TO KADESH I

The final and decisive Egyptian battle in Asia, a turning point equal to that of Megiddo under Thutmose III, took place in year five of Ramesses II at the city of Kadesh in central Syria. Yet this was the second northern campaign of Ramesses II because a preparatory advance had occurred one year earlier. A stela of the king, set up at the Nahr el Kelb on the southern coast of Lebanon, probably bears witness to Ramesses’ first preparations for the major war. We can presume that the Pharaoh followed the earlier practice of his father (and Thutmose III) in first assuring control over the coast before marching inland. Noteworthy is the presence of Sherden “mercenaries” within the Egyptian army at Kadesh [Qadesh] in the king’s fifth regnal year. They are referred to in the main inscriptions that recount this war as well as in the reliefs. The latter differentiate these warriors from the Egyptians by means of their round shields, long swords that are wide close to the haft, and their cap-like helmets surmounted by two prongs and a small sphere. Because the Egyptians had fought some of these sea pirates at the mouths of the Nile earlier than the fourth year of Ramesses, it seems reasonable that not a few had now become a staple ingredient within the Egyptian military. Their absence in the battle reliefs of Seti supports this contention.

Ramesses II ordered an account of the Battle of Kadesh to be inscribed and drawn on the walls of various temples. Abydos, probably the earliest, reveals only the lowermost portions of the war owing to the fragmentary condition of the temple. At Karnak two versions are still extant while at Luxor three may be found, although one of them presents only the two main narrative accounts. The king’s mortuary temple to the west of Thebes, the Ramesseum, has two versions as well, and Abu Simbel in Nubia presents a more condensed version.

The importance of the detailed account, the so-called “Poem,” and its shorter companion, the “Bulletin” is balanced, if not dwarfed, by the pictorial record. Indeed, the latter may be said to provide the fullest visual information concerning the Egyptian military in Dynasty XIX. As noted earlier, all campaigns were divided into various portions. By and large some of these episodes are present in all of the temples. On the other hand, Ramesses wished to highlight four main events in this campaign: the camp and the war council, the battle itself, the spoils and captives, and the second presentation at home to the gods.

Note once more the war council. In the narrative of the Megiddo battle this was a prominent portion of the account, and the same may be said for the opening section of Kamose’s war record. But the reason for Ramesses’ interest lies in the fact that, after the king settled down in his camp to the west of the city of Kadesh, he received news that the Hittites were close by and not far away in Aleppo as he had originally thought. After the spies of the Hittites were beaten and forced to tell the truth, the attack of the numerous enemy chariots occurred. The pictorial representations cover these two interlocked events as well as the arrival of the Pharaoh’s fifth division, the Na`arn. The latter traversed southern Syria by foot, undoubtedly leaving the ports of the Lebanon in order to meet up with the king and his four main divisions, all of which had advanced northward through the Beqa Valley. If this elite division left Tripoli, to take a case in point, then approximately 121 km would have been traversed before they met up with Ramesses. Hence, it would have taken them more than 9 1/2 days to reach their destination, providing that there were no delays. Although this is not a long duration, the coordination of the Na`arn with the king’s other four divisions is remarkable, and one is left with the feeling that Ramesses earlier had been in communication with these additional troops, probably by messenger, in order to effect the juncture of the Na`arn with his army. If these men had arrived earlier they would have been isolated. If they came later, then the entire composite army would been prepared as a large unit at least one day after Ramesses’ arrival at Kadesh. The coincidence is too great to allow for chance.

The second episode draws together the attempt of the king to hasten his other divisions that had followed the first where he was at the front. The all-mighty king is carved in superhuman size charging on his chariot against the foe and, of course, shooting his arrows. Since this portion is highly detailed, I shall leave it for a more detailed analysis below. The remaining two episodes are more straightforward but present interesting details of their own.

Globally, Ramesses II intended to retake the city of Kadesh which had switched sides after the withdrawal of the large Egyptian army under Seti I. His strategy was a simple one: march to the city and take it. From the background to the eventual combat it is clear that Ramesses with his four divisions did not intend to meet the Hittites. The “Poem” begins the narration at the departure from Sile, and then continues with the arrival at a royal fortress in the “Valley of Cedar.” There was no opposition in Palestine; combat was expected only in Syria. He is then described as crossing the ford of the Orontes, which was south of the city and at a point where the river coursed in a westward direction, perpendicular to the march of the king.

Earlier, Ramesses had received false information from two Shasu at the town of Shabtuna (modern Ribla), who stated that his Hittite opponent, Muwatallis, with his army, was in Aleppo, north of Tunip. In other words, the king felt that he could reach Kadesh unopposed and settle for a battle or a siege. A series of background points can now be made. The first is the simplest, and one that I have referred to on more than one occasion. The war was known to all and sundry. Both the local princes in Palestine and Syria as well as the leaders of the two great states of Hatti and Egypt could not hide their feelings, their war preparations, indeed their war aims. The journey of Ramesses, though not rapid by today’s standards, nonetheless covered the same number of miles per day as, for example, Thutmose III did when approaching Megiddo. The march was thus ca. 12.5 miles/day and no lengthy delays occurred. If we allow about 10 days from Sile to Gaza, and then about 12 days to get to Megiddo, we can place him in central Palestine about three weeks after his departure from Egypt. He left Egypt approximately at the close of March to early April, following the practice of his Dynasty XVIII predecessors. On day nine of the third month of the harvest season he was at Shabtuna south of Kadesh, and about one month had passed. (The departure from Sile is dated exactly one month before the arrival at Shabtuna.) At this point he received the false news that the Hittites were not around the city of Kadesh. The Egyptians were approximately 14 km from Kadesh. Ramesses then advanced, and it would have taken at most half of a day for the first division to set up camp opposite the city.

More details help to elucidate the final stages of the march to Kadesh. In the morning the king awoke and prepared his troops for the march. Sometime after that the army reached Shabtuna. This would have taken time. Ramesses’s extended army was composed of four divisions, all marching separately and behind one another; the advance would have been slow. The temporary halt at Shabtuna did not last long. Moreover, the king discussed with his commanders the oral evidence of two Shasu “deserters” who falsely reported that the Hittites were not at Kadesh but away in the north. Again, we can assume the passing of time, at least one hour, but probably more. One line of the “Poem” (P 60) states that a distance of 1 Egyptian iter separated that ford south of Shabtuna from the position of Ramesses when the second division (Pre) was crossing the Orontes. The distance from the ford to the camp, or even to Kadesh, was at most 16.5 km. To march it would have taken 3/5 of a day. We cannot but assume that the time when Ramesses settled peacefully in his camp must have been in the afternoon. One final point needs to be brought into the discussion; namely, the length of the Egyptian iter. There were two: a larger one of about 10.5 km and a smaller, of approximately 2.65 km. It is evident that the former was employed here.

We can perhaps better understand why the Egyptian monarch failed to take cognizance of the Hittites. According to the Poem the latter were “concealed and ready to the northeast” of Kadesh. The first division of the Egyptians was at the northwest of the city, settled beside a local brook that was so necessary for the animals and men. They had pitched the tents, and from the scenes of relaxation the army had already settled down for the day. However, as one relief caption indicates, they were not completely finished with the preliminary tasks of pitching the camp (R 11).

But no attack by Ramesses was planned on day nine. The city of Kadesh was not directly approached. Indeed, the king settled down on the west, across the Orontes, and arranged his camp for the arrival of the following divisions. We must assume that either he expected a military encounter with the enemy forces stationed within Kadesh on at least the following day or that he intended a siege of the citadel. The second alternative is a secure and economical way to victory, provided that time is not of the essence. Such a blockage prevents additional men from supporting the enemy, and eventually the lack of food and water becomes a major problem for the defenders. Yet in this case there is no evidence that Ramesses immediately proceeded to invest Kadesh. Indeed, he was somewhat removed from that citadel. The topography of the region indicates that west of the city and around the Orontes there was a relatively level plain, one suitable for chariot warfare. The Egyptian camp and the advancing three other divisions were well placed to suit their purposes. If this analysis is accepted, then we may very well wonder if once more the possibility of a “pre-arranged” battle was understood. That is to say, soon after dawn on the following day, the clash of the Egyptians and the foes within Kadesh was expected, provided that no surrender took place.

The Hittites, as all now know, were hidden. The less detailed but highly useful account of the “Bulletin” twice says “behind” Kadesh whereas the “Poem” is more specific, locating Muwatallis, the Hittite monarch, and his army at the “northeast of the town of Kadesh.” This report also uses the word “behind” but adds that the enemy’s chariots charged from the “south side of Kadesh” and broke into the second division of Pre that was still marching north to meet Ramesses. Either the Pharaoh had not used advance chariotry or scouts of his own to size up the strategic situation at Kadesh, and this appears the correct solution, or the Hittite king arrived after any Egyptian scouts had left. Considering the location of the enemy, the depictions of their camp, and the prepared state of Kadesh, the second alternative must be rejected. But the crucial question remains: how could Ramesses have not seen or heard the enemy?

Armies such as Muwatallis’ had horses, and we know that his chariots and troops were prepared. Do not horses neigh and create dust clouds by their moving hooves? How can one hide them? Was the grass very high? Or was the enemy simply too far away for traces of their presence to be noted? Evidently, the Egyptian king had not sent a reconnaissance party across the river to the east. This may have been due to the fact that his first division was just on the point of settling down, and that the sun had begun to dip faster in the mid afternoon. Nonetheless, Ramesses thought that the coast was clear because the two Shasu had deceived him concerning his opponent’s whereabouts. Was the hour of the day a factor? We have calculated, albeit in a tentative way, that before Ramesses reached his desired spot a considerable amount of time had passed. Sunset occurred around 6 p. m. local time, and we would doubt if evening twilight had already occurred at the point when the Hittite chariots were sent directly across the Orontes. The Poem helps us further when it states that Muwatallis and his soldiers were hidden “behind” Kadesh. The mound and the city itself therefore provided the necessary cover.

A few additional remarks concerning this deception can be offered, not in order to excuse the mistake of the Egyptian monarch, but rather to indicate how armies that are at close quarters are unable to perceive each other. It may be possible to surprise small forces but with large ones it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. The Baron de Jomini observed “As armies at the present day [1838] seldom camp in tents when on a march, prearranged surprises are rare and difficult, because in order to plan one it becomes necessary to have an accurate knowledge of the enemy’s camp.” Surprisingly, this sentence fits neatly with the tactics of Muwatallis. He allowed Ramesses to settle down, or at least to begin pitch the tents, before he moved his forces across the river. In addition, he waited for the second division of Ramesses to advance sufficiently so that he could smash it and hence isolate the first division at the camp.

Muwatallis must have known about the Na`arn, the fifth division, when he sent his chariots ahead. As stated before, these armies had reasonable knowledge of the strategic goals of their enemy. In the case of the Hittites, their basic situation was better than the Egyptians. They already held the area and had sufficient reconnaissance to enable them to understand the enemy’s advance. If so, they should have known of the incoming fifth division. Muwatallis was also able to send two Shasu south to meet up with the main Egyptian force. He realized that his plans had succeeded. Otherwise, Ramesses would not have acted the way he did.

The numbers of chariots said to have been employed by Muwatallis belie the truth. Once more we meet nice rounded integers: 2,500 in the first wave, the one that reached the Egyptian camp, and another 1,000 later on. We could add the 19,000 and an additional 18,000 teher warriors said by the Egyptian account to have remained with their leader. But let us return to the force of chariots. As the Hittites followed a system of three men to a chariot in this battle, 7,500 men are implied. Following the data, we arrive at an area of 27,941 m2; in a square the sides would be 167 m or about 548 feet, 10 percent of a mile.

These calculations have avoided any other soldiers in the Hittite army. Even though the Hittite chariots were somewhat different from the Egyptians’, their length (including the horse) was about the same. The only other problem is that with three men in the vehicle the width would have been greater. Hence, we ought to increase our result by a few meters although we cannot assume that the chariots were set up neatly in a square. The type of fighting as well as the width of a chariot arm would have depended upon the area in which they could maneuver. We cannot assume that the chariots attacked en mass with no depth. For the original 2,500 the space would not have allowed it.

If a camp for a Roman legion totaled 6,000 men, then the area would be approximately 60 acres. For a mere 7,500 men we have 75 acres or .12 miles2. Muwatallis certainly did not require such a large area because the city of Kadesh could have supplied him with provisions. The Hittite monarch had already camped there before Ramesses arrived, and his tactical situation was excellent. But given the figures of the enemy troops in the text, especially those of the 37,000 teher warriors, it would have been remarkable if the Hittite king could have not been observed from a distance. We must discount all of the numbers in Ramesses’ account of the battle of Kadesh.

