The Swedish Question I

Sweden’s role in World War II has evoked little interest outside of that country. Although we now know this nation would never enter the war, Hitler and Dönitz could not count on this. For Hitler Sweden represented a valuable source of raw materials and manufactured goods, as well as a possible threat to Germany’s position in Norway. To Dönitz this politically unreliable nation’s location potentially endangered the navy’s U-boat training areas in the Baltic. Particularly in the final stage of the war, both Hitler and Dönitz endeavored to ensure at all costs that Sweden remained neutral.

On several occasions Hitler claimed a political motive for retaining a foothold in the Baltic States. He feared that withdrawing from Estonia, and later from Courland, would adversely affect Sweden’s attitude. Hitler believed that the presence of German troops in the Baltic States deterred Sweden from cutting off ore imports. On 5 September 1944, when Army Group North wished to evacuate Estonia in the wake of Finland’s surrender, Hitler insisted that holding the current positions in that sector was politically important as a way of exerting influence on Sweden. Two days later Natzmer phoned OKH to check on the army group’s request to retreat; Berlin replied that Guderian had attempted to convince Hitler to give up the Baltic States but that Hitler had again brought up his concern for Sweden. In the winter and spring of 1945 Hitler returned to this theme, at times responding to Guderian’s demands to evacuate Courland by insisting that only the presence of the Courland armies prevented Sweden from declaring war on Germany. To understand why Hitler feared Swedish belligerence and whether the Swedes had given him cause for suspicion, a brief review of Sweden’s policy since 1939 is necessary.

Upon the outbreak of war Sweden declared its neutrality and continued to trade with both Britain and Germany. Sweden experienced few problems until the end of November 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Sweden found itself in a precarious situation during the Winter War, as it had long maintained very close ties to Finland and traditionally feared Russia. The Swedish government was willing to assist the Finns in almost any way possible, short of war. Sweden provided Finland with substantial aid and sent large quantities of arms and ammunition, seriously depleting its own stocks. The Winter War also brought difficulty on the diplomatic front. Determined to prevent Swedish belligerency, Germany sent several thinly veiled threats demanding that Sweden remain neutral. Hitler feared that Sweden’s entry into the war would jeopardize the delivery of iron ore and that if Russia attacked Sweden, it would be difficult for the Swedes to refuse Allied offers to intervene in Scandinavia. The Germans warned the Swedish government that they would take swift action if Allied troops entered the country. Hitler’s anxiety in this matter was justified, because the British and French made repeated requests that Allied troops be allowed to pass through Sweden to aid Finland; Sweden refused them. The end of the Winter War in March 1940 did not lessen the danger to Sweden, for on 9 April Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark. Although a Swedish military attaché had alerted Defense Minister Per Edvin Sköld, this warning went unheeded.3 Sweden’s military position at this time was even worse than in autumn 1939. Southern Sweden was virtually defenseless, because the Swedes had concentrated their army in the north during the Winter War, and the delivery of arms and ammunition to Finland had deprived Sweden of a significant proportion of the supplies needed for its own defense.

Admiral Raeder provided Hitler with convincing naval arguments for the occupation of Norway, but Hitler’s interest in guaranteeing supplies of Swedish iron also played a role. The Winter War and the danger of Allied intervention in Scandinavia had revealed the threat to Germany’s ore imports. Swedish iron ore reached Germany by two main routes. The Swedes shipped some from ports in the Gulf of Bothnia, mainly Luleå, but most of these ports were closed nearly half the year due to ice. The preferred route was to send the ore to the Norwegian port of Narvik, ice free throughout the year, for transshipment to Germany. Yet with the outbreak of war the Narvik route proved vulnerable to British interference.

Churchill considered halting iron ore shipments to Germany decisive. The British predicted that without these imports German production would cease within months, if not weeks (an assessment that greatly exaggerated the importance of Swedish iron ore to Germany’s war economy). In April 1939 British trade envoys tactlessly warned the Swedes that in the event of war, Britain might have to destroy the iron mines. A major reason for Britain’s interest in assisting Finland during the Winter War was to occupy Sweden’s iron mines.6 In the end the British decided not to take military action against Sweden, but they did mine Norway’s coastal waters and planned to sabotage port facilities at Oxelösund, an ice-free port on Sweden’s southeastern coast from which Germany received ore. During the fighting in Norway in the spring of 1940 the British destroyed port installations at Narvik, significantly reducing its capacity for ore shipments.

Swedish iron ore was of a very high quality, having an iron content of nearly 60 percent, compared to 30 percent for German ores. Germany obtained most of its iron ore from the Reich and Nazi-occupied areas, but about 80 percent of the iron ore it did import came from Sweden. Another vital import was ball bearings. The Nazis received no more than 10 percent of their ball bearings from the Swedes, but these bearings were of the types Germany lacked later in the war due to Allied air raids. Germany also imported from Sweden high-grade steel, finished copper, sulfur, and timber.

After the occupation of Norway and Denmark, German pressure on Sweden increased. Eager to remain at peace, the Swedes granted more and more concessions to Germany. Churchill feared that the Swedes would purchase their neutrality by supplying Germany with all the ore it wanted.9 But in fact Sweden granted the Germans far more than raw materials; its government stretched neutrality past any recognized limits. Hitler had demanded strict neutrality from Sweden in April 1940, when such a policy benefited the Nazis, and the Swedes had agreed on the condition they be left in peace. After the conquest of Norway, Germany received permission for so-called transit traffic, the transport of supplies and soldiers on leave to northern Norway via Swedish rail lines. From June 1940 until November 1943 Sweden’s railroads carried over two million men on leave, more than 700,000 tons of military supplies, and 60,000 wounded (mainly from the front in Finland), many of the wounded on Swedish hospital trains. The Swedes justified these concessions by claiming that once Norway surrendered, these actions did not support or aid a belligerent.

In 1941 and 1942 foreign observers noted a decidedly pro-Nazi stance among many Swedish officials. In March 1941 the Swedish Defense Staff’s naval section prepared a study on a possible Russo-German war that mentioned the possibility of Germany transporting troops to Finland on Sweden’s railroads and hinted at Swedish forces fighting alongside Germans. In January 1942 Goebbels noted in his diary that Sweden had “done more for the German war effort than is generally assumed,” although a few months later he began to complain of the Swedes’ attitude. Sweden was, however, under Nazi pressure. In February 1941 its military attaché to Germany, Curt Juhlin-Dannfelt, spoke with the German Army chief of staff, Halder, about the possibility of granting transit rights to Allied troops if the Soviets attacked Finland again. Halder replied that if Sweden did so, Germany would reduce the nation to rubble. In the spring of 1941 the supreme commander of Sweden’s armed forces, Gen. Olof Thörnell, informed his government that Sweden could not withstand an attack and advised that war with Germany should be avoided if at all possible.

During the planning for the Russian campaign, the Germans hoped for Swedish assistance. The Skl (Seekriegsleitung or Skl (Maritime Warfare Command)) contemplated Sweden’s help in several matters, including laying minefields in its territorial waters to supplement those laid by the German Navy, allowing shipment of supplies for troops in Finland to southern Sweden, and protecting German merchant vessels in Swedish waters with Swedish warships. Hitler declared that he believed the Swedes would participate in the war in return for cession of the Åland Islands, and in early May OKW even considered how to use Sweden’s armed forces if they joined in the war with Russia.

Hitler had little reason to doubt Sweden’s good will in this period. Immediately after the invasion of the Soviet Union, its government allowed the Germans to transfer a fully equipped division through Sweden to Finland. This represented Sweden’s most flagrant breach of neutrality. The Swedes refused transit rights for a second division at the end of July 1941 but later permitted the transport of an SS battalion. In addition, the government doubled the normal allowed leave traffic. Swedes also provided a valuable service by repairing all types of vehicles from German units in northern Norway and Finland, saving the Nazis a great deal of time and transport space. Furthermore, Sweden allowed German merchant vessels to pass through its territorial waters, and on one occasion a German division sailed from Norway to Finland through Swedish waters. Despite the pro-German attitude of several prominent military and political leaders, however, Sweden’s press was virulently anti-German, frequently enraging Hitler and above all Goebbels. In the fall of 1940 the government confiscated several issues of the Göteborgs Handelstidning to placate the Germans and in June 1941 introduced a law curtailing freedom of the press.

Britain’s naval attaché in Sweden, Henry Denham, claimed that the Swedish Navy was especially pro-German. Denham also charged that the Swedish secret police worked very closely with German intelligence and kept track of his movements. Thörnell himself had a reputation for being very pro-German. In April 1941 he suggested to the government that Sweden participate in an anticipated war against the Soviets, and at the end of 1944 Thörnell reportedly was almost in tears over Germany’s defeats.

Yet the Swedes made most concessions during the years of German victory. The declaration of war on the United States, the Allied landings in North Africa, and the Soviet victory at Stalingrad caused Sweden to reassess its relations with Germany. During the second half of 1943, once Sweden had built up its armed forces to a respectable level, the Swedes began to restrict concessions previously granted. In August the Swedish government informed the Germans that it would halt the transit traffic to northern Norway and that it would no longer allow German vessels in Swedish territorial waters. Once the Swedes began to steer away from Germany, they came under increasingly heavy pressure from the Anglo-Americans to reduce exports to Germany, especially ball bearings.

Hitler viewed Sweden’s increased independence with growing mistrust. At the end of 1941 he feared the British might invade Norway to exert pressure on Sweden, and only a month later he began to suspect Swedish hostility, claiming that the Swedes would support a British landing in Scandinavia. Hitler declared that Allied domination of Sweden would deprive Germany of freedom of movement in the Baltic. In April of 1942 he notified Mussolini that Sweden would defect if the British invaded Norway. Explaining that a link between Britain and Sweden would be dangerous for Germany, he informed his Italian ally that he had reinforced Norway with seventy thousand men and deployed an armored division near Oslo to threaten Sweden. The Germans received reports that the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 had made a profound impression in Sweden. To this Hitler declared that Scandinavia’s protection was more important than a major offensive in Russia for the coming year, and he accordingly ordered the armored division in Norway reinforced. Hitler’s reaction to Sweden’s announcement ending the transit traffic to Norway, however, was surprisingly calm. By the fall of 1943 Jodl too was convinced that a successful Allied landing in Norway would bring Sweden into the war, leading to the collapse of the entire Scandinavian front and endangering the Baltic.

Swedish intelligence rendered an invaluable service to its government by cracking Germany’s codes at a relatively early date. In April 1940 the German military rented telephone and telegraph lines between Narvik and Oslo, and Trondheim and Oslo, which passed through Swedish territory. The Swedes promptly tapped these lines, as well as German lines from Berlin, Oslo, and Helsinki to Stockholm. Although in the beginning the Swedes read only military traffic, a direct line from Berlin to the German legation in Stockholm at the end of 1940 yielded diplomatic messages. A mathematics professor at Uppsala University, Arne Beurling, succeeded in forcing the machine code (Geheimschreiber) used by the Germans for communications with Norway, and he built a deciphering machine of his own. In this way the Swedes learned of Hitler’s preparations to invade Russia by the spring of 1941. Swedish intelligence also provided the government with advance warning of German intentions in diplomatic and economic negotiations. In mid-1942, however, the Finns alerted the Germans to Swedish code-breaking activity, and the Nazis tightened their communications security. The Germans transferred many of their communication wires to underwater cables and introduced more sophisticated code machines, so that after the end of 1942 Swedish intelligence rarely could decrypt German messages. The Swedes assumed that by this time the greatest danger had passed, because Germany had been forced on the defensive, but they were dangerously mistaken. The Swedes lost the ability to read German messages just as Hitler was seriously considering invading the country.

Nazi Germany contemplated attacking Sweden on several occasions throughout the war. In planning for the invasion of Norway at the end of February 1940, one of Warlimont’s subordinates in OKW submitted a proposal to occupy parts of Denmark and Sweden. Interest in Sweden’s iron ore was evident in this plan, which called for the seizure of Luleå and the rail line Luleå–Narvik. Warlimont altered the plan to envision the occupation of all of Denmark, leaving the Swedes alone, because on 1 March Hitler had ordered that no moves be made against Sweden. German suspicion of Sweden’s unreliability, however, increased. In January 1943 OKW noted that reports from Stockholm and Helsinki indicated the Swedes would suspend transit traffic if the Allies invaded Norway, concluding for that reason that German troops in northern Norway and northern Finland required additional supplies. In March, Hitler ordered German forces in Norway to prepare a study for operations in Scandinavia in the event of a change in the military or political situation. He also commanded OKW not to issue this order in writing but to impart its contents orally to staff officers from Norway and Finland who would soon be coming to Führer Headquarters. A few days later Hitler’s mistrust of Sweden had grown even deeper. He commanded Jodl to reinforce German troops in Norway and to provide the armored division there with the heaviest offensive weapons, against which the Swedes had no defense.

The plan to invade Sweden envisioned an assault by a half-dozen divisions. In the north one division was to cross the border east of Trondheim toward Östersund and then thrust to the Gulf of Bothnia, supported by an armored division advancing somewhat farther south. In the south two to three divisions were to storm the frontier and drive on Stockholm, while one to two divisions dealt with Swedish troops near Lake Vänern. In addition, the Germans planned several small-scale amphibious and airborne landings on Sweden’s southwest coast and north of Stockholm to tie down Swedish reserves. At the beginning of 1943 the Germans had twelve divisions in Norway, including one armored division, and from April through June OKW sent further reinforcements. Yet in August, following the reverses Germany suffered in the summer of 1943, Hitler ordered the armored division to the continent, and the following month OKW transferred a division from Norway to the Balkans. This stripped German forces in Norway of operational reserves and ended the serious threat of invasion.

Swedish war plans during World War II reveal a surprising, perhaps overoptimistic, confidence and aggressiveness after 1940. In the early interwar years Swedish planning had focused on two potential enemies, the Soviets and an unnamed western power, presumably Britain. In view of the international situation in the late 1930s, in 1939 the Swedes revised their plans to include war with Germany. When Germany occupied of Norway and Denmark, Sweden suddenly faced a hostile power along its 1,200-kilometer-long western border, as well as to the south in Denmark. Sweden’s 1940 plans were entirely defensive and called for concentrating most of its army in the southern and central part of the country. Swedish plans in early 1941 again emphasized defense against a possible German attack from Norway, but now the Swedes began to show signs of greater confidence. They assumed that with Germany’s depleted naval forces heavily engaged against Britain, the anticipated German attack on the Soviet Union would make Sweden’s fleet an important factor in the Baltic and that their army could seriously threaten Germany’s position in Norway. Nonetheless, this plan proposed a benevolent attitude toward Germany, since it was in Sweden’s interest to see the Soviets defeated. Plans from the autumn of that year provided for minor offensive action across the border into Norway—for example, to cut the rail link to Trondheim. By early 1942 the Swedes felt capable of an offensive to seize a Norwegian port to establish a link to Britain. The Swedes showed, however, a particular fear of airborne assault, against which they had no defense. In 1943 Sweden’s army planned, after repulsing a German invasion, for an attack toward Oslo as well as a thrust to capture the port Mo i Rana, approximately midway between Narvik and Trondheim. The 1943 plans remained essentially unchanged until the end of the war. Beginning in 1944, however, the Swedes began to pay closer attention to a possible threat from the Soviets.

The Swedish Navy’s primary task was coastal defense. Since the army would concentrate its forces on the southern coast and along the Norwegian border, the burden of protecting Sweden’s long eastern shore fell to the navy. On the whole, the navy viewed its mission as defensive. By the spring of 1942 the Swedish Navy’s plans included provisions for limited offensive operations. If Germany controlled the Åland Islands the navy planned to attack supply routes to the islands. If the islands remained unoccupied, the navy intended attacks on German lines of communication in the Gulf of Bothnia, as well as on German bases in the Reval–Libau area. Surprisingly, the navy’s plans at the end of 1942 were much more pessimistic than in earlier years. The Swedes now realized that the Germans might invade not only from Norway, Denmark, or northern Germany but from Finland or the Baltic States as well. Swedish planners envisioned German landings almost everywhere. Plans in later years were not quite so gloomy, though they remained generally defensive.

