Operation Uranus – Closing the Jaws of the Trap

Inadequate numbers of Romanian troops were charged with securing a lengthy front during the decisive fight for Stalingrad. The Red Army took advantage of the thinly spread Romanians when its major offensive against Axis forces was launched.

The Russian infantry was now moving steadily forward, leaving the armored and mechanized units to continue to work on closing the jaws of the trap. Rodin’s 26th Tank Corps took Perelazonvsky, about 80 miles northwest of Stalingrad. Butkov’s 1st Tank Corps snapped at the heels of Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, which was starting to retreat to the southwest, while the 8th Guards Cavalry Corps continued its drive to the Chir River. Despite several difficulties, the 20th had been an excellent day for Uranus.

On Saturday, November 21, the 21st Army spearhead continued moving southeast, closing on Golubinski. Paulus, finally realizing the disaster overtaking him, asked Berlin for permission to pull his army out of Stalingrad and for a new defensive line on the Don. He then relocated his headquarters to Nizhnye Chriskaya, a village about 40 miles to the southwest.

Later that day, Paulus received two messages from Hitler. The first one read: “The commander-in-chief will proceed with his staff to Stalingrad. The 6th Army will form an all-round defensive position and await further orders.”

Later in the day, Hitler sent Paulus the following message: “Those units of the 6th Army that remain between the Don and the Volga will henceforth be designated Fortress Stalingrad.”

The two messages not only sealed the fate of the 6th Army, but they also meant that Zhukov would not have to worry about any kind of breakout attempt by the Stalingrad forces. In effect, it gave him the opportunity to start solidifying his inner ring around the city while concentrating on closing the outer ring.

Between the inner and outer rings, Germans and Romanians were still fighting. Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, trying to make its way to the Chir River crossings, actively engaged Soviet forces in several pitched battles as they made their bid for freedom. General Mikhail Lascar had gathered remnants of the V Romanian Army Corps farther north and was resisting repeated Russian attempts to overrun his hastily constructed defenses. Hoping for German support, Lascar would wait in vain for any relief effort.

While these clashes were taking place in the north, Eremenko’s southern offensive was running into problems, despite having effectively split Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army in half. Most of Hoth’s German units were trapped inside the ever tightening ring around Stalingrad. The 4th Romanian Army, which had been subordinated to Hoth’s Panzer Army, was in disarray, and the 16th Panzergrenadier Division, the only German unit outside the Stalingrad sector, was making a fighting withdrawal through heavy opposition.

It was a golden opportunity for the Russians, but command failure was still a problem that plagued even the highest ranks of the Red Army. Tolbukhin’s 57th Army and Shumilov’s 64th Army were making good progress closing the inner ring around Stalingrad. Trufanov’s 51st Army was a different matter.

Once the breakthrough was achieved, Trufanov was supposed to send his 4th Mechanized Corps and 4th Cavalry Corps speeding northwest to Kalach while the bulk of his infantry was to head southwest as a shield for his left flank. The coordination and complexity of controlling both armored and infantry forces moving in different directions proved too much for Trufanov and his staff.

Instead of the quick thrust toward Kalach, the mechanized and cavalry forces moved sluggishly to the northeast, giving many of the retreating Romanians a chance to flee for their lives. The flanking infantry advanced even more slowly, amazing even Hoth as he followed their progress. Although his remaining forces could have been destroyed by a more aggressive Soviet posture, all he faced on the battlefield before him was “a fantastic picture of fleeing (Romanian) remnants.”

Sunday, November 23, found the Russians in the north advancing on the Don in force. In the predawn hours, an assault unit captured a newly constructed bridge across the river at Berezovski near the primary objective of Kalach. It was the first Soviet victory of the day, but it would not be the last.

By now, communications between the 6th Army headquarters and outlying units had almost completely broken down. At Kalach itself, word of the Soviet breakthrough only reached the garrison on the morning of the 21st. The troops occupying the town, which was located on the eastern bank of the Don, consisted mostly of maintenance and supply personnel and included the workshops and transport company of the 16th Panzer Division. They were augmented by a Luftwaffe flak battery and a small force of field police.

There had been no other word about the breakthrough since a message concerning the breakthrough in the south was received on the afternoon of the 21st. Tasked with defending both Kalach and the western bank, the garrison faced an impossible situation. The town commander had no idea that three Soviet corps were heading directly for him, and even if the Germans had known, the garrison had no way to stop them.

With the Berezovski Bridge in Russian hands, Maj. Gen. Rodin sent Lt. Col. G. N. Filippov and his 19th Tank Brigade speeding along the Don to Kalach. Using captured German vehicles to lead the way, Filippov’s men overwhelmed the detachment guarding the Don Bridge. On the western heights, Luftwaffe 88mm field guns opened fire and destroyed several Russian T-34 tanks.

Filippov, not waiting for his mechanized infantry, ordered a detachment of tanks to cross the river and form a bridgehead on the eastern banks while other T-34s continued to duel with the 88s. When the infantry did appear, he once again split his forces, sending some infantry across the river and ordering the rest to support the tanks trying to take the heights. A combined assault finally silenced the German guns, and the heights were taken by midmorning.

From their new vantage point, the Russian tanks on the western bank poured round after round into Kalach, while their comrades on the eastern bank stormed the town’s flimsy defenses. Those Germans that could escape loaded themselves on anything drivable and fled toward Stalingrad. By early afternoon, Kalach was in Russian hands.

In the south, Trufanov was finally getting his forces under control. Although his infantry was still slowly plodding westward and southwestward, his mechanized units were advancing at a faster pace. By the end of the day, Volsky’s 4th Mechanized Corps had taken Buzinovka and was moving toward Sovietski, a few miles east of Kalach near the junction of the Don and Karpovka Rivers.

In essence, by the end of the day any German or Romanian units east of the mechanized ring had only one place to go-Stalingrad. General Lascar, surrounded and running low on ammunition, refused several Russian requests to surrender. His force was overwhelmed, its survivors forming long gray columns marching east toward a very uncertain future.

By now, there was little to stop the northern and southern spearheads from completing their missions. Volsky reached the south bank of the Karpovka a little after noon on November 23. The 45th Tank Brigade of Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps arrived on the opposite bank around 4 PM. Zhukov’s trap was finally closed, with about 300,000 of the enemy in the giant cage called Stalingrad.

The meeting of the northern and southern pincers was later restaged for Soviet propaganda films, but there is little doubt that the emotions shown on the screen were the same felt by Volsky’s and Kravchenko’s troops as they first joined. Although Heeresgruppe A was able to make a masterful withdrawal from the Caucasus in the months to follow, the Red Army had bottled up the 6th Army and a good deal of the 4th Panzer Army. It was a great victory.

Operation Uranus was only the first step in the annihilation of Fortress Stalingrad, but it was a giant one. Despite control problems, Zhukov and his commanders in the field had shown that they had learned the lessons vital to modern mechanized warfare. Methods developed during Uranus were finely honed and used again by Zhukov and others in later operations that would shake the foundation of the German military and finally bring it crashing down.

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CAPTURING SUURSAARI ISLAND

Major-General Pajari, unaware that he is standing in a minefield on a makeshift speaker’s podium, giving his speech at the Suursaari victory parade on 28 March 1942. (Sa-Kuva)

One of the most daring and unique Finnish operations during the period of trench warfare was the capture of Suursaari Island in the Gulf of Finland, 43km south of Kotka and 56km north of the Estonian coast. Due to its location, this 11km-long island had great strategic significance. Artillery stationed there could control most of the sea lanes to Leningrad. In 1939, the Soviet Union repeatedly approached Finland to see if it could annex Suursaari and the other outlying islands. When these requests were refused, the Red Army took the islands by force during the Winter War.

During the Summer War, the Finnish and German high commands agreed that Suursaari and other outlying islands had to be wrested back from Soviet hands. When supported from these islands, the Soviet Navy was able to disrupt all naval traffic to Kotka harbour, and extend their range of operations deeper into the Baltic Sea. Conversely, if Finland were to hold the islands, it would enable the Germans to bottle up the Soviet Navy into a small corner of the Gulf of Finland. In addition, the establishment of air observation bases on the archipelago could provide early warnings that would considerably increase tactical timeframes for all aerial operations.

