“Voenno-Vozdushnye sily (VVS).” Unlike the Royal Air Force
(RAF) or the Luftwaffe, but like the USAAF and JAAF, the VVS was not a separate
air force organization. VVS bombers and support aircraft were integrated with
various Fronts of the Red Army, while anti-aircraft guns and
fighter-interceptors were organized separately under the PVO, or Air Defense
Force. As a result of being controlled by ground force commanders, and given
experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), during the prewar period the
VVS built a nearly exclusively tactical air force of medium bombers, dive
bombers, and heavy attack fighters. It eschewed acquisition of more than a
handful of long-range strategic bombers. Joseph Stalin took a direct interest
in the VVS. His limited prewar thinking about strategic bombing was influenced
by the deep battle attack doctrine developed by the Red Army. In 1939 VVS
“mixed air divisions” were set up that deployed bombers and fighters to each
Front (army group). As a result, when war came VVS aircraft were widely dispersed
among ground formations themselves deployed too far forward, and were not
capable of a coordinated overall response to being suddenly attacked. The
problem of commanded structure and overly wide dispersal was compounded by
weakness in aircraft design. That would not change until 1942, with reforms
forced upon the VVS by extraordinary pressures of catastrophic losses of
aircraft and near-defeat of the whole Red Army in 1941.
The VVS underwent a violent purge that began in 1937,
continuing to mid- 1941, the very eve of the German invasion. In addition to
top officers, many talented aircraft designers were arrested, executed, or
driven to suicide. Aircraft types were miserable in design compared to German
or British models, but had been produced in great volume by the pathologies of
a Soviet economic model that valued sheer numbers over quality. The
inadequacies of the prewar VVS were revealed in extraordinary peacetime losses
to accident: upwards of 800 aircraft per year, or more than the entire prewar
production runs of some RAF models. A paucity of repair facilities, technical
support, fuel supply systems, and ground-to-air or air-to-air radio
communications completed the prewar picture. On June 21, 1941, the eve of the
German–Soviet war, the VVS numbered 618,000 personnel, but not enough
experienced or qualified officers. It deployed over 20,000 military aircraft of
all types. In the first three days alone the VVS frontier Military Districts
lost about 2,000 aircraft. Several top commanders were immediately arrested and
shot, scapegoats for Stalin’s diplomatic and military catastrophe. During the
first weeks of fighting the VVS lost thousands more outclassed planes, many
destroyed on the ground or abandoned in all-out retreats. By the end of July it
was a shattered remnant of its prewar self. Over the first six months of
fighting its losses were even more immense.
New VVS formations had to be created almost from scratch in
early 1942, some formed with Lend-Lease fighters shipped in haste from the United
States or Britain. However, they were eventually supplied with new and
much-improved Soviet warplanes designed by men released from NKVD prisons or
camps, built by men and women working in desperate factory conditions in
hastily moved or erected plants. Starting in May 1942, the Stavka reorganized
the whole structure of the VVS. The largest Soviet air formation became the air
army (“vozdushnaia armiia”), with each attached directly to Fronts or held in a
Stavka reserve. The first air army created on May 5 was followed by 16 more,
with those founded in 1943 and 1944 much larger than the original formations.
All were multipurpose, comprised of varying numbers of subunits of fighters,
bombers, night bombers, and ground-attack aircraft. All units were closely tied
to control by Front commanders and carried out tactical missions only. Some air
armies were held in the Stavka reserve, carefully released to create local
superiority over major offensive operations. More rarely, reserve air armies
were assigned a strategic mission. A special 18th Air Army was formed in
December 1944. A huge force culled from the Stavka reserve, it comprised 18
divisions of long-range bombers and 4 more of regular bombers. It carried out
deep strikes into Germany, including bombing Berlin. Otherwise, revived Soviet
air power was used principally in support of ground forces, matching Luftwaffe
concentration on close support in the east. Nor did the VVS dedicate much of
its resources to bombing the Kriegsmarine, which left German ships in the
Baltic intact and active deep into March 1945. VVS aircraft were superior in
quality and vastly greater in numbers to the opposing, ragged formations of the
Luftwaffe by the end of the war. Yet, systemic problems continued: as late as
1944 some 8,600 VVS fighters were lost to ground or air accidents, compared to
just 4,100 lost to enemy ground fire or fighter interception.
Below the level of air armies were air corps (“aviatsionnaia
korpus”). Soviet air corps were usually single purpose and hence formed
exclusively of either bombers or fighters. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a
Fliegerkorps. Soviet air corps were comprised of two or more air divisions, the
basic VVS tactical fighting unit. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a
Fliegerdivision. Over the course of the war Soviet air divisions conformed to
one of five structures and purposes. Prewar and early war formations were known
as “basic air divisions.” There were 37 in all. Of these, 20 were wholly
destroyed while 14 were converted or redistributed to other air units created
in a series of emergency air force reforms carried out in 1941–1942. An air
regiment (“aviatsionnyi polk”) was the core VVS unit below division-level. Each
comprised fighters or bombers, but not usually both. The prewar VVS had eschewed
organization by aircraft function, though some specialization was allowed. The
core of the VVS was a total of 51 “mixed air divisions,” formed before the war
or created during the first year of fighting. By 1942 all 51 were destroyed or
reformed into the new air armies. Seven all-bomber divisions were in place
before June 22, 1941. Another 59 bomber divisions were added from 1942 to 1945.
This expansion reflected a Soviet wartime shift to uniform aircraft-type
formations. Similarly, 98 all-fighter divisions were added by 1945 to the
original 11 prewar fighter divisions, most of which were decimated or destroyed
in the first weeks and months of BARBAROSSA. The VVS quickly discovered an
urgent need for ground-attack aircraft, as its capabilities were increasingly
directed into direct support of Red Army ground forces, a shift matching
Luftwaffe concentration on close support in the east. Starting from no prewar
divisions of assault aircraft, the VVS created 48 ground-attack divisions by
The VVS—uniquely among wartime air forces—recruited entire
squadrons of women combat pilots and crew, fielding all-women bomber squadrons
as early as mid-1942. As in other air forces, more women flew transport
aircraft and provided a ferry service from the factories to the front. At the
end of the war the VVS deployed 15,500 frontline aircraft and had established
total domination in the air above the Red Army, lasting throughout its advances
into Central Europe and Germany.
The Soviet military had three air arms, the Red Army Air
Force, Long-Range Bomber Aviation, and the Naval Air Forces. The first two were
administered by directorates of the People’s Commissariat for Defense, and the
last by the People’s Commissariat of the Navy. In terms of operations, the
land-based air forces were under the command of the relevant armies or fronts
(army groups), and the naval air forces were subordinated to the relevant
The Red Army assigned air armies to Front-commands, enabling
ground forces to take full advantage of the air support. Usually one Front had
one air army assigned. The following air armies were for example in the area
around Kursk summer 1943: 1st Air Army (West Front), 2nd Air Army (Voronezh
Front), 5th Air Army (Steppe Front), 15th Air Army (Bryansk Front), 16th Air
Army (Central Front) and 17th Air Army (South-Western Front).
An air army had as basic unit the air division which
normally controlled three air regiments (resulting in 124 aircraft, unless it
was a bomber division, in which case it had 98 aircraft). Thus an air regiment
usually had 40 aircrafts (except bomber regiments, which had 32 aircraft). When
the war started there existed air divisions that were mixed but later this was
not very common. The division had one category of regiments, fighter, bomber or
attack. Instead the types could be mixed at the air corps level. One air corps
controlled two or three divisions.
Furthermore there existed air-units belonging Long-Range
Aviation (a.k.a Soviet Bomber Command) and PVO (Soviet Air Defense). The former
were assigned to support different sectors during the war while the later
defended the rear. For example on 22 June 1941 the PVO had ca 1500 fighters
aircraft in 40 Fighter regiments. The largest unit was 6th PVO Fighter Corps in
Moscow-area with eleven PVO Fighter Regiment.
At the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in
June 1941, the Soviets had 8,105 combat aircraft, most of them obsolescent and
outclassed by German planes, so that by the end of the year, their numbers had
been decimated to 2,495. Production quickly made up these losses, however, and
by January 1945, the Soviets had some 14,500 operational aircraft. Early
catastrophic losses were due not only to poor equipment, but also to poor
leadership and organization. In 1942, the Soviets introduced the “air army”
system, which greatly streamlined command in the air force, so that one of 13
air armies had responsibility for supporting a particular front. Each air army
typically consisted of a command staff, two or three fighter divisions, a
“Shturmovik” (ground-attack) division, one or two night-bomber divisions, and
reconnaissance and liaison units. The typical air army had 400 to 500 aircraft.
Flexibility was built into the organization of the formation, which could, when
necessary, draw on the Air Reserve for additional aircraft and pilots. By the
end of the war, about 43 percent of all aircraft deployed by the Soviets
belonged to the Air Reserve pool.
By the middle of the war, the Soviets were producing
excellent fighters and well-trained pilots. Far less effective was Long-Range
Bomber Aviation, which suffered catastrophic losses early in the war and never
recovered as fully as the fighter and Shturmovik units did. In contrast to the
American and British air arms, Soviet Long-Range Bomber Aviation did not engage
in strategic bombing. Its missions were exclusively tactical, directed against
Axis concentrations, railheads, depots, and the like.
It is not widely known in the West but the Russians have
always boasted the second or third largest naval air force in the world.
During WWII, the naval air force numbered several thousands
of aircraft including all standard Soviet aircraft and several lend lease types
including B-25s and A-20Gs used in the Mine-Torpedo Air Regiments and the P-39,
P-40 and Hurricane which were used in fighter units. The Soviets received a
couple of hundred P-47Ds, though they saw little use, the Russians actually
preferring the P-39 to the “jug”. However one of the few units to
receive examples of the P-47 was the 255 Fighter Regiment, assigned to the
Northern Fleet during the late stages of the war. Possibly the most unexpected
fighter was the FW-l90D sufficient of which were captured in 1945 to be issued
to a unit of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. More traditionally naval types used a
variety of obscure Russian float planes and flying boats, and several varieties
of the Catalina, both the tall tail PBN received under lend-lease and an early
PBY equivalent manufactured under a 1930s license. They also received 2 OS2U
Kingfishers at the end of the war.
Soviet naval air units were mainly equipped with
conventional land-based aircraft and, although flown by naval officers, were
used principally in support of land operations, typically guarding the flanks
of large ground units. Nearly one-third of naval air sorties were flown on air
defense missions. About a quarter of naval air missions were close ground
support, and 14 percent of sorties were reconnaissance patrols. No more than 10
percent of naval air missions attacked Axis ships or naval bases.
The Russian/Soviet Navy is divided into 4 independent
fleets-the Northern fleet, based at Murmansk; the Red Banner Baltic Fleet,
based at Leningrad; the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Ocean Fleet, each with
its own air unit. There are also independent flotillas for the Caspian Sea,
Amur River and the Polar regions, though I have little indication that they had
any serious air units. During the war each fleet had a Mine-Torpedo Air
Division, primarily equipped with the DB-3/Il-4, a division of fighters, a
division of bomber/dive bombers with the SB-2 or PE-2, one or more recon
regiments and possibly some independent air regiments and air escadrilles. Each
division consisted of three regiments. At the start of the war a Regiment might
range from 40-64 aircraft depending on type in 4 squadrons. By 1942 the
established regiment size had been reduced to 21 aircraft in 2 squadrons. By
the end of the war regimental size was back to 3 squadrons and 30-40 aircraft.
Some anti-shipping strikes were flown against German and
Romanian vessels in the Black and Baltic seas, and of course there was a lot of
ASW activity, particularly by the Northern Fleet. But most Naval air activity
was in defense of bases, support of ground forces in the coastal regions, and
support of a number of tactical amphibious landings. Naval Fighter pilots were
some of the Soviet’s best, and Boris Safonov of the Northern Fleet was the
first Soviet Ace to win the Hero of the Soviet Union twice. Safonov, currently
one of Russia’s more popular air heroes, was also the first Russian pilot to
fly the Hurricane. He commanded the regiment which hosted two RAF squadrons
that were sent to Murmansk in December 1941. This exploration of Soviet Naval
air will continue in future columns.
Green, William, and Gordon Swanborough. Soviet Air Force Fighters. New York:
Arco, 1978; Polak, Tomas, and Christopher Shores. Stalin’s Falcons: The Aces of
the Red Star: A Tribute to the Notable Fighter Pilots of the Soviet Air Forces
1918–1953. London: Grub Street, 1999; Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The Rise of
Soviet Air Power, 1941–1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1991.
Today, with modern air power operating inside the atmosphere, we can
impose kinetic effects at the speed of sound. With the maturing of hypersonic
weapons, we will be able to do that at multiples of the speed of sound.
Flight at five times the speed of sound and above promises
to revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that the combination of
stealth and precision did a generation ago. Hypersonic air weapons offer
advantage in four broad areas. They counter the tyranny of distance and
increasingly sophisticated defences; they compress the shooter-to-target
window, and open new engagement opportunities; they rise to the challenge of
addressing numerous types of targets; and they enhance future joint and
combined operations. Within each of these themes are other advantages which,
taken together, redefine air power projection in the face of an increasingly
unstable and dangerous world.
The Physical Component is the one with which airmen and
women tend to be instinctively the most comfortable. It is about the platforms,
capabilities, weapons and `stuff’ that, to many, define what the RAF `is’. This
applies just as much to the Space domain as it does to the Air domain, and the
best way of achieving this may be to address both domains as seamless entities.
In years gone by, the reality of doing just that was limited by technology
separation: what worked in space did not work in the air and vice-versa. But
modern technology – especially with hypersonic engines, pseudo-satellites,
high-resolution optics and radar technologies – makes it conceivable that, with
appropriate investment choices, future military capabilities could have the
potential to be employed in both domains, perhaps even within the same mission.
These technological enhancements are also likely to deliver the improvements in
speed, reach, persistence, coverage, survivability, and precision necessary to
provide an increased range of options for military commanders and political
masters alike. But to embrace this new technology will undoubtedly require us
to change our preconceived ideas of air power as being delivered predominantly
from manned, fixed-wing, air-breathing platforms which operate at relatively
low altitude. The blurring of the Air and Space domains allows us to translate
our experiences of inner atmosphere aviation into even higher vertical limits
and far greater ranges of effect. In the remaining paragraphs of this section,
I will explore what I believe to be the four greatest technological
developments that will allow us to transform air and space power over the next
At a glance, hypersonic engines may appear to be a `silver
bullet’ which will unleash air and space power in the twenty-first century.
This field of technology shows great promise, and much is possible within the
next couple of decades providing there is investment in the emergent
technology. So, what can hypersonics offer the Air environment? A good place to
start would be to look at what Reaction Engines Limited (REL) has to offer with
their experimental Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE. 9 Initial
work looks incredibly exciting and could give rise to a working platform by
2030 that is capable of Mach 5+ and offers high cadence space access as well as
long range inner-atmosphere flight. Such technology also appears promising because
it purportedly offers `speed as the new stealth’ and potentially increases the
survivability against an array of current and anticipated anti-access systems.
Furthermore, while the technology claims to enable space access it can also, in
theory at least, provide a vehicle from which a space payload could be
launched. But hypersonic technology is not limited to just platforms. It can be
applied effectively to weapons: air and groundlaunched, offensive and
defensive. Whatever the manner of its employment, hypersonic technology has the
potential to provide significant benefit to all operating domains – a true
force multiplier. Thus, even at this relatively early stage in its programme,
hypersonic technology represents a very strong candidate to address the physical
aspects of the blurred Air and Space domains. While there are numerous
hypersonic technologies under development, SABRE is novel, it is British, and
therefore offers a sovereign capability with all the accordant benefits for our
national prosperity agenda.
Hypersonic Vehicles Aerial vehicles that can travel in
excess of five times the speed of sound, or Mach-5, are labelled hypersonic.
Hypersonic weapons can be broadly divided into two categories, that is,
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM).
DARPA seeks to “develop and demonstrate a technology that is critical for enabling an advanced interceptor capable of engaging maneuvering hypersonic threats in the upper atmosphere.” And it wants this technology in a hurry: Glide Breaker should be tested in 2020.
The aerodynamic HGV is a boost-glide weapon-it is first
`boosted’ up into near space atop a conventional rocket and then ejected at an
appropriate altitude and speed. The height at which it is released depends on
the intended trajectory to the target. Thereafter, the HGV starts to fall back
to Earth, gaining more speed and gliding along the upper atmosphere, before
diving on the target.
