as possible. At the battle of Fraustadt on 13 February 1706, some of the
infantry did not let loose even a salvo as it attacked headlong in one wave
through three artillery salvos and one musket salvo before they stormed the
enemy infantry line with sword, pike, and bayonet.
In a slow, traditional approach by the infantry, stopping
momentarily to fire salvos, the enemy’s stationary infantry should have been
able to deliver 4 to 5 well-directed musket salvos and several artillery salvos
at the attackers while they were in the killing zone to their front. In a dead
run the enemy only had time to fire one, or at the most two, musket salvos.
Having thousands of screaming Swedes approach at a dead run was enough to
unnerve the best trained and battle-hardened infantry and make their fire
inaccurate. Running at the enemy could theoretically reduce casualties and this
may well be what was behind Swedish thinking.
Karl XII, while making some use of artillery, appears to
have put less faith in firepower than his predecessors, and this is a definite
divergence from the combined arms doctrine of Gustav Adolf. Marlborough, while
walking through the Swedish camp in Saxony, was surprised at the scarcity of
At the Battle of Klissow in 1702, Karl XII, having only four
guns at the outset, launched his attack on the Saxons without waiting for the
rest of the artillery to arrive. In the invasion of Russia, Karl XII brought a
total of 72 guns to support an army three times as large as Gustav Adolf had
brought to Germany, supported by over 80 guns. Gustav Adolf had 200 guns at
Frankfurt on Oder and 150 at the Battle of Werden. At Poltava, Russian
artillery dominated the battlefield while most of the Swedish artillery was
with their baggage train.
Unlike the western armies, Sweden still placed great
emphasis on the cavalry arm. The Swedish cavalry charged theoretically in “knee
to knee” formations mounted on large horses that must have been a disconcerting
view to enemy formations.
Frost’s observation that the spectacular results of these
aggressive tactics [by the Swedes] played an important part in their success,
since they ensured that morale remained high, is on the mark. An unbroken
string of victories over a decade instilled a great sense of loyalty to and
blind faith from the troops in Karl XII as a military leader. The king’s simple
life in the field and his reckless courage endeared him to his men. This
military virtue of an army is labeled by Carl von Clausewitz as one of the most
important moral powers in war.
As with any military commander who loses a battle,
particularly one as history-changing as Poltava, there is no lack in the
literature of criticism and reasons for the ultimate defeat. I am reminded of
the famous saying by Marshal Turenne that when a general makes no mistakes in
war, it is because he has not been at it long.
KARL XII’S STRATEGY
In examining and judging Karl XII’s strategy we must do so
based on what the king knew or should have known when he launched his invasion
of Russia. Military strategy must specify the ends—objectives to be achieved;
military strategic concepts—the ways in which these objectives are to be
achieved; and finally military resources adequate to achieve the objectives.
Napoleon was one of Karl XII’s severest critics. In his
memoirs dictated from his exile in St. Helena, Napoleon bluntly claimed that
Karl XII was merely a brave soldier who knew nothing about the art of war. It
must be kept in mind that Napoleon was writing for posterity after his own
disastrous Russian campaign, which he wanted to put in the best of lights.
Napoleon’s arguments are not that the goal was unreasonable
or that the resources were inadequate, as so many other writers have contended.
He noted that Karl XII had 80,000 of the best troops in the world available for
the invasion. He focused on the military strategic concepts, claiming that
these were wrong. Napoleon’s severest criticism is aimed at Karl splitting his
forces and not following the example of Hannibal by abandoning all lines of
communication and establishing a base in Russia.
This is strange criticism coming from a military leader who
did just that in 1812; he captured Moscow but lost his army and empire in a
disastrous winter retreat with inadequate provisions. Napoleon’s criticism of
Karl XII turning south instead of continuing on to Moscow, only ten days march
away, has more logic. Clausewitz also levels mild criticism at Karl XII for not
going after Russia’s center of power: its capital.
Napoleon, who took basically the same route as Karl XII
initially, kept a copy of Voltaire’s history of Karl XII on his nightstand or
desk throughout his invasion in 1812. While dismissing Voltaire’s arguments
with annoyance, he assured his subordinates and advisers that he would not
repeat the mistakes of the Swede.
We must look at the situation as it existed at the time of
the invasion. The Swedes, based on past experience, had little respect for the
Russian army. For Karl XII, the Russian weaknesses were demonstrated at the
Battle of Narva. The king had concluded that the Swedish Baltic provinces could
not be secured except by eliminating the Russian menace. This was to be done by
dictating a lasting peace in the Russian capital. Karl XII believed strongly
that this was achievable, as did most observers. Near panic gripped Moscow when
Peter the Great began to strengthen the Kremlin defenses. Fuller writes: There
was nothing astonishing in this, for Charles’s [Karl XII’s] prestige now stood
so high that, with the exception of a few clear-sighted observers, all Europe
predicted that he would crush the Tsar and dictate peace from the Kremlin.
While Sweden had begun the war on sound financial footing,
it now found itself in the usual financial straits, and this made a long
defensive war unthinkable. The usual source for loans—the maritime powers—had
dried up as they were fully engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession. Karl
XII was well aware of these facts and concluded that the only reasonable course
of action was to deliver a quick and decisive blow at the Russians in their
homeland, and for this he had adequate supplies. In view of Peter the Great’s
feverish attempts to rebuild and transform his army, Karl may have concluded
that time was not on Sweden’s side since Russia would be more difficult to deal
with 10–20 years in the future.
When it comes to the concept of operations selected by the
Swedish king, there are some reasons for criticism. The direct route he chose
through Lithuania—rather than the more northerly one—was obviously chosen to
avoid leaving Poland to the mercy of the Russians who had already begun
large-scale raids in that country. It was a logical decision but the logistical
support that Karl XII arranged proved disastrous.
There was one thing the Swedes had not counted on: one of
the severest winters on record in Russia. As in the case of 1812 and again in
1941, “General Winter” came to Russia’s assistance. Karl XII was to learn, as
Napoleon and Hitler did, that an army without sound logistics is at a distinct
disadvantage when operating against a patient enemy willing to trade space for
When news of this first Soviet missile test site on the
Volga in the Ukraine, southeast of Moscow, filtered out in 1952 following
reports from returning German rocket technicians and prisoners of war
interviewed in the WRINGER program, a modified Royal Air Force Canberra B-2
from 540 Squadron at Wyton photographed it on a flight from Giebelstadt in West
Germany, which overflew Soviet territory in 1953 as Operation ROBIN and landed
in Iran. The plane apparently sustained some damage from Soviet air defenses.
Kapustin Yar, constructed in 1951 with German labor, remained the Soviet
Union’s principal IRBM development facility throughout the Cold War, and was a
priority target for overflights. Telemetry from the range was monitored from a
National Security Agency intercept station located across the Black Sea, at
Sinop in Turkey.
A small village outside the Turkish Black Sea resort of
Samsun was the location of a large American radar station that became
operational in 1955 to monitor Soviet missile tests at Kapustin Yar. In May
1957, Diyarbakur detected the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile
launch, the same month as the Jupiter IRBM was successfully fired in the United
RAF PHOTOGRAPHIC-RECONNAISSANCE OVER THE USSR
One area of RAF Canberra photographic-reconnaissance history
that still remains shrouded in uncertainty and conjecture is the aircraft’s
rumoured operations over the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s.
The USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was placed under the
command of the charismatic General Curtis LeMay in October 1948; high on his
agenda was the desire to get radar photographic coverage of as much of the USSR
as possible, in order for SAC bombardiers to recognize potential target areas.
Of course, at this time a significant amount of mutual suspicion existed
between the NATO powers and the Soviets, in what was known as the Cold War.
Consequently, LeMay’s ideas of setting up SAC reconnaissance flights over the
USSR were officially flatly vetoed by the White House, so that the Soviet Union
should have no excuse to carry out military action against NATO.
However, aircrews did experience ‘errors in navigational
equipment’ and aircraft did ‘stray’ over Eastern areas of the Soviet Bloc
during the Korean War. Also, in April 1950, a US Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2,
engaged on an electronic intelligence (Elint) flight over the Baltic Sea, was
shot down by Lavochkin La-11s; their pilots said it was a B-29.
The RB-45C variant, also served with
the RAF (35 and 115 Squadrons), as part of Opertation Jiu Jitsu. As the USAF
was forbidden by the US President from overflying the Soviet Union, but the
British Government had no such problems. Therefore, 4 RB-45C aircraft were
operated to fly reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. This lasted till
1954, when the RB-45C was withdrawn from Soviet Union flyovers, when one was
nearly shot down.Stuart Fowle
In view of Washington’s official reluctance, discussions
between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of Britain and the USA, worked out a deal.
RAF aircrews would fly American aircraft from bases within the UK, as the
Canberra’s electronics were, at that time, still being developed. Radar target plots
obtained would be shared between the air forces of the two countries. The
aircraft selected for these missions was the four-engined North American RB-45C
and, in the autumn of 1951, a small party of RAF aircrew, under the leadership
of former No. 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron member Sqn Ldr ‘Micky’ Martin DSO, DFC,
AFC, was established. Martin failed the preliminary medical for high-altitude
flying and his place was taken by Sqn Ldr John Crampton, the Commanding Officer
of No.101 Squadron, with its Canberra B. 2s.
The party was detached to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in
Louisiana for the necessary training programme, which was continued at Langley
AFB in Ohio, until December. Then, the party transferred to Sculthorpe in Norfolk,
from where the US F 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing operated the 322nd
Reconnaissance Squadron, one of three RB-45C squadrons stationed around the
world. Four aircraft at Sculthorpe were painted up with RAF roundels and large,
non-standard fin flashes, but were not allocated serial numbers. Three of the
RB-45Cs were flown on the first missions, in the early summer of 1952, on
courses set over north, central and southern areas of the Soviet Union. After
the flights, the aircraft were returned to the USA and the RAF aircrews
rejoined their respective units. Early in 1954, Sqn Ldr Crampton was put in
charge of another mission and his navigator was again Sqn Ldr Rex Saunders.
This time, their brief was to penetrate further into Soviet airspace than they
had in 1952. Crampton and Saunders took radar photographs of over thirty different
targets during a flight that covered more than 1,000 miles (1,600km). Again,
following the missions, aircraft and aircrews returned to their squadrons and
nothing has officially been released about these episodes.
Coupled with these known RB-45C flights, rumours have
referred to Canberras taking part in an Operation Robin. What is known for fact
is that, in 1951, the Soviets set up a missile production plant in the Kapustin
Yar area of the USSR, and ATO was extremely anxious to find out just what type
of missiles were involved. It is also a known fact that No.13 Squadron, which
had moved to Fayid with its Mosquito PR. 34s on 5 February 1947, had a
detachment deployed to Habbaniya, in Iraq, at the end of 1948, in order to
carry out intelIigence-gathering flights over southern areas of the USSR.