Finnish headquarters agreed on a joint operation with the Wehrmacht high command to capture Suursaari and the neighbouring islands. They decided that the best time for the attack would be during midwinter across the frozen Gulf of Finland. Attacking while the sea lanes were still open was considered too risky, as the enemy would be able to ship reinforcements and heavy equipment rapidly to the islands. Once it became apparent that the Germans could not spare the troops needed for the operation, Mannerheim decided that the Finns would carry out the audacious plan themselves. Nevertheless, Luftwaffe support was still expected and officially requested (though it would never appear).

Mannerheim handpicked Major-General Aaro Pajari to lead the attack. He had already proven his worth as an able field commander; first during the Winter War at the battle of Tolvajärvi and again as the commander of the 18th Division during the attack phase of 1941. Despite the involvement of some 3,500 men and 67 planes, Pajari gave orders for the landing plans to be kept top secret.

The Finns had managed to gather relatively accurate intelligence on the strength of the enemy defences. Suursaari belonged to the Leningrad Naval District and was under the jurisdiction of one of their oldest navy formations, the Baltic Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Vladimir Tributs. The Suursaari garrison was commanded by Colonel Barinov, who in turn reported to the fortress commander at the nearby Lavansaari Island. Despite the island’s significance, the vital bases at Suursaari were manned by only 496 soldiers, 12 officers and the compulsory eight political commissars.

The Finns also understood the strength of the fortifications on the rocky island. The problem was how to transport the chosen few thousand men to the vicinity of the island quietly and unseen, quickly enough and with still enough energy left for the fight. The Arctic landscape provided another challenge: the transports had to somehow traverse undetected across a completely horizontal ice plateau (which was entirely devoid of cover) for dozens of kilometres.

Pajari’s plan was to first move the designated troops into staging areas, near Haapasaari and Luppi islands, about 10–15km away from their targets. He hoped to schedule his attack so that heavy snowfall would help conceal the approaching troops. However, this also meant that the necessary roads across the ice would have to be continuously ploughed to keep them open. Strong winds blowing from the open sea could pile up the snowdrifts so fast that whole roads could vanish within 20 minutes. In order to keep routes and assembly areas clear, five cars and one tractor, all fitted with snowploughs, worked continuously for a total of 408 hours.

All of the men were issued with brand new snowsuits. All their equipment was to be painted white. Furthermore, the 738 horses had to be camouflaged with white sheets and the trucks, sleighs and heavy weapons similarly painted. The troops moved into the area mainly on horse-drawn sleighs or in trucks. As time was of the essence, some men on skis were to be drawn along, holding onto ropes trailing from the crammed trucks. In addition to all the soldiers and their weapons, several bridge sections were taken along, in case the ice cracked and caused a chasm to open across the ice road. White tents were to be set up at 10km intervals along the track. These were to serve as supply points and field hospitals. In the end the total traffic on the ice was so extensive that it was a miracle the Soviets did not notice the preparations for the attack. For the time being, aircraft were only stationed on the mainland. When the time came, they were to be charged with reconnaissance duty and then the support and protection of the infantry during the attack. Additionally, they were tasked with evacuating the wounded and preventing the enemy from withdrawing from Suursaari Island.

The main Finnish attack force was split into two battalions: the 1st Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment under Major Lauri Toiviainen, and the 2nd Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment under Captain Veikko Elovaara. There was also a reserve coastal guard battalion commanded by Major Åke Sokajärvi in the vicinity of the main attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Lauri Sotisaari led the spearhead with his Detachment S, which was to assault the western shore under cover of darkness. From there his men would then move both north and south along the frozen shoreline while the body of his command took control of the road connecting the two small settlements on the island. Several heavy mortars assigned to the detachment would provide tactical support. A simultaneous attack was also scheduled to start from the opposite, eastern side of the island by Detachment M under Major Martti Miettinen; its role was to prevent the enemy from escaping over the ice, and to act as a distraction from the main assault. Once the enemy dug in to defend, he was to continue his attack towards the two settlements of Suurkylä and Kiiskinkylä. Two light artillery batteries and several anti-tank guns were to provide support for the detachment.

The troops moved into their staging areas and settled into camouflaged tents near the Luppi and Haapasaari Islands. All that was needed was propitious weather. During this crucial time, the Finnish Air Force prevented Soviet planes from approaching close enough to get an idea of the scale of the preparations. On 27 March, once the temperature had dropped to -6°C, Pajari judged that the snow conditions were ideal to launch the attack on skis. Before the assault commenced, each man received a warm meal and 100ml of cognac blended with vodka, in order to give them the boost needed for rapid approach and attack.

The men moved to their jumping-off points. In order to ensure total darkness no fires were permitted and light bulbs were removed from the truck headlights, just in case somebody switched them on accidentally. Unfortunately, the first time the column of vehicles stopped, a long trail of red lights lit up; no one had remembered to remove the bulbs from the brake lights. Luckily for the Finns, this happened far enough away from the Soviet lines that the attackers could continue undetected.

Nevertheless, observers at Suursaari finally realised that something was afoot. On the evening of 26 March at 21:30 the following message was sent to headquarters at nearby Lavansaari Island: ‘About a battalion-strength enemy force seen staging around Haapasaari Island before darkness fell. Special patrols have been sent to observe.’ Lavansaari was at the time snowed in and 40km distant; sending any support there would be slow. However, the island did have an airfield, so in theory at least, air support could be rapidly scrambled.

However, the sighting had come too late. The significance and strength of the Finnish forces was greatly underestimated. After sending the message, Colonel Barinov raised the alarm at Suursaari Island standing his men to. For some reason, instead of sending out patrols to gauge the enemy’s intentions, he was content with letting the troops fight the cold in their foxholes. Although the temperature was only -6°C, the Arctic wind blowing across the ice made matters much worse. At the same time, the increasing snowfall continued to hinder visibility. While the Soviet troops seemed to be hibernating, the Finns approached the island from two directions. Everything was going to plan. Suursaari lay ahead, silhouetted dimly through the billowing snow.

The heavy mortars reached their positions 1.5km from the island, with the light mortars pulled to a mere 500m from the shore. The attack commenced at 04:00 with the troops starting to ski towards the island. When the vanguard of Detachment S was near the western shoreline, the Soviets opened fire. At the same time, the smaller Detachment M had spread out on a wide front on the ice and now engaged the enemy positions from the east. Soon a fierce firefight had developed on both sides of the island. Once the main Finnish forces secured a bridgehead, they started to force their way north and south along the rocky island. Progress was slowed by having to climb steep, rocky cliffs and to wade through ravines filled with deep snow. However, despite the determination of the Soviet defenders, the southerly force soon captured the middle of the island and Kiiskinkylä. At the same time, the majority of Detachment S targeted the rear of Suurkylä and the heavily fortified northern peninsula. A small number of men under Detachment Oksanen were sent to simultaneously secure the southernmost tip of the island from the west.

The Finnish numbers came to bear during the night and through the following morning, when the northern part of Detachment S was able to assault the positions in Suurkylä. Here the Soviets managed to hold out until 15:00. By this time, most of the other important strategic objectives around the island had been captured. Nevertheless, the Soviets continued to resist in several fortified positions across the island and by nightfall, six Soviet fighter planes flew over in support. Twelve Finnish fighters met the enemy planes and proceeded to shoot down four of them. A fifth Soviet aircraft was hit by flak, and only one plane was able to return back to its base at Lavansaari Island.

At this stage, the fiercest opposition came from the Soviets on Selkäapajanniemi Peninsula. There the defenders had used thick timber logs to build extremely strong fortifications in the natural openings in the bedrock. The Finnish Air Force was called upon to soften up these positions. At 17:30, four bombers arrived, strafing the strongholds with machine guns and delivering a total payload of 2,000kg of bombs. By the evening, the Soviet defenders had had enough, and decided to escape over the ice. The Finns pursued them relentlessly across the vastness.

