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“

The History of the Russian Navy I

Top: Y.A. Apanasovich. The cruiser Sverdlov. 2008 Bottom: L.K. Akentiev. Our Arctic. Nuclear Submarine 705. 2015

Top: L.K. Akentiev. “St. Phoca” at Cape Flora. 2015 Bottom: M.P. Goncharov. Squadron battleship “Tsesarevich”. 2001

Russian Navy 1695-1900

The Russian Navy was founded by Peter the Great (1682-1725) in the Baltic to protect Russia from then powerful Sweden and on the Sea of Azov to counter the Ottoman Empire. Catherine the Great extended Russia’s control to the Black Sea by adding a fleet based at Sevastopol. Russia maintained small flotillas on the Caspian and White Seas. By the end of the eighteenth century there was also a Pacific Squadron that supported the Russian-American Company colony in Alaska. From Catherine II’s reign until the late 1820s, periods of friendly relations with Britain allowed the Baltic Fleet to deploy to the Mediterranean in a series of campaigns against the Ottomans. A Russian squadron joined an Anglo-French fleet in the victory over Mehmet Ali at Navarino in 1827. Thereafter until the 1854-56 Crimean War, the Baltic Fleet declined into the autocrat’s naval parading force. At the same time the professionalization of the Black Sea developed apace as a result of superior leadership, notably Admiral M. P. Lazarev, and continuous operations in support of Russia’s protracted war with Caucasian mountaineers. Nakhimov’s overwhelming victory against a Turkish Squadron at Sinope in late 1853, which brought Anglo-French intervention in the Crimean War, was, in fact, a continuation of the Black Sea Fleet’s mission to isolate the Caucasian theater of operations from maritime supply.

The 1856 defeat that saw the Black Sea Fleet abolished and made very clear the need for rail connections to link south Russia with the Moscow-St. Petersburg core and to avoid a Baltic blockade, also came at the crucial time when the great steam-and-steel revolution was taking place. This coincided with the scrapping of the IRN’s sailing ships and their replacement both by modern warships, such as those which visited the United States in 1863-64, and in a revival of concern with naval strategy and tactics. Though reduced in size to one thirty-sixth of the million-man army, the 28,000 men in the navy were much more technically proficient and efficient.

Between the beginning (1696) and the end (1917) of its history, the Imperial Navy had far more influence than its modest size and marginal role would suggest. Three key themes emerge. The first concerns the role of the navy in national strategy; the second the relationship between the navy and the process of technological modernization and Westernization; and the third the issue of the professionalization of the officer corps. By the mid-nineteenth century the latter involved the development of a system of advanced schooling for officers, the cultivation of a shared vision of the service through publications for the officer corps (the official and unofficial sections of Morskoi sbornik), and the unsuccessful resolution of the especially difficult question of officer advancement (chinoproizvodstvo) which turned on the conflict between promotion based on bureaucratic seniority or talent and achievement.

The navies that Peter built on the Sea of Azov and in the Baltic were fleets in being that, as in the later Soviet case until the 1950s, had deterrent value, but also served as a “second arm” supporting amphibious operations against hostile shores, a mission that the Black Sea Fleet also developed. Given the demands of maintaining a continental army, the navy had few levers to use to extract bigger budgets. After the early combined operations under Peter, the navy languished until the reign of Catherine II, when it once again dominated the Baltic and won command of the Black Sea. In this period the IRN did venture out of the Baltic and enjoyed some success in battle. Because of the nature of the final struggle with Napoleon, a continental war fought in alliance with Britain and as a result of the debt incurred in prosecuting that war, the navy once again went into decline. The exception to this being the mounting of scientific expeditions and round-the world cruises. Russian naval officers came to see such deployments as necessary for the training of professional naval officers.

The history of the navy from Petrine days to the end of its second century reflected the patterns and tensions between repressive, militaristic autocracy and thoughtful, visionary obshchestvo (educated society). The Crimean War dealt a heavy blow to that structure, challenged its institutions and stimulated the Great Reforms, which included the emancipation of the serfs as a basic move toward a more productive economy and the needs of the armed forces.

In this the admiral, General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevieh, played an important role from 1854 in protecting and training five future ministers in bureaucratic politics and administration and instilling in them the hope that virtue and talent would triumph. He also cultivated an alliance with the naval officers who had been proteges of Admiral Lazarev and brought them into the senior leadership of the navy. With no Black Sea Fleet because of the demilitarization of the Black Sea, this leadership focused its attention on the modernization of the Baltic Fleet and the development of a Pacific Squadron. The visits to the United States in 1863 of Baltic and Pacific squadrons were part of a new naval strategy that embraced such deployments as a deterrent threat to British trade.

By the time of the Great Reforms (1856-70) following the Crimean defeat, the navy was allowed to play a wider role through modernization so as to help the Russian Army preserve the country’s great-power status. From 1856, then, the Russian Navy developed in parallel with Western naval forces and created its own industrial base in alliance with private enterprise. This development rested upon the cultivation of a professional officer corps, where initiative and experience took precedence over seniority. In 1877-78 the Black Sea Fleet, which was almost non-existent-remilitarization had only become possible in 1870 and there were no yards or mills in the South to build modern ironclads-managed to neutralize a much larger Turkish Navy through the aggressive use of mines and torpedoes.

Believing that he should, unlike most Russians, consult affected parties, the grand duke turned Morskoi sbornik (Naval Digest) from a dull official bulletin into a lively journal of discussions, which helped clarify the confusions and the liberations of the Great Reforms.

These abolished the ancien regime and introduced a new world in which local organizations governed what was within their ken. This very much affected the army deprived of its privileged aristocratic officers and its serf soldiers. It also touched an increasingly technological steam and steel navy after 1860. At the same time the implications of the reform process frightened many conservatives in the Imperial family (notably the heir to the throne, the future Alexander III, the bureaucracy, and society). Konstantin Nikolaevich was for them a “red,” a dangerous figure whose ideas could lead to the undermining of the autocracy itself. After the death of Alexander II, the new tsar moved to remove the grand duke from his post as general-admiral and other state offices.

With the grand duke’s departure from leadership of the navy, leadership of the Naval Ministry passed into the hands of men who once again cultivated appearances at the expense of accomplishments and saw initiative and experience as grave dangers to institutional stability. The naval counter reforms, especially the tsenz (promotion based on positions held and time in service) created a bureaucratized force. The Naval Ministry reverted to the purchase of major combatants abroad and failed to develop a staff system to guide the navy in preparation for war. The full implications of this decline were only revealed by the destruction of the Russian squadron at Port Arthur and the defeat of Rozhestvennsky’s squadron at Tsushima (1905).

Russian Navy WWI

Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy in the early 1700s. The main fleet operated in the Baltic Sea with a squadron on the Sea of Azov which expanded later that century to become the Black Sea Fleet. During the Crimean War the sailors and guns of the Black Sea Fleet played a distinguished role in the defence of Sebastopol. However, the Baltic Fleet was reduced to passivity having proved itself incapable of breaking the Anglo-French blockade. When the empire expanded eastwards a Pacific Squadron was established with its base at Vladivostok. The remilitarization of the Black Sea at roughly the same time led to a further period of expansion but due to limited resources, the Baltic Fleet was somewhat overlooked. However, pressure from France following the 1894 treaty led to an increase in the strength of the Baltic Fleet to counter the growing naval power of Germany. As a result French companies received ship-building orders as Russian heavy industry did not have the capacity to build complete, modern warships.

The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for the Russian Navy that lost virtually all of the Pacific Squadron as well as much of the Baltic Fleet which sailed to its doom at the battle of Tsushima. With severely limited resources the navy was faced with the dilemma of, “we must know what we want” in terms of ship types and whether it should concentrate on the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic or Black seas.

1906–1914

Although there had been a Navy Minister for decades his role was that of junior partner in the War Ministry where the army was regarded as the more important service. Strategically the navy’s role was to support the army.

In 1906 a Naval General Staff was established under the new State Defence Committee but was almost immediately at loggerheads with the Navy Minister Admiral A. A. Birilov who regarded the new body as an upstart creation of little value. Both the Navy Ministry and the Naval General Staff produced plans for modernisation and reform, but neither was acceptable on the grounds of cost. Furthermore the army and the Council of State Defence objected, complaining that they exceeded the Navy’s defensive role. As the arguments and politicking dragged on the Tsar intervened. Nicholas II, in common with his cousins George V and Wilhelm II, liked ships and wished to expand Russia’s overseas influence by the possession of a strong, modern navy. However, the Third Duma (1907–12) preferred to invest the money that was available in the army. Consequently the annual naval estimates became a matter of prolonged debate.

A series of emergency grants provided for the replacement of several ships lost at Tsushima and as money from increased state revenues and French loans filled the treasury and Turkey began to expand its fleet in the Black Sea, it was decided to increase the size of the fleet both there and in the Baltic. While a considerable proportion of this money was invested in capital projects such as shipyards, dry docks and improved port facilities, a large ship building programme was also approved. With the appointment of a new Navy Minister who was more receptive to reform, Admiral I. K. Grigorovich, in 1911 the Duma began to look more favourably on the naval estimates. On 6 July 1912 the Tsar signed a £42,000,000 expansion plan. The problem was that many of the ships laid down under this programme were not scheduled for completion for some time. Furthermore they were highly dependent on foreign expertise and equipment, and the overseas contracts were not placed with Russia’s likely allies. As with heavy artillery procurement orders were made with German companies as well as those of Britain and France.

1914

At the outbreak of war two Russian cruisers, paid for and on the point of completion in German yards, were commissioned into the German navy. According to the 1914 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, four Dreadnoughts and two cruisers were also under construction for the Baltic Fleet, as were three Dreadnoughts and nine cruisers for the Black Sea Fleet. These new capital ships were to be complemented by thirty-six new destroyers and a large number of submarines and auxiliary vessels. The majority of these ships were due for completion within the next few years. By 1914 Russian naval expenditure only lagged behind that of Britain and the USA having overtaken Germany and other potential enemies. Indeed Russia and Britain were on the point of signing a naval agreement when the war broke out. But the Russian Navy was not to be committed offensively during the war years and the majority of its operations were defensive.

1914–17

As noted in Plan 19 both fleets were subordinated to Stavka. The HQ of the Black Sea Fleet was at Sebastopol, the headquarters of the Baltic fleet at Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland, having major bases at Kronstadt and Riga. The Navy Ministry at Petrograd acted as a clearing house for orders from Stavka.

As the Pacific Squadron took virtually no part in the war it is mainly the operations of the Baltic and Black sea fleets that concern us here and as little or no co-ordination was possible each will be dealt with individually.

Baltic Sea Fleet

At the outbreak of war the Baltic Fleet put a carefully planned defensive mining programme into operation. Russian mines were reputedly the best and most effective used by any navy in the war. The objective of this was to prevent the movement of German naval units against the capital or the flank of NW Front. The officer in charge of mining was Captain A. V. Kolchak who was to advance swiftly to the rank of Admiral. The major achievement of the Baltic Fleet during 1914 was the capture of a set of German naval code books from the Magdeburg during August thus enabling Allied intelligence officers to monitor German movements.

For the next two years the Baltic Fleet’s major units were preserved in anticipation of a decisive fleet action. The burden of offensive operations was undertaken by the eleven submarines of the Baltic Fleet and a small number of British submarines that reached Russia via the Arctic or by running the gauntlet of German patrols at the mouth of the Baltic. Although the submariners of both navies did sterling work against coastal traders plying the Baltic, the bulk of the Russian fleet remained in harbour. Such passivity had a dire effect on the officers and men leaving them prey to apathy and politicisation. Protected by the increasingly complex web of minefields the sailors’ discipline eroded slowly. Cruises were limited due to the lack of British anthracite coal stocks which were in short supply (although interestingly enough, thousands of tons of coal had in fact been stockpiled at Archangel and Murmansk but were instead being used to ballast ships returning to their home ports after delivering munitions to Russia). The sailors’ dockside work was also inhibited by the blanket of ice that built up on the harbours and the ship building programme was held up because many of the vessels under construction were designed only to take German-made turbines. The overall result of all these problems was a number of crews with little or nothing to do.

When the army’s rifle shortage became critical in 1915 the navy exchanged its Russian rifles for the Japanese Arisaka to ease ammunition supply problems. Japan also salvaged ships from the Russo-Japanese War, which were re-commissioned by the Russians and a Separate Baltic Detachment was formed but it did not manage to return to the Baltic.

Problems

The first outbreak of trouble occurred on the cruiser Rossiia in Helsingfors during September 1915. The sailors protested about poor food, overly harsh discipline and “German officers”. Rumours of the treachery of the “German officers” had been growing since the loss of the cruiser Pallada when on patrol duties in November 1914, though the fact that it went down with all hands did not enter into the gossip mongers’ tales.

The navy seems to have had a greater proportion of officers with German sounding names than the army and being a smaller service they were more noticeable. Indeed the commander of the Baltic Fleet in 1915 was Admiral N. O. von Essen who apparently considered “russifying” his name during this period. Although the ringleaders aboard the Rossiia were arrested it did not prevent further problems in November 1915 when part of the crew of the battleship Gangoot rioted beyond their officers’ control over poor food. More worrying for senior commanders was the refusal of neighbouring vessel’s crews to train their guns on the mutineers. Finally the threat of a submarine putting torpedoes into the Gangoot put a stop to the mutiny. A series of arrests were made resulting in those men being assigned to disciplinary battalions. Disciplinary battalions, usually 200 men at a time, were often sent to NW Front until Twelfth Army complained that they more trouble than they were worth. Subsequently the disciplinary battalions were detained at the naval bases where they became progressively more difficult to control.

As 1916 wore on morale declined still further. Whenever ships changed commanders or officers transferred and attempts were made to tighten discipline where it was perceived to be too lax the men reacted with dumb insolence or worked at a snail’s pace. That November Grigorovich expressed his concerns to the Tsar during an interview at Stavka. However, Nicholas refused to discuss internal security matters nor did he respond to written reports on similar matters. The situation was summed up in a report from the commander of the Kronstadt base to the navy’s representative at Stavka. “Yesterday I visited the cruiser Diana…I felt as if I were on board an enemy ship.… In the wardroom the officers openly said that the sailors were completely revolutionaries.… So it is everywhere in Kronstadt.”

In November 1916 the Russian defences claimed their greatest victory. A force of eleven German destroyers became entangled in minefields while hunting coastal traffic and within forty-eight hours seven were lost and one severely damaged. There was no Russian shipping in the area as they had intercepted radio transmissions and stayed away.

Boredom and lack of activity were not the only reasons for the men’s increased disillusionment with the war and the regime. Service in the navy demanded a different sort of recruit to those of the army. The literacy rate amongst sailors was approaching seventy-five per cent, (in the army it was less than thirty per cent) a higher standard of proficiency with technology was vital as were teamwork and initiative, all qualities which fostered a more highly skilled and integrated body of men. The close proximity to urban, industrial centres inevitably led them to be exposed to extreme political viewpoints and the discussion of conditions ashore. Consequently when the revolution came in March 1917 the sailors of the Baltic Fleet were ready and willing to participate.

The Black Sea Fleet

The Black Sea Fleet (Admiral A. A. Eberhardt) followed a more aggressive policy, mounting operations against the Bosporus on 28 March 1915 and again the next month in support of the Gallipolli expedition. By way of drawing the Turks attention to the Black Sea coastline pretence was made of reconnoitring the shore for possible landing sites as had been agreed with the Western Allies. The Anatolian coastline slowly came to be dominated by the Russians which forced the Turks to rely more and more on the slower overland route to supply men and munitions for their Caucasian Front. When Bulgaria entered the war several raids were made against coastal shipping but the presence of German submarines limited such operations. However, it was in support of the right flank of the Caucasian Front that the Black Sea Fleet made its strongest contribution.

In August 1916 Kolchak was appointed commander of the Black Sea Fleet. In November the Black Sea Fleet suffered its greatest loss, the newly completed battleship Emperatritsa Mariia which blew up in Sebastopol harbour with over 400 casualties. For the remainder of the war the Black Sea virtually became a Russian lake and increasing use was made of the navy to ferry and escort supplies to the army. The reasons noted for the decline of the Baltic Fleet were much less pronounced amongst the Black Sea sailors. The simple fact that the men were more or less continually involved in an active war and were not subject to urban influences to the same extent as in the Baltic saved the Black Sea Fleet from the worst excesses of the March Revolution. Kolchak took many of his ships to sea when the situation in Petrograd became serious and only returned to harbour when the Tsar had abdicated. Thus, when dozens of officers of all ranks in the Baltic Fleet were being murdered by their men the Black Sea Fleet remained comparatively quiet.

The navy and the revolutions

The speed with which the Baltic Fleet’s sailors responded to the March events in Petrograd points to a sense of unity of purpose, although not necessarily a carefully tailored uprising guided by a single mind. When the revolution began the sailors supported it from the outset and were prepared to shoot any who stood in their way. This included their officers, although many were also killed as retribution for past behaviour. On 16 March Admiral A. I. Nepenin, commanding the Baltic Fleet, informed the Provisional Government, “The Baltic Fleet as a military force no longer exists.” As far as he could see his ice bound ships had raised red flags.