An HCM on the other hand, is typically propelled to high
speeds (around Mach 4 to 5) initially using a small rocket; thereafter, an
air-breathing supersonic combustion ram jet or a `scramjet’ accelerates it
further and maintains its hypersonic speed. HCMs are hypersonic versions of existing
cruise missiles but would cruise at altitudes of 20-30 km in order to ensure
adequate pressure for its scramjet. Standard cruise missiles are difficult to
intercept-and the speed of the HCM and the altitude at which it travels
complicates this task of interception manifold. The United States’
underdevelopment `WaveRider’ is a typical HCM. Russia’s HCM, the
aircraft-launched Kh-47M2 `Kinzhal’, (Dagger), has a reported top speed of
Mach-10 and a range of about 2000 km. India’s underdevelopment `Hyper Sonic
Technology Demonstrator Vehicle’ (HSTDV) too, capable of speeds around Mach-7,
falls in the category of an HCM.
1. Aerial vehicles that can travel in excess of Mach-5 are
labelled as hypersonic.
2. Three nations (Russia, China, USA) have been testing
hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), although a number of other countries are also
pursuing hypersonic programmes.
3. An HGV, armed with a nuclear or a conventional warhead,
or merely relying on its kinetic energy, has the potential to allow a military
to rapidly and pre-emptively strike distant targets anywhere on the globe within
hours or less.
4. On account of their quick-launch capability, high speed,
lower altitude and higher manoeuvrability vis-a-vis Intercontinental Ballistic
Missiles , HGVs are difficult to detect and intercept with existing air and
missile defence systems.
5. This capability could tempt a nation to consider using
HGVs for a disarming and first-strike on an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.
6. While numerous challenges remain, operational deployment
of HGVs would thus compel target nations to set their nuclear forces on a
hair-trigger readiness and “launch on warning” alerts, leading also
to the devolution of command over nuclear weapons.
7. Overall, this would aggravate strategic instability, and
also generate unacceptable levels of instability in crisis management at many
While it was an open secret for months that the Air Force’s
fiscal year 2020 budget request would include some brand-new F-15s, one of the
surprise revelations at AFA’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium was that those new
Eagles weren’t the Air Force’s idea.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, at a Feb. 28 press
conference, admitted that while new “F-15EXs” are in the budget—later revealed
to be eight airplanes for $1.1 billion, as a down payment on an eventual 144
aircraft—someone else at DOD inserted them in USAF’s budget to help the service
address its inadequate fighter force structure.
“Our budget proposal that we initially submitted … did not
include additional fourth-generation aircraft,” she acknowledged.
Washington wags initially suggested the F-15 was injected
into the Air Force budget by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who had
a 30-year career with Boeing, maker of the F-15. Shanahan has recused himself
from matters involving Boeing, however, and dismissed the idea that he is
shilling for the company as “just noise.” Nevertheless, Boeing has received a
disproportionate share of major defense contracts in the last six months,
including the T-X trainer, UH-1N helicopter replacement program, and the MQ-25
Navy aerial tanker drone.
At the rollout of the 2020 defense budget request, however,
Pentagon Comptroller Elaine A. McCusker revealed that it was former Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis who ordered the Air Force to buy new Eagles.
Creating a “balance between the fourth and fifth-generation
aircraft… [was] a decision that was made by Secretary Mattis before he left,”
she said, noting that he had paid a lot of attention to “our cost calculus” in
the field of tactical aviation.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee a few days later the
“framework” for the decision came from a study of the future needs of the
military’s tactical aircraft fleet, which showed the Air Force has a shortage
in its number of aircraft and the amount of ordnance those aircraft could
When combined with the fact the F-15C will age out in the
2027-28 time frame, Dunford said “the best solution” was to go with the F-15EX
to “backfill” the F-15 fleet.
The EX-variant initially would only be “slightly” cheaper to
buy than a new F-35, but it will be more than 50 percent cheaper than the Joint
Strike Fighter to operate over its life, Dunford said.
More of the calculus was explained by Maj. Gen. David A. Krumm,
USAF’s Director of Strategic Plans and Requirements, who told Air Force
Magazine the thinking behind the controversial add of Eagles. Essentially, he
said, the National Defense Strategy demands more combat capacity immediately,
or as soon as possible. And while buying more F-35s is the Air Force’s
preferred solution, the F-15EX move could put more iron on the ramp more
quickly; mostly because the transition time for individual units would take
months rather than years.
“Cost of ownership,” is the key factor in the F-15EX’s
favor, Krumm said.
“There’s 80-90 percent commonality” between the F-15C and
the F-15EX, Krumm said, noting that the new aircraft can use all the aerospace
ground equipment now used for the C-model of the Eagle.
“That’s all already in the inventory,” he said, but the
similarity of aircraft also means “we’re looking at a transition time of
months—less than six months”—to transition units now flying the C-model to the
EX. “Typically, [with] an Active unit, that [process] takes 18 months; with the
Guard, it takes three years.” He went on to say that “If you average that out,
Active and Guard, each time we do that we save about two years of readiness,”
meaning aircraft available for combat, “And that’s important for us.”
He insisted, though, that USAF is “committed to the F-35,
and I think we’ve outlined that in the budget.”
Krumm, in a brief interview following a speech at AFA’s
Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said the F-35 “is a game-changer” and
“we won’t take one dime” out of 5th gen capability—nor will the F-15EX “take
anything away from NGAD,” or Next-Generation Air Dominance, the future family
of systems that will complement and/or replace the F-22 and F-35.
Brand-new F-15EXs will have strong bones and could last a
long time—Krumm said 20,000 hours—meaning it could potentially serve well into
the 2040s or 50s.
The Air Force has said the F-15 won’t be survivable against
modern air defenses after 2028, so is it worth it to the service to spend the
money to keep a non-stealthy, 1970s design into the 2040s?
“I think what we know is that we’re going to be fighting
with 4th gen [aircraft] in 2028, and in 2035, we’re still going to have those,”
he said. “The way to use these things is
to collaborate on a network, and it’s going to be, what can those things bring
to the fight faster?”
For example, the new Eagle could be a launch platform for
“standoff weapons, hypersonics. … They can go a long ways to assist the
penetrating forces,” he said.
Air Force leaders have said they are seeking an early,
interim hypersonics capability, and having F-15s that are not speed-limited due
to their age (as current aircraft are) could be helpful in that pursuit. The
F-15 design is technically capable of exceeding Mach 3, and so could accelerate
a hypersonic missile close to its Mach 5-plus operating regime. That, in turn,
would permit smaller booster rockets for weapons such as the Tactical Boost
Glide hypersonic concept. The F-35, which was never designed to be USAF’s
high-end dogfighter, has a top speed of Mach 1.6, and the first generation of
hypersonic missiles is unlikely to fit inside its weapons bay.
“This is all about making the best use of the resources
we’ve been given and building the best Air Force that we can,” Krumm said. The
F-15EX is “what we came up with. … We will find a way to make this the best we
can. We have to, anyway, and this is a capacity we think we need.”
F-15EX vs. F-35A
John A. Tirpak
Two jets from different eras, with different missions,
strengths, and weaknesses, face off in a battle for today’s funds.
The F-35 Lightning has been the Air Force’s sole new fighter
program since 2009, when the F-22 Raptor program was prematurely terminated.
While behind schedule, the program has been a top Air Force priority for more
than a decade and until recently, was expected to remain USAF’s only fighter program until a future
capability, still undefined, comes online.
Now the F-35 faces a new challenge from an old jet design, a
variant of the F-15 Strike Eagle; an airplane from an earlier era, built for a
different mission. Though the Air Force denies it, the two jets are competing
for inevitably limited dollars within the service’s fighter portfolio.
The Air Force’s fiscal 2020 budget request includes $1.1
billion to buy the first eight of a planned 144 F-15EX aircraft. The new
airplanes are very similar to the export versions now being built for Qatar.
The F-15EX is a two-seat fighter that can be flown by one or two aviators and
is meant to replace F-15Cs and Ds that are reaching the end of their service
Under the plan, the Air Force would receive two F-15EX
airplanes in 2022, six more in 2023, and a total of 80 airplanes in the next
five years. Separately, the 2020 budget request also includes $949 million to
upgrade existing F-15s.
Adding new F-15s was not an Air Force idea, but instead came
out of the Pentagon’s Cost and Program Evaluation office, or CAPE, and was
endorsed by former Defense Secretary James Mattis. While the Air Force’s
long-held position has been to invest only in fifth generation fighter
technology, it has defended the plan to buy new F-15s as a way to maintain fighter
capacity, given the aging of the F-15C fleet and the slow pace of F-35
While the Air Force is adamant that buying F-15EXs will not
reduce the requirement to build 1,763 F-35s, history and the Air Force’s own
budget request suggests otherwise. The 2020 budget submission shows the Air
Force buying 24 fewer F-35s over the next five years compared to last year’s
The opening for the F-15EX results from the age and
condition of today’s F-15Cs. Designed as air superiority fighters and first
fielded in the 1970s, the F-15Cs were planned to have retired by now. But the
premature termination of the F-22 after acquiring 186 aircraft—less than half
the planned production—compelled the Air Force to extend their service. Now,
key structural components are reaching the end of their engineered service
life—so much so that many F-15Cs must operate today under significant speed and
The Air Force’s arguments for the F-15EX turn on preserving
capacity. The F-15Cs will age out of the inventory faster than new F-35s can
come on line, reducing the available fighter fleet at a time when the Air Force
argues it’s already seven squadrons short of the 62 officials say they need to
meet the National Defense Strategy.
The F-15EX, USAF argues, is essentially an in-production
aircraft. It has upward of 70 percent parts commonality with the F-15C and E
already in USAF service and can use almost all the same ground equipment,
hangars, simulators and other support gear as the Eagles now in service. At a
unit price roughly comparable to that of the F-35, F-15 squadrons could
transition to the F-15EX in a matter of weeks, whereas converting pilots,
maintainers, facilities and equipment to the F-35 takes many months, the Air
The F-15EX, though, is a fourth generation aircraft which
lacks the stealth characteristics and sensor fusion of the F-35 and F-22 and
therefore won’t be able to survive against modern air defenses for very much
longer. USAF has said that 2028 is probably the latest the jet could
conceivably operate close to contested enemy airspace. However, CAPE and Air
Force officials see viable continuing missions for the F-15EX in homeland and
airbase defense, in maintaining no-fly zones where air defenses are limited or
nonexistent, and in delivering standoff munitions.
While the Air Force has maintained since 2001 that it will
not buy any “new old” fighters, and that it needs to transition as quickly as
possible to an all-5th-gen force, proponents argue that buying F-15s and F-35s
concurrently would fill gaps in the fighter fleet more rapidly. Moreover, USAF
leaders, defending the new F-15 buy, have said that the F-35 still hasn’t
proven it can be maintained at the advertised cost (comparable to the F-16, at
about $20,000 per hour) and the service prefers to wait to make large bulk buys
of the airplane after the Block 4 version starts rolling off the assembly line
in the mid-2020s. This approach, they say, will also avoid spending large
amounts of money to update earlier versions of the F-35 to the Block 4
An F-35 performs a weapons bay door pass during
Demonstration Team training over Luke AFB, Ariz. Photo: SrA. Alexander Cook
This isn’t the first time the Air Force has considered
buying new F-15s, but the F-15EX isn’t the same as upgraded models previously
offered by the jets’ maker, Boeing. The most recent offerings would have
required extensive development work. In 2009, Boeing proposed the F-15 “Silent
Eagle,” which would have added stealth characteristics. That jet would have
carried weapons internally in conformal stations and featured canted vertical
fins and surface treatments to reduce its radar signature. Boeing offered
another concept, the “Advanced” F-15, or F-15 2040C, last year. That jet would
have had a substantially increased payload and advanced avionics.
Instead, the F-15EX requires almost no new development,
would be able to execute a test program very quickly, and requires minimal
Air Force officials say one potential mission for the F-15EX
would be carrying “outsize” munitions, such as hypersonic missiles, and as a
possible standoff weapons magazine working in conjunction with the F-22.
The F-35 and F-15EX were designed in different eras for
The F-15C was designed for air superiority in the
pre-stealth era; the F-35 to be the battlefield “quarterback,” gathering vast
amounts of information from behind enemy lines while executing stealthy strikes
and picking off enemy fighters. Yet, as Congress decides how to invest in
future aircraft, comparisons are necessary as the two planes compete for
In the war that began on 1 September 1939 air power played a crucial role from the start. The Germans considered a massive opening attack on Warsaw, but bad weather forced them to attack alternative targets. The Luftwaffe’s most important contribution in the Polish campaign lay in quickly gaining air superiority; the Poles were skilled opponents, but they possessed obsolete aircraft which were no match for those of the Germans.
Luftwaffe bombers struck particularly at cities and transportation links, which thoroughly disrupted the Polish mobilization. A small number of Luftwaffe aircraft directly supported the drive of the German panzer forces which completely broke the Polish army apart in the first week of the campaign. Close air-support strikes were mostly successful; however, one Wehrmacht battalion, bombed for several hours by the Luftwaffe, suggested that courts martial might be in order.
Attempts were made to intercept German Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance aircraft which violated Polish airspace from the spring of 1939. Fighter units were ordered in July 1939 to establish fighter posts (‘ambushes’) along the routes of the reconnaissance aircraft flights. 1 Pulk Lotniczy organised posts along the border with East Prussia, a total of 2 sections. Dywizjon III/I used airfields near Bialystok and Grodno, and Dywizjon IV/1 near Suwalki. Aircraft of 2 Pulk organised posts at Wieluri, Czltstochowa and Zawiercie along the Western border. Aircraft of 4 Pulk provided posts near Bydgoszcz, while 3 and 5 Pulk maintained aircraft at readiness at their permanent airfields. During July the aircraft were scrambled many times to intercept and visual contact was sometimes established with German aircraft, but due to the high altitude at which the Dorniers operated, and their superior speed with respect to the P11c fighters, none was ever shot down, and at the end of July these posts were abandoned. Also at the same time Soviet reconnaissance aircraft violated Polish airspace, but there is no written record of any contact with Polish interceptors.
In the early hours of 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, spearheaded by a total of almost 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, nearly half of which were bombers. By 27 September the Polish campaign was concluded. It had apparently proved the ‘invincibility’ of the Luftwaffe, which had completely overwhelmed the poorer-armed and less modern Polish Air Force, had given copy-book support to the German ground forces, and had clearly been the supreme factor in such a quick victory. Yet the cost had not been light. Against fierce but hopeless opposition in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe had lost at least 750 men and nearly 300 aircraft, with a further 279 aircraft counted as overall strength losses due to serious damage. The Polish Air Force, with less than 800 aircraft on 1 September, had sustained a loss of 333 aircraft in action. Considering that the gross strength of the Luftwaffe at the end of August 1939 was hardly more than 4,000 aircraft of all types – perhaps only half of which could be truly regarded as first line ‘attack’ machines – the loss rate during some three weeks of the Polish campaign, against ill-prepared and inferior opposition in the context of aircraft, gave serious pause in the minds of the more perceptive Luftwaffe heads of staff. Replacement of such casualties quickly was virtually impossible; such resources were simply not available immediately. With France and the Low Countries already designated as ‘next’ on Hitler’s agenda for conquest, the querulous doubts in many Luftwaffe chiefs’ minds prior to the Polish venture now assumed a level of deep concern.
This concern was exacerbated by the knowledge that Germany now had Britain and France as declared enemies. Only men like Göring or other Hitler-sycophants could believe that the Luftwaffe was fully prepared for any long-term aerial assault or struggle; the force was still in its adolescence, and had been built on the narrow platform of tactical air power. Its aircraft were too standardised in role to be capable of undertaking every possible task that would present itself during any sustained aerial conflict. The quality of its air and ground crews was never in question; all were peacetime-trained and thoroughly professional, while among the Staffeln and staffs was a hard core of combat-tested veterans of both the Spanish Civil War and the Poland campaign. Its aircraft presented a mixed picture. The standard fighter was the angular Messerschmitt Bf 109, on a par or clearly superior to almost any other fighter in the world in 1939. Its stablemate Bf 110 two-seat Zerstörer (‘destroyer’) was the apple of Göring’s eye for the moment, but within a year would demonstrate forcibly its unsuitability for the ‘escort fighter’ role imposed upon its unfortunate crews. Of the frontline bombers, the already notorious crooked-wing Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber was basking in the limelight of apparently deserved fame for its large contribution to recent operations, yet it too would reveal its feet of clay when faced with determined fighter opposition in the months ahead. Of the other bombers the porcine Heinkel He 111 and slender Dornier Do 17 predominated, both twin-engined, medium-range designs of relatively mediocre performance, and poorly armed for self-defence. Only the emerging Junkers Ju 88 offered slight hope of improved bomber performance, although even this excellent design was not intended for long range operations. The one great omission from the Luftwaffe’s offensive air strength was a truly heavy, long range bomber. The only design projected for filling this gap was the troublesome Heinkel He 177, which was conceived in 1938 but did not commence operations until August 1942.
