Jordanian Military Effectiveness in the War of Israeli Independence

Glubb Pasha (1953)

The conduct of the Arab Legion against the nascent Israeli army in 1948 was, without doubt, the best performance of any Arab military against any foe of the modern era. Alone among the Arab armies, the legion acted and fought like a modern, professional military. Its units demonstrated remarkable cohesiveness, sticking together and clinging to their positions even under the most severe pressure, such as in the second battle of Latrun. The soldiers themselves regularly displayed a high level of personal courage, and there are any number of stories from both the Israeli and Jordanian sides to attest to this. The Jordanians demonstrated a good grasp of combined-arms operations, regularly integrating infantry, armored cars, and artillery better than the Israelis. Their marksmanship was very high, and their counterattacks were usually well timed and aggressive. Jordanian units covered their flanks well and were not paralyzed when the Israelis did succeed in turning them. The legion patrolled constantly, often precluding Israeli surprises and even surprising the Israelis on several occasions. Jordanian junior officers showed real initiative, seizing fleeting opportunities – such as attacking the Latrun police fort when the Israelis had left it dangerously undermanned – that proved to be critical to their war effort. Jordan’s tactical leaders led well-timed and effective counterattacks that frequently were the decisive factor in combat. Finally, legion officers regularly employed operational maneuver to gain an advantage in combat, although at the tactical level, many Jordanian attacks were simple frontal assaults.

Nevertheless, at least two qualifiers must be kept in mind when considering Jordanian performance during this conflict. First, while the Jordanians unquestionably fought better than any of the other Arab armies, and in many ways they fought as well as or better than the Israelis, their performance does not exactly rank as one of the great campaigns of military history. The Jordanians did not face a very capable adversary, and they had several important advantages in their favor. Myths of Israeli invincibility aside, the Haganah of 1948 was a very mediocre force. Its unit capabilities were uneven, with some brigades performing well and others giving a rather poor account of themselves. The Israelis were inadequately armed and trained and suffered from political infighting. They had all kinds of problems with personnel and languages and with the incompatibility of their hodge-podge of weaponry. Some Haganah units paid too little attention to reconnaissance and so were surprised by Jordanian actions that might easily have been discovered and averted. The Jordanians were able to defend the superb terrain of Judaea and Samaria, while the Israelis were mostly forced to attack from the coastal plain up into the central hills. Finally, the Israelis also had to fight five other Arab armies, which prevented them from concentrating decisive force against the Jordanians.

Despite all of these advantages, Jordan’s forces only succeeded in fighting the Israelis to a draw. The Jordanians consistently defeated Israeli attacks against their prepared defensive positions. Most of the successful Israeli offensives in the Jerusalem area (such as at Lod, Ramla, and Mount Zion) were conducted against small Arab Legion forces, while larger Jordanian units in the Old City and Latrun held their ground against numerous determined Israeli assaults. Of course, in virtually all of these cases, the Israeli attacks were clumsy frontal assaults that played right into Jordanian hands. Although the legion defeated most Israeli attacks, they fared little better in their own offensives. The only significant gains the Jordanians were able to make against Israeli resistance were the conquests of the Etzioni bloc, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and the Shaykh Jarrah area. All of these successes came in the first weeks of the war, before the first truce, and were all modest achievements. In none of these battles did the Jordanians face a large, well-armed, and adequately trained force. For example, in Shaykh Jarrah, a legion infantry battalion supported by artillery and armored cars defeated seventy infantrymen from the Irgun. Even with the advantage of urban terrain on the Israeli side, this was a mismatch, and the legion’s victory cannot be taken as a sign of real prowess on the part of the Jordanians. Conversely, the moment that they ran into better-trained or larger Israeli units – such as in the Mandlebaum Gate area and at Notre Dame-their attacks went nowhere.

An additional qualifier that must be attached to Jordanian performance is the contribution of the Arab Legion’s British officers. There is a consensus among experts on the Jordanian military and the 1948 war that it was the British influence and presence that was the single most important element of Jordanian military effectiveness. For instance, Brig. Gen. S. A. El-Edroos, an unabashed admirer of the Jordanian military, remarked, “The credit for the excellence of the Arab Legion’s performance during the war of 1948 and later, during the border wars of 1951-1956, must in all fairness be given to Glubb Pasha and the contingent of British officers who served with the Arab Legion from its formation in 1921 to the exodus of 1956.”‘ Col. Trevor Dupuy has similarly noted that the principal source of Jordanian military effectiveness was “decades of British leadership and military tradition.”

There is a great deal of validity to this assessment. Most of the successes the Jordanians enjoyed and most of the competent military practices they demonstrated were attributable to their officer corps, which was comprised entirely of British and Jordanians with long years of British schooling and military training. The aggressive counterattacks, battlefield maneuvers, flexible operations, and acts of opportunistic initiative were all exercised by the (British-dominated) officer corps. Likewise, the high level of individual soldiering skills found in the Arab Legion, such as its excellent marksmanship, is directly attributable to the British emphasis on long-term-service professionals, who thereby benefited from iron discipline and lengthy training. The very competent strategic direction of the war, itself another element of Jordan’s praiseworthy showing in this conflict, was entirely the product of British officering. It is hard to discount the pervasive British influence as a source of the various skills displayed by the Arab Legion in 1948.

Jordanian-Israeli Clashes, 1949-66

Almost immediately after the conclusion of the war in Palestine, Amman inaugurated plans to enhance its military capabilities both quantitatively and qualitatively. Although ‘Abdallah and his British military chiefs had generally been pleased with the performance of the Arab Legion against the Israelis, they recognized that it was too small a force to adequately defend the new nation against the variety of threats it now confronted. In the years after the Arab defeat in 1948, Arab nationalists overthrew several of the Arab monarchies and narrowly failed to unseat many others. The new regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere bore little love for the remaining monarchs like ‘Abdallah and mounted both clandestine and overt challenges to their rule. In the face of these threats, Amman began a major campaign to augment the Arab Legion.

This expansion, however, did not imply a move to a mass army. The British officers in particular were adamantly opposed to diluting the caliber of manpower by adopting large-scale conscription. Instead, they chose to retain the same long terms of service and rigorous discipline and training but accept more volunteers. In addition, as another important way of increasing the overall combat power at its disposal, Amman began pursuing newer and heavier weapons, particularly tanks and combat aircraft, to improve the firepower and mobility of the legion.

The war in Palestine had also pointed out other shortcomings that Jordan attempted to address in the years thereafter. The legion combat support and combat-service-support branches had proven to be weak links. Prior to 1948, the Arab Legion had relied on British military forces in the Middle East to take care of its various logistical and support functions as well as provide air cover, signals, and combat-engineer units. When the British pulled out of Palestine in 1948, they took these support personnel with them, forcing the legion to improvise during the war with Israel. In particular, the Jordanians had suffered from a dearth of technically competent personnel to man signals, artillery, combat engineering, logistics, and maintenance billets.

Across the board, Jordan and its British officers tried to remedy these problems and to expand and modernize the legion. In 1950, Amman established an officer cadet training school followed by training programs for technical and logistics personnel, the Royal Military College, and the Command Staff College. In 1951 King Abdallah created the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) with a small number of older British aircraft. In addition, the Arab Legion began accepting large numbers of new volunteers. Throughout the 1950s and 196os, the legion remained an extremely popular career. Its prestige was enormous and its economic benefits excellent. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, there was a long waiting list for volunteers, and many applicants resorted to bribery simply to be able to serve as enlisted men. Consequently, the legion’s strength rose from 12,000 men in nine infantry battalions and several independent infantry companies in 1949 to 55,000 men in nine infantry brigades, two armored brigades, and five independent tank and infantry battalions in 1967.

These efforts also produced some unintended problems, however. First, as part of the effort to improve Jordan’s ability to operate and maintain technical equipment, Glubb encouraged the recruitment of more technically qualified personnel, including many who simply had a passing exposure to modern machinery and electronics. The segment of Jordan’s population that most possessed these traits were the Hadaris, particularly the new Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians mostly came from the big coastal towns like Jaffa and Haifa and so had been around cars, telephones, and other mundane technology. They also possessed the largest number of young men trained in technical fields such as engineering and the physical sciences. But the Hashimites had developed a very strong relationship with the Bedouin population during the 1930s and 1940s and felt less comfortable relying on the Jordanian Hadaris; they did not trust the Palestinians at all. Most of the Palestinians looked down on the Hashimites and their Bedouin supporters as unsophisticated “bumpkins.” Furthermore, the Palestinians were intent on reconquering their homeland, a goal about which the Jordanian monarchy was ambivalent at best. Thus, Glubb’s efforts to recruit technically skilled Palestinians and Hadaris was regarded with misgiving in Amman, and such recruits were strictly segregated within the military. Ultimately, “West Bankers” were relegated to the technical services – engineering, supply and transport, maintenance and repair, medical services, and signals -and to four of the infantry brigades. The other five infantry brigades, the two armored brigades, and the independent armor battalions were all kept strictly Bedouin. Moreover, the four “Palestinian” brigades were deployed to the West Bank, while both armored brigades and up to four of the “Bedouin” infantry brigades were kept on the East Bank, between the West Bank units and the capital. Amman kept a close watch on its handful of Palestinian officers, and few were allowed to rise even as high as battalion commander (and then usually only in support units). Command in the combat units was reserved for Bedouin officers.

The second problem the Jordanians encountered derived from the manning of their new officer billets. The dramatic expansion of the Arab Legion demanded a corresponding increase in the size of the Jordanian officer corps. Amman’s response was to secure large numbers of additional British officers seconded from the British military. By 1955, British officers accounted for over half of all the officer billets in the Jordanian army, more than at any previous time. This influx proved crucial in training the hordes of new recruits being brought in to fill out the expanded-force structure. Simply put, there existed no readily available pool of trained officers in Jordan that could have been drawn upon to provide adequate training to such a large number of new personnel inducted in such a short amount of time. Had the Jordanians not been able to obtain the services of these British officers, their expansion program would have been less successful and might have failed altogether, producing a larger but far less capable force. However, the addition of more British officers created resentment among the Jordanian junior officers, who believed that they should have been given first preference for the new command assignments that opened up as a result of the expansion.

This disgruntlement eventually contributed to the dismissal of the British from Jordanian service. In March 1956 the new Jordanian king, Hussein ibn Talal, grandson of ‘Abdallah, dismissed Glubb and the other British officers from the Arab Legion and officially renamed the force the Jordan Arab Army al-Arabiyyah al-Urduniyyah). Although the young king and Glubb had some differences regarding the future course of the Jordanian armed forces, the real causes of the rupture were Arab nationalism and the ambitions of Jordan’s junior-officer corps. Many Jordanians saw the continuing British presence in the military as a lingering vestige of imperial control over the country. At best, the British officers had divided loyalties, and their conduct in the war with Israel served as proof that their first allegiance was to London. Finally, ambitious young Jordanian officers realized that their future advancement depended on removing the obstacle of the British officers. Consequently, they agitated for Glubb’s dismissal under the guise of nationalism, though really for their own self-interest.

The sudden departure of the British officers from the former Arab Legion not only created considerable “headroom” for aspiring Jordanian officers but also ushered in new headaches for the regime. In particular, the Jordanians found that few among their officer candidates were really qualified for tactical command assignments. Amman was able to find enough competent officers to fill the relatively small number of senior slots opened up by the British exodus but ran into difficulties adequately filling the much larger number of lower-ranking commands. As Brig. Peter Young, a highly decorated British commando and the commander of the Jordanian 9th Infantry Battalion until 1956, succinctly noted, “there was a distinct shortage of potential battalion and company commanders.”” Ultimately, the Jordanians were forced to make do with a number of officers who would not have passed muster under the British because they were the only men available.”

Combat Operations

Adding to the tumult caused by these changes, the Jordanians had to be constantly on their guard against Israel. Combat never fully ceased along the border even after the December 1948 ceasefire. Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis found reasons to snipe at each other across the ceasefire lines, raid each others’ villages, and kidnap each others’ soldiers. Israeli forces performed poorly in these operations at first, prompting Tel Aviv to set up a special elite force, Unit 101, under the leadership of Maj. Ariel Sharon, specifically for cross border raids. In 1954 the Israelis expanded this elite force by merging Unit 101 with their paratrooper battalion to form the 202d Paratroop Brigade, again under Sharon’s leadership. Sharon’s troops dramatically altered the balance along the Israeli-Jordanian border. He proved to be a brilliant tactician, his men were superb fighters, and they regularly defeated much larger Jordanian and Palestinian forces. This string of defeats, and the increasing ferocity of Sharon’s raids, forced the Jordanians to beef up the army’s presence on the West Bank, escalating the scale of combat even further. The largest and most important clash between Sharon’s force and the Arab Legion was at the West Bank village of Qalqilyah in October 1956.


In September and October 1956, a group of Palestinian fedayeen guerrillas conducted a series of attacks on Israel from the Qalqilyah area that left nine Israeli civilians dead. Tel Aviv decided to mount a reprisal raid using Sharon’s 202d Paratroop Brigade. The target of the strike would be the Jordanian military headquarters at Qalgilyah for sanctioning, or at least not preventing, the operations of this Palestinian group. Qalqilyah is about twenty kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv at the western tip of a salient that sticks out into Israel from the West Bank territories to create the narrowest point of Israel’s narrow waist. The town was defended by elements of the Jordanian 9th Infantry Battalion. At least another company of the battalion was in reserve at Azzun, several miles to the east, waiting to counterattack any Israeli reprisal raid.

On 10 October Sharon led elements of his brigade against Qalqilyah. Israel’s political leadership placed several unusual constraints on his operation so as not to jeopardize the ongoing negotiations with Britain and France for a combined military campaign against Egypt. Sharon’s plan had been to deploy a blocking force along the Qalqilyah-Azzun road; another force would seize the Zuffin Hill, which overlooked the Azzun road; a third force would clear the Jordanian strongpoints south of Qalqilyah; and another force would actually seize and demolish the military headquarters. However, Tel Aviv vetoed the capture of Zuffin Hill, and the attack against the strongpoints south of the town, they feared, would make the operation seem too large.”

As a result of these changes, the raid turned into a pitched battle. When Sharon’s units drove eastward into Qalgilyah, the Jordanian company in the strongpoint south of town opened fire on them. Although these troops did not get out of their positions and counterattack the Israelis to prevent them from reaching the military headquarters, their fire was accurate, and since it came at the Israelis from the flank, it slowed down their operation. Meanwhile, the reserve elements of the 9th Battalion came racing down the Azzun-Qalqilyah road as soon as they received radio reports of the Israeli attack only to blunder into the Israeli blocking force, which threw them back with heavy losses. The Jordanian reinforcements were considerably larger than the Israeli blocking force, however, and their size prompted the Israelis to fall back to another ambush position. The Jordanians regrouped and attacked down the road again, and again they were surprised and mauled in an Israeli ambush. Once more they fell back in disarray, regrouped, attacked again, and were again ambushed. After this third bloody nose, the Jordanian commander deployed a part of his force to move north of the road into a flanking position. It is unclear whether he intended to mount a flanking attack on the Israeli blocking force or had given up and was simply deploying to prevent the Israelis from driving farther east into Jordan.

Regardless of its purpose, this move suddenly turned things in favor of the 9th Battalion. By this time, the Israeli main body had completed demolishing the headquarters compound in Qalgilyah and were ready to withdraw back to Israel. As part of the withdrawal, the small Israeli blocking force was ordered to pull back, not west, but north to the Israeli kibbutz of Eyal, which caused them to run into the Jordanian flanking position. The Jordanians surprised the Israelis and inflicted a fair number of casualties on them. At that point, the Jordanian commander realized he had caught a small Israeli unit in a bad position and threw all of his forces against them. He attacked the pinned-down Israelis but sent part of his force west to occupy Zuffin Hill to cut their escape route west to Qalqilyah. The Israelis did try to escape westward and were then caught in an ambush by the Jordanians on the hill. Sharon eventually was forced to call in artillery and to dispatch a small force of Ares he had been holding in reserve, which cut their way through the Jordanian lines and extracted the trapped unit at the cost of one of the Arcs lost to antitank fire. All told, the Israelis suffered 18 dead and 60 wounded, while the Jordanians suffered between 120 and 300 casualties.

York and Lancaster

Henry VI’s illness came upon him while he was staying at his hunting lodge in Clarendon, near Salisbury. It struck suddenly and overwhelmingly, and although for several weeks the king’s condition remained a secret, when he failed to recover it became impossible to conceal the fact that he was profoundly and shockingly unwell. The men around him had no specific name for his ailment; they could only describe its symptoms. ‘The king … suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy and his wit and reason withdrawn,’ wrote one. To another he was merely ‘sick’. He became completely helpless, removed both from his wits and the world around him to the point of total vacuity. He recognised no one. He could not speak or respond in any way to questions. He could neither feed nor clean himself, since he had no control of his arms or legs and could not even keep his head up. He had no sense of time. No physician could stir him. No medicine could stimulate him. His grandfather Charles VI of France had also suffered numerous bouts of insanity, but, whereas Charles’s madness had led him to scream in pain, smear himself in his own waste and run deranged through the royal palaces, Henry was simply mute and inert: a kingly nothing.

Even when sane, Henry had been a fairly weak and impotent force in government. Now that he was so obviously indisposed, however, Somerset and the rest of his counsellors were presented with a dire problem. When the king was healthy, they possessed an animated if ineffectual puppet through whom government could legitimately be carried out by a small group working as his chosen ministers. But with the king devoid of reason and will, their mandate to rule in his name disappeared. The king had all the will and capacity of a newborn baby, which meant that a situation similar to Henry’s long minority in the 1420s was once again upon the realm. There was a royal person who could be said to reign, but he had no ability whatever to rule. Just as in the 1420s, a communal response was required.