In both fleets committees were established with powers similar to those in the army. The difference between the fleets was Baltic Fleet’s greater degree of militancy and involvement with the affairs of Petrograd. During the July Days Baltic Fleet sailors were heavily involved but the actions subsequently launched to contain radicalism seem to have achieved little but the further alienation of the men. Despite this the sailors supported Kerensky during the Kornilov affair but by the end of September the Provisional Government exercised very little authority over them.

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The History of the Russian Navy II

Top: M.P. Goncharov. BOD Admiral Isakov. 2012 Bottom: S. M. Ananko. Gloomy morning. 2012

Top: S. M. Ananko. TAVKR “Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov” while practicing combat training tasks at sea. 2016 Bottom: S. M. Ananko. The heavy nuclear missile cruiser Peter the Great. 2016

SOVIET NAVY WWII

Popularly known in the West as the “Red Fleet,” the Soviet Navy was divided by geography and ship and base disposition into the Baltic Fleet, Black Sea Fleet, and Pacific Fleet. It suffered a bloody purge in 1930, and was intermittently purged by Joseph Stalin after that. From 1935 Stalin ended debate over whether the Soviet Navy should deploy as a “Jeune École” fleet equipped only for “small wars” or deploy as a “Mahanian” blue water battlefleet that sought “command of the sea.” He chose the latter and thereafter launched a shipbuilding program that centered on battleships, heavy cruisers, and other large capital warships. Stalin insisted on building battlecruisers as well, a ship type for which he exhibited a pronounced preference against all professional advice. The purpose of the big ships was to gain mastery of the sea around the northern coastlines of the Soviet Union: on the Gulf of Finland, Baltic Sea, and Sea of Japan. That essentially clear, rational, traditional naval outlook was complicated by personal quirks and oddities of the views and personality of Stalin. Most important among his direct interventions was refusal to build aircraft carriers, a decision that reflected his limited understanding of how navies projected power.

Stalin at first looked to the United States for assistance in building a blue water fleet of battleships and battlecruisers. His request to commission a U.S. shipyard to build a battleship for the Soviet Navy was spurned. Stalin turned next to Adolf Hitler for technical aid, from the end of their partnership in conquering Poland in 1939 to the start of Hitler’s BARBAROSSA invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin paid Hitler back by extending operational cooperation to the Kriegsmarine in its war with the Western Allies. A special naval base was set up for the Germans at Lista Bay near Murmansk that was used by the Kriegsmarine to facilitate the WESERÜBUNG invasion of Norway in April 1940, while several other Soviet ports were opened to German warships. The Soviets also aided transfer of a German auxiliary cruiser around Siberia to prey on Allied shipping in the northern Pacific. For this assistance the Kriegsmarine provided Moscow specialized naval equipment, ship schematics, and a partially completed cruiser in a form of barter exchange. This odd situation reflected Stalin’s long-term view of the need to build up Soviet naval power and misreading of the German Führer’s intentions. Stalin’s view contrasted sharply with Hitler’s belief that any short-term naval aid to Moscow would prove irrelevant once he unleashed his armored legions in the east.

The Baltic Red Banner fleet began the war with just two World War I–era battleships and two cruisers. These remained confined to the base at Kronstadt. It also had 19 destroyers and 65 submarines of varying quality, as well as a fleet air arm of over 650 planes. During the Finnish–Soviet War (1939–1940) the Baltic fleet moved to cut off Finland from sea lanes to Sweden, but no naval engagements ensued with Finnish surface ships. That changed with BARBAROSSA, as the Kriegsmarine joined the fight in the Baltic. The Germans moved dozens of minelayers, minesweepers, and other coastal warships to Finland before June 1941, and afterward established a major base in the port of Helsinki. Most naval action in the early part of the German–Soviet war in the Baltic was confined to laying sea mines, sweeping for mines, U-boat attacks, and aerial attacks by the Luftwaffe on exposed Soviet ships. There were several small Soviet and German amphibious clashes over a number of small islands. The major Soviet warship and transport losses came in August in one of the least known, although the worst, convoy actions of the entire war. The Soviets sought to relocate smaller warships from Tallinn to Kronstadt and to evacuate as many personnel by ship as they could before the Panzers arrived in the Estonian capital. In the German attack on the hastily formed Soviet convoy the Soviet Navy lost 18 small warships and 42 merchantmen and troopships, most to a night encounter with a dense minefield. The following day, as all major warships fled the convoy, Luftwaffe dive bombers struck floundering and exposed troopships and transports. Only two survived. Total loss of life was at least 12,000.

The naval garrison on Kronstadt held out for 28 months during the siege of Leningrad, then used its big guns to support the Red Army in the operation that finally broke the siege in January–February, 1944. Meanwhile, in 1942 the Soviet Navy went on the offense in the Baltic. It sent submarines deeper into the sea, where they enjoyed some success against German and Finnish shipping plying trade routes from Sweden and along the coastline of Germany. Several Swedish ships were sunk inadvertently, which moved the Swedish Navy to introduce a convoy system and on occasion to depth charge Soviet boats. The most successful Soviet naval operation in the Baltic was an amphibious lift of nearly 45,000 troops to Oranienbaum in 1944, during the offensive that lifted the siege of Leningrad. An even larger set of amphibious operations landed Red Army soldiers and Soviet Navy marines on a number of small, but key, islands in the Gulf of Riga in late 1944. The situation in the air was also reversed by 1944, as Red Army Air Force and Soviet Navy planes harassed and sank congested German shipping. From 1941 to 1945 the Soviet Baltic fleet lost one old battleship (to bombs), 15 destroyers, 39 submarines, and well over 100 minesweepers, smaller warships, and transports, as well as numerous landing craft. A modern battleship under construction before the war was locked in port by the siege of Leningrad and never completed.

The war began disastrously for the Soviet Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, which was bombed at anchor on the first day, June 22, 1941. Before that attack the Black Sea Fleet comprised a single modernized dreadnought, four cruisers, dozens of older and new destroyers, 47 old submarines, nearly 90 motor torpedo boats, and sundry coastal craft. It had 626 aircraft, mostly of obsolete types. The Black Sea Fleet was also responsible for the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov, and patrolling the lower Don and Volga Rivers. A 59,000 ton giant super battleship, the “Sovetskaia Ukraina,” was still under construction when the bombs started to fall, just like its sister ship in Leningrad. When Army Group South took the port of Nikolaev during the Donbass-Rostov operation, the “Sovetskaia Ukraina” was captured. Once the terrible siege of Sebastopol began, the Fleet’s main port was closed to naval operations and ships scrambled to relocate to ports farther east. The first Black Sea Fleet amphibious operation was a landing of 2,000 marines behind Rumanian lines near Odessa, a desperate action that failed to save the city. Instead, between October 1–16, 1941, an evacuation of over 86,000 soldiers and 14,000 other Soviet citizens was carried out from Odessa. The Fleet facilitated large-scale amphibious landings at Kerch-Feodosiia in December 1941. Without effective Kriegsmarine opposition in the Black Sea, the Soviets took the Germans in the Crimea by surprise. They came ashore in force, over 40,000 strong, at more than two dozen locations behind the main enemy force, which was investing Sebastopol. More troops were sent in via an ice road over the Kerch Straits. A larger amphibious and airborne operation was planned to retake the entire Crimean peninsula in January 1942, but it was canceled when the situation badly deteriorated. When the Germans assaulted in May with their main force, relocated from Sebastopol, the Soviet Navy evacuated survivors across the Kerch Straits.

All this time, the Black Sea Fleet maintained a 240-mile lifeline into Sebastopol under constant and heavy Luftwaffe attack. By late 1942 the Fleet faced German and Italian small craft flotillas that were shipped overland and reassembled in the Crimea. The Soviets also faced at least six Axis submarines in the Black Sea, including one from Rumania. In February 1943, the Soviets carried out two amphibious landings around Novorossisk. The smaller landing established a beachhead that held on, and was successfully reinforced by sea. On September 10 the port fell when Black Sea Fleet leaders used over 130 small boats to enter and assault the harbor. However, in October the Fleet lost three new destroyers to land-based bombers, after which Stalin forbade its commanders to expose any surface ships to danger. More landings were made in German rear areas to block the Wehrmacht on its long retreat out of the east. These were mostly wasteful of Soviet lives and forces. Worst of all, the Soviet Navy failed to prevent evacuation of over 250,000 Axis troops of Army Group A across the Kerch Straits during September–October, 1943. That was mostly Stalin’s fault: he refused to expose any large surface ships to German bombing, lest they be lost. That lessened the victory at Sebastopol achieved by Soviet ground forces in May 1944: a flotilla of small ships and barges was massively bombed and shelled, but 130,000 German and Rumanians escaped who could have been stopped by the big guns of destroyers, cruisers, and the Fleet’s unopposed dreadnought that Stalin would not allow into action.

Pacific Fleet operations were minimal and strictly defensive until the Manchurian offensive operation (August 1945). Most submarines were therefore released for service in the North Sea. To get there, they made a remarkable voyage across the Pacific, down the coast of North America, through the Panama Canal, and across the Atlantic to Murmansk or Archangel. Not all survived the journey. Those that did took up duty scouting for and protecting arctic convoys from Britain. In September 1943, the Soviet Navy was denied any ships surrendered by the Regia Marina to the Royal Navy at Malta. They went to the British instead. The Soviets did acquire a number of German surface ships in late May 1945, along with a share in those U-boats that were scuttled by their captains or sunk by the Western Allies.

Soviet Navy – Post WWII

In the immediate post-war years the only naval units of even marginal significance were three battleships: a Russian vessel dating back to tsarist times and two British ships of First World War vintage, which had been lent to the USSR during the war. One of the latter was returned to the UK in 1949, having been replaced by the ex-Italian Giulio Cesare, which the Soviets renamed Novorossiysk.fn3 There were also some fifteen cruisers – a mixture of elderly Soviet designs, nine modern Soviet-built ships, a US ship lent during the war (and returned in 1949), and two former Axis cruisers, one ex-German, the other ex-Italian. There was also a force of some eighty destroyers, also of varying vintages and origins.

During the 1940s and 1950s these Soviet warships were rarely seen on the high seas, apart from a limited number of transfers between the Northern and Baltic fleets, which tended to be conducted with great rapidity. The only exception was a series of international visits, mainly by the impressive Sverdlov-class cruisers, which were paid to countries such as Sweden and the UK. The navy suffered a major setback in 1955 when the battleship Novorossiysk was sunk while at anchor in the Black Sea by a Second World War German ground mine, an event which led to the sacking of the commander-in-chief, Admiral N. M. Kuznetzov; he was replaced by Admiral Gorshkov.

In the early 1960s, however, individual Soviet units began to be seen more frequently in foreign waters, as did ever-increasing numbers of ‘intelligence collectors’, laden with electronic-warfare equipment. These ships, generally known by their NATO designation as ‘AGIs’, monitored US and NATO exercises and ship movements. The original AGIs were converted trawlers and salvage tugs, but, as the Cold War progressed and the Soviet navy became increasingly sophisticated, larger and more specialized ships were built, culminating in the 5,000 tonne Bal’zam class, built in the 1980s. In addition to such ships, conventional warships regularly carried out intelligence-collecting and surveillance tasks, particularly when Western exercises were being held. Apart from general eavesdropping on Western communications links and studying the latest weapons, such missions helped the Soviet navy to learn about US and NATO tactics, manoeuvring and ship-handling.

The Soviets also put considerable effort into espionage (human intelligence, or HUMINT, in intelligence jargon) against Western navies. This included the Kroger ring in the UK, which was principally targeted against British anti-submarine-warfare facilities, and the Walker spy ring in the USA, which gave away a vast amount of information on US submarine capabilities and deployment.

The growth and increasing ambitions of the Soviet navy were best illustrated by the size, scope and duration of its exercises. The first important out-of-area exercise was held in 1961, when two groups of ships – one moving from the Baltic to the Kola Inlet and the other in the opposite direction (a total of eight surface warships, four submarines and associated support ships) – met in the Norwegian Sea. There they conducted a short exercise before continuing to their respective destinations.

In early July 1962 transfers between the Baltic and Northern fleets again took place, coupled with the first major transfer from the Black Sea Fleet to the Northern Fleet. This was followed by a much larger exercise, extending from the Iceland–Faroes gap to the North Cape, which included surface combatants, submarines, auxiliaries and a large number of land-based naval aircraft. The activity level increased yet again in 1963, and the major 1964 exercise involved ships moving through the Iceland–Faroes gap for the first time, while units of the Mediterranean Squadron undertook a cruise to Cuba. By 1966 exercises were taking place in the Faroes–UK gap and off north-east Scotland (both long-standing preserves of the British navy) and also off the coast of Iceland.

In 1967 the naval highlight of the Arab–Israeli Six-Day War was the dramatic sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat by the Egyptian navy using Soviet SS-N-2 (‘Styx’) missiles launched from a Soviet-built Komar-class patrol boat. Not surprisingly, Soviet naval prestige in the Middle East was high, and the Soviets took the opportunity to enhance it yet further by port visits to Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Algeria, employing ships of the Black Sea Fleet.

The following year saw the largest naval exercise to date; nicknamed Sever (= North) it involved a large number of surface ships, land-based aircraft, submarines and auxiliaries. The exercise covered a variety of areas, but the main activity took place in waters between Iceland and Norway. One of the naval highlights of the year, for both the Soviet and the NATO navies, was the arrival in the Mediterranean of the first Soviet helicopter carrier, Moskva.

Further exercises and deployments took place in 1969, but in the following year Okean 70 proved to be the most ambitious Soviet naval exercise ever staged. This involved the Northern, Baltic and Pacific fleets and the Mediterranean Squadron in simultaneous operations, with the major emphasis in the Atlantic. A large northern force, comprising some twenty-six ships, started with anti-submarine exercises off northern Norway between 13 and 18 April, and then proceeded through the Iceland–Faroes gap to an area due west of Scotland, where it carried out an ‘encounter exercise’ against units from the Mediterranean Squadron. The two groups then sailed in company to join the waiting support group, where a major replenishment at sea took place. Other facets of the exercise included units of the Baltic Fleet sailing through the Skaggerak to operate off south-west Norway, and an amphibious landing exercise involving units of the recently raised Naval Infantry coming ashore on the Soviet side of the Norwegian–Soviet border.

This was a very large and ambitious exercise, from which the Soviet navy learned many major lessons, one of the most important of which was the falsity of the concept of commanding naval forces at sea from a shore headquarters. Such a concept had been propagated for two reasons: first, because it complied with the general Communist idea of highly centralized power and, second, because it also avoided the complexity and expense of flagships. Once Okean 70 had proved this concept to be impracticable, ‘flag’ facilities were built into the larger ships, although the Baltic Fleet continued to be commanded from ashore.

The exercise which took place in June 1971 rehearsed a different scenario, with a group of Soviet Northern Fleet ships sailing down into Icelandic waters, where they reversed course and then advanced towards Jan Mayen Island to act as a simulated NATO carrier task group, which was then attacked by the main ‘players’. Again, a concurrent amphibious landing formed part of the exercise.

There were no major naval exercises in 1972, but in a spring 1973 exercise Soviet submarines practised countering a simulated Western task force sailing through the Iceland–UK gap to reinforce NATO’s Northern flank, while a similar exercise in 1974 took place in areas to the east and north of Iceland. Okean 75 was an extremely large maritime exercise, involving well over 200 ships and submarines together with large numbers of aircraft. The exercise was global in scale, with specific exercise areas including the Norwegian Sea, where simulated convoys were attacked; the northern and central Atlantic, particularly off the west coast of Ireland; the Baltic and Mediterranean seas; and the Indian and Pacific oceans. Overall, the exercise practised all phases of contemporary naval warfare, including the deployment and protection of SSBNs.

In 1976 an exercise started with a concentration of warships in the North Sea, following which they transited through the Skagerrak and into the Baltic. Although not an exercise as such, great excitement was caused among Western navies when the new aircraft carrier Kiev left the Black Sea and sailed through the Mediterranean before heading northward in a large arc, passing through the Iceland–Faroes gap and thence to Murmansk. NATO ships followed this transit very closely, as it gave them their first opportunity to see this large ship and its V/STOL aircraft.

The following year saw two exercises in European waters, the first of which was held in the area of the North Cape and the central Norwegian Sea. The second was much larger and consisted of two elements, one involving the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea, while in the other ships sailed from the Baltic, north around the British Isles and then into the central Atlantic. Also in 1977 the Soviet navy suffered the second of its major peacetime surface disasters when the Kashin-class destroyer Orel (formerly Otvazhny) suffered a major explosion while in the Black Sea, followed by a fire which raged for five hours before the ship sank, taking virtually the entire crew to their deaths.

In 1978 the passage of another Kiev-class carrier enabled an air–sea exercise to take place to the south of the Iceland–Faroes gap. Similar exercises followed in 1979 and 1980. The 1981 exercise involved three groups and took place in the northern part of the Barents Sea.