If by the fall of 1943 the German Army rarely considered attacking Sweden, the navy still eyed Sweden with suspicion. The Swedish Navy was probably the most pro-German of all branches of its armed forces, but the Skl was dissatisfied. In April 1941 Raeder had complained to the Swedish naval attaché, Anders Forshell, about Sweden’s attitude. The Swedish Navy, however, proved extremely accommodating on several occasions. In the spring of 1940 Sweden’s naval vessels assisted the Germans in laying an antisubmarine net in the Sound between Denmark and Sweden (Öresund). In June 1941 the Swedish Navy laid mines in its territorial waters to supplement German mine barrages that blocked the Baltic from Swedish waters to the coast of the Baltic States. In addition, in the fall of that year Swedish warships repeatedly escorted German vessels carrying supplies to Finland.

The Swedish Question II

Dönitz was even more wary of Sweden than Raeder. When he assumed command of the navy in January 1943 Hitler wanted him to scrap the surface fleet, but Dönitz pointed out that powerful German naval forces in the Baltic would help influence Sweden’s attitude. A major irritant to Dönitz was the activity of Swedish aircraft in the Baltic. On several occasions German warships reported being “buzzed” by Swedish planes. In July 1943 the Skl ordered German vessels to open fire if approached by Swedish aircraft, maintaining that the Swedes repeatedly had been requested through diplomatic channels to halt this activity. The next month, following another incident of this type when Swedish aircraft shadowed a German convoy, Schmundt (Naval High Command, Baltic) complained that the Swedes would certainly pass any information on to Germany’s enemies. Schmundt regarded the Swedes with great mistrust; in fact, he counted them as already in the enemy camp. In August 1943 he warned the Skl that Swedish shipping represented a sizeable reserve for the Anglo-Americans. Noting Sweden’s increasingly hostile stance, he insisted that Germany must prevent the enemy’s use of these vessels. Schmundt proposed sending commandos to destroy ships in Swedish ports. Apparently the Skl considered this suggestion too far-fetched and an invitation for trouble.

The navy’s problems with Sweden persisted. Swedish fishing boats on at least two occasions entered a forbidden area and sabotaged lights on German buoys. In retaliation the Germans sank two Swedish fishing boats in the area in August 1943. Following this altercation the Foreign Ministry instructed the Skl to avoid further incidents with Sweden. Yet cases of “buzzing” and violations of German airspace continued, until events came to a head on 14 May 1944, when a German fighter shot down a Swedish plane near Libau. At first Kummetz (Schmundt’s successor) assumed that it had been a Soviet plane with Swedish markings, but he suspiciously added that if it were Swedish, it was spying on German U-boat training areas for Britain or Russia. Kummetz soon received a report that three Swedish air-men had been picked up in a dinghy, and early the next day the Germans shot down a second Swedish plane near Windau. Kummetz declared that Sweden and Germany’s enemies alike recognized the importance of air reconnaissance over this part of the Baltic and that the extraordinary search and rescue operation the Swedes had mounted when their plane had been downed revealed the importance of this information.

Kummetz’s problems with the Swedes were not yet over. At the beginning of July a German patrol boat spotted a Swedish destroyer. Swedish aircraft had not reappeared over the coast of the Baltic States, but, Kummetz argued, now destroyers had taken their place. Within a month the Germans sighted Swedish warships near the Irben Straits on three occasions. A German patrol boat near Moen fired on a Swedish plane after it approached to a distance of nine hundred meters. To the Germans’ utter surprise, the aircraft returned fire! Perplexed, Kummetz remarked that this was the first instance of Swedish aircraft fighting back. Finally, less than a week after that incident a U-boat training flotilla reported encountering a Swedish destroyer eighteen nautical miles north-northwest of Libau. Stunned, Kummetz exclaimed, “The Swedes are in the middle of our U-boat training area!”

Although regarded with great suspicion by the Germans, especially Schmundt and Kummetz, Swedish air and naval reconnaissance in the Baltic had been carried out for defensive purposes. The Swedes periodically worried about a German attack, either because the government was about to announce a measure displeasing to the Germans or because intelligence warned of an imminent German invasion. For example, on 28 July 1943, a few days before Sweden canceled the transit agreement, the Swedes began to carry out secret reconnaissance flights from the Kalmar Sound to the area near the island of Bornholm. As a further precaution, naval vessels laid mines along Sweden’s southeastern coast. In the first week of August the Swedes supplemented their air reconnaissance with patrols by destroyers near the island of Gotland and off the southeastern coast. Another invasion scare occurred at the end of March 1944, as a result of deteriorating relations between Finland and Germany. Sweden attempted to arrange peace talks between the Soviets and the Finns, angering Germany. The Swedes stepped up their air reconnaissance, and on 14 May a plane failed to return. The following day a minesweeper hailed a Latvian fishing boat and learned that the plane had been shot down. On 16 May Sweden’s Naval Staff ordered reconnaissance in this area halted. The Swedish airplane had been sent to search for transports at sea or around ports in the Baltic States, an area where the Swedes’ intelligence was poor. It had merely been a case of mutual suspicion.

Nazi preparations to seize the Åland Islands, “Tanne West,” began in the spring of 1944 and brought Sweden under even closer scrutiny. In July Kummetz warned of the possibility that Sweden might seize the islands itself. When the Germans sent heavy warships to aid Finland in the summer of 1944, the Skl instructed them to remain beyond the previously envisioned time, due to the unfavorable situation in the Gulf of Finland and also in consideration of Sweden. Although an announcement informing Sweden of Germany’s reasons for seizing the Åland Islands had been prepared, Hitler decided to cancel the operation out of regard for Sweden. In early 1944, as Sweden arranged peace talks between the Soviets and the Finns, concern for a German invasion of the Åland Islands, and possibly of Sweden itself, became acute, and the Swedes considered occupying the islands themselves. From the end of March until mid-April Swedish preparations for war steadily increased. After the Soviet summer offensive in Karelia the Swedes again briefly fretted about a German attempt to seize the Åland Islands. When word of the Germans’ unsuccessful attempt to seize Hogland arrived, the Swedes stepped up their reconnaissance near the Åland Islands but ordered no overall change in defensive readiness.

The string of Allied victories in the summer of 1944 convinced the Swedes that Hitler would lose the war and that it would be advisable for Sweden to distance itself from Germany. In the second half of that year the Swedes dealt the Germans a series of economic blows. In August, Sweden’s government announced that it would no longer insure shipping to German ports, in effect forbidding its vessels to sail to Germany. The government halted the last transit through its territory on 9 September. On 27 September, fearful that Soviet submarines would soon reach the Baltic, Sweden closed its Baltic ports and territorial waters to all foreign shipping. Finally, on 12 October the Swedes ended the export of ball bearings to Germany. All of these measures were serious, but the withdrawal of Swedish shipping was most damaging, because from 1941 to 1944 Swedish vessels had brought an average of at least 40 percent of the iron ore to Germany, and Finnish vessels nearly 10 percent. With Finland out of the war and Swedish shipping to Germany halted, the Nazis faced the loss of half of the vessels engaged in transporting ore to the Reich. The closure of Sweden’s ports also meant that iron ore, even if Germany could scrape together ships to transport it, had to travel the long, dangerous route from Narvik. These events sobered the Skl, which on 29 September issued a directive to avoid all violations of Swedish territorial waters. In view of the current political tension with Sweden, that nation could be given no excuses for going over to the enemy side.

Yet the German Navy was furious over these measures. The Skl viewed Sweden’s actions as proof that it had submitted to Allied demands to halt ore deliveries to the Reich. Dönitz declared that the Swedes had taken these steps because of “fear and dependence on international Jewish capital.” He added that Germany could still fight without Swedish ore and that the Swedes had best beware. On several occasions in the latter part of 1944 the Skl insisted that it must retain its heavy surface vessels not only to engage the Soviet fleet but with regard to Sweden as well. At the beginning of October the navy proposed the erection of launchers for Germany’s unmanned rockets to threaten cities in southern Sweden, but on 15 October Keitel announced that it was in Germany’s interest to avoid incidents with Sweden.

At the beginning of October 1944, Soviet submarines entered the Baltic. In response to this the Skl wanted to declare the entire eastern Baltic, including the Gulf of Bothnia, an operational zone. Kummetz was clearly still angry about Swedish incursions in the area during the summer. He claimed that militarily it was unnecessary to include the Gulf of Bothnia and Åland Sea but that the declaration of the eastern Baltic as an operational zone made it possible to sink all merchant ships without regard to their nationality, and Swedish warships and aircraft in the area would be fair game. Kummetz also pointed out that mines would be effective in disrupting shipping between Sweden and Finland. Dönitz replied that the navy had no interest in traffic between Finland and Sweden. After the official declaration of the eastern Baltic as a war zone as of 11 November, the Skl repeatedly instructed U-boats to fire only if they were certain the target was not a Swedish vessel.

At the beginning of 1945, OKW considered a report from the military attaché in Stockholm that warned of Sweden’s entering the war, and it returned to the proposal of erecting launching pads for V-1 and V-2 rockets pointing toward Stockholm. The Germans believed that this would dampen any enthusiasm for war in Sweden. But a few days later Hitler decided that Sweden’s entry into the war was unlikely and that no preparatory measures for Swedish belligerence should be taken. In mid-February OKW noted that relations with Sweden had further deteriorated, citing a report from the German military attaché in Sweden, Bruno von Uthmann, describing Sweden’s attitude as “unsettling.” Hitler too viewed Sweden with increased suspicion. In March he refused a proposal to evacuate northern Norway because he feared it would provide an incentive for Sweden to enter the war if the Anglo-Americans seized Narvik and established a link with Sweden. The presence of Norwegian “police troops” in Sweden was another cause of concern.

The German Navy also drew up plans for an invasion of Sweden and reviewed them regularly. The navy first examined a landing operation on Sweden’s coast around the turn of the year 1939–40. This study, however, was only theoretical and does not appear to have been linked with plans to invade Norway and Denmark then under consideration. In the spring of 1943 the navy again analyzed the possibility of attacking Sweden. In this study the Skl asserted that the seizure of Sweden’s fleet would considerably strengthen Germany’s navy. The Skl also declared that Sweden’s navy represented a “considerable threat,” due to the lack of German escort vessels and the decisive importance of the Baltic for Germany. Indicating that it could not destroy the Swedish Navy, the Skl explained that the elimination of Sweden’s fleet required the German Army to capture its ports by land, which it should do as quickly as possible. But the Skl expressed grave reservations about the entire scheme. War with Sweden would reduce, if not paralyze, U-boat training in the Baltic; disrupt supply shipments to Finland, the Baltic States, and Norway, as well as the delivery of ore imports; and end the transit traffic to Norway. If Sweden and its ports could be occupied within days or even a few weeks, the navy considered the operation worthwhile. But if the Swedes continued longer to hold parts of their country, it could invite disaster. This would serve as an invitation for the Allies to invade Scandinavia and base aircraft in Sweden, which would endanger the Baltic—and loss of the U-boat training areas in the Baltic signified the death of the U-boat war. The Skl concluded that action against Sweden without a compelling reason was justifiable only if the success of the operation within a very short time was guaranteed. In view of Germany’s current situation, this was quite unlikely.

The navy, therefore, did not recommend the invasion of Sweden. The reason was that at the end of March 1943 the Skl had considered the repercussions of an Allied invasion in northern Norway. Although the Skl feared an undesirable effect upon the attitude of both Finland and Sweden, it regarded an Allied presence in Sweden as the greatest danger. In the Skl’s eyes Sweden would serve as a bridge to the Baltic, whereas the continuation of the U-boat war required Germany’s absolute control of the Baltic. In October 1943 the question of war with Sweden again surfaced. Meisel claimed that political developments, presumably Sweden’s halt to the transit traffic, raised the possibility of Sweden’s declaring war on Germany. He ordered a reexamination of the May study, based on the assumption of Swedish belligerence due to an Allied landing in Norway, Jutland, or western Sweden. Schmundt looked into this matter, but his assessment was no brighter than the previous one. He warned that the greatest danger from war with Sweden would be the Allies’ immediate use of Sweden as an air base. This would necessitate a vast increase in air defense for all ports and important bases in the central and eastern Baltic, as well as the Gulf of Riga and Gulf of Finland. Furthermore, the mere threat of Swedish submarine activity would require the formation of antisubmarine flotillas and the gathering of escorts for supply transports to Finland, the Baltic States, and Norway. Ending on a most discouraging note, Schmundt pointed out that one could draw parallels to the situation in the Mediterranean, especially the struggle to retain North Africa. Another report on this subject from Naval High Command, Norway, reached similar conclusions.

Following the numerous steps the Swedish government took to throttle trade with Germany in the fall of 1944, the possibility of Sweden’s belligerence arose once more in mid-October. Meisel requested Wagner and the Skl’s operations section jointly to examine the consequences of war with Sweden. An Skl report from the same day noted that several problems raised in the 1943 study, such as supply of Finland and loss of imports from Sweden, no longer had any bearing on the situation. The loss of U-boat bases on France’s Atlantic coast, however, had increased the importance of control of the Baltic entrances and sea routes to Norway. The greatest problem facing Germany in the execution of such an operation was that there simply were no ground or air forces available to fight Sweden. For this reason, Germany had endeavored to keep Sweden neutral and avoid incidents. On 29 October this latest study, bearing Wagner’s signature, was completed. In it he claimed that the most effective way to eliminate the dangers resulting from Sweden’s belligerence would be to conquer and occupy the country, at least its southern half, either as a preventive measure or immediately after Sweden declared war. Wagner, however, realized that there was no chance of obtaining forces to attack Sweden. If Sweden entered the war it would almost certainly coordinate an attack of its own on Norway, probably toward the Oslo–Bergen area or Trondheim, with an Allied landing. One of Wagner’s greatest concerns was that Germany’s sea routes and U-boat training areas lay open between the German and Swedish coast. Wagner did not present a particularly optimistic assessment either.

At the beginning of December Dönitz stressed that the question of whether or not Sweden entered the war was of the utmost importance. He insisted that the disadvantages would be so serious as to outweigh any possible gains. Dönitz explained that he had informed Keitel and Ribbentrop of his views on this subject. On 9 February 1945, at the Skl’s request, Jodl issued instructions to Germany’s armed forces that Sweden’s entry into the war was unlikely and that Hitler wished no directives for war with Sweden issued.

Sweden’s reaction to Germany’s defense of Courland was not quite what Hitler claimed. Instead of becoming alarmed, Sweden’s military paid scarcely any attention to the German troops in Courland. In early September the Swedes ordered defenses on the island of Gotland strengthened due to the situation in the Baltic States. Otherwise, they did not display much concern. In fact, at the very time Schörner’s supposedly threatening forces went over to the defense in Courland, the Swedish Defense Staff ordered a decrease in readiness Although Swedish military leaders considered an Allied invasion of Norway or Denmark still possible, the threat from Courland seems to have escaped them. In general, the Swedes believed Germany was so tied down in defensive fighting that by the end of 1943 they considered an invasion of Sweden remote indeed. Actually, the Defense Staff’s naval section expressed more concern about a possible threat to the Åland Islands from the Soviet Union once it captured the Baltic States. The Swedes were probably quite content to have German troops in Courland.

Dönitz’s attitude toward Sweden reveals an interesting mixture of fear and contempt. He probably would have liked nothing better than to see Sweden brought to its knees by Nazi armies, because Sweden’s conquest and occupation would have removed a potential threat to the Baltic. But by mid-1943, when Germany seriously began to consider invading Sweden, it was too late. Dönitz had realized that he could not afford any disruption to U-boat training. If Sweden survived the initial onslaught, Allied air and possibly naval forces would arrive and gain direct access to the Baltic. Dönitz realized all too well what that would mean. As Churchill later wrote, “Without command of the Baltic we could not ask for a Swedish harbour. Without a Swedish harbour we could not have command of the Baltic.” Although Dönitz was more than willing to threaten Sweden, as the navy’s proposal to aim V-1 and A-4 rockets at Stockholm demonstrates, his intention was never to provoke the Swedes but to cow them into maintaining the course they had followed since September 1939.

‘LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI’ Part I

THE FALL OF THE GODS

For the watching Bernard Freyberg the barrage for Operation Supercharge was disappointing. He had envisaged something more spectacular than Lightfoot. The anti-climax was almost certainly because, despite the barrage’s use of 192 field guns with 168 further guns employed on other tasks like counter-battery fire, the attack front was considerably narrower than before. Consequently, the artillery flashes were much more concentrated.1 It was rather different for the attacking infantry, as Private Jackson Browne of 8th DLI observed:

‘Get your kit on’. And then when the time comes, everybody’s just waiting. Half a dozen guns opened up – pop, pop, pop, pop ssshhhhhwwww!! Then all of a sudden you hear – Bugger! The earth starts to shake. Well, you looked back and saw that lot. God Almighty! Hell!