No. 540 Squadron had started receiving Canberra PR. 3s in
December 1952, while still operating with B. 2s. Its records show that, on 27
and 28 August 1953, various crews flew long-range missions connected with
Operation Robin. B. 2 WH726 and PR. 3 WH800 were used, with Wg Cdr Ball, Sqn
Ldr Kenyon, Fit Lt Gartside, together with Fit Sgts Brown and Wigglesworth
listed as taking part. Another of the squadron’s PR. 3s, WE 142, participated
in the New Zealand Air Race as ‘No. 2’ and is confirmed as having ‘strayed off
course a little’ on 8 October during the race. This ‘straying’ went over
Communist territory. Furthermore, the aircraft was ‘delayed’ at Basrah and took
third place in the race results. Whether anything can be deduced from these
facts depends on an interpretation of semantics.
During 1953, the squadron was loaned an American camera,
fitted with a 100in (250cm) focal length lens; it is known that B. 2 WH726 was
converted to accept this massive piece of optics. When the camera was being
tested, locations in London were photographed while the aircraft was flying over
the English Channel. With a camera having that type of performance on board, it
is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that WH726 took part in a
Kapustin Yar overflight. There was such a flight and this has been confirmed by
no less an organization than USSR intelligence.
Soviet records state that Lt Mikhail Shulga, flying an
undisclosed type of MiG fighter, was vectored by ground control on to an
aircraft in the Kapustin Yar area, recognized as a Canberra. At about 50,000ft
(15,200m) and still below the Canberra, the Red Air Force aircraft was at the
stall and Shulga’s intended interception had to be aborted. Whether the
Canberra in this event was WH726 has never been confirmed, but what has is the
fact that this aircraft was something of a special B. 2, which was also
operated from Wyton by No. 5 Squadron. A Fit Lt Gingell of that squadron flew
WH726 to the USA in March 1954, for a series of joint RAF and USAF trials,
quoted as Project Robin and American records cite the aircraft as being a
‘modified Canberra B. 2’. The trials occupied six weeks, after which the
aircraft returned to the UK and is confirmed as being on Wyton’s strength on 10
Later in the same month, an Operation Robin mission was
flown, followed by two more on 8 and 11 May. On 26 August and on 30 August,
further Operation Robin sorties are known to have been carried out, with all
being accepted at Wyton – but officially unconfirmed – as reconnaissance
missions over the Soviet Union. Perhaps the correlation between the
red-breasted bird and the national colour of the USSR reflects a typically
British sense of humour.
Predictably, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refuses, on the
grounds of ‘international sensitivity’, to release files relating to Operation
Robin, even in the current atmosphere of improved relations between the west
and the former USSR. However, surely the simple fact that Whitehall holds these
files is some proof that all is not conjecture.
The collapse of the Guomindang regime and Jiang’s flight to
Taiwan did not end China’s civil war. Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic
(PRC) in Beijing, but Jiang still insisted that his regime was the legitimate
government of the Republic of China (ROC). Both sides refused to view Taiwan as
a separate state. To the PRC, Taiwan is simply a rebellious province, over
which it claims sovereignty. To the ROC, the entire mainland consisted of
American policy might have favoured a partition of China, as
had happened in Germany and Korea. But this was as repellent to Jiang as it was
to Mao. Jiang appears genuinely to have believed that Mao’s regime would prove
too incompetent and brutal to survive long. The chaos of the Great Leap Forward
in 1958 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 suggest that this view was not entirely
fantasy. But more realistically there was always the hope that the USA might
defeat the PRC and reinstall his regime. To Mao, who was far more of a
nationalist than most Americans realised, the existence of a separate regime in
Taiwan was intolerable. There also was the danger that America would indeed
attack the PRC from Taiwan. He wanted to invade the island and complete the
reunification of China.
The situation was therefore unstable. Other powers were
required to choose which to recognise as the legitimate government. Also, given
the danger of renewed fighting, how deeply committed dare the USSR and USA
become to either side? Britain had always been pragmatic on such questions: the
Communists ruled China and were therefore the government. Britain’s only
interest was Hong Kong, and the PRC found the status quo there useful. Britain
recognised the PRC almost immediately. America could not do this. Americans had
long held unrealistic views on China, and Truman was widely criticised for `losing’
China. Also, at American insistence, China had been awarded a permanent seat on
the UN Security Council. They had no wish to see the PRC inheriting that seat.
They continued to recognise the ROC, but hesitated to enter into security
commitments that might allow Jiang to drag them into a war in China.
US attitudes changed through the Korean War. Still certain
that the Communist world was monolithic; they saw this as part of a global
Soviet strategy. The USA decided that their interests would not allow a
Communist take-over of Taiwan. It might lead to Communist domination of the
western Pacific, and ultimately the entire ocean. Other states, fearing being
drawn into a major war, declined to extend collective security to Taiwan via
SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation). America therefore reached a
bilateral security agreement with Jiang in December 1954.
This was a risky step. Mao had planned to invade Taiwan, but
his resources had been diverted to Korea. With that war over he could return to
Taiwan. The immediate issue was that the Guomindang had clung on to a number of
islands off the mainland. They included the Taschen Islands, Matsu and Quemoy –
the latter being less than three kilometres from the mainland. They had no
military value, but Jiang refused to abandon them. Mao was deeply offended at
the PRC’s exclusion from the Security Council and the Taiwan-USA security
negotiations. He ordered the shelling of Quemoy in March 1954, which suddenly
became a massive barrage in September.
Eisenhower realised these islands were worthless but was in
a quandary. He did not wish to go to war, but the ROC lobby was clamouring for
strong action. Also the loss of these islands would reflect badly on the USA as
Taiwan’s supporter, which might undermine America’s other alliances. It might
suggest that America could not stop the advance of Communism in Asia.
Eisenhower’s European allies, however, had no intention of fighting a war over
such a trivial issue. He still hurriedly concluded the security agreement with Taiwan
and hinted that America was prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend
the islands. The PRC scoffed at these steps, but along with Soviet pressure to
avoid escalating tensions they had their effect. The shelling died down. But
not before the PRC stormed Yijiangshan Island. This convinced America that the
Taschens were untenable and they forced Jiang to evacuate them.
After this, for America to allow the loss of Matsu and
Quemoy would be too great a humiliation. Also, as Jiang had crammed them with
his best troops, their loss could lead to the loss of Taiwan. When Mao renewed
the shelling in 1958, Eisenhower felt he had no choice but to offer US support.
His renewed talk of tactical nuclear weapons shocked his allies. Again tensions
died down. Jiang was required to make a statement repudiating the use of force
in regaining the mainland. Mao responded by shelling Quemoy only on alternate
days. This gave the crisis a surreal quality, and one difficult to take too
As a result of these crises America had made a comprehensive
commitment to Taiwan. America was angered at European hesitancy over Taiwan.
But the PRC was also deeply angered at the timidity of the USSR, who found the
islands a ludicrous issue over which to risk war. This would put far greater
strains on Soviet alliances than on American.
In September 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s
Republic of China (PRC). He had united China, restored effective central
government and freed it from foreign domination. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
he led was effective and feared, but also generally respected. His personal
stature was massive. He towered over his associates and had a `cult of
personality’, presenting him as a demigod. But he was not necessarily satisfied.
He had not won power for its own sake, but to fundamentally transform China. He
felt he had cause to worry that he was failing in this.
Feeling his regime secure, in 1957 he launched the `hundred
flowers’ movement: promising immunity to those offering constructive criticism
of his state. Instead of the minor complaints he expected, intellectuals
actually questioned the very foundations of Communism. Shocked at the scale of
opposition, Mao concluded his revolution was not secure after all. He lashed out
viciously at the critics. But worse was to follow. With the PRC’s friendship
with the USSR breaking down, Mao decided that China must race towards
socialism, industrialisation and modernisation, lest his revolution fail. In
1958 he launched the `Great Leap Forward’. The idea was instant modernisation
via mass mobilisation. Agricultural collectivisation was completed and peasant
communes ordered to produce vast quantities of steel in homemade furnaces. The
result was catastrophic. Millions died in the resulting famine. The prestige of
the CCP was badly undermined.
Mao could not accept the failure was due to his entire
approach being an unrealistic fantasy. The fault, he concluded, was in the CCP
and its failure to really change China. The CCP must have lost contact with the
proletariat and peasantry. Far too many recruits had been permitted to join the
CCP without repudiating fully their bourgeois attitudes. They had sought the
privileges of rank, become authoritarian and felt themselves superior. In fact,
Mao believed the CCP was in danger of the same failings he perceived in the
Soviet Communist Party. It was ceasing to be revolutionary. His achievements
would be quietly eroded after his death.
The only solution Mao could see was to launch a new
revolution. This revolution would not be led by the Party, but be directed
against the bourgeois elements within it and within the government system.
Feeling that the young were truly revolutionary, he aimed to mobilise them to
this end. The first rallying call to a new revolution came in June 1966, when
posters appeared criticising academics at Beijing University. Students, and
soon schoolchildren, were urged to defy authority. The Red Guards soon emerged
to be the vanguard of Mao’s new revolution. They were urged to denounce
academics, writers, indeed any in the arts, who might be peddling bourgeois
ideas. Denunciation soon turned to punishment. Some of China’s most renowned
figures were humiliated, imprisoned, tortured and even murdered. When
authorities attempted to restore discipline, they were themselves denounced as
The CCP attempted to defend itself by taking control of the
movement. The Red Guards soon became split into hostile factions:
`conservatives’, often children of Party members and those with a stake in the
existing order, and `radicals’, generally of unprivileged backgrounds. Both
claimed to be pursuing the Cultural Revolution in the name of Mao. An element
of civil war was introduced into the crisis. By August 1967 the factions were
fighting pitched battles in many areas. Mao clearly wanted the radicals to
seize power and put his revolution back on course. But given their youth, they
were hardly suited for such a role. Also the growing chaos was alienating the
Chinese people. There was a danger that the PRC would collapse.
With the Party and the state paralysed, the only institute
able to supply any stability was the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Troops had
to be deployed to protect essential services and industries from destruction.
Mao wanted them to support the radicals. But generally PLA commanders were
hostile to the radicals, often arming and supporting conservatives. Clashes
between the PLA and radical Red Guards spread across China. The violence in
Sichuan was especially severe, but in many places civil strife left hundreds of
thousands dead and injured. Having done so much damage, however, Mao could not
afford to turn the Red Guards loose against the PLA. From September 1967 the
PLA gradually restored a semblance of order in the PRC, for example, disarming
fighting factions in Guangxi and Shanxi. Millions of Red Guards, their
educations curtailed and lacking any skills, were dispatched to the countryside
to be labourers. This did not end the Cultural Revolution. A witch-hunt for
class enemies was launched reminiscent of Stalin’s purges. Though without the
earlier mayhem, it destroyed millions of lives through denunciation, forced
confessions and brutal punishment.
The Cultural Revolution only really ended with the defeat of
the `Gang of Four’ in the power struggle following Mao’s death in 1976. By then
China and the CCP were desperately weary of it. In his efforts to reinvigorate
the revolutionary spirit of China, Mao in fact destroyed what was left of it.