There were no major naval exercises in 1982, but the following year saw the most ambitious global exercise yet, with concurrent and closely related activities in all the world’s oceans, involving not only warships, but also merchant and fishing vessels. In European waters, three aggressor groups assembled off southern Norway and then sailed northward to simulate an advancing NATO force; they were then intercepted and attacked by the major part of the Northern Fleet.

The major exercise in 1985 followed a similar pattern, with aggressor groups sailing northeastward off the Norwegian coast, to be attacked by a large Soviet defending task group which included Kirov, the lead-ship of a new class of battlecruiser, Sovremenny-class anti-surface destroyers and Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, as well as many older ships. There was also substantial air activity, which included the use of Tu-26 Backfire bombers. Although not apparent at the time, this proved to be the zenith of Soviet naval activity, and in the remaining years of the Cold War the number and scale of the exercises steadily diminished.

These major exercises enabled the Soviet navy to rehearse its war plans and to demonstrate its increasing capability to other navies, particularly those in NATO. There were, of course, many smaller exercises, such as those involving amphibious capabilities, which took place on the northern shores of the Kola Peninsula, on the Baltic coast and in the Black Sea. It is noteworthy, however, that the vast majority of the exercises held in European waters, and particularly those held from 1978 onwards, while tactically offensive, were actually strategically defensive in nature, involving the Northern Fleet in defending the north Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea and the area around Jan Mayen Island.

Soviet at-sea time was considerably less than that of the US and other major Western navies. The latter maintained about one-third of their ships at sea at all times, while only about 15 per cent of the Soviet navy was at sea, reducing to 10 per cent for submarines. The Soviets did, however, partially offset this by placing strong emphasis on a high degree of readiness in port and on the ability to get to sea quickly.

Modern Russian Federation Navy

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a severe decline in the Russian Navy. Defense expenditures were severely reduced. Many ships were scrapped or laid up as accommodation ships at naval bases, and the building program was essentially stopped. Sergey Gorshkov’s buildup during the Soviet period had emphasised ships over support facilities, but Gorshkov had also retained ships in service beyond their effective lifetimes, so a reduction had been inevitable in any event. The situation was exacerbated by the impractical range of vessel types which the Soviet military-industrial complex, with the support of the leadership, had forced on the navy—taking modifications into account, the Soviet Navy in the mid-1980s had nearly 250 different classes of ship. The Kiev class aircraft carrying cruisers and many other ships were prematurely retired, and the incomplete second Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier Varyag was eventually sold to the People’s Republic of China by Ukraine. Funds were only allocated for the completion of ships ordered prior to the collapse of the USSR, as well as for refits and repairs on fleet ships taken out of service since. However, the construction times for these ships tended to stretch out extensively: in 2003 it was reported that the Akula-class submarine Nerpa had been under construction for fifteen years. Storage of decommissioned nuclear submarines in ports near Murmansk became a significant issue, with the Bellona Foundation reporting details of lowered readiness. Naval support bases outside Russia, such as Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, were gradually closed, with the exception of the modest technical support base in Tartus, Syria to support ships deployed to the Mediterranean. Naval Aviation declined as well from its height as Soviet Naval Aviation, dropping from an estimated 60,000 personnel with some 1,100 combat aircraft in 1992 to 35,000 personnel with around 270 combat aircraft in 2006. In 2002, out of 584 naval aviation crews only 156 were combat ready, and 77 ready for night flying. Average annual flying time was 21.7 hours, compared to 24 hours in 1999.

Training and readiness also suffered severely. In 1995, only two missile submarines at a time were being maintained on station, from the Northern and Pacific Fleets. The decline culminated in the loss of the Oscar II-class Kursk submarine during the Northern Fleet summer exercise that was intended to back up the publication of a new naval doctrine. The exercise was to have culminated with the deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov task group to the Mediterranean.

As of February 2008, the Russian Navy had 44 nuclear submarines with 24 operational; 19 diesel-electric submarines, 16 operational; and 56 first and second rank surface combatants, 37 operational. Despite this improvement, the November 2008 accident on board the Akula-class submarine attack boat Nerpa during sea trials before lease to India represented a concern for the future.

In 2009, Admiral Popov (Ret.), former commander of the Russian Northern Fleet, said that the Russian Navy would greatly decline in combat capabilities by 2015 if the current rate of new ship construction remained unchanged, due to the retirement of ocean-going ships.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin announced a plan to build 51 modern ships and 24 submarines by 2020.[32] Of the 24 submarines, 16 will be nuclear-powered. On 10 January 2013, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgorukiy) for service. A second Borei (Aleksandr Nevskiy) was undergoing sea trials and entered service on 21 December 2013. A third Borei class boat (Vladimir Monomakh) was launched and began trials in early 2013, and was commissioned in late 2014.

The Belgian Army in World War I

75mm TR gun battery on the move.

10.5cm gun of type Krupp used by the Belgian army.

Belgian Artillery

Belgium, for centuries a major center of small arms production, also boasted the Cockerill and FRC ordnance foundries. Both firms, however, directed the majority of their sales to foreign clients, thus placing the Belgian army in the rather odd situation of obtaining cannons from outside sources. Before and during World War I, Belgium consequently fielded French and German designs either obtained from abroad or manufactured under license by Cockerill and FRC. During World War I the Belgians fielded a variety of field guns, such as the 75mm M05, the 75mm Model TR, the 105mm M13, the 75mm M18, and the 120mm field howitzer.

After the German invasion, the plan to send the army to the Meuse was abandoned and it stayed on the Gette River, as Selliers wanted, with the exceptions of the army divisions (ADs, equivalent to other countries’ “corps”) at Liege and Namur. Liege was quickly outflanked by two German cavalry divisions which had to withdraw because they could not cross the Meuse. The Germans vastly outnumbered the Belgians and expected a quick surrender. General Leman, despite knowing Liege could not hold out, refused to give in and the fortifications drove back the German waves, causing such losses that several divisions had to leave the line. The Germans brought overwhelming force, driving the Belgian forces guarding the areas between the forts into retreat. The fortresses continued to fight, the last surrendering only on August 17. Not only did the defenders of the Liege forts and their commander become national heroes and symbols of Belgium’s determination to resist, the delay they imposed on the Germans allowed the French to complete their mobilization and may have cost the Germans the war in the West.

Between August 15 and 19, there were bitter debates at Belgian headquarters over withdrawing to the national redoubt at Antwerp. Albert had good intelligence that the Germans were planning to attack in central Belgium while the French military mission insisted the Germans lacked the strength and called the Belgians cowards for planning a retreat while the Allied forces were marching to link up with them. The Belgians began their withdrawal on August 18 and Brussels fell two days later while Namur was besieged and its garrison forced on August 23 to withdraw into France and thence back to Antwerp.

The Antwerp redoubt was not as impregnable as the Belgians hoped and the war minister’s men started discussing a retreat from Antwerp on September 29. On the 7th, with the Germans threatening the line of retreat and crossing the Scheldt, Colonel Wielemans, counting on de Broqueville’s support, but without informing Albert, ordered the retreat of the army to the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. Galet found out the next day but was unable to stop the move. Antwerp fell on October 10 and the army began a difficult retreat to the Yser River. Thirty thousand Belgian troops fled to the Netherlands where they were interned and another thirty thousand were captured. The retreat was well-prepared and the eventual resistance on the Yser would have been impossible without the munitions and supplies saved from Antwerp.

One of the big controversies regarding the Belgians in Antwerp, and one which inevitably led to comparisons with his son accepting a capitulation in 1940, is whether Albert was prepared to accept a separate peace in 1914. The story goes that Albert was ready to give up but was dissuaded by a combination of de Broqueville, the queen, and Ingenbleek. This contrasts with the behavior of his son in 1940, who was not dissuaded. Most historians, however, seem to give the story little credence.

The Belgians who arrived at the Yser position on October 15 were in a terrible state and unable to launch an attack as desired by the French. Even Galet liked the Yser position because it was good for defense, still on Belgian soil, close to the sea, and, as Henri Haag notes, had the advantage over the Antwerp redoubt of sparing Belgium’s “rich cities” from being on the front lines. The Germans wasted no time in attacking the new positions while the Belgians counterattacked and there was a dogfight for nine days until the Germans “ran out of steam,” sparing the exhausted and disheartened Belgian soldiers.

The flooding of the Yser was one of the most dramatic tactics of World War I. Armies in Flanders had used controlled flooding for centuries and the Flemish lowlands were lands regained from sea and swamp with an extensive irrigation and drainage system. The Belgians would have only to open some sluices in Nieuport and then close them again before the tide went out. This was done on October 27. The German offensive, which had resumed, was stopped and the stunned Germans pulled back.

The front would remain static for over three years, with the Belgians holding a long front with no strategic reserves and thus unable to pull any entire division out of the line for a rest. Moreover, the Belgian army of the end of 1914 was barely holding on. There were only 52,000 of the original field army of 117,500, with a deficit of 2,000 officers, a severe lack of ammunition, exhausted artillery, and tired men in ragged uniforms. The Belgians and Germans were separated by the water, with some additional flooding in March 1918. Service on that front was extremely unpleasant and unhealthy.

The Belgian army was reorganized in January 1918, abolishing the brigade headquarters within the divisions, with `army divisions’ constituted by two infantry divisions. The army as a whole now numbered 170,000 enlisted and 5,700 officers. It would become involved in the bitter fighting started by the last-ditch German offensives of spring 1918. Although the main German effort, code-named `Michael,’ was aimed further south, the Germans also planned an attack, `Georgette,’ in Flanders, scheduled for April 9 and aiming for the ports of Calais and Dunkirk, outflanking the Allies in that region. On April 14, the Belgians found themselves fighting to prevent a German encirclement of Ypres, defended by the British to the right of the Belgians. The Germans launched an attack on the Belgians on April 17 and after initial success, found themselves stalled in bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Despite the Germans breaking into the Belgian support trenches, they were hit by Belgian artillery and driven back by Belgian infantry, losing 800 prisoners. The German offensives across the Allied front ran out of steam and in September, the Allies went over to the offensive. Because the Belgian constitution barred foreigners from commanding the Belgian army, King Albert was appointed to command the Flanders Army Group, consisting as well of French and British units. Ten Belgian infantry divisions attacked on the night of September 27-28 and rapidly broke through the Ger- man lines, flowed over the German artillery batteries, and pushed the front back as far as eleven miles, with an average of four miles across the front. The Belgians captured 6,000 prisoners and 150 guns on that one day. They continued to push back the Germans until October 2, when there was a twelve-day pause. The second phase of the offensive, also involving the French, began on October 14 and ended on October 30, with another offensive on the Lys River lasting until November 3, as the Belgians advanced towards the Scheldt River and reached Ghent, where the front line would stay until the German armistice of November 11. The Belgians suffered grievously in these last offensives, losing more than 1/5 of the effectives (1/3 of all Belgian casualties of the war out of a total of 44,000) between October 4 and November 11.

The Peace

In September 1918, the Belgians delivered a note to the Allies urging modifications of the 1839 treaties in the name of guaranteeing increased security. The Belgians understood this increased security as based on territorial revisions that would boost the country militarily and economically. From Holland, Belgium tried to get the land it had lost in 1839: Flemish Zeeland and Dutch Lim- burg. Possession of the former would give Belgium the south bank of the very important Scheldt River and about half of its channel. These would solve a number of difficulties and give the Belgians complete control over the Ghent- Terneuzen canal. Possession of the latter would similarly ease Belgium’s eco- nomic and military situation. The General Staff was calling for acquiring these lands, and part of the Rhineland, as early as December 1914. In addition, Belgium hoped to create a canal to the Rhine across the prospective new territory. The Belgian military squelched anti-annexationist propaganda in the army but allowed the pro-annexationists to propagandize. An undated, but probably wartime, note to the Belgian legation in London discussed Belgium’s obtaining the above-mentioned lands and declared that “these increases wisely considered and skillfully administered would not constitute a canker in the flank of the fatherland.” Unfortunately, as historian Sally Marks notes, as reasonable as the demands were from the Belgian perspective, there was no way they were going to get them. Lead Belgian negotiator Paul Hymans observed that the Scheldt River separated Flemish Zeeland from the rest of the Netherlands which in any case ignored the region. In fact, Flemish Zeeland was much more tied in to Belgium than to its mother country although the population would prefer to stay in the Netherlands. The Belgians tried harder to get Limburg, the part of the Netherlands that dangles between Belgium and Germany. Dutch possession of this strip severely hampered Belgian defense because it pre- vented the Belgians from basing their defense on the line of the Meuse River. At the same time, it was far from clear that the Dutch would be willing or able to defend it. The Belgian military, absorbing the lessons of the recent war, and looking for better defenses and protection for Liege, particularly wanted the territory.  

Before Paul Hymans submitted Belgium’s territorial demands to the Powers in Paris, the Belgian General Staff had presented a memorandum about a new border. The General Staff saw two alternatives, the `green line’ and the `black line’ (so named for the colors drawn on the maps), both based on the idea that Belgium would succeed in getting Limburg and Luxembourg. The military desired the `black line,’ which called not only for the acquisition of most of Eupen and Malmédy, the cantons lost in 1815, but also for changes in the Ger- man-Dutch and German-Luxembourg borders. These would cement Belgian control over the railroad linking the German Rhineland cities of Cologne and Trier, keeping it under possible Belgian artillery fire in the event of a German attack. The generals were not deluded about being able to hold for long, but they thought the black line could buy time for the Meuse defenses to be readied.

The Belgian military and other `annexationists,’ including many in the Min- istry of Foreign Afairs, had supported Belgium’s territorial claims, not because of any arguments based on common (or allegedly common) ethnicities but rather in the hope of strengthening the nation and of avoiding French encircle- ment should Luxembourg and the Rhineland fall to their recent ally. The can- tons of Eupen, Malmedy, and the two parts of Moresnet would serve as useful bases for a defense of Belgium at the frontier by pushing said frontier further east. They hoped thereby to secure Belgian security and independence, while some even hoped to lift Belgium out of `small power’ status. In addition, many in the “political class” sought, through the acquisition of parts of the Nether- lands, to bolster the position of Francophones against the Flemish nationalists and those demanding social reforms and to restore the Catholic political dom- inance by annexing more “Catholic” territory.

The Belgian Socialists and Flemish nationalists, the same groups who would hold rearmament hostage in the mid-1930s, opposed any Belgian acquisitions. The Socialists feared annexation would empower reactionaries and opposed territorial demands, especially those against Holland. They recognized that the populations concerned had no interest in joining Belgium. They did want to change the regime of the Scheldt which, they believed, left Belgium at the mercy of the Dutch. It should be pointed out that the Socialists were far from unanimous on the issue. The Flemish nationalists were loathe to harm the Netherlands or strengthen the Belgian state. Rejecting the `Activists’ and their wartime collaboration, many Flemish nationalists called for making Flanders more Flemish and suspected any territorial demands on the Netherlands that would harm relations and Flemish interests. They were more concerned about economic control over the Scheldt and Meuse rivers, including a canal joining Antwerp and Liege. Other anti-annexationists feared antagonizing Belgium’s neighbors or making their nation dependent on a great power. They also wanted to preserve Belgian neutrality. It was the annexationists who held sway since 1916 and dominated the peace delegation. In fact, despite popular enthusiasm for mentions of resolving outstanding issues with the neutrals as well as the Allies, most Belgians rejected annexationist ideas and concentrated on rebuilding the nation and, to the extent they cared about politics, worried much more about domestic issues, such as the language issue, than about territorial demands.

In any case, the Belgians argued that Germany’s invasion in 1914 had destroyed the system of Western European “equilibrium” established in 1839 to keep the peace and shown how pointless the system was. It was therefore reasonable to end it and properly provide geographically for Belgium’s defense. This would not result in many annexations because most of the land would be simply “restituted.” Naturally, this argument alarmed Belgium’s erstwhile allies as well as the Dutch. The French saw it as a threat to their own expansionist aims, the British saw Belgian control over the mouth of the Scheldt as a threat to their security, and the Americans saw a violation of national self-determination. These issues circumscribed the room for maneuver of the Belgian government, which had to “act prudently, not explicitly define the object of the demands, but `pose the problem’ before the Allies,” who would recognize the justice of the Belgian claims and act on them.

The Belgians also cast covetous eyes on Luxembourg. In 1915 the government was unanimous in its desire for the Grand Duchy. This desire was shared by the Annexationists such as Pierre Nothomb, who advocated closer ties between the two countries. The arguments raised went from the historical (it was part of Belgium until 1839) to the practical/historical (Luxembourgois neutrality benefited and protected Germany). However, the French were also interested in the Grand Duchy and had their own claims. Despite Belgian aid, few Luxembourgers were really interested in joining Belgium while most wanted to remain independent and, eventually, most Belgians recognized that and reduced their hopes to an economic union. Eventually, the French promised to persuade the Luxembourgois to enter an economic union with Belgium, but only in exchange for the French keeping the most important railroad and the Belgians signing a military convention with France. The Belgians were deeply disappointed and offended that they did not get all they wanted. Bel- gium did pick up four German-speaking cantons in the east from Germany as well as some African colonies. Belgian troops also took part in the occupation of the German Rhineland, which they would leave in 1929.

