The bombardment of the Turkish forts. Original illustration published by H W Wilson, British journalist and naval historian, editor of The Great War: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict, a popular part series published by the Amalgamated Press in 13 volumes, 1914 to 1919.

Liman von Sanders, the German officer commanding Turkish Fifth Army, which defended Gallipoli and the Straits against the Allied landings of 25 April, generally anticipated the Allied landing sites quite accurately. However, one other area, Bulair/Saros, at the neck of the Gallipoli peninsula, particularly attracted his attention. This turned out not to be an Allied landing site, but the capture and interrogation of a British naval officer just before the Allied landings helped focus Liman von Sanders’ attention on Bulair/Saros from 25 to 28 April.

Following the end of Allied naval attempts to force the Straits on 18 March, Turkish attention turned naturally to defence against the possibility of Allied landings on either side of the Straits. On 24 March 1915 Liman von Sanders, a German cavalry officer, Inspector of the Turkish Army, commander of the pre-war German military mission to update the Turkish army and commander of Turkish forces in the Caucasus in 1914, was chosen to command Fifth Army, defending Gallipoli and the Asian shore area. Already in January 1915, von Sanders had outlined his ideas for a defensive system. His first point was that the present defensive structure, set up by Enver Pasa, Supreme Military Commander in Istanbul, scattered the Turkish divisions too widely. This was feasible against small landings, but, ‘Against landings of large troop formations, our divisions must be much more concentrated in order to be able to attack the enemy in strength during or after landing.’ This was easily remedied, but here, though, was the central problem, where would the Allies land?

Liman von Sanders suggested three possible landing sites, all based on the assumption that the Allies would land so as to attack Turkish batteries and fortifications from the rear. Starting firstly with the Asian shore, he predicted a landing at either Besike Bay or Kum Kale (where the French landing did actually take place), in order to attack the strong Turkish batteries and fortifications along the Straits’ shore from the rear. Liman von Sanders argued for a defensive counterattack as the enemy troops moved inland from Kum Kale and crossed the Mendere River. Also, 3 and 11 Turkish Divisions were to be combined in a corps stationed at Erenkeui, where they could go in any direction, according to the Allied landing site. Officers were to be stationed where they could judge whether the landings were a feint or a serious operation. Mines were to be laid at Kum Kale, which was to be defended by one battalion. Bridges over the Mendere River were to be prepared for demolition. (As it turned out, the French did not reach the Mendere River, partly because their landing was a feint. On the other hand, the Turkish 3 Division did little, and actually used the Mendere River as a means of protecting themselves!) Secondly, Liman von Sanders turned his attention to what he called the European shore. Here, he predicted landings at either Seddulbahir (Helles) or Gaba Tepe, or both simultaneously, ‘in order to advance against the batteries from the rear.’ The 9 Division was to be moved closer to the middle of the sector, and 19 Division was to be stationed at Maidos. In this sector, Liman von Sanders was prescient, because Helles was the site of the main Allied landing, while Gaba Tepe was just south of the intended Anzac landing site of Brighton Beach. Finally, thirdly, Liman von Sanders identified the Saros/Bulair area. He suggested two aims of a potential Allied landing in this area. One was the rather difficult Allied task of covering the ground necessary to cross the isthmus and disable the Turkish batteries on the Sea of Marmora side. The other was to totally cut off Turkish troops on the peninsula by simply capturing the narrow neck of the isthmus. Without actually saying so, Liman von Sanders revealed his particular bias toward the Saros/Bulair area by assigning three divisions to guard it, 4 and 5 Turkish Divisions, which could be amalgamated, and 7 Division.

This emphasis on the Bulair/Saros area is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ later memoirs, where he claimed that he saw the Asiatic area as the greatest danger, then Seddulbahir, then Gaba Tepe, and last, Bulair/ Saros. But he was quite correct in his memoirs when he identified intelligence reports and rumours out of Turkish embassies or consulates in such places as Athens, Sofia and Bucharest, which gave information on British and French forces preparing to land. Turkish archives actually reveal a bewildering variety of alleged Allied plans. For example, on 22 March it was reported from sources in Italy that a combined Russian, French, British plan was underway. Russians would land on the Black Sea coast, and the French would land an African division at Saros. The British army from Egypt would land near Izmir. The Allied navy would also attack. The aim was the capture of Istanbul. On the same day, the Turkish military attaché in Rome focussed on French intervention. This report said that about 40,000 French would land, including colonial troops from Mauritania and Senegal. The commander was to be General d’Amade. Indian troops and Australians would also arrive from Egypt. Altogether, the force amounted to some 80,000 troops, which the military attaché thought exaggerated. (He was not so far out, since about 75,000 Allied troops did take part in the April landings. And he was correct about d’Amade and the French colonial troops.)

With these various Turkish reports, and many others, it is not surprising that Liman von Sanders was unsure about Allied intentions. Yet, curiously, although his predictions as to where the Allies would land had all been based on the idea that the Allies were aiming to capture or demolish Turkish batteries and forts from the rear, Liman von Sanders was remarkably accurate in forecasting Allied plans, which actually had other reasons behind their choice of landing sites. There was one exception, however, to Liman von Sanders’ accurate predictions, which he tried to play down in later years, and this was the Saros/Bulair area. One probable reason for this emphasis in Liman von Sanders’ mind, was a remarkable incident that took place on 17 April, just eight days before the 25 April Allied landings. On this day, the British submarine E 15, commanded by Capt. T.S. Brodie, tried to run the Straits to get into the Sea of Marmora. The submarine first hit one of the Turkish nets, and then was caught in a strong eddy off Kephez Point, and ran aground on a sandbank. As luck would have it, this was just by the Turkish Dardanos battery, which lost no time in shelling the submarine. One shell hit the conning tower and cut the unfortunate Brodie in half, plus six other crew were killed during the shelling, and the submarine filled with thick smoke. The rest of the crew surrendered, and were taken into captivity, including a certain Lt Palmer. This individual, who was an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, had been the British vice consul at Chanak. After hostilities broke out, Palmer apparently arrived in Athens in early March 1915 to report on the location of Turkish guns in the Straits. Palmer then joined the staff of de Robeck at Gallipoli as an Intelligence Officer. Wishing to see active service, Palmer volunteered to serve on E 15 as an Intelligence officer. After Palmer’s capture, he was interrogated by Col. Djevad Bey, commanding the Straits Forts. Djevad Bey then sent a lengthy cipher to the Supreme Command in Istanbul on 20 April, with the results of Palmer’s interrogation.

Since this cipher message containing Palmer’s interrogation is of critical significance, as it occurred just five days before the Allied landings of 25 April, it is given in full:

Palmer, who was the Consul at Chanak, was captured and made a prisoner of war. He was accused of being a spy for the Allied powers. Also a certificate was found in the submarine showing that Palmer was a reserve officer. But we did not tell him that we had found this certificate. Palmer was told that he was accused of being a spy, and that is why he might be executed. Because no soldier wants to give information openly, Palmer wanted to talk privately. So I promised him that he would be regarded as a prisoner of war. Then, he agreed to give us information. I asked him about the Allied attack that was planned. He said that a British attack would be made against the Dardanelles with a force of 100,000 men, landing under the command of Gen. Hamilton. According to Palmer’s statement, the Allies planned to land at Gaba Tepe. But as soon as they found out that the Turks had learnt of this attack, they changed their plans concerning Gaba Tepe and Seddulbahir [Helles]. Also they did not think that their landing at Seddulbahir would be successful. Consequently, they decided to land in the Gulf of Saros, and in the region of the northern part of the Peninsula. Previously, they had planned to attack Gaba Tepe, Seddulbahir and even Besike. To support their attacks in these regions, they needed the support of their navy. In fact, they planned to make these attacks last Monday [presumably 12 April: the original date for the landings was 14 April], but they have now given up this plan. He does not have any information about the new attack plan. This information has been given by the ex-consul on the condition that his life be spared under this agreement. Please do not give the origins of this information, in order to ensure his safety. I have sent the prisoner of war [Palmer], and his goods that have been taken from the submarine, with this cipher. I beg you to accept him as a prisoner of war.

20 April 1915, the Commander of the Forts, Col. Djevad.

The next day, the Supreme Command in Istanbul, obviously interested in what might be a real Intelligence coup, wanted Palmer to identify the threatened northern area. Djevad Bey replied: ‘The name of the region which is around the Gulf of Saros as mentioned by the ex-consul that I wrote in the cipher, is the region between Imbros and Karacali on the northern coast of the Gulf [of Saros]. 21 April 1915.’

It would seem that Palmer had to think quickly on his feet during this interrogation. On the one hand, he certainly did not want to be shot, but on the other hand, he did not want to give away the real Allied landing sites, which he certainly knew, having been an Intelligence officer on de Robeck’s staff. So he adopted the risky strategy of giving the actual Allied landing sites, but then suggesting these had been cancelled due to a security leak. In their place, Palmer directed Turkish attention north to Saros/Bulair as the new Allied landing area. In his further explanation of what the northern region consisted of, Palmer gave a vague answer, although it did include the Anzac landing zone. As for the 100,000 Allied troops that would land, Palmer probably did not know the exact Allied figure, otherwise the logical solution would have been to minimize the number of Allied troops, in order to cause Turkish over-confidence. On the other hand, Palmer may just have been unable to think quickly enough on the question of numbers, or he did not think the question of numbers was significant. (Ironically, the actual number of Allied soldiers involved in the landings was in fact discovered by Fifth Army through a Turkish wireless intercept on 25 April.) Nevertheless, the timing of Palmer’s capture and interrogation was extremely critical – just five days before the Allied landings on 25 April, although he did not give away this information. Now the question was: would the Supreme Command, and especially Liman von Sanders, be taken in by the Bulair/Saros disinformation from Palmer?

Documents in the Turkish archives do not definitely answer this question, but one message on 22 April, and correspondence between Fifth Army and Supreme Command on 20 April, show that the information was at least disseminated. Other messages suggest a considerable focus on the Saros/Bulair region. For example, Fifth Army reported on 25 April that Allied ships were in Saros, and that help was needed. The next day, 26 April, Fifth Army urgently requested more ammunition for the Saros area. On the other hand, while the Turkish Official History mentions Palmer, it does so without emphasis, and does not claim an Intelligence coup. It is also the case that Liman von Sanders does not mention Palmer in his memoirs. Yet a significant first hand observer of Liman von Sanders at his GHQ on 25 April and following days, Capt. Carl Mühlmann, describes in detail how Liman von Sanders focussed on the Saros/Bulair region to an unusual degree over the next four days.

