British in Burma 19th Century

Though mentioned by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD, Burma remained largely closed to the outside world for much of the next millennium. Most foreign contact was with India, from where the Burmese assimilated the Buddhist religion but little else; they remained stoically immune, for example, to the Indian caste system. In the late thirteenth century the Burmese kingdom of Pagan was overrun by the Mongol hordes of Kublai Khan and the country fragmented into a patchwork of states ruled by the Shan princes from the eastern plateau. The Shan were still in power when the first European, a Venetian traveller and writer named Niccolò de’ Conti, visited Burma in 1435. It was not until the early seventeenth century, however, that the English and Dutch East India companies established trade links with the Toungu Dynasty of King Thalun. But foreign trade ceased entirely in 1755 with the overthrow of the Toungus by a Burmese resistance leader who called himself Alaungpaya (‘Embryo Buddha’). For the next fifty years King Alaungpaya and his successors terrorized the region, launching one war after another from their capital of Ava on the Irrawaddy River. Siam – modern Thailand – was overrun in 1767, though never brought properly under control, and a number of Chinese invasions from Yunnan Province were successfully repulsed. But it was the conquest in 1785 of the coastal kingdom of Arakan, which lay between Ava and British India, that set the Burmese on a collision course with the HEIC. Thousands of Arakan rebels fled across the border to British-controlled Chittagong, which they used as a base for raids. Protests from Ava were ignored, and frequent border incidents – such as the pursuit of ‘bandits’ into Chittagong by Burmese troops in 1795 – continued to sour Anglo-Burmese relations.

Tensions rose further in 1819, when the Burmese conquered the border states of Assam and Manipur, causing a fresh flood of refugees into east Bengal. In September 1823 a small British garrison was ejected from the island of Shahpuri near the Chittagong border; four months later the Burmese invaded Cachar, which was under British protection – and these further encroachments were the final straw for the HEIC. War was declared on 5 March 1824 by William Amherst, the governor-general, citing the Burmese government’s ‘mischievous aggression’. But even the Calcutta pessimists cannot have expected the fighting to last for two years, costing the British £13m and the lives of almost 15,000 men. Stout Burmese resistance, the swampy terrain, bad weather and poor logistics all played their part; but the biggest killer by far was sickness and disease. Of the 3,115 European fatalities, for example, only 150 died in battle. Despite the huge butcher’s bill, the British eventually managed to fight their way to within four miles of the Burmese capital, prompting King Bagyidaw to sue for peace. By the terms of the subsequent treaty, he ceded Arakan, Assam and Tenasserim to the HEIC; he also promised to respect the independence of Manipur and Cachar, and to open up Burmese ports to British trade.

While Bagyidaw ruled, relations between Ava and Calcutta remained cordial. But in 1837 the king was overthrown by his brother Tharawaddy, who then denounced the earlier peace treaty and expelled the British resident. Tharawaddy’s son and successor, Pagan Min, was just as Anglophobic as his father, and his subordinates followed his lead. In 1851, tired of reports that the Burmese governor of Rangoon was harassing British merchants and trading captains, Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, demanded redress. Pagan Min made a show of contrition by recalling the governor to Ava; but his replacement was hardly an improvement. He deliberately insulted the British flag, and, in response, the commodore of the nearest British squadron seized a Burmese ship and blockaded the Irrawaddy Delta. On 15 March 1852 Dalhousie issued the Burmese government with an ultimatum: stop interfering with British shipping and trade or face the consequences. When no reply was received, Dalhousie dispatched an expeditionary force. This war, unlike the previous one, was more about ‘face’ than regional security. ‘We can’t afford’, explained Dalhousie, ‘to be shown to the door anywhere in the East.’

Compared to the earlier conflict, this one was a model of British organization and efficiency. The initial British force of two brigades – furnished by the Bengal and Madras armies – was commanded by Major-General Sir Henry Godwin, ‘an old man in a wig’, who had fought in the first war as a regimental commander. Before leaving India, Godwin put this experience to good use by training his Bengal troops in the art of bombarding and storming stockades, the preferred mode of Burmese defence. British weapons had also improved, with the percussion musket far superior to the assortment of outdated firearms possessed by the Burmese; and, unlike the 1824 campaign, which had deliberately been launched during the monsoon when the rivers were in flood, Godwin timed his expedition to arrive at the Irrawaddy Delta in April, a good six weeks before the rains began.

Godwin’s greatest advantage over the previous campaign, however, was the use of steam-powered transports and gunboats to navigate the Irrawaddy. The first successful trial of a steamboat, the tug Charlotte Dundas, had taken place on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1802. But steam-towing was abandoned for fear of injuring the banks of the canal, and it was not until 1812 that Henry Bell’s Comet began to operate on the Clyde as a commercial paddle-steamer. Yet it took some time to convert the Royal Navy to the idea of steam. This was partly because a steamer’s paddles were thought to be vulnerable to enemy fire and did not leave enough room for a full broadside of guns. In 1840, by which time the British merchant fleet had no fewer than 720 large seagoing steamships, the Royal Navy had none. But all this changed with the launch of the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship, the SS Great Britain by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in 1843. Within two years the Royal Navy had introduced the world’s first steam battleship, HMS Ajax, and four years after that, in 1849, a screw-propeller battleship, HMS Agamemnon. France finished its own screw-propeller battleship, Napoleon, just three months before Agamemnon was launched, and it was the potential threat to Britain’s naval supremacy from another country’s steam-powered fleet that had prompted the Royal Navy to act. From 1851 to 1871, when HMS Devastation became the world’s first mastless warship, all new British warships had sails and screw propellers. The best of the hybrids was HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled battleship, launched in 1860. Displacing nearly 9,200 tons, with iron masts and retractable funnels for a full spread of canvas, she was the fastest, most powerful warship afloat.

In 1852, however, a much smaller steam-powered vessel gave Britain’s armed forces a crucial tactical edge: the gunboat. Under 200 feet long, with pivot-mounted guns and a crew of around thirty, its greatest asset was its manoeuvrability. A two-mast sailing rig gave it speed and agility in open sea, while its steam engine allowed it to chug up navigable rivers, deep into hostile territory. ‘The gunboat’, writes one naval historian, ‘made the Royal Navy for the first time a power on land as well as at sea. Without the gunboat, the navy could never have fulfilled its role as global policeman, intervening at the request of British officials and merchants virtually anywhere in the world.’ At no time was the gunboat more effective than during the Second Burma War of 1852–3.

The fighting began in earnest on 5 April 1852 when a British amphibious assault, with gunboats to the fore, captured Martaban on the Rangoon River; a week later, in a battle that raged for three days, Godwin’s combined force of 6,000 men stormed and took the fortified settlement of Rangoon itself. British casualties were light: just seventeen killed and 132 wounded. Many more died of sickness and disease during the following month of relative inactivity, as Godwin waited for reinforcements and supplies. By mid May he was ready to continue his advance, this time up the Negrais River to Bassein. This strongpoint, styled the ‘Key of Burma’, was captured in less than an hour, underlining once again Godwin’s facility for combined sea and land operations. After a half-hearted, and only partially successful, expedition to assist anti-government rebels in the southern Burmese province of Pegu, Godwin turned his attention to the lower Irrawaddy Valley. Gunboats reached Prome in early July and found it undefended. But Godwin, short on men, decided not to garrison it until the arrival of extra troops from India.

Lord Dalhousie ..A Govenor General of India 1848 to 1856

In 1852 Dalhousie’s priority was to get enough troops to Burma to finish the war. Most of the reinforcements – including the 67th Native Infantry, the 38th’s substitute – arrived in Rangoon in early September. Later that month Godwin headed up the Irrawaddy with part of the Bengal Contingent, capturing Prome without a fight on 9 October. But, having discovered that the main Burmese Army, 18,000 strong, was dug in ten miles to the east, Godwin chose discretion and returned to Rangoon, leaving the commander at Prome with orders to act on the defensive.

In November, Godwin led a second – and this time successful – expedition to capture the town of Pegu. Once back in Rangoon, however, he received word that the tiny British garrison at Pegu was under siege. Two relieving forces were hastily dispatched, one by water (which Godwin accompanied) and one by land. Not surprisingly, the flotilla arrived first, and, on 17 December, Godwin’s force of 1,200 men was able to outflank the besieging army and force it to retreat. Two days later, the pursuit was broken off because of a lack of supplies, and Godwin withdrew to Pegu, where he was met by the land column, which had just arrived after an uneventful march through seventy miles of hilly jungle.

It was gradually dawning on Godwin that his lack of land transport was hamstringing his attempts to bring the enemy to a decisive battle. As things stood, his troops could never venture far from their waterborne supply line, which made it easy for the Burmese to fight a hit-and-run style of guerrilla warfare. Constant attacks, lack of sleep and inadequate provisions were beginning to take their toll on British morale. Further pressure was heaped on the British commander by Dalhousie’s premature announcement on 20 December 1852 that the HEIC had annexed Pegu Province. It had yet to be pacified, let alone annexed, and to this end Godwin sent another land column into the province, 2,000 strong, under the experienced Brigadier-General S. W. Steel. With transport provided by 120 elephants and 300 bullock carts, Steel’s march was a leisurely one, his troops finally reaching Toungu in the extreme south of the province in late February 1853.

Godwin, meanwhile, had returned to Prome, where on 5 January he received some very welcome news: King Pagan Min had been overthrown in a palace coup, and the main Burmese Army had withdrawn to Ava to share in the spoils. In late January, advancing cautiously upriver, Godwin met emissaries from the new king, Mindon, who, they said, was willing to negotiate. The sticking point, however, was Mindon’s refusal to cede Pegu. As negotiations continued, the last major operation of the war took place downriver near Donabyu, where the local chief, Myat-Toon, had long been a thorn in the British side. The first attempt to penetrate the narrow creek that led to the chief’s stronghold was beaten back on 17 January. A second more powerful expedition was launched in early February, but it too was forced to retire, with the loss of two naval guns and eighty men, including its fatally wounded commander, Captain Granville Loch, RN. With the honour of the British military at stake, Brigadier-General Sir John Cheape was given the task of capturing the stronghold. He chose to attack by land but lost his way in the jungle and was forced to return to the Irrawaddy. On 7 March, his column increased to 1,100 men and four guns, he set off again with a week’s supplies and assurances that his destination was within three marches. It was not. Harassed by the enemy and slowed by endless river crossings, Cheape made tortuous progress, and on 12 March, with provisions running short, he put the men on half-rations and sent the bullock carts back for more supplies. The convoy returned on the 16th, and two days later, leaving his sick and wounded with a small escort, Cheape continued his advance. Early on 19 March his advance guard at last discovered Myat-Toon’s formidable stockade.

