A photo of Wagner Group mercenaries at an unidentified location. (Photo from the Security Service of Ukraine).
Key. W: where the Wagner Group operates or has operated; blue: where the ICRUFTM has been ratified; light green: where the OAU CEM has been ratified; dark green: where the ICRUFTM and the OAU CEM have been ratified. Wagner is subject to a range of laws and conventions related to mercenarism. The relevant legal regime includes national laws in the different countries regulating mercenaries; the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (ICRUFTM); the Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions; and the Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa (OAU CEM).
On March 11, a Syrian national filed a complaint in Moscow against a company called the Wagner Group, for the torture, killing, and mutilation of his brother by Wagner employees. This complaint is part of a second attempt to criminally prosecute members of this elusive group for this case. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta submitted a complaint regarding the case in 2019, but no action was taken.
The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, has played a strategically important role in countries such as Syria, Ukraine and Libya—and it’s found itself repeatedly at the receiving end of U.S. sanctions. Wagner has helped Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war and participated in the Russian takeover of Crimea. But are the group’s actions legal? Though Wagner’s activities are nominally regulated by both international law and the domestic laws of the countries where the group is present, these laws put relatively few constraints on Wagner’s operations.
The U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries defines private military and security companies (PMSCs) as corporate entities that “provide on a compensatory basis military and/or security services by physical persons and/or legal entities.” Typically, PMSCs provide a wide variety of military or security services for either governments or corporations—short of participating in combat—and do not receive direction from their home governments on how to operate or receive any assistance. However, Wagner is different from most PMSCs in that Wagner employees often engage in combat operations. Additionally, the company has a close relationship with the Russian government, which actively helps Wagner secure its contracts.
The Washington Post suggests that Wagner may have been founded in 2014 by former Russian security contractor Dimitry Utkin. However, information to confirm that Utkin was the founder is lacking. But at some point over the past few years, Wagner reportedly came under the ownership of Yevgeny Prigozhin—a Russian entrepreneur with close links to the Kremlin who might be familiar to Lawfare readers as the owner of the Internet Research Agency troll farm. Wagner employees were among the “little green men” who participated in the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014 and assisted Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine attempting to secede from the country. The group also became involved in Syria, and New York Times and Foreign Policy reported that U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters killed somewhere around 200 to 600 Wagner employees in the city of Deir al-Zour in February 2018.
In September 2019, Wagner sent 200 of its employees to Mozambique but reportedly withdrew from the country after seven of its contractors were killed there. Beginning in 2020, Wagner employees appear to have been supporting Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya with alleged financing from the United Arab Emirates. Although not fully confirmed, some reports suggest that the group’s employees manned anti-tank positions for Armenian forces during the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are also reports that Wagner employees participated in combat, trained, and provided other security services in Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine.
Due to the group’s involvement in conflicts in these countries, Wagner has been repeatedly targeted for sanctions by the U.S. government. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on Prigozhin via executive order for his “extensive business dealings with the Russian Ministry of Defense” and for building bases to support Russian military actions in Ukraine. The Treasury Department has placed additional sanctions on Wagner since then. Most recently in July 2020, the Treasury Department updated previous sanctions against Wagner for its entities’ activities in Sudan.
New Bern, North Carolina, strategically sited on the Neuse River in North Carolina, had been captured by Union forces in March 1862. Not until January 1864 was Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander General Robert E. Lee in position to propose a plan, which was duly approved by President Jefferson Davis, to retake New Bern, which was held by Union troops under Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer. For the operation, Lee detached 13,000 men under the command of Major General George E. Pickett. The men were on their way south on January 30, 1864.
The Confederate plan of attack, developed by Pickett’s subordinate, Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, called for a coordinated attack with the Confederates converging on New Bern from three different directions. Brigadier General Seth M. Barton would move south of the Trent River and advance on New Bern from the southwest with most of 3 infantry brigades, 600 cavalry, and 14 artillery pieces. At the same time, Colonel James Dearing would strike from the northeast with 3 infantry regiments, 300 cavalry, and 3 guns to attack Fort Anderson, directly across the Neuse from New Bern. The third column, under Hoke with Pickett accompanying it, would consist of Hoke’s own division. It would strike from the northwest via Batchelder’s Creek.
There was also a fourth, naval, column. Confederate Navy commander John Taylor Wood would lead a daring night attack on the Union side-wheeler steam gunboat Underwriter, anchored in the Neuse near New Bern, to prevent it from aiding Union forces ashore. Toward this end the Confederates shipped a dozen small cutters by rail from Petersburg, Virginia, to Kinston, North Carolina, where they were started downriver.
The Confederate attack began well. Hoke was able to cross Batchelder’s Creek and repulse Union attacks against him, while Barton captured Union outposts below the town. Meanwhile, the Confederate water attack achieved success. The 14 Confederate boats carrying 300 men in them were not discovered until about 2:00 a. m. on February 2, when they were only 100 yards from the Underwriter. The attackers quickly boarded and overpowered the Union crew. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, the Underwriter’s captain, was among those killed in the fight. Because the Union gunboat did not have steam up, Wood was thus unable to move it and soon found himself under heavy fire from Union shore batteries. Wood then ordered the ship scuttled.
At this point, however, the Confederate plans fell apart. Both Barton and Dearing found the Union defensive works too strong and failed to attack. With two of his three land prongs now stalled, Pickett withdrew Hoke’s division, marking the end of the battle. Sinking the Underwriter was the sole Confederate accomplishment of the battle. Casualties were light on both sides. Pickett estimated Union losses at about 100 men and Confederate casualties at half that figure. Pickett bears major responsibility for the failure of the attack, for the desired coordination did not materialize. Pickett then returned to Virginia. Hoke continued in command, and he then moved against Plymouth, North Carolina.
The Capture of Plymouth, North Carolina
May 5, 1864
In April 1864 the new shallow-draft Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle (with two 6.4-inch rifled guns) played the key role in the capture of Plymouth, North Carolina. The attack on the Union base, begun on April 17 by 7,000 Confederate troops under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, had failed in large part thanks to gunfire support provided by Union gunboats on the Roanoke River. Early on April 19, however, the Albemarle, captained by Commander James W. Cooke, appeared and attacked the Union wooden gunboats Miami (with one 6.4-inch Parrott rifled gun, six IX-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens, and one 24-pounder boat howitzer) and Southfield (with one 6.4-inch Parrott rifle and five IX-inch Dahlgrens). With Union shot bouncing harmlessly off its plated sides, the Albemarle rammed and sank the Southfield. The commander of the Southfield, Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser, was killed; 11 other Union seamen were wounded, and 8 were taken prisoner. The Albemarle lost 1 man, killed by a pistol shot. The Miami and other Union ships then withdrew from the river to watch the ram from a distance. The Albemarle now controlled the water approaches to Plymouth. Its guns and the sharpshooters aboard the Confederate steamer Cotton Plant enabled the more numerous Confederate infantry to take Plymouth on April 20.
Union forces captured New Bern, North Carolina, on March 14, 1862. New Bern is located in the eastern part of the state, some 87 miles northeast of Wilmington on the Neuse River. Following the Union capture of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in February 1862, Confederates in New Bern braced for a Union attack. Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch had command of 4,000 largely untested troops, who occupied a defensive line about 6 miles south of New Bern on the Neuse. Fort Thompson, mounting 13 guns, anchored the left of the Confederate line on the Neuse River.
Confederate engineers believed an attack on New Bern would come by water, so 10 of the fort’s guns faced the river, while only 3 covered the land approaches. From Fort Thompson, a line of entrenchments stretched westward for about a mile to the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad line. Because of a shortage of manpower, rather than continue these fortifications across the railroad tracks toward Brice’s Creek, Branch positioned his troops on the right of his line, 150 yards behind an arm of Brice’s Creek. This placement led to a gap of 150 yards in the Confederate line along the railroad at Wood’s Brickyard.
On March 11, 1862, Union brigadier general Ambrose Burnside began the assault on New Bern. His 11,000-man force boarded ships at Roanoke Island, then rendezvoused with U. S. Navy warships off Hatteras. The expeditionary force entered the Neuse River early in the afternoon of March 12 and anchored near the mouth of Slocum Creek that night.
At dawn the next morning, Union gunboats bombarded the North Carolina shore in preparation for the landing. The shelling was unnecessary, as there were no Confederate troops in the area. The Union soldiers landed unimpeded.
After coming ashore near Slocum Creek, Burnside’s troops began their march to New Bern, 17 miles distant, but heavy rains that day made the journey slow and difficult. Union troops made camp near the Fort Thompson line on the night of March 13.
At 7:00 a. m. on March 14, Burnside’s men advanced in three columns toward the Confederate positions. Brigadier General Jesse Reno commanded the Union troops to the left of the railroad, while Brigadier General John G. Foster’s brigade advanced on the right between the railroad and the Neuse River. Brigadier General John Parke’s brigade was held in reserve along the railroad, positioned to support either Reno or Foster.
Foster’s command made first contact with the Confederates, immediately encountering devastating Confederate musket and artillery fire, including the three land-sited guns at Fort Thompson. A number of shells from the Union gunboats, firing in support of the attack, also landed within the Union lines, although Foster was able to get word to the gunboats and have them cease fire. He brought up his two reserve regiments to continue the attack on the Confederate position but was unable to break the Confederate line.
On the Union left, Reno discovered the 150-yard gap in the Confederate line and prepared to attack it. The only Confederate troops guarding this break in Branch’s line were local militiamen who had been in service for only two weeks and were armed with only shotguns or hunting rifles. Reno personally led the charge of his men across the railroad against the militia, which soon fled in panic. But as Reno attempted to bring up more men to exploit the breach in the Confederate line, Branch sent reinforcements to seal it. Following heated action, Reno was forced to pull back, and the Confederate line stabilized.
Shortly after 11:00 a. m., Parke ordered his men forward against the Confederate center. Breaching the line, Parke’s men turned right and struck the Confederate troops occupying the breastworks between the railroad and Fort Thompson. Seeing the enemy behind their breastworks, the Confederate soldiers gave way. Branch then ordered a general retirement. The Confederates fled across the Trent River Bridge, which was destroyed after the last of them had crossed it. Later that afternoon, Burnside’s men crossed the river and occupied New Bern.
The capture of New Bern cost the Union 440 casualties. Confederate losses were 578. Fearful that Burnside’s army would sweep across North Carolina and divide the upper Confederacy, Confederate officials dispatched additional troops to the area.
Vital as the events taking place in the Mediterranean were, it was in Western Europe that the main Allied assault was now centred. The Normandy landings in June 1944 involved Coastal Forces in their greatest single operation of the war, and once again established the English Channel as the focal area for small-boat fighting, in which American PTs played their part together with British boats.
During the previous eighteen months, while the main activity had shifted temporarily to the Mediterranean, Coastal Forces in Home waters had continued to maintain their guard over coastal convoys in the narrow seas and off the English east coast. They had taken the fight against enemy shipping into an area which now extended from the Channel Islands right up the German-occupied coast to the Norwegian fjords, and had steadily built up their numbers, until by the time of the great invasion they constituted a formidable armada of twenty-eight flotillas of MTBs/MGBs, twenty of MLs, and eleven of HDMLs.
The end of 1942 had seen the tide turn against the enemy in the battle of the coastal convoys, with the little ships of Coastal Forces playing a major part in breaking the back of the S-boat menace. There could be no let-up, for the Germans continued to fight with a tenacity born of growing desperation. But from the beginning of 1943, the emphasis in Coastal Forces was on attack rather than defence. It became a major undertaking for the S-boats to make sorties into the North Sea for the purpose of mine-laying or attacking British convoys. When they did it was usually in large numbers, widely dispersed, in the hope that some might slip through the offshore patrol screen. They rarely did, but the resulting battles between the small boats were amongst the fiercest fought of the war.