His own image was badly tarnished. The CCP was left divided and weakened and
had lost the respect of the Chinese. Thereafter Communist rule in China was
endured rather than supported
Further south, Britain’s most important ally was also in
trouble. Since 10 May, French reconnaissance planes had been monitoring the
powerful armoured forces moving through the Luxembourg Ardennes towards the
French defences on the Meuse, and more were moving across southern Belgium
towards Gembloux. Initially, the latter seemed the greater threat; there was no
natural obstacle to aid the defence in the 30-mile gap between the BEF on the
Dyle and the French forces on the Meuse. The well-equipped French 1st Army had
the task of plugging this gap. The 2nd and 3rd Light Armoured divisions pushed
as far east as possible to buy time for the French infantry to dig in.
Before the German forces could even think about breaking
through the ‘Gembloux Gap’, they had to cross the River Mass, which ran through
the Dutch town of Maastricht. Just a couple of miles beyond that, in Belgium,
there was another major obstacle—the Albert Canal. The Maastricht crossing was
not important to Dutch defences, but the local troops did their duty and
destroyed the bridges over the Maas before the Germans could seize them. German
forces had more success just over the frontier, in Belgium. Troops in gliders
landed near the three bridges over the Albert Canal and the fort at Eben-Emael,
which was supposed to cover them. Belgian engineers blew one of the bridges,
but those at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt were captured intact and Eben-Emael was
With the Maastricht bridges blown, the Belgians had the best
part of a day before any major reinforcements could reach the lightly armed
German airborne troops holding the Albert Canal bridges. The German forces,
however, had the firepower of the Stuka dive-bombers to help them fend of the
Belgian counterattacks. The Belgian troops had no air support or fighter cover;
apart from escorting the odd reconnaissance mission, Belgian fighters stayed on
the ground. The Fairey Fox was as capable of carrying bombs as the Fokker C.V
and C.X, but these and the Belgian Battles did not intervene. The blown bridges
at Maastricht caused a huge bottleneck as German columns waited for the
engineers to construct the pontoons. It was one of those rare occasions where
there was no alternative route. The backed-up columns made an attractive target
for the eleven unemployed Hampden and Whitley squadrons, not to mention the two
Whitley squadrons attempting to hit less vital communication targets further
Sifting through the reports coming from the front, it was
not German bottlenecks the Air Staff was looking for, but rather any evidence
that the Luftwaffe was bombing civilians. The cabinet meetings that day spent
much time discussing whether there was justification for unleashing Bomber
Command on the Ruhr, but they reached no final decision. Apart from Wellington
and Whitley attacks on Waalhaven and communication targets west of the Ruhr, no
other missions were flown on the night of 10–11 May. This is not to say that
the French effort was more intensive—only two of the six night bomber squadrons
flew. Twelve aircraft made some rather ineffectual attacks on German airfields.
Five reconnaissance Blenheims, flying singly and unescorted,
were dispatched during the course of 11 May to find out what was happening in
the Maastricht/Albert Canal region. Three were lost and the two that made it
back were badly damaged. They confirmed the Belgian frontier defences had been
breached and armoured forces were heading for Gembloux. These missions also
confirmed that using unescorted Blenheims for reconnaissance was not an
efficient way of acquiring information; even the Belgians were escorting their
reconnaissance planes. Only the photo-reconnaissance Spitfires could operate
unescorted, but No. 212 Squadron had so few planes that it rarely managed to
fly more than two sorties a day. The most important role of any air force has
always been and probably always will be reconnaissance. A few more
reconnaissance Spitfires would have been a very good investment.
Early on the morning of the 11th, Belgian Air Force Battles
attempted to destroy the two intact bridges over the Albert Canal. The
Gladiator escort was intercepted before it met up with the bombers, and only one
of the eight Battles returned. No bombs had hit the bridges, and the 50-kg
bombs they were carrying would not have made much impression anyway. The
Belgians appealed to their British and French Allies to try.
In fact, Maastricht was the more rewarding target. The
bridges high over the Albert Canal could not be easily replaced, but nor could
they be easily destroyed. The pontoons the Germans had thrown across the Maas
were far more vulnerable and any damage to the town itself would block roads.
No. 2 Group Blenheims attacked the pontoon bridges in Maastricht (eleven
sorties) and enemy columns pushing towards Tongres (twelve sorties). Twelve
French LeO 451s, the first of the new French bombers, also bombed Maastricht.
The French bombers had a close escort of M.S.406 fighters, while the Blenheims
had to rely on Hurricanes operating in the general area, but it would seem the
air defences were not that strong on the 11th. Two Blenheims were lost—one to
fighters and one to flak.
Instead of continuing the attack during the night, Bomber
Command stuck rigidly to its pre-offensive plane to bomb communication targets
west of the Rhine in Germany. Nineteen Hampdens and eighteen Whitleys bombed
Mönchengladbach. It was the first time Bomber Command had attacked a German
city. Four civilians were killed. How the Germans were supposed to distinguish
between this and attacks on German industry east of the Rhine is not clear; nor
would it have been clear to the Germans why Mönchengladbach was chosen as the
crucial tactical target that merited Bomber Command’s only effort that night.
Lines of communication from the city led into southern Holland and to
Maastricht, but it was too far from either front line to be crucial. All the
French could put into the air was five ancient Amiot 143s, but at least they
were in a more relevant area, bombing Maastricht and targets around Aachen.
Fairey Battles: 12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over
the Albert Canal.
The fifty bombing sorties flown in the Maastricht area on
the 11th were dwarfed by the number of bomber and dive-bomber sorties flown by
the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, they made sufficient impression for German Army
commanders to demand better air cover. In response, on 12 May German fighter
squadrons maintained a permanent watch, operating from airfields just a few
minutes’ flying time from Maastricht. Operating without a close escort was now
going to be very dangerous. To make matters worse, while the Luftwaffe was
stepping up its efforts in the Maastricht area, Air Component Hurricanes had to
divide their resources between Maastricht and the Belgian forces falling back
on Antwerp. The bombers paid the price. Nine AASF Blenheims were intercepted
just after attacking German troop columns and seven were shot down. Five
Battles from No. 12 Squadron attempted to destroy the Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt
bridges. Two squadrons of Blenheims bombing Maastricht from medium altitude
were supposed to distract the defenders, but they arrived too late and the
bridges were not destroyed. Ten of the twenty-four Blenheims were lost to
fighters and flak, and all five Battles were also shot down.
An irate German officer scolded one of the shaken survivors:
You British are mad.
We capture the bridge early Friday morning. You give us all Friday and Saturday
to get our flak guns up in circles all round the bridge, and then on Sunday,
when all is ready, you come along with three aircraft and try and blow the
It was a fair point. If they had struck quickly, before the
defences were ready, the chances of surviving were much greater.
Other attacks on troop column heading for Tongres brought
the total number of No. 2 Group sorties to forty-five for the loss of eleven
Blenheims. This was an unsustainable loss rate. Fighter escorts helped the
French medium bombers avoid heavy losses, but no escort could prevent eight of
eighteen hedge-hopping Breguet 693 ground-attack bombers from being shot down
by flak. Like the Battle aircrews, the French were flying their first mission,
and they were equally taken aback by the lethality of the light anti-aircraft
defences. The Breguet 693 was smaller and much faster than the Battle, but the
French aircrews were no more experienced than their RAF counterparts.
Three more RAF Hurricane squadrons flew to France on the
evening of the 10th, and the promised tenth squadron arrived on the 12th. Even
so, the number of RAF fighters available was still inadequate for all the tasks
they were required to carry out. RAF fighters were not being used as bomber
interceptors deep in the rear, as Slessor and Dowding had anticipated; they
were inevitably drawn to where the fighting on the ground was taking place, and
the further east they went, the more frequent were encounters with Bf 109Es.
Galland describes how he almost felt sorry for what he thought was a formation
of Belgian Hurricanes he came across; it was actually an RAF squadron, probably
No. 87. The German ace shot down two with an ease that he found embarrassing.
The Battle and Blenheim raid on the Albert Canal/Maastricht bridges was
supposed to be covered by three fighter squadrons, but they were committed
piecemeal and engaged by German fighters over a wide area. Only the eight
Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron were in the Maastricht area, and only three of
them returned intact, although all the pilots eventually made it back. Thirteen
French-based Hurricanes were lost on the 12th, marking the first serious pilot
losses—four killed and two wounded.
The 100-odd bomber sorties flown by the Allied air forces on
11 and 12 May in the Maastricht region caused delays, especially to the 4th
Panzer. This could only help the French racing to meet them, but it was only
partial compensation for the far more powerful blows that were delaying the
French. These were spearheaded by the 300 Stuka dive-bombers of Fliegerkorps
VIII. This mobile close-support unit had helped smash a way through the Dutch
Peel Marshes defences, had beaten off the Belgian counterattacks around
Eben-Emael, had forced the French tanks advancing on Breda to retreat, and was
now supporting the drive on Gembloux. The idea that German Army commanders
could radio for help whenever they needed it was perhaps an exaggeration, but
the Germans were very good at concentrating their air resources where they were
The French 2nd and 3rd Light Armoured divisions first
clashed with the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions on 12 May. From the 13th to the
15th, a fierce tank battle raged east of Gembloux. The French suffered heavily
at the hands of their more experienced opponents, but the German Panzers failed
to break through. In a hard-fought and close battle, by imposing some delays,
the Allied day bombers could claim to have made a small but useful
contribution. Perhaps significantly, for most of the battle the French tanks
were spared the full attention of the German Stukas. On the 13th, most of
Fliegerkorps VIII moved south. The French thought they were dealing with the
most serious threat; in fact, the heaviest German blow was to fall on the
Since the first day of the offensive, the French had been
following the progress of the Panzers heading through Luxembourg and southern
Belgium towards the Meuse. On the 11th, two flights of four AASF Battles were
involved in a rather ambitious attempt to bomb roads around Prüm, in Germany.
Only one returned. The survivors reported that the three other planes in their
flight had been shot down by flak before reaching the target. In view of the
heavy losses to ground fire, Barratt suggested that the Battles should be used
from a higher altitude. Playfair argued that the highest altitude for accurate
bombing would still be within range of light flak, and flying as low as
possible was still the best option. This seemed to be borne out in further
raids on the 12th, when a first wave of three attacking from 20 feet suffered
no losses, a second wave of six attacking from 100 feet lost two, and a third
wave of six attacking from 1,000 feet lost four. There had been eight months of
phoney war and a campaign in Norway to try out different tactics. The middle of
a crucial battle was an unfortunate time to be debating solutions.
As far as the Air Staff was concerned, the losses proved
they had been right all along. Portal had predicted 50 per cent losses and that
was what was happening. In fact, the losses in tactical operations had been no
more disastrous that those suffered in the Wilhelmshaven raids. The Air Staff’s
response, however, was very different. The heavy Hampdens and Wellington losses
had not been allowed to throw into doubt the validity of strategic bombing;
they had just hardened Air Staff resolve to find ways around the problem. The
heavy losses in tactical operations were gratefully accepted as proof that Army
air support did not work.
