Normandie Groupe Air War: Kursk I

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Wishing to avenge the defeat at Stalingrad and at the same time show the German nation that its armies could triumph over the Communist hordes, Hitler ordered the German High Command (OKW) to prepare an attack against the Kursk salient, an operation that would carry the code name ‘Citadel’. With orders to go back on the offensive the German Army started a massive build-up of men and matériel in the Kursk region in preparation for a major pincer attack against Soviet positions in the Kursk and Orel salient. Soviet intelligence had already gained information from its ‘Lucy’ spy ring, a group of Soviet spies operating from Switzerland. They had informed Stalin that the Kursk operation Citadel was planned to take place between 3 and 6 July. Then on 4 July 1943 a reluctant Yugoslav draftee from the German Army deserted to the Russian lines and informed his Russian interrogators that a massive German attack was due for the next day (5 July) at 2 a.m. He also identified the location where the main armoured force was gathering for the big thrust forward. The Soviet Army, already well prepared, now knew the actual time and place where the main enemy attack would start.

The German offensive in the Kursk salient would be the last major tank battle of the Second World War. It was to be the largest clash of armour ever to take place; it has been described as the biggest land battle in history. At the start of the battle the German forces consisted of 900,000 men, 2,700 tanks and 1,800 aircraft. The Soviets had over 1 million men, 3,300 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft. Both sides would send in heavy reinforcements as the battle progressed; in one instance a German train full of new factory-delivered tanks was caught by the Soviet Air Force and destroyed before its cargo could be unloaded. It was here the new Ferdinands, heavy-calibre guns mounted on massive tank chassis, would be given their baptism of fire. As well, the updated Tiger tanks would be deployed for the first time in large numbers; over 100 would go into action at Kursk. The Soviets deployed the new Yak-9T attack aircraft, which were to prove that the Red Air Force had yet another superb aircraft, this time with a heavy-hitting 37mm cannon firing through the aircraft’s nose cone.

By 7 July the Germans had penetrated about 7 miles. Then after a long dry period the rain started to fall during the battle fought at Prokhorovka, where the Germans lost 400 tanks and 10,000 men in one day. Guderian, the German general, watching from his command vehicle, remarked that he could see the Soviet T-34 tanks streaming like rats over the battlefield in numbers that were simply overwhelming. Another black day for the enemy was 10 July, when the Germans lost 200 tanks and over 25,000 infantry killed. The Kursk battle continued with unabated ferocity. On 12 July the Soviets launched a counter-offensive in the north on the right flank against Orel where they were facing Model’s 9th Army with 3rd Panzer Corps and numerous infantry divisions. To the south of Kursk, Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, which included Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps, was heavily engaged. It was near the town of Prokhorovka that a further 400 German tanks were destroyed during this desperate and determined clash with Soviet armour. Overhead the battle for control of the sky had become an important part of the overall conflict. Just as the ground battle below was being determined by the numerical might of the Soviet’s heavy armour, so the aerial combat strength of the Soviet Air Force was proving to be a decisive factor as the Soviets sent in mission after mission of bombers against the German tanks and massed infantry forces. Soviet covering fighters stormed in against the attacking Bf-109s and Fw-190s; the enemy had put up a massive aerial protective shield to assist their advancing ground forces. It has been estimated that 65 per cent of the Luftwaffe in Russia were involved in the Kursk battle, but what turned out to be the real disaster for the enemy was that 70 per cent of his tank forces on the Eastern Front were now engaged in this greatest of all land battles.

The Soviet Air Force was determined to defeat the enemy and win control of the sky over the battle area of Kursk and Orel. This it did, in the process destroying over 200 Luftwaffe aircraft on 10 July alone. During combat missions flown over the battle region, Normandie was constantly involved in escorting and protecting Pe-2 and Il-2 bombers. These heavily armoured aircraft had orders to attack the German forces around the Orel salient, where Model’s 9th Army was leading the attack in this northern sector. In the course of these covering missions Normandie was continually in combat with large groups of German fighters over the whole Northern Front. Normandie’s aggressive and successful fighting abilities were to prove second to none, although the price paid was high, with six pilots lost in combat during the Orel campaign. Kursk was a terrible and wasteful defeat for the Germans; their entire tank reserves were spent in this futile battle. Their tank production was never to make good these massive losses. The Soviets claimed 70,000 German dead and the destruction of 3,000 enemy tanks. The Soviet tank losses were equally heavy, but Soviet factory production was geared to replace them. The Germans claimed they had destroyed 1,800 Russian tanks in the southern sector alone.

At the end of the battle the Soviet forces had captured more ground and were poised to advance into the Ukraine. By 6 August they had liberated Bielgorod. On the 23rd the city of Kharkov was liberated. The Normandie Groupe was mentioned in the Soviet ‘Orders of the Day’ for its successful part in this momentous battle. For its contribution to the victory, Normandie gained the battle honour orel, an honour title that would now appear on its regimental colours.

AERIAL RAMMING OF ENEMY AIRCRAFT

It was at this time that the French pilots started to hear of startlingly heroic actions undertaken by individual Soviet pilots during the air battles above Kursk. A new form of ferocious aerial combat was taking place that involved ramming enemy aircraft. The main aim was to slice the tail off the German aircraft with the propeller, a procedure that was to be known as the ‘falcon or taran attack’ (sokolnyjudar). All Soviet air regiments kept a record of these heroic and drastic events. During the Kursk campaign, which lasted eight weeks, aerial ramming of German aircraft was successfully carried out on forty-seven occasions. If the ‘falcon’ ramming attack was executed at sufficient altitude, there was always a chance for the Soviet pilot to parachute to safety. Of the forty-seven successful falcon attacks during the Kursk campaign, fifteen of the pilots did actually get their aircraft back or made forced landings, and nine managed to parachute to safety, but records show that twenty-three pilots were killed after these dramatic engagements. This form of aerial attack was not new to Russian aviation; in 1915 Kapitan Pyotr Nesterov rammed the German aircraft flown by Baron von Rosenthal, both pilots dying in this falcon attack.

The Soviet statistics for these heroic attacks are quite staggering: 595 confirmed falcon attacks took place during the Second World War: 558 by fighters, 19 by Il-2s (Stormoviks) and 18 by Pe-2 bombers. One Soviet ace of twenty-eight victories, pilot B. Kovzan, was the leading exponent of this feat; he had accomplished no fewer than four successful taran attacks. On his last ramming he lost his left eye, but after surgery and recovery he went back on combat missions to claim a further six German aircraft destroyed, shooting them down in traditional combat. Records confirm that two pilots each performed three successful taran attacks, and thirty-four pilots accomplished this form of deadly attack twice. Some of these rammings took place after guns had jammed or ammunition had run out; the frustration caused in the heat of the moment could lead to these heroic last-ditch actions. Eventually this form of suicidal attack was forbidden by direct orders from Stalin. In 1994 the Russian Federation struck a Nesterov medal to be awarded to Air Force personnel for exceptional service; on the obverse of the medal is the portrait of Kapitan Nesterov.

NORMANDIE’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE OREL OFFENSIVE

The Normandie Squadron Diary written at the time tells that from 10 July, starting at 10 p.m., an artillery bombardment of great violence was unleashed on the Orel front; bombers passed over all night long and the sky was illuminated by large explosions and flares. Artillery bombardments lasted all the next day and the following night; explosions formed a continuous rumbling. A truly big offensive was under way. At 8 a.m. on 12 July Normandie sent up fourteen Yaks; they were split into two groups and accompanied eighteen Pe-2 bombers, while a further 28 Pe-2s joined the mission, which was to bomb positions just a few kilometres behind enemy lines. The pilots reported that the anti-aircraft fire was still very heavy and German lines were hidden under a cloud of smoke. From the Soviet side of the lines Normandie pilots saw dozens of artillery blasts occurring at the same time. At the first passage of the bombers the anti-aircraft fire was very violent as the armoured Stormoviks, which were flying at low altitude, attacked the enemy batteries; at the second passage the Pe-2s found that the anti-aircraft fire was now much weaker. All the aircraft returned without having been hit. Enemy fighters did not intervene. Towards noon, shortly after the Pe-2s’ attack, artillery fire ceased and the Soviet counter-attack with tanks and infantry was unleashed. As the tanks rolled forward they were covered with Red Army soldiers, who clung to any hand grip available around the tanks’ turrets.

During the Orel offensive on 12 July, a German fighter pilot, who appeared to be suffering from exhaustion and combat fatigue, came in to land and surrendered his Fw-190, which was in perfect condition. This small drama took place on the landing strip immediately next to Normandie, whose French pilots on the strip at the time were amazed by the unexpected visitor. Later, those who were interested in the German Fw-190 went over to examine the enemy aircraft closely. Early that evening the same Fw-190 was taken up and flown by an experienced Soviet pilot, who executed combat exercises in company with two Yak-9s flown by pilots of the 18th Guards Air Regiment serving on the strip next to Normandie. On 31 July this same German Fw-190 was extensively comparison-tested against a Yak-9 at Katiounka.

In the evening Normandie sent up fifteen more Yaks to accompany ten Il-2s that were heading for the bridge at Tsin, which was being used by scores of German tanks and heavy equipment moving into action. This important objective was covered and defended by about twenty-four Bf-110s forming two defensive circles, one above the other, and circling in opposite directions. The Bf-110s got ready to attack the Stormoviks but the Yaks attacked first and forced the enemy to break the circle, after which the Bf-110s became vulnerable. And so it was that Littolff, Castelain and Durand each shot down a Bf-110. The Normandie pilots observed the Stormoviks successfully attacking enemy troop concentrations in and on the edge of the woods. All the Il-2s and Yaks returned to base safely. On 12 July the Red Army claimed that more than 300 German tanks had been destroyed during the day, and Normandie was told the Soviet counter-attack was going to continue throughout the night.

The German–Japanese Naval Coalition

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Under the Rising Sun and an incorrectly hung German Nazi flag, the two allies often sent submarines between Japan and Europe to ferry personnel, strategic supplies, and the latest military hardware.