By the bright light of dawn the following morning, the Finns had cleared out the last three fortifications offering resistance at Selkäapajanniemi. This left only one determined enemy stronghold at Lounatrivi lighthouse. So far, the defenders there had resisted all attacks by the Finns. Two pioneer detachments and an artillery squad were sent to resolve the matter. The crew manhandled their gun on top of the piled ice. After setting their sights, they opened fire systematically against the lighthouse, shelling it from the top down a floor at a time. This forced the defenders to flee downwards and eventually out of the front door. Even now, these brave men refused to surrender. They were all killed in the fight that ensued. Kipparniemi Peninsula also held a small Soviet detachment. After completely surrounding the enemy, the Finns concluded that their positions were not strongly fortified. Therefore it was decided to let them stew until the following morning.

The whole of Suursaari finally came under Finnish control on 28 March. That day, Pajari decided to organise a victory parade on the ice in front of the island. Two flights of six Curtis fighter planes each were to fly sentry over the formations. After giving the orders for the procession, Pajari telephoned Mannerheim at his headquarters in Mikkeli: ‘I hereby notify you that I have more or less captured Suursaari Island. Only some minor pockets of resistance remain.’ After the phone call, Pajari found time for a quick nap in his tent. Meanwhile, his men hastened into the parade formations and readied themselves for inspection. The men also had time to assemble a makeshift speaker’s podium on top of a horse-drawn sleigh and a military marching band was even rushed all the way from Helsinki for the occasion. It was extremely risky to organise the parade so soon. Had Soviet planes happened on the scene, the men would have made easy targets on the flat, cover-free ice. Nonetheless, Pajari seemed to have had great faith in the aircraft flying over his men.

The first incident happened after all the men had been inspected, the chaplain had given his sermon and the last of the speeches delivered. At this stage, a lone Soviet machine-gun squad chose to reveal itself and surrender. They had been hiding a mere 100m away from the place where Pajari had been speaking. Had the sergeant in charge of the heavy weapon fancied some posthumous Soviet fame for himself, at least a dozen Finnish soldiers could have been killed. Afterwards, it also came to light that the general and his chief of staff had been positioned directly on top of a minefield. It was sheer good fortune that it had snowed so much, as this prevented the pressure-mines from detonating.

When the excitement of taking care of the surrendering Soviets had died down, a radio message reached Pajari. Twenty-nine enemy planes were approaching the island in three formations of eight, eleven and ten planes. Only one Finnish flight of six Curtiss fighter planes was still in the area while the second flight had already moved nearer to Lavansaari Island. It transpired that the parade had an air show-style finale. The aerial battle quickly developed into a spinning carousel with planes flying in every direction. The six Finnish planes on site engaged immediately with no shortage of targets. The second flight returned quickly from the direction of Lavansaari, attacking the rearmost of the Soviet formations. In the end, the Finns destroyed 18 of the 29 enemy planes without suffering any losses of their own. Earlier the same day, another flight of Brewsters had bagged itself five confirmed kills and a Fokker unit four more. This score of 27 confirmed enemy kills was (to date) the highest one-day tally achieved by the Finnish Air Force. Such triumphs did come with a hefty price: each pilot was forced to fly or be on high alert throughout the day and night. During the last days of the operation, the only way the men kept themselves fit to fly was through heavy use of the German-made combat stimulant Pervitin (methamphetamine). In total, they flew 643 combat missions and delivered over 5,000kg of bombs during the operation.

Martyrdom on the Volga

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In war, it is often glibly said that ‘fortune favours the bold’; whether the bold actually deserve or receive such benefit is seldom questioned. By late December 1942, any last luck had run out for the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as it had done so for the Soviet defenders of Sevastopol six months earlier. Common to these two sieges was the remarkable courage and stoicism of the troops involved. But the results of both battles showed that no amount of risk-taking or individual valour displayed at the tactical level could alter necessarily the overall operational and strategic odds. Nations who send their sons and daughters into overexposed outposts abroad would do well to remember this, as many conflicts since the Second World War, including those in Indo-China, Iraq and Afghanistan, have demonstrated amply.

Manstein dedicated his account of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom on the Volga’ to the ‘German soldiers, who starved, froze and died there’. Noting the unlikelihood of any monument being erected to commemorate their sacrifice, he declared eloquently, ‘the memory of their indescribable suffering, their unparalleled heroism, fidelity, and devotion to duty will live on long after the victors’ cries of triumph have died away and the bereaved, the disillusioned and the bitter at heart have fallen silent’. His moving paean for the dead was prompted by the famous epigram of Simonides, dedicated to the brave Spartans who fell to a man at Thermopylae: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders, and here lie dead.’

For all their fortitude, was the sacrifice of over 225,000 men from the twenty German and two Rumanian divisions and supporting troops worth it? What had it achieved? The lost battle of Stalingrad resulted in an unprecedented catastrophe for Hitler. Worse than the defeat a year earlier at Moscow, it had far more severe political and military consequences. If the losses of the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies smashed on either side of Stalingrad are included, together with the complete collapse of the Italian Eighth Army on the Upper Don and the subsequent defeat of the Hungarian Second Army in January 1943, then the Soviet winter counter-offensive was nothing less than a strategic disaster for the Axis cause. It showed all interested powers, including Germany’s allies and ‘concerned’ neutrals such as Turkey, that the Third Reich had severely overreached itself and could never hope to win against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the net result of the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad and subsequent operations in its winter campaign was the removal of the surviving Axis contingents from the Eastern Front and the evacuation of German forces from the Caucasus. Although the Red Army had suffered terrible losses in making these gains, everything Hitler hoped for in Operation BLUE had vanished. His fantasy of crossing over the southern Russian frontier and advancing to the Middle East and Iran remained just that – a vain dream devoid of all reality.

The only operational benefit of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom’ was that it had tied down so many Soviet forces for so long, and that Operation SATURN had been downgraded to LITTLE SATURN. Had the Germans lost Rostov-on-Don, the prime terrain objective of SATURN in December 1942, then Army Group A, and particularly a large chunk of First Panzer Army, could not have escaped destruction. Despite Manstein’s and Zeitzler’s constant urging, Hitler’s permission to start this urgently required withdrawal from the Caucasus (and at this stage only a partial one at that) came characteristically late on 29 December 1942 in ‘response to the insistence of Don Army Group’. None the less, Stalin was unable to inflict in full measure his intended mortal blow on the German Army in the East, the Ostheer. Army Groups A and Don survived to fight another day notwithstanding the grievous loss of Sixth Army, Germany’s strongest. As we shall see, Manstein managed to stabilize the southern wing of the front and the Soviet winter offensive was brought to a halt in March 1943 in spectacular fashion, offering a brief glimpse of victory. Yet nothing could disguise the harsh fact that the destruction of so many Axis forces (the equivalent of no less than fifty-five divisions) in the meantime had ‘fundamentally changed the situation to the detriment of Germany and her allies’. The strategic balance had now shifted in favour of the Soviet Union and its Western allies.

For the German people, moreover, there was no way of disguising the magnitude of the catastrophe at Stalingrad and the psychological blow it represented. Too many soldiers’ letters had reached the homeland for it to be brushed aside as a mere setback. Goebbels had tried to counter anguish and defeatism in his famous speech of 18 February 1943 at the Berlin Sportpalast, declaring ‘total war’. The strategic truth, however, had already been drawn on the battlefield. Marshal Zhukov, even stripping away the bombastic tone of his memoirs, hit the nail on the head when he explained the ‘causes of the German debacle’ and the Soviets’ ‘epoch-making victory’:

[The] failure of all Hitlerite strategic plans for 1942 was due to an underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the Soviet State, the indomitable spirit of the people. It also stems from an over-estimation by the Nazis of their own forces and capabilities. [Secondly,] utilization of the surprise factor, correct selection of the directions of the main effort, accurate detection of weak points in the enemy defences led to the defeat of the German troops in the operation[s] codenamed URANUS, SMALLER SATURN [and] RING.

Zhukov could not avoid listing a number of other contributory factors, not least the ‘Party and political work conducted by the Military Councils . . . and commanders’, ‘who fostered in soldiers confidence and bravery, and encouraged mass heroism on the battlefield’.