The only problem was that the Luftwaffe was proving the
contrary. The Air Staff were left sticking gamely to their argument that direct
air support for ground forces only worked for armies going forward; only armies
that were advancing knew what needed to be attacked, whereas armies that were
retreating would always be less sure. The Air Staff liked to conjure up the
image of bombers desperately scouring the countryside, looking for a particular
enemy column the Army wanted bombed. In fact, in such a large-scale offensive,
the bombers had no problems finding suitable targets. Their losses to
anti-aircraft fire were a testament to that. Two of the raids on 12 May were
actually witnessed by Guderian, the commander of the German tank forces heading
for Sedan. The bombers were in the right areas.
The problem was the losses they were suffering. In critical
situations, the AASF was supposed to fly repeat missions every two hours. If
his had been possible, even the relatively small AASF could have had a major
impact on the German columns winding their way through the Ardennes. This was
what the German commanders had most feared. As it was, repeat missions were out
of the question. Indeed, there were doubts about continuing to use the Battle
at all in the low-level attack role. Much to their relief, the Germans were
able to complete their three-day approach march to the main French defensive
position along the Meuse relatively unscathed.
On Newall’s orders, Barratt instructed Playfair not to fly
any missions on the 13th—the Battles had to be conserved for the decisive phase
of the battle. Given the losses so far suffered, the decision was
understandable. Unfortunately, the 13th was to be the decisive day of the
entire campaign. This was far from obvious to the French that morning; the
Germans had reached the Meuse, but all the bridges had been blown and French
artillery dominated the battlefield. The French expected a pause of a few days while
the Germans brought their artillery up to support a crossing of the river, and
the situation seemed far more critical elsewhere. The tank battle at Gembloux
was about to begin, and the French 7th Army was in difficulty around Breda, in
the Netherlands. The only mission flown by the AASF on the 13th was an attempt
to slow down the German advance by blocking roads in Breda. While Battles were
flying all the way from Reims to support the French Army in the Netherlands,
the real danger was much closer to hand.
Events on the Meuse were moving far faster than the French
had anticipated. The German forces had no intention of waiting for artillery to
move up. Instead, the Luftwaffe gave a classic demonstration of how airpower
could substitute for artillery. Throughout the 13th, the French positions at
Sedan, in the front line and artillery to the rear, were subjected to waves of
medium bombers and dive-bombers. Under the cover of this continuous air
bombardment, German infantry established bridgeheads on the west bank of the
Meuse. So fierce was the aerial bombardment that some French troops holding the
front line panicked and fled. There could be no doubt now about the impact
tactical bombing could have on the battlefield. It was, however, still only
German infantry on the west bank. The Panzers would have to wait until the
German engineers could get their pontoon bridges across the river.
Further north, at Dinant, the German forces had nothing like
the same air support. Nevertheless, at Houx, just north of Dinant, Rommel
managed to get a small party of infantry across the Meuse and establish the
first tiny, precarious bridgehead on the west bank. The German troops were
spotted by a French reconnaissance plane. The pilot appreciated the
significance of the discovery and knew what to do; following the guidelines
established before the offensive for dealing with important fleeting targets,
he headed for the base of No. 12 Battle Squadron. On 13 May, there could be no
more important a target of opportunity than German forces on the west bank of
the Meuse. Playfair wanted to strike, but Barratt, anxious to avoid unnecessary
losses, denied permission. Perhaps a single strike by a squadron of Battles
would not have been enough to defeat Rommel’s first attempt to cross the Meuse,
but the Allies would never find out. By the evening, the bridgehead was large
enough to allow work to begin on a pontoon bridge.
The French planned to retrieve the situation at Sedan by a
counterattack by two tank battalions. These slow-moving infantry support tanks
were quite capable of dealing with lightly armed infantry. If bridges enabled
German Panzers to cross the river, the odds would swing heavily against the
French. The counterattack was supposed to be launched at dawn on the 14th, but
it had to be put back because of the confusion caused by retreating troops. The
French desperately needed a little more time.
At 10 p.m. on 13 May, General Billotte, the commander of all
Allied armies on the North-Eastern front, instructed D’Astier and Barratt to
take immediate action against the bridges the Germans were building. He wanted
the attacks to begin that night if possible. D’Astier immediately switched his
four night bomber squadrons from the Maastricht region to the Ardennes and
prepared to launch every available bomber against the bridges the following
day. Barratt was more cautious. He committed himself to just one small raid at
The Meuse crossings were a much easier target for the Allied
air forces than the Maastricht/Albert Canal bridges. The German fighter pilots
would now be operating much further from their bases. The bridges were only
temporary pontoons and they were only a short distance from Allied airfields.
As Billotte appreciated, the attacks had to be launched quickly, not just
because of the urgency of the situation, but to deny the Germans time to
organise their air defences. On the morning of the 14th, the Germans were still
desperately trying to extract flak units from the miles of columns queuing back
from the Meuse.
As promised, early on the 14th, six Battles attacked the
Sedan crossing points. All made it back to their base, although one wounded
pilot had to force-land. Encouraged by this relative success, another flight of
four was dispatched. They reported light flak, but all four returned. At 9
a.m., eight French Breguet 693s attacked armoured units spotted by the Battle
crews, losing one plane. At this point, no Panzers had yet crossed the Meuse
and the anti-aircraft defences were still relatively disorganised. A more
substantial effort might have brought a greater reward at less cost than the
British bombers were about to suffer.
Soon after these raids, the French launched their
counterattack. Almost simultaneously, the 1st Panzer Division started crossing
the Meuse. The French tanks advanced until they ran into the German Panzers, at
which point they were quickly scattered. The situation at Sedan had suddenly
become extremely critical.
French hopes of restoring the situation rested with General
Flavigny’s XXI Corps, a substantial force with motorised troops, light tanks,
and one of the three French heavy armoured divisions. This was moving north
towards the Sedan bridgehead, with instructions to strike as soon as possible.
To buy time for these reinforcements to move into position, all bombing effort
was to be focused on Sedan. Barratt was persuaded to join the French in one
all-out effort. At around midday, he instructed the AASF to launch every
available Battle and Blenheim against the Sedan bridges that afternoon.
The French would attack first, followed by the AASF bombers.
Both forces would rearm, return, and attack again. Blenheims from No. 2 Group
would round off the assault. The first AASF attack would consist of three
waves, with two escorted by Hurricanes and the third by French fighters.
Hurricanes and French fighters would escort No. 2 Group Blenheims in the final
attack. Five Hurricane squadrons would be involved; it was the first time
Hurricanes had been switched from Belgium to the French front. They were joined
by around fifteen now somewhat under-strength French fighter squadrons. Two of
them, however, were equipped with the new Dewoitine D.520.
The RAF escorts were again indirect. At least three of the
Hurricane squadrons were distracted by formations of Ju 87 dive-bombers. These
were very worthy targets and the Hurricanes inflicted heavy losses, but this
was little consolation to the AASF bomber crews they were supposed to be
protecting. The Bf 109Es of JG 53 alone claimed thirteen Battles. Arguably, the
Dutch tactics of providing a close escort, with the fighters joining in the
attack if possible, would have been more successful.
It seems the French ‘escorts’ were not the standard close
escort they were providing for their own bombers. At least some of the French
fighters were actually escorting a French reconnaissance plane. The Bloch 152
that were supposed to be escorting the Blenheims of No. 2 Group were covering
Flavigny’s forces moving up from the south. It seems the RAF was happy to accept
French fighters operating in the area on other duties as an escort.
By the time the first French bombers appeared, German
fighter and flak defences were ready. This first wave consisted of just
twenty-one bombers, thirteen of which were Amiot 143s—obsolete, ungainly medium
bombers that previously the French had only dared use by night. They did at
least get a substantial escort; twelve M.S.406s flew with the bombers, while
Bloch 152s and Dewoitine D.520s provided cover at a higher altitude. The French
fighters fought valiantly to protect their vulnerable charges and were
reasonably successful. Two Amiots were shot down by Bf 110s and another two
were lost to flak, while one of the eight LeO 451s was also shot down. It could
have been a lot worse.
For the AASF bombers that followed, it was a lot worse.
Forty of the seventy-one Battles and Blenheims were lost to fighters and flak.
So many of the returning French and British bombers were damaged that the
repeat attacks had to be abandoned. Twenty-eight Blenheims of No. 2 Group
attacked in the evening; only five Hurricanes could be mustered for the RAF
element of the escort, and even these got side-tracked by German observation
planes. Again, these were very worthy targets, but shooting down reconnaissance
planes was not the role of the fighters on this occasion. Given their rather
vague instructions, the pilots can scarcely be criticised for attacking any
enemy aircraft they came across, but another six bombers were lost.
The dive-bombers and observation planes shot down by the
Hurricanes did not help the bombers, but these successes did underline how many
very vulnerable German planes there were in the battlezone. It was not
surprising that Pownall was fuming at the ‘the thirty-four squadrons at home
where there is no attack’. There would have been plenty of targets for them in
France. Even the fighters that were available were affecting German operations.
On 15 May, Guderian’s XIX Corps reported its aerial reconnaissance was
‘severely impeded’ by Allied fighters and it was no longer possible for
squadrons ‘to carry out vigorous, extensive reconnaissance, as, owing to
casualties, more than half of their aircraft are not now available’. It was
fortunate for the Luftwaffe that so many RAF fighter squadrons were still in
During the course of the 14th, twenty-eight French-based
Hurricanes were shot down. Nearly all these were victims of Bf 109s and 110s.
Nineteen pilots were killed or wounded. The Hurricane was effective enough
against German bomber and reconnaissance planes, but it was losing the battle
with the Messerschmitts. Total Battle losses since the start of the offensive
had risen to seventy—over half of the force. The AASF was withdrawn from
daylight operations once again.
The French did their best to maintain the pressure on the
Sedan bridgehead. During the night of 14–15 May, huge four-engine long-range
Farman 222 bombers were ordered to join the tactical night offensive, but the
two groups only had six serviceable machines. The four Amiot 143 bomber groups,
after flying the previous night and in the daylight attack, were in action
again on the night of 13–14 May; in the circumstances, the tired crews did well
to manage sixteen sorties. Still the ‘heavies’ of Bomber Command remained idle.
After the thirty-seven sorties flown on the night of the 11–12 May, the Air
Ministry instructed Bomber Command to conserve its strength as cabinet
permission for the bombing of the Ruhr was believed to be imminent. On 12–13
May, just twelve sorties were flown by the 250-strong force, and these were
mainly near the Dutch/German border. On the 13th–14th, another twelve operated
rather vaguely in the Eindhoven-Aachen-Maastricht region.
Bomber Command stepped up its efforts on the night of 14–15
May, but not over the Meuse. The French assured Barratt that the heroism of RAF
crews had saved the day by allowing time for a French counterattack to restore
the situation. Perhaps the French were slightly too enthusiastic with their
appreciation; they convinced Barratt that the danger had passed. The French Air
Force continued to focus on the Meuse crossings, but Barratt suggested that
Bomber Command should concentrate on Breda and Maastricht. Always anxious to
bomb something inside Germany, Portal added Aachen and Mönchengladbach. Twelve
Hampdens attacked targets in and around Breda in support of the retreating
French 7th Army, and eighteen Wellingtons bombed Aachen and Maastricht in
support of the 1st Army. Twelve Whitleys revisited Mönchengladbach in support
of no one in particular.