The officer leading the vanguard was Garnet Wolseley, the young ensign of the 80th Foot who had been so shocked by Wellington’s death a few months earlier. Born near Dublin in 1833, the scion of an ancient but hard-up Anglo-Irish family that traced its Saxon descent to pre-Conquest times, Wolseley was a studious and fiercely ambitious officer who had spent much of the voyage out to India learning Hindustani and reading military history. He had been in the army for only a year, the recipient of a commission without purchase in recognition of his late father’s many years of distinguished service. Like many of his poorer colleagues, he ‘looked forward to an Indian career where high pay enabled the infantry officer to live without assistance from home’. Yet he also hoped to emulate the military feats of his forebears, notably Brigadier-General William Wolseley, his great-great-great uncle, who had raised his own regiment of horse and served with William III in Ireland, and his grandfather, who had fought in the Seven Years War with the 1st (Royal) Dragoons before becoming a parson.

Even at this early stage of his career, Wolseley was fiercely critical of anything that did not meet his exacting standards. The ‘great bulk’ of officers he met in India and Burma were, he wrote later, ‘lacking in good breeding, and all seemed badly educated’. Only a small proportion, like him, took their ‘profession seriously, studied hard at all military sciences, and spent many of those deadly midday hours of the Indian summers reading military history and the lives of the great commanders’. As for British uniforms, he regarded them as ‘entirely unsuited for campaigning in a tropical climate’. He wrote:

The Queen’s Army took an idiotic pride in dressing in India as nearly as possible in the same clothing they wore at home. Upon this occasion, the only difference was in the trousers, which were of ordinary Indian drill dyed blue, and that round our regulation forage cap we wore a few yards of puggaree of a similar colour. We wore our ordinary cloth shell jackets buttoned up to the chin, and the usual white buckskin gloves. Could any costume short of steel armour be more absurd in such a latitude?

The army’s only concession to the climate was to allow soldiers to remove their stiff leather stocks, but most of the veterans ‘clung to theirs, asserting that the stock protected the back of the neck against the sun, and kept them cool’. The Burmese soldier, by contrast, was simply dressed in a short cotton jacket, loin cloth and ‘small pugree twisted through his long hair’. His weapons consisted of a dah, or hiltless sword, and a variety of outdated muskets. ‘A cloth fastened round him contains his rice,’ wrote Wolseley, ‘and the pot to boil it in is usually slung to the barrel of his ill-kept firelock, together with the mat which forms his bed. A few bananas and a little native tobacco constitute his luxuries.’ Broad-shouldered, muscular, hardy and brave, the Burmese should have made ideal soldiers. What they lacked, in Wolseley’s opinion, was discipline. ‘They revolt against restraint,’ he wrote later, ‘and if punished for any offence against discipline they desert, and once in their dense forests they are hard to find. They stand being shot at well when behind stockaded defences, but they dislike leaving them, even though a favourable opportunity presents itself, when they might easily inflict great loss upon their enemy.’

This, then, was the foe that Wolseley came up against for the first time – his baptism of fire – on 19 March 1853. Accompanying him on point duty were four privates of the 80th, all recruits in their teens. As they crept along a narrow path, with dense jungle on each side, they could hear the sound of trees being felled for the Burmese to strengthen their defences. Then, as the path turned sharply to the left, the sight of an enemy stockade came into view, about a hundred yards distant on the far side of a large creek: they had found Myat-Toon’s stronghold. With no pickets thrown out, the Burmese were quite unaware of the British presence. Speaking in whispers, Wolseley sent word back to the main force and a short while later received orders to continue his advance – he was ‘to move slowly and be careful not to show [himself]’. He had almost reached the point at which a road forded the creek when the Burmese spotted the approaching column and opened fire along the length of their stockade. He recalled:

The whiz of bullets and the sound of their thud into the stems of trees about us at once added enlivenment to the position. Their fire was too high, and it was not until we began to form up to our right, facing the enemy, that I saw any one fall near me, but before the place was taken all the four boys with whom I started in the morning were hit. The detachments of British troops were now withdrawn into the jungle and formed into line facing the enemy’s works; our two guns, which had been far behind, were now brought up and into action.

Detachments from three regiments – Britons, Sikhs and sepoys – were ordered to advance up the road and storm the stockade. But the sepoys had gone through the horror of the previous expedition and refused to break cover. ‘They seemed in an abject funk’, remembered Wolseley, ‘and I believe could not be got on by their gallant officers. As we passed over them, our men abused them in strong terms, which they seemed in no way to resent.’

The Sikhs were bolder and advanced shoulder to shoulder with the British troops, but had some of the fight knocked out of them when their popular commander was shot in the head and badly wounded. Before long the troops were all mixed together, and, confronted by a withering fire from front and flank, the advance stalled. Volunteers were called for to lead a storming party, and Wolseley and Lieutenant Allan Johnson, another officer destined for high rank, stepped forward. With the two officers in the lead, the mixed detachment tore down the road towards the stockade’s main gate as the Burmese opened up with everything they had, including the two British naval guns that had been lost during the previous expedition. Though out front, and in mortal danger, Wolseley felt something akin to exhilaration as he waved his sword and cheered the men on. Suddenly, not far from the stockade, the ground gave way beneath him, and he fell heavily into a pit disguised with earth and brushwood, a wooden stake almost knocking him unconscious. Gathering his senses, he scrambled out of the far side of the pit and, to his horror, found himself alone, just thirty yards from the enemy stockade. The rest of the storming party had melted away. With bullets kicking up the ground around him, he jumped back into the pit, but it quickly occurred to him that, having dropped his pistol, he would fall easy prey to the first Burmese sally. His only chance was to run for it, and, choosing the moment after a heavy Burmese volley, he set off. Every lungbusting stride brought the anticipation of a bullet in the back. But not one found its mark, and he soon reached the safety of the ragged British line, still angry at being deserted. ‘Had a formed company with its officers been there,’ he wrote later, ‘the whole thing would have been over in a very few minutes.’ Instead the storming party was a mixture of volunteers, many of them raw recruits.

By now Brigadier-General Cheape had appeared on the scene and, seeing the difficulty of the approach, ordered the 24-pounder howitzer to be brought forward. He also ordered up his remaining troops and called for a fresh storming party. Wolseley again volunteered, saying he knew the way, and was joined by a young Madras lieutenant called James Taylor. Having warned Taylor about the pit, Wolseley collected as many 80th men as he could before setting off at the run. He could see numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’

Never again in his long and illustrious career would he experience ‘the same unalloyed and elevating satisfaction’. But it could not last. Having safely skirted the pit, he saw Taylor tumble head over heels. A few paces on he too fell heavily, shot in the left thigh by a bullet from a gingall, a heavy musket fired from a rest. As he clamped his left hand on the wound, blood squirted in jets through the fingers of his pipe-clayed gloves. But the seriousness of the wound did not stop him from urging his men on, including one sergeant who stopped to help him. ‘In a few minutes,’ recalled Wolseley, ‘he and those he led – for he was then in command – had clambered up the roughly-constructed stockade and the garrison bolted. Some more men coming up from the rear carried poor Taylor and put him beside me, where he bled to death. He too was shot through the thigh, the bullet in his case cutting the femoral artery. Mine was a remarkable escape. A doctor soon arrived on the scene and put on a tourniquet, which hurt me, but allowed me to be moved.’

Wolseley was evacuated back to Donabyu in a naval pinnace, and from there to Prome on a flat boat towed by a steamer. By the time he reached England, in late 1853, he could walk again. His ‘gallantry in leading the storming party’ was mentioned in dispatches and would probably have merited the Victoria Cross if that medal had then existed.

The size of Myat-Toon’s garrison was later estimated at 4,000 men, one man for every four yards of stockade. Most fled with their chief, leaving behind a huge stockpile of weapons and food, which the British destroyed. Cheape then retraced his steps to Donabyu, arriving on the 24th. His total casualties were not light – 130 killed and wounded, with a further hundred succumbing to cholera – but just about acceptable, considering the difficulties of the climate and the terrain. The fight near Donabyu was the last serious action of the war. After much negotiation, King Mindon agreed to cede Pegu, and hostilities ceased on 30 June 1853.

Roman Northern Africa

Roman Dromedarii. Dromedarii are auxilliary troops recruited in the desert provinces of the Eastern Empire to take the place of light cavalry in scorching desert conditions.
As light troops these men are most useful as screening and scouting forces, although they can be surprisingly effective against other cavalry especially when the enemy horses are unused to the repulsive (to horses) smell of camels. Recruited from among the local desert tribesmen, dromedarii are peculiar to the Eastern Roman Empire and a specific answer to the problem of fielding light cavalry along the frontier.

All of northern Africa eventually fell under Roman control. After the demise of Carthage and its annexation as the province of Africa in 146 BCE, the next to capitulate in 46 BCE was the Berber kingdom of Numidia, further west along the coast, which the Romans named Africa Nova (eastern Algeria). A decade later, they took possession of Mauretania, a Berber kingdom west of Numidia, which stretched as far as the Atlantic coast. From east to west, by the end of the first century BCE, Rome’s empire reached along the coastal plains for 3,000 miles, from Egypt to Morocco. Along the edge of the Saharan steppes, Rome established a continuous military frontier, stone barriers known as the limes, patrolled by mobile units based in forts and watchtowers, that were supposed to keep out inland ‘barbarians’.

