Nazi Delusion: Belief in the East–West Clash

Operation Unthinkable, Churchill’s plan to start World War III

In the final weeks of the war Army Group South had a heavy duty laid upon it. Its terrible task was to hold the Eastern Front while behind the defensive shield which it constituted the mass of Army Group E retreated out of Yugoslavia. Let us consider why Army Group South was called upon to make such a sacrifice.

At that late stage of the war there was no cohesive battle front in northern or central Germany. Red Armies from the 1st White Russian Front were fighting inside Berlin while the 1st Ukrainian Front had swept past the dying capital and had reached the River Elbe where its troops had linked up with the Americans. Where German Army Group North had once stood, a few shattered corps sought to contain the assaults of the Soviet Baltic Fronts and to maintain bridgeheads around the principal ports of Prussia and Kurland from which refugees were being evacuated to the western Baltic or Denmark.

Held distant from and, therefore, unable to influence the fighting in central Germany, Field Marshal Schoerner’s powerful Army Group held the western regions of Czechoslovakia. To his south stood another major German military force holding a line in eastern Austria from the Semmering mountains to Radkersburg. That force was the remnants of Army Group South which had been driven back out of Russia, across Hungary and into Austria. Neither Army Group Schoerner nor Rendulic’s Army Group South could support the other, for a salient created by Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front held them apart. Nor were those German groups strong enough, individually or collectively, to destroy the Russian salient.

In Yugoslavia, to the south of Rendulic’s Army Group, was Loehr’s Army Group E. This force, which had held the Balkans, was conducting a fighting withdrawal out of Yugoslavia, a task made difficult through a combination of factors. First, there was now such close co-operation between the Soviet armies and JANL, the Yugoslav National Liberation Army, that they struck Army Group E with co-ordinated, rapid and crushing blows. Secondly, Loehr felt a moral obligation to the Croat and Slovene peoples through whose lands he was retreating. His withdrawal would leave those populations undefended and at the mercy of the JANL which would exact a terrible revenge when it re-occupied Croatia and Slovenia. Not only were the peoples of those nations racial enemies of the Serbs who dominated the JANL, but they had demonstrated this racial hostility by fighting as Germany’s allies. In addition both nations had declared themselves to be free states and independent of Yugoslavia. Tito was determined to bring them back into the federation and would use the standard brutal, Bolshevik methods to achieve that goal.

For fear of the wrath to come, the mass of the Croat and Slovene peoples joined Loehr’s Army Group in its retreat. The great trek sought to reach and to cross the River Mur which marked the frontier between Austria and Yugoslavia. The Germans and their allies shared a naïve belief that once inside Austrian territory they would be safe. That Tito would cross the Mur in pursuit of his enemies seems, somehow, to have gone unconsidered.

The third factor working against Loehr was that Army Group C in Italy had signed an armistice with the Americans and the British. Through the gap which now yawned on Army Group E’s right flank poured crack units of the British Eighth Army heading towards Trieste and the Austrian province of Carinthia.

From the situation maps in his headquarters, Field Marshal Kesselring, Supreme Commander South, could appreciate the situation facing the armies of his command. Army Group E was isolated, but the gap on the right flank, although serious, was not critical. The British were not yet in sufficient strength to affect the withdrawal of Loehr’s right wing, but seemed to be content to hold a containing line behind which the bulk of their forces advanced into Austria.

Viewing the situation facing Army Group South, Kesselring could see that in the Semmering mountains in northern Styria the 6th Army was withstanding the Soviet assaults. In its sector the 2nd Panzer Army, forming the extreme right wing of Army Group South, was containing the Red Army along a line from Bad Gleichenberg to Radkersburg. The eastern wall was still holding, but Kesselring asked himself for how long? Intelligence had forecast that Tolbhukin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front would open an offensive strongly supported by a major effort by the JANL. Were the 6th Army and 2nd Panzer to collapse under those combined assaults, nothing could halt the enemy’s sweep across southern Sytria and Loehr’s armies would be trapped between Tolbhukin in the north and the JANL to the south.

If Army Group E was to be saved, the eastern wall in Styria had to be held until the formations at present in Yugoslavia were safe inside Austria. The task for the German commanders was to ensure that the troops manning the line between the Semmering and Radkersburg did hold fast. This would be difficult for it was obvious to the humblest private soldier that the end of the war could only be a matter of days. At that low military level the signs of dissolution were becoming more apparent. Food supplies were no longer reaching the front-line units. Rations had been cut and were cut again. Very little ammunition was coming forward. There were no new men to replace those who had been killed, who had been wounded, who had been taken prisoner – or who had deserted to the Reds. High Command was keenly aware of the unbearable pressures upon the soldiers to desert and to make an end to their sufferings. The commanders knew of the depression brought about by battle losses, short rations, the lack of news from home, the bitterly cold wet spring in the mountains, the unremitting strain of combat and the general hopelessness of the situation. Against all these negative factors could only be set the soldiers’ traditional loyalties to Fatherland, Führer, the regiment and their comrades.

Rumour, ever-present on the battlefield, has the power to affect morale for good or for bad. The bitter rumours which swept through the embattled battalions in the first days of May were soon confirmed. The Führer was dead. He had fallen in battle. Berlin, the Reichs capital, was in Russian hands. The Reds and the ‘Amis’ had joined forces on the Elbe and US armies were overrunning southern Germany. These were days of mental anguish.

Clearly the war was ending and at this time of fear and doubt many must have asked themselves what was the point in their holding on? Where was the sense in staying wet through, hungry and cold in a slit trench facing certain death when, in the darkness of the night, a short walk into the Soviet lines could bring release? With any luck the first Ivans would not be too trigger-happy. Old soldiers said that if you survived the first five minutes, if the Red Army infantry didn’t kill you on the spot, you were safe and then there would be warmth, food, rest and the certainty of surviving the war.

The senior military commanders, aware of the physical and emotional problems which beset their men, pondered whether they could keep their troops fighting until Loehr and his men had been brought out of the land of Yugoslavia. Suddenly, new rumours ensured that the soldiers would stand fast; firm as rocks against all the assaults of the enemy. The euphoria produced by the new rumour reached the trenches and the depression caused by the bad news of the first days of May was lifted immediately. The rumour was that the Anglo-Americans had formed an alliance with Germany. Hitler was dead and the Western Allies had made peace with the new German government. That these wild stories circulated and were believed as strongly at senior Army Group level as at the level of the ordinary grenadier shows that they were not the product of the military but that they had come from a source very close to the centre of power. ‘The evil that men do lives after them,’ declared Mark Antony. Even after Goebbels’ half-incinerated body had been removed from the Reichskanzlei for autopsy, one of his most successful propaganda ploys, based upon a political conviction which he shared with Hitler, was circulating and was being believed. The Goebbels propaganda story was nothing less than that America and Britain would break their alliance with Russia and would then ally themselves with Germany. The three nations would then turn against the Soviet Union.

Earlier chapters of this book have shown the reasoning behind the confidence on the part of Germany’s political leaders that such a clash must occur. It was, they declared, politically inevitable and lo, according to rumour, it had come to pass. As early as 28 April, OKW had ordered the number of German units to be reduced in those areas where US troops were no longer advancing or in which the Americans had given ground. The supernumerary German formations were then to be dispatched to the Eastern Front. Two days later, on 30 April, the orders from OKW were that the war was to be continued until the outcome of political moves had been resolved. Germany was playing for time. The understood inference was that hostilities would continue until the inevitable conflict between Russia and the Western Allies broke out.

The conviction of Hitler and Goebbels had been accepted at the most senior command level and repeated by the normally cautious OKW. Small wonder then that its words were more optimistically interpreted as they reached each subordinate echelon in the military hierarchy. The German armies had only to hold on and soon the Americans would be in the line beside them. The next step, that of driving back the Soviet forces, would be easy. The field commanders were supremely confident of that. They were aware of the terrible war-weariness that infected the Red Army. The German generals knew that the Red Army’s battle line was made up of tired, exhausted and dispirited soldiers at the end of a poor and unreliable supply line. Soon the German forces would be properly equipped from the abundant resources of their Anglo-American allies. Then, together with those forces, the revitalized German armies would go over to a general attack, would thrust aside the low-moraled Soviets and would set out, once again, and this time would achieve the ambition of carving out an empire in the east.

Following on from that basic rumour came others each more bizarre than the preceding one. One that was believed to the end was that in the west of Austria – in the high Alps – had been constructed an Alpine Fortress system inside which the German Army would gather new strength and would hold out until new secret weapons could be deployed. Underground factories within that Alpine Redoubt would construct aircraft and rockets to equip the men who would form the garrison. Other factories would turn out standard weapons, such as tanks and guns.

We all hoped that the Alpine Fortress would be more substantial that the Reichsschützstellung [the national defence system] which was little more than an anti-tank ditch topped with barbed wire. It was well-known that at some places in Austria the Ivans had crossed the Reichsschützstellung before work on it had been completed.

From my reading after the war I have learned that there was a conference in Graz in the first week of May. Kesselring realized that the East Front had to be held and so, although the capitulation was about to be signed in Reims, he issued orders that we in Austria were to carry on fighting. The imminent capitulation was to apply only to the armies fighting in the west.

Thus, up in the hills and mountains of northern Styria, fighting was carried on by soldiers unaware that the war was about to end. Their warrior spirit was bolstered by the belief that the ‘Amis’ were coming. Wireless reports seemed to confirm the rumour, for these told of an advance by troops of Patton’s Third Army into Sudetenland, the western provinces of Czechoslovakia. It was known that other US armies, pouring through Germany, had altered the direction of their advance from east to south-eastward. Obviously, those formations were hurrying to the eastern wall in Styria. It was only a matter of holding on for a few more days and then the advance guard of the ‘Ami’ army would roar up. As if to confirm these rumours the Red Army began a strong offensive on the Semmering. The truth was that the Soviets intended to break through the Muerz valley and to reach the River Enns, the halt line between the American and the Russian forces. If the Red Army could be in strength on that river line it would have trapped both German Army Groups, Loehr’s and Reundulic’s. More than that the Russians would have gained vast and important economic resources. Under the terms on which they intended to insist in their surrender document, it was not only the soldiers, their weapons and equipment which must be surrendered, but also all the factories and machines which had worked for the Third Reich. That was the true perspective.

The ordinary German soldiers, shivering in their sodden slit trenches on the Semmering, had a different perspective. They saw in the furious assaults of the Red Army proof that the Ivans were hoping to smash Army Group South before the Americans could arrive. The fiercer the assaults by the Russian infantry, cavalry and tank units, the more strong was the conviction of the German Landser that the ‘Amis’ were getting close. The rank and file of an army – of any army – are not privy to the details of military plans. Little information and few details are given to them. Their lives, their mental attitudes are determined not so much by accurate information imparted by their officers as by wild rumour and subjective reasoning. Thus, it was all too easy for them to accept without reserve the rumours which swept through the battalions and companies like wildfire and it is easy for us to see and to understand the hopes that were entertained by these lowly men.

It is less easy for us to comprehend how OKW could have so misread the situation or have been so duped by propaganda as to accept the myth of an American–British–German alliance as if it were a fact. It was the conviction of many senior commanders that a common hatred of the Nazi leadership was the only bond that held the Allies together. When that bond broke, as it must do with the Führer’s death, there would be no impediment to an alliance with the conservative elements of the German nation. That the Allied hatred was not confined to Hitlerism but extended to include those conservative elements – to the Army in particular – was just not understood by the generals. Such a concept was unthinkable.

The wish is father to the deed and the wishes of the military commanders of Army Group South were expressed in deeds of such naïvety as to be almost unbelievable. Major-General Gaedke, Chief of Staff of the Sixth Army, was directed by his commander to open discussions with General Patton, GOC Third US Army. The purpose of these discussions was to obtain passage for German troops through the Third Army front and across Austria. There, those newly arrived reinforcements would thicken the Sixth Army’s battle line. When that offer was rejected by Patton’s staff – the general refused to meet the German officer – Gaedke then requested medical supplies for the German units on the Eastern Front. That request, too, was turned down and the Chief of Staff returned to the Sixth Army, obviously baffled by the, to him, incomprehensible attitude of the Americans.

Certainly the senior officers of the 1st Panzer Division, holding the ground at Army Group’s southern end, were of the opinion that some arrangement existed. Their conviction was based on the fact that reinforcements to the division had arrived from Germany, had been allowed to pass freely through the American lines and had not been taken prisoner. That unusual fact, taken in conjunction with the orders then issued by General Balck, commanding the Sixth Army, for his units to head westward, fuelled the belief that the 1st Panzer Division was to make for the Alpine Redoubt where, obviously, it would meet up with the Americans.

On just a slightly less absurd level was the attempt by General Ringel to influence the speed of the American advance through Austria. Ringel set out for the Enns under orders to offer the US Command an unopposed advance through the German-held areas of central and eastern Austria, in order that they would form a bulwark against the Red Army. Presumably, in view of the anticipated Allied–German alliance, behind that American wall the mass of German forces in eastern Austria would be able to withdraw into the Alpine Redoubt.

The efforts of Balck’s Chief of Staff, Gaedke, to allow reinforcements to stiffen the eastern wall, Ringel’s attempt to speed the American advance and 1st Panzer’s belief of a regrouping in the Redoubt, seen from our perspective, were ludicrous projects; the unrealizable dreams of men unwilling to face facts. The German perspective was, as we have seen, based on the certainty that Capitalism and Communism are incompatible; that the voracious Russian Empire must fight against the Imperial commitments of Great Britain and the interests of the neo-Colonial Empire of America. Within days of the war’s end, Soviet acts in Europe, her increasingly threatening attitude and her support of Yugoslavia’s territorial demands for the Austrian province of Carinthia were the first signs of things to come. The reactions of the Anglo-Americans was not long in coming: a telegram to the Eighth Army contained the dire order that with immediate effect the Soviet military forces were to be considered as hostile.

Within two years of the end of hostilities the nations of Eastern Europe were under Soviet domination. Within three years the Berlin airlift had to be mounted to keep the population of that city free of Soviet control. Within five years the Anglo-Americans were at war with Korean and Chinese Communist forces in Korea.

