Although Morosini held overall command of Venetian forces, it would be Königsmarck who led most of the successful land campaigns.
SWEDISH GENERAL WHO LED THE VENETIAN MILITARY CONQUEST OF MOREA 1639-88 SWEDEN
Although Swedish, Otto Wilhelm Königsmarck was born in Minden, Northern Germany, where his mother had been accompanying his father on military campaigns. Following these campaigns, the family resided in Stade, where Königsmarck was privately educated before attending the University of Jena. He later undertook the Grand Tour, visiting many places in Europe.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Königsmarck became a military man and rose to the rank of Field Marshall, commanding Swedish forces at the Battle of Stralsund in 1678 during the Scanian War. He became the Governor of Swedish Pomerania in 1679. Königsmarck would later join Francesco Morosini during the Morean War, commanding Venetian land forces until his death from the plague in 1688.
In 1685, Konigsmarck took service with the Republic of Venice. Alongside the Doge of Venice, Francesco Morosini, he led the Venetian conquest of the Morea in the early years of the Morean War 1684- 1699 between Venice and the Ottoman Empire as commander of the Venetian land forces. He served in this role when Venetian artillery fire in 1687 accidentally destroyed major parts of the Parthenon, which the Ottoman Turks used for ammunition storage.
Swedish field commander General Otto Wilhelm Königsmarck wrote later: “How it dismayed His Excellency to destroy the beautiful temple which had existed three thousand years!”. By contrast Morosini, described it in his report to the Venetian government as a “fortunate shot”.
Mixed fleets of galleys and sailing ships dominated operation during the Morean War (1684- 99). Both sides found mixed forces of galleys and sailing warships were essential to support land operations. The stowage capacity of sailing ships made long-distance cruises more sustainable, such as the periodic Venetian blockades of the Dardenelles and speculative coastal raiding.
The first real Ottoman three-decker was a 108 gun ship commissioned in 1697 and participated in the last naval battles of the First Morean War (1684-99).
In 1684, the Venetian battleships effectively defended the lines of communication between Morea and the Holy League ports, but could not catch the Turkish galley forces which supported and reinforced the garrisons. Likewise, the Turks found that their galleys could not successfully attack Christian sailing warships. In 1690, 26 Turkish galleys failed to capture three Venetian warships which had been isolated during a lull in the winds.
Model of Monument Hill and stone wall behind which Colonel Francis’ regiment poured shot down upon the British 24th and Light Infantry Battalion.
When he marched his dejected garrison out of Mount Independence in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 6, 1777, St. Clair intended to head toward Castleton, about 30 miles southeast of Ticonderoga, and then travel the 14 miles back east to Skenesborough. There they would rejoin Colonel Long with the supplies and sick that had been evacuated by water. The dejected Americans retreated along the primitive military road running out of Mount Independence. The route was dictated by the available roads that had not already been cut off by Burgoyne’s army. As the sun rose, the temperature quickly soared, and St. Clair’s exhausted and demoralized men suffered from the intense heat, humidity, and the ubiquitous insects, not to mention anxiety, knowing that the enemy was nipping at their heels.
The British pursuit came quicker than anyone expected. Fraser had immediately put elements of his advance corps on the road to chase the fleeing Americans. To support Fraser, Burgoyne ordered General Riedesel and his men to follow Fraser and support them in case of an attack. The fleet and the rest of the army were to make their way to Skenesborough by water and attack the Americans’ fleet. British warships were soon closing in on Colonel Long’s vessels, and British troops were already following St. Clair and the main body. General Riedesel quickly gathered up his forces and put several of his units in motion behind the advanced corps. In the meantime, Fraser had pushed his men so hard that in six hours, they had closed to within a few miles of St. Clair’s rear guard, comprised of the 11th Massachusetts Regiment of Continentals and men from other units commanded by Colonel Ebenezer Francis.
The Americans were exhausted. Most of the officers and men had slept very little since Burgoyne’s army appeared at Three Mile Point six days earlier, and few had eaten in the prior 24 hours. Convinced that he had put many miles between his army and Burgoyne’s, St. Clair called the main body to a halt at noon near the tiny settlement of Hubbardton, about 20 miles southeast of Mount Independence. Surrounded by five hills to the north and west, Hubbardton lay where the road intersected the Crown Point road, which ran to the north and ultimately ended on Lake Champlain’s east bank across from the ruined fortress. The settlement of nine households, the inhabitants of which had fled south with the British approach, was surrounded by “fields of stumps” and partially cleared woods. About a mile north of the intersection was Sargent Hill. The road ran through a saddle on the southwest slope and crossed the Sucker Brook, a small stream running from the northeast to southwest just west of the hamlet. East of the Sucker Brook and 50 feet above the road was high ground known today as Monument Hill. Still farther to the east, across the Crown Point road, was the Pittsford Ridge. Just south of Monument Hill lay a jagged, rocky eminence soaring well over 1,000 feet high called Mount Zion, which featured a north-facing, mostly bare clifftop.
The spent troops lay in the shade along the road, most too tired to eat. St. Clair had received reports of Loyalist activity to the north, and, because Crown Point was held by the British, the Americans could not afford to linger at Hubbardton. Fearing an attack from two directions, St. Clair decided to continue the march to Castleton, leaving behind Colonel Seth Warner and his regiment, along with Colonel Nathan Hale’s 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, to take command of the rear guard when Colonel Francis and his men arrived. As soon as Warner and Francis linked up, they were to follow the rest of the main body to Castleton. St. Clair got the rest of his men back on the road and set out for Castleton and from there to Skenesborough. The main body had gone only a short distance when several officers, including Poor, begged St. Clair to allow the New Hampshire troops to reinforce the rear guard, arguing that they would be quickly overrun if Burgoyne had started a vigorous pursuit. The commanding general refused. After a few minutes march, they asked again, “but without effect.”
By 4:00 p. m. on July 6, Riedesel’s detachment of about a thousand men finally caught up with Fraser’s force. Riedesel told Fraser that Burgoyne had ordered him to support the advanced corps and then continue to Skenesborough. Fraser was angry that Burgoyne had sent the Germans and not the rest of his own men. Plus, the commanding general had not sent food or ammunition or extra surgeons. The aggressive brigadier wanted to keep the pressure on the Americans, but the German general demanded that they halt the pursuit and make camp. Fraser reluctantly agreed though he understood that opportunities to inflict serious damage on a demoralized enemy were rare. Burgoyne had given Fraser “discretionary powers to attack the Enemy where-ever I could come up with them.” He told Riedesel that he intended to do just that, so before halting, the advanced corps units moved 2 miles closer to the enemy, roughly 3 miles west of Hubbardton. The generals agreed that the allies would move at 3:00 a. m. with Fraser’s advanced corps in the lead and Riedesel’s Germans in support. During the short night, the British and German soldiers slept fully clothed on the ground and with their weapons close at hand.
While Fraser and Riedesel formulated their plan for the next day, the American Colonels Warner and Hale waited at Hubbardton until Colonel Francis’s regiment and the sick and stragglers finally appeared late in the afternoon of the 6th. Instead of moving immediately toward Castleton and staying close to the main body, as St. Clair directed, the three colonels met at the cabin owned by farmer John Selleck and decided that their men were too spent to continue their retreat after marching almost nonstop for sixteen hours in the hot and oppressive weather. Plus, they reasoned, while the British were surely following them, they were undoubtedly far behind. They posted sentries along the road, directed the construction of hasty obstacles along the Sucker Brook, and then finally retired for the evening.
Fraser formed up his troops and started down the road at 3:00 a. m. as planned and set off toward Hubbardton. The American sentries arrayed west of the Sucker Brook detected Fraser’s approach at about 5:00 a. m. as they moved through the saddle of Sargent Hill, fired one volley at close range, and then withdrew to rejoin their units. For many of the British soldiers, it was their first time under fire. “I must own,” recalled one young officer, “when we received orders to prime and load, which we had barely time to do before we received a heavy fire, the idea of perhaps a few moments conveying me before the presence of my Creator had its force.”
The rapid approach of Fraser’s men surprised Warner. He had placed the bulk of his men on or near Monument Hill with Francis’s troops and elements of Hale’s regiment occupying forward positions along Sucker Brook. Warner had not been planning for a fight. He had instead been preparing to move his men to Castleton to join the main body. Once the battle began, however, the Americans took advantage of the natural cover provided by felled trees and brush, which were plentiful in the area.
Fraser quickly deployed his units with the advanced guard under Major Robert Grant in the center, supported by the light infantry under Lord Balcarres on the left, with Acland’s grenadiers in reserve. Fraser accompanied Grant as they fought the Americans, who were “aided by logs and trees.” Hale’s New Hampshire regiment bore the brunt of the British attack and fell back shortly after the first shots were fired, but not before one of their volleys killed Grant. Fraser personally led the light infantry and attacked Francis’s men on Monument Hill, and the fighting soon became a contest for the high ground. Acland moved to assist the hard-pressed companies of the 24th Foot along the Sucker Brook. They succeeded in pushing the American defenders back, and Fraser then ordered Acland’s grenadiers to maneuver around the American left and cut off the Castleton road and the most direct route to St. Clair and the main body. Despite being outmaneuvered by Fraser, the Americans fought well and hard under Warner’s and Francis’s leadership.
After multiple attacks on Monument Hill, Fraser finally succeeded in pushing the Americans back to a lower hill a couple of hundred yards to the east just across the Castleton road. There Warner set up another defense along a log fence, and the Americans poured volley after volley into the British soldiers on the crest of Monument Hill. Warner sensed that Fraser’s units were in some disarray even though they had gained the high ground of Monument Hill, so he ordered a counterattack on the British left flank.
Riedesel and the main body of the German troops had also begun their march that morning at 3:00 a. m. but quickly fell well behind the hard-marching units of the advanced corps. As they approached Hubbardton, Riedesel heard musket fire and hurried a smaller detachment of his troops forward to assist Fraser. At the same time, a messenger arrived from the brigadier urging his colleague to rush to his aid. As the German troops approached the battlefield unnoticed by the Americans, Colonel Francis led his regiment back onto Monument Hill to turn Fraser’s left. The tough New Englanders succeeded in pushing back the British main line consisting of the 24th Foot and the Light Infantry. Fraser’s left was soon hard pressed, and it began to look like the American forces might turn the flank and force the British to fall back. Fraser immediately dispatched another messenger to Riedesel, urging him on. Just as Francis was about to push his momentary advantage, Riedesel’s 180-man detachment arrived on the road. It was 8:30 a. m. He immediately and correctly assessed the situation and identified the threat to Fraser’s left. With the German band playing martial tunes, Riedesel sent into the fight each of his units as they arrived on the battlefield. At the same time, Fraser ordered Balcarres and his light infantry to retake Monument Hill with the bayonet and Acland’s grenadiers along with a detachment of light infantry, having completed their flanking movement, hit Warner on his left.
Francis continued to stubbornly hold his position, but now the weight of numbers began to tell. With the combination of Riedesel’s timely arrival with his Jäger, grenadiers, and light infantry, along with Balcarres’s bayonet attack, the Americans were finally forced to fall back, a retreat that quickly turned into a rout. One Braunschweig officer recalled that many of the “retreating enemy discarded his weapons and equipment, an occurrence that afforded certain of our men a large quantity of booty.” Warner, having successfully faced Acland’s flank attack, was soon forced to withdraw to the east. The German attack was so successful that the Americans withdrew before the rest of Riedesel’s force could join the engagement. Riedesel had arrived just in time, and his fortuitous deployment of the light infantry and grenadiers defeated the Americans relieving Fraser’s hard-pressed advanced corps. By 10:00 a. m., the fighting had ended.
As the Americans retreated to the east over the Pittsford Ridge, they left behind more than 130 killed and wounded, including Colonel Francis, who died while trying to reform his fleeing troops after the German attack. More than two hundred Americans were captured, including Colonel Hale, and to the Germans looked “more like bandits than soldiers.” The allied detachment suffered more than 150 casualties, including Major Grant killed in action and the wounding of both Acland and Balcarres. Warner’s regiment retreated east and reformed at Manchester along with other survivors of the battle. The rest of the surviving rear guard rejoined St. Clair and the main body.
The first real battle of the campaign was over, and the casualties were high in proportion to the numbers engaged. Both sides had fought well. The professionalism of the British was telling in the way they deployed and outmaneuvered the Americans. Still, the American troops stood up to the regulars for most of the battle, only giving way with the surprise arrival of Riedesel’s infantry and grenadiers. Francis and Warner had done their job well, though at a very high cost. Fraser and Riedesel both agreed that they were in no condition to follow up their success by continuing the pursuit.
The Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters of Air Group 15 were refuelling on the carrier USS Essex when the alert sounded, sending the deck crews scattering and the pilots racing for their aircraft. It was 24 October 1944, and the Essex was one of seventeen American aircraft carriers forming the backbone of the U.S Pacific’s Fast Carrier Task Force, designated TF 38 and commanded by Vice-Admiral M. A. Mitscher. Their job was to cover the American landings on Leyte, in the Philippines
Seven Hellcats, their tanks just over half full, roared away from the Essex and climbed hard towards Luzon island, where twenty Japanese dive-bombers and a strong fighter escort had been reported heading for the American fleet. The enemy attack had to be broken up at all costs, and it was up to the Hellcats of Air Group 15 to do it.
The Hellcats were led by Air Group 15’s CO, Lieutenant-Commander David S. McCampbell. Below his fighter’s cockpit, twenty-one stencilled Japanese flags proclaimed the number of enemy aircraft he had destroyed so far.
McCampbell saw the enemy formation almost at the same instant as his wingman, Lieutenant Roy Rushing, and both pilots were momentarily taken aback. Spread out across the sky above the dive-bombers were no fewer than forty Zeros. It was clear that the Japanese meant to fight their way through, no matter what the cost, to the big American flat-tops, their decks crammed with aircraft.
While five of the Hellcats dived on the bombers, McCampbell and Rushing sped towards the Zeros, which were several thousand feet higher up. Amazingly, the Japanese fighter pilots made no attempt to break formation and swarm down on the heavily outnumbered Americans. Still on the climb, McCampbell and Rushing each selected a target and opened fire; two Zeros tore apart, their blazing debris spinning down towards the sea.
Turning for another pass, McCampbell could hardly believe his eyes. Leaving the dive-bombers to their fate, the Zero pilots were forming a defensive circle. The two Americans climbed and orbited overhead, knowing full well that their chance would come when the Zeros ran short of fuel and individual pilots broke the circle to head for home. The merry-go-round went on for ten minutes, with McCampbell and Rushing patiently biding their time. Then, suddenly, the enemy circle split up and the Zeros straggled away towards Manila in ones and twos. The two Hellcats went after them, and what followed was one of the strangest combats in the history of air warfare. In a running fight lasting just over an hour, McCampbell shot down no fewer than eight of the enemy fighters and Rushing claimed four. Very few of the Japanese had enough fuel left to engage in combat; one or two did turn to face the Americans, but they were easily overcome. Apart from that, it was a case of sitting behind the stragglers and shooting one after the other down into the sea.