The Allied bombing at Sedan might well have helped restore
the situation—if Flavigny had actually launched his counterattack. The 150
bomber sorties the Allies had flown against the Meuse bridgehead on the 14th
had caused delays. Guderian’s XIX Corps reported: ‘Throughout the day all three
divisions have had to endure constant air attack—especially at the crossing and
bridging points. Our fighter cover is inadequate.’ These delays could have been
significant. While the attacks were taking place, Guderian had decided to push
his 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions as far west as possible, despite their rather
precarious base. The 10th Panzer division was supposed to cover the left flank.
This began crossing the Meuse on the morning of the 14th, but the air attacks
meant it was not fully deployed on the west bank until the 15th. Had Flavigny’s
corps attacked on the evening of the 14th, as had been the original intention,
he might well have sliced between the Panzers pushing west and the delayed 10th
Panzer. Unfortunately, the French could not really decide if Flavigny should
attack the bridgehead or secure the left flank of the Maginot Line. Flavigny
went on to the defence and the opportunity was missed.
The situation on the ground now went from bad to worse. The
French forces at Dinant tried to pull back to the frontier positions they had
held on 10 May, but under incessant air attack, the retreat turned into a rout.
The two remaining French armoured divisions in the rear were taken by surprise by
the advancing Panzers and scattered. By the morning of the 16th, the Germans
had achieved a complete breakthrough along a 60-mile front. No substantial
Allied units stood between the Panzers and Paris—or the English Channel.
The situation was remarkably similar to March 1918, when the
Germans had also broken through on a 60-mile front. It was the scenario that
the Air Ministry and Air Staff had so frequently mentioned as the only
circumstances justifying the use of the ‘heavies’ in support of the Army. It had
worked in 1918, when the intervention of the RFC and French Air Force had
bought the Allies sufficient time to bring reserves into position. This,
however, was not 1918. The Germans were now exploiting their breakthrough with
fast-moving armoured and motorised forces. The Allied air forces in 1918 had
been battle-hardened formations, but in 1940 they were still inexperienced. In
1918, the RFC had not suffered horrendous losses. The British and French had
excellent SE5a, Camel and Spad fighters. In 1940, however, it was the German
Air Force that had the best fighter operating over the battlefield. Perhaps
most significantly of all, in 1918, most of the RFC was in France; in 1940,
most of the RAF was in Britain.
Still, the battle was far from lost. Indeed, in the period
following the breakthrough, the German forces were probably at their most
vulnerable, both to counterattacks on their weakly held flanks and air attack
on their lengthening supply lines. The Bf 109 had a very limited range, and the
Meuse was already some way from German airfields. The Panzer forces were now
racing even further west. Bf 109 squadrons began moving westwards, but the
number that could be maintained so far forward was limited, and protection
against Allied bomber attack could not be so effective. The French were doing
their best to bring up air reinforcements to take advantage; bomber squadrons
in the process of converting to modern equipment were rushed to the front.
Those that were not ready were told to use their old equipment by night. French
naval bombers were ordered to operate against the advancing German forces.
However, the largest single untapped bomber resource
available to the Allies was the 250 Whitleys, Wellingtons, and Hampdens of
Bomber Command. It seemed it was time for the Air Staff to deliver on its
promise to intervene if a crisis arose.
The withdrawal from Central Norway was enough to bring down
Chamberlain’s government. Winston Churchill took over on 10 May—the day Germany
invaded Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. The most crucial battle of the war so
far was underway. Losing Norway was a setback that would make winning the war
more difficult, but a major defeat in France would be far more serious.
On paper, the opposing sides were evenly matched. The German
Army had 136 divisions, including ten armoured divisions with 2,400 tanks. The
French, with some ninety-four divisions, provided the bulk of the land forces
opposing the Germans. The Belgians had mobilised twenty-two divisions and the
Dutch ten. Britain added another ten. The British divisions were all very
well-equipped, especially in terms of motorised transport—unlike in the
Belgian, Dutch, French, and German armies, there was not a horse to be seen.
They were, however, all infantry divisions. Britain’s first armoured division was
still forming. The only British armoured unit in France was the 1st Tank
Brigade, with around 100 slow Matilda infantry support tanks. The French had
over 3,000 tanks. Half of these were concentrated in six armoured divisions
(three light and three heavy), while the remainder were with infantry support
The Allied forces lacked combat experience and they were
facing battle-hardened troops, experienced commanders, and outstanding
generals. The first serious fighting was bound to be a severe test for everyone
on the Allied side, from the humblest private to the generals at the top. In
these circumstances, initial setbacks were perhaps inevitable—a retreat an
acceptable price to pay for the experience gained.
In the air, on the north-east front, the French had
seventeen fighter groups, each with two squadrons, totalling around 500 planes.
Eight groups had the M.S.406, five the Bloch MB-152, and four the American
Curtiss Hawk. There were another eight groups in the south, which were either
available to deploy further north or were reequipping with more modern planes.
The fighters available were broadly equivalent to the Hurricane—slower than the
British fighter, but more agile. With one or two cannon, the French-designed
fighters were also better-armed. The French were well-aware that they did not
yet have an engine that was the equal of the British Merlin or German DB 601.
Their fighters could not match the 354 mph of the Bf 109E, but they were
closing the gap with the Dewoitine D.520 (330 mph) and Arsenal VG-33 (347 mph).
The first units with the former were about to become operational, and the
latter was just beginning to roll off the production lines.
The first squadrons with a new generation of French bombers
and American Douglas DB7 and Martin 167 imports were also about to become
operational. The only bombers immediately available on 10 May were two
squadrons with the rather old-fashioned looking but efficient four-engine
Farman 222 heavy bomber and four squadrons of obsolete Amiot 143s. The French
also had around 150 reconnaissance and nearly 400 army-cooperation planes
distributed amongst its armies.
The Dutch and Belgian Air Forces added another 300 combat
planes to the Allied cause. The Dutch Air Force relied almost entirely on
designs produced by Anthony Fokker, including the manoeuvrable Fokker D.21 single-seater
(three squadrons), the twin-engined eight-gun Fokker G.1 (two squadrons), a
squadron of Fokker T.V bombers, and less-modern Fokker C.V and C.X biplane
reconnaissance bombers. There was also a squadron of American Douglas 8A-3N
attack bombers, which the Dutch were planning to use as fighters. The Belgians
mustered six fighter squadrons (one Hurricane, one Gladiator, two Fiat CR.42s,
and two Fairey Fox VIs), one bomber (Fairey Battle), and nine
reconnaissance/army-cooperation (Fairey Fox and Renard R.31) squadrons.
With the RAF possessing around 1,900 planes, once all the
French squadrons were available, the combined Allied air forces would not be
far short of matching the 4,500 planes the Luftwaffe possessed. The war was on
a knife edge. With modern planes arriving and production increasing, the French
Air Force was a rising force. Britain was in the process of creating a powerful
army, and Belgium and the Netherlands provided valuable manpower resources. If
the four Allies could weather the initial storm, victory might not be too
distant a prospect. With 900 fighters and 650 bombers, the RAF was capable of
making a substantial contribution to ensuring the German offensive did not
This was not how the Air Staff saw it. Preoccupied with visions
of wars decided by long-range bombing, they could not see the danger. They
ignored warnings that unless the Allies threw everything into the initial
battle, they might suffer a major defeat. Instead, they were convinced the land
battle could not be decisive. It was the battle of the bombers that would
decide the war. Eighteen of the twenty Wellington, Hampden, and Whitley
squadrons were being held back for the attack on the Ruhr, which was where the
real battle would begin. Even the two Whitley squadrons assigned the task of
attacking German Army communications were, as Portal put it, merely a way to
‘forward our plans towards the destruction of the German war industry’. The
targets the Whitleys bombed were to be as close to the Ruhr as possible.
Of the forty-three fighter squadrons in the UK, four would
fly to France as soon as the German offensive began. Of the rest, four (two
Hurricane and two Blenheim) were to patrol the English Channel, providing flank
protection for the French 7th Army. Two more were earmarked for Norway, leaving
thirty-three—including all nineteen Spitfire squadrons. The Royal Air Force was
not going to over-commit to a battle that could not be decisive.
On 10 May, German forces started moving forward on a
300-mile front from the north of the Netherlands to Luxembourg. The advance was
spearheaded by ten Panzer divisions. One was heading for Rotterdam, four for
Gembloux and Dinant in Belgium, and five for Montherme and Sedan in France. In
the early hours of the 10th, a first wave of 500 German bombers set off in
small formations to attack seventy-two French, Dutch, and Belgian airfields.
Around 100 Allied combat planes were destroyed. The Dutch suffered the most
heavily. The airfields were as far west as possible to try maximise warning
time, but the German Air Force simply flew out into the North Sea and attacked
from the west. Warning was virtually zero. Twenty-eight aircraft were destroyed
on the ground; one Fokker G.1 squadron was wiped out.
The Belgian Air Force also suffered heavily in these first
attacks. Most of the sole Hurricane squadron and one of the Fiat CR.42
squadrons was destroyed. The RAF and French Air Force emerged relatively
unscathed. One French MS 406 squadron and, much later in the day, one AASF
Blenheim bomber squadron lost virtually all their planes. The second wave of
German bomber attacks found the defences largely intact. Around 500 bombers,
again mostly flying in small formations, struck around 150 communication
targets, many deep in the Allied rear, beyond escort range.
No. 615 Squadron was still converting from Gladiators to
Hurricanes and not available, but from dawn on the 10th the other five RAF
fighter squadrons were fully engaged. They found themselves dealing largely
with the unescorted bomber formations they were trained to deal with. Around
200 sorties were flown and the pilots claimed forty-two victories. Fifteen
Hurricanes were lost or crash-landed; six pilots were wounded, but none killed.
The Dutch response was ferocious and effective. Even the
Fokker T.V medium bombers took off to engage the waves of bombers and Ju 52
transports. It was a desperately difficult situation. Fighters scrambled as
bombs fell around them and pilots found themselves having to deal with powerful
fighter escorts. Twenty Dutch fighters were shot down to add to the twenty-one
already lost on the ground. However, despite the losses—and the odds against
them—the survivors were soon flying their second mission of the day. During
nearly 100 fighter sorties, twelve bombers, seven transports, and eight Bf
109Es were claimed, matching the success rate of the RAF squadrons. By
contrast, most of the Belgian fighter squadrons spent the day moving from one
airfield to another, trying to avoid the catastrophic losses their Dutch
neighbours were suffering. This might have made sense if what was happening
were the first tentative moves in a long, drawn-out struggle, but as the Dutch
appreciated, events were moving fast. The Belgians did not escape heavy losses
either. During the day, around forty of their combat planes were destroyed on
the ground, including twenty-three fighters.