It was well organized. On each flank – on the battalion flanks – they had Bofors guns firing tracer every two or three minutes so that you could keep on line. The barrage was going now for about two minutes then they’d drop two or three smoke bombs – they were a bloody nuisance… But when they dropped you knew the barrage was lifting. You just moved in.

Never before had British infantry received such artillery support in the Desert War. The tried and trusted techniques from the Great War (as during Lightfoot) were again applicable, as Captain Ian English described:

We realized that [the barrage] in fact was our armour. That was our protection. The barrage stood on the opening line for twenty minutes while we closed up. This was the first attack behind a barrage we’d done and it was emphasized that one should always be within a hundred yards of it so one can arrive on the enemy position within a few moments of the barrage passing over.

Among 9th DLI, it was Lieutenant Wilfred White’s first action:

The noise was terrific, gunfire, shell bursts, mortars, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, the skirl of the bagpipes, the shouts of our charging infantry all combining in an incredible and unbelievable cacophony of sound. And above this noise we could hear from time to time the call of our Company Commander’s hunting horn. It made us feel rather special and somehow comforted us.

Major Teddy Worrall’s hunting horn – another example of the eccentricities of British officers in combat throughout the Second World War.

The barrage rolled forwards, battering a path, until pausing at 0220hrs on the first objective. Both infantry brigades advanced to time behind it, as English recalled:

Promptly at 0105hrs we crossed the start line in formation with bayonets fixed. At that time it was a pretty dark night because the moon was well past full and ten minutes later the barrage started. We had been expecting a lot of noise. We heard the guns behind us and the flashes we could see and the whistle of the shells going over our heads and then an enormous crash and clouds of dust in front of them.

The terrain, seemingly flat, did little to assist the advance. English described the scene:

It wasn’t flat, but it was extremely open. There were little bits of scrub. When you got down on the ground you could see in fact there were undulations and little crests. If you took a quick look at it, standing on your feet, you’d say they weren’t there at all. But in fact these little crests and pieces of dead ground were extremely useful.

Dead ground, however, could conceal Italian and German defenders whilst the absence of any features, except the line of telegraph poles marking the Rahman track, made it especially hard for any officer or sergeant with compass and map ‘trying to walk a straight course through the inferno for more than two miles to an objective which was only a pencil line on a map’.8 Jackson Browne remembered:

The company commander had a bloke – his batman. He had to pace this out all the way. He had a hell of a job. He had to count the paces. Somewhere along the line – it was about 5–6,000 yards we had to do – I think when we got to about three and a half thousand yards we had to stop for consolidation. Find out what was happening.

Despite assistance from 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, which was to deal with a strongpoint on the right flank, it was the three DLI battalions who encountered the greatest problems. Initially, however, their advance met little opposition, as Jackson Browne recalled:

The first thing I knew was some of the Germans were coming out hysterical. What a bloody state they were in. God Almighty! There was dozens of them coming out. Some of them was cradling and crying and one thing and another. It must’ve been bad then right under that barrage. But his machine-gunners were still having a go – the diehards, y’know. Odd mortars and that coming over.

The Māori battalion had a tough fight in fulfilling its task and suffered almost 100 casualties, including its inspirational commander, Fred Baker, who was seriously wounded. The attack was conducted wholly in the spirit of its warrior heritage, as one of its officers, Major Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett, made clear:

We had to fight almost every inch of the way. We were never far behind the barrage which gave us good protection and did some damage too… At one spot we were opposed by a wall of enemy firing at us with all they had. We all broke into the haka ‘Ka mate! ka mate!’ and charged straight in with the bayonet… It was the most spirited attack that I myself had taken part in.

The advance of 151st Brigade was led by 8th and 9th DLI. Ernie Kerans was with the latter’s Headquarters Company when they first met determined resistance:

The barrage was literally raising the dust and through it I could see the single explosions of shells and grenades and multiples from scores of Spandaus and other machine-guns. My Alamein was in full swing. I realised I still had my rifle slung. Bullets were now plucking at our clothes in large numbers. The bullets and bits of shrapnel came like a shower of deadly hailstones and we had to throw ourselves down to live. On the right a vehicle burst into flames and by the light I could see A Company men trying to advance. We were ahead of them but some of them were still on their feet, others were falling or had done. There were tracers amongst them and explosions all around them. Over the sounds of the barrage and the small-arms could be heard curses and the cries of the wounded. Someone in a pitiful voice was crying for his mother.

Kerans, surrounded by the terrifying sights and sounds of battle, did what the ‘poor bloody infantry’ always did in such circumstances: buried his nose in the dirt and hoped not to get hit:

From everywhere ‘Stretcher Bearer, Stretcher BEARER!’ Whatever had been on fire went out and we were just left with noise. Sight had gone but the screams and curses mixed with the chatter of the machine-guns and explosions of shells continued. We hugged the ground and bullets skimmed our heads. Ken took a bullet in his shoulder.

Similar resistance was met by 8th DLI. Men were helpless as they saw mates killed by their side.

Private John Drew’s memories were bitter:

Though we had to keep apart Joe and I kept in touch with one another till we were held down by machine-gun fire… Things here looked pretty grim and it was only the audacity of an NCO that got us out of it and which cost him an arm. By this time Joe and I had got our Gun going again and we began to advance with the section. The next thing I knew was a tremendous crash behind us. As I fell forward I caught a glimpse of Joe going down. Picking myself up, I discovered that, except for a few scratches, I was OK. I then walked over to Joe and found much to my regret that there was nothing I could do for him. Looking round I found what had been the cause of it all, one of the Jerrys had feigned dead. I then picked up the Gun. I must admit I was pretty mad by this time and let him have a full magazine. I am pretty certain he never lived to tell the tale.

As the attack fragmented, control by officers and NCOs became difficult to exercise. Lieutenant Jamie Kennedy of 9th DLI, describing his experiences in the third person, admitted his helplessness:

The company came to tanks, some dug into the ground, and here the fear of the power of the tanks seemed to make Jamie’s men crazed; he realised that they were beyond accepting any orders other than his finger pointing out targets. If a German tried to get out of his tank no one waited to see if he was surrendering; two men jumped on the tank, pushed the German back in, dropped a grenade in and closed the lid.

From a variety of motivations, men in this extreme environment of savage violence and fear committed acts that defied justification by rational explanations of revenge, orders or conditioning. The most basic instinct of survival – kill or be killed – overwhelmed them. Clear concepts of ‘combat’ and ‘atrocity’ were lost, as is evident from Jackson Browne’s account:

Quite a few went back as prisoners but there was a hell of a lot got their come-uppance. You see that list of Montgomery’s – the last list we got, the final one about what he was going to do – he said the watchword is ‘Kill Germans’. So that’s what they did. They were shooting the buggers down like they was flies. Blokes who’d never shot any bugger before were having a go. They certainly were. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It was good from our point of view!

Browne witnessed further callous and brutal actions, some committed in cold blood:

We were having casualties what with one thing and another but we had no problems with mines or anything like that. We found two blokes – one was dead with the barrage and the other was typical German with his blond hair and that. They had a tin box. I think they’d been going to lay booby traps and they’d been caught in the barrage. So, he’s lying there and Phil Thompson from Bishop Auckland shot the bugger. He said: ‘_____ !’ (Bad Language – you know). ‘Laying so-and-so booby traps!’

Distasteful as it may be to citizens of the modern democracies, such acts were committed in the defeat of fascism, giving the lie to the myth of ‘Krieg Ohne Hass’. Moreover, these actions were exceptional neither in the desert nor in the war in general.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Watson’s 6th DLI followed the lead battalions. The necessity of adequate ‘mopping up’ of resistance after the first advance (another Great War principle that was still applicable) was brought painfully home to Watson:

The tragedy was that in our enthusiasm we must have walked over some of these Italians – single chaps or ones or twos – who lay ‘doggo’ as we passed. Undoubtedly one of them killed my RSM, [Arthur] Page, killed my doctor who was tending [the wounded] and also Sergeant Fairley, who … played cricket for Crook and for the battalion down in Dorset. They all three were killed together and it was a great blow. I also think young Vickers, who had just come to the battalion, who was a splendid junior officer from a well-known Durham family and whose father farmed and was an auctioneer and valuer, he too was killed.

Watson, a true County Durham man, felt these losses of his ‘neighbours’ keenly. His men sought out the line of dug-in Italian armour marking the point at which they swung to form a north-facing flank for the bridgehead:

Sure enough, we came across this group of dug-in tanks. It was almost too good to be true that we should find them there. Practically every one of the crews was still inside and I remember walking up to one and the corporal shouting ‘Stand back, sir, stand back!’ after planting a limpet mine that sticks onto the armour plating. It just blew inwards and killed the crew. I saw A Company having great fun trying to set one alight. But we did the turn and we got into these positions. The positions that we held were absolutely in the right place. Then the guns opened up again for the 8th and 9th Battalions to continue their advance.

When the advance resumed, it was inexorable, as Browne described:

The barrage had stopped for that time and then, when it started, it was time to start moving forwards. You weren’t charging forward. I mean, you weren’t more than a bloody stroll, y’know. There were dugouts and such as that and, whether there was anybody in or not, you either fired a burst in or threw a grenade in. A lot of these Germans, they didn’t know how to give themselves up they were in such a bad state and blokes were just shooting the lot of them down.

Private Corley, Ian English’s batman, still paced out the distance:

After we’d gone about 35 minutes from the first objective, Corley said that by his reckoning we were just about on the objective. So I said ‘Right, we’ll go on about another 200 yards to make certain we are there.’ We realized we must be because the barrage had halted and we came up to it and started to consolidate the position. This was at 0340hrs and the barrage went on till 4 o’clock. The silence when it stopped was absolutely amazing. One thought one had almost got used to this deafening noise. Then it stopped and you could see the stars and the moon and it was a different world.

On their objective, perhaps even a little beyond it, the Durhams attempted to dig in. Their survival until the tanks’ arrival depended upon it.

The advance of 152nd Brigade met less opposition. The men, dressed (unlike the Durhams) in full battledress and each wearing a St Andrew’s Cross made from strips of ‘four-by-two’* on their backs for recognition purposes, went forwards to the sound of bagpipes. Douglas Wimberley recounted:

It was not an easy attack, and George Murray and his Brigade did splendidly. Casualties were by no means light. For instance, 5 Seaforth, whose first attack it was, as they had held the whole start line on the night of the 23rd, lost 12 officers and 165 men. The whole Brigade reached its objective up to time on the instant and began to dig in on the hard ground.

In its wake, two squadrons of armoured cars from the Royal Dragoons succeeded in breaking out to the west to attack supply lines and installations. With 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade also completing its task on the left of the attack and with heavy losses inflicted on Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 and 65o Reggimento Fanteria Motorizzata, the infantry awaited 9th Armoured Brigade’s ‘Balaclava charge’. 9th DLI’s Jamie Kennedy wrote:

The armoured might of Brigadier John Currie’s three regiments was something of a façade. Montgomery had ordered on 29 October that it be brought up to full strength, but this was accomplished by supplying repaired and reconditioned tanks as imagined by Guingand. The process had been too rushed and many had mechanical faults. Of seventy-nine Shermans and Grants and fifty-three Crusaders, only a total of ninety-four tanks reached the start line.

The eccentric use of fox hunting terminology was again in evidence, with the brigade assembly and advance referred to as ‘The Meeting of the Grafton Hounds’.26 The tanks encountered various problems in ‘attending the meet’. For one regiment, the approach march was ‘painful’ as ‘the track was narrow and the dust appalling’.27 At 0500hrs Currie requested a half-hour postponement of the attack and supporting barrage because the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s passage of a minefield was delayed. Nevertheless, this regiment, like the Wiltshire Yeomanry and 3rd Hussars, was ready at the original ‘Zero’. However, the revised artillery arrangements meant the attack started at 0615hrs. Len Flanakin, with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, met a horrific sight:

We were in the vanguard of the armour and as we came out of the minefields we fanned out to form a line. I had just witnessed the most gruesome sight I had ever seen in my life. Where the infantry had passed by they had left a tangle of bodies from both sides but the most pathetic sight was that of a Pipe Major in kilt and bagpipes hanging on the barbed wire. We had lost a few tanks in the mines but the remainder of us reached the start line and waited for the signal to advance.

The three regiments used Crusader tanks in front of Grants and Shermans but on the right 3rd Hussars had only three still running. They and the Wiltshires, in the centre, met only slight opposition initially but the Warwickshire Yeomanry, whose path of advance diverged from the other regiments, was engaged early, as Flanakin recounted:

We charged in with dawn not too far off and were soon in action against dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns including the nasty sort, the dreaded 88s. All the tanks by now were fighting their own individual battles and I was too busy to notice anything. The turret was filled full of acrid smoke each time the 75mm ejected a spent cartridge case and another shell had to be pushed in.

Since the battle opened, Lance-Corporal Mick Collins and his team of ‘flying fitters’ had worked flat out to give the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank crews every conceivable combat advantage. Collins described how:

We were doing our damnedest to keep the old Crusaders mobile and in fighting condition. When the crews asked us if we could give them a bit more pep for their engines we were only too glad to oblige. The Nuffield Liberty engine on the Crusaders was fuelled through a ‘Solex’ carburettor that was sealed to limit the speed and revolutions. To appease the tank drivers we broke the seals and adjusted the carburettors to allow maximum revs and the speed increased noticeably. After all, we agreed with the drivers that a good turn of speed is vitally essential when you know there is a distinct possibility of an 88mm shell chasing you with the sole intention of blowing you and your tank apart.

Now the value of applying learning from previous combat experience was revealed:

Our Squadron of Crusaders were able to travel quite smartly when conditions permitted and it was becoming fashionable with some of the lads to indulge in what was termed ‘beetle crushing’. If a Jerry 88mm was being troublesome and was within range the Crusader was driven straight at the gun emplacement and straight over it, thereby inflicting considerable damage to the gun and its crew. This manoeuvre depended entirely on getting in quick before Jerry could loose one off at the Crusader. Now you can appreciate why the drivers wished to have the governors removed from their carburettors. The six-pounders on the Crusaders were a definite improvement on the two-pounder on their previous tanks but even so it is a pity they were not fitted with 75s as on the Shermans.

In fact, some Crusaders in the attack were armed only with the 2-pounder gun. More significantly for their crews’ chances of survival, the artillery barrage, advancing at 100 yards every three minutes, was too slow for these tanks, which depended on speed and manoeuvrability in the absence of thicker armour.32 Those from the Wiltshires, therefore, drove rapidly through the barrage to get onto the Rahman track ahead of the heavy squadrons.

‘LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI’ Part II

At first light, the attacking tanks came under fire from the arc of anti-tank guns. These were engaged by all three regiments and the 6-pounder of 7th New Zealand and 73rd Anti-Tank Regiments. Nevertheless, tank casualties climbed rapidly. Len Flanakin’s Sherman was hit:

The first enemy shell to hit us knocked off a track and without mobility our chances of survival were nil. We continued firing away knowing that sat amongst all the metal flying about we had to catch another one sometime. When it eventually happened it was, thank God, in the rear quarters. Our driver’s voice came over the intercom informing us we were on fire. I don’t think I heard the order ‘Bale Out’. I was on my way up between the commander’s legs and hitting ground level while he was still trying to unravel his ear phones.

Having baled out, the crew were vulnerable witnesses to scenes of chaos:

When I looked around, what a sight. There must have been over a hundred tanks in various stages of burning, while the ones left intact were either still fighting or carrying the injured to safety. Our driver and co-driver bailed out through their escape hatch in the bottom of the tank but unfortunately the co-driver got drenched in high octane petrol and was suffering temporary blindness. Apart from that all the crew were in one piece, but we were not too sure of the safest place to go. Our minds were made up for us. A passing tank spotted our injured comrade. It stopped and we hauled him aboard together with our driver to hold him on. They were driven off and deposited at a spot where a dug-in tank had previously been parked. We followed along on foot.

