RAF Fighter Command Operations 1944-45 North-West Europe

A large number of Advanced Landing Grounds were constructed in southern England for the air build-up for the invasion of Europe; Merston, 1944.

Map showing radius of Action for fighter offensive operations January 1943 to May 1944.

Throughout 1943 and early 1944 much of the Allied air effort had been dedicated to preparing the way for the invasion of German-occupied Europe. By spring 1944 the intensity of operations was increasing as the date for D-Day, 6 June 1944, approached. The directive issued to the fighter forces stated:

The intention of the British and American fighter forces is to attain and maintain an air situation which will assure freedom of action for our forces without effective intervention by the German Air Force, and to render maximum air protection to the land and naval forces in the common object of assaulting, securing and developing the bridgehead.

A veritable air armada of P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts, P-38 Lightnings and various marks of Spitfire was ranged ready for battle as RAF units of Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) and the 2nd Tactical Air Force joined with the American VIIIth and 9th Fighter Commands. The overall plan was for the American units to provide the bulk of the escort and high-cover patrols, while the low cover, especially over the beaches, was provided by RAF Spitfires. The entire invasion area was to be given a layered screen of fighters — the first squadrons to be in position by 0425 on the morning of 6 June 1944.

The Allied fighter Order of Battle included the RAF providing 55 squadrons of Spitfires, plus a number of Mustang and Mosquito units, out of an overall fighter strength of 2,000 aircraft. It was considered that the overcrowded airfields in England would make ideal targets for German tip-and-run fighter-bombers, so each airfield was required to maintain a fighter flight on stand-by. The direct involvement of ADGB on D-Day comprised 91 Spitfires as part of the beachhead cover and a further 40 Spitfires on a sweep over airfields in Brittany and attacking any transport they found.

In June ADGB and its associated formations flew 8,474 offensive day sorties, an increase of 1,000 on the previous month. This included 25 Circus and 21 Ramrod operations, with airfields, lines of communication and power stations being the main target types. The RAF claimed the destruction of 61 aircraft during these offensive ops, for the loss of 36 pilots. It was also noted that the ‘enemy had retaliated with such vigour that fewer aircraft were destroyed than in the previous month and losses were heavier’.

In the period immediately after the D-Day landings, the ground forces were in danger of being bogged down, and in the absence of heavy weapons they had to rely on air power as ‘flying artillery’. The Spitfire squadrons carried out a good deal of this type of work, and after a while became quite proficient. The 20 mm cannon proved to be a remarkably good air-to-ground weapon against all manner of ‘soft skinned’ vehicles, although it was unable to cause any serious damage to the average German tank.

The night offensive throughout the year was still primarily aimed at supporting the operations of Bomber Command by disrupting night-fighter operations (intruder work) and engaging enemy night-fighters with RAF fighters, with Serrate playing an increased role. Although the formation of No. 100 Group in December 1943 provided a dedicated force for this work, ADGB units were still important and in February 1944 Air Marshal Harris stated that an increased effort was required to disrupt the main nigh-fighter bases such as Gilze-Rijen, Leeuwarden and Venlo. By early July he was demanding a force of 100 night-fighters and the redoubling of attacks on airfields. The reply from the Chief of the Air Staff was that the UK’s night defences could not be weakened; however, Leigh-Mallory was informed that provided he did not neglect the air defence of the UK his squadrons were to give full support to the bomber offensive.

The majority of the night offensive effort in the early part of 1944 was against airfields, with the introduction (or more accurately renaming) of the patrolling of night fighter airfields as Flower ops. From January the Mosquito VIs of No. 2 Group joined in the Flower ops and between January and May a total of 623 Flowers had been flown, 233 of these in May. However, May also brought an increase in attacks on transportation, including trains, barges, shipping and MT. Within the overall Allied strategy the invasion was of primary importance in summer 1944 and both day and night missions were tasked with this in mind, the bulk of the night sorties being Intruders. It was not until November that direct support of night bomber operations was resumed, much of the Bomber Support role becoming the responsibility of a number of specialist Mosquito squadrons with No. 100 Group of Bomber Command.

August 1944-May 1945

With the Allies ashore and established, further Command changes took place in the RAF with ADGB reverting to its Fighter Command title on 15 October 1944, still under Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill. The Command had been given a new Directive on 22 September that recognised the changed threat to the UK, recognising that there was no significant threat West of a line from the Humber to Southampton. Fighter defences supported by full radar and Royal Observer Corps covers were to be maintained East of the line Cape Wrath-Falkirk-Leyburn-Tamworth-Brackley-Gloucester-Bournemouth, including the Shetlands and Glasgow-Clyde area. Reduced defences were to remain to the West of this line but those in Northern Ireland and in the Portree-Oban area could be withdrawn.

This led to the disbandment of No. 9 Group, which lost its operational commitments on 4 August and the rest of its duties on 18 September. It also saw No. 10 Group become semi-operational, leading to disbandment in May 1945. A number of Sector HQs were also closed. At the end of December the Command fielded 31 day and nine night squadrons. The former included 11 units with the Mustang III whilst the latter included a Tempest unit that specialised in night ops against flying bombs.

From autumn 1944 to the end of the Second World War the Command had four main roles:

  1. Offensive operations against rockets and flying-bombs; this primarily involved fighter-bomber attacks and armed reconnaissance against launch sites, storage sites and communications.
  2. Defensive operations against attacks on bomber airfields and minelaying off East coast.
  3. Long-range fighter to escort Bomber Command day operations.
  4. Night-fighter squadrons for offensive ops in support of Bomber Command night operations.

The final few months of the war saw Fighter Command strength drastically reduced from its high point in January 1943 of over 100 squadrons. In January 1945 it had 41 squadrons fielding a total establishment of 634 aircraft, which now included a large number of Mustang IIIs (234 aircraft). This arrival of Mustangs was not always well received, in December 1943 Mustangs had arrived to re-equip 65 Squadron: ‘Men stood open mouthed with disbelief. This simply couldn’t be true. Mustangs! P-51s! American junk! To exchange our beloved Spits for such rubbish! Had the bloody Air Ministry brass gone off their rockers? This was intolerable! How low could they sink? That evening the pilots gave vent to their anger in a drunken brawl, resulting in fairly expensive repairs having to be carried out to the Mess.’ (Tony Jonsson in Dancing in the Skies, Grub Street 1994)

The last throw of the dice as far as German intruder operations over England was concerned came on 3/4 March 1945 – Operation Gisella had been planned for some time and was intended as a mass attack on Bomber Command by following the bombers home and hitting them over England and at their airfields. Over 140 Ju 88s took part and the first bomber shot down was probably a 214 Squadron Fortress, which crashed at Woodbridge in Suffolk. The operation lasted less than three hours and the RAF lost at least 24 bombers, but the defences were quickly in action and eight of the attackers were shot down, with three others flying into the ground and others being written-off to various causes.

Day Fighter Operations

Fighter Command remained heavily involved in air operations in the latter part of 1944, initially still under the control of HQ AEAF; this included support of the airborne assault on Market-Garden in September. However, when Bomber Command was released to return to its offensive campaign, by day and night, the Command provided escort for the former and ‘bomber support’ for the latter. The first of the daylight attacks took place on 27 August when 243 bombers attacked the Rheinpreussen synthetic oil refinery at Meerbeck, near Homberg. This was the first daylight attack on Germany since August 1941 and it was escorted by nine squadrons of Spitfire IXs — all of whom, had nothing to do; the lone Bf 110 that was seen very sensibly made off in the opposite direction! Despite intense flak over the target no bombers were lost. This type of long-range escort became a routine part of the Command’s work and up to 14 Mustang and five Spitfire squadrons were eventually dedicated to this role. The Mustang was increasingly being used by Fighter Command for this role and by September there were seven squadrons of Mustang IIIs, the four original squadrons, 129, 306, 315, 316 had been joined by 19, 65 and 122 squadrons which had transferred from the 2nd TAF. Actually it had been an exchange deal in which Fighter Command also acquired four Spitfire IX squadrons, having given up five Tempest and two Spitfire XIV squadrons. The number of Mustang units continued to increase as squadrons exchanged their beloved Spitfires for the American fighter, such that by the end of April 1945 the Command included 16 Mustang squadrons.

Although the Mustangs had a better combat radius than the Spitfires they were still restricted as they had no fuselage overload tanks. ‘The radius of action of these Mustangs, after allowing 15 minutes at a fuel consumption of 60 gallons per hour for manoeuvring under combat conditions and a 10% fuel reserve, was not more 450 miles’ (AHB Summary). It was decided to fit extra tanks to the Mustangs and Spitfires despite fears that this would affect combat performance, but the ideal solution according to Fighter Command was to have usable airfields for refuelling on the Continent. These restrictions do not appear to have concerned the USAAF to the same degree and their Mustangs were regular visitors to the Berlin area. When airfields such as Ursel, Belgium, became available the Command’s Spitfires were able to provide escort 100 miles East of the Ruhr.

In February 1943 the Air Fighting Development Unit flew comparative trials between a Spitfire IX and Mustang X. The Manoeuvrability section had this to say: ‘The aircraft were compared at varying heights for their powers of manoeuvrability and it was found throughout that the Mustang, as was expected, did not have so good a turning circle as the Spitfire. By the time they were at 30,000 feet the Mustang’s controls were found to be rather mushy, while the Spitfire’s were still very crisp and even in turns during which 15 degrees of flap were used on the Mustang, the Spitfire had no difficulty in out-turning it. In rate of roll, however, it found that while the Spitfire is superior in rolling quickly from one turn to another at speeds up to 300 mph, there is very little to chose between the two at 350 mph IAS and at 400 mph the Mustang is definitely superior, its controls remaining far lighter at high speeds than those of the Spitfire. When the Spitfire was flown with wings clipped, the rate of roll improved at 400 mph so as to be almost identical with the Mustang. The manoeuvrability of the Mustang, however, is severely limited by the lack of directional stability which necessitates very heavy forces on the rudder to keep the aircraft steady.’ (AFDU Report No. 64, February 1943).

From mid October to the end of the year Fighter Command escorted 59 bomber raids, which amounted to 6,794 fighter sorties, the majority of which were recorded as arduous but boring. In the few combats that occurred claims were made for 15 enemy aircraft, for the loss of 20 RAF fighters to all causes. The escorts were largely successful and of the 124 bomber losses the vast majority were to flak. During one escort mission of 5 December the escorts reported over 100 German fighters – by far the largest number seen for a long time and an indication, although the Allies did not yet know it, of a reinforcement in preparation for the German offensive that was being planned (the Ardennes Offensive — the Battle of the Bulge).

