Victims of the VVS

“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 1944.

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 fleets.

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.

Further reading: 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 30 years.

Hypersonic Engines.

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.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles

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.

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

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 levels.

Boeing F-15EX

F-15EX: Careful What You Don’t Ask For

April 2019

John A. Tirpak

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 carry.

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

May 2019

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 lives.

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 acquisitions.

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 plan.

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 G-loading restrictions.

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 Force says.

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 configuration.

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 additional development.     

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 different missions.

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 resources.

Luftwaffe Air War Poland 1939

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 …?

Operational Method

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.

Stuka in Poland

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 target!

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 maneuverable.

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.

The Siege of Tsingtau 1914: Aircraft

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 Japanese-manufactured aeroplane.

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 required.

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 Brace:

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 Aeroplane Corps.


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 (mortars).

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 two hours.

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 darkness.

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 investment line.

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 attempted relief.

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 enemy appears.’

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 of view.

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 condition’:

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 garrison.

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 it thus:

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 Moltke Barracks.


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 States.


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 April 1954.

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.

Operation Jiu-Jitsu

Sedan: A Lesson in Army Air Support

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 quickly neutralised.

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 north.

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 thing up!

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 needed.

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 Meuse.

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 dawn.

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 Britain.

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.