McCampbells victory underlined the dramatic change in the course of the Pacific air war. Japan’s fighter pilots, in the closing month of 1944, were of a far different calibre to those who had swept victoriously to the gates of India and Australia two and a half years earlier. Most of the Japanese aces were gone, swallowed up in the cauldron of the Pacific sky, outnumbered and out-flown by men whose growing skill matched only their determination to avenge the savage defeat of Pearl Harbor. A few remained, wily, experienced pilots who were still capable of getting the best out of their ageing equipment and coming out on top, but most went into action with only the bare amount of necessary training and were massacred in their hundreds. It was not without justification that American fighter pilots, in 1944, termed the Pacific Theatre the ‘Happy Hunting Ground’.
The tide of the Pacific war had already begun to turn in May 1942, when a large Japanese troop convoy, supported by a strong carrier task force, sailed for Port Moresby in eastern New Guinea. The plan was to capture Port Moresby and use it as a springboard for the envelopment of northern and eastern Australia, but it never materialized. On 4 May, the Japanese were met in the Coral Sea by an American task force of roughly equal strength. The opposing fleets never came within sight or gunshot range of each other; the action was fought entirely by naval aircraft. It ended with one aircraft carrier sunk and one damaged on the American side and two damaged on the Japanese side; but despite the latter’s technical victory, the troop convoy turned back and the seaborne invasion of Port Moresby was abandoned.
Exactly a month later, a massive Japanese naval force bore down on the fortified atoll of Midway, protecting the approaches to the Hawaiian Islands. The enemy force was led by four aircraft carriers, supported by heavy units of the First Fleet. It was met by a greatly outnumbered United States carrier force composed of Task Force 17 with the USS Yorktown and Task Force 17 with the USS Hornet and uss Enterprise, supported by Navy, Marine Corps and Army air units based on Midway.
There were twenty-seven American fighters on the island. At dawn on 4 June, twenty-five of them — eighteen obsolescent Brewster Buffaloes and seven Grumman Wildcats — took off to intercept seventy-two Japanese dive-bombers, escorted by thirty-six Zero fighters. The Americans met the enemy formation thirty miles out to sea and gallantly attacked it, but the Zeros swarmed all over them and they suffered appalling losses. Every one of the Buffaloes was either destroyed or badly damaged, while three Wildcats were shot down and two damaged. Soon afterwards, four Army B-26s and six Navy Grumman Avenger torpedo-bombers tried to attack the Japanese task force; two B-26s and one Avenger were shot down, and no hits were registered on the enemy vessels.
The Japanese, concentrating on the destruction of the air units on Midway, were caught unprepared for the American carrier air attacks, which began at 09.30 with a heroic but unsuccessful effort by the fifteen Douglas Devastators of the uss Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8. They ran into forty-eight Zeros, freshly launched to provide air cover for the Japanese strike aircraft which had just returned from the Midway attacks, and were massacred. Within minutes, everyone had been shot into the sea, the majority before they had a chance to release their torpedoes.
Then, at 10.15, it was the uss Yorktown’s turn. Twelve Devastators under Lieutenant-Commander Lance E. Massey and seventeen Dauntless dive-bombers, led by Lieutenant-Commander Maxwell F. Leslie, located the enemy carriers and launched their attack, escorted by six Wildcats. Massey’s pilots began their torpedo runs and the Wildcats strove hard to protect them, but they were hopelessly outnumbered and ten of the Devastators went flaming into the sea. All their torpedoes missed.
At 10.20, the Japanese were ready to launch a second wave of strike aircraft. As the carriers turned into wind the Zeros orbited them, low on fuel, waiting their turn to land as soon as the bombers had taken off. At that moment, the sky was split by the howl of diving aircraft as Leslie’s Dauntless plummeted down on the enemy force, followed by fourteen more Dauntless from the uss Enterprise under Lieutenant-Commander Clarence W. McClusky.
Leslie, attacking from the east, selected the big Japanese carrier Kaga as his main target. In less than a minute, four direct hits from his squadron had reduced her to a flaming wreck. McClusky, coming in from the south-west, directed his pilots to attack the carriers Akagi and Soryu. The Akagi received two direct hits and the Soryu three; both ships were torn apart by fire and explosion, sinking later that day.
The sole remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, soon showed her ability to strike back hard. Even as American bombs reduced her sister ships to rubble, she launched a strike of eighteen dive-bombers, escorted by six Zeros. Following the Yorktowris returning aircraft they droned towards the American carrier, but radar picked them up when they were still fifty miles away and they were intercepted by Wildcats. Ten dive-bombers were shot down, but the remainder pressed on through the flak and the fighters and three scored direct hits on the carrier. She was patched up and in action again by mid-afternoon.
Her ordeal, however, was only just beginning. Soon afterwards, a second strike of Japanese torpedo-bombers — all the remaining aircraft the Hiryu could muster — swept down on her. Five were shot down, but the rest put two torpedoes into her port side. As she was hopelessly damaged and listing badly, her crew abandoned her and she was left to die. She was later boarded again and taken in tow, only to be sunk by the Japanese submarine 1-168.
Ironically, it was a reconnaissance aircraft from the Yorktown, launched just before the strike that crippled her, that located the Hiryu and led twenty-four dive-bombers from the u s s Enterprise to her. They scored four hits on her flight deck, setting her ablaze from end to end. With uncontrollable fires raging throughout her hull, she was abandoned and sunk by Japanese destroyers early on 5 June. So perished the last of Admiral Ghuichi Nagumo’s fast carrier force, which had dealt such a blow to American pride only seven months earlier; and with her perished Japan’s hopes of further expansion in the Pacific. In addition to the carriers, the Japanese had lost one heavy cruiser and 258 aircraft, together with a large percentage of their most experienced naval pilots. It was a decisive defeat from which the Japanese were never to recover.
For America, the long fight back across the Pacific began on 7 August 1942, when a division of United States Marines stormed ashore on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. One of the primary objectives was an airfield the Japanese had built; the Marines moved in and took it, and the land battle subsequently centred on this vital jungle airstrip, renamed Henderson Field by the Americans. The Marines hung on desperately in one of the most tenacious and heroic actions of the Pacific war, and by 20 August the strip had been made secure enough for the first American fighters to fly in.
They were the Wildcats of Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-223, led by Major John L. Smith, and they were followed by Major Robert E. Galer’s VMF-224 a few days later. The day after their arrival, VMF-223 intercepted six Zeros at 14,000 feet; Smith shot down one of them, drawing first blood for the squadron. The following afternoon the Japanese came again, this time with fifteen bombers escorted by twelve Zeros. All of VMF-223’s serviceable Wildcats rose to intercept the enemy, and in the course of a savage air battle over the island they destroyed sixteen Japanese aircraft for the loss of three Wildcats. John Smith and one of his flight commanders, Captain Marion E. Carl, each shot down three.
Day after day, while the ground forces strove desperately to hold the thin perimeter around Henderson Field, the Marine pilots went into action against the enemy squadrons that made determined attempts to wipe out the primitive airstrip, Japanese warships shelled the base every night, and individual enemy aircraft carried out nuisance raids to ensure that the American pilots got little rest. As the weeks went by, malaria, dysentery and fatigue began to have a telling effect, yet the Americans, flying to the limits of their physical endurance, somehow managed to retain air superiority. By the time VMF-223 was relieved in October, the pilots had destroyed 110 enemy aircraft; John Smith’s score was nineteen, while his close rival Marion Carl had shot down sixteen. Major Robert E. Galer, of VMF-224, had chalked up thirteen victories; both he and Smith were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.
The replacement squadrons on Guadalcanal were VMF-121 and VMF-212. One of the former’s pilots was Captain Joe Foss, a farm boy from South Dakota whose marksmanship — thanks to his father’s tuition with rifle and shotgun — was superb. Foss had his first joyride while working his way through Sioux Falls College, and from that moment on his one goal was to be a pilot. He spent every dollar on flying lessons, and on graduating from the University of South Dakota he was accepted for pilot training by the us Marine Corps.
Over Guadalcanal, Foss rose to fame with incredible speed. By the middle of October he was averaging one victory a day, and by the end of the month three a day. His two most hectic days were the twenty-third and twenty-fifth, during which he destroyed a total of nine enemy aircraft, all of them Zeros. On the first day, he shot a Zero off the tail of a Wildcat, then knocked out a second as it rolled across his nose. A third Zero pulled up in a loop ahead of him; Foss caught it at the top of the manoeuvre and his bullets found its fuel tank, tearing it apart. Two more fighters came at him head-on, breaking in opposite directions at the last moment. Foss went after the right-hand one and got it with a deflection shot as it turned. His first victim on the twenty-fifth was a Zero which pulled straight up in front of him; his bullets tore it in half and the pilot baled out. He shot down a second fighter minutes later, followed by three more in the afternoon. His final victim had just destroyed a Wildcat and was indulging in a victory roll, an unforgiveable manoeuvre in air combat. Foss caught him right in the middle of it and blew him apart.
By the time VMF-121 left Guadalcanal in January 1943 its pilots had destroyed 123 Japanese aircraft for the loss of 14 Wildcats. Joe Foss’s personal score was twenty-six which made him the first American pilot to equal the score of Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American ace of World War One. Foss’s exploit earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He never flew in combat again, surviving the war to become Governor of South Dakota.
January 1943 saw the combat debut of a naval fighter which was to have a significant influence on the course of the Pacific air war: the Grumman F6F Hellcat. Destined to destroy more enemy aircraft than any other fighter type in the Pacific, the Hellcat went to sea with Fighter Squadron VF-9 on the uss Essex on 16 January, and despite a number of small early snags the type soon found favour with its pilots, proving superior to the Mitsubishi Zero on most counts and showing a remarkable degree of robustness. Often, during the next two and a half years, Hellcats were to stagger back to their carriers with battle damage that would have written finis to most other fighters. Another Hellcat squadron, VF-5, was formed on the uss Yorktown (the second carrier to bear that name) in the spring of 1943, and both units went into action at the end of August, when Task Force 15 carried out a series of air strikes against Japanese installations on Marcus Island.
The first of the new generation of us carrier fighters to enter combat in the Pacific, however, was not the Hellcat, but the heavy and powerful Chance Vought F4U Corsair, which entered service with Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-124 (the ‘Checkerboards’) at Camp Kearney, California, in September 1942. The following February, twelve of VMF-124’s Corsairs arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, and flew their first mission on the thirteenth, escorting a formation of Liberator bombers in a raid on Bougainville. No enemy fighters were sighted on this occasion, but the Zeros were up in strength the following day when the operation was repeated. Over Kahili airfield, south of Bougainville, the American formation — which included USAAF P-38S and P-40s — was attacked by about fifty Japanese fighters, and in an air battle that lasted only a matter of minutes the Zeros shot down two Liberators, two Corsairs, two P-40s and four P-38s for the loss of four of their own number.
It was hardly an auspicious start to the Corsair’s combat career, but as the Marine pilots grew more used to their new aircraft the situation improved radically. During the next few weeks, VMF-124 destroyed sixty-eight Japanese aircraft for the loss of eleven Corsairs and only three pilots. One of the squadron’s most successful pilots was Lieutenant Ken Walsh, who shot down three Zeros on 1 April and three more on 13 May. A few days later he added a seventh Zero and two Val dive-bombers to his score. Walsh went on to run up a tally of twenty-one enemy aircraft and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for two gallant air actions over Vella Lavella island on 15 and 30 August 1943.
It was the Corsair, too, that brought fame and the Medal of Honour to the leading Marine Corps ace, ‘Pappy’ Boyington, who took his VMF-214 — the ‘Black Sheep’ — to the Russell Islands in September 1943. The squadron went into action immediately, fighting a big air battle on 16 September when the Corsairs, attacking enemy bombers over Ballale, were themselves attacked by fifty Zeros. In the scrap that followed the pilots of VMF-214 destroyed twelve enemy aircraft, Boyington claiming five. By Christmas, Boyington’s score had risen to twenty-four; he got his twenty-fifth in a big dogfight over Rabaul on 27 December, but oil from his victim smothered his windscreen and prevented him from increasing his score, even though he made several furious, half-blind passes at Zeros which flashed past him.
Boyington’s last battle took place on the morning of 3 January 1944, when his Corsairs encountered twelve Zeros over Rabaul. Boyington shot down one of them, then dived down through broken cloud with his wingman, Lieutenant Ashmun, to attack another enemy formation. This time, the odds were too great even for a man of Boyington’s calibre. In a brief and savage fight he destroyed two more Zeros, but he and Ashmun were both shot down in turn. Boyington managed to bale out and spent the rest of the war as a Japanese prisoner, but no other Marine Corps pilot was to equal his score.
It was during these early months of 1944 that the United States Navy started to bring the war home to the enemy with a vengeance, striking hard at the Japanese bases in the Pacific island chain. At the end of January, Task Force 58, composed of six heavy and six light carriers under Rear-Admiral Mitscher, opened the campaign to recapture the Marshall Islands with a series of heavy air attacks on Maloelap, Kwajalein and Wotje atolls. With these objectives taken, the carrier aircraft hammered the Japanese naval base at Truk, flying 1,250 combat sorties in two days, and late in February they hit Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam, destroying sixty-seven enemy aircraft in the air and over a hundred on the ground. The attacks continued throughout the spring, with heavy raids on targets in the Western Carolines and further strikes against Truk, Rabaul and other key objectives.
David McCampbell arrived in the Pacific at this juncture. At the age of thirty-four he was already a good ten years older than most other fighter pilots, and his naval career so far could hardly be described as adventurous. In fact, it had almost never started. Graduating from the Annapolis Naval Academy in the middle of the great depression, he had learned that the lower half of his class — himself included — was not to be commissioned in order to cut expenses. Desperately keen to fly, McCampbell had applied to the Army Air Corps for pilot training, only to be told that his vision was below the required standard. A year later, commissioned into the Navy at last, he went to sea on the heavy cruiser uss Portland, and in 1936 he once more applied for pilot training. To his bitter disappointment, the Navy also rejected him on the grounds of defective eyesight.
Determined not to be beaten, the young man from Alabama went to a civilian doctor, who submitted him to searching tests and told him that there was nothing wrong with his eyes at all. Reassured, he went back to the Navy doctors, and six months later he was finally accepted for flight training. Lieutenant McCampbell was awarded his pilot’s wings on 23 April 1938. Any aspirations he might have had to become a top combat pilot, however, were quickly dispelled. In the late 1930s American naval air power was far from being the mighty weapon that would be forged after Pearl Harbor; there was only a limited requirement for first-line naval pilots, and this, together with McCampbell’s medical record — which dogged him stubbornly for most of his Service career — confined him to the role of Deck Landing Officer.