Yet this does not mean that the battle cannot be analyzed. In particular, we have to ask ourselves: what was the original intention of Muwatallis when he sent his chariots across the Orontes? The lack of footsoldiers is the key. He did not intend to fight for a long time. The infantry were kept behind. Hence, the purpose of the attack was to run through division number two, that of Pre, and to get to the camp of his foe as soon as possible. Muwatallis also knew that the Pharaoh was just settling down. He did not delay, for that would mean that the Egyptians could assemble with double the number of troops. Considering his action, we may suppose that he felt, with about 75 percent of the enemy army still marching north, the odds were certainly in his favor. Nonetheless, he did not commit himself to full force: additional chariots were left behind.

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The Victory of the Covenant?

Cromwell after the Battle of Marston Moor

By the time of John Pym’s death from disease in early December 1643 much of the architecture of Parliament’s eventual victory was in place, and he must take a large share of the credit for that. A military alliance with the Covenanters, in the service of yet another covenant, this time between the two kingdoms, was underpinned by novel forms of taxation which would provide the basis for public revenues for over a century (assessment, excise and customs). These were reinforced by penal taxation and seizure from those who opposed the aims of the Covenant. Parliamentary committees, proliferating like mushrooms, allowed Parliament to act as an executive body, albeit a rather poorly co-ordinated one.

Pym’s contribution to sustaining the political will to implement these measures was considerable, but not necessarily popular, even among those who had been riveted by his compelling speeches in May and November 1640. Although his influence grew out of those influential speeches, what he had in the end championed was quite different from a defence of parliamentary liberties and the Church of England. A week or so before Pym’s death, Parliament took a further highly significant step. In early November, Parliament had authorized the use of a new Great Seal, the highest symbol of sovereignty, and on 30 November it was entrusted to six parliamentary commissioners. It represented an escalation of the argument that the King enjoyed his powers in trusteeship, exercised in partnership with Parliament. When the King was absent or in danger of wrecking the kingdom, so the argument had gone, then Parliament could assume trust in his place. Now, it was said, those using the Great Seal were enemies of the state, which was not currently entrusted to the King. The new seal made the implications of this plain: it did not include the King’s image but that of the House of Commons, and the arms of England and Ireland. As one commentator put it, there was consternation among ‘all the People’ who had ‘reason to believe that, at last, the divisions between the King and Parliament would become irreparable, and that there would be no hopes left of their being reconciled to one another, the breach made in his Majesty’s authority being so great, that it portended nothing less than the ruin of the state and the dissolution of the monarchy’. In all these ways, defence of parliamentary liberty was clearly no longer the same as defence of the ancient constitution.

Pym’s death also coincided with a reorganization of parliamentary military command. The formal alliance with the Covenanters called into being the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which took over from the Committee of Safety in February 1644. It was the first body to have responsibilities in both kingdoms. In one sense it filled the gap of a single executive body, acting as a kind of parliamentary Privy Council. But it was also a highly political body, on which opponents of the Earl of Essex were prominent, men anxious for a clearer military victory in order to secure a peace on demanding terms. Holles, for example, was not on the committee, but Cromwell was, and its terms of reference compromised the powers granted to Essex in his commission. Pym, man of the moment in 1640, died at a point when the parliamentary cause had plainly moved a long way from the aims set out at the meeting of the Long Parliament – it was now a military alliance with the Covenanters, more or less on condition that the English church be reformed along the lines of the kirk, in the hands of a parliamentary committee acting as an independent executive and likely to seek a decisive military victory over their King. National subscription to the Solemn League and Covenant was promoted from 5 February, underpinning these aims.

In this context, the fate of William Laud has an obvious significance – putting the issues of 1640 back in the forefront of people’s minds, and paying an easy price to the Covenanters for their military support. Laud had been impeached on 19 October 1643, the first step on what proved a long path to his execution, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a narrowly calculating political act, another way of promoting Protestant unity without raising difficulties about church government, and an easy way to curry favour with the Covenanters. It also perhaps reflected how Laud was the personification of the dangers of Catholic conspiracy, all too evident following the Cessation. One newsbook argued that ‘the sparing of him hath been a provocation to Heaven, for it is a sign that we have not been so careful to give the Church a sacrifice as the State’. Strafford had died for the latter, but now revenge was sought on Canterbury in the cause of God: ‘he having corrupted our religion, banished the godly, introduced superstitions, and embrewed both kingdoms at first in tincture of blood’. But there was a more prosaic reason – while he lived on as Archbishop of Canterbury he had to approve ecclesiastical appointments and, though he did his best to comply, some appointments made demands on him that he could not in conscience approve. In any case there can have been little to justify the prosecution of an ageing bishop, or the ‘rancorous hatred’ with which his prison cell was searched for incriminating evidence. The hostility perhaps bears testimony as much to the difficulties of 1643 as to the certainties of 1640. It offered the same comforts as the bonfire of ‘pictures and popish trinkets’ staged on the site of Cheapside Cross in January 1644 to mark the defeat of the Brooke plot. Even so, it was another year before the trial was concluded.

Pym had died at more or less the pivotal moment in the fighting. By not losing in 1643, when military fortunes had favoured the royalists, Parliament had put its armies in a position to win, particularly in alliance with the Covenanters. This was not simply because of the intervention of the Covenanters, since the royalist momentum had already been halted, particularly by the victories at Newbury and Winceby. The first major engagement of the spring was at Cheriton (29 March), on the approaches to Winchester. A decisive victory that owed nothing to the Covenanters, it led to a royalist withdrawal and the recapture of Winchester. This not only halted royalist advances in the west but signalled, like Winceby, that the parliamentary cavalry was becoming a match for the royalists. It was followed within ten days by the fall of Salisbury, Andover and Christchurch (although Winchester Castle held out) and, by early April, Waller was on the verges of Dorset. Clarendon felt that the impact of the defeat at Cheriton on the royalist cause was ‘doleful’.

When the Covenanters arrived, then, it can plausibly be argued that the momentum was already with Parliament and that some of the further progress of parliamentary arms did not depend on their presence. On the other hand, this was also partly an illusion caused by royalist strategy. The King’s forces now dispersed, seeking to re-establish control in the regions, a necessary preliminary to building strength for a renewed offensive, and that continued to be a reasonably hopeful strategy. In any case, the Covenanters” army was undoubtedly significant in shifting the balance further in favour of Parliament, opening a new front in the north and introducing a new field army. In late spring there were five parliamentary armies in England. The Covenanters and the Fairfaxes in the north put pressure on Newcastle’s position, Manchester was besieging Lincoln, Waller was the dominant force in the west and Essex was preparing to take the field. Against this, Rupert’s army was in the north-west and potentially able to offer some support to Newcastle, but Charles had sustained a presence in the centre only by amalgamating his army with the remnants of Hopton’s. Prince Maurice was laying siege to Lyme, with a small force, and there was no army available to confront Manchester. The Covenanters did not turn the tide, but they did contribute significantly to the problem of over-stretch faced by the royalist forces.

Commitment to dispersal, and the demands of the overall situation, undoubtedly affected the movements of Rupert’s army during the spring. He had left Oxford for Chester in March, where he was lobbied to pursue the relief of Lathom House, but the chief priority was the relief of Newark, which was achieved on 21 March. It was a significant victory, not least because the besieging forces surrendered siege artillery, 3,000-4,000 muskets and large numbers of pikes. But there was an immediate demand for Rupert’s aid in the south. Many of his troops came from Wales and he set off there for replenishment and supply, but was recalled to Oxford on 3 April. The order was countermanded the following day, but it is evidence of the stretch that was now felt in the royalist ranks. Newcastle’s pleas for support in Yorkshire continued to go unheard and the royalists had also been defeated at Nantwich. On 11 April, Selby fell to the Fairfaxes and Newcastle withdrew to York. This allowed the Covenanters and the Fairfaxes to join forces at Tadcaster a week later, threatening the extinction of the royal cause in the north.

In this situation a parliamentary advance on Oxford, where morale was flagging, was quite possible. On 16 April the Oxford parliament was prorogued following an address imploring Charles to guarantee the safety of the Protestant religion; the failure of another political initiative and the death of what Charles was later known to have called his ‘mongrel parliament’. For Parliament, Oxford and York were the two key military objectives, and the royalist forces were stretched to cover both. While Charles sought to strengthen the position around Oxford with garrisons at Reading, Wallingford, Abingdon and Banbury, Rupert left once more for the north. The Committee of Both Kingdoms was also interested in both objectives, and as the Earl of Manchester took control of Lincolnshire he was sent to York rather than Oxford. Nonetheless, parliamentary advances in May put such pressure on the royalist position in Oxford that the King decided to leave. Charles left Oxford on 3 June with 7,500 men, leaving 3,500 to defend the town, armed with all his heavy artillery, and marched west via Burford, Bourton and Evesham. By the time he reached Evesham it was known that Tewkesbury had fallen to Massey and he opted to take up quarters at Worcester, arriving on 6 June. Three days later Sudeley Castle fell and he ordered a further withdrawal to Bewdley.

These then were promising days for the parliamentary armies. The King had withdrawn from Oxford and York was under pressure. But the initiative was lost. Essex was sent to relieve Lyme rather than join Waller in a pursuit of the King. This crucial and controversial decision was taken at a council of war at Chipping Norton, at which both Waller and Essex were present. It was an odd one, perhaps intended as a prelude to moving into the west and cutting off the King’s supply. Historians have subsequently blamed Essex and Waller for a crucial error, and at the time the Committee of Both Kingdoms was shocked by the decision and ordered Essex to return, something he notoriously failed to do, on 14 June. Having decided to take this course, and to ignore a direct order from the Committee of Both Kingdoms, it was of course important for Essex to succeed, and at first he did. He lifted the siege of Lyme on 14 June and took Weymouth the next day. He now resolved to push on into the west. It is more than possible that this reflects in part personal frictions between Waller and Essex, who had been at odds before and seem to have squabbled during this campaign. But this disagreement was probably exaggerated retrospectively by Waller and his supporters – he initially supported the decision. Essex challenged Parliament to relieve him of his command and got his way – on 25 June he was ordered to move west in accordance with his wishes. This order allowed him to continue the march he had already commenced in defiance of his previous orders.

Meanwhile, Waller pursued the royal army, which was moving back via Woodstock and Buckingham. He found it difficult to engage the army, and its very mobility was a problem, since it might suggest a move either on York or on London. Waller therefore had to have the defence of London in mind. This rested on a small and hastily assembled force under Major-General Browne and it appeared vulnerable until Waller made it back to Brentford on 28 June. In the end the indecisive engagement at Cropredy Bridge on 29 June was the only fruit of these manoeuvrings, and this must surely count as a lost opportunity for Parliament. After the battle the royal army was able to march off in pursuit of Essex in better spirits than the parliamentarians.

In the north, however, the parliamentary campaign was decisive. York had been under siege by Leven and Fairfax since 22 April and the only hope of relief lay with Rupert. In May and June he won a string of victories in Lancashire. These mobile campaigns were frustrating parliamentary armies in the south, but the position in York looked bleak. On 13 June the Earl of Newcastle had been invited to negotiate its surrender and it was thought that the city could only hold out for another six days.

On 14 June, Charles wrote a fateful letter to Rupert. ‘If York be lost I shall esteem my crown little less, unless supported by your sudden march to me, and a miraculous conquest in the South, before the effects of the Northern power can be found here; but if York be relieved, and you beat the rebels” armies of both kingdoms which were before it, then, but other ways not, I may possibly make a shift upon the defensive to spin out time until you come to assist me’. The loss of York would be a catastrophe except in the very unlikely event that Rupert was able to get away and secure victories in the south before the parliamentarian armies got there. On the other hand, if York was relieved and the northern army defeated, Charles might avoid defeat long enough for Rupert to come to his aid. Relief of York and defeat of the northern army were the best hope for the royalist cause.

This was a realistic view, but it conflated the relief of York and the defeat of the rebels: as it was to turn out it was possible to relieve York without defeating the Scottish and parliamentarian forces. Charles had not known this of course. His command to Rupert was:

all new enterprises laid aside, you immediately march according to your first intention, with all your force, to the relief of York; but if that be either lost or have freed themselves from the besiegers, or that for want of powder you cannot undertake that work, that you immediately march with your whole strength directly to Worcester, to assist me and my army, without which, or your having relieved York by beating the Scots, all the successes you can afterwards have most infallibly will be useless to me.

Again, the possibility was not recognized here that York might be relieved without defeating the besieging army.