It was an historical inevitability, Goebbels had declared, that the two opposed political systems must clash. Events had shown that the prophecy born of his perspective had not been false – merely premature.

The Isles of Scilly, 1651

John Granville, 1st Earl of Bath

The Civil Wars

By the 1620s, Scilly’s defences were in need of repair and improvement. Earthworks were built surrounding King Charles’ Castle, and the magazine, still standing today, was built by the gate of the Garrison. Further defences were added in the years up to 1651, particularly by the Royalist garrison, who made good use of the coastal geography, placing batteries on rocky points, making direct frontal assaults very difficult.

During the First Civil War (1642-1646), the Scilly Isles were in Royalist hands, under the governorship of another Sir Francis Godolphin (1605-1667; grandson of the builder of Star Castle). From here a small fleet of Royalist privateers operated, and following the final surrender of Royalist forces in south-west England in March 1646, it was to Scilly that Charles, Prince of Wales, fled. Following Charles’ departure to Jersey, a Parliamentary naval blockade led to the surrender of Scilly. But in 1648, the garrison rebelled against the governor and declared for the King.

Sir John Grenville (1628-1701) was installed as Royalist governor. Under his command, Scilly became a major privateering base, preying on both Dutch and Commonwealth shipping. The Dutch dispatched a fleet under the command of Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp – a threat which prompted a Commonwealth expedition to retake Scilly in April 1651. (A bizarre diplomatic relic of this conflict was that Scilly remained technically at war with the Netherlands until 1986!)

The Parliamentarian invasion of the Scilly Isles

The fleet of Parliamentary warships dropped anchor off the sandy shores of the Scilly Islands on 13 April 1651. Royalist pirates had preyed on Parliamentary and Dutch shipping in the Western Approaches since a mutiny three years before had transformed the tiny archipelago into a pirate’s haven.

Admiral Robert Blake sent 40 boats full of musket-toting marines against Tresco Island on 17 April, where he hoped to gain a foothold. The strength of the fortifications on St Mary’s ruled out a direct assault, and Admiral Robert Blake instead focused attention on Tresco. He eventually landed on Tresco’s east coast, taking Old Grimsby and its blockhouse, before moving inland and striking against Kings Charles’ Castle, whose defenders chose to blow it up to prevent capture. By 20 April 1651, Tresco was in Commonwealth hands.

This would allow him to prepare for an invasion of the main island of St Mary’s, where Sir John Grenville’s Royalists benefited from the strong ramparts of Star Castle. On the second night, a fierce melee with swords and clubbed muskets drove the Royalist forces to St Mary’s.

Blake established a battery at Carn Near, the southernmost point, from which he could bombard St Mary’s Pool and harbour.

Over the next two weeks, Blake maintained a steady pressure, even as negotiations for surrender were under way. On 23 May, Grenville surrendered after negotiating favourable terms that allowed his men to return to Scotland or Ireland. He even received compensation for equipment left behind.

Following its capture, many of Scilly’s existing fortifications were maintained, while on Tresco a new fortification was erected in 1651/2, immediately below King Charles’ Castle. Cromwell’s Castle – as it became known – was a tall, round, rubble-built, two-storey gun tower, with an appearance that appears to anticipate the later Martello towers. The new work could mount six roof-top cannon.

Following the Restoration, Scilly’s defences declined. In 1715 the engineer Colonel Christian Lilly found the island’s defences in a poor state of repair, and set about a series of improvements as part of a wider review of the defences of the south-west coast of England.

The Dutch

In 1651, two years after the beheading of Charles I, several of the islands around England’s coast were still in the hands of Royalist sympathisers. These were forced to make a living by piracy, and were indiscriminate in choosing their prey. Sir John Grenville’s forces on the Isles of Scilly were particularly successful as they effectively controlled the western entrance to the English Channel. Eventually the Dutch Admiral Tromp declared war on Sir John Grenville and moved a fleet against the islands. Perhaps as a direct result of this (as the Commonwealth couldn’t let even a potential ally occupy such a strategically important group of English islands) the English admiral Blake was directed also to go to the islands, and in May he succeeded in capturing them.

Tromp appears to have left the Scillies on or immediately after the 12th June, 1651.

Tromp’s diary on page 63.

“On June 12th I arrived off the Scillies with 3 ships and sent Capt. Cornelis Evertsen aboard Blake’s ship……. Blake declared that the Scillies had capitulated on June 3rd…….. when I learned that information and perceived that there was nothing more to be done, I went off on a cruise around the Channel Islands and along the adjacent French coast, from there past the Forelands into the north sea as far as off Yarmouth……. and arrived myself off Brielle on June 30th.”

The ‘Uprising’ of 1648

The Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John

by Todd Stevens

This is the true relation of the treacherous, mutinous, and violent acts of the pirate Captain John Mucknell. It tells of how he came to steal a brand new 44 gun flag ship, the John, only to loose her upon the rocks of Scilly, where a pirate fleet he commanded were then based. Operating in the name of King Charles I, Mucknells ships wreaked havoc upon shipping, of all trading nations, in the western approaches during the English Civil War; until, as it was then written that God, or the gallows, make an end of him The story also incorporates a modern day hunt for the wreck.


Art by Rafał Zalewski

A specialised radio countermeasures squadron, No 462 RAAF, was part of 100 Group and flew Halifax B. IIIs from December 1944. The prominent masts indicate Z5-N MZ913 carries the high-powered Airborne Cigar radio jamming equipment.

Late war colours on a Halifax B. VI RG610 of No 102 Sqn based at Pocklington, Yorks. It was sold for scrap in 1949.

The Handley Page Halifax’s wartime career has always been compared with that of the Lancaster and it is invariably written up as ‘inferior’; whilst there is some truth in this, especially for the Mk I Halifax it is an over-generalisation. One Squadron Commander stated: ‘We were very favourably impressed by the flying qualities of the Halifax B.III with its powerful Bristol Hercules engines, which gave it a lively climbing ability and good all-round performance.’

As one of the trio of four-engined bombers designed to Specification P13/36 the Halifax first flew on 25 October 1939 (L7244). The type entered service with 35 Squadron in November 1940, the second of the ‘heavies’. The first operational sortie by the Handley Page Halifax (35 Squadron) took place on the night of 10/11 March 1941, the target being Le Havre. Six aircraft took part, four of which bombed the primary target. One aircraft aborted the mission because of hydraulic problems and one was shot down by a British night fighter.

Over the next few months the other squadrons of No. 4 Group re-equipped and the Halifax began to take an increasing role in bomber operations. Initial impressions of the Halifax were favourable but within weeks the first problems occurred and the aircraft were temporarily withdrawn from operations for modifications to hydraulic pumps and undercarriages. An attempt was also made to regulate the cabin heat as excessive heat had given rise to a good deal of sickness amongst crews. Modifications were also made to the front escape hatch as this tended to fly off in the air. Whilst the latter two points appear to have been cured, at least they do not crop up again in the official records, the undercarriage remained troublesome.

However, by early 1942 the Halifax was already under investigation as its loss rate was higher than that of the other four-engined bomber, the Stirling. An ORS report looked at loss rates for the period July 1941 to June 1942 with the Halifax having a 50 per cent higher loss rate on all except lightly-defended targets. The conclusion was that the aircraft was more vulnerable to fighter attack and that a major factor was the ‘greater visibility of the Halifax exhausts and its rather doubtful stability in making evasive turns.’ With a loss rate of over 6 per cent, rising to 10 per cent for August 1942, the decision was taken to reduce the scale of Halifax operations until the majority of aircraft had received additional modifications, including weight reduction. A new fin and rudder were tested on the prototype Mk III and when engine and propeller improvements were added the new variant was far better than its predecessors; indeed, it was close to the Lancaster in overall performance.

In October 1942 the Bomber Command Operational Research Section (ORS) was again investigating why the Halifax had a higher loss rate than other operational types. Once more it was the aircraft’s poor manoeuvrability that was highlighted as the most significant defect. The conclusion recommended that in order to gain experience and confidence, ‘The pilots posted to Halifax squadrons should be detailed to complete at least three, preferably five, sorties as 2nd Pilot or against lightly defended targets before being employed on main operations.’ However, this laudable aim was not always possible, indeed it was seldom achieved, and the higher than average loss rates of the early Halifax variants continued. The bomb load of 13,000 lb was a great improvement on that of the medium bombers and unlike the Stirling the bomb bay was of standard design and gave good flexibility of bomb load. The self-defence armament of four-gun rear turret and twin-gun front turret, with beam guns in some aircraft, was inadequate but was soon improved with the addition of a mid-upper turret.

The first Mk IIIs entered service with 466 Squadron at Leconfield in October 1943 and this ‘definitive’ variant gradually replaced the older variants and was to remain in service until the end of the war. By early 1944 the new aircraft had demonstrated their superior performance and the plan to replace all squadrons with Lancasters was reconsidered – or at least delayed. The Halifax was the standard equipment of No. 6 (RCAF) Group based in Yorkshire and the Canadian squadrons had few problems with serviceability or operational difficulties; loss rates stabilised and the Group was happy with its Halifaxes, although in recent years an ill-informed debate has been reopened as to why the Canadians were given ‘inferior aircraft.’

An ORS report in July 1943 related loss rates to training as the Halifax had acquired a bad reputation for instability during hard manoeuvres. As the corkscrew manoeuvre was the standard tactic by which bomber pilots avoided enemy defences it was vital that pilots had the confidence to undertake the hard manoeuvring demanded by this technique. Report B160 looked at the, ‘Effect of operational experience on No. 4 Group Halifax losses’ and concluded that: ‘There is no reasonable doubt that pilots on their first two operations have a casualty rate well above the average and that those who have survived twenty sorties had a rate well below the average. This must be aircraft related as the Lancaster does not suffer the same problem.’ The report stated that the major problem occurred when aircraft attacked heavily defended targets. ‘New pilots are a bit nervous of the aircraft as it had gained a bad name for instability in manoeuvre. It thus may happen that a new pilot is reluctant, when he meets defences, to manoeuvre his machine sufficiently in combat or that in a sudden emergency he puts his machine into an attitude in which he has had no previous experience of controlling it.’

To the public, the Halifax was the highly capable stablemate of the Lancaster and together, the two four-engine machines were hailed as the fearsome harbingers of doom aimed at laying waste all that was evil within the Third Reich. But the day of the Halifax proved worth waiting for.

New engines, a strengthened structure and modifi ed aerodynamics gave the aeroplane the performance that had been promised two years earlier. The Mk III proved faster than the Lancaster and could climb quicker; by late-1944, Halifax losses dropped below those of the Lancaster, even though the former often outnumbered the latter on some of the big raids. Total figures for Bomber Command were 2,236 Halifax losses against 3,936 Lancasters.

The Halifax also saw action with Bomber Command as part of No. 100 Group, the airframe proving well-suited to this RCM usage and at one stage became the main type used by the Group. The main role of the Halifax RCM squadrons was Mandrel, although 462 Squadron was fitted with ABC, and the first effective mission was flown by 171 Squadron from North Creake in late October 1944. Indeed, it was 171 and 199 Squadrons from this Group that flew the Command’s last Halifax operation of the war, on 2 May 1945 against Kiel.

Total Halifax production was 6,176 aircraft and whilst some of these were specialist Coastal or Transport variants, the majority were bomber variants, including 2,238 of the Halifax MK III. There is no surviving complete Halifax today, although a number of well-preserved aircraft have been recovered from lakes in Norway and the museum at Elvington, Yorkshire has ‘built’ a Halifax, with parts coming from a variety of sources. This is an appropriate location as Elvington was home to two Free French Halifax squadrons. One of the recovered aircraft is being rebuilt in Canada as a tribute to No. 6 (RCAF) Group.

‘For Valour’ – the Halifax VCs

Just one Victoria officer Joe Barton Wg. Cdr Leonard cross was awarded who had initially commanded Halifax squadrons, but was not Gazetted solely for that. His award was for his unique contribution to operations with Bomber command. extracts from his Gazette entry are included below.

Cyril Joe Barton

Extract from `The London Gazette’ of June 27, 1944

`Pilot Officer Cyril Joe Barton (168669) RAFVR, No 578 squadron (Deceased).

On the night of 30th March, 1944, Pilot Officer Barton was captain and pilot of a Halifax aircraft [B.III Excalibur LK797 based at Burn] detailed to attack Nuremberg. When some 70 miles short of the target, the aircraft was attacked by a Junkers Ju 88. the first burst of fire from the enemy made the intercommunication system useless. One engine was damaged when a Messerschmitt 210 joined in the fight. The bomber’s machine guns were out of action and the gunners were unable to return fire.

Fighters continued to attack the aircraft as it approached the target area and, in the confusion caused by the failure of the communications system at the height of the battle, a signal was misinterpreted and the navigator, air bomber and wireless operator left the aircraft by parachute.

Pilot Officer Barton faced a situation of dire peril. His aircraft was damaged, his navigational team had gone and he could not communicate with the remainder of the crew. if he continued his mission, he would be at the mercy of hostile fighters when silhouetted against the fires in the target area, and if he survived he would have to make a 4½ – hour journey home on three engines across heavily-defended territory. Determined to press home his attack at all costs, he flew on and, reaching the target, released the bombs himself.

As Pilot Officer Barton turned for home the propeller of the damaged engine, which was vibrating badly, flew off. It was also discovered that two of the petrol tanks had suffered damage and were leaking. Pilot Officer Barton held to his course and, without navigational aids and in spite of strong head winds, successfully avoided the most dangerous defence areas on his route. eventually he crossed the English coast only 90 miles north of his base [Burn, Yorks].

By this time the petrol supply was nearly exhausted. Before a suitable landing place could be found, the port engine stopped. the aircraft was now too low to be abandoned successfully. Pilot Officer Barton therefore ordered the three remaining members of his crew to take up their crash stations. then, with only one engine working, he made a gallant attempt to land clear of the houses over which he was flying. The aircraft finally crashed [at Ryhope colliery, near Sunderland] and Pilot officer Barton lost his life, but his three comrades survived.

Pilot Officer Barton had previously taken part in four attacks on Berlin and 14 other operational missions. on one of these, two members of his crew were wounded during a determined effort to locate the target despite the appalling weather conditions. In gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds, this officer displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty.’

Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire

Extracts from `The London Gazette’ of September 8, 1944

`Wing commander Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, DSO, DFC, RAFVR, No 617 sqn

This officer began his operational career in June 1940. Against strongly-defended targets, he soon displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader. He was always ready to accept extra risks to ensure success. Defying the formidable Ruhr defences, he frequently released his bombs from below 20,000ft. Over Cologne in November 1940 [he was flying Whitley V P5005 of 102 Sqn from Linton-on-Ouse], a shell burst inside his aircraft, blowing out one side and starting a fire; undeterred, he went on to bomb the target.

At the end of his first tour of operational duty in January 1941, he immediately volunteered for a second. Again, he pressed home his attacks with the utmost gallantry. Berlin, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Essen and Kiel were among the heavily-defended targets which he attacked [flying with the first Halifax squadron, No 35 at Linton]. When he was posted for instructional duties in January 1942 he undertook four more operational missions.

He started his third tour in August 1942 when he was given command of a squadron [No 76 at Middleton St George]. He led the squadron with outstanding skill on a number of missions before being appointed in March 1943 as a station commander [to Marston Moor as Group Captain].

In October 1943 he undertook a fourth operational tour, relinquishing the rank of Group Captain at his own request so that he could again take part in operations. He immediately set to work [as CO of 617 Sqn flying Lancasters] as the pioneer of a new method of marking enemy targets involving very low flying.

During his fourth tour which ended in July 1944, Wing Commander Cheshire led his squadron personally on every occasion. [He] has now completed a total of 100 missions [and would undertake three more to take his total to 103]. In four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition he has maintained a record of outstanding personal achievement, placing himself invariably in the forefront of the battle.’

Leonard Cheshire continued his extraordinary career, both within the Service where he witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, to his post-war Christian life when he set up the Cheshire Foundation Homes for the Sick. He died on July 31, 1992, aged 74.

Rootes Securities-built B. III LL553 in 1944. On delivery it was assigned to one of the two Free French squadrons attached to RAF Bomber Command, No 346 Guyenne Sqn, based at Elvington, Yorks

Halifax in French military hands

Armée de l’Air Halifaxes France began its association with the Handley Page Halifax following the establishment of `Free French’ squadrons in Britain in 1940, initially with Spitfires and later with Boston light bombers. In 1944, personnel who had experience on the twin-engine Loire et Olivier 451 bomber in the Middle East were brought together in England to form two heavy bomber squadrons equipped with Handley Page Halifaxes.

Established with RAF help, the two squadrons were No 346 Guyenne Sqn and 347 Tunisie Sqn assigned as part of No 4 Group based at Elvington, near the ancient town of York. The French crews undertook refresher training at No 20 (Wellington) Operational Training Unit at Lossiemouth followed by a short familiarisation course at Driffield on early mark Halifaxes. On May 16, 1944, 346 Guyenne Sqn assembled at their new airfield under the command of Lt Col GE Venot.

The squadron was allocated an establishment of 20 Halifax B. Vs, 16 in use with four in reserve and after working up on their new charges, the squadron was declared operational. Proudly carrying French blue-white-red roundels on the sides of its new aircraft, the squadron set out on its first mission on June 1/2, 1944, an attack on a German radio-listening station at Fermed’Urville. The French squadron contributed 12 aircraft to a total force of 101 Halifaxes, bombing on the coloured markers. Unfortunately, the results were frustrated by cloud and haze, each aircraft dropping five 1,000lb and ten 500lb bombs.

On June 20, 1944, No 347 Tunisie Sqn was formed at Elvington, under the command of Lt Col M Vigouroux. After a spell on local training flights it joined its sister squadron Guyenne on operations from June 27/28 when 12 aircraft took off to bomb Mont Candon, dropping 175 500lb bombs on the target.

At the end of June, Halifax B. IIIs arrived to replace the B. Vs with 346 Sqn and at the end of July, No 347 followed suite. Through August the targets were V1 sites and support for the Allied forces in Normandy and in September, both squadrons assisted with the transport of fuel to Melsbroek, Brussels, to keep the armoured units mobile in their on-going pursuit of the enemy. Bomber Command returned to its night offensive against German targets in October and both French squadrons took part in attacks, notably against Heligoland in daylight on April 18, 1945.

Seven days later, both 346 and 347 Sqns, now flying B. VIs, flew their last attack of the war when the gun batteries on the island of Wangerooge were bombed in daylight causing heavy damage. Over the following days and after the end of hostilities, the crews conducted a series of training and support duties, including dumping stocks of unwanted bombs into the sea, and communication flights to and from France.

On October 6, 1945, after flying with the RAF for 11 months and making 1,479 sorties, No 346 Guyenne Sqn transferred to the French Air Force. Its sister unit, No 347 Tunisie Sqn transferred in November after ten months and 1,355 sorties with Bomber Command. By the end of October, the two squadrons had returned home.

In France, a revitalised Armée de l’Air incorporated the two Halifax squadrons into its Groupes de Bombardement as GB. II/23 Guyenne and GB. I/25 Tunisie, based at Bordeaux-Marignac. To maintain serviceability on their B. VIs, the French requested and received from the RAF at least four Halifax B. IIs and Vs for ground training at Rochefort.

The two squadrons undertook a number of different duties, GB. I/25 flew met flights and SAR missions, while GB. II/23 was tasked with long-range transport for which their aircraft were modified with seating for up to 20 passengers. Flights were made to Algeria and Tunisia, and later to Indo-China and France’s far-flung outposts across the Pacific, and to South America on diplomatic and casualty relief work. The strength of the French Halifax units was around 31 aircraft in 1947 and another batch of 14 surplus RAF B. VIs arrived by October.

Bastille Day July 14, 1948, was the last appearance of the Halifax in public when five took part in a fly-past over Paris. The type was officially withdrawn from air force use in October 1951, but some continued to fly on experimental work with organisations such as the Centre d’Essais en Vol (CEV) at Bretigny and Istres. The final Halifaxes, believed to be RG703 and RG828, conducted air tests with missiles until the spring of 1953, long outlasting the type in RAF service which all but consigned its bomber fleet to the scrap-man.

Halifaxes known to carry French colours include the following: JP327, JN978, LL392, LL467, PP165, RG491, RG500, RG510, RG562, RG590, RG605, RG606, RG607, RG625, RG645, RG647, RG653, RG655, RG661, RG670, RG703, RG705, RG752, RG788, RG798, RG816, RG819, RG821, RG828, RG867, RG868, RG869, RG874, ST797, ST799, and ST800.


General Skobelev, commander of the Russian expeditionary force that confronted the Turkomans in 1881 at their capital, Geok Tepe.

The culmination of Russia’s conquest of central Asia, the capture of Geok Tepe showed the Russian’s mastery of modern warfare and their determination to break a defiant but inferior military power. The decisive victory brought Russia’s borders closer to the British Empire in India and threatened to lead to further Russian dominance in Asia.

‘Do not publish this,’ said General Skobelev with a smile, ‘or I shall be called a barbarian by the Peace Society. But I hold it as a principle that in Asia the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they will be quiet afterwards. We killed nearly 20,000 Turkmen at Geok Tepe. The survivors will not soon forget the lesson.’ Skobelev spoke these words at St Petersburg in 1882 and the savage sentiments therein still resound in central Asia more than a century later.

For centuries, Russia had suffered from the raiding campaigns of Mongols and Turks, but in the 16th century it began to reverse this process. Adopting western European weapons and strategic organization, the Russians took the first steps towards creating an empire by defeating the Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and invading Siberia to set up trading strongholds.

The Russian Army grew in strength over the next two centuries until it reached the point in the middle of the 19th century when the government felt confident enough to challenge the Turkic states of central Asia, those which sat upon the ancient Silk Route to China. Russia wished to expand its commercial opportunities by selling manufactured goods to these people, and Russian merchants therefore had to be respected, having frequently been threatened in the past with enslavement. In addition, the Russians had recently suffered the humiliation of the Crimean War and they wished to re-establish their military prestige, especially by making the British feel uncomfortable in India.

In the 1860s, Russian expeditionary forces entered Uzbekistan and captured the key trading cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. In the 1870s the Russians turned their attention to Khiva, capital of the Turkomans, lying to the south of the Aral Sea on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. By the end of these campaigns, the empire had been expanded by 210,000 sq km (80,000 sq miles) and the Russian frontier had advanced 500km (300 miles) southwards. The Turkomans had not been wholly beaten, however, and merely retreated into the wilderness. It was then that the Russians found themselves in trouble.


Kara Kum means ‘black desert’, and for hundreds of kilometres its shifting dunes of sand and fossil shells, alternating with barren tracts of cracked clay, stretch across central Asia. This was once a seabed, but the sun long ago evaporated the water and turned it into dead land. It was to this desert that the Turkomans retreated. Two Russian armies went after them, in 1878 and 1879. Heatstroke, bad water and fever thinned their ranks. Even their camels died.

The first expedition gave up and returned. The second expedition, despite the death of its general, carried on to Geok Tepe, the mud-built fortress capital of the Turkomans. The Russians bombarded the fort and slaughtered men, women and children, but when they came to storm it, the maddened tribesmen repulsed them. As the Russians retreated, the Turkomans picked off the stragglers. It was a disastrous defeat for an imperial army that had all but conquered the Turkomans years earlier in 1873. Across the Northwest Frontier in India, the British wondered if the Russian threat was really all that great.

General Skobelev liked a challenge. His contemporaries considered him a rising star. ‘Though he has lived but thirty-five years,’ an American attache to the Russian Army wrote, ‘his stupendous military genius is such that… history will speak of him as one of the great soldiers of this century, side by side with Napoleon, Wellington, Grant and Moltke.’ A product of the Russian staff college, Skobelev had observed the Prussians in action and was a veteran of the campaigns of the 1870s m Central Asia, being made governor of Uzbekistan. He was determined to avenge the defeat of 1879 and set about it with tenacious precision.

Skobelev’s first major step was to construct a railway track across the desert so as to maintain his communication and supply line. A telegraph was then erected alongside it. Once his supplies had been delivered across the Caspian Sea by steamboats, Skobelev was ready, and his troops descended on central Asia in April 1880. Through negotiation, he removed some of the Turkic tribesmen who had allied themselves with the Turkomans at Geok Tepe and they supplied him with thousands of camels. Leading just a thousand men armed with a handful of artillery, machine guns and rockets, Skobelev attempted a rapid strike against Geok Tepe. The assault failed, but it demonstrated his determination and convinced him that the only way he could take the city was with a full-scale siege. He now called for twelve thousand men and one hundred guns to reinforce his army.

The Turkomans themselves were not lacking in daring, and their commander, Takma Sardar, personally led a raid against a detachment of Cossacks and transport horses. All of the horses were captured, including Skobelev’s personal charger. Takma Sardar was wounded in the raid and it prompted Skobelev to write to his officers, ‘An enemy whose leader can throw himself upon his adversary’s bayonet deserves serious attention, and all commanders must bear this in mind and take all military precautions on all occasions… so as not to be caught unawares.’ The Turkomans appealed to the British in India for help, but were ignored. Instead, they had to rely on themselves and some thirty thousand warriors who were raised from the surrounding Turkic tribes to help them.


In November 1880, Skobelev began his general advance with eight thousand soldiers. All the towns of the Tekke Turkoman peoples en route to Geok Tepe were stormed. Raids and counter-raids harassed both sides. Once within sight of the capital, Skobelev halted his army and scouted the area closely. He deduced that the nearby fort of Yangi Kala supplied the city’s water and assaulted this first, capturing it quickly. At daybreak on 4 January 1881, the Russians pushed out from Yangi Kala to within 730m (800yds) of Geok Tepe, where they laid the first parallel siege trench. A battle then took place during which the Turkomans made a series of desperate onslaughts on the Russian line. In one spot on the Russian left flank, they left more than three hundred bodies. By 7 January, the first parallel trench was strengthened and the second had been begun 365m (400yds) away from the main ramparts.

At dusk on 9 January, a large body of Turkomans burst out from the town, overwhelmed a Russian force and took the second parallel. Skobelev sent out reserves from Yangi Kala and the Turkoman attack faltered; the Russians had recaptured their trench and artillery, but only at the cost of many dead. However, a simultaneous attack on the Russian camp by Turkoman horsemen was driven off. Skobelev then ordered the digging of a third parallel trench, and a bombardment of the ramparts on the east side of the city began. On 16 January, twelve thousand Turkoman warriors made a final sortie from the town and a terrific fight took place, but the Russians were prepared for it and their artillery plus bayonet charges forced the Turkomans back into the town with heavy losses. Skobelev now ordered his miners to go to work digging tunnels beneath the ramparts. The Turkomans prepared for the inevitable assault.

On the night of 23 January, Russian volunteers carried dynamite into the tunnel dug beneath the town’s eastern rampart. The next morning, Skobelev ordered the main assault. At 07.00 hours, Colonel Gaidaroff began the attack against the southern ramparts with 36 cannons firing in concert against the mud walls. At the same time, the mine, containing two tons of explosives, was ignited under the eastern rampart and a column of earth and smoke rose up into the air. Several hundred defenders were killed immediately. Many of the Turkomans thought it was an earthquake and began to panic, but others bravely stood their ground as the Russians surged into the breaches and fought with bayonet against sabre.

At 13.30 hours, Gaidaroff broke over the southern rampart and entered the town. Soon all three Russian columns were in the town and advancing through the narrow lanes. The last stand of the Turkomans took place around the sacred hill of Geok Tepe, from which the town took its name. Takma Sardar had tried to rally his own men after the mine explosion, but even he had to admit defeat and fled into the desert as the last of his warriors were mown down by Russian artillery. General Skobelev then entered the city at the head of his dragoons and cossacks.

The Turkomans had lost six thousand five hundred people in the defence of their city and eight thousand during the pursuit by the Russian cavalry. The total Russian losses were just over a thousand. Despite this disparity in numbers, Skobelev’s losses during this campaign were greater than those in all previous campaigns in the conquest of central Asia since 1853. That said, it was a decisive victory and the Turkomans never again achieved independence until after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a century later. From that time on, central Asia remained part of the Russian Empire and the Communists subsequently kept it that way, despite several bloody revolts in the 1920s.