Robert Devleeshouwer observes that conditions really were not favorable to Belgian territorial adjustments. He points out that in none of the desired territories did the locals really want to join Belgium while most Belgians did not care either. What is surprising is that so many Belgian politicians believed it possible to succeed. Their nationalism was inflated by the victory over Ger- many and they hoped to see the Allies force the Dutch to give in. The campaign for annexation was led by the government through straw men, especially Pierre Nothomb, who had remarkable access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the support of other departments. Nothomb was key in the founding of the Comité de Politique Nationale (Committee of National Policy) to support a “large, strong, and united Belgium.” This committee took a maximalist approach to territorial demands, including the creation of a Rhenish buffer state dominated by Belgium. The Committee obtained 275,000 signatures on its petitions and the support of government ministers, generals, and communal councils although the government never openly supported it.

Failing territorial acquisition, the Belgians in Paris sought to achieve conditions in the Rhineland that would prevent another German invasion, because they all believed Germany was still the greatest threat. For a time, some of the Belgians, such as the chief negotiator Paul Hymans, like the French, who felt equally threatened, supported an independent, or at least autonomous, Rhenish state, or, at least, permanent Allied occupation thereof. Other Belgian delegates Émile Vandervelde and Jules Van den Heuvel did oppose the idea for fear of increasing French power and leverage over their nation.

In his memoirs, Belgian foreign minister, and sometime prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, observed that the friction between the two countries came as a result of the French premier’s mistreatment of Hymans and the lack of French support for Belgian demands.

Chuck Yeager – encounter with an Me-262

“Yeager’s First Jet” by Roy Grinnell (P-51D Mustang)

Chuck Yeager had grown up poor on a hardscrabble farm alongside the Mud River in Myra, West Virginia. As a kid he butchered hogs, picked beans, and shot squirrels to help put food on the family table. In high school he was a fine athlete, playing on both the football and baseball teams. He was also a good student, particularly in mathematics. His hobby was tinkering with old cars.

In 1941, Yeager joined the US Army Air Corps as a private, serving at the Victorville, California airfield where he showed special aptitude as a mechanic. After two years he was promoted to sergeant and chosen for pilot training at Luke Field, Arizona, where Yeager’s instructors said he was a natural. They taught him to fly in a Stearman biplane, and soon he was wringing it out in aerobatics. He won his wings and a promotion to Flight Officer on 10 March 1943.

Assigned to the 363rd Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group, Yeager moved up to flying P-39s at the Air Corps base at Tonopah, Nevada. Training there was rigorous. Some of his squadron mates washed out, and others were killed in accidents. Yeager’s reactions to these misfortunes was a shrug. Anybody who bought the farm was “a dumb bastard,” which was a fighter pilot’s way of handling the possibility of his own death. One of Yeager’s fellow pilots was Bud Anderson, who flew with him throughout the war and became a life-long friend. Together they and the other young studs often visited the bars and whorehouses in Tonopah, and sometimes raised enough hell to be chased by the sheriff.

The group was then sent to California for training to fly as escorts for bombers. While there Yeager met his future wife, Glennis Faye Dickhouse. “She was pretty as a movie star,” he said, “and making more money than I was.”

Next, the group moved to Casper, Wyoming for still more training. On 23 October 1943, Yeager very nearly lost his life when his P-39’s engine caught fire and he had to bail out. He made a rough landing, fracturing several vertebrae. For a while it was questionable whether he would ever fly again, but he refused to give up, and after a long hospital stay convinced doctors that he’d fully recuperated. He rejoined his squadron just in time, for at the end of December, the 357th Fighter Group was shipped overseas to England.

Early in 1944 the unit became the first in the 8th Air Force to be equipped with Mustangs. The pilots received the rugged new fighters with great enthusiasm. Yeager thought the P-51 was the best aircraft he’d ever flown, and named his “Glamorous Glennis,” after his girlfriend.

On his seventh mission, escorting bombers to Berlin on 4 March, he posted his first victory, shooting down a Bf-109. The following day he flew escort duty again, and over France he was bounced by three Fw-190s. The German pilots were old hands; while two of them attacked him from behind, the third dove on him and shot up his Mustang. The engine seized, and he bailed out. He landed in a forest, bleeding from numerous injuries, and hid there for two days.

During that time he had nothing to eat but a chocolate bar, and at night would sleep huddled under his parachute. On the third day he was discovered by a farmer, who put him in touch with members of the French Resistance.

On 30 March, with the help of the Maquis, Yeager escaped to Spain. It was a miserable trip, climbing over the Pyrenees in the freezing cold and sleeping in caves, while the Germans searched the mountains from the air in a Fieseler Storch. But he eventually made it to Madrid, where he stayed until the U.S. consulate arranged for his return to England on 15 May.

His troubles were not over, however. He was told a regulation prevented anyone who had evaded capture from going back into combat. The theory was that if he were shot down again he might reveal information concerning the Resistance to the Germans. Yeager appealed directly to General Eisenhower, who cleared him to rejoin his group.

With his extraordinary flying skills, his 20/10 eyesight and his aggressiveness, Yeager established an excellent record. He once downed five German fighters in a single battle. And on 6 November 1944, he saw an Me-262 for the first time.

That day Yeager’s group, led by Major Robert Foy, was returning from a mission to Germany. The fighters were escorting B-24s that had bombed factories near Minden, 70 kilometers east of Osnabrük. With the 357th was another fighter group, the 361st, also flying Mustangs.

Once the bombers reached a safe area, the two fighter groups left them and split up. The pilots of the 357th swung west, heading back to base, and a few minutes later were attacked by five Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny. Yeager turned to meet them. He’d heard about the new type of aircraft, but actually witnessing their speed was a surprise. One of them fired at him and missed, and as it hurtled by, he opened his throttle and put his Mustang into a vertical bank. When he came about he fired his .50-caliber machine guns and got a few strikes on the jet. Moments later the enemy aircraft vanished into cloud.

In chasing the Me-262, Yeager had become separated from his wingman and the other Mustangs in his group. Now he was alone. He eased back on his power settings, and again turned for home.

As he flew over Achmer, he noticed what he thought was a well-disguised airfield with an extremely long runway. He decided to have a closer look, and descended toward it. His combat report described what happened next.

“I spotted a lone 262 approaching the field from the south at 500 feet. He was going very slow, about 200 mph. I split-essed on him, and was going around 500 mph. Flak started coming up very thick and accurate. I fired a single short burst from around 400 yards, and got hits on his wings. I had to break straight up, and looking back saw the enemy aircraft crash-land about 400 yards short of the field. A wing flew off outside the right jet unit. The plane did not burn.”

This was Yeager’s only encounter with an Me-262. By war’s end he’d posted eleven and one-half victories, most of them over Bf-109s.

Flying the Me-262 in Combat

As Me-262 pilots gained more experience in flying the Me-262 in combat, all were in agreement that special measures should be taken to protect them at the beginning and end of their flights. For one thing, there was a need for the airfields to be more effectively disguised. The pilots concurred that the huge nets over the hangars and other installations were fairly effective, but they felt that overall, the camouflage could be improved.

The runways were the worst problem. They were easy to spot from the air, and scorch marks left on the pavement by jet engine exhausts were a sure tipoff to enemy airmen flying reconnaissance. As much as possible, the pilots said, runways should be hidden when not in use.

For another thing, it would help to have piston fighters fly top cover when Me-262s were taking off and landing. It was obvious that the enemy had quickly become aware of the jets’ vulnerability at those critical times, and that was when they did their hunting. More 88mm flak batteries would be a good idea as well.

Admittedly, only a handful of Me-262s had been lost in combat so far, and some of those were destroyed by AA fire. One such incident had occurred when Lt. Rolf Weidemann was hit over Diest while on a bombing mission. Another was when German flak gunners in Holland mistook Unteroffizier Herbert Schauder’s aircraft for an Allied bomber and shot it down. But the others had been lost while the jets were just getting off the ground, or when they were on final approach.

The talk then turned to tactics. Once aloft, speed was a boon, of course—but it could also be a hindrance, especially if the pilot didn’t know the best way to use it. In a dogfight, the standard practice of scissoring was fine for a Bf-109 or an Fw-190, but not for an Me-262. An astute enemy flier would realize he could outmaneuver an attacking jet by turning inside it, which had been done a number of times. The pilots were aware that making abrupt turns was to be avoided. Bank too sharply in an Me-262 and you ran the risk of engine flameout. It had led to fatal accidents even in practice flights, and if you lost power in combat the game was up.

Therefore, whenever possible, an Me-262 should rely on a fast-closing attack from astern—that was when the jet was at its best. Baudach could attest to that, and so could many of the others. You wanted to line up on the enemy and give him a good squirt with the cannons before he knew you were there. Deflection shots were far more difficult, again because of the jet’s speed. And the Revi gunsight wasn’t much help, either. Any angle greater than 30 degrees usually insured a miss, thanks to the enemy’s ability to break quickly.

Attacks on bombers presented special problems, which were different from engaging a fighter. It was true that Feldwebel Lennartz had easily shot down a B-17 over Stuttgart back in August, but that was because the Fortress had been alone. That in itself was unusual, inasmuch as the bombers almost always flew in large fleets. Their standard battle formations comprised tight combat boxes, which enabled them to protect one another with massed machine-gun fire. An enemy squadron of twelve aircraft formed such a box, with four elements of three aircraft each. A group would have three squadrons, or 36 planes. A wing consisted of three groups, for a total of 108 bombers. On some raids the Allies would fly five or six wings, or even more. And now with hundreds of Mustangs escorting the bombers, the Me-262 pilots were heavily outnumbered.

Although they’d encountered heavies several times since Lennartz’s victory, the jets had claimed only a few kills. The pilots agreed that having to deal with large numbers of fighter escorts was the main obstacle, especially now that the Mustangs were ranging freely out in front of the enemy formations. And even when an Me-262 penetrated the fighter screen and reached the bombers, the jets’ speed was again a factor. Typically the bombers would be flying at about 350 kph, and an Me-262 attacking at more than twice that rate would have little time for a firing pass. If you weren’t a good shot, you had almost no chance to make a hit.

Some pilots felt it would be best to use the boom-and-zoom type of attack, diving on the enemy from above and firing, then pulling up and away. The angle of the dive would present the largest silhouette of the bomber, resulting in more of a target to shoot at. Others said it would be better to continue the dive after firing rather than risk a rapid pull-up. Or maybe boom-and-zoom would be all right if the dive were kept very shallow. The so-called roller coaster attack might also work, though it wouldn’t allow the pilot much time to fire with accuracy.

But what the pilots couldn’t dispute was that no matter how they did it, attacking a Fortress in an Me-262 was a lot better than in an Fw-190 or a Bf-109. Many of the pilots were veterans of such battles, and closing on the tail of an enemy bomber through a hail of .50-caliber bullets was not a pleasant task.

Most of all, the pilots wanted more aircraft. They realized the Messerschmitt plants were doing their best to produce them, but the supply was a trickle. With more Me-262s, they were sure they could blow enough of the Allies out of the sky to make a real difference.

And one other point. Supposedly they were at Lechfeld to form a special jet squadron, which was to be fully staffed with qualified pilots. Ideally, it would be led by a commander who knew his business, yet so far that person hadn’t appeared. When would he?

General Galland answered that question on 26 September, when he ordered Major Walter Nowotny to take charge of the unit. Nowotny had all the ability the Me-262 pilots could hope for, and all the credentials to prove it. Fine-featured and slim, with black hair and a cocky attitude, Nowotny was one of the Luftwaffe’s top aces. Only 23, he’d already posted 255 victories.

Most of the major’s record had been achieved on the eastern front, where his exploits were legendary. On several occasions he’d made multiple kills, knocking down five or six of the enemy in a single battle. And on one memorable day over Leningrad, he shot down ten Soviet aircraft.

He’d also displayed great personal courage. In a dogfight with Soviet I-53s off Riga Bay, his Bf-109 was riddled with machinegun bullets. The battered fighter crashed into the frigid waters, and Nowotny climbed out just as it sank. Cold and wet and bleeding from wounds, he spent three days and nights in a rubber dinghy before reaching shore.

On another sortie, near Novgorod, he destroyed four Ratas while refusing to bail out of his smoking Bf-109. Afterward he crash-landed, and leaped from the flaming wreck as it skidded along the ground. When he recovered from his wounds, he flew an Fw-190 and continued to run up his score.

In recognition of his heroism, Nowotny was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The Luftwaffe then assigned him to administrative duties, rather than risk losing him, but he hated being grounded and agitated constantly to get back into the air. He got his wish when he was sent to Pau for training in an Me-262. The aircraft was made for him. He loved the speed, and the sense that only the best of the best could fly this entirely new and superior type of fighter.

After he took command, the unit was officially dubbed Kommando Nowotny and moved to two airfields in northern Germany. One was at Achmer, the other at nearby Hesepe. Nowotny immediately set about expanding his outfit into a complete fighter gruppe. When at full strength, the gruppe would have three staffeln of 16 aircraft each. There would also be a Stabschwarm, or headquarters flight, consisting of four more. Thus Kommando Nowotny would eventually comprise 52 jet fighters.

Like a good commander, the major listened carefully as his pilots expressed their views. They said that because Me-262s needed a long takeoff run, the runways at Achmer and Hesepe were barely acceptable. Nowotny had them lengthened. Next, the pilots complained about inadequate camouflage. The major saw to it that new, better designed nets holding clumps of brush were made up. He had the nets arranged so that they could be positioned quickly over the airfields, including the runways when they were not in use. Then there was the problem of vulnerability when taking off and landing. Nowotny petitioned General Galland to send piston fighters, so there would be top cover for the jets over both fields. Galland transferred a gruppe of Fw-190s to Achmer. This was III/JG54, commanded by Hauptmann Robert Weiss.

There were four staffeln under Weiss. They were led by Hauptmann Karl Bottlander and Oberleutnants Willy Heilmann, Peter Crump, and Hans Dortenmann. All had extensive combat experience.

Their Focke-Wulf fighter was the D model. Pilots called it the Longnose Dora because it mounted a liquid-cooled 2100 hp Jumo 213A V-12 engine, rather than the air-cooled radial BMW. Armament was two 13mm MG131 machine guns and two 20mm MG151/20E cannons.

Finally, there was the need for more flak batteries. Nowotny applied pressure, and they were installed. The batteries were the latest type, which had been expanded from four 88mm cannons to eight. Each gun would fire 120 rounds per minute, lofting 10 kg shells as high as 10,600 meters, where they would explode in a burst of steel splinters.

The major drilled his pilots hard. He had them fly several times a day, practicing combat maneuvers. The sessions were not without misfortune, however. On 4 October, the Kapitan of 2 Staffel, Hauptmann Alfred Teumer, was on final approach when both his engines failed. The Me-262 slammed to earth, killing him. Nowotny replaced him with Oberleutnant Franz Schall, who had scored 117 kills while serving with I/JG52 in Russia.

The Kommando was still nowhere near full strength, when on 7 October, Nowotny led 11 of his charges to intercept American bombers attacking Magdeburg. The target was an aircraft production plant. When the Me-262s arrived, Nowotny saw that the oncoming bombers were B-24 Liberators. He estimated there were 300 of them, and probably more. They were flying at 6,500 meters, and escorted by P-47s that were apparently equipped with extra fuel tanks to increase their range.

The jets were the first on the scene, though the major knew from radio transmissions that controllers were sending squadrons of piston fighters as well. He could hear the excitement in the pilots’ voices. As he gained altitude in readiness to lead an attack, his flight was seen by the Thunderbolts. The American fighters came up to do battle, but were unable to climb as fast as the jets. Nowotny picked out a P-47, rolled over and dove on it.

The enemy pilot’s wingman must have warned him, because the P-47 broke left in a tight turn and Nowotny was unable to line up for a shot. As he flashed through the swirl of enemy aircraft, he was careful not to handle his Me-262 as roughly as he would an Fw-190, instead recovering gracefully and climbing once more. At that point, a flight of Bf-109s showed up, and the fighting immediately became a series of dogfights. Nowotny and the others in his Kommando tried to break through the P-47s, so as to get at the bombers.

Oberleutnant Franz Schall succeeded. He attacked a Liberator, making the type of shallow dive his fellow airmen felt would be most effective. When he fired his cannons he was only about two hundred meters above the B-24, and the shells hit the cockpit. Apparently the strikes killed the pilot and copilot, because the bomber flipped over and went into an inverted spin, out of control. Schall knew better than to watch it go down. Instead, he pursued another B-24, but had to break off because of machine-gun fire from the bomber and from others in the box.