On 28 June it was clear that Rupert was coming. Besiegers were too exposed between the walls of a defended city and an army able to line up in one place, rather than as an encircling force, and on 1 July the siege had been broken up. The parliamentary forces withdrew to Tadcaster and York had been saved. But Rupert seems, not unreasonably, to have interpreted the letter to mean not simply that he should relieve York but that he should engage and destroy the besieging army. He therefore decided to seek battle despite the clearly expressed view of the Earl of Newcastle that it should be avoided. Most subsequent commentators have taken Newcastle’s side: with the relief of York the King’s position had been rendered more stable and there was no good reason for risking an engagement with the besieging army. In fact Rupert had received numerous letters in the weeks before Marston Moor containing more or less the same message, and urging haste, and so he was not unjustified in seeing his orders in this way. It seems that other royalist commanders feared that Rupert, left to his own devices, would have given priority to establishing full control of Lancashire. But he was also aggressive by instinct and that he interpreted his order in that way would not have surprised Colepeper: when he heard that the letter had been sent he said to Charles, ‘Before God, you are undone, for upon this peremptory order he will fight, whatever comes on’t’.

For those interested in contingencies then, the moment at which Charles drafted that clause, or the moment when Rupert read it, was crucial to the course of the war in England. With York relieved, the King in what turned out to be a successful pursuit of Essex, and Oxford secure, honours might have been said to be even. But Rupert chose to engage numerically superior forces, with catastrophic results for the royalist cause.

Battle was joined at Marston Moor on 2 July. Rupert’s forces were considerably outnumbered, particularly the cavalry. His relieving army and the force garrisoning York numbered about 18,000. The parliamentarians, by contrast, probably had around 28,000 men, the result of the confluence of forces under the command of Leven, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Manchester. The bulk of the parliamentary forces, about 16,000, were Scottish and Leven was in overall command both as the ranking officer and as a man of formidable experience in the European wars. His forces were drawn up with the infantry in the centre, cavalry on the right under Fairfax and on the left under Cromwell and Leslie. Opposite Cromwell were Rupert’s cavalry, commanded by Byron, and Fairfax was opposed by Goring. Infantry numbers were fairly equal – around 11,000 on either side – but the parliamentary advantage in horse was considerable. This was not a guarantee of success, however, because the ground on which the battle was fought did not favour horse riders – furze, gorse, ditches and rabbit holes broke up the ground, making rapid advances difficult. Byron, in particular, was protected by rough ground.

The initial deployment was not complete until late afternoon, and several hours of inconclusive skirmishing had achieved little by 7 p.m. At that point Rupert thought the battle would be postponed until the next day, and Newcastle was repairing to his coach to enjoy a pipe of tobacco. But as a thunderstorm broke, the parliamentary infantry began to advance. The rain interfered with the matchlocks of the royalist advance guard and the parliamentarians” infantry successfully engaged with the main body of the royalist infantry. But the royalist riposte was very successful. Goring advanced on the parliamentary cavalry ranged against him, and his men began to inflict heavy losses. Byron, perhaps encouraged by the sight, advanced on Cromwell, but in doing so had to tackle the difficult ground himself. Perhaps that contributed to the ensuing rout, in which Cromwell’s cavalry were triumphant. But with Fairfax’s cavalry now defeated and Goring’s men inflicting heavy losses on the infantry it seemed as if Rupert’s decision might be vindicated. Many Scottish troops fled and at one stage all three parliamentarian generals appeared to be in flight, thinking that a royalist victory was in the offing.

It was the discipline of Cromwell’s cavalry that transformed this position. Fairfax made his way behind royalist lines to tell Cromwell what had happened on the opposite flank. Cromwell was able not only to rally his cavalry but to lead them back behind the royalist lines before leading a devastating charge on Goring’s forces from the rear. This was utterly decisive – the royalist infantry were now completely exposed, and outnumbered. Most surrendered, and the parliamentary victory was total. It is likely that the royalists lost at least 4,000 men, probably many more, and a further 1,500 were captured. Rupert left York the next morning with only 6,000 men and Newcastle refused to make a fist of the defence of York, preferring exile, he said, to ‘the laughter of the court’. York surrendered two weeks later and the parliamentary forces in the field now easily outnumbered the royalists. This was the worst case that Charles’s letter had sought to avoid: the loss of both York and his field army.

Marston Moor was certainly a massive blow to royalist morale, and decisive for the war in the north, but Parliament was robbed of an outright victory in England by a combination of poor military judgement and political hesitancy. The military adventure launched by the Earl of Essex and the reluctance of the Earl of Manchester to pursue a complete victory allowed the King to recover his position in the west and enter winter quarters in Oxford in triumph.

In mid-June, having lifted the siege of Lyme and captured Weymouth, Essex set off into the west. Waller could not offer support partly because of the reluctance of the London Trained Bands to serve for long away from home. Nonetheless, supported by the navy under Warwick’s command, Essex initially enjoyed considerable success. By early to mid-July he was threatening Exeter, where Henrietta Maria was recovering from the birth of her daughter, Henrietta Anne, on 16 June. Essex refused her safe conduct to Bath and offered instead personally to escort her to London. Given what subsequently happened, this would have been a considerable boon to the parliamentary cause, but Henrietta Maria refused – as both she and Essex knew she faced impeachment in London. Instead she fled to France, on 14 July, and never saw her husband again.

Influenced by the threat of the northern army moving south, and also perhaps by this threat to his wife’s safety, Charles moved decisively after Essex. On 26 July he reached Exeter and rendezvoused with Prince Maurice, who was at the head of 4,600 men, at Crediton the following day. Essex, meanwhile, was further west at Tavistock, where he had been received triumphantly – Plymouth had been secured. Cut off by a royal army and having secured Plymouth this might have been the moment for discretion, but instead Essex resolved to push on. On 26 July he decided to go on into Cornwall, arriving at Lostwithiel on 3 August. The King had pursued him, arriving at Liskeard the previous day.

Now bottled up, with the King’s army behind him, Essex had put himself in a desperate position. On 30 August he prepared to withdraw. The following night his cavalry were able to ride away, itself something of a puzzle since the King had been forewarned and yet apparently failed to cover the likely route of escape. The infantry fought a retreat to Fowey but were cut off by the arrival of a force under Goring, which commanded the road. That night Essex instructed Skippon to make such terms as he could while Essex himself slipped away on 1 September. The King offered surprisingly generous terms to Skippon, given the dire position in which Skippon found himself.

This was a massive blow to morale. Mercurius Aulicus was withering in its scorn, asking ‘why the rebels voted to live and die with the earl of Essex, since the earl of Essex hath declared he will not live and die with them’. According to the terms of surrender negotiated by Skippon the army was to be allowed to march out with its colours, trumpets and drums, but without any weapons, horses or baggage apart from the officers” personal effects. They were offered convoy, the sick and the wounded were to be given protection, and permission was given to fetch provisions and money for the defeated troops from Plymouth. These could be claimed as honourable terms, but they did not stick, and the defeated army was subject to humiliations amounting to atrocity. The royalist convoy could not protect the unarmed soldiers from attack and local people, men and women, joined in the assault. They were stripped by the women, and left lying in the fields. Some were forced ‘to march stark naked, and bare footed’, and pillage and assault continued. One victim was a woman three days out of child bed, stripped to her smock, pulled by her hair and thrown into the river. She died shortly after. Ten days later the survivors, perhaps 1,000 of the 6,000 who surrendered, marched into Poole, ‘insulted, stripped, beaten and starved’. Their numbers had been winnowed by desertion, but there were many who died on the road, after an honourable surrender. If the propaganda effect was dire, the strategic importance could not be exaggerated: ‘By that miscarriage we are brought a whole summer’s travel back’. Essex’s adventure, for which he was solely responsible, had gone a long way towards grabbing stalemate from the jaws of victory.

Worse was to come, at least in political terms. Fairfax, Leven and Manchester apparently felt that Marston Moor would force Charles to seek terms, and they did little to pursue an outright victory. In Manchester’s case, at least, this reflected his belief that a lasting peace would be one recognized as honourable by all parties, and could not be delivered by total military victory. War was a means to peace, and had to be treated with caution. This hesitancy allowed Charles to consolidate his position during September. Following his triumph over Essex, Charles moved eastwards again, arriving in Tavistock on 5 September. Having abandoned the attempt to retake Plymouth he sought to relieve garrisons further east and his forces established themselves at Chard, and both Barnstaple and Ilfracombe were retaken. His aim was to strengthen the garrisons at Basing House and Banbury to shore up the position of Oxford. This began to look like a potential threat to London and it finally spurred Manchester to bring his Eastern Association forces into the King’s way. It proved difficult to co-ordinate and supply the parliamentary armies, and the Trained Bands contingents were reluctant to move too far, so Waller was forced to pull back from the west in early October, unable to gain support for his position in Sherborne. As Charles continued to advance Parliament began to consolidate forces, calling off the siege of Donnington on 18 October. The King’s next objective was to lift the siege of Basing House, but Essex and Manchester joined forces there just in time, on 21 October, and the King was forced to withdraw to Newbury. Together with Waller’s remaining forces, and levies from the London Trained Bands, the parliamentarians were finally able to bring a large force, perhaps of 18,000 men, to bear on a royal force which on some estimates was only half as strong.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part II

The well-equipped and highly motivated fanatics of the SS descended on Vevi with great speed. In countering them, Vasey’s problems at Vevi were prodigious: the Allied position lacked both depth and fixed defences, the weather was poor, and many of his units were tired from the route marches needed to get to the front. A regular soldier, George Alan Vasey had served as an artillery officer and brigade major in the first AIF. Between the wars, he graduated from the Indian army’s staff college at Quetta, and then served on exchange for two years with the Indians. Leadership at Vevi would be Vasey’s first brigade command, after he spent the Libyan campaign on the staff of 6th Division. He came to the 19 Brigade in curious circumstances. Brigadier Horace Robertson, who led the unit through the desert fighting, concluded well in advance that the Greek campaign would be a disaster. He took the opportunity to repair to hospital for treatment on his varicose veins to avoid being associated with it, hoping for more propitious command opportunities in the future. His strategic acumen was commendable, but his career planning less successful: it would be 1945 before Robertson got another combat command.

In these slightly unseemly circumstances, Vasey stepped into Robertson’s place. Described as ‘highly strung, thrustful, hard working’, Vasey would need all of these personal qualities, and more. Upon arriving in the area, Vasey found his force bolstered by only two Greek units — the 21 Regiment and the Dodecanese Regiment, the latter manned by troops from the Aegean islands. These formations were typical of the Greek army: individually brave, but poorly equipped, often with antique rifles that pre-dated even the First World War, and supplied not by railway or truck, but by mule trains.

At Vevi, the Monastir Valley narrows into a pass that traverses the higher country to the south. It was, in effect, the side door to the whole of Greece for the invading Germans. The village of Vevi itself was like many other hamlets in the Greek high country: a cluster of stone houses and dirt roads, snow-bound in winter. In ancient times, forests clad the mountains, home to abundant game and even big cats now long-extinct on the European mainland, but thousands of years of human habitation had stripped the ranges of timber, leaving the uplands completely denuded. Vevi stood at the head of the pass, through which passed a railway line and road, running in parallel to the south.

To guard the barren ranges around the pass, Vasey was forced to string his units out over a line that he estimated to be 13 to 15 kilometres in length. The map distance was one thing, but the mountainous country compounded the defence problem because it was so liable to infiltration. Vasey did at least have some engineering capacity to work with. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company arrived on-site at 7.00 a.m. on 9 April, and immediately began work. Three roads entered Vevi, from the north-west, north-east, and the south: each was cratered by explosive charges. Sergeant Johnson later reported on how these roadblocks were prepared:

[W]e set to work with bar and hammer. After jumping two holes approximately 4 feet deep, a stick of gelignite with fuse and det was placed in each hole to bull chamber sufficient for each charge. After getting holes ready for charge, we placed approximately 50 lbs of gelignite in each of two charges and blew the crater by 10.00 hours. This showed a crater of approximately 8 feet deep and approximately 16 feet wide. After directing a stream of water that was coming from the village into the crater, we built a stone wall as a tank stop approximately 5 feet high and 30 feet long.

The railway was also blown, once on the outskirts of Vevi and again at the head of the pass, where a small bridge was demolished. The 2/1 Field Company completed its work by laying fields of anti-tank mines: the largest of them south-west of Vevi, another at the head of the pass behind the railway–road demolition, and a third within the pass. Smaller minefields were also laid on the eastern flank, along roads leading into Petrais and Panteleimon.

While the engineers had heavy equipment to help them, the infantry struggled on the high ground to prepare weapon pits in the rock-hard mountain slopes. On the extreme left was the Greek 21 Regiment and, next to them on a four-mile front, the 2/4th Battalion. In the centre, Vasey placed the 1/Rangers, just south of Vevi village and astride the road in the bottom of the valley, buttressed by the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. On the crucial high ground to the east of the British (Point 997) was the 2/8th Battalion; on their right, the Dodecanese held a long line right up to the shores of Lake Vegorritis. At the southern end of the pass, Vasey deployed his artillery, coordinated by observation posts on the forward hills. Vasey kept his considerable artillery force under a centralised command, and had the good fortune to have with him for this role the commander of the 6th Division’s artillery, Brigadier Edmund Herring. Behind this thin line was the British 1st Armoured Brigade at Sotir, less its infantry and artillery. Even this small tank force was then split in two: the cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were with Charrington at Sotir, but the light tanks of the 4th Hussars were a further 50 kilometres south, at Proastin. Vasey positioned his own force headquarters to the west of the Vevi road, under trees near the village of Xynon Neron.