From January 1945 to the end of the war Fighter Command flew a further 102 bomber escort missions (8,878 sorties) as well as 29 fighter sweeps over North-West Germany. The level of bomber ops increased in March with the Allied preparations for the crossing of the Rhine and the fighters were kept busy – or at least they flew long sorties but usually with little to do except watch the bombing.

The table shows Fighter Command strength had increased from 36 squadrons and 713 aircraft in 1939 to a high point of nearly 2,000 aircraft and 101 squadrons in 1943.

The statistics in the latter part of this table are misleading at first glance and suggest a massive and sudden decline after early 1943 but in reality this was primarily a re-allocation of squadrons following the formation of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, with Fighter Command becoming ADGB and many of its units being transferred to the new tactical formations. This trend continued into early 1945 with the decreasing threat to the UK and the movement of more squadrons to the Continent.

The Engine That Will Make Air Force One Hypersonic

Imagine if POTUS could fly from coast to coast in under an hour.

By Kyle Mizokami             

Aug 7, 2020


The U.S. Air Force is funding an aviation startup working on a combined cycle engine. Hermeus’s combined cycle engine can work like a regular turbofan or ramjet engine, reaching a speed of Mach 5. The Air Force thinks the best application for the engine, oddly enough, is a future Air Force One.

Hermeus, a Georgia-based aviation startup, has announced a contract with the U.S. Air Force to develop its idea for a hypersonic aircraft engine. The Air Force department funding the project is the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, the team that manages Air Force One. A Mach 5 aircraft could allow the president to fly from New York to London in 90 minutes, instead of the 7 hours it takes today.

The Air Force made the investment after Hermeus demonstrated its Mach 5 engine, developed in just 9 months, back in February. The engine is a combined cycle turbofan design that fuses both a normal turbofan engine and ramjet into a single engine. A normal turbofan engine sucks in air from the front and pushes it, along with exhaust gases, out the rear to generate thrust. This generates enough thrust to drive an aircraft at subsonic speeds.

A ramjet engine, meanwhile, is specifically designed to “ram” greater amounts of air into the engine using the forward speed of the aircraft, allowing for greater thrust. A major problem is that ramjets don’t work at subsonic speeds, so most designs envision a separate engine or rocket booster as a first stage. This adds complexity and cost to any ramjet transportation project.

But an aircraft equipped with a combined cycle engine, on the other hand, can take off like a regular airplane from regular airports with the engine in subsonic turbofan mode. Once the aircraft is airborne, it could switch to ramjet mode, then back to turbofan mode to land. One combined cycle engine can work in either mode, negating the need for a separate engine or rocket booster.

Hermeus’s combined cycle engine during testing.

Then there’s the matter of a ramjet’s air temperature. At high supersonic and low subsonic speeds, the air ingested by an engine gradually increases in temperature, and this hot air makes a ramjet engine less efficient. In its press release, Hermeus seems to indicate it’s solved this problem with a pre-cooler that chills the air before it enters the engine combustion chamber.

The company also claims it was able to achieve speeds faster than the famous SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft with nothing more than a company modified off the shelf engine.

A turbojet/ramjet-powered engine could solve the problem of precision-guided missiles, like the Chinese DF-21 medium range ballistic missile, blasting nearby friendly air bases into rubble. A bomber, tanker, or even heavy fighter equipped with a combined cycle engine could take off from a more distant air force base, sprint into a combat theater in ramjet mode, and fly home in turbojet mode.

The big question is why the Air Force’s Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate is funding the program. The Air Force is currently paying for the construction of two new Air Force One airplanes, specially modified Boeing 747s designed to carry the President of the United States and his or her entourage.

The new planes will be ready in 2024 and will probably fly for at least 30 years. That means replacements are already lined up, and there won’t be an opening for a new plane until 2054 or later. If the technology works, don’t be surprised if it makes it onto a completely newer plane before that.

German in Signals Intelligence Russia I

German officers attending an OKW signals intelligence course in Jüterbog, near Berlin, in October 1944. Left to right: Oberwachtmeister Suenkel; behind the tutor, Hauptmann Russ, of the Fenast post at Treuenbrietzen; the tutor, Major Philiptitsch, also of the Fenast post at Treuenbrietzen; Major Wend, commanding the Fenast at Lauf; Regierungsrat Wilhelm Flicke in glasses; and, next to Flicke, Inspecktor Pokojewski. The Allies had liberated Paris in August and were advancing to the German border. Flicke was tutoring Nachrichtenhelferinnen (female operators) at Jüterbog to replace soldiers drafted into fighting units of the German Army.

The High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) were not good at accepting intelligence evaluations that they disagreed with. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the Russian campaign. The papers of Colonel Randeweg, who was commanding the German intercept units in southern Russia before Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, showed a clear picture of the Red Army and Air Force order of battle. Intelligence from the Abwehr reported the Soviet Air Force would be able to field 10,000 aircraft in the event of war and also that the Russian aviation industry was capable of a high production of planes. The Luftwaffe’s general staff discounted this figure and decided that the number of operational machines was in the order of 3,000 and losses would not be easily replaced. They were much encouraged when a captain of the Soviet Air Force was captured and gave up the Russian key to the air code so Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were able to shoot down over 100 Russian aeroplanes in two weeks in air battles over Minsk. The code was changed within a couple of weeks but the damage to the Soviet Air Force was done. Within a month of launching Barbarossa, more than 3,000 aircraft had been shot down, and yet they still were able to show a strong presence in the air. The figures were, therefore, distrusted by the High Command who decided to do an audit and count the number of crashed aircraft. They came to the surprising conclusion that the claim of 3,000 shot down was a considerable underestimate. A revision was then made by the High Command in July, which enabled the OKW to claim that 6,233 Russian aircraft had been destroyed. This was an indication of the attitude of the German High Command to the often incisive intelligence that the Abwehr was able to gather.

The intelligence community was regarded by Hitler as being anti-Nazi and, although all would profess to be German patriots, he was right to some extent, which put them in a difficult and sometimes dangerous position. Chief among the suspects was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the Director of the Abwehr and spymaster to the German Wehrmacht, and among others was Wilhelm Flicke, senior cryptologist in German signals intelligence. Flicke’s constant references in his papers to the glaringly obvious shortcomings of the German High Command in its direction of the war were almost treasonable. The almost perverse and dismissive misreading of intelligence evaluations created a situation which made not only his, but also his colleagues’ attitudes clear. The unease of the German public about the invasion of Russia was palpable, although it was not evident in the German media which was strongly controlled by the Ministry of Propaganda. The advance of 3 million men of the Wehrmacht, almost half of Hitler’s armed forces’ strength, into the Russian hinterland started with the support of her allies. There were eighteen divisions of Finns (they had a score to settle), sixteen divisions of Romanians, three of Italians and another three of Slovaks, as well as a scattering of Croatians and Hungarians. This vast juggernaut of men and machines was launched against a Red Army whose officers were well aware of the German threat. Stalin refused to recognise it, however, even after Churchill, with the aid of Ultra, warned him of the preparations for Operation Barbarossa.

Almost 200 divisions of the Red Army that were stationed near to their borders were thrown back or overwhelmed in the first onslaught of the attack. Soviet signal communications were thrown into chaos as they reeled before the assault, causing the security of radio messages to become so lax that the German Army intercept units were able to get a clear reading of the order of battle of their opponents. By the end of September, the Red Army communications system began to improve as the army got over the initial shock, although they had lost many experienced radio operators in the first offensive. The Russians had also lost a vast quantity of equipment, but it was mostly out of date and about to be replaced. As war began, Russian industry set about enacting the miracle of production that would churn out enough supplies and equipment to enable the Red Army to later turn the tide in their favour. Also, as the shock of the invasion by the Panzers was absorbed, security disciplines began to return to Soviet radio communications. It was not so in German signals communications, however, as the demand for radio operators and particularly evaluators of the intelligence data had increased by a factor of ten. Experienced personnel were spread more and more thinly to satisfy a rapidly expanding intercept service and this led to fatal mistakes in evaluations sent to the OKW. A communiqué was issued saying that no unified command structure of the Red Army could now be recognised, implying that it was breaking down into isolated groups. The reverse was true; the Russian front was strengthening, but the symptoms were not being recognised by the newly recruited cryptographers in German intercept stations. Their stations intercepted what they thought was the Red Army’s chaos in radio communications, but it was actually resorting to the norm. When security practices returned to Russian operations, fewer transmissions were received and from fewer locations, hence the conclusion was drawn that the organisation of the army was falling to pieces. It was not. Hitler always assumed in his crusade against Bolshevism that the people and the army’s resistance would collapse as anti-Communist forces came to their aid. This was not true as the Russian people saw the German Army as the invaders that they were, resisted very strongly and began to fight what was called the Patriotic War.

It was assumed that the resistance of the Russian soldiers was being maintained by political commissars who were behind them with weapons to keep the men in place in the frontline. As a result, intelligence reports that the Red Army was crumbling were welcomed and in a speech to the German nation he said, ‘The enemy is broken and will never rise again’. This was followed by a statement that:

We have been so forehanded that in this mighty war of materiel I can now cut back production in many lines because I know there is no longer any opponent whom we cannot overcome with the stock of ammunition on hand.

Production lines were substantially cut and the supplies to the front were later greatly curtailed; as a result, German soldiers suffered severely from lack of ammunition on the Russian front. This was self-deception on a grand scale, but there was worse to come as the German media reported that the Russian Marshals Voroshilov, Timoshenko and Budyonny had been relieved of their commands and turned over to the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) in a brutal purge. The German newspaper headlines shouted, ‘They are Silent in Moscow’ – and so they were. The three experienced commanders had, in fact, gone beyond the Urals to train the many new divisions released from duty on the Japanese frontier.

Wilhelm Flicke’s intercept station at Lauf had, meanwhile, been intercepting much radio traffic from the region east of Moscow and come to some disturbing conclusions. In October Flicke’s superior, Colonel Kettler, reported forty new Red Army formations of the size and nature of a division being trained and put into an army reserve of formidable size. Kettler was able to report the nature of each division, such as tank or infantry units, either motorised or cavalry, their composition and strength in men and machines, their equipment and ammunition states and command structure. Flicke then helped him compose a report of his findings in great detail to send to his commander, General E. Fellgiebel. Flicke then added in his papers that this general was later murdered by Hitler following the bomb plot in July 1944. The report was then sent to the OKW for the attention of Hitler where its findings were met with an immediate rejection. A note to Fellgiebel on its cover from Colonel General Jodl said that Kettler should be put out of business. It was countersigned by SS Superior Group Leader Fegelein who noted that this was also the opinion of the Führer. Fegelein was shot on Hitler’s order just before the end of the war. By November there was increasingly stiff resistance from the Russians in front of Moscow as reinforcements to the Russian line began to arrive in total radio silence, a great achievement in radio operations given a movement of that size. A stirring moment in the war is brought to life in the newsreels of Stalin taking the salute at a parade in Red Square in Moscow as battalions of Russian soldiers marched past him and straight on in to the trenches just outside Moscow to hold back the German Army.