The Grant tank of Captain John Mills of C Squadron, Warwickshire Yeomanry, was more fortunate, as its driver, Nevill Warner, recalled:

We kept on the move and belted away at the dug-in 75s and 88s. Tanks were brewing up all around us but we didn’t get hit that morning. There were flashes from guns on all sides and it wasn’t until the sun came up that we knew which direction we were facing. We picked up two survivors from a 1st Troop tank which was hit and dropped them off by a gun pit near another tank. Then the Colonel came on the air ‘For God’s sake, get those bloody guns before they get the lot of us’.

The shortcomings of the reconditioned tanks further hampered the units as they grimly endeavoured to hold the ground taken. The 3rd Hussars in particular found their wirelesses so useless that Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Farquhar and B Squadron commander, Major Mike Everleigh, had to go from tank to tank issuing orders to individual commanders.36 Frustration under fire sometimes compounded the problem – as the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank fitters, always close at hand despite the raging battle, found. Mick Collins remembered:

A common request was to fit a replacement radio hand-set as apparently when they failed to work immediately the irate user would knock the offending thing against the turret and this sort of treatment was not conducive to a quick repair job.

In the tumult of shot and shell, men worked courageously to offer medical assistance to the casualties. The ‘Heavenly Twins’ of the Wiltshire Yeomanry were much admired, by Mick Collins for one:

They were the drivers of two Austin ambulances attached to our Squadron who were forever getting stuck in the sand and having to be yanked out by the nearest available tank or four-wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately for them, their vehicles were only equipped with rear-wheel drive and in soft sand they just dug themselves in. Those two lads did sterling work ferrying the injured back to forward dressing stations irrespective of conditions and it was not until much later that we discovered they were both conscientious objectors. They were averse to carrying any arms whatsoever but that did not deter them from being up in the thick of battle and there were probably many more out there doing similar jobs. Although their consciences barred them from killing their fellow human beings, they had the guts to go into battle areas with soft-skinned vehicles and their faith in God.

Losses mounted alarmingly. The plan called for 1st Armoured Division to come through 9th Armoured Brigade and expand the funnel but Currie’s anxiety must have been great as, well forward in the battle, he watched tank after tank being knocked out. The brigade’s situation might have become untenable had a co-ordinated counter-attack at the gap between the Warwickshires and Wiltshires by the remaining tanks of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen taken place. The Afrika Korps’ confusion over the position of both Axis and British forces was a good illustration of how far tactical intelligence had declined in the Panzerarmee. When the error was finally resolved, the opportunity had passed.

The vanguard of 1st Armoured Division was 2nd Armoured Brigade, consisting of 10th Hussars, 9th Lancers and The Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards). Shortly after 0200hrs they started forwards. It was a nightmare drive, as Anthony Wingfield recalled:

On this occasion the stage-management was not so easy, nor so good, for we had to move from track to track on our approach. Starting on Star, we changed first to Moon and then to the Australian Two Bars track.

Our Recce Troop, under command of Grant Singer, led the column, but was unfortunately misdirected by a military policeman at one of the track junctions which caused a serious delay. Furthermore the sand was so soft – no watering this time – that tank drivers could not see the vehicle in front of them for dust; and often tank commanders had to shine torches to their rear to prevent collisions.

As a consequence, they were delayed by approximately twenty minutes but cleared the minefields at about 0700hrs – just prior to dawn.

The hammering taken by 9th Armoured Brigade was obvious and, according to one account, led to a difficult meeting between Currie and Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Grosvenor of 9th Lancers amidst the raging battle.40 Anthony Wingfield accepted it was ‘more than a misfortune that we were late coming to the aid of 9th Armoured Brigade’ and that Currie had ‘every excuse for his disparaging accusations’.

Tanks from 2nd Armoured Brigade were already getting into action. Wingfield described the scene:

As the 10th Hussars deployed into the open, the situation seemed to be one of chaos; for the enemy was putting down smoke as well as firing rather too accurately at the end of Two Bars Track. As RHQ cleared the end of that track I remember seeing some tanks several hundred yards away on our right front. Jack Archer-Shee thought they belonged to our B Squadron and drove off towards them. Fortunately I held back the rest of RHQ for a few minutes; and then saw Jack’s tank go up in flames. Those tanks belonged to 15th Panzers and not to B Squadron.

Archer-Shee and his crew were lucky to escape unharmed but now the newly arrived regiments knew the type of opposition they were facing and recent combat experience, together with the arrival of dawn, probably conditioned the brigade’s subsequent response.

The decision taken at this stage by Fisher, the brigade’s commander, and supported by his divisional commander, Briggs, although subsequently criticized for excessive caution, was certainly appropriate for a force with a considerable advantage in available assets over its opponent. With the support of Priest self-propelled 105mm howitzers from 11th (Honourable Artillery Company) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, and the Desert Air Force, and using the indirect-fire capability of the Shermans, 2nd Armoured Brigade could retain a hold on the positions gained, allowing the Germans to be the architects of their own destruction through their counter-attacks, whilst making careful forward movement themselves. According to Wingfield:

By 8.00 a.m. the whole of 2nd Armoured Brigade was deployed clear of the minefield. The German tanks had withdrawn from our front leaving four knocked out behind them. The Bays on our right and in touch with what was left of the 3rd Hussars were being heavily counter-attacked. We were ordered to be ready to go and support them. But before we moved another tank counter-attack appeared over the crest of the Aqqaqir Ridge to our front. A and C squadrons held their fire till the enemy tanks were on the forward slope then ‘let them have it,’ reaping a fine harvest before the remainder retired to hull-down positions behind the crest.

Using these tactics, the British armour gradually prevailed. Numerous columns of smoke on the enemy side signified many tank brew-ups. The enemy’s tactics had been to launch concentrated panzer attacks through his anti-tank screen and on a narrow front. We allowed the panzers to come onto our guns, rather than sally forth to meet them. That way, their 88mm anti-tank guns could not assume a decisive role. When rising casualties forced withdrawal, the panzers would reassemble and probe elsewhere. We met them head-on. Although numbers overall were in our favour, it wasn’t always so at the point of contact.

Ironically, the armoured unit commanders were delivering on Montgomery’s Lightfoot attritional aims, rather than the goals envisaged for Supercharge.

In this fighting, it was the turn of the Germans to find their wireless communications disrupted – as Alfons Selmayr, the regiment’s medical officer, discovered:

We were constantly subjected to jamming on the radios. Tommy had captured the signals operating instructions of Panzer-Regiment 8 and attempted to confuse us and yap his way into our radio traffic.

The doctor was in the thick of the fighting throughout the day, caring for the mounting numbers of casualties:

As I had moved up, Oberleutnant Dübois had waved to me. Now they were also bringing him back with a head wound. It was said he looked so terrible that his crew did not even want to show him to me. We tried to eject Tommy twice, but we were deflected each time. An 8.8-centimetre Flak moved up to support us, but it was blown apart as it unlimbered. The forward lines were hit by mortar fire. A 2-centimetre Flak was hit; two of the crew lay on the ground, badly wounded. I took off! We placed them on our tank despite the fire; one up front, the other to the rear. I knelt on the side of the turret and held on to them so that they did not fall off during the movement. Then the tank took off as fast as it could. All of a sudden, Tommy took notice of us and engaged us with a battery. Always four shells at a time; sometimes to the left of us, sometimes to the right. Thank god they were really firing poorly. Of course I still thought we were moving too slowly. I pressed myself against the turret, held on to my wounded and yelled at Krause to move faster.

Having evacuated these wounded in ambulances, Selmayr returned immediately to the fray.

Rommel was well aware of what was happening to his forces. Above all, he needed to prevent a breakthrough. In his own words:

It was only by the desperate fire of all available artillery and anti-aircraft guns, regardless of the ammunition shortage, that a further British penetration was prevented.

It was now extremely difficult to obtain any clear picture of the situation, as all our communication lines had been shot to pieces and most of our wireless channels were being jammed by the enemy. Complete chaos existed at many points on the front.

British tactical intelligence via the ‘Y’ Service, on the other hand, ensured that XXX Corps was aware of Rommel’s counter-attack plans by 0935hrs. The attack would use those elements of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen together with Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer to attack from the north and south of the incursion. Rommel continued:

Violent tank fighting followed. The British air force and artillery hammered away at our troops without let-up. Inside an hour at about midday seven formations, each of 18 bombers, unloaded their bombs on my troops. More and more of our 88mm guns, which were our only really effective weapons against the heavy British tanks, were going out of action.

This ignored the armour and firepower of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2 and G ‘Specials’, but these were now too few in number to turn the tide.48 Nevertheless, the British armour could not make even cautious progress and, with the arrival of 8th Armoured Brigade, the attack salient became very congested, as Arthur Reddish observed:

The 2nd Armoured Brigade adopted the role of static defence and 8th Armoured that of the fire brigade, responding to threats to the salient as they emerged. We were first in action facing north-west, then were directed south. On one occasion, a column of enemy tanks came down the Rahman Track completely side-on to us. It was like shooting tin ducks at a shooting gallery.

However, despite this success, Reddish, like other Sherman crewmen, was learning of the tank’s shortcomings through the experience of combat:

The high-explosive shell we used against the 88mm guns had no tracer and it was necessary to observe the fall of shot to determine accuracy. With the desert shimmering in a heat haze, this was by no means easy. And the gunsight of the Sherman didn’t help. For such a good tank, the sights were disappointing.

A tremendous battle between the armour of both sides now raged throughout the rest of the day. Reddish’s descriptions capture the spirit of the day’s fighting:

The day was hot. High temperatures, aircraft active on both sides, shelling very heavy and sniper-fire also. Armour-piercing shot came from right, left and centre. A blazing Grant tank exploded as we passed by, its side flattening and the turret hurling some 50 metres into the air. The explosion was tremendous, even when wearing earphones. Each member of the crew had a set of earphones and a microphone. We could talk within the crew and the commander with other commanders. All could hear the talk on the regimental radio network, so knew the score…

We in the heavies kept the battle at long range when possible to exploit our [ad]vantage in that area. The Italian tanks were hopelessly outranged and the German Mk IIIs also. But the German Mk IV and Mk III Specials fought us on equal terms.

This wasting fight was something the already-depleted Panzer units could ill afford and approximately seventy tanks were destroyed or damaged. Equally important was the loss of experienced Panzer commanders such as Oberst Willi Teege and Hauptmann Otto Stiefelmayer – both Ritterkreuzträger (Knight’s Cross holders) of Panzer-Regiment 8. The situation was so serious that Divisione ‘Ariete’ – the last remaining intact armoured formation – was already being drawn piecemeal into the fighting.

In the north, the arrival of the British tanks, and especially 8th Armoured Brigade, had finally relieved the pressure on Leo Lyon and the hard-pressed Australian battalions in the ‘Saucer’. Lyon recounted:

I remember about midday attempts by the Germans to wheel up an 88mm gun to our front. We had excellent observation both to the right and the left as we faced. I could see the silhouette of this gun behind the road. I could see the tractor bring it up, the tractor disengage, and then the gun crew manhandling it up to where it could be brought in to fire. But as soon as it came into position to fire, the machine-gunners mounted their guns on them and destroyed the gun crew.

At almost the same time, to our left flank I could see our armour attack appearing and I could see a larger number of tanks – it would be about thirty or forty I would have thought – with their smoke dischargers – on the turret of each tank there’s a smoke discharger – and they were firing these as they went forward to try and cover the fire against them. This was a most spectacular scene and apparently they were making progress because the attack on our front seemed to disappear.

The exhausted Australians, finally given respite, still managed to launch aggressive fighting patrols later in attempts to prevent Panzergrenadier-Regiment 125 extricating itself from the coastal sector.

At 2015hrs that evening, Thoma told Rommel the Afrika Korps would have, at most, thirty-five tanks available for action the following day. Nevertheless, the British advance, which Thoma considered cautious and deliberate, had been contained. However, there was further bad news from the Panzerarmee’s Higher Artillery Commander (Arko), Generalmajor Fritz Krause, who reported that 450 tons of ammunition had been fired that day, but only 190 tons had arrived. Three hundred tons had been lost when the Brioni was sunk by allied bombers whilst unloading in Tobruk harbour that afternoon.

With this information, Rommel recognized that in order to avoid annihilation of his forces, it was essential to make a withdrawal to positions previously reconnoitred at Fuka. In informing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) of this decision, Rommel spared nothing in painting a realistic and bleak picture. The ten days’ fighting had been ‘extremely hard’ and had left the Panzerarmee no longer able to prevent the next breakthrough attempt:

An orderly withdrawal of the six Italian and two German non-motorized divisions and brigades is impossible for lack of MT [Motorized Transport]. A large part of these formations will probably fall into the hands of the enemy who is fully motorized. Even the mobile troops are so closely involved in the battle that only elements will be able to disengage from the enemy. The stocks of ammunition which are still available are at the front but no more than nominal stocks are at our disposal in rear. The shortage of fuel will not allow of a withdrawal to any great distance. There is only one road available and the Army, as it passes along it, will almost certainly be attacked day and night by the enemy air force.

In these circumstances we must therefore expect the gradual destruction of the Army in spite of the heroic resistance and exceptionally high morale of the troops.

In a narrow sense, the initial Supercharge assault can be portrayed as a failure. But the critical outcome – Rommel’s acceptance of the Panzerarmee’s defeat – was accomplished by the evening of 2 November. Irrespective of what happened subsequently, 9th Armoured Brigade’s sacrifice had helped achieve a significant success. It remained for Eighth Army and its commander to turn this into a complete victory.

In London, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, anxiously awaiting each fragment of news of the battle, experienced a tremendous fillip from Ultra. In Brooke’s own words:

Whilst at lunch I was called up by DMI [Director of Military Intelligence] and informed of two recent intercepts of Rommel’s messages to GHQ and Hitler in which he practically stated that his army was faced with a desperate defeat from which he could extract only remnants!

This was a remarkable and early indication of the possibility of imminent victory.

Rommel now formally confirmed the move of Divisione ‘Ariete’ northwards to join with the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata. Together with the Afrika Korps, they would cover the withdrawal of the other two Italian corps which consisted essentially of infantry, as well as Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke and 164. leichte Afrika-Division. The infantry formations began pulling out that night.

That evening, 51st Division was tasked with broadening and strengthening the corridor now created. Successful attacks with strong artillery support were made against objectives on the south-west edge of the salient by 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 5th Royal Sussex. To X Corps’ commander, General Herbert Lumsden, at 2030hrs it seemed that the opportunity of smashing through the remnants of the anti-tank screen that night was too good to miss. Consequently, 7th Motor Brigade, consisting of 2nd and 7th Rifle Brigades and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), was given orders to attack on a front of two miles, to make a passage for 1st, followed by 7th, Armoured Division. Corporal Donald Main of 7th Rifle Brigade remembered:

In the early evening we were told that [we] would attack at midnight to force a gap for our tanks. It was considered that the area of the Rahman Track was lightly held, although we never found out who was responsible for this view. As we had motored into the line we had heard shouts for stretcher bearers, presumably from the Sherwood Foresters and Green Howards, who were survivors of the previous attack. In view of the barrage, it would have been suicide to attempt to reach them. It was, therefore, decided that we would make a silent attack i.e. without a barrage from our guns, although the 2nd KRRC on our left and the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade on our right were to receive artillery support.

The attack commenced at 0115hrs on 3 November. In fact, whilst 2nd KRRC had strong artillery support, 2nd Rifle Brigade did not. In Main’s attack with 7th Rifle Brigade, all was quiet until the battalion was about fifty yards from the German positions. Suddenly, all hell was let loose when the Germans opened fire from the flanks with machine guns, together with flares and mortar bombs:

Above the noise of explosions I heard the Company Commander, Major Trappes-Lomax, shout ‘Up the Rifle Brigade! Charge!’ Major Trappes-Lomax disappeared through a hail of tracer bullets. I felt that he could not go in by himself and gave the order to charge. I went through the enfilade fire and felt my body as I could not understand how I had not been hit. I was shouting ‘Brino, where are you?’ It was like daylight with the flares and mortar explosions. Before I could reach Sgt Brine, Major Trappes-Lomax said ‘Go to your right’. Sgt Brine had run straight on and into a German machine-gun. He was hit all over and asked another member of the platoon to put his tin hat back on and to be put facing the enemy. His last message was ‘Give my love to my wife’

Upon reaching the rear of the German positions, Main and the remnants of his company had to deal with one of the guns that formed an important part of the Axis defence:

From where we lay I could see an 88mm gun and I told Sandy that I was going for this. It was at least 50 yards away. As I ran with my rifle and bayonet the tracer from a German machine-gun was going all around me. However, I considered that if I continued running I would not be hit and eventually reached the gun followed by several riflemen.