Although the turbulence in England and the dire situation in the meagre rump of English France demanded constant attention, a political reaction to Henry’s illness was nevertheless delayed as long as possible, probably with the dual aim of hoping, rather vainly, that he would recover and waiting for the queen’s pregnancy to reach its term. The second of these came to pass, on 13 October 1453 – the feast day of Edward the Confessor, one of the holiest and most venerated saints in England, with special importance to the royal family. In a chamber at Westminster, Margaret of Anjou was delivered of her first child, a boy. The child was called Edward, a princely name that not only spoke to the auspicious day of his birth but recalled times of greater glory: the days of the baby’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward III. ‘Wherefore the bells rang in every church and Te Deum [was … ] sung,’ wrote one observer. The duke of Somerset stood godfather at Prince Edward’s baptism.

If the birth was cause for great joy, it was also clear that the torpor of the boy’s father could no longer be ignored. It was important to construct a working government, and it was vital that this government should be genuinely inclusive. The king’s mental collapse had coincided with, and may indeed have contributed to, a huge escalation of violence, particularly in the north of England. Long-simmering hostility between the Neville and Percy families, who were rivals for power in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland, had descended into more or less open warfare. On 24 August 1454 Thomas Percy, Lord Egremont and an army of retainers numbering perhaps a thousand ambushed a wedding party celebrating the marriage of Sir Thomas Neville and Maude Stanhope. The immediate cause was a disputed inheritance: the beautiful manor and castle of Wressle, which had once belonged to the Percys, would come into the hands of the Nevilles by way of Sir Thomas’s marriage to the Stanhope heir. But this was one small battle in a much bigger struggle: the Percys sensed, with some justification, that the Nevilles were gradually displacing them as the most powerful family of the north. This, in turn, was a pressing problem for central government. The north of England appeared to be on the brink of civil war, as all pleas and instructions to cease hostilities issued by Somerset’s government had been ignored. Since the feud involved the two most powerful families in the region, there was no authority save the king’s that was able to put a stop to massive and disastrous bloodshed.

As soon as Prince Edward was born, a great council of all the senior lords and churchmen in the realm was summoned to meet as soon as possible. At first, the intention was to exclude York from its membership, but on 24 October a letter was sent, addressed ‘By the king’ to his ‘right trusty and well-beloved cousin’, summoning the duke from his estates to attend the gathering in London. It is not clear who drafted the letter, since it is signed in Henry’s name. However, the messenger who took the letter was told to advise York to put aside ‘the variance betwixt’ him and Somerset, and to ‘come to the said Counsail peaceably and measurably accompanied’, with the aim of securing ‘rest and union betwixt the lords of this land’.

York arrived at Westminster on 12 November, but he did not come in a conciliatory mood. His first action was to have his sometime ally the duke of Norfolk launch a vehement attack on Somerset before the council, once again accusing him of treason in losing France. Norfolk demanded Somerset’s imprisonment and in the confusion and crisis of the moment, browbeaten by his aggressive demands, a majority of the lords assembled consented. The duke was arrested and sent to the Tower to await trial. A few days later the lords once again gathered in council at the Star Chamber, and were individually ‘sworn on a book’ that they would keep their ‘troth and allegiance … to the king’. After several years of failure, York was now finally at the centre of affairs.

He did not occupy his position unchallenged. In January 1454 the queen, having recovered from the birth of Prince Edward, made her own bid for power. Margaret had long been close to Somerset and to the royal household through which so much of government had proceeded, and it seems that her intention was to fight York’s dominance by any means she could. The dumbstruck King Henry had shown no signs of recognising his son – when Margaret and Humphrey duke of Buckingham took the baby to see his father at Windsor Castle, ‘all their labour was in vain, for they departed thence without any answer or countenance saving only that once he looked on the Prince and cast down his sword without any more’. Nevertheless it was clear that, in possession of the baby, Margaret had the opportunity to build a different, rival power base to York’s. In the new year she published ‘a bill of five articles’ in which she demanded ‘to have the whole rule of this land’, as well as the right to appoint all the great officers of state, sheriffs and bishops, and ‘sufficient [livelihood] assigned her for the King and the Prince and herself’.

Margaret’s efforts were bold, but they were not unprecedented. Although female rule was uncommon in the fifteenth century, it was not completely unknown. England’s own history held examples: Queen Isabella had ruled as regent for Edward III between 1327 and 1330, and before her Eleanor of Aquitaine had been granted extensive powers of governance during the reigns of her husband Henry II and her son Richard the Lionheart. Perhaps more pertinently, Margaret had in her early life seen her mother and grandmother taking command of government in Anjou and Naples while Duke René languished in captivity. However, in the crisis of 1453–4, the last desire of the English lords (or, for that matter, the parliamentary commons) was to experiment with a new model of female rule. Margaret’s bill was cordially rejected. As a mollifying measure on 15 March 1454, the five-month-old Edward was created prince of Wales and earl of Chester. This was as far as accommodation with the queen went.

A week later Margaret’s close ally, Cardinal Kemp, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England, died. In desperation the lords sent another delegation to the king, to see if they could coax from him some indication of whom he wished his new archbishop to be. Once again, they reported to the parliament, which took a keen interest in the king’s condition, that they could get ‘no answer nor sign’. The lords left ‘with sorrowful hearts’.8 The crisis of authority had worsened. On 27 March the lords in parliament agreed to elect Richard duke of York as protector of the realm and chief councillor. His rise was complete.

There were many who held grave reservations about York’s suitability for the role of protector. Their fears were not realised. Although he appointed as the new chancellor Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury – patriarch of the Neville family whose feuding with the Percys was tearing apart the north – York’s government attempted in general to be tough, even-handed and non-partisan. He went in person to the north to make a serious attempt to arbitrate between the Nevilles and the Percys. In the course of this he imprisoned his own son-in-law, the violent and feckless Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, in Pontefract Castle, as punishment for involving himself in the northern war and thereby directly disobeying the oath sworn by all the lords to keep and respect ‘royal’ authority during the king’s illness.

York appointed himself captain of Calais and resumed his lieutenancy of Ireland, but these were actions natural and conducive to strong leadership rather than representative of his seizing the spoils of office. Other grants, which were modestly made, were given out on non-partisan lines: the queen, the duke of Buckingham, and Jasper and Edmund Tudor all received lands or offices during York’s protectorship, whereas men supposedly closer to him – such as Salisbury’s eldest son the earl of Warwick (also called Richard Neville) – received nothing. Yet there was one glaring area in which York’s policy of peace and conciliation failed: he could not normalise relations with Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Throughout 1454, Somerset remained locked away in the Tower. He kept keenly abreast of news from the outside world through a network of undercover agents: ‘spies going in every Lord’s house of this land: some gone as [friars], some as shipmen … and some in other wise; which report unto him all that they can see …’ To have killed Somerset would have been a destructively divisive act. In prison, therefore, he was able to study the situation and bide his time, hoping, as the popular image had it, that Fortune’s wheel would shortly give another turn.


On Christmas Day 1454, more than a year after he had been stricken, Henry VI woke up. His senses flooded back as quickly as they had first rushed out of him. Two days after Christmas he was ordering his almoner to deliver gifts of thanks to the shrine at Canterbury, and on Monday 30 December Queen Margaret took the fourteen-month-old prince to see his father. Henry ‘asked what the prince’s name was, and the Queen told him Edward; and then he held up his hands and thanked God thereof’. He had no memory of anything that had been said or done during his stupor. But he seemed extremely happy to have recovered. When his ministers found that he could once more speak to them ‘as well as he ever did’, they ‘wept for joy’.

The same could not be said for York. Henry’s recovery did not simply end the protectorate: it led directly to the reversal of most of the means York had pursued over the course of the last year. By 26 January 1455 Somerset had been released from prison and by 4 March the charges of treason against him were dropped. York was formally stripped of the protectorate on 9 February. In a sign of the absolute repudiation of York’s primary case against Somerset – that he was treasonably negligent in his dealings with the French – York was stripped of his captaincy of Calais and it was awarded once more to Somerset. York’s ally Richard earl of Salisbury was forced to resign the chancellorship. In mid-March Salisbury’s son, the earl of Warwick, was ordered to release Henry Holland, the scheming and belligerent duke of Exeter, from his entirely deserved place in prison at Pontefract.

As Somerset and his allies raced back into their old positions in government and at the side of the king, York and the Nevilles were forced to abandon court. Despite the protector’s genuinely purposeful actions in trying to maintain government during the royal madness, he now found himself stripped of his posts, authority and dignity as though he had been a usurper. The only possible conclusion York could draw was that with Somerset beside the king, he would forever be treated as an enemy of the crown: denied his proper place in the realm as if he were nothing but a scoundrel and a rebel. York had been bound by the king and a council of the lords to keep his peace with Somerset until June, on pain of a fine of twenty thousand marks. But peace was no longer an option. With the Nevilles, York now went north to follow the only course of action that was left to him: he began to raise an army.

York and the Nevilles – led by the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, father and son – were now thrown together in a friendship of common cause. Between them, they controlled much of northern England, and since the Nevilles existed in a state of war-readiness owing to their struggles with the house of Percy, it did not prove difficult for the allies to raise their retainers to form a small army during the spring of 1455. They had, by their own later admission, ‘great might of men in diverse countries, much harness and great habiliments of war’. It is important to note that for York the purpose of raising an armed force was to remove Somerset and the ‘traitors’ around the king; this to his mind was a very different matter from rebellion – and certainly dynastic rebellion – against Henry VI himself. It is questionable, however, how many of the men who served beneath him would have appreciated the subtle difference. All the same, they were raised with efficient haste in April and May, and the news of York and the Nevilles’ mobilisation, although perhaps not its scale, soon reached the court and council at Westminster.

Somerset at this point panicked and dithered. Notwithstanding the London populace’s general preference for York over him, the obvious course of action ought still have been to raise a royal army, set to defend the capital, and allow a repeat of the Dartford conflict of 1452 to occur. Instead, a decision was taken to move the king’s household and the lords attending the king north. A great council – not quite a parliament, although the summonses went out on a broad scale to England’s lords, along with a selection of hand-picked knights expected to be favourable to Somerset’s regime – was called to meet at Leicester, a town in the heart of the duchy of Lancaster, the king’s private landholding. York and his allies were invited, so it seems that at least one aspect of the Dartford episode was in mind: the government hoped to impose a new settlement upon Somerset and York, and most likely one that would embarrass York in public with an oath of loyalty of the type he had been forced to swear at St Paul’s. This was not something York was prepared to countenance. He may also have thought of the fate of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, who had been summoned to a parliament in Bury St Edmunds in 1447 and had never returned.

There was the distinct possibility of armed confrontation at Leicester. In mid-May, as the king and his supporters prepared to travel north, requests were sent to lords and townsmen along the route, requiring them to send armed men to the king ‘wheresoever we be in all haste possible’. The destination for assembly was the town of St Albans, in Hertfordshire, which lay conveniently along the road between London and Leicester. On the morning of Tuesday 20 May the king and his entourage set out from Westminster along this very route. Ahead of them went messengers with letters to York, Salisbury and Warwick, demanding that they disband their armies immediately and come to the king attended by no more than 160 men each in the Nevilles’ case, and two hundred in the case of York.

By the time the letters reached York and the Nevilles, they had reached Royston, a town a few miles south-west of Cambridge, and less than a day’s ride from St Albans. They replied to the orders to disband with a letter addressed to the chancellor who had replaced Salisbury: Thomas Bourchier, the forty-four-year-old archbishop of Canterbury. ‘We hear that a great rumour and wonder is had of our coming, and of the manner thereof, toward the most noble presence of the king oure most [re]doubted sovereign lord,’ they wrote. It was vital for York and his allies that they should establish themselves as the true defenders of the common good in the face of Somerset’s treacherous government, so they added that ‘we intend not with God’s grace to proceed to any matter or thing, other than with God’s mercy shall be to his pleasure, the honour, prosperity and weal of our said sovereign lord, his said land and people’. More ominously, the Yorkists also promised the chancellor that for the sake of the kingdom they would do whatever ‘accordeth with our duty, to that that may be the surety of [the king’s] most noble person, wherein we will neither spare our bodies nor goods’.

By the time the letter reached Chancellor Bourchier, the king’s party had left Westminster. The men around Henry hardly consisted of a partisan group: the king was attended by men as diverse in their political outlooks as his faithful half-brother Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, the Percy patriarch Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, the independent-minded Humphrey duke of Buckingham, the former Yorkist ally Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon, and the earl of Salisbury’s brother William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. Other great nobles included the earl of Wiltshire and Lords Clifford, Ros, Sudeley, Dudley and Berners. Perhaps in anticipation of confrontation, Queen Margaret was left behind, and only one bishop travelled with the king – although several others probably followed at a safe distance. The party passed out of London and by nightfall on Wednesday 21 May they were lodged in Watford, seven miles south of St Albans. At dawn they rose to continue their journey, planning to arrive in the town in good time to settle and enjoy their midday meal at the splendid abbey. But as morning arrived, so did a messenger, bearing the alarming news that York and his army were close by: they had camped the night in Ware, and not only were they ahead of the king’s party on their way to St Albans, but they were said to have with them around three thousand men. The king’s party numbered closer to two thousand.

The sense that something between an armed showdown and a pitched battle was looming sparked action in the royal party. Conciliatory action was urgently required. Early on the morning of Thursday 22, Somerset was abruptly relieved of his post as constable of England, by which he commanded the king’s military forces. He was immediately replaced in the office by Humphrey duke of Buckingham, who as the most senior duke at the king’s side had the presence to represent the royal interest, but was far less personally obnoxious to York and the Nevilles. Buckingham seems to have believed that he would be able to negotiate a settlement without bloodshed.The party rode on to St Albans, arriving at about 9 a.m. The Yorkists had arrived two hours earlier, and were camped in the Key Field, just to the east of the town centre. There were ‘diverse knightes and squiers unto ther party’, and they were perfectly visible to the king’s party as they came to a halt in the middle of St Albans on St Peter’s Street, below the massive silhouette of the abbey church. The townsmen, realising that their lives and homes were in some peril, manned the defences, which took the form of barricades around the unwalled settlement. They were reinforced by knights loyal to the king, and between 9 and 10 a.m. messengers passed between the two sides as they tried to negotiate a settlement.

The talks with York were conducted by the dukes of Buckingham and Somerset, who claimed that they were speaking directly for the king. It is unlikely that Henry knew very much about what was happening: he had not seen York’s initial petitions and one of the first stages of negotiation involved York’s demand that the letters he had sent should actually be placed under the royal nose. Henry may have recovered from his illness, but his role at St Albans remained passive and symbolic.

York’s principal demands had not changed but only hardened since Dartford. He wanted Somerset and he was prepared to use any means to obtain him. In response to this, Buckingham could do little but stall for time, and await both the bishops who were following behind the royal party and the military reinforcements that had been requested from around the country. He asked York to remove his men to a nearby town for the night, while negotiations could continue through suitable proxies. And he absolutely refused to hand over the duke of Somerset.

Whether or not York was prepared to continue negotiations into a second day will never be known. At around 10 a.m., while talks were continuing, men under the earl of Warwick grew sick of waiting and began an assault against the barricades on the fringes of the town. Within St Albans, the king’s banner was raised over the royal forces. The talking time was over. Fighting had begun.

Defence of the barricades was commanded by Thomas, Lord Clifford, an experienced soldier who had served for some time in the north, battling the Scots in the marches. He was later considered to have manned the barriers to St Albans ‘strongly’, and probably held the line outside the town for about an hour.17 York, however, had the superior numbers, and around 11 a.m. the skirmishing was turning in favour of the attacking forces. Warwick took a flanking party to the thoroughfare known as Holywell Street, which led into St Peter’s Street, where the royal party were massed. They smashed down palisades and the walls of houses and finally broke open an entry point between two inns, known as the Key and the Chequer, through which their men could pour into the town, blowing trumpets and shouting ‘Warwick! Warwick! Warwick!’ at the top of their voices. As soon as they clapped eyes on the king’s forces, ‘they set on them manfully’.

St Albans was soon overrun. Amazingly, it seems that Buckingham and Somerset had failed to prepare for the possibility that the barricades would fall so swiftly, for as the town bell was rung in urgent alarm and fighting spilled from street to street, there was a general scramble for the defenders to pull on their full armour. They were unprepared and overwhelmed, and when one of York’s allies, Sir Robert Ogle, brought several hundred men crashing into the marketplace, blades slashing and arrows fizzing through the late morning air, the short conflict was effectively decided in favour of York’s men. From the puncturing of the barriers the fighting lasted around half an hour. But it was a shocking experience all the same.

In the middle of the mêlée stood the king himself, terror presumably spreading across his pale, round face, for the son of Henry V had managed to reach the age of thirty-three without ever having stood before a siege or in the chaos of a battle. Like the best of his lords, he was imperfectly armoured, and was lucky to survive when a stray arrow bloodied his neck. (‘Forsothe and forsothe,’ the king is said to have remarked, employing his favourite and only oath, ‘ye do foully to smite a king anointed so.’) For his protection, if not the maintenance of his royal dignity, Henry was hustled into a nearby tanner’s cottage to hide while the street fighting played out. As he left, his banner, which in every battle was to be upheld to the death, was easily pulled to the ground, its defenders scattering into the streets.

After only a short stay in his reeking hideaway, Henry was captured and taken away to proper safety in the precincts of the abbey. York’s men had absolutely no interest in doing him physical damage, for it was a crucial component of the duke’s political campaign to argue that he was fighting for and not against the king. But Henry’s companions were not so lucky. York and the Nevilles had come to St Albans to eliminate their enemies, and in the disorder they had created, they were able to achieve their goal. By midday, when hostilities came to a conclusion, the streets groaned with bloodied and injured men. Given the numbers of combatants – probably around five thousand in total – it is slightly surprising that fewer than sixty were killed. But of the dead men there were three of great significance. First was Thomas, Lord Clifford, who had so bravely held the town’s defences while the first hour’s blows were traded. Second was Henry earl of Northumberland, the most senior male in the Percy family and as a result the chief enemy of the Nevilles. And third was the greatest enemy of them all: Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset.