Afghanistan: Great Powers Sinkhole!

Russia emerged as a great power early in the nineteenth century, when Tsar Alexander I, newly confident after helping drive Napoleon’s invading army back into France, resumed Peter the Great’s old push south into the Caucasus Mountains west of the Caspian Sea, and east toward Central Asia. The remnants of Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) empire there consisted of rival khanates, most prominently in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. General Alexei Yermolov, an ambitious and outspoken artillery officer who had distinguished himself in the Napoleonic wars, led Russia’s expansion into what’s now Chechnya and Dagestan, and over the Caucasus into Georgia. Under the reforming Alexander, the campaign sparked a revival of a lengthy struggle with the dying Ottoman Empire. In 1828, Yermolov’s replacement, General Ivan Paskevich, beat back a Persian thrust, annexed Armenia, and defeated the Turks in a brief conflict the following year.

Britain was foremost among the powers that opposed Russia’s advance. Increasingly disturbed by the Russians’ enduring hunger for a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean, the chief rival for influence in the region watched uneasily from the sidelines. Although myth about Russia’s actual capabilities to threaten India inflated the worry by the world’s leading naval power, it also had real cause. After the East India Company had spearheaded Britain’s subjugation of the Indian subcontinent in the 1830s, the new colony sought protection from the threat of encroachment by Russian forces a few thousand miles to the north. For that purpose, London sent a bright young artillery officer named Alexander Burnes to Kabul in 1837. Burnes had met the Afghan leader, Prince Dost Mohammed, in 1832.

The two got on well, and Burnes reported to the Indian governor-general, George Eden, First Earl of Auckland, that Dost Mohammed would agree to an alliance with the British if they would support him in his conflict in Punjab with the powerful Sikhs. Lord Auckland rejected the offer out of unwillingness to cross the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh, with whom he’d previously forged a treaty.

Burnes reported something else about his visit to Kabul: the arrival there of a tsarist army captain. British concern swelled with the news. Although the Russians would also fail to come to an agreement with Dost Mohammed, Lord Auckland, determined to act, ordered an Anglo-Indian army to invade Afghanistan. Thus began the bloodletting of the Great Game in Central Asia between Russia and Britain: a struggle to control the strategic frontier territory that separated the borders of the burgeoning empires. It would bear many of the hallmarks of previous and later campaigns in Afghanistan, chiefly quick victory followed by a long, grinding opposition, then brutal fighting and terrible carnage.

Britain’s first Afghan War lasted until 1842. The British forces, eager for conquest and laden with servants and camels (sixty of the animals were required to transport one brigadier’s personal belongings), met little resistance at first. Capturing Kandahar and Ghazni in July 1839, they moved on to take Kabul the following month. When Dost Mohammed surrendered, they installed a puppet, Shah Shuja, on the throne, then returned most of their troops to India.

Two years later, the British gains started unraveling. The chain of events began in London. After taking power in August 1841, Robert Peel, the new Tory prime minister, announced cutbacks in the enormous sums required to maintain troops in Afghanistan. In October, the British envoy to Shah Shuja’s court announced that some tribal chiefs’ annual stipends would be cut. Days later, the Ghilzai tribe attacked a caravan from India, severing the vital British supply line.

Dost Mohammed’s son, Akbar Khan, helped lead a revolt against Shah Shuja the following month. After an Afghan mob stormed Alexander Burnes’s house and murdered him, fierce fighting ensued. By December, the Afghans had overwhelmed the British forces and forced William Macnaughten, the senior envoy, to negotiate a treaty that required the British to leave the country. However, Akbar Khan tricked Macnaughten, who was also murdered, together with General William Elphinstone, the incompetent commander of British troops in Afghanistan. The British forces withdrew, repeatedly ambushed and brutally massacred during their retreat to India through freezing, snow-covered mountain passes. One group of around 16,500 British and Indian troops made its way toward Jalalabad. Only one person, a severely injured doctor, survived the ninety-mile journey. When the remnants of the British force had finally left in December 1842, Dost Mohammed reassumed the throne. The debacle, however, did not persuade the losers in the Great Game’s first round to throw in the towel.

Dost Mohammed set about reclaiming territories lost from his former domain. By the time he signed a peace agreement with British India in 1855, Britain was embroiled in the Crimean War. That conflict had begun in 1853, over a dispute between France and Russia about who had jurisdiction over Christian sites in the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. When Russia invaded the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the British joined the French in fear that the Russians would take control of the Dardanelles-the Turkish-controlled entrance to the Mediterranean Sea-and sided with the Ottoman Empire.

Now it was time for Russian prestige to suffer a humiliating blow. It was delivered by the surrender of its port of Sevastopol and the scuttling of its great Black Sea fleet. The defeat followed a British and French siege that exposed the inefficient Russian military’s desperate need for modernization. Nevertheless, Russia soon bounded back under Alexander II, who ascended the throne in 1855, during the war. The tsar revived the push into Central Asia, and his forces took Tashkent in 1865. When Bukhara and Khiva gave way, the British worried again about an invasion of India from Russian Central Asia, called Turkestan.

In Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s death in 1878 set off a power struggle among his sons that ended when the third brother, Sher Ali Khan, emerged as the successor. The same year, Turkestan’s governor-general, General Konstantin Kaufman, sent a mission to Kabul to enlist Afghan support. Angered by the Russian presence, the British demanded the Afghans also accept a British mission. When the message was ignored-most likely because it coincided with the death of Sher Ali’s favorite son-the British issued an ultimatum. Sher Ali accepted, but his notice arrived too late to avert a second invasion of Afghanistan in November.

The British entertained few illusions about involvement in Afghanistan during the Second Afghan War, and their temperamental advance was reinforced by technological and military progress. Rail, steampower, and the telegraph gave their soldiers-who wore khaki and helmets instead of red coats-a huge advantage over the badly equipped Afghan forces. Sher Ali fled when the British retook Kabul in October 1879. In his place, the British installed Abdur Rahman Khan, Dost Mohammed’s grandson, who had lived twelve years in Russian-controlled Tashkent. He soon became known as the “Iron Emir” for his moves to break the tribal system’s hold over most of Afghanistan’s territory.

“It does not disappoint me,” wrote of Kabul Colonel Charles Metcalfe MacGregor, the vainglorious chief of staff to the commander of the British force, “it is just what I expected, mean, filthy like an Afghan’s heart.” Despite their victory, the British were beset by constant attacks from the Ghilzai and other tribes, and controlled only as much territory as their soldiers could defend. Thanks to that, and because they were convinced the Russians would be as unable as they were to conquer Afghanistan, they withdrew from Kabul, retaining control of the country’s foreign policy.

In 1885, Russia and Britain agreed to a line stretching between the Hari Rud and Amu Dar’ya rivers as the delineation of Afghanistan’s northern border. Further demarcation came in 1893, when the Indian government’s foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, began mapping the country’s eastern border. The Durand Line cut straight through Pashtun territory, splitting it between Afghanistan and India. That separation would profoundly affect the country’s future by prompting a sustained Pashtun drive to unite their territory and, later still, assuring serious conflict with the new state of Pakistan on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the British also added to Afghanistan a thin buffer sliver in the northeast between the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains. The Wakhan Corridor, as it was called, was intended to ensure that no particle of Russian-controlled territory would touch British India.

The British continued subsidizing the Afghan emir until Amanallah-Abdul Rahman’s grandson-launched a jihad in May 1919. Severely drained by World War I and facing a growing Indian national liberation movement, the British nevertheless counterattacked, and a treaty was drawn up at the Indian cantonment town of Rawalpindi. Amanullah lost his British subsidies, but essentially won independence: Britain relinquished control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and recognized Afghan sovereignty. Many therefore regard 1919 as the birth of the modern Afghan nation. Amanallah changed his title from emir to king six years later.

Thus the British left, but with what they thought was reason to believe they’d won the Great Game, especially after Russia suffered another profoundly humiliating defeat, this time by Japan. After the tsar’s supposedly powerful Baltic Sea Fleet had steamed halfway around the world to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1905, Japanese guns sank or severely damaged virtually every ship. But Russian aspirations didn’t die. Even after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Moscow remained diplomatically engaged with Afghanistan, providing aid and subsidies. Indeed, as mentioned, the Soviet Union became the first country to recognize Afghanistan’s sovereignty in 1919, before the British did that same year. Sixty years later, however, history would add to its abundance of ironies when Moscow, now represented by Leonid Brezhnev’s supremely misguided Politburo, would go far to destroy what little remained of Afghan statehood.

As Soviet forces fought Ahmed Shah Massoud’s fighters in the Panjshir Valley, the military also established direct contact with the rebel commander. An intelligence colonel named Anatoly Tkachev met Massoud in the Panjshir Valley in January 1983. On first seeing the mujahideen leader, Tkachev was surprised to find him modestly dressed in traditional Afghan clothes-and friendly. Nothing about Massoud resembled his Soviet propaganda description as the animal-like, evil face of the enemy. The Soviets offered Massoud a cease-fire in Panjshir. For his part, Massoud appeared surprised by the Soviets’ willingness to negotiate, a new tactic after two years of strict ultimatums to surrender to Karmal’s government. For his part, Tkachev saw in Massoud a serious politician who thought strategically and knew what he was doing. “I’m not an adversary of the Soviet Union or the Soviet people,” Massoud told Tkachev. The real enemy, he said, was the Afghan government.

The negotiations worked. In 1983, the Soviets forged a truce with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. Both sides promised to withhold from launching major offensives, ushering in a period of low intensity stalemate. The lull served to sharpen mujahideen territorial disputes and other forms of infighting. As rival groups ambushed competitors’ convoys from Pakistan with increasing frequency, resort to one of Afghanistan’s oldest commercial practices-demanding tolls for passage through transport routes-found new favor. Burgeoning new weapons arsenals helped escalate the infighting.

The supply networks enlarging mujahideen weapons stores became increasingly corrupt as they grew in size. The prospect of profit from American and Saudi funds encouraged some countries to dump their obsolete, unwanted arms surpluses on Afghanistan. While Washington paid for a massive Israeli cache of captured Soviet weapons, Egypt sent broken AK-47s and Turkey sold World War II-era weapons. Even the British contributed an outdated, handheld antiaircraft missile called Blowpipe. The corruption magnified at the lower ends of the supply chains. Officers of Pakistan’s ISI were getting rich by selling the mujahideen arms that had been bought by Washington and Riyadh-and some rebels didn’t mind paying because they were reselling the weapons for their own profit. By early 1984, Pakistani dictator General Zia resolved to bring Afghanistan operations under tighter control.

Convening a meeting in Peshawar of the seven main Afghan rebel leaders, Zia called on them to form an alliance. The youngest and toughest of the leaders, fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was ruthless, staunchly Islamist, and volatile in temper, but the Pakistanis saw him as an efficient, effective leader and would continue feeding his Party of Islam the lion’s share of the American and Saudi aid they distributed to the mujahideen. Hekmatyar was already disdainful of the United States; he’d soon refuse to meet Ronald Reagan in Washington. Later he would become one of the West’s sworn enemies, and would call for jihad against the United States after the U. S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Hekmatyar and Massoud were bitter rivals. After the Soviet withdrawal, their enmity would help tear Kabul and the rest of the country apart in fierce infighting.

Another fundamentalist, Rasul Sayyaf, had maintained his close ties to Saudi Arabia. Yunis Khalis, an elderly Pashtun mullah from the eastern Nangarhar Region who’d split from Hekmatyar, led a group that included Abdul Haq, the CIA-connected commander who staged daring operations near Kabul. Unlike some of the other leaders, who spent much of their time abroad, Khalis had a reputation for being a fierce fighter.

Apart from Tajik linguist Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Society of Islam, the relatively moderate mujahideen leaders included Mohammed Nabi Mahommedi and Sayed Ahmad Gailani, who came from a wealthy family that had connections to the royal family. Western journalists dubbed Gailani’s group “Gucci muj” for his well-known love of expensive clothes. Another moderate, Sibgatullah Mojaddedi, was leader of Afghanistan’s Naqshbandi order of the mystical Islamic Sufi sect. Mojaddedi’s group had a reputation for being ineffectual on the battlefield. Unlike their more radical Islamist counterparts, the four more moderate mujahideen leaders wanted to institute a constitutional government; Gailani even wanted to restore the monarchy. Despite fierce disagreements and deep mutual suspicion, the mujahideen leaders, who came to be known as the Peshawar Seven, formed a fragile alliance.

Although the CIA had been unhappy from the beginning to funnel all its aid to the mujahideen through Pakistan’s ISI, it was more practical than having to deal directly with dozens of competing rebel groups, besides helping obscure Washington’s role. That role was now taking on a new character under CIA director William Casey. An unrepentant Cold Warrior bent on attacking the Soviet Union, Casey pushed for expanding American aid and other aspects of U. S. involvement in the conflict. One of his operations was smuggling Korans into Soviet Central Asia. The volumes were printed in Uzbek, and their mujahideen smugglers also conducted acts of sabotage on Soviet territory.

Members of Congress enthusiastically supported the jihad in Afghanistan. Chief among them was Texas Democratic Representative Charlie Wilson, an alcoholic former naval officer, who was sometimes accompanied by young models-including a former Miss World USA title winner-when he flew on government-paid junkets, some of them inside Afghanistan.

Trumpeting the Afghan conflict as a crucial fight of good versus evil, Wilson pushed through Congress measures to boost spending on supplying the mujahideen. In time, a growing chorus of conservative voices in Washington joined his criticism of the government for providing insufficient help to the Afghan freedom fighters confronting what President Reagan called “the evil empire.”

Washington’s $50 million funneled to the mujahideen in 1984 ballooned to $250 million the following year, including CIA funds diverted from the Pentagon. In April, the president dramatically boosted American involvement by issuing a directive requiring “all available means” to be used to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Despite the propaganda about the American threat in Afghanistan, the Soviets couldn’t know then that U. S.-and Saudi-aid would soon turn the mujahideen into an even more formidable force. The daily struggle simply to get by in Afghanistan’s grueling conditions was already overwhelming for many troops. “Sand in your eyes, sand in your mouth, sand runs through your veins,” went one of the many guitar-accompanied laments Soviet soldiers strummed whiling away time in their barracks when not on training exercises.