McCampbell’s big chance did not come until the spring of 1944, when he was promoted to command Air Group 15 on board the uss Essex, flying Hellcats. His first action came on 19 May, when he led his group on a dawn fighter sweep over Marcus Island. Even now bad luck seemed to follow him, for his Hellcat was hit by a Japanese anti-aircraft shell, setting the fighter’s belly tank on fire. He jettisoned it in the nick of time, and despite extensive damage to his aircraft he remained over the target, directing his group’s attacks on enemy installations. The flight back to the carrier was a nightmare, and the fact that the Hellcat remained airborne at all was a tribute to the sturdy little fighter’s handling qualities. He landed on the Essex with his tanks almost dry, but the Hellcat was judged beyond repair and shovelled unceremoniously over the side.
McCampbell scored his first victory on 11 June, while aircraft of Task Force 58 were pounding objectives in the Marianas Islands in preparation for the American landings. Over Pagan Island, flying under a cloud layer, McCampbell sighted a speck far ahead of him. He opened the throttle and gradually overhauled it, identifying it as a Zero. He closed right in and fired a long burst, and the Japanese fighter fell in flames. Its pilot, apparently taken completely by surprise, had made no attempt to take evasive action.
A week later, on 19 June, carrier fighters of Task Force 58 took part in the greatest and most concentrated air battle of all time. In a day-long action that was to go down in history as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’, American fighters and antiaircraft fire destroyed no fewer than four hundred Japanese aircraft as the enemy made frantic and suicidal attempts to attack the US invasion fleet in the Philippine Sea. That morning, David McCampbell led eight Hellcats from the USS Essex to intercept a formation of forty bombers, escorted by twenty Zeros. Leaving five of the Hellcats to tackle the enemy fighters, McCampbell dived on the bombers with his wingman and another pilot, personally shooting down four of them while trying to get at the Japanese leader. He finally worked his way through to the front of the enemy formation and shot down the leader too, despite the fact that his guns kept jamming. The air battle lasted just fifteen minutes, and when it ended the Japanese formation was scattered all over the sky. Altogether, the eight Hellcat pilots had claimed twenty-one victories for the loss of one of their own number.
That afternoon, McCampbell shot down two more Zeros which attempted to attack a pair of air-sea rescue seaplanes in the middle of picking up some Navy pilots who had been forced to ditch. That brought his score for the day to seven, and the overall tally for the pilots of Air Group 15 was sixty-eight.
Five days later, this score was equalled by a single fighter squadron, VF-2 from the uss Hornet. At 06.00 that morning, the fifteen Hellcats of VF-2 formed part of a long-range fighter sweep, comprising forty-eight Hellcats in all, launched by Task Group 58.1 against Iwo Jima. South-east of the island, the Americans ran into about a hundred Zeros, and in the fierce air battle that followed the Hellcats of VF-2 destroyed no fewer than thirty-three enemy fighters. Three Zeros fell to the guns of Lieutenant Robert R. Butler, who was leading the squadron, while Lieutenants (jg) H. R. Davis, R. W. Shackford, M. W. Vineyard and E. C. Hargreaves shot down four each. The total for the fighter sweep as a whole was sixty-eight Zeros destroyed for the loss of only four Hellcats, one of them belonging to VF-2.
While the Hellcats were on their way back from Iwo, the Japanese launched a torpedo attack against the carrier task group. Eight Hellcats of VF-2 were flying combat air patrol over the Hornet, and they intercepted the low-flying Nakajima B5N2 and B6N1 Tenzan torpedo-bombers while the latter were still several miles short of their objectives. In less than five minutes the American pilots shot down eighteen of the enemy, Ensigns Paul A. Doherty and John W. Dear claiming three and the other pilots two apiece. The Japanese tried again later that day, this time with a strong fighter escort, but they fared no better. VF-2 tackled them again and sent sixteen flaming into the sea, several of the pilots who had been in action over Iwo that morning adding to their scores. That brought VF-2’s total number of confirmed victories in the day’s fighting to sixty-seven, a record for a Navy fighter squadron in a single day. The squadron lost only one Hellcat.
The battle for the Philippines saw the combat debut of the man who was to follow David McCampbell into second place in the US Navy’s list of aces: Cecil E. Harris. In the summer of 1941, Harris left his job as a teacher in Onaka, South Dakota, to become an aviation cadet. Three years later he was in the Pacific with Fighting Squadron VF-18 on the uss Intrepid, and on 13 September 1944 he opened a spectacular combat career when he shot down four out of a Japanese formation trying to attack the American ships. On 12 October he got four more while taking part in one of the early strikes on Formosa, and on the twenty-ninth of that month he repeated the exploit yet again. On this occasion, VF-18’s Hellcats were escorting the Intrepid’s torpedo-and dive-bombers in an attack on Clark Field, in the Philippines. The Japanese contested the raid bitterly, sending up dozens of fighters. Harris caught the first two flights of Zeros on the climb and shot one enemy fighter out of each flight, and in the course of the battle he shot another two Zeros off the tails of Hellcats. His eventual score was twenty-four aircraft.
During that same week, on 25 October, there came a new and terrifying development in the Pacific naval air war. At 10.53, nine Japanese aircraft swept down on us warships in Leyte Gulf; one plunged into the carrier St Lo, causing fearful explosions that ripped her apart and sank her twenty-one minutes later; others slammed into the carriers Kitkun Bay, Kalinin Bay and White Plains, causing extensive damage. Led by Lieutenant Seki, the enemy aircraft belonged to the newly formed Special Attack Corps of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The word Kamikaze had entered the vocabulary of warfare.
Two methods of attack had been evolved for the Kamikazes, and both gave the American combat air patrols a lot of headaches. The first method involved a high-altitude approach at about 20,000 feet; although this meant that the Japanese aircraft could be picked up at long range by American radar, it took time for defending fighters to climb to this level, and the long, shallow dive to the target which followed gave the attackers a certain speed advantage. The alternative low-level method meant that the attackers escaped radar detection until they were less than ten miles from the target, but even if they escaped the air patrols they had to run the gauntlet of a formidable curtain of light flak, and since evasive manoeuvres were out of the question because of the need for a straight run to the target, this was a suicidal undertaking. The ideal solution was to combine both high-and low-level attack methods, but the Japanese never had enough aircraft available to make this a serious proposition.
The Kamikaze attacks on US naval forces off the Philippines came as a profound shock to the Americans, and exacted a fearful toll in terms of men and material. Nevertheless, they cost the Japanese nearly three hundred aircraft, and this was a rate of attrition that could not be supported for long. The last attack in the Philippines came on 5 January 1945, when twenty-eight Kamikazes struck at American naval forces in Lingayen Gulf. Seven vessels were damaged, but when the attack was over enemy air resistance in the Philippines was at an end. Not even a single Zero remained.
The first weeks of 1945 saw a considerable expansion of Kamikaze operations, which were to become the main threat to the US task forces in their final drive towards Japan. The threat would have been even greater had not the Americans now been in a position to launch massive air strikes against the bases from which the Kamikazes operated. In three weeks of continual action during January, for example, Task Force 38, with eight heavy and four light carriers, struck Formosa, the Ryukus, Luzon, Okinawa, Hong Kong and the China Coast, destroying over six hundred enemy aircraft. These operations were a preliminary to the Marine Corps assault on Iwo Jima in February, which was covered by the eleven heavy and five light carriers of Task Force 58. During the Iwo Jima operation, aircraft of TF 58 hit airfields in the Tokyo area, the Ryukus and Okinawa, leaving behind 648 enemy aircraft destroyed.
The Japanese, however, still had the ability to hit back hard. On 21 February 1945, thirty-two Kamikazes drawn from Admiral Kimpei Teraoka’s Third Air Fleet took off from the shattered airfields near Tokyo, refuelled at Hachijo Jima, and then set course for their objective, the invasion fleet off Iwo.
The Kamikazes attacked at dusk and took the Americans by surprise, sinking the escort carrier Bismarck Sea, seriously damaging the Saratoga and slightly damaging the Lunga Point.
On 11 March, the Kamikazes tried for what might have been a spectacular success when a reconnaissance aircraft confirmed that the carriers of Task Force 58 were refuelling and replenishing in a deep water anchorage at Ulithi Atoll, in the Carolines. Twenty-four twin-engined Ginga (‘Frances’) bombers, each carrying a 2,000-lb bomb and piloted by a Kamikaze, took off from Kanoya, on Kyushu, and set off on the 1,500-mile one-way trip. Thirteen aircraft, dropped out en route for various reasons, but the eleven others arrived over Ulithi after a flight of almost twelve hours to find the American warships brightly lit. Since they were well outside the combat area, the Americans had taken no blackout precautions.
The Gingas dived on their targets, but only one hit its objective: the carrier uss Randolph. Most of the crew were watching a film when the Ginga smashed into the flight deck with a terrific explosion. The damage caused was serious enough, but the carrier was seaworthy again within a few days.
The fast carriers of Task Force 58 were back in action on 18 March, their aircraft carrying out a series of devastating strikes on Kyushu as a preliminary to the invasion of Okinawa. In reply, about fifty Kamikazes — including, for the first time, rocket-propelled Okha piloted bombs — struck at the us fleet and damaged the carriers Essex, Franklin, Wasp and Enterprise. Japanese air opposition over Okinawa intensified during April and continued through to June, during which period the u s Navy took the heaviest punishment in its history. Although Task Force 58 lost no ships during the Okinawa campaign, one light and eight heavy carriers were hit and damaged by Kamikazes. The Americans had now been joined by a British Task Force, built around four carriers and designated TF 57, and these too felt the weight of the Kamikaze attacks during the Okinawa landings. Although suicide aircraft struck all four British carriers, the latter had more heavily armoured decks than their American counterparts and in most cases the Kamikazes just bounced off into the sea.
It was during the Okinawa campaign that the us Navy’s third-ranking fighter ace, Lieutenant Eugene A. Valencia, scored his greatest successes. Valencia had already flown one combat tour, destroying seven enemy aircraft, and when he returned to the combat area with Fighting Squadron VF-9 in the spring of 1945 he had a thorough grasp of Japanese fighting tactics. He found three other pilots who were willing to practice his own tactics to perfection, and turned them into a formidable fighting team; their names were James E. French, Clinton L. Smith and Harris Mitchell. The team went into action together for the first time in February 1945 over Tokyo, and immediately proved its efficiency by shooting down six Japanese aircraft.
On the morning of 17 April, the four pilots set out to attack Japanese Kamikaze bases on Kyushu. They never arrived. En route, they ran into between twenty and thirty Japanese fighters. The Americans had the height advantage, and Valencia put his combat tactics into practice with dramatic results. The four Hellcats dived on the enemy in pairs, in line astern, making one brief firing pass and then climbing to repeat the process. In minutes, they sent fourteen Japanese aircraft flaming into the sea. Valencia himself claimed six, French knocked down four, Mitchell got three and Smith one. On 4 May, off Okinawa, the team claimed eleven more victories, followed by another ten on the eleventh. When the four pilots finally ended their combat tour, Valencia had a total of twenty-three kills, French eleven, Mitchell ten and Smith six.
After Okinawa, the full weight of the allied carrier task forces was turned against the Japanese home islands, with heavy air strikes on enemy airfields, installations and shipping. At 6.35 a.m. on 15 August, following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Admiral Halsey, commanding the US Third Fleet, ordered the cessation of all offensive air operations.
When the order reached the task forces off Japan, the first strike of the day was already hitting air bases near Tokyo. The rearmost wave consisted of the Grumman Avengers of No. 820 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, from the British carrier HMS Indefatigable, which were attacked by about fifteen Zeros in the target area. The Japanese fighters were immediately overwhelmed by the Avengers’ escort, the Seafires of Nos 887 and 894 Squadrons, who shot down eight of the enemy for the loss of one of their own number. As far as may be ascertained, this was the last time that fighters met in combat during World War Two.
And yet it was left to the Japanese to make the last, defiant gesture. The following day, thirty Kamikazes, mostly Zeros, led by the Chief of Staff of the 5 th Air Squadron, dived on the American base of Okinawa and smashed themselves to destruction. A second formation from the same unit flew out over the sea, into the sunrise, until the Japanese coast was far behind them. Then, one by one, they made their last, headlong plunge beneath the waves.
For the watching Bernard Freyberg the barrage for Operation Supercharge was disappointing. He had envisaged something more spectacular than Lightfoot. The anti-climax was almost certainly because, despite the barrage’s use of 192 field guns with 168 further guns employed on other tasks like counter-battery fire, the attack front was considerably narrower than before. Consequently, the artillery flashes were much more concentrated.1 It was rather different for the attacking infantry, as Private Jackson Browne of 8th DLI observed:
‘Get your kit on’. And then when the time comes, everybody’s just waiting. Half a dozen guns opened up – pop, pop, pop, pop ssshhhhhwwww!! Then all of a sudden you hear – Bugger! The earth starts to shake. Well, you looked back and saw that lot. God Almighty! Hell!
It was well organized. On each flank – on the battalion flanks – they had Bofors guns firing tracer every two or three minutes so that you could keep on line. The barrage was going now for about two minutes then they’d drop two or three smoke bombs – they were a bloody nuisance… But when they dropped you knew the barrage was lifting. You just moved in.
Never before had British infantry received such artillery support in the Desert War. The tried and trusted techniques from the Great War (as during Lightfoot) were again applicable, as Captain Ian English described:
We realized that [the barrage] in fact was our armour. That was our protection. The barrage stood on the opening line for twenty minutes while we closed up. This was the first attack behind a barrage we’d done and it was emphasized that one should always be within a hundred yards of it so one can arrive on the enemy position within a few moments of the barrage passing over.
Among 9th DLI, it was Lieutenant Wilfred White’s first action:
The noise was terrific, gunfire, shell bursts, mortars, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, the skirl of the bagpipes, the shouts of our charging infantry all combining in an incredible and unbelievable cacophony of sound. And above this noise we could hear from time to time the call of our Company Commander’s hunting horn. It made us feel rather special and somehow comforted us.
Major Teddy Worrall’s hunting horn – another example of the eccentricities of British officers in combat throughout the Second World War.
The barrage rolled forwards, battering a path, until pausing at 0220hrs on the first objective. Both infantry brigades advanced to time behind it, as English recalled:
Promptly at 0105hrs we crossed the start line in formation with bayonets fixed. At that time it was a pretty dark night because the moon was well past full and ten minutes later the barrage started. We had been expecting a lot of noise. We heard the guns behind us and the flashes we could see and the whistle of the shells going over our heads and then an enormous crash and clouds of dust in front of them.
The terrain, seemingly flat, did little to assist the advance. English described the scene:
It wasn’t flat, but it was extremely open. There were little bits of scrub. When you got down on the ground you could see in fact there were undulations and little crests. If you took a quick look at it, standing on your feet, you’d say they weren’t there at all. But in fact these little crests and pieces of dead ground were extremely useful.