Under Roman occupation, the region became increasingly prosperous. Rome’s principal objective was to ensure that Africa continued to provide vital shipments of grain supplies needed to feed its own population at home. In north-west Africa, large numbers of army veterans and other immigrants were settled on land confiscated from Carthaginian and Numidian landowners and from Berber pastoralists, with the aim of boosting agricultural production. Roman senators and speculators acquired vast landholdings, leasing out sections to tenants and sub-tenants in return for one-third of their produce, making fortunes from the high price of grain exports. New areas suitable for cultivation were put under the plough. By the first century CE, Africa was providing the bulk of Rome’s grain requirements – more than 60 per cent. Egypt alone supplied 100,000 tons of corn a year. But other territories in North Africa had become even more important: their shipments amounted to 200,000 tons a year. For a period of more than 300 years, Africa exported to Rome about half a million tons of corn a year.

A second agrarian boom came from olive production, spreading wealth within north Africa more widely. Peasant farmers were given official encouragement to plant olive groves on hillside terraces and in drier regions of the interior not suitable for the cultivation of other crops. Olive oil was an essential commodity in classical times, used not just for cooking, but as a soap, a fuel for lighting and a base to fix perfume. As with grain, Italy did not produce enough olive oil for its own needs, creating a demand for imports. Vast olive groves were planted all over the dry country of southern Tunisia and southern Numidia and as far west as the Aurès mountains.

Along with the development of agriculture, Rome transformed its provinces in north-west Africa with the construction of model towns, aqueducts, ports and roads. By the third century, the number of towns and cities had reached about 600 and the road network extended for some 12,000 miles, marked by milestones. Carthage was rebuilt as a colonia with a rectangular grid-plan of streets covering the old Punic ruins and a 50-mile-long aqueduct linking it to Mount Zaghouan. With a population reaching perhaps as high as 400,000, Carthage ranked as the third city of the empire, after Rome and Alexandria.

Rome presided over its African provinces with a light touch. In Egypt, Roman governors relied on the old bureaucracy to maintain control and raise taxes, much as before. A small elite of Roman citizens sat at the top of the social hierarchy, enjoying a monopoly of power. Beneath them a large Greek community continued to thrive in urban centres. Greek influence remained strong. Greek, rather than Latin, was preferred as the language of commerce with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Further down the social ladder, there was a substantial Jewish community, initially enjoying imperial protection. On the lowest rung, despised by their rulers, was the vast mass of Coptic-speaking peasants who bore the brunt of taxation. The Delta region became increasingly important as an agricultural centre, producing higher yields from improved irrigation techniques. But otherwise the culture of the countryside remained unchanged.

In the provinces of north-west Africa, Rome also permitted a wide measure of autonomy. The local Punic-speaking ruling class remained largely in place. Punic speech was still widely used. Towns were left to run their own affairs. Local councils competed to embellish their home towns with public facilities such as markets, fountains, amphitheatres and circus-tracks for chariot racing, a popular entertainment. With local funds, streets were decorated with statues and monumental arches. Wealthy citizens paid for the building of temples, theatres and charity schools. Public baths formed a central feature of urban life, a rendezvous for gossip and politics, enjoyed by all and sundry. Some were built in a palatial style, with vaulted ceilings, intricate mosaics, marble facings and central-heating ducts. North-west Africa ended up with more great baths than any comparable part of the empire.

In the countryside, Roman villas and estates were interspersed with Berber villages. Some Berber families gained wealth and status alongside the elite. But many others also managed to improve their circumstances, as the testimony on the tombstone of a Berber of humble origins, living in Mactar in the second century, records:

I was born of poor parents; my father had neither an income nor his own house. From the day of my birth I always cultivated my field; neither my land nor I ever had any rest . . . When the harvest-gangs arrived to hire themselves out in the countryside round Cirta, capital of Numidia, or in the plains of the mountain of Jupiter, I was the first to harvest my field. Then, leaving my neighbourhood, for twelve years I reaped the harvest of another man, under a fiery sun; for eleven years I was chief of a harvest-gang and scythed the corn in the fields of Numidia. Thanks to my labours, and being content with very little, I finally became master of a house and a property: today I live at ease. I have even achieved honours: I was called on to sit in the senate of my city, and, though once a modest peasant, I became censor. I have watched my children and grandchildren grow up round me; my life has been occupied, peaceful and honoured by all.

From their base in Egypt, the Romans also began to promote trade with regions further up the Nile Valley in the African interior. After a series of clashes with the kingdom of Kush, they signed a peace treaty with its rulers in 20 BCE, establishing an agreed frontier at the southern edge of Egypt. Rome henceforth regarded Kush as a ‘client kingdom’, lying outside its direct control, an arrangement that lasted for 300 years.

With the help of the Kushites, the Romans endeavoured to discover the source of the Nile. In 66 CE, the Emperor Nero, a keen geographer, sent two centurions upriver. According to the Roman scribe Seneca, they reached the Bahr al-Ghazal, a tributary of the White Nile, but found their way southwards blocked by ‘immense swamps, the end of which neither the natives know, nor is it possible for anyone to hope to know’. Not until the nineteenth century was a route found through the swamps – a hundred-mile maze of floating papyrus and reed islands known as the Sudd.

Since their expulsion from Egypt by the Assyrians in the seventh century BCE, the rulers of Kush had moved their capital southwards to Meroe, a Middle Nile location between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts, on the fringe of the summer rainfall belt. A distinctive culture emerged at Meroe, combining aspects of Egyptian religion with indigenous practices. The rulers of Kush constructed royal pyramids and elaborate cult monuments. The Kushites also devised their own extensive script – Meroitic – borrowing twenty-three Egyptian symbols to create a syllabic alphabet. Classified as a Nilo-Saharan language rather than an Afro-Asiatic language like Egyptian, the Meroitic language remains unintelligible to modern linguists.

The mainstay of the Kushite economy was sorghum, cattle and cotton. But what interested the Romans more was their trade in gold, ivory and slaves. The Kushites were also renowned for their manufacture of iron products, a technology they acquired from the Assyrians. The land surrounding Meroe was rich in both iron ore and hardwood timber needed to produce charcoal for iron-smelting. Iron was used to make improved weapons of defence, spears for hunting and tools for agriculture. But the extent of charcoal production had a devastating impact on the land. The Kushites stripped the Butana plain of its forests, leaving behind an arid landscape and huge piles of slag which can still be seen today. According to modern calculations, the size of the slag heaps at Meroe meant that the furnaces there consumed at least 56,000 cubic feet of timber every year for 300 years.

As well as trade with the African interior, Roman Egypt saw a dramatic increase in maritime trade with the Red Sea ports and the northern regions of the Indian Ocean beyond. Mariners from Arabia and India had long exploited the monsoon winds of the western Indian Ocean which blew from the south-west from May to September and from the north-east from November to April, allowing a favourable voyage in both directions. Egyptian-based merchants now sought a greater share of the trade.

To assist their endeavours, an enterprising Egyptian Greek merchant in the mid-first century CE compiled a guide to the region’s trade called the Periplus Maris Erythraei. The name of the author is not known, but he wrote from personal experience of voyages to eastern Africa, southern Arabia and India, the area covered by the Periplus. His objective was to pass on trading information, about products that could be bought and sold in each port, rather than tips for mariners.

His starting point was Egypt’s two main ports on the Red Sea coast, Myos Hormos and Berenice. The African route from Egypt, he explained, ran down the Red Sea, through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, along the African coast of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and then along the eastern coast of Africa to Rhapta, a port somewhere in the vicinity of modern Dar es Salaam. Because of dangerous shoals in the Red Sea, ships following the coastline sailed only during the day, putting in towards nightfall at the nearest available anchorage. The first major stop was Adulis, a small port at the time, linked to an inland territory known as Aksum, but already renowned for its trade in ivory, rhinoceros horn and tortoiseshell. ‘The mass of elephants and rhinoceroses that are slaughtered all inhabit the upland regions, although on rare occasions they are also seen along the shore around Adulis itself.’ Further south were the incense ports of northern Somalia where the principal items for trade were frankincense and myrrh.

Ships heading along the African route tended to leave Egypt in July, taking about two months to reach Cape Guardafui on the point of the Horn of Africa, travelling southwards with the north-east monsoon winds behind them and reaching Rhapta in November or December. They were obliged to remain there for eight months, waiting for the last winds of the south-west monsoon before leaving, returning to Guardafui not before October in order to catch the early north-east monsoon that would provide favourable winds for traversing the Gulf of Aden. A round trip to Rhapta therefore took about eighteen months.

The Periplus makes few observations about Rhapta, other than to note that ‘great quantities of ivory and tortoiseshell’ were to be found there, that the inhabitants were ‘very big-bodied men’, and that the area was under Arab rule. Rhapta was described as ‘the very last port of trade on the coast of Azania’, a Greek name for eastern Africa.

Nor was there any information available about the African interior. The only glimpse of this vast hinterland for centuries came from a Greek merchant named Diogenes, who claimed that as he was returning home from a visit to India in the middle of the first century CE he had landed on the African mainland at Rhapta and then travelled for twenty-five days inland. He arrived, he said, ‘in the vicinity of two great lakes, and the snowy range of mountains whence the Nile draws its twin sources’. A century later, the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy incorporated this information into his map of the world, and named the source of the Nile as Lunae Montes, the Mountains of the Moon. For 1,700 years, Ptolemy’s map remained the only guide to the mystery of the Nile’s sources.

Batumi Raids

Russian line infantry during The Russo-Turkish War 1877

Foot Bashi-Bazouk

The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877 – 1878 had a huge impact both on the countries involved in the conflict and the different nations living there.

The 300 years of the so-called “Ottoman Yoke” did not succeed in killing the Georgian spirit among the population of the Ajarian Sanjak (Ajaristan). Victory in the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877 – 1878 and the reunion of Ajara with Georgia played a vital role in restoring the national self-consciousness of Georgians at the end of the 19th century. Folklore, fiction, social and political journalism demonstrate the joy about Ajara’s reunion with its “motherland” and praise Georgian and Russian soldiers. The same pathos can be seen in the textbooks published for Georgian schools right after the end of the war, as before the war and therefore in the period of Ottoman rule there were no Russian or Georgian schools in Batumi.