Both Rifle Brigade battalions destroyed German anti-tank and machine-gun posts and killed the occupants. However, several posts still survived and, in each battalion’s case, it was necessary to withdraw because they could not bring up sufficient numbers of anti-tank guns in time for defence in the morning against what was assumed would be the inevitable counter-attacks. The KRRC did, however, retain its gains. Main’s account continued:

We met Major Trappes-Lomax and found that only twenty-two of the Company were left. We also met up with the surviving KRRC and our 2nd Battalion. We now received the order to withdraw and I was asked which way we should fight our way out. I was in favour of another route, but it was decided that we should go back the same way as we had come, also we were under no circumstances to stop for any wounded. My rifle by this time had jammed with sand and I could not move the rifle bolt. We ran back and I would frequently look over my shoulder to watch the tracer fire which followed us from the German positions.

It was an ignominious end to 7th Motor Brigade’s efforts but at least these units escaped in time. A hastily planned and executed and poorly supported improvised operation had failed once again. Fortunately, the consequences were less serious in their effect than 4th Sussex’s attack on 27–28 October, although for a survivor like Donald Main, the experience was no less painful. On his return the roll-call revealed that his company had only fourteen men left and his platoon consisted of only three men – himself included.  Many of those killed were friends from Main’s pre-war Territorial days. Another such friend was Colour Sergeant Eric Kealsey, whose attempts to cheer up the survivors on the evening of 3 November when they were out of the line, led to an unfortunate misunderstanding, as Main recounted:

Later that afternoon we were relieved by a battalion of the Black Watch, and we were taken by our vehicles to an area behind the line, to obtain reinforcements and replace equipment lost during the battle. When we arrived at what appeared to us to be an unreal world, free of explosions, we went for our evening meal presided over by Colour Sergeant Kealsey. Kealsey was a great character from Territorial days and he was very fond of impersonating a queer. He and the cooks were very upset to find that D Company now consisted of only fourteen men, as they had cooked a meal for one hundred and twenty. Colour Sergeant Kealsey said to me in an effeminate voice ‘What can I get for you, ducks?’ I replied ‘Some stew please, Eric’. Unfortunately the person next to me was a reinforcement and when asked the same question replied ‘Stew, darling’. This caused a major explosion as Kealsey shouted ‘Colour Sergeant to you, you little worm!’

This was the postscript to a ‘trifling, inconsequent, nameless battle’ within a battle. A failed attack and a heavy toll of casualties – soon lost in the bigger picture of general success for the British, Imperial and Dominion forces and decline of the German and Italians.

‘LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI’ Part III

Churchill III tanks of ‘Kingforce’, 1st Armoured Division, 5 November 1942. The unit was named Kingforce after its commander, Major Norris King MC.

The mixed fortunes of the infantry operations meant that Lumsden revised Briggs’ orders; at 0530hrs. 2nd KRRC was to be supported by 2nd Armoured Brigade whilst 8th Armoured Brigade worked south-westwards. The poet Keith Douglas was a lieutenant with the Sherwood Rangers and wonderfully evoked the atmosphere of this (and perhaps many another) armoured move at dawn:

The moment I was wakeful I had to be busy. We were to move at five; before that, engines and sets had to be warmed up, orders to be given through the whole hierarchy from the Colonel to the tank crews. In the half-light the tanks seemed to crouch, still, but alive and like toads. I touched the cold metal shell of my tank, my fingers amazed for a moment at its hardness, and swung myself into the turret to get out my map case. Of course, it had fallen down on the small circular steel floor of the turret. In getting down after it, I contrived to hit my head on the base of the six-pounder and scratched open both my hands; inside the turret there is less room even than in an aircraft, and it requires experience to move about. By the time I came up, a general activity had begun to warm the appearance of the place, if not the air of it. The tanks were now half-hidden in clouds of blue smoke as their engines began one after another to grumble, and the stagnant oil burnt away. This scene with the silhouettes of men and turrets interrupted by swirls of smoke and the sky lightening behind them was to be made familiar to me by many repetitions. Out of each turret, like the voices of dwarfs, thin and cracked and bodyless, the voices of the operators and of the control set come; they speak to the usual accompaniment of ‘mush,’ morse, odd squeals, and peculiar jangling, like a barrel-organ, of an enemy jamming station.

The tank units were straight into action that morning. Arthur Reddish recalled:

At first light on November 3, the Sherwood Rangers tanks were on the left flank of an attack by the 1st Armoured Division on the remnants of the Panzerarmee’s anti-tank gun screen dug-in before and behind the Rahman Track. The day started propitiously for our crew. As the regiment assembled behind the infantry line prior to advancing, a young Highlander officer left his slit-trench and jumped onto the back of the tank. He’d spotted an enemy anti-tank gun, he said. It was in the scrub only 200 metres [approximately 220 yards] away and was right in front of our position. John quickly got him into the tank and into the gunner’s seat. His first shot missed but not the second. The third caused an explosion. Presumably, he’d hit the ammunition.

Major Anthony Wingfield was concerned by the ammunition shortages his unit was suffering, but was soon temporarily bolstered by the arrival of another new weapon in the Eighth Army’s armoury:

At first light our Recce Troop and the Crusaders of B Squadron moved out to make contact with [the] KRRC, and support them against any tank counter-attack. The situation had become grave because the replenishment of 75mm ammunition to the Shermans of A and C Squadrons had not arrived during the night. However 4 or 5 new Churchill tanks, as an experimental detached troop, now arrived between ourselves and The Bays. These heavy tanks had been sent out to the Middle East for battle trials; whether it was the sight of these new monsters which scared the German tanks I did not know, but they withdrew behind a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns. The latter then promptly halted the Churchill tanks whose crews were possibly concussed if their tanks were not actually ‘brewed up’.

There were too few Churchills – a heavy ‘infantry’ tank for close-support work designed to replace the Valentine – for losses to these tanks to be significant at this time. Nevertheless, this British-built tank ‘made a favourable impression on their crews, and also on the co-operating troops’. On a more personal level, it was Wingfield’s misfortune that day to be caught quite literally with his trousers down by the Germans:

It was while we were withdrawing a short way to find hull-down battle positions that Nature gave me her morning call. I dismounted but stayed close to my tank for protection. Just at ‘le moment critique’ an HE shell burst underneath my tank and a red flame shot between my bare legs. A momentary thought of my ancestor at ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ passed through my mind. Motion – in every sense – was quick and I was back in my tank in a flash and before there was another one.

Throughout the day, the British armour was held up by the continued resistance offered by the screen of anti-tank guns and by the remaining tanks covering the slow withdrawal of the Axis forces on foot or in vehicles. The work of the remaining elements of Panzerjäger-Abteilungen 605 and 33 and Flak-Division 19 was especially noted by the British. Nevertheless, the Axis withdrawal was observed by the Desert Air Force and the coastal road consequently came under almost-constant attack from the air.

The Panzerarmee and its commander suffered another significant blow to morale in the early afternoon with Hitler’s response to Rommel’s plans for withdrawal, which constituted a direct order to stand and fight and, if necessary, die. In Hitler’s view, this was a battle in which the commander with the strongest will to fight would ultimately win through. If that was indeed the case (which it was not, of course, given the attritional effects of the last ten days’ fighting), it was already too late. Alamein was lost in the mind of Rommel. A characteristically magniloquent message from Mussolini only served to compound the Panzerarmee’s confusion as Rommel ordered all units to defend their present positions till the last although permitting Thoma to withdraw the Afrika Korps ten miles east of El Daba. This, in effect, abandoned infantry without motor transport – almost exclusively Italians and Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke – to their fate.

Meanwhile, the continued resistance of the Panzerjäger units and the Luftwaffe 88mm gun teams, combined with Freyberg’s perception of the imminent collapse of the Panzerarmee as a whole, led him to suggest to Leese that a breakout through the salient’s south side should be attempted. This would avoid the screening anti-tank positions. An attack by 5/7th Gordon Highlanders of Wimberley’s division supported by 8th RTR was decided upon. The events of this attack were especially tragic and another indication of the problems beneath the veneer of Eighth Army’s ruthless efficiency. Wimberley described them as follows:

On the afternoon of 3rd November I was ordered to attack again, and selected the 5/7 Gordons as the freshest battalion available. With the help of George Elliot, we laid on a heavy barrage to take them forward on to the Rahman Track. Shortly before the attack was due to go in, I was amazed to be rung up by Oliver Leese to be told that our Armour was already on the objective, that the Gordons had been ordered by me to capture, and it was only a question of their moving forward. This was not my information at all, and I pleaded hard for the Tanks, if there were any there, to clear out and let my attack go in properly under a Barrage. I was told, No. It was only with difficulty that I could get leave to let, at least, a smoke barrage be fired to guide the Jocks. So, late in the afternoon they were launched in a divisional attack under Saunders with smoke only. As in the case of the ‘Kidney’ feature, we were again right and the Armour’s Intelligence was all wrong. This time it had even more tragic consequences on many lives.

Wimberley took no pleasure in being right where Leese and Briggs, whose 1st Armoured Division’s headquarters was the source of the erroneous information, were mistaken:

The position was, as we had reported, strongly held. Not a sign of our tanks was to be seen, but plenty of enemy ones. To move forward in daylight, under smoke only, was impossible. The Gordons made little progress, and lost a lot of men, and I felt it had been sheer waste of life and was sick at heart. Worst of all, thinking that it was an advance rather than an attack, the Gordons put a number of their Jocks on the top of the tanks to be carried on them forward to the objective. I saw those tanks, later, coming out of action, and they were covered with the dead bodies of my Highlanders. It was an unpleasant sight and bad for any troops’ morale.

The two units suffered ninety-four casualties, including sixteen officers; nine Valentines were destroyed and a further eleven damaged from about thirty-two starters.

Two further attacks were planned for 4 November. The first involved 5th Indian Brigade which, according to Major-General Francis ‘Gertie’ Tuker:

after struggling and buffeting its way through the choked corridor, was eased forward by over 350 guns, and punched a narrow hole four miles deep through a few pickets covering the retreat, out into the open desert.

The number of guns mentioned by the division’s commander was important. After the debacle over the 5/7th Gordons attack, Wimberley was insistent that 1/4th Essex and 4/6th Rajputana Rifles should have the support of a fully constituted and effective artillery programme of counter-battery fire, concentrations and creeping barrage. This was all organized in a short time by the combined efforts of the staffs of 51st and 4th Indian Divisions, 5th Indian Brigade and Brigadier Weir’s 2nd New Zealand Divisional artillery – a remarkable example of the maintenance of operational tempo. As a consequence, the two battalions encountered only sporadic opposition.

Before 1st Armoured Division’s tanks could break out into the open desert, however, a dawn attack by 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders went in. The attack of the Argylls – ‘almost the last reasonably fresh infantry available’ – was, as Wingfield described:

directed onto Tel el Aqqaqir, the top of the whole ridge to our front. They found the enemy gone. 2nd Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance immediately, with 10th Hussars leading (always their rightful place!), with The Bays on the right and 9th Lancers on the left. But it was not till 9.00 a.m. that we got under way.

As a consequence of this action, more armoured cars were also able to break out to the south and into the open desert.

The sight of the armour passing through 5th Indian Brigade moved one overawed Havildar, Nila Kanten, to hyperbole:

Our role was something less than a participant and more than a spectator… We were asked to break through at Ruweisat Ridge and allow all the armoured divisions to pass through and trap him. When we captured our objectives, then came the thunder of these armoured divisions passing through us. I remember that. I had never seen so many tanks going in one go. Two divisions, I think, passed through. If the head of the column of an armoured division was in Bangalore, the tail would be in Madras – so many vehicles there were and they were all racing. So many tanks, so many armoured vehicles, so many personnel carriers. Oh, the dust cloud! We created dust, we ate dust, we drank dust… Then the whole Eighth Army started moving.

However, after 4,000 yards, the tanks met the Panzerarmee’s rearguard of 90. leichte-Afrika-Division and the Afrika Korps under Thoma’s personal command. The Afrika Korps commander and Kampfstaffel were in the midst of the fighting throughout the morning before the battle group was destroyed and the courageous Thoma surrendered. Fittingly, as the armour was let loose to pursue its quarry, the officer who took the general prisoner was Master of Foxhounds with the Hursley Hunt. Wingfield recalled:

One of our tanks had ‘brewed up’ a German tank at considerable range and I could see a man waving a red cross flag near it. Grant Singer – the Recce Troop leader, went forward to investigate and found a highly decorated General coming towards him. Grant returned with this prize to the Colonel who decided that Grant should take him at once to Brigade HQ. On arrival there Grant was told to take him straight to Monty at Army HQ as quickly as possible, for it transpired that he was Rommel’s deputy who had been on a forward reconnaissance to convince Rommel of the British breakthrough when he had been captured.

At Army Headquarters, liaison officer Carol Mather described the meeting of Montgomery and Thoma:

Well, of course, I couldn’t judge him [Thoma] as a commander at all, although he was deputizing for Rommel at the time. What he had to face at Alamein was something quite new as far as the Germans were concerned, which was a set-piece attack. As a man he seemed rather a charming fellow actually. Very civilized and you couldn’t help thinking he was quite a decent one. The meeting was so short it was difficult to judge. Montgomery was tickled to death at the idea of having the commander of the opposing forces in his tent having dinner and questioning him and discussing the progress of the battle. This was a great feather in his cap really. It was just the kind of situation he enjoyed. And it was a very amusing meeting.

Whilst 1st Armoured Division was engaged in this action, Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured, led by Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts of 22nd Armoured Brigade, was out in the open desert from 0830hrs. But it too encountered strong resistance from the remaining Italian armour, XX Corps’ artillery and some 88mm guns. Despite Roberts’ urgings by radio to his units to ‘Brush them aside, we have bigger fish to fry!’, the opposition proved a tough nut to crack. A long-range artillery duel in which the excellent Italian guns, under centralized control, performed well, went on all day and there were frequent clashes between Roberts’ brigade and the inferior Italian armour of Divisione ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’. Soldato Antonio Tomba of ‘Ariete’ remembered:

Our poor M13s with their 47mm guns could never be effective against them – we could only hope to hit their tracks in order to immobilize them at least; our shells just bounced off when we hit their armour. In addition, while they numbered sixty, we had little over half of that. We did everything possible, giving our very best… We had no chance, but we proved a difficult opponent for the English: the secret lay in manoeuvring the tank properly. Our tactics were simple: always keep moving, never expose your flank to their guns, and don’t let them fire first. All the crew must act as a single unit: everyone must know what to do and when to do it, in complete harmony with each other. We managed to hold off the enemy that day, but they replaced their losses again while we could only count how many of us were left alive. We could never have resisted for another day… Everyone fought an unequal battle without complaint and without yielding, even when there was no water and no food. We were lucky when it started to rain as this slowed the English advance, and we, the last survivors of the Ariete Division, were able to escape their pursuit.

The Germans were grudgingly admiring of their allies’ bravery, which undoubtedly made possible the escape of many remaining German units. Doctor Alfons Selmayr saw assault guns of Divisione ‘Ariete’ conduct an attack. ‘Despite their poor armour, they advanced boldly. Of course, they were blown to bits in a miserable fashion.’

Major Hans von Luck was more generous:

It was heart-rending to have to witness how the Ariete Division (our most loyal allies) and the remains of the Trieste and Littorio Divisions, fought with death-defying courage; how their tanks (the ‘sardine tins’ so often mocked by us) were shot up and left burning on the battlefield. Although I was engaged in actions myself, I kept in contact with the XX Italian Corps until it was almost surrounded. At about 1530 hours, the commander of the Ariete Division sent his last radio message to Rommel: ‘We are encircled, the Ariete tanks still in action.’ By evening, the XX Italian Corps had been destroyed. We lost good, brave friends, from whom we demanded more than they were in a position to give.