German Army commanders eventually began to see the light and General Halder, the Chief of Staff, wrote in his diary that it was becoming ever clearer that they had underestimated the Russian colossus. The High Command had not wanted to get bogged down in a positional war of entrenchment. They had expected 200 enemy divisions to oppose them but so far they had counted 350 and, although they were not always properly equipped or led, they were always there. Whenever a dozen of these divisions were destroyed or captured, another dozen would immediately replace them. In addition, the Germans’ long line of supplies was being increasingly disrupted by Russian partisans while the Red Army were close to its source of supply. The Germans found themselves in front of Moscow with little or no winter clothing in -30°C: their skin froze on to the metal of their guns as they touched them and tore off their hands if they tried to pull them away; the oil froze and the tanks could not function or the guns fire; and the radio sets would not work as the batteries froze, so the German generals had the dilemma of withdrawing and leaving their equipment or staying put to be overrun as their weapons did not work. Then to the amazement of the Germans, the Russians attacked them in early December with forty divisions of fresh, well-equipped reinforcements from Siberia, who considered the Moscow weather to be relatively warm. They fell upon the German troops like wolves and the whole of the German Army Centre Group retired in disarray to a line 90 miles distant from Moscow.

German intelligence had failed Hitler once again after a complete lack of warning of the Torch landings and now an underestimation of the strength of the Red Army by almost half as much again. Russian production achievements had massively exceeded the Abwehr estimate and their T-34 tanks were beginning to appear on the battlefield in their thousands.

American aid was also coming to their new allies through the Middle East. Hitler berated Canaris for the failure of his organisation in public and the Admiral knew that he would pay a high price for the failure in a way that would only help Himmler’s SS who were building a separate intelligence organisation of their own. The intelligence service, or rather services, were in conflict and the results would be disastrous, but the Abwehr knew it had to pull off a coup to get Hitler’s approval. Meanwhile, in Russia things were going from bad to worse as the German Army reached its high water mark in their advances into Russia and then the tide began to recede.

In September 1942 the long crucifixion of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad began as they advanced to the banks of the Volga. By November the Russians’ pincer movement had been launched and the two arms met at Kalach behind the German Army. Russian troops encircled the Sixth Army, although the Luftwaffe was able to lift 50,000 men out of the trap. A final surrender in February of the following year had cost the German Army almost a quarter of a million men as casualties or prisoners. This great public humiliation for Hitler and his army convinced the world that the Wehrmacht was not invincible. The last message from General Paulus, commanding the doomed Sixth Army, was intercepted by the Lauf listening station and Wilhelm Flicke recounted how the message brought in by a duty officer read, ‘My Führer, in future follow more the advice of your Generals!’ The document was passed from one adjutant to another until it landed on the desk of Field Marshal Keitel. He ordered that it be taken into the office of the chief of the supreme command of the armed forces of the Third Reich immediately. The author himself knows how impressive and overbearing the entrance to Hitler’s office was, as he visited the bombed and ruined Reich Chancellery just after the war. The double doors were 30ft and each was 6ft wide with heavy sculptured bronze images depicting German myths of the past. None of those brave soldiers in attendance on the Führer ventured to volunteer to pass through those doors to take the document to him – Nazi Germany occasionally copied the Greek practice and killed the messenger bearing bad news. Finally the paper was placed in a portfolio with others and laid on Hitler’s desk in a casual manner, and then a small but apprehensive group waited outside.

The silence did not last long, from behind the massive double doors came the sound of breaking vases and chairs being overturned. Hitler tore the telegram into smaller and smaller pieces and ranted and raged at everything and everybody but himself. Keitel was summoned and listened to the strident demands for the degrading of Paulus from his rank of field marshal, confirmed for him the day before. It was too late as the announcement had already gone to the press so Keitel stood, stony faced and took the tirade of bitterness and frustration. In the ruins of Stalingrad the new Field Marshal Paulus marched what was left of his army through the snow into a long captivity from which only 5,000 would return. Flicke made a surprising assertion in his papers about another battle at Kharkov further south, which was regarded as a masterpiece of manoeuvre by one of Hitler’s best generals, von Manstein. He persuaded the Führer that a positional war such as Hitler had experienced in the First World War needed to give way to one of movement. The general was allowed to manoeuvre the Red Army into a trap as exhausted Russian troops ploughed on to the extreme of their supply chain before the German Panzers struck. The world saw von Manstein’s victory as a model of defensive mechanised warfare but Wilhelm Flicke, whose listening station measured the action blow by blow, did not.

Flicke compared Kharkov with Napoleon’s ‘victory’ at the Battle of Borodino where the Imperial Russian Army was defeated but Napoleon’s army was so damaged in the battle that its ultimate fate was decided. Flicke thought that the way that German forces were weakened at Kharkov enabled the Red Army to prevent the Germans from taking Stalingrad or the oil fields in the Caucasus. The real decision in Russia, Flicke asserts, did not take place at Stalingrad but earlier at Kharkov when the Red Army inflicted such severe losses on the Germans that the timetable of the depleted German divisions was upset as they moved on to the Kuban area, the Caucasus and the Volga. The Russians sustained terrible losses in men and materiel but were able to replace them, while the Germans not only lost men but also time.

Soviet espionage activities both within German-occupied Russia and also in the German homeland were well known to the Abwehr. Flicke tells how detailed German operational plans for the 1942 spring offensive were known to the Russians as was the plan to advance across the Volga and into the oil fields of the Caucasus. Areas of assembly of German Army formations designated to carry out these operations and their order of battle, with the numerical strength of the army and their allies, were all known to the Russians in detail. Units from battalion size upwards had been identified with even the names of unit commanders and the numbers of tanks, guns and planes available and those not available but under repair for the coming campaigns. The attack plans for the coming summer offensive of the three German Army groups in Russia had been established and the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra (the Soviet spy ring), had reported them to their Moscow control. In short, the Russian Intelligence services knew as much about the German Army and its order of battle and future plans as Bletchley Park did, although probably by different means.

Intelligence services of all beligerent countries had planted networks of radio agents around Europe, notably the Russians. From the 1930s she was the first country to develop espionage networks with an international dimension. The Soviet Union gradually set up networks of shortwave radios reporting to a control station in Moscow and other lesser control stations in other European countries. Wilhelm Flicke’s intercept service recognised and reported these stations to the OKW who assumed they were a propaganda network for Communist International purposes aimed at spreading the word of Communism across Europe. There was little indication of the network’s size as most of the stations kept a discreet radio silence, nor any indication of their nature as those transmissions that were received were in a code that remained unbroken and only made infrequent transmissions. The network was, in fact, the radio communication system for the Russian intelligence service designed to collect and transmit intelligence gathered by Communist sympathisers across Europe acting as agents. There were many such people before the war who were told to observe and report on all aspects of armed forces activity in their country. In addition they were ordered to report on industrial strengths and weaknesses of the economy in European countries, particularly Germany. Agents were expected to assess the production capabilities of their country and its technology, including the searching of patents. Members of the network were also tasked with monitoring political events and identifying politicians that might have an effect on the wellbeing of the Soviet Union. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1941, the German state security police estimated that there were 120,000 agents and fellow travellers serving the network, who all kept a low profile as they reported their findings through embassies. The long-term investment in establishing this huge intelligence operation was about to pay off in a big way.

German in Signals Intelligence Russia II

The German invasion of southern Russia in 1941. German signals and listening network was extensive due to the need to communicate over the huge distances involved. Their signals intelligence war was as complicated as the rest of this huge military campaign. Counter intelligence radio played a major part in directing the Russian partisans who later helped to destroy the German Army Group Centre in 1944.

The number of shortwave stations that sprang up in all territories occupied by Germany as she declared war on Russia in 1941 increased enormously. Wilhelm Flicke and his colleagues named the network the WNA net, which was taken from the call-sign of the Moscow station directing it. Dozens of radio transmissions on many shortwave frequency bands suddenly came to life and connected to what was to prove to be the largest espionage networks in Europe. The German listening service was overwhelmed; Lauf and other listening stations counted over 600 radiograms in the month of August following the invasion of Russia. Transmissions could be heard coming from every European country but most disturbingly some from within Germany itself. The building of a clandestine intelligence operation of this size and scope must count as being among the most successful the world has ever seen.

The most powerful network in this Russian intelligence assault on the Third Reich’s secrets was undoubtedly the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle), as the Abwehr named one of its Soviet espionage networks. The translation of the word kapelle into English is uncertain as it has a double meaning; it can either be a chapel of religious worship or alternatively an orchestra. The author favours the orchestra term because Flicke refers to the operators in the network as musicians in his papers and the director in Moscow as the conductor. The Soviet espionage organisation had three largely unconnected parts each of which gave the Abwehr and Gestapo many headaches. These were the Schulze-Boysen group, the Trepper group and the Red Three (Rote Drie) network, with a base in Switzerland. The first of these was brilliantly run by two men, Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack, who were both Communist sympathisers who managed a disparate group of over a hundred anti-Nazi agents, most of whom had been members of the Communist Party in Germany until forcibly dissolved by the Gestapo. Many in this motley crew did not involve themselves in espionage directly but observed and reported matters of interest to the network leaders. An inner circle of more active agents used their surprisingly good skills and contacts to enhance the observations of the others. Horst Heilmann worked with the Wehrmacht on decoding signals; Johann Gradenz sold aircraft spares to the Luftwaffe and knew about aircraft production; and Herbert Gollnow was a policeman and had access to counter-espionage secrets. Other shadowy figures worked in the German Foreign Office, the Ministry of Labour, and the Berlin Council, holding mainly government positions. From this mixture of observers and activists the Schulze-Boysen Group were able to accumulate a surprisingly rich vein of intelligence evaluations to report to its Moscow control.

