8 September 1941–27 January 1944

The Siege of Leningrad, the Soviet Union’s second largest city, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in the history of warfare. This lengthy blockade was undertaken by Army Group North, the Spanish Blue Division and the Finnish Army between 1941 and 1944, and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 700,000 civilians.

Leningrad was a vital city in the Soviet Union. By 1940, it had a population of 2.54 million, making it the fourth largest city in Europe. Its factories produced about 10 per cent of the Soviet Union’s entire industrial output, including much of its high-quality steel and the new KV-1 heavy tank.

As war in Europe approached, Stalin resolved to safeguard Leningrad by pushing the Soviet Union’s vulnerable border areas back as far as possible from the city. After Finland refused to sell part of the Karelian Isthmus adjoining the Leningrad Military District, the Red Army seized the land by force between November 1939 and March 1940. Next, Stalin moved against the pro-German Baltic republics, and in June 1940, Soviet troops marched into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. After this, Stalin moved three armies with 440,000 troops into the former Baltic States in an effort to secure Leningrad against any threats from the west.

Leningrad was not identified as a major target in the planning for Operation Barbarossa. However, Hitler was adamant that it should receive equal priority with Moscow and Kiev on the axes of advance. It lay in the path of Army Group North, led by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, which consisted of the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies and General Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Group, totalling 475,000 troops in 28 divisions.

In the opening days of Barbarossa, Leningrad’s ability to defend itself was seriously compromised. The Soviet forces in the Baltic States were badly defeated in the first 18 days, with most of their tanks and aircraft lost. Some 30,000 civilian volunteers in Leningrad were employed to help build defensive fieldwork on the approaches to the city, and 160,000 recruits were organized into eight people’s militia divisions in July. These divisions fought a successful delay on the Luga River that stopped Army Group North’s headlong advance towards Leningrad for nearly a month. By the time the Germans finally overwhelmed the Luga Line on 16 August, Leningrad’s defenders had built a series of dense fortified lines on the south-west approaches to the city.

However, the German advance shifted eastwards, severing the Leningrad–Moscow rail line at Chudovo on 20 August. With Soviet forces in retreat, von Leeb dispatched XXXIX Army Corps to encircle Leningrad from the south-east while massing the rest of Army Group North for a direct assault on the city.

By 2 September 1941, Finnish forces had advanced to the 1939 borders between Finland and the Soviet Union. On 4 September, German artillery began shelling Leningrad, and four days later the city was entirely surrounded by Army Group North. The German encirclement trapped four armies – the 8th, 23rd, 42nd and 55th – inside the city and the nearby Oranienbaum salient, with a total of 20 divisions and over 300,000 troops. There were about 30 days’ food reserves on hand in the city, but this was further reduced when the Luftwaffe bombed the Badaev food warehouses on 8 September.

General Georgy Zhukov, newly appointed commander of the Leningrad Front, arrived on 9 September as General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XXXXI Army Corps began to assault the outer defences of the city. On 16 September, the German XXXVIII Army Corps reached the Gulf of Finland, and the following day, the German 1st Panzer Division managed to approach to within 12km of the city. Zhukov launched a 16-day counter-offensive westward towards Siniavino beginning on 10 September, but this failed to take its objective and casualties were heavy.

On 8 November 1941, in an effort to eliminate the final Soviet links to the encircled city by severing the rail lines that supported the Lake Ladoga barge traffic, the Germans captured Tikhvin. Without this rail junction, the food situation in the city became critical. However, 11 days later a Soviet counter-attack led by 4th Army was launched and it was retaken on 9 December; the Germans, threatened by encirclement, withdrew west.

Meanwhile, on 22 November 1941, the first major Soviet truck convoy managed to cross Lake Ladoga on an ice road and bring some relief to Leningrad. The civilian death toll continued to rise: during the last four months of 1941, German artillery fired over 30,000 rounds into Leningrad, which, in addition to air raids, killed about 4,000 civilians.

On 6 January 1942, the newly established Soviet Volkhov Front launched the Lyuban winter counter-offensive aimed at breaking the blockade. In March, the Soviet 2nd Shock Army was cut off in the Volkhov swamps by German forces.

The Soviets launched a series of failed offensives against the Siniavino Heights over the summer of 1942, but it was not until 18 January 1943 that the Soviet 2nd Shock Army and 67th Army linked up north of Siniavino, establishing a small land corridor into Leningrad. On 15 September 1943, the XXX Guards Rifle Corps finally captured the Heights.

Army Group North watched anxiously. Occupying a relatively inactive front, it had been neglected during most of 1942, had not fully replaced its losses of the previous winter, and was committed to a static defense that might be attacked at any of a number of critical points. Around Leningrad, particularly at the “bottleneck”—the narrow tie-in to Lake Ladoga—Army Group North functioned as the main support of German strategy in northern Europe. If the hold on Leningrad were broken, Germany would, in the long run, lose control of the Baltic Sea. Finland would then be isolated; the iron ore shipping from Sweden would be in danger; and the all-important submarine training program would be seriously handicapped.

In the 16 months they had held the “bottleneck” the Germans had built a tight network of defenses in the swampy terrain and had converted Schlüsselburg, several small settlements, and scattered patches of woods into fortified strongpoints. But, with only six to eight miles between fronts, one facing west and the other east, the defenders had little room to maneuver. The Russians had found highly instructive their experience in the summer, and in the intervening months had rehearsed every tactic and maneuver for taking each individual German position. This method the Germans themselves had used in 1940 to train for the assaults on the Belgian forts.

The attack on the “bottleneck” began on 12 January. Sixty-seventh Army, its troops wearing spiked shoes to help them climb the frozen river bank, struck across the ice on the Neva River while Second Shock Army, on the east, threw five divisions against a 4-mile stretch of the German line. Methodically, the Russians chopped their way through, and by the end of the first week had taken Schlüsselburg and opened a corridor to Leningrad along the lake shore. Thereafter, in fighting that lasted until the first week of April, the two Soviet fronts made little headway. When the fighting ended, they held a strip 6 miles wide, all of it within range of German artillery. When the battle ended, Army Group North claimed a defensive victory, but its hold on the second city of the Soviet Union was not as tight as before.

In the summer of 1943 the Army Group North zone, by comparison with the other army group zones, was quiet. In a battle that flared up toward the end of July around Mga, Leningrad Front’s performance fell far below that of the commands operating against Army Groups Center and South. The front-line strengths of the opposing forces in the Army Group North zone were almost equal. The army group had 710,000 men. Leningrad, Volkhov, Northwest, and Kalinin Fronts, the latter straddling the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary, had 734,000 men. For the future, however, Army Group North also had to reckon with some half a million reserves echeloned in depth behind the northern fronts. In artillery the two sides were about equal, but again the Russians were known to have substantial reserves. In mid-July Army Group North had 49 tanks, 40 fit for combat. The Russians had 209 tanks at the front and an estimated 843 in reserve. By 15 September Army Group North had 7 tanks still serviceable. In the last six months of 1943, First Air Force, which was responsible for air operations in the army group zone, flew just half as many sorties as its Russian opponents.

During August air reconnaissance detected increasing enemy activity off both Army Group North flanks. A rise in the number of boats making the short but extremely hazardous trip in the Gulf of Finland between Leningrad and the Oranienbaum pocket indicated that the Russians might soon attempt to break out and unite the pocket with the front around Leningrad. In the south Kalinin Front, under Yeremenko, began a build-up opposite the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary. To meet those and other possible threats, the army group created a ready reserve by drawing five infantry divisions out of the front. In the first and second weeks of September the OKH ordered two of the reserve divisions transferred to Army Group South.

On 19 September, in conjunction with the Army Group Center withdrawal to the PANTHER position, Army Group North took over XXXXIII Corps, the northernmost corps of Army Group Center. That transfer brought the army group three divisions, forty-eight more miles of front, and responsibility for defending two important railroad and road centers, Nevel and Novosokol’niki. By late September no one doubted that the Russians were preparing for an offensive in the vicinity of the North-Center boundary. That area of forests, lakes, and swamps, and of poor roads even by Russian standards, heavily infested by strong partisan bands, had long been one of the weakest links in the Eastern Front. During the 1941 winter offensive the Russians had there carved out the giant Toropets salient, and in the 1942-43 winter campaign they had encircled and captured Velikiye Luki and nearly taken Novosokol’niki. Compared with the losses elsewhere, particularly after Stalingrad, these were mere pinpricks; but there always was a chance that the Stavka might one day try the big solution, a thrust between the flanks of the two army groups to the Gulf of Riga.

In the second week of September 1943 Army Group North had begun work on the PANTHER position, its share of the East Wall. The north half of the PANTHER position was laid behind natural obstacles, the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov. The south half was not so favorably situated. It had to be stretched east somewhat to cover two major road and rail centers, Pskov and Ostrov, and the tie-in to Army Group Center had to be moved west after the Nevel breakthrough. Nevertheless, when it was occupied it would reduce the army group frontage by 25 percent, and, unlike most of the East Wall, it had by late 1943 actually begun to take on the appearance of a fortified line. A 50,000-man construction force had improved the communications lines back to Riga and Dvinsk and had built 6,000 bunkers, 800 of them concrete, laid 125 miles of barbed wire entanglements, and dug 25 miles each of trenches and tank traps. During November and December building material rolled in at a rate of over 100 carloads a day.

In September the army group staff had begun detailed planning for Operation BLAU, the withdrawal to the PANTHER position. The staff estimated that the million tons of grain and potatoes, half a million cattle and sheep, and military supplies and other material, including telephone wire and railroad track to be moved behind the PANTHER line, would amount to 4,000 trainloads. The withdrawal itself would be facilitated by the network of alternate positions that in the preceding two years had been built as far back as the Luga River. The 900,000 civilians living in the evacuation zone, particularly the men who could, if they were left behind, be drafted into the Soviet Army, raised problems. The first attempts, in early October, to march the civilians out in the customary treks produced so much confusion, misery, and hostility that Küchler ordered the rear area commands to adopt less onerous methods. Thereafter they singled out the adults who would be useful to the Soviet Union as workers or soldiers and evacuated most of them by train. During the last three months of the year the shipments of goods and people went ahead while the armies worked at getting their artillery and heavy equipment, much of which was sited in permanent emplacements, ready to be moved. At the end of the year, having transported 250,000 civilians into Latvia and Lithuania, the army group could not find quarters for any more and called a halt to that part of the evacuation.

The army group staff believed that logically BLAU should begin in mid-January and be completed shortly before the spring thaw, in about the same fashion as Army Group Center had executed BÜFFEL the year before, but on 22 December the chief of staff told the armies that Hitler would probably not order BLAU unless another Soviet offensive forced him to. At the moment, Hitler’s opinion was that the Russians had lost so many men in the fighting in the Ukraine that they might not try another big offensive anywhere before the spring of 1944.

Toward the end of the month it appeared, in fact, that Hitler might be right. The bulge on the Army Group North right flank was worrisome, but the Stavka had shifted the weight of the offensive to Vitebsk, for the time being at least. In the Oranienbaum pocket and around Leningrad the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had been ready to attack since November, but with the trouble at Nevel out of the way the army group was less concerned than it had been. Intelligence reports from Eighteenth Army indicated that the units in the Oranienbaum pocket, in particular, had been strengthened; and boat traffic between Leningrad and Oranienbaum had been usually heavy during the fall, continuing until some boats were trapped in ice. On the other hand, almost no new units had appeared, and Leningrad Front seemed to be depending for its reinforcements on the Leningrad population. While an offensive sometime in January appeared a near certainty, the longer Eighteenth Army’s intelligence officers looked the closer they came to convincing themselves it would be cut in the modest pattern of the three earlier offensives around Leningrad.

On 29 December the OKH ordered Küchler to transfer to Army Group South one of his best divisions, the 1st Infantry Division which Eighteenth Army was depending on to backstop some of its less reliable units in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector. When Küchler called to protest, Zeitzler told him he would not need the division; Hitler intended to execute Operation BLAU after all and would tell him so personally the next day. During the noon conference in the Führer headquarters on 30 December, Küchler, expecting to receive his orders, reported on the state of the PANTHER position and the time he would need to complete BLAU. In passing, he remarked that he had talked to Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, who “naturally” had asked for his army to stay where it was even though he lost 1st Infantry Division. To a question from Hitler, Küchler replied that the Eighteenth Army front was well fortified, almost too well, in fact, since the army did not have enough troops to man it completely. Hitler then terminated the conference without mentioning Operation BLAU.

Küchler did not fully realize what had happened until the next day, after an order had come in to transfer another good division to Army Group South. Zeitzler told the army group chief of staff that Hitler had begun to falter in his decision as soon as Küchler made the remark about Lindemann’s wanting to keep his army where it was. He thought it would take at least a week to talk Hitler around again. By day’s end the chief of staff had a memorandum marshaling the arguments for BLAU ready for Küchler to sign, but that was scarcely enough. Lindemann would have to be persuaded to reverse himself, since in such instances if in almost no others Hitler always took the word of the man on the spot.

On 4 January—by then a third division was on its way to Army Group South—Küchler went to Eighteenth Army headquarters and, citing the necessity to husband the army group’s forces, almost pleaded with Lindemann to reconsider. Lindemann replied that his corps, division, and troop commanders in the most threatened sectors were confident they could weather the attack. After that, none of the army group’s arguments counted for much. Hitler told Zeitzler he was only doing what Küchler wanted. Nor could Küchler and his staff draw any comfort from the knowledge that Lindemann was probably motivated mainly by a desire to draw attention to himself—as a senior army commander he had never had so good an opportunity to show what he could do directly under the eyes of the Führer. No less disquieting for the army group was the knowledge that it was committed to repeating an error which had already been made too often in the Ukraine. To the operations chief at OKH the chief of staff said the army group was marching to disaster with its eyes open, putting forces into positions which in the long run could not be held.


On 14 January 1944 the operation began. Leningrad Front, General Polkovnik L. A. Govorov commanding, mounted the main effort. Second Shock Army drove east out of the Oranienbaum pocket while Forty-second Army attempted to push west on the front below Leningrad. Against Forty-second Army, the stronger of the two, the corps artillery of L Corps reacted fast, laying down a well-placed barrage that stopped the attack before it got started. Second Shock Army did better; the 10th Air Force Field Division began to crumble the moment it was hit.

Not a real surprise but, still, only half expected, were the strong thrusts that General Polkovnik Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched the same day north and south of Novgorod on Eighteenth Army’s right flank. Novgorod had been considered a danger point, but the army had not been convinced that the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts would have the strength to attempt simultaneous offensives on a major scale. Lindemann, on 10 January, had rated the build-ups—in the Oranienbaum pocket, southwest of Leningrad, and east of Novgorod—as relatively modest, particularly in terms of reserves. He had predicted that without more reserves the thrusts could not go very deep and that the attacks in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector and at Novgorod would “very likely” be staggered. In fact, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had Eighteenth Army outnumbered by at least 3:1 in divisions (55 rifle divisions, 9 rifle brigades, and 8 tank brigades to 20 German divisions), 3:1 in artillery, and 6:1 in tanks, self-propelled artillery, and aircraft.

The Soviet commands had chosen exactly the two places in which Eighteenth Army had the least room to maneuver. The loop of the front separating the Oranienbaum pocket from Leningrad was only twenty miles wide at its base. On the Eighteenth Army right flank an envelopment five to ten miles deep was enough to chop out Novgorod and break the tie-in to Lake Ilmen. The danger was, as Zeitzler warned at the end of the day, that minor slip-ups could have consequences similar to the Nevel debacle.