Georgian folklore as well as Georgian social and political journalism also show one important issue which was directly connected to the end of Russo-Ottoman War of 1877 – 1878: the issue of Muhajirism. Leaving the motherland, close relatives and one’s own house became an unhealed wound which was not mentioned in Soviet textbooks. Only when the perestrojka set in, certain ideological changes and developments in Georgia’s and particularly in Ajara’s sociopolitical situation affected school and university textbooks as well, as they would start to print materials showing the imperial ambitions of Russia and describe that the process of Muhajirism was in favor of both sides – of Russians and Ottomans.

Military operations were mostly carried out in the territories around Khutsubani, Tsikhisdziri, Mukhaestate, Kvirike and Zeniti, Russian and Georgian troops at other times were also stationed at several other places such as Ozurgeti, Nagomar-Orpiri, Mukhaestate and Choloki.

During military operations in 1877 Russo-Georgian forces did not succeed in liberating Batumi and Ajara in general, but it was the success of the Russian army in Anatolia and the Balkans which decided over the final outcome of the war. On 15 November 1877 joint forces recaptured Khutsubani.

In front at Batumi, the Ottomans had an army of 40,000 soldiers, while the joint forces of Russian and Georgians were only 25,000 soldiers.  According to Sergej Meschi: “Only 5,000 of them are militants on the battlefield. Of course they will be the ones to fight but the rest won’t be able to join the battle according to military laws, as unarmed people do not have the right to fight against their enemy.”

On 25 August 1877, Russian forces entered Batumi. They were led by the deputation of the reunited territories – Sherif Khimshiashvili from Upper Ajara and Nuri Khimshiashvili from Shavsheti. On Azizie square (nowadays Gamsakhurdia square) they organized a feast for the commanding Russian officers. Sherif Khimshiashvili proposed many toasts and in the end he said: “This is the toast to the ones who participated in this war to unite old and newly divided Georgians. Let us wish them happiness and that they may live long. Let us or our descendants never forget their deeds.”

(1) Combat operations of the Rioni (from May of 1877, Kobuleti) task force of Russian troops during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Object-defeating the Turkish Corps of Darwish Pasha, seizing Batum (Batumi) and prevention of the landing of the enemy’s amphibious party in the rear of the Russian troops. The Rioni body of troops (24,000 soldiers, 96 canons) began an attack on April 12 (24), 1877. Moving in the tough conditions of the mountainous-woody terrain and cross-country, the task force managed to overcome stubborn resistance of the enemy and on April 14 (26) seized the heights of Mukhaestate, Khutsubanskoe. and on May 19 (31) occupied the heights of Sameba. The second attempt to seize Batum was undertaken in January of 1878. The Kobuleti force again advanced as far as Tsikhisdziri and again retreated. Its activity tied large forces of the enemy, thereby contributing to the success of the main forces of the Caucasian Army.

It was the last Black Sea port annexed by Russia during the Russian conquest of that area of the Caucasus. In 1878, Batumi was annexed by the Russian Empire in accordance with the Treaty of San Stefano between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (ratified on March 23). Occupied by the Russians on August 28, 1878, the town was declared a free port until 1886. It functioned as the center of a special military district until being incorporated in the Government of Kutaisi on June 12, 1883. Finally, on June 1, 1903, with the Okrug of Artvin, it was established as the region (oblast) of Batumi and placed under the direct control of the General Government of Georgia.

The expansion of Batumi began in 1883 with the construction of the Batumi–Tiflis–Baku railway (completed in 1900) and the finishing of the Baku–Batumi pipeline. Henceforth, Batumi became the chief Russian oil port in the Black Sea. The town population increased rapidly doubling within 20 years: from 8,671 inhabitants in 1882 to 12,000 in 1889. By 1902 the population had reached 16,000, with 1,000 working in the refinery for Baron Rothschild’s Caspian and Black Sea Oil Company.

In the late 1880s and after, more than 7,400 Doukhobor emigrants sailed for Canada from Batumi, after the government agreed to let them emigrate. Quakers and Tolstoyans aided in collecting funds for the relocation of the religious minority, which had come into conflict with the Imperial government over its refusal to serve in the military and other positions. Canada settled them in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Russian attack 15 May 1877

“The sinking of the boats of the steamer “Grand Duke Constantine” Turkish ship “Intibah” on the Batumi RAID on the night of 14 Jan 1878

(2) Attacks of the Russian mine launches against the Turkish ships at the Batumi Port during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. On the night to December 16 (28), 1877, the ship “Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin” (commander-Captain 2nd rank S. O. Makarov approached Batum covertly, launched 4 boats, of which “Chesma” and “Sinop” each had as armament one Robert Whitehead self-propelled mine (torpedo). After midnight, the mine launches penetrated in the port and attacked the Turkish armor-clad battleship “Mahmudiye” (the Turkish flagship was for many years the largest warship in the world), yet the attack proved abortive as one torpedo, having passed along the board of the battleship, jumped out onto the shore, and the other one hit against the battleship’s anchor chain and exploded on the ground. On January 14(26), 1878, “Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin” repeated a raid on Batum. The launches “Chesma” and “Sinop” by hitting the Turkish armed steamer “Intibah” with two torpedoes simultaneously from a distance of about 80 m destroyed the ship. This was the first in the world recorded successful launch of torpedoes from a torpedo boat.

During 1877–8 the Russians had been providing some torpedo action data during their struggle with the Turks around the Black Sea. The Turkish fleet dominated that sea simply by lying at anchor, as the Russians had no sea-going ironclads and no chance of getting any in while Turkish forts and ships’ guns dominated the narrows to Constantinople; so the Russians had no alternative to using torpedo boats for offensive operations, and they carried out a number of raids by night with specially constructed 15-knot boats some 50 or 60 feet long, carried by mother ships, usually fast merchantmen. However the earlier attacks were made with spar and towing torpedoes, and to get close enough without alerting the enemy with sparks from the funnels and considerable engine noise, they had to drop their speed to walking pace and creep in. Even so they did not escape detection, and were only successful on one occasion when they found the coastal monitor Siefé unprotected by the usual torpedo boat obstructions placed around the Turkish ships. Despite detection by the sentry, they pressed in under her turret guns as they misfired three times and touched a spar torpedo off close by the sternpost; the Siefé sank in a short time. As for the ‘Whitehead’, this was also tried and on one occasion on the night of 25–6 January 1878, the Russians claimed to have sunk a Turkish guard-ship anchored at the entrance to Batum harbour from 80 yards range; although the Turks denied any loss it is possible that this was the first Whitehead success in action. Despite the poor condition of the Turkish fleet and the great resolution of the Russian officers, these were the only effective torpedo attacks of the war. They were modest successes, and it was evident that torpedoes would be little use against an efficient fleet at anchor and guarded as recommended by the British 1875 Torpedo Committee, by nets, lights, Gatling guns and guard boats.

Russia in the Azov Sea

Azov campaigns of 1695-1696  

Campaigns of Russian army and fleet led by Peter I during the Russian-Turkish war of 1686-1700 with a view to protecting Russia’s southern lands against the attack of the Turkish and Tatar troops and occupying the Turkish fortress Azov that closed Russia’s access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Early in April of 1695, the Russian forces (around 31,000 warriors) that consisted of Streltsy (soldiers), regiments of a new “fighting formation” and manorial noblemen’s cavalry set out from Moscow to Azov. To divert enemy attention from the fortress, troops headed by B. P. Sheremetev were sent to the lower reaches of the Dnieper River. On July 5 (15), Russian troops concentrated around Azov which was defended by a garrison of 7,000 soldiers. The enemy repelled two assaults causing heavy casualties to the attackers. Therefore, Peter I lifted the siege and on November 22 (December 2) Russian troops returned to Valuiki and Voronezh. As peparations for a new campaign under the guidance of Peter I were being made, the Azov fleet was established. A. Ya. Lefort was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Azov Fleet. A. S. Shein was the Commander of the Azov Army. Peter I was in charge of overall leadership of the second campaign. On April 23-26 (May 3-6), 1696 the army set out on the campaign from the districts of Voronezh, Tambov, and Valuiki overland and by ships down the Voronezh and Don rivers. Sheremetev’s cavalry again headed for the Dnieper lower reaches, but stopped at the Kolomak River. On May 27 (June 6), the main forces of the Russian fleet set out on the Sea of Azov in the Azov area and by June 12 (22) isolated the city, while the Russian army lay a siege from the land. The Turkish fleet tried to rescue Azov but failed. On June 14(24) the Turkish fleet emerged opposite the Don River mouth (6 corvettes, 17 galleys with a landing party of around 4,000 men), but having seen the Russian galleys, the fleet left for the sea. On July 17 (27), after heavy artillery fire, assault of the fortress began simultaneously from land and sea. On July 19 (29), the garrison surrendered. As a result of successful termination of the second Azov campaign, Russia attained access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, made provisions for the security of the country’s southern frontiers. Because under the Constatinople Peace Treaty of 1700, fortresses in the circum-Dnestr area were to be demolished, Russia’s international standing was enhanced, Turkish neutrality on the eve of the Northern War was secured. The seizure of Azov was the first major victory of the Russian army and fleet in the struggle for access to the sea.

Azov Fleet

First regular formation of the Russian Navy instituted by Peter I in order to fight Turkey for access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. In 1694, there began the construction of large ships and assembly of galleys and fire ships, using parts made in Bryansk, Preobrazhenskoe Village (near Moscow) and at other locations. By the spring of 1696, three 36-cannon ships, 23 galleys, 1,300 sailrow boats and 4 fire ships were built. The fleet, under the command of F. Ya. Lefort left Voronezh and on May 27 (June 6) entered the Sea of Azov. On June 12 (22), the Russian ships blocked the Azov Fortress in the mouth of the Don River, while the ground troops did the same from land. On July 19 (29), the fortress garrison surrendered. At the insistence of Peter I, the Boyar Duma decreed: “Let there be sea vessels”. This date is regarded the official birthday of regular Russian fleet. The admiralty was transferred from Voronezh to Tavrov on the coast of the Sea of Azov, a sea port comes into being in Taganrog. During the period from 1696 to 1711, 215 ships of diverse classes were built for the Azov fleet. In the spring of 1699, Peter I for the first time in the history of Russian Navy held sea maneuvers in the vicinity of Taganrog. In August, the largest 46-cannon ship “Krepost” (`Fortress’) sailed in the Black Sea and visited Constantinople with a diplomatic mission. After the Prut Treaty of 1711 and return of Azov and Taganrog to Turkey, the Azov fleet ceased to exist, its ships were disassembled or sold to Turkey.