For both sides, there was as much a psychological as any physical turning point. Germany’s offensive operations had culminated. In view of the Soviet superiority, the only option available was to switch to a strategic defence. How aggressively it could be conducted at the operational level would depend on the time, space and forces available, and above all, on the skill of its commanders. As Manstein was soon to show, the Red Army could still be defeated in the field.

In the meantime, the final agony of Stalingrad is briefly told. In the grand scheme of the Second World War, it is tempting to describe the German defeat on the Volga in terms of a ‘decisive point’. Although such vocabulary is valid in any strict, detached, military analysis of campaign, it obscures the irrefutable fact that the battle was a human disaster. Manstein was surely right, therefore, to remind his readers:

The death-struggle of Sixth Army, which began around the turn of the year [1942-43], is a tale of indescribable suffering. It was marked not only by the despair and justified bitterness of the men who had been deceived in their trust, but even more by the steadfastness they displayed in the face of an undeserved and inexorable fate, and by their high degree of bravery, comradeship and devotion to duty, and by their calm resignation and humble faith in God.

None the less, it is perfectly appropriate to examine Hitler’s and Manstein’s decision-making during the last few, debilitating weeks of the Sixth Army: after all, the fate of so many thousands of soldiers rested on their political and military leaders.

By late December 1942, the combat power of the encircled troops in Stalingrad had diminished dramatically. On the 26th, when only 70 tonnes of supplies were flown into the pocket, Paulus reported that ‘bloody losses, cold, and inadequate supplies have recently made serious inroads on divisions’ fighting strength’. Moreover, it was ‘no longer possible to execute [a] break-out unless [a] corridor is cut in advance and [my] Army [is] replenished with men and supplies’. So Paulus was in no doubt as to the nature of the impending disaster. He concluded his report with a plea: ‘radical measures [are] now urgent’. None was available.

Back at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, the mood had turned to one of frustration and resignation for there was nothing now that could save Sixth Army. As Engel recorded, ‘here [is] deepest depression. Nearly everybody had been hoping against hope that P. [Paulus] would take the risk and try to break out against his orders.’ However unrealistic the prospect, he felt that the army commander ‘could have got out with the bulk of his men, albeit at a high cost in material’. Yet the fact remained that ‘Nobody knows what should be done next at Stalingrad.’ In the face of unfolding events he was powerless to change, the Führer had turned ‘very quiet’, and was ‘almost never seen except at daily situation conferences and to receive reports’.

By the end of the year, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been pushed back to its line of departure, then further west still towards Rostov-on-Don. Building on the success of the Stalingrad counter-offensive, the Soviet Middle Don operation had sealed Sixth Army’s fate. As Zhukov noted accurately, the encircled German force ‘had no prospect of relief, stocks had run out, troops were on starvation rations, hospitals were packed, and the death rate from injury and disease was steep. The end was in sight.’

On 9 January 1943, following instructions by the supreme command in Moscow, the Soviet Don Front presented Sixth Army with a surrender ultimatum. The demand was summarily rejected the same day by Paulus on Hitler’s orders. Manstein did not defer. Perhaps tilting at the obvious criticism after the war, he went to considerable lengths in his memoirs to explain why, in his view, a capitulation on this date would not have been appropriate. His rather banal comments that, ‘if every Commander-in-Chief were to capitulate as soon as he considered his position hopeless, no one would ever win a war’ and ‘even in situations apparently quite bereft of hope it has often been possible to find a way out in the end’ provided little justification. What mattered far more was the operational rationale for sustaining the struggle in Stalingrad at such high human cost. The critical consideration, therefore, which he stressed repeatedly, was the fate of the entire southern wing of the German Army on the Eastern Front. So Manstein was on safer ground when he stated:

this in turn brings us to the crucial point which justifies Hitler’s order to refuse to capitulate and also barred the Army Group from intervening in favour of such action at that particular time. No matter how futile Sixth Army’s continued resistance might be in the long run, it still had – as long as it could conceivably go on fighting – a decisive role to fulfil in the overall strategic situation. It had to try to tie down the enemy forces opposing it for the longest possible space of time.

Strictly speaking, he was right in his assessment. Sixth Army’s prolonged and heroic stand on the Volga continued to fix seven armies of Rokossovsky’s Don Front, powerful forces which otherwise could have been employed elsewhere to ‘telling effect’. That said, the conduct of war ought never to be reduced to the moves of an elaborate chess game: the humanitarian imperative to end a lost battle and so prevent any further loss of life must at some stage take precedence over military considerations.

Manstein maintained to his deathbed the deeply held conviction that Germany was not doomed to defeat as a result of Stalingrad. One of his central themes in Lost Victories is that it would have been possible to have come to some sort of draw, however illusory that view might now appear. For all his professional military capabilities, Manstein was not a politically astute man. In propounding his solution, he failed to appreciate the utter determination of Stalin and the Soviet people not only to free their sacred Motherland (Rodina), but also to punish the Fascist invaders and render the aggressor incapable of mounting a war of conquest ever again. He also underestimated the strength of feeling against Germany held by the Western Allies, who at the Casablanca conference (14-24 January 1943) had demanded unconditional surrender.

It would be far too simple, however, to dismiss out of hand Manstein’s perspective that ‘in those days it was by no means certain that Germany was bound to lose the war in the military sense’. Accepting that the military is but one instrument of national power, in early 1943 Germany had yet to realize the full potential of its war economy: that would take another year under Albert Speer’s best efforts. Furthermore, despite its huge losses on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht still had considerable reserves of men and equipment, much of it being squandered in the totally futile defence of Tunisia or dissipated to little benefit in other peripheral theatres such as Norway or the Balkans. The fundamental issue Manstein raised was whether a military stalemate could have been brought about, and if, in turn, it would have caused ‘a similar state of affairs in the political field’. He felt a ‘draw’ ‘would have been entirely within the bounds of possibility if the situation on the southern wing of German armies could in some way have been restored’. All his efforts during and following the disaster at Stalingrad were aimed at achieving that one objective – staving off defeat – as opposed to the pursuit of ultimate victory.

In the weeks that followed Sixth Army’s defiant refusal to capitulate, the Soviet forces slowly but surely pushed in the German defence. Operation RING, designed to reduce the pocket, was prosecuted with ruthless ferocity. Throughout this period, bad weather and heavy fighting continued to hinder aerial resupply. Freezing and worn out, German troops fought on: the sapping starvation of the survivors accelerated, as did the appalling suffering of the injured and wounded. Manstein was not immune to the human misery involved, observing that it was but ‘a cruel necessity of war which compelled the [German] Supreme Command to demand that one last sacrifice of the brave troops of Stalingrad’.

Within Stalingrad, the situation worsened steadily and losses mounted alarmingly. The bread ration was cut from 200 to 100 grams a day; after all the horses had been slaughtered, the dogs came next. When the airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak were lost on 12 and 22 January respectively, the inevitable end drew much closer: no supplies in; no wounded out. The start of a series of concentrated Soviet blows to liquidate the German hold of the city centre began on 22 January. On 24 January, Paulus signalled: ‘Fortress can be held for only a few days longer. Troops exhausted and weapons immobilized as a result of non-arrival of supplies. Imminent loss of last airfield will reduce supplies to a minimum. No basis left on which to carry out mission to hold Stalingrad.’ He requested permission to break out in small organized groups. In response, he received a stark message ‘Re break-out: Führer reserves right of final decision.’ It never arrived.

By this late stage, Manstein had realized the futility of any further sacrifice in Stalingrad and pressed Hitler hard to give Paulus permission to enter into surrender negotiations. The Führer refused point-blank. That same day (24 January 1943), the Soviets had broken through the last remaining coherent front and split the German forces in the city into three smaller segments. Within a week, Paulus (promoted to field marshal to encourage him not to fall into the hands of the Russians alive) and his immediate staff had surrendered at their final command post, the Univermag department store in Red Square.

In one of those great ironies of history, it was Colonel Ivan Andreevich Laskin, a hero of the defence of Sevastopol and now chief of staff of the 64th Army, who arranged the cessation of hostilities in Stalingrad. The guns fell silent on 2 February when the last defenders of XI Corps in the northern pocket gave up. No fewer than 90,000 Germans were captured of which only 5,000 came back to their Fatherland. Although the fighting had stopped, cold, disease and malnutrition in Stalingrad was soon replicated in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps; only the very strongest and exceptionally lucky pulled through.