French fighter squadrons were not operating in quite such
difficult circumstances as their Dutch and Belgian allies, but encounters with
escorts were not rare. The thirty-eight French fighter squadrons engaged
managed around 360 sorties, claiming forty-four planes. In total, the Allies
flew around 800 sorties on this opening day, compared to the 2,000 flown by the
German fighter force. German losses closely matched Allied claims, with 120
combat planes lost or written off. Of these, around 100 were bombers,
representing 7 per cent of the available force. Many more returned damaged with
dead and wounded aircrew aboard. It was a loss rate that the Luftwaffe could
not afford to suffer too often. The next day, medium bomber sorties dropped
from around 1,500 to 1,000.
Luftwaffe bomber losses were heavy, but RAF losses were
catastrophic. At 10.30 a.m., Barratt arrived at the joint RAF/French Air Force
headquarters in Chauny. He discussed with d’Astier reports from French
reconnaissance of German columns moving through Luxembourg, and at 12.20 p.m.
he ordered his bombers into action. Thirty-two Battles from seven squadrons
were sent off, flying at low-level in flights of between two and four aircraft.
Fighter support was provided for the first ‘wave’ of eight, but it consisted of
just five Hurricanes from No. 1 Squadron and three from No. 73 Squadron. These
were supposed to patrol over the city of Luxembourg and clear the area of enemy
fighters. The number of fighters was ludicrously small for the task, and the
two formations were not even working together. Given the rather vague nature of
their ‘escort’ orders, it is not surprising that the three Hurricanes of No. 73
Squadron should turn their attention to some apparently unescorted German
bombers they came across. In fact, there was an escort. The Hurricanes were
bounced before they reached the bombers and at least one was shot down. By
chance, No. 1 Squadron Hurricanes saw the difficulty their comrades were in but
were flying too low to offer any help. If the two formations had been working
together as a team, one providing cover at altitude, the interception might
have been more successful.
Meanwhile, the Battles were heading for their targets at
treetop height. The low-level approach helped avoid enemy fighters, but the
hail of light flak that greeted them over their targets proved just as deadly.
A flight of two from No. 12 Squadron attacked from 30 feet. As the two Battles
manoeuvred into position to fly down the road, one of them was shot down before
it got close enough to drop its bombs. The second, piloted by Flt-Lt Simpson,
strafed the enemy column with the single forward-firing machine gun as he
dropped his bombs. It must have been frustrating for the pilot to attack with
such boldness and have only a single machine gun to take on the targets ahead
of him. Simpson was convinced he could not miss his target from such an altitude,
but neither could the German defensive fire. He was immediately hit and forced
to crash-land in a nearby field. Of the thirty-two Battles sent out during the
course of the afternoon, thirteen suffered a similar fate.
It was a disastrous operational debut for the Battle as a
tactical bomber. British plans for tactical air support were in tatters. Flying
high, the Battles were vulnerable to fighters; flying low, they were equally
vulnerable to ground fire. The columns the Battles attacked were not even high-value
targets the Germans might feel a particular need to defend. They were just
It was the first of many such expensive raids that would
seal the Fairey Battle’s reputation as one of the worst planes ever to enter
service with the RAF. A plane designed to carry enough fuel to fly 1,000 miles
was never going to be ideal for short-range, low-level tactical bombing. The
proposed extra armour might have helped; the promised self-sealing tanks had
also not yet arrived. Perhaps even more significant was the inexperience of the
aircrews, who were using these low-level tactics in action for the first time.
Determined not to waste their bombs, pilots were perhaps taking too long to
line up the target. Some of the attacks seemed to have taken place in the sort
of flat terrain where the enemy was very visible, but equally the anti-aircraft
defences had plenty of warning of the approaching bombers. With experience,
pilots would come to learn that successful ground attack in any aeroplane
relies on using the surrounding terrain as much as possible and delivering the
attack quickly, sacrificing precision for the chance to fight another day. The
AASF really needed to have found out about the problems in a non-critical
situation, during the ‘Phoney War’, as Bomber Command had—not at the start of a
crucial battle. With more experience, and with the extra protection
Brooke-Popham had proposed, the Fairey Battle could have been a lot more
Initially, the forces the Battles were attacking did not
appear to be the most serious threat. The terrain in the Ardennes did not seem
particularly suitable for the movement of substantial motorised forces, and
they had some way to go before they even reached the main French line of
defence along the Meuse. The Panzers thrusting through the plains of southern
Belgium and westwards towards Rotterdam seemed far more dangerous.
As soon as the German forces invaded Belgium, the BEF headed
for the Dyle. Further south, the French 9th Army took up position on the Meuse
at Dinant. The French 1st Army, with two of France’s precious armoured
divisions, rushed to fill the gap between the two rivers. Another French
armoured division (1st Light Armoured) raced through northern Belgium to link
up with French forces landing at Flushing. The combined force was then supposed
to push north and secure a link with the Dutch. While the British and French
moved into position, the brunt of the initial German assault would be met by
the Belgian Army, along the Albert Canal, and Dutch forces, defending Fortress
The Dutch were relying on the natural obstacles provided by
the Zuiderzee in the north and the numerous waterways at the mouth of the Maas
in the south. In the west, the main defensive position was the Grebbe Line
running along the Geld Valley. Behind that was a fallback position running from
just east of Amsterdam to the east of Rotterdam. Both lines took maximum
advantage of low-lying land that could be flooded. South of the Maas, the Peel
marshes were only lightly held. The Dutch had chosen the shortest and easiest
lines to defend. The disadvantage was that their main southern defences ran
parallel to the Belgian northern Albert Canal defences, leaving a corridor
between for the Germans to advance through.
The German High Command hoped to eliminate Holland on the
very first day by landing troops inside ‘Fortress Holland’. Airborne troops
were to capture three airfields (Ypenburg, Ockenburg and Valkenburg)
around The Hague, from where they would push into the city and capture the
Dutch Royal family. If this failed, paratroopers dropped on the Moerdijk,
Dordrecht, and the Willemsbrug bridges and Waalhaven Airfield would clear a
path for the 9th Panzer Division racing through southern Holland.
The German forces that landed in and around The Hague were
soon in trouble. Many of the Ju 52 transports were either shot down, destroyed
by obstacles erected on the airfields, or simply found the Dutch airfields were
unable to support their weight. The damaged and wrecked planes that littered
the airstrips prevented the follow-up waves from landing. Many had to force
land on any nearby flat land they could find. The surviving German troops were
soon fighting for their lives. Forty ground-attack sorties flown by Dutch fighters
and light bombers supported the Dutch counterattacks. Further east, Dutch
forces withdrew in fairly good order to the Grebbe Line. In the south, Panzers
and the Ju 87 dive-bombers of Fliegerkorps VIII, the Luftwaffe’s short-range
close-support force, had little difficulty blasting their way through the
weakly held Peel Marsh defences.
As soon as the attack was underway, the air attaché informed
the Dutch Army commander about the RAF plans to bomb advancing German columns,
provided their location could be established. At 7.30 a.m., the Dutch told the
air attaché that the German forces landing at Waalhaven were the most serious
threat and asked for the airfield to be bombed. The message was passed on to
London. When no attack came, the air attaché was bombarded with calls
emphasising how critical the situation was becoming and demanding to know what
was holding up the RAF.
The message certainly got through to Newall. Armed with the
information provided by the air attaché, Newall told the morning cabinet meeting
that the Dutch had matters in hand around The Hague, but Waalhaven was a
problem and six fighter Blenheims were being sent to strafe the airfield.
Newall explained that he had decided not to use bombers because of the risk of
civilian casualties. In fact, Dutch aircraft were already bombing their own
airfields. The six Blenheims were in fact the only Air Ministry attempt to
implement the fighter support the Air Ministry had promised. Their primary
mission was to shoot down enemy aircraft and only strafe the airfield if none
By midday, requests were coming from Barratt in France for
Bomber Command to intervene in the Netherlands. The missions subsequently flown
appear to have been based on information gathered by reconnaissance planes
rather than as a response to requests from The Hague. Twenty-four Blenheims
attacked German forces in The Hague region, where, as Newall had explained to
the cabinet, the Dutch felt they were in reasonable control. Twelve of the
planes bombed Ypenberg Airfield after it had been recaptured by the Dutch.
Early in the afternoon, nine Blenheims bombed Waalhaven. This was the only RAF
bombing attack on the airfield that day, and even this appears to have been a
response to Barratt’s demand for some action rather than the Dutch pleas via
the air attaché. Three of the thirty-one Blenheim bombers were lost—ironically,
two of them shot down as they attacked the recaptured Ypenburg Airfield. The
Blenheim fighters operating over Waalhaven did not fare so well. The original
plans for protecting Dutch airfields had proposed using Spitfires or Hurricanes
where possible—using Blenheims would be risky. So it proved. Five of the six
Blenheims were shot down by Bf 110s.
The next planned Bomber Command support for the Dutch was to
be the attack on the Ruhr. The Air Ministry was expecting the government to
give the go-ahead for the operation that night. The desperate appeals to do
something about the growing strength of the German forces holding Waalhaven
seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
By the end of the day, Dutch counterattacks had recaptured
all the occupied airfields except for Waalhaven. Fortunately for the Dutch, the
British Government did not authorise the Ruhr operation. A frustrated Portal
ordered the Wellingtons of No. 3 Group to attack Waalhaven instead. The Dutch
lit a bonfire to guide the bombers in, and thirty-six Wellingtons kept up a
steady bombardment throughout the night. Flying at little more than 2,000 feet,
the Wellingtons dropped 58 tons of bombs on the beleaguered German forces. The
Dutch were delighted, and at 5 a.m. they requested a halt to the bombardment so
that they could launch their next counterattack. Less appreciated or indeed
even noticed were the nine sorties flown by the two Whitley squadrons against
bridges just over the Dutch border, in German territory.
On the morning of the 11th, the Dutch attempt to retake the
airfield failed. The RAF was asked to resume their bombardment while the few
remaining serviceable Dutch planes focused their efforts on the German troops
still holding both ends of the nearby Willemsbrug bridge. The aim at this stage
was not to destroy any of the captured bridges. The Dutch wanted them intact so
that the advancing French could use them to reinforce Fortress Holland. In the
morning, and again in the afternoon, the two surviving Fokker T.V bombers,
flying low and escorted by Fokker D.21s, scattered 50-kg bombs on the German
troops around the bridge. The RAF attacks on the airfield, however, did not
materialise; indeed, the air attaché was informed that there would be no more
attacks. No reason was given. At around midday, an embarrassed air attaché told
the Air Ministry the Dutch were ‘seriously upset’ by the decision and were
pleading for it to be reconsidered. A succession of Dutch Army officers turned
up at the embassy to emphasise the huge importance of eliminating the besieged
German forces holding Waalhaven. The Dutch ambassador in London was told to try
and speak to Churchill in person.
On the 11th, Fighter Command was more active over southern
Holland. Crowds cheered as Hurricanes patrolled The Hague. However, a patrol by
twelve Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in The Hague-Rotterdam area ended in
disaster when the formation was surprised by Bf 109s and five were shot down.
