About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

‘We Are Heroes After All, Aren’t We?’*

Capture of a French regiment’s eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

Northern Flank: Austerlitz

2 December 1805

While Vandamme’s division dispersed the final remnants of IV Column from the plateau, Saint-Hilaire’s battle for control of the Pratzeberg still raged. At about 11.00am Langeron, still personally involved in the fighting, received word from adjutants despatched from IV Column, advising him with stark simplicity of the collapse of this force. Langeron ordered these messengers to pass on the shocking news to Buxhöwden, who remained inactive about a mile away on the hillock overlooking the Goldbach. Having been away from the rest of his command, fighting in Sokolnitz, for an hour and a half, and with no sign of help coming from Buxhöwden, Langeron realised he must find reinforcements himself. Leaving Kamenski to continue the fight, Langeron galloped off back to Sokolnitz.

At around the same time Weyrother, Kolowrat and Kutuzov approached the Pratzeberg, following the defeat of the other half of IV Column, doing their best to encourage the Austrian troops. Kutuzov, accompanied by a staff officer, Prince Dmitry Volkonsky, then reached Kamenski’s brigade just as it was in danger of being broken by a French attack, but Volkonsky rallied the Phanagoria Regiment by grasping their standard and leading them forward: order was again restored.

As Langeron headed off to find reinforcements, the Austrian battalions recovering from their attack on Thiébault’s line reformed within reach of Kamenski’s brigade. Their brigade commander, Jurczik, anchored his position on a small rise, where he concentrated some of his artillery. Major Mahler brought his battalion of IR49 Kerpen to the rise and drew the battalion of IR58 Beaulieu in to protect the flank. At the same time he moved two guns to a position from where they could enfilade the French line, which brought their fire to a halt for a while. Jurczik applauded his actions shouting, ‘Bravo! Major Mahler!’ Shortly afterwards Jurczik fell to the ground, fatally wounded by a French musket ball. He died two weeks later.

Once the Austrian battalions had recoiled from the French artillery, Thiébault joined his men with the rest of the division and together they attacked Kamenski’s brigade, driving them back and capturing a number of limbered Russian guns as well as retaking their own previously lost guns. Their impetus took them right to the summit of the Pratzeberg, and it was only with some difficulty that the officers managed to control the ardour of their men and halt the line. In fact, the infantry had now left their supporting artillery behind and with no word from Maréchal Soult or imperial headquarters, Saint-Hilaire felt his isolation keenly. Recognising the urgent need to drive the French off the plateau, and aware of their current exposed position, the Allies prepared to make:

‘a general and desperate attack at the point of the bayonet. The Austrian Brigade, with that under General Kamenski, charged the enemy; the Russians shouting, according to their usual custom; but the French received them with steadiness, and a well-supported fire, which made a dreadful carnage in the compact ranks of the Russians.’

But the Russians pressed on. Thiébault, close to the centre of the action, watched as the Russians:

‘charged on all sides, and while desperately disputing the ground, we were forced back. It was only by yielding before the more violent attacks that we maintained any alignment among our troops and saved our guns … Finally after an appalling melee, a melee of more than twenty minutes, we won a pause; by the sharpest fire and carried at the point of the bayonet.’

According to the notes kept by Thiébault, this ‘twenty minute bayonet battle’, claimed the lives of both Colonel Mazas, 14ème Ligne, and Thiébault’s ADC, Richebourg. Thiébault was fortunate to escape injury himself when his horse fell to a Russian shot. But as both sides recovered their breath, Général de division Saint-Hilaire rushed up to his brigade commanders, Thiébault and Morand, saying: ‘This is becoming intolerable, and I propose, gentlemen, that we take up a position to the rear which we can defend.’ Almost before he finished speaking, Colonel Pouzet of the 10ème Légère interrupted: ‘Withdraw us, my General … If we take a step back, we are lost. We have only one means of leaving here with honour, it is to put our heads down and attack all in front of us and, above all, not give our enemy time to count our numbers.’ Pouzet’s stirring words did the trick, and reinvigorated, the French clung tenaciously to the ground they held, repelling all Russian attacks.

While the Russians doggedly continued to attack, the Austrian battalions were being pressed back, despite the best efforts of Weyrother and Kolowrat. Having reformed close to a small rise, supported by their artillery, the battalions reformed and engaged the 36ème in a firefight, halting an enemy advance with volley fire. However, the French recovered and attacked again, driving IR58 Beaulieu back. Mahler attempted a counter-attack with his battalion of IR49 Kerpen and that of IR55 Reuss-Greitz but reported coming under ‘a very severe fire’ that caused many casualties. With his left flank now exposed to attack due to the repulse of IR58, his position was becoming extremely dangerous. However, he managed to keep his men together and prevented them from falling back for a while with the help of his adjutant, Fähnrich Jlljaschek. Moreover, by maintaining volley fire, he was able to remove his wounded safely to the rear.

But elsewhere, the Austrians were gradually being forced back. Mahler started the battle with only 312 men in his battalion and was now reduced to around eighty, through casualties and men lost as prisoners. There was little more his tiny force could achieve and as the battalion of IR55 on his flank began to retreat he ordered his men away down the eastern slopes of the plateau.

The odds were now stacked against Kamenski’s resolute brigade as more French troops approached the Pratzeberg. Released by Vandamme, the 43ème Ligne moved to rejoin Saint-Hilaire’s division and Boyé’s brigade of cavalry (5ème and 8ème Dragons) was also on its way to add their support. The weight of French numbers now began to tell on the Russian line. On his left, the threat of an attack on his open flank by the French dragoons forced Kamenski to wheel back the extreme left-hand battalion of the Ryazan Musketeers. Having soaked up all the preceding Russian attacks, Saint-Hilaire, judging that the time was right, ordered the French line forward, in what turned out to be the decisive charge. This time Kamenski’s men had little left to offer as the French poured forward over ‘ground strewn with the dead’, leaving no wounded Russians in their wake, capturing the Russian battalion artillery and retaking the highpoint of the Pratzeberg. Yet even in this moment of victory on the Pratzeberg the Russians inflicted another notable casualty: Saint-Hilaire was wounded and forced to retire to Puntowitz to have his wound dressed.

Having arrived back at Sokolnitz, Langeron sent for General Maior Olsufiev, who was fighting in the village and informed him of the need to send reinforcements to the plateau. The only troops immediately to hand were the two battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, held in reserve just outside Sokolnitz. With no time to lose, Langeron directed these to the plateau. He then attempted to extract his other battalions from the village but only succeeded in pulling back 8. Jäger and the Vyborg Musketeers. The remaining battalion of Kursk Musketeers and the Permsk Musketeer Regiment, now so completely entangled with III Column and its battle for the village, could not be withdrawn. But even as the two Kursk battalions began their march, unknown to them, they were marching to their destruction.

Kutuzov recognised that any further resistance by Kamenski’s brigade, after two hours fighting, would lead to their total destruction, so he ordered the retreat. Abandoning the plateau, they descended the south-eastern slopes to the valley of the Littawa, where they reformed. All along the valley other Allied units that had been driven off the plateau took up defensive positions or retreated to better ground. Before he left the plateau, Kutuzov despatched a hurried note to Buxhöwden, who still had not moved, ordering him to extract his three Columns from their bottleneck and retire. Soult’s two divisions were complete masters of the Pratzen Plateau, having swept away Allied IV Column along with Kamenski’s brigade of II Column by the sheer determination of their attacks. The time was probably around noon when, into this killing ground, marched the two lone battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, sent from Sokolnitz.

Believing the troops ahead of them to be Russian, they approached confidently but as they closed, Thiébault turned his exhausted men to face them and another firefight exploded. At the same time, Lavasseur’s brigade of Legrand’s division (IV Corps), which was occupying Kobelnitz, marched southwards presenting a possible flank threat to the Kursk battalions. To combat this move, the Podolsk Musketeers, part of III Column reserve, advanced to oppose them. Even without this intervention, the French troops on the Pratzeberg were in overwhelming numbers and soon began to surround the isolated Kursk battalions, who fought on for a while before collapsing amidst massive losses.

The victorious Thiébault, now mounted on his third horse – a small grey liberated from a captured Russian artillery limber – surveyed the destruction all around him. His own brigade had lost about a third of its strength, while another of his regimental commanders, Houdard de Lamotte of the 36ème Ligne, joined the growing list of wounded.

While this final struggle to clear the Allies from the Pratzen Plateau had reached its climax, elsewhere on the battlefield matters were also coming to a bloody conclusion.

Grand Duke Constantine, at the head of the Imperial Guard, had received no orders since a request arrived for him to send a battalion of infantry up onto the plateau. Since then his Guard Jäger had fallen back from Blasowitz, along with a supporting battalion of Semeyonovsk Guards. With only limited military experience, Constantine considered his options. To his right, masses of French infantry and cavalry were pressing aggressively towards Bagration, while to his left the Austrian cavalry, which had offered some protection on that flank, were withdrawing, having temporarily held back the advance of a massed infantry formation (Rivaud’s division of Bernadotte’s I Corps). Further to the left, up on the plateau, he could see that the French were driving back at least part of IV Column. Having surveyed the position, Constantine elected to pull back to his left rear (south-east), towards the Austrian cavalry and hopefully a junction with a reforming IV Column somewhere near Krzenowitz. At around 11.30am he turned his force, deploying the Guard Jäger as a flank guard.

In fact, he had not moved very far when he realised that the French troops previously held in check by the Austrian cavalry were now slowly advancing towards him. Up until now, Bernadotte had shown a marked reluctance to move forward since he crossed the stream at Jirschikowitz earlier that morning. Napoleon sent his aide, de Ségur, to ensure that Bernadotte carried out his orders, but the imperial messenger found the commander of I Corps agitated and anxious. Bernadotte indicated the Austrian cavalry to his front and bemoaned the fact that he had no cavalry of his own with which to oppose them, begging de Ségur to return to Napoleon and obtain some for him. De Ségur did as he requested but Napoleon had none to offer. However, now that the Austrian cavalry had withdrawn, Bernadotte cautiously advanced his corps, Rivaud edging slowing forward between the plateau and with Blasowitz to his left front, while Drouet led his division onto the lower slopes of the plateau in support of Vandamme.

Aware now of this forward movement, Constantine halted the Guard and faced them to confront this new threat. Behind him, the single bridge over the Rausnitz stream represented a very dangerous bottleneck. To gain time for his crossing, Constantine decided to strike a blow at the advancing French in an attempt to halt their advance. Forming the two Guard fusilier battalions from both the Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Regiments for the attack, he held back the battalion of Izmailovsk Guards in reserve and organised the cavalry in a supporting role. Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments took up positions protecting the left and right rear of the Russian Guard: 5. Nassau-Kürassiere to the left with 1. Kaiser and 7. Lotheringen-Küirassiere to the right. The four battalions leading the attack advanced with much confidence, roaring ‘Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!’ and when still 300 paces from the opposing French line, they broke into a run that their officers were unable to control. Although facing a withering barrage of musketry, the Russian guardsmen did not halt and smashed straight through the first line of massed skirmishers, pushing them back onto a formed second line of infantry, which they attacked with the bayonet. These too gave way, but although elated with their success, the Russian attack ground to a halt and when French artillery opened up on them they began to fall back in disorder. But the threatening presence of the Russian Guard cavalry prevented any attempt at pursuit and kept Rivaud’s division firmly anchored to the spot.

Up on the plateau, Maréchal Soult studied the ground, now that Vandamme had cleared Miloradovitch’s men from his front. He noticed the movement of a large body of troops from high ground near Blasowitz towards the Rausnitz stream, imagining them some of Lannes’ men moving to cut off the Allied retreat, but then, near Krzenowitz they turned and headed west. The movement puzzled him and he ordered Vandamme to send a battalion out to the left flank of the division to observe it. Selecting 1/4ème Ligne, Vandamme sent their commanding officer, Major Auguste Bigarré, at their head to investigate, detailing his own ADC, Vincent, to accompany him. The undulations of the plateau hid the lower ground from view and Bigarré had advanced about 1,200 yards when Vincent, who preceded him with a few scouts, came galloping back and warned him of the presence of a large body of enemy cavalry. Bigarré instructed the battalion to move to its left and then returned with Vincent to see the enemy formation for himself. As he approached the vantage point, five squadrons of Russian cavalry began to accelerate towards his battalion that now moved into view. Bigarré and Vincent galloped back to the battalion and hurried it into square to receive the inescapable charge.

The Russian Guard cavalry had kept a watchful eye on their infantry as it fell back from the French lines, which presented a formidable obstacle to a cavalry attack. But then, descending from the plateau, a lone infantry battalion appeared. As the cavalry moved towards this tempting target, the battalion scrambled into square formation. The cavalry halted at what Bigarré described as long musket range, and instead of charging, unmasked a battery of six guns, which opened canister fire on the square, creating havoc in the packed ranks. Observing this from the high ground, Vandamme ordered the two battalions of 24ème Légère forward to support the 1/4ème, but they were too late, for the cavalry was already on the move.

Considering that the artillery had done enough damage to the square, two of the five squadrons of Horse Guards charged. The leading squadron rode into a hail of musketry and veered away, but the second squadron reached the square before the men had time to reload and smashed their way in, hacking and slashing at the infantry, who defended themselves furiously. The squadron swept right through the square, turned and rode back though it again.

Two previous bearers of the 1/4ème’s eagle standard already lay dead on the ground: now, gripped desperately by the battalion’s sergeant major, a soldier of twelve years’ experience named Saint-Cyr, it was under attack again. Three horsemen surrounded him and hacked it from his grasp leaving him with five sabre wounds to the head and right hand. By now the 1/4ème had collapsed and those still standing were fleeing back towards the plateau leaving about 200 dead and wounded on the ground. The two squadrons of Horse Guards retired eastwards to reform. Even before the battalion disintegrated, the 24ème Légère arrived, advancing in line. The remaining three Horse Guard squadrons spurred forward, and despite receiving a close range volley, smashed through the thin infantry line and sent them reeling backwards too. In the confusion and panic that followed, a soldier of the 1/4ème picked up a fallen eagle standard of 24ème Légère believing it to belong to his battalion and carried it to safety. It was now perhaps around noon as Napoleon arrived on the Pratzen Plateau to oversee the next moves.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

No sooner had he arrived than those accompanying him observed a great dark mass of men coming towards the plateau in some disorder. Maréchal Berthier commented, ‘what a splendid crowd of prisoners they are bringing back for you.’ But Napoleon was not so sure and ordered one of his aides, Général de brigade Jean Rapp, to investigate. Leading two squadrons of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde Impériale, supported by a squadron of the Grenadiers à cheval and a half squadron of the Mameluks, Rapp advanced down from the plateau towards the site of the Russian Guard cavalry attacks. As soon as he cleared the plateau he saw that:

The cavalry was in the midst of our squares and was cutting down our soldiers. A little to the rear we could see the masses of infantry and cavalry which formed the enemy reserve. The Russians broke contact and rushed against me, while four pieces of their horse artillery come up at the gallop and unlimbered. I advanced in good order, with brave Colonel Morland on my left, and [Chef d’Escadron] Dahlmann to my right. I told my men: “Over there you can see our brothers and friends being trodden underfoot. Avenge our comrades! Avenge our standards!”’

Rapp led his Guard cavalry straight towards the Russian Horse Guard squadrons that had just cut up 24ème Légère. The Russians, disordered by their attack on the infantry, turned away and galloped off after a brief struggle leaving the chasseurs à cheval to ride on into the ranks of the reforming Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Guard battalions, as these infantrymen defended themselves with the bayonet. The French cavalry soon received support from the half squadron of Mameluks, who slashed their way into the ranks of the Preobrazhensk battalions, currently dispersed as skirmishers in the vineyards and already engaged with Rapp’s chasseurs. But now Rapp’s formations were disordered and Constantine took the opportunity to send in the leading three squadrons of the Russian Chevalier Garde to break their attack and free his beleaguered infantry. The charge met with success, causing Rapp to withdraw and reform while allowing the Russian battalions to draw back. But their respite was brief, as the rest of the French Garde Impériale cavalry now joined Rapp. The great cavalry battle – Imperial Guard against Imperial Guard – that followed is difficult to recount in much detail from the accounts that survive. Indeed one observer, Coignet, a soldier in the Grenadiers à Pied of Napoleon’s Guard, described how: ‘For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust.’

The Russian Guard cavalry drawn from the Horse Guards, Chevalier Garde and Guard Cossacks mustered about 1,800 men – the Guard Hussars appear not to have become directly involved in the fighting. Against them the French Garde mustered about 1,100 men, from the Chasseurs à cheval, Grenadiers à cheval and Mameluks. Although short on numbers, the well-disciplined French cavalry were able to withdraw from the fighting and fall back on their nearest infantry formations, reorganise and re-enter the fray in formed bodies. The Russians did not have this luxury, as their own Guard infantry battalions were caught up in the mêlée and unable to fire for fear of shooting their own horsemen. It became clear that the French were gaining the upper hand and Russian casualties mounted alarmingly, particularly in the Chevalier Garde. In particular, the fourth squadron of this elite formation was all but destroyed – only eighteen men reputedly making good their escape – and its wounded commander, Prince Repnin-Volkonsky, captured and presented to Napoleon.