Azov Military Flotilla  

(1) A formation of Russian fleet established at the beginning of the Russian-Turkish War of 1768-1774. Under the command of the Vice-Admiral D. N. Senyavin, AMF performed successful military operations against the Turkish fleet on the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, cooperated with ground troops, when seizing Kerch and Yenikale, repelled enemy attempts to land amphibious parties in the Crimea. In 1783, AMF was disbanded, yet its ships were included in the Black Sea fleet that was established in May of the same year.

(2) Russian flotilla with a base facility at Yeisk was configured to fight against German invaders and the White Guard. When the enemy seized the coast at the end of June of 1918, the ships were disarmed, and their personnel joined the Red Army units. In March of 1920, after Denikin’s army was defeated and the Red Army reached the Azov Sea coast, the flotilla was reestablished by the staff of the South-Eastern Front (the base at Mariupol-currently, Zhdanov; from September- Taganrog; from November-Mariupol again). The flotilla included ships that were in the ports of the Sea of Azov. Flat-bottomed fishing boats and barges were reequipped as battle-boats and floating batteries, tug boats were reequipped as escort ships, fighter boats were delivered by railway. The armament, supplies and personnel came from the Baltic Fleet, Don-Azov, Volga-Caspian and other flotillas that terminated combat activity. From May 25 to September of 1920, the Don River division (former Don Flotilla of the Caucasus front) was subordinated to AMF. In May of 1920, AMF became part of the Marine Forces of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. There were about 70 ships and vessels (9 gun-boats, 4 floating bases, 3 mine layers, 6 escort vessels, 22 chaser cutters, 25 auxiliary vessels), 18 aircraft, for amphibian operations, a marine expeditionary division was detailed (up to 4,600 men). AMF provided fire support to troops, set up a mine-artillery position in Taganrog, placed mine barriers in Kerch Strait, dropped tactical landing parties with a view to eliminating, in association with the 9th Army, the Wrangel landing party Ulagaya; on July 9, 1920, AMF destroyed a White Guard landing party near Krivaya Kosa (`Crooked Spit’), on September 15 in combat near Obitochnaya Kosa, AMF destroyed a group of enemy ships that were transporting troops and armament. After the defeat of Wrangel in April of 1291, the ships and personnel were handed over to the Black Sea Fleet.

(3) During the Great Patriotic War (WWII), on July 22, 1941, AMF was re-established for combat actions against German Nazi invaders (main base at Mariupol; from October 9, 1941-Primorsko-Akhtarsk, at present-Primorsko-Akhtarsk; from August 3 to August 24, 1942-Novorossiisk). AMF comprised the ships of the Danube Military Flotilla, that, the Danube battles over, moved eastward across the Black Sea. AMF included squadrons of escort vessels, mining boats, airborne tactical formation, coastal defense squadrons and marine units. The separate Kuban detachment (from May 3 to August 30, 1942) as well as the separate Don Detachment (from October 5, 1941 to July 28, 1942) based in Rostov-on-Don. The flotilla fought against German-Nazi invaders in liaison with the troops of the South and North-Caucasus Fronts, supported defense actions of the 9th and 51st Armies, took part in the Kerch-Feodosiya landing operation of 1941-1942, evacuated troops of the Crimean Front, assisted ferrying troops of the 56th Army across the Don River. For a long time, marines contained the enemy assault on Taman Peninsula. On September 5, 1942, the flotilla forces were included in Novorossiisk Defense Area (NDA) for marine operations. On February 3, 1943, AMF was reconstituted again (main base Yeisk; from September of 1943-PrimorskoAkhtarsk; from April of 1944-Temryuk). The flotilla ships took part in action on sea lines of communications, dropped tactical landing parties in Taganrog, Mariupol, Osipenko (Berdyansk). In the course of the Kerch-Eltingen Amphibian Operation, AMF dropped units of the 56th Army north of Kerch, and in January of 1944-two tactical landing parties on the coast of Kerch Peninsula. On April 20, 1944 the flotilla was disbanded, its ships handed over to the newly-established Danube Military Flotilla.

The Tauchpanzer

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf H(U) – Tauchfahig (U-Panzer / Submersible Tank)
This U-Panzer belonged to the 18th Panzer Division’s 18th Panzer Regiment. This photo was taken during the crossing of the River Bug at Patulin on 22nd June of 1941. During the preparation for invasion of England – Operation Seelöwe (Sealion), Panzer III and Panzer IVwere converted into submersible tanks able to travel on the bottom of body of water at the depths of 6 to 15 meters. From June to October of 1940, 160 Panzer III Ausf F/G/H and 8 Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf E along with 42 Panzer IV Ausf Ds were converted into U-Panzers / Tauchpanzers. After extensive tests and modifications U-Panzer were ready for action. Since Operation Sealion was never realized, Tauchpanzer IIIs and IVs were used during Operation Barbarossa (crossing river Bug at Patulin), in service with 3rd (6th Panzer Regiment) and 18th Panzer Division. It was also planned to use U-Panzers in never realized invasion on the island of Malta.


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The Tauchpanzer was developed in mid-1940 for the proposed invasion of England (Sea Lion). The Pz Kpfw III were modified and provided with a submersion kit. Air-intakes were fitted with locking covers, and the exhaust was fitted with non-return valves. The cupola, gun mantlet and hull MG were sealed with waterproof fabric covers. An inflatable rubber tube surrounded the turret ring. While submerged, the tank drew air through a pipe from a float carrying a snorkel device and radio antenna which remained on the surface. A gyro-compass was used for underwater navigation. The Tauchpanzer could operate in depths of up to 15 metres. A vessel with a hinged ramp was used to disembark the Tauchpanzer at a suitable distance from the shore. With the cancellation of ‘Sea Lion’, the Tauchpanzer were no longer required in quite the same form. At Milowitz near Prague, in the spring of 1941, most of the tanks were modified to make them suitable for river crossing, with a fixed snorkel pipe attached through the commander’s cupola.


From July 1940, four sections of volunteers from existing Panzer regiments were trained on the Island of Sylt, and the Tauchpanzer were to be ready for operations at Putlos by 10 August. In mid-October, three of these sections were attached to the 18th Panzer Division, and the remainder went to the 6th Panzer Regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division. On 22 June 1941, the Tauchpanzer of the 18th Panzer Division crossed the River Bug at Patulin.


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At Pratulin, where 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions were to cross the Bug, there was no bridge. At 04:15 hours, the advance detachments leaped into their rubber dinghies and assault boats, and swiftly crossed to the other side. The infantrymen and motor-cycle troops had with them light anti-tank guns and heavy machine-guns. The Russian pickets by the river opened up with automatic rifles and light machine-guns. They were quickly silenced.

Units of the motor-cycle battalion dug in. Then everything that could be pumped into the bridgehead was ferried across. The sappers at once got down to building a pontoon bridge.
But what would happen if the Russians attacked the bridgehead with armour? How would the Germans oppose them? Tanks and heavy equipment could have been brought across only with the greatest difficulties in barges or over emergency bridges.


That was why an interesting new secret weapon was employed here for the first time….
…In the sector of 18th Panzer Division fifty batteries of all calibers opened fire at 0315 in order to clear the way to the other bank for the diving tanks, General Nehring, the divisional commander, has since described this as “a magnificent spectacle, but rather pointless since the Russians had been clever enough to withdraw their troops from the border area, leaving behind only weak frontier detachments, which subsequently fought very bravely.”


At 0445 hours Sergeant Wierschin advance into the Bug with diving tank No.1. The infantrymen watched him in amazement. The water closed over the tank. ”Playing at U-boats!” Only the slim steel tube which supplied fresh air to the crews and engine showed above the surface, indicating Wierschin’s progress under water. There were also the exhaust bubbles, but these were quickly obliterated by the current.


Tank after tank – the whole of 1st Battalion, 18th Panzer Regiment, under the battalion commander, Manfred Graf Strachwitz – dived into the river.


And now the first ones were crawling up the far bank like mysterious amphibians. A soft plop and the rubber caps were blown off the gun muzzles. The gun-loaders let the air our of the bicycle inner tubes round the turrets. Turret hatches were flung open and the skippers wriggled out. An arm thrust into the air three times: the signal “Tanks forward.”
Eighty tanks had crossed the frontier river under water. Eighty tanks were moving into action.


Their presence was more than welcome in the bridgehead. Enemy armoured scout cars were approaching. At once came the firing orders for the leading tanks: “Turret – One O’clock – armour piercing – 800 yards – group of armoured scout cars – fire at will.” From Hitler Moves East–Paul Carell


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During September and October 1940 volunteers of the 2nd Tank Regiment in Putlos were formed into Tank Battalion A and trained for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain. Two other special formations, Tank Battalions Band C, were being raised at the same time and the same place. These units later formed the 18th Tank Regiment of the 18th Panzer Division and adapted the Pz Kpfw III and IV for submerged wading. The following measures were taken. All openings, vision slits, flaps, etc, were made watertight with sealing compounds and cable tar, the turret entry ports were bolted from the inside and air intake openings for the engine completely closed. A rubber cover sheet was fixed over the mantlet, the commander’s cupola and the bow machine gun. An ignition wire blew off the covering sheet upon surfacing and left the vehicle ready for action. Between the hull and the turret there was a rubber sealing ring which, when inflated, prevented the water from entering. The fresh air supply was maintained by a wire-bound rubber trunk with a diameter at about 20 cm, 18 metres long. To one end of this tube was fitted a buoy with attached antennae. The exhaust pipes were fitted with high-pressure non-return relief valves. When travelling submerged sea water was used to cool the engine and seepage was removed by a bilge pump. The maximum diving depth was 15 metres. Three metres of the air tube’s 18 metre length was available as a safety measure. These submersible tanks were to be launched from barges or lighters. They slid into the water down an elongated ramp made of channel plates. Directing was achieved by radio orders from a command vessel to the submerged vehicle. Underwater navigation was carried out by means of a gyro compass and the crew was equipped with escape apparatus. The submerged machines were relatively easy to steer as buoyancy lightened them. After Operation Sea Lion was abandoned these vehicles were eventually used operationally during the Russian campaign in 1941 for the crossing of the River Bug.