Manstein had done his very best to relieve Stalingrad. When that attempt failed for lack of forces, he felt compelled by military logic, and in accordance with Hitler’s instructions, to require Sixth Army to fight on. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, he had urged the Führer to agree to its surrender when the airlift was broken and when any further resistance was no longer justified on military grounds. Of the German leader’s role, Manstein wrote:

It was certainly to Hitler’s credit that he accepted responsibility unreservedly and made no attempt whatever to find a scapegoat. On the other hand, we are confronted by his regrettable failure to draw any conclusions for the future from a defeat for which his own errors of leadership were to blame.

One consequence of Stalingrad was the temporary loosening of Hitler’s micro-control of operations in early 1943. It led to timely evacuations from the exposed Demyansk and Rzhev salients that forestalled Soviet blows and created much needed reserves. Manstein also exploited this situation in stabilizing the southern wing of the Eastern Front by the end of March. Without gaining sufficient freedom to manoeuvre, it is doubtful whether he would have achieved anything like the fleeting operational success he gained.

Extracting any flexibility from the Führer, however, drained him. His mounting frustration over Hitler’s way of war caused him to consider tendering his resignation on several occasions. When Hitler denied him urgent reinforcements for Fourth Panzer Army, he wrote to Zeitzler on 5 January 1943 asking to be relieved of command:

Should these proposals not be approved and this headquarters continue to be tied down to the same extent as hitherto, I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by my continuing as commander of Army Group Don. In the circumstances it would appear more appropriate to replace me by a sub-directorate of the kind maintained by the Quartermaster-General.

Hitler refused his request. Matters came to a head again towards the end of the month with the Führer’s rejection of his demand to allow Sixth Army to surrender. His principal subordinates again advised him against resignation. His ‘closest collaborator’ Busse, according to Manstein’s account, is recorded saying in late 1942: ‘If I had not kept begging him [Manstein] to stay for the troops’ sake, he’d have chucked the job back at Hitler long ago.’

Notwithstanding his stated desire to step down, Manstein was probably right in his assertion that Hitler would not have accepted his resignation. The Führer tolerated and needed him for another year. The army group commander had further professional ambitions in any case. He knew that he was well qualified to take over from either Zeitzler or Keitel, or to assume overall command of the Eastern Front. This was a view shared by many of Germany’s generals who criticized the conduct of operations. Hermann Balck, for example, commented in his diary on 17 February 1943 that ‘the solution generally desired throughout the Army’ is for ‘Manstein to assume as Commander-in-Chief East’.

Of more enduring interest are Manstein’s comments against military resignation. He concluded that a senior commander ‘is no more able to pack up and go home than any other soldier’. Furthermore, ‘the soldier in the field is not in the pleasant position of a politician, who is always at liberty to climb off the band-wagon when things go wrong or the line taken by the Government does not suit him. A soldier has to fight where and when he is ordered.’ True enough for a politician in a democracy, but dictators such as Hitler are not in the habit of standing down: they either die of natural causes or come to a premature, violent end.

In early 1943, Manstein faced fighting some very difficult battles with Hitler in order to prevent any further disintegration on the southern wing as a result of renewed Soviet attacks. He had been wrestling with this problem since his assumption of command. With Stalingrad soon to fall, resolution of this issue became ever more urgent. It all revolved around securing a more coherent command of the Wehrmacht and the Eastern Front.

Japan’s interest in acquiring German uranium

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Johann Heinrich Fehler’s U-234.

Japan’s interest in acquiring German uranium was fueled by necessity. Early efforts to locate deposits of uranium within the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere had revealed only marginal amounts of usable ore; the Japanese army’s procurement director, Gen. Kawashima Toranosuke, recalled that upon witnessing the minuscule amount of uranium produced by the promising Kikune mine in Korea, he “wanted to cry.” Meanwhile, in Europe, Germany had acquired substantial stocks of uranium oxide through the seizure of over 1,000 tons of uranium oxide ore from the Union Minière warehouse in Belgium as well as rich ore deposits in Czechoslovakia. Japan’s wartime industry needed uranium oxide for the extraction of radium, and Japanese physicists also required the ore for experimentation with isotope separation and uranium enrichment. Therefore, on 7 July 1943, Japanese Imperial Army headquarters in Tokyo requested that the Japanese attaché in Berlin, Oshima Hiroshi, approach the Germans concerning “the possibility of exporting to Japan pitchblende (uranium) from the Czechoslovakia region.”

In September, Oshima notified Tokyo that negotiations with the Germans into the matter were progressing, but he needed a statement “showing [uranium’s] importance for purposes of study.” This was an alarming demand; Japanese officials were not used to revealing the exact reasons for their requests. Dr. Nishina Yoshio, Japan’s director of nuclear research, confided to his assistant Kigoshi Kunihiko that he did not wish to disclose his plans for using the uranium to the Germans, who would not stand for Japanese competition in the field of nuclear research. Nishina was investigating isotope separation and uranium enrichment and, if successful, would require substantial amounts of uranium oxide. His need for uranium was critical, and he did not want to jeopardize one of the few sources from which he could obtain the precious ore; any scarcity of uranium would bottleneck his research. Kigoshi suggested that Nishina tell the Germans that the uranium would be used as a catalyst for chemical reactions, thus diverting suspicions that Japanese research rivaled that of Germany. Convinced that the Germans would believe this story, Nishina authorized the formal request and forwarded it to the Japanese War Ministry.

Germany did indeed possess impressive quantities of uranium oxide, and a good deal of the ore was stored at Kiel. German naval munitions experts had discovered that the heavy atomic weight of the substance rendered uranium oxide ideal for the coating of large-caliber naval guns; later in the war the Luftwaffe followed suit and began using the ore in the manufacture of missile warheads. The clamor for uranium oxide for this use was so great that by 1943 the munitions industry’s requests for the ore competed with those of Germany’s atomic researchers in Berlin. Metallic uranium plates, vital for the construction of experimental atomic piles, became a rarity; German uranium suppliers such as Auer and Degussa often explained missed shipments by complaining that the military hoarded most of the readily available stocks of metallic uranium. While it is not difficult to imagine that Germany could have arranged uranium oxide shipments to Japan upon request, it is extremely doubtful that German military and armament officials would have parted with valuable metallic uranium. As a result, most experts agree with Dr. Helmut Rechenberg of the Max Planck Institute for Physics that, given the depleted capacity of German industry to produce metallic uranium during the late war years, it can be assumed “with great certainty that the uranium material [aboard U-234] was not metal but oxide.”

On 15 November, Japan’s Vice Minister of War J. Tory directed Oshima to obtain 100 kilograms (221 pounds) of uranium oxide and forwarded Nishina’s cover story that the ore would be used “as a catalyst in the manufacture of butanol.” Five days later Oshima reported that the Germans possessed substantial quantities from which they would able to supply the requested uranium and “its by-products at present.” However, Oshima was confused as to how much was required; he informed Tokyo that although the latest messages had requested 100 kilograms, “this is an error of one ton compared with the quantity [previously] mentioned. Therefore, please be advised that we will order one ton.”

In Berlin, Oshima forwarded the request to Maj. Kigoshi Yasukazu—who, coincidentally, was the brother of Nishina’s assistant Kigoshi Kunihiko—and directed him to acquire the uranium from the Germans. However, Reich officials viewed the request with suspicion. They did not believe that the Japanese intended to use the uranium solely for chemical experiments or the manufacture of butanol, and therefore refused to ship the ore. This reluctance infuriated General Kawashima, who sent an angry memorandum to German officials revealing that Japan actually desired the uranium for atomic research. In a footnote to his cable Kawashima admonished the Germans for their lack of solidarity and compliance with the Tripartite Alliance, asking, “What is going on here that you don’t want to cooperate?”