For most of the time the S-boats were required for escort duties with their own convoys, so that by the spring of 1943 the British and German roles had become largely reversed, with the German craft in the same defensive position in which the British MTBs had been during the first two years of the war. These heavily escorted convoys proved as difficult to attack as the Germans had earlier found it was to attack British convoys. Allied to the fact that enemy shipping, particularly in the Dover Straits, was greatly reduced, this led to an inevitable falling off in the number of MTB and MGB actions in 1943.
Nevertheless, successes were achieved, due in large part to better boats coming into service to replace the old ones, especially the large ‘D’ boats and the improved Vosper and British Power Boat Company craft, and a greater degree of sophistication in Coastal Forces methods of operation. It had been realized as far back as 1941 that night fighting in small boats required new and specialized techniques – the training establishment at Fort William (HMS Christopher) in Scotland had been formed primarily with this in mind. But something more was required, to allow crews to train together and to benefit from instruction in the kind of tactics that the pioneers had learned the hard way in the days of trial and error. Accordingly, in mid-1942, a working-up base was established at Weymouth (HMS Bee) under Commander R.F.B. Swinley, and by 1943, not only were new crews being trained there but existing crews were seconded from operations to take part in the courses provided, where they found, perhaps to their surprise, that they still had much to learn about gunnery, signals, torpedo drills and general tactics. Among those posted to Weymouth at various times to give instruction, and to pass on their own knowledge and experience, were commanders whose exploits had already become famous, such as Peter Dickens, Ronald Barge, Philip Lee, Patrick Edge, Mark Arnold Foster and Peter Scott.
There were changes too in the organization of Coastal Forces, which although not ideal, went part of the way towards solving the problems that had hampered the work of Rear Admiral Kekewich in his difficult and somewhat anomalous position. Two Admiralty departments now became responsible for Coastal Forces. On the materials side, concerned with the development of boats and their equipment, Captain F.H.P. Maurice was appointed Director of Coastal Forces Material, while operations came under Captain D.M. Lees DSO, as Deputy Director Operations Division (Coastal). In Nore Command, which had responsibility for the three Coastal Force bases on the east coast at Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Felixstowe, a Captain of Coastal Forces (Captain H.T. Armstrong DSO and Bar, DSC and Bar) was appointed in February 1943, with a small staff, to coordinate operations and training.
All these appointments reflected the greater degree of importance that the Royal Navy had come to attach to Coastal Forces – a far cry from the early days when they were little understood and even dubbed ‘Costly Farces’ by some humorists. There was much greater coordination with other services concerned in coastal warfare, particularly with Fighter Command and Coastal Command’s Strike Wing, in which short-range aircraft worked with destroyers and MTBs from Nore and Dover Commands in operations against enemy convoys.
In taking the war across the North Sea to the German-occupied coast of Europe, it was the longer-range ‘D’ boats that were the most successful, able as they were to hunt in areas where least expected. One such operation took place on 12 March off the Hook of Holland, where three nights earlier Yarmouth-based MTBs had sunk a 6,500-ton tanker and two of her escorts, but had also lost one MTB (commanded by Lieutenant F.W. Carr) in an action against destroyers. As on that occasion, the boats were led by Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Gemmel, who was later to take command of a British flotilla operating with the Norwegian flotilla already in the Shetlands, against the coast of Norway, and was to be awarded both the DSO and DSC.
The memory of what had happened on the previous mission was very much in the mind of Gemmel and his crews as the three MTBs approached the same spot and immediately sighted a convoy of three big merchant ships surrounded by smaller escorts. It was at a longer range than usual – some 3,000 yards – that they fired their torpedoes, although from a perfect firing position. Two ships were hit. One broke in half and sank quickly, the other caught fire first, then sank more slowly by the stern. The MTBs turned away and headed back for home. From start to finish the enemy was unaware of their presence. The Admiralty thought it best to keep the Germans guessing and so for some time Gemmel’s action was kept secret.
It was on that same night that Lieutenant Arnold Foster DSC, leading three MTBs from Dover and assisted by a force of MGBs from Ramsgate under Lieutenant G.D.K. Richards DSC (one of the greatest of the gunboat commanders who was killed in action later in the year), torpedoed and sank another heavily escorted German merchant ship which had left Boulogne on one of the enemy’s rare attempts to make a dash through the Straits.
At the original instigation of Robert Hichens, before he was killed, the decision was taken in the summer of 1943 to equip all the ‘D’ class Fairmiles and most of the newer MGBs as MTBs, by installing torpedo tubes. The wheel had thus turned full circle, for just as the early MTBs had found themselves hampered by a lack of guns, which led to the development of the MGB, now the gunboats sometimes found themselves in a position to make torpedo attacks but with no torpedoes to fire, while the MTBs they were escorting were unable to get into such satisfactory firing positions. The ideal appeared to be a combined MTB/MGB – which was exactly the type of craft with which the Germans had entered the war. As the boats were gradually converted, they proved the value of this arrangement by increasing the percentage of the successes against the enemy, particularly as the enemy convoys were now strongly escorted by S-boats, which often made it necessary for a single boat to fight a gun duel as well as make a torpedo attack.
But as in all the small-boat fighting, it was the men rather than the equipment on which the results finally depended. This had been amply proved by Peter Dickens’s successes of the previous year, even with unreliable and outdated boats whose performance had been gradually improved as a result of the heroic efforts of the base staffs. Now, as Senior Officer MTBs at Felixstowe, with mostly Vosper 72½-footers in his own 21st Flotilla, he continued to show that there was still a place for the smaller but faster craft, if handled in the right way. With the help of Lieutenant I.C. Trelawny DSC, who commanded the 11th MTB Flotilla, he perfected his tactics of stalking and the unobserved approach to achieve some of the most successful results of the year.
One such operation took place in the early hours of 14 May. It was a perfect night for MTBs – sea calm, visibility limited so that there was a good chance of getting close before being seen – when Dickens left harbour in MTB 234, accompanied by 244 (Lieutenant K. Hartley), 247 (Sub Lieutenant G.J. Macdonald DSC, RNZVR) and 252 (Sub Lieutenant V. Ohlenschlagar).
By 01.40 on the morning of the 14th, the boats had reached their position 3 miles off the Hook of Holland, stopped and cut engines, and set hydrophone and RDF watch for any convoy that might pass. Dickens later wrote:
My leading stoker then staggered onto the upper deck and reported that exhaust fumes had leaked into the engine room and that the motor mechanic and stoker had fainted. They were dragged out and all three laid out on the upper deck to recover. The motor mechanic and stoker did not regain consciousness for about three minutes, when they were violently sick and had splitting headaches. In view of this I decided to remain in my present position which covered the approaches to the Hook and any passing traffic so as to give time for the engine-room crew to recover properly.
After about two hours, a confused sound was heard on the hydrophone. The MTBs started up at 9 knots, and at 03.41 four large ships with S-boat escorts were sighted fine on the starboard bow. They were not merchant vessels as expected but warships that were thought at first to be torpedo boats but later turned out to be minesweepers.
Macdonald and Ohlenschlagar were ordered to make an attack after Dickens and Hartley had separated and come in from different angles to create a diversion. But as the MTBs began to move into position, they suddenly found that the range which was thought to be 2 miles was only 500 yards – they were right on top of the convoy. An S-boat challenged Macdonald with the letter ‘P’. Macdonald replied with ‘R’, which confused the enemy and made him hold his fire for a vital few moments.
This gave a chance for Dickens and Hartley to come in to make a torpedo attack, reversing the roles originally planned, but all according to the tactics Dickens had devised. Unfortunately the two MTBs had not yet had time to separate and in the confusion of the moment, for they had just been seen and were coming under heavy fire, both fired their torpedoes at the same target, which was the second ship in line. As this blew up with a vivid red flash, the MTBs made smoke and disengaged. It was at this point that one of those incidents occurred which could have been serious but which in fact had its lighter side, as Dickens now recalls:
Having fired our torpedoes, Hartley and I disengaged to the east and had turned 90 degrees so that we were going parallel to the enemy, pretty close, and straight towards the shore at full speed. I was between Hartley and the enemy. I wanted to turn right away and get behind the smoke for we were being hit, but could not because Hartley for some unaccountable reason was holding his course. I waved and shouted madly to no effect, and it only came out afterwards that the strap of his binoculars had caught in the spokes of the wheel so that the coxswain could not turn it. Not knowing the reason why and reasonably assuming the steering had been hit, he exerted all the pressure he could, thus half strangling Hartley until, thank goodness, the strap finally broke.
Shortly before 04.00 Dickens made contact with the other two boats of Macdonald and Ohlenschlagar, which had also disengaged after knocking out the S-boat’s after gun. Having found out that they had not yet fired their torpedoes, Dickens took them back to the attack. They came across the wreck of the ship that had been torpedoed and by then was sinking by the stern. Her bows had been blown clean off. But what was more important was that another of the big minesweepers was slowly circling the wreck. Macdonald went in alone to make an attack, but both his torpedoes missed. Then Ohlenschlagar had a go. Although he was sighted and came under heavy tracer fire, he kept going and fired at 400 yards. One torpedo misfired, but the other found its mark. The second target blew up in a sheet of flame and appeared to break in two.
At that moment a third ship appeared, but with no torpedoes left, Dickens had to break off and head back for base. Two German minesweepers had been sunk, compared to only superficial damage to three of the MTBs (241 was not hit at all) and one casualty, Ordinary Seaman J. Pollard on Hartley’s boat, who was slightly wounded by shrapnel in the arm.
The claims at first made by Dickens were for two torpedo boats, which were much the same size as the minesweepers they were later found to be. The German propaganda machine made use of this misidentification in the following broadcast from Berlin two days later:
Yesterday the British Admiralty spread the false report that during an engagement between German and British naval forces off the coast of Holland, two German torpedo boats had been sunk. It is declared officially that on the night of 13/14 May no German torpedo boats were either attacked or damaged, and certainly not sunk.
This is what actually occurred off Scheveningen: a formation consisting of six British MTBs attempted to operate on the German sea routes off the Dutch coast and was, before reaching their destination, spotted by forces of the German naval coastguard and engaged. During this short-distance engagement the British MTBs, whose gunnery was inferior, received several direct hits. Two boats caught fire which soon spread over the entire length of the British boats. A third capsized owing to heavy damage received below the waterline after having been fired at heavily by both sides. In clear moonlight it could be seen that she sank. Apart from a number of losses of personnel, the German boats suffered no damage and were able to remain in position until daybreak. They have reached their base at dawn on 15 May in full numbers.
The monitoring officer of this German news broadcast added his own wry question: ‘As Lieutenant Dickens and his team presumably returned to base by swimming, has any consideration been given to granting them survivors’ leave and applying for the long-distance record?’
Dickens and his flotilla continued to achieve such successes and in the summer he was awarded the DSO. Then, in the autumn, after a brief spell at Weymouth to instruct others in the tactics that had become his hallmark, he was given command of a Hunt-class destroyer. But the tradition he had established at Felixstowe was ably continued by Trelawny’s 11th Flotilla.
Coastal Force activities in the English Channel showed a marked decline in the summer and autumn, not only because of the fewer ships that the Germans put to sea, but also because of unfavourable weather conditions. Three Newhaven-based flotillas of SGBs, ‘D’ Type MGBs, and 70-foot MTBs, had begun to operate in a new area off the Normandy coast, but the German radar-controlled batteries mounted high up on the cliffs made this a difficult and very dangerous hunting ground.