Dead ground, however, could conceal Italian and German defenders whilst the absence of any features, except the line of telegraph poles marking the Rahman track, made it especially hard for any officer or sergeant with compass and map ‘trying to walk a straight course through the inferno for more than two miles to an objective which was only a pencil line on a map’.8 Jackson Browne remembered:
The company commander had a bloke – his batman. He had to pace this out all the way. He had a hell of a job. He had to count the paces. Somewhere along the line – it was about 5–6,000 yards we had to do – I think when we got to about three and a half thousand yards we had to stop for consolidation. Find out what was happening.
Despite assistance from 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, which was to deal with a strongpoint on the right flank, it was the three DLI battalions who encountered the greatest problems. Initially, however, their advance met little opposition, as Jackson Browne recalled:
The first thing I knew was some of the Germans were coming out hysterical. What a bloody state they were in. God Almighty! There was dozens of them coming out. Some of them was cradling and crying and one thing and another. It must’ve been bad then right under that barrage. But his machine-gunners were still having a go – the diehards, y’know. Odd mortars and that coming over.
The Māori battalion had a tough fight in fulfilling its task and suffered almost 100 casualties, including its inspirational commander, Fred Baker, who was seriously wounded. The attack was conducted wholly in the spirit of its warrior heritage, as one of its officers, Major Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett, made clear:
We had to fight almost every inch of the way. We were never far behind the barrage which gave us good protection and did some damage too… At one spot we were opposed by a wall of enemy firing at us with all they had. We all broke into the haka ‘Ka mate! ka mate!’ and charged straight in with the bayonet… It was the most spirited attack that I myself had taken part in.
The advance of 151st Brigade was led by 8th and 9th DLI. Ernie Kerans was with the latter’s Headquarters Company when they first met determined resistance:
The barrage was literally raising the dust and through it I could see the single explosions of shells and grenades and multiples from scores of Spandaus and other machine-guns. My Alamein was in full swing. I realised I still had my rifle slung. Bullets were now plucking at our clothes in large numbers. The bullets and bits of shrapnel came like a shower of deadly hailstones and we had to throw ourselves down to live. On the right a vehicle burst into flames and by the light I could see A Company men trying to advance. We were ahead of them but some of them were still on their feet, others were falling or had done. There were tracers amongst them and explosions all around them. Over the sounds of the barrage and the small-arms could be heard curses and the cries of the wounded. Someone in a pitiful voice was crying for his mother.
Kerans, surrounded by the terrifying sights and sounds of battle, did what the ‘poor bloody infantry’ always did in such circumstances: buried his nose in the dirt and hoped not to get hit:
From everywhere ‘Stretcher Bearer, Stretcher BEARER!’ Whatever had been on fire went out and we were just left with noise. Sight had gone but the screams and curses mixed with the chatter of the machine-guns and explosions of shells continued. We hugged the ground and bullets skimmed our heads. Ken took a bullet in his shoulder.
Similar resistance was met by 8th DLI. Men were helpless as they saw mates killed by their side.
Private John Drew’s memories were bitter:
Though we had to keep apart Joe and I kept in touch with one another till we were held down by machine-gun fire… Things here looked pretty grim and it was only the audacity of an NCO that got us out of it and which cost him an arm. By this time Joe and I had got our Gun going again and we began to advance with the section. The next thing I knew was a tremendous crash behind us. As I fell forward I caught a glimpse of Joe going down. Picking myself up, I discovered that, except for a few scratches, I was OK. I then walked over to Joe and found much to my regret that there was nothing I could do for him. Looking round I found what had been the cause of it all, one of the Jerrys had feigned dead. I then picked up the Gun. I must admit I was pretty mad by this time and let him have a full magazine. I am pretty certain he never lived to tell the tale.
As the attack fragmented, control by officers and NCOs became difficult to exercise. Lieutenant Jamie Kennedy of 9th DLI, describing his experiences in the third person, admitted his helplessness:
The company came to tanks, some dug into the ground, and here the fear of the power of the tanks seemed to make Jamie’s men crazed; he realised that they were beyond accepting any orders other than his finger pointing out targets. If a German tried to get out of his tank no one waited to see if he was surrendering; two men jumped on the tank, pushed the German back in, dropped a grenade in and closed the lid.
From a variety of motivations, men in this extreme environment of savage violence and fear committed acts that defied justification by rational explanations of revenge, orders or conditioning. The most basic instinct of survival – kill or be killed – overwhelmed them. Clear concepts of ‘combat’ and ‘atrocity’ were lost, as is evident from Jackson Browne’s account:
Quite a few went back as prisoners but there was a hell of a lot got their come-uppance. You see that list of Montgomery’s – the last list we got, the final one about what he was going to do – he said the watchword is ‘Kill Germans’. So that’s what they did. They were shooting the buggers down like they was flies. Blokes who’d never shot any bugger before were having a go. They certainly were. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It was good from our point of view!
Browne witnessed further callous and brutal actions, some committed in cold blood:
We were having casualties what with one thing and another but we had no problems with mines or anything like that. We found two blokes – one was dead with the barrage and the other was typical German with his blond hair and that. They had a tin box. I think they’d been going to lay booby traps and they’d been caught in the barrage. So, he’s lying there and Phil Thompson from Bishop Auckland shot the bugger. He said: ‘_____ !’ (Bad Language – you know). ‘Laying so-and-so booby traps!’
Distasteful as it may be to citizens of the modern democracies, such acts were committed in the defeat of fascism, giving the lie to the myth of ‘Krieg Ohne Hass’. Moreover, these actions were exceptional neither in the desert nor in the war in general.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Watson’s 6th DLI followed the lead battalions. The necessity of adequate ‘mopping up’ of resistance after the first advance (another Great War principle that was still applicable) was brought painfully home to Watson:
The tragedy was that in our enthusiasm we must have walked over some of these Italians – single chaps or ones or twos – who lay ‘doggo’ as we passed. Undoubtedly one of them killed my RSM, [Arthur] Page, killed my doctor who was tending [the wounded] and also Sergeant Fairley, who … played cricket for Crook and for the battalion down in Dorset. They all three were killed together and it was a great blow. I also think young Vickers, who had just come to the battalion, who was a splendid junior officer from a well-known Durham family and whose father farmed and was an auctioneer and valuer, he too was killed.
Watson, a true County Durham man, felt these losses of his ‘neighbours’ keenly. His men sought out the line of dug-in Italian armour marking the point at which they swung to form a north-facing flank for the bridgehead:
Sure enough, we came across this group of dug-in tanks. It was almost too good to be true that we should find them there. Practically every one of the crews was still inside and I remember walking up to one and the corporal shouting ‘Stand back, sir, stand back!’ after planting a limpet mine that sticks onto the armour plating. It just blew inwards and killed the crew. I saw A Company having great fun trying to set one alight. But we did the turn and we got into these positions. The positions that we held were absolutely in the right place. Then the guns opened up again for the 8th and 9th Battalions to continue their advance.
When the advance resumed, it was inexorable, as Browne described:
The barrage had stopped for that time and then, when it started, it was time to start moving forwards. You weren’t charging forward. I mean, you weren’t more than a bloody stroll, y’know. There were dugouts and such as that and, whether there was anybody in or not, you either fired a burst in or threw a grenade in. A lot of these Germans, they didn’t know how to give themselves up they were in such a bad state and blokes were just shooting the lot of them down.
Private Corley, Ian English’s batman, still paced out the distance:
After we’d gone about 35 minutes from the first objective, Corley said that by his reckoning we were just about on the objective. So I said ‘Right, we’ll go on about another 200 yards to make certain we are there.’ We realized we must be because the barrage had halted and we came up to it and started to consolidate the position. This was at 0340hrs and the barrage went on till 4 o’clock. The silence when it stopped was absolutely amazing. One thought one had almost got used to this deafening noise. Then it stopped and you could see the stars and the moon and it was a different world.
On their objective, perhaps even a little beyond it, the Durhams attempted to dig in. Their survival until the tanks’ arrival depended upon it.
The advance of 152nd Brigade met less opposition. The men, dressed (unlike the Durhams) in full battledress and each wearing a St Andrew’s Cross made from strips of ‘four-by-two’* on their backs for recognition purposes, went forwards to the sound of bagpipes. Douglas Wimberley recounted:
It was not an easy attack, and George Murray and his Brigade did splendidly. Casualties were by no means light. For instance, 5 Seaforth, whose first attack it was, as they had held the whole start line on the night of the 23rd, lost 12 officers and 165 men. The whole Brigade reached its objective up to time on the instant and began to dig in on the hard ground.
In its wake, two squadrons of armoured cars from the Royal Dragoons succeeded in breaking out to the west to attack supply lines and installations. With 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade also completing its task on the left of the attack and with heavy losses inflicted on Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 and 65o Reggimento Fanteria Motorizzata, the infantry awaited 9th Armoured Brigade’s ‘Balaclava charge’. 9th DLI’s Jamie Kennedy wrote:
The armoured might of Brigadier John Currie’s three regiments was something of a façade. Montgomery had ordered on 29 October that it be brought up to full strength, but this was accomplished by supplying repaired and reconditioned tanks as imagined by Guingand. The process had been too rushed and many had mechanical faults. Of seventy-nine Shermans and Grants and fifty-three Crusaders, only a total of ninety-four tanks reached the start line.
The eccentric use of fox hunting terminology was again in evidence, with the brigade assembly and advance referred to as ‘The Meeting of the Grafton Hounds’.26 The tanks encountered various problems in ‘attending the meet’. For one regiment, the approach march was ‘painful’ as ‘the track was narrow and the dust appalling’.27 At 0500hrs Currie requested a half-hour postponement of the attack and supporting barrage because the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s passage of a minefield was delayed. Nevertheless, this regiment, like the Wiltshire Yeomanry and 3rd Hussars, was ready at the original ‘Zero’. However, the revised artillery arrangements meant the attack started at 0615hrs. Len Flanakin, with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, met a horrific sight:
We were in the vanguard of the armour and as we came out of the minefields we fanned out to form a line. I had just witnessed the most gruesome sight I had ever seen in my life. Where the infantry had passed by they had left a tangle of bodies from both sides but the most pathetic sight was that of a Pipe Major in kilt and bagpipes hanging on the barbed wire. We had lost a few tanks in the mines but the remainder of us reached the start line and waited for the signal to advance.
The three regiments used Crusader tanks in front of Grants and Shermans but on the right 3rd Hussars had only three still running. They and the Wiltshires, in the centre, met only slight opposition initially but the Warwickshire Yeomanry, whose path of advance diverged from the other regiments, was engaged early, as Flanakin recounted:
We charged in with dawn not too far off and were soon in action against dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns including the nasty sort, the dreaded 88s. All the tanks by now were fighting their own individual battles and I was too busy to notice anything. The turret was filled full of acrid smoke each time the 75mm ejected a spent cartridge case and another shell had to be pushed in.
Since the battle opened, Lance-Corporal Mick Collins and his team of ‘flying fitters’ had worked flat out to give the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank crews every conceivable combat advantage. Collins described how:
We were doing our damnedest to keep the old Crusaders mobile and in fighting condition. When the crews asked us if we could give them a bit more pep for their engines we were only too glad to oblige. The Nuffield Liberty engine on the Crusaders was fuelled through a ‘Solex’ carburettor that was sealed to limit the speed and revolutions. To appease the tank drivers we broke the seals and adjusted the carburettors to allow maximum revs and the speed increased noticeably. After all, we agreed with the drivers that a good turn of speed is vitally essential when you know there is a distinct possibility of an 88mm shell chasing you with the sole intention of blowing you and your tank apart.
Now the value of applying learning from previous combat experience was revealed:
Our Squadron of Crusaders were able to travel quite smartly when conditions permitted and it was becoming fashionable with some of the lads to indulge in what was termed ‘beetle crushing’. If a Jerry 88mm was being troublesome and was within range the Crusader was driven straight at the gun emplacement and straight over it, thereby inflicting considerable damage to the gun and its crew. This manoeuvre depended entirely on getting in quick before Jerry could loose one off at the Crusader. Now you can appreciate why the drivers wished to have the governors removed from their carburettors. The six-pounders on the Crusaders were a definite improvement on the two-pounder on their previous tanks but even so it is a pity they were not fitted with 75s as on the Shermans.
In fact, some Crusaders in the attack were armed only with the 2-pounder gun. More significantly for their crews’ chances of survival, the artillery barrage, advancing at 100 yards every three minutes, was too slow for these tanks, which depended on speed and manoeuvrability in the absence of thicker armour.32 Those from the Wiltshires, therefore, drove rapidly through the barrage to get onto the Rahman track ahead of the heavy squadrons.
At first light, the attacking tanks came under fire from the arc of anti-tank guns. These were engaged by all three regiments and the 6-pounder of 7th New Zealand and 73rd Anti-Tank Regiments. Nevertheless, tank casualties climbed rapidly. Len Flanakin’s Sherman was hit:
The first enemy shell to hit us knocked off a track and without mobility our chances of survival were nil. We continued firing away knowing that sat amongst all the metal flying about we had to catch another one sometime. When it eventually happened it was, thank God, in the rear quarters. Our driver’s voice came over the intercom informing us we were on fire. I don’t think I heard the order ‘Bale Out’. I was on my way up between the commander’s legs and hitting ground level while he was still trying to unravel his ear phones.
Having baled out, the crew were vulnerable witnesses to scenes of chaos:
When I looked around, what a sight. There must have been over a hundred tanks in various stages of burning, while the ones left intact were either still fighting or carrying the injured to safety. Our driver and co-driver bailed out through their escape hatch in the bottom of the tank but unfortunately the co-driver got drenched in high octane petrol and was suffering temporary blindness. Apart from that all the crew were in one piece, but we were not too sure of the safest place to go. Our minds were made up for us. A passing tank spotted our injured comrade. It stopped and we hauled him aboard together with our driver to hold him on. They were driven off and deposited at a spot where a dug-in tank had previously been parked. We followed along on foot.
The Grant tank of Captain John Mills of C Squadron, Warwickshire Yeomanry, was more fortunate, as its driver, Nevill Warner, recalled:
We kept on the move and belted away at the dug-in 75s and 88s. Tanks were brewing up all around us but we didn’t get hit that morning. There were flashes from guns on all sides and it wasn’t until the sun came up that we knew which direction we were facing. We picked up two survivors from a 1st Troop tank which was hit and dropped them off by a gun pit near another tank. Then the Colonel came on the air ‘For God’s sake, get those bloody guns before they get the lot of us’.
The shortcomings of the reconditioned tanks further hampered the units as they grimly endeavoured to hold the ground taken. The 3rd Hussars in particular found their wirelesses so useless that Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Farquhar and B Squadron commander, Major Mike Everleigh, had to go from tank to tank issuing orders to individual commanders.36 Frustration under fire sometimes compounded the problem – as the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank fitters, always close at hand despite the raging battle, found. Mick Collins remembered:
A common request was to fit a replacement radio hand-set as apparently when they failed to work immediately the irate user would knock the offending thing against the turret and this sort of treatment was not conducive to a quick repair job.