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Wilhelm Dommes, commander of the U-boat base in the Far East, in the rear left with Captain Ariizumi (center) in the former British seaplane base in Penang.

Germany was most concerned that the United States would enter the war on behalf of England before Germany could finish building her own planned blue- water navy. One way to handle this possibility was to find an ally who already had a navy strong enough to cope with the United States. The obvious candidate was Japan.

The Germans had initiated their naval preparations for war against Great Britain in 1935, even before signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in the summer of that year. In 1937, once the weapons systems they believed were needed for war against France and England were being produced, Hitler had ordered the initiation of an armaments program for the war against the United States that was expected to follow the rapid and easy defeat of the USSR. A central part of the preparations for war against the United States was the construction of a blue-water navy. In German eyes, the United States was a weak power incapable of serious military effort, but it had a large navy and was far away. The issue of distance was to be solved by the development and production of intercontinental bombers, which were ordered in 1937.

There were several ways for the Germans to cope with the problem presented by the American navy. One was for the Germans to build their own. Construction on the first super-battleships that could destroy American warships before coming within range of their guns – a concept independently chosen by the Japanese and by Stalin – was initiated in early 1939. The unleashing of hostilities in September of 1939 put a hold on these projects.

In the summers of both 1940 and 1941, Berlin’s first reaction to its belief that the current set of hostilities had been successfully concluded was the resumption of construction of the ships designed for war with the United States. However, the actual subsequent course of events obliged the Germans to halt construction of battleships, aircraft carriers, and other big warships and instead to concentrate armament production on the immediate needs of combat. Another possible solution was that of destroying the American navy in its bases and ports by a coordinated peacetime assault by German submarines. In March 1941 the German navy’s investigation of such a project concluded that it was impossible.

This made closer naval relations with Japan necessary. The Japanese hoped to take advantage of the German defeat of The Netherlands and France and the threatened situation of Britain to seize the colonial possessions of those countries in the South Pacific, as well as in South and Southeast Asia. The Germans, who had earlier in the war unsuccessfully attempted to purchase submarines from Japan, urged the Japanese forward to expand their war with China. When informed by the Japanese that such a move, especially before the Americans left the Philippines in 1946 as then planned by Washington, meant war with the United States as well, the Germans enthusiastically promised that they would immediately join Japan in such hostilities. Here was the obvious way out of their dilemma, and the German Navy joined Hitler’s efforts to convince the Japanese of the wisdom of such a move while simultaneously observing anxiously any and all signs of Japanese hesitation and negotiations with Washington.

Tokyo did not inform the Germans of its plans but was reassured by Germany and Italy just before attacking Pearl Harbor that they would support the attack. Earlier, when Japan was still neutral, the Japanese had provided a little support for German ships involved in commerce raiding in the Pacific, but now the opportunity for serious wartime cooperation theoretically existed. There was even a Tripartite Commission established to meet in Berlin. Just as the Japanese decision to attack the Western Powers was a product of their faith in German victory, so too the Germans believed that the Japanese would tie down the United States in the Pacific and keep it from providing substantial assistance of any kind to Britain and the Soviet Union. However, in the face of these obvious incentives and opportunities for close coordination of their naval efforts, why did nothing of the sort ever evolve?

Several factors played a role in the refusal, not inability, of Germany and Japan to coordinate their naval efforts. In the first place, the initial victories of the Japanese blinded them to the derivative character of their spectacular advances. Because these advances were in fact carried out by their own armed forces, it appears never to have occurred to anyone in Tokyo that their conquest of Malaya, to cite an outstanding example, was actually the product of two factors related to Germany’s military efforts rather than their own. The British had sent to the Middle East, to halt the Axis advance there, the reinforcements that might have halted the Japanese in Malaya, and they had sent to the USSR much of the equipment that the British forces defending that colony lacked.

The absolute priority that Japan should have assigned to meeting the Germans in the Middle East by a thrust across the Indian Ocean, therefore, did not begin to receive their serious consideration until it was too late. By that time, in early 1943, their prior concentration first on the disastrous effort to strike toward Australia and Hawaii, and then on countering the American offensive into the central Solomon Islands at Guadalcanal, had forced them to miss their chance.

The Red Army had held the Germans in the Caucasus and had crushed them at Stalingrad; the British Eighth Army had stopped the Axis powers at Alamein and pushed them back into Libya; and the combined American–British landings in French Northwest Africa had pushed the German and Italian forces in Tunisia into a hopeless position. There would follow endless discussions of a meeting between the Axis powers, but whatever opportunity there had ever existed was already gone.

Second, in spite of Japan’s participation in the Allied anti-submarine campaign in World War I, the Japanese never grasped the significance of submarine warfare against merchant shipping. They failed to understand that their conquest of the oil wells, tin mines, and rubber plantations in Southeast Asia would not move the wells, mines, or plantations to the Japanese home islands, but instead only meant that the products would have to be shipped home in their own vessels, which were vulnerable to American, British, and Dutch submarines.

Similarly, in their emphasis on the role of their own submarines as parts of operations against Allied naval units, the Japanese never truly grasped the significance of the German submarine campaign against Allied shipping. The constant attempts of the Germans to get the Tokyo authorities to understand this issue were fruitless in the years before Japan’s submarines were increasingly shifted from the supposedly more heroic direct naval war to the even less heroic role of carrying ammunition, medical supplies, and other goods to Japanese garrisons isolated by the American strategy of by-passing those islands seized in the initial Japanese offensives. The German effort to provide a substitute for a concerted campaign against Allied shipping by the dispatch of German submarines to bases provided by the Japanese on the Indian Ocean coast of Malaya did lead to some sinking of Allied ships, but was basically a misallocation of scarce Axis resources.

Ironically, after the Germans had given the Japanese a couple of their own submarines, the Japanese asked the Germans to send their remaining submarines to Japan in early 1945 rather than surrender them to the Allies. There was, however, no fuel for such trips or the subsequent employment of any submarines that might have made it had the German leadership been willing to consider such a project. The Japanese did take over a few Italian submarines for their own use, but such last minute activities could not have had any substantial effect on the outcome of the war.

From the German side, there was an astonishing degree of ignorance and inattention. Hitler was willing to agree to the Japanese request that Asia be divided between the two at the 70th degree of longitude against his military advisers’ advice, who wanted more of Siberia for Germany, but neither he nor his staff ever paid much attention to the fighting in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas. Of course, had the Germans been more interested, the Japanese would not have made things easy for them; in fact, they provided their ally with misleading information. A striking example is that the Germans learned that the Japanese had lost, not won, the battle of Midway only when the Japanese in vain asked to purchase the unfinished German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin to tow to the Pacific.

Certainly an additional fact that made concerted coalition strategy unlikely was that in both Germany and Japan the respective army and navy command structures were never able to agree on strategic priorities in the years 1941–42 when the two powers still held the initiative. In Germany, the army invariably concentrated on the fighting on the Eastern Front and looked with doubt and even horror at the navy leadership’s interest in meeting with the Japanese. As army chief of staff General Franz Halder commented with outrage rather than approval in his diary on 12 June 1942 about the German navy’s projects: “Those folks dream in continents.” In Japan, the army and navy went their own way, and there was no prospect of their combining forces to invade India in 1942 when the conquest of Burma first offered that possibility and at a time when there was serious unrest in that largest portion of the British Empire.

The steady refusal of the Germans to agree to Japanese urgings, beginning in the fall of 1941, that Germany make peace with the USSR and concentrate on fighting the Western Allies, particularly in the Mediterranean, made for friction at the highest levels. Similarly, the unwillingness of the Japanese to interfere with the flow of American supplies to the USSR’s Far Eastern ports, lest the Soviets provide the United States with air bases for attacking the home islands, provided the basis for additional troubles between Tokyo and Berlin.

Although the Japanese did provide the Germans with support for their submarines at bases in Malaya, whether this project, which necessitated very lengthy journeys from Europe and substantial losses along the way, was really a cost-effective employment of limited German naval resources is difficult to say. In spite of even greater losses, the efforts to break the Allied blockade by sending first surface ships and subsequently submarines with cargoes from Europe to East Asia and the other way almost certainly proved a more useful form of naval cooperation, especially for Germany. Because Germany’s synthetic rubber program required a tiny percentage of natural rubber, the small quantities that actually arrived at German-controlled French ports were of real significance. This was also true of some of the other materials transported in this fashion. On the other hand, the technical information and equipment, such as samples of new German weapons, which were provided to the Japanese, arrived too late for the latter to take advantage of the knowledge and examples provided.

One may similarly question whether the 1943 transfer of the Indian collaborator Subhas Chandra Bose in the Indian Ocean from a German submarine to a Japanese one provided substantial aid to the Japanese. Most Indians willing to fight alongside the Japanese had already made that choice. Their addition to the ill-fated Japanese invasion of India in 1944 would most likely have been equally minimal, even had Bose continued to observe from his residence in Europe how the Germans treated conquered people and killed Gypsies, merely because they originated in India.

As the war continued, Germany attacked its main ally the USSR, and its naval relations with both Spain and Italy deteriorated. Throughout the years 1943 and 1944, coalition discussions between German and Japanese diplomats and military representatives continued with no discernible improvement. The Germans could no longer contemplate even a theoretical advance into the Middle East, and Hitler was under no circumstances willing to listen to Japanese – or for that matter Italian – advice to make peace with the USSR.

As the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic definitively turned against the Germans in 1943, their hopes of recruiting the Japanese into a role in the cam- paign against Allied shipping were no more effective than earlier. In view of Japan’s hopes of continued Soviet neutrality in the Pacific War, slowly turning to the further hope of Soviet intervention on their own side against the Western Powers, the Japanese were not about to do anything to interfere with the stream of American aid, of which fully half was being sent to the Soviet Far East.

Karl Dönitz, the new commander of the German navy who had replaced Raeder early in 1943, looked in the last weeks of the war into a future in which Germany would once again build a large surface fleet. He wanted to send to Japan a group of naval engineering officers who were to study major Japanese warships on the assumption that these were of a superior quality. No one had informed him that most of the ships he wanted studied and copied were already at the bottom of the ocean. The project was never implemented, but its almost lunatic character surely provides a fitting conclusion to the absolute failure of German–Japanese naval cooperation.