Mühlmann awoke early on Sunday 25 April, to the sound of gunfire. He was at Liman von Sanders’ GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, when a staff officer rushed in with news of landings at Seddulbahir and Ari Burnu (Anzac), as well as of a transport flotilla in the Gulf of Saros. (This was part of an Allied feint by Hamilton at Bulair/Saros.) Liman von Sanders immediately alerted 4 Division to march to Bulair. Mühlmann takes up the story:

Unfortunately, L[iman] was somewhat nervous and instead of centralizing all telephone connections and remaining at the choke point – GHQ – he swung up on his horse and, accompanied by the two of us [Mühlmann and another staff officer] rode up to the heights near Bulair. Unfortunately, this meant that all reports were delayed 1–2 hours and the entire traffic between us and GHQ was made much more difficult…

Admittedly Bulair was the nearest danger zone to the German GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, but Liman von Sanders could also have headed toward Ari Burnu, or to Maidos, as a more central location to the known landings of Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir. In fact, while Liman von Sanders’ party was at Bulair, news of the Kum Kale French landing came in. Esat Pasa, GOC Turkish III Corps asked permission to move his HQ to Maidos, and this was granted. Yet Liman von Sanders continued to focus on Bulair.

Mühlmann relates that the small party reached the heights above Bulair in time to see a heavy naval bombardment of the fort there. Mühlmann already noted the limited effect of naval fire – the shell craters were immense, but did no damage unless there was a direct hit, although ‘the psychological effect is tremendous.’ Perhaps this influenced Liman von Sanders, because when evening came on 25 April, instead of returning to his GHQ at Gelibolu, Mühlmann commented: ‘to our great surprise, he [Liman] decided to spend the night out here; we could not find out why because we had no telephone line to GHQ.’ Mühlmann was sent on a mission the next day, 26 April, to Maidos with orders to concentrate 5 Division closer to Bulair, while 7 Division was sent to Seddulbahir. However, Liman von Sanders again planned to spend the entire day of 26 April on the heights above Bulair. (Meanwhile, Mühlmann was now down at Maidos, where an Allied submarine, evidently the Australian submarine AE2, fired nine torpedoes at a troop transport and missed, probably because the torpedoes failed to explode. Then AE2 surfaced and hailed a sail boat to ask directions, ‘really an incredible piece of cheek!’ noted Mühlmann. The AE2 sailed into the Sea of Marmora and, according to Mühlmann, did not sink any transports before being forced to the surface and scuttled. A Turkish message notes that the AE2 was followed by the German Capt. Merten, and fired on.) After the submarine episode, Mühlmann returned to Liman von Sanders at Bulair, and was ordered to remain there to observe, while Liman von Sanders went, on 27 April, to check on the situation at Maidos and Ari Burnu.

Mühlmann thought his sojourn at Bulair was over on 27 April, when the fleet disappeared from the Gulf of Saros. Liman von Sanders met Mühlmann at GHQ at Gelibolu and informed him that all was well at Ari Burnu, and that the French were hurled into the sea at Kum Kale, which was, of course, the planned French re-embarkation from Kum Kale. Liman von Sanders had also witnessed the shelling across the peninsula by the Queen Elizabeth of a Turkish transport, usually seen by historians as a significant blow, but Mühlmann remarked ‘Thank God, it was not loaded, and sank within one minute.’ Apparently Liman von Sanders returned from Maidos to his GHQ at Gelibolu by sea on 27 April, aboard the Barbarossa, at which a submarine fired two torpedoes and missed. This was probably the British submarine E14, and a successful torpedo attack would certainly have changed the campaign had Liman von Sanders gone down with this ship. The next day, 28 April, news came into von Sanders’ GHQ that the enemy was being reinforced at both Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir, and so, at this time, 7 Division and most of 5 Division were recalled from Bulair to move south via Maidos. This decision is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ memoirs, where he claimed to have recognized Bulair/Saros as a feint by 26 April.

However, neither Liman von Sanders nor Mühlmann were finished with Bulair. While on his way to a different task on 28 April, Mühlmann,

became despondent when, looking beyond the heights [at Bulair] I saw the transport fleet back in the Gulf of Saros. It was clear to all of us that we were only dealing with a bluff, otherwise they would have landed several days ago – in addition, the ships rode too high in the water to be fully loaded. Of course, L[iman’s] specific concern about protecting his rear at Bulair was to be expected, and therewith came the danger that I was to be left there again.

Mühlmann’s fear was only too accurate, since Liman von Sanders came up, and informed Mühlmann that he would move his HQ to Maidos, but Mühlmann was to be stationed at Bulair as Liman von Sanders’

plenipotentiary and general staff officer. I [Mühlmann] made a deeply disappointed face and explained my wish to him [to get closer to the actual war theatre]. At first, he [Liman von Sanders] did not wish to consider it, because after seeing the enemy fleet, new fears had swelled up in him. But, finally, he gave in…

Thus, it is clear that Liman von Sanders remained heavily preoccupied with the Bulair/Saros area over the period of four days between 25 and 28 April, and was still inclined to worry about this area as late as 28 April, when major Allied operations were obviously focussed at Anzac and Helles. Of course, Liman von Sanders was right to consider Saros/Bulair as a danger area, and in addition there was the Allied naval feint at Saros/ Bulair, but Liman von Sanders also appeared to show an unreasonable interest in this area. It is entirely possible that the capture and interrogation of Lt Palmer just before 25 April, with his disinformation about the Allies choosing Saros/Bulair as their main landing area, helped to confirm Liman von Sanders’ preoccupation with this zone. The documents do not specifically reveal this, but Liman von Sanders’ focus on Saros/ Bulair, and his hesitation in sending the Bulair divisions south, certainly gave the Allied landings on 25 April a breathing space they might not otherwise have expected.



The victorious General Allenby dismounted, enters Jerusalem on foot out of respect for the Holy City, 11 December 1917.

General Archibald Murray’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF] was then ordered into Palestine where it fought two battles at Gaza (March 26, 1917, and April 17–19, 1917). However, both battles found Allied forces facing stiff resistance, and the attacks failed in the objective of seizing Gaza and driving the Central Powers’ forces out of the region. Nonetheless, with additional resources garnered and delivered by the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, London was soon able to generate new life into the EEF, including a change in leadership. Following Murray’s unsuccessful attempts at seizing Gaza in the spring of 1917, the British War Cabinet opted to replace him with General Sir Edmund Allenby, known as the “Bloody Bull,” who arrived in Egypt in June 1917.

Empowered with new resources and new staff, Allenby set about reinvigorating EEF troop morale before recommencing operations against enemy positions in Sinai and Palestine. Concerned with reports that Britain was preparing to commit additional resources and renewed focus in the Middle Eastern theater, including Mesopotamia and Palestine, at the end of April 1917, Germany dispatched a military delegation headed by General Erich von Falkenhayn to Turkey arriving in May. The initial concern of the German military delegation was the British occupation of Baghdad, and it advised that a new army should be constituted to address this threat. Consequently, the new Seventh Army was established and based in Aleppo to counter British moves in Mesopotamia (Iraq). However, by September 1917, the greater concern was for the Ottoman presence in Gaza and Palestine, as the EEF was making preparations for getting underway. As a result, operations by the Seventh Army against the British in Mesopotamia were cancelled as Falkenhayn advised for a rapid redeployment of the army from Aleppo to Beersheba in Palestine. While the theory was sound, the practical application of the plan proved problematic as the limited Turkish rail network hindered its implementation. As such, very few of the Seventh Army’s troops were in position before the British attacked during the Battle of Beersheba (October 31, 1917) and the Third Battle of Gaza (November 1–7, 1917).

Allenby brought a different style of leadership to Egyptian-Palestinian theater of operations than his predecessor. Unlike Murray, who had commanded the EEF from Cairo, Allenby frequently visited front line units and moved the Force’s headquarters from Cairo to Rafah nearer to the front lines at Gaza. Allenby also reorganized the Force into a three, primary corps order of battle: XX, XI, and the Desert Mounted Corps. He was also convinced by the Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office to utilize the Arab forces that had risen in revolt against the Ottomans and were then operating within Arabia. A remarkable British army officer detached to the Arab Bureau (British Intelligence), Major T. E. Lawrence, had found considerable success in working with Arab leaders in fomenting irregular operations, which ultimately caused the Ottoman and German leadership to station forces in response—forces which were badly needed elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Ottomans had called for jihad against the Entente Cordiale in the fall of 1914 in hopes of rousing support for the defense of the empire. Germany attempted to assist the Ottomans in this endeavor as it sent Kress von Kressenstein to Palestine, Oskar von Niedermayer to Afghanistan, Liman von Sanders to Turkey, and Wilhelm Wassmuss to southern Persia. Wassmuss, often referred to as the “German Lawrence,” incited tribes to attack British interests, particularly its Persian oil pipeline, northwest of Ahwaz.

The British government, ever mindful of the power this campaign might have should it be allowed to successfully proliferate, sought the help of the Sharif of Mecca, Emir Abdullah Hussein, in countering the Ottoman call for jihad. The tribe that Hussein led, the Hashemites, was relatively weak, particularly in relation to Ottoman forces. But the alliance with Hussein was much more than a military-oriented alliance. The Hashemites were politically important within the Middle East for a number of reasons, including the fact that Hussein was seen as a descendent of the prophet Muhammad and regarded as the guardian or custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Allenby was facing two defensive lines in Palestine, which were vital to the Ottoman defense of Gaza and Jerusalem. The first included entrenchments that stretched 30 miles from Gaza to Beersheba. The Gaza-Beersheba line was complemented by the Jaffa-Jerusalem line that extended more than 50 miles. Thus, rather than attacking Gaza in frontal assault, as had been the focus of operations by the EEF under Murray, Allenby, the old cavalry officer that he was, sought to maneuver for position through flanking attacks. Thus, he saw the key to taking Gaza would be to first feign a direct attack and draw the forces and attention of the defenders’ leaders at Gaza while sending a force in a flanking attack at unsuspecting Ottoman defenders that manned the lines in defense of Beersheba. Once Beersheba was in Allenby’s hands, he was then positioned to threaten the left flank of the Ottomans’ defensive line protecting its positions within Gaza. Once in such a position, Allenby could then move in three directions against Gaza itself.

Rumors circulated that the British were intent on attacking Gaza once again, but this time the operation would be centered on a naval amphibious landing north of Gaza and then descending down behind defenses. Additionally, British patrols routinely approached Beersheba every couple of weeks, expecting that when the actual attack was commenced, the Ottomans would at first believe it to be another scouting operation. Allenby wrote the following:

When I took command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces at the end of June, 1917, I received instructions to report on the conditions in which offensive operations against the Turkish Army on the Palestine front might be undertaken in the autumn or winter of 1917 … The main features of the situation in Palestine were as follows: The Turkish Army in Southern Palestine held a strong position extending from the sea at Gaza, roughly along the Gaza-Beersheba Road to Beersheba. Gaza had been made into a strong modern fortress, heavily entrenched and wired, offering facility for protracted defense … I decided to strike the main blow against the left flank of the main Turkish position, Hareira and Sheria. The capture of Beersheba was a necessary preliminary to this operation, in order to secure the water supplies at that place and to give room for the deployment of the attacking force on the high ground to the north and north-west of Beersheba. It was, however, important in order to keep the enemy in doubt up to the last moment as to the real point of attack, and that an attack should also be made on the enemy’s right at Gaza in conjunction with the main operations.