Russian reports claim that the Chevalier Garde lost sixteen officers, 200 men and 300 horses killed and wounded. The Guards battalions extracted themselves from the maelstrom and fell back on the support of the Izmailovsk battalion, then all continued back towards Krzenowitz. The battered Russian cavalry also broke off the engagement and fell back too, their retreat protected by the Guard Hussars who hovered threateningly to the north, and the stand made by Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments. The belated appearance above Krzenowitz of the three battalions of Russian Guard Grenadiers, numbering almost 2,000 men, but suggesting to the French the arrival of a new strong Russian formation, limited any further significant advance in this direction.

While the great cavalry battle to their front delayed Rivaud’s movements further, Drouet had finally led his division up onto the plateau to the rear of Vandamme. The retreating battalion of 4ème Ligne, which had fled back onto the plateau and streamed past Napoleon without stopping, eventually rallied when they rejoined Vandamme’s division, and despite their recent traumas, took an active part in the latter stages of the battle, unaware they had lost an eagle.

With the Pratzen Plateau secured by the gradual arrival of Bernadotte’s corps, Napoleon turned his back on the northern flank. It was now clear that his grand plan to swing Lannes and Murat unopposed into the rear of the Austro-Russian army had failed, but it was also clear that the attacks by Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme had split the Allied army in two. Leaving Lannes and Murat to drive Bagration back, Napoleon issued new orders that he hoped would lead to the destruction of the left wing of the Allied army, which still remained locked in the Goldbach valley.

On the extreme right of the Allied line, General Maior Prince Bagration, like Constantine, received no fresh instructions from army headquarters. His original orders, which he viewed with little enthusiasm, required him to hold his position until, becoming aware of progress by the Allied left wing, he was to advance directly ahead and, initially, capture the Santon. Accordingly, he had pushed forward at about 10.00am but encountered extremely strong and determined opposition from Lannes’ V Corps and Murat’s cavalry. His attempt on the Santon had failed and now the French cavalry had pushed his own horsemen back after a series of ferocious mêlées. The French had secured the village of Blasowitz and the Russian Imperial Guard appeared to be moving further away, cutting his last tenuous link with the rest of the army. Bagration abandoned any offensive plans and looked to the preservation of his command.

With the Russian cavalry driven back behind their infantry to reform once more, Lannes ordered his two infantry divisions forward: Suchet on the left, Caffarelli on the right. In the face of this advancing wall of infantry, Bagration ordered all eighteen guns of his battalion artillery to open fire, along with twelve from a horse artillery battery. The brunt of this bombardment fell on the 34ème and 40ème Ligne of Suchet’s division and 30ème Ligne from Caffarelli’s, while also mortally wounding GB Valhubert, who commanded a brigade in Suchet’s second line.

With the French infantry brought to a halt by this concentrated firepower, Lannes drew all his available artillery together and focused on knocking out the Russian guns. The more powerful French artillery came out on top in this duel and after a deadly exchange, the Russian horse battery was forced to withdraw with mounting casualties, leaving just the Russian battalion guns to support the infantry against the increasing threat. Lannes pushed his infantry on once more but now Suchet’s division became the target for a series of desperate cavalry charges by Bagration’s reformed horsemen.

However, assailed by musketry, canister fire and then French cavalry countercharges, all they could manage was to slow this advance. Caffarelli’s division, operating south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, encountered less opposition and pushed ahead of Suchet’s men to threaten Bagration’s left flank, secured on the villages of Krug and Holubitz. In fact, the garrison of these villages was not strong, both defended by the men of 6. Jäger under General Maior Ulanius – who had already suffered considerably at Schöngrabern – with recovering cavalry formations to their rear. Sometime around noon, GB Demont’s brigade (17ème and 30ème Ligne) and part of Général de brigade Debilly’s brigade (61ème Ligne), advanced determinedly against the two villages.

Up until now the jäger had managed to repulse any French cavalry showing an interest in their position, but heavily outnumbered by Caffarelli’s infantry – and despite an initial stout resistance – French troops drove 6. Jäger out at the point of the bayonet. However, despite a lack of support, Ulanius did manage to extricate some of his men and reach safety.

With the villages of Krug and Holubitz now in French hands, Caffarelli redirected 17ème and 30ème Ligne against the left flank of Bagration’s threatened line. To oppose them the Russian commander sent his reserve infantry, the Arkhangelogord Musketeer Regiment, commanded by General Maior Nikolai Kamenski II. Although the French and Russian infantry were fairly evenly matched, the French were always able to bring up supporting cavalry and artillery to disrupt the Russian lines whenever their own infantry fell back to reform for a fresh assault. At times the Arkhangelogord Musketeers were under attack from all sides, and at one point faced a charge by d’Hautpoul’s 5ème Cuirassier, suffering horrendous casualties in the process. This regiment, which marched into battle with about 2,000 men, later showed losses of 1,625. Kamenski II had his horse shot from under him and only escaped capture when another officer gave up his own mount.

With Suchet’s division pressing him more and more from the front, Caffarelli making inroads on his left flank and Murat’s cavalry ready to exploit any opportunity, Bagration gave the order to retreat. Despite constant French cavalry attacks, the Russian infantry held together, supported by self-sacrificing charges by the exhausted Russian horsemen, and fell back steadily, abandoning the road to Austerlitz and reoccupying the high ground north of the Posoritz post house. However, this constant pressure eventually caused a split and the Russian cavalry of V Column, commanded by General-Adjutant Uvarov broke away. In his report Uvarov wrote:

‘we continued to fight with fervour, from which the losses on both sides were substantial. At the same time artillery and infantry of the enemy, moving on my flanks, opened such a fire that even with all the courage of the regiments which were under my command, we had to retreat across the river situated behind us.

Podpolkovnik Ermolov of the horse artillery recalled the confusion that then prevailed:

‘Our losses multiplied even more when the men crowded together at the very boggy stream, over which there were very few bridges, and it was not possible to cross it in any other way than via a bridge. Here our fleeing cavalry plunged in wading, and a lot of men and horses drowned, while I, abandoned by the regiments to which I was assigned, stopped my battery, attempting by the means of a short range action to stop the cavalry pursuing us. The first pieces of ordnance that I was able to release from the press of our own cavalry, making several shots, were captured, my men were cut down and I was captured as a prisoner. The division of General-Adjutant Uvarov, crowding at the bridge, had the time to look around and see that it was running away from a force small in number and that the majority of the forces were concentrated on the heights and were not coming down into the valley. Those who pursued us were then forced to retreat and exterminated, and my freedom was returned to me shortly, when I was already close to the French line.’

When Ermolov returned and crossed the Rausnitz stream he found Uvarov’s command still in great disarray at the foot of the hill held by the Russian Guard Grenadiers. With them now stood the tsar, prompting Ermolov to observe that ‘there were no confidants present, on his face there was a look of supreme grief, and his eyes were filled with tears.’

Bagration continued his withdrawal in the face of ceaseless French cavalry attacks and artillery bombardment, drawing back across the Brünn-Olmütz road onto high ground overlooking it between Welleschowitz and Rausnitz. The Pavlograd Hussars suffered at the hands of the French cavalry as they protected this final move, but their sacrifice gained enough time for Bagration to take up this new position. Lannes and Murat now advanced to occupy the position abandoned by Bagration north of the Posoritz post house and found themselves in possession of row upon row of Russian knapsacks. It was the habit of the Russian soldier to take off his knapsack before entering battle to allow more freedom of movement, leaving behind him all his meagre personal belongings. But if the French soldiers expected to find luxuries and warm clothing they were disappointed. Captaine Lejeune, Berthier’s ADC, reported that each bag contained only:

‘triptych reliquaries, each containing an image of St Christopher carrying the infant Saviour over the water, with an equal number of pieces of black bread containing a good deal more straw and bran than barley or wheat. Such was the sacred and simple baggage of the Russians!’

Bagration must have been wondering just how long he could continue to hold his force together against these constant French attacks when help arrived. Advancing down the road from Olmütz with all speed appeared an Austrian artillery officer, Major Frierenberger, at the head of a column of twelve guns. As he came level with Welleschowitz he turned off and positioned his guns on the high ground rising to the north of the road. The official Austrian account of the incident continues the story:

‘The army he faced was a victorious one. It had deployed at the Posoritz post house, and was now in full advance, firing with its powerful artillery against whatever Russian troops and batteries came into view. The Austrian battery now opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians shot with such extraordinary skill that they compelled the enemy to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the hostile pieces were silenced altogether, and the advance of the whole French left wing was held back.’

The battle on the northern flank now ground to a halt. Lannes and Murat had expected an almost unopposed advance but became embroiled in a lengthy and costly duel that had lasted almost three hours. In the face of the resolute defence now offered by these fresh Austrian guns, with their own ammunition supplies almost completely expended and their cavalry exhausted, the two corps forming the French left wing halted, and like Bernadotte’s I Corps, awaited developments elsewhere on the battlefield.

Granted this unexpected respite, the survivors of Bagration’s Army Advance Guard and to the south, IV and V Columns, and the Russian Guard, did what they could to instil some sense of order in their greatly depleted ranks. These latter formations nervously occupied the eastern bank of the Rausnitz stream, anticipating a renewed French assault at any moment, but it never came. Napoleon saw a greater prize elsewhere.

* Captured Russian cavalry officer to Lieutenant Octave Levasseur, of the French horse artillery, 2 December 1805.


Early Ironclads: Europe and America I

Laid down at Castellamare in 1877 and launched in 1880, Italia took Brin’s revolutionary design of Duilio (1876) to an extreme.

While France and Britain laid down successors to the Gloire and Warrior, following their own different patterns, other European nations joined in. Two of the first were the rival powers of Austria and newly-united Italy. Indeed Italy ordered two small ironclads from France before the first Italian Parliament sat in March 1861, and that year she also ordered two larger vessels of the size and style of the Gloire-type from a New York shipyard. Similarly Austria started with two small ironclad corvettes, and in 1861 began three larger ‘Gloire’ ironclads. Russia ordered a 3,300-ton ironclad, with a projecting ram bow, from the Warrior’s builders in 1861, and another the following year, meanwhile converting two timber frigates; Ottoman Turkey ordered three 6,400-ton ironclads also from England, and Spain started building against the US Navy with a home-grown 6,200-tonner, at the same time ordering a rather larger vessel from France; other minor naval powers followed suit.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, two strange deviant types were being hammered together in the more urgent conditions of the American Civil War. The secessionist southern states, inferior to the northern states in ships, shipbuilding and engineering capacity, had started the competition. The secretary of their small navy claimed: ‘Inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability . . . a new and formidable type must be created.’1 The screw frigate Merrimack had fallen into their hands at the occupation of Norfolk, Virginia, with lower hull timbers sound and engines capable of repair, so they cut her down to the waterline and built upon the lower body an armoured battery or casemate. This occupied some two-thirds of the hull length, and was built of 20-inch pine sloping inwards from the waterline at about 45 degrees; 4-inches of oak was laid over this and then two layers of railway irons rolled down to plates 8-inches wide by 2-inches thick. This casemate was pierced all round with 14 ports for 10 guns, four of which were 6-inch or 7-inch calibre rifles, six 9-inch smooth-bores; a single funnel projected through the top. There were no masts or sails.

This craft, which had a cast-iron ram attached to her bow, was only an extemporized floating battery which would have been overwhelmed by even moderate seas; nevertheless reports of her construction caused a little concern in the North, turning by degrees into a great scare which allowed a Swedish engineer inventor named John Ericsson to gain approval in September 1861 for a novel ironclad, the outlines of which had been maturing in his mind for some 20 years, despite repeated rebuffs. His idea was an ‘impregnable fort’ in the shape of a revolving armoured turret ‘in the plain cylindrical form in order that attack from all quarters of the compass may be resisted with equal certainty’ . . . mounted upon a wide armoured deck whose sides would be carried below the waterline and overhang a narrow raft hull, containing the machinery, by such a margin that any shot would have to ‘pass through 20 feet of water’ to strike the hull, while the propeller and rudder on the centreline would be ‘absolutely protected’—this last feature Ericsson considered ‘perhaps the most important’.2

As built the ‘impregnable fort’ of this craft, named Monitor, was a drum 20 feet in diameter by 9 feet high, formed of eight layers of 1-inch plating, inside which were mounted two 11-inch smooth bore guns each firing 166lb balls at a very slow rate, something like one aimed round every seven minutes. The 1-inch thick iron deck on which this turret turned floated some 2-feet above waterlevel with armoured sides extending down to 3-feet below the water. This was the weakest part of the design; as the volunteer crew found when they sailed her out of the sheltered waters of New York, open seas swept over the deck and leaked through between it and the turret and down the openings for two collapsible funnels and two ventilators abaft the turret, besides juddering up under the armoured overhang as if to tear it from the hull. She was not in any sense a sea-going ironclad; in this and in her laminated armour, inferior to the thinner but homogenous plates of the European ironclads, she resembled the Merrimack. Neither could have lived with the Gloire or the Warrior. They enter the story, not because they were an advance or a lesson, only because they were the first ironclads in action against ships.

By freak chance the two vessels were completed within days of one another, and when on the morning of Saturday, 8 March 1862, the Merrimack, renamed Virginia, steamed unsteadily out from Norfolk to give battle to a Federal blockading force in Hampton Roads, the Monitor, two days out from New York, was struggling down the East coast just 10 hours away. These 10 hours were important though; they gave the Virginia time to prove in action de Lôme’s forecast about a lion amongst a flock of sheep, also Paixhans’ suggestion that the simple management of steam batteries would cancel enemy advantages in seamanship. For while the Federal force was composed of three fine frigates and a sloop manned by American sailors renowned for skill and panache, the Virginia’s crew was made up largely of Confederate soldiers with only a few days’ training aboard.

So the battery steamed slowly across bright water to where the timber sloop Cumberland and the veteran frigate Congress lay at anchor in a shoal channel near Newport News. Both thought so little of the danger that they remained at anchor and simply waited at their guns while ‘the thing’ they had been hearing so much about, swung its ugly battery towards them. When the Cumberland judged it within range, she fired her broadside of 9-inch smooth bores; soon the Congress joined in with a few 8-inch and her main battery of 32-pounders, and shore guns added to the flying round shot, but any balls which hit simply bounced off the sloping iron, neither making any impression nor diverting the battery’s progress towards the Cumberland which she eventually rammed below the fore channels. The sloop listed as water rushed in, and half an hour later she was gone, the first victim of ramming since the days of the galley. The Congress, meanwhile, realizing how irresistible was this opponent, set topsails and jib, slipped cable and making towards Newport News ran aground; the Virginia followed, took up a raking position off her stern and, silencing her, forced her to strike and set her on fire.

That evening the Monitor—directed by the supreme dramatist—arrived in the Roads; the Virginia’s crew made her out by the glow of the burning frigate. News of impending conflict between the two armoured craft spread quickly along both shores, and the next morning, which again dawned bright, spectators were out in crowds to watch the joust. The Virginia did not disappoint them. She steamed out at 8 o’clock, making for one of the grounded wooden frigates expecting the Monitor to interpose, as she did, and there developed a ponderous, close duel which proved mightily indecisive. Neither had the weapons to pierce the other’s armour as the Virginia was firing shell or grape, the Monitor cast iron balls which shattered on impact. Besides this her turret, which was turned away from the enemy during the seven minutes’ loading interval to prevent any accident to the gun port stoppers, developed the faults of all prototypes; the turning engine was hard to start and still harder to stop and the crew took to firing on the swing as the target appeared briefly through the ports. The Virginia directed volleys of musketry towards the swinging ports with as little effect as her shells against the armour, then decided to make for her original prey, the grounded frigate Minnesota. The Monitor followed and a ramming duel developed. This too was indecisive as the Monitor failed in her clumsy passes while the Virginia, which succeeded once, had lost her ram in the affair of the previous day and so made no impression. As the vessels came together the Monitor fired one of her great pieces with the muzzle almost touching the Virginia’s casemate, but although a section was crushed in, it was not pierced. The southern commander, for his part, called away the boarders, but before they could scramble over the vessels had drifted apart. So it continued until the vessels finally parted after some four hours with some casualties and a little damage to both sides, but no lives lost. The result was a draw, although the Monitor could claim to have prevented further damage to the Federal timber ships.

The Virginia was repaired, given more armour below her vulnerable waterline, and sallied out again in April, capturing some merchant vessels; the Monitor failed to meet her, so this time the southern vessel could claim to have achieved her purpose. Then, before she could put into operation a plan to capture the Monitor by boarding and driving in wedges between her turret and deck, Federal troops forced the Confederates to evacuate Norfolk, and she was burned by her crew to keep her from enemy hands. As for the Monitor she foundered later on a voyage around the coast.