Somerset had fought for the duration of the battle of St Albans. Although he may have been an unlucky commander, he was at least used to seeing military action during his long service in France. Several chronicles of the battle record that after the king had been taken to the abbey, and as fighting was coming to its conclusion on St Peter’s Street, Somerset was pushed back into defending a tavern under the sign of the Castle. At his side was his son Henry Beaufort, nineteen years old and already a courageous warrior. Whereas the earl of Wiltshire had timidly, if pragmatically, fled the scene of the battle disguised as a monk, the Beauforts stood their ground and struggled to the very last. Young Henry Beaufort was wounded so severely in the fighting that he left St Albans dragged on a cart and close to death. His father was not so fortunate. It was he over whom the whole conflict had arisen, and he was a marked man from its outset. Eventually overcome by his enemies, Somerset was dragged from the tavern and hacked to death in the street. With the end of his life arrived the end of the battle. Troops aroused by the bloodshed continued to create havoc in the streets, but this was now an armed rout, rather than a purposeful battle. Safe beneath the high vaulted ceilings of the abbey church, York, Salisbury and Warwick respectfully took Henry VI before the shrine of St Alban himself, then requested that they now be received as his faithful subjects and advisers. The king, who had absolutely no choice in the matter, accepted that the lords had ‘kept him unhurt and there … granted to be ruled by them’. As soon as this was done, York gave the order for all violence outside the abbey to cease. His orders were eventually obeyed. But it was only some time later that anyone dared to gather up the bloodied corpses of Somerset and the rest of the men killed on the streets of St Albans, in a day of violent upheaval that would leave its stain on England for two generations to follow.


Henry was escorted back to London by the Yorkists on Friday 23 May and deposited in his apartments in the palace of Westminster, before moving on to the bishop’s palace. The following day he was paraded before the city of London ‘in great honour … the said duke of York riding on his right side and the earl of Salisbury on the left side and the earl of Warwick with his sword’, and on Sunday 25 May in a ceremony at St Paul’s he sat in state and was handed his crown by the duke of York. All this presented a picture of majesty and kingly authority, but it was even more spurious than it had ever been. For even if he could be presented to the public in stately highness as ‘a king and not as a prisoner’, beside the three lords who had emerged victorious from St Albans, it was quite obvious that now more than at any time before, Henry VI was a royal cipher.

Meanwhile, as York worked to establish for the second time his authority as the chief councillor of the king and the effective governor of England, stories of the battle of St Albans began to spread. They circulated in England and they crossed the Channel: within days the fracas was the talk of diplomats across Europe. On 31 May 1455 the Milanese ambassador, who had left London earlier in the month, wrote a letter from Bruges to the archbishop of Ravenna in which he reported the ‘unpleasant’ news that in England ‘a great part of the nobles have been in conflict’. ‘The Duke of York has done this, with his followers,’ wrote the ambassador, recounting the deaths and injuries that had befallen Somerset and his allies. Yet if the violence was shocking, there was a seasoned pragmatism in the ambassador’s report. York, he wrote, ‘will now take up the government again, and some think that the affairs of the kingdom will now take a turn for the better. If that be the case, we can put up with this inconvenience.’ Three days later the ambassador filed an update confirming his earlier notes. ‘Peace reigns,’ he wrote. ‘The Duke of York has the government, and the people are very pleased at this.’

Even if this was true, it would not last for long.


Republic of China Air Force’s clandestine overflights over the Chinese mainland in the 1950s

The Republic of China had, since its inception on the islands of Taiwan, been actively supported by the United States, for no other reason than that it was opposed to the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). This support was very evident in the active cooperation between the air forces of both nations; the USA supplied the aircraft and the USAF provided the training. In 1956 the two nations reached an agreement concerning overflights of the Chinese mainland. The Republic Of China Air Force (ROCAF) had a clear interest in conducting overflights of the Chinese mainland. Its security depended on knowing its belligerent neighbour’s disposition and strength. Only with such knowledge could it adequately defend itself. The US Government also had a vested interest in encouraging and supporting such overflights.

Low Level Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance flights were the responsibility of the 4th Photo Reconnaissance Air Group based at Tao Yuan Air Base. The flying squadrons assigned to the Group in 1956 were the 4th Composite Squadron, which operated North American RF-86F Sabres and the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, which operated Republic RF-84F Thunderflashes.

The RF-86F Sabre and the RF-84F Thunderflash were used on overflights of the Chinese mainland. Altogether 25 RF-84s and 7 RF-86s were supplied: the RF-84Fs in 1955 and the RF-86Fs in 1956. The targets for the reconnaissance aircraft were primarily coastal and maritime installations, with new airfields being constructed for jet fighters and bombers and Chinese naval bases and activities. All imagery was shared with the USAF and the CIA. The USAF’s 67th and 497th Reconnaissance Technical Squadrons (RTS) provided the photo processing and interpretation expertise.

The missions flown by the photo jet pilots of the ROCAF were low level and fast; what had become known in World War Two as `dicing missions’. In his book Asia from Above Colonel Roy Stanley (USAF Retd) says of these missions:

“RF-84s or RF-86s, and, later RF-101s would scream across the Taiwan Straits below radar cover as fast as they could peddle, circle inland at tree-top altitude, turn on their cameras and pop up between 1,000 to 1,500 feet to cover some airfield or other high threat target. The targets for these missions were usually Air Order of Battle, radars, artillery positions, concentrations of landing craft or troops and unusual activity. Photo objectives were usually covered on a heading for home to minimise the need for manoeuvre getting to safety in case they took fire over the target. They were wonderful to PI (Photo Interpret) because the objects photographed were quite large. You could see individual people. There was hardly ever any doubt what sort of MiG you were looking at; and the radars and guns were easily seen and identified.” The high speed flight over the water was later discouraged for the Voodoos.

Photographing Communism

At the time of the Quemoy Straits crisis in 1958 the RF-84Fs of the ROCAF were kept busy photographing the Communist build up on the mainland. The Thunderflashes, escorted by F-86F Sabres, undertook daily low level photo missions along the mainland coast. On the morning of September 24, 1958, the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron put its entire complement of 18 RF-84s into the air in six groups of three. Spreading out over the Straits of Taiwan, the Sabres of the 5th Fighter Group escorted the photo recce jets to targets from Wenzhou in the east to Shantou in the west; a distance of 500 miles. Opposition was erratic except over the naval base of Shantou, where the RF-84s and Sabres came under fire from anti-aircraft batteries and a group of Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17s. One MiG was claimed shot down by an F-86. The ROCAF admitted no casualties.

The RF-86 began to be phased out of the ROCAF inventory in 1957, the last examples leaving in 1959. All seven of the recce Sabres were passed on to the Republic of Korea Air Force. The RF-84F remained with the ROCAF until 1965, when all surviving aircraft were returned to the United States. The ROCAF received some North American RF-100As in 1959. These were F-100A Super Sabres specially modified for reconnaissance, six of which were used by the USAF in Europe and Asia under Project Slick Chick. The RF-100As were modified to carry five cameras: three K-17s were placed in a trimetrogen arrangement and two K-38s with 36in cones in the split vertical. The K-38s were the main intelligence gathering cameras and it was intended to use the RF-100 for high altitude photo reconnaissance. The K-38s were ideally suited to this purpose as in the split vertical configuration they provided photos of a sufficiently large scale to provide acceptable intelligence information. Of the original six Slick Chick RF-100s, only four were delivered to the ROCAF, two having crashed while in USAF service. Information regarding the operations of the RF-100s in service with the ROCAF is sketchy. However, it has been suggested that they, in fact, were never used for reconnaissance over the People’s Republic. The camera system was very temperamental, had a high failure rate and sourcing spares for the aircraft’s systems proved difficult. The fate of the RF-100s is unknown but it is thought they were decommissioned in early 1960 and possibly scrapped.

Boom-Town Voodoos

Meanwhile, in 1959 the ROCAF’s tactical reconnaissance capabilities were enhanced by the arrival in Taiwan of McDonnell RF-101 Voodoos under an operation codenamed Boom-Town. The Voodoos were faster and had a greater fuel capacity than the RF-84s and could subsequently reach further into Communist China. Eventually, the air force acquired eight of these aircraft, which were used to conduct shallow penetration flights over the Chinese mainland between 1959 and 1970. The official mission of the Voodoos was to fly surveillance missions over coastal waters, a piece of misinformation which lost its credibility when the first of the RF-101As was shot down over mainland near Fukien in August 1962.

An experienced Voodoo pilot, Jerry Miller was an `advisor’ with the ROCAF at this time: “The US pilots were actually `intel’ guys,” he says. “Briefed and given `special’ top secret clearances, we were not to reveal our involvement with the ROCAF, but within two months, the Chicoms had me identified. I was known by the Chinese name of `horse’.

“I talked to the CAF commanders about using some of the tactics we adopted in Vietnam, such as low-level pop-up, etc. Boy, was I given an education. They had used low level – hi speed several years earlier but encountered so much sea spray from the rough waters of the `straights’, that by the time they reached the mainland the windscreen was nearly opaque. Also, the sea salt damage was so severe that in the mid-60s the birds were sent to the depot (Hill AFB) to be re-skinned. Low level was definitely OUT!

“I then demonstrated a tactic that involved flying parallel to the coast at high altitude and then turning abruptly towards the mainland while descending rapidly to around 10,000ft, then turning back parallel to the coastline and while in a bank, use the split vertical cameras to obtain oblique photos of coastline installations. (A porpoising motion, or relaxing the turn, may be needed during the camera cycling to avoid image motion problems.) Then you would continue turning away from the mainland and descending to a height above the sea spray, 2-3,000ft. They liked it!”

The Voodoo remained in the ROCAF inventory until 1970 when operational attrition ended their careers. Most were returned to the US, one being retained by Taiwan for static display.


Mixing with MiGs

Because of the intensity of the Republic of China Air Force incursions into the People’s Republic of China air space, it was inevitable that there would be casualties. Many aircraft were lost over the mainland, including, of course, reconnaissance aircraft. On June 17, 1958 a pair of RF-84Fs were approaching Shanghai when they were intercepted by several MiG-17s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The lead RF-84 was piloted by Colonel Chen. One of the MiG-17s got on his tail and Chen took an evasive manoeuvre which involved dropping his flaps and slowing down sufficiently to allow the fighter to overtake him. With his nose oblique camera, he took a photo of the MiG.

Unfortunately, Chen’s wingman 1st Lieutenant Chao Shin, was shot down as the pair made a dash back to Taiwan.

There were no recorded losses of the RF-86; but in January 1956, one aircraft was chased by MiG fighters whilst conducting a recce mission over the mainland. The pilot, Major Lee, made it to Hong Kong. He was held there in detention for 42 days, after which his RF-86 and he were sent back to Taiwan.


RF-101A-25-MC. This aircraft on display 1987 at Chung Cheng Aviation Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.

The second Voodoo loss occurred on December 18, 1964, when an RF-101A Voodoo was shot down by a Shenyang J-6 over Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. The pilot, Captain Hsieh was taken captive by fishermen after baling out over the ocean. He was released from captivity in July 1985.

On March 18, 1965, RF-101 Voodoo 5656 was shot down near Shantou in Guangdong Province by MiG-19 pilot Gao Chang Ji. The Voodoo pilot, Chang Yupao was killed.

RB-57D 53-3981 of the ROCAF. Taiwan received two RB-57Ds, one of which was shot down by a Surface-to-Air Missile on October 7, 1959.

High Altitude Recce

During 1955, the USAF conducted Operation Heart Throb in Europe and Asia. The operation involved three specially modified Martin RB- 57A Canberras in each sector undertaking clandestine photo reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies in the west and over China and the Soviet Union in the east. Following the end of Operation Heart Throb in the Far East, two of the RB-57A Canberras were transferred to the ROCAF. Two USAF Heart Throb pilots, Captains Louis Picciano and Bob Hines were detached to Okinawa to train the pilots who would fly the `57s. When the training was complete they moved to Taiwan as advisors.

The aircraft arrived in Taiwan in September 1957 and were assigned to the 4th Composite Squadron. The arrival of the RB-57As gave the ROCAF a strategic reconnaissance capability. The aircraft could fly higher and further than the fighter reconnaissance RF-86s and RF-84s. The specially modified RB-57As were to operate at between 50,000 and 62,000ft. For this reason the pilots were obliged to wear special pressure suits. At any height above 50,000ft cabin decompression means death. The activation of the pressure suit would sustain life until the pilot could get down to a safe altitude.

Most of the other modifications served to lighten the aircraft and make it suitable for very high-altitude performance. All navigation equipment and armour was removed. The rotating bomb door and associated hydraulics and racks were removed and the bomb bay was skinned over. An optical viewfinder was installed and pilot intervalometer controls for the cameras, and for setting shutter speeds and time between picture exposures, thus producing the necessary picture overlap for the photo interpreters. Navigation was to be through pilotage aided by the viewfinder which looked through the nose, making positioning the aircraft on course and over targets easier.

RB-57A missions were conducted in the utmost secrecy. For a typical mission the initial draft plan would come from the USAF. The ROCAF could then evaluate the plan and suggest modifications. The flight planning would then be made by the pilot who was to fly the mission and the pilot of the back-up aircraft. RB-57A flights were conducted in daylight and take-off would be in the early morning. In common with their predecessors in Heart Throb, pre-flight preparation included fitting of the pressure suit and the pilot doing his pre-breathing of 100% oxygen. The purpose of this was to purge the blood of nitrogen; the presence of which at the very high altitudes the RB-57 was to fly could have been fatal. Meanwhile, the ground crew would be getting the aircraft and camera systems ready and another pilot would check the aircraft.

With a ceiling of 62,000ft, it was felt that the chances of interception were slight. Although the arrival of the MiG-17 in the Far East had effectively closed down Heart Throb operations, the threat was not felt to be sufficiently great as to hamper the ROCAF RB-57A overflights. The first three overflights were flown on December 6 and 15, 1957, and January 7, 1958. Unfortunately the fourth mission, on February 18 ended in disaster.

Captain Chao was flying aircraft 5642 over the Shan Tung peninsula when he was attacked by two Chinese navy Shenyang J-5s flown by Hu Chung-Sheng and Shu Ji-Cheng. The J-5s were the Chinese licence-built variants of the Russian MiG-17. This aircraft was equipped with search radar and had a ceiling of 55,000ft – the capabilities of the PLAAF had been grossly underestimated! Chao’s RB-57A was blown from the sky and crashed into the Yellow Sea. Chao was killed.

It was apparent that the RB-57A was of no further use as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft. The second Canberra (5641) was grounded and later returned to the US where it was modified to an RB-57D.

The need to fly high-altitude strategic missions over mainland China did not end with the demise of the RB-57A flights however. In July 1958, three pilots were sent to the Laughlin AFB in the US to train on the RB-57D with the 4025th SRS, 4080th SRW. The pilots were the three survivors of those originally involved in the training for the RB-57A. These pilots returned to Tao Yuan AB in October 1958, in time to receive the two RB-57Ds ferried from Laughlin. The aircraft were from the first batch produced and were the single-seat photo reconnaissance variant, which had two camera stations in the front fuselage. The first station contained two K-38 split vertical cameras; and the second contained two KC-1 oblique cameras. They were designed for daylight, fair weather operations.

The first RB-57D mission took off on January 6, 1959 piloted by Lt Colonel Lu. It was necessary to achieve 60,000ft before entering Chinese airspace. It was impossible for the aircraft to be intercepted at that height, though not too high for Surface-to-Air missiles (SAM). Fortunately, China did not have SAM capacity in mid-1959 and the first flight, piloted by Lt Colonel Lu, was a success.

Between January and October 6, 1959, 21 RB-57D overflights were conducted and a good deal of useful intelligence was gathered. For example, a flight over the Peking (Beijing) area on June 14 revealed that the Chinese had MiG-19s in the form of the licence-built Shenyang J-6. Some sources suggest that the J-6s may have been scrambled to intercept the RB-57D, but, of course, could not attain the height. On October 2 a Canberra overflew the industrial complex in the Shen Yang area where the licence-built MiGs were being manufactured and, once again, attempts to intercept were made but were not successful.

Meanwhile, during these months the Communists were installing their surface to air missile batteries. These were supplied by the Soviet Union, who conducted the training of the PLAAF operators. It is extraordinary that, with 21 surveillance flights flown by the RB-57Ds, there was no photographic evidence that suggested the Chinese possessed Surface-to-Air missile batteries and that some of these were mobile. The SA-75 Dvina SAMs were deployed around Peking and combat-ready by the end of September 1959. It came as a rude awakening to the ROCAF when, on October 7, RB-57D 5643 was brought down in the area of Peking by a SAM. The pilot, 1st Lt Wang was killed when his aircraft crashed south east of the capital. His aircraft had been picked up on radar when it had entered Chinese air space and the SAM batteries had been waiting for him.

The RB-57D flights were subsequently abandoned. An aircraft with a much higher operating ceiling was required if ever they were to be resumed.

Lockheed U-2R of the ROCAF. This aircraft is possibly 3925 (US Serial 68-10329) which later served with the 9th SRW, USAF, after upgrade to U-2S. Note the very small ROCAF roundel on the rear fuselage side and the lack of any other markings apart from the tail number.

The `Dragon Lady’

The Lockheed U-2 was no stranger to the region. During the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958, U-2s belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detachment C, based at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, had flown missions over the Chinese mainland to ascertain the extent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s military buildup in the coastal areas. In 1958 the USAF proposed supplying the ROCAF with their own U-2s to be flown by ROCAF pilots. Pilot training began in March 1959. The programme was not supported by the CIA who feared that it would jeopardise the secrecy of their operations. However, the shooting down of Gary Powers’ U-2 in May 1960 and the subsequent publicity negated any such argument and the project received Presidential approval in August 1960. The ROCAF overflight programme was codenamed Project Tackle and the CIA were involved as `advisors.’ Two U-2s would be supplied by the US, and any losses would be replaced.