Hitler in Defeat

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Gradually Hitler grew accustomed to defeat. It had become so habitual that it no longer offered any surprises. He still relied on the V-bombs and the still more dangerous V-2 weapons to stave off ultimate defeat and surrender. London would vanish from the map; then it would be the turn of Moscow, and perhaps New York. But these were the hopes of a man clutching at straws.

Finally on November 20, 1944, with the sound of the Russian guns already within earshot, he was compelled to leave the Wolf’s Lair, where he had spent the greater part of the war years. General Warlimont commented wryly that they were leaving the East Prussian command post just about the time it was becoming habitable. The concrete was drying out at last, and there was no longer a sour, sickly smell hanging over the place.

The new command post had the code name Adlerhorst (Eagle’s Eyrie). It was situated near Bad Nauheim and consisted of a series of deep underground shelters beneath a wooded hillside on the edge of a grassy valley. Built in 1940, it was surrounded by fortified posts. Here Hitler worked on the finishing touches for his last great gamble—the Ardennes offensive, which originally bore the code name Wacht am Rein (Watch on the Rhine) and later came to be known as Herbstnebel(Autumn Mist).

The idea, the decision, and most of the strategic plans were Hitler’s own. It was not an especially brilliant concept and was riddled with flaws. Essentially the plan consisted of a sudden massive breakthrough in the Ardennes with sixteen armored divisions preceded by a great wave of English-speaking commandos in American uniforms and riding American jeeps, with orders to sow confusion and terror behind the American lines. Once the front was pierced, telephone lines would be cut, signposts would be turned around, dispatch riders would be intercepted, radio stations would be shot up, military policemen directing convoys would be killed, and German military policemen in allied uniforms would direct the convoys in the wrong directions. The refinements of warfare by disguise and trickery had been studied in great detail by Hitler with the help of Otto Skorzeny, who had rescued Mussolini from his mountain captivity and was now placed in charge of the commando units which would carry out the first stage of the operation.

The chief flaw in the stratagem was an obvious one: a German soldier in an American uniform remains a German soldier. Once the Americans had recovered from their initial surprise, they had little difficulty in recognizing the enemy, who spoke English better than he spoke American, and spoke neither language with familiarity. Skorzeny’s commandos knew very little about baseball scores and the private lives of film stars, and this was their undoing, for they were unable to answer the simple questions asked of them. Caught wearing American uniforms, they were liable to be shot out of hand.

Although the intelligence files of the allies were filled with reports of the coming offensive, little attention was paid to them. As Hitler said: “The enemy is so obsessed with his own offensives that he will pay no attention to ours.” The mustering yards of the armored divisions for the Ardennes offensive were the woods and forests of the Eifel region. There, where the autumn mists clung to the trees, they were able to assemble in secrecy. There was a low cloud cover, and no allied airplanes detected them.

As usual Hitler kept postponing the offensive. In October, he spoke of an offensive in November, and in November he spoke of an offensive at the beginning of December. On December 7 he postponed it to December 14. On December 12 he postponed it to December 16. It was the last throw of the dice, and he spent a month shaking them in his cupped hands.

On December 12 Hitler invited all the generals taking part in the offensive to a briefing in the underground bunker at Adlerhorst. Security precautions were stricter than ever. Stripped of their briefcases and their weapons, they were driven to the secret command post in a bus, which deposited them before a double line of SS guards near the bunker entrance. There was something frightening and intimidating about these guards, who descended into the bunker with the generals and then stood guard behind their chairs. General Bayerlein, soon to be leading a panzer division through the Ardennes forests, was so terrified of the glowering SS officer behind him that he was hesitant even to reach for a handkerchief.

Hitler appeared at six o’clock in the evening. He had written out some notes for his two-hour speech, and his hand shook as he turned the pages. For what was probably the last time, he addressed a full assembly of generals and gave a consecutive and reasoned account of his plans and stratagems. His chief argument was that the Allies were divided among themselves, that it was inconceivable that the Russians, the Americans, and the English would ever agree politically, and therefore Germany could still hope to hold them at bay. German forces were relatively stronger than they had been in 1939. With one ferocious blow on a thinly defended front, he intended to hurl back the Western Allies. Later, with another ferocious blow he would drive the Russians back to Moscow.

The stenographic report of the speech survives with only a few omissions. Although he unconsciously betrays his fears, his corroding despairs, and his lack of any real knowledge of the strength of the Allied forces, the speech must be counted among the most impressive speeches he ever delivered. He said:

The enemy must realize that under no circumstances will he achieve success. Once he realizes this—by observing the behavior of his people and of the armed forces and the severe reverses suffered in the field-then the day will come when it is abundantly clear that his nervous energy has collapsed.

Then there will take place what happened to Frederick the Great in the seventh year of his war when he achieved the greatest success of his life. People may say: Yes, that was another situation altogether. But, gentlemen, it was not another situation. At that time all his generals, including his own brother, were near to despairing of success. His Prime Minister and deputations of ministers came from Berlin and begged him to end the war because it could no longer be won. The steadfastness of one man made it possible for the battle to be carried through to victory and thus bring about a miraculous change. The argument that all this would never have happened except for the change of sovereign in Russia is quite irrelevant. For if he had surrendered during the fifth year of the war, then a change of sovereign in the seventh year, two years later, would have meant nothing. One must always wait for the right time.

Gentlemen, there is something else which must be considered. In all history there has never been a coalition composed of such heterogeneous elements with such widely divergent aims as that of our enemies. Those who are now our enemies stand at the farthest extremes: ultra-capitalist states on one side, and ultra-Marxist states on the other; on one side a dying empire—Britain; on the other side a colony, the United States of America, waiting day to day for the moment when it will claim its inheritance, and their interests constantly diverging.

So one might say that the spider sitting in his web watches these developments and sees how, hour by hour, these antitheses are increasing If he succeeds in striking a couple of hard blows, this artificially constructed common front may collapse with a mighty thunderclap at any moment. Each of these partners in the coalition has entered it in the hope of realizing his own political aims either to cheat the others out of something or to win something out of it. The aim of the United States is to be the heir of England. Russia aims to secure the Balkans, the Dardanelles, Persia Persian oil, the Persian Gulf, England aims to maintain her position, to strengthen her position in the Mediterranean. In other words—it can happen at any moment, for history, we must agree, is made by mortal men—the coalition may dissolve, but only on condition that under no circumstances does the battle bring about a moment of weakness in Germany.

Hitler’s theory that all coalitions against him were liable to dissolve in a clap of thunder if he struck hard enough had served him well during his political career. In the past he had never failed to break them. But the theory no longer had any validity: the Allies were drawn together in a common determination to destroy him, and for a little while longer they would remain united.

Hitler’s speech to his generals was therefore a brilliant defense of a hopeless position. If will power alone could have won the war, he would have won it long before. The Ardennes offensive was doomed to failure, as Rundstedt predicted. Ironically, the Allies believed that Rundstedt was chiefly responsible for planning the campaign, when in fact he had almost nothing to do with it.

About this speech there hovers a strange light, gleaming fitfully, like the phosphorescence of a decaying corpse. Hitler, brooding in his subterranean cavern, was dreaming of the dissolution of empires other than his own. To the operation led by Otto Skorzeny, with the disguised German soldiers clawing their way through the allied lines, he gave the code name Greif, the German word for the mythological Griffin, half eagle, half lion, guardian of the gold and precious stones of Scythia, the mysterious land in Central Asia. Mythologies had always fascinated him, and now he was living among them.

When General Guderian visited him at Adlershorst on Christmas Eve with ominous news that the Russians were about to mount a huge offensive, Hitler simply refused to believe the intelligence reports. “It’s the greatest imposture since Genghiz Khan!” he shouted. “Who is responsible for producing all this rubbish?” Hitler did not explain why he regarded Genghiz Khan as an impostor. General Guderian stayed for the evening meal and found himself sitting next to the weak-chinned Heinrich Himmler, who by this time had accumulated a formidable array of titles. He was commander-in-chief of the Home Army, commander of Army Group Upper Rhine, Minister of the Interior, Chief of the German Police and Reichsfuehrer of the SS. Like Goering, Himmler concealed his essential nullity behind a façade of titles. Turning to General Guderian, Himmler gave his verdict on the Russians. “You know my dear colonel-general,” he said, “I don’t really believe the Russians will attack at all. It’s all an enormous bluff. The figures given by your ‘Foreign Armies East’ department are grossly exaggerated. They’re far too worried. I’m convinced there is nothing going on in the East.”

Himmler had evidently discussed the matter with Hitler and was merely repeating what he had heard.

Although Hitler regarded the Ardennes offensive as the turning point of the war and believed that in a few weeks he would have the initiative on the Western front, there were many aspects of the war that deeply troubled him. The Americans were incompetent fighting men, the Russian Army had exhausted its strength, and therefore he had little to fear from America and Russia. He was more disturbed by the English, for he believed they had learned all there was to know about the V-bombs and were beginning to produce them in large numbers. He was sure they would soon be hurling their own V-bombs against the Ruhr, which would be reduced to ashes. There was no protection against these deadly weapons, and it was therefore all the more necessary to win the war quickly. Hitler composed a complete scenario for the English discovery of an unexploded V-bomb. He imagined that V-bombs had been examined and taken to pieces by English scientists, who then produced exact blueprints and set to work manufacturing them on a vast scale. The genius of German scientists was being perverted, and their discoveries would soon be employed for the destruction of Germany. Just as Hitler was wrong about the Russians and the Americans, so he was wrong about the English, who were too busy building bombers to have time for building V-bombs.

Again and again Hitler returned to the example of Frederick the Great. Early in the morning of December 30 he summoned General Wolfgang Thomale, Chief of the Inspectorate General of the Armored Forces, and told him that he had found a letter written by Frederick during the fifth and most hopeless year of the Seven Years War. The letter read: “I entered this war with the most wonderful army in Europe; now I have a pile of manure. I have no leaders any more, my generals are incompetent, my officers cannot lead, and my troops are wretched.” Yes, that was how it was, and yet Frederick won the war. And so it always happened when world-historical figures appeared, dominating everyone by their fanatical energy, courage and will power.