The Italians’ resistance was finally overcome when 4th Armoured Brigade tanks attempted to complete their encirclement from the south. Roberts described the day as ‘very good battle practice for the brigade!’92 but 7th Armoured’s momentum had been arrested and night intervened shortly after the advance started again. Jack York remembered the scene:

As we carried on in the direction our tanks had taken, we could see, reaching up into the sky, great columns of black smoke, and enormous dust clouds. This was the funeral pyre of the Italian Armoured Corps (Ariete, and remnants of Littorio and Trieste Divisions), who had been engaged for several hours by nearly 100 tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Nearly all their tanks had been knocked out, and a large number of field and anti-tank guns were destroyed or abandoned. The Italians had fought with exemplary courage in this action, and although nearly surrounded, had held their positions to the last. During this day also, our 1st Armoured Division to the north of us, had severely battered the weakened Afrika Korps, giving them no choice but to retreat. We spent the night concentrated behind the tanks of the 22nd Armoured.

Churchill had seen an intercept of Hitler’s ‘victory or death’ message at 1020hrs on the morning of 4 November. Ever cautious, Brooke had implored him not to order the ringing of church bells in celebration until ‘we were quite certain that we should have no cause for regretting ringing them’. Alexander, whose statement confirming that the Panzerarmee was breaking reached the Prime Minister in the afternoon, was contacted with Churchill’s arbitrary figure of ‘at least 20,000 prisoners’ as ‘proof’ of victory. That night, in his diary, even Brooke, with his knowledge of the imminent landings in Algeria, was prepared to see the possibilities victory at Alamein offered for the future direction of the war. It was the culmination of many of his hopes and his constant toil:

The Middle East news has the making of the vast victory I have been praying and hoping for! A great deal depends on it as one of the main moves in this winter’s campaign in North Africa. Success in Libya should put Spaniards and French in better frame of mind to make Torch a success. And if Torch succeeds we are beginning to stop losing this war and working towards winning it! However, after my visit to Cairo and the work I had done to put things straight, if we had failed again I should have had little else to suggest beyond my relief by someone with fresh and new ideas! It is very encouraging at last to begin to see results from a year’s hard labour.

Only on the evening of 4 November, with the remnants of the forces that once stood on the brink of capturing Alexandria and Cairo in tatters, did Hitler offer vague promises of significant numbers of reinforcements for the North African theatre and, finally, give Rommel permission to act as necessary in the light of events. This was prompted by the arrival at his headquarters of Rommel’s aide, Alfred-Ingemar Berndt, with full details of the crisis. However, Rommel had already been forced to act. At 1530hrs he had ordered a general retreat to positions near Fuka. This decision, essentially confirming the instructions of his chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Westphal, to the Afrika Korps the previous evening was the Panzerarmee’s official sanction for the mobile units to abandon the Italian infantry and the parachute units of both nations in the south. Many Italians never forgave their allies; others, like Tenente Emilio Pulini, were restrained in their response:

We were slightly uncomfortable about the idea of being left there without no transport. Our division had very little transport. Because we were paratroops we had very little transport of our own. But as far as I know the majority of the German troops withdrew before us and not too much transport was left to us.

As Eighth Army’s advance recommenced on 5 November, the victorious troops encountered similar scenes throughout the day, as Gervase Markham observed:

We were able to advance. My first experience of advancing across a battlefield and seeing a defeated army with all the relics that they’d left behind, and their dugouts still there with meals half eaten and Italian troops standing there waiting to be captured because the Germans had taken all the transport and had driven away, leaving the Italians to look after themselves without food or water or transport, begging to be taken into captivity.

The sight of large numbers of Italian troops walking towards captivity seemed confirmation of the widely held view that Mussolini’s forces were a liability to their ally. Sergeant Neville Howell of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment was struck by what he saw:

There were just hundreds and hundreds of Italians walking in groups and we were passing through them. Literally hundreds of them… They were asking for water. The Italians. That was the one thing they were asking for. Water. Hundreds of them. How long it took them to reach somewhere where they were given water, I don’t know. Of course, we couldn’t give them water. We only had a limited amount. You’d got to look after it. If you stopped – which you weren’t allowed to do of course – you’d have been surrounded by them in no time.

The sacrifice of the ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’ and the tough ‘Folgore’ was quickly forgotten. Yet without them the Afrika Korps could not have garnered the laurels it had, survived at Alamein as long as it had, or escaped in the manner it did.

Only one ‘infantry’ unit of significant size managed to escape, despite its lack of transport. Hans von Luck recounted:

On 7 November, in the depths of the desert, a patrol putting out a long feeler to the east, discovered General Ramcke, the commander of the paratroop division, which had been in action on the right wing south of Alamein. General Ramcke was brought to us in a scout car. He looked emaciated and asked to be taken, at once, to Rommel. His paratroops – an elite unit – had been through an adventurous time. I at once sent a radio message to Rommel: ‘General Ramcke, with 700 men and all weapons, has been discovered by us; he himself is with me at the command post.’

The exhausted paratroops had nothing except their weapons and water. They had captured a small British convoy on 5 November and used this to reach the Axis lines. It was small comfort to Rommel, given that on 5 November Eighth Army had easily exceeded Churchill’s target for prisoners of war. Alexander had duly signalled: ‘Ring out the bells!’

The battle was over. It was theoretically time for the victors to pursue and annihilate their opponents. It did not happen. There was no single reason why not, but many could be laid at the door of Eighth Army’s commander. To the amazement of their enemy, the British remained cautious in their operations. Ambitious plans to cut off the retreating Axis forces were not attempted. Proper reserves for pursuit had not been prepared. Congestion prevented units from getting forward. Personal animosity between Montgomery and several subordinates – especially Lumsden, Briggs and Gatehouse – stood in the way of effective use of the armoured formations they commanded. Poor staff work was the cause of at least one brigadier’s subsequent dismissal. Tanks worn out by continuous action and needing overhaul consumed so much fuel they outran their supplies. Bad weather – something outside the control of any commander – played a part as heavy rain fell on 6 November hampering movement and preventing air reconnaissance. However one informed critic felt ‘this was a very thin excuse, seen through by all who had known the desert dry out in a few hours after rain the previous November.’

Nevertheless, as the Official History rightly points out, the fact that a small part of Rommel’s command managed to break away probably seems more of an anti-climax in retrospect than it did at the time to the men of Eighth Army. The remarkable Charles Potts – ‘The Fighting Parson’ – writing on 12 November summarized the experience of Second Alamein for many of the survivors:

The shelling was terrific for the first 13 days of the battle while we struggled through the rows of enemy minefields. All day and all night the noise was deafening, gun flashes and explosions all round us. It was horrible, and very frightening. Some men lost their nerve altogether and shivered and chattered with terror. It was a job to keep some of them going. I was lucky in that I managed to keep pretty cheerful all the time, except for such ghastly moments as when my best corporal, of whom I was extremely fond, had his head blown clean off; I had to cover him up so that the others shouldn’t see him. And now everywhere there is wreckage, vehicles, including huge tanks, blown to smithereens. Thank God the dead are mostly burned. It was not an easy victory – at least not at first. We had a bitter struggle and a taste of bloody hell. It must have been even worse for the Germans. Our artillery pounded them mercilessly and our bombers strafed them continuously (Damn these b____ flies – they are all over me).

Unternehmen Wintergewitter (Operation Winter Storm)

The operations plan to extricate the Sixth Army

Meanwhile, the OKH had informed Manstein that it would provide other forces for Army Group Don’s mission. Two panzer divisions (the 6th and the 23rd) and a Luftwaffe field division (the 15th), would be attached to Colonel General Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, whereas two panzer divisions (the 11th and the 22nd), three infantry (the 62nd, 294th, and the 336th) and two Luftwaffe field divisions (the 7th and the 8th), would form General Karl Adolf Hollidt’s newly created army detachment. But out of the seven divisions anticipated for the latter, one panzer (the 22nd) and two infantry (the 62nd and the 294th) had to be rushed immediately to the front of the Third Romanian Army to fill in the breaches. Moreover, of the three divisions promised by the OKH on November 22, none were able to participate in the attempt to cut through to Sixth Army. The 3rd Mountain Division did not even arrive. Its units had been dispersed between Army Group A and Army Group Center in order to deal with local crises. As for the 17th Panzer and the 306th Infantry Division, they arrived too late to participate at the decisive moment. Considering that the Luftwaffe’s field divisions could only be employed for defensive missions, for example the protection of the flanks of the assault groups, only two panzer divisions remained in the Fourth Panzer Army for the extrication operation, and only one panzer and one infantry division in Army Detachment Hollidt.

Despite the inadequacy of his reinforcements, Manstein put forth on December 1 his directives concerning Operation Winter Storm (Wintergewitter). Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army would attack, with the bulk of its forces, from the region of Kotelnikovo, which was approximately 120 kilometers to the southeast of the Sixth Army encircled in Stalingrad. After having breached the enemy’s defenses, it would have the job of breaking through the Soviet siege front at Stalingrad from the south or west, counting on Sixth Army’s cooperation by exerting pressure from inside the pocket at the decisive point.

During this time, Army Detachment Hollidt would also attack, launching from the Nijne Tchirskaya bridgehead on the middle reaches of the Chir in the direction of Kalatch, to disrupt the adversary’s lines of communication and to create a crossing on the Don for Sixth Army. The latter was to break out, on a date that would be set later depending on the results obtained by Fourth Panzer Army, to the southwest in the direction of the Donskaya Tsaritsa River, in order to connect with Hoth’s panzers, and to the west, to coordinate with Hollidt’s divisions in crossing the Don at Kalatch. However, under the Führer’s formal order, it was required to maintain its positions in the Stalingrad region, thus making its mission all the more difficult. Protection of the right and left flanks of the offensive would be provided, respectively, by what remained of the Fourth Romanian Army (now integrated into the Fourth Panzer Army) and by the Third Romanian Army along with certain units from Army Detachment Hollidt. That some of the forces in charge of covering the offensive had themselves collapsed a few weeks earlier during the powerful Soviet counterattack of November 19, demonstrated just how desperate the situation was for Army Group Don.

At the beginning of December, the Red Army launched attacks not only against the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, but also on the Chir front and in the region of Kotelnikovo, thus in the sectors where the rescue efforts were being undertaken. Field Marshal Manstein had then to postpone the commencement date of Operation Winter Storm, originally set for December 3, first to the 8th, and finally to the 12th.

Following the Soviet attacks in the sectors of the Chir and Kotelnikovo, Manstein started to fear more and more the possibility of a large-scale offensive against the fronts of the Third Romanian Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, the objective of which would clearly be to reach Rostov-on-Don. As a result, he was henceforth no longer certain as to how to conduct the operations once communication had been restored with Sixth Army. Up until that point, he had always advocated that the army break out once the corridor was opened, as it was an essential component to stabilizing the situation on the southern wing of the front.

But now, he wondered if it were not preferable for Sixth Army to maintain its position in Stalingrad, even if an extrication operation were to restore its communications. In other words, despite the urgent need for troops to reinforce Army Group Don in its mission aimed at restoring the situation on the southern wing of the German front, Manstein believed that the Sixth Army would perhaps play a more useful role by holding Soviet forces down around the Stalingrad pocket. And yet a successful rescue operation would without a doubt contribute more to the restoration and stabilization of the entire German southern front. On the other hand, he thought, if Sixth Army were to succeed at escaping from the Stalingrad pocket, the encirclement forces would immediately become available for a large-scale offensive in the direction of Rostovon-Don, with the intention of cutting off both Army Groups Don and A. It would in turn result in the destruction of the entire southern wing of the front and the probable end of the war. It would thus be better for Sixth Army to remain in Stalingrad after the arrival of relief and not to try and free itself.

Operations Winter Storm and Thunderbolt

While Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army was building its concentration to the east of the Don, around Kotelnikovo, the Red Army attacked once again on December 10, this time to the west of the Don, on the front of the lower Chir. Every hope of engaging Army Detachment Hollidt from the Nijne Tchirskaya bridgehead on the Chir and the Don in conjunction with Fourth Panzer Army just melted away. Hollidt had his hands full simply to maintain his position, while Fourth Panzer Army now had to rely solely on its own forces to restore contact with Sixth Army. But it clearly could not reach the Stalingrad pocket with only two divisions (the 6th and 23rd Panzer Divisions), for a total of 232 assault tanks. The commander in chief of Army Group Don thus demanded the immediate dispatch of the 3rd Panzer Corps and the First Panzer Army engaged in the Caucasus Mountains, and the 16th Motorized Division deployed around Elista. Hitler denied him the armored corps, for Army Group A would then be required to evacuate a very advanced position in the Caucasus, and the motorized division, which represented the latter’s only form of flank cover.

Operation Winter Storm, as it were, seemed doomed for failure from the very beginning. It was basically a desperate act that, given the operational strength and mobility demonstrated by the adversary, carried within it the seeds of failure. This was all the more so since the Russians had expanded the number of their large units deployed on the front of Army Group Don between November 28 and December 9 from 143 to 185. The commander in chief of Army Group Don nevertheless believed that he could still take this questionable undertaking upon himself. This was of course the result of his self-confidence, smugness, and a feeling of superiority as a commander, intoxicated by the great victories pulled off since autumn 1939. Yet, beyond Manstein’s refined expertise, an underestimation of the enemy, which would have serious repercussions, was also most likely in play.

On December 12, after artillery preparation, Hoth’s armored units were able to attack the Stalingrad front at the weakest point of the Soviet encirclement. Despite its inferior resources, Fourth Panzer Army succeeded in driving back the Fifty-First Soviet Army and to force its way across the Aksai River on December 17. The Soviet high command immediately rounded up its armored and motorized units to confront the threat that had emerged from the south. Not limiting itself to the defensive, it relentlessly launched counterattacks in an attempt to either regain the ground captured by Hoth’s tank army or to encircle parts of the latter. In spite of the violent battles, Hoth continued to advance, and on December 19 he reached the Myshkoya River, behind which Soviet forces were holding an even stronger line. The Fourth Panzer Army was at that point no more than 48 kilometers from the besieged Sixth Army.

Inside the pocket in Stalingrad, the soldiers of the Sixth Army listened, full of hope, to the growing sound of battles being fought in the distance. A great clamor was heard among the ranks of the besieged troops: “Manstein is coming!” For those loyal to Hitler, the blasts of the cannons and guns from afar was even more proof that the Führer was still keeping his promises. He was going to pull them out of this. Hitler, however, did not have the slightest intention of withdrawing the Sixth Army from Stalingrad. He declared to Colonel General Zeitzler that it was impossible to retreat from the city, for that would amount to repudiating the “whole meaning of the campaign.” He added that too much blood had been spilled for them to abandon Stalingrad.

Joachim Wieder, a soldier of the Sixth Army, recalled after the war the hope that Manstein’s attack had aroused: “During the second week of December, one knew, first in the general staffs, that Army Group Don, under the command of Field Marshal von Manstein, had commenced the rescue operation that had been hoped for so long. Soon, the good news was also known in the ranks. The great news spread with lightening speed, which renewed our morale […]: ‘Manstein is here!’ Our hope rocketed again. A new joie de vivre, a new confidence, a new spirit of enterprise began to emerge. And so, the suffering and the sacrifices were not in vain! Now, salvation was before us. The Führer was holding true to his promise. And he was surely offering his word out of generosity. […] Outside help was approaching. ‘The Führer will pull us out of here!’ One was firmly counting on the fact that it was possibly a large-scale rescue operation, the success of which one might say was certain. The fact that the mission to liberate our army was entrusted precisely to Field Marshal von Manstein filled us with an exceptional satisfaction. The remarkable strategic abilities of this war chief about whom one spoke in our staff with the greatest respect reinforced our confidence and seemed to at first sight guarantee the positive outcome of the future operation.”

But such hopes were in vain. After extremely violent battles and serious losses, Fourth Panzer Army’s vanguards temporarily captured a weak bridgehead, but it was immediately threatened on all sides in the sector of Myshkoya. The panzer troops, exhausted, were forced onto the defensive and the initiative switched to the superior enemy forces. The rescue operation had already failed. The situation even worsened in the meantime because of new enemy offensives on the Chir. The Red Army had redoubled its efforts on the western banks of the Don to break through the Chir front and to seize the bridgehead of Nijne Tchirskaya, held by the Germans at the confluence of the two rivers. It was thus against the latter that it launched its attack on December 12. Two days later, the bridgehead was lost, after being hastily destroyed by the Germans in order to prevent the complete collapse of the Chir front. At the same time, a new danger presented itself on the left wing of Army Group Don.