However both these famous prototypes were followed by descendants which took part in the naval struggle along the rivers and bays of the southern states, and provided material for later naval thinkers to ponder as they searched for lessons which might help to clarify the new naval warfare. For instance a Southern floating battery named the Albemarle, laid down in a cornfield up the Roanoke river and armoured on the style of the Virginia with iron worked into shape over an open forge, made another successful ramming attack under fire in 1864. And this same vessel was later the victim of a daring torpedo boat attack. The boat, commanded by a young lieutenant named Cushing, had to drive at and over a barrier of logs which surrounded the ironclad, so that the torpedo, a case of gunpowder held out on a spar over the bow, could be brought into contact with the target and then fired with a pull on a line attached to its detonator. Cushing accomplished this extraordinary feat in the dark and under fire with so much presence of mind that he was able to sink the Albemarle and afterwards escape by swimming down the river.

A contemporary lithograph of Manhattan at sea

Later there was the famous episode at Mobile Bay when Admiral Faragut, crying ‘Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead!’ steamed the Northern fleet under his command close under the guns of the Confederate Fort Mogan and through a double line of mines (then known as torpedoes) into the Bay, miraculously losing only one vessel and her crew as he did so. This unfortunate vessel was the Tecumseh, an enlarged ‘monitor’. There were three other monitors with Farragut and one of these, the Manhattan, which carried two huge 15-inch smooth-bores in her 10-inch armoured turret, was responsible for putting paid to the most powerful Southern descendant of the Virginia, the Tennessee which came out to do battle with Farragut’s entire fleet.

These and other events of the Civil War were analysed in works on naval warfare, naval gunnery and tactics for many years following, as there was little other modern action proof to go on. But really the armaments revolution was moving too fast for the ‘lessons’ to be of value, and the Southern ships and weapons were too extemporized to be considered as much more than the desperate essays of an agricultural community: the most effective of the ‘torpedoes’ which Farragut charged over were made of lager kegs waterproofed with pitch; the armour of the floating batteries, while ingenious, was too sectional; the guns were not designed for armour-piercing. The ironclad actions were fought in sheltered waters, and there were few conclusions to be drawn for open sea. Perhaps most instructive was the cruise of the Southern commerce raider, Alabama, which destroyed a number of northern merchant vessels and evaded capture for almost two years before USS Kearsage finally sank her. This lesson was not lost on the French, nor on the British whose merchant marine was particularly exposed to such a form of warfare.

Early Ironclads: Europe and America II

König Wilhelm was also designed for ramming. Between 1862 and 1893 more warships were sunk or heavily damaged by accidental ramming than were sunk in battle.

Lissa naval battle, July 20th,1866; the Austrian navy against the Italian fleet. The RN Re d’Italia is sinking after being rammed by Tegetthoff’s flagship, the SMS Ferdinand Max.

The next ironclad battle occurred in 1866, when the fleets of Austria and Italy met off the island of Lissa in the Adriatic. This time there was real meat for analysis, or so it appeared, for the first-line vessels of both powers were sea-going warships in direct descent from the Gloire, some of the most recent construction. More important perhaps, it was the only fleet action which took place until the end of the century, so it had to be picked bare.

The conflict was an offshoot of Bismarck’s grand policy for removing diverse north German states from Austria’s orbit and uniting them under Prussian leadership. He arranged a war with Austria, first tempting Italy into an alliance with the prospect of Austrian Venetia and Lombardy, territories they needed to complete their unification. But, while Bismarck’s army quickly defeated the Austrians at Sadowa, the Italians were beaten at Custozza; this was particularly embarrassing for the new nation, and weakened their position in any peace negotiations which Bismarck might achieve. They turned to their fleet. On paper it was superb. Since unification they had spent some £12 millions on it, millions they could ill afford, and materially it was far superior to the Austrian Navy which had been neglected since the initial burst into ironclad construction. However, the Italians’ ships and armament had come from different countries and they had no pool of marine engineers or modern gunners; nor, it seems, a tradition of naval discipline. The new force was a young and artificial creation, and the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Count Persano, seems to have been overwhelmed by the practical difficulties of the situation. He did little training and, when the war started, nothing offensive.

The Minister of Marine tried to sting him to action. ‘Would you tell the people who in their mad vanity believe their sailors the best in the world, that in spite of the £12 millions we have added to their debt, the squadron we have collected is one incapable of facing the enemy?’3 When Persano still showed reluctance, he was ordered to take the Austrian-held and fortified island of Lissa, across the Adriatic from Ancona. His attempts to do so were reported to the Austrian Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Tegetthoff, who put to sea to fight him.

Tegetthoff flew his flag in the Ferdinand Max; she was a barque-rigged 5,140 ton vessel on the lines of the Gloire launched the previous year with complete armour plating reaching a maximum thickness of 5-inches on 26-inches of timber backing. However, while she had been designed for a powerful battery of Krupp rifles on each broadside, the Prussian firm had been backward in supply and instead she had been fitted with 16 obsolescent smooth-bores throwing 56lb projectiles. She and a sister ship, Habsburg, which suffered the same disadvantage, were the spearhead of the fleet. In addition there were four smaller ironclad frigates of 3,000–3,600 tons which mounted in total 74 62-pounder rifles together with 66 smooth-bores. There were also numerous timber vessels including a ship-of-the-line, Kaiser.

The Italian fleet was more imposing. The flagship Re d’Italia and her sister Re di Portogallo were 5,700 tons, rather larger than the Austrian big ships and with rather thicker armour, although built to the same style. But their main theoretical advantage lay in their batteries; the flagship mounted 30 Armstrong 100-pounder rifles and two rifles throwing 150lb shells, while her sister ship had 26 of the 100-pounders and two throwing 300lb shells. In addition there were five ironclad frigates just over 4,000 tons mounting a total of 108 rifles and a few smooth bores, two smaller armoured vessels and a number of timber craft. Altogether the principal units in the Italian fleet were larger than their Austrian opposite numbers and mounted 200 modern rifled guns against only 74 smaller Austrian pieces.

The Italians also had a curious 4,000 ton vessel known as a turret ram, the Affondatore. Her design was probably due to the successful rammings of the American Civil War for she had a de Bergerac of a beak extending 26 feet; she also had a turret mounting two powerful Armstrong 300-pounder rifles, hence her designation, and she was armoured with 5-inch iron plate. The Italians expected great things from her.

So much for matériel comparisons: what was thought more important when the naval post mortems came to be written was the comparison between the querulous Count Persano and Tegetthoff, who ordered his mind and his fleet in a more positive way, exercised his ships and guns frequently, and was in all respects an inspiring leader.

He was certainly an agressive one. On the morning of 20 July, having sighted the Italian fleet, he formed his ships into three divisions behind one another each in double quarterline, like three arrowheads, with the ironclads leading, and charged at full fleet speed—something like 9 knots. His intention was to go through the Italian line and provoke a mêlée, partly because he knew the Italian rifles had the greater effective range and he needed to get in close, where the ‘concentration’ fire in which he had trained his gunners might tell, but primarily to ram, since his shells could not pierce the Italian armour. As the Ferdinand Max neared the grey-painted Italian vessels he signalled. ‘Charge the enemy and sink him’.

Persano, who had collected his fleet together from various positions around the island, intended to fight a line battle and make use of his heavier guns; he was not averse to ramming but he meant to disable some enemy ships with broadsides first and ordered his captains to engage unarmoured ships at 1,000 metres, armoured ships not outside 500 metres. Then he formed up with his ironclads in three divisions in line ahead, steaming north-north-east to meet the Austrians coming down south-east, placing his flagship in the centre division and his turret ram just to starboard, thus on the disengaged side of the centre division. His unarmoured ships were ordered to the disengaged side, distant 3,000 metres. So far his tactics appear sound. But then he decided to shift his flag from the Re d’Italia to the turret ram Affondatore; this meant stopping the ships concerned and a gap opened up between the first division of three frigates, and the rest of the line. Meanwhile the first division, disregarding orders, opened fire at Tegetthoff’s approaching ironclads, which were still about 1,000 metres off. The great clouds of smoke from their broadsides drifted astern, concealing the widening gap which Persano had created by his eccentric behaviour, and it was through this gap and smoke that Tegetthoff’s whole ironclad division, holding its fire, soon passed.

Once they were through the line Tegetthoff’s seven ironclads formed into two groups, one of which turned north to chase the Italian van (itself turning in to attack the Austrian unarmoured rear) while the main body of four frigates fell on the Italian centre. Meanwhile the second Austrian V formation of timber ships headed by the line-of-battle ship Kaiser, reached the Italian rear and, attempting to run down whatever they could see, provoked a mêlée which quickly became shrouded in dense gunsmoke. The situation was now exactly as Tegetthoff had hoped, a close, confused scramble, all central control lost and with it any possibility of cool, stand-off gunnery. Opportunism ruled the day.

It is impossible to follow all the contortions the ships were put through; the main object on both sides was to ram any enemy as they made him out, and while they held on with tight nerves for their target, often charging towards them for the same purpose, the guns’ crews waited for the shock and the chance to get in a broadside as they came together or raced past The collsions, near misses, touchings and scrapings, many between friends unable to get out of the way in time, were numerous, but at first none were fatal. Even the Affondatore failed to bring her prow into contact with such a ripe target as the Kaiser in two attempts, although she wrought fearful damage in the timber upperworks with 300-pounder shells at pistol-shot range. The Kaiser for her part, passed on from this desperate affair to try and ram the large frigate Re di Portogallo, which was steaming at her with the same intent, and spinning her wheel over at the last moment made contact abreast the Italian’s engine room, but at far too fine an angle to enter. Instead she scraped down the iron side, losing her bowsprit and taking a broadside of shells which brought down her foremast, turned her gun decks into shambles and started numerous fires. The Maria Pia, astern of the Portogallo, put two more shells into her as she came past and she retired to put out fires and reorganize the fighting decks.

Meanwhile, around what had been the Italian centre, Tegetthoff, who had been no more successful in ramming than Persano, saw through the fog of battle the Re d’ltalia apparently disabled; he made straight for her, his flag captain conning from the mizzen rigging. The Italian’s rudder had been damaged by collision or a lucky shell and she couldn’t turn her side as the Ferdinand Max’s stem approached at full speed, something over 10 knots, and drove straight in, tearing a gap of about 140 square feet, half below water. The Austrian flagship reversed engines and withdrew; the Re d’Italia listed slowly to starboard, suddenly lost stability, rolled to port and went down. Meanwhile a small Italian gunboat, Palestro, dashing in heroically to aid the ironclad, received a shell in her wardroom which set it alight and forced her to retire; later she blew up as the flames reached the magazine.

These were the only ship losses of the battle. For the rest, the astonishing series of abortive charges, scrapes and accidental collisions punctuated by broadsides at point-blank swinging targets continued until early afternoon. Then Persano led his scarred ships back to Ancona, while Teggethoff anchored his off Lissa, evidently the victor in possession of the field.

This battle again confirmed the value of armour as protection for ships and guns’ crews. The Austrian ironclads fired 1,386 shot or shell, the three largest of their unarmoured ships fired another 1,400, and the rest of their fleet joined in as well, but the total Italian casualties, apart from those drowned in the Re d’Italia and blown up in the Palestro, were eight killed, 40 wounded. The Italian fleet fired at least 1,400 shells, probably many more, but the total Austrian casualties in their armoured division were three killed, 30 wounded; the unprotected Kaiser meanwhile lost 24 killed, 75 wounded. Armour was not the only reason for such comparatively low casualties: another was the small proportion of hits, and even smaller proportion of hulling hits. For instance the Austrian flagship received a total of 42 hits, but only eight were against her armour, the rest were above. This was not unusual in fights between rolling ships, particularly with indifferently trained gunners, but in this case it was exaggerated by the twisting, turning, listing, passing nature of the fight, which although close, forced gun captains to fire the instant they saw a target briefly through the ports. Effective hulling gunnery required steady ships and steady courses. However, hits on thick armour failed to pierce even from the closest range.

But the main lesson drawn from the battle was the power of the ram. The dramatic picture of the Re d’ltalia disappearing at one blow, while so much gunnery had hardly accomplished anything, drove out all power of rational analysis. The facts, clear enough in all reports, were that ramming, tried and accidentally achieved scores of times by dozens of ships in ideal conditions, had failed every time it had been attempted against a ship under command; the single success had been against a ship unable to steer. Individual reports showed how a ship about to be rammed could, by a sudden turn of the helm, herself become the rammer, though at too sharp an angle to be decisive.

However, it must be remembered that steam was still in its infancy at sea, and naval officers, sail-trained and sail-thinking, while professing to despise engines, held them in some awe. Besides there was already a strong school, apparently logical and of French origin, in favour of ramming. The argument was: engines gave free movement, thus the ability to close and bring the whole gigantic momentum of the ship against the enemy at his most vulnerable point below the waterline, below armour. And compared with the energy of a ship in motion even the largest gun was little better than a pea-shooter. Such a logical approach took little account of an enemy’s evasive tactics. Practical experiment with models or small steam boats might have put it into perspective and explained the extraordinary inefficiency of the ram in its own conditions at Lissa. This is clear from hindsight and in the light of modern theory; what was clear in 1866 was that the ram had proved itself in battle, and this led naval constructors and most naval tacticians up false trails for decades.

On the other hand armour was undoubtedly master over the gun at the time, and at first it was not evident that the situation was going to change; so while the ram was overestimated, it was a reasonable addition to the armament of a warship at the time. The mistake designers and tacticians made was to treat it as almost the prime feature of a ship, bending other features such as the arrangement of guns, or fleets, to suit.

The other two lessons extracted from the battle were that morale counted for more than material force, and that line ahead was a bad formation for steam warships. Like the conclusion on the ram, both these were already well established ideas among those who liked to theorize about naval warfare, and Teggetthoff’s victory gave them practical respectability.

Probably the real conclusion to be drawn about the tactics of Lissa is that they were transitional. They belonged to a brief period during which the armourclad ship was impregnable to the great gun, and they appear to parallel the early days of the gunned sailing ship when the stout timbers of an Atlantic galleon could resist the heavy guns of the time and contests had to be decided by boarding and entering. All the principles of the massed charge and the attempts to clap vessels together distinguished that period too. And it was only as the great gun became sufficiently powerful to decide an action without recourse to boarding that tactics changed, and ships changed to take account of them.

As for Persano’s line tactics, they were not pursued with determination, indeed they were thrown away. There can be few more extraordinary lapses in fleet command than his self-provoked break in formation in the face of an enemy under a mile away and bearing down upon him. As a result it is not possible to say whether a steady, compact line holding its fire until Teggetthoff had closed to 500 metres would have been successful in preventing a mêlée at the opening; the chances are that effective range was too low, ironclads too invulnerable and the guns too slow in loading and firing for such a cool order to have disorganized a resolute enemy like Teggetthoff.

General Luigi Cadorna: A Reappraisal

The year 1866 was not an auspicious time to join the Italian Army. The service was still reeling from the disastrous influence of its constabulary duties during the brigantaggio, the period from the unification of Italy to the late 1860s, when the primary function of the army was maintaining law and order, and was not, therefore, organized to engage a major European opponent. Although theoretically reforms had been set in motion since the late 1850s, the Italian Army defeated at Custozza in June continued to be plagued by natural inertia, the causes of which were a rigid officers corps, a lack of operational precedents, and a dearth of natural resources and national cohesion. It was in this atmosphere that Luigi Cadorna began his military career.

When he joined the army, Cadorna, like his colleagues, faced slow advancement and poor salaries. However, certain ambitious and motivated officers were interested in the study of the art and science of war, forming a ‘dedicated and compact’ corps. Luigi showed potential and an exceptional ability to organize, and in 1892 at forty-two years of age, he earned his colonelcy. Nevertheless, he was overshadowed in many respects by his father. Raffaele Cadorna had enjoyed much success during his career, fighting in 1848–9, and serving in the Piedmontese Army in the Crimea. In 1866, his corps was one of the few noteworthy Italian success stories, which helped to distance him from Italy’s dismal failures in the Seven Weeks’ War. Raffaele’s crowning achievement came in September 1870, when he completed the unification of Italy by capturing Rome during the Porta Pia while the French were fighting the Franco-Prussian War.

The years after the demise of France as Europe’s chief land power was a monumental era in the evolution of warfare. It was in this climate that Luigi formulated the ideas that were to prevail later in his military tenure. He was quick to see that the Italian Army had to modernize in order to compete in European military circles. However, this was easier to conceptualize than it was to implement. The need for quick mobilization was readily apparent, but in Italy, with its mountainous terrain and regional population differences, the new standards of military rail organization proved difficult to realize. Military modernization was expensive; and although Italy spent most of her national expenditure on the armed forces during this period, by August 1914 Italy was still considered in its military infancy. Cadorna was just reaching the higher command positions as the Italian Army grappled with these imposing dilemmas.