During the second and third days the battle seemed to be going about as the Germans hoped it would. Neither Govorov nor Meretskov put in any new units, which seemed to indicate that they were operating without much in the way of reserves, and it appeared that Leningrad Front did not intend to do more than open the Oranienbaum pocket. On 16 January Küchler told his army commanders that the Russians had committed all their forces, and Army Group North could win the battle by taking some risks in the quiet sectors.

The next day his optimism started to fade. Lindemann had put in his entire reserve, the 61st Infantry Division, to stiffen the 10th Air Force Field Division, but it was barely managing to stave off a complete rupture. Before noon the army group informed the OKH that the fighting around Leningrad was taking a turn for the worse. Eighteenth Army would have to begin dismantling the siege artillery during the night, and if the army group wanted to see the battle through it would have to withdraw below Lake Ladoga to the ROLLBAHN position along the Leningrad-Chudovo road to shorten the front and gain two divisions. The army group had originally built the ROLLBAHN to provide just such insurance. In the afternoon the answer came from Hitler: he neither approved nor disapproved but thought it would be better to give up the hold on the Gulf of Finland and take back the front between Leningrad and Oranienbaum. Küchler protested that to do that would give the Russians the victory and an opportunity to turn south with their strength intact.

On the morning of the 18th Lindemann reported that the fronts east of Oranienbaum and west of Leningrad were collapsing. The same was happening at Novgorod where the encirclement was nearly complete, and the few extra battalions the army had been able to throw in would not even be enough to hold open an escape route much longer. After seeing for himself how near complete exhaustion the troops at the front were, Küchler asked and was denied permission to withdraw to the ROLLBAHN. In the afternoon Forty-second Army’s spearhead drove into Krasnoye Selo, the former summer residence of the Czars, and cut the two main roads to the north. After that, Küchler decided he had no choice but to take back the two divisions on the coast before they were completely cut off. He informed the OKH that he intended to give the order at the end of the day whether he had received permission by then or not. At the midnight situation conference Hitler approved, after Zeitzler told him the order had already been given.

On 19 January the first stage, which plainly was only the prelude to the battle, ended. The difficult task was to get Hitler to accept the consequences. Küchler’s order had come too late to save the divisions on the coast; some elements escaped, others were trapped and destroyed as the Russians swept in from the east and west. Second Shock and Forty-second Armies then joined forces, and the appearance of several fresh divisions demonstrated that they had more than adequate reserves. At Novgorod eight Soviet divisions encircled five German battalions. Their one hope for escape was to elude the Russians in the swamps west of the city.

Shortly after nightfall, after Zeitzler had argued unsuccessfully for half an hour, Küchler called Hitler and begged him to give the troops at Novgorod what would certainly be their last chance. Suddenly dropping the argument he had clung to stubbornly throughout the day, that Novgorod could not be given up because of its “extraordinary symbolic significance,” Hitler agreed. On the subject of the ROLLBAHN, however, he merely read Küchler a short lecture on the demoralizing effects of voluntary withdrawals. Fifteen minutes later he called back to give permission for that too. At midnight he changed his mind about the ROLLBAHN, but Zeitzler told him the orders had gone out to the divisions and could not be recalled.

Hitler had also tried to extract from Zeitzler and Küchler guarantees that the ROLLBAHN position would be held. On the 10th Küchler, appraising the situation, declared that the two recent tactical setbacks, at Novgorod and southwest of Leningrad, had resulted from lack of reserves and an overtaut front. The same conditions still existed. The withdrawal to the ROLLBAHN would free three divisions, two to go into the front below Leningrad, the other west of Novgorod. With that, the army group would have exhausted its resources for creating reserves. The three divisions would be used up in a short time, and an operational breakthrough could then be expected. He recommended that the pullback to the ROLLBAHN be made the first step in a continuous withdrawal to the PANTHER position, pointing out that the army group was already so weakened that it would have just enough troops to man the front when it reached there.

Less than a day passed before Küchler’s forecast began to come true. On 21 January Forty-second Army attacked toward Krasnogvardeysk, the junction of the main rail lines and roads coming from the south and west. L Corps had not had time to sort out its battered units and start setting up a front.

That night Küchler flew to Führer headquarters where the next morning, shortly before his interview with Hitler, word reached him that Eighteenth Army could not hold Krasnogvardeysk unless it gave up Pushkin and Slutsk, also important junctions but farther north. Hitler was deaf to all his proposals. The Führer brushed off everything said concerning Pushkin and Slutsk, the PANTHER position, and possible new threats on the army group right flank with a statement that Army Group North was spoiled; it had not had a crisis for more than a year and, consequently, did not know what one was. “I am against all withdrawals,” he went on. “We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the PANTHER. If we go back voluntarily he [the Russians] will not get there with only half his forces. He must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border.” When Küchler objected that the PANTHER position could not be held if the army group was too weak to fight when it got there, Hitler blamed all the gaps in the front on the egoism of the army groups and insisted that every square yard of ground be sold at the highest possible price in Russian blood. Finally, demanding that the ROLLBAHN be held, he dismissed the field marshal. Later Zeitzler said the time had been bad and Küchler should try again in a few days; Hitler was worried about the landing that day by Allied troops at Anzio south of Rome and had not listened to what was said.

Meanwhile, Eighteenth Army was beginning to disintegrate. Fighting in mud and water, the troops were exhausted. Govorov and Meretskov, on the other hand, had managed, since the warm weather set in at midmonth, to give their divisions a day out of every three or four to rest and dry out. On the morning of 23 January, Lindemann gave the order to evacuate Pushkin and Slutsk and reported to the OKH that it could either accept his decision or send a general to replace him. During the day the army completed the withdrawal to the ROLLBAHN, which the Russians had already penetrated in several places.

On the 24th at Eighteenth Army headquarters Küchler accused Lindemann of having submitted false estimates of Soviet reserves at the end of December. Lindemann admitted “mistakes” had been made. The belated revision of the army’s past intelligence estimates was swiftly buried, however, under waves of bad news from the front. In the morning the Russians entered the outskirts of Krasnogvardeysk and rammed through to the bend of the Luga River southeast of Luga. The divisions in the ROLLBAHN position tried to patch the front by throwing in their rear echelon troops. At the end of the day Lindemann reported that his right flank had lost contact with Sixteenth Army and Krasnogvardeysk would fall within twenty-four hours.

Because losing Krasnogvardeysk would badly weaken the supply lines of the corps farther east, the army group asked to go back at least to the Luga River. In the evening Zeitzler replied that Hitler’s orders were to hold the corner posts and make the troops fight to the last. Since there was nothing else to do for the time being, he advised the army group command to be “a little ruthless” for a while.

On 27 January, Küchler and the other army group and army commanders on the Eastern Front attended a National Socialist Leadership Conference at Königsberg. Hitler addressed the generals on the subject of faith as a guarantee of victory. He called for a strengthening of faith in himself, in the National Socialist philosophy, and in the ultimate victory and suggested that the generals’ faith needed strengthening as much as anyone else’s. During one of the interludes, in a private talk with Hitler, Küchler repeated a situation estimate he had sent in the day before: the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts were employing four strong attack forces to cut Eighteenth Army to pieces; they were going toward Narva from the east and toward Luga from the north and east; if the attack from the east carried through Luga it would cut the communications lines of six of Lindemann’s eight corps. Hitler responded by prohibiting all voluntary withdrawals and reserving all decisions to withdraw to himself. When Küchler remarked, probably with the subject of the day’s meeting in mind, that Eighteenth Army had suffered 40,000 casualties and the troops had fought as hard as could be expected, Hitler replied that the latter statement was “not quite” true. He had heard the army group was not fighting everywhere with as much determination as it might.

That interview destroyed Küchler as an effective army group commander. When he returned to his headquarters he still seemed, as his chief of staff later put it, to realize that all he could do was retreat, but all he could talk about was showing more determination and attacking—with what, nobody knew. On the 28th the chief of staff, Generalleutnant Eberhard Kinzel, took matters into his own hands and told the Chief of Staff, Eighteenth Army, that the time had come. An order to retreat must be issued, but the army group was forbidden to do that. The army would, therefore, have to act as if it had been given, issuing its own implementing orders orally rather than in writing. He would see to it that the army was covered “in the General Staff channel.” The next day Kinzel prevailed on Küchler at least to submit a report pointing out to Hitler that Eighteenth Army was split into three parts and could not hold any kind of a front forward of the Luga River.

On the 30th Küchler went to Führer headquarters where Hitler finally approved a retreat to the Luga River but directed that the front then be held, contact with Sixteenth Army regained, and all gaps in the front closed. When Küchler passed this along to his operations officer the latter protested to the Operations Branch, OKH, that it was impossible to execute; one of the gaps was thirty miles wide, and at Staritza northwest of Luga the Russians were already across the Luga River. Later Zeitzler agreed to tell Hitler that the Luga line could not be held. In the meantime Küchler had been told to report back to the Führer headquarters on 31 January.

At the noon conference the next day Hitler informed Küchler he was relieved of his command. Model, who had been waiting to replace Manstein, was given temporary command of the army group. Reacting quickly as always, Model telegraphed ahead, “Not a single step backward will be taken without my express permission. I am flying to Eighteenth Army this afternoon. Tell General Lindemann that I beg his old trust in me. We have worked together before.”

During the last days of January the Eighteenth Army’s attrition rate had spiraled steeply. On 27 January the army north front had lain about ten miles north of the line Narva-Chudovo over most of its length and forty miles northeast of Narva in its western quarter. By the 31st it had been pushed back nearly to the Narva River in the west and slightly below the Narva-Chudovo line in the east, by itself not a surprising loss of ground; but in the interval the front had virtually dissolved. On the situation maps of the 27th it had still appeared as a distinguishable, continuous line, albeit with several large gaps. By the 31st all that was left was a random scattering of dots where battalions and companies still held a mile or two of front. The only two divisions still worthy of the name were the 12th Panzer Division, which had come in during the last week in the month, and the 58th Infantry Division, moving in from the south by train. On 29 January the army group reported that as of the 10th Eighteenth Army had had an infantry combat strength of 57,936 men; it had lost since then 35,000 wounded and 14,000 killed and now had, including new arrivals, an infantry strength of 17,000.

Model had never had a greater opportunity to display his talent as an improvisor, and he took it with a flamboyant zest which, though it did not change the tactical situation, quickly dispelled the sense of hopelessness and frustration that had been hanging over the army group. He also had the advantage of Hitler’s tendency to give new appointees, particularly when they were also his favorites, greater latitude, at least temporarily, than he had allowed their predecessors.

Model’s first moves were as much psychological as military. To dissipate what he called the PANTHER psychosis he forbade all references to the PANTHER position and abolished the designation. Past experience had shown that in times of adversity, named lines, particularly when the names suggested strength, had a powerful attraction for both troops and commands. On the other hand, the state of Eighteenth Army being what it was, Model could not attempt to enforce his original “no step backward” order. Instead, he introduced something new, the Schild und Schwert (shield and sword) theory, the central idea of which was that withdrawals were tolerable if one intended later to strike back in the same or a different direction in a kind of parry and thrust sequence. The theory was apparently Hitler’s latest brain child, a remedy for—as he viewed it—the disease of falling back to gain troops to build a new defense line which in a short time would itself prove too weak to be held. That Model placed overly much faith in the theory may be doubted. He was enough of a realist to know that while the withdrawal was usually possible the counter-thrust was not. On the other hand, he was also well enough acquainted with Hitler to know that it was always advantageous to make a retreat look like the first stage of an advance.

Model applied the Schild und Schwert theory in his first directive to Eighteenth Army issued on 1 February. He ordered Lindemann to take his main force back to a short line north and east of Luga. After that was accomplished and the 12th Panzer Division had finished closing the gap to Sixteenth Army, as had been directed before the change in command, the 12th Panzer and the 58th Infantry Divisions plus as many more divisions as could be spared from the short line would be shifted west of Luga for a thrust along the Luga River to establish contact with the two corps on the Narva. The first part of the directive gave the army a chance to reduce its frontage by almost two-thirds, which was necessary, the second envisaged a gain of enough strength—which was highly doubtful—to open a counteroffensive and extend the front fifty miles to the west.

To apply the Schild und Schwert theory on the Eighteenth Army left flank was impossible. LIV Corps and III SS Panzer Corps, both under the command of General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer, the Commanding General, LIV Corps, had fallen back along the Baltic coast from the Oranienbaum pocket. After 28 January they had been thrown back to the Luga River and then to the Narva River, the northern terminus of the PANTHER position. They could go no farther without endangering the entire PANTHER line and the important shale oil refineries near the coast about twenty miles west of the river.

On 2 February, when Model inspected Sponheimer’s front, his divisions were crossing to the west bank of the river and pulling back into a small bridgehead around the city of Narva. South of Narva the Russians were probing across the river and before the end of the day had a small bridgehead of their own. Elements of the Panzer Grenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, coming from Army Group Center, and a regiment of the 58th Infantry Division were arriving to strengthen the front below Narva.

Everywhere Model heard the same complaint: the troops were worn out; and everywhere he gave the same order: they would have to see the battle through. The help the army group could give was small enough: an infantry adviser for III SS Panzer Corps; an artillery expert to match the skilled artillerists the Russians were using; requests to Himmler for some experienced SS replacements, to Dönitz for reinforcements for the coastal batteries, and to Göring for air force personnel to be used against the partisans.

Nevertheless, the near collapse of Eighteenth Army at the end of January had had the effect of a temporary disentanglement, at least in places, as on the Narva River. Model’s decision to close up the front around Luga gave the army a chance to maneuver and to catch its breath. The next move was still the Russians’, but it would be met on a coherent front. For a few days at the beginning of February the points of greatest pressure were in the Sixteenth Army area where the Second Baltic Front pushed into the front south of Staraya Russa and west of Novosokol’niki, tying down German troops which might be shifted north and, as a bonus, creating entering wedges which might be exploited for deep thrusts later.


By 4 February 1944 the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had regrouped and were beginning to close in on Eighteenth Army again. Army Group North informed the OKH that Meretskov had massed one strong force and 200 tanks southwest of Novgorod, and Govorov was assembling another east of Samro Lake thirty miles off the Eighteenth Army left flank. They obviously could try for an encirclement around Luga.

Model still intended to attack to the northwest, and he proposed a “large” and a “small” solution. The first would carry the front out to the length of the Luga River; the second would extend it diagonally to the northern tip of Lake Peipus. Kinzel, the Chief of staff, remarked later to the Chief Staff, Eighteenth Army, that it was gratifying just to be able to think about such bold strokes. Whether either would be carried out would depend on how the battle developed. In any event, nothing would be lost because the preliminary movements would be useful no matter what the army did next.

Hitler, usually delighted by talk of an offensive, displayed no enthusiasm. In a rare personal directive to Model he cited the Narva area as most vulnerable and ordered it reinforced without delay. In the sector between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen he saw a danger of Eighteenth Army’s being pushed east away from Lake Peipus and a threat of an encirclement, and he instructed Model to submit a request for a withdrawal to the PANTHER position as soon as either of those became imminent.

Having appointed the kind of daring, iron-nerved general he wanted, Hitler himself became the advocate of caution. The change probably also resulted in part from Hitler’s tendency to associate men with events. Most likely, before dismissing Küchler he had decided that a retreat to the PANTHER position was necessary, but he had not acted then because he could not bring himself to appear to mitigate what he considered to be Küchler’s responsibility for the defeat.