On December 16, from the great bend of the Don, the Soviets unleashed an offensive that struck Army Detachment Hollidt, the Third Romanian Army, and the Eighth Italian Army in the sector of Army Group B. Before the total meltdown of Army Group Don’s left flank, the key problem for Manstein became the defense of the Donetz basin and the corridor of Rostov-on-Don, the only retreat route available for Army Group A, still engaged around the Caucasus. The high command of the Red Army had just set into motion Operation Saturn. Army Detachment Hollidt had succeeded, for better or worse, at creating a new front level with that of the Third Romanian Army to protect its flank and also to cover at all costs the air bases of Morosovski and Tajinskaya, which were essential for resupplying the Sixth Army. But it was clear that such a situation could not be maintained for many more days, all the more so since Soviet forces were henceforth occupying the entire left bank of the Chir.

Given the critical situation on the Chir front and the left wing of Army Group Don, the Germans could only pursue the rescue attempt initiated to the east of the Don for a very limited amount of time. Manstein strongly doubted that Fourth Panzer Army could reach the Stalingrad pocket, as the enemy appeared to be relentlessly opposing it with new forces. All things considered, the reinforcements proved to be essential to relaunching the attack. Hitler finally decided to grant the 16th Motorized Division, which was to be relieved by units from Army Group A, to the Fourth Panzer Army. But the movement demanded ten days, a delay much too long for it to be able to intervene at the opportune moment. And furthermore, Manstein had asked for this precisely ten days earlier. As for the 3rd Panzer Corps of the First Panzer Army, the Führer was still refusing to remove it from the Caucasus region. Hoth’s forces alone, meantime, continued to remain inadequate to save the Sixth Army.

Consequently, at noon on December 19, Manstein sent a message to Hitler advising him that the Fourth Panzer Army could not, in all likelihood, restore contact with Sixth Army, and even less so maintain it. For this, Paulus’ army would need to attempt to break through to the southwest in order to link up with Hoth’s armored units coming to its aid. In this event it would have to transfer its forces to the southwest of the pocket, abandoning the northern sector of the Stalingrad region.

By 6:00 p.m., having received no response, Manstein asked Paulus to prepare to carry out a desperate breakout in the direction of the Fourth Panzer Army, which, on its side, would attempt one last forward thrust. His idea was not so much a gradual evacuation of the Stalingrad region as the expansion of the pocket to the southwest so as to permit the opening of a corridor through which the Fourth Panzer Army could supply the Sixth Army with fuel, munitions, and provisions necessary to continue its resistance.

Within the scope of Operation Winter Storm, Sixth Army had already received the order to prepare for this breakout towards the southwest, in the direction of the Donskaya Tsaritsa River, to restore contact with Fourth Panzer Army. However, it was instructed to also hold down the other fronts around Stalingrad, in accordance with the Führer’s formal order. But in the army’s current state, it was physically impossible for it to hold the entire front around Stalingrad while making every effort to break through to the southwest. Consequently, Manstein envisioned henceforth, in accordance to instructions issued to Paulus under the code name “Thunderbolt” (Donnerschlag), the abandonment of several of the Sixth Army’s positions, at least those to the north, in order to permit the expansion of the pocket towards the southwest. In other words, it was a question of the latter gradually shifting its blockaded front, depending on the progress achieved in the breach attempt, in order to restore contact with the Fourth Panzer Army and to allow entry to the supply convoys.

On December 19, Field Marshal Manstein sent his intelligence officer, Major Hans Eismann, into the pocket by air. The commander in chief of Army Group Don was to assert after the war that the major’s mission consisted of asking Colonel General Paulus and Major General Arthur Schmidt, his chief of staff, to prepare Sixth Army with Operation Thunderbolt in mind. Various versions were given from conversations and remarks made by different officers, so much so that it is difficult to come to any clear conclusion. What is clear, however, is that Manstein refused to take responsibility for disobeying the Führer’s orders. He quite obviously did not provide any truly precise instructions to the commander of the Sixth Army and refused, for perfectly legitimate security reasons, to go into the pocket himself to discuss the situation with Paulus face to face. Yet Manstein must have known for quite some time that Paulus, always respectful of official command channels, would never make a move without a formal order having come from the supreme command of the army, i.e. from Hitler.

On the evening of December 23, Manstein and Paulus discussed the situation during a conference held by way of a teleprinter. The commander in chief of Army Group Don emphasized that the Fourth Panzer Army has been confronted with very strong opposition and that, on the northern flank, the Italian troops had caved in. Paulus asked if the Sixth Army was now authorized to attempt a breakout. Manstein replied that he had not yet received the supreme commander’s agreement. The field marshal believed at the time that it was appropriate not to go into detail. If the colonel general had been given more information, he would have been able to see that Sixth Army could no longer be rescued. Did he make this request out of desperation?

Stahlberg, at this particular moment in the antechamber, was able to hear clearly the conversation. “Herr field marshal,” implored Paulus, “I am begging you to give the order for the breakout!” There was hardly any hesitation to Manstein’s response: “Paulus, I cannot give you the order. But if you make the decision independently, I will do all that is in my power to help you and to justify your decision.”  Obviously, Manstein was refusing to forge ahead and take responsibility for a personal action in opposition to the Führer’s will. He feared that such an initiative could lead Hitler to counter his order, then to dismiss him from his command, a consequence which would at the same time bring his dream of one day becoming commander of the German Army or its chief of staff to an end.

In any case, the Sixth Army was already no longer in a position to accomplish a breakout which, when all was said and done, entailed many difficulties and enormous risks. The army needed, it was estimated, six days to prepare for a breakout, a length of time Manstein deemed much too long. The onset of the crisis on the Chir front and, more precisely, on the left wing of Army Group Don, no longer permitted him to wait for six days. In addition, the substantial reduction in the Sixth Army’s strength and the decrease in its mobility, resulting from a lack of fuel and the slaughtering of many of its horses, made even more perilous an undertaking that was to be executed in the harsh conditions of winter.

The critical situation with regards to fuel was such that the tanks of Sixth Army, of which hardly a hundred were still in operation, could not advance any farther than 30 kilometers. In order to execute the breakout, it would thus be necessary either to provide an adequate supply of fuel or have Hoth’s panzers approach at least 30 kilometers closer to the Stalingrad pocket. However, the latter was still located 48 kilometers away. Likewise, Army Group Don could absolutely not wait for the Sixth Army to be sufficiently refueled by airlift, which would mean the delivery of about 4,000 tons. For the Luftwaffe it was physically impossible, so there was nothing to suggest that air supply would ameliorate the situation. When all was said and done, the commander of the Sixth Army described the breakout attempt, especially if it had to be accomplished without outside assistance, as “a catastrophic solution.”

Hitler approved an attack from the Sixth Army to the southwest in order to restore contact with the Fourth Panzer Army. However, he insisted that the former absolutely continue to hold down the front around Stalingrad. He was still hoping to be able to open a corridor which would allow for the movement of supplies, but without having to abandon the slightest plot of land to the enemy. He thus asked the commander of Sixth Army exactly how far he thought he could advance to the southwest if the other fronts were to be held. The response was clear: because of the fuel issue, it was not only impossible to execute the breakout, but even to prepare for it. Without delay, Hitler decided to abandon the idea. On December 21, Manstein nevertheless made one last effort to persuade him to approve Operation Thunderbolt. The Führer immediately replied that there was no possibility of Sixth Army expanding the pocket to the southwest due to a lack of fuel: “What exactly do you want? Paulus has only enough fuel for 20 kilometers, 30 at the most. He is unable to break through, as he himself declares.”

However, it is likely that with his impressive intelligence, Manstein had understood that any breakout attempt was obviously doomed to fail. Even before the bulk of the Second Guards Army had been deployed ahead of it, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been blocked on the Myshkoya River. Paulus’ Sixth Army, with its exhausted troops and barely a hundred fuel-starved tanks, had no chance of breaking through the besieged front. Even more importantly, Manstein had known since December 16 that Operation Saturn, which launched three additional Russian armies to his rear, had cast a new light on everything. Yet he probably felt that, in consideration of how history would remember him, as well as his Wehrmacht colleagues, he had to appear as a commander who had attempted everything in his power to rescue the troops at Stalingrad, even if he believed that the only true chance for Sixth Army to free itself had vanished almost a month earlier. His apparent guilty conscience after the war was likely due to the fact that, given Hitler’s refusal to pull out of the Caucasus, he had utilized the Sixth Army to hold down the seven armies of the Red Army that were en – circling Stalingrad. And furthermore, even if Paulus had been able to break through the blockaded front, there would have remained too few Sixth Army men, in too poor a state, to be of the slightest combat use in later operations.

In his postwar account, Manstein gave the impression that the decisive order to break out of Stalingrad, against Hitler’s wishes, had in fact been issued by Army Group Don, whereas Paulus, because of his much too conscientious analysis of the risks and his obedience to the supreme command of the Wehrmacht, had refused to execute it. He thus charged Paulus with the responsibility for not having attempted the breakout, despite the fact that he had issued the order.

In his Memoirs, Manstein appears quite critical towards Paulus: “If I have presented in such great detail the reasons that led the chief of the Sixth Army to abandon the last chance of saving it, it was because I attributed the responsibility of this decision to him, without taking into account his personality nor his future attitude. Such reasons, as I have stated, cannot be dismissed. But once again, it was a matter of the one and only chance at salvation. To not seize it—while accepting the inevitable risks—was to be resigned to losing the army. To seize it, however, was to place all of one’s money on one card. Our opinion at the command of Army Group Don was that this needed to be done.

It is easy to criticize the attitude that the future Field Marshal Paulus had during these decisive days. But, his blind obedience to Hitler does not, in any case, explain it. He most certainly suffered a serious conflict of interest, with the operation requiring him to abandon Stalingrad, contrary to desires formally expressed by Hitler. Such an abandonment was nevertheless justified by the invincible pressure from the enemy. On the other hand, Army Group Don assumed all responsibility for having ordered him. […] If [Colonel] General Paulus did not seize this last opportunity, if he hesitated, and finally abandoned the idea of taking the risk, it was quite certainly out of the feeling for the responsibility that was weighing upon his shoulders, a responsibility that the army group command had tried to take by issuing its order, but from which Paulus believed incapable of freeing himself in view of Hitler or himself.”

Had Manstein actually issued the decisive order to launch Operation Thunderbolt, thus relieving Paulus of the responsibility of a personal act of disobedience against the supreme command of the Wehrmacht? In actuality, the archives refute such an allegation.  From Paulus’ Memoirs clearly emerges the claim that Sixth Army never received such an order. As we have seen earlier, when, on the evening of December 23, 1942, Paulus pressured him to launch Operation Thunderbolt, Manstein urged him to be patient, telling him that he could not yet issue the order. It is thus not surprising that Paulus expressed a rather caustic criticism after the war against Manstein: “He who did not believe at the time that he was able to issue me the order or authorization for a breakout does not have the right today to write that he had wished for my breakout and that he had covered it.”

Whatever the case may be, on December 21, 1942, Manstein could not continue to ignore the general situation of Army Group Don, which could no longer support the Fourth Panzer Army to the east of the Don, particularly because of the scale of the offensive being unleashed by the Red Army since December 16. Henceforth, the fate of the Sixth Army was no longer the only concern. The future of Army Group Don and Army Group A were also at stake, as the enemy was threatening more than ever to cut off their lines of communication. Indeed, there existed a danger of seeing the enemy take advantage of the breakthrough in the Italian sector to advance, through the crossings on the Donetz which were now open before it, towards Rostov-on-Don and the vital artery of the entire southern wing. The enemy clearly had the intention of preparing a “super-Stalingrad” for the entire German southern front. The priority was now to hold down the left flank in order to prevent a catastrophe even worse than the loss of Sixth Army. From this point on, Manstein no longer had a choice: if he wanted to avoid the collapse of the entire southern wing of the German front, he absolutely had to sacrifice the Sixth Army. The salvation of the Ostheer quite simply meant safeguarding Army Groups Don and A, which between them numbered approximately 1.5 million men.

The crisis in the sector of Army Detachment Hollidt was now at its height. Soviet armored and motorized units drove deeply into the breach that had been created by the collapse of the Eighth Italian Army. Some were already approaching the airfields of Morosovski and Tajinskaya, while others had reached the rear of some of Hollidt’s units, which were still fighting on the middle and upper reaches of the Chir. On December 23, Manstein had to withdraw the armored division from the Third Romanian Army in order to restore the situation on the left wing. In order to compensate for this loss, it was necessary for him to order Fourth Panzer Army to send the 6th Panzer Division to the lower Chir, without which the front could not have been maintained. As a result, Hoth had to pull back his weakened tank army. On Christmas Eve, it was attacked on the Myshkoya River by forces that were greatly superior in number and continually increasing, and driven back onto the Aksai River.

Facing an enemy that had just thrown into battle two armies (the Fifty-First and the Second Guards), and its intention to envelop it from the east and west, Fourth Panzer Army had to retreat during the following days back to Kotelnikovo, from where it had launched its offensive on December 12.  The endeavor to break through to Stalingrad had thus failed. And the fate of the Sixth Army was thus definitively sealed.

Hitler in Paris

Hitler pictured alongside Speer, Breker and Giesler. The Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background.

On Sunday 23 June 1940 Adolf Hitler returned to France for his infamous visit to Paris. He was accompanied by his favoured architects Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler. The artistic aspect of the party was completed by the addition of Arno Breker, Hitler’s most favoured sculptor. Both Giesler writing in ‘Ein Anderer Hitler’ and Breker in his memoirs state that the trip took place on Sunday 23 June. However, writing in his book ‘Inside the Third Reich’ Speer erroneously cites the date as 28 June 1940, but as he describes the moment when the armistice came into effect as part of the trip the date of 28 June is clearly an error on his part. Giesler later recalled how surprised he was to be stopped by the Viennese police and escorted to Vienna airport where he was placed on a courier aircraft bound for France. However there was a purpose behind Hitler’s decision to include the artists. At a personal level Hitler cared nothing for the legendary city and was only interested in Paris for its architecture. The civilian members of his entourage were there to envision how the city could be outdone by the new Berlin visualised by Hitler as the greatest and most imposing city in the world. In order to blend into the background the artist and architects were equipped with military uniforms.

Accompanied by this unusual entourage and a film crew Hitler toured the deserted streets of the French capital in the early hours of that infamous Sunday morning.

We are fortunate to have a complete record of the day which was published in the book ‘Ein Anderer Hitler’ by Hermann Giesler which contains a full eye-witness description of his famous visit to Paris on 23 June, 1940. In the process Giesler also provides a full account of his own personal conversations with Hitler concerning sweeping architectural plans for the cities of Berlin, Munich and Linz which it was envisaged would embody the concept Grossdeutschland (Greater Germany).

Giesler begins when he was stopped by a police detail on 22 June, 1940 when on his way to a building site near Vienna, and ordered to drive to the Vienna airport. There, he boarded a waiting Ju. 52 courier airplane which landed on an airstrip in northern France, after which he was driven to Adolf Hitler’s headquarters at Brûly-de-Peche, north of Sedan. The armistice was set to begin the following day at midnight. As soon as they met Hitler lost no time in relating his personal views to Giesler concerning his great triumph and his desire to see Paris as soon as possible.

‘All right, Giesler, at that time you had no way of knowing, but I was confident of my strategic plan, the essential tactical details, and my belief in the fighting power of the German armed forces. From there, the wisely planned timetable advanced naturally. I recall that during the winter [of 1939] I invited you to go with me to Paris; I’ve invited Breker and Speer to come along. With my artists, I want to look at Paris. We will set off early in the morning.’

In company with Arno Breker and Albert Speer, Hitler, along with his staff and aides-de-camp, enjoyed a simple dinner together at two long tables in a simple cottage. Giesler was struck by the lack of triumphalism.

‘There was no triumphant attitude, no booming voices – only sombre dignity. The faces of those in authority still bore the signs of the strain of the past weeks. I considered myself undeserving of the honour of sitting with them.’

The party set off from Brûly-de-Peche at 4 a.m. in the Führer’s private Ju. 52 and landed at Le Bourget airport, where a fleet of open-topped Mercedes awaited them. Hitler took his usual place in the front passenger seat and was joined by Speer, Breker, Giesler, SS Adjutant Schaub and his ordinance officer, Colonel Speidel.