Four years after being promoted to colonel, Luigi was appointed to the General Staff, and there had to wait fourteen years before obtaining corps command. When the Chief of Staff position became vacant around the same time, Cadorna was considered, but was passed over for the more pliant Alberto Pollio, although many believed that Cadorna was better suited to address many of the army’s more urgent problems. However, Pollio was pro-German, and therefore seemed to be a safe choice in this era of diplomatic and military instability. Pollio continued to plan military operations with Germany and Austria-Hungary, although the alliance had been deteriorating for some time. Indeed, the reason that Italy joined the Triplice in 1882 was the need to capitalize on German military prestige. The central difficulty with the alliance was that the national antagonism between Rome and Vienna hindered diplomatic and military co-operation, and by the turn of the century, many European commentators questioned its validity. From 1902 to the beginning of the First World War, Italy negotiated with Great Britain and France, although the Italian government did not want to see the French continue to grow into a Mediterranean power. This created an enormous rift between Italy’s political and military leaders, for the politicians kept the negotiations secret, and continued to do so right until Italy declared war in May 1915. To operate in a diplomatic and military climate that was basically Clausewitzian in nature, communications between the heads of state and the military leaders were a necessity. Correspondence between the Italian government and the military establishment was virtually non-existent, and when the representatives did talk about crucial matters, the meetings were normally strained and led to misunderstandings. Furthermore, the lines of communication between the army and the navy were worse than existed between the politicians and the generals. These conditions so hampered Italian military operations that Cadorna must have felt that he was an island in a sea of confusion. With no reliable information coming from any quarter, Cadorna became isolated in his own theories. This made him appear like a hapless and disconnected commander, out of touch with reality, and unable to keep his finger on the pulse of contemporary diplomatic and military attitudes.

Just after assuming his country’s highest military rank after Pollio’s death in July 1914, it seems that many of Cadorna’s characteristics became readily apparent. He was born of an aristocratic family in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, and therefore it was assumed that he inherited many ‘Nordic’ traits from his Germanic ancestors. He was a firm disciplinarian, who was often regarded as cold and indifferent to the conditions of his front-line soldiers. However, Cadorna was preparing the Italian Army for the storm of the First World War from the time he was appointed Chief-of-Staff until Italian mobilization, for he needed to rectify numerous weaknesses before the army could become an effective force. Cadorna was not a ‘from the front’ style of commander, choosing to lead by telephone and courier, staying behind the lines to perceive the front as a whole instead of becoming fixated on one particular sector. The truth of the matter was that most of his contemporaries could not produce solutions to the complexities of modern attritional warfare, and it was Cadorna’s misfortune that many considered the Italian Army defeated by its reputation before it was ever engaged in military operations.

In a conundrum rare in the annals of military-diplomatic history, Italy needed to align herself with the leading land and naval powers to achieve anything diplomatically. Desiring to manoeuvre behind the shield of German military might, Italian diplomats also had to consider that the Italian peninsula presented over 4100 miles of indefensible coastline, therefore Great Britain and the spectre of the Royal Navy heavily influenced any Italian military venture. Although this difficulty was not as severe just after 1871, due to the awe in which Germany was held after her impressive defeat of France, as the Royal Navy continued to assert its presence in world affairs, Italy’s diplomatic bonds with Germany and Austria-Hungary weakened. At the time of the Sarajevo assassination, Italy was in a quandary about what she would do in case of a European war. When Cadorna assumed command, he fell straight into this abyss, for he was not kept abreast of the vicissitudes in Italian diplomacy. While Italian politicians wrangled with Allied and Triplice negotiators for territorial compensation, Cadorna remained dangerously unaware of the change in Italian foreign policy. Just a few weeks before Italy was to announce that she was going to war with Austria-Hungary, Cadorna was informed to make the necessary plans for conducting an offensive against the Habsburg Empire. Cadorna, taken completely by surprise and astonished that he was kept in the dark for so long, rightfully exploded ‘What? I knew nothing!’ Much of the military planning to this time had been directed against France. Although exigency plans had been created for a war with Vienna, many changes had to be implemented before the Italian high command could enact any effective strategy against Austria-Hungary.

No one was prepared for the tactical realities of the First World War. Not only did Cadorna have to contend with an army that was materially weak and engaged in a nasty little colonial war, but, in addition, his theatre of operations was arguably the most difficult of the entire war. Hemmed in along the northern frontier with mountains often reaching elevations over 10,000 feet, the Italians were at a severe topographic disadvantage. Any other avenue of approach to the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to be by sea, an unlikely prospect considering the strained relations that existed between the army and navy. Selecting the extreme north-east sector of the Austro-Italian frontier just north of the Adriatic Sea for his main effort, Cadorna soon found himself in a slugging match with a skilled and determined enemy. Since most of the writings about the influence of modern weapons on tactics were poorly received or simply ignored, Cadorna reacted to the stalemate in a typically First World War fashion: headlong assaults with massive concentrations of artillery and infantry. Although the existing historiography does not cover the matter in detail, it was an Italian characteristic to make up for the deficiencies in weapons and tactics with the blood of the foot soldier. To assuage the popular myths created by the debacle at Caporetto, and by British and American veterans of the Second World War, the Italian infantryman between May 1915 and October 1917 displayed abundant courage and zeal when coming to grips with the Austro-Hungarians. However, Cadorna failed to consider the wellbeing of his main instrument, for rest in the rear areas was almost unheard of in most Italian divisions. The morale of any soldier would be devastated by the rigours of combat without periods of recuperation.

Since Cadorna fought his war from behind the lines, the Italian high command was slow to develop tactical innovations that considered the hostile geography of the Italian front. More often than not, Italian infantrymen had to attack over rocky and rugged surfaces, up slopes averaging between thirty and forty-five degrees, against a well-equipped enemy protected by defences excavated out of solid rock. Much of what the Italians learned tactically was from the Austrians, who were refining tested German operational and tactical practices, or from the French, who were not known at this time to be a source of tactical innovation. A good example of this was the Austrian offensive in the Trentino in May 1916. Using loose formations that used terrain features to open holes in the Italian lines after a tremendous artillery preparation, the Austrians enjoyed some success before the weight of their attack caused the logistic apparatus to break down. Using this information to form infiltration units of his own, Cadorna shifted ample reserves and guns to the Isonzo while the Austrians were preoccupied with the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front to capture Gorizia in August 1916. Proving adept at handling large bodies of men over Italy’s less than adequate rail system, Cadorna shifted the brunt of his army and guns to the Isonzo after the abortive Austrian attack on the Asiago plateau. Massing one of the largest artillery concentrations ever to be used on the Italian front, and employing select infantry units at certain concentration points, the Italians captured Gorizia, Mount Sabotino, and carried the western section of the Carso plateau in two weeks, whereas before nearly six months of offensive action failed to secure any of these objectives.

At the beginning of the war, the Italian Army consisted of thirty-five divisions. When Cadorna started his eleventh battle on the Bainsizza plateau in September 1917, he had sixty-five divisions at his disposal. The drain of attritional mountain warfare and rapid growth produced severe problems, such as an acute lack of munitions. Cadorna had to organize, arm, and train over one million men in two years – not an inconsiderable feat for an institution that was not known for its organizational capacity, especially considering that going into the conflict the Italians were still suffering substantial casualties in Africa. It is in this realm where Cadorna did his best work, and if it were not for this progress, the results of the Austro-German offensive in October would have been far worse.

Nearly two years of continual action was not only sapping Italy’s material ability to wage the war, it was also draining her morale. Cadorna, a strict disciplinarian far removed for the realities of trench warfare, failed to allow his soldiers to have any substantial periods of rest and relaxation, and therefore they lost much of their elan. Moreover, the offensive posture of Cadorna’s military operations often forced Italian division and corps commanders to neglect their forward defences. Just after the Italian successes in September on the Bainsizza, Cadorna ordered defences to be strengthened, for the near capitulation of Russia had freed Austrian formations from other duties, and he feared an enemy offensive. Although the Italians had fortified certain areas, mainly in the topographically favourable stretches of terrain around Gorizia and the Carso plateau, the Austro-German army struck on the upper Isonzo, along a lightly defended ridge just south of the small town of Caporetto. The Italians had planned to use a mobile defence, but the speed of the enemy advance caught them completely off guard, and soon the Italian Second Army was in flight, while the Third Army was forced to enact a strategic withdrawal across the Fruili Plains. The enemy offensive forced Cadorna to leave behind much of his heavy equipment and artillery – the accumulation of two years’ hard work. These losses, and the capture of about 300,000 men severely crippled the Italian war effort.

Not having secured the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Army after two years of extreme hardship and losses, Cadorna was sacked and replaced by one of his corps commanders, Armando Diaz. Cadorna’s cold and indifferent attitude toward not only his soldiers, but also toward the politicians had not ingratiated him with any power bloc that might have proved beneficial to him in case of a disaster. Therefore, Cadorna was supposedly kicked upstairs, and was sent to represent Italy on the Supreme Allied War Council. Soon thereafter, an investigation fixed the blame for the debacle squarely on his shoulders, and Cadorna retired in disgrace in December 1918. In all fairness, the Italian government needed a scapegoat, and since Cadorna was no longer the Chief of Staff and had directed the Italian armies since the beginning of the war, he was the logical choice. The government failed to pay attention to Cadorna when he warned that the front-line soldiers were being saturated with anti-war propaganda, which was growing vociferously all over Europe. He should have expected a great deal of criticism for his lack of preparedness when the Central Powers struck; however, the government should have realized that by attaching most of the blame to Cadorna, they had negated a fair record of success along the Isonzo during the first two years of the war.

The reputation of the Italian Army and Cadorna continues to languish. Holger Herwig, for example, recently deprecated him and his Austrian counterpart General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in the following way: ‘Both ignored terrain and weather. Both underestimated supply. Both stressed the will to fight. Both devised grandiose strategies that bore little relation to ready strength. And both insisted on their own infallibility.’28 However, Cadorna should not be uncritically blamed for the apparent lack of Italian progress during the war. He took an army embroiled in a colonial venture and forged it, under the most trying conditions, into one comparable with other European armies of the era. It is easy to say the Italian Army was bad, and that Cadorna was unimaginative or, as John Keegan puts it, a ‘château general’. However, the Italian Army had to attack in the most inhospitable front of the entire war, and was capable of capturing many key objectives, often when their efforts were hampered by lack of artillery and ammunition. The Austrian defences were exceedingly strong and set in mutually supporting positions across the front, providing Austrian machine gunners and artillery officers with strong positions for enfilade fire. Cadorna had conducted reconnaissance of the front before the war, and knew what his soldiers would have to face while fighting in the mountainous terrain. He was aware that operations on the Italian front would take patience and technical innovation, and was quick to adopt new weapons, such as the trench mortar and the teleferiche railway. The latter was a cable anchored to a base and stretched to the summit of an elevation, on which a cart or basket moved supplies and men to areas where the altitude and slope prohibited road construction. The need for mechanical assistance played an important role in the development of Cadorna’s army. Unfortunately, these gadgets were seen as the answers to tricky tactical and operational questions instead of being incorporated into existing doctrine, or being the catalysts for entirely new procedures. Often when certain divisions formulated new practices, the lack of communication on the administrative level prevented them from being disseminated. This is probably Cadorna’s most glaring fault, and shows just how isolated he was from the various contingents of his own army.

Contending with the rocky rugged terrain and the Austrian positional supremacy should have been an ideal catalyst for tactical innovation. However, the topographical compartmentalization of the front prevented the Italian high command from forming a clear picture of what was working or failing. Still, the Italians implemented some astonishing tactical changes, which were generally a result of learning from the enemy, or from division commanders who assessed certain areas and formed their units according to specific geographic problems. As the first four Isonzo offensives attempted to pierce the Austrian defences, the first just north of Mount Sabotino, the last three on the topographically more conducive Carso plateau, the Italians found it impossible to make any substantial progress against the enemy while using tactics that would not have been out of place on a battlefield during the Napoleonic era or during the American Civil War. This was not just an Italian problem – even the much vaunted Germans went to war in 1914 with tactical formations that were little changed since the victorious campaigns of 1866 and 1870–1. Realizing that they had to contend with perplexing terrain difficulties, and that their methods lacked the finesse to overcome and retain most defensive positions, the Italians began to search for solutions and, unfortunately, looked to the French for tactical answers. Although not as inept as many historians portray it be, the French Army was not exactly the source from which any belligerent would want to borrow military instructions at this stage of the war. The French were also enamoured by the results of the Wars of German Unification, and thought the answer to their military conundrum was to emulate the German model on a larger, more efficient scale. Each nation is a separate and unique entity, and therefore should forge its military accordingly. Therefore the problem with Italy, and indeed much of Europe, was that she should have been trying to create a national force based on her own capabilities and limitations instead of copying a successful yet dated German model. The Italian Army needed to be Italian, not a mere imitation of the German Army whose strength was as much from economic and industrial power as it was from any radical advances in the military arts and sciences.

By the time the Austrians struck in the Trentino, the Italians had received some tactical advice from the French, who were then going through the horrors of Verdun. However, the problem was not that they were receiving procedural assistance from the French, it was that they were usually receiving this help nearly six months after the tactics were first employed. Considering the rigid and ponderous methods prevalent in the Italian Army, it was usually several more months before any of this experience could be translated into military practice. Some procedures would take even longer to employ because of material deficiencies. The result was that the Italians were tactically and operationally behind most of the other major belligerents. A case in point was the massive artillery concentration used against Austrian defences on the Bainsizza. An overwhelming concentration of guns was nearly a constant goal of Allied and Central Power planners since the beginning of the war, the desire increasing after the German attack at Verdun. The attack on Verdun began in February 1916. The battle of the Bainsizza started in August 1917. This was just three months before the Central Powers introduced new tactical methods at Caporetto. Cadorna was methodical, but he often did not push tactical and operational changes fast enough, and hardly had time to use the old methods before he fell victim to a new set of offensive procedures.

Many historians wonder why Cadorna did not use the navy to land combat units in an area where geography would allow them to be employed more effectively. The army and navy never enjoyed a convivial relationship, and therefore could not count on each other to be the most ‘co-operative’ partners. Both were wary of enterprises that would waste resources and leave themselves in the lurch. Cadorna was hesitant to release any of his battalions to make a landing along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and the navy did not want to risk its capital ships in the same enterprise, for they knew amphibious operations would force a major surface action with the Austrian Navy. Although the Italians had landed approximately 40,000 troops along the north African coast during the war with Turkey in 1910–1, the aftershocks of this campaign still weighed upon the minds of military planners. Moreover, the areas where troops could be landed did not offer better geographic conditions that existed on the Isonzo Front. Italian formations were landed in Albania, and promptly suffered a reverse in the field and had to be evacuated with the loss of much equipment. Another venture, where Italian forces were deployed in Salonika, did little more than isolate a sizeable force. The enterprise held little chance of tactical success, and did not make a strategic contribution until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies late in 1918.

In hindsight, Cadorna seems to be just another commander that falls into the stereotype of a First World War general, an indifferent man who sent his soldiers to die by the thousands, while staying safely behind the front, out of harm’s way. This is only half true. Cadorna was conscious of the heavy losses the Italians were suffering – one and a half million casualties during the war, 460,000 of which were fatalities – if not from a humanitarian viewpoint, from operational realism. He knew that the Italian nation could not go on indefinitely due to its lack of natural resources and economic reserves. He used the only commodity the Italians possessed, a sizeable population base, until better operational and tactical methods could be developed. It was his misfortune that the Central Powers were generally the first to introduce innovative tactical and operational procedures, and just happened to test them in the secondary theatres before employing them on the Western Front.

It is curious that the Italians have been castigated for their debacle at Caporetto, as Cadorna skilfully withdrew his Third Army across the congested Fruili Plains, and even managed to salvage certain portions of the Second Army. Although trying to establish defensive positions on the major waterways in the eastern sector of the plains, he was forced back to the Piave River before he could restore his front. Geography and distance prevented the British or the French from saving the Italians, for by the time Allied troops reached Italy, Cadorna had stabilized the front, but had been fired in the process. Haig finally had to succumb to French pressure for overall direction of the war so that unity of command could re-establish Allied defences on the Western Front.

Cadorna was not totally forgotten after Caporetto. He went on to be the Italian representative on the Supreme Allied War Council, and exhibited an uncanny grasp of military problems. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Cadorna had invaluable experience in handling an army; the second was that he was a well-known theoretical writer about European military affairs, and had dealt academically with many problems concerning coalition warfare before the war. Cadorna’s problem was that he undoubtedly held the wrong post, for he could not deal appropriately with the minutiae of war. His father, the general who had shown some promise in the Seven Weeks’ War, realized his full potential as the Minister of War for the government of Tuscany in 1859. It was in this area where Cadorna showed his optimum potential. Once the politicians confided in him concerning Italy’s diplomatic endeavours, Cadorna followed their policies and worked energetically toward their realization. His realistic mind, although restricting his creativity, never allowed him to entertain fantastic or unrealistic schemes. This aptitude for the diplomatic-military sphere was clearly seen at the Supreme War Council, for he could quickly equate objectives with available means and gauge probable outcomes, not only in a military sense, but in the diplomatic realm as well. This could be a result of having to contend with Italy’s chronic lack of resources while trying to conduct a major war effort – something that he lost sight of during the offensives of 1915, but then addressed in future operations. Therefore, his organizational talents would have been better suited to the war ministry, and were not geared to the frustratingly complex phenomenon of a First World War army command. After the war, Cadorna busied himself with writing a book about the Italian front, much of which was in defence of his actions connected with Caporetto. Falling into relative obscurity, he was somewhat revitalized when Mussolini, ever the astute politician and consummate showman, made Cadorna a Field Marshal in 1924. This ceremony was an empty gesture, doing nothing to vindicate Cadorna’s reputation, which still suffers today from a lack of scholarship and interest. He will never be known as one of the great captains of history, but considering what he did with what he had available, his story deserves better treatment.