In the tumult of shot and shell, men worked courageously to offer medical assistance to the casualties. The ‘Heavenly Twins’ of the Wiltshire Yeomanry were much admired, by Mick Collins for one:
They were the drivers of two Austin ambulances attached to our Squadron who were forever getting stuck in the sand and having to be yanked out by the nearest available tank or four-wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately for them, their vehicles were only equipped with rear-wheel drive and in soft sand they just dug themselves in. Those two lads did sterling work ferrying the injured back to forward dressing stations irrespective of conditions and it was not until much later that we discovered they were both conscientious objectors. They were averse to carrying any arms whatsoever but that did not deter them from being up in the thick of battle and there were probably many more out there doing similar jobs. Although their consciences barred them from killing their fellow human beings, they had the guts to go into battle areas with soft-skinned vehicles and their faith in God.
Losses mounted alarmingly. The plan called for 1st Armoured Division to come through 9th Armoured Brigade and expand the funnel but Currie’s anxiety must have been great as, well forward in the battle, he watched tank after tank being knocked out. The brigade’s situation might have become untenable had a co-ordinated counter-attack at the gap between the Warwickshires and Wiltshires by the remaining tanks of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen taken place. The Afrika Korps’ confusion over the position of both Axis and British forces was a good illustration of how far tactical intelligence had declined in the Panzerarmee. When the error was finally resolved, the opportunity had passed.
The vanguard of 1st Armoured Division was 2nd Armoured Brigade, consisting of 10th Hussars, 9th Lancers and The Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards). Shortly after 0200hrs they started forwards. It was a nightmare drive, as Anthony Wingfield recalled:
On this occasion the stage-management was not so easy, nor so good, for we had to move from track to track on our approach. Starting on Star, we changed first to Moon and then to the Australian Two Bars track.
Our Recce Troop, under command of Grant Singer, led the column, but was unfortunately misdirected by a military policeman at one of the track junctions which caused a serious delay. Furthermore the sand was so soft – no watering this time – that tank drivers could not see the vehicle in front of them for dust; and often tank commanders had to shine torches to their rear to prevent collisions.
As a consequence, they were delayed by approximately twenty minutes but cleared the minefields at about 0700hrs – just prior to dawn.
The hammering taken by 9th Armoured Brigade was obvious and, according to one account, led to a difficult meeting between Currie and Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Grosvenor of 9th Lancers amidst the raging battle.40 Anthony Wingfield accepted it was ‘more than a misfortune that we were late coming to the aid of 9th Armoured Brigade’ and that Currie had ‘every excuse for his disparaging accusations’.
Tanks from 2nd Armoured Brigade were already getting into action. Wingfield described the scene:
As the 10th Hussars deployed into the open, the situation seemed to be one of chaos; for the enemy was putting down smoke as well as firing rather too accurately at the end of Two Bars Track. As RHQ cleared the end of that track I remember seeing some tanks several hundred yards away on our right front. Jack Archer-Shee thought they belonged to our B Squadron and drove off towards them. Fortunately I held back the rest of RHQ for a few minutes; and then saw Jack’s tank go up in flames. Those tanks belonged to 15th Panzers and not to B Squadron.
Archer-Shee and his crew were lucky to escape unharmed but now the newly arrived regiments knew the type of opposition they were facing and recent combat experience, together with the arrival of dawn, probably conditioned the brigade’s subsequent response.
The decision taken at this stage by Fisher, the brigade’s commander, and supported by his divisional commander, Briggs, although subsequently criticized for excessive caution, was certainly appropriate for a force with a considerable advantage in available assets over its opponent. With the support of Priest self-propelled 105mm howitzers from 11th (Honourable Artillery Company) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, and the Desert Air Force, and using the indirect-fire capability of the Shermans, 2nd Armoured Brigade could retain a hold on the positions gained, allowing the Germans to be the architects of their own destruction through their counter-attacks, whilst making careful forward movement themselves. According to Wingfield:
By 8.00 a.m. the whole of 2nd Armoured Brigade was deployed clear of the minefield. The German tanks had withdrawn from our front leaving four knocked out behind them. The Bays on our right and in touch with what was left of the 3rd Hussars were being heavily counter-attacked. We were ordered to be ready to go and support them. But before we moved another tank counter-attack appeared over the crest of the Aqqaqir Ridge to our front. A and C squadrons held their fire till the enemy tanks were on the forward slope then ‘let them have it,’ reaping a fine harvest before the remainder retired to hull-down positions behind the crest.
Using these tactics, the British armour gradually prevailed. Numerous columns of smoke on the enemy side signified many tank brew-ups. The enemy’s tactics had been to launch concentrated panzer attacks through his anti-tank screen and on a narrow front. We allowed the panzers to come onto our guns, rather than sally forth to meet them. That way, their 88mm anti-tank guns could not assume a decisive role. When rising casualties forced withdrawal, the panzers would reassemble and probe elsewhere. We met them head-on. Although numbers overall were in our favour, it wasn’t always so at the point of contact.
Ironically, the armoured unit commanders were delivering on Montgomery’s Lightfoot attritional aims, rather than the goals envisaged for Supercharge.
In this fighting, it was the turn of the Germans to find their wireless communications disrupted – as Alfons Selmayr, the regiment’s medical officer, discovered:
We were constantly subjected to jamming on the radios. Tommy had captured the signals operating instructions of Panzer-Regiment 8 and attempted to confuse us and yap his way into our radio traffic.
The doctor was in the thick of the fighting throughout the day, caring for the mounting numbers of casualties:
As I had moved up, Oberleutnant Dübois had waved to me. Now they were also bringing him back with a head wound. It was said he looked so terrible that his crew did not even want to show him to me. We tried to eject Tommy twice, but we were deflected each time. An 8.8-centimetre Flak moved up to support us, but it was blown apart as it unlimbered. The forward lines were hit by mortar fire. A 2-centimetre Flak was hit; two of the crew lay on the ground, badly wounded. I took off! We placed them on our tank despite the fire; one up front, the other to the rear. I knelt on the side of the turret and held on to them so that they did not fall off during the movement. Then the tank took off as fast as it could. All of a sudden, Tommy took notice of us and engaged us with a battery. Always four shells at a time; sometimes to the left of us, sometimes to the right. Thank god they were really firing poorly. Of course I still thought we were moving too slowly. I pressed myself against the turret, held on to my wounded and yelled at Krause to move faster.
Having evacuated these wounded in ambulances, Selmayr returned immediately to the fray.
Rommel was well aware of what was happening to his forces. Above all, he needed to prevent a breakthrough. In his own words:
It was only by the desperate fire of all available artillery and anti-aircraft guns, regardless of the ammunition shortage, that a further British penetration was prevented.
It was now extremely difficult to obtain any clear picture of the situation, as all our communication lines had been shot to pieces and most of our wireless channels were being jammed by the enemy. Complete chaos existed at many points on the front.
British tactical intelligence via the ‘Y’ Service, on the other hand, ensured that XXX Corps was aware of Rommel’s counter-attack plans by 0935hrs. The attack would use those elements of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen together with Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer to attack from the north and south of the incursion. Rommel continued:
Violent tank fighting followed. The British air force and artillery hammered away at our troops without let-up. Inside an hour at about midday seven formations, each of 18 bombers, unloaded their bombs on my troops. More and more of our 88mm guns, which were our only really effective weapons against the heavy British tanks, were going out of action.
This ignored the armour and firepower of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2 and G ‘Specials’, but these were now too few in number to turn the tide.48 Nevertheless, the British armour could not make even cautious progress and, with the arrival of 8th Armoured Brigade, the attack salient became very congested, as Arthur Reddish observed:
The 2nd Armoured Brigade adopted the role of static defence and 8th Armoured that of the fire brigade, responding to threats to the salient as they emerged. We were first in action facing north-west, then were directed south. On one occasion, a column of enemy tanks came down the Rahman Track completely side-on to us. It was like shooting tin ducks at a shooting gallery.
However, despite this success, Reddish, like other Sherman crewmen, was learning of the tank’s shortcomings through the experience of combat:
The high-explosive shell we used against the 88mm guns had no tracer and it was necessary to observe the fall of shot to determine accuracy. With the desert shimmering in a heat haze, this was by no means easy. And the gunsight of the Sherman didn’t help. For such a good tank, the sights were disappointing.
A tremendous battle between the armour of both sides now raged throughout the rest of the day. Reddish’s descriptions capture the spirit of the day’s fighting:
The day was hot. High temperatures, aircraft active on both sides, shelling very heavy and sniper-fire also. Armour-piercing shot came from right, left and centre. A blazing Grant tank exploded as we passed by, its side flattening and the turret hurling some 50 metres into the air. The explosion was tremendous, even when wearing earphones. Each member of the crew had a set of earphones and a microphone. We could talk within the crew and the commander with other commanders. All could hear the talk on the regimental radio network, so knew the score…
We in the heavies kept the battle at long range when possible to exploit our [ad]vantage in that area. The Italian tanks were hopelessly outranged and the German Mk IIIs also. But the German Mk IV and Mk III Specials fought us on equal terms.
This wasting fight was something the already-depleted Panzer units could ill afford and approximately seventy tanks were destroyed or damaged. Equally important was the loss of experienced Panzer commanders such as Oberst Willi Teege and Hauptmann Otto Stiefelmayer – both Ritterkreuzträger (Knight’s Cross holders) of Panzer-Regiment 8. The situation was so serious that Divisione ‘Ariete’ – the last remaining intact armoured formation – was already being drawn piecemeal into the fighting.
In the north, the arrival of the British tanks, and especially 8th Armoured Brigade, had finally relieved the pressure on Leo Lyon and the hard-pressed Australian battalions in the ‘Saucer’. Lyon recounted:
I remember about midday attempts by the Germans to wheel up an 88mm gun to our front. We had excellent observation both to the right and the left as we faced. I could see the silhouette of this gun behind the road. I could see the tractor bring it up, the tractor disengage, and then the gun crew manhandling it up to where it could be brought in to fire. But as soon as it came into position to fire, the machine-gunners mounted their guns on them and destroyed the gun crew.
At almost the same time, to our left flank I could see our armour attack appearing and I could see a larger number of tanks – it would be about thirty or forty I would have thought – with their smoke dischargers – on the turret of each tank there’s a smoke discharger – and they were firing these as they went forward to try and cover the fire against them. This was a most spectacular scene and apparently they were making progress because the attack on our front seemed to disappear.
The exhausted Australians, finally given respite, still managed to launch aggressive fighting patrols later in attempts to prevent Panzergrenadier-Regiment 125 extricating itself from the coastal sector.
At 2015hrs that evening, Thoma told Rommel the Afrika Korps would have, at most, thirty-five tanks available for action the following day. Nevertheless, the British advance, which Thoma considered cautious and deliberate, had been contained. However, there was further bad news from the Panzerarmee’s Higher Artillery Commander (Arko), Generalmajor Fritz Krause, who reported that 450 tons of ammunition had been fired that day, but only 190 tons had arrived. Three hundred tons had been lost when the Brioni was sunk by allied bombers whilst unloading in Tobruk harbour that afternoon.
With this information, Rommel recognized that in order to avoid annihilation of his forces, it was essential to make a withdrawal to positions previously reconnoitred at Fuka. In informing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) of this decision, Rommel spared nothing in painting a realistic and bleak picture. The ten days’ fighting had been ‘extremely hard’ and had left the Panzerarmee no longer able to prevent the next breakthrough attempt:
An orderly withdrawal of the six Italian and two German non-motorized divisions and brigades is impossible for lack of MT [Motorized Transport]. A large part of these formations will probably fall into the hands of the enemy who is fully motorized. Even the mobile troops are so closely involved in the battle that only elements will be able to disengage from the enemy. The stocks of ammunition which are still available are at the front but no more than nominal stocks are at our disposal in rear. The shortage of fuel will not allow of a withdrawal to any great distance. There is only one road available and the Army, as it passes along it, will almost certainly be attacked day and night by the enemy air force.
In these circumstances we must therefore expect the gradual destruction of the Army in spite of the heroic resistance and exceptionally high morale of the troops.
In a narrow sense, the initial Supercharge assault can be portrayed as a failure. But the critical outcome – Rommel’s acceptance of the Panzerarmee’s defeat – was accomplished by the evening of 2 November. Irrespective of what happened subsequently, 9th Armoured Brigade’s sacrifice had helped achieve a significant success. It remained for Eighth Army and its commander to turn this into a complete victory.
In London, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, anxiously awaiting each fragment of news of the battle, experienced a tremendous fillip from Ultra. In Brooke’s own words:
Whilst at lunch I was called up by DMI [Director of Military Intelligence] and informed of two recent intercepts of Rommel’s messages to GHQ and Hitler in which he practically stated that his army was faced with a desperate defeat from which he could extract only remnants!
This was a remarkable and early indication of the possibility of imminent victory.
Rommel now formally confirmed the move of Divisione ‘Ariete’ northwards to join with the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata. Together with the Afrika Korps, they would cover the withdrawal of the other two Italian corps which consisted essentially of infantry, as well as Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke and 164. leichte Afrika-Division. The infantry formations began pulling out that night.
That evening, 51st Division was tasked with broadening and strengthening the corridor now created. Successful attacks with strong artillery support were made against objectives on the south-west edge of the salient by 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 5th Royal Sussex. To X Corps’ commander, General Herbert Lumsden, at 2030hrs it seemed that the opportunity of smashing through the remnants of the anti-tank screen that night was too good to miss. Consequently, 7th Motor Brigade, consisting of 2nd and 7th Rifle Brigades and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), was given orders to attack on a front of two miles, to make a passage for 1st, followed by 7th, Armoured Division. Corporal Donald Main of 7th Rifle Brigade remembered:
In the early evening we were told that [we] would attack at midnight to force a gap for our tanks. It was considered that the area of the Rahman Track was lightly held, although we never found out who was responsible for this view. As we had motored into the line we had heard shouts for stretcher bearers, presumably from the Sherwood Foresters and Green Howards, who were survivors of the previous attack. In view of the barrage, it would have been suicide to attempt to reach them. It was, therefore, decided that we would make a silent attack i.e. without a barrage from our guns, although the 2nd KRRC on our left and the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade on our right were to receive artillery support.