The Ottomans had positioned nine infantry divisions and one cavalry division in the line protecting Gaza with a total force level of between 35,000 and 45,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry, and 500 artillery guns. The British force was divided into three elements: the strike wing consisted of the Desert Mounted Corps, containing the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions and the 7th Mounted Brigade and XX Corps, with four infantry divisions and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. In total, it was a force of 47,500 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 242 guns. On the left of this striking wing was the British XXI Corps, containing three infantry divisions and two brigades for a total of 35,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 218 guns. Between the two main bodies of the EEF and protecting the gap between them was the Yeomanry Mounted Division consisting of some 5,000 cavalry troopers.

In order to facilitate the deception, an artillery bombardment of Gaza began on October 27, four days before the actual attack at Beersheba was scheduled to occur. The bombardment would last for six days, which included naval gunfire and was the largest artillery barrage of World War I, outside of France. On October 31, the British commenced the actual attack as two infantry divisions moved against the well-entrenched and well-defended southwest defenses of the town. The key to the attack, however, was in the flanking maneuver conducted by the 4th Australian Light Horse led by General W. Grant, who, in dramatic fashion, conducted one of the last successful cavalry attacks in the modern warfare. By November 7, Gaza was under British control.

By November 14, the British took Junction Station, which effectively cut the Ottoman rail line into Palestine. From that point, the 75th Division—the last one formed during the war and consisting of Indian Gurkhas and British personnel from India—captured the road from Jerusalem to Jaffa. The key military geographic objective for the defense of Jerusalem, throughout history, has been the vital hill of Nebi Samwil, which from either defenders’ or attackers’ perspective was the key to the city. On November 21, the 75th captured Nebi Samwil, which then provided Allenby and the EEF the position from which the city of Jerusalem could be taken.


On December 8, 1917, Allenby dispatched the XX Corps for the final assault on Jerusalem. The following day, December 9, the Turkish army withdrew from Jerusalem and 400 years of Ottoman rule had come to an end. On December 11, Allenby made a dramatic and well-photographed entry into Jerusalem, choosing to walk instead of ride into the city through the Jaffa Gate. It was the first time since 1187 CE that Western forces controlled the historic city.

By the fall of 1918, the Ottomans fielded three armies with a total of 34,000 men defending a defensive line from the Eastern Mediterranean coast across the Judean Hills, the Jordan Valley, and to the Hejaz Railway. German General Liman von Sanders had replaced Falkenhayn and was in overall command. Under Allenby in Palestine were 69,000 men (57,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry). The Turkish front line defenses were 3,000 yards deep, well-constructed, and protected by thin, barbed wire. The second line three miles to the rear was less prepared and consisted of strongpoints but not adequately connected in a consistent defensive line and unprotected by wire.

The Battle of Megiddo, September 19–25, 1918, was the climactic battle of British operations in Egypt and Palestine against German-led Ottoman forces during World War I. The name applied to Allenby’s final offensive in Palestine was of course chosen for symbolic purposes, as scant fighting relative to other regions actually occurred in the vicinity of Megiddo. Symbolic, figurative, or literal, Allenby’s cavalry did in fact advance past the ancient site of Megiddo, which served as the first battle in recorded history (1457 BCE).

Arrayed in front of Allenby were the Ottoman Eighth, Seventh, and Fourth Armies, with the Eighth nearest the Mediterranean coast, the Seventh in the middle of the Ottoman order of battle, and the Fourth on Allenby’s right flank. Allenby’s main focus was on the Seventh and Eighth Armies, commanded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha and Jeved Pasha, respectively. Once again, Allenby’s ability to keep the enemy from ascertaining his striking plans forced Sanders to defend across the entire front, which left scant few troops in reserve.

By mid-September 1918, Allenby had positioned 35,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 383 guns on the western fifteen miles of the front line facing 8,000 infantry and 130 guns of the Ottoman Seventh Army. On the remaining 45 miles of the front, the British had 22,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 157 guns facing 24,000 men and 270 guns of the Eight and Fourth Ottoman Armies. However, 11,000 of those in the Fourth Army were east of the Jordan Valley, which when actual combat began effectively removed them from making effective contributions. Sanders had placed them guarding his left flank knowing that the “Bloody Bull” had a penchant for sweeping flanking maneuvers and often using his swift moving cavalry. Sanders, who had calculated so well in ascertaining British landing intentions during the Gallipoli campaign, now, with limited forces holding weaker positions, was a victim of British deception as to the actual plans of attack.

Allenby’s battle plan was for his XXI Corps of five divisions to attack along the Mediterranean coast and force Jeved Pasha’s Eighth Army to pull back along the line of the railway north to Tul Keram, followed by a move east to Messudieh Junction. Once this was accomplished, a gap would have been opened up along the coast through which Allenby planned on sending his Desert Mounted Corps. Once past the Ottoman lines it became incumbent upon them to ride north past the Judean Hills and arrive at the Plain of Esdraelon. Their objective was the capture of the Beisan and El Afule, which were key to controlling access to the rail link.

Once in control of Beisan and El Afule, the Desert Mounted Corps would have effectively blocked the escape route via rail for the Seventh and Eighth Ottoman Armies, at which point, the only alternative for retreat open to the Ottoman forces would have been east through the Jordan Valley. XX Corps was assigned the task of advancing parallel to the hills toward Nablus and in blocking the best passes into the Jordan Valley, thereby catching the retreating Ottoman units in a trap.

Allenby benefited from the British Air Corps’ ability to maintain air superiority and in keeping German aircraft from conducting scouting missions. In a preliminary operation, the Air Corps dropped ordnance on Ottoman positions in Deraa (city in present-day Syria), which lent weight to Sander’s opinion that Allied forces would conduct its main attack inland. Simultaneous to the air raid, Arab insurgent forces—among them T. E. Lawrence—cut the rail lines north, south, and west from Deraa, at which time Sanders transferred additional reserves east to address the rising threat. A second preliminary move occurred when the 53rd Division of XX Corps moved to engage Ottoman units east of the Judean Hills. This attack was to place the 53rd in position to maneuver once the actual main attack opened nearer the Mediterranean coast.

The main attack commenced at 4:30 a.m. on September 19, as Allied artillery opened fire for a brief, 15-minute barrage. The following infantry assault overwhelmed the outnumbered Ottomans in the first line. The 60th Division moving on the left of Allied advance gained 7,000 yards, nearly four miles, in the first two and a half hours shattering the first and second defensive lines and taking control of a bridge over the Nahr el Falik. The control of the bridgehead then allowed the cavalry to move forward.By the end of the first day’s operations, XXI Corps had managed to seize most of the railway north of Tul Keram. As the Ottoman Eighth Army was attempting to withdraw through Tul Keram, it was struck from the air and engaged by the rapidly advancing 5th Australian Light Horse as well as the 60th Division, which had pushed forward 17 miles and secured Tul Keram. All cavalry units had met their expected objectives for the first day’s operations and reached the outer perimeter of the Plain of Esdraelon and, by 2:30 a.m. on September 20, were advancing into the valley. The key objectives of El Afule and Beisan were captured later on September 20, securing the railroad in each region. Moreover, as the Allied cavalry swiftly advanced, it nearly succeeded in capturing General Sanders who had made his headquarters at Nazareth.

By close of the second day, the Turkish Eighth Army had essentially been destroyed and the Seventh was near collapse. With the railway blocked, its only chance of escape was east from Nablus down a road leading from Wadi Fara into the Jordan Valley. This position, however, was the objective of the Allied XX Corps, which had not enjoyed the same success as other Allied units. Thus, it was not where Allenby planned for it to be on the night of September 20 and morning of September 21, and the Ottomans began a successful evacuation from Nablus. However, they were then stopped by Allied airpower as Allenby’s aircraft caught Ottoman forces on the road east of Nablus at a gorge. Bombing soon served to block the Ottoman passage through the gorge, and survivors scattered into the surrounding countryside only to be captured piecemeal in follow-on operations. Advancing Allied forces captured over 1,000 vehicles and 90 guns, which had been abandoned along the road.

Allied forces took 25,000 prisoners during and following the Battle of Megiddo. Less than 10,000 Turkish and German soldiers escaped and made their retreat north. British and Allied forces pressed the advantage and continued the pursuit of the retreating Central Power troops through the month of October. The EEF moved north toward the ancient city of Damascus (in present-day Syria). Sanders had placed Ali Riza Pasha Rehabi, an Arab general serving in the Ottoman army, in command of Damascus. Unbeknownst to Sanders, Ali was also the serving president of the Syrian branch of the Arab Secret Society and had been in contact with T. E. Lawrence.


Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel commanding Desert Mounted Corps leads his corps through Damascus on 2 October 1918.

Prince Feisal leaving Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps Headquarters in Damascus.

With the Ottoman military position in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia collapsing at late autumn of 1918, the Arab Secret Society seized control in Damascus. On October 1, in a sequence preplanned by the commander of the EEF, the first troops of the Arab Revolt rode into the city followed on October 2 by Allenby’s forces. During the month of October, Allied forces under Allenby seized Beirut (present-day Lebanon) on October 8; Tripoli on October 18, and the great trading city of northern Syria, Aleppo, on October 25. On October 30, 1918, with all lands outside of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) essentially lost in terms of the Middle East, Istanbul sued for peace and asked for an armistice. The Battle of Megiddo was certainly one of the best planned and executed British battles of the First World War and most certainly that which followed in the aftermath was historic in scale as Britain and France took positions of prominence across the Middle East in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.


Reforming the Ottoman military had been a pressing issue for successive Sultans for at least two centuries in the early modern era and in the lead-up to the First World War. An entrenched bureaucracy, backed by the powerful Janissaries and elite merchants who were quite content with the Ottoman status quo, successfully hindered the necessary reforms. Yet, the reforms needed for successful military operations in the modern, industrialized world went beyond the need to reorganize army units and train their leaders.

As was the case in many of the battles that took place during World War I, in any theater, battle communications with the front were generally broken in short order. Since nearly no battle plan survives, first contact with the enemy fully intact, those in the front lines are unable to receive new orders or benefit from new intelligence other than what they are generating on their own. Accordingly, while brilliant generals and field marshals construct plans that come from a career of experience and study, the original plan most often needs to be adjusted in the face of enemy action.