As regards the enemy’s offensive tactics, the S-boats were now rarely able to achieve success. But the Germans were well aware of their value in holding down large British defensive forces and in the autumn they decided to step up their operations in the North Sea with a number of well-planned mass attacks. The first of these on the night of 24/25 September resulted in the loss of one British trawler by torpedo, and in two ramming incidents in which S96 was sunk and two MLs, 145 and 150, were very badly damaged. Honours were fairly even. Then, on 24 October, three S-boat flotillas set out again on another mass attack against a northbound convoy off the Norfolk coast. This became a major battle, spread out over many hours and a large area of the North Sea, with as many as sixteen separate encounters between the German boats and the British patrols of destroyers and coastal craft.
The convoy of merchant vessels and trawlers was sailing towards the Humber and escorted by five destroyers, Pytchley, Worcester, Eglington, Campbell and Mackay. Coastal Force dispositions for the night had been made with an eye to a possible attack. On anti-S-boat patrol in units some 10 miles offshore were MGBs 609 and 610 under Lieutenant P. Edge, MGBs 607 and 603 under Lieutenant R.M. Marshall, MGBs 315 and 327 under Lieutenant J.A. Caulfield, and ML 250 and RML 517, under Lieutenant Commander Robert Elford. MTBs 439 and 442, under Lieutenant C.A. Burk RCNVR, were on stand-by in Lowestoft.
The S-boats, up to thirty of them, left their bases on the Dutch coast at nightfall and just before midnight, when about 12 miles off the convoy route, broke up into divisions of four or six boats each. By this time their presence had been detected by RAF bombers returning from a raid and the convoy was alerted. The S-boats had apparently used the direct route from Ijmuiden north of the Ower Bank, and as they would probably return that way, Nore Command plans were laid accordingly to cut off their line of retreat.
Pytchley was the first to make contact with the enemy. From her position guarding the seaward flank of the convoy the destroyer picked up a unit of six S-boats by radar at 23.18 and went into action against them 4 miles north of 56B buoy. She drove them off to the north-east, severely damaging one in a ‘well-fought action which undoubtedly saved the convoy from being accurately located’.
When the report of Pytchley’s contact had been received, MGBs 609 and 610 (Unit R) were ordered towards the vicinity of the S-boats, while MGBs 607 and 603 (Unit Y) went to intercept their line of retirement to Ijmuiden, together with the two fast MTBs which left Lowestoft to cover the northern end of Brown Ridge. Eglington was ordered to remain with the convoy while the remaining three destroyers were ‘fleeted’ north to help the MGBs.
It soon became clear that the S-boats had split into numerous groups which were approaching the outer war channel at a number of points east of 57F buoy. This would have posed a dangerous threat were it not for the fact that by good fortune the convoy was two hours ahead of its timetable. When the S-boats reached the shipping route, therefore, they were well astern of the convoy and the only anxiety was for the trawler William Stephen, which was straggling some miles behind.
At 00.27, Worcester, reaching the eastern end of her patrol, engaged four S-boats and drove them off with Oerlikon fire, scoring hits on one. Less than an hour later the same destroyer engaged another group of three boats and this time scored a direct hit with a 4.7-inch shell. The boat blew up and the blazing wreckage was passed as Worcester chased the others northwards. Returning to the channel half an hour later, Worcester sighted several more S-boats stopped at the scene of the action, picking up survivors. These were engaged and driven off.
Mackay meanwhile had also been engaged in two actions against different groups of S-boats at 00.40 and 01.48. While driving them off, the enemy made smoke and dropped a number of delayed-action depth charges, which the destroyer easily avoided.
The trawler William Stephen had dropped back 5 miles by the time these actions developed. With S-boats both ahead and astern of her, she ran into a group shortly before 01.00, was torpedoed and sunk. Fifteen survivors were picked up and made prisoner.
It was now time for the Coastal Forces craft to intercept the enemy boats which had been driven northwards by the destroyers. Caulfield’s MGBs, Unit V, had seen the first actions of Worcester and Mackay from a distance to the south and had also felt the underwater explosion of the torpedoed trawler. At 01.20 they made contact with three S-boats leaving Worcester’s second action and scored hits on these. An hour later three more were sighted on a north-easterly course at high speed, but owing to their large turning circle, the MGBs were unable to manoeuvre quickly enough to engage these.
In spite of their one success in sinking the William Stephen, the S-boats failed to make any contact with the main convoy, and what was more, they had had a rude surprise in the fierce reception that greeted them. But the most dramatic incident was yet to come. The MGBs under Lieutenant Marshall, Unit Y, made contact with the S-boats chased away by Mackay soon after 02.00. They were only doing 15 knots as one, S63, had been badly damaged, and were taken completely by surprise when the MGBs came for them at high speed with all guns firing. S88 took terrible punishment from this concentrated fire and was soon ablaze from stem to stern. It happened that Korvettenkapitän Lützow, commander of the 4th S-boat Flotilla, was on board this craft and was killed by a direct hit on the bridge.
The remaining boats increased speed and made smoke in an attempt to escape. The MGBs turned to port to cut them off and Marshall in 607 found an S-boat close on his port bow. He increased speed to engage, but the enemy boat suddenly turned to starboard and came towards him with the apparent intention of ramming. Not to be outdone, Marshall put his helm hard to port so that it was he who rammed the enemy, striking him full amidships at full speed. The force of the collision bounced both boats clear of one another. Marshall stopped to take stock of the situation and found, somewhat to his surprise, that his boat was not badly damaged. His casualties were heavy however – five dead and six wounded – caused by a blast of gunfire from the S-boat just before ramming. And most of his guns were out of action.
The S-boat on the other hand was already on fire and as the second MGB, 603, commanded by Lieutenant F.R. Lightoller, came up to see if Marshall needed help, the enemy boat was seen to sink. Shortly afterwards, the burning S88 blew up with an explosion that sent debris hurtling 200 feet into the air. Nineteen survivors were picked up and made prisoner. While this was being done, the explosion of another boat going up was seen about a mile off.
In the meantime, all the other Coastal Force craft had been engaged in running battles with further groups of S-boats, in which heavy damage was suffered on both sides. The two MGBs of Unit R, under Lieutenant Edge, were involved in a cat-and-mouse game of stalking one group to prevent them breaking through the cordon. When they did turn north to make a run for it, the two forces converged and in the brief but concentrated action that followed one of the S-boats was severely hit and seen to disappear in a cloud of smoke. The MTBs of Lieutenant Burk, Unit J, had a more difficult time and his own boat was badly damaged by a hit on the bridge which killed the first lieutenant.
As the boats returned to their bases, some of them crippled and only able to move slowly, the events of the night were gradually pieced together. It seemed that the damage inflicted by either side in sixteen separate actions was probably about even. But none of the British craft were lost, as against at least four of the German. As an Admiralty report stated:
This major E-Boat operation was frustrated with considerable loss to the enemy and the results were a triumph for the Nore organization. Nevertheless it was lucky the convoy was early; it would appear that after Pytchley had prevented the first group locating it, the only E-boats which had a chance of finding it and making an attack were those driven off by Unit R.
The successful beating-off of such a large enemy force kept the S-boats well clear of the east coast for a while. As the year ended, Coastal Forces were very much on the attack, harrying enemy shipping from the north – where the Norwegian 54th and now the British 58th MTB Flotilla under Gemmel operated from Lerwick against the Norwegian coast, to encourage the Germans in their belief that the Allies were planning a large-scale invasion of Norway – to the south where the MTBs and MGBs of Plymouth Command were now fighting regularly in the Channel Islands and off the coast of Brittany.
One of the long-standing complaints of the German S-boat crews had been that although their boats were faster than most of those of the British, they suffered from inferior armament. During the winter of 1943/4, however, a number of S-boats were rearmed with 40mm in place of their 20mm guns, which brought an aggressive new spirit amongst the German forces. In the past they had always avoided contact with their opposite numbers whenever possible, not from any lack of bravery or determination, but acting on German Naval Command policy. Unless they were defending their own convoys as escorts, their primary targets were Allied merchant ships, using either torpedoes or mines, and not the small craft of Coastal Forces which they usually hoped to avoid by their superior speed. These tactics had become less and less successful as Coastal Forces developed interception techniques to force the S-boats into combat, and on such occasions the German craft usually found themselves outgunned and at a distinct disadvantage.
Now, with heavier guns, the S-boats showed less reluctance to engage in a direct confrontation and the time came, on the night of 14/15 February 1944, when they actually sought out and hunted a group of British MTBs.
The events of the night began when a group of six S-boats crossed the North Sea with the intention of laying mines off the east coast. They were picked up by shore radar at 23.07 and driven off by the Harwich-based corvettes Mallard and Shearwater, which were on patrol. As they sped away, the S-boats were seen to jettison their mines. Meanwhile, five MTBs under Lieutenant Derek Leaf DSC had been sent earlier to the south end of Brown Ridge to try to intercept the enemy boats on their home run. The MTBs were 71½-foot BPB craft, able to stand up to long spells at high speed, but even so, they were too late: the enemy were already ahead of them. So Leaf decided to make for Ijmuiden, to be waiting on their doorstep when they returned to base.
Approaching the Dutch coast, however, the MTBs came upon an enemy flak ship and two trawlers. A combined attack was made, in which the flak ship was torpedoed and sunk by MTB 455 (Lieutenant M.V. Round RNZNVR), while Leaf’s boat, MTB 444, repeatedly hit one of the trawlers with gunfire and left it burning. In coming in to make another attack, Leaf ran straight towards another enemy ship which he did not see until the last minute. The MTB was heavily hit both above and below the waterline. Leaf, his Petty Officer and two ratings were killed and two others wounded.
This was not realized at the time by the other boats, however, and when three of them regrouped and 444 and 455 could not be seen, Lieutenant C.A. Burk RCNVR, commanding 439, took over as Senior Officer of the unit and set off to search for the missing boats. Almost immediately, Burk had the nasty shock of discovering by radar that six S-boats were shadowing his unit 1,000 yards off on the port quarter, an almost unheard of occurrence. The enemy craft were allowed to close to 600 yards, at which point further radar contacts, probably more S-boats, were picked up ahead. Burk decided to attack the shadowing boats first, rather than all groups at once. The unit altered course to port, increased to full speed and crossed the bows of the leading S-boat at 100 yards. Fire was opened at this and the second boat in line. Both were hit and the leader silenced and left stopped with a fire burning aft. During this engagement the MTBs were repeatedly hit by small-arms fire.
Burk then turned to attack the second group of six S-boats, but during this manoeuvre MTB 441 (Lieutenant W. Fesq RANVR) lost contact with the others. While trying to rejoin them he came across two boats which he thought were MTBs but which, after challenges were flashed, turned out to be S-boats. Fire was exchanged and 441 broke away. There were so many radar echoes at this time that Fesq had no means of telling which were friendly and which were enemy craft, so he turned and headed back to base.
The other two boats meanwhile found themselves outnumbered by no less than seventeen S-boats. Fire was exchanged while running at high speed, but the MTBs sustained little damage and only three men were slightly wounded. Eventually they broke off and set off for base, having already established W/T contact with 441 and 455, which were also returning and not in need of help. No contact could be made with 444 as the wireless on Leaf’s boat had been put out of action.