The attack commenced at 0115hrs on 3 November. In fact, whilst 2nd KRRC had strong artillery support, 2nd Rifle Brigade did not. In Main’s attack with 7th Rifle Brigade, all was quiet until the battalion was about fifty yards from the German positions. Suddenly, all hell was let loose when the Germans opened fire from the flanks with machine guns, together with flares and mortar bombs:
Above the noise of explosions I heard the Company Commander, Major Trappes-Lomax, shout ‘Up the Rifle Brigade! Charge!’ Major Trappes-Lomax disappeared through a hail of tracer bullets. I felt that he could not go in by himself and gave the order to charge. I went through the enfilade fire and felt my body as I could not understand how I had not been hit. I was shouting ‘Brino, where are you?’ It was like daylight with the flares and mortar explosions. Before I could reach Sgt Brine, Major Trappes-Lomax said ‘Go to your right’. Sgt Brine had run straight on and into a German machine-gun. He was hit all over and asked another member of the platoon to put his tin hat back on and to be put facing the enemy. His last message was ‘Give my love to my wife’
Upon reaching the rear of the German positions, Main and the remnants of his company had to deal with one of the guns that formed an important part of the Axis defence:
From where we lay I could see an 88mm gun and I told Sandy that I was going for this. It was at least 50 yards away. As I ran with my rifle and bayonet the tracer from a German machine-gun was going all around me. However, I considered that if I continued running I would not be hit and eventually reached the gun followed by several riflemen.
Both Rifle Brigade battalions destroyed German anti-tank and machine-gun posts and killed the occupants. However, several posts still survived and, in each battalion’s case, it was necessary to withdraw because they could not bring up sufficient numbers of anti-tank guns in time for defence in the morning against what was assumed would be the inevitable counter-attacks. The KRRC did, however, retain its gains. Main’s account continued:
We met Major Trappes-Lomax and found that only twenty-two of the Company were left. We also met up with the surviving KRRC and our 2nd Battalion. We now received the order to withdraw and I was asked which way we should fight our way out. I was in favour of another route, but it was decided that we should go back the same way as we had come, also we were under no circumstances to stop for any wounded. My rifle by this time had jammed with sand and I could not move the rifle bolt. We ran back and I would frequently look over my shoulder to watch the tracer fire which followed us from the German positions.
It was an ignominious end to 7th Motor Brigade’s efforts but at least these units escaped in time. A hastily planned and executed and poorly supported improvised operation had failed once again. Fortunately, the consequences were less serious in their effect than 4th Sussex’s attack on 27–28 October, although for a survivor like Donald Main, the experience was no less painful. On his return the roll-call revealed that his company had only fourteen men left and his platoon consisted of only three men – himself included. Many of those killed were friends from Main’s pre-war Territorial days. Another such friend was Colour Sergeant Eric Kealsey, whose attempts to cheer up the survivors on the evening of 3 November when they were out of the line, led to an unfortunate misunderstanding, as Main recounted:
Later that afternoon we were relieved by a battalion of the Black Watch, and we were taken by our vehicles to an area behind the line, to obtain reinforcements and replace equipment lost during the battle. When we arrived at what appeared to us to be an unreal world, free of explosions, we went for our evening meal presided over by Colour Sergeant Kealsey. Kealsey was a great character from Territorial days and he was very fond of impersonating a queer. He and the cooks were very upset to find that D Company now consisted of only fourteen men, as they had cooked a meal for one hundred and twenty. Colour Sergeant Kealsey said to me in an effeminate voice ‘What can I get for you, ducks?’ I replied ‘Some stew please, Eric’. Unfortunately the person next to me was a reinforcement and when asked the same question replied ‘Stew, darling’. This caused a major explosion as Kealsey shouted ‘Colour Sergeant to you, you little worm!’
This was the postscript to a ‘trifling, inconsequent, nameless battle’ within a battle. A failed attack and a heavy toll of casualties – soon lost in the bigger picture of general success for the British, Imperial and Dominion forces and decline of the German and Italians.
Churchill III tanks of ‘Kingforce’, 1st Armoured Division, 5 November 1942. The unit was named Kingforce after its commander, Major Norris King MC.
The mixed fortunes of the infantry operations meant that Lumsden revised Briggs’ orders; at 0530hrs. 2nd KRRC was to be supported by 2nd Armoured Brigade whilst 8th Armoured Brigade worked south-westwards. The poet Keith Douglas was a lieutenant with the Sherwood Rangers and wonderfully evoked the atmosphere of this (and perhaps many another) armoured move at dawn:
The moment I was wakeful I had to be busy. We were to move at five; before that, engines and sets had to be warmed up, orders to be given through the whole hierarchy from the Colonel to the tank crews. In the half-light the tanks seemed to crouch, still, but alive and like toads. I touched the cold metal shell of my tank, my fingers amazed for a moment at its hardness, and swung myself into the turret to get out my map case. Of course, it had fallen down on the small circular steel floor of the turret. In getting down after it, I contrived to hit my head on the base of the six-pounder and scratched open both my hands; inside the turret there is less room even than in an aircraft, and it requires experience to move about. By the time I came up, a general activity had begun to warm the appearance of the place, if not the air of it. The tanks were now half-hidden in clouds of blue smoke as their engines began one after another to grumble, and the stagnant oil burnt away. This scene with the silhouettes of men and turrets interrupted by swirls of smoke and the sky lightening behind them was to be made familiar to me by many repetitions. Out of each turret, like the voices of dwarfs, thin and cracked and bodyless, the voices of the operators and of the control set come; they speak to the usual accompaniment of ‘mush,’ morse, odd squeals, and peculiar jangling, like a barrel-organ, of an enemy jamming station.
The tank units were straight into action that morning. Arthur Reddish recalled:
At first light on November 3, the Sherwood Rangers tanks were on the left flank of an attack by the 1st Armoured Division on the remnants of the Panzerarmee’s anti-tank gun screen dug-in before and behind the Rahman Track. The day started propitiously for our crew. As the regiment assembled behind the infantry line prior to advancing, a young Highlander officer left his slit-trench and jumped onto the back of the tank. He’d spotted an enemy anti-tank gun, he said. It was in the scrub only 200 metres [approximately 220 yards] away and was right in front of our position. John quickly got him into the tank and into the gunner’s seat. His first shot missed but not the second. The third caused an explosion. Presumably, he’d hit the ammunition.
Major Anthony Wingfield was concerned by the ammunition shortages his unit was suffering, but was soon temporarily bolstered by the arrival of another new weapon in the Eighth Army’s armoury:
At first light our Recce Troop and the Crusaders of B Squadron moved out to make contact with [the] KRRC, and support them against any tank counter-attack. The situation had become grave because the replenishment of 75mm ammunition to the Shermans of A and C Squadrons had not arrived during the night. However 4 or 5 new Churchill tanks, as an experimental detached troop, now arrived between ourselves and The Bays. These heavy tanks had been sent out to the Middle East for battle trials; whether it was the sight of these new monsters which scared the German tanks I did not know, but they withdrew behind a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns. The latter then promptly halted the Churchill tanks whose crews were possibly concussed if their tanks were not actually ‘brewed up’.
There were too few Churchills – a heavy ‘infantry’ tank for close-support work designed to replace the Valentine – for losses to these tanks to be significant at this time. Nevertheless, this British-built tank ‘made a favourable impression on their crews, and also on the co-operating troops’. On a more personal level, it was Wingfield’s misfortune that day to be caught quite literally with his trousers down by the Germans:
It was while we were withdrawing a short way to find hull-down battle positions that Nature gave me her morning call. I dismounted but stayed close to my tank for protection. Just at ‘le moment critique’ an HE shell burst underneath my tank and a red flame shot between my bare legs. A momentary thought of my ancestor at ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ passed through my mind. Motion – in every sense – was quick and I was back in my tank in a flash and before there was another one.
Throughout the day, the British armour was held up by the continued resistance offered by the screen of anti-tank guns and by the remaining tanks covering the slow withdrawal of the Axis forces on foot or in vehicles. The work of the remaining elements of Panzerjäger-Abteilungen 605 and 33 and Flak-Division 19 was especially noted by the British. Nevertheless, the Axis withdrawal was observed by the Desert Air Force and the coastal road consequently came under almost-constant attack from the air.
The Panzerarmee and its commander suffered another significant blow to morale in the early afternoon with Hitler’s response to Rommel’s plans for withdrawal, which constituted a direct order to stand and fight and, if necessary, die. In Hitler’s view, this was a battle in which the commander with the strongest will to fight would ultimately win through. If that was indeed the case (which it was not, of course, given the attritional effects of the last ten days’ fighting), it was already too late. Alamein was lost in the mind of Rommel. A characteristically magniloquent message from Mussolini only served to compound the Panzerarmee’s confusion as Rommel ordered all units to defend their present positions till the last although permitting Thoma to withdraw the Afrika Korps ten miles east of El Daba. This, in effect, abandoned infantry without motor transport – almost exclusively Italians and Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke – to their fate.
Meanwhile, the continued resistance of the Panzerjäger units and the Luftwaffe 88mm gun teams, combined with Freyberg’s perception of the imminent collapse of the Panzerarmee as a whole, led him to suggest to Leese that a breakout through the salient’s south side should be attempted. This would avoid the screening anti-tank positions. An attack by 5/7th Gordon Highlanders of Wimberley’s division supported by 8th RTR was decided upon. The events of this attack were especially tragic and another indication of the problems beneath the veneer of Eighth Army’s ruthless efficiency. Wimberley described them as follows:
On the afternoon of 3rd November I was ordered to attack again, and selected the 5/7 Gordons as the freshest battalion available. With the help of George Elliot, we laid on a heavy barrage to take them forward on to the Rahman Track. Shortly before the attack was due to go in, I was amazed to be rung up by Oliver Leese to be told that our Armour was already on the objective, that the Gordons had been ordered by me to capture, and it was only a question of their moving forward. This was not my information at all, and I pleaded hard for the Tanks, if there were any there, to clear out and let my attack go in properly under a Barrage. I was told, No. It was only with difficulty that I could get leave to let, at least, a smoke barrage be fired to guide the Jocks. So, late in the afternoon they were launched in a divisional attack under Saunders with smoke only. As in the case of the ‘Kidney’ feature, we were again right and the Armour’s Intelligence was all wrong. This time it had even more tragic consequences on many lives.
Wimberley took no pleasure in being right where Leese and Briggs, whose 1st Armoured Division’s headquarters was the source of the erroneous information, were mistaken:
The position was, as we had reported, strongly held. Not a sign of our tanks was to be seen, but plenty of enemy ones. To move forward in daylight, under smoke only, was impossible. The Gordons made little progress, and lost a lot of men, and I felt it had been sheer waste of life and was sick at heart. Worst of all, thinking that it was an advance rather than an attack, the Gordons put a number of their Jocks on the top of the tanks to be carried on them forward to the objective. I saw those tanks, later, coming out of action, and they were covered with the dead bodies of my Highlanders. It was an unpleasant sight and bad for any troops’ morale.
The two units suffered ninety-four casualties, including sixteen officers; nine Valentines were destroyed and a further eleven damaged from about thirty-two starters.
Two further attacks were planned for 4 November. The first involved 5th Indian Brigade which, according to Major-General Francis ‘Gertie’ Tuker:
after struggling and buffeting its way through the choked corridor, was eased forward by over 350 guns, and punched a narrow hole four miles deep through a few pickets covering the retreat, out into the open desert.
The number of guns mentioned by the division’s commander was important. After the debacle over the 5/7th Gordons attack, Wimberley was insistent that 1/4th Essex and 4/6th Rajputana Rifles should have the support of a fully constituted and effective artillery programme of counter-battery fire, concentrations and creeping barrage. This was all organized in a short time by the combined efforts of the staffs of 51st and 4th Indian Divisions, 5th Indian Brigade and Brigadier Weir’s 2nd New Zealand Divisional artillery – a remarkable example of the maintenance of operational tempo. As a consequence, the two battalions encountered only sporadic opposition.
Before 1st Armoured Division’s tanks could break out into the open desert, however, a dawn attack by 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders went in. The attack of the Argylls – ‘almost the last reasonably fresh infantry available’ – was, as Wingfield described:
directed onto Tel el Aqqaqir, the top of the whole ridge to our front. They found the enemy gone. 2nd Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance immediately, with 10th Hussars leading (always their rightful place!), with The Bays on the right and 9th Lancers on the left. But it was not till 9.00 a.m. that we got under way.
As a consequence of this action, more armoured cars were also able to break out to the south and into the open desert.
The sight of the armour passing through 5th Indian Brigade moved one overawed Havildar, Nila Kanten, to hyperbole:
Our role was something less than a participant and more than a spectator… We were asked to break through at Ruweisat Ridge and allow all the armoured divisions to pass through and trap him. When we captured our objectives, then came the thunder of these armoured divisions passing through us. I remember that. I had never seen so many tanks going in one go. Two divisions, I think, passed through. If the head of the column of an armoured division was in Bangalore, the tail would be in Madras – so many vehicles there were and they were all racing. So many tanks, so many armoured vehicles, so many personnel carriers. Oh, the dust cloud! We created dust, we ate dust, we drank dust… Then the whole Eighth Army started moving.
However, after 4,000 yards, the tanks met the Panzerarmee’s rearguard of 90. leichte-Afrika-Division and the Afrika Korps under Thoma’s personal command. The Afrika Korps commander and Kampfstaffel were in the midst of the fighting throughout the morning before the battle group was destroyed and the courageous Thoma surrendered. Fittingly, as the armour was let loose to pursue its quarry, the officer who took the general prisoner was Master of Foxhounds with the Hursley Hunt. Wingfield recalled:
One of our tanks had ‘brewed up’ a German tank at considerable range and I could see a man waving a red cross flag near it. Grant Singer – the Recce Troop leader, went forward to investigate and found a highly decorated General coming towards him. Grant returned with this prize to the Colonel who decided that Grant should take him at once to Brigade HQ. On arrival there Grant was told to take him straight to Monty at Army HQ as quickly as possible, for it transpired that he was Rommel’s deputy who had been on a forward reconnaissance to convince Rommel of the British breakthrough when he had been captured.
At Army Headquarters, liaison officer Carol Mather described the meeting of Montgomery and Thoma:
Well, of course, I couldn’t judge him [Thoma] as a commander at all, although he was deputizing for Rommel at the time. What he had to face at Alamein was something quite new as far as the Germans were concerned, which was a set-piece attack. As a man he seemed rather a charming fellow actually. Very civilized and you couldn’t help thinking he was quite a decent one. The meeting was so short it was difficult to judge. Montgomery was tickled to death at the idea of having the commander of the opposing forces in his tent having dinner and questioning him and discussing the progress of the battle. This was a great feather in his cap really. It was just the kind of situation he enjoyed. And it was a very amusing meeting.