If, as was widely the case during the war, those at the front cannot communicate with the brilliance in the rear, they are then left to fend for themselves. It is the ability of these officers and men to adapt, adjust, and overcome. Conversely, it is their inability to do so that often factored significantly into the outcome of battle. It was, therefore, the intent of the Ottoman leadership to allow Germany to help develop Auftragstaktik at the general officer level and where appropriate, within its mid-level officer ranks. In the drill regulations of the infantry 1888, German commanders were told to tell subordinates what to do without insisting on how they did it. Due to the increased lethality of modern weapons, it was expected that greater force dispersion would be required. Given this, captains and lieutenants would often find themselves required to direct their units without orders from central command. As such, the nature of the decentralization of the modern battlefield created the necessity of developing initiative, critical thinking, and independent judgment at all levels.

Yet, the ability to think independently, critically, and accurately in the midst of uncertainty, chaos, violence, and danger requires a culture that fosters, over a lifetime, a culture of innovative and courageous behavior. Accordingly, in order to be successful militarily in modern battle-space, traditional and authoritarian societies are faced with a dilemma: continue insisting on a compliant and submissive population producing military leaders incapable of fast and independent thinking or launch societal-wide reforms in the nature of education, socialization, and training, which will empower their commanders and decision makers to adjust quickly and effectively in the heat of modern-era battle.

In essence, the centralized power of the typical autocratic political regime within the Middle East will not simply have to reform in order to create modern democratic societies, rather, and perhaps more importantly, it will have to embrace change in order to defend itself in the modern battle-space. The centralized command structure with initiative and independent thinking suppressed in many of the armies within the modern Middle East will have to be overcome in order to prosecute effective military campaigns in the modern era. The need for military security will require changes in traditional society, which will, in turn, create the conditions leading ultimately toward greater political participation and greater democratization across the region.

This is not to suggest that Ottoman officers, had they been better at operating independently, would have prevailed over Allenby’s forces during the campaign in Palestine during the First World War. It does suggest that given the realities of modern warfare, successful military officers will be forced to think in new and different ways and will benefit from being schooled in the science and art of critical and innovative thinking. The plight of the Mamluks in the face of a rising and technically proficient Ottoman army and their subsequent refusal to adapt to new weaponry and doctrine serve to illustrate the gravity of the situation for Middle Eastern cultures as the twenty-first century unfolds. Allenby’s Middle East operations were instrumental in driving Ottoman and German forces from the Levant, the liberation of Arab lands from Turkish rule, as well as laying the foundation for the arrival of the Jewish people and the ultimate establishment of the state of Israel. As such, Allenby, the EEF, and the Cairo-based Arab Bureau’s contributions to the creation of the modern Middle East are substantial.


In order to conduct modern, industrialized warfare at the great power level, the ability to generate and sustain strategic endurance had become, by the First World War, a prerequisite for success. Accordingly, the great powers, particularly Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, maneuvered for control of those elements that contributed to strategic endurance: people, resources, markets, and trade routes. These crucial elements or components of aggregated power and the direction of that power for the obtainment of political objectives were certainly not new or unique to the modern world having animated world politics for centuries. What was new were the nature of energy, electricity, machining, and mass production, coupled with an exponential rise in the levels of lethality, range, and accuracy of rapid fire small arms and large bore artillery.

Long lasting wars between great power coalitions in the modern age have been won by the side with the largest economic staying power and productive resources. In every economic category, the Anglo-American-French coalition was between two and three times as strong as Germany and Austria-Hungary combined—a fact confirmed by further statistics of the war expenditures of each side between 1914 and 1919: 60.4 billion dollars spent by the German-Austrian alliance as opposed to 114 billion spent by the British Empire, France and the United States together (and 145 billion if Italy and Russia’s expenditures are included).

Given the militarization of the various industrialized economies, as well as the mobilization of the entire populations for prolonged periods, the First World War came to be referred to as a “total war.”

The militarization of societies, economies, and politics was the consequence. In the end, the war proved a contest of productive capacities; and the Allied victory was due to their material superiority, which by 1918 was insuperable.

In order to form sufficient levels of aggregated power that would lead to a war-winning level of strategic endurance, Britain needed to borrow heavily (particularly from the United States and the banking syndicates in Europe) and was forced to make promises that were eventually difficult to honor. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its Central Powers’ allies, the promises that Britain had made in order to cobble together the winning coalition were, by 1919, beginning to color its postwar Middle East policy. Sharif Ali Hussein and his sons, Faisal and Abdullah, called for the promises made during the Hussein-McMahon correspondences to be honored by establishing an independent Arab state and to be placed under Hussein’s control.

New Guinea Campaigns

After landing 3,000 men unopposed, at Lae on March 8th, the Japanese had little to fear from the allies. It was MacArthur’s obsession with the liberation of the Philippines that was to make New Guinea the lure for thousands of American, Australian and Japanese troops to fight for it’s uninviting jungle. It was a pivotal point for any invasion of the Philippines, it also blocked any invasion of Australia by the Japanese and could sever the America/Australia lifeline if taken by the Japanese. After the Japanese invasion at Buna, MacArthur and the Australian General Blamey often fell out, as the Australian militia fell back before the Japanese onslaught MacArthur felt that the ‘Aussies’ were poor fighters, often retreating before inferior Japanese forces. He lingered under the impression that American troops would do much better. As the Japanese continued their advance over the Owen Stanley mountains towards Port Moresby, the allied situation became desperate, the landings at Guadalcanal had turned into a bloody slogging match of grinding attrition and at the same time the Japanese launched a two pronged attack on Port Moresby.

As General Horii’s troops launched their overland offensive, (on August 24-25th) the Navy landed 2,500 troops at Milne bay. From Milne however, the Japanese had to advance along a single muddy track and soon clashed with the Australians guarding it. During frequent downpours the Japanese launched several night attacks using light tanks, machine guns, grenades and bayonets. Despite their fanatical attacks, the Japanese could make no headway against the determined Aussies and after several days they evacuated their surviving troops. It was during these actions that Maj. General Kenney the new allied air commander made his debut. Despite not achieving much against the Japanese at Milne Bay (the 5th Air Force mistakenly bombed Australian troops) Kenney learned quickly and his innovations and adaptability proved to be very valuable in the harsh jungle airstrips the 5th was forced to operate from.

As the Japanese attack on Milne was being repulsed, more good news arrived. Horii’s attack force had shot it’s bolt during the overland offensive, tired, dispirited by the jungle fighting and with Horii himself drowned while crossing a river, the Japanese fell back under ferocious Aussie counterattacks. MacArthur now struck at Buna, using the 32nd Infantry Division. Everyone expected it be a walk over, basically just ‘mopping up’ stray Japanese troops, instead the men of the 128th Infantry, 32nd Div, walked into a jungle nightmare. Reinforced by fresh troops, the Japanese holding Buna, Sanananda and Gona could not be outflanked as the villages all backed up to the ocean and so the Americans had to advance through swamps and jungle to launch frontal attacks against the dug in Japanese. Japanese infantry would wait in their foxholes until the Americans passed by, then attack them from the rear while machine guns peppered the Americans from the front. Besieged by insects, soaked by frequent downpours and in a kind of combat that they had not been trained for, the 128th stopped dead in its tracks. MacArthur was especially embarrassed because, as reports of cowardice, malingering and inaction filtered back to him, the ‘unreliable’ Australian troops of the 7th Division pressed home their attacks regardless of harsh conditions, small parties of troops crawled through the slime to attack strong-points, destroying each bunker in turn, while living in vile conditions.

In the close quarter fighting the Japanese ravaged the Aussies who kept hammering away at the Japanese positions until they took Gona on the 9th of December. The 7th Division was finished as a fighting force however, battle casualties and malaria had exacted a terrible toll. The Americans on the other hand were still stuck in the swampy morass around Buna and Sananada and on the 29th of November, an irate MacArthur told General Eichelburger to “take Buna or don’t come back alive!” After relieving the hapless General Harding and reinforced by tanks and additional artillery, the 128th finally took Buna on January 2nd, 1943, Sanananda fell 20 days later. As many as 13,000 Japanese troops lost their lives during the fighting and allied casualties were about 8,500 battle casualties (5,698 of them Australians) with another 25,000 cases of malaria.

With his three months of unimaginative attrition warfare, MacArthur had won the airstrip at Buna but wrecked two infantry divisions and exhausted two others in the process. The Americans would get a respite for six months to recover. The Japanese did not allow the weary Australians that luxury.

Isolated and weakly protected, the Australian Airbase at Wau seemed like ripe pickings for the Japanese 18th Army. In January,1943, the 102nd Infantry, 51st Division moved by ship to Lae. Although Lae was within range of the allied planes, an overland attack from safer ports further west was impossible because of the dense jungle. Kenney’s ‘Kids’ struck the Japanese convoy again and again, sinking 2 transports and killing 600 Japanese soldiers, under air attack even as they unloaded at Lae only about one third of the force got ashore and they only had about half of their equipment. Even so, these survivors stuck to their orders and on January 30, an attack on the Aussies defending the airstrip. The attack reached the edge of the airstrip, but the reinforced defenders (some running from the transport planes firing at the Japanese) stopped the attack cold. The survivors fell back to Lae.

The Japanese tried to reinforce Lae and from 2-5 March and, in what became known as ‘The Battle of The Bismarck Sea’ the fifth Air Force threw everything it had at the Japanese convoy. On March 2nd, high level B-17’s and B-24’s sank 1 and damaged 2 more, near Lae, the survivors came under attack from B-25’s of the 13th and 90th squadrons. The crews of the B-25’s had been honing their ‘skip bombing’ skills on a derelict ship in Port Moresby harbor and now their practice was being put to the test. The Japanese air patrols were at 7,000 feet and didn’t even see the B-25’s who came roaring in at wavetop height. The newly acquired ‘skip bombing’ skills were put to deadly effect, they sank 8 transports and 4 destroyers. Of the 6,912 men of the 102nd Infantry, about 3,900 survived, but only about 1,000 oil stained, exhausted officers and men reached Lae. Allied fighters strafed the helpless Japanese in the water (a little enterprise started by the Japanese earlier in the war) it was payback time for many of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. The sea turned to bloody froth as sharks swarmed to the feast, allied pilots looked down on hundreds of shattered corpses bobbing about like broken dolls in the bloody swells. This disaster set the seal for the Japanese in New Guinea, from now on the thoroughly demoralized Japanese troops were totally on the defensive, lacking the strength or morale for anything but localized counterattacks.