A short intelligence report on German tanks modified for submersion, from Tactical and Technical Trends, July 29, 1943.


GERMAN SUBMERSIBLE TANKS The delays and difficulties involved in the transport of tanks across the rivers of Eastern Europe have no doubt forced the Germans to consider very seriously all possible devices for enabling their standard tanks to cross such water obstacles under their own power.


By the summer of 1941, the weight of the PzKw 3 had already been increased by the fitting of additional armor, and it must have been clear that future developments in armor and armament would necessarily involve still further increases in the weight of this tank. While the trend towards increased weight was in many ways disadvantageous, it was definitely helpful in overcoming one of the major difficulties hitherto encountered in adapting standard tanks for submersion, namely the difficulty of obtaining sufficient track adhesion.


It is therefore not surprising that the Germans, in the early stages of their campaign in Russia, were actively experimenting with standard PzKw 3’s modified for submersion. These experiments met with a certain degree of success, and under-water river crossings are reported to have been made with these modified tanks under service conditions. The measures employed, according to a Russian source, included the sealing of all joints and openings in the tank with India rubber, and the fitting of a flexible air pipe, the free end of which was attached to a float. The supply of air for the crew as well as for the engine was provided for by this flexible pipe. The maximum depth of submersion was 16 feet and the time taken by trained crews to prepare the tanks was about 24 hours.


In April 1943, a PzKw 3 Model M examined in North Africa was found to be permanently modified or immersion, if not submersion. There was no mention in the report on this tank of a flexible pipe with float, but this may have been destroyed, since the tank, when examined, had been completely burnt out.

T-90M

The latest version of Russia’s T-90 tank is manufactured by Uralvagonzavod’s (UVZ’s). Developed by the company under the Proryv-3 programme, the T-90M will be the most advanced derivative of the T-90.

In September 2016, the head of the Main Automotive-Armoured Tank Directorate of the Russian MoD, Lt Gen Alexander Shevchenko, claimed that all T-90s in the Russian Land Forces inventory are slated for upgrade to the new Proryv-3 standard, but he refused to provide further information about the timeframe and if the budget will be sufficient for a wholesale re-fleeting.

The T-90M has an exterior similar to that of the T-90MS derivative offered for export. It is equipped with the new Relikt explosive-reactive armour (ERA) system, Kalina fire control system and a remote-controlled machine gun mount installed on the turret. The tank is also powered by a more capable V9S2F diesel engine rated at 1,130hp and has a number of further improvements, mainly in ergonomics.

The main exterior difference to all other T-90 versions is the installation of slat armour for better protection of the turret ring, while the tracks are the same as those used by the T-14 Armata. It is also expected that the Proryv-3, in its final form, will also include the integration of the 2A82-1M gun and some other systems already used on the T-14, in order to achieve a higher level of commonality between the two models for better logistics support.

The Russian Land Forces received between 120 and 160 T-90s in their basic version (Object 188) between 1992 and 1998, followed by about 360 of the improved T-90A (Object 188A1) between Advanced Russian tank variant revealed. It is more likely to be the MBT of the Russian Army than any “show-pony” at parades.

The protection suite provides CBRN protection, a climate control unit and periscopes. The modular and scalable digital architecture allows for current and future vetronics and C4I capabilities to be utilised on the vehicle. At 48tonne, the AFV is able to achieve speeds of up to 70km/h and has a range of 500km with a trench clearance of 2.1m.

With 30 to 60 units exported to Syria between late 2015 and early 2017. It is unlikely that original T-90 models will get the upgrade because an all-new turret would need to be fitted in place of the existing cast one. However, since the T-90A features a welded turret that is the same as the T-90M’s, albeit with different ERA, it is this variant that can be expected to go into an approved modification programme.

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TERROR FROM THE SKY I

In their early years at Peenemünde, the German rocket researchers had no difficulty in attracting the funds they needed. Money was printed in large amounts and military expenditure for the Army now seemed to have no limits.

Von Braun was in his element at Peenemünde, and the design of the great A-4 rocket proceeded apace. It was to be based on the successful design of the A-5, with a redesigned control system and updated construction. The A-5 had reached an altitude of 35,000ft (10,000m) in tests during 1938, and the A-4 was designed with the benefit of the results of these pioneering tests. But things changed when Hitler began to anticipate an early end to hostilities, with Germany reigning supreme across Western Europe, and as a result research at Peenemünde was reduced. In a scaled-down programme of research, the engineers contented themselves by designing improved servo-control systems and new, high-throughput fuel pumps were systematically developed. Rocket development had essentially been put on hold.

Within two years the tide was turning, and the need for rocket research began to re-emerge. Work on the A-4 picked up again and on 13 June 1942 the first of the new monster rockets was ready for test firing. The rocket was checked and re-checked. Meticulous records were maintained of every aspect of its functioning. It stood 46ft 1.5in (14.05m) tall, weighed 12 tons, and was fuelled with methyl alcohol (methanol). The oxidant, liquid oxygen, was pumped in just prior to launch. The pumps were run up to speed, ignition achieved and the rocket rose unsteadily from its launch pad. In a billowing cloud of smoke and steam it began to climb, rapidly gaining speed, and then – at just the wrong moment – the propellant pump motor failed. The rocket staggered for a moment and crashed back onto the launch pad, disintegrating in a huge explosion. The technicians were terrified and were lucky to escape.

On 16 August 1942 a second A-4 was tested. Once again, the fuel motor pump stopped working but this time it failed later in the flight, after the rocket had already passed through the sound barrier. The third test was a complete success. It took place on 3 October 1942 and this rocket was fired out along the coast of Pomerania. The engine burned for over a minute, boosting the rocket to a maximum altitude of 50 miles (80km). It fell to earth 119.3 miles (192km) from the launch pad. The age of the space rocket had arrived, and the ballistic missile was a reality. The design of the A-4 rocket could now be fine tuned and – given time – the complex design could be optimized for mass production. The Nazis now had their new Vergeltungswaffe (‘retaliatory’ or ‘reprisal’ weapon). The term was important; although Hitler saw these as weapons of mass destruction, he hoped that the world – instead of seeing him as the aggressor – would regard him as simply responding to Allied attacks. The ‘V’ is sometimes translated into English as ‘vengeance’, but that is not right as the term in German connotes reprisal. The first of such weapons was their V-1 cruise missile, the ‘buzz-bomb’ and now they had the V-2. It would surely strike terror into the hearts of those who challenged German supremacy.

Aspects of the design were refined and developed by teams in companies including Zeppelin Luftschiffbau and Heinkel, and the final production version of the V-2 was a brilliantly successful rocket. Over 5,000 would be produced by the Germans. The production model stood 46ft (14m) tall, was 5ft 5in (1.65m) in diameter, and weighed over 5 tons of which 70 per cent was fuel. The tanks held 8,300lb (3,760kg) of fuel and just over 11,000lb (5,000kg) of liquid oxygen at take-off. The combustion chamber consumed 275lb (125kg) per second, emitting exhaust gases at a velocity of 6,950ft/s (2,200m/s). The missile was steered by vanes in the exhaust and could land with an accuracy better than 4 per cent, or so claimed the designers. No metal could withstand the intense heat, so these internal fins were constructed from carbon. They ablated in the heat, but could not burn away rapidly due to the lack of free oxygen and lasted long enough for the entire rocket burn. For the time, the V-2 was – and it remains – an extraordinary achievement made in record time.

Dörnberger tried to take full advantage of the success. Ever since the United States had declared war on Germany on 8 December 1941, the balance of power had begun to tip against the Nazis and Dörnberger knew the time was ripe for official endorsement of his teams’ progress. Hitler had been to see static tests of rocket motors at Kummersdorf but he had not been greatly impressed by the noise, fire and smoke. These were so exciting to the rocket enthusiasts – it was what rocketry was all about – but Hitler could not imagine how these ‘boys’ toys’ could transmute into agencies of world domination and he was reluctant to give the rocket teams the high priority they sought.

Dörnberger was frustrated by the bureaucracy and the lack of exciting new developments. Some of the pressure had been temporarily relieved from Dörnberger on 8 February 1942 when news reached him that the Minister for Armaments and Munitions, Fritz Todt, had died at the age of 50. Todt was aboard a Junkers Ju-52 aircraft on a routine tour when it crashed and exploded shortly after take-off. Albert Speer was supposed to have been on the same flight, but cancelled at the last minute. Speer was immediately appointed by Hitler to take Todt’s place, and he was far more interested in what Dörnberger had to say. Speer was a professional architect and had joined the Nazi party in 1931. He had soon become a member of Hitler’s inner circle and had gained the Führer’s trust after his appointment as chief architect. Speer clearly felt that Hitler could be reconciled to the idea of the V-2 as progress continued.

As luck would have it, the new committee was put under the charge of General Gerd Degenkolb, who disliked Dörnberger intensely. Von Braun said at the time: ‘This committee is a thorn in our flesh.’ One can see why. Degenkolb exemplified that other German trait, a talent for bureaucracy and administrative complexity. He had been in a group including Karl-Otto Saur and Fritz Todt, who espoused Hitler’s policy of being ‘not yet convinced’ by the rocket as a major agent in military success. Degenkolb immediately began to establish a separate bureaucratic structure to work alongside Dörnberger’s. Details of the design of the V-2 rocket were reconsidered in detail by Degenkolb’s new committee, and some of their untried new recommendations were authorized without Dörnberger’s knowledge or approval.

Progress remained problematic even following the successful launches. The Director of Production Planning, Detmar Stahlknecht, had set targets for V-2 production which were agreed with Dörnberger – but which were then unilaterally modified by Degenkolb. Stahlknecht had planned to produce 300 of the V-2 rockets per month by January 1944 – but in January 1943 Degenkolb decreed that this total be brought forward to October 1943. Stahlknecht was aiming for a monthly production target of 600 by July 1944; Degenkolb insisted the figure be raised to 900 per month, and the date brought forward to December 1943. The success of the rocket was encouraging the policy makers to raise their game, and their new targets seemed simply unattainable.