For a while Hitler continued in this vein, for it always gave him the greatest pleasure to contemplate Frederick the Great. Abruptly a more sobering thought occurred to him. He said:

We have everything at stake in this war. If one day the other side says, “We’ve had enough,” then nothing happens to him. If America says, “All over, finish, no more young men for Europe,” then nothing happens. New York will still be New York, Chicago will still be Chicago, Detroit will still be Detroit, San Francisco will still be San Francisco. It changes nothing. But if we say, “We’ve had enough, we want out,” then Germany would cease to exist.

Day after day the Germany that Hitler had known was ceasing to exist. The Ardennes offensive was petering out. Finally, on January 14, the Operations Staff war diary noted: “The initiative in the area of the offensive has passed to the enemy.”

On the following day Adlershorst was abandoned and Hitler returned to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. For just over a hundred days he would continue to give orders, hold military conferences, and discuss the terrible fate reserved for his enemies. But his mind had lost its grip on reality, his enemies were advancing from all directions, and he knew that only a miracle would save him.

Indian National Army (INA) I

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Even before the Tokyo typhoon struck South-East Asia, the Japanese had established contact with Indian anti-colonial activists in the region. On 18 September 1941, the Japanese army set up a small mission in Bangkok that enabled the forging of these links. A young, idealistic army intelligence officer, Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, was sent there to contact the Indian Independence League, the premier nationalist organization of expatriate Indians. Fujiwara was given a broad assignment: ‘to consider future Indo-Japanese relations from the standpoint of establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. He fancied himself as a ‘Japanese Lawrence of Arabia’ – an epithet he would later quote with approval in his memoirs – and briskly set about realizing his mandate through his intelligence outfit, Fujiwara Kikan or F Kikan. The most significant contact made by Fujiwara was with the Sikh leader of the Indian Independence League in Bangkok, Giani Pritam Singh, who convinced him of the susceptibility of Indian troops in Malaya to anti-British propaganda.

Days after the Japanese offensive on Malaya, Fujiwara made a crucial breakthrough. On 11 December, a battalion of the Indian army – 1/14th Punjab – was routed in a surprise attack with tanks near Jitra in north-west Malaya and rapidly surrendered to the Japanese forces. Fujiwara and Pritam Singh met a Sikh officer of the battalion, Captain Mohan Singh. An ICO who had risen from the ranks, Mohan Singh had been commissioned in 1934 and had rejoined his old battalion a year later. Fujiwara took him to the town of Alor Star and sought to convince him that the Japanese did not wish to hold Indians as prisoners of war, but rather wanted to help form an Indian Independence Army to liberate India.

After several days of discussion, Mohan Singh became amenable to the idea. After the war, he would tell his British interrogators that he was:

Greatly agitated by British war aims . . . Even at the most critical period of her [Britain’s] history, when she was utilizing India to fight for her own freedom, she refused to consider the question of India’s freedom. Instead, she ordered the arrest of Indian leaders, because they were guilty of asking freedom for India.

Mohan Singh initially insisted that the force should be deployed not in Malaya but India – and on an equal footing with the Japanese army. It was agreed that the force would be called the Indian National Army (INA). But the limits of his ability to bargain with the Japanese soon became clear. When 229 soldiers of 1/14th Punjab volunteered, they had to join the Japanese advance to Singapore.

The surrender at Singapore swelled the ranks of the INA. Indian soldiers were separated from the British and handed over to the Japanese. On 17 February, around 45,000 Indian soldiers were assembled in Farrer Park. A British officer, Colonel J. C. Hunt, made perfunctory remarks to the effect that the Indians were now prisoners of war and that they should abide by Japanese orders. Fujiwara then delivered a carefully crafted speech, which was simultaneously translated into English for the officers and Hindustani for the men. ‘The Japanese Army will not treat you as POWs’, he proclaimed, ‘but as friends.’ Explaining Tokyo’s aims for associating the liberated peoples of Asia in a co-prosperity sphere, he announced that Japan stood ready to provide all assistance for the liberation of India and exhorted his audience to join the INA. Fujiwara recalled a tumult of excitement rising out the park on the announcement of the INA.

Indeed, of the 65,000 Indian soldiers and officers who surrendered at Singapore, around 20,000 chose the join the INA. Several battalions went over almost entirely intact. Why was the INA so much more successful in attracting volunteers than the Indian Legion? The contrast is particularly stark in the case of officers: 400 Indian officers joined the INA while only one VCO volunteered for the Indian Legion. To be sure, about 250 of these officers came from the medical corps and many of them volunteered to help treat their fellow soldiers. The remaining 150 included around 100 VCOs.22 Even so, the differences are striking.

Several factors accounted for the disparity between the Indian Legion and the INA. In the first place, the expansion of the Indian army had resulted in a significant increase in the ICO component of the officer class. Between May 1940 and September 1941, 1,400 Indians were recruited as officers. In 1942, the annual intake was increased from 900 to 2,000. More importantly, there were many more ICOs in the Malayan theatre than in North Africa. The general staff had initially attached higher priority to the Middle East and had avoided sending the Indianizing units to that theatre. Besides, there was an unstated assumption that the Indianizing units would be more than capable of tackling the inferior Japanese troops.

The ICOs were more politically attuned than the older King’s Commissioned Indian Officers. This was particularly true of the younger ICOs – later designated as Emergency Commissioned Indian Officers (ECIOs) – who had joined after the outbreak of war. Military intelligence was concerned about the political attitude of these officers ‘who are entering the Indian Army in increasing numbers’: ‘It is certain that the majority are Nationalist in outlook, and that many regard Gandhi with veneration.’ An Indian officer commissioned during the war and posted in Malaya until January 1942 observed that of Indian officers ‘about 60% are “Nationalists” and desire an early independence for India. The remaining 40% are in a general way dissatisfied with British rule in India but hold no strong political views.’ A KCIO who had escaped from Japanese captivity similarly held that ‘Every Indian (soldier included) desires a higher political status for India. The difference is only in degree. The extremists want complete independence – the moderates Dominion status and the last group will be satisfied with something approaching Dominion status.’

The ICOs also felt that they were being discriminated against. Not only did they receive less pay and fewer perks than the British ECOs, but they were paid less than the KCIOs as well. ‘ICOs do not understand’, military intelligence noted, ‘why they should be paid less than the British officers, sometimes possessing less experience, who are performing similar duties.’ What’s more, they felt that this was ‘an example of racial discrimination’. An Indian officer, for example, compared his social status and military background with those of some British ‘shopkeepers’ who were obtaining commissions with higher salaries.

The Indian officers felt the racial edge of discrimination in other ways too. ‘I never once saw’, recalled D. K. Palit, ‘an Indian officer ever share a table with a British officer.’ A. O. Mitha, who was commissioned into a Grenadier battalion in mid-1942, had a similar experience in his mess: ‘They [British officers] talked among themselves, completely ignoring me, and when I tried to converse with them I either got no reply or only a grunt.’ The British ECOs, many of them from middle-class families with little exposure to the Empire, exhibited less racial prejudice than the old KCOs. Indeed, many young British ECOs held radical political views and were sympathetic to the cause of Indian independence. P. W. Kingsford – the future social historian – travelled to India to take up his commission as an ECO, carrying with him Lenin’s Imperialism, Rajni Palme Dutt’s India Today and E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. ‘How could I understand’, he would later write, ‘the absurdity of the situation that here I was travelling to India to help run a system of government which could only strangle any Indian opposition to fascism.’ On reaching Bombay, he quickly established contacts with the Communist Party of India and began clandestinely meeting its leading lights such as P. C. Joshi and B. T. Ranadive. The principal challenge, he believed, was to get ‘British troops to understand the Indians and the Indians to know the British soldiers, traditionally their oppressors, but now many, if not most of them, trade unionists and socialists of different sorts’.

While British ECOs did not carry the hidebound prejudices of the older officers, they were mostly unable to bridge the social and cultural barriers with their Indian counterparts. As the Southern Army Commander observed, they ‘were not good mixers and seemed to look down on their Indian brethren’. More galling was the promotion in the Malayan theatre of newly arrived British ECOs superseding more senior ICOs. Harbaksh Singh, a company commander in 5/11th Sikh deployed with the 22nd Brigade in Malaya, felt that his commanding officer had no confidence in his Indian officers. Several officers who had thus been passed over rose to command positions in the INA.30 In the prevailing political climate, old KCOs could be rabidly racist. The British commanding officer of a field artillery unit that had several Indian officers wrote to his wife:

Do you remember that chap in the regiment that looked like a buck nigger? By name . . . . . . ? Well, he went a bit politically minded at one time, chiefly because he wasn’t thought fit for promotion. His line was that the majority of India would prefer Jap’s rule to ours. I have just got rid of him! But can you beat it and that’s a chap serving in the Indian army. I’ve only got one Indian left . . . I think he’ll probably behave himself.

The ICOs also reported discrimination between British and Indian officers in trains and other public transportation in Malaya. The European plantocracy in Malaya denied the Indians entry into clubs and swimming pools. This caused ‘a good deal of bitterness among the officers’. One officer was heard saying that ‘they had been sent all the way from India to defend the —- Europeans and he was damned if he was going to lift a little finger to do it if and when the time came’. The officer rose to prominence in the INA.

The VCOs were a different story. Most of them had served long years in the army and had benefited from its cradle-to-grave welfare system. Besides, a majority of them had little interest in politics. When asked about the prospect of a Japanese invasion of India, a subedar from Rawalpindi replied that ‘he did not care whether the British or the Japanese ruled India so long as he went on receiving his pension’. Nevertheless, about 100 VCOs joined the INA. This was partly because the VCOs believed that their standing in the Indian army was not recognized by the new British ECOs. Despite the authorities issuing numerous directives that ‘their “izzat” [honour] should be respected’, the VCOs frequently complained of the lack of consideration and respect. By contrast, the INA offered them a higher standing and better terms than the Indian army – let alone what they would have received as Japanese prisoners of war. Thus VCOs, who served as platoon commanders in the Indian army, were offered command of companies with the rank of a commissioned officer and the prospect of further promotion. The INA, of course, adopted this policy owing to the shortage of commissioned officers. Yet the VCOs who signed up stood to benefit from it.