On 6 February the 12th Panzer Division finished closing the gap to Sixteenth Army. Its next mission was to assemble in Pskov and attack east of Pskov Lake and Lake Peipus. The 58th Infantry Division was standing by farther east, and Eighteenth Army had called for a withdrawal on the front around Luga which would free three divisions in two days. In the pause, short as it was, the Army’s strength had begun to rise as stragglers, men recalled from leave, and those released from the hospitals were returned to their divisions. In addition, Model had ordered 5 percent of the rear echelon troops transferred to line duty.

At Headquarters, Eighteenth Army, Model on the 7th issued instructions for the first stage of the projected counteroffensive. By shifting divisions from the north and east the army would create a solid front between the southern tip of Lake Peipus and Luga. Having accomplished that, the army would apply the Schild und Schwert theory by employing two corps on the east defensively to stop the Russian advance from Samro Lake and one corps in the west in a thrust northward along the Lake Peipus shore.

During the next two days Eighteenth Army tried to jockey its divisions into position. Roadblocks laid by the partisans delayed 12th Panzer Division’s advance toward Pskov. The 58th Infantry Division established a short front on the Plyussa River at about the center of the proposed new line, but the Russians filtered past on both sides, and the other divisions would have to attack to close up the front. That would not be easy since the divisions only had four understrength battalions each and the enemy strength was growing hourly as units moved in from the northwest. The swampy terrain also raised problems, but, on the other hand, it was probably the main reason why Leningrad Front could not bring its full force to bear more quickly.

By 10 February the 58th Infantry Division was split in two and one of its regiments was encircled. The 24th Infantry Division, trying to close the gap on the right of the 58th Division, got nowhere and for most of the day had trouble holding open the Luga-Pskov railroad. Although Eighteenth Army would try again the next day to regain contact with the 58th Division and close the gap the prospects were worsening rapidly. Air reconnaissance had spotted convoys of 800 to 900 trucks moving southeast from Samro Lake.

The next afternoon Eighteenth Army reported that the battle had taken a dangerous turn. The 24th Infantry Division was stopped. Soviet tanks had appeared. Both regiments of the 58th Infantry Division were surrounded and would have to fight their way back. That they could save their heavy weapons was doubtful. After nightfall Lindemann told Model that the only way he could get enough troops to close the gaps on the left flank was to take the entire front back to the shortest line between the southern tip of Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen. Govorov had spread the right arm of the pincers out to the Peipus shore and was pushing south toward Pskov. He already had some units far enough south “to pinch the 12th Panzer Division in the backside.” Reluctantly, Model agreed to let the army go back.

The next day brought more bad news.

At Narva the Russians expanded their bridgehead and created another north of the city. Between Lakes Peipus and Pskov, Govorov poured in enough troops to threaten a crossing into the PANTHER position. If Model were to establish a front between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen he would have to fight for it. On the evening of the 12th Model informed the OKH that he still planned to take and hold that line and wanted to know whether Hitler approved. The OKH response indicated that nobody there, including Hitler, liked the idea. The opinion was—for once—unanimous that it was too late to set up a front between the lakes and that, in any event, it was more important to free one division for Narva and another for the Peipus-Pskov narrows. The operations chief in the OKH added that Hitler was repeating every day that he did not want to risk any encirclements forward of the PANTHER position. An hour before midnight Sponheimer reported breakthroughs north and south of Narva. On the north III SS Panzer Corps had managed to close the front and even gain a little, but south of Narva the Feldherrnhalle Division did not have the strength even to offer effective resistance.

In the morning on the 13th Model sent a situation report to Hitler. He said he would fight the battle around Narva to its end. If worst came to worst he would shorten the front by giving up the bend of the Narva River. He still believed it would be best to hold between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen until more work had been done on the PANTHER position. Hitler’s answer would be strengthened with greatest speed. The army group would submit a plan and timetable for a prompt withdrawal to the PANTHER position.

For the moment it appeared that the decision to go back to the PANTHER position might have come too late to save the Narva front, for which, as a last resort, the army group that day released an Estonian brigade. The brigade was the product of a draft the SS, which was responsible for foreign recruitment, had been conducting in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania since early January. Because Hitler refused to offer the Baltic States even a promise of eventual autonomy, the draftees were dispirited and their only motivation was fear—of the Russians and the Germans. On the night of 13 February, Sponheimer reported that the Estonians had arrived in complete disorder verging on panic. Some had tried to desert on the way. That left Model no choice but to take troops from Eighteenth Army. He ordered the 58th Infantry Division transferred north after a three-day rest. The division had lost a third of its personnel and all of its heavy equipment in the encirclements.

On the morning of the 14th, after Sponheimer reported that he had no room to maneuver and no troops to close the gaps and was therefore helpless, Model asked to evacuate the small bridgehead still being held east of Narva, to gain three battalions. Zeitzler approved and offered in addition an infantry division from Norway. Then, shortly after daylight news came in that the Russians had staged a landing on the coast northwest of Narva. Later reports revealed that the landing force was not large, about 500 naval troops, supported only by several gun boats from Lavansaari Island in the Gulf of Finland. In the report sent to the OKH Model stated that, nevertheless, the scene around Narva was “not pretty” and he had ordered the bridgehead given up immediately. During the day the landing parties were wiped out without much damage having been done except by the German Stukas that bombed a German division headquarters and knocked out several Tiger tanks.

More troublesome was the appearance of Soviet ski troops on the west shore of Lake Peipus north of the narrows. The security division responsible for the area reported that its Estonian troops were “going home.” After that, Model told the OKH that he would begin the withdrawal to the PANTHER position on 17 February and complete it early on 1 March. He would mop up the west shore of Lake Peipus in the next few days and use the first two divisions freed to cover the lake shore. He expected that as soon as Eighteenth Army began to move Govorov and Meretskov would try for an encirclement around the army’s “shoulders.” They had strong forces in position north of Pskov and on the west shore of Lake Ilmen.

In the two days before the withdrawal began, the Russians did not try again to cross the lakes, and on 17 February Model gave a corps headquarters command of the lake sector and began shifting the 12th Panzer Division into the area. On the Narva the battle began to degenerate into a vicious stalemate in which the two sides stood toe to toe, neither giving nor gaining an inch. Sponheimer could not close the gaps in his front, but that Govorov was less than satisfied with his own progress was confirmed in repeated radio messages offering the decoration Hero of the Soviet Union to the first commander whose troops reached the road running west out of Narva. As the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies began to move, the Soviet armies followed close. Through their networks of agents and partisans they knew exactly what was taking place.

On 19 February Army Group North became suddenly and acutely aware of an old danger that had been lurking in the background throughout the last month of crises. On that day, for the first time in two months, the attacks on the Third Panzer Army perimeter around Vitebsk stopped; and air reconnaissance detected truck convoys of 2,000 or 3,000 trucks moving out, most of them heading north and northwest. Army Group North intelligence estimated that two armies could be shifted to the Sixteenth Army right flank in a few days. Model foresaw two possibilities. The first, and most likely, was that after adding to its already strong concentration in the Nevel-Pustoshka area, Second Baltic Front would attempt to break into the PANTHER position below Pustoshka and roll it up to the north before the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies could establish themselves there. The second, the “big solution” as the Germans had come to call it, was a thrust straight through to Dvinsk and on to Riga to cut off Army Group North in the Baltic States.

Model also speculated that the activity on the Sixteenth Army right flank might be a sign that the Stavka was becoming discouraged with the attempts to encircle Eighteenth Army. If that was so, it did not result in any lessening of pressure on Eighteenth Army. As predicted, the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts bore down heavily on the army’s shoulders.

Meretskov tried for a breakthrough at Shimsk west of Lake Ilmen on 17 February. For three days, while the flank of Sixteenth Army came back from Staraya Russa, the battle to keep contact between the two armies swayed in the balance. On the 10th, when both began pulling away from Lake Ilmen, that crisis was passed.

Govorov reacted more slowly but more dangerously. Pskov, throughout the war the main communications center of Army Group North, was also the hinge on which the whole withdrawal to the PANTHER position turned. The army group could not afford to lose Pskov but scarcely had room around the city in which to maneuver. In the swamps and forests east of Pskov Lake, Leningrad Front had trouble bringing its forces to bear, but on 24 February it began laying on heavy pressure north of the city and launched probing attacks across the lake. According to intelligence reports, Stalin had called in Govorov and personally ordered him to take Pskov. By 26 February the threats at Pskov and on the Sixteenth Army right flank had made Hitler so nervous that he asked Model to try to speed up the withdrawal.

In the north, on the Narva front, the Germans toward the end of the month had gained only enough strength to tip the scales slightly in their favor. On 24 February General der Infanterie Johannes Friessner, who had proved himself in the fighting on the Sixteenth Army-Eighteenth Army boundary, took over Sponheimer’s command which was then redesignated Armeeabteilung Narva. By then troops of the 214th Infantry Division were beginning to arrive. They still needed seasoning, but they could be used to relieve experienced troops from the quiet parts of the line. Going over to what he called “mosaic work,” Friessner cut into the extreme tip of the bridgehead south of Narva and pushed the enemy there into two small pockets. Although the Russians ignored the punishing artillery and small arms fire and kept pouring in troops through the open ends of the pockets, the danger of their reaching the coast was averted.

On 1 March Army Group North took the last step back into the PANTHER position, and the Russians demonstrated that they were not going to let it come to rest there. North of Pustoshka two armies hit the VIII Corps front. South of the town two armies threw their weight against X Corps. Leningrad Front massed two armies south of Pskov and poured more troops across the Narva River, attacking out of the bridgehead to the north, northwest, and west. For a week the battle rippled up and down the whole army group front. Except for small local losses, the German line held. On 9 March Second Baltic Front stepped up its pressure against the Sixteenth Army right flank and began straining heavily for a breakthrough.

On the 10th the army group was confronted with a politically unpleasant and militarily insignificant consequence of the disastrous winter. The commanding officer of the Spanish Legion and the Spanish military attaché visited Model to tell him the legion was being called home. Franco, they said, was not turning away from Germany; he wanted to gather all his “matadors” about him to resist an Anglo-American invasion. Since the legion had proved as troublesome in the rear areas as it had been ineffectual at the front, the loss to the army group was not a painful one.

At midmonth Second Baltic Front was still battering the Sixteenth Army flank while Leningrad Front probed for openings around Pskov and Narva. But the weather had turned against the Russians. After a warm winter—for Russia—the spring thaw had set in early. A foot of water covered the ice on the lakes. Sixteenth Army reported that the Soviet tanks were sometimes sinking up to their turrets in mud. Against a weak front the Russians might have continued to advance, as they were doing in the Ukraine, but the PANTHER position, all that remained of the East Wall, was living up to German expectations.

Although Army Group North had failed to demolish Leningrad as both a symbol and a centre of Soviet power, in operational terms the siege effectively isolated three Soviet armies for over two years and forced six other armies to conduct repeated costly frontal assaults. Total Soviet military casualties on the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts during the siege were at least 1.5 million, including 620,000 dead or captured. The siege cost the lives of about 700,000 Soviet civilians and prevented the city’s industries from participating fully in the Soviet war effort until mid-1944.

Passchendaele 1917

The Start of the Attack

The attack on the Wytschaete-Messines ridge was a limited ‘bite and hold’ operation designed to clear the southern flank of the forthcoming Third Battle of Ypres. Messines was meticulously planned by General Herbert Plumer, who had taken to heart the key lesson of the Somme, that careful rehearsal and comprehensive planning were even more important than massive artillery bombardments. Plumer kept a firm personal grip on every possible aspect of his operation, from the barrage plan to the co-ordination of the mines, and from the water supply to the new backpacks used to take supplies to the front. The Australian general John Monash once famously said that trench warfare was ‘simply a problem of engineering’, and the battle of Messines, at which he was present as a division commander, was doubtless the sort of thing that he had in mind.

Plumer certainly believed in overkill, with some three million shells being fired during the two-week preliminary bombardment that was designed not only to break the Germans’ wire, but even to starve out their front-line infantry by preventing supplies being moved up to them from the rear. Then these supposedly starved troops would be blown sky-high by the simultaneous detonation of massive interlocking mines. The effects of the shock waves were to be multiplied as they rebounded off each other, and in the event as many as some 10,000 Germans were killed. The explosion could be heard in London, 130 miles away. Then a comprehensive creeping barrage began immediately and the attacking infantry captured the crest of the ridge along the whole of the attack frontage, at small loss. Casualties slowly mounted as the Germans gathered their wits and launched counter-attacks during the following days, complete with ground attack aircraft, but overall the battle had been a remarkable demonstration of Plumer’s tactical virtuosity.

Unfortunately the same could not be said of the early stages of the next battle, which was to be a much larger offensive out of the Ypres salient and Nieuport. One of the problems was that the operation had multiple aims, the incongruous first of which was to help the Royal Navy by capturing enemy naval bases on the Belgian coast. A major bridgehead across the mouth of the Yser Canal was to be set up opposite Nieuport, from which a drive on Ostend and Zeebrugge could be launched in conjunction with amphibious landings. However, while the bridgehead was still garrisoned by only one brigade, the Germans very cleverly counter-attacked and wiped it out. It soon became clear that the whole coastal wing of the British offensive would have to be abandoned. If Ostend were to be captured at all, it would have to be taken by an overland thrust of almost thirty miles due north from the Ypres salient, rather than the ten miles north-east from Nieuport. This was, of course, very much further than had been achieved by any offensive on the Western Front since 1914. Even if the rail junction north of Roulers (Roeselare) were accepted as a compromise or intermediate target, it was still twelve miles northeast from Ypres, and in a divergent direction.

As if this confusion were not bad enough, a number of other conflicting aims were also jostling for attention. One was the tactical consideration that the best way to clear the Germans away from the Ypres area was to capture the Gheluvelt plateau to the east of the city, in the direction of Menin, which was commanding high ground. Thus Haig found he had three possible directions for his thrust – towards Ostend, Roulers or Menin – which was of course no more than the logical result of starting in a salient where the enemy occupied almost three out of the four points of the compass.

It was certainly Haig’s duty to select one out of the three possible directions for his attack, and explain clearly to his subordinates exactly what the aim was intended to be. Alas, he failed to do either, but retreated into veiled talk of secret ‘higher considerations’ which prevented him from explaining his master plan. This has often been taken as a reference to the need to draw German attention away from the French mutinies, at a time when he felt he could not state out loud that they actually existed, in the same way that the Somme had relieved the pressure on Verdun in 1916. Modern research apparently rejects this interpretation of both 1916 and 1917, although of course Haig always saw it as his duty to fight alongside his French allies. Linked to all this, in Haig’s mind there must also have been some sort of theory of attrition, or ‘putting pressure on the Germans’, which in turn implied ‘seeking to fight frontal battles with as many of them as possible’, thereby ‘killing as many of them as possible’. This, of course, was a totally different objective from the idea of making a clean and deep breakthrough to Ostend, or Roulers, or across the Gheluvelt plateau. In all his battles Haig invariably retained some ultimate faith in at least the possibility of such a breakthrough, although he never actually managed to achieve one. In the particular case of Third Ypres it meant that he appointed the cavalryman Gough to command the major part of the battle, while Plumer, the more methodical expert in ‘bite and hold’ operations, was left in a secondary role.