Soon the Western Front would be embroiled in a chaotic retreat, and many of the divisions sent to Italy would be recalled. However, with Cadorna fading into the history of the First World War, a new phase of the war emerged in Italy, as British and French contingents arrived to bolster their crippled ally.


It quickly became apparent in the first period of the war that logistics was the least thought-through element of Soviet military theory. Rear services (i.e., logistic) units were cumbersome, immobile, and unable to adapt to fluid conditions. Planning was fragmented, ineffective, and often disconnected from the operational concept it was supposed to support.

Some Principles of Logistic Support

By the end of the second period of the war, the Red Army was realizing in practice the demands of theory, conducting progressively deeper operations at a steadily rising tempo.37 During the third period, these operations were planned to achieve their goal in two to three weeks, though if they were developing successfully, provision was made for a transition to subsequent operations without any (or only the briefest) operational pause. Characteristically, an operation would start with a fierce battle—expensive in men, materiel, ammunition, and fuel—to penetrate the tactical zone of defense. Once the breakthrough had been achieved and the participating armies were conducting exploitation, logistic demands would fall dramatically, reflecting the reduced effectiveness of the defense (although there would be occasional smaller peaks in expenditure as enemy reinforcements arrived or obstacles had to be forced in the operational depth). The exploitation phase of the operation would not develop linearly. Rather, the breaching of the once continuous front line would lead to very fluid, dynamic combat spread over a considerable area. Formations would thrust deep into the enemy’s operational rear, bypassing centres of resistance, and the Germans would endeavor to cut off and destroy the spearheads, even as these were seeking to complete an encirclement or destroy retreating forces in parallel pursuit. Sudden, dramatic changes in the situation, with shifts in emphasis from one axis to another or even sometimes from attack to defense, would be common. In such circumstances, attrition would not take place relatively evenly across a defined front. Rather, there would be areas of intense but localized fighting and destruction and large passive sectors where logistic demands would be much lighter. The traditional logistic system would not be appropriate for such a battle space. Forward divisions or corps could not indent for supplies and collect them from dumps in secure rear areas, nor could they evacuate their casualties and damaged equipment rearward to semistatic hospitals and workshops. Formations would be unable to rely on constant resupply and would have to live off mobile stocks for at least a few days at a time. Medical and repair facilities would have to move well forward and set up in the areas that had seen heavy fighting and where casualties were concentrated. This understanding of the nature of combat led to the adoption of some principles of logistics that were contrary to Western understanding and practice.

The bulk of logistic assets was held at army and front levels. Such centralized control was seen as essential to operational flexibility. Centralized control enabled operational-level commanders to tailor their logistic allocations to conform to the importance of the mission, their forces’ strength, and the ground allocated to their subordinate formations. Commanders of higher formations who were familiar with the overall operational concept and situation could quickly shift resources from burned-out, stalled, or merely less successful divisions, corps, and armies and reallocate them to others that were making better progress. They also held transport reserves with which they could reinforce success and ensure that it did not become ephemeral because of insufficient supply to exploit it. Changing the emphasis from one axis to another would be far more difficult and slower in a decentralized system in which the “ownership” of transport and supplies was jealously guarded, whatever the operational vision of the higher commander.38

It was the responsibility of the higher commander to keep his subordinates supplied in accordance with the demands of the operational situation. The basic concept of resupply was not, in other words, “demand pull,” which in the first period of the war had resulted in excessive expenditure on less important missions, to the detriment of the main effort. It became one of “supply push,” whereby consumption rates were laid down by the front for each stage of an operation in accordance with the priorities it had established; allocations changed as and when the exigencies of battle led to modification of plans. This concept of forward delivery was easy to implement, as the bulk of transport was controlled at the operational level. Thus, a divisional transport company possessed only 45 trucks, a combined-arms army’s three to four battalions had up to 600, and a front’s three to five regiments mustered 3,500 to 4,500. This made it easier to switch emphasis between axes, open a new one, or simply cope with ever-lengthening lines of communication by re-allocating front assets according to shifting priorities. The system also enabled shortcuts to ensure a speedy response to pressing needs: for instance, tank army trucks could skip an echelon by delivering direct to brigades, bypassing corps. The system was hard on units and formations that were achieving success but only on a secondary axis; it was even harder on those that ran into difficulties and were accordingly de-prioritized. But it ensured the economical use of both stocks and transport in furthering the operational aim.

Successful operations inevitably ran into problems as supply lines lengthened, turnaround times and breakdowns increased, and cargo capacity ran short. Air resuppply could provide limited lift in an emergency, but suitable aircraft were lacking for any major, sustained effort. The Red Army insisted that formations improvise with self-help measures rather than simply relying on the senior commander to repair deficiencies. Some artillery units, for instance, had to give up their prime movers, and motorized infantry their trucks (riding instead on the tanks and SAUs). There was often large-scale reliance on impressing local animal-drawn transport. A typical example happened in the L’vov-Sandomir Operation when Third Guards Army’s dirt-road supply line to its railhead grew from 60 to 200 km (37 to 125 miles) between 20 July and 1 August; it supplemented its resources with around 7,000 supply-days of farm horses and carts. Thirteenth Army had much the same experience, and in each case 1 Ukrainian Front allocated 200 to 220 trucks from its reserve to assist until a new railhead could open at Rava-Russkaya.39 On occasion, peasants were compelled to carry artillery rounds or roll fuel barrels from one village to the next; Fifty-Third Army of 2 Ukrainian Front used locals and the personnel of a reserve rifle regiment to carry 340 tonnes of shells when it looked like the batteries would run short.

As with transport, most other rear services were centralized. Tactical formations held only enough organic rear services units to cope with routine, light combat situations. This conferred two advantages. With light logistic tails, they were more agile and maneuverable than if they had been encumbered with masses of vulnerable noncombat vehicles and personnel. It also ensured that specialist and scarce service support elements were used economically and to maximum effect. For instance, there was no point in giving a rifle division the means to deal with high levels of casualties if it was in reserve or deployed on a passive sector; a small medical battalion would suffice for day-to-day needs. If, however, that division and the rest of its corps were advancing in the expectation of carrying out an opposed river crossing in the near future, army and, if necessary, front would ensure the concentration of sufficient resources from their medical reserves to cope with the anticipated flow of casualties. The same applied to the recovery and restoration of damaged equipment. Mobile corps possessed enough technical support to cope with routine maintenance and some breakdowns. When they were committed to battle, higher-echelon recovery and repair units were directed to the area of the most intense fighting to collect and then repair damaged hardware in situ.

Calculating and Meeting Requirements for Supply

The Red Army made sustained and, in time, largely successful efforts to calculate and then update operational and battlefield norms, which if implemented effectively, would increase the chances of success.40 By the summer of 1943, they were generally successful in assessing the material needs of offensive operations. Plainly, these were determined by the strength of the formation, the scope and duration of its mission, and the level of resistance encountered. However, on average, front requirements in 1944 were assessed as follows: 3.5 to 4.0 units of fire per artillery weapon, tank, or SAU; four to six refills for vehicles and fifteen to twenty for aircraft fuel;41 and fifteen to twenty-five daily rations per soldier and horse. To achieve such an accumulation of supply, three to four weeks preparation time was allowed (a lengthy period that posed challenges to the maskirovka plan). To give an idea of the sheer volume and weight involved in such a buildup, the preparations of 1 Belorussian Front for the Belorussian Operation can be used as an example. The front amassed 2.5 to 7.7 units of fire (depending on caliber), four to seven refills for its vehicles and aircraft, and ten to fifteen days of food and forage. Moving these stocks required 17,939 rail wagons (the four fronts together needed 44,111 wagonloads). In the event, the operation exceeded its planned scope, as did its successors, and an additional 15,518 wagonloads were dispatched to Rokossovskiy’s front to sustain combat into August (the four together receiving 48,280).42 Accumulating the logistic resources required to accomplish front near missions required much work on infrastructure (which, like movements, had to be concealed) and impressive staff work, bearing in mind the simultaneous concentrations of troops and equipment. These problems, however, paled in comparison with the difficulties of supplying formations once the centre of gravity had shifted into the operational depth in pursuit of distant missions.

At issue was the rear services’ ability to keep pace with the tempo of the advance. The most efficient, most rapid means of moving large quantities of fuel and ammunition was by rail. Of course, the retreating Germans, whenever they were given the opportunity, did their usually efficient best to rip up track and demolish bridges. As the Soviets advanced, each front’s Directorate for Reconstruction and Obstacle Work used its three to four railway brigades and two to three mechanized battalions to restore one or two lines. By 1944, the rate of repair work had doubled compared with the second period and averaged 7 to 12 km (4 to 7 miles) of track per day; the rate was only 3 to 5 km (2 to 3 miles) per day through areas where the enemy had prepared defenses but went up to 20 km (12 miles) in the operational depth. Higher rates were a consequence of deploying more resources and also of an increased tempo in the advance. Combined-arms armies on principal axes averaged around 8 to 10 km (5 to 6 miles) per day in the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, 12 to 18 km (7 to 11 miles) in the Belorussian Operation, and 16 to 20 km (10 to 12 miles) in the Yassi-Kishinev Operation. In those same operations, tank armies averaged 23 to 27 km (14 to 16 miles), 22 to 30 km (13 to 18 miles), and 44 km (27 miles) per day, respectively, but with maximum daily rates up to twice those figures. The higher the rate of advance and the more active the Red Air Force, the more the enemy was deprived of the opportunity and time to inflict serious damage on the transport infrastructure and the faster rehabilitation proceeded. However, bridge repair, especially over sizable rivers, usually lagged days behind the reconstruction of track and accounted for the uneven pace of restoration between fronts. Moreover, getting a railway up and running at even minimal capacity involved more than the physical restoration of lines; stations, refueling facilities, signaling and communications, and other essential infrastructure features had to be provided. The switch from broad gauge to standard gauge further complicated matters once the offensive penetrated into East Prussia and Poland.

In the more successful operations of the third period, mobile formations advanced 300 to 350 km (185 to 220 miles) within ten to fourteen days—almost double that in the thrust from the Vistula to the Oder. Higher-formation dumps were left far behind. It would usually be many weeks before each front would achieve the required level of development for a forward relocation of its stocks and thus a continuation of the offensive on its axis: that is, it would have to make operational a couple of lines going forward and two or three laterally, together totaling 800 to 1,500 km (500 to 930 miles) of track and carrying forty to fifty trains a day. During the course of the initial operation, a front would work to restore one or two lines with an early capacity of eight to fourteen pairs of trains each day. Where conditions were favorable, such as on 3 Belorussian Front’s sector in Belorussia, railheads could catch up to within 70 to 130 km (40 to 80 miles) from the line of contact. Where conditions were less benign, as in the sectors of 2 and 1 Belorussian Fronts, the lag could be 150 to 380 km (90 to 235 miles) and more. Thus, rail transport generally played only a limited role in sustaining operations in the enemy’s depth. The Yassi-Kishinev Operation was an exception. There, the railway lines were taken virtually intact, and in their swift offensive into Romania, 2 and 3 Ukrainian Fronts captured about 2,000 locomotives and 56,000 wagons, enabling them to exploit standard-gauge railways from the outset; this contributed to the depth of advance achieved by Sixth Tank Army between 20 August and 25 September—about 1,000 km (620 miles).

The number of mechanized and motorized formations and units in the Red Army grew continuously as the war progressed. Operations developed increasing tempo and depth and became more complex and harder to predict, with their switches of axes and uneven evolution. There was therefore an increasing reliance on motor transport for logistic support at the operational level as a supplement to and, for lengthy periods, a substitute for the railways. Prompt road repair and maintenance were vital. Front Road Directorates controlled twelve to fifteen separate road-building and maintenance battalions and four to five bridge-building battalions. These were used for the creation of military roads going forward to army rear boundaries; there would be two or three roads on the most important axes, each some 300 to 400 km (185 to 250 miles) long, or sometimes longer in highly successful operations.43 Much attention was devoted not only to the engineering side but also to the efficient organization of command and control and the provision of refueling and vehicle recovery and maintenance points.

The greatest challenge facing motor transport troops was to ensure the uninterrupted resupply of tank armies and their subordinate elements during rapidly evolving, dynamic operations in the enemy’s depth. A tank army’s rear services were organized in two echelons. The first, tactical, mobile echelon followed directly behind the combat units. The second, lacking mobility, comprised the army dumps, which remained static until a reduced tempo or an operational pause enabled forward redeployment. Typically, tactical supplies on wheels would be divided as follows: ammunition—1 unit of fire carried on each combat vehicle or prime mover and by each soldier for small arms, with another 0.25 in unit, brigade, and corps transport, for a total of 1.75 units of fire;44 fuel—1 fill per vehicle, with another 0.5 refill in both unit and brigade transport and a third at corps; food—two daily rations carried by each man, with two to three in unit and three to four in brigade transport and an additional four to five at corps, enough for eleven to fourteen days. Army dumps usually held 1 to 1.5 units of fire, two to four refills, and fifteen to twenty rations to replenish mobile stocks. However, experience soon showed that the fighting troops could exhaust their stocks of fuel and, more rarely, ammunition before they could be replaced. To ensure against this and the possibility of a new mission being assigned for which supply had not been budgeted, more flexibility was needed. Extra transport was provided so that army dumps could form a mobile echelon and act as an emergency reserve for the immediate delivery of fuel. And as corps’ rear became separated from army dumps by much more than 100 km (60 miles), the latter formed advanced sections or delivered direct to brigades, bypassing the corps level in the interest of time. With deeper advances, army resources increasingly failed to guarantee continuous resupply, and the front responded by either reinforcing the most important formations with extra motor vehicles or delivering direct to corps.

Once supplies had to be hauled over distances of 500 to 600 km (310 to 370 miles) or more between front dumps and the troops in contact—a round-trip of four or five days—fronts had generally reached their culminating point. Even before that point was reached, army operations frequently suffered from enforced, temporary pauses as their logistic support failed to keep up. For instance, Third Guards Tank and Fourth Tank Armies failed to take L’vov from the line of march on 19 July when distance, congestion, and bad roads in the Koltuv corridor, together with high consumption rates, combined to create ammunition and especially fuel deficiencies. In the Vistula-Oder Operation, Second Guards Tank Army was halted, at one time or another, for a total of five days during the sixteen-day operation. Even if the advance was not brought to a complete halt, armies could be forced to check one of their corps, or corps to check one or two of their brigades, until more fuel could be brought up. Thus, on 25 January in the Vistula-Oder Operation, Third Guards Tank Army’s 9 Mechanized Corps had to limit its advance to two brigades; in the same operation, Fourth Tank Army was able to employ only a single tank brigade in its forcing of the Oder. On occasion, a continuation of the advance became possible, even though the system was failing, because significant stocks of fuel were captured. In the Lublin-Brest Operation, more than 30 percent of Second Tank Army’s consumption consisted of such trophy fuel, as did 25 percent of Second Guards Tank Army’s in advancing from the Vistula to the Oder. Such a development was, of course, more likely when surprise and, in consequence, a high tempo of advance were achieved. In the Yassi-Kishinev Operation, Sixth Tank Army captured the Ploiesti oil fields and refineries intact, and a further advance of more than 500 km (300 miles) by 2 Ukrainian Front was sustained by laying a 225 km (140 mile) pipeline. Of course, such windfalls were only that; they could not be factored into planning.


Maintaining Combat Capability

Fuel and ammunition shortages were not the only things that could bring operational exploitation to a premature end. Even more serious were insupportable losses, especially in armor. To avoid premature culmination, which would sacrifice the opportunities created by a successful breakthrough, the Red Army paid increasing attention to the repair and restoration of damaged equipment and the replacement of casualties. The system that evolved during the war is best illustrated through the example of keeping up tank and SAU numbers. Maintaining combat capabilities started before an operation began. Every effort was made to bring participating units and formations up to—and, if possible, over—strength, with their weapons and equipment ready for many days of intense usage. Factory-new tanks and SAUs would replace as many worn or outdated ones as possible (the latter would often remain in quiet sectors while their crews were shipped to the assembly area to pick up their new ones for the next operation). Others whose tracks and engines had already been subject to considerable wear and tear would, wherever possible, have at least their most timeworn items replaced. In practice, this was the main means by which the viability of formations was maintained. During the conduct of an operation, the provision of fresh replacements while operating at a high tempo in the enemy’s depth was not a practical option (unless there was an operational pause), even if they were available.