Then again, some of the VCOs were politically aware. The rank-and-file soldier also took ‘a very lively interest in what is going on around him . . . he is aware the political developments will affect him and his future, and is watching them closely’. A KCIO observed that the soldiers fell into three groups. A ‘small minority’ was strongly anti-British and even pro-Japanese. Another ‘small group’ was strongly pro-British. The ‘largest group’ was indifferent and capable of ‘adjusting to the Japanese masters if circumstances shape that way’. ‘Loyalty is not as general as is believed by Senior Brit Officers’, he emphasized. ‘A number of people are loyal but they will only remain so as long as it suits them.’

Further, the VCOs and the other ranks were not immune to the discontent rumbling among the Indian officers. Take the case of 4/19th Hyderabad, an Indianizing battalion sent to Singapore in August 1939. In April 1940, the military censor intercepted a letter written by an ICO of the unit – Lieutenant Mohammed Zahir-ud-Din – who wrote to an English lady in India that he hoped ‘the present war might last for ten years, so that the British Empire . . . [will] be so exhausted that . . . [we] Indians . . . [will] be able to turn the British out of [the] country’. The British commanding officer of the battalion already took a dim view of his Indian officers and constantly carped about their performance of duties. His bile rose at Zahir-ud-Din’s seditious letter. The officer was promptly suspended and despatched to India for a court martial. The Ahir Company of 4/19th Hyderabad, to which the officer belonged, rose in protest. The commanding officer had the company disarmed and replaced on duty by men from a British battalion. Fearing a full-blown mutiny, he finally took his Indian officers into his confidence and with their intervention the situation was controlled. K. S. Thimayya, a KCIO in the unit and later chief of the Indian army, recalled that ‘the sympathy of the Indian officers was with the mutineers . . . The subaltern hotheads and the VCOs supported the mutiny . . . Fortunately we older officers were able to keep them in line.’ After the fall of Singapore, 4/19th Hyderabad was among the battalions that volunteered, almost entirely, to join the INA.

Indian National Army (INA) II

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Ties between Indian officers and their men ran the other way as well. Some ICOs joined the INA in order to shield Indian prisoners of war from the Japanese and secure better conditions for them. As one ICO put it, he had joined the INA to ‘protect Indian soldiers from Jap treatment’.

Nationalist sympathies and racial discrimination, professional incentives and affinity among Indians do not by themselves explain why so many soldiers enrolled in the INA. Nor do they entirely account for the disparity in recruitment between the INA and the Indian Legion. A crucial factor was the dissolution of military cohesion, like a clump of earth thrown into a flowing river, when faced with the Japanese onslaught. The experience of Mohan Singh’s battalion, 1/14th Punjab, was not unrepresentative. The battalion had been shattered in the battle of Jitra on 11 December 1941, leaving every man to fend for himself. The Indian soldiers joining his INA, he observed, ‘had lost their sense of discipline and were demoralized. Some of them appeared to be completely shocked at what had happened. Practically, all of them were exhausted, not only bodily but also mentally.’

The surrender at Farrer Park in Singapore reinforced the sense that the organizational scaffolding of the Indian army was crumbling. Shahnawaz Khan, an ICO who would subsequently join the INA, felt that he and his men had been ‘handed over like cattle by the British to the Japs’. Another officer, Mohammad Zaman Kiani, also thought that the Indian soldiers were given to the Japanese ‘like a herd of cattle’. It is significant that of the nearly fifty ICOs present at Farrer Park, about thirty-five elected to join the INA. These, the general staff later conceded, included ‘many with distinguished records of service . . . whose loyalty before the fall of Singapore was never in question’.

John Crasta, a south Indian soldier who refused to enrol, recalled ‘several faces becoming sad’. One soldier sighed: ‘What will become of my family? Oh God.’ Crasta perceptively observed ‘how the privations of a one-sided campaign, defections, despair, discouragement, and a sense of helplessness overcome a soldier’. The breakdown of institutional cohesion made it easier for them to overcome their doubts about loyalty and oaths.

This breakdown also helps explain why the largest numbers of volunteers for the INA came from the martial classes – the classes whose loyalty the Raj had so assiduously cultivated and about which Churchill had so confidently boasted. Indeed, it was the martial-class battalions that defected almost intact to the INA. As the commander-in-chief, Archibald Wavell, wrote, ‘the bulk of the active INA personnel are representatives of the classes (Sikhs and PMs [Punjabi Muslims] in particular) which formed the backbone of the prewar Indian Army’. Indeed, the Punjab alone accounted for 75 per cent of the volunteers to the INA.

The Indian army did confront a tough enemy in North Africa, especially after the Afrika Korps came into its own, and suffered several reverses, not least the disaster in Tobruk. But there was no collapse of organizational cohesion comparable to that in South-East Asia. For instance, the logistical chain supporting the Indian units in Burma, Malaya and Singapore shrivelled to the point of nonexistence by late 1941. By contrast, the supply system of the 4th Indian Division in North Africa during 1941–42 functioned reasonably well – even under adverse military circumstances. Retreats and reverses in this theatre were undoubtedly demoralizing, but they did not feel like routs.

That said, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that around 45,000 Indian soldiers in the Far East refrained from joining the INA. The pull of military loyalty and discipline was substantially undermined, but not wholly neutralized. There were other factors at work as well. For one thing, there was considerable reluctance among captured soldiers to return to combat duties under anyone’s command. For another, there was an undercurrent of communal feeling among the Indian prisoners of war. Some Muslim soldiers believed that ‘not a single Sikh, young or old, was left out of the INA’. They feared that the Sikhs and Hindus were cosying up to the Japanese to perpetuate their domination over the Muslims of India. Even those who were not particularly sympathetic to the Muslim League disapproved of the ‘framed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi’ in the INA camps or the pro-Congress slogans raised by some Hindu and Sikh soldiers.

Those who refused to switch allegiance underwent extraordinary privations. From December 1942, they were transported via transit camps in Jakarta and Surabaya to New Guinea, New Britain and Bougainville in the Pacific. Up to 2,000 men were crammed into small cargo vessels that afforded barely 3 square feet for each prisoner. There was little air, less water and even less food. Lieutenant Patel of the medical corps watched helplessly as almost 80 per cent of his comrades died on the fifty-six-day voyage from Singapore to Rabaul. On reaching their destinations, the Indians were treated by the Japanese as ‘a race of coolies and barbarians’. When the officers demanded better treatment for their men, they were told to join the INA. On one occasion, the Japanese sought to impose rank badges on Indian prisoners of the 5/11th Sikh. The officers protested: ‘We are Indian Army prisoners of war and according to the law we are not allowed to wear any rank badges except those worn in that Army.’ They were beaten senseless for their defiance. Torture and summary execution were routine occurrences. The Indian prisoners may well have suffered an even worse fate than the European and American captives of the Japanese.

The INA got off to a flying start under the command of ‘General’ Mohan Singh. Recruitment began in earnest in April 1942 and received a fillip with the onset of the Quit India campaign later in the year. By 1 September 1942, a full division with 16,000 men was formally raised. It comprised three brigades, named Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. The division paraded in Singapore on 2 October – Gandhi’s birthday – and Mohan Singh proclaimed that it was ready for war.

However, Mohan Singh’s relationship with the Japanese was steadily deteriorating during this period. There were two axes of tension. The first stemmed from the politics of the Indian Independence League (IIL). The IIL was an umbrella organization that brought together the numerous expatriate Indian associations in Malaya, Singapore and Thailand. It had been formed at the outbreak of war by Pritam Singh and Rash Behari Bose. A revolutionary in exile, Bose had lived since 1915 in Tokyo – a city that provided a haven for many Indian firebrands. He had married a Japanese woman and had close links with the intelligence agencies in Tokyo. But Bose had an ambivalent relationship with the Indian expatriate leaders in South-East Asia. On the one hand, they realized the practical importance of his Japanese connections. On the other, they were worried about the nature of the IIL’s relations with Japan and the role of Japanese officials in its functioning. Mohan Singh shared their misgivings.

The second axis of tension ran between Mohan Singh and the Japanese army. Fujiwara and his F Kikan were replaced by Tokyo with a larger organization, led by Colonel Iwakuro Hideo. The Iwakuro Kikan began setting up several propaganda projects, such as the Swaraj Institute in Penang, under the lawyer N. Raghavan, which trained Indians in intelligence and espionage. Unlike Fujiwara, however, Iwakuro had little interest in Indian independence. Moreover, he was apt to ride roughshod over the Indians and deploy their resources on his own volition. The thorough-going nationalist in Mohan Singh could not abide Iwakuro. The two men also had different plans for the INA. The ‘general’ wanted an army of two divisions, while the colonel believed that one would suffice. Iwakuro saw it largely as a propaganda force, while Mohan Singh was determined that his soldiers would spearhead the invasion of India. Mohan Singh wanted to retain those who had not volunteered for the INA as a potential reserve; Iwakuro wanted to use them as a labour unit.

These lines of tension crossed at the IIL’s conference in Bangkok in June 1942. Mohan Singh felt that Rash Behari Bose was ‘quite a weak person’ and that ‘Bose and his colleagues from Japan were not absolutely free in their actions’. So, while Bose was declared leader of the IIL, a separate ‘Council of Action’ was created – apparently to cut him down to size. Dissatisfaction with Bose was also evident in the resolution adopted by the conference requesting Tokyo to arrange for the move of Subhas Bose from Germany to the Far East. The resolution further called on Japan to protect Indians in the territories under its control and not treat them as enemy nationals. The INA was declared the military wing of the IIL and Tokyo was asked to recognize it as an equal allied army.

