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“


When the Confederate military and political officials abandoned Richmond after the fall of Petersburg, they set fire to warehouses on the waterfront – and the resulting Evacuation Fire destroyed much of the city’s commercial district.
Fortifications to protect the capital of the Confederacy between 1861-1865


Four years at war had made Robert Lee an old man. Even the most devoted of his intimates noted it. Colonel Armistead Long of his staff wrote:

“He had aged somewhat in appearance … but had rather gained than lost in physical vigor, from the severe life he had led. His hair had grown gray, but his face had the ruddy hue of health, and his eyes were as clear and bright as ever.… Though always abstemious in diet, he seemed able to bear any amount of fatigue.”

Lee rode the crooked crescent of his lines almost daily even now, peering over the bristling forts and ditches to the enemy. He still wore a uniform of plain gray, without the buff facings and gold lace affected by general officers, so that many men took him for a colonel. A North Carolina captain looked at him in wonder: “There is a fearless look of self-possession without a trace of arrogance.”

His troops, however, did not stand in awe of him. On a recent day when he was trotting behind the lines, men stepped into the path of gray Traveller, demanding his attention. One of them stuck out a bare foot for Lee to see.

“I’ve got no shoes, Ginral.”

Another shouted, “I’m hungry, sir. We’ve got nothing to eat.”

Lee hid his despair from the men but could not keep it from the reports to Richmond.

He called for more Negro laborers; he had only 1200 of the 5000 he needed, and many had deserted. His soldiers could not leave the trenches to work.

“There is a great suffering in the army for want of soap,” he wrote. Skin diseases were rampant, and Lee could not understand why quartermasters did not supply the plentiful commodity, lye soap.

The cavalry was dispersed for lack of forage.

For three days his commissary had “not a pound of meat.”

“You must not be surprised if calamity befalls us,” he had warned as early as February.

A single stick of firewood now fetched the price of $5 in the trenches.

Even a child could guess from Lee’s manner that hope was gone. One day the commander rode beside a mule-drawn army ambulance as escort to a little girl from Petersburg, Anne Banister, whose father had died in defense of the town. The child sat beside the driver, now and then slapping the mules with a whip. Lee halted her, but the girl persisted.

“Anne, you must not do that again,” Lee said sternly. “These animals are on half feed, as we all are, and I don’t feel entirely at ease about using them like this.”

The girl was silent for the rest of the ride, but went in tears to her mother. “I don’t believe General Lee thinks we are going to win the war.”

“Of course we can’t win,” the woman said. “We are all starving.”

Yet Lee’s good humor did not desert him. He entertained a visiting dignitary, B. H. Hill, and said quietly, “Mr. Hill, we made a great mistake in the beginning, and I fear it will be fatal.”

“What is that, General?”

“Why, we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. I have given the work all the care and thought I could, and sometimes, when I was through, my plans seemed to me to be perfect. But when I have fought the campaigns I have discovered defects.

“When it was all over, I found by reading a newspaper that these editor-generals saw all the defects plainly from the start … but they did not tell me until it was too late.”

Hill smiled uncertainly as Lee paused.

“I have done my best,” Lee said, “but I haven’t succeeded as I would like. I’m willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause by editing a newspaper.”

Lee once became so desperate as to ride up to Richmond to talk with the politicians, and afterward gave a rare display of temper to his son Custis and others of his family: “The Congress don’t seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.”

On March twenty-eighth, when the sky cleared after weeks of rain, Lee saw the enemy in motion; great columns crawled southward behind the Federal lines, and outposts reported a major movement of cavalry. Lee saw what he had long feared, a general turning movement against his flank, toward the last feeble link with the South, Southside Railroad. He was not strong enough to prevent it.

He wrote a homely note to his wife, Mary, in Richmond:

I have received your note with a bag of socks. I return the bag and receipt. The count is all right this time. I have put in the bag General Scott’s autobiography, which I thought you might like to read. The General, of course, stands out very prominently, and does not hide his light under a bushel, but he appears the bold, sagacious truthful man that he is. I enclose a note for little Agnes. I shall be very glad to see her tomorrow, but can not recommend pleasure trips now.

He did not repeat the words of warning he had written her so recently:

Should it be necessary to abandon our position to prevent being surrounded, what will you do? Will you remain, or leave the city? You must consider the question and make up your mind.

At ten o’clock on the morning of March thirtieth Lee came to the far right of his line, where he had pushed George Pickett’s three little brigades during the rainy night; for all his care in pulling the men from trenches yesterday, they had been seen by Federal lookouts. The men marched along the Southside Railroad to Sutherland’s Tavern, ten miles from Petersburg, then behind Fitz Lee’s cavalry to the very end of the gray line.

Walter Harrison, the adjutant general to Pickett, watched Lee as he talked with his commanders. The generals had few suggestions, except for Harry Heth, who was still full of fight.

“I’ll attack in my front, and let Pickett support from the flank.”

Lee shook his head, and at last sent Pickett beyond the protection of his trenches to the right, toward Dinwiddie Court House. He added to his little force two riddled brigades of infantry and six cannon under Colonel Willie Pegram. For the guns, at least, the army could afford no more spirited commander.

Lee hung about, waiting. His reward was a dispatch from Fitz Lee:

Enemy cavalry in force at Five Forks, driving in my pickets.

With the dispatch came a prisoner, a smiling young Federal captain of cavalry who seemed to have no fear of Lee. He spoke up under questioning:

“What were you doing at Five Forks?”

“We’re turning you, sir. The whole line.”

“Sheridan’s command?”


“In what force?”

“All of it, about fifteen thousand.”

A staff officer nearby gave a low whistle. Lee gave the boy a quick look of speculation.

“He does not believe him,” Walter Harrison thought.

“Is there more?” Lee asked.

“A big infantry force with Sheridan at Dinwiddie,” the captain said.

Lee hesitated a moment and then, as if he had no alternative, passed his orders: Fitz Lee would lead the cavalry to Five Forks, with Pickett’s men behind. Pickett would take command.

Before he left the spot there was the faint crackling of rifle fire from the southwest, where the cavalry had met bluecoats. Such of the great men as were left to the cavalry corps were taking the tired brigades into position: Fitzhugh Lee, Rooney Lee, Thomas Munford, Thomas Rosser.

General Lee turned back toward Petersburg, going slowly behind the entrenched line; men were twenty feet apart in the earthworks.

Near the tag end of the trenches lay a handful of elite troops, such as they were—the Sharpshooters of McGowan’s Brigade of South Carolinians. In the months of siege these men had been trained as marksmen; they were armed with Enfield rifles, and many of them were deadly accurate to a range of 900 yards.

Brevet Captain William H. Brunson, who commanded a company of them, was led by a guide to a dangerous spot: “Yanks in that skirmish line over there. Been there since Wise’s brigade pulled out. Hold this line.”

The line was three quarters of a mile long and the company was weak. Nonetheless it survived the adventure. Brunson remembered it:

“A company of Federal cavalry, mistaking us for their own men, rode up within twenty yards of where we stood. A single volley from my line unhorsed nearly the last man of them, and in a few minutes my barefooted crowd were up to their knees in cavalry boots.”

But it was the beginning of retreat, and Brunson was sent to a bridge in the rear, on Hatcher’s Run, to screen a demoralized brigade. The Sharpshooters startled a big enemy force by springing from thickets in a screaming charge and, while the bluecoats fled, trailed rearward, beyond the hospital of Pickett’s division, into an apple orchard where they would not draw fire on the wounded. They skirmished most of the day.


Mr. Lincoln had come down from Washington on the paddle wheeler River Queen to visit the army. He disembarked in the teeming new harbor at City Point, where the Appomattox flowed into the James, amid a swarm of tugs, sailing ships, barges, troopships, steamers, all crowding toward the wharves and warehouses which lined the banks as far as the President could see. Beyond, the army’s traffic simply filled the landscape. Wagons, ambulances and soldiers threaded the bluffs to the riverside and there was a din of wheels, ship’s boilers, screaming anchor chains, and boat whistles. Coffins by the thousand were carried on homeward-bound ships. When night fell, the burning lights of vessels gleamed red, blue, and yellow on the water, and sounds fell away to the occasional chuffing of a tug and the bells on men-of-war striking the hours.

The President settled on the Malvern, a captured blockade-runner now serving as flagship for Admiral David Porter, and chose a miniature stateroom in which, Porter complained, “I couldn’t swing a cat.” Lincoln slept in a space little larger than a closet.

The President placed his boots and socks outside his door the first night. Porter found holes in the socks; he had them washed and darned, and the boots shined.

Lincoln beamed at breakfast. “A miracle happened to me last night. When I went to bed I had two large holes in my socks, and this morning they are gone. That never happened to me before. It must be a mistake.”

“How did you sleep?”

“Well enough, but you can’t put a long blade in a short scabbard. I was too long for that berth.”

While Lincoln visited the army that day, carpenters swarmed on the Malvern to dismantle, enlarge and reassemble his stateroom. New bedding was installed. The changes were not mentioned to the President.

Lincoln emerged smiling the next morning.

“A greater miracle than ever happened last night,” he said. “I shrank six inches in length and about a foot sideways. I got somebody else’s big pillow and slept in a better bed than I did on the River Queen.”

The President seemed happy to be marooned from advisers and office seekers, especially those of his Cabinet who were forever quoting from German military experts to him. Porter handed him a telegram from William S. Seward, his Secretary of State:

Shall I come down and join you?

Lincoln grimaced at Porter. “No,” he said. “I don’t want him. Telegraph him that the berths are too small, and there’s not room for another passenger.”

“But I can provide for him if you wish.”

“Tell him, then, that I don’t want him. He’d talk to me all day about Vattel and Puffendorf. The war will be over in a week, and I don’t want to hear any more of that.”

The army watched with unconcealed curiosity as Lincoln stalked among the commands. On March twenty-sixth he rode with General Grant and a little escort to the headquarters of General George Meade. They passed a body of some 1500 Confederates, prisoners of the 9th Corps.

Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff thought the prisoners the most disheveled he ever saw: “They grew rougher and rougher. These looked brown and athletic, but had the most matted hair, tangled beards, and slouched hats, and the most astounding carpets, horse-sheets and transmogrified shelter-tents for blankets.”

Meade turned to Lincoln. “I have just now a dispatch from General Parke to show you.”

“Ah,” said Lincoln, pointing to the prisoners, “there is the best dispatch you can show me from General Parke.”

The officers laughed, but young Lyman stared at Lincoln in fascination.

“The President is, I think, the ugliest man I ever put my eyes on. On the other hand, he has the look of sense and wonderful shrewdness, while the heavy eyelids give him a mark almost of genius. He strikes me, too, as a very honest and kindly man; and, with all his vulgarity, I see no trace of low passions in his face. On the whole, he is such a mixture of all sorts, as only America brings forth. He is as much like a highly intellectual and benevolent satyr as anything I can think of. I never wish to see him again, but, as humanity runs, I am well content to have him at the head of affairs.”

Two days later, on the morning of March twenty-eighth, Lincoln came under the eye of an attentive reporter, Charles C. Coffin of the Boston Journal. Lincoln entered Grant’s headquarters cabin on the bluff over the James for a conference with his commander and General William T. Sherman, who had come up from North Carolina for final instructions. The President doffed his tall hat and ducked into the door, round-shouldered and loose-jointed, in comic contrast to the low, stout Grant, who puffed a cigar in silence, his face impassive under the stiff brim of a new hat. Sherman impressed Coffin more strongly than either: “Tall, commanding forehead, almost as loosely built as the President. His sandy whiskers were closely cropped. His coat was shabby with constant wear. His trousers were tucked into his military boots. His felt hat was splashed with mud.”

George Meade hung about them, tall, thin, with straggling gray beard and stooped posture. There was Sheridan, too, shorter even than Grant, and full of hurried talk and enthusiasm.

It was Lincoln who turned to the table in the cabin, where a huge map lay open.

Grant ran a thick finger down the tracing of his forty-mile entrenched line and stabbed a point at the junction of roads to the west and south.

“Five Forks,” he said. “I’ll try to take it. That would pull Lee out of the trenches to fight.”

He explained how Sheridan’s horsemen would move during the afternoon, leading the sweep against the Confederate flank. Coffin went out to stare at the country where the assault would be made, making notes of it before darkness fell.

Hatcher’s Run wandered southeastward through the eroded clay hills; three roads leading southwest from distant Petersburg crossed the stream: Vaughan Road to the east, then Squirrel Level Road, and, nearest of all, Boydton Plank Road. Within sight was the bridge of the Plank Road, held by the Confederates.