In an effort to retard the growing allied counteroffensive, the Japanese launched massed air attacks against allied air and shipping around Guadalcanal and New Guinea. 350 naval aircraft attacked in four stages. The inexperienced Japanese pilots gave wildly exagerated reports, claiming 28 transports or warships sunk and 150 allied planes shot down, for only 49 Japanese aircraft lost. In fact the losses were four small ships sunk and twelve aircraft destroyed. A jubilent scheduled a morale raising visit to his front line pilots, but the allies knew the details of the trip after breaking the Japanese code. Orders came from the highest U.S. authority and a flight of P-38 lightnings intercepted and shot down Yamamoto’s plane. So died the great Japanese naval leader who had predicted the defeat of Japan in his ‘sleeping giant’ comments just after Pearl Harbor.

With the death of Yamamoto, so came the death of Japanese hopes for any kind of victory in the South Pacific. The air offensive against Guadalcanal and New Guinea was the last great Japanese air offensive of the South West Pacific area.

The allies next landed at Nassau Bay, after some nigh-time skirmishes the Japanese fled into the jungle. From Nassau Bay, the allies could put pressure on Salamaua, the village that guarded the aproach to Lae, troops were siphoned from Lae to defend Salamaua leaving the Lae garrison vulnerable to flanking attacks from the air and sea. An allied pincer closed on Lae, American troops pushed along the coast from Nassau Bay and Australian troops advanced from Wau. The main Japanese defense was a lone infantry regiment, but in this type of terrain a few determined troops could slow down a force ten times their number. The Americans advancing up the coast had to cross numerous streams, but the Australian line of advance was predictable and the Japanese dug in at various locations. A grueling, 75 day running battle followed, with patrol sized units probing through the undergrowth. Ambush and death awaited the careless or unlucky, in the appalling conditions visibility was often only a few feet into the undergrowth and most deaths were by small arms fire or grenades, emphasizing the close combat conditions.

American losses between the end of June and September 12, when Salamaua fell, were 81 killed and 396 wounded. The Australian Brigade suffered 112 killed, 346 wounded and 12 men missing. Japanese losses were well over 1,000 men. The struggle on New Guinea was fought in some of the worst battle conditions ever encountered, men collapsed from the heat and humidity, soldiers shook constantly from Malaria chills or being drenched in tropical downpours, some simply went mad. The Neuropsychiatric rate for American soldiers was the highest in the South west Pacific theater, 43.94 per 1,000 men. The Japanese soldier had to survive on millet and hard tack. Malnutrition, Amoebic Dysentery, Beri-Beri and Malaria plagued him, rice was an undreamed of luxury, the terrible rations on both sides left the soldiers undernourished and susceptible to uncountable tropical diseases that flourished in the heat and humidity.

The Japanese still had air power on two fronts around the allies, Rabaul and Wewak, Kenney decided to concentrate on Wewak. The distance was to great for allied fighters to escort the bombers and unescorted raids would be suicide, so Kenney had a secret staging base built about 60 miles from Lae. On August 17th, the raid by the 5th Air Force left 100 parked planes destroyed or damaged, a follow up raid the next morning left another 28 Japanese planes wrecked. In two days the Japanese Fourth Air Army had lost three quarters of it’s aircraft. Two weeks later the allies landed just north of Lae, only a few Japanese bombers made any attacks on the beachhead and little damage was done. On September 5th, American Paratroops dropped on Nadzab, twenty miles West of Lae, unchallenged by Japanese aircraft. This move cut of the 51st Division from the rest of Eighteenth Army.

The Japanese had to retreat 50 miles to Finschafen across the 12,000 foot mountain range, of the 8,000 officers and men that started the retreat, about 2,000 were lost in the unforgiving mountains, mostly to starvation. Lt. Gen. Yamada assembled his remaining men on Satelberg ridge which overlooked the entire Finschafen coastline and blocked any further ground push toward Sio.

Australian troops landed at Finschafen on Sept 22nd, after quickly clearing the coastal enclave around the port, they started to push up Satelberg ridge. Against entrenched and fanatical defenders, the Australians soon found themselves embroiled in a series of deadly, small unit combats, that found the 9th Australian Division having to clear isolated pockets of resistance one by one. At least 5,000 Japanese perished, but MacArthur’s expected ‘walkover’ advance was held up for two months.

The allied forces in the Southwest Pacific had increased dramatically, in December, 1942, it was just the 32nd and 41st Infantry Divisions, now there were five divisions, three regimental combat teams, three engineer special brigades, five Australian infantry divisions and three more US divisions on the way. The 5th Air Force had about 1,000 combat aircraft and the 7th fleet increased in size with more transports and landing being added. The Japanese on the other hand, had lost about 3,000 aircraft in the Southwest Pacific and 18th army had suffered about 35,000 casualties, they could not replace these kind of losses.

The jungle that had claimed so many Japanese lives now sheltered them from a concentrated allied ground offensive. Because of the dense jungle, the allies could not mass their overwhelming firepower against any particular stronghold. Of all the allied forces in the area, few actually fought the Japanese, the amount of logistical effort to sustain the allied forces was staggering. To sustain a single infantry regiment in combat required the equivalent of two divisions of supply personnel. Seven out of every eight troops in the area served in support roles, from unloading ships to preventing Malaria, constructing airfields and hauling supplies.

In December, 1943, MacArthur’s forces invaded the southern tip of New Britain, Japanese gunners shot the first wave of the 112th Cavalry to pieces and repulsed the attack. The main force did get ashore, but became bogged down in the swampy ground. On the north side of the island, the attack by the 1st Marine Division ran into similar difficulties, but on a larger scale. An overland advance on Rabaul was impossible. To overcome this obstacle the 126th infantry was shipped from Finschafen to land at Saidor and cut off the Japanese 20th Division who were defending Sio. Again the Japanese were forced to flee through rugged mountains, losing men to starvation and disease all along the trail of retreat.

After an Australian patrol found a complete cypher library for the 20th Division in a stream, Kenney convinced MacArthur that the Japanese had abandoned Los Negros (the largest of the Admiralty Islands, 360 miles from Rabaul) and an invasion force of 1,000 officers and men of the 1st Cavalry Division landed on Los Negros on February 29th. The Japanese were expecting an attack from the opposite direction and were caught by surprise when the 1st landed behind them. Although it was an accident, the good fortune of landing behind the enemy was put to good use and, after some vicious night fighting, the 5th won an impressive victory. Capture of the Admiralties allowed the allies to extend fighter cover beyond Wewak and the decision was taken to make an unprecedented 400 mile leap up the New Guinea coast to Hollandia. The value of the captured cyphers was to make the landing at Hollandia (Operation ‘Reckless’) a masterpiece of planning and ‘Reckless’ would prove to be the turning point in MacArthur’s war against Japan. Through the cyphers it was learned that the planned landing at Hansa Bay would meet strong ground opposition and also the airbase at Hollandia was being ‘beefed up’ to support the land defense of Madang. It was also learned from the cyphers that the land defenses at Hollandia were minimal so ‘Reckless’ was planned and given the go ahead.

Hollandia was still beyond the range of land based fighters, so MacArthur was given three days of carrier fighter support and the invasion of Aitape was planned. By seizing Aitape, land based fighters could support the Hollandia landings and the carrier planes would be used to support the seizing of Aitape. 217 ships transported 80,000 men 1,000 miles to land in three separate areas on Aitape. With the island secure, Kenney was now allowed to crush the aircraft at Hollandia. The Japanese aircrews at Hollandia felt safe from allied aircraft and did not expect the flight of 60 B24’s escorted by P38’s with drop tanks that smashed the airfield at Hollandia on March 30th. Follow up raids demolished nearly all the serviceable Japanese aircraft at Hollandia and never again did the Japanese contest air superiority over New Guinea.

A deception plan kept the Japanese thinking that the next allied landing would be at Hansa Bay, and when the 24th and 41st Infantry Divisions waded ashore at Hollandia they were unopposed. The same thing happened at Aitape, the Japanese Eighteenth Army was isolated in Eastern New Guinea and the Japanese defences had been split.

In order to prevent Adachi’s 18th Army from breaking through the envelopment and also to stop the Japanese defenders from having enough time to regroup and reorganize, the 41st Infantry tried to seize Wadke island and some airstrips at Sarmi on the adjacent New Guinea coast. Wadke was a tough nut to crack, the Japanese had to be winkled out of spider caves, Coconut log bunkers and Coral caves during 2 days of bitter, squad sized actions. Because most of the Japanese defenders had gone to help stave off the Hollandia landings, the Sarmi airfileds were taken with relative ease. In the subsequent push towards Sarmi village, the 6th Division, with the 158th Regimental Combat Team, fought a bitter battle to clear ‘Lone Tree Hill’ of the enemy. The Americans suffered 2,299 casualties (437 killed) while the Japanese had a staggering 4,000 killed.

With all these major operations going on at the same time, the allies now turned their attention to Biak. Biak dominates Geelvink Bay and with it’s capacity for heavy bombers on it’s airstrips it was a powerful lure to MacArthur and Kenney. The 41st Infantry now turned it’s attention to Biak, landing there on May 27th, 1944. Being only 60 miles south of the Equator, the steaming heat combined with sudden Japanese ambushes to make the advance inland very slow indeed. The fighting continued through June and meant that the amphibious fleet along with Kincaid’s 7th fleet were tied up close to Biak and vulnerable to Japanese air and surface attack. The Japanese 16th Cruiser Division tried several attacks on the American ships but thanks to allied code breakers and the 5th Air Force B-25’s, none of them caused any damage and the Japanese lost one Destroyer in the attempts. The Japanese lost about 4,800 men killed defending Biak, American casualties were about 2,800 killed and wounded.

Because the airfields on Biak were not taken on schedule, the allies also attacked the airstrips on Noemfoor island, beginning with a landing on the airfield itself by the 503rd Parachute Regiment. Many Paratroopers had bone-cracking landings as high winds carried them into supply dumps, vehicle parks and wrecked Japanese aircraft. None were actually killed in the jump, but 128 were injured in the jump. 411 Americans were casualties during the battle while about 1,759 Japanese were killed. Although an impressive defensive belt was built around the airstrips, only 3 infantry battalions and 2 under-strength cavalry squadrons guarded the Driniumoor river line. On the night of the 10th of July, 10,000 howling Japanese troops rushed across the shallow Driniumoor and fell upon the vastly outnumbered Americans. Outnumbered and undermanned, the GI’s fired their guns until they were red hot, artillery shells killed and maimed hundreds more Japanese, but the sheer weight of numbers allowed the Japanese to prevail. For a month after, a battle of attrition was waged by small squads of GI’s mopping up the remaining pockets of Japanese. All 10,000 Japanese were killed and about 440 Americans paid the ultimate price. Meanwhile the Australians were advancing towards Wewak in a move that cost them 451 killed while the Japanese lost 7,200! With these horrendous loss ratios (about 23-1 in favor of the allies) the Japanese forces in the South Pacific were chewed up piecemeal and destroyed. About 110,000 Japanese troops died in eastern New Guinea with another 15,000 killed in western New Guinea with another 40,000 isolated there and left to wither on the vine. With the isolation of another 100,000 Japanese troops on New Britain, the totality of the allied victory in the New Guinea campaign came into sharp focus.