The next day, two out of a flight of three Blenheims were lost. A flight of
three Spitfires was caught by Bf 109s, losing one of their number.
For many of the British-based pilots, this was their first
experience of combat. The circumstances could not have been more demanding.
They were not trained in fighter-versus-fighter combat, and they were
confronted by confident, experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots. They were
operating in small numbers—often lone flights of six, sometimes just sections
of three—so they were invariably outnumbered. Operating in these circumstances,
so far from their home bases, was not the ideal way to gain combat experience.
Something had to be done about the way British fighters were
being taken by surprise and picked off by the high-flying German
Messerschmitts. Instead of changing the tight vic formations that were largely
responsible for the problem, Defiants were assigned the task of covering the
rear. It was a chance to test the theory that the turret fighter could be used
to establish air superiority in skies dominated by the enemy. The composite
Defiant/Spitfire formation had its first real test on the 13th. The formation
was engaging Ju 87 dive-bombers west of Rotterdam when it was bounced by the
German escort. The German pilots might well have mistaken the Defiants for
defenceless single-seaters and been surprised by the defensive fire that
greeted them, but their surprise was short-lived; five of the clumsy Defiants
and a Spitfire were shot down for the loss of just one Messerschmitt. It seemed
fairly conclusive proof that Dowding had been right—using the Defiant
offensively could be no more successful than Trenchard’s offensive F.E.2
patrols of the First World War. However, the advocates of the turret fighter
were still not convinced. The Defiants had claimed four Ju 87s before the
German fighters intervened, and this was enough to ensure the experiment
continued—once the battered Defiant squadron had recovered.
On the ground, the situation in the south of the Netherlands
was already becoming critical. On the 11th, forward elements of the French 7th
Army approaching Breda were brushed aside by the 9th Panzer and its supporting
Ju 87 dive bombers. The French instinctively sought sanctuary in a safe
defensive line and lost all interest in helping recapture the Moerdijk Bridge.
General Winkelman, the Dutch Army commander, now realised that there was little
likelihood of any help from the French; the only hope was to try and destroy
the captured bridges to the south of the city and hang on in Fortress Holland.
The Grebbe Line was just about holding. The main Dutch concern was still the
German forces clinging on to their foothold inside Fortress Holland, around the
Willemsbrug Bridge and nearby Waalhaven. The air attaché in The Hague was still
furiously relaying Dutch appeals for air support to the Air Ministry, but
getting no response. In desperation, the Dutch asked the military attaché at
the embassy to pass on a message via the War Office, begging ‘most earnestly’
that Waalhaven be bombed. The only response came from the Navy; while Portal’s
bombers waited for permission to bomb the Ruhr, at dusk on the 12th, six
Coastal Command Beauforts and nine Fleet Air Arm Swordfish attacked the
airfield. By this time, the 9th Panzer Division had reached the German
paratroopers holding the Willemsbrug Bridge.
The Dutch did the best with their own dwindling air
resources. After flying most of its ground-attack missions on the 10th without
fighter escort, for the remainder of the campaign the Dutch Air Force provided
their low-level bombers with close escorts. This put the fighters at a tactical
disadvantage, but it did mean they could actually help the bombers if they
encountered enemy fighters. If no enemy fighters were around, they were in a
good position to join in the attack. Anthony Fokker had lost none of his flair
for designing fighters; the Fokker D.21, with its fixed undercarriage, might
have lacked the speed of more modern fighters, but its superb handling and agility
gave the Dutch pilots a fighting chance. With an escort, the hedgehopping
Fokker C.V and C.X biplanes managed to deliver their attacks without incurring
the crippling losses suffered by the Battle squadrons.
On the third day of the invasion, the Dutch Air Force was
engaged all along the front. Operating from emergency airstrips away from their
main airfields, ground-attack missions were flown against German forces
threatening the defences that secured the northern end of the dyke at the mouth
of the Zuiderzee. Retreating remnants from The Hague landings, trying to fight
their way south to Rotterdam, were also targeted. Waalhaven was bombed. Troop
columns and artillery positions around the Wageningen sector of the Grebbe
Line, where the Dutch defences were under particular pressure, were also
attacked. The numbers were tiny—the largest operation was just seven Fokker
C.Xs with six Fokker D.21s escorting. The smallest was a lone Fokker T.V with a
single D.21 escort. The attacks may not have been devastatingly effective, but
they were at least in the areas the Dutch Army needed them. Just the sight of
their own planes roaring in at low level raised the spirits of the Dutch
By the evening of the 12th, German troops had achieved a
shallow penetration of the Dutch defences in the Wageningen sector, forcing the
Dutch back to their last line of defence. The Grebbe Line was in danger of
collapsing. The Dutch Defence Minister personally asked for the RAF to bomb the
Moerdijk Bridge (to halt the advance from the south) and the roads leading to
Wageningen (to slow down the German advance from the east). He was told the
bridge was far too solid to be destroyed by air attack, which was true, and
that attacks on roads could only bring temporary relief. This was also true,
but that was what was all the Dutch wanted. No. 2 Group in East Anglia could
not help, but, rather bizarrely, the Dutch request was passed on to Barratt in
France to see if his Battle squadrons south of Reims could lend any support.
Dutch frustration was growing. The Air Ministry had refused
Dutch pleas to base RAF squadrons in the Netherlands. Could they at least use
Dutch airstrips to refuel, as French aircraft were doing? The Air Ministry came
up with all sorts of reasons why this was impossible: Dutch fuel hoses were the
wrong size; British planes needed different fuel. In truth, if the Air Staff
and Dowding were reluctant to send fighters to France to support the British
Army, they were hardly likely to send them to the Netherlands to support the
Dutch Army. The Dutch were told that there were always more crucial battles
elsewhere and the RAF was needed there. This was true, but it was not true that
the RAF was fully engaged in these crucial battles. Most of the Wellington,
Hampden, and Whitley squadrons were just sitting on their airfields, waiting
for the offensive against the Ruhr to start. Two-thirds of RAF fighter
squadrons were waiting for the German bombers to come.
Dutch pleas now became ultimatums. The Dutch Foreign
Minister spelt it out—first to members of the Air Staff, and then to Ismay,
Churchill’s military advisor. Either the British provided air support or the
Dutch government would have to consider surrendering.34 No assurances were
forthcoming, and the Dutch government and Royal Family prepared to leave the
country. Winkelman was given full authority to cease fighting if he judged the
military situation had become hopeless.
Far from stepping up its efforts, Fighter Command was
reducing the scale of its operations. Too many fighters had already been lost.
Cover was provided for the evacuation of British citizens from Ostend and the
Dutch Royal Family and government from The Hague, but there was nothing in the
key battlezone. Early on the morning of the 13th, the last Fokker T.V, escorted
by two Fokker G.1s, set off for the Moerdijk Bridge with 300-kg bombs. The
damage these large bombs could inflict on the huge structure was never put to
the test; only one hit the bridge, and it failed to explode.
On the Grebbe Line, a Dutch counterattack on the morning of
the 13th on the Wageningen sector was defeated by heavy German artillery and
Luftwaffe air support. A withdrawal to the final ‘Fortress Holland’ line became
the only option. With the Luftwaffe dominating the skies, this was not possible
until the sun had set. It would be a desperately difficult day for the Dutch
Army. Low cloud provided some respite from German air strikes, and despite the
weather, the Dutch Air Force was still flying and provided as much support as
possible. Around twenty Fokker D.21s, C.Xs, and G.1s strafed and bombed German
artillery positions and troops in the Wageningen area. Yet another plea to the
British Embassy revealed the staff had joined the exodus to Britain. Despite
the problems, during the following night the Dutch forces successfully withdrew
along the entire front to their last line of defence.
On the morning of the 14th, the situation looked relatively
stable. The Dutch forces were well-established in Rotterdam; the German forces
holding the northern end of the bridge could not be dislodged, but Dutch guns
were preventing any movement across the waterway. In the east of the country,
the Germans were only slowly following up the Dutch withdrawal from the Grebbe
Line. Hitler, frustrated by the slow progress, ordered an intensification of
effort on all fronts. An assault on Rotterdam would be preceded by the bombing
of the Dutch Army positions on the north bank. The target area would stretch as
far as the city centre. The Dutch were warned an air attack was on the way and
given one last chance to surrender.
Winkelman was not convinced there was any immediate need to
surrender. The Dutch were certainly in no hurry to come to a decision—there was
no reason to fear this particular German bomber threat more than previous
bombing. The German Air Force had been bombing the country for four days. A
second deadline was approaching and the negotiations were still in progress.
Ninety He 111s of KG/54 were already heading for Rotterdam. The German
commander tried to delay the attack, but only half the force saw the warning
red Very lights. Fifty-four Heinkel bombers dropped 97 tons of bombs on the
designated target area. There was no anti-aircraft defence, and the last
serviceable Dutch fighters, five Fokker D.21s and five G.1s, were further
north, providing cover for the troops still pulling back from the Grebbe Line.
The Heinkels were able to drop their bombs with precision from 2,000 feet.
Unopposed bombing from low level can be particularly
destructive. Even so, nobody anticipated what was about to happen. The bombs
were high-explosive rather than incendiary, but the target area contained
warehouses full of inflammable produce. These were among the first buildings to
be hit, and flames soon engulfed the wooden houses of the historic city centre.
One square mile of the city was devastated; 800 people lost their lives.
Winkelman was severely shaken by the scale of the destruction. The German
commanders on the spot were just as stunned. The German propaganda machine was
quick to exploit the situation. If the Dutch did not surrender, a similar fate
would befall Utrecht, which was also now in the front line. Winkelman ordered
all Dutch forces on the mainland to lay down their arms.
At the time, the death toll in Rotterdam was put as high as
30,000. It seemed the prophets of doom had been right; bombing alone could
bring a country to its knees. Whether the same decision would have been made if
the bombing had occurred on 10 May, with Allies apparently coming to Holland’s
aid, is open to question. By the time the attack was launched on the 14th, the
Dutch government had in principle already taken the decision to surrender.
Nevertheless, for the Air Staff it was conclusive proof of how destructive and
decisive bombers could be and a reminder of why Britain had to keep fighters
back to defend British cities.
Lack of British support was not the only reason for the
Dutch defeat, nor even the main one. The French reluctance and inability to
engage the Panzers in mobile warfare around Breda was at least as significant.
Nevertheless, the Dutch might have reasonably expected more support from a
major military power like Britain. Given the importance attached to preventing
the Netherlands from falling into German hands, Britain might have been
expected to provide it. Not even the fear of invasion or heavier bombing raids
on London, or the advantage of having friendly territory on the approach to the
Ruhr, could induce the Air Staff to use the RAF as Dutch Army commanders
Another useful ally had been lost to the Allied cause. It
was one thing to allow Poland, a valiant ally on the other side of Europe, to
be overwhelmed by a powerful neighbour, or indeed Norway, a nation many
hundreds of miles from our shores. It was quite another matter to allow a
similar fate to befall an equally valiant ally just the other side of the North
Sea. Britain could not afford to lose allies so easily.