Notwithstanding the eventual failure of many of the 1939 Luftwaffe’s operational aircraft types, the contemporary morale of the German air crews and their upper echelon staffs was very high. The rapidity with which Poland had been vanquished appeared to suggest that the Blitzkrieg tactical war was a sure-fire key to victory, an opinion echoed in the staff rooms of many of the Allied services of the period. If there were doubts about the future efficacy of the Luftwaffe they existed mainly in the minds of individual senior officers and strategists; no such gloomy thoughts pervaded the ranks of the firstline Staffeln. The high casualty rate against relatively ‘soft’ air opposition during the Polish Blitzkrieg was mostly attributed to inexperience on the part of younger air crews, a modicum of sheer bad luck, or simply the exigencies of war. There lingered no lack of confidence in men or machines. If there were any queries among the Luftwaffe crews these pertained to how they might fare against the French air force and, especially, the British Royal Air Force when the inevitable first clashes occurred over the Western Front. Led or commanded by veterans who had fought the Allies in the air during the 1914–18 war, all the young Luftwaffe crews had been trained and inculcated with the fighting traditions created by the now-legendary names in German aviation annals. Inbred in that tradition was an almost unconscious respect for the fighting qualities of the Engländer – would they now acquit themselves against the contemporary generation of RAF fliers with the same courage and honour as their forebears …?
Thus far the war has been, in the air, a strange one. It has been strange in several ways. People had expected the Blitzkrieg to break in full fury in the west, but as yet no thunderbolt has fallen there. Poland felt its impact and crumpled under the stroke, though conditions there seemed, prima facie, unfavorable for the successful conduct of a lightning war. The course of the conflict has not, in fact, followed the book. There have been a number of surprises. In the operations at sea, for example, it was confidently expected that aircraft, not the submarine, would be the chief danger to maritime commerce. The airplane, we were told, would harry and dragoon belligerent and neutral shipping in the narrow waters into which the busy lanes of ocean traffic converge. Actually, the air arm has not been particularly effective at sea, though British aircraft have taken a hand with some success in hunting the submarine. That, however, had been foreseen.
Certainly the achievements of the German air force in Poland fulfilled the expectations of the most sanguine adherents of the blue sky school. In conjunction with the mechanized ground forces it dominated the situation from the first. The lists were set for a tourney between the old order of warfare and the new. Germany’s strength lay in her possession of the most modern instruments of mechanical destruction. Poland was, in comparison, a nineteenth century Power. Her cavalry was her pride. One could imagine her gallant horsemen galloping with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan in Virginia. Indeed, her great masses of cavalry might have thundered their way to victory in the still more appropriate setting of the medieval era. As it was, they were a sheer anachronism. Confronted by armored cars and tanks, hammered by high explosive from the air, they were only flesh for the slaughter. The twentieth century won all along the line. The Polish defeat was a tragedy, but an inevitable one.
German intelligence had estimated the front-line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.
On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.
At first the methods by which she won it were, apart from the fact that the aggression itself was utterly unjustified, fair enough in themselves. Herr Hitler had announced to the Reichstag on September 1 that he would not war against women and children. He was speaking, it will be noted, less than four weeks before the time when women and children were to be slaughtered and mutilated in Warsaw. “I have ordered my air force,” he said, “to restrict itself to attacks on military objectives.” Replying to President Roosevelt’s appeal that civilian populations be spared the horrors of air bombardment, he defined his attitude to this question in terms which, coming from another, would have presaged the waging of a humane and chivalrous war: ” . . . that it is a humanitarian principle to refrain from the bombing of non-military objectives under all circumstances in connection with military operations, corresponds completely with my own point of view and has been advocated by me before. I, therefore, unconditionally endorse the proposal that the governments taking part in the hostilities now in progress make public a declaration in this sense. For my own part, I already gave notice in my Reichstag speech of today that the German air force had received the order to restrict its operations to military objectives.”
That the German air force did confine itself more or less to military objectives in the opening phase of the war is supported by a certain amount of independent evidence. Mr. H. C. Greene, the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, reported in that journal from Cernaŭti on September 10 that military objectives such as bridges, roads, railways and aerodromes had been aimed at almost exclusively, though terrible losses had fallen on the civil population as a result of the attacks. On September 6, Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated in reply to a question in the House of Commons that the information in the British Government’s possession showed that the German bombing attacks had in general been directed against objectives serving a military purpose and not indiscriminately against the civil population; but he also was careful to add that the latter had at the same time suffered heavy casualties. Soon, however, evidence began to accumulate that other than military objectives were being attacked and that, in fact, methods of terrorization were being adopted by the German Luftwaffe.
It is true that one must always accept with caution reports from belligerent sources concerning excesses or outrages committed by the enemy. There is inevitably an element of propaganda in such reports. Further, newspaper correspondents on the spot are apt to be impressed by what is told them and are not in a position usually to know or state the other side of the case. Some of the Polish announcements were certainly examples of exaggeration, excusable, no doubt, but still unreliable. For instance, a communiqué of September 2 stated that individual farms and farmers had been bombed — a somewhat improbable occurrence. On the other hand, it is even more improbable that the reports from many quarters about the ruthlessness of the German air force were entirely devoid of foundation. We have, in fact, unbiased evidence sufficient to convict without any need for dependence on ex parte testimony.
Unquestionably, there were numerous instances of bombing objectives which by no possibility could be termed military. Among them was that of the village of Tomaszow, which was the victim of “a particularly vicious bombing” according to a message to the Times of September 11 from its special correspondent on the Polish frontier. Other instances were attested by Dr. Oskar Zsolnay, a Hungarian official trade delegate who had been in Lwów and who described in a Budapest paper a large number of bombing raids on that city, nearly all of them directed against non-military objectives. Some of the most important evidence was supplied by the American Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Biddle, who on September 8 furnished the State Department with particulars of cases in which non-military targets had been attacked: they included his own villa, more than ten miles outside Warsaw, a sanatorium, a refugee train, a hospital train and a hut for Girl Guides. “It is also evident,” he added, “that the German bombers are releasing the bombs they carry even when they are in doubt as to the identity of their objectives.” Again, on September 13, Mr. Biddle reported that the village to which he had then moved and which was, he said, “a defenseless open village” had been attacked by German bombers. On September 20 the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information said in the House that reports from the British Ambassador to Poland supported the evidence of Mr. Biddle on the bombing of open towns.
One may perhaps feel some hesitation in accepting without reservation the statement in the Polish communiqué of September 15 that the bombardment of open towns by German aircraft had “assumed the character of a systematic destruction of all built-up areas or cities without any connection with military operations,” but there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that a great number of non-military objectives were bombed. Beyond question many villages were deliberately attacked and a number of them destroyed. In Warsaw itself the Belvedere and Lazienki Palaces, the Seym (Parliament) building, the Soviet and Rumanian Embassies, the Latvian Legation, a number of churches and some hospitals had been wholly or partly demolished from the air even before the intensive bombardment from air and ground began on September 25. The final state of the city was still more tragic. The correspondent of a Danish newspaper who visited it after the surrender reported that scarcely a house was undamaged and in several districts, especially the suburb of Praga, not one house was left standing. The devastation was due in part to artillery fire, but the bombs of the aircraft contributed very materially. Inevitably the losses suffered by the civil population were heavy in the extreme. It is perfectly clear that if the Germans did in fact attempt to bomb only military objectives, they failed in that attempt most lamentably. The more likely explanation is that no such attempt was made. The city was bombed indiscriminately, subjected, in fact, to a display of Nazi Schrecklichkeit. The destruction was intended as an object lesson. “I should like the gentlemen of London to see what a city looks like when it has been through what Warsaw suffered,” said the German wireless announcer on October 4. “These gentlemen ought to see what might happen in their own country if they persist in their mad warmongering.”
The fiction that only military objectives were bombed was kept up in the German reports. A communiqué issued by the High Command on September 25 stated: “Important military objectives in Warsaw were successfully attacked in power-dives by German aircraft.” It is a sufficient commentary upon this to record that when Warsaw asked for an armistice on September 27, 16,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians lay wounded in the hospitals. There is little doubt, indeed, that Warsaw was subjected to a bombardment, from ground and air, of which the purpose was psychological, or more bluntly, to terrorize. That particular type of bombardment is nothing new in the practice of German arms. It was tried on many occasions in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. At Strasbourg, for instance, the civilian quarters of the city were shelled by siege batteries in order to “induce the inhabitants to compel the governor to surrender the fortress.” The effect was simply to stiffen the determination of the garrison and the inhabitants to resist.
Exactly the same tactics were employed at Warsaw nearly seventy years later, and the same effect was produced; the morale of the city was unbroken, for it was lack of ammunition and supplies, not loss of courage, which finally made surrender inevitable. Methods of frightfulness defeat their aims when used against a determined people. Herr Hitler announced in his speech on September 19 that the British blockade might force him to make use of a “weapon by which we [Germany] cannot be attacked.” The fresh resort to Schrecklichkeit here foreshadowed, whether it referred to the poison gas or to bacteriological warfare or merely to massed attack from the air on cities, will not effect its object. On that point there can be no doubt whatever.
The major role which the German air force played in the conquest of Poland is no proof that it will achieve similar successes in the west. Poland was, in comparison with Germany, very weak in the air. That her air force, was able to resist as well as it did testifies to the gallantry of its personnel. It is the more regrettable that its achievements were magnified by some absurd propaganda. The statement in a communiqué of September 3 that 64 German machines were brought down on that day for the loss of 11 Polish machines was entirely unbelievable. The announcement a little later that Berlin had been bombed was no less unconvincing. There is no escape from the conclusion, on the known facts, that Poland was wholly outclassed in the air.
Soviet Operations in Eastern Poland
The Soviet operations in eastern Poland had been anticipated in the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin’s delay in attacking Poland was in part due to uncertainty over the reaction of the Western Allies, the unexpectedly rapid pace of the German advance, the distraction of military operations in the Far East and the time needed to mobilise the Red Army. Besides the dramatic events in Poland, Stalin was preoccupied with the undeclared war between the Soviet Union and Japan, which culminated in the decisive Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol in September 1939. An armistice was signed with Japan on 15 September, and Soviet intelligence correctly reported that German formations were already operating east of the proposed Soviet-German demarcation line. As a result, Stalin was forced to act sooner than planned.
The decapitation of the Soviet officer corps by the purges of 1937 and 1938 hindered a major military operation of this scale. The Red Army general staff estimated it needed several weeks to fully mobilise. The German advance had proceeded much more quickly than the Soviets had anticipated, forcing a hasty commitment of the ill-prepared Red Army to secure the spoils of the treaty agreement. The Red Army had expected the German operation to be an updated version of the First World War pattern: a series of border clashes until both sides mobilised and deployed their main forces for decisive battle. They had overlooked the possibility that Germany would strike from a fully mobilised posture against their smaller and only partially mobilised opponent. The planning was already well in place as the Red Army general staff had prepared plans in 1938 for intervention under various scenarios during the Munich crisis.
The Red Army was organised into two fronts and deployed no less than 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades with a total strength of 466,516 troops. The Red Army’s tank forces sent into Poland actually exceeded the number of tanks and armoured vehicles of the Germans and Poles combined, amounting to 3,739 tanks and 380 armoured cars. The Red Air Force was also committed in strength, totalling about 2,000 combat aircraft. Fighters, consisting mainly of I-16 and I-15bis, made up about 60 per cent of the attacking force, along with medium bombers such as the SB accounting for another 30 per cent of the force. The remainder of the combat elements were army co-operation types like the R-5 biplane.
Polish defences had been stripped bare in the east. Normally the border was guarded by the Border Defence Corps (KOP) with about 18 battalions and 12,000 troops along the Soviet frontier. These forces were little more than light infantry with very little in the way of artillery support. Furthermore, many of the units had been ordered westward as reinforcements, leaving only a token force behind. The force ratio was ludicrously one-sided, roughly one Polish battalion per Soviet corps.
Red Army mobilisation was chaotic at best. Due to the upcoming harvest, it was difficult to fill out the units with their usual supply of war-mobilisation trucks from the civilian sector. As a result, Soviet formations, even tank brigades, seldom had even half of their table-of-organisation in support vehicles. There was also a shortage of spare parts for most types of vehicle including tanks. Although the Red Army order of Battle presents the picture of a conventionally organised force, in fact, the Soviet formations were often deployed in a haphazard fashion, loosely configured as regional groups. Indeed, there are substantial disparities in the historical records about which units participated and under which command, due to the haste under which the operation was prepared. As a result of their belated and haphazard mobilisation and the almost non-existent opposition they faced, the Red Army relied on its cavalry and armoured forces to sweep rapidly into Poland. Horse-mechanised groups were created with tank brigades supporting cavalry divisions.
There was considerable confusion on the Polish side when news of the Soviet invasion first began to filter through. At first there was some hope that the Soviets might be intervening to aid Poland, a delusion that was quickly exposed when word arrived of armed clashes. Nevertheless, the high command on the evening of 17/18 September ordered that the KOP and other units along the frontier were not to engage Soviet forces except in self-defence or if the Soviets interfered with their movement to the Romanian bridgehead. However, the order was not widely received. Instead the commander of the KOP, Brigadier-General W. Orlik-Ruckemann, ordered his troops to fight. Skirmishes between the KOP and Red Army units took place all along the frontier, especially near several of the major cities such as Wilno and Grodno, and along the fortified zone in the Sarny region. The heaviest fighting, not surprisingly, took place in Galicia in south-eastern Poland, since regular Polish army units were gravitating towards this sector near the Romanian frontier.
Galicia was one of the few areas where there was any significant aerial combat between the Polish air force and the Red Air Force. This occurred mostly on the first day of the Soviet invasion, as the surviving Polish air force units had been ordered to escape into Romania. Surviving Polish fighters had been subordinated to the Pursuit Brigade, which was headquartered near Buczacz to the south-east of Lwow. During the first contacts on 17 September, Polish fighters downed an R-5 and two SB bombers, and damaged three further Soviet aircraft. The following day the Pursuit Brigade was evacuated to Romania taking with it 35 PZL P. 11 and eight PZL P. 7 fighters; the last remnants of the combat elements of the Polish air force. A number of Soviet aircraft were lost in subsequent fighting, mostly to ground fire. According to recently declassified records, only five aircrew were killed during the fighting, attesting to the relatively small scale of Soviet air losses in this short campaign.
It was no coincidence that the Ju 87 was selected to carry
out the first aerial attack of World War II in Europe. The easternmost province
of Germany, East Prussia, was cut off from the rest of the Fatherland by the Polish
Corridor. “This hotly disputed strip of territory, which afforded the
landlocked Poles access to the Baltic Sea,” said Weal, “was another
product of the Treaty of Versailles, and a contributory factor in Hitler’s
decision to attack Poland.” A single railway across the Polish Corridor
connected East Prussia directly to Berlin. The weakest point of the rail line
was a bridge over the Vistula River near the town of Dirschau (Tczew). The
Poles understood the bridge’s significance – and they had preemptively rigged
it with explosives, ready to detonate should the Germans ever attack. Thus, the
bombing target was not the bridge itself, but the detonation site located at
the nearby Dirschau station. By destroying the detonation site, Germany could
prevent the Poles from destroying the bridge, and thus preserve East Prussia’s
lifeline to the Reich proper.
At exactly 4:26 a.m. on September 1, 1939, three Stukas from
III./StG 1, led by pilot Bruno Dilly, lifted off from their air base in East
Prussia en route to the Dirschau station. With their 250kg bombs attached
firmly to their wings, the Stukas climbed in unison before separating, one by
one, into their signature dive patterns. Within minutes, each pilot delivered
his bombs with pinpoint accuracy onto the Dirschau station. Although the first
dive-bomb run of World War II was a tactical success, it did not preserve the
railway bridge. Undaunted, Polish Army engineers managed to destroy the bridge
before the first German troop trains could arrive.