The first unit to go into position was the 1/Rangers; the 2/4th Battalion, the 2/1st Anti-Tank, and the New Zealand machine-gunners followed on the morning of 9 April. The 2/4th moved up onto the high ground to the west during the day, only for its men to spend the night digging three separate positions as they were moved about the hills. Conditions were cold and miserable: Lieutenant Claude Raymond of the battalion’s signals unit resorted to singing Christmas carols to keep up the spirits of his men.

To his Australian and British infantry, Vasey added the firepower of the Kiwi machine-gunners from 1 and 2 companies, the 27 MG Battalion. This unit had been broken up to distribute the available Vickers guns, and while one half went to Vevi, the other, made up of 3 and 4 companies, buttressed the 5 NZ Brigade at Olympus Pass. The 27 MG Battalion was a model of imperial defence, not just for the flawed organisational doctrine it represented, but for the way the constituent parts of the empire came together within it: Kiwi crews manning British-designed guns, manufactured at the Australian Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, New South Wales.

Operating to a shared doctrine, these machine-gun battalions could in theory go where they were most needed — while the Australian 2/1st MG Battalion reinforced New Zealand infantry at Servia Pass, the Kiwi machine-gunners did the same for Vasey’s men at Vevi. These units could also be broken down into their constituent companies to reinforce a position where a full battalion could not be employed — thus, while two companies of the 27 MG Battalion went to Vevi, its 3 and 4 companies stiffened the New Zealand brigade holding the passes at Mount Olympus. Less satisfactory was the assumption that units could be broken up and distributed as required, and retain their cohesion under the stresses of battle when these sub-units fought alongside strangers.

At Vevi, the Kiwi machine-gunners were deployed mostly through the line on the left held by the 2/4th Battalion, and further west by the Greek 21 Regiment. In the centre, only two sections were in position to help the Rangers — Lieutenant W. F. Liley, a 26-year-old platoon commander from New Plymouth, thought the English infantry were ‘extremely thin on the ground’, estimating that ‘some sections were 50 yards apart’.

The Germans first tested this fragile defence line on the night of 9 April. The 1/Rangers reported that a platoon on patrol had been missing since 8.30 p.m. on 9 April, and a sentry in forward position was killed later in the night. Sappers of the 2/1 Field Company, waiting to blow another demolition to be timed with the approach of the Germans, bore witness to this first contact with the SS. Sergeant Johnson again reported:

At exactly five minutes past twelve (10 April), we were awakened by the sound of shooting and sentries whistles. On investigating, we were met with the sight of one of the sentries killed. He had gone forward to investigate and challenge a party of seven dressed in Greek uniforms. They all seemed to get around him, and he was trying to explain to them that no-one was allowed to go past him. Suddenly, two of the patrol fired. They turned out to be Germans and fifteen .303 and eight .38 bullets were fired at point blank range. We searched the locality but could find no sign of the party. At approx. 01.30 hrs, we heard a motor start and a car go off in the direction of the German lines.

The inexperience of the 1/Rangers evident in these first exchanges with the ruthless SS did not augur well, but the front was still fluid, allowing a New Zealand armoured-car patrol to go forward into Yugoslavia on 10 April. The day was cold and wet when Lieutenant D. A. Cole led three Marmon Herrington cars north toward Bitolj with orders to destroy a stone bridge, a mission that resulted in the first award for valour in the 2nd NZEF. Finding their bridge south of Bitolj, Cole covered the demolition work, and sent further forward the car commanded by Corporal King as a point guard.

The New Zealanders had hardly begun laying their charges when they were interrupted by the arrival of a column of the Leibstandarte. To hold up the Germans for as long as possible, King boldly advanced and challenged their fire, for which he received the Military Medal, only to be killed a week later in an air attack. Even with the bravery of King and his crew, Cole could not complete the demolition as the German fire intensified: ‘the enemy were using explosive bullets and the outsides of the cars were rapidly getting stripped of such things as bedding and tools’. Conditions inside the Marmon Herringtons were also decidedly uncomfortable, as German rounds pinged against the armour plates, dislodging the asbestos insulation and covering the crews in a fine dust. In danger of being overwhelmed, Cole got his cars together and sped away before the bridge could be blown; by way of compensation, he burnt two wooden bridges as the New Zealanders made good their escape to the south. They were not yet home, however: coming to a Yugoslav village, Cole found a German detachment already in occupation. Gunning the big cars, the New Zealanders sped through the village, firing as they went, and returned safely to Allied lines.

The size of the German column heading south had already come to the attention of the RAF, and during 10 April the infantry on the high ground around Vevi at least had the satisfaction of watching friendly bombers attack the approaching German columns. During these raids, a British Hurricane fighter was shot down by the Germans. As an integrated all-arms formation, the Leibstandarte was well equipped with automatic 37-millimetre anti-aircraft cannon, deadly to low-flying aircraft. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant ‘Timber’ Woods, crash-landed his fighter in no-man’s-land, and was brought back into friendly lines by a patrol from the 2/4th Battalion led by Lieutenant K. L. Kesteven (Woods was killed in action over Athens later in the month, in the last great air battle to defend the Greek capital).

The Germans coming up to Vevi were also harassed by Allied artillery fire: Captain G. Laybourne Smith of the 2/3rd Field Regiment was pleased with his battery’s work in laying fire onto Germans debussing on the plain, directing the shoot from his observation post in the hills. The artillery fire was not the only obstacle facing the SS. Leading the German column approaching Vevi was Untersturmfuhrer Franz Witt, younger brother of the commander of I Battalion: his car hit a mine laid by the 2/1st Field Company. Despite efforts to aid him, Franz died of his wounds; on the eve of the battle, a visibly distressed Fritz viewed his younger brother’s body laid out in a Greek house.

Throughout 10 April, the 2/8th Battalion struggled to get forward. Having been trucked as far as Xynon Neron (hampered by refugee traffic, the last 96 kilometres took six hours to traverse), the 2/8th had a 25-to-30-kilometre route march over broken country to take up its position. It only reached its objective, Point 997, in the evening gloom at 6.00 p.m. The unit’s medical officer was horrified by the condition of the troops, a fifth of them new recruits, insufficiently hardened for the campaign. As the men climbed up Point 997, some even began to suffer from altitude sickness. Snow and mist compounded the misery of the Australians. When they finally began digging in, they found the ground to be mostly rock; with their light entrenching tools, they were unable to excavate weapon pits of any depth. To afford some protection to their firing positions, they threw up sangars (another term taken from the Libyan campaign, describing a firing position formed by building a stone wall on top of the ground) as best they could. Finally, the 2/8th discovered that the Bren-gun carriers, which should have given them all-terrain capability, were useless in the conditions. Standing only 1.5 metres tall, and with a modest 65-horsepower motor, the gun carriers had insufficient ground clearance for the sodden earth in the bottom of the valley, or the power to climb the hills above. They were soon bogged in mud once they left the main Kleidi–Vevi road. This meant that the men were unable to bring forward hot food, which further dented morale.

The hasty assembly of the defending force showed in myriad ways, one of the more comical being the arrest by Greek police of Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Mitchell, a Melbourne company director and now CO of 2/8th Battalion — the suspicious local constabulary thought the Australian colonel was a spy.

The defenders endured yet another snowfall during the night of 10 April, equipped only with greatcoats and blankets, sustained by hardtack and bully beef. In the cold and snow, the two sides fought further patrol actions, and the result for the Allies was not propitious. A German force of about 20 men infiltrated the centre-right of Mackay Force and, confusing their opponents by calling out in good English, captured 11 New Zealanders, six Rangers, and six men of the 2/8th Battalion. Fire-fights then broke out in front of the foremost element of the 2/8th Battalion, the 14 Platoon, entrenched on the forward slope of Point 997. In this confused action, two wounded SS men were taken prisoner, and from their insignia the Australians first learnt that the Leibstandarte was in the line against them. The more lightly wounded German was removed to Corps Headquarters near Elasson, where he was interrogated by Private Geoffery St Vincent Ballard, a German-speaking signaller with the 4 Special Wireless Section. Sitting on the tailgate of a truck, Ballard struck up a conversation with ‘Kurt’, established he was from Berlin, and gathered from him some ‘low-level information’ about the composition and role of the Leibstandarte.

The eleventh of April opened with a blizzard, and the Allied troops were united in their misery. The New Zealand machine-gunners had spent the night in sodden gunpits, their boots waterlogged. In the morning, they even found several guns frozen and unable to fire. Conditions on the higher ground occupied by the Australian infantry were more difficult again: the 2/8th Battalion, at least, finally found a use for their cumbersome and despised anti-gas capes, which helped to keep the men dry. Regardless of this modest protection, men began to drop out with frostbite.

At six o’clock that morning, Dietrich issued his divisional orders, forming a kampfgruppe (battle group) around his I Battalion by adding to it artillery reinforcements and StuG III assault guns, and by instructing the grieving Fritz Witt to push on to Kozani through the Kleidi Pass. In an attempt to fulfil those orders, 7 Company of I Battalion pushed through Vevi village and launched an assault on Point 997 from 7.30 p.m.: the attempt was abandoned due to inadequate artillery support and the gathering darkness. The 2/4th Battalion on the left also reported defeating a heavy attack at this time, and a number of Allied units reported that, in the course of the fighting, two German ‘tanks’, undoubtedly the assault guns, had been disabled on minefields. It would seem from German records that what the Anzacs in fact observed was merely the withdrawal of these vehicles, as Kampfgruppe Witt abandoned its efforts for the day. Vasey duly reported to Mackay at 9.50 p.m. that he had the ‘situation well in hand’.

Nevertheless, the Germans were obviously gathering their strength for a decisive assault on the Allied position. The hard-driving Vasey, clearly appreciating the difficulties facing his men, demanded that they not shirk the issue. He issued an order of the day on the evening of 11 April that said much about his own blunt character: ‘You may be tired,’ he acknowledged, ‘you may be uncomfortable. But you are doing a job important to the rest of our forces. Therefore you will continue to do that job unless otherwise ordered.’

Mitchell, in command of 2/8th Battalion, followed up Vasey’s exhortation and ordered that no member of the unit leave his post from 9.00 p.m. An hour later, the Germans attempted their infiltration trick again, complete with cultured English voices, but on this occasion were met by an alert 14 Platoon that responded with heavy fire. In their unit diaries, the Germans noted the nervousness in the Allied line — any noise during the night was met by a barrage of artillery fire; indeed, the 2/3rd Field Regiment later acknowledged that it spent much of the night firing into a hillside on a false alarm that German tanks had penetrated the pass. Such incidents might seem comical in retrospect, but they also eroded Allied strength: earlier on the 11 April, a squadron of precious cruiser tanks from the 1st Armoured Brigade was despatched from the reserve at Sotire to investigate a report that German tanks were sweeping around the extreme right, along Lake Vegorritis. They found nothing in the barren snow-clad hills, and managed only to disable six of their cruiser tanks when their tracks broke on the rough ground.

By 12 April, the Mackay Force units had nearly accomplished their task, and indeed had orders to begin withdrawing from 5.30 p.m. that evening. Unfortunately, that planned withdrawal was upstaged by the long-heralded German attack. At 6.00 a.m., Dietrich gave his men their final orders: Witt was to punch through the Allied centre and advance on Sotir; a second assault force drawn from the 9th Panzer Division, recently arrived on the scene (Kampfgruppe Appel), would flank the Allied left through Flambouron; and on the Allied right, another impromptu formation from the Leibstandarte, Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt, would attack Kelli. Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion was ready to exploit any breakthrough, and the Leibstandarte’s assault-gun battery was moved in behind Witt to force the issue.

The decisive action between the Allies and the SS was now at hand. In the bottom of the valley, helping to guard the two-pound guns with the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, was Kevin Price, manning a Bren gun. The first thing that warned Price of the impeding battle was the noise — mechanised warfare brought with it the hum and roar of thousands of petrol engines: ‘We could hear the sound, this tremendous roar as they came down the road, with their tanks and weapons, their motor bikes were out in front, they were testing where we were dug in.’ Shortly after eight in the morning, up on the high ground to the right, Bob Slocombe and the rest of the 14 Platoon, 2/8th Battalion, were getting their first hot meal for days. This welcome breakfast, however, was interrupted by German shelling, and the SS infantry followed in hard behind.