The sun was setting when Boris Kuznetsov arrived in his new quarters in southeastern Kandahar in 1982. The surrounding Rigestan desert appeared to him red enough to have been made from crushed bricks. If he’d thought about it, the redness might have seemed a good omen: although Kuznetsov had graduated as an air force pilot two years earlier and volunteered for duty in Afghanistan, he was now a political officer, a politruk, whose job would be to enforce the Party line among the ranks of the 280th Separate Helicopter Regiment.

The lieutenant in his mid-twenties lived with two other officers in a trailer next to a row of helicopter hangars. The heat was almost unbearable. The Soviet air-conditioners that were being installed at last often couldn’t cope with the soaring temperatures, so the officers covered open windows with blankets and mattresses, then regularly doused them with buckets of water. Evaporation cooled rooms better than the Soviet machinery.

Gunfire erupted outside as soon as darkness fell on Kuznetsov’s first night. It came steadily closer until he could make out even the sound of bullet casings hitting the ground. Despite a fenced security perimeter reinforced by sentries and minefields, mujahideen fighters would creep as close as they could before firing their Kalashnikovs and mortars. When the Soviets returned fire, the Afghans would move to new positions and resume their volleys from there, sustaining them for hours on many nights. Since the airfields’ landing lights made perfect targets, night flights by helicopters and planes were strictly forbidden. When planes had to take off for emergencies, most risked the considerable danger of doing so in complete darkness.

Later, when Kuznetsov would be stationed in Bagram, two soldiers who’d left their barracks to use outdoor latrines during the night were found dead, their severed heads impaled on sticks in the ground. Either mujahideen had penetrated the base or sabotage had been committed from within.

In addition to accompanying helicopter missions in several regions of Afghanistan, Kuznetsov traveled to various air bases to discuss their condition with senior officers. He shared some of what he learned in “Political Work in the War in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan,” a classified pamphlet of his published in 1985. Meanwhile, other problems commanded his attention. When he was transferred to the city of Shindand in the western Herat Region in 1983, he found sex between servicemen and nurses, secretaries, and other female workers so widespread that one of his first tasks there was to help set up separate living quarters for women, surrounded by fences and guarded by sentries. Similar “fortifications” would be constructed on other bases throughout Afghanistan.

As the Party’s eyes and ears in the military, politruki were charged with making certain no one forgot his or her international duty to help the Afghan comrades shore up the Communist Revolution. Kuznetsov believed winning the war was essential for Soviet security too. If the Americans penetrated Afghanistan, they’d be able to set up missile installations in the Hindu Kush Mountains, capable of reaching any part of the Soviet Union (never mind that U. S. intercontinental ballistic missiles could already do the same).

Twenty-five-year-old helicopter pilot Vladimir Kostiuchenko was far less convinced about the rightness of the struggle. The Irkutsk native was in a wave of personnel also dispatched to Kandahar to replace those who’d taken part in the war’s initial phase. When he arrived in June 1981, his first squadron briefing was essentially a declaration that all their previous training counted for little.

“Do you know where you’ve arrived?” barked his battle-scarred squadron commander, an acrid-smelling Soviet Belomor cigarette dangling from his lower lip. “You may be first-class pilots back home, but you’re just kids here! As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as rank! You’re a veteran or a kid. Forget your military manuals. Everything we know here has been written with blood!”

Kostiuchenko’s squadron consisted of four Mi-8s and four Mi-24 gunships. On his first trial flight the following day, his copilot, an “old-timer,” told him his control dials were almost useless for highly risky operations in dangerous mountain territory. Surviving in Afghanistan required reliance on instinct, he said. Distances were to be ascertained by holding a foot out to the chopper’s floor window and using relative size to judge, a method that helped compensate for the lack of a visual horizon and enabled quicker reaction. Aircraft were pushed as hard as possible, to almost 150 miles an hour. Flying to operations sites had to be done high enough to avoid machine-gun and rocket fire from the ground. But helicopters descended when nearing their targets, and approached as low to the ground as possible. Pilots delivering supplies in the field were to break away immediately, tilting their rotors at angles steeper than regulations allowed. Helicopters traveling toward battlegrounds were to fly in from the direction of the sun to blind the enemy, and fire at anything that moved, including witnesses of possible war crimes.

As with weapons and armored personnel carriers, the Soviets improved helicopter designs throughout the war. Standard Mi-8T models that carried twenty-four troops were replaced with modified types, including the Mi-8MT, which were more powerful, boasted more weapons-including the same rocket pods that Mi-24s carried-and performed better in hot and high-altitude conditions. Infrared jammers and “ears”-attachments that redirected exhaust-to confuse heat-seeking missiles were also added. But Kostiuchenko and other pilots preferred flying without the devices, which added weight and hindered maneuverability.

Although violating regulations was strictly forbidden and often punished, rules were regularly broken. Kostiuchenko’s squadron took part in a particularly dangerous mission to evacuate dead and wounded from the Hindu Kush foothills near Shindand in the fall of 1981. Several Mi-8s were shot down. When a doctor on board informed Kostiuchenko one of the wounded would die if the helicopter were to fly at the usual altitude, he violated procedure by flying lower. The soldier survived and Kostiuchenko’s helicopter escaped unscathed. But casualties incurred while regulations were broken, even during difficult combat operations, were highly criticized by the regimental command and classified as “unreasonable.”

One of Kostiuchenko’s first missions was a night bombing raid in the Rigestan desert of southern Helmand Province. While returning to base, the pilots of two Mi-8s spotted a row of headlights below them, moving along the Helmand basin toward Kandahar. Radioing for instructions, the crews were ordered to fire at the vehicles. They unleashed a round of machine-gun fire, noted the position, and continued home. When another pair of Mi-8s flew to the site to inspect the damage the next day, they followed standard procedure by firing at two stationary cars on the flat scrubland below them. As they descended in order to land and investigate, an elderly Afghan emerged from one of the vehicles and fired at the helicopters with an ancient Bora rifle. The helicopters returned fire, but the lone figure below miraculously continued firing and managed to penetrate one chopper’s turboshaft before the craft finally dispatched the man and landed. Cautiously emerging to scour the surrounding bushes, crew members saw a grim picture of civilians, mostly women and children, lying dead. Now the Soviets concluded the old man they’d just killed was probably trying to protect his family. Only one person was found alive: a girl of about three years old with a badly wounded hand.

Soon Kostiuchenko’s helicopter arrived with parts for the chopper that had been hit. Accustomed to viewing the landscape from a distance, he was dismayed to see civilian carnage close up. Trying to calm the terrified girl, he nervously helped bandage her hand to stop its bleeding. Minutes later, a paratrooper who’d flown in on one of the helicopters took her aside, held a Makarov pistol to her head, and fired. Her small frame slumped to the ground, blood oozing onto the dusty earth. Paratroopers picked up her body and put it along with the others inside the bullet-ridden cars, doused them with gasoline, and set them alight. Later, the strict instructions to keep silent about the incident only deepened the effect on Kostiuchenko. Even after having been shot down twice, the sight of the little girl’s murder would haunt him for years as his worst war experience.

Still, Kostiuchenko in time became inured to massacres of civilians. Many took place during looting raids, usually when two Mi-8s would scour roads for vehicles carrying goods. Once a car was spotted, one of the helicopters would stop it while the other circled overhead, providing cover. Drivers and passengers were usually shot before their vehicles were raided for everything that could be pried off and carried away, including radios. On one of Kostiuchenko’s first raids, his job was to stop a car identified for looting by firing rounds nearby. He accidentally hit the car’s gasoline tank, which exploded, killing everyone inside. Back on the ground in Kandahar, he had to stay out of sight for days because furious “old-timers” threatened to beat him senseless for ruining a promising prospect for profit.

On another flight over the Rigestan desert, Kostiuchenko’s crew killed three men on motorcycles, then loaded their bikes through the clamshell back doors of their Mi-8 for sale in Kandahar. “Free hunting,” as the rampantly widespread acts were called, provided Soviet pilots and crews with cash to supplement their meager pay and rations, although much of the money went to prostitutes. With little fear of punishment, killing civilians and taking their property soon seemed almost normal. Army officers had more opportunities for raiding than pilots; Kostiuchenko noticed that even some privates were wealthier than he was. Over the years, the spectacle of so many Afghans killed for their possessions would lead him-like so many other participants-to believe looting turned the war against the Soviets.

The dusty city of Gardez rises from the Shah-i-Kot Valley, sixty miles south of Kabul near the soaring, snow-covered Gardez Mountains that neighbor a series of extensive mujahideen tunnel complexes. Sergei Salabayev arrived there on December 30, 1984, to join the Fifty-sixth Air Assault Brigade. The young private had studied in a technical vocational school in his native Novokuibishevsk-an oilrefinery city in Samara Region on the Volga River-specializing as a machine-tool worker. Soon after he was drafted, a fight between some young men in the town escalated when police showed up. An officer shot and killed one of the men, who turned on the police, setting their car on fire. All recent draftees from Novokuibishevsk were sent to Afghanistan as punishment.

In Gardez, the brigade’s officers were busy scrounging supplies for New Year’s Eve the following day. How to greet a new crop of conscripts was far less important than preparing for the biggest holiday of the year; the thirty draftees were taken to a tent that contained a heater, a small supply of coal, and nothing else. The next day, the men were given some bread and canned beef as a New Year’s present. That evening, drunken horseplay around the base resulted in firing and several deaths.

The new arrivals were soon assembled by a group of soldiers in their second year of service: the dedy, or grandfathers, the Red Army’s main instrument of enforcement among the ranks. This contingent told Salabayev’s group to respect their superiors and obey their every order, one of the first of which was to wash their socks. Salabayev’s refusal earned him a beating. Here, too, the only soldiers exempt from the tyranny of the dedy were the “civilians” who hadn’t yet been demobilized although their time of service had ended. Exempted from missions and neither issuing orders nor doling out punishment, they did little more than sleep and eat.

Salabayev’s first assignment was guarding one of the brigades’ arms depots in a small stone warehouse near his tent, which he shared with three other conscripts. Not having been issued winter coats, the soldiers stood duty for twenty freezing nights in light field jackets. Salabayev managed to sleep only standing up and wedged against a wall, his sleeves pulled over his hands for warmth. He jogged in place when his feet began to go numb. Later, the soldiers improvised foot wrappings, portianki-which Soviet soldiers wore instead of socks-by cutting material from an insulated tent used for political-education lectures. Salabayev’s duty also deprived him of meals. Since leaving one’s post was a court-martial offense with severe punishment, soldiers often ate only by sneaking into the canteen to steal what they could find. Salabayev’s strength diminished until he collapsed from exhaustion. Carried unconscious to his tent, he awoke two days later and found he’d lost his voice.

He was unable to speak for two weeks, but eventually regained his strength. Then he became so bored with life on the base that he dreamed of being sent on a mission into the mountains.

Despite President Babrak Karmal’s ineffectual rule, his government managed to reverse its steady loss of control. The army even began to rebuild its numbers, which may have fallen to as low as twenty thousand by 1983. Stricter conscription was partly responsible, but so was waxing civilian opposition to the often ruthless mujahideen, whose terrorist attacks were wounding and killing innocent people. The KhAD security service, under chief Mohammed Najibullah, swelled to eighteen thousand. Despite the gains, however, when French journalist Edward Girardet visited the Panjshir Valley in mid-1984, he reported seeing ten to fifteen desertions a day by Afghan Army soldiers.

In Kabul, the drive to liberate women from some of their most oppressive restrictions encouraged study and work, even in the military. “Contemporary photos of young women in smart KhAD uniforms performing responsible duties in the capital,” writes historian Stephen Tanner, “reveal a stage in Afghan cultural history unique at the time and which has not since been repeated.”

In the few parts of the country the Soviets controlled, they set up schools and day-care centers. Soviet officials also provided aid to farmers, then paid generously for their produce. But civilian aid of that kind was small compensation for the growing number of atrocities Soviet units committed elsewhere in the countryside. Most Afghans lived in constant fear of attack. In a conflict with no shortage of horror, the din of approaching Soviet Mi-24 helicopter gunships was perhaps most terrifying to the senses. Appearing as distant specks, the aircraft would grow larger and louder until they roared overhead on their way to pound rebel sites with rockets and bombs-or do the same to villages, often laying waste to them.

Although the Soviets launched no major offensives in 1983, they continued attacking civilian settlements and infrastructure. Since some of the people gave the rebels shelter and sustenance, that was an attempt-when it was not pure revenge or sadism- to destroy their support base. (In the Chechen war a decade later, the same scorched-earth strategy would be used against the civilian population, who in that case were citizens of Russia itself.) Wiping out civilians was also a form of ideological warfare used in the past. Joseph Stalin’s policy of collectivization helped create a famine that killed millions in Ukraine in the 1930s. Forcing people from their land appeared preferable to dealing with “reactionaries,” be they prosperous landowners or ancient tribes.

Much of Afghanistan’s rural population was reduced to subsistence farming or utter ruin. By mid-1984, 3.5 million refugees had fled to Pakistan and another million had crossed the border into Iran. Up to 2 million people were internally displaced, most having fled to cities, whose population ballooned. Kabul’s clogged streets and bustling bazaars teemed with provincial newcomers who milled about in the dust, together with rebels, spies, and many varieties of Soviets.

June 21 – Stalin: “Not Happy?!”

June 21 1941 could scarcely have been more stifling, and Stalin’s top aide, Alexander Poskryobyshev, was sweating profusely, his window open but the leaves on the trees outside utterly still. The son of a cobbler, like the despot whom he served, he occupied the immediate outer office through which all visitors had to pass, and invariably they would spray him with questions—“Why did the Master have me summoned?” “What’s his mood?”—to which Poskryobyshev would laconically answer, “You’ll find out.” He was indispensable, handling all the phone calls and document piles in just the way the despot preferred. But Stalin had allowed Beria to imprison Poskryobyshev’s beloved wife as a “Trotskyite” in 1939. (Beria had sent a large basket of fruit to their two baby girls; he then executed their mother.) Now, Poskryobyshev sat at his desk trying to cool down with a bottle of Narzan mineral water, under a photograph of a youthful Stalin wearing a pointy, red-starred civil war cap. On Stalin’s instructions, at around 2:00 p.m., he phoned General Ivan Tyulenev, head of the Moscow military district. Soon the general heard Stalin’s “muffled voice” asking, “Comrade Tyulenev, what is the situation concerning Moscow’s antiaircraft defenses?” After a brief report, Stalin said, “Listen, the situation is unsettled and therefore you should bring the antiaircraft defenses of Moscow up to 75 percent of their readiness state.”