The pair of U-2s were assigned to Detachment H at Tao Yuan AB, arriving in Taiwan on December 14, 1960. The ROCAF created the 35th Squadron to which Detachment H was assigned. The 35th became known as the `Black Cat’ Squadron. Owing to further delays and indecision at US Government level, the first overflight by a U-2 of 35 Squadron did not take place until January 12, 1962. This mission was flown by Huai Chen over the missile testing range at Shuangchengzi. During 1962 a total of 19 overflight missions were flown. One of the busiest pilots was Mike Hua. In 1962 he flew six missions.

In his story published in Air Power History in the spring of 2002 he writes: “The missions covered the vast interior of the Chinese mainland, where almost no aerial photographs had ever been taken. The Hycon 73B model camera mounted on the U-2 could take seven oblique and vertical high resolution photos sequentially from horizon to horizon. Each mission brought back an aerial photo map of roughly 100 miles wide and 2,600 miles long, which revealed, not only the precise location of a target, but also the activities on the ground.

In addition to the camera, wide band ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) System 3 and System 6 receivers on board recorded a large number of new electromagnetic emissions in and above VHF frequencies, including radar signals excited by the U-2.”

The intelligence gathered by the ROCAF U-2 flights was invaluable but the missions were dictated by Washington and, in the early years, the film and data were processed by the CIA in Japan and some information shared with Taiwan.

Of course, the Chinese were aware of the U-2 missions. Most of the flights were tailed by MiGs, but obviously at a lower altitude. There was, after all, the possibility that the U-2 would experience some problem which would force it to fly lower and then it would be an easy target for the fighters. On September 9, 1962, Huai Chen took off on his fourth mission. He was to photograph the PLA military buildup in the Jiangxi region in U-2C 378. His aircraft was shot down by an SA-2 Surface-to-Air missile in the vicinity of Nanchang and he was killed in the crash. His was to be the first of six operational losses incurred by the ROCAF U-2 pilots over the six years to 1969.

Following Chen’s fatal mission a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) was fitted to the U-2s at Tao Yuan. Mike Hua flew the first overflight mission in the replacement U-2 to test the RWR:

“I was fully aware of the risk involved in this mission,” he said in the Spring 2002 issue of Air Power History. “On December 6 I took off at 0615 from Tao Yuan and flew directly toward the northeast provinces. After completing the photo reconnaissance over PRC, I flew to North Korea to cover targets there. I flew south, almost reaching the 38th parallel, when the System 12 (RWR receiver) started to show an indication. The light strobe pointed to six o’ clock, showing that I was headed away from the radar site. I did not take any evasive manoeuvres.”

ROCAF U-2 overflights of the Chinese People’s Republic continued until March 1968. The threat from the SAMs was too great to be ignored. During this time there were six operational and six training losses. These aircraft losses were made good by the US and, as a consequence, the ROCAF received upgraded U-2s during the period they operated the aircraft; the final variant being the U-2R. However, the U-2s were still employed by the ROCAF for coastal flights using their powerful oblique cameras to photograph deep into PRC territory until May 1974 when the two U-2s were returned to the USA.

There were no further overflights of mainland China by ROCAF, although, undoubtedly, the USA continued such surveillance flights with the A-12 and the SR-71.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part I

Codenamed Operation Marita, the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece sent the German Second Army, composed of four army corps and a panzer group, into Yugoslavia from Bulgaria, Hungary, and southern Austria. Against Greece, the Germans assembled their Second Army, comprising the XXX Korps in the east, the XVIII Gebirgs (Mountain) Korps in the centre (opposite the Rupel Pass), and the formidable 40 Korps on the German right. The key lines of attack for the Germans into Greece were through the Rupel Pass and the Metaxas Line, a task given to the mountain troops of XVIII Gebirgskorp, and a flanking manoeuvre further west by the 40 Korps. This unit included two panzer divisions, the mechanised SS Leibstandarte Brigade, and the 72 Infantrie Division.

Its commander, General Georg Stumme, was an experienced soldier who had led a light armoured division in the invasion of Poland. Now at the helm of a powerful armoured corps, he directed the 2nd Panzer Division through what the British called the ‘Doiran Gap’ (named for the nearby lake), cutting down the valley of the Axios River to Salonika. At the same time, Stumme sent the rest of his corps sweeping through southern Yugoslavia, crashing through the Yugoslav Third Army, strung out along the border with Bulgaria in a classic ‘double envelopment’ manoeuvre in which the German armoured formations specialised. What his inner wing did not cut off in Salonika, Stumme would deal with courtesy of his outer wing, driving down the Monastir gap into central Greece. As we have seen, this latter move had been accurately forecast by British military intelligence five weeks earlier.

While the British W Group attempted to consolidate on the Vermion–Olympus line, Papagos had left four-and-a-half divisions in Thrace, organised as the Eastern Macedonian army. The Greek commander-in-chief was determined not to besmirch his nation’s honour by a premature withdrawal, as the British desired, or dash his hopes of keeping open a supply route to the Yugoslavs, for which the communication and supply line running north from Salonika was essential. The eventual accession of Yugoslavia to the Allied cause validated Papagos’ defence of Thrace, but it counted for little because of the rapidity with which Yugoslav defences collapsed. Like Papagos, the Yugoslavs were determined to defend their national sovereignty, and they allowed this political calculation to override military logic. Papagos correctly identified the best defensive option for the Yugoslavs: mobilise around a central position in southern Yugoslavia where a junction could be affected with the Anglo–Greek forces in northern Greece.

Such an option was probably never open to the Yugoslavs, any more than abandoning Salonika was agreeable to Papagos: the disposition he favoured for the Yugoslavs meant, in practice, abandoning Belgrade to its fate, and few national armies would willingly abandon their capital in favour of a position preferred by allies. However, their patriotic determination left the Yugoslav armies strung out along the borders with Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary; lacking depth, they were quickly penetrated by panzer spearheads.

The Greek troops on the Bulgarian border were better prepared, to the extent that they occupied the fixed fortifications of the Metaxas Line, but they were wholly without air cover. Contrary to some of the unkind observations made of their army by the British and Anzac commanders, the Greeks in the Metaxas Line fought magnificently. Subjected to repeated Stuka attacks, they held out in their mountain bunkers for days, forcing the German mountain troops to blast them out. So fierce was the Greek resistance, the Germans gave up their attempts to take a number of bunker complexes, preferring to take the line of least resistance and bypass the most difficult garrisons. The German mountain troops (Gebirgsjaeger) were admittedly hampered by the snow and their inability to get more than pack artillery up the mountains; nevertheless, the fighting was ‘hard, bitter and sometimes fanatical.’ A German war correspondent later reported that Greeks lying wounded in captured trenches still fought on with knives and bayonets. It took four days for the Germans to take Rupesco, the last bunker complex guarding the Rupel Pass; at the end of the fighting, the 5th Gebirgs Division buried 160 of its men.

While the Greeks fought hard on this, the eastern end of their line, the Allies rapidly faced a debacle around Doiran and further west. The 2nd Panzer Division pushed the Greek 19 Division aside in its drive down the Axios River, and Salonika itself fell on 9 April, even before the last of the Greek forts on the border had capitulated. Further west again, the rest of the 40 Korps drove through southern Yugoslavia such that, by 8 April, its leading formation, the SS Leibstandarte Brigade, was already rushing toward the Monastir Gap. This opening in the mountain ranges of the Balkans allowed the Germans to threaten the Florina Valley in northern Greece — by cascading down this valley, the Germans could not only complete a double envelopment of the Greeks in Thrace, but turn Wilson out of the Vermion–Olympus line as well.

Rowell later wrote bluntly that ‘our troubles started on 8 April’. At a command conference at 11.00 a.m. that day, Wilson attempted to deal with this crisis by creating a blocking force ‘to stop a blitzkrieg down the Florina gap’. Orders from this conference went to Mackay at 7.30 p.m., instructing him to take command of the Florina Gap operation.

Wilson chose the Australian 19 Brigade as the basis of ‘Mackay Force’; but, with only two of its three battalions available in time, he brought its infantry up to strength by attaching to it the 1/Rangers taken from Briagadier H. Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade. To stiffen his roadblock, Wilson also added to it half of the 27 MG Battalion of the NZ Division, together with a range of artillery units, including the British 2 Royal Horse Artillery and the 64th Medium Regiment. The artillery element was then completed with the 19 Brigade’s own 2/3rd Field Regiment and, to cope with the expected German tanks, a divisional unit from Mackay’s 6th Division, the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. In charge of the whole operation, Mackay devolved local command forward at Vevi to Brigadier G. A. Vasey of the 19 Brigade. On 9 April, Vasey got orders to hold the northern entrance to the Kleidi Pass, south of the tiny village of Vevi, for as a long as possible, so that the rest of W Group could prepare a position on the Aliakmon River and the defiles around Mount Olympus.

What Vasey lacked was tanks. Wilson, who had driven the tank expert Percy Hobart out of the British army in 1939, showed his ignorance of armoured warfare on arrival in Greece by deploying his only tank unit — the 1st Armoured Brigade — as an old-fashioned cavalry screen. Rather than hold back its hitting power for the decisive moment, Wilson sent the 1st Armoured forward to the northern end of the Kozani Valley, where it was ‘given the role of holding the line of the River Vardar [Axios] with the object of delaying the enemy and covering the preparations for demolitions’. With this work done, the brigade withdrew into reserve under Mackay, albeit with its infantry battalion and artillery detached to Vasey, leaving just the tanks at the rear. This misuse of the only Allied armoured unit would prove disastrous.

Vasey would need all of the artillery Wilson gave him, because the German force approaching the Allies at Vevi was led by one of the most feared units of the Reich. To give his conquests an overt political flavour, many of Hitler’s attacks were led by units of the Waffen Shutzstaffeln — the fanatical SS. And so it was in Greece, where heading toward the Australians and their allies at Vevi was the premiere unit of the Waffen-SS, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, then a brigade-sized formation and, later, expanded to a full division. This would be the only time in the whole of the Second World War that Australian troops were in action against these notorious Nazis.

Hitler’s ascension to power had been achieved by an adroit combination of credibility at the ballot box and force of arms on the streets, and it was the SS that played a leading role in the violence. Translated, schutzstaffeln means protection squads, and this was the literal role of the SS — to protect Hitler and other leading Nazis from the strong German communist movement, and to advance Nazi aims where violence was needed to achieve them. Yet as Nazi political strength grew, so too did tensions within the movement. Along with Hitler, Ernst Röhm was a founding member of the Nazis, and indeed had mentored Hitler while the latter was still a corporal in the defeated German army in 1919. Under Röhm’s leadership, the SA (Sturmabteilung), or ‘Brown Shirts’, developed as the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing but, throughout the 1920s, Röhm and Hitler squabbled over its control and mode of operation. To Hitler, the Brown Shirts were a sub-component of the larger Nazi organisation, and therefore subject to its political needs and strategy. For Röhm, the SA was a means by which the spirit of German militarism could be kept alive, so that when the German army was freed from the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, a mass army would be readily at hand; at that moment, the SA would be merged into the Wehrmacht, the regular army.

Röhm’s ideas alarmed the generals, which at this stage of his career Hitler could ill-afford. As political differences over the role of the SA intensified, Hitler’s need for a paramilitary counter-weight grew, something he found in the expansion of the Nazi bodyguard organisation. As the violent spearhead of Nazism, Heinrich Himmler’s SS embodied its most fundamental beliefs. First was an unquestioning commitment to the Fuhrerprinzip — loyalty to the leader. When Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit was reorganised in November 1933 as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, its members swore an appropriate oath: ‘We swear to you Adolf Hitler, loyalty and bravery. We pledge to you and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience unto death. So help us God.’

Second, the SS practised the anti-Semitic racism on which Hitler built his wider political program. Qualification requirements for the Leibstandarte therefore included not only rigorous physical requirements (a minimum height of five feet eleven inches), but also a genetic test — ‘pure Aryan blood’ dating back to 1800 for the enlisted men, and a similarly pristine lineage to 1750 for officers. It was these fanatics who dealt with Röhm in the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, rounding up and murdering hundreds of SA leaders on Hitler’s orders. The commander of the Leibstandarte, Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, played a prominent role in this gangland war. On Hitler’s express orders, he murdered the Munich leadership of the SA, including several former close comrades.

Still in command of the Leibstandarte, it was Dietrich who led the Germans into action at Vevi against Mackay Force. He had joined the Nazi Party in 1928, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the SS. Like many Nazis, he was a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. A highly experienced soldier, he helped pioneer storm-troop tactics, in which specially trained assault units were equipped with a combination of arms to achieve maximum firepower in breakthrough operations. Beside their revolutionary military doctrine, the development of these elite forces had ideological consequences that Dietrich would later personify. The storm-troopers were granted a range of special privileges, and a greater sense of egalitarianism existed between men and officers than prevailed anywhere else in the hide-bound army of the kaiser. The success of storm-troop tactics on the battlefield generated a joy of conquest that resulted in a ‘spiritual, almost mystical state of mind compounded by a profound contempt for the civilian world and bourgeois way of life’. Many storm-troopers, unable to adjust to civilian life, joined the Freikorps: right-wing vigilante groups formed by militant officers opposed to the Treaty of Versailles.

Schooled in this milieu, Dietrich had rounded out his military education with service in the first tank units of the German army in 1918. During the tumult of the German civil war in 1919, Dietrich served in the Bavarian police force. Far from keeping the peace, this was a bastion of far-right extremism that cooperated with, and protected, the various Freikorps brigades, which had slaughtered the German left in a series of street battles at the behest of the weak constitutional government newly established at Weimar. Having supped with the devil, the Weimar cabinet then found the Freikorps activists bent on a campaign of assassination against even themselves, including foreign minister Walter Rathenau, Germany’s munitions-production expert in the First World War. He was gunned down in 1922; in a sign of things to come for Germany, one of Rathenau’s ‘crimes’ was that he was Jewish. Dietrich was a fixture in this reign of terror. His services were in constant demand, and his pre-Nazi street-fighting career ended with a spell in the Reinhard Brigade, another Freikorps force established to repel a Polish attempt to occupy Upper Silesia. The success of that campaign in 1921 later became a standard in Nazi folklore. Coincidentally, Dietrich met Hitler for the first time that year.

Dietrich’s senior commanders at Vevi had much in common with him. The Nazi movement was built on lower-middle and working-class discontent, by men who had served Germany in the First World War, and who bitterly resented the failure of traditional, conservative German politics as represented by the Prussian, Junkers aristocracy. Casting around for a new political force to revive German nationalism, they found their leader in Hitler. Few had a university education, or occupied leadership positions in business or public administration — Nazism truly was a revolution of the corporals.

Before 1914, Dietrich was an apprentice in the hotel trade, and after the war he worked as a clerk and garage attendant. The commander of his reconnaissance unit, the Aufklärungsabteilung, was Kurt Meyer, the son of a factory worker — Meyer himself worked as a factory hand and miner, and was wounded in the First World War. In command of the Leibstandarte’s I Battalion was Fritz Witt. Too young to have seen service in the kaiser’s army, his civilian career in textile sales never rose to dizzy heights. In Germany, Witt’s generation was brought up in the shadow of wartime slaughter, and then felt the white heat of post-war economic catastrophe: their most popular cultural response was to recoil from the modern world, and to seek solace in return-to-nature movements. Idyllic perhaps, but a contemporary commentator observed of young Germans like Witt that ‘their most significant feature is their lack of humanity, their disrespect for anything human’. Witt would honour the epithet with horrifying commitment.

Like the Australian infantry at Vevi, the Leibstandarte already had extensive war experience, and through it gained a reputation for brutality and atrocity. In Poland, the Wehrmacht sought to have Dietrich court-martialled for atrocities against civilians, but the Nazi leadership solved that problem by removing the SS from the legal jurisdiction of the army. In the blitzkrieg campaign against France and the Low Countries, Dietrich’s men were again to the fore, driving rapidly into Holland and ending the campaign at Dunkirk. Faced there with stiffening British resistance, Dietrich narrowly avoided death when his car was ambushed by British machine-gunners. The men of the Leibstandarte responded to this affront by massacring 80 British prisoners outside the Belgian village of Wormhouldt. The SS mixed this kind of bestiality with extraordinary bravery under fire. In one of the few substantial British counterattacks in May 1940, Witt won Nazi Germany’s highest decoration, the Knights Cross, by taking on 20 Matilda tanks armed only with hand grenades.

The SS naturally took their military philosophy from the tenets of Nazi ideology. Hitler himself was anti-modern, in the sense that he valued the will to victory and selfless attack as supreme military virtues: he therefore disliked the machine-gun because it heralded the end of hand-to-hand combat. The mythic figure of an invincible Aryan warrior hurling himself at the enemy at all costs was at the heart of SS tactical doctrine. Personifying the point, Meyer later acquired the nickname ‘Speedy’ in the fighting in the Soviet Union, in honour of his propensity for lightning attacks, pressed home whatever the situation. The SS cultivated for themselves an image as latter-day Teutonic knights whose duty in life was to preserve German blood from contamination by Semites, Slavs, and communists. Publicity portraits of Dietrich, Meyer, Witt, and other SS ‘stars’ celebrated the Nazi enthusiasm for martial pageantry, a propaganda role they revelled in. Witt in particular was known as an immaculate dresser who took great pains with the arrangement of his SS regalia and decorations, a celebrity image completed by his frequent companion — a pet German shepherd, Bulli.

Paradoxically, despite the Nazi indifference to technology as a determinant of battle, the SS enjoyed the use of some superb equipment in the first half of the war. Despite massive rearmament in the 1930s, German munitions production was still quite limited between 1940 and 1941, forcing the Nazis to concentrate their best weapons in a handful of units. This turned their army into something of an anachronistic spear, with a mechanised, twentieth-century tip and a nineteenth-century horse-drawn shaft. The Leibstandarte and the panzer divisions were definitely at the sharp end and, due to the excellence of German science and engineering, went to Vevi with outstanding equipment. Their automatic infantry weapons, the MP38 machine pistol and the MG34 machine-gun, combined mechanical reliability with light weight and high rates of fire — the MG 34 fired at twice the rate of the British Vickers, but weighed only half as much. For battlefield mobility, the SS could call on the SdK 251 armoured personnel carrier, which had no rival in British ranks. A ‘half track’, the SdK 251 had normal truck wheels at the front, and tracks like a tank at the rear. This married truck-like speed with the cross-country performance of a tank. Atop this chassis was an armour shell, which allowed the SdK 251 to carry its section of ten infantrymen into battle on all terrains with the benefit of armoured protection.