The Abwehr’s painstaking decoding of the texts left them astonished at the high quality of the intelligence in the reports, which might concern anything from the movement of thirty army divisions being transferred from west to east, or 400,000 German soldiers holding strategic points in Italy to guarantee that her government would not make a separate peace. At another level, a technical description of a new anti-aircraft gun could be included, as well as more internal political matters. For instance, Hitler’s willingness for the Finns to make a separate peace with Russia once the Germans occupied Leningrad for the purpose of shortening her line of defence and to enable her troops to be more easily supplied was one item reported on. Details of the German war machine and its manufacturing base was another; a breakdown of the statistics of Luftwaffe strength in the air and how the 22,000 machines of first and second line aircraft were deployed. Losses of planes were also enumerated, such as the fact that ten to twelve dive bombers were being built a day but forty-five planes had been lost on the Eastern Front from 22 June to the end of September. These and many other aspects of military and economic information emerged as the horrified German cryptanalysts worked to clarify the contents.

The case caused German intelligence great concern. After breaking up the Schulze-Boysen group, the Germans found that dedicated Communist agents had been planted many years before the war without arousing any suspicion. They had used their positions in industry to gradually make excellent connections and become trusted by leaders in industry and the armed forces. The penetration and breaking down of the network in Germany by the Abwehr was a blow to Soviet intelligence, particularly as the arrests led to the discovery of networks in France and other occupied countries. The link to Moscow using the Schulze-Boysen Group’s captured radio sets was kept up, although Moscow soon realised that their network had been blown. The Russians kept up the double bluff of pretending that the network was still working, as they wanted to distract the Germans while the Soviets strengthened and built another intelligence network.

This new network was the Trepper Group, a Soviet espionage ring run by staunch Communist Leopold Trepper who posed initially as a Canadian industrialist. He started to trade in clothes and underwear in Brussels as a cover for his espionage activities and developed business interests in France, Belgium and Germany before the Second World War. He created intelligence networks of Communist agents in those places using his business activities as a front for his agents while selling black market goods to German forces occupying those countries. He supplied Hitler’s Organisation Todt (the Third Reich’s civil and military engineering group) with materials and to do this he changed his persona to that of a German businessman. He used social occasions and dinner parties to cultivate high-ranking German officials to elicit information about troop movements and building defence projects. In late December 1941 his transmitter in Brussels was detected by a directional indicator and was promptly shut down by the Abwehr and, after a long chase, he was arrested in Brussels. After interrogation, he agreed to work for the Germans by transmitting disinformation to Moscow, although he managed to include hidden signs to his controller giving warning of his plight. In September 1943 he escaped and went into hiding with the French Resistance, but by then all the members of his groups had been arrested, including the well-known French agent Suzanne Spaak who was executed at Fresnes Prison just two weeks before Paris was liberated. Trepper survived and, after the war, returned to his old business of clothes wholesaling and quite possibly continuing espionage for the Soviet Union.

Late in 1941 the intercept services at Lauf began picking up transmissions from three new operational stations, one of which transmitted from Switzerland. Their transmissions to Moscow soon established them as agent stations in the Soviet Red Orchestra. The Abwehr christened this new station Rote Drei or Red Three in the network. It took the German cryptographers until well into 1944 before they could decrypt any of the enormous volume of traffic that passed on the shortwave links to Moscow. The Abwehr rated this network as especially dangerous as it operated in Geneva in neutral Switzerland, outside the security sphere of the Third Reich, although that did not stop them investigating the operation. Its first question was easily answered as they identified Alexander Rado, a Hungarian national, as the main agent in the network. He lived at 22 Rue de Lausanne, next door to the Comintern International offices running a Communist propaganda programme around the world. Rado, whose code name was Dora, had two radio sets allocated to him and was supervised by his director from Moscow Central. Wilhelm Flicke says that one of those sets was at another address in Lausanne, 2 Chemin Longerai, where an Englishman A.A. Foote was living, but how Flicke knew any of this is not clear. He goes on to say that Foote’s cover name was ‘John’ and he did all his own cipher work and worked independently of Rado. This is strange as the Russians and particularly those in the intelligence community had a deep distrust of the British.

Rado established the Rote Drei in 1937 with a small staff in Geneva to cope with the heavy workload of transmissions. German intelligence established the names of all of them and their code names but could get no further information. In the critical period of the battles for Stalingrad and the Caucasus the radios were never quiet and, following the encirclement and capture of a German Army at Stalingrad, the Russian intelligence service faced the most important problem in its history. After the Red Army’s initial breakthrough of German lines, what was the enemy’s situation? Did they have enough reserves to strike a counter blow? Did the Red Army risk falling into a trap as they advanced so rapidly or could they pursue the enemy safely on the Southern Front? This was the finest hour for Rote Drei and indeed the Soviet intelligence service; they rose to it magnificently by answering the Red Army’s questions in detail. The often hourly reports detailing the order of battle of each of the three army groups of the Germans were received in Moscow and proved unfailingly accurate and timely. German intelligence operatives have told the author that the war was won in Switzerland, but how was Rote Drei getting its information and who were its informants? The German security agencies tried every means they could to find the leak that was haemorrhaging away the strength and dispositions of the German Army, but to no avail. They knew all the people in the Rote Drei office in Geneva and watched them closely, as they did with hundreds of people in the Führer’s Headquarters, but could not find a hint of the leak of such critical and wide-ranging information. Wilhelm Flicke wrote that, as the tide turned against Germany in the late 1940s, ‘The Rote Drei’s source of information remains the most fateful secret of World War 2’.

It was obviously a dark mystery to the Germans, but there is a simple explanation; the mysterious A.A. Foote (John), either known or unknown to Rado, was a member of the British secret service, or MI6, whose life story could fill another book. Both he and Rado were being hounded by the Abwehr, together with the Swiss counter-espionage organisation BUPO, but all the time Foote was in touch either directly or indirectly with London. The critically important information that Rado, trusted by Moscow Central, was passing on was intelligence that came from Foote. The content was so detailed and accurate over a long and critical period that it must have come from Bletchley Park. The indirect use of Rote Drei had a double advantage to the Park: first, the information came to Moscow from one of their own tried and trusted people; secondly, it safeguarded the Park’s security as Rado was seen by the Germans as a wizard at finding mysterious sources of information that they could not identify. Meanwhile, the Abwehr and Gestapo were mesmerised into strenuously seeking the answer in the Führer’s Headquarters or the inner circle of the Wehrmacht and never thought to look further afield.

Russian Battlefield Intelligence

The tactical battlefield operations of German intercept units in the field against Russian troops had an entirely different nature to those on the home front described above. Colonel Randeweg, commanding the intercept detachment in the German Army Group South in Russia, recounted his experiences that were probably similar to every intercept unit in Army Groups Centre and North on the Russian front:

The vastness of Russia’s steppes, with little in the way of good roads and almost nothing resembling a commercial or military communications system, left the Russian army with no option but to use radio to contact its formations. German signals intelligence operations therefore concentrated on long-range interception operations to determine the battle order of the Soviet army and air force west of the Ural Mountains.

The mission of Randeweg’s units was to establish the current radio techniques of Red Army operators and what German interceptors could find about their unit’s command structures and strength. The scenario gained from these operations showed a picture of the Soviet Air Force that was very different to the evaluation accepted by OKW intelligence officers as has been seen earlier. The lack of information available to Army Group South about the Red Army caused the Germans to make a grave error in underestimating the Red Army’s strength.

Russian military signals security in their frontline units was not good and tank units in particular gave themselves away by faulty security procedures before and during attacks which made German intercepts very effective. In particular, careless requests for fuel gave away their positions and condition and transmissions from tank commanders made them particularly vulnerable. In July 1942 the Russian 82nd Tank Brigade had been trapped in a large pocket by the German Ninth Army who intercepted a plain text message discussing a break-out. The Brigade Commander asked about the axes of movement for his formation and was advised on the best location for an escape. The general of the 9th ordered the escape route to be lined with his tank-killer 88mm guns which decimated the Russian T-34 tanks and prevented the break-out so the remnants of the brigade retired into swamp-land for cover. Soon messages were intercepted requesting assistance in towing their T-34s out of the muddy swamp so the German radio operators used a deception on tank commanders, pretending to be Russian and asking for their position so the towing vehicles could find them. They then used the co-ordinates to direct artillery fire on the position and, still pretending to be Russian, the operator was able to keep in touch with the tank commander until his tank was knocked out and went off the air. Finally the Russian divisional staff tried to rescue some of the brigade from its disaster by trying to reorganise the troops and ordering them by radio to assemble at designated points, which then came under further intense artillery fire. The effect of the bombardment could then be checked by transmissions from surviving Russian operators asking for help. The whole of the Russian 82nd Tank Brigade had been wiped out due to lack of radio security. Frontline Russian operators would find it difficult to equal this kind of devastating efficiency shown by German intercept companies.

In the autumn of 1943 German forces were encircled near Cherkassy in a similar way to that of the 82nd Tank Brigade and successfully broke out by intercepting Russian signals in the operation. At the behest of the German propaganda machine, the commander of the brigade of tanks told how he had been able to direct movements of his armour by use of interception of Russian transmissions. An account of it was printed in the German press and after the Russian frontline security of messages improved.

Another aspect of action in Russia was the use the Russians made of partisans. While serving as commissar with Budyonny’s cavalry, Stalin’s role as a partisan in the 1920s allowed him to observe the defects of the Russian radio services, and it taught him much about the value of disrupting the enemy’s supply lines. A band of guerrillas in the vast empty Russian steppes could attack the lightly defended supply routes of the Germans whose first intimation of an attack would be the swish of the skis of the attacker before the destruction of supplies or ammunition intended for frontline units. A major partisan offensive was launched by Stalin using such guerrilla tactics to disrupt the German Army’s ever-lengthening supply lines, causing a major headache for their listening posts. Each band carried a shortwave radio and took orders from their parent Red Army formation headquarters as to where to strike and when. Listening posts allocated to identifying these radio sets complained regularly that it was impossible for them to keep track of literally hundreds of tiny mobile stations transmitting in their sector.

As the tide of battle turned from the high water mark of Stalingrad and then Kursk, the Russian use of radio communications became more adept and the German interception service was gradually overwhelmed. As the Red Army fought along its savage 3,000-mile journey from Moscow across Russia and Poland and then through Germany, increasing numbers of German intercept companies and their equipment were destroyed or abandoned. The Russians, on the other hand, became more and more confident in their radio communication service and took less and less care as they advanced. By the time the Russians were on the outskirts of Berlin they were confident enough not to encode messages. The Germans, on the other hand, were using their skilled intercept personnel as infantry in a last ditch effort to hold back Russia’s avenging army. In the last of his papers, Wilhelm Flicke asks the great why. Why, when the intercept service revealed the growing strength of the enemy on all fields, did they not stop the war when they knew it could not be won? German soldiers continued to fight as the Russians advanced into the gardens of the Reich Chancellery and the doors of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. The most convincing answer he received came from a German ex-soldier, wounded in battle with the loss of an arm: ‘It has to do with the German culture,’ he said, ‘we continued to fight because we were never told to stop.’