There were thus considerable uncertainties within Haig’s planning staff. In which direction should they attack, and should they go for a breakthrough or a limited objective? In the event an ingenious compromise was agreed, whereby a whole series of ‘bite and hold’ attacks would be mounted in quick succession, hopefully at three-day intervals, until perhaps a final decisive breakthrough might be achieved. As for the direction, it was optimistically believed that because the attack frontage would be so long, and the attacking troops so numerous, all the various different objectives could be captured, and so every point of the compass could be covered. It might even be said, with the benefit of hindsight, that if only the battle had started a month earlier, and if only the weather gods had bestowed a little bit more luck upon it, it just might have worked.

Behind all this, however, is the much darker question of why Haig should have chosen to fight at Ypres at all. Even if we accept that he absolutely had to fight a major battle somewhere – to relieve the French or even to make a breakthrough all the way to Berlin – we are still free to question his precise choice of battlefield. His battles around Arras had only just finished in May, so we can understand why he might not have wished to return to the charge in that particular area. Nor had he personally any good memories of the sector facing Lille, between Vimy and Armentieres. Conversely, however, he must surely have treasured warm memories of his own personal triumph at the first (defensive) battle of Ypres in 1914. For Douglas Haig himself, the Ypres salient must have seemed almost like a benign environment, even though it was a notoriously malevolent one for those who had to actually live in it. Not only was it surrounded and overlooked on three sides by the enemy, and especially by his artillery, but it was a notoriously damp and muddy site in its own right. It had already won a particularly evil reputation among the rank and file of the BEF during Haig’s first battle in 1914, which was not at all improved by the frightening German use of gas in the second battle in 1915.

There was, however, another potential site for the great midsummer offensive of 1917, which with today’s hindsight we can suggest would have been considerably better than Ypres. This was the Cambrai sector, to the south of Arras, where the British were not in a salient and where the well-drained ground had not been churned up by years of shell fire. Admittedly it was a sector in which the Germans were especially well fortified in their new Hindenburg Line, but they were extremely well fortified at Ypres too, so maybe there was no significant disadvantage in that respect. As it happens, Cambrai would be the scene of a dramatic British success on 20 November, but by that time too many of the available resources had already been consumed in the Ypres salient. The Cambrai battle – really it should be called little more than a ‘raid’ – could not be sustained for more than ten days. We may speculate that if only the main weight of the BEF had been deployed to Cambrai in midsummer, the overall level of success might have been very much higher than it actually was.

The reality, however, was that Haig had committed himself un- shakeably to Ypres as the site of his main battle of 1917. Ideally it should have started very soon after the preliminaries at Messines in early June, but in fact it was delayed, for a variety of reasons, for over a month. The bombardment did not start until 18 July, at which point the Germans sprang their first nasty surprise, in the form of a counter-battery bombardment using their new blistering agent, mustard gas. The British artillery had to struggle against this horror at the same time as it was trying to suppress the German artillery, so naturally its efficiency was reduced. Finally the infantry went over the top on 31 July.

The first ‘bite and hold’ operation went very well over ground that had been thoroughly prepared by the artillery. However, it was found that the Germans had very strong positions in great depth, including many concrete bunkers, and it was only their forward outposts that had been captured. Then it began to rain, and the rain did not stop before the battlefield had been turned into a total quagmire. The preparations for the second ‘bite’ were delayed, and it turned out to be far less decisive than the first. The artillery could not move forward as quickly as planned; the tanks bogged down unless they stuck to the roads; many of the infantry weapons became jammed with mud, and the Germans were remorseless in their counter-attacks. The initial optimism for a rapid advance started to fade away. As the days ticked by criticisms of Gough’s methods began to mount, until at the end of August Haig eventually restricted the frontage for which he was responsible, and brought in Plumer to impose the strict organization and planning that had served him so well at Messines.

Plumer Takes Over

At this point the rain stopped and the sun once again began to shine, but for the next three weeks the British were unable to exploit the dry weather. Plumer was reorganizing the assault forces, so the offensive was temporarily halted. It resumed on 20 September in grand style, with a succession of three textbook ‘bite and hold’ attacks, culminating at Broodseinde on 4 October. Of particular note was the inability of the German counter-attacks to make progress against the massive weight of British artillery fire. Whatever tactics the Germans attempted to employ, they appeared to be powerless in the face of this dominant arm. It was exactly how Haig’s battle had been supposed to run in late June, and British spirits rose just as German optimism dissolved. However, it was now autumn moving into winter, and the rains began again, never to relent. In the long weeks after the heady success of Broodseinde the battlefield reverted to a heavily cratered bog, in which men could easily drown if they strayed away from the all too few duckboard paths. Depression and frustration set in as even the most normal operations became practically impossible. The Gheluvelt plateau was never totally captured, although the village of Passchendaele, at its summit, was captured by Canadian troops on 6 November, after which the whole operation was soon closed down. The allies had got nowhere near either Roulers or Ostend, and the cavalry Corps de Chasse had long ago been sent back to its stables.

The name ‘Passchendaele’ has entered the English language and consciousness as a symbol of the same type of futile sacrifice as was perceived to have occurred on the Somme a year earlier. However, in this case there were some added horrors which seemed to make the whole experience even worse. The most obvious was the rain and the all-pervasive mud, which the British public soon came to understand in a very vivid manner when the photographs were published after the war. The moonscape of shell craters filled with water, and devoid of all vegetation, made a very powerful impression. The very name ‘Passchendaele’ is itself resonant of squelching through deep, slimy mire.

Less well understood were some of the other horrors that were seen for the first time in this battle. Mustard gas was the first, and it was probably the nastiest gas of the entire war. The systematic use of concrete pillboxes by the Germans might be seen as another, in the sense that they made it much harder than previously to knock out or neutralize an enemy machine gun post. A third horror, widely noted in the memoirs of participants, was what in modern parlance is called ‘the deep battle’, or the ability to reach deep behind enemy lines with firepower delivered by artillery and aircraft. Before Third Ypres the troops knew that they were almost totally safe from attack as soon as they had moved a couple of miles back from the front line. In the second half of 1917, however, this could no longer be relied upon. In particular the techniques of night bombing had become more advanced. Soldiers sleeping ten miles behind the front now found they were likely to be woken up, and perhaps even killed, by air raids. At the same time truly long-range artillery was available in ever increasing numbers and on the British side, at least, the science of first-round accuracy (‘predicted fire’) was being perfected for its use.

Many different sub-sciences had to be brought together before a gun could be relied upon to hit its target with its first shot. The weather had to be studied at every altitude through which the shell would travel. The firing characteristics of each individual gun had to be exactly known, especially since they were constantly changing as the barrel wore out. Each batch of shells was also subtly different from every other batch, and these differences had to be fully understood if their line of flight was to be predicted. Precise and detailed mapping was especially vital, to establish the locations of both the firing gun and its target. To achieve this it was necessary to set up a vast network of aircraft taking photographs of the terrain on a daily basis; laboratories to process and interpret the photographs; workshops to convert the data into an accurately surveyed set of maps; and finally a printing and distribution system to get the maps to the guns and the tactical air photos to the infantry. During some operations new sets of maps and photographs had to be issued daily, as the situation on the ground kept changing. There was also a need for certain specialized techniques for locating enemy gun batteries, such as flash spotting or sound ranging. All this was enormously more sophisticated than anything that had been known before the war, and it amounted to a significant step forward in the ‘art of war’.

Apart from anything else, the new artillery techniques meant that guns no longer needed to be pre-registered by the lengthy old methods of trial and error. In the past, this prolonged process had always given away the presence of the guns many days before an attack was launched, which in turn was a key intelligence indicator that an attack was imminent. An attacker was unable to achieve surprise, however well he might camouflage the build-up of his troops, so the defender had every opportunity to concentrate his reserves at the key point. With the new techniques of ‘predicted fire’, by contrast, the guns needed to support an attack could be kept hidden and silent right up to the moment when the infantry climbed out of its trenches and began its assault. The enemy could be kept in total ignorance of the impending offensive until about two minutes before it arrived on his forward positions.

This represented a revolution in tactics, which came to be understood by the British high command soon after the battle of Third Ypres had begun. Obviously by that stage it was already far too late to achieve surprise at Ypres itself, but General Byng, commanding the Third Army further to the south, realized that he had an ideal opportunity to do so on his frontage facing Cambrai. He devised a plan of attack, based around a surprise artillery bombardment using ‘predicted fire’. Tanks were not originally part of this plan, as many have subsequently claimed, but they were added only later as an afterthought, to help crush the wire. The attack was carefully prepared in total secrecy during the first three weeks of November, and achieved total surprise when it was finally unleashed in the dawn mists of 20 November.

Despite the great strength of the Hindenburg Line defences, the assault troops rolled forward in splendid style. Most of the German artillery was knocked out almost instantly by accurate long-range fire; the wire was crushed under the tracks of some 378 tanks, and the infantry quickly occupied the enemy’s front-line trenches. Only in front of Flesquières, in the second line of defence, did the attack encounter stiff resistance. The leading tanks had the misfortune to encounter a specialist battery that had been trained in anti-tank tactics, and were shot to pieces as they climbed up the slope. For all their strengths and shock value, Flesquières demonstrated that tanks were far from invulnerable to enemy fire, and in fact during the day as a whole no fewer than sixty-five were knocked out. A further 114 were immobilized by mechanical problems or bogging, so the attrition rate was running at around 50 per cent per day of combat. Another major problem was that the build-up of carbon monoxide and petrol fumes within each tank, especially when combined with motion sickness, severely limited the time its crew could continue in action. Six hours was a very good average; eight hours was absolutely heroic. When advancing carefully over a broken and complicated battlefield, this factor greatly restricted the distance a tank could advance in a day from its starting point, which would itself necessarily be some way behind the infantry’s start line. In the case of Cambrai some tanks managed to advance as far as five miles into enemy territory on 20 November, but many more went much less far.

In the conditions of the Great War the tank could never possibly be considered a weapon of breakthrough. It had very limited range and speed, not to mention many other important tactical limitations. What it achieved at Cambrai was a great political triumph, in that at long last there were hundreds of tanks on the battlefield, rather than just a few dozens, and the progress made on 20 November was spectacular in the context of the Western Front. The church bells were rung in Britain upon receipt of the news, and the ‘myth of the tank’ entered the popular consciousness. The future of tank development and funding, which had been controversial ever since Bullecourt in April, was assured. The responsibility for making a breakthrough nevertheless remained firmly where it had always resided – with the horsed cavalry.

On 20 November it was the cavalry that was supposed to break through ‘to the green fields beyond’, and ultimately capture Cambrai itself. However the wide St Quentin Canal lay across the path of their intended advance, and by the time they got there only one rickety bridge remained. Some of the cavalry got across and established a bridgehead; but the whole impetus of their forward charge had been wrecked. The Germans were granted time to bring up reinforcements and make a fight of it after all. This meant that the successes of the first day, which had certainly been great, would lead to no breakthrough but only a new round of attritional trench warfare. It became focused on Bourlon Wood, a hill feature overlooking the whole battlefield from the north. The British finally took it on 23 November, only to lose it again on the 27th. At this stage of the battle Byng had run out of reserves, since his operation had only ever been conceived on a relatively small scale when compared with the major offensive that had just finished at Ypres. Indeed, he now found he had perilously few troops left to defend the ground he had won.

The Germans duly exploited the British weakness by mounting two major counter-attacks on 30 November, of which the one towards the south-east flank of the British salient was particularly effective. Much of the ground captured on the 20th was retaken and the balance of casualties, which had previously been heavily in favour of the British, was restored almost to equality. For the British it made a disappointing end to a battle that had started so well. For the Germans it demonstrated that in favourable circumstances they could still land well-prepared offensive blows with infantry spearheads following a hurricane bombardment. At Ypres the British artillery had been too strong and the terrain too broken for this tactic to work; but at Cambrai it worked well and pointed the way to a series of successful offensives in spring 1918. Nevertheless, the overall result at Cambrai was something of a drawn match. The breakthrough that had eluded tacticians in 1916 thus continued to elude them right to the end of 1917.

Early US Amphibious Landings I

Colonel Robert W. Huntington

USMC While Colonel Robert W. Huntington had been long since retired when Marines carried out a series of maneuvers later dubbed “Advanced Base Force” exercises from 1903 to 1907, his landing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the War with Spain in 1898 laid the foundation for the growth and development of the Marines’ landing doctrine during the 1920s and 1930s. Also, when Huntington’s career as a Marine officer began at the commencement of the War Between the States in 1861, a transformation was already underway insofar as the development of ironclad ships that would eventually lead to the birth of the New Steel Navy in the 1880s and inevitably affect the mission of the Marine Corps. While Huntington’s military career followed the normal pattern of sea and shore duty for Marine officers during the “Gilded Age,” technical and professional changes inside the Navy and Marine Corps ultimately led the latter service to embrace the mission as an expeditionary force-in-readiness during the early twentieth century.

While Colonel Huntington had very little directly to do with the development of the Advanced Base Force, everything he did in his career after the Civil War-including the landings during the American Civil War at Port Royal in South Carolina, off Hatteras, North Carolina, in November 1861, the landing in Panama in 1885, and a humanitarian mission in Apia, Samoa-pointed the Corps’ to its future missions. Despite the outward appearance that the Marine Corps had grown anachronistic there were events ongoing inside the Navy that directly or indirectly impacted that service during the last quarter of the 19th through the early part of the 20th centuries. Thus, through the examination of the career and era of Colonel Robert W. Huntington, one can clearly see the origins of the Corps’ future mission as an advance base force. There is little doubt that Colonel Huntington was the Marine Corps’s first expeditionary force commander.

Early Years, 1840-1865

Robert Watkinson Huntington was born on December 3, 1840, in West Hartford, Connecticut. After receiving his early education in West Hartford, Huntington entered Trinity College in 1860. On April 23, 1861, upon the outbreak of the War Between the States, he enlisted in the 1st Connecticut Regiment as a member of Captain J. R. Hawley’s Company B, a volunteer outfit comprised of young men from Hartford. While still a member of the 1st Connecticut, Huntington applied for and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps with the date of rank on June 5, 1861.

During the fighting at the First Manassas or Bull Run, Huntington commanded a platoon of Marines prior to the withdrawal of Union forces from the battlefield. Detached briefly from Reynolds’s Marine Battalion, Huntington led a unit assigned to guard and transport state prisoners from Washington and Annapolis to Fort Lafayette. While he was assigned to this duty, the Marine Corps, on September 30, 1861, advanced Huntington to the rank of first lieutenant. Detached from prisoner duty, Headquarters then assigned Huntington to the Navy’s Potomac Flotilla where, acting on sealed orders, he was to escort under armed guard a captured Confederate raider and deliver him to the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. In October 1861, Headquarters re-assigned Huntington to the seagoing Marine battalion commanded by Major John G. Reynolds, then making preparation for the expedition to seize Port Royal, South Carolina. Although this battalion spent more time at sea than in conducting amphibious forays ashore, it nevertheless “participated in the most vital naval undertakings of the war-the great blockade of the South.” The Marine battalion in fact played a minor role in the Navy’s plan to seize several strategic sites in order to utilize them as advanced bases “as soon as adequate amphibious forces could be assembled.” Reynolds’ amphibious battalion was a small portion of the force gathered to conduct the planned assaults. While serving with Reynolds’ battalion, Huntington participated in the naval expedition led by Captain Samuel F. Dupont in the capture of Port Royal, South Carolina, and a landing with a company of Marines from the USS Mohican in the seizure and capture of Port Clinch near the town of Fernandina, Florida, in December 1861.