The 5th Airforce lost 1374 aircraft from September 1942 to September 1944 and 4,100 airmen killed or missing. 2,000 Australian airmen also lost their lives in the climactic air battles over New Guinea. Before Hollandia it took 20 months and 24,000 allied battle casualties (17,107 being Australian) to advance 900 miles, with another 70,000 Malaria casualties. After Hollandia it took 9,500 casualties (mostly Americans) to leap 1,500 miles in just 100 days. The allies learnt in eastern New Guinea that the terrain dictated the campaign, so in western New Guinea air power and the sea allowed the allies to simply bypass the jungle, seize the coastal enclaves and leave the isolated Japanese troops trapped in the interior, to be decimated by disease and relentless allied pressure.

Martin-Baker and Warrant Officer Ron Guthrie


Warrant Officer Ron Guthrie.


Return of the Meteor jets, Kimpo, Korea. Oil on hardboard, 1953 by Ivor Hele. 77 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force flew Meteors in Korea in 1952 and 1953. [AWM ART40304]

With air combats developing at altitudes of over 30,000 feet, it was inevitable that the Korean War should see new records set for high-altitude parachute escapes. An air battle fought on 29 August, 1951, between Gloster Meteor Mk 8s of No 77 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, and Chinese MiG-15s saw the highest recorded baleout to date. On this day, eight Meteors were detailed to escort B-29s and another eight to carry out a diversionary sweep north of Sinanju. At 11.20 the latter flight, led by Squadron Leader Wilson, spotted six MiGs at 40,000 feet over Chongju, 5,000 feet higher than themselves. Keeping the enemy in sight Wilson manoeuvred his formation up-sun, but as he did so two more MiGs appeared a few thousand feet below. Wilson decided to attack and went into a dive followed by his number two, Flying Officer Woodroffe. As the two Meteors levelled out, however, Woodroffe’s aircraft suddenly flicked into a spin (an unpleasant tendency of the Meteor 8, caused by the effects of compressibility, if the aircraft exceeded 0.8M at altitude) and dropped away; the pilot managed to recover several thousand feet lower down, but now Wilson had no one to cover his tail. As he began his approach to attack, a MiG jumped him out of the sun, unnoticed in the 30-degree blind spot caused by the dural structure at the rear of the Meteor’s cockpit. The first warning Wilson had of the danger was when cannon shells passed over his wing; he immediately put his aircraft into a maximum-rate turn in a bid to shake off his pursuer. He was rescued by Flight Lieutenant Cedric Wilson and Flying Officer Ken Blight, who spotted his predicament and drove the MiG away – but not before cannon shells had shot away Sqn Ldr Wilson’s port aileron and punched a three-foot hole in his port wing, puncturing a fuel tank. Despite the damage Wilson reached base safely, touching down at 30 knots above normal landing speed.

Meanwhile, a fierce air battle had developed over Chongju as the other Meteors were hotly engaged by thirty MiGs. The weight of the attack fell on ‘Dog’ section, led by Flt Lt Geoff Thornton, who saw the MiGs coming down and ordered his section to break as soon as the enemy opened fire. Flying in the number four position was Warrant Officer Ron Guthrie, a veteran of fourteen previous Meteor sorties over Korea, and as he broke hard to port his aircraft was hit by cannon shells aft of the cockpit, destroying his radio equipment. Two of Guthrie’s attackers passed in front of him and he got one in his sights, loosing off a burst of 20mm cannon fire, but before he had time to observe any result he came under attack again, and this time the Meteor went out of control.

As the Meteor passed through 38,000 feet in a rolling dive, with the Machmeter showing 0.84, Guthrie ejected. The Martin-Baker seat worked perfectly and Guthrie sat upright in it as it descended through the stratosphere. It was like sitting in an armchair, with the world unfolding at his feet, and the situation might almost have been pleasant had it not been for the fact that he was falling into enemy territory and that his oxygen mask had been ripped away on ejection. Fortunately, it was still attached to the emergency supply and he managed to get it back on, finding to his relief that the oxygen was still flowing.

Guthrie now had a decision to make. The air temperature at that altitude was minus 50 degrees C and he was wearing only a lightweight summer flying suit. If he jettisoned his seat and opened his canopy at this stage, there was would be a very real danger of frostbite. On the other hand, altitude would give him an advantage: he might be able to steer his parachute clear of the North Korean coastline and make a touchdown in the sea, where he would have a good chance of being picked up by friendly forces. He decided to take the risk. Unfastening his harness, he kicked the seat away and pulled the ripcord.

His parachute opened at 35,000 feet. From that height he could see the curvature of the earth, and the whole panorama of the Korean peninsula spread out below him. The air grew warmer as he continued his descent, but now he realised with dismay that a westerly wind was blowing him inland, and that despite his best efforts to control the direction of his parachute he was not going to reach the coast. Twenty-eight minutes after ejecting, having survived the attentions of some enemy troops who fired at him in the latter stages of his descent, he landed in a paddy field and was quickly surrounded. It was the beginning of a two-year captivity. At that time, Guthrie’s was the highest ejection on record. He had also experienced the longest parachute descent, and it was the first time that a Martin-Baker seat had saved a pilot’s life in combat.

It was soon apparent that the Meteor was no match for the MiG-15, and it was soon reassigned to the ground attack role, which it performed well, leaving the F-86 Sabres to tangle with the MiGs in the stratosphere. Ground attack work in Korea was difficult and dangerous; quite apart from the nature of the terrain, targets were usually well defended. If an aircraft was hit, the pilot had two choices: either he could bale out into enemy hands, or he could try to gain sufficient height to nurse his crippled aircraft back to friendly territory,where he could either bale out or attempt a crash landing.

Indonesian Navy 2016


The Indonesian Navy’s procurement is currently split between small numbers of ‘high-end’ vessels and larger numbers of less sophisticated patrol and missile craft. Typical of the latter is the lead KCR-60 missile-armed fast attack craft Samapri, seen here on exercises with the Royal Australian Navy’s Wollongong in March 2016. (Royal Australian Navy)


Two images of the first Indonesian ‘Sigma 10514’ frigate Raden Eddy Martadinata, being floated out from PT Pal’s dockyard in Surabaya in January 2016. Construction of two ships is currently underway and more could be ordered in what is probably the most important Indonesian surface warship construction programme. (Piet Sinke via Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding)


Indonesian naval procurement continues to be split between a small number of ‘high-end’ war-fighting vessels and large numbers of relatively unsophisticated patrol ships of various shapes and sizes for constabulary roles. 14 Further progress has been made in both areas over the last year. However, the long-term target of achieving a 274- strong fleet – including over a hundred combatants – by 2024 that was first announced in the Minimum Essential Forces modernisation programme initiated in 2009, looks set to be substantially scaled back to a little over 150 units. In effect, new deliveries are just about matching the pace of withdrawals.

The most costly front-line programme in progress is for the construction of three new Type 209 submarines to an improved version of South Korea’s Chang Bogo design. The first of these, Nagabanda, was rolled-out in March 2016 by DSME and should be delivered on schedule during 2017. DSME is also building a second member of the class, Trisula. Construction then scheduled to switch to PT PAL in Surabaya where a new facility should start work on the final boat from October 2016. The selection of the Type 209 design makes sense given Indonesia already has substantial experience of operating a pair of similar boats since the early 1980s. However, it appears that other designs are also being examined for further construction that is ultimately intended to extend the underwater flotilla to between ten and twelve submarines. These include Russia’s ‘Kilo’ class and the French DCNS ‘Scorpène’ design.

Meanwhile, construction of surface combatants is being assisted by a long-standing alliance with the Dutch Damen group, which delivered four ‘Sigma 9113’ class corvettes between 2007 and 2009. Assembly of a follow-on class of larger ‘Sigma 10514’ light frigates has transferred to PT PAL, who are currently building two units. The first of these, Martadinata, was launched on 18 January 2016. It seems that it is currently hoped to build at least six of the class to replace the elderly Van Speijk class frigates, which are reported to fall due for decommissioning from 2017 onwards.

Other surface assets include the three Bung Tomo class corvettes originally ordered by Brunei from BAE Systems and delivered in 2014 and the three older Fatahillah vessels built in the Netherlands in the late 1970s. The first of these has been completing a mid-life upgrade led by Ultra Electronics but it is not known whether this work will extend to the two other ships. Fifteen Project 1331 ‘Parchim 1’ are also still in service, although one – Pati Ununs – was partly sunk in a grounding incident in May 2016 and may not be repaired.

Turning to smaller vessels, recent years have seen an expansion in orders of fast attack craft based on the KCR-40, KCR-60 and KCR-63 designs. However, reports suggest that production of the KCR-63 Klewang class trimarans will not progress beyond a single vessel and that the SAAB combat suite envisaged for the boat will no longer be fitted. However, a fourth KCR-63 vessel has been ordered to supplement the three already in commission, whist the KCR-40 hull has been selected as the basis for a more lightly-armed patrol vessel variant.

Whilst current focus is on indigenous construction, foreign yards have been contracted for specialised ships. For example, the first of two Rigel class hydrographic ships built by OCEA in France arrived in Indonesia in May 2015. Her sister, Spica – commissioned in October of the same year – followed in December. A new sail training ship is also under construction at the Freire Shipyard in Spain for delivery in 2017.

“Kiwis” at Crete 1941


Lieutenant Colonel Les Andrew VC and the New Zealand 22nd Battalion at Helwan after their return from Crete, July 1941.


As the exhausted Anzacs stumbled off ships at Suda Bay and took stock of their new surroundings, the prospect of an epoch-making battle against German paratroopers was far from their thoughts. Most were intent on the simple necessities of food and sleep. The survivors from the Costa Rica were the worst off, having lost all their personal kit as well as their weapons when the troopship went down. Don Stephenson managed to acquire a greatcoat before he landed; apart from that, his earthly possessions on arrival at Suda Bay comprised a pouch of tobacco and a tin of sausages. Coming ashore, Stephenson walked down the jetty and straight into the arms of his brother, who was serving in another AIF unit. He remembered, ‘I hadn’t seen him in months, so we sat down and had a sausage and a smoke.’