‘The former military attache in Paris drove ahead of us as guide. With our dimmed lights we could only see the silhouettes of the buildings. We passed check points – the guards stepped out and saluted; one could detect that the armistice was not yet fully in force. Adolf Hitler sat in front of me and I remembered the past winter evening when he talked about Paris, and I recalled his confidence that he would view the city soon. Now his wish was coming true. But he did not come to Paris as the Supreme Commander of the German Wehrmacht – he arrived as the Bauherr (construction chief) of the new German cities which he already envisioned with their new aspects. He came here to compare architecture, to experience the atmosphere of the city in the company of his two architects and one sculptor, even though we were accompanied by a military entourage – soldiers who had certainly gained the honour of seeing the French capital with him.’

The stop on the brief tour of Paris was the Imperial Opera House. This magnificent structure was designed by the architect Garnier. Adolf Hitler had familiarised himself with the plans of the building and seemed keen to show off his knowledge. Inside the building, Giesler recalled that it was Hitler who led the way, pointing out noteworthy features of the building.

‘It might be that the disparity between the simple atmosphere of the Führer headquarters in the tiny village of Bruly to this splendid display of the historic Empire amplified the impression it made. Till that point, I was only familiar with the Opera façade and was astonished by the well thought out notion of the basic plan, impressed by the lay out of the expansive rooms: the entry halls, the lavish staircase, the foyers and the splendid, lustrous, gold inner theatre. We were standing in the middle loge. Adolf Hitler was captivated – delightful, remarkably attractive proportions, and what festivity! It was a theatre with a distinct charisma, regardless of its extravagance of the “Belle Epoque” and a stylish diversity including a hint of over-the-top baroque. Hitler repeated that its main reputation rests on these beautiful proportions. “I would like to see the reception room, the salon of the President behind the proscenium box,” said Hitler. A certain amount of hesitation took place. “According to Garnier’s plan, it must be about here.” The guard was at first muddled, but then he recollected that following a renovation the room was removed. Hitler acidly observed, “The democratic republic doesn’t even favour its President with his own reception salon.”

Hitler and his entourage then came out the front entrance in order to view the famous façade in daylight. They then moved on to the Madeleine, which did not move Hitler and the entourage was soon on the move through the deserted streets. ‘Slowly, in a wide circle, we drove around the fountains and the Luxor obelisks at the Place de la Concord. Adolf Hitler stood up in his car to obtain a panoramic view. He gazed across the large square toward the Tuileries and the Louvre, then across the Seine River to the building of the Chambre des Députés. At the beginning of the Champs-Élysées, he asked to stop. Gazing at the walls of the Admiralty, he could now observe the column gable of the Madeleine through the short street space of the Rue Royal, it was now really effective.

Adolf Hitler took his time to absorb all this – then a brief signal with his hand and we drove slowly along the somewhat rising Champs-Élysées towards the Étoile with its commanding Arc de Triomphe. Critically appraising everything, his eyes looked at the road construction, which he could see through the tree-lined streets around the Round Point. All his absorbed concentration was on the Arc and the road system on which the surrounding area of the Étoile was planned. He took in the reliefs on the right and left side of the Arc with one short glance (they capture the story of the Marseillaise), and the chiselled inscriptions (the French would not forget any of their victorious battles). He knew every detail from historical literature.

Adolf Hitler shared his thoughts about this early morning journey with Geisler who later recorded what Hitler had said to him.

‘The well-appointed expanse of the Place de la Concord impresses naturally since the square extends to the Tuileries Gardens to the Louvre, with views over the lower course of the Seine all the way to the ministries and the Chambre des Députés. Optically, it also includes the development towards the Madeleine and the wide open space of the start of the Champs-Élysées. From a man’s perspective, that’s nearly limitless. The view from the Concorde was beautiful, with its fountains and obelisk in the foreground, toward the Admiralty, the rue Royal with the Madelein in the background.’

From the Étoile they drove to the Trocadero, viewing the colossus of the 19th Century, the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine from the large terrace of the Palais Chaillot. It was here that Hoffmann took his iconic photographs which feature Geisler and Hitler. Giesler recalled that he entered into a long conversation with Hitler at that point in the proceedings.

‘Adolf Hitler told me that he considers the Eiffel Tower not only as the beginning of a new standard of buildings, but also as the start of an engineering type of tectonics. “This tower is not only synonymous with Paris and the world exhibition at that time, but it will stand as an example of classicism, and marks the commencement of a new era.” By this he meant the era of modern technology with new horizons and dimensions (Groessenordnungen), at that time unachievable. What came next were wide-spanned bridges, buildings with large vertical dimensions which because of exact engineering calculations could now form iconic structures. But only through harmonisation between engineers, artists and architects could he see the possibility of enhanced creativity. Classicism, which we have to aim at, can only be reached by tectonics with new materials – steel and reinforced concrete indeed being definitive and essential.

‘We drove on and stopped briefly at a well-proportioned city palais, which was to be the future German embassy. Adolf Hitler gave particular orders for its renovation with the support of French conservators.

‘Adolf Hitler next showed his disappointment with the Pantheon at the top of the Latin Quarter by leaving the building abruptly. Out in the open again, he shook his head and heaved a sigh.

‘“My God, it does not deserve its name, if you think about the Roman Pantheon with its classical interior, the unique lighting from the wide open ceiling – it combines dignity with gravity. And then you look at that” – and he pointed back – “more than sombre even on this bright summer day.” As they returned to their car, a few women spotted them, crying out: c’est lui – that’s him.

‘We turned around and drove through the rue de Castiglioni to the Place Vendôme, with its famous column on this magnificently shaped square, then the rue de la Paix to the Place de l’Opéra, with a lofty view of the vivid, although somewhat theatrical, facade of the Opera, now in bright light. “Certainly,” he said to me later; “it is very decorative, a bit too rich, but obviously conforming to the style taste of that era. In planning our architecture, we will aim at a classicism of sterner, sharper forms, according to our character. What I have seen in Paris forces me to compare the achievements of the German architecture of the same period: Gilly, Schinkel, Klenze, Hansen and Semper, and Siccardsburg with his Vienna Opera – I am of the opinion that they can hold their place. Not to mention the great creations of the baroque architects like Lukas Hildebrandt, Fischer von Erlach, Balthasar Neumann, Prandtauer and others. What the Germans miss is continuity and persistence in their architectural aims, but this is still recognizable in the Germany of the Middle Ages with cathedrals and domes of the city communities, and the baroque buildings of the royal houses.”’

Geisler next recalled the trip to Montmartre where Hitler barely glanced at the Sacré Cœur. From the elevated terrace in front of the church, he wanted to consider the vista of Paris he had just visited. ‘Adolf Hitler believed that, as far as he could view the concentration of Paris from here, the monuments and places stood out only weakly from the monotony of living quarters and functional buildings. The great cohesion from the Louvre to the Étoile, the Île-de-France with the Notre Dame, the flowing of the Seine to the Eiffel tower is just barely maintained. Actually, only this tower, meant and built for an exhibition, maintains – regardless of its filigree transparency seen from here – its reputation. What he said is that the Tower justifies its existence in this city only by the deliberately planned vertical tendency – an astonishing feature for that epoch. Naturally, for the city of Paris it meant a symbolic novelty, a city with such a deep historical tradition from the Romans to the very significant eras of the kings, the revolution, the empire, the buildings of the republic after Napoleon III; they are all meaningless, of no importance for the overall structure of the city – with the exception of the Eiffel Tower.’

2 JULY 1942 – ROMMEL TRIES AGAIN Part II

As the story reached the bemused but doubting Germans, British bombers and British tanks added to the woes of the men in ‘The Hotbox’, and Pienaar was reported to have called Auchinleck and said that if he was to be treated as an enemy he could take Alexandria within 48 hours.

A heavy bombardment hit the South Africans in ‘The Hotbox’ at 4.00pm, and at 4.20pm 30 tanks and infantry of 21st Panzer advanced from Deir el Shein under cover of smoke. Artillery and machine-gun fire from ‘The Hotbox’ and from Robcol on Ruweisat Ridge brought them to a halt, and 1st Armoured Division’s artillery gave support. The Germans tried again at 6.00pm and again at 7.20pm, with 90th Light joining in from the north west. Just before last light both the South African brigadier and brigade major were wounded, and a new crisis developed.

We come here to a parting of the ways between the contemporary written record in the form of the divisional war diary, and events as they were remembered by Dorman Smith

1st Brigade now came under command of what the official South African history calls ‘a makeshift staff’ of a battalion commander and an intelligence officer, who ‘clamoured’ for permission to withdraw, though the divisional war diary says only that at 10.00pm they asked for tanks to help ward off a threatened enemy attack. Pienaar, equally concerned, called up the 30th Corps commander, Norrie, and told him the brigade’s flank was wide open and its position untenable unless flank protection from armour could be provided or some armour placed under command. He said bluntly that if help was not forthcoming he would pull the brigade back. He would not, he said, allow it to be overrun.

An unsympathetic Norrie said tanks couldn’t be provided, and he saw no need to withdraw the brigade. Pienaar thereupon moved up the ladder to Dorman Smith, and from him to Auchinleck. Diplomatically, Auchinleck said he would talk it over with Norrie, and for the moment that was that. Not that it was of any comfort to the temporary 1st Brigade commander, anxiously waiting in the desert, who kept asking Pienaar for a decision, pointing out that if a withdrawal was to be carried out it should be done at night, rather than in daylight.

Around midnight Norrie came back on the line with what to him might have seemed a good compromise; 1st Brigade could be pulled back and placed in reserve, but another unit would be put in its place. At this implied slur Pienaar bridled and said that if this was to be done he would regard it as a sign of a lack of confidence and he would be forced to ask to be relieved of his command. All he wanted, he said, were some tanks or, failing this, permission to move the brigade to a position further back.

Midnight is the time when decisions are made by attrition, and a weary Norrie said Pienaar could use his discretion as to where he moved 1st Brigade, but that in any case a column of the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery would be put in its place, or just to the rear of where it had been. Pienaar pulled back 1st Brigade to a less hazardous position. At dawn South African armoured cars took a look at the old 1st Brigade positions, found some 90th Light men there and took them prisoner. At 9.30am the 3rd RHA column moved into The Hotbox, but not for long. After receiving 30 minutes’ heavy shelling, it withdrew and settled down in a position to the south and a little to the rear of 2nd Brigade, where it continued to suffer from enemy shelling. South African honour was satisfied.

Dorman Smith remembered the incident differently. As he later told the story, Pienaar rang him late at night and said he intended to withdraw his division to avoid encirclement. Dorman Smith told him in no uncertain terms that he would have to stay where he was, and Auchinleck added the weight of his authority to this. Later, according to Dorman Smith, he spoke with Norrie, who said he had had a similar conversation with Pienaar.

It would have to be said that the South African version of events is more likely to be accurate, and accords with what actually happened, and the Dorman Smith version is mentioned only because it has gained some currency. Either Dorman Smith’s memory is at fault – and an instance of this occurs later – or at this late hour of the night the tired Dorman Smith simply misunderstood what Pienaar was saying. And for that matter, Pienaar may not have been entirely clear in his request. If it was a misunderstanding it was another of July’s small tragedies, because the incident further undermined confidence in the South Africans, who were left to fight in their static position all month, and when plans were made for the hoped for pursuit of the Axis forces they were assigned the sedentary task of staying behind to man the Alamein positions.

All in all it turned out to be much ado about nothing, but it was a pointer to the cross-currents and personality conflicts that bedevilled the Eighth Army right up to the closing days of the ‘old’ army.

So, looking at all that, how can it be said that one army had attacked another without the defenders really noticing, particularly when it is remembered that 1st Armoured Division and Royal Artillery had been going hammer and tongs with the panzers on Ruweisat Ridge from late afternoon? The short answer may be that despite some fairly violent exchanges, the German thrusts may have had the appearance of probing rather than attacking.

Consider the conditions, with heat haze and dust obscuring observation and objects swimming into and out of view.

In the far north the Italians were supposed to attack the west face of the Alamein Box, but the South Africans saw no great concentration of troops, merely groups who disappeared when fired on.

In the area of 90th Light’s dawn attack, troops of two South African brigades would be standing to as the sky became light behind them and in a few minutes had flooded the desert with the full glare of day. Not much heat haze yet but probably a fair amount of dust, and out of the dust emerges some enemy transport. Nothing massive. Not the menacing force covering half the desert that usually precedes a German attack. Just a largish gaggle of trucks. As the shells fall among them, the enemy lorries turn about and disappear again. Then figures of men are seen. Shell bursts balloon around them and the Vickers guns chatter, and the figures disappear, too. After a while, the British artillery, denied visible targets, gives up.

Though the air force is fairly busy, shuttling back and forth across the sky and creating havoc at unseen targets somewhere west, the rest of the day is fairly quiet until around 3.30pm, when incoming shells suddenly begin to blossom. The South Africans become watchful and wait. Outgoing shells moan overhead with a hollow roar, the sound diminishing in comforting reassurance that each projectile is aimed the other way. Dust begins to rise out there and moving figures are seen. The eager Vickers gunners let go a few belts. The Hotbox receives a pasting from shell fire, but no tanks or infantry advance towards them.

Further south, British guns and tanks sight the familiar outline of panzer turrets – ten, twenty, maybe forty of them, not the usual hordes that intimidate the infantry and terrorise rear echelons. Turret covers clang shut and the single band radio communication network buzzes with orders, requests and information. Everyone can hear so everyone knows what’s happening. And then it’s all on. Solid shot flies, bouncing off hulls or plunging a white hot lance through toughened steel and into explosively receptive shell racks and petrol tanks. A tank glows and smokes as the men inside cook, and then a blast tosses off a turret, which falls to the ground beside the blackened hull like some grotesque, huge egg cup. Other crews are luckier. Their tank slews and stops, and they know they’ve lost a track. The hatch is thrown open and they clamber out with frantic haste, and run for dear life.

There’s something odd here, though. The Jerries don’t seem as aggressive as usual, not quite as pushy, not really wanting to come through. They usually fight as though they own the place. They don’t seem to be trying too hard today.

And then at last the sun goes, a red ball that slips with visible haste behind the western horizon obscured by the dust of battle. There’s little twilight and no cool of the evening, just a rush from day to night as though darkness, the only decency left, should not be delayed.

Tanks still burn, and occasionally there’s an eruption from within. The survivors move away and form into laager and signal their supply columns to bring up more fuel and ammunition.

And what was it all about? Where were the Jerries going, if anywhere? Were they just testing, looking for a weak spot?

At his spartan headquarters, Auchinleck writes a review of the day’s events, and tells London that ‘the expected attack had not developed by last light though some enemy tanks were seen’. And the truth is that the German thrust was not what the Eighth Army was used to.

Timid infantry and tentative armour were not the stamp of the German army, not the bold assault expected of a general reaching for Cairo.

Rommel’s perception was rather different and his optimism less assured.

He wrote of the British falling back in the south and then launching a heavy counter-attack on his open flank, and of ‘violent defensive fighting’. He still hadn’t given up, but his orders for the next day, 3 July, were more restrained. He instructed his army to attack from daybreak to 10.00am to seek out weak points – an order to probe and search. Not his style at all, though he did not abandon his southern encirclement plan and he ordered Ariete and Trieste to carry out the drive to attack 13th Corps in the rear. But if there had been little of 13th Corps in the first place, there was even less now as the Eighth Army, preparing for the next day, carried out some minor reorganisation. The Indians in their remote outpost at Naqb Abu Dweis in the far south were doing no good there and were totally exposed. Auchinleck sent them back to Qarat el Himeimat to reorganise as a battle group under 5th Indian Division. He felt, also, that Kaponga Box might now become a liability, and the New Zealanders were instructed to withdraw, leaving a battle group to hold out for another day to destroy the defences and stores. Some of the brigade pulled back under cover of darkness, leaving two battalions in charge. Auchinleck wanted 6th Brigade infantry sent back to the New Zealand base camp at Maadi because under his battle group policy he considered them ‘surplus’. But a cautious Inglis decided to keep them with the division until the situation became clearer.

One day remained in this first attempt by Rommel to break through the Alamein defences – a day in which the pattern of battle changed ominously for Rommel, hopefully for Auchinleck.

It was on this day, 2 July, that it had been planned to despatch the first troop convoy from Taranto to Alexandria to make secure the Axis occupation of Egypt.