The same day, elements from I./StG 2 launched a raid on the
enemy airfield at Krakow, only to find it deserted. As it turned out, most
Polish Air Force units had vacated their peacetime airbases and relocated to
secret, carefully secluded fields in the near countryside. After returning from
their unfruitful mission at Krakow, these same Stukas spotted one of the secret
airfields near Balice, just as a pair of PZL P.11c fighters were scrambling
from the runway. The lead Stuka, piloted by Frank Neubert (who went on to earn
the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross) shot down the P.11 piloted by Captain
Mieczylaw Medwecki, making Neubert’s kill the Luftwaffe’s first air-to-air
combat victory of World War II. According to Neubert, his shot caused the P.11
to “suddenly explode in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball – the
fragments literally flew around our ears.”
Later on September 1, the Luftwaffe’s vanguard Stukas
engaged the Polish Navy at Hela in the first of several attacks on that naval
base. In this engagement, four Stukas plummeted from 7,000m to attack the
enemy’s naval stronghold. However, Hela was defended by one of the largest
anti-aircraft batteries in Poland, and the diving Stukas got their first taste
of enemy fire. Bracketed by the intense anti-aircraft fire, two of the four
Stukas were downed by Polish guns – the first Ju 87s lost to enemy fire. Two
days later, the Stukas were in action again over Gdynia, where they sank the
Polish destroyer Wicher and the minelayer Gryf.
After disrupting the enemy’s air and naval defenses, the
Stuka could now perform its primary role in the Blitzkrieg campaign: to act as
“flying artillery,” disrupting the enemy ground forces and clearing a path for
the oncoming Panzer and mechanized formations. Around noon on September 1,
aerial reconnaissance reported a large concentration of Polish horse cavalry
massing along the northern flank of the German XVI Armeekorps near Wielun.
Major Oskar Dinort, the Gruppenkommandeur of I./StG 2 (and the first Stuka
pilot to win the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves), recalled how his Stukas met
the Polish horsemen on that fateful day:
We cross the border at a height of 2500 meters. Visibility
is far from good; hardly a kilometer. Although the sun is now shining,
everything is swimming in an opalescent haze. Suddenly a group of buildings –
either a large estate or a small village. Smoke is already rising. Wielun – the
I stuff my map away, set the sights, close the radiator
flaps; do all those things we’ve already done a hundred times or more in
practice, but never with a feeling so intense as today. Then bank slightly,
drop the left wing and commence the dive. The air brakes screech, all the blood
in my body is forced downwards. 1200 meters – press the bomb release. A tremor
runs through the machine. The first bomb is on its way.
Recover – bank – corkscrew – and then a quick glance below.
Bang on target, a direct hit on the road. The black snake of men and horses
that had been crawling along it has now come to a complete standstill. Now for
that large estate, packed with men and wagons. Our height scarcely 1200 meters,
we dive to 800. Bombs away! The whole lot goes up in smoke and flames.
By mid-afternoon, the Wehrmacht confirmed that as a farm
complex just north of Wielun housed the entire headquarters of the Polish
Wolynska brigade. In response, 60 Ju 87s belonging to the I and II./StG 77
destroyed the headquarters outpost and the Germans occupied Wielan that night.
In the following days, the Stuka squadrons performed over
300 bombing runs on civilian and military targets as the Wehrmacht sped towards
the Polish capital, Warsaw. In the European tradition of conventional warfare,
it was understood that once the enemy’s capital had fallen, the game was over.
The Poles obviously understood this as well as the Germans did. Indeed, the 24
infantry brigades and six mounted brigades defending Polish borderlands put
every ounce of strength they had into preventing the Nazis from reaching
Warsaw. Yet, Poland’s defenses gradually eroded under the relentless
bombardment (and the terrifying wails) of the Stuka dive-bomber.
As the Poles retreated towards Warsaw, however, many of
their number invariably became separated from the main retreat. One such
contingent included six Polish divisions that were trapped between Radom and
their fallback point near the Vistula River. As the Panzer forces surrounded
the beleaguered Poles, more than 150 Stukas arrived overhead to pound the enemy
troops into submission. After four days of enduring the relentless 50kg fragmentation
bombs, and hearing the dreadful scream of the Jericho Trumpet, the encircled
Polish units finally gave up.
A few days later, the Stukas participated in the battle of
Bzura. The Polish Poznan Army (consisting of four infantry divisions and two
cavalry brigades) had moved southeast across the Bzura River, trying to reach
the Vistula in attempt to break through the frontline screen of the German
8.Armee. The ensuing battle of Bzura, which was essentially an
“air-versus-ground engagement,” effectively broke the back of the remaining
Polish resistance. During this battle alone, the Stukas dropped over 388 metric
tons of ordnance on the beleaguered Polish defenders.
Following the collapse of Poland’s defenses, the Stuka units
turned their attention to Warsaw proper. The enemy capital, however, with its
few remaining air defense batteries, put up a valiant last stand against the
invading Stukas and other Luftwaffe aircraft. In fact, one Ju 87 pilot recalled
how tight the Polish defenses were around the capital city:
I had just recovered
from the dive and was corkscrewing back up to altitude when the Polish 40mm
flak caught me fair and square in its crossfire. The ‘red tomatoes’ which this
dangerous weapon spewed out were flying around my ears. Suddenly there was an
almighty crash in the machine. There I was, 1200 meters over the middle of
Warsaw, and I could immediately tell that the machine was no longer
My gunner reported
that the elevator had been shot off and there were only a few scraps left
fluttering in the wind. Quick decision: the airfield just south of Warsaw was
already in German hands…I had to make it. The machine was steadily losing
height, but I slowly coaxed it along, gently slide-slipped and got safely down
on the first attempt.
But despite the Poles’ best efforts against the Luftwaffe, the air defenses around the city eventually collapsed. Warsaw fell to the Germans on September 27, 1939 – less than one month after the start of the invasion. Throughout the campaign, only 31 Stukas had been lost to enemy fire.
Launching a Maurice Farman two-seater from the Wakamiya during the
Siege of Tsingtau.
“Plüschow in front of the city wall of Haizhou in
the province of Jiangsu, on November 6, 1914. On that day he had escaped the
besieged Tsingtao by his plane, and after a flight of ca. 200 km to the
southwest, landed at Haizhou, because the plane had no fuel anymore.”
Both sides had elements of an air component; the Japanese
Navy had the Wakamiya Maru with its complement of four Maurice Farman
floatplanes, whilst the army detachment, initially consisting of three
machines, deployed from an improvised airstrip near Tsimo on 21 September.
Japanese aviation was, as was the case in every other nation, a recent
phenomenon in terms of powered aircraft. Previous interest in aeronautics had
centred on the use of balloons for reconnaissance, the first Japanese military
balloons were sent aloft in May 1877, and an advanced kite type was designed
and constructed in 1900 and successfully used during the Russo-Japanese War. A
joint committee, with army, navy and civil input, was created on 30 July 1909
to investigate and research the techniques and equipment associated with
ballooning; the Provisional Military Balloon Research Association or PMBRA.
Nominated by the Japanese Army to serve on the PMBRA were
two officers with the rank of captain, Tokugawa Yoshitoshi and Hino Kumazo.
Both had some experience with aviation. Hino designed and constructed a pusher
type monoplane with an 8hp engine that he unsuccessfully, the engine was
underpowered, attempted to get off the ground on 18 March 1910. Tokugawa was a
member of the balloon establishment during the Russo-Japanese War. Both were
sent to Europe in April 1910 to learn to fly at the Blériot Flying School at
Étampes, France. Having passed the rudimentary course, they purchased two
aeroplanes each and had them shipped to Japan; Tokugawa obtained a Farman III
and a Blériot XI-2bis in France whilst Hino purchased one of Hans Grade’s
machines and a Wright aircraft in Germany.
The first flights of powered aeroplanes in Japan occurred on
19 December 1910 at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Tokugawa flew the Farman III, powered
by a 50hp Gnome engine, for 3 minutes over a distance of some 3000m at a height
of 70m. Hino followed him immediately afterwards in the Grade machine, powered
by a 24hp Grade engine, which flew for just over a minute and covered a
distance of 1000m at a height of 20m.
A naval member of the PMBRA, Narahara Sanji, started on
designing and constructing an aeroplane, with a bamboo airframe and a 25hp
engine, during March 1910. Because of the low powered engine the machine failed
to lift off when this was attempted on 24 October 1910, but with a second
machine, the ‘Narahara Type 2’ powered by a Gnome engine similar to that used
in the Farman III, he managed a 60m flight at an altitude of 4m on 5 May 1911.
This flight, at Tokorozawa, in Saitama near Tokyo, the site of Japan’s first
airfield, is considered to be the first Japanese civilian flight as Narahara
had left the navy when he made it. It was also the first flight by a
The first military flight by a Japanese-manufactured machine
took place on 13 October 1911, when Tokugawa flew in a ‘PMBRA Type (Kaisiki) 1’
of his own design, based on the Farman III at Tokorozawa. These pioneers,
whilst they had made astonishing progress, did not however possess the
necessary research and technological resources to take Japanese aviation
further. Because of this the Japanese decided to import aviation technology
from Europe, though the navy established the Naval Aeronautical Research
Committee in 1912 to provide facilities to test and copy foreign aircraft and
train Japanese engineers in the necessary skills. Via this system, the
foundations of a Japanese aviation industry were being laid; in July 1913 a
naval Lieutenant, Nakajima Chikuhei, produced an improved version of the Farman
floatplane for naval use. Nakajima Aircraft Industries, founded in 1917 after
Nakajima resigned from the navy, went on to massive success.
The French were the world leaders in military aviation, with
260 aircraft in service by 1913, whilst the Russians had 100, Germany 48, the
UK 29, Italy 26 and Japan 14. The US deployed 6.55 It comes as no surprise then
to note that during the campaign against Tsingtau all the aeroplanes deployed
by both Japanese services were French. Four Maurice-Farman MF7 biplanes and one
Nieuport 6M monoplane formed the Army’s Provisional Air Corps, flying
eighty-six sorties between them, whilst the navy deployed one Maurice-Farman
MF7 floatplane and three Henri-Farman HF7 floatplanes. The navy planes flew 49
sorties and dropped 199 bombs.
A floatplane from the Wakamiya Maru flew over Tsingtau on 5
September, causing something of a surprise to the defenders, on a
reconnaissance and bombing mission, releasing three bombs that caused no harm.
It wasn’t the first aerial bombing ever – that had taken place during the
1911–12 Italo-Ottoman War – but it was a total surprise to the defenders. The
reconnaissance element of the mission was more useful, being able to ascertain
that Emden was not in harbour but that there were several other warships
present. It was to be the first of several visits by both army and navy
aeroplanes, against which the Germans could offer little defence, though the
fact that the defenders had their own air ‘component’ was to result in what was
probably (there are other contenders) the first air-to-air combat in history.
Indeed, despite the remoteness of the campaign from the main theatre, this was
only one of a number of such ‘firsts’.
Aviation on the German side was represented by one man and
one machine; Kapitänleutnant Gunther Plüschow and his Rumpler Taube. Plüschow
had served in the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, at the time under the command
of Vice Admiral Carl Coerper, as a junior officer aboard SMS Fürst Bismarck in
1908. Assigned to the Naval Flying Service in autumn 1913, he arrived on 2
January 1914 at Johannisthal Air Field near Berlin to commence pilot training,
and, having first taken to the air only two days previously, acquired his
licence on 3 February 1914. The Naval Air Service, which had been created in
1912 and divided between aeroplane and airship sections the following year,
was, in 1914, something of a misnomer; naval aviation was in a greatly
underdeveloped state with sole assets consisting of two Zeppelin airships, four
floatplanes and two landplanes. This was largely due to Tirpitz, who, despite
his later assertions that, prior to 1914, he saw the aeroplane as the weapon of
the future as against the airship, was not prepared to, as he saw it, divert
funds from the battle-fleet in order to develop the technologies and techniques
Having not seen it for some six years Plüschow arrived in
Tsingtau by train on 13 June – an extremely long and undoubtedly tedious
journey across the Siberian steppe – whilst two Rumpler Taube aeroplanes with
100hp engines, especially constructed for service in China, travelled by sea
arriving in mid-July 1914. The second machine was to be piloted by an army
officer assigned to the III Naval Battalion, Lieutenant Friedrich
Müllerskowski, and the arrival of the two aviators and their machines took the
total ‘air force’ available in the territory to three men and aircraft. The
third aviator was Franz Oster, a former naval officer who had settled in
Tsingtau in 1899, but returned to Germany in 1911 and learned to fly. He returned
to the territory in 1912, via Ceylon (Sri Lanka) complete with a Rumpler Taube
equipped with a 60hp engine. During his sojourn in Ceylon he attempted a flight
at Colombo Racecourse in a Blériot Monoplane on 30 December 1911 that ended in
near disaster; the machine was wrecked and Oster was hurt. He nevertheless,
after having returned to the territory and replaced the engine in his Taube
with a 70hp Mercedes unit, made a series of flights from the Tsingtau
racecourse, the first being on 9 July 1913.
Plüschow and Müllerskowski took charge of reassembling the
two aeroplanes delivered by sea and the former successfully made several
flights from the extremely small and dangerous landing ground at the racecourse
on 29 July 1914. A further two days were needed to get the second aeroplane
constructed, and on the afternoon of 31 July Müllerskowski set off on his first
flight. It ended in disaster; after only a few seconds in flight, and from an
altitude estimated to be 50m, the machine lost control and plunged over a cliff
onto the rocks below. Müllerskowski was seriously, though not mortally, wounded
and the Taube completely wrecked.
Whether it was just bad luck or whether there were
atmospheric conditions pertaining at the time that made flying problematical we
cannot know, but it would seem to have been a combination of the two that
afflicted Plüschow on 3 August. Having taken off successfully and flown a
reconnaissance mission over the territory, his first ‘important’ sortie, he was
experiencing difficulty in attempting to land when his engine failed and he
crash-landed into a small wood. He was unhurt but the Taube was badly damaged
and, upon accessing the spare wings and propellers sent out with the
aeroplanes, he discovered that the replacement parts had rotted away or
suffered moistureinduced damage during the voyage. He was fortunate that the
engine, for which replacement parts could only have been extemporised with
difficulty, was still serviceable and that there were skilled Chinese craftsmen
available; the latter fashioned him a new composite propeller from oak. Despite
this device having to be repaired after every flight, having been assembled
with ordinary carpenter’s glue it exhibited a disconcerting tendency to revert
to its component parts under the strain of operational usage, it remained
serviceable throughout the rest of the campaign.
Plüschow’s machine was out of action until 12 August, but on
the 22 August an attempt was made to augment it with Oster’s aeroplane; he
attempted to lift off from the racecourse in his older craft but stalled and
crashed, occasioning damage necessitating several days of repair though
remaining unhurt personally. Another attempt was made on 27 August with the
same result, though this time the damage was more severe with the aeroplane
‘completely destroyed’ to such an extent that ‘reconstruction was no longer
viable’. It seems however that Oster did not concur as the diary entry for 13
October 1914 made by the missionary Carl Joseph Voskamp, records Oster once
again, and apparently finally, attempting and failing to take off, and notes
that this might be due to unfavourable atmospheric conditions.
Plüschow and his Taube, by default the sole representatives of German aviation, could not of course provide anything much in the way of air defence against the Japanese. Nor could they achieve a great deal in the way of keeping open communications with the world outside the Kiautschou Territory. What was possible though, within the operational capabilities of man and machine, was reconnaissance, and the clearing up somewhat of the weather on 11 September allowed an aerial sortie to take place two days later. Plüschow flew northwestwards to investigate rumours of the Japanese landing and advance, and discovered their forces in some strength at Pingdu; the marching elements of the Japanese force reached Pingdu between 11 and 14 September. He also received his ‘baptism of fire’ from the infantry, returning with around ten bullet holes in his plane and resolving not to fly below 2000m in future in order to preserve his engine and propeller.