Poskryobyshev thumped the latest intelligence, delivered by field courier, onto Stalin’s desk. Rather than purloined documents, almost all of it was hearsay. From London, Ambassador Maisky, despite having been given British intelligence about German force concentrations (gleaned, unbeknownst to him, from Enigma codebreaking), wrote to Moscow (June 21) that he had told Cripps, “As before, I consider a German attack on the USSR unlikely.” But from Berlin, Ambassador Dekanozov—who also knew the view in the Kremlin and the consequences of contradicting it—was finally reporting, under the influence of the best spies in the Soviet network, that Germany’s actions signaled an imminent invasion. Stalin evidently concluded that his Berlin envoy had been fed disinformation by British agents and stated, “Dekanozov is not such a smart fellow to be able to see that.”

From Tokyo, Max Clausen (June 21) radioed yet another message from Sorge, this one composed the day before: “The German ambassador in Tokyo, Ott, told me a war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable.” The dispatch gave no start date. For Stalin, the question was not whether war with the Nazi regime was inescapable, but whether it was inescapable this year. Scores and scores of invasion warnings had accumulated on his desk, but just about every reported date—including at least fourteen specific ones—had passed. These ranged from the earliest, such as “March 1941” (transmitted on December 29, 1940), “May 20,” “April or May,” “April 6,” “April 20,” or “May 15 to June 15,” to the more recent: “either in May or after defeating Britain,” “not today or tomorrow,” “May 18,” “May 25,” “in late May,” “summer 1941 before the harvest gathering,” “at the beginning of June,” “no later than June 15,” “around June 15,” “June 15,” and “June 15–20.” The only remaining possibilities were “June 22–25” (reported on June 16) and “June 21 or 22.”24 The invasion window would soon shut; Stalin was virtually home free for another year.

Never mind the secret intelligence: warnings were splashed across the front pages of the global press. But knowing how he himself used newspapers, Stalin took the screaming headlines to be planted provocations. He reasoned that Britain (and the United States) wanted nothing more than for the USSR and Nazi Germany to become embroiled in war—which was true—but as a result, he dismissed all warnings of a German attack. He knew that Germany was experiencing severe shortages—again true—so he reasoned that it needed even more supplies from him, and that a German invasion would be self-defeating because it would put those supplies at risk. He knew that Germany had lost the First World War because it had fought on two fronts—also true—and so he reasoned that the Germans understood that it would be suicidal for them to attack the USSR before defeating Britain in the west. This logical reasoning had become Stalin’s trap, enabling the Germans to spread a seemingly all-encompassing explanation for what they could not conceal: their colossal troop buildup. It was supposedly not for war but for extorting Soviet concessions. When Stalin intemperately damned his intelligence as contaminated by disinformation, he was spot-on. But the despot had no idea which parts were disinformation, and which might be accurate intelligence. He labeled as “disinformation” whatever he chose not to believe.

The Nazis’ brilliant disinformation campaign generated reams of Soviet intelligence reports saying both that war was coming and that there would be blackmail—and if the latter was true, the former need not be. The fake ultimatum became for Stalin the ultimate truth, something that, given his lack of confidence in the Red Army’s prospects against the Wehrmacht, he desperately needed to be true.

Blackmail certainly fit Hitler’s profile. Early on, the British had dismissed the German buildup in the east and the accompanying rumors of a military showdown there as “wishful thinking.” Then they latched on to the Hitler-ultimatum theory, which many British officials did not relinquish even after decrypted Enigma intercepts exposed real-time German war orders. While Göring told his high-placed, notoriously indiscreet British contacts that he had personally drawn up a list of demands to be presented to the Soviets so that Germany could continue the fight against Britain, Goebbels’s men launched rumors that the Führer would soon demand a ninety-nine-year lease on Ukraine. Stalin found himself in the reverse of the role in which he had placed Finland in 1939. The crucial difference was that, whereas he had issued his demands to the Finns and sought to negotiate, he was still waiting upon Hitler’s, and Hitler had no intention to negotiate. In the meantime, Germany had attained the buildup necessary for an invasion.


Colonel Georgy Zakharov, a decorated fighter pilot, had been ordered to conduct a full daylight reconnaissance of the border region on the German side, and he reported that the Wehrmacht was poised to invade. The NKGB had discovered that German saboteurs brazenly crossing into the USSR had been instructed that “in the event German troops cross the frontier before they return to Germany, they must report to any German troop unit located on Soviet territory.” Soviet counterintelligence noted vigorous German recruitment of disaffected Belorussians, Balts, and Ukrainians, who were forming underground groups and engaging in terrorism long after Stalin’s supposed annihilation of the fifth column in the terror. Overburdened Soviet rail lines that were needed to transport troops westward were swamped with tens of thousands of “anti-Soviet elements” being deported eastward from the annexed territories. On June 21, Merkulov issued an order to Ukraine for a new wave of preemptive arrests to interdict sabotage: “Immediately telegraph by what deadline the indicated operation could be readied by you, and provide an overall orientation about the number of people who could be removed, with a breakdown by categories.”

Stalin paced and paced. Actually, it was more like a waddle as he swung his hips around awkwardly, the result of that childhood collision with a horse-drawn carriage. He wore, as ever, his signature baggy breeches, which he tucked into his well-worn black leather boots, as well as matching khaki tunic, buttoned at the top, simple and functional, and different from the bourgeois suits favored by Lenin. The despot’s clothes were martial in look without being an actual military uniform, a style first popularized in Russia by Alexander Kerensky as well as, yes, Trotsky. His former nemesis had survived sixteen years beyond Lenin’s death—an eternity, burning its way into the Little Corner with his acid pen. But what had Trotsky marshaled—a few thousand dispersed followers?—before Stalin’s assassins managed to drive that ice pick through his skull in the run-down Mexican villa? German tanks, warplanes, and pontoon bridges had been advanced into the barbed-wire-protected inner zone of the border, and the barbed wire itself was being removed. The click and whir of German motors resounded across to the Soviet side.

At the centerpiece of the Little Corner, the felt-covered conference table, the despot had held countless sessions devoted to war preparations. “Stalin had an enormous capacity for work,” observed Molotov, who, despite his demotion from head of government, had kept his reserved seat at the table. “If the subject was cannons—then cannons; if tanks—then tanks.” He had forced into being upward of 9,000 new industrial enterprises during the three Five-Year Plans, and Soviet military production grew even faster than GDP for a decade. He had overseen the formation of 125 new divisions just since 1939, and the Red Army now stood at 5.37 million troops, the largest in the world. It had 25,000 tanks and 18,000 fighter planes, three to four times Germany’s stocks. Stalin knew that Germany was underestimating this massive force out of prejudice as well as ignorance, so he had arranged German visits to Soviet aviation and tank factories, and even allowed Göring’s planes nearly unimpeded reconnaissance of Soviet troop concentrations, airfields, naval bases, and fuel and ammunition depots. Stalin also had his spies spread rumors that, if attacked, Soviet aircraft would assault Berlin with chemical and biological agents. In Hitler’s shoes, Stalin would have been deterred.

Of course, if your own country really was so well armed, why not let the foolish enemy underestimate you? Because the Winter War with Finland had exposed Soviet military weaknesses not just to Hitler, but also to Stalin. The Red Army was still in the middle of its gigantic, protracted, contradictory post-Finland rearmament and reorganization.

Stalin’s early commitment to mass armament production, amid rapid technological change, meant that more than 10,000 Soviet tanks (T-26s and BT-7s) were now too light, while the more advanced, heavier T-34 (45-millimeter-thick armor) and KV (75-millimeter armor) numbered only around 1,800 units. Similarly, the most advanced warplanes (Yak-1, MiG-3, Pe-2) made up just one quarter of the air force. Stalin’s war preparations also bore the mark of his executions of thousands of loyal officers, especially top commanders like Vasily Blyukher, whose eye had been deposited in his hand before he died under torture, and the gifted Mikhail Tukhachevsky, whose blood had been splattered all over his “confession” to being a German agent just before Stalin signed the Pact. Now, 85 percent of the officer corps was thirty-five or under, while those older than forty-five constituted around 1 percent. Fully 620 generals were under forty-five, 393 under fifty-five, and only 63 older than fifty-five. Many had been majors a short time earlier. The Red Army had one officer for every nine soldiers, versus one for every nineteen in Japan and one for twenty-nine in Germany, but Soviet officer ranks were swelled by those in the army’s political apparatus. Of the 659,000 Soviet officers, only around half had completed a military school, while one in four had the bare minimum (a few courses), and one in eight had no military education whatsoever.

Lately, the despot’s morose side had gotten the upper hand. “Stalin was unnerved and irritated by persistent reports (oral and written) about the deterioration of relations with Germany,” Admiral Kuznetsov would recall. Stalin’s face gave away stress—even fear—to the point that he sometimes failed to fill his pipe with the Herzegovina Flor cigarette tobacco that had stained his teeth and mustache yellow. “He felt that danger was imminent,” recalled Khrushchev, the party boss of Ukraine, who was in Moscow until June 20. “Would our country be able to deal with it? Would our army deal with it?”


Since May 1941, nighttime use of electric lighting in the Kremlin had been forbidden. But June 21 was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. At around 5:00 p.m., Stalin ordered Alexander Shcherbakov, party boss of Moscow province and city, and Vasily Pronin, chairman of the Moscow soviet executive committee, to keep all ward party secretaries at their posts.44 At 6:27 p.m., Molotov entered the Little Corner, the first visitor, as usual. At 7:05, in walked Voroshilov, Beria, Voznesensky, Malenkov, Timoshenko, Admiral Kuznetsov, and Grigory Safonov, the young deputy procurator general, who was responsible for the military courts on railroads and in the fleets. The discussion apparently revolved around recent developments pointing toward war, versus Stalin’s dread of provocations that might incite it. Germany had achieved the buildup necessary to attack. Filipp Golikov, of Soviet military intelligence, estimated Germany’s concentration of forces against the USSR at only 120 to 122 of around 285 total divisions, versus 122 to 126 against Britain (the other 44 to 48 were said to be reserves).46 In fact, there were around 200 divisions arrayed against the USSR, including 154 German ones—a total of at least 3 million Wehrmacht soldiers and half a million troops from its Axis partners, as well as 3,600 tanks, 2,700 aircraft, and 700,000 field guns and other artillery, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 650,000 horses. The Soviets had massed around 170 divisions, perhaps 2.7 million men in the west, along with 10,400 tanks and 9,500 aircraft. The two largest armies in world history stood cheek by jowl on a border some 2,000 miles long.

Such immense Soviet troop concentrations testify to both Stalin’s understanding that Germany represented a monumental danger and his misunderstanding of blitzkrieg. But only one of the two vast armies on the frontier had occupied its firing positions. Stalin had allowed covert strategic redeployments westward and lately had finally yielded to Timoshenko and Zhukov’s insistence that the Red Army commence camouflaging of aerodromes, tank parks, warehouses, and military installations (which in many cases would require repainting). But he would not permit assumption of combat positions, which he feared would only play into the hands of German militarist-adventurers, who craved war and schemed to force Hitler’s hand, the way they had pushed the Wehrmacht beyond the agreed-upon German-Soviet line in Poland in 1939. Soviet planes were forbidden from flying within six miles of the border. Timoshenko and Zhukov, subject to the despot’s admonitions and the watchful eye of Beria and his minions, made sure that frontline commanders did not cause or yield to “provocation.” Beria also tasked the assassin Sudoplatov with organizing “an experienced strike force to counter any frontier incident that might be used as an excuse to start a war.”

Soviet intelligence was reporting that not just Germany but also Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Finland were at full war readiness. But Stalin, having long ago ceded the initiative, was effectively paralyzed. Just about anything he did could be used by Hitler to justify an invasion. On June 20, the head of the Soviet Union’s Riga port had telephoned Mikoyan to report that all 25 German ships docked there were preparing to leave en masse on June 21, without having finished loading or unloading, and had asked whether to detain them. When Mikoyan hastened over to the Little Corner with the news, Stalin had ordered him to let the German vessels go, because if the Soviets detained them, Hitler could regard that as a justification for war. While all German vessels departed safely on June 21, a Soviet freighter, the Magnitogorsk, hastily sent a panicked radiogram, not even using ciphers, informing the Baltic Commercial Fleet in Leningrad that it was being prevented from departing the German port of Danzig, without explanation. More than forty Soviet merchant ships were immobilized at German ports.

At 7:00 p.m., Gerhard Kegel (“X”), the Soviet spy in the German embassy, had slipped out for the second time that day to tell his Soviet handler, Leontyev (“Petrov”), that German personnel living outside the facility had been ordered to relocate into it immediately, and that “all think that this very night there will be war.” At 8:00 p.m., Golikov had a courier dispatched to Stalin, Molotov, and Timoshenko, with this new piece of intelligence in sealed envelopes. In the Little Corner, Timoshenko, Kuznetsov, Safonov, and Voznesensky were dismissed at 8:15. Malenkov was dismissed five minutes later. Nothing significant was decided.

Zhukov phoned in to report that yet another German soldier had defected across the frontier, warning of an invasion within a few hours. This was precisely the kind of “provocation” Stalin feared. He ordered Zhukov to the Kremlin, along with the just-departed Timoshenko. They entered Stalin’s office at 8:50, accompanied by the old Stalin crony Marshal Budyonny, a deputy defense commissar. Whereas the two pince-nez minions Molotov and Beria provided an echo chamber for Stalin’s denials that Hitler was going to attack, the two peasant commanders could see that Germany was coiled to invade. Still, when Stalin insisted otherwise, they presumed that he possessed superior information and insight. In any case, they knew the costs of losing his trust. “Everyone had in their memory the events of recent years,” Zhukov would recall. “And to say out loud that Stalin was wrong, that he is mistaken, to say it plainly, could have meant that without leaving the building, you would be taken to have coffee with Beria.”