For close-fire support, the Leibstandarte had the StuG III assault gun, a kind of turret-less tank. A brute of a machine, with its pushed-in nose the StuG III looked uncannily like a bull terrier, and for good reason — both were designed for close-quarter combat. Erich Manstein, the officer whose brilliant plans were the basis of the German campaign against France, developed the StuG III in the mid-1930s, looking for an uncomplicated armoured vehicle that could provide support to infantry in attacks on defended positions. He achieved his goal by removing the turret from a standard tank and installing a 75-millimetre gun into the body of the vehicle itself. Brought up close to fortified positions, it simply blasted a way through for German troops; with its heavy armour, the StuG III was invulnerable to the standard two-pound anti-tank gun of the British armies (a gun named for the weight of the shell it fired). The Leibstandarte had a battery of StuG III assault guns at Vevi; for anti-tank and anti-aircrarft artillery, the SS had batteries of the dual purpose 88-millimetre gun, an outstanding weapon that would dominate battlefields until 1945.

In using these fearsome weapons, the SS also benefited from the revolution in German tactical doctrine that had taken place between the wars. Whereas the British, content with their victory in 1918, reverted to tradition and neglected the innovative possibilities of armoured warfare, German officers like Heinz Guderian took up the lessons of the first tank actions and theorised a totally new way of waging war. Central to this thinking was not so much the tank in isolation, but the combination of all arms around the tank. Guderian understood that infantry now needed to move at the same pace and with the same protection as the tank, to accompany it into battle and deal with its enemies — anti-tank and field artillery. Likewise, artillery needed to be mechanised, so that it, too, could go where the tank could. The point of this combination was not to batter against the enemy’s strongest fortifications, in repetition of the Somme and Verdun, as the British anticipated with their Matilda tanks. Instead, Guderian and his disciples sought out the line of least resistance. A breakthrough at the weakest point of the enemy line would then allow the fast-moving armoured columns to penetrate to, and destroy, the heart of modern armies — their supply and command organisation. Even with the quality of their equipment, it was these doctrinal advances that gave the German army its advantage over its British rival in the first half of the war.

These differences in military philosophy extended to how the aeroplane should be used over the modern battlefield. Apart from the SS, the Luftwaffe was the German armed service most imbued with Nazi politics. Germany had been banned from forming a military air service by the Treaty of Versailles, and it was the Nazis who publicly resuscitated a German air force. Even by then, however, the German army had conducted a rigorous analysis of air tactics and doctrine during the 1920s, and even formed a clandestine air wing, using a rented base in the Soviet Union as a training venue. While the British and Americans spent the inter-war years pursuing the fantasy of ‘independent’ strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, the Germans emphasised the aeroplane’s use as an assault and reconnaissance weapon on the battlefield itself (one British air force officer, who wrote a pre-war book which argued that the bomber was not a battlefield weapon, remarked with some chagrin after the Luftwaffe’s efforts in the Battle of France that he was now being ‘considerably ragged’ for it).

Each of the German panzer divisions in Greece commanded their own aircraft reconnaissance squadron; and, of course, blitzkrieg itself was indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the dive-bombing raids of the bent-winged ‘Stukas’, the Junkers 87s, which blasted defensive positions right in front of attacking troops. The doctrinal superiority of German air-support tactics was then infinitely compounded by the sheer weight of aircraft they could put into Greek skies.

In Bulgaria, for the close support of the invading German army, was Fliegerkorps VIII with 414 aircraft; further back, in Austria and Rumania, Luftflotte 4 had a further 576 aircraft available. Even these formations did not exhaust the German riches; in Sicily was Fliegerkorps X with another 168 aircraft, which was already being used to interdict Allied sea routes, operations crowned by the obliteration of Pireaus. The British, by contrast, had to split their Mediterranean airpower between North Africa and Greece, where they could deploy just ten squadrons, most of them based on airfields around Athens, with a nominal strength of 72 twin-engined Blenheim bombers, 36 modern Hurricane fighters, and even 18 antique Gloster Gladiators biplanes, which were little different in design, construction, and armament from a First World War fighter. Small wonder that Australian and New Zealand veterans remarked that in the three weeks of fighting in Greece, they scarcely saw any friendly aircraft overhead.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part II

The well-equipped and highly motivated fanatics of the SS descended on Vevi with great speed. In countering them, Vasey’s problems at Vevi were prodigious: the Allied position lacked both depth and fixed defences, the weather was poor, and many of his units were tired from the route marches needed to get to the front. A regular soldier, George Alan Vasey had served as an artillery officer and brigade major in the first AIF. Between the wars, he graduated from the Indian army’s staff college at Quetta, and then served on exchange for two years with the Indians. Leadership at Vevi would be Vasey’s first brigade command, after he spent the Libyan campaign on the staff of 6th Division. He came to the 19 Brigade in curious circumstances. Brigadier Horace Robertson, who led the unit through the desert fighting, concluded well in advance that the Greek campaign would be a disaster. He took the opportunity to repair to hospital for treatment on his varicose veins to avoid being associated with it, hoping for more propitious command opportunities in the future. His strategic acumen was commendable, but his career planning less successful: it would be 1945 before Robertson got another combat command.

In these slightly unseemly circumstances, Vasey stepped into Robertson’s place. Described as ‘highly strung, thrustful, hard working’, Vasey would need all of these personal qualities, and more. Upon arriving in the area, Vasey found his force bolstered by only two Greek units — the 21 Regiment and the Dodecanese Regiment, the latter manned by troops from the Aegean islands. These formations were typical of the Greek army: individually brave, but poorly equipped, often with antique rifles that pre-dated even the First World War, and supplied not by railway or truck, but by mule trains.

At Vevi, the Monastir Valley narrows into a pass that traverses the higher country to the south. It was, in effect, the side door to the whole of Greece for the invading Germans. The village of Vevi itself was like many other hamlets in the Greek high country: a cluster of stone houses and dirt roads, snow-bound in winter. In ancient times, forests clad the mountains, home to abundant game and even big cats now long-extinct on the European mainland, but thousands of years of human habitation had stripped the ranges of timber, leaving the uplands completely denuded. Vevi stood at the head of the pass, through which passed a railway line and road, running in parallel to the south.

To guard the barren ranges around the pass, Vasey was forced to string his units out over a line that he estimated to be 13 to 15 kilometres in length. The map distance was one thing, but the mountainous country compounded the defence problem because it was so liable to infiltration. Vasey did at least have some engineering capacity to work with. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company arrived on-site at 7.00 a.m. on 9 April, and immediately began work. Three roads entered Vevi, from the north-west, north-east, and the south: each was cratered by explosive charges. Sergeant Johnson later reported on how these roadblocks were prepared:

[W]e set to work with bar and hammer. After jumping two holes approximately 4 feet deep, a stick of gelignite with fuse and det was placed in each hole to bull chamber sufficient for each charge. After getting holes ready for charge, we placed approximately 50 lbs of gelignite in each of two charges and blew the crater by 10.00 hours. This showed a crater of approximately 8 feet deep and approximately 16 feet wide. After directing a stream of water that was coming from the village into the crater, we built a stone wall as a tank stop approximately 5 feet high and 30 feet long.

The railway was also blown, once on the outskirts of Vevi and again at the head of the pass, where a small bridge was demolished. The 2/1 Field Company completed its work by laying fields of anti-tank mines: the largest of them south-west of Vevi, another at the head of the pass behind the railway–road demolition, and a third within the pass. Smaller minefields were also laid on the eastern flank, along roads leading into Petrais and Panteleimon.

While the engineers had heavy equipment to help them, the infantry struggled on the high ground to prepare weapon pits in the rock-hard mountain slopes. On the extreme left was the Greek 21 Regiment and, next to them on a four-mile front, the 2/4th Battalion. In the centre, Vasey placed the 1/Rangers, just south of Vevi village and astride the road in the bottom of the valley, buttressed by the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. On the crucial high ground to the east of the British (Point 997) was the 2/8th Battalion; on their right, the Dodecanese held a long line right up to the shores of Lake Vegorritis. At the southern end of the pass, Vasey deployed his artillery, coordinated by observation posts on the forward hills. Vasey kept his considerable artillery force under a centralised command, and had the good fortune to have with him for this role the commander of the 6th Division’s artillery, Brigadier Edmund Herring. Behind this thin line was the British 1st Armoured Brigade at Sotir, less its infantry and artillery. Even this small tank force was then split in two: the cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were with Charrington at Sotir, but the light tanks of the 4th Hussars were a further 50 kilometres south, at Proastin. Vasey positioned his own force headquarters to the west of the Vevi road, under trees near the village of Xynon Neron.

The first unit to go into position was the 1/Rangers; the 2/4th Battalion, the 2/1st Anti-Tank, and the New Zealand machine-gunners followed on the morning of 9 April. The 2/4th moved up onto the high ground to the west during the day, only for its men to spend the night digging three separate positions as they were moved about the hills. Conditions were cold and miserable: Lieutenant Claude Raymond of the battalion’s signals unit resorted to singing Christmas carols to keep up the spirits of his men.

To his Australian and British infantry, Vasey added the firepower of the Kiwi machine-gunners from 1 and 2 companies, the 27 MG Battalion. This unit had been broken up to distribute the available Vickers guns, and while one half went to Vevi, the other, made up of 3 and 4 companies, buttressed the 5 NZ Brigade at Olympus Pass. The 27 MG Battalion was a model of imperial defence, not just for the flawed organisational doctrine it represented, but for the way the constituent parts of the empire came together within it: Kiwi crews manning British-designed guns, manufactured at the Australian Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, New South Wales.

Operating to a shared doctrine, these machine-gun battalions could in theory go where they were most needed — while the Australian 2/1st MG Battalion reinforced New Zealand infantry at Servia Pass, the Kiwi machine-gunners did the same for Vasey’s men at Vevi. These units could also be broken down into their constituent companies to reinforce a position where a full battalion could not be employed — thus, while two companies of the 27 MG Battalion went to Vevi, its 3 and 4 companies stiffened the New Zealand brigade holding the passes at Mount Olympus. Less satisfactory was the assumption that units could be broken up and distributed as required, and retain their cohesion under the stresses of battle when these sub-units fought alongside strangers.

At Vevi, the Kiwi machine-gunners were deployed mostly through the line on the left held by the 2/4th Battalion, and further west by the Greek 21 Regiment. In the centre, only two sections were in position to help the Rangers — Lieutenant W. F. Liley, a 26-year-old platoon commander from New Plymouth, thought the English infantry were ‘extremely thin on the ground’, estimating that ‘some sections were 50 yards apart’.

The Germans first tested this fragile defence line on the night of 9 April. The 1/Rangers reported that a platoon on patrol had been missing since 8.30 p.m. on 9 April, and a sentry in forward position was killed later in the night. Sappers of the 2/1 Field Company, waiting to blow another demolition to be timed with the approach of the Germans, bore witness to this first contact with the SS. Sergeant Johnson again reported:

At exactly five minutes past twelve (10 April), we were awakened by the sound of shooting and sentries whistles. On investigating, we were met with the sight of one of the sentries killed. He had gone forward to investigate and challenge a party of seven dressed in Greek uniforms. They all seemed to get around him, and he was trying to explain to them that no-one was allowed to go past him. Suddenly, two of the patrol fired. They turned out to be Germans and fifteen .303 and eight .38 bullets were fired at point blank range. We searched the locality but could find no sign of the party. At approx. 01.30 hrs, we heard a motor start and a car go off in the direction of the German lines.

The inexperience of the 1/Rangers evident in these first exchanges with the ruthless SS did not augur well, but the front was still fluid, allowing a New Zealand armoured-car patrol to go forward into Yugoslavia on 10 April. The day was cold and wet when Lieutenant D. A. Cole led three Marmon Herrington cars north toward Bitolj with orders to destroy a stone bridge, a mission that resulted in the first award for valour in the 2nd NZEF. Finding their bridge south of Bitolj, Cole covered the demolition work, and sent further forward the car commanded by Corporal King as a point guard.

The New Zealanders had hardly begun laying their charges when they were interrupted by the arrival of a column of the Leibstandarte. To hold up the Germans for as long as possible, King boldly advanced and challenged their fire, for which he received the Military Medal, only to be killed a week later in an air attack. Even with the bravery of King and his crew, Cole could not complete the demolition as the German fire intensified: ‘the enemy were using explosive bullets and the outsides of the cars were rapidly getting stripped of such things as bedding and tools’. Conditions inside the Marmon Herringtons were also decidedly uncomfortable, as German rounds pinged against the armour plates, dislodging the asbestos insulation and covering the crews in a fine dust. In danger of being overwhelmed, Cole got his cars together and sped away before the bridge could be blown; by way of compensation, he burnt two wooden bridges as the New Zealanders made good their escape to the south. They were not yet home, however: coming to a Yugoslav village, Cole found a German detachment already in occupation. Gunning the big cars, the New Zealanders sped through the village, firing as they went, and returned safely to Allied lines.

The size of the German column heading south had already come to the attention of the RAF, and during 10 April the infantry on the high ground around Vevi at least had the satisfaction of watching friendly bombers attack the approaching German columns. During these raids, a British Hurricane fighter was shot down by the Germans. As an integrated all-arms formation, the Leibstandarte was well equipped with automatic 37-millimetre anti-aircraft cannon, deadly to low-flying aircraft. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant ‘Timber’ Woods, crash-landed his fighter in no-man’s-land, and was brought back into friendly lines by a patrol from the 2/4th Battalion led by Lieutenant K. L. Kesteven (Woods was killed in action over Athens later in the month, in the last great air battle to defend the Greek capital).

The Germans coming up to Vevi were also harassed by Allied artillery fire: Captain G. Laybourne Smith of the 2/3rd Field Regiment was pleased with his battery’s work in laying fire onto Germans debussing on the plain, directing the shoot from his observation post in the hills. The artillery fire was not the only obstacle facing the SS. Leading the German column approaching Vevi was Untersturmfuhrer Franz Witt, younger brother of the commander of I Battalion: his car hit a mine laid by the 2/1st Field Company. Despite efforts to aid him, Franz died of his wounds; on the eve of the battle, a visibly distressed Fritz viewed his younger brother’s body laid out in a Greek house.

Throughout 10 April, the 2/8th Battalion struggled to get forward. Having been trucked as far as Xynon Neron (hampered by refugee traffic, the last 96 kilometres took six hours to traverse), the 2/8th had a 25-to-30-kilometre route march over broken country to take up its position. It only reached its objective, Point 997, in the evening gloom at 6.00 p.m. The unit’s medical officer was horrified by the condition of the troops, a fifth of them new recruits, insufficiently hardened for the campaign. As the men climbed up Point 997, some even began to suffer from altitude sickness. Snow and mist compounded the misery of the Australians. When they finally began digging in, they found the ground to be mostly rock; with their light entrenching tools, they were unable to excavate weapon pits of any depth. To afford some protection to their firing positions, they threw up sangars (another term taken from the Libyan campaign, describing a firing position formed by building a stone wall on top of the ground) as best they could. Finally, the 2/8th discovered that the Bren-gun carriers, which should have given them all-terrain capability, were useless in the conditions. Standing only 1.5 metres tall, and with a modest 65-horsepower motor, the gun carriers had insufficient ground clearance for the sodden earth in the bottom of the valley, or the power to climb the hills above. They were soon bogged in mud once they left the main Kleidi–Vevi road. This meant that the men were unable to bring forward hot food, which further dented morale.

The hasty assembly of the defending force showed in myriad ways, one of the more comical being the arrest by Greek police of Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Mitchell, a Melbourne company director and now CO of 2/8th Battalion — the suspicious local constabulary thought the Australian colonel was a spy.

The defenders endured yet another snowfall during the night of 10 April, equipped only with greatcoats and blankets, sustained by hardtack and bully beef. In the cold and snow, the two sides fought further patrol actions, and the result for the Allies was not propitious. A German force of about 20 men infiltrated the centre-right of Mackay Force and, confusing their opponents by calling out in good English, captured 11 New Zealanders, six Rangers, and six men of the 2/8th Battalion. Fire-fights then broke out in front of the foremost element of the 2/8th Battalion, the 14 Platoon, entrenched on the forward slope of Point 997. In this confused action, two wounded SS men were taken prisoner, and from their insignia the Australians first learnt that the Leibstandarte was in the line against them. The more lightly wounded German was removed to Corps Headquarters near Elasson, where he was interrogated by Private Geoffery St Vincent Ballard, a German-speaking signaller with the 4 Special Wireless Section. Sitting on the tailgate of a truck, Ballard struck up a conversation with ‘Kurt’, established he was from Berlin, and gathered from him some ‘low-level information’ about the composition and role of the Leibstandarte.

The eleventh of April opened with a blizzard, and the Allied troops were united in their misery. The New Zealand machine-gunners had spent the night in sodden gunpits, their boots waterlogged. In the morning, they even found several guns frozen and unable to fire. Conditions on the higher ground occupied by the Australian infantry were more difficult again: the 2/8th Battalion, at least, finally found a use for their cumbersome and despised anti-gas capes, which helped to keep the men dry. Regardless of this modest protection, men began to drop out with frostbite.

At six o’clock that morning, Dietrich issued his divisional orders, forming a kampfgruppe (battle group) around his I Battalion by adding to it artillery reinforcements and StuG III assault guns, and by instructing the grieving Fritz Witt to push on to Kozani through the Kleidi Pass. In an attempt to fulfil those orders, 7 Company of I Battalion pushed through Vevi village and launched an assault on Point 997 from 7.30 p.m.: the attempt was abandoned due to inadequate artillery support and the gathering darkness. The 2/4th Battalion on the left also reported defeating a heavy attack at this time, and a number of Allied units reported that, in the course of the fighting, two German ‘tanks’, undoubtedly the assault guns, had been disabled on minefields. It would seem from German records that what the Anzacs in fact observed was merely the withdrawal of these vehicles, as Kampfgruppe Witt abandoned its efforts for the day. Vasey duly reported to Mackay at 9.50 p.m. that he had the ‘situation well in hand’.