The country beyond the trenches was densely wooded, chiefly with pine, with rare clearings marking sites of old sawmills. The Plank Road led through the pines, fifteen miles from Petersburg, to Dinwiddie Court House. Some four miles away lay the road junction known as Five Forks, the key to the Confederate position.

If Grant could move the army in the swimming roads, Coffin reflected, the movement would be like that of fishermen stretching a seine. One end would be fastened to the bank of the Appomattox, and Sheridan would draw the other past Dinwiddie to Five Forks, and beyond to the railroad, perhaps, to snare Lee’s whole army.

Sheridan’s regiments moved through the gray afternoon. The Rebels were restive the next day, and firing increased. Nightfall of March twenty-ninth brought an artillery duel. Coffin described it for his eager New England readers: “I stood upon the hill in rear of the Ninth Corps, and witnessed the display. Thirty shells were in the air at the same instant. The horizon was bright with fiery arches, crossing each other at all angles, cut horizontally by streams of fire from rifled cannon. Beneath the arches thousands of muskets were flashing. It surpassed in sublimity anything I had witnessed during the war.”

The night was very dark, and there was a wind from the south, bringing more rain. Tomorrow, surely, the army would bog down once more and the offensive must be postponed. On this day Sheridan made headquarters at Dinwiddie. Grant moved to follow him.

Mr. Lincoln came ashore from the Malvern, rowed through the harbor by sailors in a drizzling rain. Before eight-thirty he was at Grant’s headquarters to say good-bye. The field commander was in a joking mood, telling the President of the ingenious suggestions for winning the war which were poured upon him daily.

“The latest one was to supply the men with bayonets exactly a foot longer than the enemy’s, and then charge. When they met, our bayonets would go through them, they couldn’t reach us, and the war would be over.”

Lincoln laughed. “Well, there’s a good deal of terror in cold steel. I got a chance to test it myself once. When I was a young man, walking on a back street in Louisville one night about midnight … a very tough-looking citizen sprang out, reached back of his neck and pulled out a bowie knife that looked to me about three feet long. He flourished that thing before my face to see how close he could come to cutting off my nose without touching it. He held his knife close to my throat and said, ‘Stranger, will you lend me five dollars on that?’ I never reached in my pocket and got out money so fast in my life. I handed him a banknote and said, ‘There’s ten, neighbor, now put up your scythe.’”

Grant turned away to his cabin door, where he kissed his wife; she stared after them with her long, plain face pale but composed, as the officers walked toward a little military train.

In the party was General Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, who noted that Lincoln looked older, with deeper lines in his face and darker circles under his eyes. Lincoln stood at the rear as the officers climbed to the platform and raised their hats. His voice almost broke as he called to them, “Good-bye, gentlemen. God bless you all. Remember, your success is my success.”

The train moved away. It went like a fly over a corrugated washboard, Horace Porter thought, over the new tracks laid by engineers to the rough contour of the land. Within the train, headquarters quickly assembled.

Grant took a seat at the end of the car, went through his familiar routine of striking his flint and slow match, and was soon half-hidden in blue cigar smoke. Porter and several others sat near the commander, who began to talk of his plan of campaign. He halted as if his attention had been diverted.

“The President is one of the few visitors I ever had who never tried to squeeze out of me every one of my plans—though he’s the only one with a right to know them.”

Grant looked through the dirty window at snaking lines of infantry on the move.

“He will stay at City Point,” he said, “and he’ll be the most anxious man in the country to hear from us, his heart is so wrapped up in it. I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.”

Older officers exchanged glances. They had never known Grant to express such optimism at the opening of an offensive.

The train rattled through light rain to the end of the thirteen-mile track, where they followed Grant out. They mounted horses led from the baggage car, rode slowly along the Vaughan Road and in midafternoon camped in a cornfield. At night rain fell in torrents, rose from nearby swamps and made fields into shallow lakes.

Behind, along the abandoned line, were thousands of chimneys, desolate in the rain, tents stripped from them; roofless huts marked the old camp of an army corps. Columns struggled in the roads which were like porridge as the miserable troops were driven westward. The chief quartermaster complained to Colonel Lyman that it was the worst moving day of his memory. A train of 600 wagons, though aided by 1000 engineer troops, spent fifty-six hours in moving five miles.

But, like Lyman, the men could raise their heads and look across the landscape: “One pretty sight was a deserted farmhouse quite surrounded by peach trees, loaded with blossoms. In the distance it seemed covered with pink clouds.”

Horses inched along with water up to their bellies and wagons almost disappeared in the sloughs. Men made jokes in the ranks:

“If ever anybody was to ask us if we’d ever been through Virginia we could say, ‘Yes, sir! In a number of places.’”

Soldiers shouted to passing officers on horseback:

“When the gunboats coming up?”

Phil Sheridan was in a hurry, and the cavalry suffered. There were no tents, and the mess wagons were stuck in the mud somewhere in rear of the driving columns. Sheridan himself was among the first men to ride into the country crossroad hamlet called Dinwiddie Court House, where four roads intersected, the most vital leading through Five Forks to the Confederate flank. There was little else.

Sheridan’s bright black gaze found a headquarters site:

“A half-dozen unsightly houses, a ramshackle tavern propped up on two sides with pine poles, and the weather-beaten building that gave official name to the crossroads.”

The staff had no more than peeked into the primitive tavern when a rainstorm broke upon them. There was promise of a bleak night, but soon there was laughter and the tinkling of a piano; officers found two women in the place, refugees from Savannah to Petersburg to Dinwiddie, they said, and in gay spirits despite all. They exacted promises from the cavalrymen:

“You gentlemen won’t fight right here at the Cote House? We know you won’t. Our gentlemen were on picket right about here, until you came up, and they told us they’d not allow bloodshed. Can’t we expect the same of you Northern gentlemen?”

The staff found coffee in an officer’s haversack and the women brewed a pot for the staff. There was late singing at headquarters.

Dispatch riders soon found the place, and messages came in from Grant: This was no longer intended to be a cavalry raid backed by infantry. The entire army would join the offensive. Sheridan slept contentedly in a fat Virginia feather bed, despite warnings from his staff that Confederate agents might attack him there. In the morning there was more rain.

Sheridan moved the troops into position in a downpour, covering the roads, with a wary eye toward Five Forks; the Confederates were beginning to stir.

The two women at headquarters were still thumping the tinny piano when there was a glum note from Grant. Sheridan read it with impatience:

The heavy rain of today will make it impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired. You may, therefore, leave what cavalry you deem necessary to protect the left, and send the remainder back.…

Sheridan quickly mounted the big Confederate gray pacer he called Breckinridge, captured from the enemy, and with an officer and about a dozen cavalrymen he rode to the cornfield camp of Grant near Gravelly Run. Sheridan’s party and the headquarters throng regarded each other with amusement. The little cavalry chief’s horse plunged in mud to the knees at each mincing step, and the riders were splattered almost beyond recognition. The infantry officers stood about Grant’s tents like roosting chickens, perched on boards and logs to prevent their sinking into the mire.

Sheridan bantered with Grant’s staff:

“I can drive in the Rebel cavalry with one hand, and if they give me infantry, I’ll strike Lee’s right so hard they can break the lines and march to Petersburg.” He became so excited that he ended by shouting.

“How will you get forage in this weather?” someone asked.

“I’ll get all I want. I’ll haul it out if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.”

The little horseman paced back and forth in the slush, splashing his boots to the hips.

“That’s the kind of talk we need at headquarters,” an officer said. “You go in and tell Grant that.”

“I don’t want to break in there. He’s with Rawlins, you say.”

An officer went in to Grant. “Sir, General Sheridan’s here with some mighty interesting matters. He’d like to come in and talk with you.”

Grant was engaged in a slow argument with John Aaron Rawlins, his chief of staff and closest friend; Rawlins urged that the attack be continued.

“Bring him in,” Grant told the intruding officer, and as Sheridan entered Grant was chiding the chief of staff, “Well, Rawlins, I think you’d better take command.”

Sheridan excused himself. “I’m cold and wet,” he said. “I’ll go to the fire.” He went out, and soon disappeared into the tent of General Ingalls. Within a few moments, Grant sought him there.

“I’m afraid we can’t move,” Grant said. “If we have no roads, we’d best pull back.”

“Please let me go on,” Sheridan said. “The men are already moving, and we’re covering the roads on the flank. We may have a chance later, but you know what they’ll say if we turn back now. Burnside’s Mud March of ’sixty three all over again.”

“It’s my better judgment to go on,” Grant said, “but they all find reasons to stop. They lose wagons, they say, and wear out the men, and wet the ammunition, and say they’ll have no artillery left. I want to go ahead if it can be done.”

“We can do it without trains,” Sheridan said. “We have them just where you want ’em.” He saw that Grant needed little persuasion, and fell silent.

Grant soon rose. “We’ll go on,” he said. Sheridan recognized the determination in the quiet voice.

Late the next morning Sheridan’s exposed men were struck by Confederate cavalry, and when fighting slowed, gray infantry howled through pine woods after them. Bluecoats fell back in stubborn lines from Five Forks toward their camp at Dinwiddie, and skirmishing became heavy.

Horace Porter, riding from Grant with important dispatches, came near the firing and noted a cheering sign:

Along the road, within rifle shot of skirmishers, was one of Sheridan’s big regimental bands, mounted on fine gray horses. They blared away at “Nellie Bly” and the music carried down into the wet thickets, even over the thundering of the new repeating rifles of General George Custer’s men. Porter could no longer hear the minor shriek of the Rebel Yell.


Circus over France

Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation to Lille, 5 July 1941. The use of heavy bombers instead of the more usual Bristol Blenheims was a further attempt to encourage Luftwaffe fighters into the air.

The Mk Vb was the principal Spitfire variant in service during 1941 and 1942. This particular aircraft (serial R6923) was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Dover on 21 June 1941.

The Battle of Britain was over. Operation Sealion, Hitler’s projected invasion of England, had been postponed indefinitely. The Luftwaffe’s bombers now came at night, striking at Britain’s cities in the cold, interminable darkness of the war’s second winter.

It was time for Fighter Command to turn from defence to offence. On 20 December 1940, two Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron, flown by Flight Lieutenant G. P. Christie and Pilot Officer C. A. W. Brodie, took off from Biggin Hill and set course across the Channel under a low cloud base. Crossing the enemy coast at Dieppe, they swept down on Le Touquet airfield and shot up several installations. There was no opposition from either flak or fighters and both Spitfires returned safely to base.

During the next few days, Spitfires and Hurricanes from other squadrons, operating in twos and threes, made short dashes into enemy territory. Their pilots reported that the Luftwaffe was absent from the sky. Encouraged, Fighter Command decided to try something bigger. On 9 January 1941, in brilliant sunshine and perfect visibility, five fighter squadrons penetrated thirty miles into France. There was no sign of movement on the snow-covered airfields they flew over; not a single Messerschmitt took to the air to intercept them.

The following day, the RAF decided to stir up a hornet’s nest. That morning, six Blenheims of No. 114 Squadron, escorted by six squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires, attacked ammunition and stores dumps in the Foret de Guines. This time, the Luftwaffe took the bait, but only to a limited extent. There was some skirmishing, in the course of which one Hurricane was shot down. Two battle-damaged Spitfires crash-landed on return to base, one of the pilots being killed. It was an inauspicious end to the RAF’S first combined daylight bombing raid and fighter sweep, known as ‘Circus No. 1’.

Nevertheless, offensive sweeps were carried out whenever the weather permitted during the early weeks of 1941, and Luftwaffe opposition gradually increased. It was clear that the Germans, following the policy adopted by the RAF before the Battle of Britain, were reluctant to commit their fighter defences in strength. There was also another reason; in January 1941, several first-line Luftwaffe fighter units on the Channel coast had begun to re-equip with an improved model of the Messerschmitt, the 109F-1, but early in February three 190Fs were lost when the complete tail assembly broke away, and the remainder had to be withdrawn for structural modifications.

By March 1941, fighter sweeps over the continent were becoming organized affairs, with the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons operating in wing strength. A Fighter Command Wing consisted of three squadrons, each of twelve aircraft. There were Spitfire wings at Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Tangmere, mixed Spitfire and Hurricane wings at Duxford, Middle Wallop and Wittering, and Hurricane wings at Kenley, Northolt and North Weald.