The last demand was obviously aimed at securing the autonomy of the INA. Not surprisingly, Iwakuro was unenthusiastic. The Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo felt that Fujiwara had pampered the Indians and declined to respond to the Bangkok resolution. Iwakuro sought to use Rash Behari Bose as an intermediary in dealing with Mohan Singh. Bose promptly arrived in Singapore and set up shop in the Park View Hotel. He could not, however, convince Mohan Singh of Tokyo’s supposed sympathy for the Bangkok resolution. The divide between them sharpened. Bose felt that the INA was getting in the way of his efforts to find the best spot for Indians under the Japanese sun. Mohan Singh suspected that Bose saw the INA as a propaganda appendage to the IIL. Fujiwara flew down to Singapore of his own accord to break the impasse, but it was too late.

By this time, Mohan Singh had grown paranoid about the Japanese. The attempts to deploy INA intelligence units in the field led to a sharp stand-off. Mohan Singh’s autocratic and increasingly erratic style of command was also alienating officers of the INA as well as the civilian leadership of the IIL. On 9 December, Mohan resigned from the Council of Action. On 29 December 1942, Iwakuro called Mohan Singh to his headquarters and asked him to co-operate with the Japanese. He refused and was arrested with the concurrence of Bose. As a parting shot, the ‘general’ announced the dissolution of the INA. For the rest of the war, he was kept in Japanese confinement. Rash Behari Bose made some feeble attempts at holding the INA together before departing for Tokyo. The Japanese too were keen to keep it intact, if only for its propaganda value. In the event, the INA’s revival had to await the arrival of the other Bose.

Six months passed before Subhas Bose reached Singapore, in a twin-engined Japanese aircraft. After travelling by submarine from Europe to the coast of Sumatra, Bose had flown to Tokyo on 16 May 1943. In his meeting with the Japanese premier on 12 June, Bose asked if Japan would offer ‘unconditional support’ to the Indian struggle. Tojo readily agreed. He was less forthcoming on Bose’s request to authorize an offensive into India from Burma – an attack in which the INA would operate alongside the Japanese army. On 16 June, Bose sat as a special guest in the Imperial Diet and heard Tojo declare that Japan would do ‘everything possible’ to help India attain its independence.

Accompanying Subhas to Singapore was the elder Bose. At a packed meeting in the Cathay Theatre on 4 July, Rash Behari Bose passed on the baton to his younger colleague. Subhas Bose received a guard of honour from the INA as well as a tumultuous welcome in Singapore. His political standing received a further boost when Tojo himself took the salute at an INA parade on 6 July 1943. In the months ahead, Bose addressed massive gatherings of civilians and soldiers, who were enthralled by his stirring speeches and transfixed by his charisma.

Subhas Bose’s appeal was crucial to the resuscitation of the INA. Not only was he able to weld the force together, but he managed to draw in soldiers who had hitherto been sceptical of the INA. Captain Shahnawaz Khan had refused to join the INA under Mohan Singh’s command. The ‘general’, he believed, lacked the requisite capacity for leadership. This was partly the disdain of the regular officer for a colleague who had risen from the ranks. And it was partly his concern that Mohan Singh would not be able to ‘cope with Japanese intrigue’ and that the INA would be ‘exploited by the Japanese purely for their personal ends’. Khan initially worked with other officers in trying to convince the men not to switch sides. In June 1942, when the INA had attracted a critical mass of soldiers, he decided to join up. But his motives were mixed. ‘I decided in the interests of my men to volunteer for the INA with the full determination that I would do everything possible to break it or sabotage it from within the moment I felt it would submit to Japanese exploitation.’ Khan’s meetings with Bose dispelled any lingering doubts. He confessed that ‘from the moment I came into personal contact with him he exercised a strange influence over me . . . I knew in his hands, India’s honour was safe, he would never barter it for anything in the world.’

Bose did not confine himself to Indian prisoners of war and tapped into a wider pool of recruitment. Malaya had a large population of south Indians, mainly Tamils, who had come from India since the 1860s to work in the rubber plantations. The majority of them worked as tappers – lowest in the hierarchy of labour on the plantations. As the Japanese had advanced into Malaya, the British planters had fled. In the ensuing chaos, work on the plantations ground to a halt and many tappers left for nearby towns in search of employment. And they ended up volunteering in large numbers for the INA. The expansion of the INA curiously mirrored that of the Indian army, where the old martial classes were being supplemented by large numbers of south Indians. Bose also formed a unit of women volunteers, called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. The regiment went on to acquire mythical status, but it was not as daring an innovation as the legend suggests. Most of the women were employed not in combat but in the stereotypical duties of nursing and welfare.

Bose had grand designs to raise the strength of the INA to 50,000 men and women under arms. This was unrealistic given the paucity of officers. But Bose was confident that ‘When I land in Bengal everyone will revolt. Wavell’s whole army will join me.’ In any case, the Japanese agreed to train and equip no more than 30,000 soldiers, formed into three divisions. On the purposes of the INA, too, the earlier differences persisted. Field Marshal Terauchi Hisaichi, the commander of Japanese forces in South-East Asia, wanted the INA to be used as field propaganda units. Bose, however, insisted that the INA would lead the offensive on India. ‘Any liberation of India secured through Japanese sacrifices’, he maintained, ‘is worse than slavery.’ Terauchi eventually agreed to deploy one INA brigade in the front line to test its mettle and morale.

On 21 October 1943, Bose announced the formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind (‘Free India’). As head of state, he held the foreign affairs and war portfolios. Eleven other colleagues, including eight INA officers, were sworn in as members of the cabinet. Three days later, the Provisional Government declared war on Britain and the United States. By declaring the United States an enemy, Bose was not only underlining his intent to take on the American troops on Indian soil but also reaching out to Japan and the Axis powers. Nine states, including Japan and Germany, granted diplomatic recognition to the Provisional Government.

In his dealings with Japan as head of the Provisional Government, Bose sought to display considerable independence. Thus, when the Japanese Foreign Office sent a junior civilian official, Kakitsubo Masayoshi, as diplomatic representative to the Provisional Government, Bose refused to officially recognize him as such. In early November, Bose travelled to Tokyo and negotiated on equal terms with Tojo. He asked Japan to hand over the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal to the Provisional Government. And he wanted to deploy a full division of the INA in combat. Bose also attended the Great East Asia Conference on 5–6 November, but only as an ‘observer’. The Japanese Foreign Office observed that this was because ‘he was of the opinion that India would not join the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

Tojo indulged Bose’s pretensions to independence. The propaganda value of the man was worth more to the Japanese than all the divisions of the INA. So, after Bose’s speech at the Tokyo Conference, Tojo responded by reiterating Japan’s support for Indian independence. He also announced that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would soon be transferred to the Provisional Government of Azad Hind. Bose’s idea of turning the Indian army against the Raj was now in the realm of possibility.

‘Free Indian Legion’

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The most serious attempt at turning the sword-arm of the Raj against it was mounted by Subhas Bose. The story of his Indian National Army that fought alongside the Japanese has become the stuff of legend. Yet the army that Bose raised in Malaya and Singapore was neither his first such attempt, nor indeed was it the first Indian National Army (INA).

The idea of using Indian soldiers against Britain was initially floated by Bose in his meeting with Ribbentrop on 1 May 1941. He suggested recruiting Indian prisoners of war who had surrendered to the Axis forces in North Africa, claiming that these soldiers would be promptly ready to fight against England. The presence of an Indian unit on the German side would have an extremely strong propaganda impact on the rest of the Indian army. The British, in turn, would lose confidence in these forces and would not be able to deploy them without reservation.

In his detailed plan of work submitted to the German Foreign Office later that month, Bose proposed to organize a ‘Free Indian Legion’. Made up of volunteers from prisoners of war, the Indian Legion would eventually join an Axis expeditionary corps to be sent to India. Bose planned to prepare a ‘big military campaign in the independent Tribal Territory between Afghanistan and India’. Here a military and propaganda centre would be established for the penetration of India. Bose envisaged building an airfield and a logistics network with the help of European advisers. A training centre would also be established to prepare Indian officers and men for the future army of liberation.

Bose’s military plans may have been wishful thinking, but his move to set up an Indian Legion was well timed. In his opening offensive in North Africa, Rommel had netted part of an Indian motorized brigade at Mechili in Libya. The Indian prisoners of war were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. At the end of April 1941, a group of 1,000 Indian soldiers and 37 officers were interrogated by the German SS in their Italian prisoner-of-war camp at Derna in Cyrenaica. The Germans thought that they could detect a strong anti-British attitude among the Indians, which stemmed from the Indians’ belief that they were being unfairly treated by British officers in the distribution of food in the camp. An officer with nationalist leanings would recall that ‘the discriminatory attitude of the British undermined whatever of the Indian loyalty to the crown was left by those days’. An Indian VCO had allegedly gone so far as to write a letter to Mussolini, offering to organize Indian soldiers in captivity to fight with the Axis forces.

In any event, the SS discerned an opportunity and sought the transfer of these soldiers to Germany in order to use them for anti-British propaganda. The Italians, however, refused to hand them over, hoping to exploit the Indian soldiers for their own propaganda purposes. Meanwhile, Bose’s proposal wafted its way through the German government. The High Command was averse to hastily drafting prisoners of war and deploying them as envisaged by Bose; it insisted on a careful programme of screening and training. Organizing an effective military force, the High Command held, would take time and effort. Bose reluctantly fell in with these views.

The first step was to arrange for the transfer of Indian soldiers in Italian custody. Rome had its own policy towards India and the central figure in the Italian machinations was Muhammad Iqbal Shedai. A near contemporary of Subhas Bose, Shedai had been in Moscow with M. N. Roy in the 1920s. Thereafter he moved to Europe and gradually established himself as the leading adviser on Indian affairs for the Italian government. Well before Bose, Shedai was broadcasting to India and Afghanistan over Radio Himalaya. He was also adroit in persuading the Italian government to set up an India Centre and create its own Indian Legion. Unsurprisingly, Bose and Shedai were at loggerheads. They disagreed on Indian politics – as a Punjabi Muslim, Shedai was sympathetic to the demand for Pakistan – and they also disagreed on the nature of an Axis declaration for India. Above all, they wrangled over Indian prisoners of war.