Planning for force regeneration during the course of an operation had to take into account uneven loss rates from two causes: combat (destroyed or, more commonly, damaged) and noncombat (mechanical breakdown or badly mired). By far the heaviest casualties from enemy action would be suffered during the breakthrough. Ideally, these losses would be incurred mostly by the combined-arms armies, with the mobile groups being used only to complete the penetration. Of course, if the operation did not develop as planned and a clean breach was not achieved, an attritional struggle would develop, the casualty rate would remain high, and the depth achieved would be limited; for example, in the Orel Operation, it took Fourth Tank Army ten days to penetrate the defense, and it lost 83.9 percent of its T-34s. During exploitation operations, by contrast, average daily loss rates would remain low. However, there would be increases, sometimes sharp ones, during the penetration of defense lines in the enemy’s depth, when drawn into fighting in built-up areas, when forcing major water obstacles, or (usually as the operation was culminating) during enemy counterattacks; for instance, in the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, over 50 percent of First Guards Tank Army’s losses were incurred during the establishment and subsequent defense of the Sandomir bridgehead over the Vistula. The incidence of noncombat losses depended substantially on the duration of the operation, the terrain it crossed, and the weather. Also important, however, was the state of equipment maintenance. The frequency and extent of mechanical failures were noticeably reduced as the war progressed and driver training and unit-level maintenance improved; for example, 334 tanks and SAUs of First Guards Tank Army failed in the Belgorod-Khar’kov Operation, but only 105 during the Vistula-Oder Operation, even though the army in the latter was 30 percent larger. Generalizing very broadly, 70 percent of the tanks and SAUs requiring recovery and repair had been battle damaged, and 30 percent had suffered technical malfunctions or become bogged down.

The system for restoring unserviceable tanks and SAUs and returning them to combat units was designed to cope with maneuver operations at a high tempo. At each level, responsibility for the regeneration of combat power rested with the higher commander. He distributed his assets to reinforce his subordinate formations according to the importance of their missions and the likely strength of the opposition, being prepared to switch resources to different axes as operational requirements dictated. At front level, a reserve was generally held to ensure that adequate facilities were available in the most critical area and at the most critical time.

Units possessed a minimal technical capability that was sufficient only for routine maintenance and the simplest of repairs. Thus, brigades would undertake work requiring no more than two hours. The mobile tank repair bases of corps and armies would establish technical observation posts in the areas where their units and formations had done their heaviest fighting. These would direct evacuation subunits and units in the collection of the casualties inflicted in the latest battle in order to concentrate them at damaged vehicle collection points (save those needing less than six hours of work, which were dealt with on the spot). The repair units would then arrive to work on the contents of these collection points. There was strict prioritization in the execution of repair work. Top priority went to those requiring running repairs needing no more than six to eight hours; then jobs taking up to twelve hours were tackled. Corps repair shops would then move on to repairs requiring twelve to eighteen hours if they remained in the area long enough. If, however, the operation was developing at a satisfactory tempo, they would have to hurry on to the next damaged vehicle collection point, possibly quite distant, usually leaving many relatively minor jobs undone. Army facilities would take their place, and once they had completed the easier jobs, they would start on medium repairs requiring one, two, or even three days. They too would frequently have to move on before completing all the medium repairs. Major repairs would be left to front workshops, but they rarely had time to get to these after catching up with the backlog of medium repairs that resulted from a high rate of advance. An example of the system at work is provided by the two damaged vehicle collection points leapfrogging forward to operate 40 to 50 km (25 to 30 miles) apart in the zone of First Guards Tank Army during the Vistula-Oder Operation. During the forty days of their involvement (which did not end with the army’s transition to defense), one moved three times and the other five times, spending from three to sixteen days at each location. Between them, they repaired 227 armored vehicles and eliminated lesser malfunctions in another 356; 88 were back-loaded to front workshops. Largely as a result of their work, on 1 February 1945 the army’s serviceable tank and SAU strength was 577, or 76 percent of its starting strength. (Second Guards Tank Army did not fare so well, ending up with 495 tanks and SAUs at the conclusion of the operation, 59 percent of its initial 838.)

Table 2 analyzes the armored vehicle losses and repairs of some tank armies during third-period operations selected to illustrate different operational conditions. Second Guards Tank Army in the Vistula-Oder Operation represents the ideal: the armored formation was inserted through a clean breach, and in a high-tempo exploitation to great depth, it forced intermediate defense lines before they could be defended. The tank armies of 1 Ukrainian Front, in contrast, had to complete the penetration before being able to conduct rapid operational maneuver, and this largely accounted for their higher losses. In the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, First Guards Tank Army not only had to complete the breakthrough but, even more significantly, had to engage in a prolonged and wearing fight to hold the Sandomir bridgehead against counterattacks. The East Prussian Operation, mounted as a supporting effort for the main offensive on the Warsaw-Berlin axis, had to gnaw through prepared, unsurprised defenses in depth, and losses were accordingly high.

Table 1

Table 1 above illustrates how, generalizing broadly from these and other operations of the third period, the total losses of tank armies averaged 70 percent or more, but irrecoverable losses were only about 25 percent of initial strengths. The evolved method of employing recovery and repair facilities made it possible for tank armies to rehabilitate and return to action most tanks and SAUs that could be repaired in the field (although, owing to the shortage of spare parts, a lot of repairable equipment was cannibalized as the operation progressed). In each of these operations, almost all tanks and SAUs that required running repairs and 80 percent of those needing medium repairs were restored to combat units. Indeed, it was not uncommon, as in the case of First Guards Tank Army in the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, for total losses to exceed the army’s initial strength. In the same operation, each of Third Guards Tank Army’s tanks and SAUs was out of commission two or three times, and they were returned to service just as frequently. Of course, a critical factor in the success of the recovery and repair system was battlefield success. When battles ended, the Soviet forces were left in possession of the scenes of carnage, allowing them to scavenge, sort, and classify every vehicle into every category from total wreck to minor mobility problems. For the retreating Germans, on the other hand, every fighting vehicle left on the battlefield was a write-off, no matter how superficial the damage.

Table 2

The treatment of human casualties followed the same principles that were applied to equipment. The system was calculated to contribute to the maintenance of combat power to the maximum extent possible; it could be described as austere. Thus, for example, ambulances were thin on the ground, and most wounded were taken to the rear in unsprung peasant carts or trucks returning from delivering ammunition. Medical battalions were concentrated on the axes where the greatest casualties were expected, and they moved from one area of fierce fighting to the next, leapfrogging forward. The policy was to treat as many of the injured as possible at each stage in the medical chain; the further back a man was sent, the more difficult it became to reintegrate him into a unit on recovery. At subunit level, only basic first aid was provided; even at unit (regiment and brigade) level, only those casualties were treated that could be returned immediately to combat. The rest were triaged, with the lightly wounded who would be fit for battle in a day or two being sent to divisional field hospitals, treated, and held there until they could be sent forward. Those with little prospect of proving useful during the course of the operation were sorted by injury and dispatched to specialized army or, in the most serious cases, front hospitals. At each stage, emergency aid would be given to save the soldier’s life and stabilize him, but therapeutic treatment was given at any stage only to those who could be expected to recover in a usefully short period of time; such prioritization was considered the greatest contribution the medical services could make to the restoration of combat effectiveness.

The Red Army found that, in offensive operations, it would generally lose one man killed or missing for every three medical casualties (i.e., wounded or sick; the latter usually representing, according to a rather conservative estimate, about 15 percent of the total). Of the medical losses, 81 percent were eventually returned to duty, so permanent wastage represented somewhat more than 40 percent of all casualties. In calculating manpower requirements, Soviet planners learned that, at army level, 65 to 80 percent of the losses incurred in an entire operation would usually be suffered during the breakthrough phase—the first three or four days. Such data informed the provision of medical resources. It was also important for planning on the operations side, as was the realization that, whereas the total casualty bill was largely a function of the enemy’s strength and preparedness, the proportion of Soviet casualties as a percentage of the total force decreased as the superiority ratio increased. Table 2 shows the rough correlation between superiority ratios and percentage losses during the penetration of prepared defenses; apparent inconsistencies can be accounted for by such factors as whether surprise was achieved and the level of enemy preparation. Most importantly, such analysis helped front-level commanders and staffs to establish the numbers of men necessary to sustain the advance through to the entire planned depth of the operation and achieve the assigned objectives.

Soviet forecasting of force requirements and probable loss rates, and therefore viability, improved over time. Front calculations became increasingly reliable, albeit consistently on the conservative side and only at the macro level. Although improvements in the organization and training of technical troops and medical services resulted in the return of increasing numbers of temporarily incapacitated equipment and, to a lesser extent, men to service, casualties still had considerable impact on combat capabilities. When a high rate of advance was being achieved, restored tanks and SAUs and wounded men treated at divisional level could not rejoin their original first-echelon units, which would be too far away by that time. Of necessity, they were used instead to restore units that had been temporarily withdrawn from combat or to augment second echelons or create reserves, usually by rebuilding units under the control of headquarters that had lost most of their combat power. Longer-term sustainability at army and front levels did not translate into the immediate viability of leading lower formations.

It was, for example, reckoned that a tank or mechanized corps would be approaching combat exhaustion by the fourth or fifth day of a penetration battle or the eighth to tenth day of operations in the enemy’s depth. Various methods were employed to sustain operational endurance, assuming, of course, there was no second echelon immediately available to assume the role of the depleted formation. Regrouping could solve some problems. Thus, when the headquarters of the still numerically viable 25 Tank Corps was destroyed during the Orel Operation, Eleventh Guards Army transferred the formation to 36 Guards Rifle Corps so that its armor could act under infantry command, providing close infantry support. Where the command and control apparatus remained intact but losses left units verging on combat ineffectiveness, the usual answer was to form improvised groupings. For example, during the Belgorod-Khar’kov Operation, the remains of 29 Tank Corps were reformed into a single composite brigade. An alternative approach was used during the Carpathian-Dukla Operation, when the commander of 4 Guards Tank Corps redistributed the assets of 3 Guards Motor Rifle Brigade between his tank brigades. During its actions in the enemy’s depth toward the end of the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, 25 Tank Corps was down to 15 percent of its tanks and SAUs, 50 percent of its artillery and mortars, 19 percent of its riflemen, and 40 percent of its communications equipment. To create a formation capable of forcing the Wisloka and preventing the enemy’s withdrawal to Krosno, the corps was regrouped into a composite 20 Guards Motor-Rifle Brigade and a tank battalion commanded by 162 Tank Brigade headquarters. Such improvised units and formations were able to shake down quite quickly into effective teams, thanks to a combination of uniform training and simple tactical drills. Nevertheless, the very fact that such ad hoc creations were proving necessary was a warning to senior commanders that their culminating point was nigh.


In the third period, the Red Army executed increasingly deep and continuous operations, more and more frequently mounting successive operations without pauses between them as conservatively calculated goals were achieved at lower than anticipated cost. This was made possible by the evolution of a logistic system well suited to achieving distant objectives at a high tempo. It was designed to support operational maneuver rather than linear-attritional combat. It was austere, with only essentials being resourced. Above all, perhaps, senior commanders laid down clear priorities for the logistic effort and generally eschewed the temptation to pursue all desirable aims simultaneously, thus risking culmination across a broad front with no critical objectives achieved. Secondary tasks were undertaken only through sequenced operations once the main ones were attained.

The Soviets’ logistic reach was extended by the very fact that they accomplished high-speed offensives. The Red Army was routinely left in possession of the battlefield, with all that implied for recovery and repair. The faster the advance, the less chance the enemy had to carry out a scorched-earth policy as he retreated. Railway lines and bridges were often taken intact or with only superficial damage. The enemy sometimes lacked the time necessary to evacuate or even destroy the supply dumps he needed to offer continued effective resistance; captured fuel often extended the reach of advancing Soviet formations. Moreover, consumption fell as the tempo rose. Compare a tank army achieving a rate of advance of 16 to 45 km (10 to 30 miles) per day with one making only 4.5 to 13 km (3 to 10 miles) per day. At the higher rate, it would use only one-third the amount of fuel consumed at the lower rate to cover 100 km (60 miles). It would also expend only one-sixth the amount of ammunition. It suffered less than one-third the number of personnel casualties, and although tank and SAU losses were running close to two-thirds, the vast majority were simple, quickly repairable mechanical breakdowns. Such is the difference between pursuit of an enemy incapable of serious resistance and fighting through a balanced defense conducted by a determined foe. Success bred success—for both the commanders and the logisticians who had the conceptual and organizational readiness to exploit it.


Contemporaries, it is clear, stood in awe of Harold Sigurdson [note] [Harald Sigurdsson]. ‘The thunderbolt of the North’, was how Adam of Bremen, who wrote in the 1070s, remembered him; ‘the strongest living man under the sun’, said William of Poitiers (albeit reporting the words of somebody else). A half-brother of King Olaf II of Norway, born around 1015, Harold had been forced to flee from his native country while still in his teens, and ended up spending several years at the court of Yaroslav the Wise, king of Russia. From there he ventured south, like countless generations of Vikings before him, to Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, the eastern rump of the Roman Empire, and rose to great power and eminence by rendering military service to successive emperors. His reputation and his fortune won, he returned to Scandinavia in the mid-1040s and used his well-honed skills to make himself king of Norway, where he subsequently reigned with a fist of iron, fighting his neighbours and executing his rivals. Small wonder that when later Norse historians looked back on his life they dubbed him ‘the Hard Ruler’, or Hardrada.

The fact that his famous nickname was not recorded until the thirteenth century, however, alerts us immediately to an inescapable problem. Harold’s contemporaries may have been impressed by his epic tale, but they did not write it down – unsurprisingly, for eleventh-century Scandinavia was still for the most part a pagan society and hence largely illiterate. The first sources to deal with his reign in any detail are Norse sagas dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, almost 150 years after the events they purport to describe. The most celebrated account of all – the so-called King Harold’s Saga – was told by an Icelandic historian called Snorri Sturluson, who died in 1241 and wrote in the 1220s and 1230s – that is, almost two centuries after Harold’s own time.

How much trust can we place in such late sources? On the positive side, we can see from similarities in his text that Snorri drew on earlier sagas, as well as oral traditions. He also considered himself to be an objective writer, and in several passages seeks to reassure his readers of his conscientiousness as a historian. Halfway through King Harold’s Saga, for example, he explains that he has omitted many of the feats ascribed to his protagonist, ‘partly because of my lack of knowledge, and partly because I am reluctant to place on record stories that are unsubstantiated. Although I have been told various stories and have heard about other deeds, it seems to me better that my account should later be expanded than that it should have to be emended.’

There is no reason to doubt Snorri’s sincerity but, alas, we cannot set as much store by his stories as we could with a contemporary source, especially when it comes to points of detail. Take, for instance, his account of Harold’s adventures in the east. On the one hand, we can be absolutely certain that the future king went to Constantinople, and that he rose to a position of prominence there, because he appears in contemporary Byzantine sources (as ‘Araltes’). These same sources confirm Snorri’s statements that Harold fought for the emperor in Sicily and Bulgaria, and show that he ultimately obtained the rank of spatharocandidate, just three levels below the emperor himself. But, on the other hand, when it comes to the details of Harold’s eastern adventures, the same local sources show that Snorri was often wrong. Sometimes he gives events in the incorrect order, and at other times he gets the names of key individuals confused. Harold, for instance, is said by Snorri to have blinded Emperor Monomachus, whereas contemporary sources show that the true victim was the previous emperor, Michael Calaphates. This leads us to a general conclusion about the value of Snorri’s work. The broad thrust of his story may well be true, but on points of detail it has to be regarded as very suspect, and all but useless unless it can be corroborated by other, more reliable witnesses.

Harold apparently returned from his adventures in the east in 1045, at which point he intruded himself in the struggle for power in Scandinavia between his nephew, King Magnus of Norway, and the king of Denmark, Swein Estrithson. If there is any truth in Snorri’s version of events, the former spatharocandidate employed the same underhand and unscrupulous methods that had worked so effectively in Byzantium, siding first with Swein, but then defecting to Magnus in return for a half-share of the latter’s kingdom. When Magnus died in 1047 he reportedly bequeathed all of Norway to Harold and declared that Swein should be left unmolested in possession of Denmark. His uncle, however, was not the kind of man to settle for such half-measures, and soon the war between the two countries was resumed.

According to some modern historians, Hardrada from the start of his reign also had similar designs on England. There is, however, precious little evidence to support such a view, either in the contemporary record or, for that matter, in the later sagas. It is often said that the new Norwegian king considered himself to have a claim to the English throne on account of the alleged deal between Magnus and Harthacnut that each should be the other’s heir. Whether this deal, first reported by a mid-twelfth-century writer, had any basis in fact or not, Magnus certainly behaved as if England was his by right. As we have seen, Edward the Confessor took the threat from Norway very seriously during the early years of his reign, setting out every summer with his fleet to defend his coast from invasion.

In the case of Harold Hardrada, by contrast, there is scant evidence to indicate a similarly hostile intent. Historians have made much of an obscure Norwegian raid that took place somewhere in England in 1058, led by Hardrada’s son, Magnus, because an Irish annalist described it as an attempt at conquest. In reality it can have been little more than a young man’s luckless quest for adventure and booty. It finds no mention in any of the Norse sagas, and was barely noticed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘A pirate host came from Norway’, says the D version, briefly and uniquely, as a coda to its description of Earl Ælfgar’s rebellion that year). Beyond this there is nothing in our English sources to suggest that an invasion from Norway was either anticipated or feared. Edward the Confessor, far from sailing out from Sandwich each summer, disbanded his fleet in the early 1050s and cancelled the geld which paid for it. Later in the reign, when the Godwine brothers were effectively running the kingdom, neither demonstrated any concern with Scandinavian attack. Tostig concentrated on securing peace with Scotland, and Harold on carrying war into Wales, and both felt sufficiently confident to leave England for trips to the Continent. Of course, one could argue that, by dealing with their Celtic neighbours, the Godwines were strengthening the kingdom generally, and hence improving its ability to withstand any future Viking assault, but that would seem to be a fairly roundabout way to prepare were such an assault really regarded as imminent. The reasonable conclusion is that it was not regarded as such. Prior to 1066, Harold Hardrada is mentioned only once in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – at the start of his reign, when he sent messengers to England in order to make peace.