D-40 Cannonball

The unusual, if not the downright crackpot, appeared in the early days of the anti-tank missile age. This era stretched throughout the 1950s, with the level of wild optimism running fairly evenly all the way. It is perhaps worth noting that the first French missiles began to be generally available to the buying public in the late 1950s and from then on the rush of inventions took a more sober line as actual experience was gained with proper hardware. But with no real experience behind them, some designers were carried away by strange ideas. In 1952 the US Army Chief of Ordnance put a good deal of money into a device called Cannonball, also known as the D-40, with the intention of getting about twenty-five missiles and some associated ground equipment with which to evaluate the project.

He was backing a long-odds outsider because the D-40 had the strangest background of any anti-tank missile, for it had started life in the Navy as a submarine-launched, anti-ship weapon system. One would expect something out of the ordinary from such a beginning, and one would have been quite right. D-40 was a true ball, about 24inch diameter. There were two varieties, a 300lb test model controlled by radio and a 150lb tactical version controlled by wire. The whole idea is best summed up in the words of an official document of 1955.

The D-40 is a subsonic, short range guided rocket utilizing manually operated radio or wire command guidance along a line-of-sight course. The missile may be either ground or ship launched and is propelled to the target by a solid fuel rocket exhausting through a radial jet. The missile is spherical to eliminate aerodynamic effects from the control system. Stabilization in roll, pitch and yaw, is effected by properly placed jets exhausting tangentially in response to signals from three reference gyros operating in conjunction with relays and solenoids. Guidance is achieved by applying correcting signals to shift the contact locations on the gyros, thereby changing the average orientation of the main jet and the flight of the missile.

Which puts it all into one neat package.

To expand a little on the rather bald official description, I should mention that there was one main propulsive jet and three pairs of stabilising jets. In flight the ball did not roll and it remained in the air by virtue of the fact that the main jet pointed downwards at an angle of 45° so that half of the jet’s thrust supported the weight and half pushed it along. The stabilising jets maintained the delicate balancing act. It flew at 280mph to a range of 3,000yd over land, but only 1,000yd over water, taking, it should be noted, a rather leisurely 18.5 seconds to do the land journey and considerably less for the over-water flight. Guidance was by means of a joystick in the operator’s hand and he sighted the target through a powerful optical system. The real merit of Cannonball lay in its warhead which was either a 5olb shaped charge or a 65lb squash head. Either was more than enough to destroy any tank that it hit. The warhead and the guidance electronics were carried in a cylinder running right through the middle of the ball, rather like the core of an apple, with an impact fuze set in the outer shell. The rocket motors were carried in the outer part of the apple, surrounding the core, and the jets were in a circle round the equator. The launch platform was a simple two-armed bracket which held the ball horizontally until it shot itself off. The Navy was concerned to have some sort of autoloader for underwater firings.

At least fifty of these unusual missiles were fired between 1953 and 1956, all in conditions of great secrecy. They did what was expected of them and the whole programme looked most promising, but costs had risen three or four times above the original estimate, and the Army was having doubts about handling the beast in the field, so it was reluctantly dropped.

Applied Physics Lab D-40 Cannonball

William Leverette

Flying a Lockheed P-38G, Major William Leverette flames two Junkers Ju-87D Stukas near Rhodes on October 9, 1943. Leverette was credited with seven Stukas during the mission to cover a Royal Navy force. (©2019 Jack Fellows, ASAA)

On October 9 the 14th Fighter Group’s luck was about to change. Fighter Command had assigned the group to protect a British convoy consisting of the cruiser HMS Carlisle and the destroyers Panther, Petard, Rockwood and the Greek destroyer Miaolis.

The convoy was sailing through the straights between Scarpanto and Rhodes, their ultimate destination Alexandria. That morning, Major William Leverette led two flights of P-38s to rendezvous with the conv oy at midday. Two planes developed engine problems and had to return to base, so Leverette was reduced to seven fighters. He led Red Flight’s four P-38s, while Blue Flight’s three airplanes rounded out the patrol.

It was almost noon when Leverette spotted the convoy, which was under attack at that very moment by a swarm of Stuka 87 and Stuka 88s. Before the P-38s were in firing range they could see the damage that the Stukas were inflicting on the hapless convoy. The Stukas were diving down like angry birds of prey, dropping their bombs with seeming impunity. One German bomb scored a direct hit on a destroyer, causing the British vessel to break apart and sink.

The Stuka pilots had little time to savor their triumph, because the avenging P-38s were on them a moment later. There were at least 30 Stukas and seven P-38s, but the Germans planes were no match for these forked- tailed furies. This is not to say they w ere defenseless, for they had wing cannons and a rear gunner, but by the same token, they were no Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

For the next few minutes the blue Aegean skies were filled with dozens of aircraft twisting, turning, gaining altitude then plunging downward, the pilots per forming air pirouettes in a deadly ballet of life and death. It was less a dogfight than an unequal, one-sided slaughter. The P-38s had a field day, effortlessly downing German dive bombers with short, staccato bursts from their guns. Machine gun bullets, including 50-caliber slugs, tore into Stuka fuselages, soon causing the gull-winged aircraft to burst into flames and spiral down into the dark, wine-colored sea.

When it was over, no fewer than 16 German Stukas had been destroyed, and the surviving convoy ships made it to Alexandria safely. Major Leverette downed no fewer than seven Stukas, an impressive total by any standard. But after a few days the Americans withdrew their fighters.

An American pilot was to make his own daring kill in Mediterranean skies. During 1943, from their base in Tunisia, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group were tasked with offering protection to the many convoys suffering the attentions of Luftwaffe bombers. In one notable mission on 9 October 1943, three of the Group’s P-38s, led by Colonel William Leverette, attacked a formation of Junkers Ju 87s. After shooting down six of the dive-bombers, Leverette found himself on the tail of another Stuka, only to discover that his guns were now empty. With his final burst having already silenced the enemy’s rear gunner he decided that he should close with the Ju 87. As the gap between the aircraft shrank he then lined up his propeller with the Ju 87s rudder, and just as it bit into the rudder he cut his throttle and allowed the blades to slice large pieces from the unfortunate aircraft. As the Ju 87 lost control and spiralled into the sea, Leverette had accounted for his seventh victim of the day (his final score by the end of the war would eventually climb to 11).

The 37th FS arrived back at Sainte Marie du Zit on October 12 1943: without the Lightnings, British forces in the Aegean would once again be at a disadvantage when dealing with the Luftwaffe.

Bill Leverette was subsequently decorated for his achievement. Later, his CO, Oliver B `Obie’ Taylor, wrote:

“Bill’s exploits on this day established what turned out to be a theatre record, for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross. “I tried unsuccessfully to persuade XII Bomber Command that Bill should get the Medal of Honor. Of course the DSC was subject to meeting pretty stiff requirements and something of a rarity itself.”

Fifty years after the event, Bill Leverette learnt from a former squadron colleague that the 37th FS had gone into action with just 350 rounds of .50-cal ammunition per gun, as opposed to the standard 500 rounds. When enough rounds had been expended, causing ammunition to fall below a certain level, g-forces could affect the feed, resulting in a stoppage. To alleviate this, rounds were removed to enable wooden blocks to be placed at the bottom of the ammunition trays.

Bill lamented: “I was credited with seven Stukas destroyed, or 50 rounds (per gun) per kill, on average. Another 150 rounds (per gun) would have meant another three kills, at least.

Hit and Miss in the Far East

Throughout World War II the schism between those who campaigned in the East and the Pacific and those who fought in Europe remained open and divisive. Not only did the US Army concentrate its fullest attention upon Europe, it tended to allow its South-West Pacific component to wage a war of its own in alliance with the Australians, the New Zealanders and the US Navy. That suited General MacArthur, whose mission of vengeance against Japan was all-consuming. It also led to improvisations, which unified co-operation between Services and Allies might have averted. Similarly, the British forces in India, Burma and the Indian Ocean often regarded themselves as ‘forgotten’ by London, at least until Mountbatten was sent out to form a new South-East Asia Command in October 1943. Meanwhile the US Navy, of its own choice playing only a supporting role in Europe, sometimes lost contact with developments taking place there and went its own way in splendid pursuit of its own greater glory

For example, shortcomings in the Solomons apparently failed to fix in Admiral Turner’s mind the crucial importance of beach reconnaissance, pilotage and obstacle clearance. The reckoning, as mentioned earlier, came during the successful but costly invasion of Makin in November 1943, which he considered ‘my poorest appraisal of beach areas for a landing during the whole war… The Red beaches were just plain stink profumo. That’s why I pushed the development of Underwater Demolition Teams [UDT] so hard.’ This amazing admission indicates how Turner was not only unaware of the techniques already practiced by COPP and their kin for Torch, Husky, Baytown and Avalanche, but was also in ignorance of US Navy work for over a year at Fort Pierce, Florida. Already created for Europe were Beach Jumper Teams equipped with powerful demolition devices, such as Reddy Fox, a 50–100 foot long pole, filled with 28 pounds of tetrytol, which could be floated into position, sunk and then detonated, and Hot Dog, a smaller version of Reddy Fox.

Be that as it may, Turner, appalled at the difficulties of pushing Amtracks through unbreached reefs and enemy booms and barricades at Makin, now opted for what he called ‘swimming scouts’. In a letter to Admiral King on 26 December 1943 he asked for the urgent formation of nine UDTs, and, a few days later, for the setting up of an ‘Experimental and Tactical Underwater Demolition Station’. Needless to say this was easily and promptly arranged. Within four weeks UDTs, manned by navy personnel, nearly all of whom were Reservists, were at work in the forefront of the action at Kwajalein as part of Operation Flintlock. They swam ashore in daylight from LCVPs and LVTs, thoroughly protected by a typical Turner blasting operation as ‘reef-hugging battleships’ pounded the Japanese defences so hard that the demolition teams were undetected by a cowed enemy. The first assault waves on 1 February 1944 met nothing to impede their landing.

UDTs had come to stay. At Saipan in June 1944, in Operation Forager, they turned in a classic performance. Here Turner had them reconnoitre beach boundaries, blast gaps through the reefs and open channels for subsequent assault waves and the armada of landing craft and LSTs bringing in reinforcements and supplies. Without UDTs the whole schedule would have been set back and enemy resistance dangerously prolonged.