Lieutenant Huntington was detached from Reynolds’s amphibious battalion on March 31, 1862, and Headquarters Marine Corps reassigned him to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 3, 1862. He remained at the Brooklyn Navy Yard until ordered to command the Marine detachment aboard the USS Jamestown, then at dock at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. On May 26, 1863, the Jamestown departed Philadelphia and took up station with the Asiatic Fleet. For the next eighteen months, Huntington, now a captain, remained at sea. From 14 July to 5 August 1864, in response to the violence aimed against the foreign legations and diplomatic personnel in Japan, Captain Huntington took charge of a mixed force of Marines and bluejackets assigned to guard the U. S. Legation and U. S. Minister’s residence in Yeddo (Tokyo), Japan. After the violence subsided, Huntington’s detachment re-embarked aboard the Jamestown and proceeded to Mare Island, California. In October 1865, Huntington reported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to answer charges to a court of inquiry then investigating alleged mistreatment of the enlisted men under his charge during his tenure as commander of the Jamestown’s Marine detachment. At the completion of the court of inquiry, Huntington left for a brief period of leave and re-resumed his duties as assistant commander of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from November 1865 to April 30, 1866, at which time he reported for duty at the Portsmouth, N. H., Navy Yard.

Assault from the Sea: The Civil War and Amphibious Warfare

The strength of the Marine Corps never went beyond 3,773 officers and men during the Civil War, but Marines were present during several important operations that were a forerunner to its advanced base mission during the first two decades of the 20th century. The majority of operations classified as classic amphibious operations during the Civil War, were, however, carried out by the Army. While historians have correctly characterized these landings as minor operations with little or no tactical or operational significance, they were nonetheless important from the strategic point of view in that the landings were part of the Union plan to draw Confederate forces away from Richmond and thereby assist General Ambrose Burnside’s stalled offensive on the Peninsula, and to harass and if possible destroy the Confederate lines of communication in and around the Confederate capital. From 1862 through 1864, Union amphibious forays supported the main campaigns on land, with the most important one being General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea.”

As was the case with the majority of combined operations during the Civil War, interservice squabbling, rivalries, and institutional bickering derailed any benefit from these landings. Several of the most important operational “lessons not learned” by the Marines were those put forward during the landings at Port Royal, Fernandina, later at Roanoke Island (November 1862), and Fort Fisher, North Carolina (December 1864). During the last decade of the 19th Century when Headquarters Marine Corps established the School of Application for all newly commissioned Marine officers (1891), the landing operations carried out by the Army during the Civil War remained forgotten and insignificant to Marine officers, many of whom remained fixated on the “traditional roles” performed by Marines (i. e., as ships’ detachments and landing parties). There was a loss of what today is termed “corporate knowledge” among the vast majority of Marine officers, and it is speculative whether retention or dissemination of this knowledge would have paid off on any future Marine Corps mission. The point remained that Marines, as the War with Spain demonstrated, had to re-learn the lessons of amphibious insertion in the decades to follow. The Marine Corps’ failure to embrace what was a potentially ideal mission as the Navy’s landing force meant that the mistakes of such operations as Hatteras Island (November 1861), Port Royal, S. C., Fernandina in December 1861, and Fort Fisher would be repeated. Inept strategic and tactical leadership as well as overambitious planning hampered the U. S. Marines (and the Navy and Army) throughout the war. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by the Marines during the Civil War was aboard the ships of the Navy. Here, Marine detachments served as gun crews that bombarded the Confederate forts along the East and Gulf Coasts. Nevertheless, the War Between the States produced several lessons insofar as amphibious operations were concerned. The most important of those were the assaults on New Bern, N. C., and later Fort Fisher, N. C. For the most part, however, Marine officers failed to see the significance of those landing operations and how they could use them to redefine the role and mission of the Marine Corps during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Marines in the Gilded Age: Duty Ashore and at Sea, 1865-1885

At the conclusion of the war, Huntington, now a captain, served in billets ashore and afloat in a Marine Corps beset by manpower reductions, low morale among both officers and enlisted men, few officer and enlisted promotions, a high desertion rate and, most importantly, the lack of a defined mission. Despite the institutional crisis affecting the Marine Corps, however, there was on the horizon both a mission and a role that would define the Marine Corps for the next century and half. Contrary to the contention that the period from 1865 to 1898 was the Corps’ least active insofar as its institutional growth and expansion was concerned, the era was instead the commencement of the Corps’ renaissance as a fighting force.

All was not bleak during the Gilded Age, as Marines conducted several landing operations that held important lessons for their future missions. These operations were in Formosa (1867), Korea (1871), and in Panama (1885), and laid the groundwork for the Corps’ advanced base mission through the services of Captain Daniel P. Mannix to the Imperial Chinese court in the early 1880s. Captain Mannix’s attendance and training at the U. S. Army’s Coastal Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1878, and his subsequent duties as an instructor in coastal defense, led indirectly to the establishment of the School of Application for all newly commissioned Marine officers in 1892 at the Washington Navy Yard and the subsequent advanced base force exercises in 1903. The lessons Mannix learned in China were later modified and taught during the early twentieth century at the Advanced Base School to a new generation of Marine officers who practiced them on the beaches of Culebra in Puerto Rico.

During the Gilded Age, Marine officers such as Captain Robert W. Huntington and others carried out missions that were to become standard Marine missions during the 20th century. These missions included diplomatic security, protection of American interests in Asia, South America, West Indies, and in the Mediterranean Sea, punitive expeditions, and the evacuation of noncombatants from troubled spots throughout the world. The landings in Formosa in 1867, Korea in 1871, and Panama in 1885, where Captain Robert W. Huntington commanded a company of Marines, led directly to the expeditionary assault missions carried out by Marines to this day.

A Punitive Expedition to Formosa in 1867

In response to the murder of the shipwrecked crew of the U. S. merchant ship Rover by the natives of Formosa, and in accordance with the accepted principles of international law concerning redress, the American Consul General C. W. LeGendre, the British Consul General, Mr. Charles Carroll, and the U. S. Minister to China ordered Commander John C. Freibeger, commanding officer of the USS Ashuelot, along with the USS Wyoming and USS Hartford, to proceed to Formosa. The U. S. Asiatic Squadron along with a landing force of one hundred and eighty-one officers, sailors, and Marines under the command of Captain James Forney set sail from a base in Hong Kong for Formosa (Taiwan) in order to punish members of the Botansha tribes who were responsible for this deed. On June 13, 1871, the leathernecks and bluejackets “fought desperately, burning a number of native huts, and chasing the warriors [who covered themselves in blue dye] until they could chase them no longer,” all at a heavy cost of men killed and wounded.

After disembarking from their ship’s boat, Captain Forney and the Marines under his command took positions ashore and formed into skirmish formation, then found themselves engaged in sustained fighting. In a report submitted to Commander Belknap after the Marines re-embarked aboard the USS Hartford, Captain Forney provided the commander of the Asiatic Squadron with a detailed description:

On the first landing, by your order, I took charge of twenty Marines, deploying them forward as skirmisher. A dense and almost impenetrable thicket of bush prevented the men from advancing very rapidly. I penetrated with them to a creek about half a mile from the beach without meeting any of the enemy, and was then recalled for further orders. You then instructed me to leave a sergeant and five men on the beach, and to advance with the main body, headed by yourself. In consequence of all further operations coming under your own observation, I have nothing further to report, except that the men behaved gallantly, and deserve credit for the manner in which they marched over such a rough and hilly country, and under such intense, scorching heat…. The entire number of Marines on shore was forty-three, thirty-one of whom were from this ship [Hartford], and twelve from the Wyoming.

By 4 o’clock that afternoon, the Marines and sailors who had chased the aborigines into the hills began to feel the effects of the hot Formosan sun and retired to the beach, where they boarded the ships’ boats and headed back to the ships of the Asiatic Squadron. After much difficulty General LeGendre was able to negotiate a treaty with the leader of the Botanshas, Tokitok, who agreed not to commit any more outrages against shipwrecked seamen. Retiring to their ships, the Marines and bluejackets set sail for their base in Hong Kong.

Lieutenant Colonel McLane Tilton, USMC

Tilton’s Landing in Korea in 1871

Upon receipt of orders from the State Department, in May 1871, the American Minister to China, Mr. Low, set out on a diplomatic mission to establish relations with the Kingdom of Korea, then under the tutelage of the Chinese throne. Accompanying the minister was Rear Admiral John Rodgers, Jr., Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet, as well the 105-man Marine detachment commanded by Captain McLane Tilton. After assurances to the Korean officials that their intentions were peaceful, the American diplomatic mission proceeded up the Salee River. While a group of sailors made surveys and soundings of the Salee, the fortresses on the bank of the river opened fire on the Americans. While the Koreans wounded only two Americans, both Minister Low and Admiral Rodgers demanded an explanation and an apology for this attack. With neither forthcoming, Admiral Rodgers readied the fleet for action to storm and neutralize the fortresses. The admiral likewise readied the combined landing force of bluejackets and Marines. As U. S. Navy gunboats (USS Monocacy and Palos) towed the launches carrying the men, the guns from both ships fired on the enemy forts as the combined American assault force, led by Lieutenant Commander Casey, made its way toward the shore.

On Saturday, June 10, 1871, the boats carrying Captain Tilton’s battalion (105 officers and enlisted Marines) landed on a gently sloping beach two hundred yards from the high water mark surrounded by marshes and saturated with an ankle-deep, thick mud that made movement nearly impossible. After Tilton’s force struggled through the swampy terrain, the Marine officer deployed his force into skirmish order and began the tedious job of clearing the first of the offending forts. In what was perhaps up to that time one of the most successful examples of a combined Navy-Marine assault ashore, Captain Tilton’s Marines, supported by the Navy’s gunboats commanded by Commander Picking, fought their way for the next eighteen hours through a maze of fortresses heavily defended by fanatical Koreans. The Koreans, many of whom preferred death to surrender, fought the Marines with muskets, swords, spears, and rocks. Finally, after nearly two days of fighting, the last of the forts fell to the Marines and bluejackets. In his after-action report, Lieutenant Commander Casey praised the conduct of the Marines, who he said “were always in the advance, and how well they performed their part I leave to you to judge.” Commander Kimberly, who was in overall command of the operation ashore, added, “To Captain Tilton and his Marines belong the honor of first landing and last leaving the shore, in leading the advance on the march, on entering the forts, and as acting as skirmishers.”

In his report following the capture of the forts, Captain Tilton described the landings by his Marines on 10 June 1871:

On Saturday, 10 instant, the guards of the Colorado, Alaska, and Benicia, numbering one hundred, and five, rank and file, and four officers, equipped in light marching order, with one hundred rounds of ammunition and two days’ cooked rations, were embarked from their respective ships and towed up the Salee River by the United States ship Palos. Upon nearing the first of a line of fortifications, extending up the river on the Kang-Hoa Island side, the Palos anchored, and by order of the commanding officer all the boats cast off and pulled away from the shore, where we landed on a wide sloping beach, two hundred yards from high-water mark, with the mud over the knees of the tallest man, and crossed by deeper sluices filled with softer and still deeper mud. After getting out of the boats, a line of skirmishers was extended across the muddy beach, and parallel to a tongue of land jutting through to the river, fortified on the point by a square redoubt on the right, and a crenellated wall extending a hundred yards to the left, along the river, with fields of grain and a small village immediately to the rear.

While Captain Tilton’s actions ashore have been dismissed as insignificant to the Marine Corps’ gradual assumption of the advanced base force mission, they nonetheless represent one more important piece of the institutional puzzle that was a foundation for Huntington’s landing at Guantanamo Bay in 1898. While it is true that Tilton’s Marines remained ashore for only eighteen hours and that the landing was more of a punitive expedition and not an amphibious assault such as the one at Fort Fisher during the American Civil War in December 1864, the landing in Korea nevertheless represented one more step toward the Marine Corps’ advanced base force mission.

While this factor remained buried insofar as “lessons learned” at Headquarters Marine Corps, the work of Captain Daniel P. Mannix at the U. S. Army’s Coastal Artillery School (1876-78) and in China is a reminder that the Marine Corps did have a vital role to play in ongoing revolution in naval affairs that swept the country with the U. S. Navy’s acquisition of ships made from steel (the New Steel Navy) in 1883 and its evolution as a modern force. The landings in Korea in 1871 and the landing on the Isthmus of Panama in April 1885 pointed to the need for an expeditionary assault force schooled in the defense and seizure of advanced naval bases, and in the employment of torpedo and mines.

Early US Amphibious Landings II

US Marines taking charge of the trans-isthmus railway (Note Gatling gun) 1885

The Mannix Mission to China, 1881-1884

One of the most influential Marine Corps officers to serve during the Gilded Age was First Lieutenant Daniel Pratt Mannix. A graduate of the U. S. Army’s Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia, (1878), as well as the Navy’s Torpedo School at Newport, Rhode Island, First Lieutenant Mannix shortly thereafter volunteered to serve as a foreign instructor to the Imperial Chinese Navy in Taku near the Peiho River. While at Taku, First Lieutenant Mannix established a School of Application “modeled after our Artillery School,” where the students studied strategy, “grand tactics” or military operations, torpedoes, musketry, artillery, mathematics, and military history-in effect, all of those subjects thought necessary to better prepare a naval (or Marine) officer for war. Mannix put his education at the Artillery School and his experience in China to good use when he returned home in 1885 after serving the customary two years at sea as an instructor at the newly organized Marine School of Application, established on 1 May 1891 by the acting Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood.

Geography: Mitchell’s Geography and Atlas

Military History: Jomini’s Art of War, Weber’s Outlines of Universal History

Tactics: Robert’s Handbook of Artillery, Heavy Artillery, Light Artillery, Army Regulations

The curriculum Mannix studied at Fort Monroe and later instructed in China served as the basis for the one later adopted by the Marine Corps’ School of Application (1892) and the Advanced Base School established at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1910.

Captain Mannix later served as an assistant to Colonel Heywood who, as the health of the Colonel Commandant Charles McCawley began to fail, had some influence on Heywood’s reform movement of the Marine Officer Corps. Captain Mannix became the school’s first director, and suggested that this new school of application should “embrace training in electricity, torpedoes, gunnery, and drill for both officers and enlisted men.” There is evidence to suggest that Major Robert W. Huntington, one of the Corps’ most vociferous advocates of reform inside the officer corps, was also an advocate of professional education. While commanding the Marine Barracks in Brooklyn, New York, Huntington approved the applications of Second Lieutenants Leroy Stafford, Eli K. Cole, and Clarence L. Ingate, all of whom had applied for the Army’s School of Application for Cavalry and Infantry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but were ordered elsewhere. While Colonel Heywood disapproved the orders for the three young officers, writing that their services were “needed elsewhere,” one can deduce from this and other comments made by Major Huntington that he recognized that the Marine Corps lacked a second-tier professional school dedicated to the advancement of new officers. Huntington was one of the Corps’ most vocal advocates for bringing younger, more fit (and possibly more intellectually robust) officers into the Marine Corps. Huntington admitted that the Marine officer corps had become “old and tired,” because most of its senior officers (and some company grade officers) had been commissioned at the time of the American Civil War. The Marine officer firmly believed what the Corps needed was nothing short of a “transfusion of new blood into the officer corps.” Major Huntington recognized that if the Marine Corps was to modernize, it would have to change its institutional structure and how it educated and trained its newly commissioned officers. Despite Mannix’s death on February 6, 1894, the School of Application went on to serve as the basis for the education of Marine officers and non-commissioned officers that was, in time, expanded and improved upon. Mannix’s reforms and the introduction of the course of study he developed while in China served the Marine Corps for the next three decades (1890-1920).