In this foremost Australian position, the 14 Platoon was quickly in trouble. Slocombe remembers his platoon commander, 20-year-old Lieutenant Tommy Oldfield, trying to rally his troops, drawing his service revolver, and moving gamely into the open. A more experienced soldier, Slocombe yelled, ‘For Christ’s sake, Tommy, come back.’ But it was too late, and Oldfield was cut down in this, his first action. As the official historian recorded, Oldfield had enlisted at eighteen, been commissioned as an officer at nineteen, and was now dead at twenty. Even with these heroics, the 14 Platoon was in grave jeopardy, and a number of sections were overrun. Slocombe himself fought his way out to the safety of a reverse slope, where with 17 or 18 others he helped to hold up the Germans until mid-afternoon.

Slocombe’s temper would probably not have been helped had he known that, at 11.50 a.m., headquarters of the 6th Division recorded the action being fought on Point 997 as a ‘slight penetration’ of the defences. The staff of higher command had their minds elsewhere at the time, being deep in conference with Colonel Pappas, a staff officer with the Central Macedonian army, on how the withdrawal of the Dodecanese on the right might be achieved. Without trucks, the Greeks faced the prospect of leaving behind 1200 wounded. The Australians did not always excel at the diplomacy needed to manage relations with their allies: on this occasion, they were clearly frustrated by the scale of the problem presented to them by Pappas; at 1.00 p.m., Mackay finally issued orders to make 30 three-ton lorries available to the Dodecanese. The wounded soldiers whom the trucks could not carry would apparently have to march out, or face capture.

Although headquarters might have been sanguine, the loss of the forward slope of Point 997 had much more profound and unfortunate consequences for the 19 Brigade. In the valley, the 1/Rangers were effectively fighting alongside strangers, having been removed from their familiar role as the infantry element in a tank brigade. The English soldiers, seeing the 14 Platoon in trouble, thought their right had been turned, and began pulling back. In reality, the fighting that morning on Point 997 was only a patrol action, in conformity with Dietrich’s orders that vigorous patrols be sent out prior to the main attack scheduled for 2.00 p.m. However, to exploit any success by these patrols, Dietrich ordered that ‘wherever the enemy shows signs of withdrawing, he is to be followed up at once,’ and the dislodging of the 14 Platoon encouraged the Germans to continue to press the Australians.

Thus, even though the main assault was still being prepared, the German success on Point 997 prompted further local attacks to exploit the opening. Mitchell soon found both B and C companies, on his left, in trouble: he launched a counterattack mid-morning, borrowing a platoon from A Company, on the right, for the purpose, and supported it with covering fire from D Company, in the centre. This had some success, regaining part of the high ground, and the position of the 2/8th was stabilised, at least for the moment.

Down in the valley, however, the withdrawal of the 1/Rangers went on unabated. An officer of the 27 NZ MG Battalion, Captain Grant, the OC 1 Company, attempted to persuade the English infantry to hold their position, without success. Manning his Bren gun, Kevin Price remembers the British infantry streaming past the Australian anti-tank gunners. The withdrawal of the Rangers left these guns, along with the outposts of the New Zealand machine-gunners, without infantry support, and therefore in danger of being overrun. The only option for the gunners was to pull out. Unfortunately, five of the precious two-pounders could not be extricated from the mud in time, and had to be abandoned. By midday, the shaky line of the 2/8th Battalion on the heights on the right formed a large salient, as the Allied centre gave way down the pass; and, on the extreme right, the Dodecanese crumpled in the face of the advance by Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt.

Karl XII – The Baltic and Saxon Campaigns I

Karl XII spent much of September 1700 at his headquarters in Sweden conferring with his advisers and the high command about how to best deal with Augustus. Since the armistice between Russia and Turkey was now known, the tsar’s intentions were not certain. Peter had actually issued a declaration of war on Sweden on 30 August but it did not become known in Sweden until much later.

It was obvious that additional Swedish troops had to be sent to the Baltic provinces. However, the most thorny question was how and where to strike back at Augustus. One option was to begin an offensive from Livonia. The second option was a direct attack on Augustus in Saxony.

The second option was the soundest from a military standpoint and the one that Karl XII favored. Swedish forces would be going against a root of the current problem—Saxony. Forces could be augmented from those already in Germany—in Pomerania, Bremen, and Verden. The forces in Germany had gone through a strengthening program during the summer, and even if almost half were left in garrisons, over 10,000 could be provided for an invasion of Saxony. By further strengthening from the army used on Zealand, a force easily capable of dealing with the Saxons could be rapidly assembled. Furthermore, an offensive into Saxony would keep the Baltic provinces from becoming a battlefield. Livonia, for example, still had not recovered from the destructive effects of the great famine that had swept through the province in 1695–1696, leaving more than 50,000 dead. The problem of crossing Brandenburg territory was initially believed manageable since Brandenburg had allowed Saxon troops to cross its territory. An order was sent to Field Marshal Gyllenstierna in Germany to be prepared for the operation, either as a main attack or as a diversion in case the Livonian option was chosen.

The option to attack Saxony directly ran into a hornet’s nest of foreign policy problems. The Dutch and English opposed it vigorously. They were primarily concerned about the effect of such an action in case the issue of the Spanish succession turned into war. King William III was primarily worried that he would lose his traditional recruiting ground for mercenaries. The Dutch were also providing quantities of supplies to Sweden for use in their war with Augustus. This welcomed help could be jeopardized by an invasion of Germany.

The Saxon invasion of Livonia was a breach of the 1660 Treaty of Oliva, for which France was a guarantor. Sweden suggested to Louis XIV that he might want to cooperate in the proposed invasion as guarantor to the treaty which had been broken. Help was not expected but Sweden wanted to know the French attitude on the issue. The French were not willing to go further than to offer their good offices for mediation. In view of the strong views of Holland and England, particularly William III, those powers were informed that Karl XII would attack Augustus through Livonia.

The final nail in the coffin of the planned Saxon invasion was news from Ingria that a large Russian army was approaching its border with obvious intentions to invade. To regain Ingria was a primary Russian goal since its earlier loss had excluded them from access to the Baltic. The Russian declaration of war was received in late September. There was no way of countering a Russian invasion by going after Saxony. Winter was approaching and all available troops were quickly embarked to defend against the attacks by Augustus, now joined by Russia.

Swedish operations in Livonia had been too reactive and tame for Karl XII, despite the fact that Riga had held and General George Johan Maidel had inflicted a significant defeat on a part of Saxon army, forcing it to retire back behind the Dvina. The major worry was that the Livonian nobility was showing signs of unrest, and the Swedes did not fully trust their troops led by a Swedish officer, Count Otto Vellingsk.

Augustus made a second attempt in July to take Riga with an army of 17,000. A Swedish success was required to keep the loyalty of the Livonians. The news that Denmark had been knocked out of the alliance caused Augustus to halt his operation against Riga. Augustus was the epitome of duplicity and double dealing among a number of like-minded rulers of that time. He sent an urgent message to Tsar Peter for help while at the same time appealing to Louis XIV to arrange an armistice with Karl XII. Simultaneously, he shrewdly reinforced garrisons that had to be held to keep a line of communication open to his Russian ally.

Karl XII did not know about the Saxon withdrawal from Riga until he reached Pernau, but he knew about a mediation offer from Louis XIV. This led to a debate about the king’s methods concerning foreign policy by chancery officials both at his headquarters and in Stockholm. These complaints began at the time the king returned from Zealand, and centered on his openness and naiveté in dealing with foreign diplomats, and in not leaving adequate instructions and sufficient power for others to act in his place.

There is probably truth to these complaints. We have seen in the previous chapter that Karl’s father had a strong dislike for diplomacy, and this probably extended to his son. Karl was very direct and a person of few words. His advisers would present him various options; he thanked them and told them he would let them know his decision. This he did, but what apparently did not sit well with them is that he did not tell them why he had selected one option over another.

The chancellery officials felt that he was too preoccupied by military matters at the expense of diplomacy, and that when he did venture into that field failed to follow the elaborate customs that had come to characterize that craft. But it also sounds a bit like sour grapes. Karl XII sought and listened to advice from both military and civilian leaders who had more experience, and in the case of both Denmark and Saxony he bowed to foreign policy necessities.

Gustaf Jonasson provides an example of the difficulties between the civilian chancellery officials and the king. Karl graciously accepted Louis XIV’s offer to mediate between Augustus and himself. However, to the officials in the chancellery, who had to negotiate the offer, he insisted that Augustus had to evacuate Swedish Livonia before an armistice was signed. To the civilians this was the same as throwing down a gauntlet, showing that he did not want peace.

Chancellery papers and correspondence with the king and among themselves have been used to paint a monarch who preferred the sword to the pen. Professor Hatton provides some very rational explanations for these difficulties. The first is that the king was young and inexperienced. She observes that the king was naturally more concerned with short-term objectives, and that this is the natural difference in attitude between a soldier and a diplomat. It is an early example of the difficulties in civil-military relations. She also notes that the officials who prepared letters and documents did so with an eye for the future. She writes: In times of crisis, therefore, and in times of decision, officials tended to emphasize Charles XII’s sole responsibility for the course adopted and to set down their objections and fears on paper as a form of insurance for the future.

Andrina Stiles, among others, considered Professor Hatton an apologist for Karl XII and his obstinacy. As an example Stiles quotes Hatton:

If anyone could have saved Sweden’s great power position he [Karl XII] would have been the man, with his gifts as a commander, with his capacity for inspiring loyalty in his maturity, and with his dedication to the task fate had allotted him.

Karl assumed, probably correctly, that the reason for Augustus’ peace feeler was to delay the departure of Swedish forces from Sweden until it was too late in the season. Karl felt he would be negotiating from a position of weakness until he had his army in Livonia. This is shown by the fact that after landing in Livonia he expressed himself ready to proceed with an armistice while Augustus still held three Livonian forts. He was also willing to conclude an armistice at this time for another important reason—it would leave him free to deal with the Russians. It was clear thinking and correct strategy.

Vellingk reported to Karl XII that Augustus had become alarmed when the Russians appeared to concentrate their effort in Ingria while ignoring his pleas for help. Augustus had put his army in winter quarters in Courland while he traveled to Warsaw. Karl XII and his military advisors decided that pursuing the Saxons in Courland was probably a waste of time in view of the Russian threat to Ingria. The Swedish king found the recommendation of the French emissary, Count Louis Guiscard-Magny, who arrived in mid-November, convincing. He agreed with Karl XII that Augustus should return the forts he had seized and pay restitution costs before ratification of any treaty.

The decision had already been made to turn against the Russians with all forces that could be spared, since the threat from Augustus seemed rather remote. The Swedish forces—8,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry—were to be marshaled at Wesenberg. Magazines to support a six-week campaign were established, including winter clothing. Colonel Henning Horn, the garrison commander at Narva, was told that help was on its way. When Karl XII was asked where he intended to go into winter quarters, he answered simply that winter quarters would not be necessary since the army would be on the move.

At this time a Russian army of about 40,000 had begun the bombardment of Narva. The Russian army was not a rabble as some writers would have us believe, but included seasoned veterans from the war with Turkey, and there were many highly qualified foreign advisers. Among those was Field Marshal Charles Eugen de Croy, a former imperial general. The expectation was that Narva would fall to the Russians by the end of November. Tsar Peter sent General Boris Sheremetev (1652–1719), promoted to field marshal in 1701, with 5,000 men to destroy the Swedish supply depots at Wesenberg, but General Vellingk’s Livonian troops stopped him before he reached the depots. However, he turned the territory between Wesenberg and Narva into a wasteland to delay the Swedish advance which had started on 13 November with less than 11,000 troops—despite arguments by some at headquarters that marching to the relief of Narva would risk a battle with the huge Russian army.

The march to Narva was grueling as troops waded, hungry and tired, through mud from autumn rains halfway up their legs. At night they slept in the open. King Karl XII demonstrated his supreme confidence in victory by ordering a regiment that had not reached Wesenberg by the designated departure date not to hurry after the army but instead take up position at Lake Peipus to prevent the beaten Russian army from bringing their artillery safely across the lake. Such optimism was infectious and caused rising morale among the troops.

The Swedes were encouraged by the news that about 400 Swedish cavalry commanded by the king had encountered Sherementev’s force and put it to flight. The engagement is reported that way in a number of earlier books including books from the 1960s, but the initial reports on which they relied were not accurate. General Sherementev had already received orders to withdraw from a pass where he was posted and not to engage the Swedish army. The force the king encountered was therefore only a rearguard. The Swedes did capture a number of guns and supplies. However, the word spread through the ranks of the Swedish army that the king had won a major victory, and this helped to further raise their morale.

The Swedish army was within two kilometers of Narva by 19 November and a series of shots were fired to let Colonel Horn know that the help he was waiting for had arrived. The Russians had been warned by General Sheremetev that the Swedes were approaching, but they were not expected to launch an immediate attack on an adversary outnumbering them almost four to one. Instead the Russians expected the Swedes to undertake the customary build-up of forces before a battle took place.