Nevertheless, the Germans were obviously gathering their strength for a decisive assault on the Allied position. The hard-driving Vasey, clearly appreciating the difficulties facing his men, demanded that they not shirk the issue. He issued an order of the day on the evening of 11 April that said much about his own blunt character: ‘You may be tired,’ he acknowledged, ‘you may be uncomfortable. But you are doing a job important to the rest of our forces. Therefore you will continue to do that job unless otherwise ordered.’

Mitchell, in command of 2/8th Battalion, followed up Vasey’s exhortation and ordered that no member of the unit leave his post from 9.00 p.m. An hour later, the Germans attempted their infiltration trick again, complete with cultured English voices, but on this occasion were met by an alert 14 Platoon that responded with heavy fire. In their unit diaries, the Germans noted the nervousness in the Allied line — any noise during the night was met by a barrage of artillery fire; indeed, the 2/3rd Field Regiment later acknowledged that it spent much of the night firing into a hillside on a false alarm that German tanks had penetrated the pass. Such incidents might seem comical in retrospect, but they also eroded Allied strength: earlier on the 11 April, a squadron of precious cruiser tanks from the 1st Armoured Brigade was despatched from the reserve at Sotire to investigate a report that German tanks were sweeping around the extreme right, along Lake Vegorritis. They found nothing in the barren snow-clad hills, and managed only to disable six of their cruiser tanks when their tracks broke on the rough ground.

By 12 April, the Mackay Force units had nearly accomplished their task, and indeed had orders to begin withdrawing from 5.30 p.m. that evening. Unfortunately, that planned withdrawal was upstaged by the long-heralded German attack. At 6.00 a.m., Dietrich gave his men their final orders: Witt was to punch through the Allied centre and advance on Sotir; a second assault force drawn from the 9th Panzer Division, recently arrived on the scene (Kampfgruppe Appel), would flank the Allied left through Flambouron; and on the Allied right, another impromptu formation from the Leibstandarte, Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt, would attack Kelli. Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion was ready to exploit any breakthrough, and the Leibstandarte’s assault-gun battery was moved in behind Witt to force the issue.

The decisive action between the Allies and the SS was now at hand. In the bottom of the valley, helping to guard the two-pound guns with the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, was Kevin Price, manning a Bren gun. The first thing that warned Price of the impeding battle was the noise — mechanised warfare brought with it the hum and roar of thousands of petrol engines: ‘We could hear the sound, this tremendous roar as they came down the road, with their tanks and weapons, their motor bikes were out in front, they were testing where we were dug in.’ Shortly after eight in the morning, up on the high ground to the right, Bob Slocombe and the rest of the 14 Platoon, 2/8th Battalion, were getting their first hot meal for days. This welcome breakfast, however, was interrupted by German shelling, and the SS infantry followed in hard behind.

In this foremost Australian position, the 14 Platoon was quickly in trouble. Slocombe remembers his platoon commander, 20-year-old Lieutenant Tommy Oldfield, trying to rally his troops, drawing his service revolver, and moving gamely into the open. A more experienced soldier, Slocombe yelled, ‘For Christ’s sake, Tommy, come back.’ But it was too late, and Oldfield was cut down in this, his first action. As the official historian recorded, Oldfield had enlisted at eighteen, been commissioned as an officer at nineteen, and was now dead at twenty. Even with these heroics, the 14 Platoon was in grave jeopardy, and a number of sections were overrun. Slocombe himself fought his way out to the safety of a reverse slope, where with 17 or 18 others he helped to hold up the Germans until mid-afternoon.

Slocombe’s temper would probably not have been helped had he known that, at 11.50 a.m., headquarters of the 6th Division recorded the action being fought on Point 997 as a ‘slight penetration’ of the defences. The staff of higher command had their minds elsewhere at the time, being deep in conference with Colonel Pappas, a staff officer with the Central Macedonian army, on how the withdrawal of the Dodecanese on the right might be achieved. Without trucks, the Greeks faced the prospect of leaving behind 1200 wounded. The Australians did not always excel at the diplomacy needed to manage relations with their allies: on this occasion, they were clearly frustrated by the scale of the problem presented to them by Pappas; at 1.00 p.m., Mackay finally issued orders to make 30 three-ton lorries available to the Dodecanese. The wounded soldiers whom the trucks could not carry would apparently have to march out, or face capture.

Although headquarters might have been sanguine, the loss of the forward slope of Point 997 had much more profound and unfortunate consequences for the 19 Brigade. In the valley, the 1/Rangers were effectively fighting alongside strangers, having been removed from their familiar role as the infantry element in a tank brigade. The English soldiers, seeing the 14 Platoon in trouble, thought their right had been turned, and began pulling back. In reality, the fighting that morning on Point 997 was only a patrol action, in conformity with Dietrich’s orders that vigorous patrols be sent out prior to the main attack scheduled for 2.00 p.m. However, to exploit any success by these patrols, Dietrich ordered that ‘wherever the enemy shows signs of withdrawing, he is to be followed up at once,’ and the dislodging of the 14 Platoon encouraged the Germans to continue to press the Australians.

Thus, even though the main assault was still being prepared, the German success on Point 997 prompted further local attacks to exploit the opening. Mitchell soon found both B and C companies, on his left, in trouble: he launched a counterattack mid-morning, borrowing a platoon from A Company, on the right, for the purpose, and supported it with covering fire from D Company, in the centre. This had some success, regaining part of the high ground, and the position of the 2/8th was stabilised, at least for the moment.

Down in the valley, however, the withdrawal of the 1/Rangers went on unabated. An officer of the 27 NZ MG Battalion, Captain Grant, the OC 1 Company, attempted to persuade the English infantry to hold their position, without success. Manning his Bren gun, Kevin Price remembers the British infantry streaming past the Australian anti-tank gunners. The withdrawal of the Rangers left these guns, along with the outposts of the New Zealand machine-gunners, without infantry support, and therefore in danger of being overrun. The only option for the gunners was to pull out. Unfortunately, five of the precious two-pounders could not be extricated from the mud in time, and had to be abandoned. By midday, the shaky line of the 2/8th Battalion on the heights on the right formed a large salient, as the Allied centre gave way down the pass; and, on the extreme right, the Dodecanese crumpled in the face of the advance by Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part III

The Battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941

The Allied line had therefore already lost cohesion when Witt launched his full assault from 2.00 p.m. This was supported in earnest by the StuG III assault guns. Slocombe was astounded by their presence, as his unit had been unable to get their feeble Bren-gun carriers onto the same ground. Another 2/8th veteran, Jim Mooney, found the German armour ‘untouchable’ with the Boys rifle, the standard British anti-tank weapon for infantry units. When the German armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) came onto an Australian position, there was little that could be done other than move back, covered by the fire of a supporting section.

The collapse of the infantry line exposed the remaining units in the valley who were preparing for the withdrawal. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company was getting ready the last of the demolitions to break the railway line deep in the pass, south of Kleidi, and Sergeant Scanlon, the leader of this party, found his work interrupted mid-afternoon by the arrival of the SS: ‘We commenced work at about 1500 hours, and had to do a hasty but thorough job as the enemy was advancing both along the road and the railway line with his armoured fighting vehicles.’ Scanlon’s attention to detail was greatly assisted by the nature of the explosives he had to work with, which included two naval depth charges, each with about 250 pounds of TNT packed within. These were used to blow the road: the railway line was disposed of with guncotton charges fixed to the rails. Scanlon readied his getaway car, which was a ‘utility truck with a Bren gun mounted’. He ordered his men to light their charges on the approach of the Germans and then, he describes:

[T]hey had just sighted enemy movement and lit their fuses, when a German patrol, who had worked their way onto a hill commanding this place, opened fire on them with M.G.s. This was at approx 18.30 hrs and was about half an hour after completing the preparation of the demolition. Luckily they got through, the two men on the railway line having to run about 200 yards under fire to gain the vehicle.

With the Vevi position unravelling, Vasey, regrettably, was out of touch with events. As Scanlan got about his work at 3.00 p.m. in the shadow of the panzers, Vasey reported confidently to the 6th Division that he ‘had no doubt that if the position did not deteriorate he would have no difficulty in extricating the Brigade according to plan’.

An officer of the 19 Brigade thought the atmosphere at brigade headquarters that afternoon was ‘almost too cool and calm’, and the implied criticism was warranted. Vasey had wanted to find a headquarters position further forward, but had not found anywhere suitable: as a result, the battle was determind while the Australian commander could only react to events.

At 5.00 p.m., Vasey at last informed 6th Division headquarters that the situation was serious. In response, at 7.45 p.m. the 6th Division sent forward a driver with a message authorising Vasey to bring forward the withdrawal at his discretion; but, in the chaos, the driver could not find him. By then, the position was a good deal worse than serious — the 2/8th was in desperate trouble, having its left flank exposed by the collapse of the 1/Rangers, and outflanked on the right by the withdrawal of the Dodecanese. The strong Allied artillery force at the southern end of the pass was under small-arms and mortar fire by the time of Vasey’s message, forcing the 2/3rd Field Regiment to pull back its 5th Battery, while its 6th Battery covered the movement with fire over open sights — a sure sign that the defence was in trouble, because it meant that the defending gun line was under direct attack. Even Vasey’s own brigade headquarters was under mortar attack. Vasey had little choice but to warn the 2/4th battalion commander, I. N. Dougherty, to get ready to withdraw. ‘The roof is leaking,’ he told Dougherty; as a consequence, the 2/4th had ‘better come over so we can cook up a plot’. Vasey at least took the sensible precaution of ordering his transport to remain where it was: had it come up as arranged, it may well have been mauled by the German armour, and the means to extricate the Allied force may have been lost. He also sent back to the 6th Division a liaison officer to give Mackay an eyewitness report: he arrived at 8.30 p.m., and Mackay thereby learned of the ‘increasing pressure’ on the 19 Brigade and of the discomfiture of the 2/8th Battalion.

Meanwhile, at the 2/8th Battalion headquarters, Mitchell attempted to regain contact with brigade headquarters, the phone line having gone dead. Two signallers sent to repair it were not seen again, so at 4.45 p.m. he despatched his signals officer, Lieutenant L. Sheedy, to the rear to report on the battalion’s plight. Sheedy found what he described as a tank (again, almost certainly a StuG III) already astride the road outside Kleidi, basking in the flames of a wireless truck it had destroyed. The presence of this vehicle cut the most direct and easiest line of withdrawal along the road. Sheedy also observed parties of Germans armed with sub-machine-guns chasing the fleeing 1/Rangers over the neighbouring hills.

By skirting trouble, and gaining shelter behind one of the few light tanks of the 4th Hussars behind the battlefront, Sheedy gained the forward position of the 2/3rd Field Regiment. Even as he gave his report, the artillery headquarters came under German machine-gun fire, and there was nothing in any event that could be done for the 2/8th, as the observation posts needed by the artillery for accurate fire had been swept away in the collapse. Liley, with the Kiwi machine-gunners, had already concluded that, as far as he could see, ‘there was no infantry reserve and no tanks or anything else to restore the position’, so he led his platoon to the rear. For extricating his men and their guns under fire, Liley received the Military Cross.

A conference of company commanders of the isolated 2/8th was called at 5.00 p.m., but Mitchell unwisely did not go forward to attend it, instead sending his adjutant, Captain N. F. Ransom: Mitchell apparently thought he was needed in the rear to restore communications with brigade headquarters. As soon as this command conference got under way, it was shelled by a tank on the ridge where C Company should have been, and subjected to machine-gun fire from the left. Under these anxious circumstances, the Australian commanders decided to withdraw in succession from the left. By now, three StuG III assault guns, together with an estimated 500 enemy infantry, were firmly ensconced on the position of C Company. One man from the 18 Platoon who stood up from his weapon pit at this time was blown apart by a direct hit from a 75-millimetre shell. B Company was assailed on three sides, and the battalion headquarters, medical-aid post, and ammunition dump were all under machine-gun fire. On the right, A Company was being flanked as the Dodecanese fell back under pressure from Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt.

In these desperate circumstances, a staged withdrawal was impossible and the retreat of the 2/8th Battalion became a rout. Denied the use of the road by German armour, the Australian infantry faced a march of 19 kilometres across waterlogged ridges to the reserve position, chased all the way by bloodthirsty packs of SS infantry. Men of their own volition began discarding their heavier weapons, particularly the useless Boys anti-tank rifle, but also the much more efficient Bren gun. D Company, the last to leave the forward position, was naturally under the most strain: the company’s second-in-command, Lieutenant S. C. Diffey, resorted to ordering his men to abandon their personal weapons to speed their escape. Such an order was nearly unthinkable in a disciplined military force and, when he learned of it, Vasey was unimpressed. He annotated the 19 Brigade war diary with the observation that after the action, the 2/8th could only raise 50 armed men, and wrote that Mitchell was ‘completely exhausted’.

Bob Slocombe of the beleaguered 14 Platoon eventually came across some British tanks, and was carried out on the back of one; many of his companions in the 2/8th were not so lucky, and only 250 answered the battalion rollcall that night in the village of Rodona. Mitchell, the battalion commander, got as far back as Perdika, and was interviewed there by the 6th Division CO Iven Mackay who, with possible understatement, thought Mitchell ‘a bit upset’. When Mackay learnt later that men of the 2/8th came back without their personal weapons, he was incensed: ‘It is my intention to hold an enquiry into this position to ascertain how and why so many members of this Bn [Battalion] came to be separated from their weapons.’ This inquiry never got underway because of the pressure of events later in the campaign.

On the other side of the valley, things were not greatly better for the 2/4th Battalion. At 5.00 p.m., Dougherty got the orders from Vasey to get out as best he could. This cheerful order followed several hours fighting on the battalion’s front, which had left Dougherty’s B Company nearly surrounded. The position here was similar to the problem faced by the 2/8th: with a flank in the air, this time on the right, the battalion could not hold its ground. Freed up by Vasey, Dougherty ordered that his right hold until dark to allow the rest of the battalion to fall back. Earlier in the day, Dougherty had wisely placed his carrier section in the rear of the battalion, where it could do the most good in assisting in a withdrawal.

An order like this, to stand fast in the face of overwhelming odds so that others may withdraw, is a desperate one, and it fell to Dougherty’s B Company to comply with it. Their hard and selfless work done, the men of B Company were eventually released to attempt their own escape. The story of Private ‘Dasher’ Deacon exemplifies the courage required. Holding on until virtually surrounded, Deacon lived up to his nickname, performing what he called a ‘Stawell Gift’ (a famous Australian foot race) up the forward slope, under artillery fire as he went. On the reverse slope, the Germans — with ‘Teutonic efficiency’, he caustically wrote — barred the way with mortar fire: a bomb fell between Deacon and two mates, killing the latter and blowing off Deacon’s boot. Staggering back, dazed and barefoot in the bitter cold, Deacon stumbled in the dark upon some of the battalion’s well-placed Bren-gun carriers, one of them occupied by Dougherty himself. Hauled aboard with his commander, Deacon recalled after the war that Dougherty’s help at this stressful moment had left a lighter legacy: ‘Why even today, when I see an unemployed Lieutenant Colonel walking, I always give him a lift!’ Unfortunately, Dougherty could not be everywhere at once, and only 49 of B Company’s 130 men answered rollcall that night.

As the dazed and disheartened Australian infantry stumbled to the south, the Leibstandarte celebrated taking the pass, but it was a victory that came at a cost. Witt’s Kampfgruppe saw 37 men killed and 95 wounded, and the Germans thought enough of the battle to award their highest decoration for valour, the Knight’s Cross, to Obersturmfuhrer Gert Pleiss, who led the final assault on the 2/8th.

Whatever the German casualty list, Mackay Force was devastated. Included in its losses were a further ten two-pound guns and 80 men of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, captured when the commanding officer of the column ignored Dougherty’s advice and attempted to retreat down the line of the railway, where the Germans were waiting. The senior staff officer of the 6th Division, Colonel R. B. Sutherland, went forward to assess the situation and reported at 10.00 p.m. on 12 April that the retiring motor transport of the 19 Brigade was in a state of disarray: he sought to re-establish order at Kozani by diverting the trucks west onto the ground allotted to the brigade in the withdrawal plans. The Greeks, however, were unimpressed by the work of the Mackay Force, Papagos complaining that its withdrawal, without (in his view) serious fighting, exposed the flank of the Greek 20 Division in the west.

Further forward, Vasey rallied his troops on a stop line along the ridge just south of Sotire, where the remaining company of the Rangers and two companies of the 2/4th received the support of the 1st Armoured Brigade. At dawn on 13 April, the SS were dug in 1000 yards from the Australian positions, and a fire-fight broke out immediately. Vasey, performing one of the battlefield reconnaissances that would make him a deeply popular commander, was caught in no-man’s-land. Dressed in a white raincoat, the Australian brigadier must have made a tempting target: Vasey scrambled out on hands and knees.

Also caught in no-man’s-land were over 100 Australian, British, Greek, and New Zealand prisoners who had been taken by the Germans during the night. Some were killed, and more than 30 others wounded in this exchange, before a further German attack went in against the Rangers on the left of the Allied line at 7.30 a.m. What was left of the English battalion was rescued by the intervention of the cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), which held the ground while the infantry got away.

The RAF attempted to disrupt the German pursuit, but was unable to repeat its success on the roads approaching Vevi three days before. As RAF bomber crews found, to their cost, with airfields now further forward, the Germans were in a better position to maintain air superiority over the battlefield. Thus, as it ran in to attack a German column near Florina, an entire formation of six Bristol Blenheim bombers was shot down by Bf 109 fighters of 6 Staffeln, Jagdgeschwader 27. The Germans also maintained constant bombing and strafing raids on the British aerodromes, especially the northern most airfield at Larisa, and these operations succeeded by mid-April in reducing RAF strength to just 26 Blenheims, 18 Hurricanes, 12 Gladiator biplanes, and five Lysander army cooperation aircraft.