Esmeralda – the world’s fastest cruiser in 1884

Trouble on the Isthmus, 1885

On April 2, 1885, after months of political turmoil on the Isthmus of Panama due to the overthrow of the constitutionally elected government, Secretary of the Navy W. C. Whitney ordered Colonel-Commandant Charles G. McCawley to “detail a battalion of Marines to sail the next day on the City of Para for Colon.” Secretary Whitney instructed Rear Admiral James Jouett, commanding officer of the North Atlantic Squadron, that the mission of the Marines and bluejackets was to “open the transit on the isthmus and protect the lives and property of the Americans (and other foreigners) living there.” In turn, Rear Admiral Jouett instructed Lieutenant Colonel Heywood to “proceed to Panama with the battalion of Marines under your command, for the protection of American lives and property in that vicinity…. Panama is now in the hands of the revolutionary forces, and it is feared that if the place is attacked by the regular Colombian troops these revolutionaries will attempt to destroy the city, or portions of it, by burning. As the burning of Panama would involve the destruction of much American and other foreign property, you will prevent it if possible.”

Action in Panama, April-May 1885 After assembling Marines from the various barracks along the eastern seaboard, Heywood’s First Battalion set sail on the City of Para, a requisitioned steamer, and headed south for Colon. This first battalion of Marines (soon to be joined by a second, commanded by Captain J. H. Higbee) arrived in Panama in the early evening hours on April 11, 1885, and shortly thereafter disembarked from their makeshift transport. With the city in turmoil, Colonel Heywood’s Marines occupied strategic locations throughout Colon. As Marines of the First Battalion spread throughout Panama, Captain R. W. Huntington’s Company A, Second Battalion, was ordered by Commander Bowman H. McCalla, commanding officer of all naval forces on the Isthmus, to “proceed to Matachin, in a special train that will be provided by the Panama Railroad Company to follow the 3 P. M., with the company now under your command, and relieve Lieutenant Impey and the garrison now at that place. I have directed the commanding officers of a section of artillery and a Gatling gun to report to you as part of your command. Your duty will be to keep the transit open, to protect the lives and property of American citizens, and to have your command in the highest state of efficiency…. Take with you three thousand rounds of ammunition in excess of what has been served out.” Shortly after receipt of this order, Huntington moved out toward Matachin, where his company took up positions to defend the railroad and other vital sectors of the town.

Captain Huntington’s Marines-loaded down with two days’ rations, a breech-loaded rifled musket, forty cartridges, rolled blanket, two canteens, a haversack, and a change of clothing, and supported by a 3-inch rifle as well as Gatling gun with sufficient ammunition- boarded a special train that took them to Matachin. Commander B. H. McCalla, who was in command of the transport carrying Huntington’s Marine battalion thirteen years later off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, informed the Marine captain that his mission was “to keep the transit open, to protect the lives and property of American citizens, and to have your command in the highest state of efficiency.” Assisted by First Lieutenant George F. Elliott, Second Lieutenant Carroll Mercer, and Navy Lieutenants (j. g.) J. C. Colwell and Alexander Sharp, along with fifty-two enlisted Marines and fifty bluejackets, Huntington’s mission was to essentially “ride shotgun” and keep the rail lines open.

Upon hearing the news that the Colombians were prepared to march on Colon, Admiral Jouett ordered the occupation of Colon. As the two Marine battalions and accompanying platoon of Navy bluejackets marched in three columns to engage the revolutionaries, the force split into three columns, each assigned a district of Colon in order overwhelm and neutralize the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Heywood, who had established his headquarters in Panama, proceeded to carry out Admiral Jouett’s orders. For the next three weeks, Marines and bluejackets skirmished with revolutionaries, and arrested and herded them into detention areas placed near the U. S. Consulate. To guard these prisoners Heywood assigned a detachment from Huntington’s Company A.

Lieutenant Colonel Heywood shortly thereafter received orders from Admiral Jouett to prepare his forces for the evacuation of Panama. On May 7, 1885, after the arrival of three hundred Colombian troops, Lieutenant Colonel Heywood’s First Battalion boarded the City of Para and the other ships that accompanied the Atlantic Squadron to Panama and set sail for the east coast of the United States. Meanwhile, to protect the U. S. Consulate and other American interests in the area, Admiral Jouett retained a small detachment of leathernecks from the USS Shenandoah in Panama to guard the trains and maintain order. By May 25, sufficient order had returned to Panama to allow the withdrawal of this small force, which soon re-embarked aboard the Shenandoah, though the ship remained in Panamanian waters for some time to come.

The landings in Panama are significant in that it was, to date, the largest single force of Marines assembled for a military operation ashore since the landing at Fort Fisher during the American Civil War. The rapid assembly of Lieutenant Colonel Heywood’s force of 34 officers and 651 enlisted Marines, tactically organized into a brigade and augmented by Navy bluejackets, was in and of itself a remarkable accomplishment given the state of the U. S. Navy as it transitioned from sail to steam. In fact, the City of Para, a steam collier, had been contracted by the Navy to transport the Marines to Colon.

While it remains true that Marines saw this episode as part of their traditional role as part of the Navy, there was already a body of literature that suggested a permanent role for the Marines as a ship-borne expeditionary landing force. Even Rear Admiral Jouett indirectly pointed to this fact in his letter to Lieutenant Colonel Heywood, upon the latter’s departure from the Isthmus:

Your departure from the Isthmus with your command gives me occasion to express my high estimation of the Marine battalion. You and your battalion came from home at the first sound of alarm, and you have done hard and honest work. The Marine battalion has been constantly at the front, where danger and disease were sure to come, first and always. When a conflict has seemed imminent, I have relied with most implicit confidence on that body of tried soldiers. No conflict has come, but I am well aware how nobly and steadily, through weary and anxious nights, exposed to a deadly climate, the Marines have guarded our country’s interest. Please communicate to your command my grateful acknowledgment of their faithful service on the isthmus of Panama, and accept my sincere thanks for your earnest and valuable assistance.

As for Captain Huntington’s services while commanding Company A of the Second Battalion, Commander McCalla cited the Marine officer’s efficiency, and added that he had “formed a high opinion of while serving at Matachin,” as he had performed his duties there in a most “satisfactory manner.”

The expedition to the Isthmus held out the prospect that the Marine Corps did, indeed, have an important role to play in the Navy’s transformation and in the United States’ more aggressive foreign policy. Unfortunately, internal politics and an officer corps that was for the most part unfit for field service hindered the Marine Corps’ ability to capitalize on the lessons learned during the Korean and Panamanian interventions or the reforms in officer education as advocated by Lieutenant Daniel Mannix. In fact, it would take five years for the Marines to act upon the creation of a School of Application for all new second lieutenants. Finally, it took twenty-five years for the Marines to establish a school for advanced base work at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1910.

Yet there were positive results of the Panamanian intervention that were unforeseen at the time. The most important of these was relationship established between Captain Huntington and Commander McCalla. Both men would meet again during the War with Spain when McCalla’s transport, the Marblehead, would transport then Lieutenant Colonel Huntington’s Marine battalion ashore on June 10, 1898, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Finally, the intervention on the Isthmus demonstrated the need for a “floating Marine battalion,” something that would not come about until after the War with Spain. The fact that Marines were not centrally located but spread up and down the East Coast at the various Marine Barracks meant that any intervention would have to be delayed until the forces assembled at either Philadelphia or Norfolk and were transported to where they were needed. While this situation was acceptable in dealing with rebels such as the Koreans or Panamanians, against a major military power (like Spain) it was a different story, for it could be very costly in terms of surprise or military effectiveness.

Despite the inability of the senior Marine leadership to peer into the future, the seeds for future successes had been planted. While Marine officers concerned themselves with promotions and internal reform, thoughtful Navy officers began to articulate the view that with the growth and development of the New Steel Navy, and the transition from sail to steam, there was a need for a landing force to accompany the fleet in time of war to seize and defend advanced coaling bases in distant waters. It was left to the War with Spain for Marine officers to “see the light” insofar as this new mission was concerned.

1940 – The Action at Le Paradis I

The Mark III Lee-Enfield Rifle weighs just over 8½ pounds, is nearly 4 feet long and fires a 0.303-inch (7.7mm) bullet, ten of which can fit in the rifle’s magazine. This bullet weighs 174 grains or roughly 11.3 grams and once fired it travels at about 2,400 feet per second until its contents of aluminium and lead hit whatever object it is aimed at.

If that object is an enemy soldier then one of two things will happen. The bullet may travel straight through his body without being deflected by bone or other organs. If this happens then the exit wound is of similar diameter to the entry wound. If, however, the bullet hits an enemy soldier and is deflected by bone or other organs then these will cause the exit wound to be distorted. The exit wound will therefore be larger than the entry wound. Given that the human body contains rather a lot of bones and organs most bullets will distort once they hit.

To the present-day historian this fact is of academic value. But on 27 May 1940 ignorance of what actually happened inside the human body when the bullets from Lee-Enfield rifles killed soldiers of the Waffen SS during the defence of the village of Le Paradis was to have terrible consequences.

For all his faults, S. L. A. Marshall did at least identify the factor which wins wars: fire. For Marshall the key to winning future wars was the extent to which an army could get its soldiers to fire their weapons at the enemy.

At the start of World War II the British and German Armies had very different ideas about how to use fire in attack. For the Germans attack was all about the quality of fire rather than the quantity. The emphasis was on staying concealed unless taking part in the advance or in the Feuerkampf – the fire-fight. Even then German soldiers were supposed to move at speed and not present an easy target to the enemy. When they were moving forward in a loose-knit single file it was in any case hard for the enemy to find an easy target to aim at. Once the attack was within the killing range of 400 metres then fire was concentrated on to the target and it was this fire which won the assault.

For the British Army in World War II the emphasis was on the quantity of fire rather than the quality of fire. To achieve maximum fire the single file approach adopted by the Germans was out – it meant not all the soldiers could fire. Instead an arrowhead formation was adopted so everyone could fire their weapons at the enemy. Of course the problem with this was that the formation was more vulnerable. However, the planners envisaged that the enemy would be under a constant barrage of fire from the British soldiers and that this would help win the day.

Captain Peter Barclay DSO, MC, A Company, 2nd Royal Norfolks

The first thing is to smother the opposition as much as you can with effective fire. When you’ve got a demoralised enemy to contend with you’re going to capture the objective a lot quicker and with a lot less loss. So the first principle I always reckoned was to shatter their morale with fire – it needn’t be all that dead accurate – the noise is generally enough to cow the most brazen adversary. So once you’ve done that always ensure that you’ve got an element giving covering fire … until you get right up to the assault distance from the position and then the two leading platoons – on a company level – go bashing in together. But the longer you can keep your firing going, until the moment the attacking forces reach the ground and the objective, the more likely you are to succeed – and succeed without heavy loss.

The story of the fighting at Le Paradis is a battle of contrasts. On the British side were the Royal Norfolks who trained their soldiers the traditional way  – in other words drill, firing on the ranges, fieldcraft. And then more drill. On the German side were the Waffen SS who employed methods far better for producing soldiers able and willing to kill. As well as traditional drill and fieldcraft these included extensive weapons practice against lifelike targets as well as conditioning in the Nazi creed of hatred and violence.

An additional factor for the Waffen SS was that some 350 years of history separated the Royal Norfolks and the Waffen SS Totenkopf. Whereas the Royal Norfolks had nothing to prove, the Waffen SS had everything to prove as World War II was their first time in action. Elements of the Totenkopf Division had been in action in Poland before they got to France but for many this was to be their first taste of battle.

General der Waffen SS Felix Steiner

Concerning the fairness of the [Le Paradis] battle in other respects, which was most certainly fought severely but nevertheless with very deep respect, the grim rage of this phase of the battle was generally regretted and the Totenkopf Division was regarded even in its own ranks as not yet being equal to the demands of heavy fighting conditions. It was only later on the Eastern Front that it made its name in the Demjansk pocket as a ‘Do or Die’ Division.

The Royal Norfolks started their war on the Dyle Line in the Bois de Tombeek in Belgium on 11 May 1940. But this was the furthest east they were to travel. From here, as the Germans advanced, the only direction the Royal Norfolks would be going was back towards France again along the route they had travelled to get to the Dyle Line.

Despite the fact that the Norfolks were well dug in on the Dyle the problem for the British Expeditionary Force was that the German advance through the French lines had been so rapid that the Germans were threatening to encircle the British and cut them off from the French Army. To avoid this threat the order came through to withdraw. The format for a withdrawal was usually to take up defensive positions by day and to move by night, although the proximity of the enemy meant that withdrawal was never easy, especially as the Germans also tried to delay the advance by attacking civilians from the air.

Captain Peter Barclay

We never, ever, carried out a withdrawal in contact. If we thought that was likely, we patrolled very offensively against the enemy positions before we pulled out. And gave them something to think about and then extricated ourselves without fear of interference. This in fact occurred every time – we were never once molested in our withdrawal which I was thankful about – because nearly always I was a rearguard company and you had a horrible sort of feeling of getting one up the pants as you were coming out. But it never came to that.

Private Ernie Farrow, Pioneer Section, 2nd Royal Norfolks

After a few days we had to withdraw again. As soon as we started to withdraw three of the Stukas came over. Now they took no notice of us, [but] we dived out of the lorries because we expected them to blow us to hell. But they didn’t, they simply went over the top of us and disappeared in the trees. We heard the machine guns, we heard the sirens, we heard the bombs dropping. On our left flank we had the Belgian Army and we naturally thought they were going after the Belgian Army. But after we had driven down the road three or four miles we found what they had done. They had come over us, left us but to stop us they had machine-gunned and bombed these poor people. It was a massacre. All along the road were people who had been killed, with no arms, no heads, there was cattle lying about, dead, there was little tiny children, there were old people. We couldn’t stop to clear the roads because we knew that this was what this was done for – for us to stop and the Germans to surround us. We had to drive our lorries over the top of them. We couldn’t do anything about it.

Captain Peter Barclay

The initial advance of the Germans was bound to come up the road and our first contact would invariably be along lines of communication. They were very bad at deploying off roads – in fact at deploying off main roads. I found this later on, after D-Day that two or three times I’d put an attack down some little, tiny side road and avoided all heavy enemy artillery fire and in fact achieved remarkable surprise on all those occasions because they only thought in terms of guarding the main road approaches to their positions. They were very inflexible

By 20 May the Royal Norfolks had retreated as far as the Escaut canal near Tournai and here they received orders to stand and fight. They took over positions previously held by the Royal Berkshire Regiment which were located on a wide front, too wide really for the soldiers of the Royal Norfolks to defend effectively. Added to this there were buildings on the Norfolks’ side of the canal and a forestry plantation on the other side where the Germans were expected.

By the time the Norfolks had reached the canal they were exhausted. The previous night they had marched nearly thirty miles to reach their new positions and when the morning of 21 May dawned they were in direct contact with the Germans. Not just any Germans either. For the Norfolks this was to be their first taste of fighting the Waffen SS. And in the ensuing fire-fight they were to notch up another first for the regiment – their first Victoria Cross of the war in an action where one man took on the enemy.

This sort of one-man action is entirely consistent with General Marshall’s view of the battlefield where you have a minority of individuals taking responsibility for the fighting.

Captain Peter Barclay

Having satisfied myself on the company layout, my batman reported that he’d seen some black rabbits in a park – there was a château in the grounds of which some of my positions were – and not only that but he’d found some ferrets in a box in the stables. I’m ashamed to say there were also a couple of retrievers kept shut up in the stables and all the occupants of the château and everybody round about had departed except in a little convent where two nuns remained. So we thought we’d get in a little bit of sport before the fun began.