The Biggin Hill Wing, in the spring and summer of 1941, comprised Nos. 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons, all of which had achieved impressive records during the Battle of Britain. It was led by Wing Commander Adolf Gysbert Malan, a redoubtable South African with eighteen confirmed victories to his credit, a DSO and two DFCs. Known to all and sundry as ‘Sailor’ because of his pre-war service in the Merchant Navy, he was one of the RAF’S foremost air combat tacticians, and his famous ‘Ten Rules of Air Fighting’ were displayed on crew-room walls throughout Fighter Command. Their message was brutally simple.

  1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of 1 or 2 seconds and only when your sights are definitely ‘ON’.
  2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else; brace the whole of your body; have both hands on the stick; concentrate on your ring sight.
  3. Always keep a sharp lookout. Keep your fingers out!
  4. Height gives you the initiative.
  5. Always turn and face the attack.
  6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
  7. Never fly straight and level for more than thirty seconds in the combat area.
  8. When diving to attack leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
  9. Initiative, aggression, air discipline and TEAMWORK are the words that mean something in air fighting.
  10. Go in quickly — punch hard — Get out!

Sailor Malan was not a talkative man. His business was killing the enemy, and the basic skills of his trade were hammered home hard to those who found themselves under his wing. During the Battle of Britain, when he first rose to fame, the popular Press did its best to surround him with an aura of glamour. War reporters found him uncommunicative, and on the few occasions when he did open up his forthright manner often shocked them. Once, he was asked how he went about shooting down a German bomber. ‘I try not to, now,’ was his reply. ‘I think it’s a bad thing. If you shoot them down they don’t get back, and no one over there knows what’s happening. So I reckon the right thing to do is to let them get back. With a dead rear gunner; a dead navigator, and the pilot coughing up his lungs as he lands. If you do that, it has a better effect on their morale. Of course, if you just mean to shoot them down — well, what I generally do is knock out both engines.’

The pilots of Malan’s Biggin Hill Wing were proud to belong to what was generally recognized as an elite formation. One of them was Sergeant Jim Rosser of 72 Squadron, who flew his first sweeps in the spring of 1941 and whose experiences were typical of many young pilots.

‘We would cross the Channel in sections, line astern, climbing all the time. We always climbed into the sun, which was absolute hell; your eyes felt as though they were burning down into your head and within a few minutes you were saturated in sweat. It might have been just coincidence, but on every sweep I flew we always seemed to head for Lille, which we hated. It was our deepest penetration at that time, and there was flak all the way.

‘I will never forget my first operation. Seventy-two Squadron was flying top cover; I was “Yellow Two”, in other words the number two aircraft in Yellow Section, and quite honestly I hadn’t a clue what was going on. We flew a sort of semi-circle over France, still in sections line astern, and then came out again. I never saw a single enemy aircraft; but we must have been attacked, because when we got home three of our Spits were missing…’

No. 72 Squadron’s commanding officer was an Australian, Desmond Sheen, who had begun his operational career with the squadron before the war. In April 1940 he had been posted to No. 212 Squadron and during the next few months had flown photo-reconnaissance sorties all over Europe in specially modified Spitfires, returning to 72 Squadron just in time to take part in the Battle of Britain. He was to lead the squadron on sweeps over occupied Europe for eight months, from March to November 1941.

Sheen’s opposite number with No. 92 Squadron was Jamie Rankin, a Scot from Portobello, Edinburgh, who had originally joined the Fleet Air Arm but later transferred to the RAF. When he was appointed to command No. 92 in March 1941 it was the top-scoring unit in Fighter Command, and its score increased steadily under Rankin’s dynamic leadership. Rankin himself opened his score with No. 92 by destroying a Heinkel He 59 floatplane and damaging a Bf 109 on 11 April. This was followed by another confirmed 109 on the twenty-fourth, and in June — a month of hectic fighting over France — he shot down seven more 109s, together with one probable.

It was Jamie Rankin who provided Jim Rosser with the latter’s first Messerschmitt 109. Rosser was now commissioned, with the rank of pilot officer.

‘We didn’t always fly operationally with our own squadrons. On this occasion Jamie Rankin was leading the wing and I was flying as his number two, which was a considerable privilege. The Luftwaffe was up in strength and there was an almighty free-for-all, during which the wing got split up. I clung to Jamie’s tail like grim death, and as we were heading for the Channel he suddenly called up over the R/T and said: “There’s a Hun at two o’clock below — have a go!” I looked down ahead and to the right and there, sure enough, was a 109, flying along quite sedately a few thousand feet lower down. I dived after him, levelled out astern and opened fire. He began to smoke almost at once and fell away in a kind of sideslip. A moment later, flames streamed from him.’

A lot of young pilots got their first break that way, while flying with Rankin. And most of them felt the same as Jim Rosser: with Jamie guarding your tail, you didn’t have much to worry about except shooting down the Hun in your sights.

Leadership of this kind emerged in more than one way during that spring and summer of 1941. ‘Once,’ Jim Rosser remembers, ‘we were on our way back home after a sweep, heading for Mansion as usual to refuel, when the weather clamped down. I knew Manston well by this time, and I just managed to scrape in, together with four or five other pilots. Many of the others, however, were relatively new boys and they were in trouble. Then one of our 72 Squadron flight commanders, Ken Campbell, came up over the radio and told everybody to get into a circle and stay put above the murk. One by one he guided them down, wingtip to wingtip, until they were safely on the ground. When he eventually landed, I don’t think he had enough fuel left to taxi in. More than one pilot owed his life to Ken that day.’

By May 1941, fifty-six squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers were regularly taking part in offensive sweeps over occupied Europe. Of these, twenty-nine still flew Hurricanes, but the earlier Mk. Is had now been almost completely replaced by improved Mk. IIAs and IIBs. Before the end of the year, however, the Hurricanes were to assume the role of fighter-bomber, the actual sweeps being undertaken exclusively by Spitfires. In June, the Spitfire II began to give way to the Mk. V, which was to become the most numerous of all Spitfire variants. The majority were armed with two 20mm cannon and four machine guns, affording a greater chance of success against armour plating. The Mk. V was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 engine, developing 1,415 hp at 19,000 feet against the 1,150 hp of the Merlin XII fitted in the Mk. II. Nevertheless, the Spitfire V was essentially a compromise aircraft, rushed into service to meet an urgent Air Staff requirement for a fighter with a performance superior to the latest model of Messerschmitt. The service debut of the Spitfire V came just in time, for in May 1941 the Luftwaffe fighter units on the Channel coast had begun to receive the Messerschmitt 109F, its technical problems now resolved. On 11 May, a group of bomb-carrying 109Fs attacked Lympne and Hawkinge, and one of them was shot down by a Spitfire of No. 91 Squadron.

The Spitfire V, however, failed to provide the overall superiority Fighter Command needed so badly. At high altitude, where many air combats took place, it was found to be inferior to the Bf 109F on most counts, and several squadrons equipped with the Mk. V took a severe mauling during that summer.

Several notable RAF pilots flew their last sorties in a Spitfire V. One of them was the near-legendary Douglas Bader, who flew with artificial legs as a result of a pre-war flying accident. In 1941 Bader commanded the Tangmere Wing, which comprised Nos. 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons, all flying Spitfires, and by the end of July his personal score stood at twenty-two enemy aircraft destroyed. Bader had an aversion to cannon armament, believing that it encouraged pilots to open fire at too great a range, so his personal aircraft was a Spitfire VA with an armament of eight machine-guns. The Germans always knew when the Tangmere Wing was involved in a sweep, for Bader’s callsign — ‘Dogsbody’, taken from his initials — was easily identifiable.

Bader came from Duxford to take command of the Tangmere Wing, and with him, as station commander and fighter controller, came Group Captain Woodhall, considered by many to be the finest controller produced by the RAF during the war. Together, they made a formidable team. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, who flew with the Tangmere Wing in 1941 and who later became the official top-scoring pilot in the RAF, wrote of Woodhall:

Over the radio Woodhall’s deep resonant voice seemed to fill our earphones with confidence and assurance. When we were far out over France and he spoke into his microphone it was as if the man was in the air with you, not issuing orders but giving encouragement and advice and always watching the precious minutes, and the headwind which would delay our withdrawal, and the low cloud creeping up from the west which might cover Tangmere when we returned, tired and short of petrol. Then he was always on the ground to meet us after the big shows, to compare notes with Bader and the other leaders. Always he had time for a cheerful word with the novices. And whenever a spontaneous party sprang up in the mess, after a stiff fight or someone collecting a gong or for no valid reason whatsoever, Woodhall was always in the centre of the crowd, leading the jousting with his expensive accordion, which he played with surprising skill, his monocle still held firmly in place. We were a very happy family at Tangmere in that spring and summer of 1941.

Handling the large fighter formations which were being pushed across the Channel that summer called for a high degree of skill on the part of men like Woodhall, whose vital role is all too often ignored, or rather eclipsed, in headier stories of air combat. And by July 1941 Circus operations were very large affairs indeed, with as many as eighteen squadrons of fighters covering a small force of bombers. Getting six wings of Spitfires airborne, to the rendezvous at the right time and place, and shepherding them into and out of enemy territory, was something of a nightmare for everyone concerned, and it began on the ground. Three squadrons of Spitfires — thirty-six aircraft — might make an impressive sight as they taxied round the perimeter of an airfield, but with propellers flicking over dangerously close to wingtips it was all too easy to make a mistake. A late starter would add to the problem as its pilot edged around the outside of the queue, trying to catch up with the rest of his squadron.

Making rendezvous with the bombers — usually over Manston in Kent — was another critical factor. A Spitfire’s tanks held only eighty-five gallons of petrol, and every minute spent in waiting for the Blenheims to turn up reduced a pilot’s chances of getting home safely if he found himself in trouble over France. And over enemy territory the Luftwaffe always seemed to have the advantage. No matter how high the Spitfires climbed, the 109s usually managed to climb higher, ready to dive on the ‘tail-end Charlies’ of the fighter formations and pick them off. There was no dogfighting in the original sense of the word; the Messerschmitts fought on the climb and dive, avoiding turning combat with the more manoeuvrable Spitfires wherever possible, and life or death were measured in no more than seconds.

One of the biggest fighter sweeps of 1941 — code-named Circus 62 — was carried out on 7 August, when eighteen squadrons of Spitfires and two of Hurricanes accompanied six Blenheim bombers in an attack on a power station at Lille (always Lille!). The whole force made rendezvous over Manston, with the North Weald Wing, comprising the Hurricanes of No. 71 (American Eagle) Squadron and the Spitfires of Nos. Ill and 222 Squadrons providing close escort for the bombers. Behind and above, as immediate top cover, came the three Spitfire squadrons of the Kenley Wing: Nos. 452 (Australia), 485 (New Zealand), and 602. High above this ‘beehive’ of nearly eighty fighters and bombers came the target support wings, flying at 27,000 feet. There was the Biggin Hill Wing, with Nos. 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons; the Hornchurch Wing, with Nos. 403 (Canadian), 603 and 611 Squadrons; and Douglas Bader’s Tangmere Wing, with Nos. 41 (the latter having replaced No. 145), 610 and 616. The target support force’s task was to assure air superiority over and around Lille while the attack was in progress.

On this occasion, however, the Luftwaffe stubbornly refused to be drawn into battle in large numbers. Six weeks earlier, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union, and many fighter groups had been transferred from the Channel area to the eastern front. Those that remained, seriously outnumbered in the face of Fighter Command’s growing strength, had been ordered to conserve their resources. The 109s stayed well above the Spitfire formations, shadowing them. From time to time, small numbers of Messerschmitts broke away and darted down to fire on the odd straggler, always disengaging when the rest of the Spitfires turned on them. Nevertheless, the 109s succeeded in shooting down one of 41 Squadron’s commanders.

The bombers, meanwhile, had found Lille obscured by cloud, so had turned back towards the Channel to attack a concentration of barges at Gravelines. A fierce air battle was already in progress over the coast, where two Polish squadrons of the Northolt Wing — Nos. 306 and 308 — had been waiting to cover the Blenheims during the first phase of their withdrawal. No. 308 Squadron was suddenly ‘bounced’ by about eighteen Messerschmitts, and in the ensuing mêlée two Spitfires were shot down. The Blenheims made their escape unmolested, but the rear support wing, comprising Nos. 19, 257 and 401 Squadrons, was also attacked and lost two Spitfires and a Hurricane. The RAF had therefore lost six aircraft; a result which, set against a claim of three 109s destroyed, could hardly be considered favourable, considering the far smaller numbers of enemy aircraft involved.