This lack of urgency may have been the reason for a historically controversial event. Tsar Peter left his army on the night of 17–18 November for Ingria, ostensibly to organize reinforcements and meet with Augustus. Not only did he depart on the eve of the battle, but he took the nominal army com mander, Field Marshal Fedor Golovin, with him. Peter turned the command over to the very reluctant Eugen Croy. Some have described Tsar Peter’s departure as an act of cowardice, but Massie takes exception to this charge. However, it seems highly unusual for Peter and his principal deputy to choose the eve of battle to leave. Some accounts have—incorrectly—the tsar fleeing with his defeated army.

The Russian army was positioned in a large fortified camp on the southern side of Narva. It is generally agreed that the Russian army numbered 40,000 and that the Swedes had 10,000. Croy, when he saw how small the approaching Swedish army was, wanted to take a strong force and leave the fortified camp to meet them in open battle, but the reluctance of his Russian subordinates forced him to change his mind. The Russian army remained within their camp. It was protected by a wall nine feet high, and a ditch about six feet wide. The artillery numbered some 140 cannon. The weakness of their position, pointed out to the tsar by Croy, was that they were spread out for seven kilometers, leaving open the possibility that a concentrated enemy attack at one point could achieve local superiority before reinforcements could arrive on the scene.

Croy watched the Swedish approach with growing alarm. All had expected that the Swedes would start digging their own trenches and establish a camp, but instead he saw through his telescope that the Swedish soldiers were carrying equipment needed to cross obstacles. He was beginning to realize that the Swedes, contrary to all rules for an inferior force, were about to storm his position.

The Swedes had noticed the weakness of the Russian deployment and the king ordered General Karl Gustav Rehnskiöld to quickly prepare a plan of attack. It was decided that the infantry would launch the main attack against the center of the Russian camp in two groups. After breaking in, one group would turn north and one would turn south, rolling up the Russian line. The Swedish artillery, positioned on a slight rise, would support the attack. The cavalry was to remain outside the camp to deal with possible sorties or flight. Rehnskiöld would command the left wing of the Swedish army while Vellingk commanded the right. King Karl commanded a separate small force on the far left in the company of Colonel Magnus Stenbock (promoted to field marshal in 1713).

The Swedish attack began at 1400 hours in the middle of a snowstorm that was more of a problem for the defenders than the attackers as the wind blew the snow into the defenders’ faces. The Swedish infantry halted thirty paces from the breastworks and fired a devastating volley that made the defenders fall like grass. Throwing bundles of twigs and brush into the ditch, the Swedes climbed over, scaled the breastwork, and killed everyone they found in what one Swedish officer described as a terrible massacre.28 Within fifteen minutes the Swedes had broken into the center of the fortified camp and a furious battle ensued.

The first part of the Russian army to give way was their right wing. Many thousands fled toward the river, so many in fact that the bridge collapsed. The rest defended themselves within a wagon fort until darkness. The Russian left held out until dawn when it found itself completely surrounded and surrendered. There were so many prisoners captured that the Swedes found themselves unable to feed them. They were divided into groups. Those who had fought bravely were allowed to keep their arms while those who had not proven themselves worthy of that honor were disarmed. All soldiers were permitted to return home. From 0400 on the 21st until far into the next day a steady stream of Russians left and marched east. High-ranking officers were detained; the non-Russian officers were freed without ransom; the Russians were sent to Sweden in the hope that they could be used in a future prisoner swap.

The Swedish losses were 677 dead and 1,205 wounded. Some of the Swedish casualties were incurred by friendly fire in the night battle. The most reliable figure on Russian casualties is that between eight and ten thousand were killed. The rest of the Russian army were wounded and/or captured. The wounded were freed along with the prisoners but it is doubtful that many reached their homeland. Field Marshal Croy and nine other generals were captured, along with ten colonels and thirty-three other senior officers. The most important booty captured was the Russian artillery: 145 guns, 12 mortars, and 4 howitzers. Also captured were 10,000 cannonballs and 397 barrels of powder. The captured standards were sent to Stockholm.

The young king acquitted himself well. He was one of the first over the entrenchment, lost his horse and sword in the ditch, mounted a new one provided by a cavalryman, and had three shots fired at him—one failed to penetrate his water-soaked uniform while the second bullet was found after the battle in his neckerchief. Word of his courage spread like wildfire among the troops.

The magazines of food in the Russian camp were welcomed additions to the meager Swedish supplies, and the Swedish soldiers moved into the abandoned Russian tents. Before long, this proved to have been a grave mistake because of disease (see below). The victory, particularly its magnitude, astonished Europe.

Many historians consider that Karl XII made a strategic mistake in not following up his victory at Narva despite the urgings of his advisers. They felt that the Russian realm was demoralized after Peter’s already brutal reforms and that a Swedish invasion might have begun a revolt against the tsar.

Karl, in choosing to turn instead against Poland, made the right military decision based on what he knew at the time by going after what he considered his strongest opponent, Augustus. He had little respect for the Russian army after Narva, and could not have known that the feverish activities carried out by Peter the Great over seven years would result in a vastly improved and well-equipped army. Only in retrospect, and with the knowledge of what Peter was going to do, can it be remotely considered a strategic mistake. Even then, to leave the undefeated Polish-Lithuanian-Saxon armies on his flanks and rear would have been a perilous gamble.

The decision made by Karl XII is very much like that made after the Battle of Breitenfeld when Gustav Adolf opted not to risk a drive against Vienna with unreliable allies in his rear and a hostile Bavaria hugging his flank. Most historians, with the notable exception of General Fuller, apparently fail to see the similarity in the strategic decision made by Karl XII. Finally, it should be noted that the forces available to Karl XII in 1700 were totally inadequate for an invasion of Russia.

Happenings at the other end of Europe created difficulty for Sweden’s operations against Augustus. About the same time as the battle of Narva, Charles II of Spain died, thus triggering the struggle over his succession. The French changed their attitude to the war in the Baltic almost overnight. The French emissary Guiscard had worked hard to bring about an armistice between Augustus and Sweden. With a possible war looming on the horizon it was in French interests to see the war in the Baltic continue so as to keep either Sweden or Augustus from joining the maritime powers.

The splitting of the continent into pro-French and anti-French states served to complicate things for Sweden. Sweden found herself driven by the need for international loans—which came from the maritime powers—and by the need to have the Travendal Treaty upheld by them.

Sweden was obligated by the Travendal Treaty to help the maritime powers in case they were attacked. In February 1702 Karl XII promised both defensive and offensive help as soon as his own war was concluded. We now run into a situation where everyone saw their own problems clearly but not those of others. The maritime powers became annoyed when Karl XII did not end the war in the Baltic and join them.

Karl XII could not gain freedom of action lest he upset relations with the maritime powers, and that he could not do since their cooperation was what kept Denmark-Norway in place. He could not move against Augustus in Saxony for fear of upsetting England and the Dutch Republic. After the enemies of France gained substantial victories in 1706 they could no longer claim that Karl XII was spoiling their war by entering Germany. When this opportunity came Karl XII immediately invaded Saxony. The calculated risk worked and immediately knocked Augustus out of the war. If this could have taken place much earlier the many years of Swedish war in Poland could have been avoided and forces released for use against Russia in the 1702–1706 period.

Swedish campaign plans had to be changed considerably. An infectious disease had ravaged the Russian camp at Narva before the battle, and unfortunately it spread to the Swedish soldiers when they moved into the Russian tents. It spread like wildfire among the Swedes, causing untold deaths. Karl XII determined to avoid enclosed camps from then on.

It proved impossible to bring reinforcements from Sweden until spring, and the same was true for equipment and money. As a result the Swedish army was forced to go into winter quarters in Livonia and Estonia.

There were no indications that the defeat at Narva would lead Peter to the negotiating table. He became thoroughly determined to rebuild his shattered army. Church bells were melted down to make cannons, taxes were increased, and training was intensified.

The tsar and Augustus concluded a treaty when they met at Birsen in February 1701. Augustus had been wooed by both France and the Empire, and he had entered into a secret understanding with Emperor Leopold in return for a guarantee of his position as king of Poland. He was therefore able to demand stiff conditions from Tsar Peter who had just sustained a major defeat at the hands of the Swedes. In the Treaty of Birsen the tsar agreed that Estonia and Livonia would pass to Augustus when Sweden’s Baltic possessions were divided. The Russians also agreed to pay heavy subsidies and provide an auxiliary army of up to 20,000 troops to assist Augustus. Ingria was to go to the Russians.

Augustus was now in a seemingly strong position. He had secured a very favorable treaty with Russia, and the Emperor had guaranteed his Polish crown, as had Prussia. Augustus also held up hopes that Denmark-Norway would re-enter the war provided Sweden suffered defeats in the Baltic.

Montross writes that Augustus, Karl XII’s cousin, typified the worst German despotism of the age:

Called Augustus the Strong because of his gross appetites, he left 354 illegitimate children as his chief claim to historical fame. The moral tone of the court at Dresden is suggested by the fact that one of his natural daughters became his mistress after marrying her half-brother.

The strong position of the Saxons meant that for Karl XII, they had become the primary enemy. The Russians were kept in their place by their defeat and by Swedish garrisons spread along their borders. Augustus falsely professed his peaceful intent to the emperor and the maritime powers, but he had set his sight on delivering a serious defeat to the Swedes, and his troops raided southern Livonia from their base in Courland.

Reinforcements from Sweden in the spring brought the strength of their army to about 24,000. This was not enough to mount simultaneous attacks against Augustus and the tsar. It was important, however, to keep both enemies guessing as long as possible. In the end it was planned to make a crossing of the Dvina that would bring on a main battle with the Saxons. After the hoped for victory, the Swedes could then clear out Courland with part of their forces while the majority of the army took on the Russians in the dry weather of the late summer or after the roads had frozen in mid-winter. The rainy season had to be avoided. In this way the battlefields would be moved away from the provinces.

The Swedish crossing of the Dvina was well prepared. A pontoon bridge was constructed in Riga in the spring, strong enough to support cavalry. It would only be floated into position at the last moment. Diversionary plans were also made to confuse the Saxons and protect the operation. Furthermore, troops were stationed so as to protect Estonia and northern Livonia from invasion, while other forces were sent north to test Russian defenses in preparation for future operations.

There was a narrow window for beginning the operation. It could not start until the roads had dried out after the spring thaw but before the fall rains. It also could not begin until the grass was high enough for horses to eat and, most important perhaps, until more reinforcements from Sweden had arrived. Ten thousand soldiers landed in Reval in May, and the forces already in the Baltic provinces were ordered to leave their winter quarters. The army began its southward march from the Dorpat area on 17 June, which also happened to be Karl XII’s nineteenth birthday. The army followed the road to Riga, but at Wenden it turned right towards Kokenhausen in an attempt to draw the Saxons away from the planned crossing site over the Dvina. When the army had reached a point about five kilometers from Kokenhausen on 3 July, it turned left and headed for Riga at maximum speed. Everything was ready at Riga.

Since Augustus was in Warsaw, General Adam Heinrich von Steinau commanded the Saxon forces. He had at his disposal 9,000 Saxons plus some Russian auxiliaries under General Repnin. He did not know where the Swedes would cross and had spread his troops thin to cover the likely crossings. This operation demonstrates the superiority of the offense against a defense when the main point of attack is unknown. He could only concentrate his forces once the enemy intention was known, and by then it could be too late. Steinau also fell for a Swedish feint against Kokenhausen by sending reinforcements to that fort. He was further misled by another Swedish feint towards Dünamunde the night before the crossing. The crossing began at dawn on 9 July.

The Swedes had achieved tactical surprise. The river was crossed using a dense smoke screen as Gustav Adolf had done at the Battle of the Lech in 1632. The boats made the crossing behind the smoke screen. In addition, there was a screen of small boats piled high with bales of hay to absorb musket and cannon fire. The troop transports were provided with large rectangular sheets of leather to absorb musket fire.

The Riga fort and armed merchant ships provided excellent covering fire by engaging enemy gun positions. The fire support was so effective that General Steinau gave them high praise for the Swedish success. An important part of the assault plan miscarried. The pre-constructed bridge, built in sections, to span the 2,000-foot-wide river could not be launched in a timely manner since a strong northwesterly wind prevented its deployment. The failure of the bridge prevented the use of most of the Swedish cavalry.

The crossing of the infantry and small units of cavalry was meantime a complete success. About 6,000 Swedes were eventually in the bridgehead. Karl XII went across in the first wave despite the protests of his aides and advisers. There was some hard fighting as the Saxons tried to drive the Swedes back. However, after a battle that lasted several hours the Saxons decided to withdraw. Due to the absence of most of their cavalry, however, the objective of forcing a decisive battle on the Saxons through pursuit could not be carried out. Although the Swedes improvised in getting their cavalry across after the bridge failure, it took such a long time that it was too late to launch a pursuit.