What happened after Leaf was mortally wounded was described by Sub Lieutenant P.P. Bains, the first officer of 444 who took over command:
As all the electrical equipment had been put out of action, I decided it was useless to try to regain contact with the remainder of the unit and so steered a north-westerly course to avoid further enemy boats until 04.15, when I altered for base and increased speed to 30 knots. Smoke and a distinct smell of burning was coming from the W/T compartment (where the telegraphist had been one of those killed; the others were the helmsman and Oerlikon and pom-pom gunners). This was drenched with Pyrene as the source could not be discovered but the smell and smoke persisted all the way back to Lowestoft. A serious leak in the forward mess-deck was discovered, and as soon as the hands could be spared, a chain of buckets was formed. This managed to keep the water down below danger level. There had also been a fire in the engine room which had been put out by the motor mechanic and stokers.
The loss of Derek Leaf, one of the most brilliant of the MTB leaders, was a serious blow to Coastal Forces. It had been he, as Senior Officer of the 3rd MTB Flotilla, who had devised the successful tactics of attacking trawlers from astern as a means of avoiding detection by their hydrophones, which appeared to operate best forward of the beam. Indeed, it was these tactics that had resulted in success on his last attack.
During the three years of night fighting by Coastal Forces, it had been the North Sea which commanded the lion’s share of operations. Now it was the turn of the English Channel to come into prominence with the greatest operation of them all, the Normandy landings, in which Coastal Forces had many important roles to play.
As the invasion was to be launched principally by Portsmouth Command, in March a Captain, Coastal Forces, Channel, was appointed (Captain P.V. McLaughlin) to the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, to take charge of all MTB and ML operations (MGBs were no longer designated separately). Such an appointment was long overdue and came more than a year after the similar appointment in Nore Command which had achieved such good results.
While Captain McLaughlin and his small staff, which included such experienced flotilla commanders as Christopher Dreyer and Peter Scott, made detailed plans for the part that Coastal Forces were to play in the invasion, American PT boats made their first appearance in the Channel, brought over originally at the urgent request of the Office of Strategic Services to land and pick up agents on the French coast. This led to the re-commissioning of Squadron 2, which had previously been wound up in the Solomons at the end of 1943. The first of the Higgins boats, under Lieutenant Commander John Bulkeley, arrived at Dartmouth in April. They were fitted with special navigational equipment to aid them in locating specific points on the French coast, and their officers and men trained in launching and rowing special four-oared boats, constructed with padded sides and muffled rowlocks, so that they could land men and equipment on a beach swiftly and silently on the darkest nights. The first of these cloak-and-dagger operations took place on the night of 19 May, when PT 71 landed agents with equipment on a beach within 500 yards of German sentries. They continued up until November. The crews never knew the identity of their passengers and never once made contact with the enemy, which was as intended.
To take part in the invasion itself, further PTs were shipped across: Squadron 34 (Lieutenant Allen H. Harris), Squadron 35 (Lieutenant Commander Richard Davis Jr) and Squadron 30 (Lieutenant Robert L. Searles). Bulkeley was appointed as task group commander of all PT operations.
The main job of the British and American craft was to help defend the flanks of the spearhead attack on the shores of the Baie de la Seine and maintain guard over the subsequent flow of cross-Channel traffic. The most likely attacks were expected to come from destroyers, torpedo boats and minesweepers, of which the Germans still had large forces based in the Low Countries and on the Atlantic coast of France, and from S-boats based along the coast from Cherbourg to Holland. In the weeks before the invasion, ten flotillas of MTBs and MLs laid nearly 3,000 mines unobtrusively in areas close to the French coast, while at the same time other MTBs carried out their usual anti-S-boat patrols, and the MLs prepared for their wide range of tasks which were to include minesweeping, duties as escorts and navigational leaders, and shepherding in the landing craft.
Knowing that an invasion was imminent, although not its date or location, the Germans were preparing their own plans. The S-boats played an important part in these and Petersen, as commander of all S-boats in the Channel and North Sea, with his headquarters at Scheveningen, Holland, was involved in a direct battle of wits with McLaughlin and his staff at Portsmouth. In order to hamper the Allied preparations, Petersen increased his patrols until large numbers of S-boats were at sea every night.
Their biggest success came in the early hours of 28 April. A force of six S-boats from the 5th and 9th Flotillas had set sail from Cherbourg the evening before to attack an Allied convoy reported to be in the vicinity of Portland Bill. By the time the S-boats arrived they found they had missed the convoy, which had passed out of the danger area. The German craft were preparing to return home when, to their amazement, they came across a convoy of eight American tank landing ships sailing sedately at only 3½ knots in line ahead across Lyme Bay, off the Dorset coast, with only a corvette as escort, way ahead of the convoy and not guarding its flank. It seemed too good to be true. The S-boats raced into the attack before the Americans knew what had hit them. As the LSTs, packed with men and equipment, scattered in confusion, the S-boats sank two of them with torpedoes and severely damaged a third. The gunners on the other landing craft began wildly firing their machine-guns, often hitting friendly craft. By the time the corvette Azalea realized something was wrong and had turned about, the S-boats had sped away, completely unscathed, leaving a death toll of 441 military and 197 naval servicemen, which increased to a total of 749 over the following weeks as more bodies were recovered from the water or floated on to the shore.
News of the disaster came as a shock to General Eisenhower and his commanders who were planning for the great invasion of Europe only five weeks away. The American landing craft were in fact taking part in an exercise to practise amphibious landings on the beach at nearby Slapton Sands, chosen because of its similarity to the beaches of Normandy. If a few small German boats could slip through at night, apparently undetected, and create such havoc amongst just eight landing craft, what might they not do against a target of thousands when the real invasion took place?
If nothing else, the event once again proved the vital importance of coastal waters, both in offence and defence, and the value of small, well-armed boats which were difficult to detect at night. It was a lesson the Royal Navy had learned the hard way earlier in the North Sea and English Channel but a danger underestimated by the Americans – although the US Navy in the Pacific would have told a different story. Plans were put in hand to strengthen the forces defending the Normandy invasion fleet, including the deployment of more British and American motor gunboats. The Royal Air Force began a series of bombing raids against S-boat bases which severely reduced their numbers. And a news blackout was imposed on the fiasco to avoid a loss of morale among the American troops waiting to take part in the invasion, many of them as inexperienced in combat as those who had tragically lost their lives in Lyme Bay.
But in reality, such S-boat successes as Lyme Bay were exceptional. As Kapitänleutnant Rudolph Petersen summed up at the time: ‘Owing to the superior radar, strong escorts and air patrols of the enemy, and the German dependence on good visibility (for their boats still lacked radar), each success must be paid for by many fruitless attacks.’
And as the Allies pieced together the events of that night, it became apparent that it was not so much a German success as a chapter of Allied errors. The destroyer Scimitar should have been part of the escort, but had been in a collision with one of the landing craft the night before and had put in to Plymouth for repairs. The destroyer Saladin was intended to replace her, but through an oversight had not reached the convoy. Shore radar contact with the S-boats had in fact been made and Azalea warned two hours before the attack took place, but still the corvette allowed the convoy to proceed slowly right into the enemy’s path without any evasive action. Although the Azalea was under the orders of US Navy officers, it was her British captain who was censured for not taking more effective measures to defend the convoy. The heavy loss of life included men who had jumped from their sinking or damaged craft and drowned because there were too few life rafts, they had not been instructed properly in the use of life vests, and, in the case of the troops, they were encumbered by their heavy equipment and the helmets they were still wearing.
As stated in Captain Roskill’s Official History of the War at Sea:
The first five months of 1944 marked a very important stage in the development of our maritime control over the narrow waters; for it was then that we gradually established a sufficient ascendancy to ensure that, when the invasion fleets set sail for France, the Germans would not be in a position to molest them seriously. The degree of success accomplished could not, of course, be judged until the expedition actually sailed; but by the end of May there were solid grounds for believing that, even though the passage would undoubtedly be contested with all the means available to the enemy, his worst efforts would not suffice to frustrate our purpose. Such was the measure of the accomplishment of the astonishingly varied forces of little ships and aircraft which had so long fought to gain control of our coastal waters, and to deny a similar measure of control to the enemy.
As D-Day approached, so the work of Coastal Forces increased. Now it was not only a matter of laying mines to protect the flanks of the 15-mile-wide path of the invasion fleet across the Channel, but every effort had to be made to prevent S-boats from mining this path or the convoy routes of the invasion forces gathering in harbours along the south coast. There was a momentary alarm when, during an exercise on the night of 18/19 May in which MTBs were to act the part of S-boats to test the defences against these, two real S-boats approached the outer patrols. They were chased off, however, by two SGBs.
It is outside the scope of this book to describe the complex plans for D-Day in detail. Very briefly, Operation Neptune, which was the naval part of the overall invasion, Operation Overlord, called for two great task forces to make landings on either side of a line dividing Seine Bay. To the east was the British area, under Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, where three divisions of the British Second Army were to land at three points, ‘Sword’, ‘Juno’ and ‘Gold’, on a 30-mile front between the River Orne and the harbour of Port-en-Bessin. To the west was the American area under Rear Admiral A.G. Kirk, where the US First Army was to make two landings, ‘Omaha’ and ‘Utah’, on a 20-mile front. Two follow-up forces were to come in immediately behind the main assaults: Force L, commanded by Rear Admiral W.E. Parry, and Force B, commanded by Commodore C. D. Edgar.
Out of the total of 1,213 warships allocated to the assault phase of the operation, 495 were coastal craft, including SGBs, MTBs, PTs, MLs and HDMLs. With the Eastern Task Force there were ninety craft, including thirty American. With the Western Task Force there were 113, including eighty-one American. It was in the latter area that the SGBs and most of the PTs were to operate. A further 292 craft came under Home Commands, amongst which were thirteen Dutch, eight French and three Norwegian. The landing craft of various types which were to take part in the initial phase totalled 4,126.
D-Day was originally scheduled for 5 June. As instructed, a group of three PTs, which were to be among the spearhead forces, set out on the 4th to rendezvous with minesweepers off the Isle of Wight and began the crossing towards Seine Bay. Only after they left was the belated notice received that D-Day had been postponed until the 6th because of the bad weather forecast. The PTs were all set to make a landing on their own, a day ahead of time, with consequences in revealing to the Germans the location of the invasion that hardly bear imagining. Luckily they were intercepted by a patrolling destroyer when halfway across the Channel and sent back to Portland.
There was great anxiety and tension throughout that day, 5 June. It seemed impossible that the enemy could still be unaware of the Allied plans, considering the sheer size of the operation and the fact that the concentration of shipping of every kind imaginable in the Solent and Spithead was so great that scarcely an empty berth remained in those wide stretches of sheltered water. But there was no sign of enemy activity. As darkness fell on the waiting, darkened ships it seemed, incredible as it was, that the greatest invasion armada the world had ever seen might after all achieve that element of surprise that counted for so much.
The expansion of Coastal Forces activity into the Aegean and Adriatic made it necessary for boats to be transferred to these areas from Malta and Messina, with an inevitable falling off in the number of operations that could be carried out along the west coast of Italy.
After the landings in Italy, Commander Robert Allan had moved his mobile base up from Messina to Maddalena, the former Italian naval base in Sardinia. From here the 20th MGB Flotilla began operations by the end of September 1943, patrolling the north-western waters particularly round Elba; they were soon followed by the 7th MTB Flotilla and the American PTs under Lieutenant Commander Barnes. Except when they were withdrawn for special operations with American forces, such as the invasions of Sicily, Italy and later Southern France, the PTs operated throughout as part of British Coastal Forces. In mid-October an advance base was established at Bastia, in Corsica, and from here the entire Gulf of Genoa came within patrolling distance.