Another large operation — Circus 63 — was mounted two days later, on Saturday 9 August. This time, the Blenheims’ objective was a supply dump in the Bethune area. Once again, Bader’s Tangmere Wing formed part of the target support force, but things went wrong right from the start when No. 41 Squadron failed to rendezvous on time. The remainder, unable to wait, carried on across the Channel. For a while, all was peaceful; then, just a few miles short of the target, the 109s hit them hard. For the next few minutes, Bader’s pilots were hard put to it to hold their own, the wing becoming badly dislocated as the Messer-schmitts pressed home a series of determined attacks. Bader misjudged an attack on a 109 and suddenly found himself isolated. Six enemy fighters closed in on him and, by superb flying, he destroyed two. The end came soon afterwards, when a third 109 collided with him and severed his Spitfire’s fuselage just behind the cockpit. Bader managed to struggle clear of the plunging debris, leaving one of his artificial legs still trapped in the cockpit. His parachute opened, and he floated down to a painful landing and captivity.

On 12 August, three days after Bader was shot down, the medium bombers of the RAF’S NO. 2 Group made their deepest daylight penetration into enemy territory so far when 54 Blenheims bombed two power stations near Cologne. They were escorted by Westland Whirlwind fighters of No. 263 Squadron, the only fighter aircraft with sufficient range to carry out this task. The Whirlwind was highly manoeuvrable, faster than a Spitfire at low altitude, and its armament of four closely-grouped 20mm nose cannon made it a match for any Luftwaffe fighter of the day. As it was, the Whirlwind experienced a spate of troubles with its twin Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines, and only two squadrons were equipped with the type. Eventually, it was used in the fighter-bomber role with considerable success.

As August gave way to September, some senior Air Staff members began to have serious doubts about the value of Circus operations. Fighter Command losses were climbing steadily, and the results achieved hardly seemed to compensate for them. The only real justification for continuing the sweeps, apparently, was to ensure that Fighter Command remained in a state of combat readiness.

The morale of Fighter Command, however, was soon to take a serious blow. On 21 September 1941, Polish pilots of No. 315 Squadron, on their way home after Circus 101, reported being attacked by ‘an unknown enemy aircraft with a radial engine’. A few days later, Jim Rosser of 72 Squadron was on a sweep over Boulogne, flying No. 2 to Ken Campbell, when he too sighted one of the mysterious radial-engined machines and went down after it, opening fire at extreme range. The enemy aircraft dived into the Boulogne flak barrage and Campbell called Rosser back, but not before the latter had secured some good gun-camera shots.

All sorts of wild rumours circulated in Fighter Command, the favourite among them being that the strange aircraft were Curtiss Hawks, captured by the Germans and pressed into service. Then RAF Intelligence examined all the data and came up with the answer. The Focke-Wulf 190 had arrived in France.

The first Luftwaffe unit to receive Focke-Wulf 190s on the Channel coast was Jagdgeschwader 26, followed by JG 2, and by October 1941 the RAF was encountering the type in growing numbers. Within weeks, the FW 190 had established a definite measure of air superiority for the Germans. It completely outclassed the Spitfire VB at all altitudes, and Fighter Command losses rose steadily that autumn. Not until the advent of the Spitfire IX — resulting from the marriage of a Merlin 61 engine to a Mk. V airframe — was the balance restored; but the first Mk. IXs did not enter service with No. 64 Squadron until June 1942.

As far as Circus operations were concerned, the crunch came on 8 November 1941, when the Blenheims of No. 2 Group and their escorting fighters suffered unusually heavy losses. The whole ‘show’ went wrong from the start, with poor visibility making it difficult for the bombers and fighters to rendezvous as planned. Combined with a general lack of co-ordination, this meant that the attacking forces entered enemy territory piecemeal, and the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts were waiting for them. The Intelligence Summary of No. 118 (Spitfire) Squadron gives a typical account:

It was decided in the afternoon to carry out a most ill-conceived scheme, designated Rodeo 5, in which the Middle Wallop

Wing rendezvoused with the Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron over Warm well and carried out a sweep of the Channel Islands area. The whole sortie seems to have been one long muddle. The Whirlwinds led the Spits much too far south and then returned right over the flak area. 501 Squadron were sent out to deal with a few Huns that put in an appearance when we were on the way back. 118 went back to help, but 501 were not located. The net result was at least three planes damaged by flak and enemy aircraft, and one shot down, and all we could claim was one enemy aircraft damaged…

It was the end. Winston Churchill himself decreed that there should be no more large-scale sweeps over the Continent in 1941; it was now the duty of Fighter Command to gather its strength for the following spring.

By that time, although no one yet dreamed it, Britain would no longer stand alone. On the other side of the world, events were moving to a climax that would soon make Pearl Harbor a household name, and bring the unparalleled resources of the United States into the battle.

PATTON (1970)


Patton is an American biopic/war epic directed by Franklin J. Schaffner from a script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North. The film focuses on General George S. Patton (played by George C. Scott) during his World War II service as commander of the U.S. Seventh and Third armies.


General George Smith Patton Jr. (1885–1945), commander of the U.S. Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily and the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany during World War II, was one of the most colorful and controversial figures in modern American military history. Known as “Old Blood and Guts,” Patton was a strutting, profanity-spouting, war-loving egomaniac, but also an effective military leader much feared by America’s enemies—and sometimes feared and reviled by his own men. Frank McCarthy (1912–1986), a staff officer with Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II and a Hollywood producer after the war, knew Patton and regarded his story as eminently screen-worthy. When he proposed a Patton film to his boss, Darryl F. Zanuck, at 20th Century Fox in October 1951, Zanuck gave the go-ahead, but it would be another 19 years before the project came to fruition. Patton’s widow and other members of the Patton family obstructed McCarthy, fearing that a Hollywood biopic would caricature Patton and sully his memory (Toplin, 1996, pp. 158–159). McCarthy was only able to move forward after Ladislas Farago’s biography, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph provided a source copious enough upon which to base a biopic without recourse to family sources. 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to Farago’s book and to Gen. Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story. In 1965, after rejecting several script drafts by other writers, Frank McCarthy hired an up-and-coming 26-year-old screenwriter named Francis Ford Coppola, paid him $50,000, and gave him six months to carve a coherent narrative out of Patton’s complex life and military career. Coppola wisely made two tactical decisions early on that allowed him to create a fine script. After doing his research, Coppola concluded that “Patton was obviously out of his mind” (Phillips, 2004, pp. 31–32). A script that celebrated George Patton’s bizarre war-mongering would be ridiculous but one that merely vilified him would be rejected out of hand, so Coppola split the difference by writing an ambiguous script that emphasized Patton’s dual nature—part lunatic, part super-warrior—and depicted him as an anachronistic, Quixotic figure who really belonged to a bygone era. Coppola’s other choice was an easy one: to focus exclusively on Patton’s life during the Second World War, a span of only two years and ten months (ten months of which he was sidelined), that kept the narrative tightly focused and action packed. McCarthy engaged William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) to direct the picture but Wyler didn’t like Coppola’s unconventional script, so James Webb (Cheyenne Autumn) was brought in to write a new version. To play Patton, McCarthy and the studio wanted George C. Scott, a superb actor and ironically an avowed pacifist, but Scott found Webb’s script too reductive so he bowed out. Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, and Lee Marvin all turned down the role. John Wayne badly wanted to play Patton but his utterly dissimilar appearance, laconic manner, and narrow range as an actor made him a poor choice to play the shorter, more volatile, and markedly more educated and intelligent Patton. Fortunately, George C. Scott consented to do the film when McCarthy agreed to revert back to Coppola’s script, though veteran screenwriter Edmund H. North (Twelve O’Clock High) made further revisions. Scott then proceeded to do exhaustive research on Patton, watching newsreels and reading and re-reading every Patton biography in order to master his character. In the meantime Wyler dropped out as director and was replaced by Frank Schaffner (Planet of the Apes). By early 1969, after five years of shuffling and reshuffling, Frank McCarthy finally had a script, a star, and a director.


Principal photography began outside of Segovia, Spain, on 1 February 1969. Patton was filmed at 71 locations in six countries, but most of it was shot in Spain because Francisco Franco’s Spanish Army could provide the needed WWII equipment—though the rental of troops and equipment consumed half the film’s $12 million production budget. The film’s opening, showing the aftermath of the American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, was shot at the ruins of Tabernas Castle in Almeria Province on the coast of southern Spain. The place where Patton halts Rommel’s advance towards Messina is located just below the village of Turillas, 12 miles east of Tabernas. Some 600 Almeria residents worked as extras for the scene depicting Patton’s arrival in Palermo, Sicily, which was actually filmed in Nicolás Salmerón Park in the City of Almeria. After the Battle of El Guettar, Patton meets his new aide de camp at his headquarters, which was in reality the Governor’s Palace of Almeria, and when Patton marches down a long corridor after the slapping incident, he is actually in La Granja Palace near Madrid. The winter scenes in Belgium were actually shot near Segovia. The scene depicting Patton driving up to an ancient city that is implied to be Carthage was actually shot in the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis in northwest Morocco. Patton’s speech to the troops that opens the movie was shot at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Plot Summary

Gen. George S. Patton (George C. Scott), in full military regalia, strides on to a stage at some undisclosed location in Europe during World War II. With a giant American flag behind him, he addresses an unseen group of American troops to rally them in support of the war, zeroing in on the importance of “winning” American style. The film proper begins with the humiliating American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass (19 February 1943–25 February 1943). Replacing Major General Lloyd Fredendall, Patton is put in charge of the U.S. Army’s II Corps in North Africa. Upon his arrival, he cracks down on the soldiers and enforces rules, for example, demanding that soldiers wear ties and fining a cook for not wearing his Army-issue uniform. At a meeting with RAF Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (John Barrie), Patton takes issue with Coningham for having discredited the notion that lack of air cover contributed to the American defeat. Coningham apologizes and promises Patton that he will see no more German planes. Seconds later Luftwaffe planes bomb and strafe the area, and Patton emerges from cover to fire his .45 at them. In the next scene, Patton defeats a German attack at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia (23 March–3 April 1943), but his aide-de-camp, Major Richard N. Jenson (Morgan Paull), is killed in the battle. Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman (Paul Stevens) replaces him. Patton is disappointed to learn that Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of the Afrika Korps, was on medical leave with diphtheria. Codman reassures him that “If you’ve defeated Rommel’s plan, you’ve defeated Rommel.” After victory in the North Africa campaign, Patton and Sir Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates) formulate competing plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Patton’s plan is to lead his Seventh Army to the northwest sending Montgomery to the southeast area of the island in an attempt to trap German and Italian units. Their superior officer, Gen. Alexander (Jack Gwillim), likes Patton’s plan, but Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (not portrayed on screen) opts for Montgomery’s conservative approach. As a result, Patton’s army heads southeast to cover Montgomery’s troops. All land without a hitch, but the Allied advance is sluggish, and Patton takes matters into his own hands. Going against his superiors, Patton leads his men to Palermo in the northwest, then continues on to Messina, outpacing Montgomery to their objective (17 August 1943). Patton states that his contention with Montgomery stems from Montgomery’s inability to admit his own vanity and glory-seeking ambitions. However, Patton’s methods do not go over well with the men he commands, Major Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) and Major Gen. Lucian Truscott (John Doucette). While on a visit to a field hospital (early August 1943) crowded with battle casualties, Patton sees a shaken soldier weeping (Tim Considine). Angrily labeling the soldier a coward, Patton assaults him and threatens to kill him, then concludes the interaction by insisting that the soldier return to the frontline. When Eisenhower learns of the incident, he relieves Patton of his command and orders him to offer apologies to the wronged soldier, to all occupants of the field hospital, and to his command, one unit at a time. Eisenhower also sidelines Patton during the D-Day landings (6 June 1944), placing him in command of the phantom First U.S. Army Group in southeast England as a decoy, which works; German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl (Richard Münch) posits that Patton will lead the charge through Europe. Afraid he will miss out on the rest of the war, Patton pleads with his former subordinate, Omar Bradley, for a leadership role, and he is put in charge of the Third Army. Patton excels at his post and rapidly advances through France, but his tanks are halted when they run out of fuel, which is mostly consigned to Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden (17–25 September 1944), much to Patton’s disgust. Later, during the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944–25 January 1945), Patton’s forces relieve the besieged town of Bastogne and then punch through the Siegfried Line and into Germany. In an off-the-record short speech at a war-drive event in Knutsford, England (25 April 1944), Patton said “it is the evident destiny of the British and Americans (and, of course, the Russians) to rule the world.” Media coverage omits the reference to Russia, so Patton’s remarks are viewed as an insult to the Soviet Union. After Germany capitulates (5 May 1945), Patton, through an interpreter, insults a Russian general to his face at a postwar dinner. The Russian amuses Patton by insulting him in kind, and the two officers proceed to have a drink together. Later, Patton makes the mistake of comparing the Nazi Party to American political parties. Patton’s comments lead to his second loss of command. Patton is then seen away from the war, talking his dog, Willie. In voice-over, Patton describes how a returning hero of ancient Rome was honored with a “triumph,” a victory parade in which “a slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”


Patton had an East Coast premiere in New York City on 4 February 1970 and a West Coast premiere two weeks later. During its domestic theatrical run the movie made $61.75 million ($389 million in 2017 dollars). Patton earned an additional $28.1 million in video rentals later on—a grand total of almost $90 million against an estimated production cost of $12 million (i.e., a $78 million profit, minus promotion and advertising expenses). Patton received 10 Oscar nominations and won 7 Oscars at the 43rd Academy Awards (April 1971), including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. George C. Scott won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of General Patton, but declined to accept the award on the grounds that acting should not be treated as a competitive enterprise. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with many critics citing George C. Scott’s performance as one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid.