The Capitalist dream

At this point, Dörnberger was presented with a startling new prospect. He learned of a bizarre idea to capitalize on the sudden enthusiasm for the new rockets. He was told that it was being proposed to designate Peenemünde as a ‘land’ in its own right. It would be jointly purchased by major German companies like AEG and Siemens who would pay more than 1,000,000 Reichsmarks for the property and then charge the Nazi government for each missile produced. AEG, in particular, were highly impressed by the telemetry developed for the V-2 rocket and recognized that it had far-reaching implications and considerable market potential.

The guidance systems were remarkably advanced. They had been developed by Helmut Gröttrup, working alongside Von Braun, though there was little friendship between the two. Dörnberger fought to have Peenemünde maintained as an army proving ground and production facility, and won the battle only after bitter negotiations. This had been a narrow victory for Dörnberger, and was one that he would have been unlikely to win without the support of Speer.

Three sites were immediately confirmed for the production of the new rockets: Peenemünde, Friedrichshafen and the Raxwerken at Wiener Neustadt. Degenkolb issued orders at once, but he failed to see that the senior staff were not available in sufficient numbers to train and organize production on such a rapidly expanding scale. Degenkolb refused to be challenged and insisted that production begin immediately – and, when the engineers explained the impossibility of the task at such short notice, Degenkolb issued orders that they be imprisoned if his schedule was not met. Clearly, he meant business.

Although Degenkolb saw Von Braun as a personal rival, and someone he disliked, he recognized that his participation was crucial to the success of the rocket development. Others knew this too. At one stage, Von Braun had even been arrested by the authorities under the suspicion that his covert purpose was not the bombardment of foreign cities for the benefit of the Fatherland, but that he was secretly planning to develop rockets for space exploration at government expense. At first, Von Braun’s protests came to nothing and a lengthy bureaucratic enquiry seemed inevitable, until Dörnberger intervened to say that, without Von Braun, there could be no further progress. At this, Von Braun was released and sent back to his work. Dörnberger reported his frustrations with a lack of progress towards full production. Speer understood that the heavy-handed administrative interference of Degenkolb had introduced an unnecessary hold-up (reckoned by Dörnberger to be a delay of 18 months) and promised to remove him if it would help.

In the event, Degenkolb survived because of the influence of Fritz Todt’s long-standing friend, Karl-Otto Saur. Saur himself had a remarkable instinct for survival and, after the war, he was used as a key witness for the prosecution on behalf of the American authorities and was subsequently released. The fact that Karl-Otto Saur was designated by Hitler to replace Speer as Minister for Armaments was not a sufficient crime for him to be tried as a war criminal, and he eventually set up a publishing house back in Germany named Saur Verlag. The company survives to this day publishing reference information for librarians – a curious legacy from World War II.

The remaining serious challenger to the V-2 was the Luftwaffe’s buzz-bomb, the V-1. Its proponents pointed out that it was cheap to fly, economic to fuel, easy to produce in vast numbers and surely a far better candidate for support than the costly and complex V-2. Dörnberger argued strongly in favour of his own project. The V-1 needed a launch ramp, whereas the V-2 could be launched from almost anywhere it could stand. The flying bomb was easy to detect, shoot down or divert off course, whereas a rocket was undetectable until after it had hit. In the end the Nazi authorities were persuaded by both camps and the two weapons were ordered into mass production. Nonetheless, the delays remained an obstacle to progress, and by the summer of 1943 – with Degenkolb’s production target of 900 per month looming ever closer – the engineers protested that their highly successful engine was still not ready for manufacture in large amounts by regular engineers.

Once again there were conflicting interests and opposing policies. Adolf Thiel, senior design engineer on the V-2, protested that mass production was not likely to be achieved before the war had come to its natural conclusion. Friends of Thiel reported he was close to a nervous breakdown, and wanted to stop work at Peenemünde and retire to an academic career at university. However, Von Braun remained obdurately convinced that they were close to success and, on balance, Dörnberger sided with that view.

Watching from London

Meanwhile, British Intelligence was watching. A major breakthrough for the British came on 23 March 1943. A captured German officer, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, provided timely information that the Allies would find of crucial importance. Back on 29 May 1942 the Nazi Lieutenant-General Ludwig Crüwell had flown to inspect German operations in Libya when his pilot mistook British soldiers for Italian troops and he landed the plane alongside them. Crüwell was taken prisoner and on 22 March 1943 he was placed in a room with General Von Thoma. The room was bugged, and their muffled conversation was partly overheard by the eager British agents, listening in the next room. The notes were recorded in the secret Air Scientific Intelligence Interim Report written up on 26 June 1943, and now held in the archives at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, England:

No progress whatsoever can have been made in this rocket business. I saw it once with Field Marshall [Walther von] Brauchitsch. There is a special ground near Kummersdorf. They’ve got these huge things which they’ve brought up here… They’ve always said that they go fifteen kilometres up into the stratosphere and then … you only aim at an area. If one was to … every few days … frightful! The major there was full of hope – he said, ‘Wait until next year and the fun will start. There’s no limit [to the range]…

Hydra Part I

Hydra Part II

TERROR FROM THE SKY II

Further substantiation came in June 1943, when a resourceful Luxembourger named Schwaben sent a sketch of the Peenemünde establishment to London in a microfilm through a network of agents known as the Famille Martin. This fitted well with the other reports that had been arriving, including eye-witness accounts and notes smuggled out from secret agents about activity at Peenemünde. The intelligence service kept meticulous records of the reports of vapour trails, explosions and occasional sightings that were relayed back to London from those witnesses who were anxious to see an end to Nazi tyranny. Churchill appointed his son-in-law, Duncan Sandys MP, to head a committee to look further into the matter and on 12 June 1943 an RAF reconnaissance mission was sent to fly over the site at high altitude and bring back the first images of what could be seen at Peenemünde. The unmistakable sight of rockets casting shadows across the ground could be picked out in the images. Measurements suggested to the British that the rocket was about 38ft (11.5m) long, 6ft (1.8m) in diameter and had tail fins. The intelligence report estimated the mass of each rocket must be between 40 and 80 tons. It was guessed that there might be 5 or 10 tons of explosives aboard.

This was partly right, and partly a gross exaggeration. The V-2 was actually 46ft (14m) long and 5ft 5in (1.65m) in diameter, so the measurements calculated by the British were reasonable estimates. But the weight of the missile was wildly over-estimated – rather than 40 tons or more, it weighed just under 13 tons and carried 2,200lb (980kg) of explosive rather than ‘up to 10 tons’ of the British estimates. A ‘rough outline’ drawing of the rocket was prepared for this report and it looks more like a torpedo. Perhaps the missile as drawn lacked its 7.5ft (2.3m) warhead nose cone. In that case, the dimensions were surprisingly accurate – though there is no accounting for the gross over-calculation of the weight.

Although the guesswork about the rocket’s weight was wrong, the comments that R. V. Jones added to the secret intelligence report of 26 June 1943 show a remarkably clear analysis of Germany’s position at the time.

The evidence shows that … the Germans have for some time been developing a long range rocket at Peenemünde. Provided that the Germans are satisfied with Peenemünde’s security, there is no reason to assume the existence of a rival establishment, unless the latter has arisen from inter-departmental jealousy.

Almost every report points to the fact that development can hardly have reached maturity, although it has been proceeding for some time. If, as appears, only three rockets were fired in the last three months of 1942, with two unsuccessful, the Germans just then have been some way from success and production.

At least three sorties over Peenemünde have now shown one and only one rocket visible in the entire establishment and one sortie has perhaps shown two. Supposing that the rockets have been accidentally left out in the open or because the inside storage is full, then the chances are that the rocket population is less than, say, twenty. If it were much greater, then it would be an extraordinary chance that this number should always be one greater than storage capacity. Therefore the number of rockets at Peenemünde is small, and since this is the main seat of development, the number of rockets in the Reich is also likely to be relatively small…

Since the long range rocket can hardly have reached maturity, German technicians would probably prefer to wait until their designs were more complete. If, as seems very possible, the genius of the Führer prevails over the judgement of the technicians, then despite everything the rocket will shortly be brought into use in its premature form.

Jones drew this conclusion: ‘The present population of rockets is probably small, so that the rate of bombardment [of London] would not be high. The only immediate counter measure readily apparent is to bomb the establishment at Peenemünde.’

Jones was right, and plans for a massive bombing raid began at once. Three days later, on 29 June 1943, a meeting was convened at the Cabinet War Room at which Duncan Sandys revealed the contents of the photographs. He had short-circuited R. V. Jones’s connections with the photo labs and insisted that they all be sent first to him. One of those attending the meeting was Professor Frederick Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell, who immediately poured scorn on the idea of a rocket base. Lindemann was a German-born physicist and Churchill’s chief scientific adviser. He said at the meeting that a rocket weighing up to 80 tons was absurd. The rockets, he insisted, were an elaborate sham; the Germans had mocked them up to frighten the British and lead them on a false trail. It was nothing but an elaborate cover plan. After his analysis, which left the officials in the room sensing that a dreadful mistake was being made, Churchill turned to R. V. Jones and said that they would now hear the truth of the matter. Jones was crisp and to the point. Whatever might be the remaining questions over the details of these missiles, said Jones, it was clear to him that the rockets were real – and they posed a threat to Britain. The site must be destroyed. The idea of sending further reconnaissance flights was quickly dismissed, for it could alert the Germans to the fact that the Allies had discovered the site.

Peenemünde was too far away to be in contact by radio, and out of range of the fighters; so the Allied bombers would be completely unprotected. German fighters would soon be on the scene, and heavy Allied losses were likely. The conclusion was that the heaviest bombing would be arranged, and it would take place on the first night that meteorological conditions were suitable. The attack was code named Operation Hydra.

Operation Hydra

On 8 July 1943 Hitler was shown an Agfacolor film of the launch of a V-2 and was finally convinced that the monster rocket could win him back the advantage. Having been sceptical, Hitler was now an enthusiastic supporter. He immediately decided that new launch bases would be needed across the northern coast of continental Europe in order to maximize the range of the rockets and the number of launches that Germany could make against Britain. He also ordered that the production of the V-2 was now to be made a top priority. Hitler believed that with these rockets he could turn the tide of war against the Allies. The Germans were busy working to comply with orders to construct a production line at the Peenemünde Army Research base just as the Royal Air Force was instructed to launch Operation Hydra to destroy the establishment.