With British air support failing, the 19 Brigade and the 1st Armoured Brigade fell back to a second stop line south of Ptolemais, but the Germans caught up with them again by 2.30 p.m. By then, the German pursuit was the responsibility of the 9th Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte having been ordered by Stumme to the west to cut off the retreat of Greek forces falling back from the Albanian front. Faced by the British armour south of Ptolemais, the division’s 33 Panzer Regiment pressed home its attack immediately, moving through swampland on the left of the British, hoping to catch the tanks of Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade in the rear. Again, the cross-country performance of the German armour was excellent, and even though seven of the panzers became bogged, the rest of the regiment emerged to fight a sharp tank battle with the 3rd Royal Tanks and the 4th Hussars around the village of Mavropiye.

The action was short but bitter. British anti-tank gunners claimed to have destroyed eight panzers, and the 3rd RTR thought they had accounted for five more. But as the battle reached a climax, Charrington found himself without a reserve with which to counter-attack, having made a cardinal sin before the battle. Lacking armoured cars with which to conduct reconnaissance patrols prior to the battle, Charrington split up his tanks, sending the 7 cruiser tanks of his headquarters troop to the New Zealand Division, in exchange for some of the Kiwi’s Marmon Harrington armoured cars. This division of the available tank fleet was a bad mistake, since the first principle of armoured warfare is concentration, and Charrington’s decision to split up his tanks again underlined British shortcomings in the way they handled what armour they had in Greece.

Charrington and his men now paid the price for this error, unable to meet the out-flanking advance of the German panzers. With the enemy just a few hundred yards from brigade headquarters, the unit’s war diarist later recorded with some understatement, ‘the lack of the protective troop

[that is, the tanks exchanged with the New Zealanders for armoured cars]

was very sorely felt …’ One of Charrington’s senior officers, Major R. W. Hobson, found a British cruiser tank withdraw into a position close by:

Up to now I had been unable to see anything, so I went down to the tank — whose commander I knew — and asked where the enemy were. ‘Just over there, about 300 yards away,’ he said; ‘and I don’t think it’s very healthy for you on your feet.’ Almost at that moment something whizzed and the ground was torn up just in front of my feet. Moments later that tank received a direct hit and burst into flames.

Under cover of sacrifices of this kind, Charrington quickly withdrew his headquarters, but the rapidity with which the British brigade left the battlefield caused its greatest losses, because vehicles broken down due to their poor mechanical reliability had to be destroyed: the 33rd Panzer Regiment reported 21 British tanks set ablaze by their crews. By the end of the day, the 1st Armoured Brigade was down to the strength of a weak squadron, and the only Allied tank force in Greece was effectively no more.

When men fight and die in wars, many more are horribly wounded. Once the Greek campaign began for the Anzacs at Vevi, that reality became clear to Mollie Edwards, who was back with the 2/5th AGH at Ekali. As the first casualties of the new campaign were ferried back to the hospital, she found peacetime medical procedures radically transformed by necessity. Medical staff performed their own sterilisations, using kerosene tins and a primus, and eventually made their own dressings as well. In normal times, nurses waited patiently while doctors prescribed drugs such as morphia; but, at Ekali, these demarcations evaporated overnight. Edwards was given a vial of morphia and a syringe, and told to get on with it. Writing out doses in red pen on tape, and sticking these on the foreheads of patients, Edwards was soon tending to 50 patients on a night shift, doing what she could for young men mangled in combat — ‘Many a time I held their hands while they died.’

Edwards had more work than she might otherwise have faced because of leadership failures in the days leading up to Vevi. Maitland Wilson was one of the traditionalists in the British army who derided the theories of armoured warfare advocated by Percy Hobart. He and Wavell had already paid one half of the account for dismantling their armoured formations, when Rommel gobbled up the dismembered 2nd Armoured Division in the desert on 8 April; at Vevi, they paid the balance. The basic error in splitting the 2nd Armoured was then compounded by the way Wilson handled his available tanks in the days leading up to Vevi, where his ignorance of armoured warfare showed all too clearly. The most precious commodity available to him — the all-arms 1st Armoured Brigade — was despatched to the extremity of the Allied line, and then broken up, its infantry and artillery detached from it, and the tanks left to operate in the old-fashioned role of a cavalry screen. This ensured that the force at Vevi was beaten in detail. At the first decisive engagement on 12 April, Vasey was routed for the want of armoured support. The pattern was repeated on the next day, only in the reverse, when the British tanks fought with little infantry or artillery support. Even a small number of tanks at Vevi operating behind an infantry and artillery screen would have allowed the 2/4th and 2/8th battalions to withdraw down the pass road, rather than face a cross-country retreat, pursued by fresher SS infantry and the deadly assault guns.

It was clear from the presence of German armour around Vevi on 11 April that the attack would be led by armoured vehicles but, on the crucial day, the available allied armour was at Amindaion, well behind the vital ground. Once again, as in France a year earlier, the British had failed to coordinate their forces in a way that brought a combined force into action at the decisive point.

Mackay, who was eventually given command of 1st Armoured Brigade as it fell back, had little experience in armoured warfare, like most of the Australian commanders at that time. He failed to get tank support forward to Vasey, perhaps because both the 19 Brigade and his own headquarters took such a benign view of the fighting for most of the day.

Admittedly, the Greek campaign was strategically flawed from the start, and was then further compromised by the commanding officers’ inability to face the inevitable loss of Thrace and to pull all remaining forces back to a central line that might be held, at least for some time. Wilson’s efforts, however, ensured that the campaign quickly degenerated into a rout, leaving the rear echelons of his army open to dislocation and loss. On the Vermion–Olympus Line, Wilson needed to follow the line of thinking that allowed the Australian general, Lavarack, to hold Tobruk when Rommel first assaulted it on 14 April, just days after Vevi. At that battle, Lavarack decisively stopped a German tank attack for the first time in the war, and he did so with infantry supported by a strong gun line, with his limited armour operating behind those defences to contain any breakthrough. Applied to Greece, these tactics would have seen the 1st Armoured Brigade operating as an integrated formation, behind the mountain passes held by infantry and artillery around Mount Olympus. Wilson’s handling of the 1st Armoured Brigade was but the latest rendition of a common British saga in the first half of the conflict — the persistent failure of British generals to handle tank forces with any sophistication or success, mainly because they defied the principles of concentration and all-arms cooperation.

At Vevi, the victims of this ineptitude were the long-suffering infantry. However, Mackay, the commanding officer of the 6th Division, was unimpressed by the showing of his units. Admittedly, he thought the anti-tank guns were sited too far forward, but he wrote critically that the Australians were not sufficiently trained to deal with German infiltration, and that ‘[i]n some cases the inf [infantry] did NOT show that essential determination to stay and fight it out when the enemy did filter around their flanks’. These drives around the flanks meant that ‘a few local successes by the enemy immediately rendered localities on either flank untenable for the enemy was too quick to reinforce these successes’.

Mackay had less to say about the lack of Allied armour at Vevi, and his own failure to get British tanks forward to help his infantry. Overrun by the Leibstandarte, the Australian 2/4th and 2/8th battalions were temporarily disabled as effective military formations. The later careers of the battalion commanders reflected their relative performance at Vevi — 34-year-old Dougherty was promoted to command a brigade in 1942, and led the 21 Infantry Brigade to the end of the war. In contrast, 50-year-old Mitchell was the oldest battalion commander in the AIF. The Australian army had set an age limit of 45 for battalion leaders, but Mitchell had pulled enough strings to escape the prohibition. However, his showing at Vevi validated the original wisdom of an upper-age limit — he was relieved of his command and relegated to lead a recruit-training centre for the rest of the war.

With the Mackay Force streaming back from Vevi in tatters, the door to central Greece was open. The Allied commanders now faced the prospect that their forward positions on the right, to the north of Mount Olympus, would be turned, and their whole force encircled. Much now would depend on the staying power of the Anzac infantry, who had to withdraw across snow-covered mountain passes, harried by the German air force.

Bristol Blenheim Nightfighters

The first night fighters to operate in 9 Group were a section of 29 Squadron Blenheim Mk IFs which had arrived at Tern Hill in August. The detachment was only on loan from 12 Group and it was detailed to provide one aircraft at immediate readiness and another two at fifteen minutes’ readiness. No. 29 Squadron crews operated along a number of patrol lines, one of the first of which was the Mersey Blue, that covered the approaches to the River Mersey.

Under 9 Group it was superseded by the Holt Patrol Line which was routed along a series of datum points and towns. The patrols took the Blenheims on a south-westerly – north-easterly track, across Middlewich and Holt, between Liverpool and Manchester. The patrols were operated to protect the various approaches that the enemy used to attack Liverpool and Manchester but they proved to be no deterrent.

The three-seat Bristol Blenheim first flew in 1935 and was a technological quantum leap among RAF aircraft at the time. With a top speed of around 428kph/266mph, the Blenheim bomber was considerably faster than the 290kph/180mph Hind biplane it replaced and it could outrun many contemporary fighters. The first Blenheim fighter, the IF, was proposed as a long-range fighter that could escort bombers over hostile territory and also carry out ground attack missions of its own. Around 200 Blenheims were modified for these fighter duties, additionally armed with a gun pack beneath the fuselage consisting of four machine-guns. The type had first entered service in December 1938 and by September 1939 there were 111 Blenheim fighters in use with the RAF. Unfortunately the Blenheim could not match the performance of aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf109 and so many became nightfighters, ultimately carrying the new and highly secret airborne radar.

Even before the IFs were equipped with radar they achieved some nighttime victories – in June 1940 No. 23 Squadron destroyed a Heinkel 111 bomber over Norfolk. The first ever radar interception came in late July when a Blenheim IF of Tangmere’s Fighter Interception Unit destroyed a Dornier Do 17 near Brighton.

The pioneers of the Blenheim nightfighters were a flight of No. 25 Squadron who were in fact the first unit in the world to operate radar-equipped nightfighters. But Blenheim fighters continued to operate in daylight too and as late as August 15, 1940, during the Battle of Britain, No. 219 Squadron were in action against a German raid on north-east England. Between November 1939 and March 1940, RAF Coastal Command also operated IFs providing top cover for shipping. The Mark IVF was again a long-range fighter version of the Mark IV bomber, carrying the same gun pack. Around 125 served with Coastal Command, providing shipping with air cover, as had the IF. In ApriI 1940 a pilot of No. 254 Squadron shot down a Heinkel 111 that posed a threat to British ships off the coast of Norway.


In October 1938 the Air Ministry belatedly recognized that there might be a need for a long-range escort fighter with two engines. Lord Dowding told me this was principally because of the existence of the Messerschmitt Bf 110, which required a response. It ordered an emergency ‘crash programme’ to convert Bristol Blenheim light bombers as the only suitable aircraft available. Even this, be it noted, had nothing at all to do with night fighting. In 1938 the Blenheim was still regarded as a modern machine of outstanding performance; it could, for example, easily overtake the Gladiator single-seat biplane fighter, which had entered service only the previous year and was fast becoming the RAF’s main day (and night) fighter. Contracts were placed with the Southern Railway’s Ashford (Kent) works for an eventual total of over 1,300 gun packs, each containing four of the reliable Browning machine-guns which had been designed in the United States as a 0.300 in calibre weapon in 1916, used in the First World War, adopted by the Air Ministry in 1934 (in the absence of any modern British gun) and put into production by the BSA company following a licence agreement of July 1935. The four-gun pack for the Blenheim was bolted on under the bomb bay, in which were stored the four belts of ammunition each containing 500 rounds, amply meeting the requirement for twenty seconds’ continuous firing (see drawing above). The railway workers met every tight schedule imposed upon them, and also delivered several other items making up each aircraft kit. Other companies supplied the reflector sights and extra armour to give some frontal protection. The first contract was for kits to convert 200 Mk I Blenheims into the Mk IF fighter, and these began to enter service in December 1938 with No. 25 Squadron. Later contracts covered the conversion of the long-nosed Mk IV into the IVF. These makeshift long-range fighters were among the busiest aircraft in the RAF during the first two years of war.

Had the conversion not been ordered it is difficult to see what aircraft might have been used to carry the first operational AI radar installations. By 1939 the AI Mk I, with its heterogenous assortment of hand-fitted parts and wiring, which made no attempt to comply with any airworthiness standard, had been replaced by AI Mk II, which was broadly similar but was a properly designed installation which had been ‘productionized’ and improved by industrial firms. Main contractor for the transmitter was Metropolitan-Vickers, while the receiver was made by Pye (the chassis was based on a commercial TV set). A main subcontractor was A.C. Cossor. The installation weighed about 600 lb, and exerted only a slight detrimental effect on the Blenheim’s performance. At high power settings an AI-fitted Blenheim could usually reach 250 mph without trouble, which was ample to overhaul a lumbering Heinkel. On the other hand, it was much too slow to catch a Ju 88 that had become jittery and ‘poured on the coals’; even a cruising Ju 88 or Do 17 was hard to overtake. One felt that lack of a properly designed long-range or night fighter was something that might have been avoided.

Inside the Blenheim Mk I there was a distinct absence of room, which must have been worse with radar fitted. The pilot sat on the left of the nose, his seat, instrument panel and controls filling exactly half the width of the fuselage. If a dual instructor station was added on the right, the two pilots rubbed elbows. Most of the nose structure comprised twenty flat Perspex panes, which reflected illuminated items in the cockpit and interfered with external night vision. The highly rated Mercury engines were reliable, and seldom put the pilot in the rather marginal position of having to go round again on one, with landing gear and flaps down. Behind the pilot, facing aft, the AI operator fiddled with his box of tricks and tried to get intelligible blips so that he could tell the pilot which way to steer (he had to remember which way he was looking and not muddle left and right). In an AI chase he had no time to clear stoppages with the guns or do anything but look into his viewing hood, which was retained even though it was dark in the middle of a Blenheim at night. Usually a third man, the observer, was also carried; he manned the turret, with a Vickers K gun, and tried to live up to his name.

The world’s first radar-equipped night fighters resulted from a secret minute from the Air Staff dated 17 July 1939, calling for the fitting of radar to twenty-one Blenheim IF long-range day fighters ‘as quickly as possible’. The document continued, ‘A requisition is enclosed incurring an expenditure of approximately £4,650 to cover AI transmitters, receivers and associated equipment.’ (Though the comparison could hardly be more meaningless, twenty-one AI radars in the year 2000 would be likely to cost something over £10 million, provided they were already in full production.) The AI II sets were delivered quickly by Pye and Metrovick, and much of the material needed for installation was bought by local purchase by the RAE at Farnborough, which did the installation with the help of engineers from Bawdsey. AMRE itself was being torn apart ready for emergency evacuation, in a badly planned way, to Dundee and other locations.

Despite this upheaval, AI staff were able to help at Farnborough, and deliveries of improved Blenheims began to 25 Squadron on 31 July 1939. When the Second World War began on 3 September a total of fifteen aircraft had been delivered, and the last of the twenty-one was in service by the end of September. All these aircraft had a much more sensible interior arrangement. The useless dorsal turret was removed and replaced by a hatch. In theory a Vickers K machine-gun could be fired from this for rear defence, but I cannot imagine this ever being done. The important thing is that removal of the turret enabled the bulky and heavy radar to be moved aft to preserve the aircraft’s centre of gravity in the correct place. Its viewing scopes could now face aft, so the operator no longer had to think in terms of mirror images before giving directions to the pilot. There was no longer a need for a third crew-member.

In November 1939 three of these Blenheims were delivered to a special flight of 600 (County of London) Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, at Manston. Here they did special trials, in addition to crew training, and in early 1940 formed the nucleus of the Fighter Interception Unit (FIU), which grew rapidly and built up a collection of many kinds of fighter in its task of solving every sort of interception problem. Other early Blenheim night fighters were issued in ones and twos to existing Blenheim IF squadrons, beginning with 25, 29, 141, 601 and 604. The RAF grapevine buzzed with talk of ‘Magic Mirrors’ – talk which, as is traditionally the case with new RAF equipment, became slightly soured. The Magic Mirrors were difficult to use, and results in training flights varied from poor to non-existent. A basic snag was that the target was seen, if it was detected at all, in a position relative to the aerials on the fighter. If the fighter banked, the apparent target position moved in response, and it was eventually judged that ordinary Blenheim crews would have little success unless their aircraft was flying straight and level. Another of the many problems was that, unless the target was within a 20° cone ahead of the fighter, the aerials gave ambiguous indications; for example, the target could be to the upper left, or at the same angle to lower right. It was also impossible to get clear indication unless target range was between 5,500 and 1,200 feet, and the equipment was almost useless at heights below 8,000 feet because of the ground return. From the start of the war low-flying aircraft, mainly He 115 seaplanes, had laid mines by night in the Thames estuary and elsewhere round the coast. Early AI radar was completely useless in trying to intercept them, though some crews tried to spiral down from directly above. Bearing in mind that most crews were not very experienced, and still found it hard to add two and two correctly while trying to navigate on a pitch-black night, it is easy to see that successful radar interceptions even at high altitude proved consistently elusive.

By October 1939 some of the difficulties had been at least partly rectified with AI Mk III, which had first flown in August. This had similar circuitry but a new aerial system which gave fewer ambiguity problems. The transmitter sent its pulses from a pair of swept-back dipole aerials, looking like a harpoon, on the Blenheim’s nose. Two similarly inclined dipole aerials well aft on one wing picked up reflections from the target and sent them to the elevation circuitry to show whether the target was above or below. Two pairs of plain vertical dipoles on the outboard wing leading edges did the same to indicate azimuth, left or right. The different signal strengths received in the various aerials made the bright blips grow longer or shorter, and displaced above or below, or to left or right, of the time-base centrelines on the observer’s display scopes. It still took a long time to get repeatable and reliable operation, or to interpret the indications correctly.