Whilst 1st Armoured Division was engaged in this action, Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured, led by Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts of 22nd Armoured Brigade, was out in the open desert from 0830hrs. But it too encountered strong resistance from the remaining Italian armour, XX Corps’ artillery and some 88mm guns. Despite Roberts’ urgings by radio to his units to ‘Brush them aside, we have bigger fish to fry!’, the opposition proved a tough nut to crack. A long-range artillery duel in which the excellent Italian guns, under centralized control, performed well, went on all day and there were frequent clashes between Roberts’ brigade and the inferior Italian armour of Divisione ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’. Soldato Antonio Tomba of ‘Ariete’ remembered:
Our poor M13s with their 47mm guns could never be effective against them – we could only hope to hit their tracks in order to immobilize them at least; our shells just bounced off when we hit their armour. In addition, while they numbered sixty, we had little over half of that. We did everything possible, giving our very best… We had no chance, but we proved a difficult opponent for the English: the secret lay in manoeuvring the tank properly. Our tactics were simple: always keep moving, never expose your flank to their guns, and don’t let them fire first. All the crew must act as a single unit: everyone must know what to do and when to do it, in complete harmony with each other. We managed to hold off the enemy that day, but they replaced their losses again while we could only count how many of us were left alive. We could never have resisted for another day… Everyone fought an unequal battle without complaint and without yielding, even when there was no water and no food. We were lucky when it started to rain as this slowed the English advance, and we, the last survivors of the Ariete Division, were able to escape their pursuit.
The Germans were grudgingly admiring of their allies’ bravery, which undoubtedly made possible the escape of many remaining German units. Doctor Alfons Selmayr saw assault guns of Divisione ‘Ariete’ conduct an attack. ‘Despite their poor armour, they advanced boldly. Of course, they were blown to bits in a miserable fashion.’
Major Hans von Luck was more generous:
It was heart-rending to have to witness how the Ariete Division (our most loyal allies) and the remains of the Trieste and Littorio Divisions, fought with death-defying courage; how their tanks (the ‘sardine tins’ so often mocked by us) were shot up and left burning on the battlefield. Although I was engaged in actions myself, I kept in contact with the XX Italian Corps until it was almost surrounded. At about 1530 hours, the commander of the Ariete Division sent his last radio message to Rommel: ‘We are encircled, the Ariete tanks still in action.’ By evening, the XX Italian Corps had been destroyed. We lost good, brave friends, from whom we demanded more than they were in a position to give.
The Italians’ resistance was finally overcome when 4th Armoured Brigade tanks attempted to complete their encirclement from the south. Roberts described the day as ‘very good battle practice for the brigade!’92 but 7th Armoured’s momentum had been arrested and night intervened shortly after the advance started again. Jack York remembered the scene:
As we carried on in the direction our tanks had taken, we could see, reaching up into the sky, great columns of black smoke, and enormous dust clouds. This was the funeral pyre of the Italian Armoured Corps (Ariete, and remnants of Littorio and Trieste Divisions), who had been engaged for several hours by nearly 100 tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Nearly all their tanks had been knocked out, and a large number of field and anti-tank guns were destroyed or abandoned. The Italians had fought with exemplary courage in this action, and although nearly surrounded, had held their positions to the last. During this day also, our 1st Armoured Division to the north of us, had severely battered the weakened Afrika Korps, giving them no choice but to retreat. We spent the night concentrated behind the tanks of the 22nd Armoured.
Churchill had seen an intercept of Hitler’s ‘victory or death’ message at 1020hrs on the morning of 4 November. Ever cautious, Brooke had implored him not to order the ringing of church bells in celebration until ‘we were quite certain that we should have no cause for regretting ringing them’. Alexander, whose statement confirming that the Panzerarmee was breaking reached the Prime Minister in the afternoon, was contacted with Churchill’s arbitrary figure of ‘at least 20,000 prisoners’ as ‘proof’ of victory. That night, in his diary, even Brooke, with his knowledge of the imminent landings in Algeria, was prepared to see the possibilities victory at Alamein offered for the future direction of the war. It was the culmination of many of his hopes and his constant toil:
The Middle East news has the making of the vast victory I have been praying and hoping for! A great deal depends on it as one of the main moves in this winter’s campaign in North Africa. Success in Libya should put Spaniards and French in better frame of mind to make Torch a success. And if Torch succeeds we are beginning to stop losing this war and working towards winning it! However, after my visit to Cairo and the work I had done to put things straight, if we had failed again I should have had little else to suggest beyond my relief by someone with fresh and new ideas! It is very encouraging at last to begin to see results from a year’s hard labour.
Only on the evening of 4 November, with the remnants of the forces that once stood on the brink of capturing Alexandria and Cairo in tatters, did Hitler offer vague promises of significant numbers of reinforcements for the North African theatre and, finally, give Rommel permission to act as necessary in the light of events. This was prompted by the arrival at his headquarters of Rommel’s aide, Alfred-Ingemar Berndt, with full details of the crisis. However, Rommel had already been forced to act. At 1530hrs he had ordered a general retreat to positions near Fuka. This decision, essentially confirming the instructions of his chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Westphal, to the Afrika Korps the previous evening was the Panzerarmee’s official sanction for the mobile units to abandon the Italian infantry and the parachute units of both nations in the south. Many Italians never forgave their allies; others, like Tenente Emilio Pulini, were restrained in their response:
We were slightly uncomfortable about the idea of being left there without no transport. Our division had very little transport. Because we were paratroops we had very little transport of our own. But as far as I know the majority of the German troops withdrew before us and not too much transport was left to us.
As Eighth Army’s advance recommenced on 5 November, the victorious troops encountered similar scenes throughout the day, as Gervase Markham observed:
We were able to advance. My first experience of advancing across a battlefield and seeing a defeated army with all the relics that they’d left behind, and their dugouts still there with meals half eaten and Italian troops standing there waiting to be captured because the Germans had taken all the transport and had driven away, leaving the Italians to look after themselves without food or water or transport, begging to be taken into captivity.
The sight of large numbers of Italian troops walking towards captivity seemed confirmation of the widely held view that Mussolini’s forces were a liability to their ally. Sergeant Neville Howell of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment was struck by what he saw:
There were just hundreds and hundreds of Italians walking in groups and we were passing through them. Literally hundreds of them… They were asking for water. The Italians. That was the one thing they were asking for. Water. Hundreds of them. How long it took them to reach somewhere where they were given water, I don’t know. Of course, we couldn’t give them water. We only had a limited amount. You’d got to look after it. If you stopped – which you weren’t allowed to do of course – you’d have been surrounded by them in no time.
The sacrifice of the ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’ and the tough ‘Folgore’ was quickly forgotten. Yet without them the Afrika Korps could not have garnered the laurels it had, survived at Alamein as long as it had, or escaped in the manner it did.
Only one ‘infantry’ unit of significant size managed to escape, despite its lack of transport. Hans von Luck recounted:
On 7 November, in the depths of the desert, a patrol putting out a long feeler to the east, discovered General Ramcke, the commander of the paratroop division, which had been in action on the right wing south of Alamein. General Ramcke was brought to us in a scout car. He looked emaciated and asked to be taken, at once, to Rommel. His paratroops – an elite unit – had been through an adventurous time. I at once sent a radio message to Rommel: ‘General Ramcke, with 700 men and all weapons, has been discovered by us; he himself is with me at the command post.’
The exhausted paratroops had nothing except their weapons and water. They had captured a small British convoy on 5 November and used this to reach the Axis lines. It was small comfort to Rommel, given that on 5 November Eighth Army had easily exceeded Churchill’s target for prisoners of war. Alexander had duly signalled: ‘Ring out the bells!’
The battle was over. It was theoretically time for the victors to pursue and annihilate their opponents. It did not happen. There was no single reason why not, but many could be laid at the door of Eighth Army’s commander. To the amazement of their enemy, the British remained cautious in their operations. Ambitious plans to cut off the retreating Axis forces were not attempted. Proper reserves for pursuit had not been prepared. Congestion prevented units from getting forward. Personal animosity between Montgomery and several subordinates – especially Lumsden, Briggs and Gatehouse – stood in the way of effective use of the armoured formations they commanded. Poor staff work was the cause of at least one brigadier’s subsequent dismissal. Tanks worn out by continuous action and needing overhaul consumed so much fuel they outran their supplies. Bad weather – something outside the control of any commander – played a part as heavy rain fell on 6 November hampering movement and preventing air reconnaissance. However one informed critic felt ‘this was a very thin excuse, seen through by all who had known the desert dry out in a few hours after rain the previous November.’
Nevertheless, as the Official History rightly points out, the fact that a small part of Rommel’s command managed to break away probably seems more of an anti-climax in retrospect than it did at the time to the men of Eighth Army. The remarkable Charles Potts – ‘The Fighting Parson’ – writing on 12 November summarized the experience of Second Alamein for many of the survivors:
The shelling was terrific for the first 13 days of the battle while we struggled through the rows of enemy minefields. All day and all night the noise was deafening, gun flashes and explosions all round us. It was horrible, and very frightening. Some men lost their nerve altogether and shivered and chattered with terror. It was a job to keep some of them going. I was lucky in that I managed to keep pretty cheerful all the time, except for such ghastly moments as when my best corporal, of whom I was extremely fond, had his head blown clean off; I had to cover him up so that the others shouldn’t see him. And now everywhere there is wreckage, vehicles, including huge tanks, blown to smithereens. Thank God the dead are mostly burned. It was not an easy victory – at least not at first. We had a bitter struggle and a taste of bloody hell. It must have been even worse for the Germans. Our artillery pounded them mercilessly and our bombers strafed them continuously (Damn these b____ flies – they are all over me).
Major General John A. Lejeune, U.S. Marine Corps, 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1920–1929)
The American Saint-Mihiel Offensive: 12–19 September 1918
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 presented the United States Marine Corps (USMC) with a peculiar challenge to its ethos, mission, and modes of operating. Accustomed to service with the fleet, Marines had largely deployed as security detachments ashore or onboard Navy ships, sometimes as landing forces, hastily assembled for crisis response and committed for limited durations. Yet, as the war in Europe unfolded, it was clear that the 20th century would bring a new kind of warfare, far larger in scope than the Marines were used to, involving millions of men and mountains of materiel, in land-based struggles far from the littorals and the seas.
Thus, when the United States entered the fray in Europe in April 1917, Marine commandant Major General George Barnett pressed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to include Marines in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Despite the misgivings of senior U.S. Army commanders, one of whom referred to the Marines as “a bunch of adventurers, illiterates, and drunkards,” two regiments of the Marine Corps, the 5th and 6th Marines, were formed as the 4th Marine Brigade for service with the U.S. Army in Europe. Barnett viewed this initiative as so important to the future of the Marine Corps that he detailed his most trusted officer, Brigadier General John Archer Lejeune, to oversee the formation and training of this expeditionary brigade.
Lejeune came from a well-established Southern family. He was born at the end of the U.S. Civil War on 10 January 1867 at the family plantation near Lacour, Louisiana after his father, Confederate States Army Captain Ovide Lejeune, returned from the American Civil War. An 1888 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Lejeune served as a Navy midshipman for two years until he obtained a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps on 25 July 1890, subsequently serving in a number of Marine Corps assignments, worldwide. He served with distinction in assignments ashore and at sea, which included Panama, the Philippines, Cuba, and Mexico. He graduated from the U.S. Army War College in 1910, where he established relationships with many U.S. Army officers, including Hunter Liggett and Fox Conner. While in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Lejeune helped found and became the first director of the Marine Corps Association. He was promoted to colonel on 25 February 1914 and served in the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, with notable fellow Marines Smedley D. Butler, Wendell C. Neville, and Littleton W. T. Waller. In December 1914 he returned to Washington, D.C. to become assistant commandant of the Marine Corps under Major General Barnett. Lejeune subsequently was promoted to brigadier general on 29 August 1916. There was no intent on Barnett’s part to place Lejeune in command of the Marine brigade. Rather, he was Barnett’s choice to succeed him as commandant.
The 4th Marine Brigade consisted of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. Each 250-man training company had two French and four Canadian officers assigned to it as advisers. Training was arduous and unrelenting. Newly enlisted Marines underwent basic training at Parris Island. Meanwhile, newly commissioned officers fresh from officer candidate school, and seasoned officers and non-commissioned officers all arrived incrementally at Quantico for advanced training. The 5th Marines were the first unit to deploy, beginning on 27 June 1917, where they were initially assigned to the U.S. Army’s 1st Division. The 6th Marines joined them on 5 October 1917, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion arrived in France on 28 December 1917. All units were then assigned to the newly formed 2nd Division, where they would remain until 8 August 1919. Then as now, medical and morale support personnel were provided by the U.S. Navy for medical and dental officers, chaplains, and 500 medical corpsmen. Other units in the 2nd Division included the Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade, the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, the 2nd Engineer Regiment, and various service and support troops.
At first, General John J. Pershing assigned the 5th Marines to securing lines of communication and guarding supply depots. As the rest of the Marine brigade arrived in France, piecemeal, they were assigned similar duties. As units arrived and were incorporated into the 2nd Division, senior commanders found themselves shuffled between Army and Marine units as others arrived, a practice which would continue throughout the war. The brigade did not reach its full fighting strength, with 280 officers and 9,164 enlisted men, until 10 February 1918, under the command of Brigadier General Charles Doyen.
The 2nd Division was soon detailed to shore up the Allied defenses near Verdun. As British and French units redeployed in reaction to the German 1918 Spring Offensives, the 4th Marine Brigade expanded its sector to fill lines vacated by a French division. Despite the performance of the Marines in driving off German secondary attacks near Verdun, Brigadier General Doyen was relieved by General Pershing, ostensibly for failing health. He was replaced by Pershing’s chief of staff, Army Brigadier General James A. Harbord. While Harbord was an excellent officer and the Marines served under him loyally, the perception was that Pershing’s animosity toward Marines had gotten the best of him, and that the brigade would eventually be relegated to rear-echelon duties. When the German Operation BLÜCHER of 27 May–4 June appeared to threaten Paris, American 2nd and 3rd Divisions were committed to the Château-Thierry sector of the Marne River.
Harbord and his Marines were assigned to drive the Germans from a hunting preserve about 9 miles west of Château-Thierry, called Belleau Wood. In the early morning of 6 June 1918, advancing across a wheat field, the Marine brigade seized key terrain at Hill 142 and held it against repeated German counterattacks after stopping a German assault largely through well-aimed, well-timed rifle fire. As John W. Thomason recounted:
The Boche wanted Hill 142; he came, and the rifles broke him. All his batteries were in action, and always his machine-guns scoured the place, but he could not make head against the rifles. Guns he could understand; he knew all about the bombs and auto-rifles and machine-guns and trench mortars, but aimed, sustained rifle-fire, that comes from nowhere in particular and picks off men – it brought the war home to the individual and demoralized him. And trained Americans fight best with rifles.
But the thick woods remained a tangled inferno of mutually supporting German positions, skillfully organized by Major Josef Bischoff, a proficient woodsman with ample experience in expeditionary operations in German colonial Africa. The Marine brigade, joined by the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment and elements of 2nd Engineers, took two weeks of bloody, hand-to-hand fighting to secure the woods on 26 June 1918. The cost was high – 9,800 Marine and Army casualties. The astonished French renamed the woods from Bois de Belleau to Boise de la Brigade des Marines, and the impressed Germans gave the Marines their cherished nickname, “Teufelshunde” – Devil Dogs – which has long since been transformed into the grammatically incorrect “Teufelhunden.”