Reconnaissance duties devolved then on to the air component,
represented by Plüschow and his Taube. There was also a balloon detachment
consisting of two observation-balloon envelopes and the necessary ground
infrastructure. The German observation balloons of 1914 were known as Drachen,
a name commonly adopted for all sausage-shaped kite-balloons, and had been
developed by Parseval-Sigsfeld. Adopted for use in 1893, they represented a
significant investment in terms of equipment and manpower for the Tsingtau
garrison, the standardised balloon section in 1914 consisting of 1 balloon
(plus 1 spare envelope), 4 observers, 177 enlisted ranks, 123 horses, 12 gas
wagons, 2 equipment wagons, a winch wagon and a telephone wagon. The balloon
had made several ascents from Tsingtau during the course of the conflict, but
the observer had been unable to see anything of value. In order to attempt to
remedy this the device was moved closer to the front and another ascent made on
5 October. It was to be the last such, as the Japanese artillery immediately
found its range with shrapnel shell and holed it in several places. A ruse
involving the spare balloon was then tried; it was sent up to draw the
attackers’ fire and so reveal the position of their guns. According to Alfred
It contained a dummy looking fixedly at the landscape below
through a pair of paste-board glasses. But there happened to arise a strong
wind which set the balloon revolving and finally broke it loose and sent it
pirouetting off over the Yellow Sea, the whole exploit, I learned afterwards, being
a great puzzle to the British and Japanese observers outside.
Plüschow flew reconnaissance flights every day that the
weather, and his propeller, permitted, sketching the enemy positions and making
detailed notes. He achieved this by setting the engine so as to maintain a safe
altitude of over 2000m, and then steering with his feet, the Taube had no
rudder and horizontal control was achieved by warping the wings, whilst peering
over the side of his cockpit. The Japanese had extemporised a contingent of
antiaircraft-artillery – the ‘Field-Gun Platoon for High Angle Fire’, with the
necessary angle achieved by dropping the gun-trail into a pit behind the weapon
– and although the shrapnel barrage thus discharged proved ineffective it was
deemed by Plüschow to be troublesome nevertheless. Where he was at his most
vulnerable was on landing, and a battery of Japanese artillery was tasked
specifically with destroying the Taube as it descended to the racecourse, which
of course was a fixed point at a known range. Little more than good luck, and
what he called ‘ruses’ such as shutting off the engine and swooping sharply to
earth, saw him through these experiences, but remarkably both man and machine
came through without serious injury.
Whatever inconveniences Plüschow and the fortress artillery
might inflict upon the force massing to their front, they could do nothing to
prevent the landing of men and materiel at Wang-ko-chuang and Schatsykou, nor
could they prevent the deployment of these once landed. The previous efforts by
the navy in terms of minelaying did though still pay dividends, as when the
Japanese ‘aircraft carrier’ was badly damaged. As the report from the British
Naval Attaché to Japan put it in his report of 30 November:
[…] a few minutes after
8 a.m. [on 30 September] the ‘Wakamiya Maru’ struck a mine in the entrance of
Lo Shan Harbour, and had to be beached to prevent her sinking; her engines were
disabled owing to breaking of steam pipes, No. 3 hold full, and one man killed
– fortunately no damage done to aeroplanes though it is feared that a spare
engine may be injured. […] As the Aeroplane establishment is all being moved
ashore at this place this accident will not affect the efficiency of the
In order to achieve the enormous amount of digging that the
plan required, the organic engineering component of the 18th Division, the 18th
Battalion of Engineers, was augmented by two more battalions; the 1st Battalion
of Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Koga) and the 4th Battalion of
Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama). The infantry that would
man the siege works were also provided with weaponry specifically suited to
trench warfare; two light platoons and one heavy detachment of bomb-guns
In order to gain detailed knowledge of the defences the
naval and army air components were tasked with flying reconnaissance missions
over the German positions. They also flew bombing missions, which caused little
damage, and attempted to discourage their single opponent (though they were
initially uncertain how many German aircraft they faced) from emulating them;
the latter with some degree of success. Plüschow records that he was provided
with extemporised ‘bombs’ made of tin boxes filled with dynamite and improvised
shrapnel, but that these devices were largely ineffectual. He claimed to have
hit a Japanese vessel with one, which failed to explode, and to have succeeded
in killing thirty soldiers with another one that did. It was during this period
that he became engaged in air-to-air combat, of a type, with the enemy
aeroplanes. Indeed, if Plüschow is to be believed, he succeeded in shooting
down one of the Japanese aeroplanes with his pistol, having fired thirty shots.
It would appear however that even if he did engage in aerial jousting of the
kind he mentions the result was not as he claimed; no aircraft were lost during
the campaign. The Japanese did however do their utmost to prevent him
reconnoitring their positions, as they were in the process of emplacing the
siege batteries and, if the positions became known, they could expect intense
efforts from the defenders to disrupt this process. Experience showed the
Japanese that the time delay between aerial reconnaissance being carried out
and artillery fire being concentrated on the area so reconnoitred was around
Indeed Watanabe insisted that his batteries were emplaced
during the hours of darkness, despite the inconvenience this caused, and
carefully camouflaged to prevent discovery. That the threat from Plüschow,
albeit indirect, was very real had been illustrated on 29 September; he had
overflown an area where the British were camped and noted their tents, which
were of a different pattern to the Japanese versions. This had resulted in heavy
shelling, causing the camp to be moved the next day to the reverse slopes of a
hill about 1.5km east of the former position. He also posed a direct threat
though perhaps of lesser import; on 10 October he dropped one of his homemade
bombs on the British. It failed to explode, but the unit concerned moved
position immediately – such an option was not available to 36-tonne howitzers
that required semi-permanent emplacement.
The Japanese Navy began sending in vessels to shell the city
and defences again. On 25 October the Iwami approached, though staying outside
the range of Hui tsch’en Huk. By listing the ship to increase the range of her
main armament, Iwami was able to fire some thirty 305mm shells at Hui tsch’en
Huk, Iltis Battery and Infantry Work I. The next day the vessel returned in
company with Suwo and the two vessels bombarded the same targets. On 27 October
Tango and Okinoshima replaced them, and the same ships returned the next day to
continue the assault. Because of the distance involved, some 14.5km, this fire
was inaccurate in terms of damaging the specific installations in question, but
nevertheless was destructive of the nerves of the trapped garrison. It was
particularly frustrating in terms of the gunners at Hui tsch’en Huk who were
unable to effectively reply.
In addition to this display of naval force, Japanese air
power had been much in evidence over the period, their operational activity
increasing with sorties over the German lines and rear areas.
Almost every day these craft, announcing their approach by a
distant humming, came overhead, glinting and shining in the sun as they sailed
above the forts and city. At first they were greeted by a fusillade of shots
from all parts of the garrison. Machine guns pumped bullets a hundred a minute
at them and every man with a rifle handy let fire. As these bullets came
raining back upon the city without any effect but to send Chinese coolies
scampering under cover, it was soon realised that rifle and machinegun fire was
altogether ineffective. Then special guns were rigged and the aeroplanes were
subjected to shrapnel, which seemed to come nearer to its sailing mark each day
but which never brought one of the daring bird-men down. One day I saw a
biplane drop down a notch after a shell had exploded directly in front of it. I
looked for a volplane [glide with engine off] to earth, but the aviator’s loss
of control was only momentary, evidently caused by the disturbance of the air.
During the bombardment these craft circled over the forts like birds of prey.
They were constantly dropping bombs, trying to hit the ammunition depots, the
signal station, the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth, the electric light
plant, and the forts. But […] these bombs were not accurate or powerful enough
to do much damage. A few Chinese were killed, a German soldier wounded, tops of
houses knocked in, and holes gouged in the streets, but that was all. The bombs
fell with an ominous swish as of escaping steam, and it was decidedly
uncomfortable to be in the open with a Japanese aeroplane overhead. We are more
or less like the ostrich who finds peace and comfort with his head in the sand:
In the streets of Tsingtau I have seen a man pull the top of a jinrickisha over
his head on the approach of a hostile aeroplane and have noticed Chinese
clustering under the top of a tree.
They also managed an aviation first on the night of 28–9
October when they bombed the defenders’ positions during the hours of darkness.
Attempts to keep Plüschow from effectively reconnoitring were largely
successful, even though the efforts to dispose of him or his machine
permanently were ineffective. However, because problems with the Taube’s
homemade propeller kept him grounded on occasion, and because the Japanese
positions were worked on tirelessly, when he did take to the air he found the changes
in the enemy arrangements – ‘this tangle of trenches, zigzags and new
positions’ – somewhat bewildering and difficult to record accurately. Precision
in this regard was not assisted by the Japanese attempts to shoot him down or
otherwise obstruct him.
The artillery coordinating position on Prinz-Heinrich-Berg
reported itself ready for action on 29 October and Kato sent four warships in
to continue the naval bombardment whilst acting under its direction. Between
09:30hr and 16:30hr Suwo, Tango, Okinoshima and Triumph bombarded the Tsingtau
defences, adjusting their aim according to the feedback received from the
position via radio. They withdrew after discharging some 197 projectiles from
their main guns, following which SMS Tiger was scuttled during the hours of
Plüschow managed to get airborne on the morning of 30
October and was able to over-fly the Japanese positions before the enemy air
force could rise to deter him. This might have been lucky for him as one of the
aeroplanes sent up had been fitted with a machine gun. He was able to report
the largescale and advanced preparations of the besieging force, information
that the defence used to direct its artillery fire. This was repaid when Kato’s
bombarding division returned at 09:00hr to recommence their previous day’s
work. Despite the communication channel working perfectly, and the absence of
effective return fire from Hui tsch’en Huk – they had established the maximum
range of this battery was 14.13km and accordingly stayed just beyond its reach
– the firing of 240 heavy shells again did little damage.
The 31 October was, as the defenders knew well, the birthday
of the Japanese Emperor and by way of celebration Kamio’s command undertook a
brief ceremony before, at about 06:00hr, Watanabe gave the order for the siege
train to commence firing, or, as one of the correspondents of The Times put it:
‘daylight saw the royal salute being fired with live shell at Tsingtau’. The
Japanese fire plan was relatively simple.
On the first and second days, in addition to bombardment of
the enemy warships, all efforts would be made to silence the enemy’s artillery
so as to assist the construction and occupation of the first parallel.
From the third day up until the occupation of the second
parallel (about the fifth day) the enemy artillery would be suppressed, his
works destroyed and the Boxer Line swept with fire in order to assist in the
construction of the second parallel.
Following the occupation of the second parallel, the
majority of the artillery fire would be employed in destroying the enemy’s
works, whilst the remainder kept down hostile infantry and artillery that
attempted to obstruct offensive movement in preparing, and then assaulting
from, the third parallel.
After the Boxer Line had been captured, the artillery would
support the friendly troops in securing it from counter-attack and then bombard
his second line; Iltiss, Moltke and Bismarck Hills.
There were, roughly, twenty-three Japanese artillery tubes
per kilometre of front, a density that was comparable to that attained during
the initial stages of the war on the Western Front, though soon to be dwarfed
as artillery assumed the dominant role in positional warfare. The land-based
artillery was augmented, from about 09:00hr, by the naval contribution as Kato
once again sent his heavy ships into action.
The combined barrage soon silenced any German return fire
because, even though they had refrained from pre-registering their siege
batteries, the Japanese knew where the fixed defensive positions were and
shortly found their range; fire was also brought to bear on any targets of
opportunity. The German batteries were suppressed less by direct hits than by
their positions being submerged in debris from near misses. This was to prove
of some importance for the defenders were able in several cases to return their
weapons to service, largely due to the relative antiquity and thus lack of
sophistication of much of the ordnance, without the need for extensive repairs.
Indeed, despite the crushing superiority enjoyed by the attackers, the
defensive fire was to continue to some degree throughout the day and into the
night. The most obvious sign of the effects of the bombardment, at least to
those observing from a distance, were the huge plumes of smoke caused by hits
on the oil storage tanks adjacent to the Large Harbour. Two of these, owned by
the Asiatic Petroleum Company – the first Royal Dutch/Shell joint venture – and
Standard Oil respectively, had been set afire early on and their contents in
turn caused other fires as they flowed around the installations, these proving
beyond the capacity of the local fire brigade to control. In fact the
destruction of the Standard Oil installations was accidental. The General Staff
History records that a note had been received via the Japanese Foreign Office
from the US government asking that they be spared. Accordingly the objective
was struck out of the plan but to apparently no effect, perhaps demonstrating
the relative inaccuracy of the fire.
There were a number of independent observers of the
operations at this stage; correspondents from various journals and foreign
military observers had arrived in the theatre in late October. Though the
Japanese were intensely secretive they could not conceal the fact of their
bombardment or the plainly visible results.
The thunder of the great guns broke suddenly upon that
stillness which only dawn knows, and their discharges flashed readily on the
darkling slopes. The Japanese shooting, it is related, displayed remarkable
accuracy, some of the first projectiles bursting upon the enormous oil tanks of
the Standard Oil Company and the Asiatic Petroleum Company. A blaze roared
skywards, and for many hours the heavens were darkened by an immense cloud of
black petroleum smoke which hung like a pall over the town. Shells passing over
these fires drew up columns of flame to a great height. Chinese coolies could
be seen running before the spreading and burning oil. Fires broke out also on
the wharves of the outer harbour.
Many of the Japanese shells, no doubt due to the lack of
pre-registration, were over-range and landed in Tapatau and Tsingtau, though
the former received the worst of it. It has been estimated that at least 100
Chinese were killed during this period and a deliberate targeting exercise
carried out later in the day on the urban areas. The bombardment continued with
varying levels of frequency throughout the daylight hours of 31 October, and at
nightfall the Japanese gunners switched to shrapnel – by bursting shrapnel
shell over the defenders’ positions they made it difficult, if not impossible,
for repairs to be carried out. Such fire also covered the forward movement of
the Japanese engineers as they extended their saps towards the Boxer Line and
began constructing the parallel works some 300m ahead of the advanced
At daylight on 1 November the high-explosive barrage
resumed, again concentrating primarily on the German artillery positions though
many of these were now out of action. The secondary targets were the defences
in the Boxer Line, particularly the infantry works and the extemporised
defences between them. The ferro-concrete redoubts withstood the bombardment
without any serious damage, and, though they were scarred and badly battered externally,
none of the projectiles penetrated any vital interior position. The
communication trenches and other intermediate field works were however
obliterated and this, together with the destruction of much of the telephone
system, isolated the personnel manning the works, both from each other and from
the command further back. The targeting of the signal station further hindered
communication of every kind, and with the bringing down of the radio antenna
even one-way communication from the outside world was terminated. Shutting this
down was probably a secondary objective; the primary reason for targeting the
signal station was to prevent it jamming and otherwise interfering with
Japanese wireless communications which had become a problem.
After nightfall the sappers returned to their task of
advancing the siege works whilst infantry patrols went forward to reconnoitre
and probe the defences. One such probe crossed the Haipo and a four-man party
entered the ditch near Infantry Work 4, which was under the command of Captain
von Stranz, and began cutting the wire. They remained undetected for some time,
indicating the lack of awareness of the defenders who stayed under cover, but
were eventually heard and forced to retire with the loss of one man after machine-gun
fire was directed at them. A second patrol took their place a little later and,
under the very noses of the defence, completed the wire-cutting task before
they too were detected.
The defenders conceived that an assault in strength was
under way and called down artillery fire in support from Iltis Battery and
moved a reserve formation made up of naval personnel, whose ships had been
scuttled, towards the front. The Japanese patrol withdrew, leaving the
defenders under the erroneous impression that they had defeated a serious
attempt at breaching the line, rather than, as was the case, an opportunistic
foray. However, what the probe had revealed to the attackers was that the
defenders were remaining largely inside the concrete works, leaving the gaps
between them vulnerable to infiltration. This was confirmed by the experiences
of a separate patrol that reconnoitred near Infantry Work 3, also known as the
‘Central Fort’ to the Japanese; the knowledge gained being of some potential
worth. Also of value was an understanding of the nature of the barbed-wire
obstacles. These were permanent fixtures, with extra heavy wire holding barbs
‘so closely together that it would be difficult to get a pair of pliers in a
position to cut it’. It did prove possible to cut the wire, but the stakes it
was strung on, made from heavy duty angle-iron secured to a square baseplate
some 300mm per side and sunk into the ground to a depth of about half a metre,
proved almost impossible to dislodge. Initial intelligence had indicated that
the wire was charged with 30,000 volts, but direct examination showed this not
to be the case.