As the Germans were driven slowly towards Rome during the winter of 1943, their supply lines by road and rail from Genoa came under continual attack and they had to rely increasingly on waterborne transport from the north. This mainly took the form of F-lighters and cargo ships that made the run down the coast by night, behind protective minefields and under cover of shore batteries, making it too risky to send in destroyers to stop the traffic. And so the job was left to the MTBs, MGBs and PTs, which with their shallow draft could usually pass safely over the minefields.
Experience had shown that the strongly built F-lighters could only be effectively sunk by torpedo as they were virtually invulnerable to the gunpower the small boats carried at that time. The F-lighters on the other hand were heavily armed with 6-inch and 8-inch guns, which made it necessary for the MTBs to get their torpedoes away quickly before coming under fire themselves. This led to the development of a technique for tracking a target by radar to assess its course and speed, then sneaking quietly in from the most favourable angle of approach and firing torpedoes before the enemy knew they were being attacked.
The PTs were the best craft for tracking the enemy, equipped as they were with a much more effective kind of radar. But the MTBs carried better torpedoes than the Americans – faster, more reliable and of higher explosive power – and the MGBs carried heavier firepower with their 6-pounders. And so joint patrols were instituted, in which a PT acted as scout and tracker while the MGBs held off any attack that was being made, and the MTBs came in to fire their torpedoes.
The technique of using MTBs and MGBs together on operations was not new, having orginally been developed during the early days in the English Channel. But Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean went one step further by reorganizing the ‘Dog’ flotillas to include four each of MTBs and MGBs. In one of these flotillas, the 56th, every commanding officer was a Canadian, with another Canadian, Lieutenant Commander Douglas Maitland, as Senior Officer. This flotilla became something of a legend in the Mediterranean. Soon after its formation it took part with other Coastal Force units in the Anzio landings on 21 January. In conjunction with the PTs under Stanley Barnes, the Canadian boats made a ‘dummy landing’ further along the coast as a diversion, using the usual techniques of record-playing the sounds of a landing over loudspeakers and setting off fireworks to simulate a battle. It was while this was in progress that an F-lighter and two S-boats passed by, further offshore. The six ‘Dogs’ set off in pursuit, MGBs 657 (Maitland), 658 (Cornelius Burke), 633 (Tommy Ladner), 640 (Campbell McLachlan), 659 (Peter Barlow), and MTB 655 (Pickard). Coming up fast in line ahead in the wake of the enemy, the MGBs delivered a fierce broadside which soon silenced the German gunners, and set the F-lighter and one of the S-boats on fire. Pickard’s MTB which should then have made a torpedo attack had been hit and had fallen out of line. But just as Maitland turned back to look for him, the F-lighter blew up with a tremendous explosion.
It was the first time one of these craft had been destroyed by gunfire and the significance was not lost on Commander Allan. German opposition had stiffened considerably, with the F-lighter convoys now being escorted by S-boats and large landing-craft mounting high-velocity 88mm, as well as 40mm and 20mm guns. The MTBs found it difficult to get near enough to make a torpedo attack, and even when they did the torpedoes usually passed underneath the shallow-draft lighters. But the Canadians had shown that an attack by gunfire could be successful, pointing to a new method of approaching the problem. Allan began devising plans which led to the formation of Coastal Forces’ ‘Battle Squadron’, one of the most spectacular and successful small-boat units of the war.
This force was built around three British LCGs (Landing Craft Gun), each mounting two 4.7-inch and two 40mm guns manned by Royal Marine crews. These formed the Battle Group (the actual craft used were LCGs 14,19 and 20). They were screened from possible S-boat attack by an Escort Group, comprising the Canadian-commanded ‘Dogs’, MTB 634 and MGBs 662, 660 and 659. A Scouting Group of PTs 212 and 214, under the command of Lieutenant Edwin A. Du Bose in 272, was to search ahead for targets and also act as a screen against any enemy destroyers in the vicinity. And finally there was the Control Group of PTs 218 and 208, with Commander Allan in 275 commanding the entire operation. He was virtually in the position of admiral of a battle fleet – a battle fleet in miniature – going into action against a somewhat similar opposing force but in which events would move a great deal faster than if they had been big ships.
One of the most successful operations by the ‘Battle Squadron’ took place on the night of 24 April. Allan led the Control Group in PT 218, with 209, and Du Bose the Scouting Group in PT 212, with 202 and 273. The LCGs were escorted by PTs 211 and 276, MTBs 640,633 and 655, and MGBs 657, 660 and 662. The MTBs were commanded by Tim Bligh and the MGBs by Douglas Maitland. The force left Bastia at various times in the afternoon, because of their different speeds, and made rendezvous in the vicinity of the Vada Rocks at 20.00.
At this same time, a German convoy of eight F-lighters and a tug was setting off from Leghorn to take supplies further down the coast to San Stefano, while a smaller convoy of two patrol trawlers, each towing a barge, left shortly afterwards from Porto Ferraio, northward bound for Leghorn.
The first radar contact was picked up by the Scouting Group at 22.05, just off Vada Rocks, and a few minutes later Allan picked up another contact off Piombino Point on his own radar screen. The first was the southbound convoy and the second appeared to Allan to be an escort group heading to make rendezvous with the convoy; it was in fact the northbound convoy. In any event, Allan decided to pass ahead of this and attack the main target.
The F-lighters were close inshore when Allan located them shortly after midnight. As starshells lit up the enemy craft, many of the first rounds fired by the LCGs landed on the cliffs. But others found their targets, and within minutes four lighters and the tug had been blown up and sunk. Then the Battle Group turned away to intercept further radar contacts which had appeared to seaward, leaving the MGBs to close the beach and search for any further targets. One F-lighter was found, undamaged but abandoned by most of her crew; this was set on fire by the MGBs and later blew up. After picking up survivors, the MGBs were ordered by Allan to return to Bastia.
In the meantime, the LCGs had located three more F-lighters, two of which were hit and sunk almost immediately, but the third returned a high rate of fire which narrowly missed the LCGs. PT 218, from which Allan was controlling the operation, pulled ahead and drew most of this fire, which also landed dangerously near but did not hit the boat; no damage or casualties were suffered by any of the Allied craft. Then the third F-lighter was hit and withdrew under a heavy smokescreen. Fearing she would escape, Allan detached the MTBs to finish her off. They did inflict further damage, but the craft did not sink and eventually beached south of San Vincenzo.
An hour later the Scouting Group made contact with the two patrol vessels towing barges that were the northward-bound convoy. As the LCGs were too far away to make an interception, Allan gave the PTs permission to attack with torpedoes. They came under fire from the enemy craft before manoeuvring into an attacking position, but one of them, PT 202, fired a five-star recognition cartridge which happened to be handy and the enemy stopped firing. The PTs made a final run-in unopposed, fired their torpedoes and one of the vessels blew up, sinking almost immediately. The second opened up heavy fire again, at which the PTs withdrew under a smokescreen.
The ‘Battle Squadron’ was then ordered to return to Bastia, but the operation was not yet over. At 04.00 on the morning of the 25th, Bastia reported that an unknown number of enemy boats was stopped in a position 3 miles due west of Capraia. Allan considered that it was probably an S-boat force lying in wait for his return. He warned the LCGs of the suspected presence of S-boats, giving them a lookout bearing to starboard, and at the same time altering course to port. The Scouting Group were also informed of the enemy position and ordered to proceed round the north of Capraia, while the Close Radar Screen (PTs 211 and 276) was ordered to intercept round the south of the island.
The enemy force was in fact made up of three German torpedo boats, small destroyers, which were laying mines off Capraia. They were engaged by the PTs of the Scouting Group which fired their remaining torpedoes. One of the enemy boats, TA 23, was damaged by an explosion. Whether it was the result of a torpedo hit or striking a mine was not known, but as she was in a sinking condition and could not be saved she was later torpedoed and sunk by one of the other German craft.
None of the MTBs or PTs managed to make further contact with the torpedo boats. But it was a fitting conclusion to what had been a brilliantly successful operation, in which eleven enemy vessels had been sunk without any corresponding damage or casualties to the Allied craft.
In May, Coastal Forces were stepped up by the arrival at Bastia of the 7th MTB Flotilla, made up of new Vospers and American-built Higgins, and the American PT Squadron 22. A further squadron, 29, started operating from a new base at Calvi, on the west coast of Corsica, from where they could move in closer to the French coast and the Italian coast west of Genoa, and the American PT Squadron 15 was divided up between Bastia and Calvi. Lieutenant Commander Barnes, who had been awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism and leadership during the Tunisian and Sicilian campaigns, was in operational command of all three American squadrons.
Equipped with modern Mark XIII torpedoes, which could be fired from light racks instead of the old heavy torpedo tubes, and mounting 40mm guns, these boats were much more effective than the previous PTs. There were fewer incidents of torpedoes running erratically – or even turning and heading back for the boat that had fired them, as had happened in the past. From May to July, the American boats operating alone claimed two corvettes, eleven F-lighters, one cargo ship and several small craft sunk, and one motor torpedo boat, MAS 562, captured. Further craft were sunk in joint operations with British craft. Then, on 1 August, the PTs were withdrawn from operations to prepare for the part they were to play in the invasion of Southern France, scheduled for 15 August.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the British MTBs was also improved by the arrival of the Mark VIII Two-Star torpedoes with magnetic pistols. This device exploded a torpedo without contact with the target being necessary, and was to revolutionize attacks on shallow-draft vessels like F-lighters. The 7th MTB Flotilla, under Lieutenant A.C.B. Blomfield, was the first to use the new torpedoes. On the night of 9 May three of these boats, MTBs 378, 377 and 376, with Lieutenant R. Varvill as Senior Officer, and PT 203, torpedoed and blew up two F-lighters. This was followed up by a further success the following night when Blomfield led MTBs 420 and 421, together with PT 214, against a merchant vessel and escort of five R-boats off Vada Rocks. One certain and one probable hit was scored against the merchant vessel, and one probable hit against one of the escorts. Then on 27 May, off Spezia, Varvill again led MTBs 421, 419 and 420, and PT 218, against a force of five F-lighters escorted by an S-boat. Three of the lighters were torpedoed and blown up – each of them hit by one of Varvill’s torpedoes fired both together, a remarkable feat, and the third by a single torpedo fired by 420 (Lieutenant E.S. Good) – and a fourth was forced to beach. Resuming patrol, an hour later the MTBs sighted a 1,500-ton merchant ship escorted by a sloop or small destroyer. MTB 419 (Lieutenant A.H. Moore) scored a hit with his one remaining torpedo against the merchant ship, which broke in half and sank. Good’s boat was hit by the escort, but he managed to bluff his way out by firing recognition cartridges. As a result of firing five Mark VIII torpedoes – the four Mark XIIIs fired by the PT all missed – the bag for the night was three F-lighters and one merchant ship.
While the 7th MTB Flotilla continued to maintain these successes, other coastal craft, including the PTs and the four ML Flotillas now based in the area, joined the 56th MTB/MGB Flotilla in Operation Brassard, the landing on Elba. This was planned for 17 June, thirteen days after units of Fifth Army had entered Rome following nine months of hard fighting up from Salerno.
Because of the large number of mines laid off Elba by the Germans, it was considered too risky to use deep-draft vessels for the landing, so nearly all the surface support was provided by Coastal Forces. Again the PTs were out with their sound apparatus to simulate dummy landings on the night of 16/17 June, while the actual landing on the south coast was made by Senegalese troops of the French 9th Colonial Infantry Division. Then the MLs began the arduous task of minesweeping while the Canadian-commanded ‘Dogs’ patrolled the approaches to the island.