Reel History Versus Real History

In his book, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, Robert Brent Toplin includes a chapter on Patton entitled “Patton: Deliberately Planned as a Rorschach Test” (1996, pp. 155–175). Evidently unaware of Francis Ford Coppola’s pragmatic reasons for writing an ambiguous script, Toplin argues that, given its time of release—at the height of the Vietnam War in 1970—Patton had to be carefully calibrated so as to present a balanced depiction of George S. Patton; at a time when anti-war sentiment was raging in the United States, an epic biopic about a gung-ho WWII general had to be constructed in ambiguous terms in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Hence, Patton is portrayed as a very capable military commander, pleasing Vietnam-era hawks, but also as an egomaniacal crackpot, confirming the biases of doves who abhorred war-mongering. In the end Toplin judges Patton as historically quite accurate and a “balanced” portrait. Patton is not, however, the “balanced” cinematic portrait that Toplin contends that it is. It contains contrived events and false characterizations designed to skew viewer identification toward George Patton. For example, George C. Scott’s Patton speaks in a raspy growl whereas the real Patton had a high-pitched, squeaky voice that did not exude Scott’s machismo. The movie also misrepresents the relationship between Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley. Depicted as close friends in the film they were, in reality, distant; Bradley found Patton’s personality grating and offensive. The movie also suggests that Patton and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower were distant, whereas they had been close friends for decades. Oddly, Eisenhower is barely represented in the movie. The film depicts a sustained a rivalry between Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery. In reality, the rivalry was one-sided; Montgomery was less concerned about his reputation relative to Patton than Patton was to his. All of these touches tend to humanize Patton and make him more sympathetic. Patton was an avowed anti-Semite—an unsavory aspect of his character that the movie chooses to overlook. The film portrays George Patton as a largely solitary figure, barely mentioning his wife and family and completely omitting the fact that Patton had a long-term extramarital affair with his niece, Jean Gordon. The film also omits the fact that Patton set up a disastrous secret raid on a Nazi prison camp in Hammelburg, Germany, in a failed attempt to liberate his son-in-law, John K. Waters. The film excludes this incident to protect the myth of Patton as a military genius. Another key omission concerns the infamous slapping incident. The movie depicts just one slapping incident, but in point of fact, there were two separate incidents, and Patton bragged about them to Bradley, showing a pattern of disrespect for subordinates. In his book, American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions, film historian Peter Lev notes that Patton consistently enlists viewer identification with the film’s protagonist: “General Patton is the focus of identification because he is the only character available for audience sympathy. We experience what he experiences; we share his hopes and dreams [because] we really have no alternatives for emotional investment” (Lev, 2000, p. 115). For corroboration, Lev reports the reaction of WWII veteran and war scholar Paul Fussell, who also noted the film’s tendency to manipulate viewer identification. Fussell says that he would have preferred “a more complex” view of Patton “as a dangerously out-of-control individual, instead of the eccentric but brilliant leader of myth.” Fussell adds that “there are other real moments that the film wouldn’t think of including, such as the sotto voce remark of one disgruntled junior officer to another after being forced to listen to a vainglorious Patton harangue: ‘What an a—hole!’ That would be an interesting historic moment. I know it took place,” says Fussell, “because I was the one who said it” (quoted by Lev, 2000, p. 115).

Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March

Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March, was better known as Black Agnes was a Scottish heroine who famously withstood a siege of her castle by the English – “Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate” – Her nickname was due to her dark hair and eyes. She was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March. She was also the daughter of Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray- nephew and companion-in-arms of Robert Bruce.

The centre of resistance in south-east Scotland was Dunbar, East Lothian, where its virtually impregnable castle was left in charge of Agnes Randolph, Patrick 9th Earl of Dunbar’s Countess. Because of the unrest in the south-east, Salisbury and Arundel decided that Dunbar Castle must be taken as it posed a threat to stability in the remaining English-held territory. Their strategy was also aimed at relieving pressure on castles in the vicinity still occupied by English or pro-English garrisons. While the siege of Dunbar Castle was in no sense a set-piece battle which qualifies as a Scottish ‘killing field’, it deserves a brief mention in this account because its successful defence prevented the need for a pitched battle by the Scots to regain control of the south-east of Scotland.

The siege of Dunbar began on 13 January 1338 it would last for twenty-two weeks. ‘Black’ Agnes successfully withstood every attempt made by Salisbury and Arundel to capture the castle, by both fair means or foul; Salisbury tried bribery and blackmail to no avail. (Agnes’s sole surviving brother John was brought from the Tower of London and displayed before her, Salisbury threatening to execute him if she did not surrender. Agnes simply replied that were he to do so, she would inherit the earldom of Moray!) In June 1338, Agnes was relieved by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, much to the annoyance of Edward III.

9th Army Encircled

21 APRIL 1945

The opportune arrival of Lieutenant-General A.A. Luchinsky’s 28th Army from the 2nd Byelorussian Front on the night of 20 April enabled Koniev to fill the gap between 3rd Guards Tank Army pushing on Berlin and 3rd Guards Army both besieging Cottbus and engaged with the German V Corps beyond it as far north-west as Baruth. He therefore allocated the 28th Army all his available transport with instructions to send one division, the 61st Guards Rifle Division, to the support of the 3rd Guards Tank Army, and to deploy two other rifle divisions in the woods around Baruth by the evening of 21 April. The rest of the army was to deploy between Zossen and Baruth by 23 April. This screening force was to block off 9th Army’s exit routes with strong defences against tanks and infantry to thwart any possible break-out to the west or south-west. Koniev was also very conscious of the vulnerability of his tank armies on the main communications route, the Dresden– Berlin autobahn.

Baruth, the nodal traffic point on the east–west flow of the Baruther Urstromtal (glacial valley) with its swamps and streams, was recognized as the critical exit point for a German break-out from the Spreewald.

Much as he would have liked to concentrate on Berlin, Koniev had other urgent responsibilities, as he described:

The difficulty of my position, as commander of the front, was that operations were developing simultaneously in several directions and each of these directions required attention and supervision. Fighting for Cottbus was still going on in the north, while in the centre, after the liquidation of the Spremberg area of resistance, our troops were confidently advancing towards Berlin and the Elbe. On our left flank, however, in the Dresden direction, we were still having a hard time of it, and this distracted me very much from our main attack.

Koniev was also responsible for 6th Army besieging Breslau well in his rear, but there he could urge restraint. He also sent his Chief of Staff, General Petrov, to deal with his problems on the southern flank.

By evening the leading elements of 3rd Guards Tank Army had come close to the outer sections of the Berlin Defence Area, and some of their scouts reached Königs Wusterhausen from the south, thereby effectively completing the encirclement of the German 9th Army. Although, as they were on the other side of the water complex from Colonel-General Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, the troops of the two Soviet fronts remained unaware of their proximity to each other.

Meanwhile 4th Guards Tank Army’s 5th Guards Mechanized Corps continued to be heavily engaged in the Jüterbog area. The vanguard of 10th Guards Mechanized Brigade, having bypassed the town through the woods to the north during the night, reached the northern perimeter of the Altes Lager at daybreak and was met by fire from anti-tank guns, SPGs and Panzerfaust-armed infantry, which were shortly reinforced by the arrival of a troop of tanks coming from Treuenbrietzen. The brigade commander, Colonel V.N. Buslaiev, then sent off 51st Guards Tank Regiment to secure the right flank in the Niebel– Treuenbrietzen area, while the main body engaged the Altes Lager defences. These were overrun by the end of the morning with Soviet claims of four German tanks and two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) destroyed. Some large camps were then discovered nearby containing prisoners of war and forced labourers from Russia, Poland and France.

The local Volkssturm units, which had been deployed in defence of Treuenbrietzen the previous evening, disbanded themselves on the morning of 21 April, leaving the town’s anti-tank barriers open and unguarded. The first of 51st Guards Tank Regiment’s tanks arrived at 1700 hours and by 1900 hours twelve had passed through the town heading for Wittenberg with about a company of infantry on board. The inhabitants had expected American, not Russian troops, and some had already hung American flags from their windows, but these were soon replaced with white ones when the locals realized the identity of the intruders. Some elements of the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Division, which were in the town, hastily withdrew to the western outskirts after losing an SPG and then came under Soviet artillery and mortar fire. They then mounted a counterattack, but this was repulsed with the loss of two tanks.

While this was going on, another part of Lieutenant-Colonel E.I. Grebennikov’s 51st Guards Tank Regiment took Niebel without a fight that afternoon after having bypassed Treuenbreitzen well to the east.

On 3rd Guards Tank Army’s line of advance on 21 April 1945 we have this account from Willi Klär, from Kummersdorf Gut, where the German Army’s main artillery testing ranges were located. The complex included barracks, workshops, stores, a secret atomic and chemical warfare research laboratory complex, its own railway station and sidings, as well as some military and civilian accommodation. However, apart from the military families living on site, most of the civilians employed here lived in the main village, a new settlement resulting from the increased activity arising from Hitler’s military expansion and located a kilometre away to the north-east off the Sperenberg road. (This should not be confused with the main village of Kummersdorf, which lies immediately beyond Sperenberg several kilometres north of the military installation, although ‘Kummersdorf ’ to most German soldiers meant the ranges at Kummersdorf Gut.)

Our village was spared the bombing attacks on Berlin. Only once an aerial mine landed near the railway level crossing near Schönefeld village and some incendiaries landed between the water tower, market garden, barracks and our village, but did little damage. The aircraft came from the direction of Luckenwalde, where they had dropped some bombs. A house and seven barns were set on fire in the nearby village of Horstwalde by incendiaries dropped by the same aircraft.

There were no proper air raid shelter facilities for those living in the village or near the ranges, only the cellars of their houses and some slit trenches covered with concrete slabs and sand. There was one in front of the old folks’ home. The constant air alerts were frightful and made the people exhausted, putting their nerves on edge.

On 20 April 1945 all the men and youths still remaining in the village were rounded up to stop the advance of the Red Army, which had already reached Baruth. During the night of 20/21 April the Volkssturm had to dig foxholes in the cleared ground beyond Lindestrasse, Birkenallee and Am Ring. They were supposed to stop the tanks with their rifles.

Soldiers were deployed on the ranges from the forest warden’s lodge, where the command post was located, along the main road to Schönefeld. The first enemy tanks approached the Königsgraben on the Horstwalde road early on the morning of 21 April.

An engine-less Tiger tank and a 75-mm anti-tank gun had been deployed in defence of the bridge over the Königsgraben but, after a brief exchange of fire, the crews abandoned them in face of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.

None of the modern weapons being tested on the ranges were brought into use on 21 April, or our losses would have been even greater.

The soldiers deployed on the ranges also abandoned their positions after a short exchange of fire. Most of the local inhabitants who had been deployed in the defence outside the village were captured. Some died a hero’s death and a few were able to escape, withdrawing to the Elbe, only to return home a few weeks later exhausted and half-starved.

Some of the ammunition stores were blown up as the Red Army approached on 21 April, as were the two industrial railway bridges over the main line to Sperenberg, and the industrial railway bridge over the main road to Sperenberg, in order to check the advance.

Three teenage youths, a young woman and four men over normal military age were killed during the fighting on 21 April. Most of the women and children had already fled on the evening of 20 April, or in the early hours of 21 April, to the observation bunker on the east range and remained there for a few days, returning to their homes once things had quietened down.