Apart from repelling the Japanese attack, as they thought,
the defenders spent the night of 1–2 November destroying further equipment that
might be of use to the besiegers. Chief amongst this was Kaiserin Elisabeth;
shortly after midnight, having fired off her remaining ammunition in the
general direction of the Japanese, the vessel was moved into deep water in
Kiautschou Bay and scuttled. Explosive charges extemporised from torpedo
warheads ensured that the ship was beyond salvage even if the wreck was
located. The Austro-Hungarian cruiser was only one of several vessels scuttled
that night, including the floating dock, which was seen to have disappeared the
next morning. Only the Jaguar remained afloat at sunrise at which point the
rapid rate of advance of the attackers, up to the edge of the Haipo River
between Kiautschou Bay and the area in front of Infantry Work 3, was revealed
to the Germans.
Revealed to the Japanese, by their action during the hours
of darkness, was the precise position of the Iltis Battery and this was
promptly targeted and put out of action by counter-battery fire. The
remorseless battering by the siege train also resumed, and the German inability
to respond effectively due to the accuracy of Japanese return fire began to be
exacerbated by a shortage of ammunition. The Japanese bombardment, though
intense, was perhaps not as destructive as it could have been. What seems to
have mitigated the effect to some extent was the high rate of dud shells. One
press correspondent that entered Tsingtau after the conclusion of operations
noted the proliferation of ‘giant shells, some three feet long and a foot in
diameter, [that] were lying about on side-walk and street still unexploded’.
Burdick, working from contemporary German estimates, calculates that between 10
and 25 per cent of the Japanese ordnance failed to explode. This shortcoming,
being attributable to faulty manufacture, played a major role in sparing the
defenders a worse ordeal than they had to endure anyway.
Also sparing the defenders to some extent on 2 November was
the onset of rain, which affected the assailants more than the defence inasmuch
as the attackers’ diggings became waterlogged and collapsed in some cases.
Further alleviation was attributable to the reduction of the rate of fire of
the 280mm howitzers. Their temporary emplacements suffered from the immense
recoil and had the potential to render firing both dangerous and inaccurate.
The remainder of the siege train concentrated its fire on the Boxer Line,
particularly in an attempt to destroy the wire and obstacles in the trench and
thus mitigate the need to resort to manual methods with their inevitable human
cost. The power station was also targeted, with the result that the chimney was
brought down in the evening, thus rendering the city dependent on primitive
forms of lighting.
The 3 and 4 November saw further progress in the advancement
of the siege works and continuing bombardment, though useful targets for this
were now at a premium as little of the defences remained other than the
concrete Infantry Works. The defenders had begun destroying their batteries on
2 November as they ran out of ammunition, and in any event returning the
Japanese fire was a hazardous business due to the rapidity and accuracy of the
response. The lack of defensive fire allowed some reorganisation of the siege
artillery and several of the batteries were moved forward and swiftly
re-emplaced with the minimum of disruption. On the far right of the Japanese
line the sappers attached to 67th Infantry Regiment had advanced their works to
within a short distance of the Haipo River, and thus close to the city’s water
pumping station situated on the eastern bank. The decision was taken by 29th
Infantry Brigade to attempt to take the station on the evening of 4 November
and a company sized unit, comprising infantry and engineers, was assembled. It
had not been bombarded by the siege artillery; the idea seemingly being to
preserve it for future use by the occupying force. So the engineers cut through
the defensive wire with Bangalore Torpedoes, thus allowing the infantry to
surround the place, whilst a box artillery barrage insulated it from any
Despite its relative isolation the pumping station was
actually a wellfortified strongpoint. The machinery rooms, stores and personnel
quarters were located underground and well protected by ferro-concrete. The
whole was surrounded by a bank of earth some 6m in height, itself protected by
a ditch, about 12m wide and 2m deep at the counterscarp, that was filled with
barbed-wire obstacles. The leader of the platoon investigating the area, 2nd
Lieutenant Yokokura, later reported that the personnel manning the station had
locked themselves inside behind ‘iron doors’ and were still working the pumps,
but when they realised that the enemy were upon them they opened the doors and
surrendered. The haul amounted to one sergeant major, twenty rank and file, two
water works engineers and five Chinese, together with twenty-five rifles. The
station was immediately fortified against any counter-attack and with its loss
Tsingtau was without a mains water supply and thus dependent on the several,
somewhat brackish, wells within the city.
Elsewhere along the line the nocturnal ‘mole warfare’
techniques advanced the saps and trenches ever nearer to the ditch in order to
construct the third parallel – the final assault line. This progressed
everywhere apart from the British sector of front, where enemy fire prevented
the final approach being made. As Barnardison reported:
On 5 November I was
ordered to prepare a Third Position of attack on the left bank of the river.
This line was to a great extent enfiladed on both flanks by No. 1 and 2
Redoubts, especially the latter, from which annoying machine-gun fire was
experienced. The bed of the river […] had also to be crossed, and in doing so
the working parties of the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers suffered
somewhat severely, losing 8 non-commissioned officers and men killed and 24
wounded. The 36th Sikhs had only slight losses. Notwithstanding this a good
deal of work was done, especially on the right flank. I considered it my duty
to represent to the Japanese Commander-in-Chief the untenable nature, for
permanent occupation, of the portion of the Third Position in my front, but
received a reply that it was necessary for it to be held in order to fit in
with the general scheme of assault.
Though most diplomatically phrased, it is possible to
distinguish in the final sentence of this quotation a hint of asperity in the
relations between the Allies. Indeed, though suppressed for political reasons
at the time, the British military contribution did not impress the Japanese in
any way, shape or form. Reports from the front revealed the perception that the
British were reluctant to get involved in the fighting and ‘hard to trust’.
More brutal opinions had it that they were no more than ‘baggage’ and ‘decoration’
on the battlefield. The nature of these observations filtered through to the
Japanese press, one report stating that: ‘Only when nothing happened were
British soldiers wonderful and it was like taking a lady on a trip. However,
such a lady can be a burden and lead to total disaster for a force when the
Daylight on 5 November saw three Japanese aeroplanes overfly
the German positions dropping not explosive devices, as might have been
expected, but rather bundles of leaflets carrying a message from the besiegers:
To the Respected
Officers and Men of the Fortress.
It would act against
the will of God as well as humanity if one were to destroy the still useful
weapons, ships, and other structures without tactical justification and only
because of the envious view that they might fall into the hands of the enemy.
Although we are certain in the belief that, in the case of
the chivalrous officers and men, they would not put into effect such
thoughtlessness, we nevertheless would like to emphasise the above as our point
On the face of it this message seemed to clearly indicate
that the besiegers, perceiving that they would shortly be in occupation of the
city, desired that as much of it be preserved as was possible. If so they
adopted a rather contradictory attitude inasmuch as shortly after dispensing it
a naval barrage, delivered by Mishima, Tango, Okinoshina and Iwami from Hai hsi
Bay to the west of Cape Jaeschke, was directed onto the urban area of Tsingtau.
Backed by the land batteries, this bombardment caused great damage to the city,
though one shot, apparently misaimed, struck one of the 240mm gun positions at
Hui tsch’en Huk, destroying the gun and killing seven of the crew. Without a
mains water supply the possibility of fire-fighting in Tsingtau was greatly reduced
and several buildings were burned down, though because of the relative
spaciousness of the city fires did not jump easily from building to building
and so there was no major conflagration. Tapatau, the Chinese quarter, was not
constructed on such generous proportions, though the relatively smaller size of
the dwellings and their less robust structural strength meant they collapsed
rather than burned, and it too was spared an inferno. Because the German
artillery was now virtually silent the sapping work continued during daylight
hours without fear of interruption, and the third parallel was completed during
the day close up to the defensive ditch. Unable to effectively counter these
moves the defenders, also ignoring the Japanese plea as contained in their
airdropped leaflet, began putting their coastal artillery batteries out of
action, which in any event, other than Hui tsch’en Huk, had proved mostly
ineffective. It was clear to all that the end was not far off, and only the
ferro-concrete infantry works remained as anything like effective defensive
positions, though a report from one to Meyer-Waldeck ‘reflected the universal
The entire work is shot to pieces, a hill of fragments,
without any defences. The entire trench system is knocked out; the redoubt
still holds together, but everything else, including the explosives storage
room, is destroyed. Only a single observation post is in use. I shall hold the
redoubt as long as possible.
Given the impossibility of offering effective resistance to
the besiegers, Meyer-Waldeck was under no illusions as to the length of time
left to the defence force. Evidence for this may be adduced from his ordering
Plüschow to make a getaway attempt the following day. He was to carry away
papers relating to the course of the siege and several symbolic items such as
the fastenings from the flagpole, as well as private letters from members of
The attackers saw the elusive Taube take to the air the next
morning, and, according to Plüschow himself, make a last circuit of Tsingtau
before setting off southwards; ‘never,’ as the Japanese General Staff history
put it, ‘to come back’. Though the Japanese artillery made what was to turn out
to be their final efforts to shoot him down, hostile aircraft did not attempt
to follow and he made good his escape towards neutral China, eventually
reaching Tientsin where he was reunited with the crew of S-90. As he left his
ground crew destroyed any remaining equipment, but his place over the city was
soon taken by the Japanese aeroplanes who sortied in force, dropping numerous
bombs onto the defenders’ positions, as a less than effective adjunct to the
efforts of the artillery. As the bombardment from land and air went on the
Japanese infantry began to move into their final assault positions in the third
parallel. The British however, still troubled by the fire from the German
machine guns, only occupied their sector with a thin outpost line. The
Governor, noting the proximity of the attackers and expecting an imminent assault,
ordered a general alert for the afternoon.
Kamio now had all his infantry where he wanted them, with
the exception of the British contingent, and all his equipment in place. His
orders for the night of 6–7 November did not however call for a general
assault, but rather stipulated small scale, though aggressive, probing of the
Boxer Line to test for weak spots, together with the usual artillery barrage.
He emphasised flexibility and the exploitation of success. As darkness fell the
sappers dug forward from the third parallel and, using mining techniques,
burrowed through the counterscarp before blowing several breaches in it. This
allowed the infantry direct access to the ditch without the need to leave the
entrenchments. It was also discovered that the ditch in front of Infantry Works
1 and 2 differed somewhat from the saw-tooth version already noted, being a
conventional channel in section. It was also found to be subject to flanking
fire from the Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).
Wire that had remained intact following the previous
attention of the artillery was cut or covered, allowing more or less
unrestricted access within the ditch, and patrols moved across it and out onto
the German side as darkness fell. At around 23:00hr a firefight broke out around
Infantry Work 2 as a patrol from the 56th Infantry Regiment attempted to
infiltrate and bypass it. The defenders were more alert than they had been on 1
November and sallied out to meet them. Eventually, after about an hour of
fighting, the Japanese retreated and called down an artillery barrage onto the
defenders for their pains.
More or less concurrently Infantry Work 3 (Central Fort)
under the command of Captain Lancelle was the object of similar tactics. The
results were however rather different. Engineers from the 4th Independent
Battalion, preceding units from the 56th Infantry Regiment, discovered that
they met with no resistance whatsoever when they began cutting two ‘roads’
through the entanglements in both the inner and outer ditches in front of the
fortification. Accordingly this work was completed expeditiously, and the
information on the apparent passivity of the defenders in that sector passed up
the chain of command. Major General Yamada, commander of the 2nd Central Force,
immediately decided to attempt an assault to take the work, but sought the
sanction of Kamio before so doing. The division commander concurred, so a
company sized unit under Lieutenant Nakamura Jekizo of the 56th Infantry
Regiment crossed the ditch at about 01:00hr.
The plan required some courage on the part of the
participants, who were all volunteers. They comprised twenty engineers and six
infantry NCOs who were armed with hand grenades, whilst further infantry units,
complete with mortars, stood ready in immediate support. The whole regiment was
also awaiting developments and was ready to advance at a few minutes’ notice.
Formed into two detachments, the raiders used ladders to climb into the ditch
away from the breach and, unseen, safely reached the German parapet which they
scaled before moving to reform. The plan called for a stealthy advance until
the occupants of the redoubt opened up on them, and then a charge forward
throwing the grenades in an attempt to disable the defenders and damage the
machine guns. This procedure was modified when it became apparent that the
fortification was, effectively, unguarded and Nakamura instead sent his men
left and right around it to the rear (or ‘gorge’ in fortification terms) where
they occupied the shelter trenches.
Detailing ten grenadiers and an NCO to resist any German
potential counter-attack, he used the rest of his men to block the redoubt’s
exits and then sent for reinforcements. Before these could arrive however the
Japanese were detected by defence posts on the flanks of the fortification,
whereby a hot fire with machine guns was opened. Several volleys of grenades
stemmed that, and in the meantime the redoubt’s telephone wires were cut and
access was forced into the signal room where, after the occupants were overcome,
the power was cut. This plunged the whole work into darkness and prevented any
further telephoning or signalling.
By this time two platoons of reinforcements had begun to
arrive; half of them formed a defensive line behind the redoubt whilst the rest
broke into it. It was claimed that they found the occupants in bed, but
whatever the truth of the matter Lancelle immediately surrendered the work
complete with its complement of about 200 men to Nakamura. It had taken forty
minutes and been, to quote Burdick’s words, ‘ridiculously easy’. It was
undoubtedly a famous and daring victory, and Nakamura was awarded the Order of
the Golden Kite (4th class) which he undoubtedly deserved.
In practical terms however, there was now a large and
growing gap in the very centre of the Boxer Line, and word quickly got to
Meyer-Waldeck who ordered his reserves to counter-attack under cover of a
German barrage. Whilst such a move was theoretically sound, it was,
practically, almost impossible. There was simply not enough artillery left to
provide an effective bombardment, and precious little manpower, particularly in
comparison with that available to the attackers, to seal the breach. The effort
was made, but the counter-attackers, including a contingent of Austro-Hungarian
sailors landed from Kaiserin Elisabeth, were simply too weak to throw back the
rapidly reinforcing Japanese.
The Boxer Line, being a linear defence, was vulnerable to
being ‘rolled up’ from the flanks once breached at a given point. The Japanese
having made the breach now proceeded to widen it by moving against Infantry
Works 2 and 4 on either side. Both works held out for some hours, assisted by
the Jaguar, the last German warship afloat, which fired away her remaining
ordnance in support. The outcome however could be in no doubt and both works
surrendered after about three hours of resistance. The Boxer Line was now
useless, for with no defence in depth the penetration meant the route to
Tsingtau was now as good as wide open. The Japanese infantry surged through the
gap and began a general advance on Tsingtau and various strategic points, such
as Iltis and Bismarck Hills. The batteries on the former fought the attackers
for a time before surrendering, whereas the artillerymen on the latter, having
fired away the last of their ammunition, set charges to destroy their guns and
vacated the position at about 05:00hr. This final destruction of land-based
artillery had its counterpart on the water; Jaguar, after attempting to repulse
the infantry attack, had been scuttled in Kiautschou Bay.
At 06:00hr Meyer-Waldeck held a meeting at his headquarters
in the Bismarck Hill Command Post where the latest information was assimilated.
It had long been an unwritten rule of siege warfare that a garrison could
honourably surrender following a ‘practical breach’ being made in their
defences. The Japanese, using classic siege warfare methodology, had now
achieved just such a breach. Whether the Governor was aware of the ‘rule’ is
unknown, but he had now only two options; surrender or a fanatical ‘fight to
the last man and last bullet’ scenario. Meyer-Waldeck was no fanatic. Brace put
If the governor had
permitted the unequal struggle to go on his men would have lasted only a few
hours longer. It would be an Alamo, and the name of the German garrison would
be heralded throughout history as the heroic band of whites who stood against
the yellow invasion until the last man. On the other hand the governor had with
him a large part of the German commercial community of the Far East which
Germany had built up with such painstaking care.
The Governor ordered the white flag hoisted on the signal
station and over the German positions and composed a message to Kamio: ‘Since
my defensive measures are exhausted I am now ready to enter into surrender
negotiations for the now open city. […] I request you to appoint
plenipotentiaries to the discussions, as well as to set time and place for the
meeting of the respective plenipotentiaries. […]’ The carrier of this message
was Major Georg von Kayser, adjutant to Meyer-Waldeck’s Chief-of-Staff, naval
Captain Ludwig Saxer – the latter being the Governor’s appointee as German
plenipotentiary. Despite Barnardiston’s contention that all firing ceased at
07:00hr Kayser had difficulty getting through the lines in safety, but he was
eventually allowed to proceed under his flag of truce to the village of
Tungwutschiatsun, some 4km behind the Japanese front line, more or less
opposite the celebrated Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).81 It was agreed that a
general armistice would come into play immediately, and that formal
negotiations for the capitulation would commence that afternoon at 16:00hr in
When news of this first Soviet missile test site on the
Volga in the Ukraine, southeast of Moscow, filtered out in 1952 following
reports from returning German rocket technicians and prisoners of war
interviewed in the WRINGER program, a modified Royal Air Force Canberra B-2
from 540 Squadron at Wyton photographed it on a flight from Giebelstadt in West
Germany, which overflew Soviet territory in 1953 as Operation ROBIN and landed
in Iran. The plane apparently sustained some damage from Soviet air defenses.