The truth is that, from the moment of his accession onwards, the Norwegian king was entirely preoccupied with his struggle against Swein Estrithson for control of Denmark; not until 1064 did he agree to a permanent peace, and even after that he had to contend with opposition within Norway because of his oppressive rule. Both the Scandinavian and English sources, in short, point to the same conclusion, which is that the idea of invading England was not seriously entertained by Harold Hardrada until the year 1066 itself. And the reason it took root that year, most likely, was because it was planted by Tostig Godwineson.

Tostig, as we’ve already seen, had not responded well to the prospect of a life in permanent exile. We know that after his banishment from England in November 1065 he had fled to Flanders, and most likely it was from Flanders that he returned in the spring of 1066, raiding along the southern and eastern coasts before eventually retiring to Scotland. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he remained in Scotland as the guest of King Malcolm for the rest of the summer.

Precisely how and when he established contact with Harold Hardrada is therefore something of a mystery. One possibility is that he did so early in the year, ahead of his spring raid. Such was the belief of Snorri Sturluson, and it finds some support in other sources. A twelfth-century English chronicler called Geoffrey Gaimar, for example, informs us that most of Tostig’s own troops in the spring had been drawn from Flanders, but also says that some ships had joined him from Orkney, a territory then under Norwegian control. This has led some historians to see Tostig as the mastermind of an elaborate strategy in 1066. In this view, his initial raid was not a failure at all, but rather a clever diversionary tactic, a preliminary feint intended to focus English attention on the south coast, away from the larger assault he was planning to launch from the north. While this is possible, it does smack somewhat of reading events backwards, and ascribing to Tostig’s cunning a course of events that could easily have been determined by contingency. An alternative reading is that the earl simply secured some sort of tacit co-operation from Hardrada ahead of his spring attack, then, when that attack failed, turned to him again in search of more substantial support.

Whenever it was that the two of them agreed to collaborate, it seems very likely that in order to broker the alliance Tostig travelled to Norway to meet Hardrada in person. Partly this is because it is hard to conceive of such an alliance being struck without a personal meeting, but mainly it is because Tostig’s arrival in Norway forms such a central plank of the story as told in the Norse sagas. In Snorri’s account, and also in the accounts of his known sources, Tostig first visits Denmark to seek the help of King Swein, but his proposal is rejected. Disgruntled but undeterred, he pushes on to Norway where he meets Hardrada at Oslo Fjord (appropriately, since the city of Oslo was Hardrada’s own foundation). The Norwegian king is at first aloof and suspicious, telling Tostig that his subjects will not be keen to participate. Tostig, however, proceeds to talk Hardrada around, reminding the king of his putative claim, and plying him with compliments (‘Everyone knows that there has never been a warrior in Scandinavia to compare with you’). He also stresses that the conquest of England will be easy on account of his own involvement, telling the king: ‘I can ensure that the majority of the magnates there will be your friends.’ Of course, we do not have to accept any of the specifics here – Snorri is dramatizing, and the speeches must be made up. Yet, for all the invented detail, one suspects that the essence of his account is true. Hardrada had built a career on opportunism and violence; the prospect of one last great adventure, of replicating the success of King Cnut, or simply of recapturing the flavour of his glory days in the Mediterranean, must have been extremely enticing. Moreover, the expectation of support from within England itself would have made the enterprise seem feasible. The Scandinavian tradition that Tostig’s visit to Norway set Hardrada’s invasion in motion is, in short, very hard to dismiss. Nor is it unsupported by earlier sources: Orderic Vitalis, writing in the early twelfth century, says much the same thing, explaining that the earl’s proposal greatly pleased the covetous Norwegian king. ‘At once he ordered an army to be gathered together, weapons of war prepared, and the royal fleet fitted out.’

If Tostig went to Norway from Scotland, he was clearly back in Scotland by the end of the summer: when Hardrada set sail towards the end of August, his English ally was not with him. The king was accompanied, however, by several members of his own family, including his queen, Elizabeth, two of his daughters and one of his younger sons. His eldest son, Magnus, he left behind in Norway to act as regent, having first taken the precaution of naming him as his heir in the event of his non-return. As to the size of his fleet, we have a predictable variety of estimates. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests it contained 300 ships, while John of Worcester later increased the figure to 500. Snorri, from whom we might expect even greater exaggeration, says that Hardrada assembled a great host, reported to have contained more than 200 ships, plus smaller craft for carrying supplies: a useful reminder that even a fleet of this size constituted an enormous deployment, and a caution against believing the far larger numbers offered by other chroniclers for fleets in this period. If each of the Norwegian king’s 200 ships carried a modest average of forty passengers apiece, this would still have given him an army of 8,000 men.

Snorri says quite credibly that Hardrada sailed first to Shetland and then to Orkney, where he was joined by the local earls and where he left behind his wife and daughters. From the Northern Isles he proceeded down the east coasts of Scotland and Northumbria until he reached the River Tyne, where (according to the most detailed English sources) he met up again with Tostig. Whether the earl had managed to add to the meagre flotilla of twelve ships that had limped to Scotland with him at the start of the summer is unknown; but even if King Malcolm had increased the naval resources of his sometime sworn brother, it would have been apparent to all that Tostig was very much the junior partner. Hardrada had come in great force to conquer England and make himself its new ruler. On his arrival, says the Chronicle, the earl swore allegiance to him as his new sovereign. Together they then set out on the last leg of the voyage, sailing and raiding along England’s north-eastern coast (Snorri, for what it’s worth, describes significant encounters at Scarborough and Holderness), before eventually turning up in the estuary of the Humber, and then making their way up the River Ouse. Eventually they landed at Riccall, a settlement on the Ouse’s north bank, some ten miles south of their principal target: the city of York.

Although they cannot have planned it with any great precision, the invaders had apparently timed their arrival to perfection. We have no certain dates for their progress around the Northumbrian coast, but the testimony of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests it occurred in the first week of September. Any earlier and news of their coming would have reached southern England before 8 September – the day on which, according to the Chronicle, Harold Godwineson dismissed the great army and fleet he had held in readiness since the start of the summer. At the same time, the Norwegian invasion can hardly have begun any later in September, because the Chronicle also says that Harold received the terrible news as soon as he reached London, presumably just a few days after he had left the Isle of Wight. The inescapable conclusion – and how utterly galling it must have been for the English king – is that he must have disbanded his army at more or less exactly the moment that the invaders had disembarked.

This dramatic turn of events, more than anything else, shows how totally unexpected an attack from the north had been. Harold had spent the whole summer preparing for an assault from Normandy; all his resources were directed southwards. This alone suggests that the notion, advanced in many modern history books, that a Scandinavian invasion of England had been long anticipated is simply an assumption, without any evidence to recommend it. All the evidence, both direct and circumstantial, actually points in the opposite direction, and indicates that the invaders had kept their intentions well concealed. Orderic Vitalis, for example, claims that nothing had been known in Normandy about Hardrada’s preparations, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that the Norwegian fleet had arrived in England ‘unwaran’ – unexpectedly.

It was obviously imperative that Harold speedily reassemble his forces. The fleet which he had sent back to London was apparently still intact, although according to the Chronicle many ships had been lost as they had made their way around the south coast, presumably due to bad weather in the Channel. The king would also still have had with him his housecarls, ready as ever to form the nucleus of any new army. But he had no time to wait while such an army regrouped in London. Harold can have paused in the city for only a few days before setting out for Yorkshire and, as he did so, messengers must have ridden in all directions, recalling the thegns who had been dismissed only days beforehand. The English king, says the Chronicle, ‘marched northwards day and night, as quickly as he could assemble his levies’.

What had been happening in Yorkshire during the second week of September is altogether unclear. Hardrada and Tostig had made their camp at Riccall, and must have sent their troops out into the surrounding countryside to plunder it for provisions; as yet, however, there had apparently been no assault on York. All we know for certain is that during this period the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Eadwine and Morcar, began raising an army of their own with which to confront the invaders, and that by the third week of September they obviously felt sufficiently confident in their numbers to risk an engagement. On 20 September the two sides met just to the south of York, on the east side of the Ouse, at a place called Fulford.

Sadly, despite modern attempts to reconstruct this battle, the truth is that we can say next to nothing about it. Even its location was not recorded until the twelfth century, and Snorri’s account is so demonstrably inaccurate as to be virtually worthless. He does provide the colourful detail that Hardrada advanced behind his famous banner, ‘Land-waster’, which earlier in the saga is said to have had the magical property of guaranteeing victory to its bearer. It evidently worked its magic that day at Fulford, for the only certain fact about the battle is that Eadwine and Morcar were defeated. The C version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled at a Mercian monastery, tried its best to preserve the honour of its patrons, reporting that they inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders, but could not disguise the final outcome. ‘A great number of the English were slain or drowned or driven in flight,’ it lamented, ‘and the Norwegians had possession of the place of slaughter.’ Eadwine and Morcar themselves must have been among the fugitives, for (despite Snorri’s assertions to the contrary) both brothers survived the battle.

In the wake of their victory, the Norwegians entered York. We might imagine that the city would have been put to the sack, but this was clearly not the case. ‘After the battle,’ says the C Chronicle, ‘King Harold of Norway and Earl Tostig went into York with as large a force as suited them, and they were given hostages from the city as well as provisions.’ This sounds very much as if the citizens of York had surrendered without a fight and obtained good terms. John of Worcester, when he later rewrote this section of the Chronicle, actually stated that there was an exchange of hostages between the two sides, with 150 townspeople being swapped for an identical number of Norwegians. Here indeed was the friendly collaboration that Hardrada had been led to expect. Tostig may have been the target of Northumbrian hostility the previous year, but he could evidently call upon the support of at least some sections of society in Yorkshire – especially now he had a victorious Viking army at his back. The Anglo-Danish aristocracy of York had always worn its loyalty to the south lightly; faced with the choice between a new Scandinavian ruler or a recently crowned earl of Wessex, they readily chose the former. According to the Chronicle, discussions were held between the citizens and Hardrada with a view to concluding a lasting peace, ‘provided that they all marched south with him to conquer the country’.

Having been favourably received in York and won the support of its citizens, the Norwegians withdrew to their ships at Riccall. Before they set out to conquer the south, however, it had been agreed that there would be another meeting, at which hostages from the rest of Yorkshire would be handed over. For reasons that remain obscure, the location selected for this meeting was neither Riccall nor York, but a small settlement eight miles to the east of the city, a crossing of the River Derwent known as Stamford Bridge. Hardrada and Tostig were waiting there on 25 September in expectation of a final round of submissions before they advanced to subdue the rest of the kingdom.

What they encountered in the event was Harold Godwineson at the head of a new royal army. The English king had advanced northwards and reassembled his host far more quickly than his opponents had anticipated. After leaving London around the middle of the month, he had arrived in the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster on 24 September, having covered the intervening 200 miles in little more than a week. According to the Chronicle, he had expected to find Tostig and Hardrada holding York against him and had drawn up his forces against an attack from that direction. But the following morning he discovered that his brother and the Norwegian king had left for their appointment at Stamford Bridge, evidently quite oblivious to his approach. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Harold marched his men straight through York and out towards the crossing on the Derwent, a distance of some eighteen miles. The day must already have been well advanced by the time the English king fell upon his unsuspecting enemies.

The accounts of the Battle of Stamford Bridge are not much better than those for the encounter at Fulford five days before. Snorri is once again on fine (i.e. unreliable) form, giving an account of the preliminaries entirely at odds with that of the Chronicle, including an improbable interview between the two King Harolds before the onset of hostilities (notably for its oft-quoted line that Hardrada would be granted only ‘seven feet of ground’). One element of Snorri’s account which does merit attention, however, is his claim that the Norwegians had gone to Stamford Bridge wearing their helmets and carrying their weapons, but without their mail shirts because the weather was warm and sunny. Special pleading, you might think, but the story is corroborated by a contemporary chronicler called Marianus Scotus. The C version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contributes a few more details, confirming that the English king caught his enemies ‘unawares’, describing the fighting as ‘fierce’ and adding that it lasted until late in the day. It concludes with a story, added in the twelfth century and repeated by several other writers, of how the English were for some time prevented from crossing the bridge over the Derwent by a single Norwegian warrior, apparently wearing a mail shirt, until at length an inspired Englishman sneaked under the bridge and speared the Viking in the one place where such armour offers no protection. This was supposedly the turning point of the battle: Harold and his forces surged over the undefended bridge and the rest of the Norwegian army were slaughtered. Both Hardrada and Tostig were among the fallen.

It was, said the D Chronicle, ‘a very stubborn battle’. When the remaining Norwegians tried to flee back to their ships at Riccall, the English attacked them as they ran. Some drowned, says the Chronicle, some burnt to death, and others died in various different ways, so that in the end there were very few survivors. The author of the Life of King Edward, weeping for the death of Tostig, wrote of rivers of blood: the ‘Ouse with corpses choked’, and the Humber that had ‘dyed the ocean waves for miles around with Viking gore’. Only those who made it back to Riccall – the D Chronicle names Hardrada’s son, Olaf, among them – were given any quarter, their lives spared in exchange for a sworn promise never to return. Above all, the scale of the Norwegian defeat is indicated by the Chronicle’s comment that it took just twenty-four ships to take the survivors home.

After the battle, the bodies of thousands of Englishmen and Norwegians were left in the field where they had fallen; more than half a century later, Orderic Vitalis wrote that travellers could still recognize the site on account of the great mountain of dead men’s bones. But the body of Tostig Godwineson was recovered from the general carnage and carried to York for an honourable burial; William of Malmesbury, who had a fondness for such human details, reports that it was recognized on account of a wart between the shoulder blades (the implication being that all the earl’s other distinguishing features had been too badly maimed). His older brother, it is as good as certain, also returned to York in the aftermath of his victory. Apart from anything else, he would have wanted to have a serious conversation with its citizens about the alacrity they had shown in supporting his Norwegian namesake. Quite possibly, therefore, Harold Godwineson was present at Tostig’s funeral, whipped by the wind that continued to blow from the north.

Two days after the battle, however, the wind changed direction.


There was, of course, no such thing as standard spelling in the eleventh century, so to some extent the modern historian can pick and choose. I have, however, tried to be consistent in my choices and have not attempted to alter them according to nationality: there seemed little sense in having a Gunhilda in England and a Gunnhildr in Denmark. For this reason, I’ve chosen to refer to the celebrated king of Norway as Harold Hardrada rather than the more commonplace Harald, so his first name is the same as that of his English opponent, Harold Godwineson. Contemporaries, after all, considered them to have the same name: the author of the Life of King Edward, writing very soon after 1066, calls them ‘namesake kings’.

By Daylight to Augsburg

On 17 April 1942, RAF Bomber Command mounted one of the most audacious missions of the Second World War. The target was the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Bavaria, which was responsible for the production of roughly half Germany’s output of U-boat engines. The Augsburg raid, apart from being one of the most daring and heroic ever undertaken by Bomber Command, was notable for two main things: it was the longest low-level penetration made during the war, and it was the first mission flown by the command’s new Lancaster bombers in the teeth of strong enemy opposition.

The prototype Avro Lancaster had been delivered to the RAF for operational trials with No. 44 Squadron at Waddington, near Lincoln, in September 1941. On 24 December it was followed by three production Lancaster Mk Is, and the nucleus of the RAF’s first Lancaster squadron was formed. In January 1942 the new bomber also began to replace the Avro Manchesters of No. 97 Squadron at Coningsby, another Lincolnshire airfield.

Four aircraft of No. 44 Squadron carried out the Lancaster’s first operation on 3 March 1942, laying mines in the German Bight, and the first night bombing mission was flown on 10 March when two aircraft of the same squadron took part in a raid on Essen. In all, fifty-nine squadrons of Bomber Command were destined to equip with the Lancaster before the end of the war, and this excellent aircraft was to become the sharp edge of the RAF’s sword in the air offensive against Germany. Developed from the twin-engined Manchester, whose Rolls-Royce Vulture engines were disastrously unreliable, the Lancaster was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins, the splendid engines that also powered Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. It carried a crew of seven and had a defensive armament of ten 0.303-in Browning machine-guns. It had a top speed of 287 mph (460 kph) at 11,500 ft (3,500 metres) and could carry a normal bomb load of 14,000 lb (6.350 kg) – although later versions could lift the massive 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) ‘Grand Slam’ bomb, used to attack hardened targets in the last months of the war.