Lejeune, meanwhile, chafed under a sense of guilt. He repeatedly sought assignment to France, but was resisted by Barnett, who wanted him in Washington, D.C. Worse, he was not wanted in France by Pershing, who had advised Barnett that General Harbord had the 4th Marine Brigade well in hand, and any U.S. Marine general sent to France would not be assigned to any other frontline unit. Undeterred, Lejeune continued to agitate for transfer and suggested that he would take his chances in France. Barnett finally relented, and Lejeune quickly left for France on the USS Henderson, to arrive on 8 June 1918.
True to his word, Pershing refused to assign Lejeune to any forward command, and the Marine found himself relegated to observer duties with the U.S. 35th Division. The 35th Division was adjacent to the 32nd Division, commanded by Major General William G. Haan, and with Lejeune’s friend from the U.S. Army War College, Colonel W. D. Connor, as chief of staff. Lejeune was asked by V Corps commander Major General William M. Wright to accompany him on an inspection tour of the 32nd Division. Much to his surprise, Haan asked Lejeune during the visit if he would like to command the 64th Infantry Brigade, to which he readily assented. General Wright agreed with the appointment, as he no doubt felt he would be able to placate his former West Point roommate, General Pershing. Events now moved rapidly for Lejeune. General Harbord was promoted to command the 2nd Division, and Lejeune replaced Harbord on 25 July 1918. He finally achieved his dream of commanding the 4th Marine Brigade – but only for three days. Lejeune had no sooner issued an assumption of command letter when he was called to see Harbord at 2nd Division headquarters on 28 July. He was stunned to learn that Harbord had been reassigned by Pershing to command the AEF’s Services of Supply. Pershing approved that Lejeune, as the next senior officer, would temporarily assume command of the 2nd Division. As a brigadier general, the assumption was that Lejeune would only be a short-term placeholder for an Army major general. However, after a flurry of cables to the Navy Department, Lejeune was promoted to major general on 7 August 1918, to be followed in command of the 4th Brigade by his old friend, Wendell C. Neville, who also was promoted to brigadier general the same day.
After Belleau Wood and the 18–22 July Battle of Soissons during the Allied Second Battle of the Marne counteroffensive, the 2nd Division received a respite in the Marbache sector. On 2 September 1918, the division was ordered to the Saint-Mihiel salient sector, southeast of Verdun. That bulge in the lines had been an irritant to the Allies since the beginning of the war. Pershing recognized it as a proving ground for the AEF, and his planners, among them Colonel George C. Marshall, had been working on plans for reducing it since July 1918.
Lejeune’s 2nd Division was assigned to I Corps on the southern flank of the salient. It took up positions on the left of the line, adjacent to the 89th Division of IV Corps. With its Army and Marine infantry brigades, field artillery brigade, engineer regiment, and support units, the 2nd Division totaled 979 officers, 27,080 enlisted men, and 6,636 draft animals. Its equipment included 1,078 wagons, 676 motor vehicles, 74 cannon, 260 machine guns, and 48 mortar-type weapons. Lejeune trained his Marines and soldiers hard, and at the commencement of the campaign, he considered the division ready for battle.
The Franco–American plan was a simple one: on the early morning of 12 September 1918, to commence simultaneous attacks on the exposed flanks of the salient from the south and west, close on the heels of a powerful artillery preparatory barrage. The Germans already had plans for an orderly withdrawal from the salient to tighten their lines and occupy more favorable terrain. The only surprise the Germans experienced was the timing and speed of the American offensive. Nonetheless, the operation was a viable proof of concept for the AEF. Not only could the AEF react swiftly as a reinforcing or counterattack force, as the Americans had done at Château-Thierry, but it could also coordinate and conduct large-scale fire and maneuver against an entrenched enemy. On 17 September, Lejeune sent a congratulatory order to the division: “I desire to express to the officers and men my profound appreciation of their brilliant and successful attack in the recent engagement. Our Division maintained the prestige and honor of our country proudly and swept the enemy from the field.”
Subsequent to the success at Saint-Mihiel, Lejeune was surprised to find the 2nd Division detached from Liggett’s I Corps and assigned to IV Corps, to shore up the new Allied lines while I Corps redeployed to fight in the Meuse–Argonne sector. Lejeune’s disappointment, however, lasted only two days, when he received orders detailing the 2nd Division to a move to the Aisne Valley, to the west of the Argonne Forest, to report to General Henri Gouraud, commanding the French Fourth Army. As part of the general offensive along the entire Western Front, the French had been stalled by heavy fortifications atop Blanc Mont Ridge, and Foch had appealed to Pershing for assistance.
At first, Gouraud intended to split up the two American brigades and assign them as replacements for the weary French 61st and 21st Divisions. Lejeune insisted that, if left intact, the American division could take Blanc Mont. When Gouraud stressed the criticality of the key terrain there, Lejeune simply became more emphatic, a reaction that favorably impressed the old French campaigner. He forwarded Lejeune’s intention to Foch and Pétain, who approved the operational approach. On 2 October, Lejeune, Gouraud, and the French XXI Corps commander, General Stanislaus Naulin, developed a plan for the U.S. 2nd Division to attack the German fortified hill on a narrow front, behind a creeping barrage of American and French artillery.
French units would conduct supporting attacks on both flanks. By attacking in column, carefully linked to the creeping artillery barrages, and skillfully passing reinforcing troops through the forward lines, Lejeune was able to sustain a rapid advance, even when his flanks became exposed. After two days of fighting, the Americans seized the strongpoint that was the key link in the German defenses west of the Argonne Forest. By 10 October, the Americans had pushed the Germans off Blanc Mont Ridge and turned over the sector to the French 26th Division. The cost had been high – the casualty count included 209 officers and 4,771 enlisted men – but the resistance at Blanc Mont had been broken and the Germans were forced to withdraw north to the line of the Aisne River.
Despite heavy losses, Lejeune and the 2nd Division had little time to rest. The U.S. First Army chief of staff, Brigadier General Hugh Drum, had allowed the French to retain certain 2nd Division AEF units, intending to replace them eventually with other American units. Lejeune wanted his division to remain intact, and he appealed directly to the First Army commander, Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett, who was his old friend from the Army War College. Liggett supported Lejeune, and by 1 November 1918, the 2nd Division was reassembled, just in time for it to rejoin the AEF in the last great offensive in the Meuse–Argonne. The 2nd Division was now attached to the First Army’s V Corps, under the command of Major General Pelot Summerall.
In the early morning of 1 November 1918, the 2nd Division took up its assembly positions preparatory to conducting the V Corps main attack to seize its first objective, the village of Landres-et-Saint-George. Artillery preparation fires began at 0330 hours, and the division moved out two hours later, accompanied by 18 tanks. The Marines by this time had perfected small-unit envelopment tactics, using sustained rifle and machine-gun fire to cover the maneuver of small elements to the flanks of enemy positions. Some German positions were surprised to find themselves attacked from the rear. By the end of the first day, the 4th Marine Brigade had advanced to Bois de la Folie, where they halted for the night, unable to continue the advance. Army brigades from adjacent units were equally aggressive and soon caught up to the 2nd Division’s lead elements.
The Germans were not prepared for the suddenness of the 1 November assault. The German Fifth Army commander, General Max von Gallwitz, approved a withdrawal to the rearward Freia defensive position, just north of Buzancy. Unknown to him, the Americans had already breached that trench line, and the German situation was worsening rapidly. Lejeune pressed on during on 2 and 3 November, leading with his Army 3rd Infantry Brigade, consisting of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments. The German forces had begun to retreat across the Meuse River, but their covering forces put up stubborn, effective rear-guard actions, exploiting their knowledge of the terrain. Lejeune ordered the 3rd Infantry Brigade to advance 5 miles to clear Belval and Forêt de Dieulet and ultimately seize Beaumont. Colonel Robert Van Horn, commander of the 9th Infantry, had been in command for only one day, but he had a distinguished career in the Spanish–American War and in the Philippines. He proposed a daring night march using deception to capitalize on the inevitable confusion generated by the German withdrawal. The 3rd Brigade commander, Colonel James Rhea, readily approved the plan, and Lejeune attached the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines as the brigade reserve, and also a battery of 75mm guns to move with the lead battalion. With the 9th Infantry in the lead, Van Horn’s point element was heavily weighted with German-speaking Americans to confuse the German defenders. The steady rain and obscure light aided the deception measures, which resulted in large numbers of Germans captured and disarmed. By midnight, Van Horn had infiltrated 4 and a half miles behind the forward German positions. On the following day, the U.S. 89th Division advanced west of the 2nd Division. In the north, meanwhile, British and French forces had successfully driven the Germans out of their trenches and back toward Germany, just as Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch had planned. American artillery exploding around his headquarters and massive air attacks on his withdrawing forces convinced Gallwitz of the inevitability of defeat. On 4 November, the German high command ordered the Fifth and Third Armies to withdraw across the Meuse.
We can only speculate what this ‘small invasion’ or possibly as many as three invasions might have been.
The Germans called for an armistice to go into effect on 11 November 1918. The Allied senior leaders – Pershing included – seemed convinced that the Germans were capable of a counterattack, and resolved to continue attacking until the last moment. V Corps commander Summerall, smarting over a misdirected and vainglorious 7 November attack on Sedan by his 1st Division under Brigadier General Frank Parker (see Introduction, here), decided to drive the 2nd Division across the Meuse River before the armistice could take effect. The 89th Division was given similar orders. The lack of bridging and extremely congested supply lines, however, made any attempt at crossing problematic, and the effort was delayed several times before V Corps could make the attempt.
The Germans had prepared a stiff resistance, planning to use the Meuse as an obstacle to delay the advancing American forces and cover the retreat of the main German formations. The 2nd and 89th Divisions’ soldiers and Marines had been badly battered by the fighting in the Meuse–Argonne sector, but had no intimation that an armistice was pending, Thus, they fought on dutifully, attempting the crossing on 10 November. The main assault, just south of Mouzon on the east bank of the Meuse, failed. The withering heavy German machine-gun and artillery fire, and the swollen river with its exceptionally muddy banks, effectively made any unprotected attempt at bridging the river impossible. The crossings farther south, originally conceived as supporting attacks, then became the main effort of the 2nd Division. Even there, the crossing points were well covered by German fires, and the engineers and infantry had an extremely difficult time effecting the seizure of the far bank. By the morning of 11 November, the day the Armistice took effect, both the 2nd and 89th Divisions had a firm foothold on the east bank of the Meuse River.
Following the Armistice, the tired and battle-worn 2nd Division was assigned to occupation duties on the Rhine. It began a long, arduous, cold and wet march on 17 November, through Belgium and Luxembourg, crossing into Germany on 25 November and reaching the Rhine on 10 December 1918. Sometime during the long, weary march General Pershing had occasion to drive past the 2nd Division as its soldiers trudged along in the freezing rain. Pershing apparently stormed into III Corps in a rage, opining that Lejeune’s command was ragged, slovenly, and ill-led.
Lejeune’s old Army War College classmates were quick to apprise him of Pershing’s hostility. Lejeune was incensed, as his requests for a period of rest and refitting before being ordered to march into Germany had been rejected. He smarted under the affront in silence, until the 2nd Division reached its assigned sector east of Luxembourg. He then turned his attention to discipline and morale among his men, and he requested a general officer-level inspection of the division. Major General André Brewster, the AEF inspector general, arrived personally and visited every unit. Brewster reported back to Pershing that the 2nd Division was in superb shape. Lejeune finally received orders to move his division on 15 July 1919 to Brest by rail, preparatory to embarking for home.
John Archer Lejeune became the thirteenth commandant of the Marine Corps, serving from 30 June 1920 to 5 March 1929. His memoirs are silent on those eight-and-a-half years, for he apparently considered his service with the American Expeditionary Forces and the 2nd Division the highlight of his professional life. But, clearly, Lejeune’s tenure as commandant was greatly influenced by his World War I service.
Along with Major General Charles P. Summerall, who like Lejeune became a service chief, Lejeune is credited with being among the best of the division commanders in the AEF. However, the two men had very contrasting leadership styles. Summerall had a reputation for aggressive action in the extreme and is often described as a vainglorious driver rather than a leader. Lejeune, in contrast, was a humble leader with great respect for the Marines and soldiers he led. His leadership style was enlightened for his time, and he had genuine compassion for the men who might be killed or maimed as a result of his orders. His personally written paragraphs from the Marine Corps Manual (1921 edition) reflect his dissatisfaction with the demanding, belittling leadership style of Pershing and Summerall and remain quoted as fundamental Marine Corps leadership guidance today:
Comradeship and brotherhood. – The World War wrought a great change in the relations between officers and enlisted men in the military services. A spirit of comradeship and brotherhood in arms came into being in the training camps and on the battlefields. This spirit is too fine a thing to be allowed to die. It must be fostered and kept alive and made the moving force in all Marine Corps organizations.
Teacher and scholar. – The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar. In fact, it should partake of the nature of the relation between father and son, to the extent that officers, especially commanding officers, are responsible for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training of the young men under their command who are serving the nation in the Marine Corps.
Lejeune’s men responded to his authentic leadership style not only with loyalty and respect, but also with love. Lejeune’s leadership style has become enshrined as the standard for which all Marine Corps officers should aspire.
The Department of the Navy had insisted on sending a Marine brigade to serve with the AEF at a time when the future role of the Marine Corps was in doubt and widely debated. It was clear from the onset that General Pershing did not want the Marines. Lejeune came away from World War I convinced that service with U.S. Army units was not the best option for the Marine Corps. The animosities were too great, the approaches to command too different, to be synchronized easily. As commandant, Lejeune was tireless in his advocacy of a role for the Marine Corps closely tied to the U.S. Navy, centered on seizure and security of advanced naval bases. This role required the Marine Corps not only to expand in size, but also to retain mastery of military art and tactical skills.
Moreover, to reinforce its uniqueness from the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps needed to perfect a new form of warfare – amphibious operations launched in large formations from the sea. In reference to his operational approaches as 2nd Division commander, Lejeune was convinced that such operations needed to be combined arms in nature, and he pursued the incorporation of armor, artillery, aviation, communicators, and engineers along with Marine light infantry. These units would require specialized equipment, landing craft, and tactics. Lejeune became his own publicist for these pioneering innovations, lobbying Congress, the American public, disapproving U.S. Navy officers, and recalcitrant officers among his own service. His writings in the Marine Corps Gazette, the magazine of the Marine Corps Association, describe his vision of the amphibious and expeditionary nature of the future Marine Corps.
It is no accident that Pershing’s lone Marine division commander’s name adorns the largest amphibious training base on the east coast, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And it is no small honor that, every 10 November on the anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps, John A. Lejeune’s 1921 birthday address to his Marine Corps is read, word for word, at every Marine Corps birthday ceremony held by Marines, in units as small as an embassy security detachment or as large as the I Marine Expeditionary Force:
From the battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.
In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our Corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on every occasion until the term Marine has come to signify everything that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.
… So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.