The planning of Operation Hydra was meticulous. Bombing would be carried out from 9,000ft (about 3,000m; normally bombing raids were from twice as high), and practice runs over suitable stretches of British coastline were quickly arranged. The accuracy improved greatly during the practice sessions, an error of up to about 1,000 yards (900m) improving to 300 yards (270m). None of the aircrew were told the true nature of their target; they were informed that the installation was a new radar establishment that had to be destroyed urgently. By way of encouragement to be thorough on the first raid, they were also told that repeat attacks would be made, regardless of the losses, if they did not succeed first time. Meanwhile, a decoy raid was arranged, code named Operation Whitebait. Mosquito aircraft were to be sent to bomb Berlin prior to the raid on Peenemünde in the hope of attracting German fighters to the area. Further squadrons were meanwhile sent to attack nearby Luftwaffe airfields to prevent German fighters taking to the air over Peenemünde. As the attack began, a master bomber, Group Captain J. H. Searby, would circle around the target to call in successive waves of bombers.

On the night of 17 August 1943 there was a full moon, and the skies were clear. At midnight the raid began, and within half an hour the first wave was heading for home. Over the target, however, there was some light cloud and the accuracy of the first bombs was poor. Guns from the ground were returning fire, and a ship off-shore brought flak to bear on the bombers, but no fighters were seen. The second wave of Lancasters was directed at the factory workshops and then at 12.48am the third and final wave attacked the experimental workshops. This group of Lancaster and Halifax bombers overshot the target and most dropped their bombs half a minute late, so their bombs landed in the camp where conscripted workers were imprisoned. By this time German fighter aircraft were arriving, but they were late and losses to the British bombers were less than 7 per cent.

However, the laboratories and test rigs were damaged – and the Germans now knew, with dramatic suddenness, that their elaborate plans were known to the Allies. On the brink of realization, the plans to manufacture the V-2 at Peenemünde had to be abandoned. The Germans decided to fool the Allies into thinking that they had caused irreparable damage, so they immediately dug dummy ‘bomb craters’ all over the site, and painted black and grey lines across the roofs to look like fire-blackened beams. Their intention was to fool any reconnaissance flights into believing the damage was much worse than it was, thus convincing the British that further raids were unnecessary. The British still had one further element of retaliation, however; a number of the bombs were fitted with time delay fuses and exploded randomly for several days after the raid. They did not cause much material damage, but the continued detonations delayed the Germans from setting out to move equipment from the site.

The move to Poland

As the Germans sought to recover what they could from Peenemünde, the top-secret development work on the V-2 was immediately transferred to the SS training base near Blizna, deep inside Poland, where it would be undetected by the British and less easily reached by air. Meanwhile, a launch site at Watten, near the coast of northern France, had already been selected as a V-2 base. Work had started in April 1943 and was duly reported to the British by agents of the French resistance. Dörnberger had long recognized that a V-2 could be launched from a small site – it would be a case of ‘shoot and run’. But after the raid on Peenemünde, Hitler decided that further major new launch and storage sites were the prime requirement. At d’Helfaut Wizernes, a site inland from Calais in northern France, they constructed a huge reinforced concrete dome, La Coupole, within a limestone quarry. The idea was to store the rockets within reinforced bomb-proof concrete chambers and bring them out for firing in quick succession. In May 1943 reconnaissance photographs disclosed details of the work, and by the end of the month bombing raids had been sent to the site. The timing of the bombing was set to coincide with freshly laid cement, so that the ruins would harden into a chaotic jumble that would be difficult for the Germans to repair. Repeated bombing by the Allies led to the idea being abandoned. The V-2 bombardment was then carried out from small scattered sites, as Dörnberger had always envisaged. The vast German bunkers were never fully operational, and they stand to this day as a World War II museum.

After the raid on Peenemünde, the main manufacture of the V-2 rockets was transferred to the Mittelwerk in Kohnstein. The rockets were manufactured by prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora, a concentration camp where an estimated 20,000 people died during World War II. A total of 9,000 of these were reported to have died from exhaustion, 350 were executed – including 200 accused of sabotage – and most of the rest were eventually shot, died from disease, or starved. By the war’s end, they had constructed a total of 5,200 V-2 rockets. On 29 August 1944 Hitler ordered V-2 attacks to commence with immediate effect. The offensive started on 8 September 1944 when a rocket was aimed at Paris. It exploded in the city, causing damage at the Porte d’Italie. Another rocket was launched the same day from The Hague, Netherlands, and hit London at 6.43pm. It exploded in Staveley Road, Chiswick, killing Sapper Bernard Browning who was on leave from the Royal Engineers. A resident, 63-year-old Mrs Ada Harrison, and three-year-old Rosemary Clarke also perished in the blast. Intermittent launches against London increased in frequency, though the Germans did not officially announce the bombardment until 8 November 1944. Until then, every time a V-2 exploded in Britain the authorities insisted it was a gas main that had burst; but with the German announcement the truth had to emerge. Two days later, Churchill confessed to the House of Commons that England had been under rocket attack ‘for the last few weeks’.

Over several months more than 3,000 V-2s were fired by the Germans. Around 1,610 of them hit Antwerp; 1,358 landed on London, and additional rockets were fired into Liege, Hasselt, Tournai, Mons, Diest, Lille, Paris, Tourcoing, Remagen, Maastricht, Arras and Cambrai on continental Europe. In Britain, Norwich and Ipswich also suffered occasional V-2 attacks. The accuracy of the rockets increased steadily, and some of them impacted within a few yards of the intended target. The fatalities were sometimes alarming. On 25 November 1944 a V-2 impacted at a Woolworths store in New Cross, London, where it killed 160 civilians and seriously injured 108 more. Another attack on a cinema in Antwerp killed 567 people. This was the worst loss of life in a single V-2 attack.

The V-2 falls into Allied hands

The Allies were receiving regular intelligence reports about the rockets, but knew little of the precise design details until a V-2 was retrieved from Sweden and examined in detail. On 13 June 1944, a V-2 on a test flight from Peenemünde exploded several thousand feet above the Swedish town of Bäckebo. The wreckage was collected by the Swedes and offered to the British for reconstruction. Officially neutral, Sweden was also secretly supplying the German weapons factories with up to 10,000,000 tons of iron ore per year. To maintain their ostensibly neutral stance, the Swedes asked for some British Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft in exchange. In August 1944 reconstruction of the rocket was begun, and the resulting insight into the construction of the missile was highly revealing to the Allies. As it happens, this particular rocket was fitted with a guidance system that was never installed on the rockets raining down on Britain, and so the British were more impressed with the technology than they might otherwise have been. Yet the fact remained: although the design of the V-2 was now thoroughly understood, it was abundantly clear there was no defence against them. These weapons arrived at supersonic speeds, so there could be no advance warning and it seemed as though there was nothing that could be done to resist the onslaught.

Or was there? The resourceful officers at British Intelligence had a simple response. Because the area of damage was small, they began releasing fictitious reports that the rockets were over-shooting their targets by between 10 and 20 miles (16 to 32km). As soon as these covert messages were intercepted by the Germans, the launch teams recalibrated the launch trajectory to make good the discrepancy … and from then on, the rockets fell some 20 miles short of their target, most of them landing in Kent instead of central London. The final two rockets exploded on 27 March 1945 and one of these was the last to kill a British civilian. She was Mrs Ivy Millichamp, aged 34, who was blown apart by the V-2 at her home in Kynaston Road, Orpington in the county of Kent, just 20 miles from the centre of London.

As the V-2 was proving the reliability of the ballistic missile, larger rockets were soon on the drawing-board. The A-9 was envisaged as a rocket with a range of up to 500 miles (800km) and an A-10 was planned to act as a first-stage booster that could extend the range to reach the United States. The original development work had been undertaken in 1940, with a first flight date set for 1946, but the project – as so often happened – was summarily stopped. When the so-called Projekt Amerika re-emerged in 1944, work was resumed, and the A-11 was planned as a huge first stage that would carry the A-9 and A-10. The plans (which were released in 1946 by the United States Army) were for a rocket that could even place a payload of some 660lb (300kg) into orbit. The proposed A-12 fourth stage would have a launch weight of 3,500 tons and could place 10 tons into orbit. In the event, all these plans were to fall into Allied hands as the European war drew to a close. During the spring of 1945 the Allies advanced from the west, and the Russians closed in from the east. When news reached Peenemünde that the Soviet Army was only about 100 miles (160km) away, Von Braun assembled the planning staff and broke the news. It was time to decide by which army they would be captured. All knew that the world would regard them as war criminals, and the decisions were not easy.

The dreadful destruction and the mass killings reported early in the campaign make the V-2 seem like a terrifyingly successful rocket, but was it really valuable as a weapon of war? Let us look at the figures. It has been estimated that 2,754 civilians were killed in Britain by the 1,402 V-2 attacks. A further people 6,523 were injured. These simple facts reveal that the V-2, as a weapon of war, was a costly failure. Each of these incredibly expensive and complex missiles killed about two people, and injured roughly six more, indeed it has been calculated that more casualties were caused by the manufacture of the V-2 than resulted from its use in war. The reality was that they were inefficient in terms of killing the enemy – but they had proved how successful they were as rockets. Von Braun had always wanted to build rockets, and had held in his heart the ultimate ambition of building a space rocket. The Nazis held onto the propaganda value of their successful launch series, even though remarkably few people were being killed by the V-2 attacks. The Nazis had been used by Von Braun to fund his private ambitions; Hitler’s doubts about the V-2 as an agent of warfare were right after all.

One of the first initiatives after the Allies invaded Peenemünde was to test the V-2 rockets before any were moved to other countries. In October 1945, the British Operation Backfire fired several V-2 rockets from northern Germany. There were many reports of what became known as ‘ghost rockets’, unaccountable sightings of missile trails in the skies above Scandinavia. These were from Operation Backfire: not only did the Nazis fire their monster rockets from Germany, so too did the British.

“Operation Hydra”