I had a shotgun with me and popped these ferrets down a big warren and we were having a rare bit of sport as rabbits bolted out of these burrows when after about half an hour of this the shelling started along the river line generally. And we came in for a certain amount of this and we thought, ‘Well, we’d better pack this up now and deal with the other situation.’ So back we went to company headquarters and waited for the next pattern of activities.

After a few hours some Germans appeared on the far bank. They were totally oblivious of our presence in the immediate vicinity. And I told my soldiers on no account were any of them to fire until they heard my hunting horn. And an officer appeared and got his map out and appeared to be holding an O group with his senior warrant officers

Then they withdrew into the wood and we heard a lot of chopping going on and we saw tops of trees flattening out. And in fact what they were doing was cutting down young trees to make a long series of hurdles to lay over the top of the blitzed bridge which was in the middle of my sector. There were bits of concrete lying across the canal, you couldn’t walk across, but they were so placed across the canal that with suitable lengths of hurdles, pedestrians had been able to get across.

Eventually they emerged from this plantation with a number of long hurdles made of these saplings and they proceeded to lay these across the rubble and the remains of the concrete blocks in the canal. So we kept quite quiet and they still had no idea we were there.

I reckoned we’d wait there until there were as many as we could contend with on our side of the canal before opening fire. They were SS with black helmets and they started to come across. We waited for a posse of them to accumulate on our side (they were still convinced that there was no problem about adversaries in the area and they were standing about in little groups waiting for guide parties to get across) and then I reckoned we’d just enough to manage and contend with.

I blew my hunting horn and then of course all the soldiers opened fire with consummate accuracy and disposed of all the enemy personnel on our side of the canal and also the ones on the bank on the far side, which brought the hostile proceedings to an abrupt halt, and then of course we came in for an inordinate amount of shelling and mortar fire.

Private Ernie Leggatt, A Company, 2nd Royal Norfolks

We saw the Germans coming at us through the wood and they also had light tanks. We let them have all we’d got, firing the Bren, rifles, everything. I was on the Bren gun firing from the cover of these old benches, tables and God knows what on this veranda. We killed a lot of Germans. They came up almost as far as the river and we gave them hell and they retreated. They attacked us again and the tanks were coming over their own dead men, to us that was repulsive and we couldn’t understand why they did that.

Captain Peter Barclay

Not long after that I was wounded in the guts and in the back and in my arm. And we’d had several casualties before this and all the stretchers were therefore out. My batman, with great presence of mind, ripped a door off its hinges and in spite of my orders to the contrary, tied me to this door. In fact if he had not done this I probably wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. They took me round on this door to deal with what had become a very threatening situation from our right flank. Instead of a friendly unit being there, suddenly we were fired on by Germans from our side of the canal. So I had to deplete my small reserve which was sore because I had such a wide front to hold.

I put my Sergeant-Major Gristock in charge of this small force which was about ten men including a wireless operator and a company clerk and various other personnel from company headquarters to not only hold my right flank but deal with a German post that had established itself not very far off to my right. He placed some of his soldiers in position to curtail the activities of that particular post, so effectively that they wiped them out.

While this was going on fire came from another German position on our side of the canal on the bank. He spotted where this was and he left two men to give him covering fire. He went forward armed with a Tommy gun and grenades to dispose of this party which was in position behind a pile of stones on the bank of the canal.

When he was about twenty or thirty yards from this position he was spotted by another German machine-gun post on the enemy side of the canal who opened fire on him and raked through and smashed both knees. In spite of this he dragged himself until he got within grenade lobbing range of this German post on our side of the canal. Then he lay on this side and he lobbed a grenade over the top of this pile of stones, belted the three Germans, turned over on his side, opened fire with his Tommy gun and dealt with the lot of them.

Both Barclay and Gristock were evacuated through Dunkirk. Gristock was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action but sadly he died in Brighton on 16 June 1940.

On 22 May the Norfolks were ordered to retreat once more. After a short period as divisional reserve they were on the move again, this time to the La Bassée canal in front of the small village of Le Paradis near Béthune. The idea was for them to hold the line to buy more time for the retreating BEF. But this time their enemy was the Totenkopf Division.

In fact advance elements of the Waffen SS had reached the area on 24 May, a day before the Norfolks took up their positions on the canal in the early hours of the 25th. Intelligence reports given to the Waffen SS suggested that there were two elite British units holding the line and that there would be a hard fight.

This other unit referred to in the German intelligence reports was the Royal Scots whose positions were next to those of the Royal Norfolks. But in taking up their positions the Norfolks had made a mistake because, while A and C Companies were in their allotted positions, B and D Companies had mistakenly deployed on a subsidiary loop in the canal, exposing a large gap in the defences. Orders were given to the Pioneer Section to fill the gap.

Private Ernie Farrow

What they told us to do was to go up on to the top of this canal bank and make sure that every round we fired got a German. After we had fired a number of rounds we had got to scramble back down the bank and then back up again to try and bluff the Germans that there was a whole company of us there. We were told then that we were getting short of ammunition and we had to try and make every round count. We were being hard pressed by machine gun, mortar and artillery. It was the most terrible thing I think I have ever experienced. We were dug in on our little foxholes but we couldn’t stay in them all the time; we had to get up to fire at the Germans on the other side who were trying to get across the canal to get at us. Our artillery was doing their best to keep the Germans from getting across – they were even driving their lorries into the canal to get their tanks across. Our artillery was managing to keep them at bay. I was using my .303 rifle, occasionally we took turns in firing the Bren gun but there again we had to be very careful because we were running short of ammunition. We found that by using our rifles we could save ammunition quite a lot. We could pick a German off with our rifles just as well as we could with the Bren gun. The Bren gun used twenty rounds to hit the same German.

The Bren gun weighed just over 22 pounds and was nearly 4 feet long. It was air-cooled and gas-operated and fired the 0.303-inch bullet. Its magazine could hold 30 rounds and could be changed in less than five seconds. It was a reliable and accurate weapon. The Bren gun was ideal for the British philosophy of laying down fire for any attack. However, it was outclassed by the German MG34 (and later the MG42) machine gun (known as the Spandau to Allied soldiers). The MG34 could fire at at least twice the rate of the Bren – a 250-round belt of ammunition lasted just 30 seconds. This made for a devastating fire even at difficult targets although for this set-up the Spandau needed a supporting bipod or tripod. This came with sights enabling accurate fire up to 3,000 yards. Used on the move it could be fitted with 50- or 75-round drums.

In a typical German company there would be more than thirteen Spandaus which made them a formidable opponent. These weapons had a distinctive sound when fired – a high speed ripping noise, like canvas tearing according to some – which the British soldier soon learned to recognise. But for the defenders of Le Paradis the best chance of survival was not with the main body of soldiers, but rather when they were captured on special missions.

Private Ernie Farrow

I remember Corporal Mason shouting to me, ‘Come on over here,’ he said, ‘Right, you, you and you, we’ve got to go and blow a bridge up.’

I said, ‘We’re just back.’

He said, ‘Never mind about that. Go and find some amatol, gun cotton, whatever you can find and bring it across.’ He then went to try and find a vehicle to take us in because we couldn’t carry all this stuff around with us.

The CO had already been sent back and Major Ryder had taken over as the CO. He had been wounded as well. He told Corporal Mason that his driver had already been detailed to take us to this bridge; he didn’t want any map reference, he knew exactly which bridge to go to, it was only a short distance away.

The vehicle the CO had was an old Humber car. His driver’s name was Hawker – he came from King’s Lynn and we all knew him. He opened the back of the old car and we put the gun cotton, the primers and whatever we had in the back. The sergeant-major came along and he said, ‘Right here lads, here’s something to be going with’, and he gave us a big tin of Bluebird toffees. He said, ‘When you come back there’ll be a hot meal for you.’ I’m afraid we never got the hot meal. But the Quartermaster came along and said, ‘Right, it’s just a few rounds.’ Three rounds of ammunition we were issued with. Three rounds of ammunition to fight the German Army! We thought, ‘Oh Gawd!’

With this we all piled into this old car and we were away. I couldn’t tell you how far it was because we were so busy trying to get this tin lid off to get the toffees out and we were being shelled and machine-gunned all the way, not too badly but the occasional shot or burst of machine-gun fire. We knew that one bullet through the back of our car and we could all get blown to pieces.

We hoped to God that the driver would get there as quick as he could. In no time at all the driver turned round and said, ‘Here’s the bridge coming up!’ We all looked up – the lid was still on the toffees, we hadn’t got that off – but we looked up. This happened in seconds not minutes. We heard this machine-gun fire; we could see the bridge in front of us and directly to our left-hand side there was a big house and on the right was the canal. At that very instant that he spoke the machine gun opened up and the whole top of this old car was riddled by machine-gun bullets. But not one of us was touched. We were still all alive.

We didn’t wait for the second burst. We dived out of this car because the Germans were firing from this house directly in front of us. There was no point in us trying to get to this bridge because they were already over it. The first place we went was straight into the canal. We dived in. The driver was trying to turn his vehicle round to get back to headquarters to warn them that this bridge had already been taken by the Germans. I suppose that was what was in his mind.

By the time we got into the canal we heard this hell of an explosion and we were splattered by bits of metal as the poor old car was blown up and the driver with it. We tried to climb up the edge of the canal bank and fire at the Germans. Somehow we managed to get a footing. How we did it I don’t know because as you know the canal bank is all mud. We managed to get there somehow and we fired our few rounds off at these Germans in the house and along the side of the bridge, hoping that every bullet would kill a German. In no time at all we had no more ammunition left and there was no way we were going to get back to headquarters.

There was no way we could get out of the canal where we were. So Corporal Mason said, ‘Right, bolts out of your rifles, get rid of them, there’s no way they’re needed any more. The only thing we need is safety for ourselves.’ Our tin hats, everything went off into the canal. Luckily for us we were all good swimmers; we swam under water across the canal.

The Germans were on both sides so it made no difference where we went but we felt it was safer to go on the other side. We couldn’t get out of the canal because the banks were too high to climb and if you started to climb the banks you’d be picked off. We wanted to find somewhere where the dyke ran into the canal – we hadn’t thought of this but the corporal had.

We swam across and on the other side of the canal there was a bed of river plants. There we kept still to stop even the ripples in the water for fear the Germans would put their machine guns into where we were. The corporal said, ‘Right, stop where you are, keep your heads down. I’m going to swim down the canal and find somewhere where there’s a ditch runs into the canal where we can climb out.’ Then he disappeared.

The three of us in these rushes were very close together. The young fellow on my left-hand side, almost touching me, [was] a fellow called Porter from Beccles in Suffolk. He’d been in the Army with me from the time we’d joined up, a very nice young fellow. He said, ‘I’m just going to have a peek over the top.’

At that very instant I hear this machine-gun or rifle fire and I thought that they’d fired across into the bank of this canal. I turned and looked up and this poor fellow had been shot right through the middle of his head and the back of his head was missing. He was then sinking back into the water. I was trying to hold him up which was no good because he was dead. I was telling the fellow on my right – his name was Reeve from Dickleburgh. He was an old soldier who’d been in India and he had two gold teeth.

I was talking to him and I felt something hit my face. I put my hand up automatically and I was covered in blood. I thought, ‘God!’ I looked at the blood and thought I had been hit. I felt again but I was still all there. When I turned round to look at this poor fellow it was him. They had shot down the river and had shot his jaw and it was his jaw which had hit me in the face.

He was then disappearing; the last thing I saw of him was these two gold teeth in the top of his head. In a few minutes the water round me was red with blood but the poor boys had gone. A few minutes afterwards the corporal came back and there was just the two of us. He knew exactly what had happened. He said, ‘Right we can’t fret about the poor boys, let’s go!’ We dived under and swam – how far we swam I have no idea.

Eventually he pulled on me and said, ‘Right here we are.’ There was this ditch right beside us. The first thing I wanted to do was to get out of that damn canal, to get clear of it. I’d seen enough damage already. He said, ‘You stop where you are, that’s an order, keep your head down.’ As I was standing in this canal I looked down this ditch and on the left-hand side of this dyke I could see a bush and I was almost sure I could see this bush moving. At the same time he said, ‘Stay where you are, I’ll go and look see if there’s anything on this meadow.’ With those few words I heard this mouthful of Army language.

I looked at him and he had been shot through the shoulder, and the bone of his arm was sticking out of the top. He was still alive and he put his arm round my neck to keep himself up and again everything happened in seconds. This bush I had seen, there was a German behind it, probably the one who had shot Mis [Mason] just then. He came from behind this bush, jumped into the ditch and he came down running towards us. When he was about twelve yards from us he stopped and put his rifle up to his shoulder.

I said my last prayer because I knew I was going to die. But the Lord was with me again,. There was a loud click, [but] he’d run out of ammunition or his breech had stuck; there was no bullet came out, no bang. He jumped down towards us. We couldn’t move.

He turned his rifle round, got hold of the barrel and as he got close to us he took a swipe at my head. I put my arm up to stop him hitting me and the first blow smashed my hand up. The next blow came down and I still had the strength to hold my elbow up to stop him and he smashed my elbow and put my shoulder out of joint. One more blow and I’d have been dead but at that very instant I heard this loud shout and lots more Germans came into sight. One of these was an officer who had shouted.

They jumped into this ditch and he ordered them to pull us out of the canal. They pulled poor old Mis out first. They had to be very careful because if they had pulled his wrong arm they’d have pulled it off he was in such a state. But he was still alive and they put him on a stretcher and took him away. Then they pulled me out.

May 26 saw more hard fighting in and around Le Paradis. The Germans made several determined attempts to cross the canal and succeeded in getting units into the village of Le Paradis itself. Counter-attacks with the help of 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots, ensured that the Germans did not win the day completely on 26 May but the situation was obscure and getting more desperate.


1940 – The Action at Le Paradis II

Lance-Corporal James Howe MBE, 1st Royal Scots

We were with the Royal Norfolks; they had one end of the village and we had the other end. We had some mortar fire for a day or two. Then the Germans attacked, actually the area I was in first. We were about fifty yards from the centre of the village. We were in this house tending our wounded, the regimental aid post, with the medical officer and the padre, about six of us attendants, and maybe twenty wounded. But my first sight of the Germans was [as] they came down this small road towards us. The first thing I saw was a hand preparing to throw a hand grenade through the window of our regimental aid post. This hand grenade came in, blew up and we all dived in the corner. Of course the building caught fire so we had no option but to get out as quickly as we could.

We came out and here were these Germans, SS troops. They screamed at us to get down in the road where there was a Bren gun carrier, one of ours. We sheltered by this Bren gun carrier, at the same time under the muzzles of the German Tommy guns. But the Germans screamed at us and then they began firing on our regimental headquarters which was further down the road. They were using us as a shield.

On the evening of 26 May calm descended on the village of Le Paradis. Sometime during the night battalion headquarters was moved to Druries Farm on the Rue de Paradis, 500 yards to the west of the crossroads which bisected the Merville–Loubleau road. This crossroads was about a hundred yards to the south of the main collection of village buildings, the shops and the church. A Company, 2nd Royal Norfolks, was holding the neighbouring hamlet of Le Cornet Malo.

It was at Druries Farm that the order was received to hold the position to the last man and to the last round.

At 0330 hours on 27 May the calm was broken by a determined German attack against Le Cornet Malo, the brunt of which was taken by B Company which was holding the ground next to A Company.