Under pressure from Berlin, Rome transferred to Germany some Indian soldiers in the summer of 1941. To induce the Italians to cooperate further, the German Foreign Office invited Shedai to Berlin for discussions. They also arranged for him to visit a camp housing Indian prisoners of war near Annaburg. Shedai found the Indians doused in discontent, complaining about food and conditions in the camp. The Germans, he thought, had frittered away the goodwill aroused in the Indian soldiers while in Italian captivity. In particular, they had erred in allowing the Indian soldiers to mix with Indian officers and NCOs. This affected the soldiers’ morale, as the officers had told them that Germany did not intend to free India but only to supplant Britain as the colonizer. Shedai claimed that the Indian soldiers had told him that ‘they would prefer to remain under the British than to change masters’. What’s more, he blamed Bose for this situation. Shedai informed Rome that Bose did ‘not care a bit for these poor devils’ and that he had ‘committed the biggest crime by bringing them over to Germany’. The subtext, of course, was that Italy should focus on its own Indian Legion under Shedai’s leadership.

Two months passed before the Germans stirred themselves into activity. In mid-October 1941, Ribbentrop enquired about the ‘range of possibilities of bringing into action Indian prisoners of war who had fallen into our hands’. He asked the High Command for the exact number of Indian prisoners of war in Germany, and whether they could be deployed in the Middle East against units of the Indian army. Nevertheless, the Germans did not get their act together until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the co-ordination conference held on 8–9 December, it was agreed that a Free Indian Legion would be formed by recruiting prisoners of war. The Italians accepted that the raising of the Legion would be entirely under the control of the German High Command. Bose and Shedai joined the conference on the second day and agreed to this plan. It was decided that the Legion would be trained as a regular German motorized infantry battalion. During the first three months, it would be led entirely by German officers and NCOs. Subsequently, suitable Indians could be brought in. Bose sought and obtained agreement on the conditions for deploying this force. The Indian Legion would not be merged with any German military unit, though it would be subordinated to the Wehrmacht’s chain of command. Further, the Legion would be sent to fight only in India and not elsewhere.

Towards the end of December 1941, Bose visited the Annaburg camp to kick-off the recruitment drive. He began by addressing the Indian officers. The atmosphere in the hall, one of Bose’s associates recalled, was ‘not very enthusiastic; it was rather reserved and cold’. Colder still was the reception of Bose’s speech about the imperative of fighting for India’s independence. At one point, some officers began coughing loudly while others scraped their boots to drown out his voice. The German officials were dismayed. The camp commandant warned the soldiers, whom Bose was to address the next day, that if they showed signs of indiscipline or disrespect towards the visitor they would be shot. Unsurprisingly, Bose’s interaction with the soldiers went well.

After further engagement with the soldiers, Bose and his hand-picked Indian émigré colleagues short-listed 200 of the 1,300 prisoners of war at Annaburg as suitable for recruitment. The German officers pruned this list to sixty-eight. These men were then sent to the Legion’s base at Frankenberg, which already had fifteen civilian volunteers. Thereafter, Bose’s associates from the ‘Free India Centre’ worked on these men, explaining to them the cause for which they should enlist and the conditions under which they would serve. Of the sixty-eight soldiers that reached Frankenberg, though, only twenty-one finally volunteered to serve in the Indian Legion. The remainder were sent back to Annaburg.

Over the following year, as the number of Indian prisoners of war in Axis custody rose, the India Legion too grew in size. By November 1942, the Legion had 1,300 soldiers in two battalions. And by February 1943, it counted 2,000 men in arms. The increase in recruitment was mainly due to two factors. Once Bose came out into the open and began his broadcasts over Azad Hind Radio, the Indian prisoners realized his political stature and influence in India. Thereafter, his message of liberating India by waging war on the Raj had more resonance among Indian soldiers. Further, once a critical mass of soldiers had volunteered for the Legion, they were able to recruit others far more efficiently than Bose’s civilian team. Ironically, while Bose envisaged the Legion as a national army, where distinctions of religion, caste and region would be dissolved, the recruitment process tapped directly into these very identities. Rates of recruitment were highest, a German officer of the Legion noted in February 1943, when the propagandists were allocated to their own racial groups. Muslims cannot be won over by the Hindus, Gurkhas follow Gurkhas more easily and Sikhs follow Sikhs, particularly since it is usually the different languages that bind these groups. Family connections or coming from the same region also play an important role, as does having served in the same unit of the Indian army.

Then, too, the decision to disavow the Indian army was not an easy one for the volunteers. This was especially true of men from the martial classes whose allegiances had been tied to the Raj by long-running family traditions of military service, by generous schemes of welfare and pension, and by an abstract sense of loyalty to the king emperor. Thus Labh Chand Chopra, a twenty-two-year-old Punjabi trooper of the 2nd Royal Lancers from the 3rd Motorized Brigade, closeted himself ‘in a room for 24 hours discussing with myself the pros and cons of breaking my oath to the King of England. It was indeed a very difficult task to decide, but inner sentimental, emotional and patriotic feelings prevailed and I finally chose the uniform of the Indian Legion.’

It is not surprising, therefore, that of the 15,000 Indian soldiers in Axis captivity by early 1943 just over 2,000 volunteered for the Legion. More significant was the fact that only one VCO joined the Legion, while not a single Indian officer signed up. Part of the problem lay in Bose’s insistence that volunteers should not be enlisted with their previous ranks and should start from the bottom. Although some volunteers were quickly promoted to their earlier ranks, this deterred VCOs and many NCOs from coming forward. While VCOs might also have been more apolitical in their outlook, the Indian officers were not. They were simply unpersuaded that Germany wanted to help India attain its freedom. William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce, spoke to a group of Indian officers assuring them of Hitler’s commitment to Indian independence and appealing to them to join the Legion. The officers were unmoved. The senior-most among them stood up and denounced Joyce as a traitor. The British government, he observed, had committed itself to India’s freedom after the war and this was bound to come about.

In consequence, the Legion was largely officered by Germans. Among those who joined it was a young recruit, Leopold Fischer. Born into a Viennese German middle-class family, Fischer had developed a keen interest in India after attending a performance by Uday Shankar and his troupe of singers and dancers. He joined the Indian Club in Vienna, picked up some Sanskrit and Hindi, and resolved on a career in Indology. Fischer even met Jawaharlal Nehru during the latter’s visit to Vienna in 1938 and impressed the Indian leader by his command of Hindustani. On his sixteenth birthday, only months before the Second World War began, Fischer pledged to fight for India’s freedom. Three years later, he was invited by an Indian friend to meet ‘Signor Mazzotta’ – the pseudonym of Subhas Bose. Later that year, when he was called up for military service, Fischer volunteered for the Indian Legion. After the war, Fischer would go to India and eventually take the vows of a Hindu monk of the Dashanami Order. As Agehananda Bharati, he would become professor of anthropology at Syracuse University and a major exponent of Hindu philosophy.

By the time the Legion was recruited and trained, Bose was already preparing to leave for Japan. Prior to his departure, he reiterated his demand that the Legion should not be used for the campaigns in Russia or Libya. ‘It would be best to use it in Iran or Iraq on the way to Afghanistan … The legionaries should feel that they are fighting for the freedom of India, and every theatre of war in which they fight should have some relation to India.’ Bose’s secret departure from Germany in February 1943, however, dealt a blow to the Legion. For one thing, the legionnaires were not informed of Bose’s whereabouts. Rumours and speculation led to a lowering of morale and an increase in disciplinary problems. For another, the Germans decided to use the Legion for policing functions in the Netherlands and subsequently along the Atlantic Wall. Although the Legion never saw active service, most of its soldiers ended up in Allied captivity after the opening of the second front in Normandy in 1944.

By the time Bose left Germany, he no longer pinned hopes on the Indian Legion. Japan’s remarkable successes had opened up new possibilities of an armed liberation of India from its eastern frontiers. More importantly, the Japanese had already been rather more successful than Bose in raising an Indian National Army.

Luftwaffe und Rommel – Afrika Kommen

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Messerschmidt BF.110D-1s in flight off the coast of North Africa.

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On 14 February 1941 a new and more aggressive enemy appeared in the skies above Libya, the first twin-engined Messerschmidt Bf 110C heavy fighters of the Fliegerkorps X startling the thin-skinned armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards on reconnaissance forward of El Agheila. In fact German aircraft had been operating in Libya since January, but their numbers grew dramatically during the first two months of the year. The persistence of the Luftwaffe pilots in pressing home their attacks came as something of a shock for the British accustomed to the Regia Aeronautica. Private Harry Buckledee recorded the effect of a German air attack on British Marmon Harrington armoured cars:

One afternoon . . . I saw three [Me] 110s attack one of our troops, and in about two or three minutes they had destroyed all three cars. Our troop was sent to their assistance. I was anxious as I knew my mate, Lance Corporal Bob Ramshaw, from West Stanley, Durham, who had joined up the same day as me, was in that troop. All but two of the crews were dead or wounded. Bob was badly wounded but recovered from his wounds, although he had a leg amputated.

By late February near-daily Luftwaffe attacks had made Benghazi unusable as a port, forcing 13th Corps to rely for its supplies on the long road back to Tobruk and thence via sea or land to Egypt. HMS Dainty, bringing in stores to Tobruk, was sunk by Stukas on 24 February. These unwelcome events heralded the arrival of a small German land force – part of Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) – designed to insert backbone into the Italian defence of Tripolitania. The commander of this force, the newly promoted Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, arrived in Tripoli by the ubiquitous Junkers Ju 52 transport plane – distinctive as much for its three motors as for its square, corrugated sides – from Rome via Catania in Sicily at midday on 12 February 1941. Flying at low level across the Mediterranean, Rommel noted a constant stream of Junkers crossing in the opposite direction, the aircraft having deposited supplies for the Fliegerkorps X build-up in Tripoli.

On 11 January, much against his will and following the disasters at Sidi Barrani and Bardia, a humbled Duce was forced to accept the offer of a German light (motorized) division to support the reinforcements that the Italians were even then shipping to Libya. These included the 132nd Ariete (‘Ram’) Armoured Division, with its complement of 6,949 men, 163 tanks (only 70 of which were the M13, the remainder the puny L3), 36 field guns and 61 anti-tank guns.