T-14 Armata MBT during military parade in Russia. Note commander
situated in hull across from vehicle driver.
The T-14 Armata is the latest and most innovative MBT to be
produced by the Russian Federation. Introducing a wide range of highly
innovative technologies the vehicle in many regards can be considered to be a
revolutionary development rather than only evolutionary in its approach. Based
on a Universal Combat Platform, the vehicle chassis can be used as the baseline
for other armored vehicles as well. As of 2015 there were 20 units produced as
technology demonstrators. Russia claims to have now completed the vehicle
design activity and states that they plan to produce 2,300 of the MBT for their
own use by 2020 at a unit cost of $3.7 million US.
The T-14 is a heavy tracked MBT with a combat weight of
105,600 pounds (48 tonne). The vehicle is 35 feet (10.8 meters) long, 11 feet
(3.5 meters) wide and 10 feet (3.3 meters) in height to the top of the turret
roof. This is substantially larger than traditional Soviet armored units, which
typically sought to have reduced silhouettes. The vehicle is powered by a
gas-turbine engine with a 1500 hp output, similar to the approach used with the
American M1 Abrams. The vehicle has an electric transmission to reduce weight
and seven roadwheels to account for the greater vehicle length (all other
modern tanks Russian other than the T80 have only 6). As with other Russian
tanks, the drive sprocket is located at the rear of the vehicle in line with
the engine, and the track idler is located at the front of the vehicle. Able to
achieve roadspeeds of 50 mph (80 km/h) the vehicle has an operational range
based on on-board fuel of over 300 miles (500 km).
The T-14 Armata began development in the 1990s and
incorporated the lessons learned from battlefield experiences with the T-80 and
T-90, as well as integrating the many new technologies developed and trialed on
various proto-type vehicles. Designed by the Russian company Uralvagonzavod,
the Armata involves a fundamentally new approach to MBT design. Rather than
being based on the traditional Russian tank philosophy of using simple low cost
components, the T-14, like the T-80, is a costly vehicle that integrates many
highly sophisticated systems. As well the basic vehicle architecture and
configuration mark a significant departure from traditional Russian MBT design
philosophy, as well as from typical Western design.
Among the most radical differences in the T-14 is the
incorporation of an unmanned turret and the placement of the entire tank crew
in a ballistic compartment contained within the front of the vehicle. The
driver sits to the left of the vehicle front, the commander sits to the right,
and the gunner is located between them. The unmanned turret is fully remotely operated,
including rotation, loading, aiming and firing. The vehicle also integrates
many novel approaches to survivability including a comprehensive Active
Protection System (APS), Electronic Jamming (i.e., dazzlers) and Explosive
Reactive Armor (ERA) suites, as well as automated threat detection and
The T-14 Armata is also said to be a highly computerised
tank. On-board computers continuously monitor the equipment status and report
the data to the crew for their analysis. A fully encrypted communication suite
enables integrated communication, command and control functions across a
battlegroup with the command post. Multiple externally mounted cameras provide
all crew members extensive situational awareness. This broad range of computational
integration provides the capability for the vehicle to serve many other
functions than those assumed by a traditional MBT, including artillery
designation, air defense and reconnaissance duties.
The below image summarizes many of the signficant features
of the T-14 Armata while the embedded schematic shows many of the vehicles
Key features of the T-14
The T-14 Armata is meant to serve as a common platform for a
full family of armored vehicles, proposed to include an IFV, a rocket
transport, a self-propelled artillery vehicle, and an anti-tank unit mounting a
proposed 152 mm main weapon, as shown below. Currently only the T-14 MBT and
the T-15 IFV are designed.
The latest generation of the 125 mm (4.92 in) smoothbore,
known as the 2A82-1M tank cannon, is situated in an unmanned fully automated
auto-loading turret. The auto-loader carousel stores 32 rounds while another 13
rounds are stored within the vehicle. The fume extractor has been removed from
the weapon as the unmanned turret makes it superfluous. The auto-loading cannon
is claimed to have a firing rate of from 10 to 12 rounds a minute and to have
an attack range of up to 5 miles (8 kms). The updated computerized Fire-Control
System (FCS) is able to engage moving targets while the tank is on the move
with a claimed very high first round hit probability. The system automatically
calculates the optimal firing position for the cannon based on a number of
sensor inputs, including lead angle measurement, muzzle reference system noting
gun bend angle and a wind velocity sensor. It has been suggested that the
chassis and turret are designed to be also be able to integrate the developmental
2A83 152mm cannon once it is fully qualified.
The schematics below show the turret with the auto-loading
carousel external to the chassis and mounted in the chassis. The crew position
in the front of the vehicle can be seen in relation to the turret. The main
weapon ammunition and ammo for the secondary weapons can also be seen.
T-14 Turret extracted from vehicle chassis. Carousel and ammunition can
be seen mounted under turret.
T-14 Turret dropped into vehicle chassis. Three crew members can be
seen in forward section of vehicle. Secondary Weapons with ammo can be seen
mounted on top of turret.
The unmanned turret is equipped with a sensor suite that
provides the isolated crew members, through integrated computerised screens,
the ability to optically detect armored targets at a 3 mile (5 km) distance, as
well as having thermal imaging capabilities. The on-board laser rangefinder is
stated to have a range of 7.5 km. The crew has 360 all-around view and the
gunner’s optical channel also provides the option for up to a 12x zoom. All
sensor suites are installed on the vehicle in multiple independent systems to
ensure that the crew is not blinded by shots received to the sensors. For each
system there is a minimum of two sets of sensors installed, with a third
back-up system also installed with a lesser but functional capability. A
close-up view of the 2A82-1M and the associated unmanned turret is shown below.
T-14 unmanned turret with 2A82-1M main cannon, showing many of the
advanced sensors. The gunner’s sight can be seen to the left of the weapon
barrel, shielded in this view by a folding ballistically protective layer. The
fully rotating commander’s sight can be seen on top of the turret. The driver’s
hatch can be seen open in front of the turret, while periscope sights for the
commander can be seen on the opposing side.
A new APFSDS round is being developed specifically for the
T-14. The Vacuum-1 has a 900 mm long penetrator and said to be able to
penetrate 1000 mm of RHAe at a range of 2000 meters. A new HE-Frag projectile
is also under development for the T-14. Known as the Telnik, the warhead is
operated by a controlled-detonation fuse, providing the projectile an
anti-aircraft capability. The 2A82-1M can also fire the standard Russian
laser-guided missiles, with a new missile being developed specifically for the
T-14. The 3UBK21 Sprinter ATGM is said to have a range out to 12 kms and is
suitable for engaging air targets.
The T-14 is also equipped with a remotely controlled turret
roof mounted 12.7 mm (0.50 in) Kord GRAU index 6P49 machine gun and a remotely
controlled turret mounted 7.62 mm (0.30 in) PKTM 6P7К machine gun as secondary
weapons. The former is supplied with 300 rounds of ammunition while the latter
is provided with 1000 rounds of ammo. It has been suggested that the 12.7 mm weapon
can also be replaced with a remotely controlled 57 mm grenade launcher or a
remotely operated 30 mm anti-aircraft gun.
The T-14 Armata is protected by a multi-layered system
against a range of threats, including Kinetic Energy Penetrators, Blast events,
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) and
High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) Shaped Charge Warhead armed rockets and
missiles. The survivability package consists of both passive and reactive armor
components as well as sophisticated active protection system suites.
Additionally the rear of the vehicle, near the engine inlet grills, is
protected by standard bar-slat armor, known to provide protection against
Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) with a 50-60% effectiveness. The vehicle also
has a wide range of stealth technologies integrated into the vehicle to
suppress radio, thermal, radar and visual signatures, rendering the tank more
difficult to accurately identify in a battlefield setting.
The vehicle itself is fabricated from a new ballistic armor
plate, known as 44S-sv-Sh. The baseline hull plate is said to provide STANAG
4569 Level 5 protection, including protection from 25 mm APDS-T rounds and 155
mm High Explosive shell fragments. The baseline vehicle is in turn protected by
integrated dual-reactive armor. This latest Russian ERA, stated to be more
advanced than either Kontakt-5 or Relict 9, is situated strategically along the
front, sides and roof of both the vehicle chassis and turret. The crew of the
vehicle are further protected by being positioned within an internalized
armored capsule. The capsule alone is said to provide 900 mm RHAe. There is
also an active mine/IED protection system mounted under the bottom front of the
Mounted onto the vehicle is an Active Protection System
(APS), known as Afghanit, which actively engages and defeats incoming threats.
The Afghanit APS system is able to detect and actively track incoming threats
using a millimeter-wavelength radar (has a high resolution, permitting the
tracking of rapidly moving small objects). It then initiates a sequence on
on-board counter-measures to defeat the threat as it approaches the vehicle.
Afghanit employs both soft kill and hard kill mechanisms. The soft kill system
employs a system of disruptive dazzlers to cause infrared and laser guided
missiles to lose their target identification capability. The hard kill system
discharges a physical counter-measure to neutralize the threat. It is believed
that these consist of unguided High Explosive (HE) warheads and EFPs.
The APS is largely integrated into the unmanned turret. The
threat detection and targeting sensors, believed to be electro-optical/infrared
(EO/IR)-based laser warning receivers and millimeter wavelength radar, are mounted
under the turret. The radar consists of a 26.5–40 GHz electronically scanned
array radar. It is claimed that the system can independently track upwards of
25 ground based targets and 40 airborne targets, and that it is able to detect
and track targets as small as 12 inches (0.3 meters) in length. The system is
designed to provide the crew an automatic firing solution to most effectively
neutralize the incoming threat.
Twelve counter-measure launch tubes are positioned
strategically around the turret perimeter and on the turret roof. The system is
said to provide all-around protection to the tank and to be able to neutralized
kinetic energy projectiles, tandem warhead ATGMs and rocket propelled grenades.
It is claimed that the system is effective against threats approaching the
Armata as rapidly as 1,700 m/s, and that it is anticipated that future upgrades
will be able to address threats moving as quickly as 3,000 m/s.
The below images identifies many of the key survivability
features of the T-14, as well as major components, optics and sensors.
Survivability systems noted include the bar armor, applique armor and APS
radar, receivers and launchers. APS launchers included fixed and aimable
(trainable) units, which come in both small (EFP based) and large (HE based)
sizes, providing a capability against a broad range of rockets and missiles.
The images below further detail the APS system, as well as
identify various sensors and other turret mounted systems, such as the Remote
Weapon Station. It can be seen that the T-14 has a tremendous amount of highly
advanced features directly integrated into the vehicle and marks a significant
advancement in armored vehicle design.
Side view of T-14 turret, showing positions of large static HE based
APS hard-kill launchers and small traversing EFP based APS hard-kill launchers.
Note that turret can be aligned in direction of incoming threats to further
optimize APS performance.
A closer view showing situational awareness cameras (1), APS radar (2),
EO/IR APS receiver (3), traversing counter-measure launcher (4), fixed
counter-measure launchers (5) and HE countermeasure (6)
View of the active mine blast / IED protection system, mounted under
the front of the vehicle chassis.