Orders from Hitler for 9th Army, which were received by Heinrici at 1720 hours, were to hold on to the existing defensive line from Cottbus to Fürstenberg, and from there to curve it back via Müllrose to Fürstenwalde. At the same time a strong front was to be established between Königs Wusterhausen and Cottbus, from which repeated, vigorous and coordinated attacks were to be made, in cooperation with 12th Army, on the deep flank of the Soviet forces attacking Berlin from the south.

General Busse’s Spreewald concentration now became a focus of round the clock attention for Air Chief Marshal A.A. Novikov, who devoted a large part of the resources of his 2nd, 16th and 18th Air Armies to the harassment of the 9th Army pocket, with as many as 60 to 100 aircraft in action at a time.

With 9th Army were tens of thousands of refugees from Germany’s eastern provinces who had been camping out in the woods since their arrival in the area during the winter. The Nazi Party authorities had been reluctant to initiate evacuation for fear of being accused of defeatism, with the consequence that civilians continued to remain in the combat area until the Soviet onslaught caught them out, as General Busse himself complained. However, fear of the Soviet invaders led to evacuation on a vast scale where no stable front existed, as in the preceding winter when the Soviet forces had swept across from the Vistula to the Oder. Many of the refugees seeking shelter in the Spreewald came from the part of Germany east of the Oder, including the Warthegau province, part of which had been seized from Poland in 1939 and re-settled with ethnic Germans from the Baltic states, other parts of Poland, Bessarabia and Romania. Organising themselves in community-related treks, these refugees took what they could of their worldly possessions in horse-drawn wagons, or pulled them along in the four-wheeled type of handcart then common to German households for conveying heavy loads. The refugees were mainly women, children and the elderly, all able men of military age having long since been taken into the armed forces, and all others up to the age of 60 having more recently been conscripted into the Volkssturm.

In February 1945 the Nazi Party authorities had established a system for passing these refugees on, allowing them to stay overnight in the villages on their route but having them move on by 1000 hours the next day, only those who had fallen ill being allowed to remain. Halbe itself was accommodating about 1,000 refugees per night. It seems that a large number of those who had no relatives to head for, or who had chosen not to leave their fate to the authorities, had decided to camp out in the comparative safety of the Spreewald.

With the collapse of the 9th Army front, the number of existing refugees was greatly augmented by those fleeing their homes from the Fürstenwalde–Frankfurt–Cottbus area as the troops withdrew. Although there was sufficient food for everyone, internal communications rapidly deteriorated, and troops and civilians became hopelessly mixed in their predicament as the perimeter of the pocket contracted. Ammunition and fuel were in particularly short supply and when the artillery began running out of shells on 21 April, Colonel-General Heinrici at Army Group Weichsel advised General Busse to find some means of disengaging from the Soviet forces and to forget Hitler’s orders about holding on to the Oder.

Consequently, General Busse started making preparations for a break-out as suggested by Heinrici. The redisposition of the newly acquired V Corps was part of his plan. As soon as the Frankfurt garrison could withdraw into his lines, V Corps and V SS Mountain Corps were to start a simultaneous withdrawal from their Oder/Neisse positions in two bounds, going back on either side of Friedland to the line Staupitz–Beeskow–junction of the Spree and the Oder–Spree Canal.

The imminent danger to his northern flank caused Busse to decide to use Colonel-General Helmuth Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps with the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions Nordland and Nederland to establish a screen along the line of the Spree west of Fürstenwalde, behind which those of his formations still on the Oder could withdraw westwards, but he was unable to bring himself to issue the necessary orders as this would have been in defiance of Hitler. He thus remained dependent upon the thinly spread 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division’s battlegroup deployed south of the Spree to cover his north-west flank.

Part of Lieutenant-General Werner Marcks’ scattered 21st Panzer Division arrived opportunely in the Halbe area, and was sent to establish a new line of defence along the chain of lakes between Teupitz and Königs Wusterhausen facing west. As the men drove north through the Spreewald, they caught glimpses of the Soviet forces moving parallel to them on the autobahn. Marcks only had with him what remained of the 1st, 5th and Workshop Companies of the 22nd Panzer Regiment, Major Brand’s 21st Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, the two battalions of the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 1st Company of    the 192nd Panzergrenadiers, elements of the 220th Armoured Engineer Battalion, the staff and two battalions of the 155th Armoured Artillery Regiment Tannenberger, and the 305th Army Flak Battalion. The remains of the 10th SS Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion Frundsberg, which was following these elements of 21st Panzer Division, then took up north-facing defensive positions just outside Königs

Ernst-Christian Gädtke, then serving with the 32nd SS Tank-Hunting Battalion in Riessen, near Fürstenberg, gives us some idea of the atmosphere in the ranks as 9th Army’s withdrawal began:

At 0500 hours we were alerted and ordered to prepare to move off. As we packed up the rumours started flying around. The Russians were said to be before Berlin.

At roll-call we were given no explanations as usual, only confirmation that the Russians were before Berlin and that we were to defend it. We left at 0530 hours for Fürstenwalde and Rauen.

In the damp, foggy, early spring morning, our tank-hunting company with its four assault guns rattled off to the west, complete with the supply section.

After the highly-charged garrulousness of the previous day, a grim silence now reigned. The speech had been knocked out of us, and the silence was quite profound. No one dared say what he was thinking or feared, as everyone now accepted the terrible truth that defeat was inevitable. Nevertheless, the step in thinking from foreboding to certainty was one that I did not take. I continued to do what I had been doing for so long now, as did so many others; I just suppressed what I didn’t want to accept.

So our journey to the west was somewhat despairing, grim and silent. The morning was foggy and became cloudy, remaining like that all day. The engines thundered monotonously, the tracks rattled, squeaking and screaming whenever we took a bend. We crouched down dumb and grim-faced in our hatches. The gun was overloaded and packed with infantry, who crouched under their tent-halves and clung on as usual. Everything was grey. We drove through villages and small market towns – there, too, everything was dull and grey. People stood on the streets in Müllrose, watching us pass with doubt and uncertainty. Could we have dispelled their anxieties and fears as we passed through, or were we no longer any use as defenders of the fatherland? We should have looked back at them full of confidence, but we couldn’t.

By afternoon we were in Rauen. The Russians were said to be already in Fürtstenwalde, north of the Spree.

In his diary, SS-Lieutenant Bärmann of the same unit gave some indication of the confusion arising out of the redeployment on the northern flank of 9th Army that day. He wrote that the battalion command post was first established in Bad Saarow that morning, then moved back east to Alt Golm. He conducted a reconnaissance of the road from Alt Golm to Saarow, finding the route blocked with troops of all kinds who did not know what was ahead of or behind them. He then drove west to Friedersdorf to try and locate Battlegroup Krauss (based on 32nd SS Division’s tank-hunting battalion) but it had already moved on. On his way he met SS-Captain Paul Krauss, commander of the battalion, in Niederlehme and went on with him to Wernsdorf.

Behind the lines, Märkisch Buchholz was declared a fortress and prepared for all-round defence. Of vital importance here were the three bridges leading out of the town where the River Dahme connected with the Dahme Flood Canal that helped drain the Upper Spreewald. One was on the Halbe road next to the weir on the upper stretch of the canal and two across the lower stretch leading into the Hammer Forest, one of which carried Reichstrasse 179.

Meanwhile a Waffen-SS unit occupied Halbe and expressed its intention to defend the village, come what may. The local Volkssturm unit had already prepared an anti-tank barrier on the east–west running high street, and another on the street south leading to Teurow. The inhabitants prepared for the coming fighting, realising that their village lay on the main route to the west. Many prepared dugouts in the woods around, or prepared to take to their cellars, while concealing their valuables by burying them in boxes.

12th Army to the Rescue

23 APRIL 1945

Field Marshal Keitel reached General Wenck’s headquarters in the woods east of Magdeburg with some difficulty at about 0100 hours on 23 April. Wenck’s 12th Army, whose boundary extended from the junction of the Havel and Elbe Rivers in the north to below Leipzig in the south, consisted of the following formations:

XXXIX Panzer Corps, under Lieutenant-General Karl Arndt, which had been sent into the Harz Mountains to support 11th Army and had been virtually destroyed within five days. Its remnants had only been re-assigned to 12th Army on 21 April.

XXXXI Panzer Corps, under Lieutenant-General Rudolf Holste, which was based near Rathenow, and consisted of miscellaneous units, some of which were survivors of the Rhine battles.

XX Corps, under Lieutenant-General Carl-Erik Koehler, which was currently engaged in containing the minor American bridgeheads near Zerbst and consisted of:

Theodor Körner RAD Infantry Division

Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division

Ferdinand von Schill Infantry Division

Scharnhorst Infantry Division

XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, under General Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim, which constituted the army reserve near Coswig, and consisted mainly of miscellaneous units culled from the Leipzig and Halle areas.

Keitel first briefed Wenck on the general situation as he knew it, and then gave him Hitler’s orders for 12th Army. Keitel waited for Wenck to draft out his orders, as he wanted to take a copy with him back to the Führerbunker and he also wanted to deliver the orders in person to General Koehler’s XX Corps, which was to provide the bulk of the attacking force. At dawn he reached one of Koehler’s infantry divisions, which was already preparing for the operation, and addressed the assembled officers.

The 12th Army’s specific orders read:

By extensively disregarding the Elbe defences between Magdeburg and Dessau and on the Mulde front between Dessau and Grimma, an assault group of at least three divisions is to be formed in the area west and south-west of Treuenbrietzen with the task of striking at the Russian forces attacking Potsdam and the southern outskirts of Berlin along the line Jüterbog–Brück towards Zossen and Teltow … 9th Army has orders to hold the line Cottbus–Peitz–Beeskow and, if necessary, to keep east of the line Lübbenau–Schwielochsee, in order to release forces for an attack towards Baruth from the east.

What Keitel failed to realize was that Wenck, unlike his immediate superiors, had formed a very clear appreciation of the situation and had no illusions about the future, which he saw as a simple choice between captivity in either the east or the west. There was no doubt in his own mind which was preferable and he regarded his primary task as that of holding a door open for a general exodus from what would become the Soviet Zone of Occupation.

It became obvious to me that this man [Keitel] and with him the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Hitler], whom he advised, were long since out of touch with what was happening in this war. After consulting with my staff, I decided to go my own way from then on. We had already started to do so some weeks before, when we stopped demolition squads from destroying supply depots in our area. Now, however, was the time to lead the army guided solely by what we knew ourselves. We could not free Berlin with our forces, but we could help vast numbers of people by opening a way to the west for them with a determined attack. By attacking from the Belzig area towards Potsdam, it would be possible to free the 20,000 troops encircled there. It did not seem impossible for 9th Army to get out of its pocket after such a thrust. Apart from this, the columns of refugees moving behind our front to the west would gain a few extra days time in which to reach the Elbe and escape the Russians.

Wenck was fortunate in that many supply barges from all over the country had been trapped and stranded in his sector, so that he had no shortage of supplies, including motor fuel. Although he dutifully reported all this, no attempt was made by the OKW to have this windfall distributed.

By 1100 hours Keitel was back in Krampnitz, where he conferred with Jodl and had a brief rest before they set off for the Chancellery together. At the afternoon war conference Keitel reported to the Führer on his trip and General Krebs announced that 12th Army was already on the move. Hitler asked if 9th and 12th Armies had established contact yet, but there was no information available on this point and Krebs was directed to tell 9th Army to get on with it. Before departing, Keitel again tried, without success, to persuade Hitler to leave Berlin.

This conference clearly illustrates the air of fantasy in which Hitler and his staff operated and which Keitel did nothing to dispel. He must have been fully aware that neither army was ready to act immediately and yet said nothing to this effect. In fact, Wenck did not expect to be ready until the 25th, by which time his formations would be redeployed for the attack and he hoped to have recovered some of his armour from west of the Elbe to assist him. In the meantime Wenck was acutely conscious of the threat from the south-east, where 1st Ukrainian Front was making rapid progress in his direction.