Nonetheless, the pair evidently used the latest defector to urge a general mobilization—tantamount, in Stalin’s mind, to war. “Didn’t German generals send that defector across the border in order to provoke a conflict?” Stalin asked. “No,” answered Timoshenko. “We think the defector is telling the truth.” Stalin: “What do we do now?” Timoshenko allowed the silence to persist. Finally, the defense commissar suggested, “Put the troops on the western border on high alert.” He and Zhukov had come prepared with a draft directive.

Where was the ultimatum? Stalin had continued to try to engage Hitler after the TASS bulletin gambit fell flat. “Molotov has asked for permission to visit Berlin, but has been fobbed off,” Goebbels wrote in his diary (June 18). “A naïve request.” Dekanozov had appeared at the German foreign ministry that same day without an appointment, mentioning nothing of a Molotov visit but inducing terror all the same. “The main political worry here is not to afford Stalin the opportunity for some kind of generous gesture to upend all our cards at the last minute,” state secretary Weizsäcker, Ribbentrop’s deputy, had written in his diary, but then he noted that the inept Soviet envoy had “merely brought up a few current matters of lesser importance.” Weizsäcker had cleverly laid out a map of the Near East, as if Germany’s attention was on British positions. “The ambassador took leave of me without anything whatever having been said about German-Soviet relations.” On the morning of June 21, Molotov had sent a telegram instructing Dekanozov to hand-deliver an attached diplomatic protest of German border violations to Ribbentrop, and to use it to elicit clarifications. “Several times that day Moscow telephoned, pressing us to carry out our instructions,” an embassy duty officer recalled. But Ribbentrop had deliberately vanished from the capital and sent instructions to inform Dekanozov that he would be contacted as soon as the Nazi foreign minister returned, whenever that might be. The Soviet duty officer, remaining behind after other employees had departed at around 7:00 p.m., kept calling the German foreign ministry every thirty minutes.


Battle of Holowczyn. Battle of Holowczyn 1708 scenario for Pike & Shot

Swedish plan on the battle of Holowczyn


As always, there is some disagreement in the sources as to the number of Swedes who participated in the invasion of Russia. The army which moved against the tsar is traditionally numbered at 33,000 to 43,000. Hatton concludes that the strength of the Swedish main army was not far from 44,000.

More troops were on their way from Sweden to Livonia but had not yet joined the main army. An army of 14,000 under General Georg Lybeker, stationed in Finland, was expected to be brought into action by attacking St. Petersburg to tie down Russian forces. Furthermore, Karl XII expected to be joined by 11,400 troops under General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt in Livonia.

Karl XII left General Lewenhaupt in Livonia with the mission of bringing supplies forward. Lewenhaupt was to follow the main army when called forward. It would have been wiser to bring those supplies and Lewenhaupt’s troops along at a distance that could be supported by the main army in an emergency. The fact that this might have slowed the Swedish invasion is not convincing. The Swedes were not in a hurry, spending a long time waiting for the Vistula to freeze, and the arrival of fresh troops from Sweden via Livonia, and then going into winter quarters near Grondo. Even a large supply train would not have slowed them down. To allow that train to move on its own far behind the main army through hostile territory with the flanks wide open for hundreds of kilometers was a reckless decision. If those supplies had accompanied the main army there would have been no reason to turn south to the Ukraine; it would have allowed the Swedes to proceed directly to Moscow. Downing writes that Defeat came to Charles XII deep in the Ukraine as a result, at least in part, of a glaring weakness of indelningsverket: its lack of a rationalized system of supply. It would also, as suggested by Napoleon, have kept the Swedish forces concentrated. As it was, only about 50 percent of available forces took part in the actual campaign.

There were another 22,000 men in various parts of the Swedish empire and 17,000 in Sweden. These forces were roughly equal to the main operational army in number but it was not planned that they would take part in the main campaign. No Swedish king had commanded an army of this size and quality.

The Swedes had been outfitted with new uniforms, and contemporary sources report that they made an imposing sight as tens of thousands headed eastward in their blue and gold uniforms. The population of Silesia came out to greet them as liberators by the thousands as they crossed that state from Saxony on their way to Poland.

Karl XII was aware as he marched east that there was unrest in Peter’s empire, which began with a revolt in Astrakhan in 1705, but whether that played any part in his calculations is doubtful. He also knew that Peter’s brutal and unpopular reforms of the army were far from complete and that the regular army was still relatively small. He also knew about the discontent among the Cossacks, which led to an uprising in 1707–1708, and the eventual defection of Ivan Mazepa, a leader among the Ukrainian Cossacks. News of the events in the east came primarily from Polish sources. King Stanislaw Leszcynski, while he had urged against the Swedish invasion of Russia, had stated his desire to incorporate all of the Ukraine into his kingdom.

Peter the Great had assembled an army of about 70,000 to meet the Swedes. At the beginning of the Swedish move from Saxony he was not sure what route they would take, but like so many others, he believed they would move to recapture their lost territories and then move toward Moscow after capturing Pskov.

Peter the Great had already taken action in January 1707 to make the invasion difficult for the Swedes. He had ordered a belt of devastation intended to prevent the invaders from living off the countryside. This area extended into broad swatches of Poland where he sent Cossacks and Kalmuks with instructions to destroy everything that could be useful to the Swedes.

Feverish activities were undertaken to strengthen fortifications, and the near panic this brought about in Moscow caused both Russian merchants and foreigners to flee with their families. It was not only the Swedes who were feared but a general revolt in Moscow where the people were bitter and resentful at continuous increases in taxes.

Peter the Great spent two months during the summer of 1707 in Warsaw, partly because he was ill. He left as soon as he learned that the Swedes were marching east. At a council of military commanders held by Peter and General Alexander Danilovich Menshikov (who became a field marshal in 1709), it was decided not to offer the Swedes battle in Poland because the Russian infantry was not fully ready and Peter refused to risk its destruction. Menshikov was given the mission of delaying the Swedes at river crossings.

In October 1707 Peter traveled to St. Petersburg to ensure that its defenses were in order. Massie reports that Peter was almost overcome in early winter by anxiety and depression. He was not completely well during the winter months as news flowed in about Cossack revolts in the southern part of his realm. While he was in St. Petersburg he married Catherine, a person who was able to calm his anxiety. They traveled to Moscow in late November to celebrate Christmas and inspect the fortifications being built.

Peter left Moscow on 6 January 1708 and proceeded to join his army. On the way he learned that the Swedish army was advancing rapidly across the wintry landscape of Poland. He therefore hurried to Grondo. The ability of the Swedes to move quickly in winter further raised his anxiety. The Swedes had crossed into Poland at Rawicz, a town that had been burned to the ground by the Russians. Menshikov, who had caused all the destruction, stayed away from the Swedish army which advanced in six parallel columns.

Karl XII initially headed directly for Warsaw but just before reaching that city he turned north. He stopped at Posen and set up a temporary camp while he waited for reinforcements to arrive from Sweden via Livonia. He detached 9,000 troops—6,000 dragoons and 3,000 infantry under General Ernst Detlow von Krassow—to bolster the forces of King Stanislaw.

As winter approached and the Swedish king had not made any move, the Russians in the vicinity gained more confidence and became lackluster. They concluded that the Swedes would remain in their camp until spring. However, this was not Karl XII’s intention. He was training his new troops and waiting for the fall rains to stop.

In this part of the invasion we see a change in Karl XII’s tactics. He temporarily set aside his usual fast and furious frontal attack, and turned to maneuvering. He allowed the Russians to establish defensive positions behind rivers and then outflanked them by crossing the rivers away from their defenses. This would force them to withdraw without a battle. One may question the wisdom of this method of not going for an early decisive battle, but it brought results.

At the end of November 1707, after waiting for two months, the Swedes left their camp at Posen and marched 80 kilometers in a northeasterly direction to the great bend in the Vistula. The river was wide and there were no Russians on the far bank. Despite a heavy snowfall, the wide river was still flowing and drifting ice made it impossible to build a bridge. The Swedes had to wait another month for the river to freeze. By 28 December the river had frozen to a thickness of three inches. By using straw and planks sprayed with water the ice froze sufficiently to support the artillery and supply wagons, allowing the Swedes to make a successful crossing between 28 and 31 December.

The whole army was east of the Vistula by New Years Day, 1708. This forced General Menshikov to evacuate Warsaw and withdraw behind the Narew River.


Karl XII again outflanked the new Russian position, but with less ease than at the Vistula. He decided to approach the Russian positions by a tortuous trek through some of the worst terrain in eastern Europe, the heavily forested Masurian Lake area, full of marshes. The troops and animals suffered greatly on this march and we see the first outbreak of guerrilla warfare and Swedish reprisals. This would not have been the kind of terrain for the use of supply trains, but they could have set up camp waiting for the main army to secure crossings that would have allowed them to take a more direct route.

The Swedes exited the nightmarish march at the town of Kolno, about 20 kilometers southwest of Grondo. They were observed by Russian cavalry but all they could do was to report the situation to General Menshikov. The Russians were forced to retreat from their positions along the Narew River.

Karl XII used different tactics in forcing the third river line, the Neman. Whatever route Karl XII selected in his continual march, he had to pass through the Lithuanian frontier town of Grondo. Peter the Great had arrived in that town to stiffen the resolve of a frustrated Menshikov, who had been outwitted by the Swedes in every defensive position. The Russians, knowing that the Swedes needed Grondo so as to use the road to avoid the surrounding swampy and forested areas, were pouring troops into the town.

Karl XII decided to attack immediately before the enemy had a chance to establish themselves securely. He left the army to follow and rode ahead with only 600 men of the Guards Cavalry. Finding the bridge, which had not been destroyed, guarded by 2,000 troops commanded by a German Brigadier named Mühlenfels in Russian service, he immediately attacked without waiting for the arrival of the rest of the army. Some of the Swedes headed directly for the bridge while others rode across the ice to attack the Russian rear. In the confused hand-to-hand combat, Karl himself killed two Russians. The Swedes captured the bridge and camped for the night at the town walls, waiting for the rest of the army—not knowing that Peter the Great was within the town, only a few hundred yards away.

Believing that the whole Swedish army had arrived, the tsar and General Menshikov fled the town before daylight, heading for Vilna. When he found that Karl XII only had a small detachment in Grondo the tsar sent General Mühlenfels back with 3,000 cavalry to recapture the town and hopefully Karl XII. The Russians might have succeeded in their stealthy post-midnight approach except for two alert sentries who raised the alarm. The Swedes were so surprised that the king did not have a chance to put his boots on before he entered the pitch black fight which forced the Russians to withdraw. General Mühlenfels was captured but escaped. He was recaptured by the Swedes on his way back to Germany and joined them.

The apparent ease with which the Swedes had crossed three defended river lines and traversed all of Poland had political repercussions. England, which had earlier been reluctant to recognize Stanislaw as the Polish king, now quickly gave that recognition. The recalcitrant Polish nobles also gave their support to Stanislaw. Western Europe gave Peter the Great little chance of survival. The Swedes went into winter quarters at Radoskovichi northwest of Minsk. After covering 800 kilometers in one campaign it needed a rest.

Peter the Great went to Vilna after his flight from Grondo. He was still not sure where the Swedes were heading, but if they went toward Minsk there could be no question but that they were aiming for Moscow. When the Swedes took up winter quarters at Radoskovichi, Peter ordered a 200-kilometer zone of devastation from Pskov to Smolensk. He conducted one of the first, most thorough and successful scorched earth campaigns in military history. When Karl XII went into winter quarters, Peter traveled to St. Petersburg. He again became very ill, and judging from his correspondence with various officials it appears that he believed the end was near.

While in his winter camp, Karl XII ordered General Lewenhaupt to Radoskovichi. Lewenhaupt was ordered to bring a vast amount of food, powder, and ammunition, to scour the Livonian countryside for horses, and to junction with the Swedish army during midsummer.

The Swedish camp came alive with activities in late April 1708. Training was intensified and foraging brought in sufficient food for a six-week campaign. A primary reason for going into winter quarters was that there was no feed for the horses after frost and snow covered the ground and until grass began to grow in spring.

The Swedish army was still in good shape. Their main army had twelve regiments of infantry and sixteen regiments of cavalry for a total of 35,000 men. The Swedish forces in Livonia and Finland and those left in Poland still had a function to play, and some of these were expected to join the main army during summer. The entire campaign front still had 70,000 troops.

The Russian army was considerably larger, numbering some 110,000. It was spread out in an arch around the Swedish winter camp from Vitebsk in the north to Mogilev in the south. The main army consisted of 26 regiments of infantry and 33 regiments of dragoons, numbering together 57,500 men. The main army was under the command of Marshal Sheremetev and General Menshikov. General Heinrich Goltz with large cavalry formations covered the Minsk-Smolensk road and patrolled the Berezina River. They were expected to absorb the first shock of the Swedish attack if the Swedes continued eastward. An army of 24,500 under General Apraxin had the mission to defend St. Petersburg. General Bauer with 16,000 men covered the Swedish army in Livonia. Finally, a force of 12,000 under General Golitsyn was stationed near Kiev to cover Ukraine. These forces could of course be shifted around as the situation dictated.

Sheremetev and Menshikov had decided to make their first stand on the Berezina River line. The Russians occupied this line on a forty mile front. The most obvious crossing point was at Borsiov, and 8,000 Russian troops under Goltz were dug in at that location.

By 6 June the grass was sufficiently high to provide fodder for the horses, and Karl XII broke out of the winter camp with Minsk designated as the army’s mustering point. When heading from Minsk towards Berezina heavy rain set in, making the roads soft and difficult for the supply wagons to follow the army. Miles of planks had to be laid to make the roads passable.

Karl XII again decided to turn the enemy flank, this time from the south. He sent General Sparre’s cavalry in a feint against Borsiov, followed by the main army. After some distance the main army made a sharp turn eastward on side roads and reached the river at Berezina-Sapezhinskaya on June 16. Driving back a covering force of Cossacks and Russian dragoons, Swedish engineers constructed two bridges and the Swedes crossed the river with only minor losses. The Russians had again been outmaneuvered and they knew it. It was decided at a war council on 23 June to attempt to cover the towns of Mogilev and Shklov from behind the Vabich River.