Kawashima’s indignation, and Oshima’s considerable diplomatic talents, finally persuaded Berlin to acquiesce. In late 1943 Germany agreed to ship the uranium oxide to Japan via two Japanese submarines. Kigoshi Yasukazu, who coordinated the uranium oxide acquisition, accompanied both consignments to Kiel and supervised the loading of both submarines. The initial shipment, which departed Kiel on 30 March 1944, was lost en route to the Far East when its conveyance submarine, Ro-501, was sunk. However, what happened to the second shipment remains somewhat of a mystery. Kigoshi himself could not verify the fate of the submarine. According to some reports, the boat never left Germany. However, in a May 1945 Associated Press interview, Adm. Jonas Ingram, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, revealed that during the summer of 1944 two Japanese submarines were engaged by American forces off the coast of Iceland. One of these submarines was sunk; the other was only damaged and subsequently escaped. Both submarines had been attempting to access the Atlantic via the Iceland-Faroes passage, the traditional route of U-boats deploying from the North Sea to the Atlantic; it is therefore likely that these two submarines were Ro-501 and her sister boat, both of which had sortied from Kiel. In addition, in a 1953 article in the Japanese journal Dai-horin, Japanese army major Yamamoto Yoichi claimed that in 1944 Japan did receive 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of uranium oxide from Germany by submarine. On the basis of this evidence, it appears that the 1943 uranium oxide request was loaded on board Japanese submarines at Kiel, and at least part of the original one ton arrived in Japan in late 1944.

Japan eventually developed reserves of uranium oxide throughout the various territories under its dominion. However, increased requirements from the scientific and military communities soon put a strain on this inventory. In 1944 the Japanese Army Air Technical Department (JAATD) initiated the extraction of 500 kilograms of uranium oxide from the Kikune mine in Korea; however, by the time serial mining began, the JAATD had already requested an additional 500 kilograms. In mid-1944 the Imperial Japanese Navy also asked the Ministry of Munitions for 500 kilograms of uranium oxide. And at the Kyûrikagaku kenkyûjo (Physics and Chemistry Research Institute) in Tokyo, where Dr. Nishina and Kigoshi Kunihiko were attempting to enrich uranium, the dearth of resources had prompted Nishina to request a consignment of uranium as well. Japan’s inventory being of neither the quantity nor the quality to meet these requirements, Germany once again received a request for help from its Axis partner.

In December 1944 Oshima received the request in Berlin and subsequently relayed it to officials of Germany’s overseas-shipping authority, the Marinesonderdienst-Ausland (MSD). MSD officials worked with Kigoshi Yasukazu to coordinate the logistics of gathering the uranium and delivering it to Kiel for loading onto one of three submarines scheduled for departure to Japan in the spring of 1945. In addition, the Marine Sonderstabsweigstellebeinat (Special Naval Home Substation Branch) in Kiel dispatched the MSD’s Commander Becker to various facilities throughout southern Germany to determine “what and how much was to be included in the cargo.” By February 1945 the procurement was complete, and Major Kigoshi met MSD officials in Kiel to organize and oversee the loading of 560 kilograms of uranium oxide onto the next submarine mission to Japan, Johann Heinrich Fehler’s U-234.

The loading of U-234’s uranium oxide is described in Wolfgang Hirschfeld’s memoirs. Hirschfeld stated that each container, “possibly steel and lead, nine inches along on each side and enormously heavy,” was inspected and labeled by the two Japanese passengers, Tomonaga and Shoji. The containers were then delivered to a loading party under the direction of Lt. (jg) Karl Pfaff and lowered into one of the (forward) vertical mine shafts. Hirschfeld also recalled that in addition to Pfaff, Tomonaga, and Shoji, Major Kigoshi was quayside at Kiel, directing the loading of “ten cases of uranium oxide” into the bowels of U-234.

Much of the confusion surrounding U-234’s cargo of uranium oxide arises from conflicting accounts of how the ore was handled once it arrived in America. In Portsmouth most of U-234’s cargo was immediately unloaded, processed, and dispersed to various facilities for testing and evaluation; however, the uranium oxide remained aboard the submarine for a time while American authorities pondered exactly how to dispose of it.

Cdr. Alexander W. Moffat, the surface unit commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier’s Northern Group, was present at U-234’s unloading. In his memoir Moffat stated that the uranium oxide was removed from the submarine the week following her arrival in Portsmouth. He claimed that “the first items to come ashore were the two saddle tanks [which had been] burned free of the deck by welders.” Once the saddle tanks had been secured on the dock, “technicians removed a sample of the contents for laboratory analysis. . . . It seemed to be an odorless granular powder. . . . Word soon spread that the saddle tanks contained uranium.”

The account Hirschfeld gave in his own memoir is vastly different from Moffat’s. Hirschfeld claimed that the uranium was not unloaded until July, when he witnessed six cargo containers lifted from the forward mine shafts and deposited on the dock. Once ashore, the tubes were examined by men “carrying small hand appliances,” which, Hirschfeld was informed, were Geiger counters. Apparently the six containers “were contaminated to such an extent with radiation” that the exact location of the uranium could not be determined. To aid in locating the uranium, Hirschfeld recalled, ONI officials decided to commandeer Karl Pfaff, who had directed U-234’s loading in Kiel.

The disparity between Moffat’s and Hirschfeld’s testimony cannot be easily explained away; in any case, it is certain that Pfaff played an important role in the navy’s disposition of the uranium. Although originally interned in the holding facility at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, Pfaff had been transferred to the army’s interrogation facility at Fort Hunt in Alexandria, Virginia. On 27 May the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations alerted Portsmouth to information regarding U-234’s cargo that had come to light during Pfaff’s interrogation at Fort Hunt. Pfaff had disclosed that he had been in charge of the cargo in Kiel, both preparing the manifest and personally supervising the loading of all mine tubes. Pfaff had further informed his captors that they should ensure, when unloading the submarine, that the “long containers [were] unpacked in horizontal position and short containers in vertical position,” and he declared himself “available and willing” to aid in the unloading should the ONI desire his help. A return 28 May memorandum from Portsmouth to the CNO reported that the containers had already been unloaded and that Portsmouth was awaiting a CNO directive whether to open the containers there or ship them to Washington for disposition. In reference to Pfaff’s offer of help, the 28 May memorandum also specified that “Pfaff should be available where containers are opened.”

Although Germany and Japan were further advanced in their nuclear programs than first suspected, it is unlikely that the Axis partners had developed a critical-mass reactor or applicable bomb program by the spring of 1945. Stanford University professor Dr. David Holloway points out that in May 1945, when the NKVD’s Gen. Avraamii Zaveniagin’s Soviet scientific mission arrived in Germany to investigate the German atomic program, they found that German scientists “had not separated uranium-235, nor had they built a nuclear pile; nor had they progressed very far in their understanding of how to build an atomic bomb.” The devastation of war at home, the scarcity of essential raw materials, the lack of an extensive government-supported scientific infrastructure, and the absence of a substantial economic and industrial framework all combined to hinder progress. Germany simply could not compete with the United States.

Although the extent of Axis atomic research may not yet be fully understood, U-234’s consignment of uranium oxide was not indicative of any large-scale Axis program, nor did it provide American authorities with any substantial windfall of unique value. Richard Thurston correctly observes that “there is no reason to believe that [U-234’s cargo] contained any elements not readily available to the U.S. and British teams working at Los Alamos and other places.” In all probability, U-234’s cargo was examined, analyzed, and shipped to whichever department needed it; likely destinations might include reactor development, military use, or medical or research purposes. Or maybe, as Thurston offers, tongue in cheek, the cargo is “stored intact in the same cave in Kansas as the Ark of the Covenant.” In any event, U-234’s uranium oxide will continue to mystify and to spark debate. When the big Type XB slipped below the surface of the North Atlantic for the last time in 1947, she left an enduring legacy as one of the continuing controversies of World War II.

Bombing of Vemork

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At 3:00 A.M. on November 16, 1943, when the duty sergeant roused pilot Owen Roane from his bed, Station 139, the massive U.S. airbase by the North Sea coast, was already alive with the preparations for an impending mission. Orders from the Eighth Air Force command, over a hundred miles to the southwest, had come into the base by Teletype, identifying the target, the weather prospects, the force needed, and the plan of attack. The operations officer, Major John “Jack” Kidd, and his staff had been working since the field order arrived. They determined bomb tonnages, fuel loads, routes, zero hour for launch, and which groups and squadrons would participate in the assault.