The original plan of the German armed forces high command, the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), was for Rommel’s single light division to act as a Sperrverband (blocking formation) to prevent any further British advance towards Tripoli. But the 5th Division was in fact much more powerful than its British equivalent. It consisted of the 5th Panzer Regiment (three panzer battalions each with forty Mark III and Mark IV tanks) together with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion with armoured cars, a machine-gun regiment (again with three battalions), a battalion of the 75th Artillery Regiment and an anti-tank (Panzerjäger) regiment equipped with a mixture of mobile 20-millimetre cannons and the powerful 88-millimetre anti-aircraft/ tank gun. The 5th Light Division was, with 9,300 men, 130 tanks, 111 guns and 2,000 vehicles, a powerful formation, all the more so when led by a determined and capable commander. Hitler had insisted that Italian mechanized forces also come under Rommel’s command, although Rommel himself was nominally subordinate to the Italian commander-in-chief in North Africa.

Erwin Rommel’s orders were to stabilize the front and prevent the British from humiliating Mussolini any more than they had already done, by ensuring that Tripoli did not fall. He had received his orders a mere six days before his arrival in Libya from the Fuhrer and Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht commander-in-chief, in Berlin. Hitler showed Rommel British illustrated magazines describing Wavell’s humbling of the 10th Italian Army in Cyrenaica. Sidi Barrani, Capuzzo, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna and Barce had fallen, and now Benghazi was threatened. The Italians were in no mental state to resist the British. Panic had set in among the troops in their haste to escape the British advance, and Tripoli was full of staff officers with packed suitcases seeking a quick exit back to Italy.

Rommel was an extraordinarily good choice for this command. ‘I picked him,’ remarked Hitler, ‘because he knows how to inspire his troops.’ This was true, although to a man his subordinate commanders and staff officers hated him, in part because of the demands he placed on them, and also because of his refusal to accept any attitude or behaviour on the battlefield that did not display the same thrusting aggression as his own. Not yet fifty years old, he was fit, highly motivated and experienced, having successfully commanded the 7th Panzer Division only months before during the invasion of France and prior to that in Poland. He was imbued with a personal dynamism and driving energy that set him apart from most of his peers. His three tactical principles, which he had learned in the First World War, developed through intensive study during the interwar period (including assiduous examination of the works of British commentators on mobile armoured warfare) and honed through experience in Poland and France, were: shock action, preferably against the enemy’s weakest point, in which massive and overwhelming firepower against ill-prepared opponents would shatter their will to resist; surprise, by which the enemy would be thrown off balance by an unexpected move; and speed, in which the sheer pace of his operations left the enemy unable to react quickly enough to changes on the battlefield. In all operations of war he sought to do the unexpected, to deceive, surprise and bluff. ‘His magic word is speed,’ wrote a fellow officer of Rommel’s tactics in France, ‘boldness is his stock in trade. He shocks the enemy, takes them unawares, overhauls them, suddenly appears far in their rear, attacks them, outflanks them, encircles them . . .’ The Germans even had a word for it: an enemy overwhelmed by these tactics was Gerommelt (Rommeled).

The First World War had taught Rommel that the psychological dimension to fighting was often more important in securing battlefield success than any other factor. If, by bold and decisive moves accompanied by overwhelming and concentrated firepower at the decisive point, he could persuade his enemy that all was lost, the battle would almost certainly go his way regardless of the true state of his forces. His personal courage in the face of the enemy was legendary, an inspiration to his men, and while his driving energy was often cursed, it also brought with it undoubted success, and it was success that soldiers – his own and his enemy’s – respected more than anything else. He was undoubtedly an unusual man, and like all men of action was not cut out for the certainties or forms of peacetime soldiering. His intensity made him more suited to the battlefield, particularly where full rein could be given to his creativity. As Private Frank Harrison of the Royal Signals was to observe with not uncritical awe, ‘One man does not make an army, but not since Napoleon had a military commander been such a symbol of leadership and battlefield victory over superior forces as Erwin Rommel.’

On arrival at the Castel Benito airfield outside Tripoli in the stifling heat of the Libyan noon Rommel knew very little of the Allied strength in North Africa. All he had to go on was what the headlines in the British newspapers were telling him: Wavell had launched a brilliant overwhelming attack on Italian forces in eastern Libya, and nothing now stood between the forward British units on the Gulf of Sirte and Tripoli. For all he knew, a further advance was being prepared to seize Tripoli. On landing, therefore, he immediately deluged Graziani’s successor, General Garibaldi (to whom he was, on paper at least, subordinate), with a flood of ideas to form a defensive line in the desert anchored on the Gulf of Sirte to block the route of a British advance on Tripoli and to allow space for the Luftwaffe to build up its strength around the capital. Garibaldi, who had only been in post for a day, dismissed the impetuosity of the German with the advice: ‘Go and see for yourself.’

Rommel did so. That very afternoon he and a small number of his staff flew by Heinkel 111 over the Gulf of Sirte, noting the Via Balbia, the metalled road hugging the coast from Tripoli to Bardia, built on the instructions of the late Italo Balbo, stretching out like a long black thread into the treeless distance. The flight confirmed Rommel in his determination to create a defence line at Sirte, 300 miles to the east of Tripoli and 160 miles west of the forward British positions at El Agheila. This would at least give him the ability to resist a British attack along the coast while collecting what armour he could muster to launch a counter-attack.

The vanguard of the 5th Light Division (Major General Johannes Streich), the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion commanded by Major Baron Irnfrief von Wechmar, together with the 39th Anti-Tank Battalion (Major Jansa) arrived in Tripoli on board the Saarfeld on 14 February, although the division would not be complete until mid-April. After disembarking his battalion from the 6,000-ton freighter during the night, von Wechmar was briefed by Rommel and was at Sirte by the 16th. Then, less than a week after his arrival, Hitler agreed to double the size of Rommel’s force by adding to it the 15th Panzer Division, naming the combined force the Deutsches Afrikakorps (more usually rendered in English as Afrika Korps). At the same time, Mussolini having instructed his forces to fall in with Rommel’s plans, the 10th Italian Corps – comprising the Brescia and Pavia Infantry Divisions, together with the newly arrived Ariete Armoured Division – began also to move forward. As the troops trickled into Tripoli over the coming six weeks, Rommel rushed them forward. On 5 March he wrote to his wife, Lucie:

Dearest Lu,

Just back from a two-day journey – or rather flight – to the front, which is now 450 miles away to the east. Everything going fine.

A lot to do. Can’t leave here for the moment as I couldn’t be answerable for my absence. Too much depends on my own person and my driving power . . .

My troops are on their way. Speed is the one thing that matters here.

*

For the troops of the Afrika Korps the journey by sea to Tripoli was short but dangerous. For Sergeants Krugel and Wolff of the 15th Motorized Infantry Battalion the crossing from Italy in early March had been made in the Alicante, an old tramp steamer running the Royal Navy gauntlet in the Mediterranean. Both men had been horribly ill, and attempted to take their minds off their seasickness by standing in the bows of the old tub looking out for mines and submarines. Lieutenant Joachim Schorm, commander of the 6th Company of one of the three panzer battalions arriving on the Marburg in the same convoy, entered the relative safety of Tripoli harbour on 10 March with considerable relief:

We enter the harbour at Tripoli. We have done it! Fifteen miles from us . . . an Italian merchant ship and two tankers were sunk by submarines. The scene in the docks is indescribably picturesque. Rommel and German officers in field grey, the Luftwaffe in khaki trousers, breeches, shorts, the Italians in every conceivable uniform . . .

Schorm had reason to be jubilant at his survival as in early 1941 the Mediterranean remained a British lake. On 16 April Royal Navy destroyers sank an entire convoy off Sfax, Tunisia, carrying elements of the 15th Panzer Division: the 115th Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Schutz) and the 33rd Artillery Regiment. Three hundred and fifty men were killed and 300 vehicles together with 3,500 tons of stores lost. Despite these risks by the end of March 1941 some 25,000 men, 8,500 vehicles and 26,000 tons of stores had arrived safely in Tripoli in 15 convoys, with a loss of 9 German ships sunk and 9 damaged. Nevertheless, between January and May 1941 the Germans and Italians lost 31 ships attempting to supply the Afrika Korps in North Africa.

A month later, while their tanks and other vehicles attempted the journey by sea, a vast Luftwaffe fleet of Ju 52 transport aircraft – 208 in total – brought together for the forthcoming airborne invasion of Crete, flew 3,500 soldiers of the 15th Panzer Division from Sicily directly to desert airfields outside Tripoli. It was a dangerous journey. Flying in groups of three less than a hundred feet above the choppy waves and at a steady 150 knots the German aircraft were easy prey for British fighters flying out of Malta. For Private Rolf-Werner Volker it was his first ever flight and a daunting prospect. The only safety devices were uninflated rubber life jackets the eighteen soldiers in each plane were instructed to place over their necks and tie around their waists. They were to inflate them manually only if they found themselves in the sea. The Ju 52 had no seats, the troops making themselves as comfortable as they could for the 180-mile flight on the floor of the aircraft among their kitbags and weapons.

Völker’s worst fears were realized far out over the Mediterranean long after their Messerschmidt Bf 110 escorts had returned to Sicily. Suddenly, above the noise of their engines they heard the hammering of machine-gun fire. They were being attacked by British fighters. The pilot took evasive action, sharply twisting the plane from side to side, which threw men and equipment around the inside of the aircraft. Clinging on grimly for their lives they could see the British aircraft fleetingly through the windows in the fuselage, and sought a means to fight back. Taking a Spandau MG-42 machine gun from its packing they broke one of the windows and, feeding belt ammunition into the weapon, blazed away at the swooping enemy aircraft. As he did so, watching the tracer bullets from his weapon streaming into the sky, Volker realized that other men in other aircraft were doing the same thing: ‘I don’t know whether we hit any of them but it was good for morale to be able to shoot back and they seemed to be backing off. Then our pilot suddenly banked and before I could stop firing I had put several holes in our own wing. Luckily, I didn’t hit an engine or anything important.’