As the enemy began their bomb runs, Oberfähnrich Heinz Russel ignored warnings about attacking too closely from the rear. He slipped in behind a B-24 and concentrated his fire on the tail. Because of his speed there was time to fire only a few shells, but they silenced the tail gunner and did enough damage to the aircraft to send that one down as well. Unfortunately for Russel, a P-47 caught him just as he was pulling up after firing at the bomber. Pieces of the jet were torn off by the Thunderbolt’s machine guns, and both its engines quit. Russel jettisoned his canopy and bailed out. The crippled 262 had slowed down, but it was still moving so fast that when Russel jumped, it was as if he’d run into a brick wall. Nearly senseless, he opened his parachute by instinct alone. When he landed he was bruised, but thankful to be alive.

Before fuel shortages forced the jets to withdraw, Feldwebel Lennartz again scored. The bomber he attacked had still not dropped its bombs, and when his cannon shells struck the B-24, it exploded.

Oberleutnant Paul Bley also lost his aircraft that day, but not to enemy gunfire. Instead he made too hasty a turn, which caused his engines to fail, and he was unable to restart them. He too bailed out, and like Russel, lived to rejoin the unit and fight again another day.

The P-47 that shot down Russel was flown by Col. Hubert Zemke, commander of the 56th Fighter Group known as Zemke’s Wolf Pack. In the confusion typical of those huge air battles, Zemke thought he had destroyed a Bf-109. It was only when his combat film was viewed that he learned that he’d scored one of the first aerial victories over an Me-262.

As for Nowotny, the major was more than satisfied by the way his pilots had acquitted themselves. They’d made a few mistakes, but by and large they were operating just as he’d hoped. And he was sure the best was yet to come.

On the same day as the Magdeburg raid, another battle took place near Achmer. It began when 8th Air Force Lieutenant Urban Drew of the 362st Fighter Group approached the area in his Mustang. Drew was the leader of the 375th Fighter Squadron, and he and his pilots were returning to base after escorting B-17s in attacks on targets in Czechoslovakia.

There had been reports of Me-262s operating in the vicinity, and Drew was keeping a sharp eye out for them. As he looked down, he was startled to see two twin-engine aircraft taxi onto a runway and take off. Drew realized at once what they were. He ordered his Deputy Squadron Leader, Captain Bruce Rowlett, to cover him.

Drew’s combat report described what happened next:

“Waited until both jets were airborne, then rolled over from 15,000 feet and caught up with one Me-262 when he was 1,000 feet off ground. I was indicating 450 mph. Me-262 couldn’t have been going more than 200 mph. I started firing from approximately 400 yards, 30 degrees deflection, and as I closed, I saw hits all over the wings and fuselage. Just as I passed him I saw a sheet of flame come out from near the right wing root, and as I glanced back I saw gigantic explosions and a sheet of red flame over an area of 1,000 feet. The other Me-262 was 500 yards ahead, and had started a fast climbing turn to the left. I was still indicating 440 mph, and had to haul back to stay with him. I started shooting from about 40 degrees deflection, and hit his tail section. I kept horsing back, and hits crept up his fuselage to his cockpit. Just after that I saw his canopy fly off in two sections, his plane roll over and go into a flat spin. He hit the ground on his back at 60 degrees angle and exploded violently. I did not see the pilot bail out. Two huge columns of smoke came up from the Me-262s burning on the ground.”

The first aircraft Drew destroyed had been flown by Leutnant Gerhard Kobert. The pilot of the second was Oberfeldwebel Heinz Arnold. The action was witnessed from the ground by Hauptmann Georg-Peter Eder, who had intended to lead the flight but was prevented from taking off because of an engine flameout.

For unexplained reasons, Hauptmann Robert Weiss’s Fw-190s were not in the air providing cover when Drew attacked. Also, the crews of the flak batteries were slow in reacting; it wasn’t until the two jets were piles of blazing wreckage that the gunners opened up.

When the 88mm shells began bursting, Drew ordered his wingman, Lieutenant Robert McCandliss, to join him in making evasive maneuvers at treetop level. Instead, McCandliss, who was on his sixteenth mission and had not yet achieved a victory, disobeyed and attacked the flak batteries. That proved to be a mistake. The gunners were only too happy to have a shot at the American pilot who dared strafe them. There were so many batteries in the area that all the crews had to do, was put up a barrage, and the Mustang flew straight into it. The last Urban Drew saw of McCandliss’s Mustang, it was afire from nose to tail and going down. There was nothing to be done for him; the squadron leader flew on.

Drew was not aware of it, but McCandliss had just enough altitude to bail out. He jumped clear, pulled his ripcord, and the chute blossomed. The hard landing sprained his ankles, but otherwise he was not seriously hurt. German troops quickly surrounded him and took him prisoner, and he spent the rest of the war in a Stalag Luft in eastern Germany.

When Drew returned to base, he was anxious to see his combat films, but to his irritation, the gun camera had malfunctioned and he could not verify his claims. The others in his flight had not seen the Me-262s destroyed, so they couldn’t back him up.

In the weeks following the attack at Achmer, the many small plants that were constructing components of the Me-262 increased their efficiency. As a result, the pace of assembly also improved, and the aircraft were turned out in greater numbers. Though most of these were the pure fighter, a few of the fighter-bombers were still being built, even though their performance in combat continued to be less than satisfactory. Not only were they unable to bomb with accuracy, they were also 100 kph slower than the fighters, which made it easier for enemy pilots to shoot them down.

Nevertheless, the Air Ministry was not willing to give up on the idea of the Sturmvogel as Hitler’s high-speed bomber. When Messerschmitt was ordered to come up with a new version, his team designed the Me-262 A/2a/U2. In this aircraft the entire forward section was removed, including the cannons, and a new nose made of glazed wood was fitted in its place. A bombardier lay inside the nose and focused on the target with a Lotfe 7H bombsight. Examples of the jet were sent to Lager Lechfeld for testing.

Flown by Gerd Lindner and Karl Baur, the Me-262 A/2a/U2 achieved good results. According to the test pilots’ reports, bombs dropped from altitudes as high as 5,000 meters landed with acceptable accuracy. But there were problems with the aircrafts’ aerodynamics, and the project stalled. Another version of the Me-262 the team designed was a trainer with two seats in tandem. This would enable instructors to fly with pilots being introduced to the aircraft. Not many of the two-seaters were built; most pilots new to the jet received only ground instruction, and learned by flying it.

As more Me-262s went into service, American fighter pilots kept them busy in dogfights, which prevented many of the jets from attacking the bombers. As a result, most of their victories, as well as their losses, occurred in combat with Mustangs and Thunderbolts. Leutnant Schreiber also had success in engagements with Lightning F-5s, shooting down two of them in one battle on 29 October.

For Schreiber, the day was memorable for another reason as well. The Lightnings belonged to the RAF 7th Photo Recon Group, and were accompanied by Spitfires. After Schreiber got his second kill he pulled up in a climbing right turn, and his Me-262e collided with a Spitfire. Both aircraft burst into flames. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant Wilkins of RAF 4 Squadron, was killed. Although singed and only halfconscious, Schreiber jumped from the burning wreckage and popped his chute. He landed intact, and a day later was back in the air.

Also on 29 October, Feldwebel Büttner and Oberfeldwebel Göbel of Kommando Nowotny ran across a flight of P-47s that were shooting up a train. The low-flying Thunderbolts made perfect targets. Each pilot chose one and dove on it, taking care not to pick up too much speed. One quick burst of cannon fire from the cannons was all that was needed. As the two P-47s spun in, the others quickly rose to give chase, but all they saw were wisps of exhaust smoke as the jets pulled away and disappeared.

With additional Me-262s becoming available, General Galland was eager to establish more units with them. In the first of these, KG54 was given the new designation KG(J)54, and received its jets at the beginning of November. I Group of this unit was established at Giebelstadt, and a second part of it, designated IIKG(J)54, was sent to Neuburg. A training unit was also formed, and stationed at Lechfeld, with Hauptmann Eder appointed commander. The pilots assigned to the unit were all veterans, so instruction simply covered the characteristics of the aircraft. Eder would lead them in combat when he thought they were ready.

A major problem was the growing shortage of J2 jet fuel. Pilots were limited to one hour of flying circuits of the field, two hours of aerobatics, one hour of cross-country, one hour of flying at high altitude, and two hours of practicing formation flight. Many accidents occurred, most of them fatal.

By then American pilots were encountering Me-262s with increasing frequency. On 1 November, three wings of 8th Air Force bombers were en route to bomb Gelsenkirchen, a city on the Rhine, when they were attacked by four jets of Kommando Nowotny. The B-17s and B-24s were escorted by Mustangs of the 20th and 352nd Fighter Groups, as well as Thunderbolts of the 56th Group.

The bombers were flying at 8,500 meters, a higher altitude than usual. But the Me-262s were still higher, and despite the enormous disparity in numbers, the jets dove in with cannons blazing. Oberfeldwebel Willy Banzhaff sent his shells into a Mustang of the 77th Fighter Squadron, killing the pilot, Lt. Dennis Allison. Other Mustangs gave chase, but they had no hope of catching the Me-262. Banzhaff could have escaped altogether, but he committed a tactical error. Instead of continuing his dive, he pulled up. A P-47 pilot, W.L. Groce, shouted into his mike: “Spread out, and we’ll get him if he turns!”

Banzhaff did, climbing and swinging left. Groce and Lieutenant W.T. Gerb of the 352nd poured machine gun and cannon fire into the jet, and its port engine became wreathed in flames. The aircraft went into a spin, and Banzhaff bailed out.

Groce then followed an order that had recently been issued by the USAAF High Command. He came about and fired at the German who was hanging defenseless in his parachute harness. This was a practice Luftwaffe pilots could not believe was happening, but it was. Many Americans as well could hardly believe the order, and refused to carry it out. Fortunately for Banzhaff, Groce missed.

But Banzhaff’s good luck was not to last much longer. On 3 November, he and another member of Kommando Nowotny were flying near Hesepe when they were spotted by the pilot of a Hawker Tempest Mk. V. One of the most powerful piston-engine fighters of the war, the Tempest mounted a 2,400 hp Napier Sabre engine and was armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons. RAF Wing Commander J.B. Wray was at the controls, and reported:

“I was flying at about 18,000 feet when I sighted two Me-262s. They were camouflaged blue-grey and were flying in a southwesterly direction. They saw me and turned in a wide arc to port. I had already launched an attack, opening to full throttle and diving. My speed was in the region of 500 mph. I closed to about three hundred yards on the starboard aircraft and opened fire with a four-second burst, hitting the tailplane. The Me-262 continued on course and started to pull away, but before he got out of range I fired again. Suddenly a large piece flew off the aircraft and he flicked over onto his back and disappeared downwards into cloud in an inverted position. I followed, but the thickness of the cloud made it impossible for me to maintain contact.”

Wing Commander Wray did not learn until after the war that the jet had sustained fatal damage. It crashed at Hitfeld, and its pilot, Willy Banzhaff, was killed.

On 5 November, Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny attacked another fleet of 8th Air Force bombers. Feldwebel Büttner shot down a Mustang and a Thunderbolt, and Oberfeldwebel Baudach also destroyed a Thunderbolt. Nevertheless, they were unable to penetrate the fighter screen and get at the heavies.

By then a few more American fliers were learning the best way to engage the jets. Among them was a pilot who in later years would become one of the world’s most famous airmen. He was Charles E. Yeager.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance I

The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo

October brought weeks of rain to the upper Isonzo valley, turning to sleet on the heights. Italian observers on both sides of the valley glimpsed the river through ragged gaps in the fog. One morning, they saw Habsburg soldiers move steadily up the valley, two abreast on the narrow road, towards the little town of Caporetto. No cause for alarm; they had to be prisoners marching to the rear. Otherwise …

For the Italians, the Twelfth Battle began as something unthinkable. By the time they realised what was happening, they were powerless to stop it. Cadorna liked to say that he led the greatest army in Italy since the Caesars. The last week of October 1917 turned this epic boast inside out; no single defeat in battle had placed Italy in such peril since Hannibal destroyed the Roman legions at Cannae, more than two thousand years before.

The unthinkable had a name: infiltration. On the other side of Europe, while Capello’s Second Army died in droves behind Gorizia, the German Eighth Army rewrote the tactical playbook. It happened on 1 September 1917, around the city of Riga, where the River Dvina flows into the Baltic Sea. Aiming to paralyse the Russian lines rather than demolish them, the preliminary bombardment was abrupt – no ranging shots – and deep, preventing the movement of reserves. Protected by a creeping barrage, the assault troops crossed the river upstream and took the Russians by surprise, punching through their lines from several angles, attacking the weak points without trying to overwhelm all positions at once. The Germans’ mobility and devolved command let them exploit this method to the full.

Their success did not emerge from a vacuum. Since early 1916, if not before, the warring commanders had searched for tactical norms that could, in Hew Strachan’s phrase, ‘re-establish the links between fire and movement which trench warfare had sundered’. Falkenhayn’s initial bid for breakthrough at Verdun sent stormtroopers ahead in groups after massive bombardments that had destroyed French communications. The Russians discovered other elements of infiltration with Brusilov’s brilliant offensive of May 1916. The British tested different attack formations, turning infantry lines into ‘blobs’ or, later, diamonds. Although there was no magic key, infiltration tactics emerged as a solution to attritional deadlock against defences that were ‘crumbling or incomplete’. This was the situation in the Riga salient, where the Russians were preparing to withdraw as the battle began, and the garrison in the city escaped. And it was certainly the situation on Cadorna’s upper Isonzo.

A week before the Riga operation, Emperor Karl wrote to the Kaiser ‘in faithful friendship’. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ‘has led me to believe we should fare worse in a twelfth’. Austria wished to take the offensive, and would be grateful if Germany could replace Austrian divisions in the east and lend him artillery, ‘especially heavy batteries’. He did not ask for direct German participation; indeed he excluded it, for fear of cooling the Austrian troops’ rage against ‘the ancestral foe’. The Kaiser replied curtly and referred the request to Ludendorff. The German general staff had already assessed that the Austrians would be broken by the next Italian offensive, which they expected before the end of the year. If Austria-Hungary collapsed, as it probably would, Germany would be alone: an outcome that had to be prevented. Meanwhile the Austrian high command – ignoring the Emperor’s scruple – had separately suggested a combined offensive.

Ludendorff decided he could spare six to eight divisions until the winter. He dusted off Conrad’s idea for an offensive across the upper Isonzo between Tolmein and Flitsch. Hindenburg, the chief of the general staff, sent one of his most able officers to reconnoitre the ground. An expert in mountain warfare, Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen had served in the Dolomites in 1915 and seen the emergence of fast-moving assault tactics against Romania. He now prepared a plan to drive the Italian Second Army some 40 kilometres back from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento and perhaps beyond, depending on the breakthrough and its collateral impact on the lower Isonzo. It was not intended as a fatal blow; the Germans believed the Italians were so dependent on British and French coal, ore and grain that nothing short of total occupation – which was out of the question – could make them sue for peace. Success would be measured by Italy’s inability to attack again before the following spring or summer.

The first target was a wedge of mountainous territory, five kilometres wide between Flitsch and Saga (now Žaga) in the north, then 25 kilo metres long, from this line to the Austrian bridgehead at Tolmein. The little town of Caporetto lies midway between Saga and Tolmein, near a gap in the Isonzo valley’s western wall of mountains. This breach, leading to the lowlands of Friuli, gave Caporetto a strategic importance quite out of proportion to its size. This had been recognised a century earlier by Napoleon, when he warned his commander in Friuli that if the Austrians broke through here, the next defensible line was the River Piave. South of Caporetto, the valley is a kilometre wide; northwards, the river snakes through a gorge of cliffs and steep hillsides, then broadens again at Saga, where the river angles sharply eastwards. At Flitsch, the valley splays open like a bowl, flanked on the north by Mount Rombon.

Since Austrian military intelligence had cracked the Italian codes earlier in the year, the Central Powers were well informed about enemy dispositions in this labyrinth of ridges rising 2,000 metres, where communications were ‘as bad as could be imagined’. Krafft thought the Italian defences were so shallow that losing this wedge of ground could crack open the front from Gorizia to the Carnian Alps. Eight to 10 divisions at Tolmein and three more at Flitsch should suffice. As at Riga, the artillery would deliver a very violent bombardment, then support the assault by laying down box barrages to isolate enemy units.

Hindenburg created a combined Austro-German force for the purpose, the Fourteenth Army, led by a German general, Otto von Below, with Krafft as his chief of staff. Seven German divisions, all of high quality, would join the three Austrian divisions already on the ground plus an additional two from the Eastern Front, backed by a reserve of five divisions: a total of 17 divisions, supported by 1,076 guns, 174 mortars and 31 engineering companies. It was an Austrian general who proposed applying the new tactics. Alfred Krauss, appointed to command a corps at the northern end of the sector, argued that the attack should proceed along the valley floors, avoiding the high ridges in order to isolate and encircle them. He had made a similar proposal to Conrad in 1916, in vain. This time, his advice was taken. For Cadorna, obsessed with attacking high ground and retaining it at all costs, this proposition would have made no sense. Yet it was appropriate to the terrain north of Tolmein, where the mountain ranges loosely interlock, with the Isonzo threading between them.