While First Lieutenant Roane shaved his boyish, bright-eyed face — the better to improve the fit of his oxygen mask — armament crews were at the bomb dump, loading their trailers with explosives weighing a thousand pounds each. At the same time, fuel tankers rumbled across the tarmac to fill a row of B-17 bombers, while mechanics checked out the engines and bomb bays. At the mess hall, the cooks and kitchen staff were preparing the morning’s pancakes, powdered eggs, and oatmeal. And at the Group Operations buildings, maps and photographs of the target were being assembled for the crews.

Dressed for the minus-thirty-degree temperatures at high altitude (wool underwear, two pairs of wool socks, a wool sweater, a brown leather jacket lined with sheep’s wool, and heavy trousers), Roane crossed the cold, fog-ridden airfield and gathered with the other pilots and aircrews in the huge Nissen hut used for briefings. A curtain covered the map showing their route and target. Once the doors were closed, Major Kidd, the operations officer, stood up in front of them, and a duty clerk pulled aside the curtain. They were headed to Norway, to a place called Rjukan.

Given the distance and the short November day, they would need to depart soon after 6:00 a.m. The target was Vemork, a power station and hydrogen plant, where the Germans made some “special explosive.” To limit civilian casualties, they would hit the site during the lunch hour. Major Kidd did not expect much enemy resistance, either from antiaircraft batteries or from fighter planes, and called the attack nothing more than a “milk run.” It was never said, but Roane was left with the decided impression that this Vemork place was a priority target.

Although Roane had just celebrated his twenty-second birthday, he was something of an “old-timer” — only two missions away from joining the “Lucky Bastards Club.” Membership was earned by beating the odds and making it through a twenty-five-mission tour alive. Nicknamed the Cowboy, with the hat to match, Roane was from Valley View, Texas, population 640, a town north of Dallas and little more than a dirt strip bordered by a few buildings. Roane was one of nine children (eight of them boys). His family owned a small farm, growing cotton, wheat, and corn, and his father also herded cattle on a nearby ranch. Owen loved to help when he escaped from school each day. On graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps, his aim being to become a mechanic. A few plane rides later, he was hooked and enrolled in flight school. Soon he was assigned to fly the B-17. The four-engine, long-range bomber had an arsenal of machine guns and could take punch after punch and still deliver its bomb load — over ninety-six hundred pounds. Crewed by ten men, the B-17 was known as the Flying Fortress and was a giant in the sky.

In June 1943, after ten months of flight training, Roane arrived in Britain, where he was assigned to the One Hundredth Bombardment Group. Over the coming months, they would earn their own sobriquet: the Bloody Hundredth. They hit submarine bases, airfields, and factories across occupied Europe and far into Germany. Over that time, Roane saw B-17s that were flying next to him end their war, either shredded by enemy fighters, exploding midair, barreling down into the sea, banking sharply into the ground, or simply falling helplessly from the sky, their engines dead, their pilot and crew parachuting out over enemy territory.

The average lifespan in the Eighth Air Force was eleven missions; his fellow crewmen, many of them friends, were killed or went missing at a sobering rate. With equal measures of luck and skill, Roane always made it back. On one mission to Stuttgart, a fire raging across his wing and hounded by Messerschmitt fighters, Roane sent his plane into a spinning nosedive at three hundred miles per hour to extinguish the flames and throw off the enemy. Over Bremen and Schweinfurt, he waded through storms of flak, hell-bent on dropping his bombs on the target. In August 1943, after a run against a Messerschmitt factory, he was forced to land his plane, riddled with 212 bullet and flak holes, in North Africa. While there, he adopted a twenty-five-pound black donkey he named Mo, short for Mohammed. Mo came back to Britain with him, spending the flight hooked up to an oxygen mask in the radio room, covered with a sheepskin jacket. Approaching base, Roane messaged the control tower: “I’m coming in with a frozen ass.”

At 5:00 a.m. Roane made his way onto the hardstand to check out his plane. Circling it, he inspected everything from the tires and the fuel vents to the propellers and wing-deicing boots. The ground-crew chief advised that the plane had been loaded with six-thousand-pound bombs and an overload of high-octane gas, bringing its total weight to sixty-five thousand pounds (twelve thousand pounds over its rated maximum). Takeoff in the dark through a low cloud ceiling would be a neat trick.

“Ready to go,” Roane told the ground chief, then he headed to the food wagon, where he milled around with his men and had some tea, then a last cigarette.

They were joined by Major John Bennett, their new squadron commander. The hard-nosed thirty-six-year-old was coming along on the mission aboard Roane’s plane, the Bigassbird II.

After checking the safety straps on each other’s Mae West life preservers and parachutes, the ten-member crew entered the plane through the rear fuselage and took their positions. Two of the crew, the flight engineer and the radio operator, were a little more tense than usual, it being their twenty-fifth mission — a sortie infamous for bringing bad luck. Roane ran through his checklist again, and on seeing a green flare fire into the morning sky, started the engines. Their roar coursed throughout the plane, turning any conversation not conducted via the interphone into a shouting match. The ground crew removed the wheel chocks, and Roane taxied the plane onto the runway. All about him, lights flashed, brakes whined, and the air reverberated with the growl of engines.

A minute behind schedule, Bigassbird II was in position for takeoff. Roane released the brakes and headed down the runway. Three thousand feet down the pavement, the throttles at maximum power, Roane lifted the plane into the dark sky at 120 miles per hour and retracted the wheels.

Almost immediately the plane was shrouded in clouds. Departures were spaced out every thirty seconds, but if the plane ahead had engine trouble or if its pilot misdirected his course, the plane behind could find itself flying straight into it, and the crew wouldn’t know a thing about it until it was too late.

At three thousand feet, they emerged from the clouds. A half-moon hung overhead. To assemble with the twenty other B-17s in his group, Roane made a wide left-hand circle around Station 139. He kept his eyes peeled on the swirling beehive of planes in the sky, both to prevent a midair collision with the other planes stacked at various altitudes and also to spot the colored flares corresponding to his own formation.

Three hundred and eighty-eight B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators from three divisions of the Eighth Air Force were headed to Norway that morning. Roughly half of them were set on Vemork; the others were assigned to destroy an airfield just north of Oslo and mining operations in Knaben.

After some time spent circling, Roane rendezvoused with the other planes in the One Hundredth. Since Bennett was onboard, Bigassbird II was the lead in the group. There was a fair bit of mayhem, pilots barking into their radios as B-17s and B-24s scrambled to find their places in the moonlight. Once they were all together, Roane told his crew to “go on oxygen” and climbed to an altitude of fourteen thousand feet for the journey across the North Sea. The armada expected limited fighters, and so did not assemble in combat wings but rather hung together in groups of about twenty planes.

They crossed the North Sea on a northeastern course at a steady cruising speed of 150 miles per hour. The sun rose over the horizon to their right, illuminating a mesmerizing view: drifts of feathered clouds hanging below them, pure blue skies above, and hundreds of bombers surrounding them. The cockpit heater kept Roane and Bennett toasty warm.

When they neared the coast, Roane and his crew donned their flak jackets and steel helmets. They would have to lower to twelve thousand feet to drop their bombs, and given that Vemork was three thousand feet above sea level, the difference would put them at a prime distance for antiaircraft fire.

When they sighted Norway, Roane checked his watch and found that they were twenty-two minutes ahead of schedule. The first bombs were not supposed to be dropped until 11:45, when the plant’s workers would be eating lunch in the basement-level canteens. They had a choice: drop the bombs early and risk more civilian casualties, or make a 360-degree turn at the coast to delay the run, which would give the Germans time to muster a defense.

“Make a large circle over the North Sea,” Bennett decided.