Private Arthur Brough, 2nd Royal Norfolks

We set our mortar up and it was getting a bit hectic round there. Lots of tanks and heavy gunfire. We were putting as much stuff down the mortar as we could to get rid of our ammunition. We were trying to repulse them but we knew it wasn’t a lot of good because there were so many there.

It was a 3-inch mortar, the No. 1 was looking through the clinometer sight, focusing roughly on whereabouts the tanks were situated (I was the No. 1). You say, ‘Right on!’ and tap No. 2 on the shoulder. He taps Number Three who’s passing the bomb over. Then they put it in the barrel. Fire. And that was what we did. The mortar must have been red hot, anything they could get hold of we were putting down the mortar until it got so bad that we even resorted to rifles.

There was only about three of us left by that time and [the] PSM [platoon sergeant-major] had been killed. They were throwing pretty heavy stuff at us. We resorted to rifle fire which was absolutely stupid but I suppose it was instinct to try and do your job until we saw that it was absolutely hopeless so we just chucked the bolts out of the rifles and dived and scattered.

Why you do these things, don’t ask me why, it must just be instinct. It was what we were taught to do: immobilise our rifles, take the bolts out. We just ran for it; what can you do when you see all tanks coming at you? There were no officers. The mortar platoon seems to have been isolated there. Johnny Cockerel was with me and we scattered and we dived into a dyke.

There were tanks by the hundred coming up, it was frightening really. As we scattered we got stopped dead in our tracks because there was a bomb that dropped quite near us from the tanks and I could feel something in the back of my leg, my upper right leg and Johnny Cockerel got a piece out of his knee, pretty bad. I looked after him as much as I could, just the field dressing. Mine was just a superficial cut, two or three cuts on the back of my leg and a lot of splinters.

We were in this dyke and all of a sudden the tanks were right on top if us and the next thing we saw was a German officer standing there telling us, ‘The war is over Tommy!’ That’s what he said. We were left there to our own devices for a while and their infantry was coming up behind the tanks. By that time there were a lot of them – just tanks and men. Made you wonder how you really could repulse them.

By now the main German attack was under way but because there were only two survivors from the Royal Norfolks from the main part of the day’s fighting the details concerning exactly what happened on the British side remain obscure, even to this day. What we do know is that the Royal Norfolks, or some of them at least, were fighting hard according to their orders to fight to the very last. Given that most were killed during or after the fighting the main witnesses to what happened on 27 May 1940 were members of the Waffen SS.

Sturmbannführer (SS Major) Werner Zorn, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

The battle was generally described as having been particularly severe. The enemy resisted stubbornly and losses were, therefore, considerable. With the exception of the 1st Battalion and a few troops of the 3rd Regiment who, with the SS Heimwehr of Danzig, had taken part in the Polish campaign, the division was not seasoned in battle. Nothing is known to me about cruelties or other dirty business during the battle. On account of the losses incurred, 26 May was occasionally referred to as the black day of the division

Herbert Brunnegger, 2nd Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

The attack is renewed. A weak sun is rising out of ground mist. A signpost points to Le Cornet Malo. Mortars and submachine guns move into position on the edge of the wood and fire at recognisable enemy targets in a village a couple of hundred metres in front of us. While they do this our soldiers move forward on both sides of the path. I come across a young Englishman. His face is distinctive and brown but the proximity of death is making his skin go pale. He is standing up and leaning against a wall made of earth. In his eyes there is an indescribably hopeless expression while the whole time bright spurts of blood are coming out of a wound at the base of his neck. In vain his hands try to press on a vein in order to try and keep the life in his body. He cannot be saved.

Onwards! A surprise as bursts of machine-gun fire hit a section as it moves out of a cutting. The bursts toss them into a tangle of bodies. One stands up and sways past me to the rear – he has a finger stuck into a hole in his stomach.

Unterscharführer (SS Corporal) Edmund Gluma, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

On the morning of 27 May at about 0500 hours, 1 and 2 Platoons (I belonged to 2 Platoon) received the order to clear the terrain in front of us of the enemy. We came across a group of houses supposed to be near Le Cornet Malo. Here we received heavy fire from machine guns and rifles from the houses. Right at the beginning of the battle we had considerable losses in dead and wounded. Our section reached a water ditch about seventy-five metres away from the houses. Here, however, we were forced to remain inactive, as every movement brought us under fire.

Herbert Brunnegger

Before long the machine-gun nests of the invisible defenders suddenly open up on us. The enemy soldiers are able to make best use of the terrain which is made up of ditches, windbreaks, straw bale dumps, isolated farmsteads, tall grass and newly grown wheat. Snipers and machine-gun nests are hidden in the extensive area over which we plan to attack. Our supporting mortars cannot be used to their full effect. The countryside in front of Le Paradis is wide and flat.

The English defend themselves with incredible bravery and doggedness. Again the losses in terms of wounded and dead pile up. Again we are completely pinned to the ground in front of the enemy who are totally invisible and whose ability commands our admiration. We have to adapt ourselves completely to the enemy’s tactics. We work ourselves forward by creeping, crawling and slithering along. The enemy retreat skilfully and without showing themselves. However, it is a thousand metres to the place which we have been ordered to attack. After the meadow, which does afford us protection, there are broad, deep level fields. Any idea of crossing this without support would be totally suicidal. I am reminded of doing this on exercise – then the artillery supported us wonderfully! I conjure that manoeuvre in my mind today in recipe book terms, ‘You need such and such a thing …’ But I have not seen anything of our big Skoda guns. Where are they dug in?

The guns had a problem. They had been supplied with the wrong ammunition and were in any case too busy changing position to assist the SS infantry in any useful way. This had resulted in the regimental commander Standartenführer (SS Colonel) Hans Friedmann Götze having an argument with the divisional commander Gruppenführer (SS Major-General) Theodor Eicke, about the order to continue fighting without the artillery. The feeling in the ranks was that as a direct result of this Götze was careless of his safety and ended up being killed. But for the time being the troops were unaware of the problem and the artillery did fire the odd shot from the odd gun it managed to get into action.

Herbert Brunnegger

Behind us a howitzer has been brought into position in order to break the resistance of Le Paradis’ defenders. After a short time the first shell whooshes right over our heads and crashes down in their presumed positions. Now it must be enough and white flags must soon appear. Rubble, fire and thick smoke show where the shells have landed. Onwards over the last hundred metres

But then the machine guns open up from a large building which is several storeys high. At the same time the infantry set up a withering fire which sends our comrades to the ground. We try to use every small elevation and small dip in the field. No one digs in, in order to avoid the attention of the snipers. Dammit, they must see our predicament. Is the howitzer no longer to be used? But soon the shells resume their attack on the main buildings of the village. It is where the defenders’ return fire is the fiercest.

From my position I can see that motorcycle troops are getting into the village from the far side during the artillery bombardment. Once there they are taking up the fight.

Captain Knöchlein gives the signal to attack. The artillery gives us effective cover and we make it to the village without any further losses. In the village the motorcyclists are already fighting to good effect.

White flags appear hesitantly. We watch them carefully and suspiciously as they emerge into captivity. Most of the British are wounded. The costly fight for the La Bassée Canal and for Le Paradis is at an end.

Private William O’Callaghan, 2nd Royal Norfolks

After connections with the brigade had been cut we were entirely surrounded and the CO told us to destroy and break up telephones, wireless sets, etc. We destroyed all correspondence and made our way one at a time from the cellar into a barn. We were subjected to mortar fire and had some casualties. To save further loss of life the CO, Major Ryder, ordered us to surrender. At this time it was early afternoon.

We hung a towel on the end of a rifle and shortly afterwards all firing ceased. We opened the door and started to file out with our hands above our heads. The first dozen men were cut down and then the firing ceased.

Private Albert Pooley, 2nd Royal Norfolks

After some fifteen minutes we were ordered to form up on the road with our hands clasped behind the back of our heads. During this process we were struck with rifle butts while standing in the ranks. The guards who did this were not reprimanded by their officers or NCOs.

Private William O’Callaghan

We started off again to march along the road and met German troops who behaved in a very brutal manner towards us, hitting us with their rifles and pushing us about. On the march we halted once or twice and it is possible that one of these halts occurred just before we turned off a gateway leading into a farm. On passing through this gateway I noticed a pasture on our right and a farm building on our left.

Herbert Brunnegger

I see a large group of English prisoners by a farmhouse. Those that are not wounded are standing up; the wounded are sitting and lying down in front on the ground. Many of them reach out in despair towards me with pictures of their families. Perhaps they think we are going to send them on leave?

As I look more closely I notice two heavy machine guns which have been set up in front of them. Whilst I look on, surprised that two valuable machine guns should be used to guard the prisoners, a dreadful thought occurs to me. I turn to the nearest machine-gun post and ask what is going on here. ‘They are to be shot!’ is the embarrassed answer. I cannot grasp this and think there is some stupid joke behind these words. Therefore I ask again, ‘Who has ordered this?’

‘Captain Knöchlein.’ Now I know that this is deadly serious. I quickly hurry to catch up with my own section so I do not have witness the shooting of the prisoners who are waiting for death with pictures of their families in their hands.

Hauptschaführer (SS Sergeant-Major) Theodor Emke, 1st Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

At the time when the prisoners were being marched on to the meadow, Antons said to me something to the effect that it was right that they should be shot, the were franc-tireurs – Heckenschützen – soldiers who, having surrendered by displaying a white flag or raising both hands, allow their enemy to approach to within a short distance and at the last moment use their weapons again.

Private Albert Pooley

We left the road and went into the field through the gate and I noticed at the foot of the wall a large hole which was at least five feet deep, fifteen to twenty feet long and about eight feet broad. When the first prisoners reached the far end of the hole the firing commenced. I was just then entering the gate. It seemed that as the men were hit they fell inside the hole.

When I reached the hole the man nearest to me, Private Ward, was hit and I felt a sharp pain in my left knee and fell into the hole. I fell on top of some men who were already lying there and others fell on top of me. Firing continued for a few seconds during which time I noticed Major Ryder sitting inside the hole with his back to the side nearest to the wall. He seemed to me to be very badly hit.

Hauptscharführer Theodor Emke

As the prisoners reached the house front Knöchlein as well as Schrödel remained behind, leaving a clear distance between them and the marching column. As the column was within four to five paces of the right-hand corner of the house and the last prisoners had just reached the left corner, so that the group was completely covering the front of the house, Knöchlein shouted suddenly, ‘Fire!’ Because of this shout Schrödel and Petri almost simultaneously gave the order, ‘Open Fire!’ Both guns opened fire immediately. I involuntarily looked towards the guns and noticed Mai and Pollak on the gun nearest to me (Mai in charge of the gun and Pollak No. 1). I was prevented by the hedge from seeing the second gun to the right of the first. I presume, however, that Wenda was No. 1. My attention was naturally taken up by the prisoners who collapsed from right to left and fell forward. The whole business was over in a few seconds.

We were silent during the return march since members of the section as well as me were very much affected.

Private William O’Callaghan

When I saw the men falling I threw myself forward and fell into a slight depression in the ground and in falling stretched my hands out in front of me and sustained a slight flesh wound in the left arm. After the firing stopped I heard my comrades shouting and screaming in their agony. I then heard what sounded to me like the fixing of bayonets and shortly afterwards I heard screams and shrieks from more of my comrades which sounded to me as if they were being bayoneted.

Hauptscharführer Heinrich Wenda, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

I heard that British soldiers had been shot. As far as I can remember the comrades did not speak much about it. It certainly distressed them all. It was said that the sights had not worked properly and that the shots had therefore gone too low.

Private Albert Pooley

Groans were coming from men lying in the hole and it was at this point that three Germans jumped down into the hole near Major Ryder, evidently for the purpose of finishing off any prisoners still alive with bayonets. These Germans evidently climbed out of the hole again because further shooting then started with revolvers and rifles from the edge of the hole. One of the men beneath me moved and two shots were fired into the heap of bodies, both of which hit me in the left leg. At the sound of a whistle firing ceased and all the Germans appeared to move away.

Unterstürmführer (SS 2nd Lieutenant) Hinrich Schinkel, 13th Company, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

Meanwhile another two or three men had come up by the victims of the shooting. I do not know who they were. I am almost certain one of them was an officer. I saw first one and then the other bend down and how shortly after, odd shots kept being fired from a carbine or pistol.36

In total ninety-seven British soldiers were massacred that day by the Waffen SS. Not all were men from the Royal Norfolks; there were also signallers and gunners killed that day.

The reasons given by the Waffen SS for the massacre were twofold. Firstly they argued that the British had behaved badly by shooting on German soldiers who were responding to white flags of surrender. This is a dangerous argument and simply a distraction from their own crime. After all in any battle there may well be groups of soldiers surrendering while others nearby continue to fight.

However, it is perhaps worth noting that Marshall’s arguments about firers and non-firers might come into play here. It did appear that different groups of British soldiers were surrendering at different times. Perhaps what was happening was that the minority of active firers were continuing the battle despite the best efforts of some of the others to surrender. And if the active firers were the ones refusing to surrender then they would clearly be shooting to kill the Germans who might be moving to accept the surrender, causing the resentment on the German side.

Secondly the Waffen SS argued that the British had used dumdum bullets. However, the 0.303-inch bullet could easily cause the sort of damage associated with a dumdum bullet, depending on the way in which it travelled through the human body. And of course not all the SS were agreed on whether the British were using dumdum bullets.

Hauptscharführer August Leitl, 2nd Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

I was detailed by Hauptsturmführer [SS Captain] Knöchlein to patrol the battle area with some men and collect our dead. On this search such bullets would have been bound to have fallen into my hands. I myself am a sergeant-artificer and ammunition expert and in this capacity I can say that the dead men, who without exception had been shot in the head because they had been shot from the front while lying on the ground, in several cases had rather large holes in their heads which were caused by the fact that the shot on striking the steel helmet flattened itself at the point and thus caused a larger wound than would have been the case if it had not struck against steel. I can assert this a specialist, and as I personally saw every single German corpse I must have known better than any other member of the company whether or not dumdum bullets were used and I hereby declare that this was not the case.

There was a third factor in the massacre, mentioned at the start of this chapter. And that was the need for the Totenkopf to prove itself. If the Waffen SS was to be the elite unit envisaged by Eicke and Himmler then the message would have been victory at all costs.

Obersturmbannführer (SS Lieutenant-Colonel) Paul Werner Hoppe, adjutant to Gruppenführer Eicke

No official pronouncement was made on the subject and thus apparently a deliberate effort was made to keep the circle of those acquainted with the facts as small as possible. From Gruppenführer Eicke’s point of view this is understandable when one considers that the reputation and tradition of the Totenkopf Division, their proving their mettle as new and young fighting troops, was jeopardised by such action. And it was precisely in order to prove themselves that the Totenkopf Division, especially, had to struggle hard, being the junior unit of the Waffen SS.

After the French surrender the Totenkopf Division stayed in France. Although it had shown it could massacre ninety-seven men in cold blood, later when stationed in the south of France it also had no hesitation in executing one of its own members who had assaulted a French woman. In a way the massacre of the British soldiers at Le Paradis tells us something else. If soldiers are conditioned to kill, as were the Waffen SS, then perhaps one of the by-products of that willingness to kill is a lowering of the defences against atrocity. This is a factor which is also a problem for modern armies in places like Vietnam and Iraq.

Justice was finally served out to Haupsturmführer Knöchlein on 28 January 1949 when he was hanged at Hamburg by the British military authorities for his crime. Pooley and O’Callaghan, the only two British survivors of the massacre, had been instrumental in convicting him.