For the Australians and New Zealanders, Crete would be a battle against military privation as well as against the Germans. Having lost his Lee-Enfield .303 rifle at sea, Stephenson was issued with an ancient ceremonial rifle used by the British Black Watch regiment, from which dangled a scabbard and bayonet, tied on with a piece of string. The remnants of Murray McColl’s platoon of New Zealand machine-gunners had one Vickers gun, but no tripod, so they got it ready for action by lashing it to the fork of a tree. For his own use, McColl acquired a rifle — without a bayonet — by visiting the British hospital near Suda Bay and taking one from a wounded patient. Phillip Hurst of the 2/7th Battalion was luckier. Like Stephenson, he lost all his gear on the Costa Rica, but on Crete he was issued with a new Tommy gun. Even this bounty had its limits — no replacement webbing accompanied the gun, so Hurst fashioned a substitute to carry his ammunition by tying two socks together and hanging the result around his neck.

Enterprise and improvisation were the order of the day. D Company, 2/1st MG Company added to its stock of Vickers guns by assembling one from the spare parts intended for maintenance purposes.2 Even the most specialised units had to scrounge and make do. The 4 Special Wireless Section got to Crete with most of its technical gear, save for the direction-finding equipment it needed to estimate the location of German transmissions. Its personnel fashioned replacements by salvaging equipment from the many ships lying half-submerged, sunk by German air attacks in the shallows of Suda Bay.3 The infantry did likewise, albeit more prosaically — without entrenching tools with which to prepare pits and trenches, many were dug with nothing more than a tin hat to scratch the ground.

Eric Davies of the 19 NZ Battalion recalled that his platoon, in trying to connect a trench system in an olive grove, spent a fortnight hacking through a massive tree root with nothing more than a bayonet. Davies had an axe to grind of a different kind: having survived his ducking in the Aegean weighed down by his assorted weaponry as he climbed aboard Kingston, he had to give up his spare rifle to the very man responsible for kicking him into the sea. The sacrifice had ‘grieved me ever since,’ Davies recalled 60 years later.

Not all of the defenders had been through the ordeal in Greece. A British brigade had been on garrison duty in Crete since November 1940, when Britain first began assisting the Greeks following the Italian invasion. A handful of Australians were also new to the fighting. A battery of the Australian 2/3rd Light Anti- Aircraft Regiment was landed in Crete to help defend the aerodromes. A Troop went to Maleme in the west, and the rest of the battery took up station at Heraklion in the east. This small reinforcement might have been fresh, but they were ill-prepared. One of its number, Ian Rutter, remembered that for some reason the regiment was a favoured destination for many sons of the Melbourne establishment, but their political connections did not guarantee adequate preparation. Although formed as a specialised anti-aircraft unit, the regiment had never fired its designated equipment, the 40-millimetre Bofors automatic cannon, before it went into action for the first time.

Ill equipped and scantily armed though they were, the Australians and New Zealanders were still fighting among friends, and they were grateful for it. Ken Johnson, at the head of his platoon in the 2/11th Battalion, sent foraging parties to nearby villages to buy milk, honey, and cheese to supplement the army diet of bully beef. Eric Davies confided to his diary on 29 April that although he ‘spent a mighty cold night without a greatcoat’, the hospitality of the Cretans was excellent compensation: ‘I’ve had more to eat today than for weeks. Eggs and chips, after weeks of hard ration, were a splendid feast.’ Phillip Hurst, entrenched along with the rest of the 2/7th Battalion at the village of Georgiopoulos on the island’s mid-north coast, remembered the kindness of the Cretans for the rest of his life:

We wanted some honey, so we went up to the village and asked them, and a chap said a lady there kept bees. But she didn’t have any containers. Well, if we promised to bring the container back, a two-pint billy, a nice one, we could have some honey, and she wouldn’t take the money. That was on the nineteenth of May — we never ate the honey, and never took the billy back. Memories. Life goes on.

Given the length of time that passed between November 1940 when the first British troops landed in Crete, and the German invasion six months later, the improvisations and lack of training were scandalous. Little had been done to prepare the island, because Crete was thought of as a convenient base and depot site for operations on the mainland. One of the consequences of this mentality was that the three British battalions of the original garrison were ‘placed where administration was easy, water plentiful and malaria absent’. Convenience and comfort are not often sound military virtues, nor is constant reorganisation. In this case, a succession of British officers were given command of the garrison before Greece fell and, as result, none had sufficient time in which to prepare a coherent defence plan. The last of these temporary commanders was Major General Weston — his unit was the Mobile Naval Base Depot Organisation (MNBDO), which was landed in Crete in echelons from January 1941. The deployment of this unit says much about how the British leadership conceived of Crete. Planned between the wars as an infrastructure organisation to quickly establish a fleet base for the Royal Navy in a far-flung part of the world, the MNBDO was well equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defences, but it was essentially a garrison formation with a multiplicity of depot units, having little or no capability to fight in the field.

Weston himself only took up command in Crete on 26 April. His tenure lasted but four days before he was replaced by Bernard Freyberg, who arrived at Suda Bay with his staff after their evacuation from Monemvasia. Freyberg thought he was only staging through to Egypt; instead, to his considerable surprise, at a conference held on 30 April with Wavell, he was given command of the defending forces on Crete. The first obstacle that Freyberg had to overcome was his own ignorance, which he acknowledged in his campaign report:

The main defence problems which faced me in Crete were not clear to me at this stage. I did not know anything about the geography or physical characteristics of the island. I knew less about the condition of the force I was to command. Neither was I aware of the serious situation with regard to maintenance and, finally, I had not learnt the real scale of attack which we were to be prepared to repel.

Ignorance might well have been bliss because, as Freyberg’s knowledge grew, so too did his anxiety. British intelligence estimated that the Luftwaffe could deposit on Crete between 5000 and 6000 paratroops in a single sortie, giving the Germans the capacity to seize a decisive area and then reinforce it at will. Winston Churchill, fortified with brandy and cigars in his bunker below Whitehall, thought this a ‘fine opportunity for killing parachute troops’. But Freyberg, having read the intelligence report, concluded more soberly, ‘I could scarcely believe my eyes.’ Apart from the experience he had gained in Greece fighting the Germans, Freyberg was now also showing signs of developing a finer sense of political acumen. After receiving the London appreciation, on 1 May he appealed for equipment and stores not through military channels, but directly to his own government. This forced Churchill to cable Wellington on 3 May, assuring prime minister Peter Fraser that the necessary equipment would be sent to Crete.

Despite this political assurance, what Freyberg actually received was modest enough — apart from small arms, some transport and stores, up until the invasion his reinforcements amounted to two British infantry battalions, 16 light and six infantry tanks, and a troop of mountain artillery with eight guns. His request for field artillery was met by the delivery of 49 pieces, but these were decrepit Italian and French guns, often without sights and instruments, and not modern British 25-pounders.

Shockingly, while expert Australian and British gunners marooned on Crete were formed into improvised infantry companies, a sizeable stock of 25-pound guns remained safely in Egyptian depots — a decision that accorded with Churchill’s determination to resume the offensive in Libya as quickly as possible. The 2/2nd Field Regiment, which had fought with such distinction at Brallos, was one of the bereft artillery regiments on Crete: John Anderson remembers his battery had one rifle for each section of nine men, while Phillip Worthem had a Boys gun, but no ammunition. Without enough of the second-hand Italian and French guns to go round, Cremor — the regiment’s indomitable commander — tossed a coin for their possession with the 2/3rd Field Regiment. Cremor told his men it was a good toss to lose, and they went on with their few infantry weapons. The 5 NZ Field Regiment was one of the artillery units which took on ‘an odd assortment of guns’, including Italian 75-millimetre howitzers, about which the New Zealanders, of course, knew very little — including whether the guns would fire at all, what maximum range they possessed, and how the combination of the four charges they used would produce different ranges.

As the gunners set to work, Freyberg considered what to do with the sizeable Greek force under his command, placed at his disposal by the king and prime minister Tsouderos, who had arrived on the island before him. This force comprised 10,000 troops, organised in three regular battalions and eight recruitment units, and Freyberg was impressed by their determination, if not their training and equipment. He reported: ‘There is no doubt that the Greeks and Cretans were good material and, given the time, great things could have been done. In point of fact, the entire population of Crete desired to fight.’


Despite the bravery of the defending gun crews, air operations are rarely defeated by anti-aircraft weapons in isolation. So it was on this occasion. With their supremacy in the air, the Germans could mount their paratroop assault at a time and place of their choosing. That moment came on the morning of 20 May 1941. The German invasion was mounted by three groups, and came in two waves. Against Maleme in the first wave, Student sent his Gruppe West, commanded by Major General Meindl and comprising an assault regiment with three-and-half battalions. The other element of this first wave came from Gruppe Mitte, led by General Leutnant Süssman, who sent the 3 Fallschirmjäger Regiment, half of I Battalion, Assault Regiment, and a pioneer battalion to take Canea and Suda. In the second wave, to follow in the afternoon, Student ordered the 2 Fallschirmjäger Regiment (less one battalion) from Süssman’s Gruppe to take Retimo, and committed his Gruppe Ost, under Ringel, to seize Heraklion airfield using the 1 Fallschirmjäger Regiment, II Battalion of the 2 Fallschirmjäger, and the 5th Gebirgs Division, supported by the II Battalion, 31 Panzer Regiment. Student was forced to mount Merkür in two waves for want of sufficient transport aircraft to do the job in one; his decision to then spread the landing over widely separate points nearly brought the operation undone.

In considering how to meet this assault, Freyberg had access to unprecedented intelligence, thanks to the British code-breakers who could read the German Enigma transmissions. ‘Ultra’ informed Freyberg on 13 May that attempts to seize the aerodromes by paratroop landing would be followed by a seaborne invasion; from this, the defenders should have concluded that if they could hold the airfields, Merkür must fail. Given the availability of this information, Freyberg’s preoccupation with the threat from the sea was unfortunate.

When it came, the German attack provided a spectacle that none of the surviving Australians and New Zealanders would ever forget. The assault opened with a concentrated blitz by German bombers and fighters on the anti-aircraft defences and those field works that could be discerned from aerial reconnaissance photos. Murray McColl, with his composite unit above Galatas, was eating his breakfast porridge out of a dixie just before seven in the morning, when he was forced to take cover by the raiding aircraft. Six Messerchmitt fighters broke off in a determined attack on his position and, despite the savagery of the raid — so intense that McColl remembered, ‘I wasn’t frightened, I was bloody well petrified.’ — he and his comrades thought that once the attack was past they could go back to breakfast. ‘Thank God that’s finished,’ McColl remembered thinking, until one of his comrades asked, ‘What’s that buzzing noise?’

Many of the defenders recalled that distant hum, like bees, growing louder as the dark spots on the northern horizon resolved themselves into hundreds of tri-motor Junkers transports, 80 of them towing DFS 230 assault gliders. On their way to Crete, the gliders passed over Athens, where onlookers thought they resembled ‘young vultures following parent birds from the roost’. When they arrived at Maleme, the metaphor was apt, as the dazed anti-aircraft gunners watched an ‘extraordinary sight’ unfold: ‘the air was full of parachutes, with a complicated system of colours, officers one colour, supply canisters another, this great concentration of parachutes in the air.’ Frank Sherry, with his code-breaking unit above Suda Bay, found the sight ‘demonic’, while McColl likened the paratroopers to ‘men from Mars’.