The attack was scheduled for mid-October, leaving only five or six weeks to prepare. The roads from the assembly areas beyond the Alps were few and poor, especially from the north; two passes linked Flitsch to the Austrian hinterland, but the roads were narrow. Fortunately the Austrians had a railhead near Tolmein. Some 2,400 convoys brought 140,000 men, a million and a half artillery shells, three million fuses, two million flares, nearly 800 tonnes of explosive, 230,000 steel helmets, 100,000 pairs of boots, 60,000 horses. Then October brought its downpours. The sodden roads sagged under the ceaseless traffic of boots, wheels and hooves. By veiling the massive concentration, however, the bad weather served the Central Powers well. The Germans went to great lengths to keep their presence secret. Transports arrived by night, some units wore Austrian uniforms, others were taken openly to Trentino then secretly moved eastwards. Fake orders were communicated by radio. The Austrian lines on the Carso, 40 kilometres away, were ostentatiously weakened to deter the Italians from transferring men northwards. The German air force, brought in for the first time, photographed the Italian lines and prevented Italian planes from overflying the Austrian lines. The gunners bracketed their targets over a six-day period, to avoid alerting the enemy.

If the Italian observers noticed nothing unusual, this was partly because they expected the front to remain quiet until spring 1918. Austrian deserters talked about an attack in the offing, but their warnings were ignored. By the 24th, the Central Powers had a huge advantage in artillery, trench mortars, machine guns and poison gas on the upper Isonzo, and roughly a 3:2 superiority in men. The Germans crouched like tigers, ready to spring. As for the Austrians, far from being demoralised by sharing their front, they were inspired by the scale of German involvement. Without knowing the whole plan, the troops realised something big was up. The possibility of moving beyond the hated mountains stirred their hearts.

On 18 September, Cadorna put the forces on the Isonzo front on a defensive footing. Without ensuring that his order was implemented, he let himself be absorbed by other matters. He was incensed to discover that Colonel Bencivenga, his chef de cabinet until the end of August (and who was so unhelpful over the Carzano initiative), had criticised his command in high places in Rome. This mattered because Cadorna’s Socialist and Liberal critics were finally making common cause, preparing to challenge his command when parliament opened in mid-October.

He was also vexed by an article in an Austrian newspaper. Cadorna filed every press clipping about himself, with references underlined in crayon. Several months earlier, a Swiss journalist had written that the Austrian lines on the Isonzo were impregnable. After the Tenth Battle, Cadorna sent his card to the journalist with a sarcastic inscription: ‘With spirited compliments on such penetrating prophecies about the strength of the Austrian lines, and hopes that you will never desist from similar insights.’ The insecurity betrayed by this gesture swallowed more urgent priorities. Now he did it again. A provincial newspaper in the Tyrol had commented that Cadorna wasted the first month after Italy’s intervention in May 1915. This criticism was too painfully true to pass; Colonel Gatti had to prepare a rebuttal explaining to readers in Innsbruck that Cadorna had not wasted even a day. (Would his revered Napoleon have written to an English provincial newspaper to explain why he decided not to invade Britain?)

Then he went on holiday with his wife near Venice. The rain was so heavy that he returned early, on 19 October, ‘in excellent spirits: calm, rested, tranquil’. By this point, the Supreme Command had been aware for at least three weeks that an attack was imminent on the upper Isonzo. The presence of Germans was rumoured. Even so, Cadorna’s staff did not take the threat seriously. The Austrians had never launched a big offensive across the Isonzo; why would they do so now, with winter at the door?

As late as 20 October, Cadorna did not expect an Austrian offensive before 1918. On the 21st, two Romanian deserters told the Italians the place and time of the attack. They, too, were ignored. Next day, Cadorna escorted the King to the top of Mount Stol, one of the ridges above Caporetto that link the Isonzo valley to Friuli. They agreed there was no reason to expect anything exceptional. On the 23rd, he predicted there would be no major attack, and said the Austrians would be mad to launch operations out of the Flitsch basin. Even on the morning of the 24th, when the enemy bombardment was under way, Cadorna advised his artillery commanders to spare their munitions, in view of the attack on the Carso that would inevitably follow. Rarely has a commander been exposed so completely as the prisoner of his preconceptions. What Clausewitz called ‘the flashing sword of vengeance’ was poised above his head, and he was unaware. He had little idea what was going on in the minds of his own soldiers; imagining the enemy’s intentions was far beyond him.

At 02:00 on 24 October, the German and Austrian batteries opened up along the 30-kilometre front. The weight and accuracy of fire were unprecedented, smashing the Italian gun lines, observation posts and communications, ‘as if the mountains themselves were collapsing’. According to Krafft von Dellmensingen, even the German veterans of Verdun and the Somme had seen nothing like it. Rather than softening up the enemy, the purpose was to atomise the defence. It succeeded with terrible effect, helped by fog and freezing rain, and more significantly by Italian negligence. For the lines on the upper Isonzo were in a sorry state.

After 18 September, the Duke of Aosta put Cadorna’s order into effect on the Carso, placing the Third Army on the defensive. The lines after the Eleventh Battle were incomplete in many places and lacked depth in most. Batteries had to be moved to less vulnerable locations. Communications along and between the lines were poor, especially at the juncture of command areas; they had to be improved. These humdrum tasks also awaited the Second Army, by far the biggest Italian force, deployed between Gorizia and Mount Rombon. Yet its commander, General Capello, was reluctant; he convened his corps commanders and paid lip-service to ‘the defensive concept’ while urging them to hold ‘the spirit of the counter-offensive’ ever-present in their minds. Capello enjoyed a mystical turn of phrase, and what he meant here was not clear. Probably Krafft von Dellmensingen was right when he wrote in his memoirs that Capello had no idea what was meant by a modern defensive battle. He followed up with an order that his commanders must convince the enemy of ‘our offensive intentions’. Again, Capello wanted to go his own way, and again Cadorna shrank from confronting him.

This confusion was most harmful on the Tolmein–Rombon sector, which was woefully undermanned. Of the Second Army’s 30 divisions, comprising 670,000 men, only ten were deployed north of the Bainsizza plateau. The northern sector had seen little significant action since 1916, and the Supreme Command judged that the mountains formed their own defence. For the same reason, none of the Second Army’s 13 reserve divisions was located north of Tolmein. East of the Isonzo, the troops were concentrated in the front line, depriving the second and third lines of strength, while the mountainous terrain would make it difficult to bring reserves forward, even supposing they could be transferred in time to be effective.

Despite these defects, nothing much was done until the second week of October. By this time, Capello was laid low with a recurrent gastric infection and nephritis. Sometimes he relinquished command and retired to bed or to a military hospital in Padua. This did not improve the efficiency of his headquarters, however. With Capello breathing down his neck and the Supreme Commander ignoring him, the interim commander’s grip was less than assured.

Illness did not shake Capello’s conceit. On 15 October, he was still talking about ‘the thunderbolt of the counter-offensive’. Four more days elapsed before Cadorna unambiguously rejected his request for extra reserves to bolster a visionary operation to push the Austrians back by six kilometres. Another four days passed before Capello explicitly dropped the idea of a counter-offensive. He did not commit himself to Cadorna’s defensive design until late afternoon on 23 October: less than 12 hours before the start of the Twelfth Battle. Incredibly, Cadorna failed to see that the practical unity of his command had been compromised, perhaps beyond repair. There was no clenched fist in charge of the army, as his father had insisted there must be. His worst nightmare had come true, and he could not see it.

The weakest section of the front was strategically the most important, around the Tolmein bridgehead. Commands were blurred; brigades and regiments came and went, and commanding officers were shuffled like playing cards. On the Kolovrat ridge and Mount Matajur, many units that faced the German army on the afternoon of the 24th only reached their positions that morning.

On 10 October, Cadorna ordered the 19th Division to move most of its forces west of the Isonzo. This was significant, for the 19th straddled the valley at Tolmein. The lines in the valley bottom, and on the hills to the west, were in better shape than the lines further east. Cadorna saw that the distribution of men and guns favoured offensive action, and wanted this to be corrected without delay. As the 19th Division was part of XXVII Corps, responsibility for implementing this order lay with the corps commander, Pietro Badoglio. Since his men stormed the summit of Mount Sabotino in August 1916, Badoglio’s career had been meteoric, raising him from lieutenant colonel to general within a year, making him the best-known soldier in the country after Cadorna, Capello, the Duke of Aosta and D’Annunzio. Now, inexplicably, he waited 12 days before implementing Cadorna’s critical order. When the Germans attacked out of Tolmein, fewer than half of the division’s battalions were west of the river, with an even smaller proportion of its medium and heavy guns. Badoglio had ordered the valley bottom to be ‘watched’ (as distinct from defended) by a minimal force. He had also instructed the corps artillery commander not to open fire without his authorisation. Around 02:30 on 24 October, this commander called for permission to fire. Badoglio refused: ‘We only have three days’ worth of shells.’ By 06:30, the telephone link between the corps commander’s quarters and his artillery headquarters, five kilometres away, had been destroyed. The artillery commander stuck to his orders, so there was no defensive fire around Tolmein.

At the northern end of the sector, the Italians were tucked into strong positions along the valley bottom between Flitsch and Saga. If Krauss were to capture this stretch of the river and take the mountain ridge beyond Saga, the Italians had to be rapidly overwhelmed. After knocking out the Italian guns, the Germans fired 2,000 poison-gas shells into the Flitsch basin. The gas was a mixture of phosgene and diphenylchloroarsine; the Italian masks could withstand chlorine gas, but not this. Blending with fog, the yellowish fumes went undetected until too late. As many as 700 men of the Friuli Brigade died at their posts. Observers on the far side of the basin scanned the valley positions, saw soldiers at their posts, and reported that the attack had failed. The dead men were found later, leaning against the walls of their dug-outs and trenches, faces white and swollen, rifles gripped between stiff knees.

(In Udine, 40 kilometres from Flitsch, Cadorna rises at 05:00, as always, to find his boots polished and uniform ironed by his bedside. After breakfasting on milk, coffee and savoyard biscuits with butter, he writes the daily letter to his family. This morning, he remarks that the worsening weather favours the defence. He is, he adds, perfectly calm and confident. At the 06:00 briefing, he learns that the second line on the upper Isonzo is under heavy shelling. He interprets the fact that there has been no assault as support for his view that this attack is a feint, intended to divert attention from the Carso.)

Zero hour was 07:30. The Austrian units spread into the fogbound valley below Mount Rombon. There was not much fighting; the powerful batteries at the bend in the river, by Saga, had been silenced. In mid-afternoon, the Italian forward units on Rombon were ordered to fall back to Saga after dark. With Austrians above and below them, their position was untenable. After burning everything that could not be carried, the three alpini battalions traversed the northern valley slopes while their attackers felt their way south of the river.

The Austrians reached Saga at dawn on the 25th to find it empty: the Italians had pulled back overnight to higher ground. For Saga guards the entrance to the pass of Uccea, leading westward. The southern side of this pass is formed by Mount Stol. The Italians hoped to block access to the Uccea pass from positions on Stol. Daylight illumines the high ridges before the valleys emerge from shadow. The Austrians entering Saga would look up at the Italian positions on Stol, and know that very little stood between them and the plains of Friuli.

It was a spectacular day’s work by the Krauss Corps. At the other end of the wedge, around Tolmein, progress had been even more dramatic. As we move there, let us pause over the sharp ridges that radiate like spokes from Mount Krn, and look more closely at one of the batteries that stayed silent on 24 October.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance II

The Italian third line between Flitsch and Tolmein ran along one of these ridges, called Krasji. One of the crags was occupied by an antiaircraft battery under Lieutenant Carlo Emilio Gadda, 5th Regiment of Alpini. No more eccentric character fought on the front. Later in life, he became modern Italy’s most original writer of fiction, the author of labyrinthine (and virtually untranslatable) novels that manage to be confessional and evasive, playful and melancholy, learned and rawly emotional all at once. His work weaves rich patterns of neurotic digression; the narrative escapes from a compelling, intolerable memory or emotion by fastening onto some unrelated motif which meanders helplessly back toward the source of pain, obliging the next brilliant deviation.

Born in Milan in 1893, Gadda broke off his studies in engineering to volunteer in 1915. He was an unhappy son of the repressed middle class, one of many in his generation for whom the war meant escape from claustrophobic homes, protective mothers, dull prospects and the general powerlessness of young men in a world ruled by grey beards and wing-collars. Idealistic, upright and naïve, distracted ‘to the point of cretinism’ as he said of himself, Gadda kept his real views on the war hidden from fellow officers and his men. For he was privately scathing about incompetent commanders, politicians and ‘that stuttering idiot of a King’. Nor was he sentimental about the other ranks; their low cunning (furberia) and lack of discipline would, he feared, lead the country to fail its first great test since unification. Yet he loved the comradeship and heroism of war, and dreaded returning to the muddles of civilian life. By October 1917, he had seen action in the Alps and on the Carso.1 He was perching on a crag above the Isonzo in October 1917 because he wanted to be there; he had let another officer take the spell of leave to which he was entitled.

Looking north, towards the enemy, Gadda would have seen the Italian first line on the opposite ridge, roughly two kilometres away. The second line was a thousand metres below, on the valley floor. On the map, it all looked convincing enough. In fact, the lines were extremely vulnerable. Word came down the wire from sector HQ at 02:00 on 23 October that enemy artillery fire would commence at once, beginning with gas shells. It did not happen; the sector stayed quiet all day, which Gadda and his 30 men – who had only recently arrived on their crag – spent in strengthening positions along the eastern ridge, leading to Krn. The weather had been bad for days, and that night the temperature dropped below zero.

They are awoken at 02:00 on the 24th by the ‘very violent’ bombardment of Flitsch, four or five kilometres north. Dawn breaks in thick fog and sleet, and is followed by enemy fire of pinpoint accuracy. Gadda realises that the Austrians want to break the telephone wire linking the batteries along the ridge. They soon succeed. The fog partly disperses, though it still shrouds the first and second lines. The men peer into it. No sounds reach them. Gadda interprets the eerie silence as proof that the Genoa Brigade, in front of them, is putting up a poor show. He worries about hitting his own forward lines if he opens fire in the fog. Several nerve-straining hours later, they hear machine guns further along their ridge towards Flitsch and glimpse men a few hundred metres away: either the Italians retreating or the Austrians giving chase.

Around 15:00, the small-arms fire is drowned out by massive detonations from the Isonzo valley, at their backs. This fills the men with dread. (The Italians are blowing up the munitions dumps and bridge at Caporetto before withdrawing.) Then silence settles again. (They do not know it, but their divisional commander has just ordered all the troops in their sector to fall back. Too late! The only bridges over the Isonzo have been blown or captured.) That night, the men lie down beside their machine guns, expecting the enemy to storm the ridge at every moment.

Further south, around Tolmein, zero hour on the 24th loosed an attack with several prongs. The main thrust was directed against high ground west of the Isonzo. Two German divisions and an Austrian division radiated out of the bridgehead and over the river, striking up the steep flanks and spurs that lead to the high ridges. Again the initial bombardment was highly effective, smashing the Italian cordon around the bridgehead. By nightfall, despite stiff resistance at some points, the attackers had captured the summits that Krafft identified as keys to Italian control.

North of Tolmein and east of the Isonzo, an Austrian division overran the fragile lines below the summit of Mount Mrzli, which the Italians had tried so hard to capture since 1915. With Badoglio’s artillery standing silent, the Italians were rolled back towards the valley bottom, where six German battalions advanced on both sides of the river, meeting little resistance. By noon, the rain had turned to sleet and the Germans occupied Kamno, a hamlet halfway to Caporetto.

Around midday, between Kamno and Caporetto, the Germans clashed with a platoon of the 14th Regiment, 4th Bersaglieri Brigade. One of the Italians involved in that firefight, Delfino Borroni, is the last Italian veteran of the Twelfth Battle, still alive at this time of writing. His regiment reached Cividale on the 22nd and marched through the rainy night to the second line. They got to Livek, overlooking the Isonzo, very early on the 24th. Wet and hungry, the men found a store of chestnuts in one of the buildings and roasted them over a fire. Corporal Borroni (b. 1898) gorged himself, and had to run outside at the double. As he crouched in the bushes, trousers round his knees, the commanding officer called his platoon to fall in. ‘Fix bayonets, boys, we’re going down!’ They crept towards the valley bottom in the darkness and waited for several hours, wondering what was going on. Eventually the Germans loom out of the mist. In Borroni’s memory, they are a grey swarm, a cloud. With the advantage of surprise, the Italians take them all prisoner: a detachment of some 80 men. The next German unit arrives at noon with machine guns and forces the Italians back up the hill to Livek.

At 12:15, as Borroni and his men are ducking the machine-gun fire near Caporetto, Cadorna is still asking how many guns the Second Army can spare for the Third Army, to parry the expected thrust on the Carso.