On the second night after the landing, while leading four boats on patrol between Elba and the mainland, Maitland ran into an enemy force of a destroyer, a torpedo boat and an F-lighter, standing off the island in preparation for making an evacuation. MTB 655 (commanded by Lieutenant Pickard with Maitland on board) made a run-in to fire her torpedoes, which missed and exploded on the shore. Almost simultaneously the destroyer turned and headed straight for the three MGBs, gathering speed as she came. There was a sharp interchange of fire, but the destroyer’s heavier guns won out. MGB 658 (Lieutenant W.O.J. Bate RCNVR) was badly damaged, with three men killed and Bate and another four men wounded. At one point in the action the steering jammed and the gunboat was almost rammed by the destroyer.
Elba was quickly overrun within two days. The subsequent establishment of heavy guns on the island denied the Germans use of the coastal waters to the south and was a great help to the Allied advance up the Italian coast.
Ever since the Adriatic had been opened up for Coastal Force operations, flotillas had been periodically transferred there from the Italian west coast area. Just before the Elba landing, the 57th MTB/MGB Flotilla had joined those which had already gone. Now with the Elba operation completed and with the remaining craft preparing for the next big operation, the invasion of Southern France on 15 August, the 56th MTB/MGB Flotilla was also transferred to the Adriatic.
In the middle of January 1762, Prince Henry experienced a bout of illness, which caused him to enquire whether he could be replaced, at least temporarily, by another officer, preferably Seydlitz or General Forcade, but the king advised that his brother should be able to recover in time to assume field command in the spring, thus rendering a successor in that event unnecessary. In the end, Henry was confined to his bed at his headquarters for more than a month’s time, but when the new campaign opened, he was indeed able to exercise field command in Saxony. The fact was, the ailing prince had been given charge in Saxony, more or less to hold it, while his royal brother sought to conclude the war in Silesia all while recovering a secure hold on the province. Prince Henry was quick to chastise his sibling for Frederick’s plan to take away Platen’s corps for his own use at the start of the new campaign, although the king had promised him he would have control of Eugene of Württemberg’s men as a consolation.
Prince Henry had just cause for his complaint. The enemy opposed to him and his men (some 25,000 strong) consisted of some 19,000 Imperialist troops, along with about 44,500 Austrians, all under the overall command of Serbelloni, from March 29, 1762. Daun’s appointment of command of the Austrian forces in Silesia, and the retention of both Laudon and Lacy for the movements of the army in the province of Silesia, had left a vacuum for Saxony. It was clear as it could be in 1762 that the war would be finally won or irrevocably lost in Silesia. Saxony was very much of a side theater by this point. Moreover, both sides knew it. The upshot was, Daun was not going to send one of his “good” commanders to Saxony, feuding with each other or not. Vis-a-vis, Laudon and Lacy. As a result, Serbelloni it would be. Serbelloni’s men were deployed over the winter of 1761–1762 entirely within the province of Saxony, but Prince Henry’s goal from the beginning of the campaign was to try to reclaim the territory around Döebeln, the very same position that Daun had been able to wrestle from him late in the campaign of 1761. General Luzinsky was occupying Pegau, while other Allied forces of General Kleefeld were deployed all the way to Zeitz.
Over on the Prussian side, the overall situation was hardly better. One of Prince Henry’s pet peeves involved the treatment of the Saxons and of their homeland. He wanted this to be as humane as was possible under the circumstances. More gifted with a sense of fair play than his older brother, probably because the latter wore the crown and thus had to be less egalitarian, the prince would much rather work in conjunction with the Saxons than against them. In effect, Henry had rather more sympathy with the occupied province than his sibling, not the least because the king’s last appreciable memory of Saxony was in the wake of the terrible Battle of Torgau in 1760. Not that Prince Henry was entirely free of difficulties in this respect either.
Among the seemingly myriads of difficulties for Prince Henry, one involved the “Free Corps.” These often despised units had really been formed to extract as much gain as they could from their environment. They existed much more for themselves, in the narrow sense, than for any measure of military gain or renown they could achieve in the broader sense. Prince Henry made no secret of the fact he did not like these units, and had scant use for them as a general rule. In a similar situation, the prince also had scant use for Frederick’s new favorite, the thoroughly odious Major von Anhalt. This was in spite of his reluctance to admit open resentment over the new aide’s rise. Still, Henry seems to have made a concerted effort to restrict his dealings with this particular individual to as few as possible, and, in fact, during the 1762 campaign, Henry had arranged for the major to be whisked away to Leipzig as soon as was possible in one of their few dealings.
The occasion of this particular exchange was in Anhalt being dispatched by the king as a sort of ad hoc administrator of the territory occupied by the prince’s army in Saxony.
This latest development had been prompted by the rather usual desire of the Prussian monarch to pick Saxony as clean as was possible of its resources, financial and otherwise. It was patently obvious by this stage of the war that Prince Henry had neither the desire, nor the actual intention, of doing so. Frederick had to be cognizant of that fact. Thus the sending forth of the detested Anhalt to do what Prince Henry would not. Interestingly, one of the many men who would run afoul of Anhalt in his duties was the famous Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Steuben had been a staff officer previous to this and had spent some time earlier in the war with the Free Battalion Mayr. Later, after the end of the war, Steuben would make his way, by and by, to America, where he was recommended, through the auspices of the American patriot Benjamin Franklin no less, as a Prussian Lt-General under Frederick the Great, which, of course, he had never been. It was a lie that Steuben himself actively promoted. Still, ‘General’ Steuben would be instrumental, as it worked out, in helping reform the American Continental Army under George Washington in the American Revolution, utilizing the Prussian close order drill, among other things, along the way. This effort would play no small rôle in the ultimate American victory in the war over the British George III. The very same George III who had taken the throne in the twilight of the Seven Years’ War.
Meanwhile, back to the events in Saxony in 1762. It was an Austrian move opposite to him that first caused Henry to go over to the offensive in the first place. The enemy were fearful of possible Russian intrusion into their homeland, as we have observed, and so transferred some troop formations from the Saxon front to stiffen the Austrian position in Silesia to confront the Prussians and the Russians. This weakened the Austro-Imperialist position in Saxony, however, and thus allowed Henry the opportunity to strike.
The enemy opposed to Prince Henry had been in motion in the meanwhile. Stolberg’s forward elements occupied Penig and Chemnitz in early May, while Prince Henry occupied the region all the way up to Oschatz (May 5), looking for signs of the enemy close-by. The Allied left flank, led by Major-General Johann Franz von Zedtwitz, was composed of about 4,000 men in all. Zedtwitz neglected, however, the most basic of defensive measures, including leaving unmanned guard posts open during daylight hours. Such carelessness would not go unpunished.
In the event, Henry was resolved to carry out his enterprise here, if at all possible. Late on May 11, the Prussians moved in preparing to strike at the Allies in the area. An Austrian guard post over by Nieder-Striegis was overrun by Prince Henry’s men during the twilight hours, and, before 0700 hours next day, May 12, the main bluecoat forces, summarily divided into four separate columns for the occasion, swept forward against the unsuspecting foe over by Döebeln.8 General Kanitz and his men pushed on to Gadewitz, while Seydlitz, with a second column (this one composed of some 37 squadrons of fine Prussian cavalry and some infantry), struck from near Mockritz leaning over at Zschornewitz. Kleist on the far left rolled forward between Knobelsdorf and Nauβlitz. Finally, the Prussians of General Alt-Stutterheim made their way at Stormitz. All but Kleist were scheduled to make a frontal charge against the Allies, but before the others could even approach, the advanced guard of Kleist’s men crossed the Mulde River suddenly and bagged an entire battalion of Austrians as prisoners (approximately 43 officers and 1,536 rank-and-file). The particulars follow.
The beginning of the fray is debatable. Apparently in the confusion of the moment, Kleist’s gunners accidently fired off a shot. This precipitated the attack. Seydlitz felt this action was intentional, and apparently with the avowed aim of seeking glory for Kleist. Of course, this charge was vehemently denied. Nevertheless, Döebeln turned out to be a pleasant interlude for the bluecoats. Moreover, what a surprise when one of the captives turned out to be General Zedtwitz himself, captured over near Littdorf while leading his cavalry in a hopeless counterattack to stem the enemy’s progress. A short, but involved effort followed, compelling the Allies to retreat, leaving behind nearly 50 percent of their men as prisoners, along with five pieces of artillery. The survivors scurried to safety at and about Dippoldiswalde. Bluecoat casualties on this occasion amounted to some 60 men.
One of the backlashes of this fight was the feud that grew out of the altercation between the persons of Generals Kleist and Seydlitz. Both men resented the actions of the other on this occasion. Perhaps both men, seeing the end of hostilities coming and wanting more opportunities for glory, were a tad shortsighted on this occasion. In the final analysis, the Prussian effort was indeed a success, but one which did not lend itself to an easy follow up by the victors, especially as Prince Henry’s army lacked any means at all to secure reinforcements.
Serbelloni, for his part, was visibly shaken by the reverse. The Allies held posts west of the Elbe, which included a number constituting a stranglehold on the Saxon capital; they were thus able to hold interior lines from Dresden extending over towards Dippoldiswalde.
Meanwhile, this stroke allowed Prince Henry to separate the Austrians and Imperialists, and prevented their reuniting for a time. But Henry did not stop there. Not satisfied with the status quo, Prince Henry now strove to eliminate the Austrian left flank forces altogether. On May 15, Freiberg fell to him, and two days later, Prussian troopers seized the rises near Pretzschendorf (giving Prussian artillery enough range to hammer the enemy’s post at Dippoldiswalde). From Freiberg, Henry sent off a light detachment of 500 hard-riding cavalry under Lt. Friedrich Wilhelm von Roeder through Öderan to check out the Imperialists.
Henry began to run short of men for this new offensive, as he had been forced to make heavy detachments to contain the Imperialists of Prince Stolberg to the west of Chemnitz in order to protect his rear while the whitecoats were being squeezed out of Freiberg. All Stolberg wanted at this stage was to fall back on Zwickau. By now Serbelloni (in charge of the disunited armies) was pleading for reinforcements from Daun over in Silesia, all in vain. The reverse was occurring.
Reports had been filtering in to Prussian headquarters for some time now that the Austrians were either in the process of, or were about to, transfer some of their formations from the Saxon theater of war to boost their troop total in Silesia in order to fulfill their campaign requirements thererabouts. The consequences for the Allies could have been severe. But Prince Henry’s request for new troops also fell on deaf ears, snubbed by the king outright; the latter taking a hard line here because he felt the decisive actions were yet to be in Silesia (which, of course, they were). Now Prince Henry, for his part, did feel that he could hold his present line, while slowly building up strength for yet another offensive. At this stage, though, one of Henry’s officers, Colonel Christian Friedrich von Bandemer, tried to get hold of Chemnitz. Stolberg was not inclined to leave, and his force on the spot, led by General Luzinsky, drove the surprised bluecoats back all the way to Öderan with heavy losses in men and ordnance (including some 500 men and 15 officers), all of this due to a roving Imperialist force (May 21).