At 1300 hours the signal authorising 9th Army’s withdrawal was sent by Army Group Weichsel. General Busse purportedly used this order to implement his own intended and already initiated redeployment towards the west without openly opposing Berlin. To this end, he reported the following measures taken in fulfilment of his task that day:

  1. Withdrawal of the eastern and north-eastern fronts on the general line Burg–Butzen–Schwielochsee–Spree in one move during the night of 23/24 April.
  2. V Corps to take over command of the eastern front from the right wing (Königs Wusterhausen) to Burg inclusive. V SS Mountain Corps to take over command of the eastern front from Burg to the Kersdorf locks (2 km west of Briesen) …
  3. Released forces: 342nd Infantry Division, one reinforced battlegroup from 35th SS Police Division (deployed until now north of Guben), one battlegroup from the Frankfurt Fortress Garrison (about two regiments) already with XI SS Panzer Corps. No artillery as yet.
  4. For the intended assault group to unite with 12th Army within the sense of the new plan: 21st Panzer Division’s battlegroup, 342nd Infantry Division, elements 35th SS Police Division, one SS armoured reconnaissance group (105th SS Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion of V SS Mountain Corps under SS-Major Fucker). Earliest start 25 April.

Busse later claimed: ‘Thus my headquarters had freedom to adjust its forces itself with a view to a rapid redeployment for a break-out to the west.’ However, his subsequent behaviour indicates that he was in fact still attempting to comply with superior orders. Unlike Generals Heinrici and Wenck, he failed to see that his primary concern should have been the fate of his men and the accompanying refugees dependent upon him.

The problem here was that Busse, like many of his contemporaries, basically owed his successful military career to Hitler, to whom he was now in thrall, a situation further exacerbated by the consequences of the failure of Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg’s assassination plot of 20 July 1944, which had imposed an even greater subservience on commanders and the General Staff. A major obstacle to independent action, as previously mentioned, was the personal oath of allegience to Adolf Hitler that the obsequious commander-in-chief, General Werner von Blomberg, had imposed on the Wehrmacht immediately following the death of President von Hindenburg on 20 August 1934, which many continued to think of as binding, even when the failure and criminality of the regime had been exposed.

Busse had enlisted in the German Army as a potential officer in December 1915 and ended the First World War as a substantive second lieutenant. His war service had obviously attracted official attention, for he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Hohenzollern Order, the Kaiser’s equivalent of the British royal family’s Victorian Order. His subsequent service with the Reichswehr saw painfully slow progress with promotion to captain not achieved until 1933, but then came rapid acceleration to major in 1936, lieutenant-colonel in 1939 and full colonel in 1941, by which time he was on the General Staff. He then served as Chief of Staff to Army Groups Süd and Nordukraine on the Eastern Front, achieving the rank of major-general and then lieutenant-general in 1943, and being awarded the German Cross in Gold on 24 May 1942 and the Knight’s Cross on 30 January 1944. Busse had been given command of 122nd Infantry Division in July 1944, and then, on 1 August 1944, I Corps with Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Nord, which was trapped on the Courland peninsula and condemned to extinction by Hitler’s refusal to allow evacuation. He would therefore have been mightily relieved to have been flown out and then given command of the shattered 9th Army as a general of infantry on his own home ground around Frankfurt on 21 January 1945.

The withdrawal of Busse’s troops from their eastern and southern fronts was relatively well protected by the geographical features, particularly the dense waterways of the Lower and Upper Spreewald areas, which formed an ‘L’ from Leibsch via Lübben to Cottbus. The Soviets were unable to follow closely enough to endanger the German troops. However, V Corps’ 342nd Infantry Division, fighting an isolated action in the Burg–Cottbus area, was overrun that afternoon. Meanwhile, V Corps headquarters, which had been made responsible for 9th Army’s southern flank on 22 April, reported having established a perimeter defence along the line Löpten–Teupitz–Halbe, south of which a regiment of 35th SS Police Division held the line down to Lübben with the Engineer Training Battalion beyond.

The Soviets were able to gain the south bank of the Spree near Fürstenwalde, and also to close up to the Oder–Spree Canal. The remains of the 561st SS Tank-Hunting Battalion held fast on the autobahn east of Fürstenwalde in the Biegen, Briesen and Kersdorf areas, enabling the Frankfurt Garrison and the remains of 286th Infantry Division and SS Regiment Falke to get through. The 712th Infantry Division was still holding out at Petershagen, the 169th at Alt Madlitz, and Battlegroup Nederland at Falkenberg. Elements of the Kurmark Division prevented Soviet penetration of the woods on either side of the Scharmützelsee.

It was different on the northern flank, where conditions had become worse since the withdrawal of LVI Panzer Corps into the capital. Despite constant counterattacks being mounted, not all the planned lines could be held. In some areas the hard-pressed divisions and battlegroups had to withdraw as much as ten or fifteen kilometres before they could hold.

A soldier of the 32nd SS Motorized Artillery Regiment, which had been covering the withdrawal from just north-east of Beeskow, described the situation:

The concerned expressions, but also the good wishes of the civilian population, gave us many problems. The civilian bush telegraph was faster than our marching speed. They knew that Ivan was only a few hundred metres behind us. We were often begged to take on the protection of a place, and civilian clothing was offered us. With very heavy hearts, we marched on with our unit. Many old soldiers watched us with tears in their eyes.

That evening HQ 9th Army, which had already issued its orders for the withdrawal, received revised orders to: ‘… hold on to the largest possible area between the autobahns leading to Berlin from Frankfurt and Cottbus, and to cooperate with 12th Army’s attack from Treuenbrietzen to the north-east against the Soviets attacking Berlin from the south.’

To do this would mean holding fast on the northern flank in the first case, something which was already beyond 9th Army’s ability. General Busse, whose staff had meanwhile moved from Bad Saarow to the Scharmützelsee railway station at the southern end of the lake, later wrote:

The traverse of a distance of 60 kilometres as the crow flies to the 12th Army, right through the rear communications area of 1st Ukrainian Front’s northern wing, would only have been possible providing the thrust was so rapid that the enemy were unable to mount effective countermeasures. The troops would have had to keep moving day and night. They could only have done this if the effectiveness of the strong Russian air and tank forces could possibly be reduced. The wide expanse of woodland from Halbe via Kummersdorf to north of Luckenwalde offered the only possibility for this. This became more apparent with 12th Army’s disappointing announcement that it was not attacking to the east, but to the north, towards Beelitz, so there was no longer any question of a thrust being made to meet us. Nevertheless, the High Command still ordered that 9th Army, following a successful break-out, was immediately to wheel and attack the rear of the enemy on the southern outskirts of Berlin. This order 9th Army neither heeded nor acknowledged.

    We had to go about things in accordance with our intention to get as many troops away as possible from the Russians’ grasp. Our firm resolve was to breach the encirclement on either side of Halbe and break through to south of Beelitz using the cover of the woods.

The 21st Panzer Division was now deployed south from Karlshof, two kilometres north-west of the autobahn junction, with a series of strongpoints stretching to the west of Ragow and Mittenwalde down to Teupitz, and was heavily engaged all day. On its right, the land link to Berlin was reduced to a corridor barely four kilometres wide and already under artillery surveillance. Behind them in Königs Wusterhausen were the remains of the 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division’s battlegroup, which had been forced out of Wernsdorf and Niederlehme on the Spree–Dahme line by Chuikov’s troops. A field hospital in the town, many of whose citizens were already displaying white flags, came under repeated attack from Soviet aircraft.

During the day elements of 128th Rifle Corps of the Soviet 28th Army continued to arrive to take part in the operation but one formation, 152nd Rifle Division, was caught up near Mittenwalde in what was thought to be a break-out attempt by 9th Army. Whatever the cause, 152nd Rifle Division was still fighting in the Mittenwalde area that night and does not appear to have rejoined its parent formation for another day or two. The two other corps of 28th Army, 3rd and 20th Guards Rifle Corps, were also heading north towards Berlin, but were diverted to assist with the encirclement of 9th Army. As an additional safeguard, 25th Tank Corps was moved into the area of Duben as a mobile reserve.

The 4th Guards Tank Army continued closing in on Potsdam and closing the gap with 1st Byelorussian Front’s 47th Army encircling Berlin from the north, but made no attempt to cross the line of the Havel, which seems to have been its operational boundary. The 6th Guards Mechanized Corps split off at Beelitz, wheeling west towards Brandenburg and Paretz (near Ketzin), taking Lehnin that day.

By the end of 23 April the Soviet 13th Army had almost reached the Elbe at Wittenberg. Koniev decided to detach its 350th Rifle Division to 4th Guards Tank Army to assist with the screening of Potsdam, and to take over its reserve corps at Luckau as his front reserve and locate it at Jüterbog, where it would be more centrally placed to meet anticipated contingencies.

Further south the bulk of 5th Guards Army closed up to the Elbe around Torgau on a wide front that day, thus cutting the remains of the Third Reich in two. Koniev decided to leave only 34th Guards Rifle Corps in that area to await the arrival of the Americans on the opposite bank, and pulled back 32nd Guards Rifle and 4th Guards Tank Corps into the second echelon prior to striking a counterblow at the German forces on his southern flank. These had now penetrated some thirty kilometres towards Spremberg, separating the 52nd and 2nd Polish Armies and creating havoc in their rear areas.

Although he had just sufficient troops to cope with this emergency in the south, it is clear that Marshal Koniev’s forces were extremely finely stretched at this stage. His active northern front extended in a great loop from Cottbus in the east to Wittenberg in the west, via Berlin, Potsdam, Brandenburg and Beelitz, and he had only a very small reserve in the centre to counter the real threat posed by the German 9th and 12th Armies. It was therefore even more remarkable that he should personally concentrate, with the key members of his front staff, solely on 3rd Guards Tank Army’s penetration of Berlin and the race for the Reichstag.

That evening Lieutenant-General Gerhard Engel’s Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division set off from the River Mulde with two grenadier regiments, supporting artillery and SPGs, in convoys of vehicles confiscated from construction battalions, factories, rear area units and Nazi Party sources, acting in accordance with orders to establish as big a bridgehead as possible in the Wittenberg area and to hold on as long as possible against the advancing Soviet forces.

The LVI Panzer Corps’ headquarters had moved across the Spree and the southern branch of the Teltow Canal during the night into the suburb of Rudow. Sometime during the day, General Weidling’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Theodor von Dufving, telephoned an old friend from his cadet days, Colonel Hans Refior, now on the Berlin Defence Area staff, to ask for news. Refior was surprised when von Dufving told him that the corps was seeking to rejoin 9th Army and had no intention of defending the capital, but enabled von Dufving to re-establish contact with 9th Army Headquarters. General Weidling then spoke to the chief of staff, Colonel Hölz, who gave him orders to secure 9th Army’s northern flank.

From another source Weidling learnt that a general had been sent to Döberitz to arrest him on Hitler’s instructions, so he tried to contact Krebs for an explanation. Eventually he was summoned to report to the Führerbunker at 1800 hours, where he saw Krebs and General Burgdorf. They received him most coolly at first, but once they had heard his account they agreed to put his case to the Führer immediately. Weidling then told them that he was moving his corps south towards Königs Wusterhausen that night in support of 9th Army in accordance with General Busse’s instructions, but Krebs said that these orders would have to be cancelled as LVI Panzer Corps was needed in Berlin. Weidling saw Hitler shortly afterward and was shocked by the Führer’s appearance and obvious deterioration. When he emerged from this interview, Krebs informed him that, with immediate effect, he was to take over the defence of the city’s south-eastern and southern defence sectors with his corps. LVI Panzer Corps would not be rejoining 9th Army.

US Navy Carrier Aircraft I

During the 1950s the US Navy had introduced no fewer than five advanced swept wing fighters and by 1960 the first of the supersonic Mach 2 world record beating McDonnell F4H Phantoms were being delivered. Indeed, they had even experimented with vertical take-off fighters and a transonic seaplane jet fighter. Bearing in mind the original British lead in jet propulsion immediately after World War II, it is instructive to see how the Americans began to forge ahead so quickly.

In fact, the US Navy was inexplicably slow off the mark to apply the principle of swept wing aerodynamics and its arch rival, the USAF, initially made all the running. This is even more surprising when it is realised that the fighter that effectively gave them command of the skies in the Korean War was actually developed from a naval jet fighter. This was the famous North American F-86 Sabre, which had its origins in the FJ-1 Fury that had been ordered by the Navy in 1944. This was a straight-winged single-engined fighter characterised by its then unique nose intake and straight-through jet configuration. The USAAF ordered a land-based version under the designation XP-86 but a courageous decision was taken to delay delivery and production for a year so that the design could be recast to incorporate a 35-degree swept wing and powered flying controls. Even so, the first XP-86 flew as early as 1 October 1947 and a few months later became the first US fighter to exceed the speed of sound in a shallow dive. The initial production version became the F-86A Sabre and by the end of 1949 two USAF fighter groups were equipped with the new fighter, which proved to have excellent handling characteristics. Subsequently several thousand were built in the United States with licence production being undertaken in Canada, Italy, Australia and Japan. The Sabre can be regarded as one of the most famous aircraft ever built.