The enemy reaches the edge of Caporetto at 13:55. A few Italian officers try to stem the flood of troops retreating through the town. Those with rifles are pulled out of the crowd; the rest are allowed to go on their way, so as not to clog up the streets. When the men see this, they start throwing away their rifles. They look as if they hate the war more than the enemy. At 15:30, the retreating Italians blow the bridge over the Isonzo. Caporetto is captured half an hour later, along with 2,000 Italian prisoners. When German bugles sound in the main square, the Slovene citizens pour onto the street ‘to welcome their German liberators’     

The right flank of the force that attacked westwards out of Tolmein at 08:00 was formed by the Alpine Corps, a specialist mountain unit of division size, comprising Bavarian regiments and the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. The WMB included nine companies, staffed and equipped to operate autonomously.

During this tumultuous day, the Supreme Command receives essential information after hours of delay or not at all. By late morning, word reaches Udine through Capello’s headquarters that the enemy has attacked out of Tolmein. During the afternoon, dribs of news indicate that the Isonzo valley has been occupied and the hills west of Tolmein are falling like dominoes. Along the front, telephone lines go dead or are answered by guttural voices. Staff officers are in denial, and corps commanders start to trade blame. Capello orders his reserves to the front, unaware that any fresh forces will arrive too late to make a difference. (The speed of the enemy advance is still unimaginable.) Several divisions collapse. In some places, the reserves push their way to the line against a current of abusive comrades. Almost nothing of this is known at the Supreme Command, where Cadorna telegraphs all Second Army units: ‘The great enemy offensive has begun.’ The Supreme Command puts its trust in the heroic spirit of all commanders, officers and men, who will know how to ‘win or die’. But the Second Army officers do not know how to win, and the men do not want to die.

In Rome, parliament debates a Socialist motion for an official inquiry into alleged secret foreign funding of pro-war newspapers in 1914 and 1915. In the words of a Socialist deputy, ‘The country has the right to know if the hands of those who are responsible for the war, who incited it and urged it on, are filthy not with blood, but with money.’ In the late afternoon, the minister of war, General Giardino, takes the floor. The chamber is packed. Instead of defending the interventionist press, however, Giardino argues against an unrelated proposal to demobilise some of the older draft classes. After reading out parts of Cadorna’s bulletin about enemy preparations for an attack, he warns that this is not the time to reduce strength. The enemy is poised to exploit dissension. ‘Let them attack,’ he perorates, ‘we are not afraid.’ The deputies thunder approval. (The next day, Corriere della Sera reports that the delirium in parliament was like the heady days of May 1915.) Back at his ministry, Giardino finds an urgent telegram from Udine: the enemy are attacking Caporetto, they have taken thousands of prisoners and huge quantities of weapons.

Around 18:00, Gatti sees Cadorna ‘serene and smiling’ amid the tumult at the Supreme Command, still half-convinced the real attack will follow on the Carso. He reviews the daily bulletin, which claims that the enemy has concentrated his forces on the front for an attack which ‘finds us strong and well prepared’ – a phrase that makes Gatti wince. The Italian guns are responding with ‘violent salvoes’.

Cadorna does not know that the batteries have been silent all day. By 22:00, the scales are falling from his eyes. The Italians have been forced back to Saga and Kolovrat. Maybe 20,000 men have been captured. It is unlikely that the line can be held. He orders Capello to prepare the withdrawal of all forces on the Bainsizza plateau. Then he retires to take a strategic decision: should the Second Army retreat? Instead of assessing the situation on its merits, he lets hope persuade him that all may not be lost. He defines three new defensive lines, west of the Isonzo. On paper they look viable; in reality, even a highly disciplined army would be challenged to build secure positions while retreating through mountains. In a separate order, he instructs Capello and the Duke of Aosta to strengthen the defences on the River Tagliamento.

By now, some 14 infantry regiments and many battalions of alpini and bersaglieri have succumbed. As one of the staff officers milling around the Supreme Command, picking up snippets of news each more appalling than the last, Gatti cannot believe what he hears. ‘Monstrous,’ he writes helplessly in his diary, ‘inconceivable’. Surely he will wake tomorrow and find it is all a dream.

The skies cleared overnight, as wind thinned the fog and low cloud. Very few telephone lines were still working. Cadorna took solace in writing to his family: ‘If things go badly now, how they’ll pounce on me. What a wonderful country this is! Let God’s will be done.’ At 07:00, he ordered a withdrawal from Mount Korada, south of Tolmein. This was a strategic position, protecting the Bainsizza line and blocking enemy access to Friuli. He still hesitated to order a general retreat to the Tagliamento; he knew how fragile the rear defences were, and feared that the Third and Fourth Armies, and the Carnia Corps, might be cut off. At 08:30 he took Gatti aside. This might look like the Austrian attack in Trentino in spring 1916, he said, but it was much more serious. ‘Napoleon himself could not do anything in these conditions.’ He blamed the soldiers. ‘My personal influence cannot reach two million men,’ he protested. ‘Not even Napoleon could do that, in his Russian campaign.’  

In the north, the Krauss Corps pressed westwards to the pass of Uccea and south to join up with the Germans at Caporetto. Italian forces east of the Isonzo were trapped, whether they knew it or not. The night passed quietly for Lieutenant Gadda and his gunners on their crag, except for occasional explosions and flares in the valley behind them. Lacking information and orders, Gadda did not know what to think or do. Yesterday’s bombardment of their ridge was heavy, but he had survived much worse on the Carso. Their munitions were almost exhausted, so they could not expect to resist for long. Or might they use the fog to trick the Austrians into thinking the ridge was strongly defended? Gadda and his men could not know it, but they were victims of a perfect application of the Riga tactics. Isolated and confused, they could be left to surrender in their own time while the enemy pressed ahead.

Around 03:00 on the 25th, a messenger brings orders to retreat across the Isonzo. Caporetto has fallen: it is in enemy hands. Gadda leads his men down the mountain an hour later, carrying all their equipment, in complete darkness. ‘My heart was broken,’ he wrote later. Italian positions on the surrounding ridges are in flames. They pass groups of men from the Genoa Brigade with no officers, and hundreds of mules abandoned or killed in yesterday’s shelling. They reach the river around 11:00 and see Italian troops, unarmed, on the far side of the river, apparently heading for Caporetto. Can it still be in Italian hands after all, or has it been recaptured? His unit of 30 has grown to a thousand or so. Enemy troops are converging towards them, they have to cross the river which runs through a steep gorge, and is in spate, five or six metres wide and very fast, barring the way. Their dream of pushing Italy’s frontier beyond ‘this cursed Isonzo’ returns to mock them.

Ranging along the bank, they find a rickety bridge of planks lashed together with telephone wire, swaying over the torrent with a metal cable as railing. It would take all day to file across. He moves upstream, hoping the enemy has not broken through further north, towards Flitsch. Soldiers coming the other way tell him the next bridge upstream has been dropped. He cannot bear to believe them, and harangues them for spreading defeatist rumours. Then he sees the blown bridge and leads his men back to the plank bridge, their only hope.

There are troops in black uniforms on the far side of the river, moving up from Caporetto. His heart leaps: ‘Look! Reinforcements!’ Then he hears machine-gun and rifle fire, and realises the appalling truth: the Germans are on both sides of the river. Some soldiers try to cross the plank bridge and are targeted by machine guns concealed across the valley. The Italians throw their rifles away and cross the planks to surrender, obeying German officers who direct the movement of men with whistles, like football referees. The heap of rifles, machine guns, cartridge clips and ammunition belts at the water’s edge rises higher. Even if they hid until nightfall, Gadda’s unit would not be able to cross ‘the terrible, insuperable Isonzo’. It would be pointless to hold out, childish even. With a heavy heart, he orders his men to put their guns beyond use. They walk the plank one by one.

The prisoners are marched to Caporetto. The Germans treat them correctly; there is no brutality. A drunken Italian soldier drops his bottle of wine at the edge of the village, staining the dust crimson. Gadda and a fellow officer manage to steal some shirts and a uniform from abandoned houses. Later, he will wish he had stuffed his pockets with biscuit from an abandoned wagon. The Germans are setting up offices, using captured Italian staff cars as well as their own to move along the valley. Groups of soldiers wander around, German and Italian, some of them drunk. Dead men and mules litter the streets. It is a fine warm afternoon. Two whores stop them and ask for introductions to the German officers. Gadda’s gallant comrade asks the girls what plans they have now. ‘Italians or Germans,’ they say, ‘it is all the same to us!’ Their carefree answer mortifies Gadda, who realises that the day’s evil has not yet been drained.

Soon he is on his way to prison camp in Austria, ‘marching from midnight to 8 a. m.: horror, extremely sleepy and exhausted … The end of hope, annihilation of interior life. Extreme anguish for the fatherland.’ Capture is, above all, shameful. Over the next year, as he slowly starves, disgrace feeds on him. Reflecting endlessly on the defeat, he blames it on the Italian generals and their lack of foresight. Yet Gadda feels that prison is a justified punishment; the army has not risen to meet history’s challenge. Marches, battles and retreats haunt his sleep. He imagines family and friends reproaching him: ‘You let them get past … ’

During the morning of the 25th, an image of disaster emerged from the information reaching the Supreme Command: breakthroughs all along the front; morale collapsing; thousands of men making their way to the rear. The first towns west of the mountains were already threatened. Defence on the hoof was not working. Cadorna’s best if not only chance of avoiding catastrophe was to pull back the Second Army to a line far enough west to regroup before the enemy reached them. Capello advised a general retreat to the River Torre or the Tagliamento. When Cadorna disagreed, Capello took himself off to hospital in Padua. Next morning, he offered to return; Cadorna declined: he had enough on his plate without an ailing and probably sulking Capello. Where the two men saw eye to eye was in blaming many regiments for not doing their duty. Late in the afternoon, Cadorna wrote to his son: 

The men are not fighting. That’s the situation, and plainly a disaster is imminent … Do not worry about me, my conscience is wholly clean … I am very calm indeed and too proud to be affected by anything that anybody can say. I shall go and live somewhere far away and not ask anything of anyone.

By the end of the second day, the Central Powers controlled the Isonzo north of Tolmein. Mount Stol and the Kolovrat–Matajur ridge were on the point of falling. In the south, Badoglio had apparently abandoned his divisions after, or even before, they disintegrated, putting the middle Isonzo in jeopardy. The Duke of Aosta continued to prepare a retreat, moving his heavy batteries westward.

Still Cadorna procrastinated. He painted an encouraging view in the daily bulletin, claiming falsely that Saga had not fallen and that the enemy had made headway further south because Italian interdiction fire had been negated by fog. Then he telegraphed the government: ‘Losses are very heavy. Around ten regiments have surrendered without fighting. A disaster is looming, I shall resist to the last.’ Before this grim message reached Rome, the government lost a vote of confidence by 314 to 96 votes. The Socialists and anti-war Liberals had brought Boselli down. Cadorna predicted correctly that the new prime minister would be his main enemy in the cabinet, Vittorio Orlando.

Meanwhile soldiers streamed westwards, throwing away their rifles and chanting ‘The war’s over! We’re going home! Up with the Pope! Up with Russia!’ Around midnight Cadorna, Porro and the King were in a car together, returning to Udine from the front, when thousands of troops enveloped them, singing the ‘Internationale’ as they passed. Cadorna turned to his deputy: ‘Why doesn’t someone shoot them?’ Porro shrugged.

The fine weather, the enemy advance, the Italian rout, and Cadorna’s hesitancy all persisted throughout the 26th. Survivors of the Second Army were in full retreat; vast numbers of men funnelled through the few roads leading westwards, throwing away their weapons, burning whatever could not be carried, blowing up bridges and looting as they went: ‘infantry, alpini, gunners, endlessly’, as one of them remembered. ‘They move on, move on, not saying a word, with only one idea in their head: to reach the lowland, to get away from the nightmare.’ The hillsides below the roads were littered with wagons that had tumbled off the roads; ‘The horses lay still, alive or dead, hooves in the air.’

Civilians joined the stampede; the roads were clogged with carts, often drawn by oxen, piled high with chattels. The British volunteer ambulance unit watched the ‘long dejected stream’ pass along the road to Udine all day: ‘soldiers, guns, endless Red Cross ambulances, women and children, carts with household goods, and always more guns and more soldiers – all going towards the rear’. A British Red Cross volunteer saw how ‘the panic blast ran through the blocked columns – “They’re coming!”’ The command made no apparent effort to control the movement or clear the roads for guns and troops.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance III

Cadorna issued an order of the day, warning that the only choice was victory or death. The harshest means would be used to maintain discipline. ‘Whoever does not feel that he wins or falls with honour on the line of resistance, is not fit to live.’ He elaborated his instructions to the Second and Third Armies for an eventual retreat, and put the Carnia Corps and the Fourth Army on notice to retire beyond the River Piave.

What forced his hand was the loss that evening of Gran Monte, a summit west of Stol. At 02:50 on the 27th, he ordered the Third Army to retreat to the River Tagliamento. The same order went out to the Second Army an hour later. Yet 20 of the Second Army’s divisions were still in reasonable order, withdrawing from the Bainsizza and Gorizia. Cadorna’s priority should have been the safe retirement of these divisions – more than 400,000 men – behind the River Tagliamento. In his mind, however, the Second Army in its entirety was guilty. Perhaps this explains his decision to make the Second Army use only the northern bridges across the Tagliamento, reserving the more accessible routes for the ten divisions of the Third Army, which retreated ‘in good order, unbroken and undefeated’, burning the villages as well as its own ammunition dumps as it went, so that ‘the whole countryside was blazing and exploding’. This question of the bridges was critical, for the bed of the Tagliamento is up to three kilometres wide and the river was high after the rain, hence impassable by foot.

Between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento, the decomposing Second Army was left to its own devices. In the absence of proper plans for a retreat, there was nothing to arrest its fall. As commanding officers melted away in the tumult, key decisions were taken by any officer on hand, using his own impressions and whatever scraps of information came his way. According to a captain who testified to the Caporetto commission, the soldiers appeared to think the war was over; they were on their way home, mostly in high spirits, as if they had found the solution to a difficult problem.

A minor episode described in a letter to the press in 1918 illustrates the point. A lieutenant told the surviving members of his battalion that they would counter-attack soon, orders were on the way. Instead of orders, a sergeant came cycling along the road. When they stopped him and asked what was going on, he said the general and all the other bigwigs had run away.

‘Then we’re going too,’ someone said, and we all shouted ‘That’s right, we have had enough of the war, we’re going home.’ The lieutenant said ‘You’ve gone mad, I’ll shoot you’, but we took his pistol away. We threw our rifles away and started marching to the rear. Soldiers were pouring along the other paths and we told them all we were going home and they should come with us and throw their guns away. I was worried at first, but then I thought I had nothing to lose, I’d have been killed if I’d stayed in the trenches and anything was better than that. And then I felt so angry because I’d put up with everything like a slave till now, I’d never even thought of getting away. But I was happy too, we were all happy, all saying ‘it’s home or prison, but no more war’.

All along the front, variants on this scene convey a sense that a contract had been violated, dissolving the army’s right to command obedience. Nearly 400 years before, in his ‘Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians’, Niccolò Machiavelli had warned his Prince that ‘all-Italian armies’ performed badly ‘because of the weakness of the leaders’ and the unreliability of mercenaries. The best course was ‘to raise a citizen army; for there can be no more loyal, more true, or better troops’. They are even better, he added, ‘when they find themselves under the command of their own prince and honoured and maintained by him’. Machiavelli the great realist would not have been surprised by the size of the bill that Cadorna was served after dishonouring his troops so consistently, and neglecting their maintenance so blatantly, for two and a half years.

On the third day of the offensive, the Austrians and Germans gave the first signs that they would not convert a brilliant success into crushing victory. Demoted in spring 1917 from chief of the general staff to commander on the Tyrol front, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf had to sit and watch as von Below’s Fourteenth Army turned the tables on the hated enemy. Now he called for reinforcements so he could attack the Italian left flank. At best, Cadorna’s Second, Third and Fourth Armies and Carnia Corps would be trapped behind a line from Asiago to Venice, perhaps forcing Italy to accept an armistice. At the least, the Italians would be too distracted by the new threat to establish viable lines on the River Tagliamento.

Although Conrad’s reasoning was excellent, the Germans were not ready to increase their commitment or let the Austrians pull more divisions from the Eastern Front. Any Habsburg units which might be released by Russia’s virtual withdrawal from the war had to be sent to the Western Front, where the Germans were hard pressed by the British in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). All Conrad got were two divisions and a promise that any others no longer needed on the Isonzo would be sent to the Trentino for an offensive by five divisions, to commence on 10 November. But five divisions were pathetically few for the task, and 10 November would be too late.

Cadorna’s enemies had not expected such a breakthrough. As late as the 29th, Ludendorff stated that German units would not cross the Tagliamento. By this point, Boroević’s First Army (on the Carso) and Second Army (around the Bainsizza) should have been storming after the Italian Third Army. This did not happen, due to bad liaison between commanders, exhaustion, and the temptations of looting. As a result, the Third Army crossed the Tagliamento in good order at the end of October. Both divisions of the Carnia Corps also reached safety with few losses. Von Below would characterise the Austrian Tenth Army, that should have outflanked the Carnia Corps, as not ‘very vigorous in combat’.