The attack on Guam, a month later, probably witnessed UDTs at the peak of their usefulness. Here they worked for three days and nights, closely protected by gun-fire, removing and demolishing elaborate man-made obstacles and blowing aside tons of reef. Extracts from the report of UDT 3 (under Lieutenant R. F. Burke) give some indication of the variety, labour and danger of their task:

Operation delayed due to grounding of LCI348 on reef. After attempts to remove the LCI, which taken under heavy mortar fire by enemy, it was decided to abandon it and crew was removed by UDT 3’s boat No. 4.

3 LCPRs sent to reef edge under heavy fire cover (sometimes within fifty yards of the swimmers) and smoke screen and launched five rubber boats. 150 obstacles removed using 3,000 pounds Tetrytol… The enemy had placed obstacles in an almost continuous front along the reef. These obstacles were piles of coral rock inside a wire frame made of heavy wire net. Dispatched all UDT Boats to respective beaches to guide LCMs and LCTs with tanks ashore over reef.

Yet it is noteworthy that the complete abandonment of stealth and the three-day bombardment in support of the UDTs ‘tipped off’ Turner’s plan to the enemy, prompting the Japanese commander to re-deploy his troops in those sectors where assault had been so clearly advertised.

Detached from European practices and US Navy and Marine expertise, and faced with the task of a major invasion of the Philippines, Lieutenant General W. Krueger’s Sixth US Army had to create its own equivalent of Amphibious Recon Patrols, Commandos and COPPs. Lacking Marines or OGs, Sixth Army called for volunteers who would scout ahead in parties of one officer and six enlisted men. Applications came from almost every unit and were given the evocative frontier title of ‘The Alamo Scouts’. Within six weeks their own training centre had done its work and 66 physically fit and indoctrinated men were braced to the task of scouring coastlines and inland defences for enemy troops. They were instructed to find and report, but to avoid fighting except when trapped.

The Alamo Scouts were soon overtaken by the crowd. No sooner were they ashore on Leyte than they found themselves in company with Filipino guerrillas led by Americans. Within a few days or even hours of reconnoitring the beaches another specialized unit was close on their heels. 6th Ranger Battalion was also a Krueger improvisation, trained to ruthless commando standards within a mere three weeks, because by now all the short cuts had been discovered by their predecessors in Europe. But they were recruited in a unique way, for Krueger simply nominated 98th Field Artillery Regiment for the job, placed it under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel H. A. Mucci, the ex-Provost Marshal of Honolulu, and told him to replace those who did not want to volunteer from a long list of those from elsewhere who did. Miraculously and by sheer hard work, an artillery unit which had manned pack guns in the New Guinea campaign was turned into spearhead infantry and found itself nominated to seize, on 17 October, the islands of Dinagat, Suluan and Homonhon which lay across the approaches to the main assault area. Because prolonged occupation of the islands was not envisaged, these were not hit-and-run operations in the true sense of the term, although the orders issued had that flavour. Enemy radio installations and gun positions were to be destroyed, documents and codes captured.

When the time came to land there was but little opposition. At Sulunan the Japanese shot once, killing one Ranger, and then ran into the jungle where they were hunted down. Neither was there any resistance at Dinagat, where guerrillas had killed the enemy, with the result that Rangers were first to raise the Stars and Stripes again on the Philippines and free to erect the navigation devices which, on the 20th, guided the invasion fleet to its main assault position. Subsequently, in January 1943, a Company of 6th Rangers, working with Filipino guerrillas and Alamo Scouts, won considerable credit and fame with a long-distance mission to rescue American prisoners of war from Cabanatuan Cavo, 35 miles behind the enemy lines. It was foot-slogging all the way with not a boat in sight, but it enabled 6th Rangers’ group to hit a high spot in history by bringing some 500 fellow Americans safely out, ambushing and killing over 400 Japanese for the loss of only two Rangers and one Scout killed. Thereafter this unit continued to operate exclusively in the infantry spearhead role on land, in much the same way as had its sister battalions in Europe. It was a remarkable feat by an artillery unit to acquire so rapidly more skill and dash than that of ordinary infantry units with more experience in the art. Was it just the name ‘Ranger’ which inspired them? The fact remains that, when assigned the task of spearheading 37th Infantry Division in the assault on Manila’s walled city, they were denied the honour because ‘they had already had too much publicity’.

The crew of Krait during Operation Jaywick

While the American Army fighting the Japanese improvised its raiding forces on the spot, Dutch, Australians and British built up theirs with ready-made bricks such as British Army and Royal Marine Commandos sent to India for use in Burma and elsewhere as spearhead units. Of the many operations attempted, most were inland, often across rivers. Here only those carried out independently at sea will be described, with pride of place given to the dedicated Australians, several of them 18-year-olds who had never before been to sea, who carried out Operation Jaywick against shipping in Singapore harbour after a voyage of over 2,000 miles from Western Australia in an old Japanese-built fishing boat renamed Krait.

Major I. Lyon, Gordon Highlanders, and Lieutenant D. M. N. Davidson, RNVR, were the brains behind Jaywick and it took them more than a year to complete its triumphant execution. Certainly it required a lot of imagination to swallow a plan which involved such a long journey through Japanese-dominated waters to launch three Folbots into a protected harbour with a view to fastening limpets on ships whose presence was no better known beforehand than that of the location of enemy defences. But Jaywick was an act of faith carried out with an unavoidable lack of information by men to whom risk was second nature, against an enemy to whom such attack was unimaginable. Setting out from Exmouth Gulf on 2 September 1943, and flying Japanese colours, Krait reached the ‘thousand islands’ of the Rhio archipelago in good order on 23 September and disembarked six men in three Folbot canoes who hid up on one of the islands. On the night 26/27 September they penetrated the encouragingly lax defences of Singapore Harbour. One canoe entered the inner Keppel Harbour, the other one fixed limpets on shipping anchored off nearby islands without serious challenge. At 0500 hours next morning all six men, exhausted by hard paddling, were hiding on an adjacent island listening to the thud of exploding limpets which accounted for seven ships of about 33,000 tons, including a fully loaded 10,000-ton tanker. By good fortune and much determination they managed to paddle for the next three days to their rendezvous with the Krait and, after 33 days in Japanese territory, returned to Australia, having survived investigation by a rather uninquisitive enemy destroyer on the way.

Jaywick ranks with Frankton and Sunbeam A as among the most successful of canoe operations, and was also perhaps the luckiest. Both Lyon and Davidson were given to taking extravagant risks, venturing forth with a minimum of intelligence and creeping up, as Davidson did, on the tense crew of the Krait at the RV just to find out ‘how well prepared they were’ and nearly being shot for his stupidity. Both were equally obsessed with the idea of striking at Singapore, and that obsession led to Operation Rimau (Tiger), one that was even more perilously based on chance, the chance that 15 unreliable, electrically-powered submersible canoes (known as ‘Sleeping Beauties’) would be better than Folbot canoes, and that a party of 22 men, carried in cramped conditions aboard the submarine HMS Porpoise to the vicinity of Singapore, could hijack a junk, transfer the Sleeping Beauties and 11 Folbots to her and then raid the harbour.

Some measure of the wishful thinking which went into the planning of Rimau can be gauged from Dick Horton’s description of the Sleeping Beauties, which had only two speeds, full ahead at four knots and half-speed.

How it was expected to cope with the tides off Singapore, which ran at over six knots, had been left to fate. Steering and elevation was by means of an aircraft type ‘joystick’ [like the Welman submarine] and on a panel in front of the operator was a compass which was unusually highly inaccurate.

Amazingly they managed to capture a 100-ton junk, Mustika, on 28 September and transfer everything to her in two nights’ working, before Porpoise cast off for another task. After that nothing went right. The Mustika was intercepted by Malay police and the crew gave themselves away. Lyon had her sunk and took to the Folbots in an attempt to paddle the long distance to the pick-up point at Merapas Island. They might have made it if the submarine assigned to make the pick-up (not Porpoise) had stuck to plan, but she did not and, again to quote Horton, ‘no explanation of this has ever been given’. As it was, an intensive Japanese search gradually rounded them up, killing Lyon, Davidson and a few others, bringing 11 survivors to Singapore where one died of malaria and the rest were put on trial and finally beheaded on 7 July 1945.

With the death of Lyon and Davidson, no more Rimau-type amphibious operations were attempted. Dutch and Australian parties, most of the latter drawn from the Independent Companies, concentrated on the vital acquisition of information and the spread and support of clandestine activities in the Netherlands East Indies, New Guinea, Papua and Northern Borneo. They employed hit-and-run techniques but mostly left the hitting to guerrilla bands under SOE control, as did their counterparts in South-East Asia Command.

When Mountbatten assumed command of South-East Asia Command in October 1943, he brought with him that vibrant dynamism for which he was renowned, plus the operational and administrative techniques he had developed as CCO. SEAC, he said, would deal directly with Combined Operations. To make sure, he co-opted several tried members of COHQ Staff. Without the same sense of personal involvement as MacArthur, Mountbatten’s task in the Far East was still one of vengeance. Just as the Americans desired to reconquer the Philippines to wipe out the stain of the 1942 defeats at Bataan and Corregidor, so the British and Dutch were determined to recapture Burma, the Malay Peninsula and the Netherlands East Indies. But although many British viewed the capture of Singapore as an important stepping stone to the Philippines, the only strategic importance the Americans attached to the role of SEAC was the seizing of Upper Burma in order to open up land communications with China. As a result the maritime side of Mountbatten’s task initially took second place to the extension of operations southwards. In consequence it was not until August 1944 that the Small Operations Group (SOG) commenced what were, essentially, reconnaissance missions related to Operation Zipper – the projected invasion of Malaya which would come second only to Overlord in magnitude.

The Allies were all agreed that Colonel Donovan’s OSS was to be prevented from taking a strong part in Zipper in the same manner as they were restrained from ‘assisting’ MacArthur and Nimitz. Fear of American interference in the delicate Indian political scene prompted Mountbatten to copy European methods by placing OSS under SOE, and then ensuring that neither organization received much priority or help. Relatively few agents were inserted to stimulate the activities of Anti-Japanese Forces (AJF) and the flow of supplies was kept extremely low. Even at their peak in 1945, only 276 tons were delivered to SOE throughout SEAC, compared with 506 tons to Scandinavia and 1,147 to Yugoslavia. OSS agents took virtually no part in raiding (and in none at all of the amphibious type) since OGs were excluded, as they continued to be within the commands of Nimitz and MacArthur.