Despite its naval origins, the US Navy did not take a serious interest in the Sabre until after the outbreak of the Korean War and eventually ordered three prototypes of a naval version in March 1951. These were designated FJ-2 Fury and eventually some 200 were produced. In most respects they were standard F-86E Sabres powered by 6,000 lb thrust General Electric J47-GE-2 turbojets, which gave a maximum speed of 676 mph at sea level, an initial rate of climb of 7,250 feet/min and a combat ceiling of 41,700 feet. The only modifications for naval service were the obvious ones of an arrester hook, catapult attachment point and power folding wings, as well as a lengthened nosewheel oleo to increase the angle of attack for catapult launches. In addition the armament was changed from six 0.5 inch machine-guns to the standard US Navy fit of four 20 mm cannon. Despite these limited changes, FJ-2 Furies did not begin to reach operational units until January 1954 due to the priority accorded to Sabres for the Air Force and most were allocated to USMC squadrons. Later that year US Navy squadrons began to receive a more advanced version of the Fury under the designation FJ-3. Development of this had started in March 1952 and the main change was the installation of a much more powerful Wright J65-W-2 engine rated at 7,800 lb thrust. This necessitated an enlarged nose intake and a slightly deeper fuselage profile and production aircraft were powered by the slightly derated J65-W-4 engine. In passing it should be noted that the J65 was in fact a licence-built version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet and this was used by several other US Navy jets.

Some 538 FJ-3s were built between 1953 and August 1956 and the aircraft equipped no fewer than seventeen US Navy and four Marine squadrons. The first unit was VF-173, which received its Furies in September 1954 and was deployed aboard the USS Bennington in May 1954. An aircraft from another US Navy fighter squadron (VF-21) was the first jet to land aboard the new carrier USS Forrestal, this event occurring on 4 January 1956. In that year also missile-equipped FJ-3Ms began reaching the fleet, these being fitted to carry up to four Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The final Fury variant was the FJ-4, which first flew in October 1954 and represented a complete redesign with the objective of increasing range and endurance. The requirement to carry 50 per cent more fuel resulted in a new fuselage outline while thinner wings and tail surfaces were also fitted. To improve handling aboard carriers, a wider track undercarriage was fitted. A total of 152 FJ-4s were produced but these were used almost exclusively by Marine squadrons, replacing the earlier FJ-2. Deliveries began in February 1955. These were intended for use in the close support role and the four underwing pylons could carry either bombs or missiles. The ultimate attack version was the FJ-4B, which did not appear until the end of 1956 but this had six weapons stations and was fitted with a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), which enabled the Fury to use the toss bombing technique to deliver a tactical nuclear weapons. The FJ-4B was issued to nine US Navy and three Marine attack squadrons and when production ended in May 1958 a total of 1,112 swept wing Furies had been delivered, making it one of the most significant naval fighters of the period.

To some extent the development of a naval version of the F-86 Sabre was driven by the sudden appearance of the swept wing MiG-15 over Korea and the realisation that the US Navy’s current straight-winged jets were outclassed. The same motive also led directly to a swept wing development of the existing Grumman F9F-5 Panther. In fact, Grumman had investigated the possibility of swept wing variant when the original Panther design had been proposed but although some design work was done, the decision was made to concentrate on getting the Panther into service. There were also doubts about the suitability of swept wing aircraft for carrier operations due to the problem experienced at that time with low-speed handling. However, the appearance of the Russian-built MiG swept such concerns aside and Grumman was authorised to proceed with the construction of three swept wing Panthers in December 1950. The project was given the highest priority with the result that the prototype F9F-6 Cougar flew in September 1951 and VF-32 received the first production examples in November 1952, although by the time the aircraft was ready for operational deployment the Korean War had ended.

Compared with the Panther, the most obvious change was fitting a new wing with 35 degrees of sweepback at quarter chord, as well as a similarly swept tailplane, although the vertical tail surfaces were substantially unchanged. Inevitably the stalling and approach speeds increased but to assist low-speed handling the chord of the leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps was increased, larger flaps were fitted below the centre section, and rudder controls were boosted by the addition of a yaw damper. The forward fuselage was lengthened by 2 feet and the wing centre section, which included the air intakes, was also extended forward. The lengthened fuselage allowed internal fuel capacity to be increased to allow for the fact that wingtip tanks (as on the Panther) could not be fitted. Flight testing resulted in changes, including the adoption of an all-flying tail and the introduction of spoilers to replace conventional ailerons and improve lateral control. Finally, it was found necessary to fit conspicuous wing fences to reduce a tendency for the airflow to spread spanwise and cause difficulties with lateral control. Taken together, these changes substantially improved handling to the extent that most pilots found the Cougar easier to handle in the carrier environment than its straight-winged predecessor. It should be noted that the problems that the Grumman team experienced echoed those that had affected the British Supermarine Type 510 and Hawker P.1052, and the solutions adopted were much the same.

The Cougar was powered by a 7,000 lb thrust Pratt & Whitney J48 turbojet, which had also been installed in the later Panther variants and was actually a development of the Rolls-Royce Nene of which the British equivalent was named the Tay. However, by the early 1950s new British jet fighters were being designed around axial flow engines such as the Avon and Sapphire and the only British application of the Rolls-Royce Tay was in an experimental jet-powered version of the Viscount airliner (Type 633), which flew in March 1950 but did not enter production. On the other hand the Cougar proved extremely adaptable and ultimately a total of 1,988 were built, the last being delivered as late as February 1960. Although too late to see service in the Korean War, the Cougar rapidly replaced Panthers and Banshees in some twenty US Navy squadrons, these all receiving the F9F-6 and -7 versions. In a parallel with Panther experience, the F9F-7 was powered by an American-designed Allison J33-A-16 turbojet rated at 6,350 lb thrust. However, most of these were eventually refitted with J48s and the last fifty produced were completed with the more powerful Pratt & Whitney engine.

Once the basic F9F-6 was established in production, Grumman had time to look at improving the design and this resulted in the F9F-8, which first flew on 18 January 1954. This incorporated several changes to the wing, including a thinner profile, increased wing area, and extended and cambered leading edges. Additional fuel tankage was incorporated in the extended leading edges and the fuselage tank was enlarged, increasing total capacity from 919 to 1,063 US gallons. The wing modifications resulted in a useful increase in critical Mach number and the additional fuel increased range by almost 300 miles. However, the extra weight reduced the rate of climb and service ceiling but this was offset to some extent by much improved handling and manoeuvrability. There were several sub variants of the F9F-8, including a photo reconnaissance version (F9F-8P), which flew in February 1955, and a two-seat trainer (F9F-8T), which flew in February 1956. Finally, some Cougars were modified for the tactical nuclear strike role with the fitting of LABS as in the FJ-4B Fury and these were designated F9F-9B. Although fighter versions of the Cougar were phased out of frontline service with the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets service by 1959 in favour of more advanced types, the F9F-8P was operational until 1960. The trainer version (later redesignated TF-9J) served with five training squadrons and the last of these, VT-4, did not relinquish its Cougars until 1974. In addition, many reserve units continued to fly Cougars throughout the 1960s.

Although too late to see combat, the swept wing Grumman Cougar and North American Fury provided the backbone of the US Navy’s carrier air groups in the years following the Korean War. As already related, both were developed from straight-wing, first-generation jets under the impetus of the challenge presented by the Russian-designed MiG-15. However, by the early 1950s the US Navy had other projects underway for even more advanced aircraft, although none of these would see full-scale service until the latter half of the decade. The benefits of swept wings had become apparent when allied engineers and scientists gained access to the results of German wartime experience and research, but there were other advanced aerodynamic features that the Germans had applied and a number of US designers attempted to make use of these. Foremost amongst these was the concept of the delta wing pioneered by Dr Alexander Lippisch and when the US Navy needed a fast-climbing interceptor, this configuration appeared to offer some significant advantages. During World War II, the principle of a standing Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was established with waiting interceptor fighters being directed by radar onto incoming targets. However, the new jet fighters had limited endurance so a standing airborne CAP was difficult to organise and costly in fuel consumption. Perhaps more significantly, the performance gap between fighters and jet bombers had narrowed considerably to the extent where the bomber would be difficult to catch in a pursuit scenario. From this problem evolved the concept of a Deck Launched Interceptor (DLI), which remained on short-notice standby on the carrier’s deck. Assuming an inbound missile-armed bomber flying at 550 mph at 40,000 feet was detected by radar at a range of 100 miles, a further nine or ten minutes would elapse before it was close enough to launch its missiles. If the DLI was at five minutes’ notice, this left less than four minutes for it to launch, climb to 40,000 feet and destroy its target. This implied a minimum rate of climb of around 15,000 feet/min, as well as high speed and good manoeuvrability at that altitude.

To meet this requirement the Douglas company proposed a delta-wing fighter powered by a Westinghouse J40 axial flow turbojet, which was expected to provide 7,000 lb thrust, increasing to 11,600 lb with afterburning. A development contract was awarded in June 1947 but as design work got underway the wing planform was progressively modified. Instead of a pure delta wing, the final configuration was more akin to a tailless aircraft with low aspect ratio wings having a sharply swept leading edge and rounded wingtips. The pilot sat well forward with bifurcated leading edge intakes just behind the cockpit. A tricycle undercarriage with a long nosewheel oleo for catapult launches was fitted, and the resulting high angle of attack on the ground required a small retractable tailwheel to guard against excessive pitch up at launch. The standard armament was four 20 mm cannon – a missile armament not being contemplated at this time. With the design finalised, a contract for the construction of two prototype XF4D-1 Skyrays was awarded in December 1948, although the first of these did not fly until 23 January 1951. Even then flight testing was limited due to the fact that the intended Westinghouse J40 engines were not ready and both prototypes were initially powered by Allison J35-A-17 turbojets, which were only rated at 5,000 lb thrust so that the full performance envelope could not be demonstrated.

As will be seen, the Skyray was not the only aircraft to suffer from problems with the J40 engine, which also formed the basis of several other contemporary projects. Even when production examples of the engine became available, they proved to be very unreliable with an alarming tendency to shed turbine blades in flight. Eventually the whole engine project was cancelled in 1953. Nevertheless, the availability of early J40s allowed the Skyray to demonstrate its potential, which it did in spectacular fashion on 3 October 1953 by wresting the absolute world airspeed record from Britain (set by a Supermarine Swift on 26 September 1953 with a speed of 735.7 mph). The average speed achieved by the Skyray over a 3 km course was 752.944 mph. It is interesting to note that both records were set at very low level in very high ambient temperatures where the speed of sound would be in excess of 760 mph so that Mach numbers in the region of 0.98 were attained. In fact, neither aircraft was supersonic in level flight at that time, although they could exceed Mach 1.0 in a dive, especially in colder air at high altitude where the speed of sound reduced to around 660 mph. Despite this success, the cancellation of the J40 engine programme forced the Douglas team to find a suitable alternative and this was to be the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-2. In fact, this was a much better engine, offering 9,700 lb thrust, which could be boosted to 14,800 with afterburning, and was to prove a very reliable powerplant. The later J57-P-8 offered 10,200 lb dry thrust and 16,000 lb with afterburning. Although the physical integration of the new engine with the Skyray airframe posed few difficulties, trials with the first production aircraft (first flight 5 June 1954) revealed aerodynamic problems with the air intakes, which were eventually solved by the addition of a splitter plate between the fuselage and intake, a device applied to many subsequent supersonic aircraft. However, this added further delays to the Skyray’s service debut and it was not until mid 1956 that it finally became fully operational, five years after the first prototype and almost two years after the first re-engined production aircraft had flown (although initial carrier trials were carried out by one of the J40-powered prototypes aboard the USS Coral Sea in October 1953). Nevertheless, the US Navy now possessed a remarkable interceptor. With the J57 engine, the Skyray was now just supersonic in level flight at altitude and had an initial rate of climb in excess of 18,000 feet/ min. In May 1958 a Skyray set a series of time to height records, reaching 15,000 metres (49,212 feet) in only two minutes and thirty-six seconds! The capturing of the world airspeed record was the first time that this had been achieved by a carrier-capable aircraft and the production F4D-1 was the US Navy’s first supersonic fighter, although only just so. Outside the time scale of this book, it is interesting to note that Douglas produced an advanced version of the Skyray, which was the F5D-1 Skylancer. The prototype flew in 1956 and reached speeds of Mach 1.5 at 40,000 feet, as well as possessing a limited all-weather capability, but was not ordered into production.