On 14 February 1940 an Air Ministry appreciation tried to look on the bright side: ‘In the general disappointment over the behaviour of AI Mk II and III it is possible that the limited but very real advantages of this equipment have been overlooked.’ The implication is clear: there were influential people incapable of seeing beyond the existing situation who were calling for AI radar to be abandoned as useless. Had they won the day it would have been serious for Britain, and later for the United States.

After the original crash programme to equip twenty-one Blenheims with AI Mk II, all AI installation was done by 32 Maintenance Unit at RAF St Athan, Glamorgan (South Wales). St Athan was a large base, and the arrangement was at first ideal because, after a disastrous few weeks in Dundee, AMRE was again moved, to St Athan. Here more than sixty Blenheims were fitted with AI Mk III during the first six months of 1940. All stripping out, rewiring and preparation with brackets and aerials was done at St Athan, but many of the aircraft were actually fitted with the transmitter and receiver at FIU, which moved from Manston to Tangmere. FIU organized training courses for aircrew, and the handful of crews that could claim to be proficient began the practice of continually visiting the operational squadrons. Night fighting was a new technique, which made the most severe demands on crews. More than in any previous type of warfare, the problems, the techniques and the equipment never stayed the same but were constantly changing.


During that long, hot summer of 1940 hundreds of night missions were flown over southern England with AI radar, many of them in the face of the enemy. Success was conspicuously absent, and combat reports tended to revolve around all the usual snags: ‘low oil pressure . . . ASI u/s . . . had to switch off right engine . . .’, plus ‘hopeless intercom’ (now of vital importance to get near the enemy at all) and new ones peculiar to night fighters: ‘severe shock as I touched the firing button’, and ‘interception abandoned when the AI set started to burn’. In the first of five interceptions on the moonlit night of 18 June the pilot of a Blenheim who had seen an enemy bomber visually was shot dead by a short burst from the Heinkel’s dorsal gunner. Five He 111s were downed on that night, but all by day fighters; nearly all the Luftwaffe losses on those summer nights were caused by Spitfires, and a few Hurricanes, which went up hoping to catch someone held in a searchlight beam. Then at last, on 22/23 July, a Do 17 was shot down after a true AI-directed interception. The Blenheim was flown by F/O Ashfield, with P/O Morris as observer and Sergeant Leyland as AI operator. Ashfield’s combat report was tantalizingly brief, commenting in one sentence on how they were hit by debris from their victim and then discovered that they were at a low altitude in an inverted attitude.

Could a crew of three really get upside down without being aware of it? The answer is, emphatically yes; an AI chase took every atom of one’s conscious attention. Irrespective of whether the AI operator had clear unambiguous blips or a maddening flickering fuzz, trying to decipher the true position of the target and pass steering commands to the pilot was more than a full-time job. There was no chance of attending to anything else. It was the simplest thing in the world to make one’s gyro instruments topple, and in the cold, clinical concentration of closing for the kill I almost believe a wing could come off and not be noticed.

In the midst of all the excitement the few really great brains involved were always able to spare a moment to take a broad look at the problem. It was Tizard who made sure that one point of fundamental importance was not overlooked. In May 1940, in writing an appraisal of the use of AI radar, he commented, ‘We have insufficiently considered its use by day, especially in cloudy weather.’ Tizard never ceased to prod the Air Ministry into giving the most careful consideration of every new idea that was not openly ridiculous. By 1940 sound location was fortunately dead, but infra-red (heat) methods were very much alive, and an IR detector was flight-tested. The brightest IR team was led by young Dr R.V. Jones at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford. Director of the famed Clarendon was none other than Lindemann, whose antipathy for Tizard was equalled only by Tizard’s for him; as Tizard had for over twenty years been the only rival to Lindemann’s claim to be most senior defence scientist, the problem may be self-evident. Watson-Watt managed to sidestep political feuding, to his own and radar’s benefit. It was Tizard who suggested that Jones might leave the Clarendon, though in 1937 his IR detector had sensed other aircraft at a range of just over 1,500 feet, and was easier to package and use than AI radar. Maybe Tizard was gifted with foresight to see that IR would for many years to come be thrown off the scent by fires on the ground, by the Sun and even by sunlight reflected from lakes and rivers. It was almost certainly a correct decision in 1937 to drop IR detection, though the technique returned in the 1950s, as will later be related.

Other techniques included searchlights and aerial mines, as well as an increasingly long list of impractical suggestions helpfully sent in by the public. As noted earlier, use of as obvious an idea as the airborne searchlight simmered during the First World War (but was never actually used) and emerged again with the sudden mushrooming of air defence in the late 1930s. Most of the airborne-searchlight effort prior to the outbreak of the Second World War comprised paper studies and argument, whereas reason suggests that it would have been more sensible to do a few cheap experiments and see if the idea worked. Instead, little or nothing was done until the night blitz was actually hitting the country in the closing months of 1940, as will be recorded in the next chapter. The same is true of almost all the other ideas, including mines. It was even true with the fundamental fact of how far a night-fighter pilot might be expected to see at night. This highly variable factor was self-evidently one that demanded the most carefully designed scientific research in an attempt to get meaningful numerical results. Instead the Air Staff, Air Ministry, the scientific committees and even night-fighter pilots did nothing but argue – quite literally a case of heat overcoming light. The CH system’s limit of accuracy of between three and five miles was much too far to be of any use at night; Dowding said, ‘It might as well be fifty miles.’ Hence the urgent and crucial need for an additional sensor – Churchill always called it a ‘smeller’ – carried in the fighter. Despite Jones’ neat IR installation, it was clear that it would be AI radar or nothing.

In the closing months of 1939, while the AMRE research team was uprooted yet again and set up shop at Worth Matravers, near Swanage on the Dorset coast, their masters in the Air Ministry became increasingly concerned about the basic AI radar problem of minimum range. AI Mk III had a maximum range of two miles (say, 10,500 feet) and a minimum range of 1,000 feet, though in those days AI was temperamental and actual results were less predictable. Frankly, even AI Mk III was pretty useless except for the vital task of training crews. For the stern test that could come at any time there was an overwhelming need for an improved AI radar with minimum range as near as possible to 300 feet, and with clearer and more positive left/right up/down indication than the ‘squint-eyed’ Mk III. With the coming of war, the whole British defence scene had changed dramatically. Radar, previously the secret preserve of a tiny team of ‘back-room’ workers, suddenly gathered into its fold fresh manpower by the hundred and soon by the thousand. Watson-Watt personally scoured the universities to scoop up bright talent and open their eyes to the scarcely believable facts that in a government defence laboratory it was possible to find academic freedom, a most enjoyable atmosphere, and technical problems as gripping as any posed inside ivory towers. Industry, too, was harnessed in the biggest possible way to provide brainpower and manufacturing capacity.

It was mainly the newcomers that were to make the dramatic breakthroughs in AI radar. Everything – minimum range, inability to focus into a narrow beam, and inability to intercept the low-flier because of the ground echo – kept emphasizing the need for much shorter wavelengths. Nobody knew how to generate enough power at short wavelengths, but in fact one major hurdle had been crossed back in 1921 in Schenectady, when Dr Albert W. Hull, of the US General Electric Company, had described a novel valve he had devised and named the magnetron. Many workers improved it during the inter-war years, but in essence it remained a resonant-cavity device like an organ pipe or other wind instrument. Unlike almost every other oscillator the magnetron could generate energy at fantastically high frequencies, with wavelength down to a few centimetres; but power was still very small. Much later a quite different valve called a klystron was invented, mainly by W.W. Hansen at Stanford (who devised the crucial part, the rhumbatron) and the Varian brothers. In the klystron the main structure is a special CRT, whose steady pencil-beam of electrons is turned into a succession of intense bunches by one rhumbatron and then caught within another. Both the klystron and the magnetron could generate waves so short they were called microwaves. By the end of the 1930s brilliant workers at MIT and Bell Labs had developed the basic theory of waveguides – essentially just very accurate metal pipes – for carrying microwaves and, by physically adjusting their dimensions, for tuning the waves to exact wavelengths. It was a new and exciting field, pioneered in the United States but, like normal scientific research in peacetime, freely published.

Shortly after the start of the Second World War Watson-Watt gathered some of his best captures from the universities and – after assuring them that, though they had arrived on ‘the Shanghai express’ they had return tickets – asked them to think about microwave radar. Some of them knew enough about the subject to know that it could not be done, except with uselessly feeble power. A few others thought it worth chasing, but doubted that anyone could build a receiver. By the end of September 1939 two groups had used their return tickets, but only so that they could go back to work on the problem in their own laboratories. One group under Professor Mark Oliphant returned to the University of Birmingham to study transmitters. Another under J.H.E. Griffiths went back to the Clarendon Laboratory to work, in partnership with the Admiralty (under C.S., later Sir Charles, Wright, Director of Scientific Research), on the receiver. It was a mighty task. Every previous attempt to generate powerful microwaves had merely dissipated the energy into the atmosphere, or into heating the hardware (at least once it actually melted). No way was known of building any kind of practical radar on a centimetric wavelength. Indeed, almost a year later a VIP in the scientific world, leading a party of visitors to see the first demonstration ever given of what can fairly be called ‘modern radar’, summed up rather loudly by saying, ‘Centimetric radar is for the next war.’

In the first month of war such a comment could not have been disputed, because nobody then knew how well the shanghaied men from Birmingham would do. In the meanwhile conventional 1.5-metre AI had to go ahead with all speed. There were quite suddenly a succession of minor breakthroughs, the greatest of which was the development of a new modulator by A.D. Blumlein of the His Master’s Voice gramophone company (the electronics giant EMI). This dramatically cut the time duration of each pulse, and overcame the problem of overlay at the receiver by the direct pulse from the transmitter. The General Electric Co. (no relation to the US giant) began its radar career by producing a smaller yet far more powerful main transmitter valve, the Micropup, giving 10 kW on 1.5 m (190–195 MHz). It was hardly bigger than a household filament light bulb. W.B. Lewis, an AMRE newcomer, achieved a breakthrough with minimum range. The resulting radar grew to have little left of AI.III save the aerials; receiver gain and time-base deflection were increased, and the boxes were so arranged that a single technician could adjust settings with a screwdriver and simultaneously watch the tube-faces (previously he could not do both). The result was AI.IV, the first AI radar that could give real results in Service hands, and the only one in quantity service until late 1943. Provided that a target was within a 40° cone ahead of the fighter, its direction could be indicated unambiguously within 10°. Straight off, in September 1940, Pye was given a contract for 600 sets, with major assistance from EMI.

Thus, during the crucial summer of 1940, there were already in Britain three generations of AI radar, discounting AI.I and II. They were separated in timing by weeks rather than years, yet such was the pace of development they were utterly dissimilar. Mk III was primitive, the minimum that could reasonably be supplied to the RAF. Mk IV was better, yet still a 1.5 m set with all that wavelength’s inherent shortcomings. Still in the laboratory was the new generation using centimetric microwaves. (Incidentally, the FIU was very proud of the fact that, despite not being an operational unit of the RAF, its crews shot down the first enemy aircraft to be destroyed by every type of AI from Mk III to Mk X.) But despite all this work by the ‘boffins’, the night-fighter strength of the RAF was woefully small. Almost the whole establishment of Fighter Command comprised Hurricanes (about thirty squadrons in mid-August 1940, despite terrible losses in France) and Spitfires (about nineteen squadrons), few of whose pilots had even tried flying at night, and which could find night raiders only by chance. There were a few squadrons of Gladiators, some of which had done a little night flying, and an embryonic night force of Blenheims and Defiants. In September 1940, when the night blitz started in earnest, Fighter Command had, for all practical purposes, six squadrons of Blenheims and three of Defiants for night fighting. About one-third of the Blenheims had AI.III, and there were still a few AI.II installations.

This modest night-fighter force would still have been of little use without four further technical developments which formed vital links in the chain of aerial defence. One was a grand design called GCI (ground control of interception) which owed much to W.S. Butement, who had proposed a 50 cm naval radar at the Signals Experimental Establishment as early as 1931. GCI included CHL (chain home, low) and gap-filler radars to cover the lower airspace, but the main item was a radar giving a picture showing the positions of fighter and bomber. The second essential was IFF, already mentioned, the earliest example of so-called secondary radar. Fitted to all friendly aircraft, it was triggered by the defending radar pulses to send back an enhanced and specially coded reply. Thus, when ‘interrogated’ by either a ground station or a night fighter, the ‘friendly’ would automatically show up on the display screens in a characteristic way, without its aircrew even being aware of what was going on. A ‘hostile’, on the other hand, would not know the IFF code, which was constantly being changed, and thus its radar ‘blip’ would be suspicious. However, it could not just be shot down without visual identification, because it might be a ‘friendly’ with its IFF unserviceable, or even just switched off. Over the years IFF, like ECM, was to grow fantastically in complexity and cleverness, and to give rise to the modern field of secondary surveillance radars (SSR) and transponder beacons. The third new development was a related system of Racons (radar beacons) placed in a chessboard pattern over southern England to give an equally distinctive blip on night-fighter radars (AI.IV onwards) and thus help the fighter to return safely to base.

One could overlook the fourth link in the chain, unless one had been a pilot at the time. Aircraft had previously used HF radio, which suffered from ‘static’ and speech distortion so badly that to a layman any received message sounded like unintelligible gibberish. Even professional aircrew often had to request, ‘Say again’. In 1940 VHF (very high frequency) radio arrived with marvellously clear speech just in time to play its vital part in the night battle. The fact that it had shorter range was of no consequence. With it came a standardized GCI language. Today one is amused, but in 1940 the GCI command, ‘Flash your weapon’, caused not a trace of a smile: it came at a time of mounting tension in the chase, and meant ‘switch on your AI radar’. ‘Increase speed’ was partnered by ‘Throttle back’, and at the end of the interception the crew would be told ‘Darken your weapon’.

It needed all these new inventions and techniques to construct an effective scheme of night defence. It is unfair to describe it as sheer luck that it all came together in the autumn of 1940; it was planned with great care and forethought, and had it not been for the fact that the Air Ministry Works Department – responsible for civil engineering and buildings – stubbornly resisted every attempt to substitute speed in place of perfection, almost the entire scheme could have been operational by the beginning of the war. For the first time in history it enabled a country to wait until hostile aircraft were approaching, and then send fighters where they were most needed. The only shortcoming was that the GCI system alone could not put fighters in visual contact with the enemy at night. Modern air traffic controllers will see the problem only too well. Their job today is to keep aircraft apart; in 1940 the task was to bring aircraft together, and to do it with primitive radars giving very ill-defined blips that flickered and jumped and sometimes just disappeared for no obvious reason. Visual contact at night meant a few hundred feet, whereas the best accuracy a really good GCI controller could hope for in 1940 was more than three miles. Even then, the fighter had to be going in the same direction at the same height. There were countless other snags, not least of which was the fact that the 1940 controller himself had little experience. Until many months had been spent sifting unsuitable people, he often lacked an understanding of the fighter pilot’s problems, and often also lacked the right kind of confident patience and encouragement that was vital to proper teamwork. Controlling was an art.

Few indeed were the people in night fighting who in 1940 had any artistry, experience or even confidence. Come aboard the Blenheim night fighter of F/O (later Air Commodore) Roderick Chisholm, as he tried to learn basic steps in the new trade at Middle Wallop that summer:

I was kept waiting, signalling for permission to land but ignored, for about half an hour. I was anything but composed, and when a turn proved too much for the directional gyro, which spun, I also lost my sense of direction. At last I was given a ‘green’, but the dim pattern of aerodrome lights made little sense by this time, and my approach to land was not aligned with the flare-path, whose direction I understood too late. I had to go round again. The wheels and flaps on a Blenheim came up rather slowly, and by the time I was ready to start a circuit I knew that I was several miles from the aerodrome; but I could not picture my position, and the lights which I could see did nothing but confuse me. I was flustered, and the situation suddenly got out of hand. I did not know where I was; therefore I was lost. A feeling of panic came over me, and I could not think of anything except getting down somehow on to terra firma. It must be this paralysis that causes the inexplicable night-flying accidents. It took a great effort for common sense to overcome this one instinct, which seemed still to work, to return to earth as soon as possible; but slowly this happened and item by item things were checked. What height? What speed? Climbing or diving? Where was I likely to be? Each of these checks, usually done instinctively and instantaneously, now needed a special effort . . .

There’s a beacon – what’s it flashing? – dot something, missed it – climbing too steeply, must level out – now, where’s that beacon again? – get the beacon paper (it’s too flimsy) – where’s the torch? – mustn’t get flustered again – there’s plenty of time – climbing again, must level out – Andover VL, Wallop DA – now, where’s the beacon? – there it is, think clearly, read it slowly – looks like a V then L – read it again, there it goes again: it’s Andover – about 240° for Wallop – settle down, align the gyro – steady – lights ahead – a beacon – flashing DA, that’s Wallop – this is simple – I could go on, I’d like to go on now – this will be a joke tomorrow.

I doubt that there is a single pilot who does not have similar memories from his early days when it all seemed to be just too much. Flying by night could bring the feeling flooding back – often fatally – to pilots who, like Chisholm, had long experience in daylight. For almost a year such men tried to master the Blenheim by night, while an experienced few operated AI-equipped aircraft at FIU and, increasingly, in the squadrons. Not many German aircraft came over at night to begin with, but FIU mounted night patrols to see if they could intercept any, and from 5 June 1940 AI was used in real chases of real targets. Time after time the enemy got away, usually because the harassed AI operator could make no sense of the erratic blips of the shaky Mk III and was incapable of giving his pilot clear steering commands. The only exception was Ashfield. His was the first of a handful of victories gained by the NF Blenheims. Courageously flown for long, cold and exhausting patrols night after night, they simply lacked a good enough AI set to complete the chain of defence. Unlike most other fighters, including the Defiant, their guns could be fired on the darkest night with no flash problem. Performance, however, was marginal, even after the Blenheims had had their turrets removed in September 1940.