Strict control was also imposed on the British Small Operations Group which began to assemble in Ceylon in April 1944 under Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. Hasler. Consisting, to begin with, of COPPs 7 and 8, which had arrived in India in the latter half of 1943, on 12 June it was ‘officially formed’ under Colonel T. T. Tollemache. It soon expanded to include four COPPs, three sections of SBS who were all Army Commandos, Royal Marine Detachment 385 and the Sea Reconnaissance Unit of long range swimmers, drawn from all three branches of Service. Apart from the fact that RM Detachment 385 and the COPPs were not parachute-trained, the functions of the four types of units overlapped, although the COPPs tended to specialize in tasks demanding thorough off-shore survey and navigation.

It is not the intention here to deal with the scores of raids classified as Force Commander Operations – that is, those carried out under Fourteenth Army, XV Corps or Force W which could be a beach reconnaissance, a fighting patrol, a ‘snatch’ of an enemy prisoner, or co-operation with local guerrilla bands. Mountbatten had specified in Operational Directive No. 14 that the SOG would provide small parties of uniformed troops ‘to operate against enemy coastal, river or lake areas’, of which there were plenty in South-East Asia, and that they would ‘NOT be qualified to work as agents’. First among the tasks they would undertake were ‘Reconnaissance of enemy beaches, seaward approaches, beach exits and coastal defences’. Second, ‘Small-scale attacks on objectives in coastal, river or lake areas’. Third, ‘The provision of markers and guides for assault landings by larger forces which may be either seaborne or airborne’.

A beginning was made between 17 and 23 August by a COPP reconnaissance of beaches in the vicinity of the Peudada River in North Sumatra – Operation Frippery. Carried by submarine, their task, ostensibly, was to assess suitability for a major landing. All that came of it was a submarine-carried demolition raid by SBS between 11 and 13 September with the railway bridge over the river as its objective – these were Operations Spratt Able and Spratt Baker, of which Able came to nothing after the two-canoe party became split up, ran into all sorts of trouble ashore and returned, baffled, to the submarine. Baker, under Major Sidders, also suffered from embarrassments. A corporal fell into the river from the bridge with a loud splash; there was a narrow shave when a Japanese bicycle patrol pedalled by; and the local natives, attracted to the scene, had to be restrained at gun-point in case they betrayed the canoeists while they laid the charge and fixed time pencils. Further delay, when time was already short, occurred to allow a train to pass. All in all it was a relieved party of SBS who paddled back to the submarine to learn later that one end of the bridge was in the water.

Spratt Baker was unique in the so-called Independent Operations by SOG in that it was the only one specifically designed to attack coastal objectives. A few were supply missions for guerrillas, of which Carpenter III, carried out on 30 May 1945, off the east coast of Johore by RM Detachment 385, was the biggest, involving a submarine and the landing of 8,000-pounds of stores and the evacuation of 12 men.

Reconnaissance was the major role, related to the projected invasion of Malaya across the Morib beaches and in the neighbourhood of Port Dickson by Force W and XXXIV Corps (Operation Zipper). Of several small operations, Confidence, on 9/10 June was alone crucial; the rest, Copyright, Baboon, Bruteforce, Cattle and Baker, Defraud, Fairy and Slumber  were diversionary.

COPP 3, carried 1,200 miles to Phuket Island by submarine, executed Baboon on 8/9 March; its task the examination of beaches and a possible airstrip – for which purpose it included among its seven members an RAF officer. The beach survey was completed, but the canoe carrying the RAF officer overturned. His crew of two Royal Engineers was killed by enemy fire as they ran up the beach, and he was taken prisoner next day. The experiences of RM Detachment 385 attempting Copyright the next day was equally hectic because the enemy were alerted, and eventually ended in tragedy. Having taken their beach samples, they were apprehended by Thai police, but fighting broke out and the men escaped into the jungle where they were hunted by both the Thais and the Japanese. One by one they were killed or captured as they tried to make their way to pre-arranged pick-up points, which the submarines kept under surveillance for the next nine days in the hope of finding them. Three were lucky enough to fall into Thai hands and spent the rest of the war as their prisoners. The two taken by the Japanese were removed to Singapore where their captors ‘honoured’ them by decapitation in the same manner as the previous Australian teams.

As a deception to Baboon and Copyright, Bruteforce, consisting of four men and two canoes from RM Detachment 385, were carried by Catalina flying boat to land on the Burmese coast at Ziggon on 29 March, their orders stating they should leave behind traces of their presence. Nothing more was heard of them, however, and a search by Catalina two days later was abortive. There does seem to have been an exuberance about SOG deceptions. When it came to leaving traces of their presence, their teams tended, in the opinion of those who had experience of Europe, to overdo it a bit. The team from RM Detachment 385, under Lieutenant A. L. Croneen, RM, which went by submarine to North Sumatra on 15 April, simulated a battle on shore with Tommy-gun fire and grenades, without, apparently, impressing anybody, for there was no response. And Clearance Baker in West Siam was criticized for leaving so much kit behind as to be unrealistic: in Europe only scraps were thrown away to indicate a minor mishap.

How effective deception raids were must remain in doubt. Defraud, by ten men from RM Detachment 385 in the Nicobar Islands on 18/19 April, certainly succeeded in bringing back information, but its aim of engaging the enemy and inflicting casualties came to naught for lack of enemy. Fairy, in the Tavoy area on the same night, was called off after the canoes had left the destroyers carrying them due to miscellaneous problems including the sighting of an unidentified motor boat.

As for Confidence, it can only be remarked that this was one of the few essential beach reconnaissances which fell short of requirements, despite the very considerable endeavours of the members of COPP 3 under Lieutenant A. Hughes, RNR, to complete the job. Taking eight men in four canoes, he landed in two parties on the Morib beaches on 9 June. Hughes’s party managed to return to their parent submarine, HMS Seadog, with sufficient evidence, it seemed, to indicate that the beaches they had examined were adequate for a major invasion. But the party with Captain Alcock, a Canadian, lost contact with Seadog, as well as among themselves, and remained ashore, having discovered their beaches unsuitable. This had repercussions, for no further attempt was made to examine the beaches for fear of compromising the main Zipper operation. As for Alcock and his men, their subsequent adventures amounted to a saga in itself. Captured and reunited by a unit of Javanese AJF guerrillas, they were handed over to a well organized, but suspicious band of Chinese Communist AJF whose methods were, to say the least, uncompromising and brutal. After a prolonged investigation of Alcock’s credentials, they were grudgingly recognized as allies, especially when it became known that the Japanese were offering a reward of Malayan $10,000, later increased to $100,000, for their capture. For their enlightenment, they were invited to witness the torturing of a spy and his subsequent decapitation. They were told SEAC had been informed of their survival, but during the next few weeks were almost constantly on the move with the AJF unit, their health gradually deteriorating from malnutrition and jungle sores. When contact was made by the AJF with SEAC, it took a long time for arrangements for their rescue to be made by Force 136, which was responsible for clandestine operations along with OSS. It was September before they at last emerged, and by then the war was over.

There is no doubt that the SOG filled an essential need in the same manner as Amphibious Recon Patrols and the Alamo Scouts. The information they provided could not have been acquired in any other reliable way, and the price paid in lives for 174 operations was by no means exorbitant – nine killed, five missing and two wounded.

Great good fortune also attended the Zipper landings at the Morib beaches and close by Port Dickson in Malaya, since they eventually took place without opposition on 9 September when the war with Japan was over. If it had been otherwise the last major and prestigious amphibious operation of the war might have been catastrophic and not simply the fiasco that it was. For as a result of inadequate reconnaissances and the false conclusions drawn therefrom, the landing craft and men faced beach conditions which somebody in the Royal Navy described as ‘vile’. Many craft became grounded too far out to permit unloading, while others touched down on terrain which precluded rapid unloading. Scores of vehicles were drowned and chaos reigned on congested beaches because egress from them was extremely difficult through dense vegetation and trees. A few yards inland narrow roads, bounded by deep ditches and soft ground, prevented vehicles from getting off the roads without becoming stuck, with the result that traffic jams of fearsome dimensions built up and the tanks ripped the frail roads and their shoulders to shreds. Only men on foot could move inland and it was fortunate for the unsupported infantry that the Japanese tended to assist rather than resist. It was a strange irony, indeed, that, under Mountbatten of all people, the culminating British operation from the sea should be so badly prepared, and not so very surprising that his despatches draw a veil over an episode most people preferred to forget. Zipper’s troubles were not the fault of the COPPs, but the experience of Confidence was not lost on the Marines or without significance for the future in their contacts with the AJF bands. For these guerrilla bands were an enemy of the future who, during the next decade, would challenge Britain for power in Malaya throughout long-drawn-out operations in which Marine Commandos would play an important role.

‘Second Front Now’

THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1939-45 (H 18957) Men of No. 4 Commando after returning from a raid on the French coast near Boulogne, 22 April 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205198312

Within hours of having delivered himself of the British determination to stand by all who opposed Hitler, regardless of race or creed, Churchill addressed his mind to practical means of diverting German forces from their Eastern enterprise. A minute to the Chiefs of Staff on 23 June urged upon them the need to step up air attacks by day as well as by night and also to concentrate attention upon surface raids:

I have in mind something on the scale of 25,000–30,000 men – perhaps the Commandos plus one of the Canadian divisions… As long as we can keep air domination over the Channel and the Pas de Calais it ought to be possible to achieve a considerable result.

Among the other objectives, the destruction of the guns and batteries, of all shipping, of all stores, and the killing and capturing of a large number of Germans present themselves. The blocking of the harbours of Calais and Boulogne might also be attempted… Now the enemy is busy in Russia is the time to ‘Make hell while the sun shines’.

Coming after the cancellation of Barbaric these contradictions were confusing and so the Chiefs of Staff took them with a pinch of salt and told the planners to concentrate their energies on small raids across the narrow waters. Captain G. A. French, RN, who chaired an important meeting of the Executive Planning Staff to consider the ‘runners’ a few days later, said in an interview that they usually had before them scores of ideas from which to select a manageable handful.

First choice fell on a reconnaissance patrol named Chess which the War Cabinet Defence Committee adopted on 7 July and Keyes passed to Vice-Admiral Dover for action against Ambleteuse. Another small operation, Acid Drop, was to follow in August, followed by a third, Chopper, in September. Representing the Naval Intelligence Department at that meeting was Lieutenant-Commander G. Gonin, who took the opportunity of a lull in the formal discussions to mention to French an idea he and his colleagues had had for a raid on the very large dry dock at St Nazaire, for which the German battleship Bismarck had been making before she had been caught and sunk the previous month and which, any day, might be the destination of Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz. It is not often one can identify exactly who generated an operational scheme but this one was of particular importance, and for a great many reasons which will appear in due course. For now it was merely referred for consideration and found a place in DCO’s diary later in July under the name Operation Chariot.