Kapustin Yar, constructed in 1951 with German labor, remained the Soviet
Union’s principal IRBM development facility throughout the Cold War, and was a
priority target for overflights. Telemetry from the range was monitored from a
National Security Agency intercept station located across the Black Sea, at
Sinop in Turkey.
A small village outside the Turkish Black Sea resort of
Samsun was the location of a large American radar station that became
operational in 1955 to monitor Soviet missile tests at Kapustin Yar. In May
1957, Diyarbakur detected the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile
launch, the same month as the Jupiter IRBM was successfully fired in the United
RAF PHOTOGRAPHIC-RECONNAISSANCE OVER THE USSR
One area of RAF Canberra photographic-reconnaissance history
that still remains shrouded in uncertainty and conjecture is the aircraft’s
rumoured operations over the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s.
The USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was placed under the
command of the charismatic General Curtis LeMay in October 1948; high on his
agenda was the desire to get radar photographic coverage of as much of the USSR
as possible, in order for SAC bombardiers to recognize potential target areas.
Of course, at this time a significant amount of mutual suspicion existed
between the NATO powers and the Soviets, in what was known as the Cold War.
Consequently, LeMay’s ideas of setting up SAC reconnaissance flights over the
USSR were officially flatly vetoed by the White House, so that the Soviet Union
should have no excuse to carry out military action against NATO.
However, aircrews did experience ‘errors in navigational
equipment’ and aircraft did ‘stray’ over Eastern areas of the Soviet Bloc
during the Korean War. Also, in April 1950, a US Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2,
engaged on an electronic intelligence (Elint) flight over the Baltic Sea, was
shot down by Lavochkin La-11s; their pilots said it was a B-29.
The RB-45C variant, also served with
the RAF (35 and 115 Squadrons), as part of Opertation Jiu Jitsu. As the USAF
was forbidden by the US President from overflying the Soviet Union, but the
British Government had no such problems. Therefore, 4 RB-45C aircraft were
operated to fly reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. This lasted till
1954, when the RB-45C was withdrawn from Soviet Union flyovers, when one was
nearly shot down.Stuart Fowle
In view of Washington’s official reluctance, discussions
between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of Britain and the USA, worked out a deal.
RAF aircrews would fly American aircraft from bases within the UK, as the
Canberra’s electronics were, at that time, still being developed. Radar target plots
obtained would be shared between the air forces of the two countries. The
aircraft selected for these missions was the four-engined North American RB-45C
and, in the autumn of 1951, a small party of RAF aircrew, under the leadership
of former No. 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron member Sqn Ldr ‘Micky’ Martin DSO, DFC,
AFC, was established. Martin failed the preliminary medical for high-altitude
flying and his place was taken by Sqn Ldr John Crampton, the Commanding Officer
of No.101 Squadron, with its Canberra B. 2s.
The party was detached to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in
Louisiana for the necessary training programme, which was continued at Langley
AFB in Ohio, until December. Then, the party transferred to Sculthorpe in Norfolk,
from where the US F 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing operated the 322nd
Reconnaissance Squadron, one of three RB-45C squadrons stationed around the
world. Four aircraft at Sculthorpe were painted up with RAF roundels and large,
non-standard fin flashes, but were not allocated serial numbers. Three of the
RB-45Cs were flown on the first missions, in the early summer of 1952, on
courses set over north, central and southern areas of the Soviet Union. After
the flights, the aircraft were returned to the USA and the RAF aircrews
rejoined their respective units. Early in 1954, Sqn Ldr Crampton was put in
charge of another mission and his navigator was again Sqn Ldr Rex Saunders.
This time, their brief was to penetrate further into Soviet airspace than they
had in 1952. Crampton and Saunders took radar photographs of over thirty different
targets during a flight that covered more than 1,000 miles (1,600km). Again,
following the missions, aircraft and aircrews returned to their squadrons and
nothing has officially been released about these episodes.
Coupled with these known RB-45C flights, rumours have
referred to Canberras taking part in an Operation Robin. What is known for fact
is that, in 1951, the Soviets set up a missile production plant in the Kapustin
Yar area of the USSR, and ATO was extremely anxious to find out just what type
of missiles were involved. It is also a known fact that No.13 Squadron, which
had moved to Fayid with its Mosquito PR. 34s on 5 February 1947, had a
detachment deployed to Habbaniya, in Iraq, at the end of 1948, in order to
carry out intelIigence-gathering flights over southern areas of the USSR.
No. 540 Squadron had started receiving Canberra PR. 3s in
December 1952, while still operating with B. 2s. Its records show that, on 27
and 28 August 1953, various crews flew long-range missions connected with
Operation Robin. B. 2 WH726 and PR. 3 WH800 were used, with Wg Cdr Ball, Sqn
Ldr Kenyon, Fit Lt Gartside, together with Fit Sgts Brown and Wigglesworth
listed as taking part. Another of the squadron’s PR. 3s, WE 142, participated
in the New Zealand Air Race as ‘No. 2’ and is confirmed as having ‘strayed off
course a little’ on 8 October during the race. This ‘straying’ went over
Communist territory. Furthermore, the aircraft was ‘delayed’ at Basrah and took
third place in the race results. Whether anything can be deduced from these
facts depends on an interpretation of semantics.
During 1953, the squadron was loaned an American camera,
fitted with a 100in (250cm) focal length lens; it is known that B. 2 WH726 was
converted to accept this massive piece of optics. When the camera was being
tested, locations in London were photographed while the aircraft was flying over
the English Channel. With a camera having that type of performance on board, it
is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that WH726 took part in a
Kapustin Yar overflight. There was such a flight and this has been confirmed by
no less an organization than USSR intelligence.
Soviet records state that Lt Mikhail Shulga, flying an
undisclosed type of MiG fighter, was vectored by ground control on to an
aircraft in the Kapustin Yar area, recognized as a Canberra. At about 50,000ft
(15,200m) and still below the Canberra, the Red Air Force aircraft was at the
stall and Shulga’s intended interception had to be aborted. Whether the
Canberra in this event was WH726 has never been confirmed, but what has is the
fact that this aircraft was something of a special B. 2, which was also
operated from Wyton by No. 5 Squadron. A Fit Lt Gingell of that squadron flew
WH726 to the USA in March 1954, for a series of joint RAF and USAF trials,
quoted as Project Robin and American records cite the aircraft as being a
‘modified Canberra B. 2’. The trials occupied six weeks, after which the
aircraft returned to the UK and is confirmed as being on Wyton’s strength on 10
Later in the same month, an Operation Robin mission was
flown, followed by two more on 8 and 11 May. On 26 August and on 30 August,
further Operation Robin sorties are known to have been carried out, with all
being accepted at Wyton – but officially unconfirmed – as reconnaissance
missions over the Soviet Union. Perhaps the correlation between the
red-breasted bird and the national colour of the USSR reflects a typically
British sense of humour.
Predictably, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refuses, on the
grounds of ‘international sensitivity’, to release files relating to Operation
Robin, even in the current atmosphere of improved relations between the west
and the former USSR. However, surely the simple fact that Whitehall holds these
files is some proof that all is not conjecture.
Further south, Britain’s most important ally was also in
trouble. Since 10 May, French reconnaissance planes had been monitoring the
powerful armoured forces moving through the Luxembourg Ardennes towards the
French defences on the Meuse, and more were moving across southern Belgium
towards Gembloux. Initially, the latter seemed the greater threat; there was no
natural obstacle to aid the defence in the 30-mile gap between the BEF on the
Dyle and the French forces on the Meuse. The well-equipped French 1st Army had
the task of plugging this gap. The 2nd and 3rd Light Armoured divisions pushed
as far east as possible to buy time for the French infantry to dig in.
Before the German forces could even think about breaking
through the ‘Gembloux Gap’, they had to cross the River Mass, which ran through
the Dutch town of Maastricht. Just a couple of miles beyond that, in Belgium,
there was another major obstacle—the Albert Canal. The Maastricht crossing was
not important to Dutch defences, but the local troops did their duty and
destroyed the bridges over the Maas before the Germans could seize them. German
forces had more success just over the frontier, in Belgium. Troops in gliders
landed near the three bridges over the Albert Canal and the fort at Eben-Emael,
which was supposed to cover them. Belgian engineers blew one of the bridges,
but those at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt were captured intact and Eben-Emael was
With the Maastricht bridges blown, the Belgians had the best
part of a day before any major reinforcements could reach the lightly armed
German airborne troops holding the Albert Canal bridges. The German forces,
however, had the firepower of the Stuka dive-bombers to help them fend of the
Belgian counterattacks. The Belgian troops had no air support or fighter cover;
apart from escorting the odd reconnaissance mission, Belgian fighters stayed on
the ground. The Fairey Fox was as capable of carrying bombs as the Fokker C.V
and C.X, but these and the Belgian Battles did not intervene. The blown bridges
at Maastricht caused a huge bottleneck as German columns waited for the
engineers to construct the pontoons. It was one of those rare occasions where
there was no alternative route. The backed-up columns made an attractive target
for the eleven unemployed Hampden and Whitley squadrons, not to mention the two
Whitley squadrons attempting to hit less vital communication targets further
Sifting through the reports coming from the front, it was
not German bottlenecks the Air Staff was looking for, but rather any evidence
that the Luftwaffe was bombing civilians. The cabinet meetings that day spent
much time discussing whether there was justification for unleashing Bomber
Command on the Ruhr, but they reached no final decision. Apart from Wellington
and Whitley attacks on Waalhaven and communication targets west of the Ruhr, no
other missions were flown on the night of 10–11 May. This is not to say that
the French effort was more intensive—only two of the six night bomber squadrons
flew. Twelve aircraft made some rather ineffectual attacks on German airfields.
Five reconnaissance Blenheims, flying singly and unescorted,
were dispatched during the course of 11 May to find out what was happening in
the Maastricht/Albert Canal region. Three were lost and the two that made it
back were badly damaged. They confirmed the Belgian frontier defences had been
breached and armoured forces were heading for Gembloux. These missions also
confirmed that using unescorted Blenheims for reconnaissance was not an
efficient way of acquiring information; even the Belgians were escorting their
reconnaissance planes. Only the photo-reconnaissance Spitfires could operate
unescorted, but No. 212 Squadron had so few planes that it rarely managed to
fly more than two sorties a day. The most important role of any air force has
always been and probably always will be reconnaissance. A few more
reconnaissance Spitfires would have been a very good investment.
Early on the morning of the 11th, Belgian Air Force Battles
attempted to destroy the two intact bridges over the Albert Canal. The
Gladiator escort was intercepted before it met up with the bombers, and only one
of the eight Battles returned. No bombs had hit the bridges, and the 50-kg
bombs they were carrying would not have made much impression anyway. The
Belgians appealed to their British and French Allies to try.
In fact, Maastricht was the more rewarding target. The
bridges high over the Albert Canal could not be easily replaced, but nor could
they be easily destroyed. The pontoons the Germans had thrown across the Maas
were far more vulnerable and any damage to the town itself would block roads.
No. 2 Group Blenheims attacked the pontoon bridges in Maastricht (eleven
sorties) and enemy columns pushing towards Tongres (twelve sorties). Twelve
French LeO 451s, the first of the new French bombers, also bombed Maastricht.
The French bombers had a close escort of M.S.406 fighters, while the Blenheims
had to rely on Hurricanes operating in the general area, but it would seem the
air defences were not that strong on the 11th. Two Blenheims were lost—one to
fighters and one to flak.
Instead of continuing the attack during the night, Bomber
Command stuck rigidly to its pre-offensive plane to bomb communication targets
west of the Rhine in Germany. Nineteen Hampdens and eighteen Whitleys bombed
Mönchengladbach. It was the first time Bomber Command had attacked a German
city. Four civilians were killed. How the Germans were supposed to distinguish
between this and attacks on German industry east of the Rhine is not clear; nor
would it have been clear to the Germans why Mönchengladbach was chosen as the
crucial tactical target that merited Bomber Command’s only effort that night.
Lines of communication from the city led into southern Holland and to
Maastricht, but it was too far from either front line to be crucial. All the
French could put into the air was five ancient Amiot 143s, but at least they
were in a more relevant area, bombing Maastricht and targets around Aachen.
Fairey Battles: 12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over
the Albert Canal.
The fifty bombing sorties flown in the Maastricht area on
the 11th were dwarfed by the number of bomber and dive-bomber sorties flown by
the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, they made sufficient impression for German Army
commanders to demand better air cover. In response, on 12 May German fighter
squadrons maintained a permanent watch, operating from airfields just a few
minutes’ flying time from Maastricht. Operating without a close escort was now
going to be very dangerous. To make matters worse, while the Luftwaffe was
stepping up its efforts in the Maastricht area, Air Component Hurricanes had to
divide their resources between Maastricht and the Belgian forces falling back
on Antwerp. The bombers paid the price. Nine AASF Blenheims were intercepted
just after attacking German troop columns and seven were shot down. Five
Battles from No. 12 Squadron attempted to destroy the Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt
bridges. Two squadrons of Blenheims bombing Maastricht from medium altitude
were supposed to distract the defenders, but they arrived too late and the
bridges were not destroyed. Ten of the twenty-four Blenheims were lost to
fighters and flak, and all five Battles were also shot down.
An irate German officer scolded one of the shaken survivors:
You British are mad.
We capture the bridge early Friday morning. You give us all Friday and Saturday
to get our flak guns up in circles all round the bridge, and then on Sunday,
when all is ready, you come along with three aircraft and try and blow the
It was a fair point. If they had struck quickly, before the
defences were ready, the chances of surviving were much greater.
Other attacks on troop column heading for Tongres brought
the total number of No. 2 Group sorties to forty-five for the loss of eleven
Blenheims. This was an unsustainable loss rate. Fighter escorts helped the
French medium bombers avoid heavy losses, but no escort could prevent eight of
eighteen hedge-hopping Breguet 693 ground-attack bombers from being shot down
by flak. Like the Battle aircrews, the French were flying their first mission,
and they were equally taken aback by the lethality of the light anti-aircraft
defences. The Breguet 693 was smaller and much faster than the Battle, but the
French aircrews were no more experienced than their RAF counterparts.
Three more RAF Hurricane squadrons flew to France on the
evening of the 10th, and the promised tenth squadron arrived on the 12th. Even
so, the number of RAF fighters available was still inadequate for all the tasks
they were required to carry out. RAF fighters were not being used as bomber
interceptors deep in the rear, as Slessor and Dowding had anticipated; they
were inevitably drawn to where the fighting on the ground was taking place, and
the further east they went, the more frequent were encounters with Bf 109Es.
Galland describes how he almost felt sorry for what he thought was a formation
of Belgian Hurricanes he came across; it was actually an RAF squadron, probably
No. 87. The German ace shot down two with an ease that he found embarrassing.
The Battle and Blenheim raid on the Albert Canal/Maastricht bridges was
supposed to be covered by three fighter squadrons, but they were committed
piecemeal and engaged by German fighters over a wide area. Only the eight
Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron were in the Maastricht area, and only three of
them returned intact, although all the pilots eventually made it back. Thirteen
French-based Hurricanes were lost on the 12th, marking the first serious pilot
losses—four killed and two wounded.
The 100-odd bomber sorties flown by the Allied air forces on
11 and 12 May in the Maastricht region caused delays, especially to the 4th
Panzer. This could only help the French racing to meet them, but it was only
partial compensation for the far more powerful blows that were delaying the
French. These were spearheaded by the 300 Stuka dive-bombers of Fliegerkorps
VIII. This mobile close-support unit had helped smash a way through the Dutch
Peel Marshes defences, had beaten off the Belgian counterattacks around
Eben-Emael, had forced the French tanks advancing on Breda to retreat, and was
now supporting the drive on Gembloux. The idea that German Army commanders
could radio for help whenever they needed it was perhaps an exaggeration, but
the Germans were very good at concentrating their air resources where they were
The French 2nd and 3rd Light Armoured divisions first
clashed with the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions on 12 May. From the 13th to the
15th, a fierce tank battle raged east of Gembloux. The French suffered heavily
at the hands of their more experienced opponents, but the German Panzers failed
to break through. In a hard-fought and close battle, by imposing some delays,
the Allied day bombers could claim to have made a small but useful
contribution. Perhaps significantly, for most of the battle the French tanks
were spared the full attention of the German Stukas. On the 13th, most of
Fliegerkorps VIII moved south. The French thought they were dealing with the
most serious threat; in fact, the heaviest German blow was to fall on the
Since the first day of the offensive, the French had been
following the progress of the Panzers heading through Luxembourg and southern
Belgium towards the Meuse. On the 11th, two flights of four AASF Battles were
involved in a rather ambitious attempt to bomb roads around Prüm, in Germany.