Having been out-maneuvered four times by Swedish flanking movements at river crossings, the Russians spread their armies out along all possible crossing sites, and although they had a two-to-one superiority, they were spread thin. This left the attacker at an advantage since he could pick the time and place for the attack and achieve local superiority. Karl XII made excellent use of this opportunity.

Swedish reconnaissance revealed that what appeared to be the main Russian army of 30,000 had taken up position behind the Vabich River, near a place called Holowczyn. Deserters confirmed that the Russians had decided to fight. The enemy was divided into two main concentrations. Sheremetev and Menshikov were to the north with thirteen regiments of infantry and ten regiments of cavalry; General Nikita Ivanovich Repnin was located to the south with nine regiments of infantry and three regiments of dragoons. There were other large concentrations of Russian forces on the flanks of these main concentrations. The Russians were dug in behind strong field fortifications. The two central groupings were separated by a marshy and heavily wooded area—considered impenetrable by the Russians—along a tributary stream that flowed into the Vabich River. This is where Karl XII decided to strike.

Karl XII’s army at hand numbered about 20,000 by 3 July, the date that the Swedes were ordered to prepare for battle as silently as they could. The troops had grown restless, not knowing why they were not ordered to cross the very fordable river and scatter the Russian rabble to their front. The king was anxious for the Russians not to change their positions and therefore carried out a number of feints along their whole front.


Battle of Lesnaya by Nicolas Larmessin (1722–1724)

Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt (1659 – 1719), Riga governor, by David von Krafft.

Karl XII had decided to personally deliver the main attack against General Repnin to the south of the marsh while Field Marshal Rehnskiöld would lead the Swedish cavalry against General Goltz’ cavalry expected to come to Repnin’s assistance from the south. There was a mist rising from the river on the night and morning of the battle, and this gave the Swedes some natural concealment. Some of the heaviest Swedish artillery had been moved into position during the night directly across from the Russians at the crossing site. At the first light these guns opened a thunderous salvo at the surprised Russians. At the same time Karl XII plunged into the river at the head of 7,000 of his infantry.

The river was deep enough so that in places it reached to the shoulder but, with muskets over their heads, the soldiers calmly crossed despite heavy enemy fire. Exiting the river on the Russian side the king regrouped his forces. To his surprise the Russians stood and fought, but were not willing to come to hand-to-hand combat. The battle developed into a firefight as the Swedes steadily advanced, delivering their own salvos at the Russians. This was not the normal pattern of Karl XII’s many battles.

By 0700 Repnin realized he was the object of the Swedish main attack and called for help. A 1,200-strong force of dragoons from Goltz came to his assistance, trying to drive into the right flank of the Swedish infantry. Rehnskiöld, on the opposite side of the river, went into immediate action with 600 of the Guards cavalry. After splashing across the stream, they fell on the Russian dragoons in a bloody engagement. As additional Swedish cavalry squadrons joined the fight Goltz’ troops were forced to retreat into the woods. In the meantime the Swedes poured additional infantry across the river. Repnin’s forces retreated, rallied, and retreated again. They were finally scattered into company-size units which withdrew through the woods, leaving behind their camp and artillery. It was not a Russian rout, as they maintained good order. The casualties in this battle were 975 dead and a reported 675 wounded on the Russian side while the Swedes had 267 dead and 1,000 wounded. Repnin was court-martialed for his failure at Holowczyn. Karl XII for unknown reasons considered this his finest victory.

Karl XII next turned to meet Marshal Sheremetev’s army but that officer had already left the field and retreated toward Mogilev and the Dnieper. This was in accordance with earlier instructions from the tsar to avoid a decisive battle. The road to the Dnieper was now clear for the Swedes and they reached that river at Mogilev on 9 July. The king sent strong reconnaissance forces across but no resistance was encountered. Here Karl XII hesitated. He remained on the western bank with the main army for almost a month— from 9 July to 5 August. The troops were perplexed.

The reason for the pause was the failure of Lewenhaupt’s supply train to arrive, something that was of increasing concern to the king. The instructions given to Lewenhaupt at the meeting with the king at Radoshkovichi was to bring enough supplies for a six-weeks campaign. The troops he was bringing forward would also augment Karl’s army in the move to Moscow. It had been calculated that if Lewenhaupt left at the beginning of June he could traverse the 650 kilometers in two months.

Lewenhaupt was not able to leave until the last days of June with 2,000 wagons and 8,000 horses, escorted by 7,500 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. He did not personally join the train until 29 July. At that time they should have neared a junction with the main army but they had only covered 250 kilometers and were still 400 kilometers short of their meeting point at Mogilev.

Karl XII was in a quandary. If he knew, that Lewenhaupt had not yet reached the Dnieper, he should have turned around to link up with the supply convoy. This was a difficult decision to make since he had successfully crossed five great watersheds and he may have been reluctant to give up two of them. Furthermore, a turnabout at this time might cause morale problems among his own troops, encourage the Russians, and appear to an adoring following in western Europe and Poland as a serious setback. Karl had also realized that the Swedes were not fighting the same Russians as at Narva. The Russian army now showed a steadiness that surprised him, particularly the infantry. On the other hand, the linking up with the supply train would still give him time to reach Moscow, about 500 kilometers away. After all, he had already covered more than 1,200 kilometers.

The Swedish king became involved in some short-range and desultory maneuvering while waiting for Lewenhaupt. By 21 August the Swedes had reached Cherikov on the Sozh River, only to find Russian cavalry and infantry in position on the far bank. A sharp infantry engagement took place on 30 August as a Russian force of 13,000 attacked the Swedish rearguard under General Axel Roos. Learning from the Swedes, the Russians approached the Swedish force through a swamp near the town of Molyatychy. The Russians broke off the fight after Swedish reinforcements arrived, having suffered twice as many casualties as the Swedes. Karl believed this indicated that the Russians were finally ready for a battle, but the next day a reconnaissance found the Russian positions empty.

The Swedish army began a slow move in the direction of Smolensk. The Russians were still carrying out a thorough destruction ahead of the invaders. The smoke from burning villages and farms was at times so thick that it blotted out the sun. Whether Karl XII intended to proceed as far as Smolensk is not known. The key to the decision was Lewenhaupt’s supply train. In view of the Russians’ scorched earth policy, to try to go on without the supplies was out of the question.

Karl XII had basically two choices: return to the Dnieper and wait for the supply train or turn south away from Smolensk and Moscow into the province of Severia. Although the Swedish king appeared to believe that Lewenhaupt would show up, the time was running out for him to make a decision. He found a withdrawal to the Dnieper repugnant while a march into Severia would continue his offensive. In that province they were just beginning to harvest their crops. Karl could march on Moscow after his troops were replenished and he was reinforced by Lewenhaupt.

The final decision to turn south was made at a prolonged conference after the Swedes reached Tatarsk. We don’t know who took part in this conference besides Field Marshal Rehnskiöld and Karl Piper, a senior Swedish official who accompanied the king on the Russian campaign. There were no disagreements recorded.

The importance now was to get to Severia before the Russians. Speed was of the essence. A special vanguard of picked infantry and cavalry numbering 3,000 under General Anders Lagercrona were given rations for three weeks and ordered to proceed rapidly to seize the bridges and towns that would open the area for the Swedes and thereupon deny them to the Russians. The provincial capital of Starodub was to be seized. The distance that had to be covered was 200 kilometers.

The Swedish army began its southward march on 15 September. We now know that Lewenhaupt on that date was 50 kilometers west of the Dnieper and therefore 150 kilometers from Tatarsk. The column reached the Dnieper on 18 September and there Lewenhaupt received the messages from the king ordering him to turn south to the new rendezvous point at Starodub. We can only speculate what the impact would have been on the campaign if the main Swedish army had retrograded to the Dnieper. It took until 23 September for the tired soldiers to get the wagon train across the river.

Lewenhaupt now became aware that Russian forces were moving against him. The Russians had followed the progress of the supply train and they now saw an opportunity to destroy it since it was separated by 150 kilometers from the main Swedish army. The strength of the Russian forces, under the personal command of the tsar, was 14,625, not the 50,000 claimed by Creasy. The force under Lewenhaupt numbered 12,500.

Lewenhaupt was desperately trying to reach the town of Propoisk on the Sozh River. If he could cross that stream there was a possibility he could reach the main army. But the heavy wagons were slow to move over the muddy roads, and it became obvious that a fight was imminent. There were no good options but he chose to make a stand with his wagons instead of sending them ahead while fighting a rearguard action. This may have been a mistake.

The Swedes spent the whole day of 27 September in battle formation waiting for a Russian attack that never came. Lewenhaupt finally dissolved his battle formation and proceeded several kilometers along the road and again formed up for battle for the night. On the morning of 28 September there was still no attack and the Swedish column reached the village of Lesnaya, a few hours march from Propoisk. Had it not been for the stop on the 27th there was a chance the Swedes could have crossed the Sozh to relative safety, the fords over that river having already been secured. Lewenhaupt was under enormous pressure and may have chosen the wrong solution, but the fault lies with Karl XII for not waiting for his supplies or returning to the Dnieper to link with the column.

The battle began shortly after noon on 28 September. The fighting continued until nightfall when a snowstorm brought it to a halt. Although his lines were unbroken, Lewenhaupt decided to retreat and began burning the supply wagons. The cannons were buried in pits. In the shimmering light of the burning wagons there was mass confusion and discipline began to break down as the Swedish soldiers began plundering their own wagons. Infantrymen took off on horses that had been used to pull wagons, while others fled into the woods. When the survivors reached the crossing site at Propoisk they found the bridge burned by those who had fled earlier and the rest of the wagons had to be burned as Cossack and Kalmuk cavalry arrived and killed another 500 Swedes on the riverbank.

The disaster was complete. Lewenhaupt had not only lost the wagon train but half his force. His total loss was 6,307, and of these over 3,000 were taken prisoners. Many of those who fled into the forest died or were eventually captured. Amazingly, about 1,000 found their way back to Riga after an 800-kilometer trek. The Russian losses were 1,111 killed and 2,856 wounded.

Karl XII did not blame Lewenhaupt. He may have realized that despite lingering and waiting for him, he had not waited long enough. The most disconcerting lesson was that the Russians had been victorious in a battle in which the two sides were about equally matched; it demonstrated the new fighting quality of the Russian troops. However, it was not an open battle. The detailed description sounds more like an ambush where the dismounted Russian dragoons and cavalry were pouring short-range fire into the Swedish troops protecting the wagon train along a rather narrow trail.

More good news for the Russians arrived while Tsar Peter was in Smo -lensk in mid-October. General Lybecker in Finland with 14,000 troops was supposed to carry out a diversionary attack against St. Petersburg from the Karelian Isthmus. He crossed the Neva River on 29 August 1708, but false information planted by the Russians convinced him that St. Petersburg was too heavily fortified to be taken. In the end, General Lybecker’s aimless and desultory campaign in Ingria achieved nothing but the loss of 3,000 soldiers and 6,000 horses.

In the south, General Lagercrona’s mission had been to seize key towns in Severia, including the provincial capital of Starodub, before the expected Russian troops appeared. However, due to a series of tragic mistakes in routes and failure to secure the capital, all key towns were occupied by the Russians.

The main Swedish army, which used the crossings seized by Lagercrona on the Sozh and Iput rivers, was suffering immensely as it crossed the primeval wooded area between the Sozh and Iput. Men and animals expired after weeks of hunger, and dysentery was ravaging the army. When it was learned that Lagercrona had failed to seize the empty capital, despite pleas from his colonels to do so, Karl exclaimed, “Lagercrona must be mad!” On 11 October Lewenhaupt, with less than 7,000 starving survivors, stumbled into the Swedish camp in front of the town of Mglin. Karl XII had already decided that his army was in no shape to try to take Mglin, and that Severia was lost with Marshal Sheremetev’s army pouring into the province. The Swedish king broke camp the same day as Lewenhaupt’s survivors arrived, and headed for the Desna River which formed the boundary between Severia and the Ukraine.

The Swedish king’s plunge into the Ukraine has often been attributed to rashness, but the condition of his army left no other choice. The fertile Ukraine, rich in both cattle and grain, offered the Swedes what they needed most for the winter that was just around the corner. Turning south also offered the prospects of an alliance with the ongoing Cossack rebellion. Under the circumstances it was the right decision.

The Swedish king had sent an advance guard under Colonel Karl Gustav Kreutz (later General) to secure the bridge across the Desna River into the Ukraine and take the town of Novgorod-Seversky. Kreutz arrived at the border on October 22 only to discover that the Russians were there first and had destroyed the bridge. However, the main Swedish army continued its southern advance to the Desna and the Ukraine, the homeland of General Ivan Mazeppa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

There is a long and complicated history of Polish-Swedish contacts with Mazeppa that is not covered in this book. Appeals from the hetman for the Swedes to come to his aid had reached Karl XII. Mazeppa with 2,000 Cossacks arrived in the Swedish camp at Larinowka while preparations were being made to cross the Desna. The hetman also brought the news that General Menshikov was headed towards Mazeppa’s capital of Baturin.

The Swedes forced a crossing of the Desna on 2 November at Mezin against determined Russian resistance. They were too late to save Baturin, which was stormed by Menshikov’s troops on 3 November and burned to the ground to prevent its capture by the approaching Swedes. This was a serious setback for the Swedes who had hoped to capture its well-stocked magazines as compensation for the loss of Lewenhaupt’s wagon train.

The Swedish army went into winter quarters southeast of Baturin, but Tsar Peter was not about to allow the Swedes a restful stay. The coldest winter in Europe’s memory had now begun. It was in Peter’s interest to weaken the Swedes as much as possible during the winter, and they undertook what could be called hit-and-run tactics. They would appear to threaten a place but withdraw as soon as the Swedes approached. The Swedes captured some towns taken over by the Russians and drove the tsar out of his headquarters in Lebedin. Although the two armies had been within half of mile of each other at the town of Hadyach, Peter withdrew rather than face the Swedes. The winter campaign was meantime taking its toll on the Swedes, as many died or became incapacitated with frostbite. The cancellation of the Christmas services in 1708 because of the bitter cold was an unheard of event in the Swedish army. The Russians suffered even more and lost more men.