Because of the growing success of Hitler’s U-boats in the Atlantic, the MAN factories at Augsburg had long been high on the list of priority targets. The problem was that getting there and back involved a round trip of 1,250 miles (2,000 km) over enemy territory, and the factories covered a relatively small area. With the navigation and bombing aids available earlier, the chances of a night attack pinpointing and destroying such an objective were very remote, and a daylight precision attack, going on past experience, would be prohibitively costly.

Then the Lancaster came along, and the idea of a deep-penetration precision attack in daylight was resurrected. With its relatively high speed and strong defensive armament, it was possible that a force of Lancasters might get through to Augsburg if they went in at low level, underneath the German warning radar. Also, a Lancaster flying ‘on the deck’ could not be subjected to attacks from below, its vulnerable spot. A lot would depend, too, on the route to the target. RAF Intelligence had compiled a reasonably accurate picture of the disposition of German fighter units in western Europe, which early in 1942 were seriously overstretched. Half the total German fighter force was deployed in Russia and another quarter in the Balkans and North Africa; most of the remaining squadrons, apart from those earmarked for the defence of Germany itself, were stationed in the Pas de Calais area and Norway. The danger point was the coast of France; if the Lancasters could slip through a weak spot, perhaps in conjunction with a strong diversionary attack, then the biggest danger, in theory at least, would be behind them.

Although Bomber Command’s new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, was generally opposed to small precision raids, being a strong advocate of large-scale ‘area’ attacks on enemy cities, the situation in the North Atlantic, with its awful daily toll of Allied shipping, compelled him to authorize the Augsburg plan. If it succeeded, it might reduce the number of operational U-boats for some time to come, and at the same time silence those in high places who were clamouring for RAF Bomber Command to divert more of its resources to hunting them.

The operation was to be carried out by six crews from No. 44 Squadron at Waddington and six from No. 97, now at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, the two most experienced Lancaster units. A seventh crew from each squadron would train with the others, to be held in reserve in case anything went wrong at the last minute.

For three days, starting on 14 April 1942, the two squadrons practised formation flying at low level, making 1,000 mile (1,600 km) flights around Britain and carrying out simulated attacks on targets in northern Scotland. It was exhausting work, hauling thirty tons of bomber around the sky at such an altitude and having to concentrate on not flying into a neighbouring aircraft as well as obstacles on the ground, but the crews were all very experienced, most of them going through their second tour of operations, and they achieved a high standard of accuracy in the short time available.

Speculation ran high about the nature of the target. To most of the crews, a low-level mission signified an attack on enemy warships, a long, straight run into a nightmare of flak. When they eventually filed into their briefing rooms early on 17 April, and saw the long red ribbon of their track stretching to Augsburg, a stunned silence descended on them. Almost automatically, they registered the details passed to them by the briefing officers. The six aircraft from each squadron were to fly in two sections of three, each section leaving the rendezvous point at a predetermined time. The interval between each section would be only a matter of seconds; visual contact had to be maintained so that the sections could lend support to one another in the event that they were attacked by enemy fighters.

From the departure point, Selsey Bill, the Lancasters were to cross the Channel at low level and make landfall at Dives-sur-Mer, on the French coast. Shortly before this, bombers of No. 2 group, covered by a massive fighter ‘umbrella’, were to make a series of diversionary attacks on Luftwaffe airfields in the Pas de Calais, Rouen and Cherbourg areas. The Lancasters’ track would take them across enemy territory via Ludwigshafen, where they would cross the Rhine, to the northern tip of the Ammer See, a large lake some 20 miles (30 km) west of Munich and about the same distance south of Augsburg. By keeping to this route, it was hoped that the enemy would think that Munich was the target. Only when they reached the Ammer See would the bombers sweep sharply northwards for the final run to their true objective.

As they approached the target, the bombers were to spread out so that there was a 3 mile (5 km) gap between each section. Sections would bomb from low level in formation, each Lancaster dropping a salvo of four 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs. These would be fitted with eleven-second delayed-action fuzes, giving the bombers time to get clear but exploding well before the next section arrived over the target. Take-off was to be in mid-afternoon, which meant that the first Lancasters should reach the target at 20.15, just before dusk. They would therefore have the shelter of darkness by the time they reached the Channel coast danger-areas on the homeward flight. The fuel tanks of each aircraft would be filled to their maximum capacity of 2,154 gal (9,792 litres).

The Lancasters of No. 44 Squadron would form the first two sections. This unit was known as the ‘Rhodesia’ Squadron, with good reason: about a quarter of its personnel came from that country. There were also a number of South Africans, and one of them was chosen to lead the mission. He was Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton, a tall, dark 25-year-old who had already shown himself to be a highly competent commander, rock-steady in an emergency. The war against the U-boat was of special interest to him, for after leaving school in Natal he had spent two years in the Merchant Navy and consequently had a fair idea of the agonies seamen went through when their ships were torpedoed. He came from a naval background, too: his grandfather had been an admiral in the Royal Navy. John Nettleton joined the Royal Air Force in 1938, and in April 1942 he was still completing his first operational tour. It was one of the penalties of being an above-average pilot: such men were often ‘creamed off’ to teach others.

Shortly after 15.00 on 7 April, the quiet Lincolnshire village of Waddington was shaken by the roar of twenty-four Rolls-Royce Merlins as No. 44 Squadron’s six Lancasters took off and headed south for Selsey Bill, the promontory of land jutting out into the Channel between Portsmouth and Bognor Regis. Ten miles (15 km) due east, the six bombers of No. 97 Squadron, led by Squadron leader J.S. Sherwood DFC, were also taking off from Woodhall Spa.

Each section left Selsey Bill right on schedule, the sea blurring under the Lancasters as they sped on. The bombers to left and right of Nettleton were piloted by Flying Officer John Garwell and Warrant Officer G.T. Rhodes; the Lancasters in the following section were flown by Flight Lieutenant N. Sandford, Warrant Officer H.V. Crum and Warrant Officer J.E. Beckett. The sky was brilliantly clear and the hot afternoon sun beat down through the perspex of cockpits and gun turrets. Before they reached the coast, most of the crews were flying in shirt sleeves.

As they raced over the French coast the pilots had to ease back their control columns to leapfrog the cliffs, so low were the bombers. They thundered inland across the picturesque landscape of Normandy, the broad loops of the River Seine glistening in the sunshine away to the left. The bombers would pass to the south of Paris and on to Sens, on the Yonne River, their first major checkpoint. Sens lay about 180 miles (290 km) from the Channel coast – about an hour’s flying time, at the ground speed the Lancasters were making. If they survived that first hour, if the diversionary raids had drawn off the German fighters, then they would have a good chance of reaching Augsburg.

The bombers were flying over wooded, hilly country near Breteuil when the flak hit them. Lines of tracer from concealed gun positions met the speeding Lancasters, and the ugly black stains of shellbursts dotted the sky around them. Shrapnel ripped into two of the aircraft, but they held their course. The most serious damage was to Warrant Officer Beckett’s machine, which had its rear gun turret put out of action.

It was sheer bad luck that drew the German fighters to the Lancasters. The Messerschmitt Bf 109s of II/Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ were returning to their base at Evreux after sweeping the area to the south of Paris in search of No. 2 Group’s diversionary bombers when they passed directly over the Lancasters’ track, actually passing between Nettleton’s and Sherwood’s formations, although at a much higher altitude. Even then, the bombers might have escaped detection had it not been for a solitary Messerschmitt 109, much lower than the rest, making an approach to land at Evreux with wheels and flaps down.

The German pilot spotted the Lancasters and immediately whipped up his flaps and landing gear, climbing hard and turning in behind Sandford’s section. He must have alerted the other fighters, because a few seconds later they came tumbling like an avalanche on the bombers.

The first 109 came streaking in, the pilot singling out Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster for his first firing pass. Bullets tore through the cockpit canopy, showering Crum and his navigator, Rhodesian Alan Dedman, with razor-sharp slivers of perspex. Dedman looked across at the pilot and saw blood streaming down his face, but when he went to help Crum just grinned and waved him away. The Lancaster’s own guns hammered, there was a fleeting glimpse of the 109’s pale-grey, oil-streaked belly as it flashed overhead, and then it was gone.

The Lancasters closed up into even tighter formation as thirty more Messerschmitts pounced on them, and a running fight developed. The Lancaster pilots held their course doggedly; at this height there was no room to take evasive action and they had to rely on the bombers’ combined firepower to keep the Germans at bay. It was the first time that Luftwaffe fighters had encountered Lancasters, and to begin with the enemy pilots showed a certain amount of caution until they got the measure of the new bomber’s defences. As soon as they realized that its defensive armament consisted of 0.303 in machine-guns, however, they began to press home their attacks skilfully, coming in from the port quarter and opening fire with their cannon at about 700 yards (640 m). At 400 yards (366 m), the limit of the .303’s effective range, they broke away and climbed to repeat the process.

The Lancasters were raked time after time as they thundered on, their vibrating fuselages a nightmare of noise as cannon shells punched into them and the gunners returned the enemy fire, their pilots drenched with sweat as they dragged the bombers over telegraph wires, steeples and rooftops. In the villages below, people fled for cover as the battle swept over their heads and shells from their own fighters spattered the walls of houses.

Warrant Officer Beckett was the first to go. A great ball of orange flame ballooned from his Lancaster as cannon shells found a fuel tank. Seconds later, the bomber was a mass of fire. Slowly, the nose went down. Spewing burning fragments, the shattered bomber hit a clump of trees and disintegrated.

Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster, its wings and fuselage ripped and torn, came under attack by three enemy fighters. Both the mid-upper and rear gunners were wounded, and now the port wing fuel tank burst into flames. The bomber wallowed on, almost out of control. Crum, half-blinded by the blood streaming from his face wounds, fought to hold the wings level and ordered Alan Dedman to jettison the bombs, which had not yet been armed. The 1,000- pounders dropped away, and a few moments later Crum managed to put the crippled aircraft down on her belly. The Lancaster tore across a wheatfield and slewed to a stop on the far side. The crew, badly shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt, broke all records in getting out of the wreck, convinced that it was about to explode in flames. But the fire in the wing went out, so Crum used an axe from the bomber’s escape kit to make holes in the fuel tanks and threw a match into the resulting pool of petrol. Within a couple of minutes the aircraft was burning fiercely; there would only be a very charred carcase left for the Luftwaffe experts to examine.

Afterwards, Crum and his crew split up into pairs and set out to walk through occupied France to Bordeaux, where they knew they could make contact with members of the French Resistance. All of them, however, were subsequently rounded up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.

Now only Flight Lieutenant Sandford was left out of the three Lancasters of the second section. A quiet music-lover who amused his colleagues because he always wore pyjamas under his flying suit for luck, he was one of the most popular officers on No. 44 Squadron. Now his luck had run out, and he was fighting desperately for his life. In a bid to escape from a swarm of Messerschmitts, he eased his great bomber down underneath some high-tensions cables. The Lancaster dug a wingtip into the ground, cartwheeled and exploded, killing all the crew.

The enemy fighters now latched on to Warrant Officer Rhodes, flying to the right of and some distance behind John Nettleton. Soon, the Lancaster was streaming fire from all four engines. Rhodes must have opened his throttles wide in a last attempt to draw clear, because his aircraft suddenly shot ahead of Nettleton’s. Then it went into a steep climb and seemed to hang on its churning propellers for a long moment before flicking sharply over and diving into the ground. There was no chance of survival for any of the crew.

The Lancaster was shot down by another warrant officer, a man named Pohl. Poor Rhodes was the thousandth victim to be claimed since September 1939 by the pilots of JG 2, and a party was held in Pohl’s honour at Evreux that night.

There were only two Lancasters left out of the 44 Squadron formation now: those flown by Nettleton and his number two, John Garwell. Both aircraft were badly shot up and their fuel tanks were holed, but the self-sealing ‘skins’ seemed to be preventing leakage on a large scale. Nevertheless, the fighters were still coming at them like angry hornets, and the life expectancy of both crews was now measured in minutes.

Then the miracle happened. Suddenly, singly or in pairs, the fighters broke off their attacks and turned away, probably running out of fuel or ammunition, or both. Whatever the reason, their abrupt withdrawal meant that Nettleton and Garwell were spared, if only for the time being. They still had more than 500 miles (800 km) to go before they reached the target. Behind them, and a little way to the south, Squadron Leader Sherwood’s 97 Squadron formation had been luckier; they never saw the German fighters, and flew on unmolested.

Flying almost wingtip to wingtip, Nettleton and Garwell swept on in their battle-scarred aircraft. There was no further enemy opposition, and the two pilots were free to concentrate on handling their bombers – a task that grew more difficult when, two hours later, they penetrated the mountainous country of southern Germany and had to fly through turbulent air currents that boiled up from the slopes. They reached the Ammer See and turned north, rising a few hundred feet to clear some hills and then dropping down once more into the valley on the other side. And there, dead ahead under a thin veil of haze, was Augsburg.

As they reached the outskirts of the town, a curtain of flak burst across the sky in their path. Shrapnel pummelled their wings and fuselages but the pilots held their course, following the line of the river to find their target. The models, photographs and drawings they had studied at the briefing had been astonishingly accurate and they had no difficulty in locating their primary objective, a T-shaped shed where the U-boat engines were manufactured.

With bomb doors open, and light flak hitting the Lancasters all the time, they thundered over the last few hundred yards. Then the bombers jumped as the 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of bombs fell from their bellies. The Lancasters were already over the northern suburbs of Augsburg when the bombs exploded, and the gunners reported seeing fountains of smoke and debris bursting high into the evening sky above the target.

Nettleton and Garwell had battled their way through appalling odds and successfully accomplished their mission, but the flak was still bursting around them and now John Garwell found himself in trouble. A flak shell turned the interior of the fuselage into a roaring inferno and Garwell knew that this, together with the severe damage the bomber had already sustained, might lead to her breaking up at any moment. There was no time to gain height so that the crew could bale out; he had to put her down as quickly as possible. Blinded by the smoke that was now pouring into the cockpit, Garwell eased the Lancaster gently down towards what he hoped was open ground. He was completely unable to see anything; all he could do was try to hold the bomber steady as she sank.

A long, agonizing minute later the Lancaster hit the ground, sending earth flying in all directions as she skidded across a field. Then she slid to a stop and Garwell, with three other members of his crew, scrambled thankfully out of the raging heat and choking, fuel-fed smoke into the fresh air. Two other crew members were trapped in the burning fuselage and a third, Sergeant R.J. Flux, had been thrown out on impact. He had wrenched open the ecape hatch just before the bomber touched down; his action had given the others a few precious extra seconds in which to get clear, but it had cost Flux his life.

Completely alone now, John Nettleton set course northwestwards for home, chasing the afterglow of the setting sun. As he did so, the leading section of No. 97 Squadron descended on Augsburg. They had to fly through a flak barrage even more intense than the storm that had greeted Nettleton and Garwell; as well as four-barrelled 20 mm Flakvierling cannon, the Germans were using 88 mm guns, their barrels depressed to the minimum and their shells doing far more damage to the buildings of Augsburg than to the racing bombers. All three Lancasters released their loads on the target and thundered on towards safety, their gunners spraying any AA position they could see. The bombers were so low that on occasions they dropped below the level of the rooftops, finding some shelter from the murderous flak.

Sherwood’s aircraft, probably hit by a large-calibre shell, began to stream white vapour from a fuel tank. A few moments later flames erupted from it and it went down out of control, a mass of fire, to explode just outside the town. Sherwood alone was thrown clear and survived. The other two pilots, Flying Officers Rodley and Hallows, returned safely with their crews.

The second section consisted of Flight Lieutenant Penman, Flying Officer Deverill and Warrant Officer Mycock. All three pilots saw Sherwood go down as they roared over Augsburg in the gathering dusk. The sky above the town was a mass of vivid light as the enemy gunners hurled every imaginable kind of flak shell into the Lancasters’ path. Mycock’s aircraft was quickly hit and set on fire but the pilot held doggedly to his course. By the time he reached the target his Lancaster was little more than a plunging sheet of flame, but Mycock held on long enough to release his bombs. Then the Lancaster exploded, its burning wreckage cascading into the streets.

Deverill’s Lancaster was also badly hit and its starboard inner engine set on fire, but the crew managed to extinguish the blaze after bombing the target and flew back to base on three engines, accompanied by Penman’s Lancaster. Both crews expected to be attacked by night fighters on the home run, but the flight was completely uneventful. It was just as well, for every gun turret on both Lancasters was jammed.

For his part in leading the Augsburg raid, John Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was promoted to the rank of wing commander, and the following year saw him flying his second tour of operations. He was killed on the night of 12/13 July 1943, his bomber falling in flames from the night sky over Turin, Italy.

Altough reconnaissance later showed that the MAN assembly shop had been damaged, the full results of the raid were not known until after the war. It appeared that five of the delayed-action bombs which the Lancaster crews had braved such dangers to place on the factory had failed to explode. The others caused severe damage to two buildings, one a forging shop and the other a machine-tool store, but the machine-tools themselves suffered only light damage. The total effect on production was negligible, especially as the MAN had five other factories building U-boat engines at the time.

The loss of seven Lancasters and forty-nine young men was too high a price to pay. Not until the closing months of 1944 would the RAF’s four-engined heavy bombers again venture over Germany in daylight, and by then the Allied fighters ruled the enemy sky.