Only one returned. The survivors reported that the three other planes in their
flight had been shot down by flak before reaching the target. In view of the
heavy losses to ground fire, Barratt suggested that the Battles should be used
from a higher altitude. Playfair argued that the highest altitude for accurate
bombing would still be within range of light flak, and flying as low as
possible was still the best option. This seemed to be borne out in further
raids on the 12th, when a first wave of three attacking from 20 feet suffered
no losses, a second wave of six attacking from 100 feet lost two, and a third
wave of six attacking from 1,000 feet lost four. There had been eight months of
phoney war and a campaign in Norway to try out different tactics. The middle of
a crucial battle was an unfortunate time to be debating solutions.
As far as the Air Staff was concerned, the losses proved
they had been right all along. Portal had predicted 50 per cent losses and that
was what was happening. In fact, the losses in tactical operations had been no
more disastrous that those suffered in the Wilhelmshaven raids. The Air Staff’s
response, however, was very different. The heavy Hampdens and Wellington losses
had not been allowed to throw into doubt the validity of strategic bombing;
they had just hardened Air Staff resolve to find ways around the problem. The
heavy losses in tactical operations were gratefully accepted as proof that Army
air support did not work.
The only problem was that the Luftwaffe was proving the
contrary. The Air Staff were left sticking gamely to their argument that direct
air support for ground forces only worked for armies going forward; only armies
that were advancing knew what needed to be attacked, whereas armies that were
retreating would always be less sure. The Air Staff liked to conjure up the
image of bombers desperately scouring the countryside, looking for a particular
enemy column the Army wanted bombed. In fact, in such a large-scale offensive,
the bombers had no problems finding suitable targets. Their losses to
anti-aircraft fire were a testament to that. Two of the raids on 12 May were
actually witnessed by Guderian, the commander of the German tank forces heading
for Sedan. The bombers were in the right areas.
The problem was the losses they were suffering. In critical
situations, the AASF was supposed to fly repeat missions every two hours. If
his had been possible, even the relatively small AASF could have had a major
impact on the German columns winding their way through the Ardennes. This was
what the German commanders had most feared. As it was, repeat missions were out
of the question. Indeed, there were doubts about continuing to use the Battle
at all in the low-level attack role. Much to their relief, the Germans were
able to complete their three-day approach march to the main French defensive
position along the Meuse relatively unscathed.
On Newall’s orders, Barratt instructed Playfair not to fly
any missions on the 13th—the Battles had to be conserved for the decisive phase
of the battle. Given the losses so far suffered, the decision was
understandable. Unfortunately, the 13th was to be the decisive day of the
entire campaign. This was far from obvious to the French that morning; the
Germans had reached the Meuse, but all the bridges had been blown and French
artillery dominated the battlefield. The French expected a pause of a few days while
the Germans brought their artillery up to support a crossing of the river, and
the situation seemed far more critical elsewhere. The tank battle at Gembloux
was about to begin, and the French 7th Army was in difficulty around Breda, in
the Netherlands. The only mission flown by the AASF on the 13th was an attempt
to slow down the German advance by blocking roads in Breda. While Battles were
flying all the way from Reims to support the French Army in the Netherlands,
the real danger was much closer to hand.
Events on the Meuse were moving far faster than the French
had anticipated. The German forces had no intention of waiting for artillery to
move up. Instead, the Luftwaffe gave a classic demonstration of how airpower
could substitute for artillery. Throughout the 13th, the French positions at
Sedan, in the front line and artillery to the rear, were subjected to waves of
medium bombers and dive-bombers. Under the cover of this continuous air
bombardment, German infantry established bridgeheads on the west bank of the
Meuse. So fierce was the aerial bombardment that some French troops holding the
front line panicked and fled. There could be no doubt now about the impact
tactical bombing could have on the battlefield. It was, however, still only
German infantry on the west bank. The Panzers would have to wait until the
German engineers could get their pontoon bridges across the river.
Further north, at Dinant, the German forces had nothing like
the same air support. Nevertheless, at Houx, just north of Dinant, Rommel
managed to get a small party of infantry across the Meuse and establish the
first tiny, precarious bridgehead on the west bank. The German troops were
spotted by a French reconnaissance plane. The pilot appreciated the
significance of the discovery and knew what to do; following the guidelines
established before the offensive for dealing with important fleeting targets,
he headed for the base of No. 12 Battle Squadron. On 13 May, there could be no
more important a target of opportunity than German forces on the west bank of
the Meuse. Playfair wanted to strike, but Barratt, anxious to avoid unnecessary
losses, denied permission. Perhaps a single strike by a squadron of Battles
would not have been enough to defeat Rommel’s first attempt to cross the Meuse,
but the Allies would never find out. By the evening, the bridgehead was large
enough to allow work to begin on a pontoon bridge.
The French planned to retrieve the situation at Sedan by a
counterattack by two tank battalions. These slow-moving infantry support tanks
were quite capable of dealing with lightly armed infantry. If bridges enabled
German Panzers to cross the river, the odds would swing heavily against the
French. The counterattack was supposed to be launched at dawn on the 14th, but
it had to be put back because of the confusion caused by retreating troops. The
French desperately needed a little more time.
At 10 p.m. on 13 May, General Billotte, the commander of all
Allied armies on the North-Eastern front, instructed D’Astier and Barratt to
take immediate action against the bridges the Germans were building. He wanted
the attacks to begin that night if possible. D’Astier immediately switched his
four night bomber squadrons from the Maastricht region to the Ardennes and
prepared to launch every available bomber against the bridges the following
day. Barratt was more cautious. He committed himself to just one small raid at
The Meuse crossings were a much easier target for the Allied
air forces than the Maastricht/Albert Canal bridges. The German fighter pilots
would now be operating much further from their bases. The bridges were only
temporary pontoons and they were only a short distance from Allied airfields.
As Billotte appreciated, the attacks had to be launched quickly, not just
because of the urgency of the situation, but to deny the Germans time to
organise their air defences. On the morning of the 14th, the Germans were still
desperately trying to extract flak units from the miles of columns queuing back
from the Meuse.
As promised, early on the 14th, six Battles attacked the
Sedan crossing points. All made it back to their base, although one wounded
pilot had to force-land. Encouraged by this relative success, another flight of
four was dispatched. They reported light flak, but all four returned. At 9
a.m., eight French Breguet 693s attacked armoured units spotted by the Battle
crews, losing one plane. At this point, no Panzers had yet crossed the Meuse
and the anti-aircraft defences were still relatively disorganised. A more
substantial effort might have brought a greater reward at less cost than the
British bombers were about to suffer.
Soon after these raids, the French launched their
counterattack. Almost simultaneously, the 1st Panzer Division started crossing
the Meuse. The French tanks advanced until they ran into the German Panzers, at
which point they were quickly scattered. The situation at Sedan had suddenly
become extremely critical.
French hopes of restoring the situation rested with General
Flavigny’s XXI Corps, a substantial force with motorised troops, light tanks,
and one of the three French heavy armoured divisions. This was moving north
towards the Sedan bridgehead, with instructions to strike as soon as possible.
To buy time for these reinforcements to move into position, all bombing effort
was to be focused on Sedan. Barratt was persuaded to join the French in one
all-out effort. At around midday, he instructed the AASF to launch every
available Battle and Blenheim against the Sedan bridges that afternoon.
The French would attack first, followed by the AASF bombers.
Both forces would rearm, return, and attack again. Blenheims from No. 2 Group
would round off the assault. The first AASF attack would consist of three
waves, with two escorted by Hurricanes and the third by French fighters.
Hurricanes and French fighters would escort No. 2 Group Blenheims in the final
attack. Five Hurricane squadrons would be involved; it was the first time
Hurricanes had been switched from Belgium to the French front. They were joined
by around fifteen now somewhat under-strength French fighter squadrons. Two of
them, however, were equipped with the new Dewoitine D.520.
The RAF escorts were again indirect. At least three of the
Hurricane squadrons were distracted by formations of Ju 87 dive-bombers. These
were very worthy targets and the Hurricanes inflicted heavy losses, but this
was little consolation to the AASF bomber crews they were supposed to be
protecting. The Bf 109Es of JG 53 alone claimed thirteen Battles. Arguably, the
Dutch tactics of providing a close escort, with the fighters joining in the
attack if possible, would have been more successful.
It seems the French ‘escorts’ were not the standard close
escort they were providing for their own bombers. At least some of the French
fighters were actually escorting a French reconnaissance plane. The Bloch 152
that were supposed to be escorting the Blenheims of No. 2 Group were covering
Flavigny’s forces moving up from the south. It seems the RAF was happy to accept
French fighters operating in the area on other duties as an escort.
By the time the first French bombers appeared, German
fighter and flak defences were ready. This first wave consisted of just
twenty-one bombers, thirteen of which were Amiot 143s—obsolete, ungainly medium
bombers that previously the French had only dared use by night. They did at
least get a substantial escort; twelve M.S.406s flew with the bombers, while
Bloch 152s and Dewoitine D.520s provided cover at a higher altitude. The French
fighters fought valiantly to protect their vulnerable charges and were
reasonably successful. Two Amiots were shot down by Bf 110s and another two
were lost to flak, while one of the eight LeO 451s was also shot down. It could
have been a lot worse.
For the AASF bombers that followed, it was a lot worse.
Forty of the seventy-one Battles and Blenheims were lost to fighters and flak.
So many of the returning French and British bombers were damaged that the
repeat attacks had to be abandoned. Twenty-eight Blenheims of No. 2 Group
attacked in the evening; only five Hurricanes could be mustered for the RAF
element of the escort, and even these got side-tracked by German observation
planes. Again, these were very worthy targets, but shooting down reconnaissance
planes was not the role of the fighters on this occasion. Given their rather
vague instructions, the pilots can scarcely be criticised for attacking any
enemy aircraft they came across, but another six bombers were lost.
The dive-bombers and observation planes shot down by the
Hurricanes did not help the bombers, but these successes did underline how many
very vulnerable German planes there were in the battlezone. It was not
surprising that Pownall was fuming at the ‘the thirty-four squadrons at home
where there is no attack’. There would have been plenty of targets for them in
France. Even the fighters that were available were affecting German operations.
On 15 May, Guderian’s XIX Corps reported its aerial reconnaissance was
‘severely impeded’ by Allied fighters and it was no longer possible for
squadrons ‘to carry out vigorous, extensive reconnaissance, as, owing to
casualties, more than half of their aircraft are not now available’. It was
fortunate for the Luftwaffe that so many RAF fighter squadrons were still in
During the course of the 14th, twenty-eight French-based
Hurricanes were shot down. Nearly all these were victims of Bf 109s and 110s.
Nineteen pilots were killed or wounded. The Hurricane was effective enough
against German bomber and reconnaissance planes, but it was losing the battle
with the Messerschmitts. Total Battle losses since the start of the offensive
had risen to seventy—over half of the force. The AASF was withdrawn from
daylight operations once again.
The French did their best to maintain the pressure on the
Sedan bridgehead. During the night of 14–15 May, huge four-engine long-range
Farman 222 bombers were ordered to join the tactical night offensive, but the
two groups only had six serviceable machines. The four Amiot 143 bomber groups,
after flying the previous night and in the daylight attack, were in action
again on the night of 13–14 May; in the circumstances, the tired crews did well
to manage sixteen sorties. Still the ‘heavies’ of Bomber Command remained idle.
After the thirty-seven sorties flown on the night of the 11–12 May, the Air
Ministry instructed Bomber Command to conserve its strength as cabinet
permission for the bombing of the Ruhr was believed to be imminent. On 12–13
May, just twelve sorties were flown by the 250-strong force, and these were
mainly near the Dutch/German border. On the 13th–14th, another twelve operated
rather vaguely in the Eindhoven-Aachen-Maastricht region.
Bomber Command stepped up its efforts on the night of 14–15
May, but not over the Meuse. The French assured Barratt that the heroism of RAF
crews had saved the day by allowing time for a French counterattack to restore
the situation. Perhaps the French were slightly too enthusiastic with their
appreciation; they convinced Barratt that the danger had passed. The French Air
Force continued to focus on the Meuse crossings, but Barratt suggested that
Bomber Command should concentrate on Breda and Maastricht. Always anxious to
bomb something inside Germany, Portal added Aachen and Mönchengladbach. Twelve
Hampdens attacked targets in and around Breda in support of the retreating
French 7th Army, and eighteen Wellingtons bombed Aachen and Maastricht in
support of the 1st Army. Twelve Whitleys revisited Mönchengladbach in support
of no one in particular.
The Allied bombing at Sedan might well have helped restore
the situation—if Flavigny had actually launched his counterattack. The 150
bomber sorties the Allies had flown against the Meuse bridgehead on the 14th
had caused delays. Guderian’s XIX Corps reported: ‘Throughout the day all three
divisions have had to endure constant air attack—especially at the crossing and
bridging points. Our fighter cover is inadequate.’ These delays could have been
significant. While the attacks were taking place, Guderian had decided to push
his 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions as far west as possible, despite their rather
precarious base. The 10th Panzer division was supposed to cover the left flank.
This began crossing the Meuse on the morning of the 14th, but the air attacks
meant it was not fully deployed on the west bank until the 15th. Had Flavigny’s
corps attacked on the evening of the 14th, as had been the original intention,
he might well have sliced between the Panzers pushing west and the delayed 10th
Panzer. Unfortunately, the French could not really decide if Flavigny should
attack the bridgehead or secure the left flank of the Maginot Line. Flavigny
went on to the defence and the opportunity was missed.
The situation on the ground now went from bad to worse. The
French forces at Dinant tried to pull back to the frontier positions they had
held on 10 May, but under incessant air attack, the retreat turned into a rout.
The two remaining French armoured divisions in the rear were taken by surprise by
the advancing Panzers and scattered. By the morning of the 16th, the Germans
had achieved a complete breakthrough along a 60-mile front. No substantial
Allied units stood between the Panzers and Paris—or the English Channel.
The situation was remarkably similar to March 1918, when the
Germans had also broken through on a 60-mile front. It was the scenario that
the Air Ministry and Air Staff had so frequently mentioned as the only
circumstances justifying the use of the ‘heavies’ in support of the Army. It had
worked in 1918, when the intervention of the RFC and French Air Force had
bought the Allies sufficient time to bring reserves into position. This,
however, was not 1918. The Germans were now exploiting their breakthrough with
fast-moving armoured and motorised forces. The Allied air forces in 1918 had
been battle-hardened formations, but in 1940 they were still inexperienced. In
1918, the RFC had not suffered horrendous losses. The British and French had
excellent SE5a, Camel and Spad fighters. In 1940, however, it was the German
Air Force that had the best fighter operating over the battlefield. Perhaps
most significantly of all, in 1918, most of the RFC was in France; in 1940,
most of the RAF was in Britain.
Still, the battle was far from lost. Indeed, in the period
following the breakthrough, the German forces were probably at their most
vulnerable, both to counterattacks on their weakly held flanks and air attack
on their lengthening supply lines. The Bf 109 had a very limited range, and the
Meuse was already some way from German airfields. The Panzer forces were now
racing even further west. Bf 109 squadrons began moving westwards, but the
number that could be maintained so far forward was limited, and protection
against Allied bomber attack could not be so effective. The French were doing
their best to bring up air reinforcements to take advantage; bomber squadrons
in the process of converting to modern equipment were rushed to the front.
Those that were not ready were told to use their old equipment by night. French
naval bombers were ordered to operate against the advancing German forces.
However, the largest single untapped bomber resource
available to the Allies was the 250 Whitleys, Wellingtons, and Hampdens of
Bomber Command. It seemed it was time for the Air Staff to deliver on its
promise to intervene if a crisis arose.