The Swedish infantry showed great discipline under heavy fire. They carried the fight to the enemy in such a determined manner that the experienced Saxon troops were astonished. This was particularly true at the beginning of the battle when the Swedes were heavily outnumbered as they tried to establish a beachhead.

The Swedish victory in crossing the Dvina made an even greater impression in Europe than the victory at Narva because the Saxon army was viewed as more experienced and had a high reputation. The conduct of the Russian auxiliary troops was a disappointment for the Saxons. The four Russian regiments that General Steinau had placed in reserve panicked and fled before taking part in the battle. The losses in the battle were relatively light. The Swedes lost 500 in dead and wounded; the Saxons lost 800 dead and wounded plus 700 captured.

The failure to get the cavalry across the river in a timely manner robbed the Swedes of the decisive victory they had hoped for. Consequently, they were forced to change their campaign plan for the year.

Karl XII – The Baltic and Saxon Campaigns II

The planned pursuit of Peter the Great was contingent upon first having knocked Augustus out of the war, and the failure to do so upset the plans. There was no way the Swedes could move against the Russians with a full-strength Polish-Saxon army in their rear or flank. The Swedes spent the rest of the year securing Courland and Swedish Livonia. The Saxons abandoned the forts of Kokenhausen and Kobron without a fight, but they had to be forcibly ejected from Dünamunde. The main Swedish army took up positions in Courland from which they could foil any Saxon attempt to link up with the Russians, and which were also centrally located for the defense of the northern territories. It was also a good location for the receipt of reinforcements and supplies from Sweden.

Swedish relations with the maritime powers were soured by English, Dutch, and Prussian suspicions that Sweden’s intent was to incorporate Courland into their empire, despite Swedish assurances to the contrary. In fact such a step was on the long-term Swedish calendar. The Swedes also launched an expedition against Archangel on the White Sea but it failed and the Swedes accused the Dutch of revealing their plans.

Naively, Karl XII was drawn into the complicated politics and internal squabbles in Poland. Up to now Karl XII had basically fought Augustus as the elector of Saxony, but now that he had withdrawn his army into Poland the Swedes were presented with a problem. Cardinal Michael Stephan Radiejowki, the Primate of Poland, wrote a letter to Karl XII at the request of Augustus, warning the king not to enter Poland. Letters were also received from Poles of the opposite opinion, primarily James Sobieski who lived in exile in Silesia after his unsuccessful attempt to gain the Polish crown in 1697.

The idea of Augustus’ dethronement and his replacement by Sobieski originated at the Swedish Chancery. The chancellor had raised this with the king on several occasions. Karl XII therefore proposed that the Poles be told that if they wanted to get rid of Augustus, Sweden would help. This went too far for the diplomats who wanted the Poles to sort out their own affairs. They urged caution in dealing with Polish groups.

For Karl XII’s military campaign against both Augustus and Peter the Great, it was important to get this issue settled without waiting for the slow diplomatic route. He therefore answered the Polish Primate’s letter by coming out in the open with his demand that the Poles dethrone Augustus, unwisely promising he would not enter Poland until an answer was received. The king did not realize—as he admitted—that Radiejowski would make the letter public in preparation for the Diet in December 1701.

In the long run what Karl XII had done made little difference. His dilemma was that he could not undertake a campaign against Russia with an undefeated Augustus in his rear. Karl XII felt he had the blessings of the chancery, but admitted that he should not have put the dethronement demand on paper.

The answer to Karl XII’s July letter to the Polish Primate did not arrive until the middle of October, and it turned down his suggestion and warned against any encroachment of Polish territory. The war against Saxony had now also become a war against Poland, because Augustus had sought sanctuary in that country and the Poles were not willing to expel him. Karl XII was furious but it was too late in the year to do anything about it and this was probably the reason for the three-month delay in the Polish answer.

Russian forces were also going into action against Swedish territory in the north, destroying Swedish hopes of keeping the war away from their provinces. Colonel (later General) Anton von Schlippenbach had been left to defend Livonia with 7,000 troops. Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev fought an indecisive battle with Schlippenbach near Dorpat. Each side suffered about 1,000 casualties but the Russians captured 350 Swedes that were sent to Moscow. This caused great joy in a city used to being constantly defeated by the Swedes.

The Russians, under Sheremetev, administered a severe defeat to Schlippenbach at Hummelsh of six months later (18 July 1702). The Swedes were virtually annihilated—2,500 casualties from a total force of 5,000. An additional 300 were captured while the Russian losses were placed at 800. The virtual destruction of Schlippenbach’s army left Livonia wide open to the Russians except for a few garrisons in the main cities. Sheremetev’s army had free reign in the Swedish province. The savage Kalmuk and Cossack cavalry moved at will through Livonia laying the countryside waste, burning villages, and taking thousands of civilian prisoners.

Among the captives was a 17-year old peasant girl named Martha Shavronska who was not sent to work on the Azov fortifications as the others. Instead she begun an amazing “career” as a concubine, first to Sheremetev, then to Menshikov, and finally to Peter the Great himself who married her in 1707 and crowned her Empress Catherine I of Russia.

The Russians also took control of Lake Ladoga and Lake Peipus south of Narva. Finally, they captured the Swedish fort of Nöteborg at the southern end of Lake Ladoga where it connects with the Neva River. The fort controlled the trade from the Baltic to the Russian interior via a network of rivers. Nöteborg, with a small garrison of only 450, was captured after a 10-day siege on 22 October 1702, and renamed Schlüsselburg. The whole length of the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland was occupied, and Peter founded a city at the mouth of that river named St. Petersburg.

Despite holding the military advantage for the next five years and winning every engagement, Karl XII was unable to achieve final victory. He became mired in the same wars and political maneuvering as his predecessors. When his campaigns are reduced to lines on a map, it looks like a spider’s web of maneuvering. The Swedes being mired down in Poland and Lithuania was like a gift on a silver platter for the Russians. It gave Peter the Great seven precious years between the defeat at Narva and the Swedish invasion to rebuild and strengthen his army. He also did his best to keep the Swedes mired down by generous subsidies to factions opposed to Karl XII, even entering into an alliance with Lithuania in 1702.

Karl XII marched on Warsaw in 1702 and occupied it on 14 May with no opposition. Then he marched westward seeking out Augustus, who had finally reappeared to defend his crown. The armies met in the battle of Klissow. The Swedes were outnumbered almost two to one, with their army consisting of 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. Opposing them in strong positions difficult to assault were 7,500 Saxon infantry, 9,000 Saxon cavalry, and 6,000 Polish cavalry. Almost all the Swedish artillery was behind struggling through the mud to keep up with the army. There were only four guns available at the start of the battle. The Saxons had 46 guns.

After viewing the Saxon positions, Karl XII changed his battle deployment by thinning out his center and right to mount a risky envelopment of the Saxon right. The weakened Swedish center and right were barely able to repulse heavy assaults while the envelopment was in progress. Eventually, the Swedes fell on the Saxon right flank as the center and right moved forward to pin down the troops to their front. The Saxons were hopelessly caught in a pincer and forced back on the marshland in their rear. When it was all over the Swedes entered the enemy camp. They had lost 300 killed and about 500 wounded. The Saxons had about 2,000 killed and 1,000 captured. One of those killed on the Swedish side was Karl’s brother-in-law, Fredrik IV, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Augustus escaped by fleeing through the swampy marshland.

The next substantial engagement with the Saxon army came about a year later, in June 1703, at Pultusk. After a rapid forced march the Swedes pounced on the surprised Saxons and scattered their army. Karl XII chose not to pursue but laid siege to the nearby fortress of Thorn, which Augustus had garrisoned with 6,000 of his best infantry. When Karl proposed to storm the fortress with only 600 men, his officers protested. At that time Karl XII is alleged to have uttered these words: Where my soldiers are, there also will I be. As for Sweden, I should be no great loss to her, for she has had little profit out of me hitherto. He was persuaded not to undertake the reckless attack, and the army settled down to a six-month siege. It was successful in the end and cost only 50 Swedish casualties. In addition to the garrison, the booty included 84 cannons and 1,000 stands of arms. The walls of the fort were razed and the city had to pay a contribution of 60,000 riks-dollars. The following year the Swedes, through excellent use of their cavalry, produced another victory at Ponitz.

Karl XII was still fixed on destroying Augustus and his influence in Poland. His pacification campaign went on to capture Cracow and Poznan, and Ebling was occupied in 1704. In July that year Karl saw to it that his candidate, Stanislaw Leszynski was elected king of Poland and Lithuania.

Since Karl did not have sufficient forces to also effectively counter the Russians in the far north, they were allowed to pick off Swedish possessions one at a time. Dorpat was captured in July 1705 and Narva the following month. All the Swedish inhabitants of Narva were massacred by the Russians. A Russian army under Scottish General George Ogilvie occupied Courland in 1705 but avoided any major engagement with Karl XII. The Swedish king chased the Russians out of Lithuania but halted when he reached Pinsk in July 1706.

The Swedish cavalry had proven a decisive arm in several battles, and the best example is the Battle of Fraustadt on February 3, 1706. At this time Karl XII was besieging the fortress of Grondo where Ogilvie had been forced to retreat with his whole army corps. Peter was determined that Grondo be held, otherwise the road into Russia would be open to the Swedes. Ogilvie was ordered to withdraw from Grondo by the tsar after the news of Fraustadt. After he threw all his guns into the river Ogilvie managed to escape from Grondo in the direction of Kiev through the Pripet Marshes as ordered.

General Rehnskiöld had been left behind to secure Poland. Tsar Peter implored Augustus to make a diversionary attack in the west to relieve the pressure on Grondo. To accommodate his ally, Augustus crossed the Oder with 15,000 troops while the Saxon General Johann Matthias von Schulenburg with 20,000–30,000 men, composed of Russians and Saxons, approached from the west simultaneously. Augustus was so sure of victory that he sent his minister to Berlin to request that Prussia not provide a safe refuge for the escaping Swedes.

General Rehnskiöld had only 8,000 men, mostly cavalry, and he was therefore heavily outnumbered by both Augustus and Schulenburg. He could not let them join and decided to strike at the stronger force under Schulenburg. Despite being outnumbered by more than three to one, he attacked the Saxons and Russians in strong positions, deliberately chosen to resist the feared Swedish cavalry by being anchored on two villages. Attacking at full gallop, the Swedes put the Saxon cavalry on the wings to flight. They then pressed in on the center in a double envelopment while the Swedish infantry attacked the center. The result was disastrous for the Saxons. Of the combined Saxon-Russian army of 30,000,50 eighty percent were killed or captured. Those killed were estimated at 7,000–8,000. The Russians who were captured were massacred, undoubtedly in revenge for the Russian massacre of Swedish civilians at Narva.

Augustus did not try his own luck against the Swedes, and withdrew his army. Karl XII was so impressed by Rehnskiöld’s victory that he immediately promoted him to field marshal.

Peter the Great was furious and worried. Portions of a letter he wrote to his Foreign Minister Fedor Golovin are quoted by Massie:

All the Saxon army has been beaten by Rehnskjold and has lost all its artillery. The treachery and cowardice of the Saxons are now plain: 30,000 men beaten by 8,000! The cavalry, without firing a single round, ran away. More than half of the infantry, throwing down their muskets, disappeared, leaving our men alone, not half of whom, I think, are now alive … By giving money [to Augustus] we have only brought ourselves misfortune … .

After the Blenheim and Ramillies campaigns (1704–1706) the maritime powers appeared to have the upper hand in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Karl XII felt they would no longer be sensitive to a Swedish invasion of Saxony. The maritime powers were also worried about the possibility of an alliance between Saxony and Prussia. William III sent John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to Berlin to dissuade King Frederick I by threats, bribes, and promises alike to convince the king to prepare to fight France.

Karl XII decided to strike at Saxony, and the Swedish army crossed the border into Silesia on 22 August 1706. They were greeted as liberators by Protestant Silesians. By the time the Swedes reached the Saxon border a state of panic existed in the electorate. Augustus and his family fled in various directions. The Saxon governing council, empowered to govern in Augustus’ absence, resolved not to fight. They were war weary after losing 36,000 of their troops trying to keep Augustus on the Polish throne. The primary cities such as Leipzig and Dresden were quickly occupied without resistance, and Karl XII dictated his terms to the Saxons at his headquarters in Altranstädt Castle.

The main terms were simple and the Saxons accepted them in the Treaty of Altranstädt, signed on 13 October 1706:

Total and permanent abdication by Augustus of his claim to the Polish crown.

Augustus’ recognition of Stanislaw as the king of Poland.

Saxony to break its alliance with Russia.

Surrender to the Swedes all Swedish nationals in Saxon service or prisoners.

Saxony to pay all the costs of the Swedish army wintering in Saxony.