On the afternoon of the 27th, the Supreme Command decamped from Udine to Treviso. Cadorna did not leave a deputy to organise the retreat. Was this an oversight or a logical expression of his belief that he was irreplaceable? Or was he punishing soldiers who had, as he believed, freely chosen not to fight? Let the cowards and traitors of the Second Army make their own shameful ways to the Tagliamento; they had forfeited the right to assistance.

By the following morning, the Supreme Command was installed in a palazzo in Treviso, more than 100 kilometres from the front. Over breakfast in his new headquarters, the chief talked about the art and landscape of Umbria, impressing his entourage with his serenity, a mood that presumably owed something to the King’s and the government’s affirmations of complete confidence in his leadership. (Meanwhile the enemy reached the outskirts of Udine, finding them ‘almost deserted with broken windows, plundered shops, dead drunk Italian soldiers and dead citizens’.) Before lunch Cadorna released the daily bulletin, blaming the enemy breakthrough on unnamed units of the Second Army, which had ‘retreated contemptibly without fighting or surrendered ignominiously’. Realising how incendiary these allegations were, the government watered down the text. It was too late: the original version had gone abroad and was already filtering back into Italy.

Late on the 28th, the enemy crossed the prewar border into Italy. The Austrian military bulletin was gleeful: ‘After five days of fighting, all the territory was reconquered that the enemy had laboriously taken in eleven bloody battles, paying for every square kilometre with the lives of 5,400 men.’ The Isonzo front ceased to exist. By the 29th, the Second and Third Armies were being showered with Austrian leaflets about Cadorna’s scandalous bulletin. ‘This is how he repays your valour! You have shed your blood in so many battles, your enemy will always respect you … It is your own generalissimo who dishonours and insults you, simply to excuse himself!’

An order on 31 October authorised any officer to shoot any soldier who was separated from his unit or offered the least resistance. This made a target of ten divisions of the Second Army. The worst abuses occurred near the northern bridges over the Tagliamento, where commanders who had abandoned their men days earlier saw a chance to redeem themselves.

The executions at Codroipo would provide a climactic scene in the only world-famous book about the Italian front: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking … No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the skyline. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm … The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on … They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops … So far they had shot everyone they had questioned.

The narrator is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with the Second Army ambulance unit. Caught up in the retreat from the Bainsizza, he is arrested on the bridge as a German spy. As he waits his turn with the firing squad, Henry escapes by diving into the river. ‘There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time.’ He is swept downstream, away from the front and out of the war. Immersion in the Tagliamento breaks the spell of his loyalty to Italy. ‘Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation … I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honour. I was not against them. I was through … it was not my show any more.’

The deaths in Hemingway’s chapter on Caporetto involve Italians killing each other. The enemy guns are off-stage, heard but not seen, while German troops are glimpsed from a distance, moving ‘smoothly, almost supernaturally, along’ – a brilliant snapshot of Italian awe. Henry shoots and wounds a sergeant who refuses to obey orders; his driver, a socialist, then finishes the wounded man off (‘I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I’ve wanted to kill a sergeant’). The driver later deserts to the Austrians, a second driver dies under friendly fire, then there is the scene at the Tagliamento. It is a panorama of internecine brutality and betrayal, devoid of heroism. With the army self-destructing, nothing makes sense except Henry’s passion for an English nurse. Caporetto is much more than a vivid backdrop for a love story: it is an immense allegory of the disillusion that, in Hemingway’s world, everyone faces sooner or later. Henry’s desertion becomes a grand refusal, a nolo contendere untainted by cowardice, motivated by a disenchantment so complete that it feels romantic: a new, negative ideal which holds more truth than all the politics and patriotism in the world.

By 1 November, there were no Italian soldiers east of the Tagliamento. Cadorna had hoped to hold the line long enough to regroup much of the Second Army. Instead, early next day, an Austrian division forced its way across a bridge on the upper Tagliamento that had not been completely destroyed. This gave heart to a German division trying to ford the river further south. When both bridgeheads were consolidated, Cadorna faced the danger that most of his Second Army and all of his Third Army could be enveloped from the north. On the morning of 4 November, he ordered a retreat to the Piave line. The Austro-German commanders redefined their objectives: the Italians should be driven across the River Brenta – beyond Venice! However, Ludendorff was not yet convinced. By the time he changed his mind, on 12 November, approving a combined attack from the Trentino, the Italians had stabilised a new line on the River Piave and Anglo-French divisions were arriving from the Western Front.

Haig commented privately on 26 October that, ‘The Italians seem a wretched people, useless as fighting men but greedy for money. Moreover, I doubt whether they are really in earnest about this war. Many of them, too,’ he added for good measure, ‘are German spies.’ Although these prejudices were widely shared in London and France, the Allies were shocked by the speed of the disintegration and alarmed at its potential impact: if Italy were to be neutralised along with Russia, Austria would be free to support Germany on the Western Front. On 28 October, with Friuli ‘ablaze from end to end’, Britain and France agreed to send troops. Robertson and Foch, the respective chiefs of staff, offered six divisions: hardly enough to bail out their ally, but sufficient to bolster the defence and buy London and Paris political leverage that could be used to unseat the generalissimo.

The deed was done at an inter-Allied meeting in Rapallo, on 6 November. General Porro’s presentation dismayed the British and French; his vagueness about the facts of the situation and his pessimism confirmed that change at the top was overdue. There was even talk of retreating beyond the Piave to the River Mincio, losing the whole of the Veneto. In a stinging rebuff to the Supreme Command, and specifically to Cadorna’s allegations of 28 October, the British stated that they were ready to trust their troops to the bravery of the Italian soldiers but not to the efficiency of their commanders. When Porro tried to speak, Foch told him to shut up. On behalf of Britain and France, Lloyd George insisted on ‘the immediate riddance of Cadorna’. This gave cover to Orlando’s government of ‘national resistance’, which wanted Cadorna to go but feared a showdown. In return for an Italian pledge to hold the line on the Piave, the British and French increased their promised support to five and six divisions respectively.

As the flood of Italian troops ebbed towards the Piave and the Supreme Command reasserted control over shattered units, the Central Powers made errors. Instead of striking from the north-west as von Below and Boroević swept in from the east, Conrad’s underpowered army advanced to the southern edge of the Asiago plateau and no further. The Krauss Corps was sent north to secure Carnia instead of pursuing the Italians westward.

After the war, Hindenburg described his disappointment over Caporetto. ‘At the last the great victory had not been consummated.’ Krauss accused Boroević of failing to clinch victory over the Third Army. These recriminations reflect the bitterness of overall defeat in the World War, which made Caporetto look like a missed opportunity. Piero Pieri, the first notable historian of the Italian war, put his finger on the problem: the Central Powers had, on this occasion, lacked ‘the annihilating mentality’.

King Victor Emanuel had his finest hour on 8 November, rising to the moment with a speech affirming his faith in Italy’s destiny. That day, the Second and Third Armies completed their crossing of the River Piave, which was running high after heavy rain. At noon on the 9th, the engineers dropped the bridges.

The new line lay some 150 kilometres west of the Isonzo. The fulcrum of the line was a rugged massif called Grappa, some 20 kilometres square. If Grappa fell, the Italians would be vulnerable both from the north and the east. After the Austrian attack of May and June 1916, Cadorna had planned to fortify Mount Grappa with roads, tunnels and trenches. In effect it was the fifth defensive line from the Isonzo. Engineering in mountainous terrain was what the Italian army did best, yet these works were hardly in hand when the Twelfth Battle began: a single track and two cableways to the summit, a water-pumping station, some barbed wire, and gun emplacements facing the wrong way (westwards).

When the Krauss Corps and then von Below’s Fourteenth Army hit the Grappa massif in mid-November, like the last blows of a sledgehammer, the Italians were almost knocked back onto the plains. Conrad quipped that they hung on to the south-western edge of Grappa like a man to a window-ledge. The Supreme Command packed 50 battalions onto Grappa – around 50,000 men, including many recruits from the latest draft class. The ensuing struggle was a battle in itself; the situation was only saved at the end of December, with timely help from a French division – the Allies’ sole active contribution to the defence after Caporetto. This achievement gave birth to two new, much-needed myths: the defence of Mount Grappa was acclaimed as a victory that saved the kingdom, and the ‘boys of ’99’, sent straight from training to perform miracles, proved that Italian fighting mettle was alive and well.

Foch and Robertson would have preferred the Duke of Aosta to replace Cadorna. This was said to be inappropriate because the Duke was a cousin of the King; in truth, it was impossible because Victor Emanuel loathed his tall, handsome cousin. So they accepted the government’s proposal of General Armando Diaz, with Badoglio and Giardino as joint deputies.

Diaz, a 57-year-old Neapolitan, had risen steadily through the ranks. After the Libyan war, in which he showed a rare talent for winning the affection and respect of his regiment, he served as General Pollio’s chef de cabinet. After a year in the Supreme Command, he asked to be sent to the front, where his calm good humour was noticed by the King, among others. He led the XXIII Corps on the Carso with no particular distinction. A brother general described him as a fine man and a good soldier but completely adaptable, ‘like pasta’, with no ideas of his own. Cadorna’s court journalists scoffed at the appointment, and Gatti was withering (‘Who knows Diaz?’).

Diaz would vindicate the King’s trust. News of his promotion, on 8 November, struck him like a bolt of lightning. Accepting the ‘sacred duty’, he said: ‘You are ordering me to fight with a broken sword. Very well, we shall fight all the same.’ And fight he did, though in a different way from his predecessor. He proved to be an exceptional administrator and skilful mediator, reconciling the government and the Supreme Command to each other, and rival generals to his own appointment. Journalists were told that ‘with this man, there will be no dangerous independence. State operations will be kept united at all times.’ In other words, no more ‘government in Udine’. His first statement to the troops urged them to fight for their land, home, family and honour – in that order. He was what the army and the country needed after Cadorna, and while he showed no brilliance as a strategist, he made no crucial mistakes and took the decisions that led to victory.

On 7 November, hosting his last supper at the Supreme Command, Cadorna addressed posterity over the plates: ‘I, with my will and my fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of 3,000,000 men, until yesterday. If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe …’ Early the following day, the King arrived to persuade Cadorna to leave quietly. They conferred for two hours. Cadorna knew he could not survive, yet the humiliation was too much. There was no graceful exit. Diaz arrived late that evening. When he presented a letter from the minister of war announcing his appointment as chief of staff with immediate effect, Cadorna broke off the meeting and telegraphed the minister: he would not go without a written dismissal. The order arrived early next morning. A new regime took over at the Supreme Command.

The phrase ‘doing a Cadorna’ became British soldiers’ slang for coming unstuck, perpetrating an utter fuck-up and paying the price.

The statistics of defeat were dizzying. The Italians lost nearly 12,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 294,000 prisoners. In addition, there were 350,000 disbanded men, roaming around or making for home. Only half of the army’s 65 divisions survived intact, and half the artillery had been lost: more than 3,000 guns, as well as 300,000 rifles, 3,000 machine guns, 1,600 motor vehicles and so forth. Territorially, some 14,000 square kilometres were lost, with a population of 1,150,000 people.

The Austro-German offensive was prepared with a meticulousness that the Supreme Command could hardly imagine. The execution, too, was incomparably efficient. Cadorna’s general method, as he once explained to the King, was to use as many troops as possible along a sector as broad as possible, hoping the enemy lines would crack somewhere. The Italian insistence on retaining centralised control at senior levels was also archaic beside the German devolution of authority to assault team level. Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organisation, one of the most hidebound in Europe.

The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed. An Austrian officer who fought in the Krauss Corps described the assault on 24 October as a fist punching through a barrier, then unclenching to spread its fingers. This is very like a recent description of Blitzkrieg as resembling ‘a shaped charge, penetrating through a relatively tiny hole in a tank’s armor and then exploding outwardly to achieve a maximum cone of damage against the unarmored or less protected innards’. Those innards had, in the Italian case, been weakened by a combination of savage discipline, mediocre leadership, second-rate equipment and arduous terrain. Without this debilitation, the Second Army would not have collapsed almost on impact.

Naturally, Cadorna could not see or accept that he had undermined the troops. But he knew that others would make this charge, which is why he launched, pre-emptively, the self-serving myth that traitors and cowards were responsible for the defeat. This myth became Cadorna’s most durable legacy, thanks in part to a prompt endorsement by Leonida Bissolati, the cabinet minister. Adding a nuance to Cadorna’s lie, Bissolati claimed that a sort of ‘military strike’ had taken place. Probably he was scoring points against his rivals on the political left; instead he deepened a stain on the army that still lingers. By likening the events on the Isonzo to the recent workers’ protests in Turin, Bissolati put a political complexion on the defeat. The ease with which discipline was restored by the end of 1917 would have scotched these allegations if it had not suited Italy’s leaders to keep them alive. It also suited the Allies, who wanted to minimise the responsibility of their Italian colleagues and had their own doubts about Italian martial spirit. Ambassador Rodd and General Delmé-Radcliffe parroted the conspiracy theory in their reports to London. For the historian George Trevelyan, leading the British Red Cross volunteers who retreated with the Third Army, there was ‘positive treachery at Caporetto’; Cadorna’s infamous bulletin had told the salutary truth. For the novelist John Buchan, working as a senior propagandist in London, treachery had ‘contributed to the disaster’, for a ‘secret campaign was conducted throughout Italy’ in 1917, producing a ‘poison’ that ‘infected certain parts of the army to an extent of which the military authorities were wholly ignorant’.

For some, a more dreadful possibility underlay these accusations. Was ‘Italy’ a middle-class illusion? Instead of forging a stronger nation-state, the furnace of war had almost dissolved it. What would happen at the next test? Disaffection with the state might be wider and deeper than they had thought possible. Had the mass of Italians somehow been left out of the nation-building process? If so, what further disasters still lay in store? It was a moment when everything solid seemed to melt away. The philosopher Croce, usually imperturbable to a fault, wrote during the Twelfth Battle: ‘The fate of Italy is being decided for centuries to come.’ Even politicians who did not swallow the ‘military strike’ thesis, and knew that Socialist members of parliament were too patriotic to want peace at any price, feared the outcome if popular disaffection became politically focused. After all, Lenin had taken power in Russia in early November. For weeks after Caporetto, many officials believed that revolution or sheer exhaustion would force Italy out of the war.

This mood of shaken self-questioning subsided as the army was rebuilt in late 1917 and early 1918. It would be driven underground, into the national unconscious, first by the victories of 1918, then by Fascist suppression. Yet those who took part never forgot the fearful dreamlike days when the world turned upside down. For the essence of Caporetto lay in the wrenching uncertainty of late October, when the commanders did not know what was happening, the officers did not know what to do, the soldiers did not know where the enemy was, the government did not know if Italy was on the brink of losing the war, and ordinary citizens did not know if their country might cease to exist. All Italians dreamed that dream; the nation was haunted by an image of men fleeing the front in hundreds of thousands, throwing away their rifles, overcome by disgust with the army, the state and all its works, wanting nothing more (or less) than to go home. When the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti wrote in the 1920s that the Italians were still ‘a people of stragglers, not yet a nation’, he evoked that fortnight when the country threatened to come apart at the seams.

Under Mussolini, the myth of a military strike was discouraged; it undermined the Fascists’ very different myth of the war as the foundation of modern Italy, a blood rite that re-created the nation. The fact of defeat at Caporetto had to be swallowed: a sour pill that could be sweetened by blaming the government’s weakness. Fascist accounts of the Twelfth Battle tended to whitewash Cadorna and defend the honour of the army (‘great even in misfortune’) while incriminating Capello and indicting the government in Rome for tolerating defeatists, profiteers and bourgeois draft-dodgers. Boselli (‘tearful helmsman of the ship of state’) and his successor Orlando were particularly lampooned. One valiant historian in the 1930s turned the narrative of defeat inside out by hailing Caporetto as a deliberate trap set and sprung by Cadorna, ‘the greatest strategist of our times’. The Duce himself called Caporetto ‘a reverse’ that was ‘absolutely military in nature’, produced by ‘an initial tactical success of the enemy’. Britain and France could also be condemned for recalling, in early October 1917, most of the 140 guns they had lent Cadorna earlier in the year. Even so, the defeat was not to be examined too closely. When Colonel Gatti wanted to write a history of Caporetto, in 1925, Mussolini granted access to the archives in the Ministry of War. Then he had second thoughts; summoning Gatti to Rome, he said it was a time for myths, not history. After 1945, leftist historians argued that large parts of the army had indeed ‘gone on strike’, not due to cowardice or socialism, but as a spontaneous rebellion against the war as it was led by Cadorna and the government.

That primal fear of dissolution survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded ‘a moral Caporetto’. Politicians accuse each other of facing an ‘electoral Caporetto’. When small businesses are snarled up in Italy’s notorious red tape, they complain about an ‘administrative Caporetto’. When England lost to Northern Ireland at football, it was ‘the English Caporetto’. This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure – rottenness laid bare.