The idea, however, so stimulated Churchill’s imagination that he expanded it at once into a concept aimed at ‘nipping out the Brest peninsula’. This unrealistic scheme led the Chiefs of Staff into a desperate rearguard action to convince the Prime Minister that a project that would demand six divisions and which, from shortage of shipping, let alone of trained troops, would stretch their resources to the limit, was impossible. One fancies here that, however impractical Churchill seemed (and it is worth recalling that he avoided mention of these follies in his Memoirs), his goadings were the products of political expediency as well as sticks to whip the Chiefs and planners, whose caution he saw as obstructiveness. Already Communist voices which, prior to 22 June, had stood against the ‘capitalist and imperialist war’, were beginning to agitate for a Second Front now, and were painting the demand on walls and publishing it in the papers. Churchill may have later written that ‘we did not allow these sorry and ignominious facts to disturb our thoughts’, and he did, on 20 July, answer Stalin’s demand for a major diversion of Lend Lease Aid from Britain to Russia and his request for vigorous action across the Channel with a well-reasoned paper pointing out how impossible it was, due to lack of shipping and almost everything else.

The fact remains that serious study was made of several ambitious projects in the medium-to-large-raid category in order to satisfy Stalin:

1. Operation Ransack – a tip-and-run raid of Brigade strength ‘to kill Germans and do as much damage as possible’ (preferably against a German Security HQ at Le Touquet) without interfering with Pilgrim. The JPS rejected it because only six LTCs (enough to land a single squadron of tanks) were available, and only 600 semi-equipped parachutists. Remorselessly the tyranny of chronic shortages trimmed down the force to a couple of troops from 5 Commando and a company of line infantry, carried in eight Eurekas, tasked to raid an undisclosed airfield in the Pas de Calais. Like similar designs, including one called Irrigate, it was squashed by the Prime Minister for the same reason he had squashed Barbaric – lack of effect for too much risk.

2. A joint operation suggested by the Russians, which, Churchill reasoned, had to be taken very seriously – an invasion of Northern Norway to clear the country southward and free the sea route to Murmansk along which convoys would soon be taking supplies from the West to the Russians. This was discarded by the planners as being beyond the means available, but it stimulated Churchill’s insistent and very unpopular proposals to raid Trondheim or Stavanger in the autumn when the nights were longer.

3. Operation Gauntlet, again at Russia’s suggestion, to seize Bear Island and Spitzbergen with a view to liberating the Norwegians and Russians there, destroying the mines and the coal stocks upon which the Germans were drawing, and eliminating German weather stations which were being secretly inserted.

Of the three only Gauntlet was adopted as a joint British, Canadian and Norwegian venture with the Russians collaborating for the evacuation of their civilians. A force, originally set at two infantry battalions, was whittled down to one (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) supplemented by 17 British officers and 101 men from the Sappers and several different Commandos. Hit-and-run raid that it was in military terms, the whole thing had about it the air of a peacetime policing operation, with the troops sailing in the comparative luxury of the liner Empress of Canada and the escort of two cruisers and three destroyers not being called upon to take offensive action. ‘So for better or worse ran Gauntlet’, wrote the Force Commander, Rear-Admiral P. Vian, as the soldiers went ashore on 25 August and began the work of assembling the Norwegian and Russian civilians for evacuation, preparing the Russian-run mines for demolition and the burning of 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 gallons of fuel, and arguing hotly with the mine manager who resisted as staunchly as he could the destruction of his life’s work and the future economic well-being of the island. It was a model exercise in peripheral raiding against an undefended target in the absence of enemy detection, a security which was assured by the local Norwegian radio operators who continued to broadcast as if nothing was happening, and totally fooled the Germans as to what was going on.

But not by any stretch of imagination could Gauntlet be rated as a substitute for a Second Front, even if it did help Russia and harm the German economy. Nor were the pinprick raids of July and the months to come any substitute. What impact could a few dozen men, spending a few minutes ashore, have on the 30 German divisions in France which were not in the least stretched by occupation of a secure coast line and controlling a population 99 per cent of whom were peaceful, even if secretly hostile? Of course the ineffectuality of very small raids was well understood. Indeed, on 1 July, Keyes had tried to revive the Barbaric scheme with parachutists and added a few tanks, but this foundered on the same rocks that Ransack would strike.

So, after all the puff and blow, there emerged Operation Chess, a raid by 16 men from 12 Commando, led by an officer who was to become one of the stars of raiding – 2nd Lieutenant P. Pinckney of the Berkshire Yeomanry. Chess was important, not because of what was achieved by a landing at Ambleteuse on the night 27/28 July, but for the precedent it set. For the Prime Minister, having, for the moment, been convinced that the large raids he preferred were impossible, reluctantly agreed to small ones ‘of the order of ten men’, and this, having been formally adopted, became the model for many such to come.

Chess, like all of its kind, was inhibited by weather, by the phases of the moon and the tide quite as much as by enemy resistance. Wind and surf could arise unexpectedly at any time and hamper landing and re-embarkation; tides and moon tended to restrict raiding to one short, dark period of only a few days each month – and in summer a mere four hours’ darkness increased the risks of detection on approach and withdrawal and limited the time which could be spent ashore. Putting a raid together also caused complex problems and included the training and rehearsal of the sailors and troops, the provision and briefing by the Royal Navy of an escort and of motor launchers (MLs) to tow the LCAs to the cast-off point, the arrangement of communications and the notification, without breaching security, of all those who needed to know, to prevent, for example, attack by friendly ships or aircraft. Generals who, by the existing rules, held ‘the licence to raid enemy sectors opposite their piece of coast’ tended to think of each foray as ‘trench raiding across a watery no-man’s land’, and often had no conception of all that was entailed, which was why Admirals attempted to exclude them from the planning process.

There was a sense of occasion on the evening Pinckney’s force embarked in the MLs at Dover. Conditions were good and the approach to the cast-off point and transfer to the LCAs went without a hitch. However, the noise of engines alerted the Germans, and when 250 yards offshore they must have been seen as whistles were heard from various places ashore. A lesser man than Pinckney might have abandoned Chess there and then, but he was determined to capture a prisoner and was never the sort to give in.

The LCA’s ramp was lowered before beaching was made successfully despite the surf… Some 200 yards down the beach a spot to climb the cliff was discovered. Men and myself climbed up with difficulty and found wire. At this moment a star shell was fired and firing broke out. There was no time to get the others up. An MG was firing from the cliff directly above the boat. We got beneath this and threw up grenades. This silenced the MG. I then re-embarked my party.

Pinckney made it sound all very simple, but the enemy had scored hits on the other LCA, the tracer snaking across the water to the light of the star shells and killing a naval officer and rating. It was touch and go that they managed to escape and Pinckney was to return with a profound respect for the alertness and competence of the enemy whose reception certainly bore out the Prime Minister’s ingrained fear of beach assaults.

Nevertheless Chess was considered encouraging enough to warrant staging a double event a month later – that being the length of time needed to ‘lay on’ such raids. Acid Drop and Cartoon were also to be cautious ventures, confined to reconnaissance with no attempt at combat. In the event Cartoon was abandoned at a later stage, leaving Acid Drop to go it alone in two parties of 30 and 20 men to tackle, respectively, beaches at Hardelot and Merlimont on either side of Le Touquet. Acid Drop turned sour from the start. To the men of 5 Commando the LCA crews appeared slap-happy and deficient in training. Officers in white flannels may look engaging on a yacht but do not inspire confidence on a night operation. Then a misinformed naval officer condemned the soldiers to a voyage in the LCAs, squatting in water instead of in the dry of the MLs. In any case they were destined to land wet since the LCAs stayed too far out for fear of stranding and the Commandos were compelled to wade ashore. Fortunately the enemy here were not as aggressive as those at Ambleteuse. There were no obstacles, no mines and no opposition, despite indications that the Germans were aware of a hostile presence when they began whistling warnings to each other among the dunes. But there was no contact, and so no prisoners. It all went to show how easy Barbaric might have been.

Operation Chopper on 27 September was quite another story. The Royal Navy had taken the lessons of Acid Drop to heart. Not only were the LCA crews well trained but everybody, from top to bottom in the chain of command, was keen to go. One RN officer asked, ‘Why can’t we increase the frequency of these things?’ – a very reasonable request which pointed to indifferent organization and lack of enthusiasm in higher places. No lack of aggression infected 1 Commando on this occasion, although a mistake in navigation took the two LCAs in Force B 3 miles off-course from the objective of Courseulles and landed them in front of alerted defences, illuminated by flares and raked by fire. Two men were killed, one badly wounded and an LCA holed so badly that the men had to bail out to stay afloat. The Commandos were filled with praise for the sailors on this occasion – their determination to get them out under fire, the way they made their way home despite losing contact with the supporting motor gun boats (MGBs) and the care they took with the wounded; in his report, the skipper of LCA 26 said he was ‘regretting having to chop up my centre seat to provide splints for a severely wounded man’.

Force A fared better after it landed correctly at Point de Saire on the Cherbourg peninsula. A party from 5 Troop under Captain G. A. Scaramanga penetrated inland, got no answer when they knocked on the door of a shuttered house and then, as their scouts reached a bend in the road:

A German cyclists’ patrol came round the bend going a good speed on low handle-bar bicycles. There were three in a row in front and one behind. Our leading tommy gunners opened fire immediately. I saw the two leading cyclists on my side of the road crumple up and fall on the road. I ordered the bodies of the two Germans to be taken to the LCA; the other carrying party was slow in coming to the fact that one of the men detailed to carry it had been slightly wounded. Time was pressing, being already 35 minutes after the scheduled time of departure. As the two Germans appeared identical, I ordered one body to be left, and everybody embarked. Two men were slightly wounded, possibly by ricochets from our own tommy guns. Afterward one of my men told me that he had seen the body of a third German dead in the hedge. After re-embarking … fire was opened upon us with one MG firing tracer… No beach obstacles or wire were encountered. No searchlights or Verey lights were seen. No enemy aircraft were seen.

It was only a pin-prick to the Germans who at that moment seemed well on the way to overrunning Russia and then planned to be able to turn back on Britain in 1942. The raids did not receive strong publicity in Britain and only passing mention by the German Propaganda Ministry, which had its attention held elsewhere. But changes were on the way, and the time was not far removed when the Germans would be compelled to take a lot more notice. Before then, however, the Combined Operations organization in Britain had to be taken in hand.