The particulars follow. Bandemer had pressed towards the vicinity of Chemnitz on May 19. Luzinsky’s vanguard, led by General Kleefeld, rolled through Lichtenstein, while Vecsey moved with a couple of Austrian hussar regiments through Glauchau. The bluecoats thereabouts were obviously overextended, and were thus at the disadvantage in any contest of arms, even with the generally inferior Imperialists as foes. About 0300 hours, on May 21, Luzinsky struck, with Kleefeld and Vecsey alike providing the impetus to push the foe back. Bandemer had 300 men (from Lehwaldt’s 14th Infantry) with one cannon placed in Chemnitz to provide a buffer against the Imperials. Luzinsky’s charge against Chemnitz was developed at this point in three distinct columns, with the Austrian hussar regiments overthrowing Major-General Johann Ernst von Schmettau’s 4th Prussian Cuirassier Regiment, losing “ten officers and 317 men in its advance post at Chemnitz.” The Prussians were forced, after a brief tussle, to recoil, leaving behind some 800 men and seven guns (four 12-pounders, two light 6-pounders, and one 7-pounder howitzer) in the hands of the Imperialists. Imperial losses amounted to one officer and 35 men.
This was both one of the best (and, sadly for them, the very last) largely Imperialist successes of the whole war, and the benefit of laudatory congratulations were promptly bestowed upon Serbelloni by Vienna, although the commander had been no where near the field of action. It is worth noting, for much of the campaign, Serbelloni did his best to run his command almost by proxy from Dresden, an unworkable situation any way one looked at it. The biggest problem was in the strung out amount of time that Serbelloni required to get things done. What with messages coming and going from Dresden and all. There was a nearly fatal flaw. Unfortunately, with an enemy of the caliber of Prince Henry, the Allies needed to strike while the iron was hot. Additionally, Stolberg, lacking direct instructions, unaccountably failed to follow up his success, and Henry, taking advantage of the enemy’s reluctance to deploy troops, simply sent new troops under “Green” Kleist and Seydlitz to the scene. It was likely that at least part of the Allied reasons for not promptly following up their victory had to do with the Imperialist lack of reliable light forces, while the Austrians had just culled their light troops due to the aforementioned budget cuts. The effort to regain light formations in the Austrian service was underway, of course, but would not bear fruit for a while yet. The upshot was, Stolberg was left in an exposed, very vulnerable condition. Even worse, there was very little he could do about it.
Under the circumstances, it was Stolberg’s turn to retreat; he abandoned Chemnitz and fell back forthwith on Baireuth. The incident had produced reprecussions over in the Prussian camp. Bandemer had been relieved and Kanitz sent to take his place. Coming along for the journey, so to speak, was Major von Anhalt, sent forth to join Kanitz’ command under the guise of an adviser. The situation was apparently under control, although Henry wrote to Frederick (from Pretzchendorf) on May 20 that he had less than 30,000 men with him now. Moreover, the enemy were not going into hibernation. Colonel Török rudely beat up a Prussian force, including three full squadrons of Prussian cavalry and some 300 infantry, over by Freiberg (May 26). The bluecoats fled, leaving a large baggage train and 80 prisoners in Török’s hands. After a week or so of general inactivity, Austrian troops, under General Kleefeld, counterattacked under cover of night (May 31–June 1), crashing into Colonel Dingelstedt’s command, forcing the outnumbered bluecoats back from Dippoldiswalde’s outskirts on to Waldheim, even taking some 189 prisoners in the process. Kleefeld had 46 casaulties. However, the effort had only limited success elsewhere. Prince Henry was thus enabled to hold up his foe’s designs.
He now received reinforcements, although not from Silesia at all. The withdrawal of the Swedes from the north had released troops for use elsewhere; part of this force—Colonel Belling’s cadre of excellent troops—had made its way, by and by, down to strengthen Prince Henry’s forces in Saxony. Unfortunately, Austrian reinforcements also began to arrive, but Daun had no intention of diverting large numbers of troops to the Saxon theater at this stage when Cherneyshev’s Russian force was known to be nearing Silesia. Henry did maintain heavy cavalry patrols operating around his right to keep the enemy on that side at bay, and to prevent the Austrians and Imperialists from linking up. Kleist’s and Seydlitz’ troopers often ranged into northwest Bohemia in isolated raiding parties to keep the enemy as much off balance as possible. This strategy, although effective, wore heavily on the cavalry horses (to complicate matters in this respect, Frederick refused to supply Henry with additional mounts, as the king wished to husband them for the high-priority Silesian campaign). Because of this factor, as well as the increasing numbers of troops opposed to him under Marshal Daun, Prince Henry became reluctant to press the cavalry horses more than necessary.
Moreover, requests from the prince directed to the person of the king were met by equally terse replies from Frederick to the effect he was already deeply indebted to some horse dealers in Berlin and vicinity and that Henry and his men, after all, must learn to subsist on less. Over on the Allied side, meanwhile, Stampatch came forward in late June with 15,000 more men to stiffen Serbelloni, giving him more than 60,000 troops. As a result of this new strength of the foe, Prince Henry was unable to mount a major offensive for much of this period.
That soon changed. In the end of June, Seydlitz and Belling were dispatched to shove the Imperialists further westward. Stolberg then fell back before them, and Seydlitz obviously lacked the speed, due to his composite cavalry-infantry force, to catch up. The bluecoats reached Zwickau, and there Stolberg tried to turn the tables upon his tormentors. Prince Henry discerned at once what he was up to, and Kleist’s hussars drove off the enemy. Stolberg was thereby foiled.
But Stolberg was not the only Allied commander in motion. Serbelloni had tried to take advantage of the absence of Seydlitz and Kleist by attacking the Prussian lines at his front in two geographic places: Wilsdruf and Frauenstein. General Hülsen held the latter, while Wilsdruf’s defenders were bolstered by Henry himself. Defenders at both spots, under these circumstances, repelled Serbelloni’s blows. Nothing much further happened until mid–July, when Stolberg made an attempt to link up with Serbelloni just south of Dresden, but Seydlitz and Belling smashed his left and rear. Almost as a postscript, “Green” Kleist, who was returning from Bohemia after a raid, rolled up the right.
This was enough! Stolberg withdrew, his army now in pieces. He made his way to Nuremberg and did not bother Henry again for quite a while. Prince Henry was interested in retaking Dresden, which might have been feasible with more men, but more sensible aspirations prevailed. Under the radar, operations instead assumed a static pose for a time. Again, in late July, Seydlitz and Kleist moved into Bohemia, going after the vital enemy bases at Lobositz and Leitmeritz. Seydlitz was leading a cavalry force of 18 full squadrons, endeavoring all the while to link up with “Green” Kleist. The two bodies of men successfully rendezvoused at Johnsdorf (August 1). The total force the duo could muster was 36 squadrons of horse and six battalions, approximately 8,500 men in all. The mission of this combined force was to go range into Bohemia, creating confusion for the Austrians in their own backyard. There was more to the tale than that.
The Prussians were after more than just a nuisance raid or two. Tearing up property, looting, raping citizens, might all help demoralize the civilian population in the affected areas all right, at least to an extent, but the destruction of the Austrian magazines in Northern Bohemia would compel the whitecoats to give up Saxony. At least in the short run. This last one was a most desirable outcome. The expedition unfolded accordingly, General Kanitz rolled into Sebastienberg (August 1), about the same time, Seydlitz with his body of men ranged to Komotau. The enemy thereabouts, under our old friend Török, slowly pulled back, confronted on his side by the appearance of Kleist, who was at Johnsdorf almost before the Allies realized it. Seydlitz & Company made a juncture, then pressed on Dux. Some of the bluecoats made it first to Ossegg, other forces drove the enemy scouts to and through Brüx.
But the enemy, led thereabouts by Count Löwenstein, did not come to blows. This time, the duo failed a mission, finding Löwenstein firmly emplaced at Teplitz. “Green” Kleist wanted to attack at once, proposing the very bold plan of striking fully at the enemy on August 1, before they ascertained the presence of the bluecoats and before the Allies had withdrawn to a post where they could put up a decent defense. In their present state, Löwenstein’s force was both understrength and very unsteady for battle. But the bold Prussian stroke for August 1 was thwarted by the normally very bold General Seydlitz. Seydlitz, unaccountably, insisted on a one-day grace to allow the infantry time enough to arrive. This delay enabled Löwenstein to repel the initial Prussian assault when it came, promptly forcing the Prussians to beat a retreat back to base. The Allies left 165 men in the clutches of the enemy. The upshot was, the foe held him cold and Prince Henry was most certainly disappointed.
As for Löwenstein, his command was most typical of the field formations that the Allies could field for this last campaign of the war in Saxony. Almost entirely bereft of light cavalry, even the “regular” cavalry formations, unlike their Prussian counterparts, were often very much understrength. As for General Seydlitz, he had seen little service (at least in a military sense) since the field of Kunersdorf in 1759. “Seydlitz’s health was also so poor that he often said of himself … the prince could not always depend upon him.”
Nothing daunted, the prince’s command was nothing if not resilient. The bluecoats were unbuckled upon Neuhof, leaning over at Preschen, which movement was well screened by the cavalry of Belling. The Prussians did not lack for confidence, and it was a worried Count Löwenstein who sent a dispatch rider galloping to General MacQuire, requesting the prompt dispatch of reinforcements to help out his hard-pressed command. At the same time, he shifted his forces to as favorable a post as possible for the forthcoming bluecoat attack.
Meanwhile, during the over night, the bluecoat cavalry tried its very best to earn its reputation here by putting as much pressure on the enemy as was possible. Under cover of darkness, the bluecoats commenced assembling for attack the next morning, beginning their preparation at about 2200 hours. While the Allies kept within their lines during the night, their foes were moving into attack position, maneuvering to make an effort to drive away the enemy. The Belling Hussars about this time gained possession of the Wachloderberg and vicinity. By about 0400 hours, the Allies, not willing to wait for the enemy to strike, unleashed a large cavalry attack to try to drive Belling off of his post.
The Prussian march was still moving up, which commenced at about 0400 hours on August 2. “Green” Kleist, leading a force of six full battalions of infantry and 18 squadrons of fine cavalry, moved round towards the eastern side of Löwenstein’s position hard by the little village of Hundorf. As for the main attack, it was to be entrusted to General Seydlitz, with a force of some five battalions and another 18 squadrons of cavalry. The front of the Allied position was covered by marshy ground, and dotted with little ponds. This was probably the best possible position in which to await attack, particularly when the enemy just happened to be Prussians. In the event, Seydlitz’ men erupted by Ullersdorf, from where they were screened from enemy detection by swarms of light troops flung out before them. The enemy, who had so few of the valuable light troops, were indeed caught by surprise. The move up was, of course, in the predawn darkness, and Löwenstein was thus almost entirely blind to the intentions of his enemy. In all fairness, the commander tried his best, but the budget cuts, well…
At this point, the initial Austrian cavalry charge pressed Belling off from his new post on the Wachloderberg. The Benedict Daun [27th] Cuirassiers, along with the Battyány (7thDragoons) and the 23rd Cuirassiers of Stampa, fighting all the while, played a prominent part in this repulse of the Prussian cavalry. Infantry support was provided by Major-General Carl Clemens Pellegrini, who rushed to the scene with elements of the Austrian 33rd and 15th Infantry Regiments. The latter also was insightful enough to send intelligence to some nearby Hungarian regiments, those of Gyulai and O’Kelly, that their presence was required forthwith. “Green” Kleist, in the meantime, had made his way towards the Wachloderberg to help Belling out if possible. But his Prussian force was met by the aforementioned mixture of Allied infantry and cavalry, which interrupted his mission. A short, but sharp, tussle resulted in the repulse of the bluecoats. The initial Prussian line was thus met and turned back, and the bluecoats withdrew as was their want a short way to the rear. Their foe advanced, led by the Gyulai Hungarian unit, which, although having shot off its ammo, was advancing with drawn sabers, straight at the vaunted forces of General Seydlitz.