When the bombers came around again, the Germans were ready for them. Two coastal patrol boats fitted with antiaircraft guns fired away. One B-17 went down. The rest of the bombers continued through the flak, most of it meager and inaccurate. Then German fighter planes scrambled into the sky, Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. They attacked sporadically but were too few in number and the Flying Fortresses too well armed with machine guns for them to press the attack home. A B-17 in another group was hit. Its crew parachuted out, then the unpiloted plane performed a series of sharp turns, whipstalls, and corkscrews before slamming into the sea. Still, there was nothing the enemy could do to stop the force of bombers.

Having survived missions over Germany where hundreds of fighters attacked for hours on end and where the Eighth Air Force lost sixty bombers in a single day, Roane was aware that this journey to Norway remained very much a milk run. As they crossed the coastline, the temperature in the cockpit registering minus-forty-five degrees, he peered down on a monotonous landscape of snowbound mountains, steep canyons, and frozen lakes. The view felt ominous. The navigator, Captain Joseph “Bubbles” Payne, had few landmarks — cities, rail lines, or roads — to guide him to the target. Nonetheless, he charted a true course to Vemork.

The Ninety-Fifth Bomb Group was ahead of the One Hundredth on the approach. Roane had to descend slightly to get out of their contrails, and Bigassbird II rocked and shuddered in the prop wash. Minutes later, the bomb bay doors opened. At twelve thousand feet, free of the turbulence at last, the crew readied to drop their load. Some low clouds hung in the sky ahead, but they would not interfere with an accurate run. In total, 176 Flying Fortresses and Liberators soared on toward Vemork.

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On a farm west of Vemork, Einar Skinnarland had just finished transmitting a message to London by wireless. While he waited in the barn for a return message to come through, he heard a distant rumble. Stepping outside, he found Haukelid staring up into the sky. Far above, an endless parade of bombers was heading east, and neither German fighters nor antiaircraft guns harried their course. The two men could only guess at their target. There was a good chance it was the power station and hydrogen plant at Vemork. The bombers made for an awesome sight.

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At 11:33 a.m., air-raid sirens blared throughout Vemork. Transport manager Kjell Nielsen ran down the steps of the hydrogen plant to the basement shelter. Only months before, he had been working at Herøya, in magnesium production, when American bombers had attacked. At that time, Nielsen had been supplying intelligence and photographs of the industrial site to the resistance — and, by extension, the Norwegian high command.

Down in the shelter, the chief engineer, Fredriksen, received a phone call from the operator at Våer, the hamlet across the bridge. She reported twenty aircraft above the valley, then another fifty, then cried out, “There are even more planes!” Fredriksen had no doubt as to their purpose.

The panicked families of the workers and engineers who lived on the Vemork side of Vestfjord Valley were shepherded into the air-raid shelter near their homes. The concrete structure, built above ground, was to be used as a garage when the war was over. Considering the limited protection it provided its occupants, it would have been better had this already been the case.

Down in Rjukan, citizen volunteers directed the townspeople into a range of structures prepared for such an assault. At the local school, teachers hurried some sixty pupils into a tubular concrete shelter, which had a layer of sand on the floor. Four Germans who were living on the first floor of the school building joined them. They all heard the thunder of airplanes overhead. Fearing what was to come, one of the teachers ventured outside. Seeing the formation of bombers directly overhead, he shouted, “We’re in the center of the circle! Run to your homes!” The schoolchildren dashed from the shelter and scattered in all directions.

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The Ninety-Fifth, the lead group in the attack, swept directly over Vemork and held on to its bombs. Roane figured their crews could not see the plant through the bank of low clouds hanging over the target area. No doubt they would come around for a second pass. He wanted Bigassbird II to win bragging rights for the One Hundredth by being the first to hit the target. Whether they did or not would be down to the skills of his bombardier, Captain Robert Peel, who was now in charge of the plane’s flight controls.

At 11:43 Peel spotted the plant through a slight break in the cloud cover. The Germans had started to generate smoke screens over the valley, but they were not enough to obscure the target. “Bombs away,” Peel called, releasing his ordnance. With the sudden loss of weight, Bigassbird II bucked upward in the sky. Peel watched his four thousand-pound “eggs” strike the target. The concussion rocked the plane as it continued on a straight course for ten seconds, giving the Fortresses behind time to release their loads along the line.

Squadron after squadron followed. Over the next twenty minutes, the planes, with names like Hang the Expense, Raunchy Wolf, and Slow Joe, poured destruction down onto the plant. Those who had missed their drops on the first pass circled back to try again through a haze of contrails and billowing smoke. There was occasional gunfire from the ground. It made little more impression than the few fighter planes that continued to nip at the edges of the armada.

In total, 711 explosions ripped across Vemork and the surrounding area. Some bombs fell in the valley and woods, causing no harm. Others struck the penstocks, severing nine pipelines and spewing tons of water down the hillside. The suspension bridge was torn in half and hung over the southern cliffside. Three direct hits on the power station ripped away part of its roof, destroying two of the generators and damaging others. Bombs sheared off the top two floors on the western corner of the hydrogen plant. Several houses at Vemork and Våer were leveled, and the homes not eviscerated by explosion were destroyed by flying stones and splinters and by the fires that followed. Flames — red, green, and orange — rose throughout the area.

Just as the main body of bombers banked away from the hydrogen plant, a pack of twenty-nine B-24 Liberators flew down the Vestfjord Valley. The pack had been assigned to the bomb run outside Oslo, but they found their target covered in clouds and so had come the hundred miles to Vemork. At 12:03 p.m., these B-24s mistook the nitrate plant in Rjukan for the target and released their five-hundred-pound bombs. Most of the cluster hit the plant, bringing down a pair of brick towers and demolishing a number of small buildings. Some of them struck the town’s populated center, a few hundred yards away.

Roane and the others directed their bombers back toward the Norwegian coast at twelve thousand feet, Roane one run closer to joining the Lucky Bastards Club. As they made their way safely home, the residents and workers of Vemork and Rjukan were emerging from hiding to reckon with what they had left behind.

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“My God, what’s happened to my family?” One engineer, covered in concrete dust, gave voice to everyone’s fears as he stepped toward the door of the hydrogen-plant shelter. Nielsen tried to calm the man next to him, who was frantic about whether his wife and children had reached the air-raid shelter in time.

A former member of the Norwegian Red Cross, Nielsen had cared for wounded soldiers during the Finnish war against Russia. Now he headed straight to the shelter to see if anybody there needed his help. The air-raid sirens were still wailing, and all of Vemork was choked with smoke. People ran through the rubble putting out fires and carrying the wounded out of buildings on the verge of collapse. Some workers managed to shut down the flow of water from the penstocks and also closed off the valves to the severed hydrogen and oxygen pipes that ran across the valley. Screams and moans sounded from every direction.

There were no survivors at the Vemork air-raid shelter. There was nobody in need of Nielsen’s help. Where it had stood there were two craters, the result of two direct hits from the bombers. The concrete walls and roof had been pulverized, and the sixteen people who had huddled inside were dead: eleven women, two children, three men. Their bodies were all but irrecoverable: an arm, a head devoid of its features, a dismembered torso. Flesh and bone littered the broken concrete and twisted steel bars in gruesome chunks. Fathers, husbands, and friends knelt down in the open holes, their cries joining together into a macabre song of grief.

In Rjukan, four miles away, plumes of heavy dark smoke filled the sky. The nitrate plant and a number of houses were in ruins. As fate would have it, the teachers and students who ran from the bunker during the attack had saved themselves. The shelter had been leveled, just like the one at Vemork. When the smoldering fires had been put out and the wounded treated, the dead were counted: in total, twenty-one Norwegians had lost their lives.

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SS officer Muggenthaler took cover in Rjukan during the bombing, but still received lacerations to his face from flying debris. In his first dispatches to Oslo and Berlin, he painted a stark portrait of the devastation he had witnessed in the attack and its aftermath. At Vemork, there was much that needed urgent repair: the pipelines, the suspension bridge, and the generators, as well as the equipment and the hydrogen plant. But after he and others carefully surveyed the site, investigations revealed that the “SH-200 high-concentration plant” was undamaged. Only a brief period of time and a limited amount of material would be needed to get things running again. In summary, the bombing run was a lot of storm and fury for what was, in effect, a limited blow to the German war machine.

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.