Allusions to science fiction figure often in the memories of survivors from that day, and for good reason — nothing on this scale had ever been seen on a battlefield before. Until that moment, many shared the view of Eric Davies, who remembered, ‘We thought it was bullshit, we couldn’t see how they could land thousands like that.’ The shock of the assault when it came was profound.

Even so, when the defenders recovered their equilibrium, the consequences for the German paratroopers were hideous. For all its bravado, a paratroop attack on a prepared position is an extraordinarily vulnerable undertaking. The Junkers transports made their dropping runs at not much more than 100 metres, at relatively slow speeds. As a result, the aircraft were well within range of even small-arms fire, and the paratroops themselves, once in their harnesses, spent anxious moments descending to earth —easy targets even for inexperienced riflemen. The German harness design didn’t help the paratroopers avoid the defences or the obstacles: it suspended the parachutist from a single strop, which meant that the camopy could not be steered in any way.

Unfortunately for the Germans, many of the defenders were battle-hardened, expert infantry, not the disorganised remnants from Greece that German intelligence had assumed. Malcolm Coughlin and his platoon of the 19 NZ Battalion were entrenched on a ridge above Galatas, looking toward Cemetery Hill. Coughlin was armed with a Bren gun, and could not believe the Junkers passing across his left flank, level with his position. At ranges of only 50 metres, Coughlin poured fire into the lumbering transports, and was easily close enough to see his rounds striking each plane as it passed.

Not all of the defenders took the opportunity presented. At Georgeopolis, Phillip Hurst had left his foxhole to fetch some water. Although the Germans made no landing there, he recalled that troop planes went right overhead. ‘We had to go and get water, and I was getting it, like a good soldier! I left my gun behind, [and was] caught in the open — three planeloads going overhead and no gun!’

The savagery of the defending fire naturally dislocated the German landings, and a number of Student’s units came to earth far from their designated drop-zones. The confusion in the German ranks began early: the glider carrying Süssman, commander of Gruppe Mitte, was destroyed in a crash near Athens, and the general and some of his staff were killed. The fragility and inherent danger of the technology used by the Luftwaffe was obvious to the defenders. Murray McColl recalls one transport flying by, with a paratrooper ensnared by his chute on the tailplane. The poor soldier spun wildly, ‘dangling, like [a] fly in the web, until finally he broke off and down he came — everyone cheered’.

The DFS 230 assault gliders afforded the Germans little more protection in the attack phase than the paratroopers enjoyed. Eric Davies found the noiseless descent of the gliders eerie, as they circled about looking for landing places, but their light construction left the occupants onboard vulnerable to ground fire and to bad landings on rocky or tree-covered ground. Five of the DFS 230s came down near Frank Sherry’s signals unit and, although Sherry was ‘seedy’ from the previous night’s celebration of his nineteenth birthday, he and his comrades quickly took advantage — ‘Even a .303 [rifle] made the gliders jump visibly in the air,’ he recalled. This flight of Germans landed successfully within 50 metres of Sherry’s billet but, according to him, ‘out of those five, not many came out alive.’ Despite the initial success of the signallers, four men ventured out to inspect their handiwork and look for souvenirs: one was killed, and the other three wounded and captured.

At Maleme, the airfield was held by just Leslie Andrew’s 22 Battalion of the 5 NZ Brigade, which blunted the drive of the 2nd Panzer Division through the Olympus Pass, but was now down to only 600 men. The allocation of this scant force to the decisive point would be Freyberg’s fatal miscalculation. He opted to organise his defence against both air and seaborne invasion, and the attempt to hold the coast saw the greater part of the 5 NZ Brigade deployed east of the aerodrome, from the village of Pirgos along to Platanias, which was garrisoned by the redoubtable Maoris of the 28 Battalion. With the Royal Navy still in command of the sea, Freyberg could have concentrated on the airfields. As it was, just a single infantry battalion and the anti-aircraft gunners held the vital aerodrome at Maleme and, despite the losses they inflicted on the Germans, the defenders were spread far too thinly. The defences there were also badly organised: despite repeated requests, the 370 men of the RAF, MNDBO, and the Fleet Air Arm who were camped on the airfield were not under Andrew’s command. ‘They retained their independence almost to the point of absurdity: even the current password differed among the three groups,’ wrote the 22 Battalion historian. The New Zealanders were unable to dig a continuous line along their western flank because it would have run through the British officer’s mess — an ‘unthinkable’ prospect, according to the battalion history.

The air attack on the 22 Battalion prior to the German landing was a foretaste of things to come. It killed five men of C Company on the airfield, and wounded Andrew at his headquarters. He described the hit as ‘a wee piece of bomb that stuck in above the temple’; when he pulled it out, it was ‘bloody hot and bled a bit’. The paratroop landing then followed, and the decisive element of the German attack proved to be a concentrated glider landing in the dry bed of the Tavronitis River, on the western perimeter of the airfield. There, 14 gliders came down and, along with other troops dropped by parachute, their occupants quickly besieged the New Zealand defence along the western fringe of the aerodrome. This comprised only one unit, 15 Platoon of C Company under Lieutenant R. B. Sinclair, a clerk from Waipawa. With just 23 men to hold a long stretch of river bank, Sinclair’s chances of defeating several hundred elite paratroopers were slim, particularly given the paucity of firepower available to him: in the whole of C Company, there were no mortars of any kind, and just seven Bren guns and nine Tommy guns, supplemented by six Browning machine-guns salvaged from wrecked RAF planes.

Other Germans landed on the west bank of the Tavronitis and, after forming up, made for the bridge, getting across it by dodging from pylon to pylon. Once on the eastern side, they entered the RAF camp on the southern edge of the airfield, and quickly put the bewildered air-force mechanics and ground personnel to flight. This thrust cut between Sinclair’s men and D Company under Captain T. C. Campbell, a farm appraiser from Waiouru. Campbell’s men were strung out between the aerodrome and Hill 107, garrisoned by Andrew’s A Company.

The German wedge into the RAF camp enveloped what was left of the 15 Platoon on three sides. The bravery of Sinclair and his men was reflected in their casualties. Sinclair himself fought on, though wounded in the neck; he was captured after he fainted from loss of blood. Nearby, Lance Corporal J. T. Mehaffey, a Wellington civil servant, gave his life for his comrades: when a German stick grenade lobbed into their weapons pit, Mehaffey put his tin hat over it and stood on the helmet while the grenade exploded. He died from horrific injuries when the explosion blew off both his legs. The 15 Platoon gamely held on until dusk. Of Sinclair and his 23 men, eight were killed, fourteen others wounded, and just two came out of the battle unhurt.

Elsewhere, the Germans landed directly on the battalion position, including the village of Pirgos, but the New Zealanders were able to eliminate these threats. On the airfield itself, however, the paratroopers were able to cross the runways, and bring the anti-aircraft gun crews under small-arms fire. Ian Rutter was among these men who, for want of small arms, were unable to defend themselves. The Bofors cannons taken over by the Australian gunners were fixed on concrete mountings — had they still been mounted on wheels, the gunners might have been able to drag them into the open and chop up the German infantry moving across the aerodrome. As it was, the static Bofors had to be abandoned, and Rutter and his surviving comrades were driven up Hill 107 with the remnants of the 22 Battalion, one of the four gun crews having been killed.

East of the aerodrome, the 5 NZ Brigade held its ground comfortably on the first day. The 23 Battalion overlooked the main coast road to Canea, with the 21 Battalion on higher ground south of it. As a result, the gliders and paratroops landing on the 23 Battalion fell on a strong position and were shot down in droves, with an estimated 400 killed.

To the south-east of Hill 107, along what the New Zealanders knew as Vineyard Ridge, the 21 Battalion was but a shell of the unit which had fought at Platamon and Pinios Gorge. It got to Greece with just 237 men, and more trickled in over the following weeks, including 39 who arrived on 3 May, led by Battalion CO ‘Polly’ Macky. His health was now scarred by the pressures of the campaign on the mainland, and on 17 May he handed command of the battalion to Lieutenant Colonel J. M. Allen, a ‘short, slight and wiry’ farmer, and member of parliament for Hauraki.

Allen’s new command easily accounted for 100 paratroops landing on the slopes around the battalion position, despite the fact that its machine-guns were antique Lewis guns. Now was the time for a counterattack to restore the position on the aerodrome, but poor communications eroded effective control of the battle. Signal lines to Puttick’s divisional headquarters were cut for most of the morning, and contact with individual battalions was minimal throughout the day. Left to their own devices, the local counterattacks organised by the New Zealand battalion commanders were half-hearted, lest they compromise the continuing defence of the ground they already held.

Andrew, at the head of the 22 Battalion, sent two Matilda tanks and a platoon of infantry against the aerodrome just after 5.00 p.m. In the first example of the generally poor performance of the British armour on Crete, one tank pulled out early with an unserviceable gun, and the other got as far as the Tavronitis, where it became bogged and was abandoned by its crew. In the chaos of air attack, confused fighting, and non-existent communications, Andrew struggled to maintain control of his battalion: during the night, patrols were sent out to find his A, B, and D companies, without success.

Behind Andrew, Allen had authority to act according to one of three scenarios: join the 22 Battalion along the Tavronitis; take over the ground of the 23 Battalion if it moved in support of the 22 Battalion; or stay where he was. Uncertain of the situation around him, Allen understandably opted to keep the 21 Battalion largely where it was, sending just a platoon to clear the villages of Xamoudhokhori and Vlakheronitissa. With more strength, this move might have re-established contact with the 22 Battalion on Hill 107; but, while Allen’s men got through Xamoudhokhori, they found the second village too strongly held, and the isolation of the defenders on Hill 107 remained.

Ian Rutter was one of those defenders, and he spent an anxious night with the Germans in close proximity on the slopes below. The New Zealanders had a listening post 30 to 40 metres in advance of their main position, and Rutter had to take his turn to man it. As they had in Greece, the Germans called out in English in an attempt to deceive the defenders into error:

[S]omebody had to wriggle out there and just listen. You could hear them talking, one German calling out, ‘Hello, Charlie? Is that you?’ It was eerie to be that close to them.

Towards dawn, the 22 Battalion was largely surrounded, and Andrew opted to salvage what he could of his unit, ordering a withdrawal. Ian Rutter went with the surviving New Zealanders, taking off his boots to dull the noise of his footfall. As his weary column moved back, he recalled, ‘The sun came up, and hundreds of fellows were sitting just waiting for an order’. While the hours ticked away, the Germans poured reinforcements into Maleme.