The bluecoats were summarily driven back. The Austrian stroke of Gyulai & Company was checked forthwith by the second Prussian line, which had planted itself in the village of Kradrop hard-by. The encouraged Allies now surged forward, nonetheless, and finally defeated the Prussians, who skeddadled towards Dux (about 0800 hours). Count Löwenstein’s force could not pursue, again because of the utter lack of light troops.
The Prussian loss in this action was 558 men, 14 officers, and two pieces of artillery. The Austrians lost about an equal number: 667 men from all causes. Under the circumstances, this was a largely Pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, the Prussians had to inevitably abandon any hope of further progress into Bohemia and withdraw from the province (August 5). Seydlitz’s shortcomings as a commander of a composite infantry-cavalry force, indeed, shone crystal clear in the affair of Teplitz. But it was equally obvious that Serbelloni would not be the man to reclaim the Saxon lands from the great foe. Shortly, Serbelloni was to be ordered back to Vienna.
Hadik replaced Serbelloni in command in Saxony. He had orders to do little more than hold his ground against the enemy wherever the latter was found. The Allies had not quite 60,000 men in Saxony as of the end of August, while Prince Henry was leading some 33,000 men. General Hülsen, Hadik’s old nemesis (who was by this point looking for little more than a way to retire gracefully from the king’s service) was ensconced in Wilsdruf. Prince Henry’s main force was still about, and the only sizable urban area in Allied hands (and thus not in the clutches of the Prussians) by this stage happened to be Dresden and vicinity.
Hadik rolled into Dresden on September 7, and almost immediately discovered that he would be sharing the command of the Imperialists with Stolberg. Worse, Serbelloni did not exactly appreciate being relieved of his command in the midst of a campaign. He harranged Hadik for the latter’s “lack of respect” regarding the transfer of power. Then, after venting against Hadik for what he perceived to be an unjustice committed against him personally, Serbelloni abruptly took his leave of the theater of war. Serbelloni was obviously resentful over being replaced. Nor was that all. He also failed to inform Hadik where the forces under his new command were, what their strength was, or even where the enemy were located in the country thereabouts.
But Hadik, one of the better of the Allied “minor” generals of the war, resolved to do his best under the troubling circumstances he had been dealt. He galloped out with a small entourage to determine for himself, in person, where his forces were and just where the enemy were to be found. On September 21, accordingly, Hadik duly sent a communication to Vienna about his future intentions (something which Serbelloni had been noticeably neglectful in doing throughout his tenure as commander). In short, Hadik was planning to take advantage of the Prussian concentration on the campaign in Silesia by launching an involved offensive along the whole front of the places where he was in charge. Hadik’s first move had been to call up the entire force to his aid, concentrating his troops south of Dresden, and simultaneously requesting reinforcements from Marshal Daun over in Silesia. Hadik took part of his force, concentrating on the Allied right wing, led by Generals Ried and Wied, which sought to keep the attention of Prince Henry and of his army fixed to enemy movements through Eastern Saxony, in the Tharandter Wald region.
The main impetus of the offensive was directly north across the Bohemian border, consisting of forces led by Count Löwenstein and Campitelli. The bluecoats opposite to this encroachment, under the charge of “Green” Kleist, were deployed at Kortenstein. The latter hitched backwards at once, with little contact to be had with the intruders from Bohemia. Kleist got to Seyde, although the main force, led by both Seydlitz and “Green” Kleist, was, in fact, at Dittersbach. On September 29, the main Austro-Imperialist force, of Löwenstein and Campitelli, went back to the attack. Allied artillery, set up and sited in to inflict maximum punishment upon the enemy forces opposite, commenced belching fire. In sharp fighting, Löwenstein led the Allied left to the Freiberger Walde, and even encroached briefly upon the town of Freiberg. Meanwhile, the forces of Campitelli, pressing the Allied right, proceeded over by the Burkersdorf area (located some 21⁄2 miles northwest of Frauenstein; not to be confused with the more famous Burkersdorf in Silesia). The Allies converged on the positions held by Prince Henry’s Prussian forces. The latter were outnumbered, and, meanwhile to the northeast, the diversionary attacks of the small Allied forces had continued on September 29.
Ried’s force stormed forward and turned the enemy opposite to him (over by Wilsdruf) out of the lines of abatis thereabouts. Prince Henry’s forces were outnumbered all right, and if Ried & Company should happen to be successful on the eastern side of Saxony, the entire Prussian position in Saxony would be in grave danger of being compromised. Other Allied forces erupted over by Weisteritz, under General Buttlar. The Allied advance of Hadik’s forces in that area were met head-on by a powerful Prussian counterattack directed at the Allied position at Ober-Cunnersdorf. Next morning, September 30, Hadik was fully prepared to renew his offensive effort. But, during the night of September 29–30, Prince Henry had withdrawn from his forward posts. In short, Prince Henry disengaged and withdrew to a line Meissen-Freiberg-Brand; here he was able to hold his own, although the enemy considerably outnumbered him. Thus, although he had been compelled to withdraw from a position he had held all summer, Henry was actually in a better position than before. As for Hadik, he appears to have been rattled by the proceedings. He was as confused by victory as by defeat on this occasion. In short, the Prussians had been pressed back a way all right, but Freiberg remained in Prince Henry’s hands for the moment.
In contrast to the hectic pace of military operations in the end of September, there were few operations in the first part of October, although some movements were being planned. Prince Henry made what preparations he could to face the offensive he knew was coming. As for Hadik, he was resolved to take another crack at pressing the bluecoats out of their lines over by Freiberg. On October 14, the enemy again struck the Prussian right flank, here led by General Syburg. The bulk of Hadik’s attack force was sent this way, while General Hülsen—leading the Prussian left—was distracted by an outright enemy diversion. The latter was mounted courtesy of Ried, and was primarily designed to keep the general pinned more or less behind the Triebisch. Now Buttlar, joined by reinforcements under the charge of General MacQuire, pressed from Conradesdorf, trying to break in upon Freiberg.
Stolberg brought his Imperialist brood over towards Freiberg as well. His advanced guard, under the command of General Kleefeld, pushed forward against the bluecoats, here led locally by Colonel Belling, striking them hard about Mönchenfrei. Belling hitched backwards a short distance to Erbischof, but his Prussians still had fight left in them. Their resistance stiffened, abruptly forcing Kleefeld to go back the way he had come, with the bluecoats following on his heels. It certainly appeared that Prince Henry had no intention of “going gentle into that good night.”
In the event, the Allies settled down facing the Prussian posts over by Tuttendorf, which the bluecoats were holding on to overnight close by Freiberg. Henry’s positions astride the Mulde were further pressed by General Luzinsky, who had in the interim set up his ordnance and commenced blasting away at Prussian positions on the Weissenborn Heights. This action naturally kept the majority of the enemy’s attention fixed to that locale over by Freiberg, especially as to what might be transpiring. October 14, General Kleefeld struck the opponent, directly opposite to him, in a virtual repeat of his previous effort, which, this time, turned out to a better conclusion for him than before. Prussian defenses, ground down in the previous few weeks, now fragmented in short order, and Henry’s men fell back, leaving Freiberg to finally fall into the unsteady hands of the now encouraged foe. The bluecoats reigned in by Gross-Voigtsberg, taking a very short breather.
Prince Henry was also pinned by Austro-Imperialist’s efforts to keep him from sending any help to Syburg. However, the Allied effort quickly ran out of steam as well. Hadik’s advance stalled out, and Henry again held the foe, inflicting heavier losses than he had sustained in the crisis. During the night of October 14–15, troops were transferred to the Prussian right, which aided Syburg when Hadik renewed his offensive early the next day. Holding attacks on the Prussian left and center helped to fix Henry, and the weight of superior numbers gradually pressed the Prussian right back. Prince Henry himself barely managed to escape capture from a group of marauding allied troopers. His lines, now stretched almost to the point of breaking, were collapsing; before dark he issued an order to hitch backwards upon Reichenbach. His army had been badly battered; nearly 2,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured and the old Prussian line had been destroyed. This was along with ten pieces of artillery.
Prince Henry conducted the retreat of his battered right, while General Hülsen drove the Prussian left/center by the Schlettau-Kätzenhäuser road, taking up post near the latter on October 16. Early the following morning, a Prussian counterattack enabled Henry to regain some of the lost ground. Frederick (from whom the joyous news that Schweidnitz had fallen was now in the camp) was sending 20,000 men under Wied to Saxony. The advance soon reached the scene—Major Henckel von Donnersmarck and his men—shortly. The king himself was now firmly resolved to go to Leipzig to winter with his men, leaving Prince Henry to wrap up the campaign (and likely the war) in Saxony.
But Hadik was also being reinforced, Prince Albert of Saxony had started for the Saxon theater with a force, albeit one weaker in numbers than the one Wied was bringing. Albert’s force had originally been about 13,000 strong, assembled in good detail at Trautenau, but the generally bad trend of the war in Silesia kept drawing off men from this total. In short order, Prince Albert was left with barely half of the force under his charge. October 18, the prince shoved off to reinforce the body of troops left over in Saxony, probably under some compulsion that the journey had better occur now or it never would, as the constraints of the campaign in Silesia would beckon. In short, this latter scene of operations would serve like a vacuum to inevitably draw the rest of Albert’s force off and leave nothing at all to reinforce the Saxon theater. However, with the advantage of interior lines, Albert could, at least, be expected days before the enemy could ever show with their force.
Besides, a communiqué sent by Hadik to the aforementioned Stolberg betrayed his belief that the foe could no longer mount a serious effort of any kind. As for Stolberg, he was busy concentrating on trying to prop up the Allied position at and about Freiberg. Despite Stolberg’s “brave front,” though, the prince was more than half anticipating that Prince Henry would come back, once bolstered with the forces on their way from Silesia, and reclaim Freiberg. (Obviously Stolberg did not share Hadik’s optimism about the actions of Prince Henry). Not only that, but Stolberg was equally nervous that Hadik himself had every intention of leaving the Imperialists out to dry, as the Austrian contingent was in desperate need of rest and refit. Next, word arrived, in the form of very reliable intelligence, that the Prussian king was indeed sending forth General Wied, from Görlitz and vicinity, with some 20,000 men, fresh off the capture of Schweidnitz and the virtual wrap-up of the war in Silesia. As for the allied reinforcements, Albert got into Weissig (night of October 27–28). He and his Allied contingent were too late to take part in the last major battle of the war, the Battle of Freiberg.
Henry wanted to launch a counterattack upon Hadik, ideally with as strong a force as possible, but it quickly became obvious that if he waited upon Wied, Hadik would already be strengthened by Albert’s men. The double danger, however, was that if Henry allowed Albert to join his comrade, then the reinforced Allies could continue with the advance. The enemy did not prove cooperative, and by the time Prince Henry decided to try on Hadik at Freiberg, his troops were already fortifying the position there to the hilt as well as daily looking for the expected reinforcements. October 22, renewed attacks were launched against the whole Prussian front. Prince Henry’s men held fast, although he worried about the attack plan. Henry knew it had to be implemented soon to have any effect.
He had about 28,000 men with him, opposed to 30,000 with Hadik. For a week, Prince Henry’s preparations went forward; as evening of October 28 drew to a close, he explained his plan to his subordinate officers.
Prince Henry had determined to throw down on the foe even before his own reinforcements could reach the scene of the action. In part, this was because the Allies felt the very conservative prince would want to wait until his army had been stiffened with new troops before he undertook his new enterprise. Thus they would be expecting no offensive action from him before then.