At age twenty-four the Swedish king was at the apex of his career. In six years of continuous campaigns against Danes, Saxons, Poles, and Russians he had never lost a battle, and his reputation in Europe had never stood higher. But he had also spent six years that proved precious to Russia. Karl XII now settled down for the winter while contemplating his next moves.

KARL XII IN SAXONY

Karl XII and his army spent the winter of 1706–1707 and much of the following year in well-deserved rest in Saxony at the expense of their former enemy. In an unbroken string of victories Karl XII had eliminated two of the three enemies ranged against Sweden in the Great Nordic War—Denmark and Saxony. However, Russia still remained, and the Swedish king was deter mined to deal with that power next. The Swedes also did not sit idle in Saxony. They were constantly drilling, and reinforcements were arriving in preparation for the next campaign.

Two events during Karl XII’s stay in Saxony are worth mentioning. The appearance of the Swedish army in the heart of Germany sent earthquakelike tremors through Europe. During the winter of 1706–1707, numerous emissaries arrived in Saxony trying to divine Karl XII’s intentions now that he was only some 300 kilometers from the Rhine. Louis XIV proposed an alliance that would tip the European balance in his favor. The two countries would then divide the German states between them. Silesia begged the Swedes to remain and defend them against the Empire. Karl went so far as threatening to march on Vienna if the Lutherans in Silesia were not granted religious freedom. Voltaire reports that Emperor Joseph is alleged to have commented to a representative of the Pope who was angry at the effrontery of the Swedish king: You may think yourself happy that the King of Sweden did not propose to make me a Lutheran; for if he had, I do not know what I might have done.

The most famous emissary was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722). The maritime powers were anxious not to have Karl XII align himself with France, and, judging from the instructions Marlborough had received before he set out on his mission, to prevent such an eventuality they were willing to go far.

The two-day meeting between the two most successful generals of the age tells one much about the difference in their personalities. Marlborough, commander-in-chief of British forces, showed up splendidly attired. Karl XII appeared in the same blue coat he always wore.

Karl XII told Marlborough that he had his hands full in dealing with Russia, a war he expected to last two years. He had no desire to be the arbiter of Europe. It appears Marlborough agreed to support Sweden with respect to its problems both with Denmark and the Empire, to recognize Stanislaw as king of Poland, and guarantee the Treaty of Altrastädt. Marlborough, an experienced diplomat as well as general, was careful not to put his promises on paper, thereby affording him some deniability when it came to his assurances concerning Stanislaw and Altrastädt, items that would not sit well with his allies, especially the Dutch. His mission was judged a success since he had assured himself, after discussions with Karl XII and some of his officers, and stealing a glance at a map the Swedish king either intentionally or inadvertently left on his desk, that the Swedes would be busy with the Russians for the next two years and had no intention to involve themselves in affairs in the west. Karl XII had asked that a document detailing what had been agreed to be provided. Such a document was delivered to the king after he had left Saxony.

The alarm in the west was somewhat, but not totally, put to rest. If the Swedes were quickly victorious, as was expected, there was nothing to prevent them from turning west and dictating terms to both sides.

NEGOTIATIONS

That Peter the Great was worried when he became convinced that Karl XII would invade Russia, and that he would be left to face him alone, is best illustrated by his feverish search for allies and the massive peace offensive he launched. As most accounts of the peace offensive differ to some extent.

Peter’s peace offer eventually included the return of Dorpat, Livonia, and Estonia with the exceptions that he wanted to retain Schlusselburg, the Neva river valley, St. Petersburg, Narva, and Reval. This was totally unacceptable to Karl XII. While some members of the Riksdag and the administration in Stockholm urged acceptance as they had done with respect to earlier peace offers from Augustus, the king politely refused. He viewed it as only “kicking the can down the road,” not the permanent solution he was seeking.

In his peace offensive, the Russian tsar approached both sides in the War of the Spanish Succession, first the maritime powers and the Empire. He promised to provide 30,000 troops for their fight against France if they could convince Sweden to accept his peace offer. The Dutch did not reply to his request and he thereupon approached Denmark and Prussia. The attempt to get these countries involved failed. He then approached France, promising to provide troops for use against the Empire, the Netherlands, and England if they could mediate a peace. Louis XIV accepted, but his offer of mediation was politely refused by the Swedish king, who stated that the Russians could not be trusted to keep their promises.

Peter’s final attempt, which had begun before 1707, was to seek the help of England. For this purpose he was willing to give huge bribes to Marlborough and others—even though, due to his enormous wealth, he was skeptical of Marlborough accepting a bribe. The English duke nevertheless arranged for the Russian emissary to travel to London and meet Queen Anne. The queen told the Russian that, provided that her current allies Holland and the Empire agreed, she was prepared to make an alliance with Russia through it becoming a member of the Grand Alliance. Marlborough kept Russian hopes alive by promising to use his influence with the Dutch. This was at the same time that Marlborough had his two-day meeting with the Swedish king and made the promises mentioned earlier in this chapter.

English duplicity went even further according to Massie. A Russian ambassador-at-large in Europe, Heinrich von Huyssen, claimed that a different approach to Marlborough was under consideration. The Duke had said that he would be willing to arrange English help for Russia in return for a substantial Russian gift of money and land for him personally. Peter, when informed, said Marlborough could have any one of three fiefs and 50,000 ducats per year for life. Nothing came of this offer.

Tsar Peter also sought the support of the Empire for a new candidate for the Polish throne. His suggested candidates included James Sobieski, the son of the former king, Eugène of Savoy, and finally Francis Rakoczy. Sobieski declined and the emperor, wary of offending Karl XII, made the excuse that Eugène was preparing for another campaign and therefore not available. Rakoczy did accept but only on condition that the Polish Diet make a request for him.

Karl XII’s principal subordinates had assumed that the Swedish army would proceed north to retake the territories seized by the Russians. When they learned the king’s real intent, Bain reports that they all objected except for Field Marshal Rehnskiöld.

The Swedish army was ready for its greatest test in mid-August 1707. In the late afternoon of 27 August 1707, Karl XII himself rode out of Altrastädt to catch up to his main army which had already departed. Accompanied by only seven officers he detoured and rode into Dresden, the enemy capital, to pay a surprise visit to his cousin Augustus. Surprise was achieved; the Swedish king found his relative in his dressing gown. Quickly donning something more appropriate, the two relatives embraced before taking a ride along the Elbe. Now that Augustus had been punished, Karl harbored no ill feelings. He also visited his aunt, Augustus’ mother. It was the last time he would see either.

The king’s foray into the enemy capital practically alone gave his subordinates a sense of alarm at his recklessness. They told the king that they were ready to besiege Dresden had he been made a prisoner. The next day Augustus held an unscheduled council meeting in Dresden. This led Baron Henning von Stralenheim, a Swedish diplomat in the field with the king, to comment to Karl XII: You see they are deliberating upon what they should have done yesterday. We don’t know what caused the king to make the detour to Dresden; it appears to have been a sudden impulse to see his relatives.

The Best Mods for Pike & Shot: Campaigns: Great Northern War – Narva, Poltava, Lesnaya, Jakobstadt, Kliszow, Holowzyn, Duna, Warsaw, Systerback, Fraustadt, Poniec, Gemauerhof

Siege of Memel (October 1944) I

The city known today as Klaipeda is on the Baltic coast of Lithuania. In 1944, it was the East Prussian city of Memel, at the northern extremity of East Prussian territory. At the end of the Great War, 80 per cent of the city’s population was German, but most of those living in the countryside around Memel were Lithuanians – a situation analogous to that in and around Danzig. The Lithuanian delegation at the Versailles peace treaty conference requested that ‘Memelland’ be placed within the bounds of the new state of Lithuania, but instead the conference powers removed the area from Germany and placed it under French jurisdiction, under a League of Nations mandate. In 1923, the Lithuanian population in the enclave rose up in revolt. Lithuania’s tiny army went to the aid of their fellow countrymen, and the small French garrison was withdrawn. Despite official protests, there was nothing that the League of Nations could do but accept the Lithuanian annexation of Memelland.

The German population of Memel was never reconciled with the city’s new status, and unrest continued through the 1920s and 1930s. The Nazi Party established a new local branch in 1933 and met with rapid political success, resulting in the party being banned by the Lithuanian government the following year. The party’s leadership was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, which attracted vociferous protests from Germany, especially from East Prussia, where Koch was particularly active in promoting the rights of Germans in Memel. In a series of press announcements, he spoke about the threat to the German population of Memel, and demanded that the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles enforce what had been agreed. This demand was, of course, impossible to satisfy, and formed part of an overall German policy to portray the Memelland Germans as an oppressed group who were not being helped by those who had placed them in their current state. Thus the German government paved the way for Germany to take matters into its own hands.

Plans were laid for a German seaborne invasion of Memelland in 1938, to be implemented in the event of a Lithuanian-Polish conflict. In 1939, Hitler demanded that the region be returned to German control, and in the face of the barely veiled threat of German military intervention, the Lithuanian government had no option but to agree. Nevertheless, they delayed giving their consent as long as they could, with farcical results. Hitler planned a triumphant entry into the city aboard the pocket battleship Deutschland. A last-minute overnight delay left him sending irritated signals to his Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Berlin to determine what was happening. Finally, early on the afternoon of 23 March, a seasick Hitler was able to come ashore in the city and proclaim its return to the Reich.

The following year, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union, a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that also carved up Poland. Many citizens of these countries fiercely resented the presence of the Soviets, and consequently welcomed the Germans when they invaded in 1941. Latvians and Estonians joined the SS in substantial numbers, although the Lithuanians appear to have been somewhat cooler towards the Germans, many regarding the German occupation as the lesser of evils. As General Ivan Bagramian’s armies approached the Baltic in 1944, tensions began to rise.

Ivan Khristoforovich Bagramian was born the son of a railway worker in a village in what is now Azerbaijan. After serving in the Russian Army on the Turkish front during the Great War, he joined the Red Army and took part in fighting during the civil war against nationalist forces in the Caucasus. In 1941, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union found him appointed as Deputy Chief of Staff” of the Southwest Front, based at Kiev. He was one of the few senior officers to escape the German encirclement of the city. After a brief spell as Chief of Staff to Timoshenko in 1942, he was appointed to command first 16th Army, then 11th Guards Army, before taking command of 1st Baltic Front in 1943. He executed his part of the Stavka (Soviet general headquarters) plan for the summer offensive in 1944, enveloping Vitebsk and then pressing on westwards to Polotsk, even though the losses suffered by his armies ‘shook him to the core’. During the exploitation that followed, though, he grew increasingly unhappy about the mass of the German Army Group North, hanging over his armies as they pushed on westwards. He asked in vain several times for permission to strike north towards Riga, in order to isolate the German divisions that were being bloodily prised out of their defensive lines east of the city. Finally, when his forces had penetrated into the heart of Lithuania, taking the town of Siauliai – Schaulen to the Germans – on 27 July, he was given permission to turn north in force. The road from Siauliai to the Baltic coast immediately west of Riga covers a distance of about 120km; Bagramian’s armour travelled along this route in three days, isolating Army Group North in and to the east of Riga.

This triumph was achieved at great cost, and even greater risk. Bagramian’s armies were badly over-extended, and barely able to hold their positions let alone take advantage of their gains. For a few brief days, almost all of western Latvia was undefended by the Germans, but Bagramian simply didn’t have the reserves to exploit this situation. He had his hands foil beating off attacks against his forces from the east, where Army Group North attempted to break out, and more significantly from the west, where several German divisions – Panzer Division Grossdeutschland and 4th, 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions – attempted to force their way through. Although this powerful armoured force was blocked, it was at the cost of weakness elsewhere on 1st Baltic Front’s extended frontline, and an ad hoc German battlegroup was able to re-establish contact with Army Group North along the Baltic coast.

Briefly, the front stabilized, but Stavka now prepared plans for what was intended to be a final blow against Army Group North.

Starting in mid September, the three Baltic Fronts, followed a few days later by the Leningrad Front, would attack Schörner’s armies on all sides. At first, Afanasii Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, part of Bagramian’s command, made good progress, but the attacks of the two other Baltic Fronts made little headway. The Germans were aware of the Soviet build-up, and fell back methodically from one defensive line to the next, inflicting a heavy toll on the attacking formations. It was only when the Leningrad Front joined the attack that significant headway was made. Meanwhile, the German armoured formations that had unsuccessfully attempted to break through from the southwest now attacked again. Although they once more made little headway in difficult terrain, they forced Bagramian to divert forces that he had intended to throw at Riga. It was clear that the concerted assault to eliminate Army Group North was not going to succeed.

On 24 September, therefore, Stavka issued revised instructions. Bagramian’s 1st Baltic Front was to switch its line of advance from a northwards drive towards Riga, to a westwards drive towards Memel. There were several advantages in such a move. First, it would move the attack to an area where there had been no significant fighting since the original German advance in 1941; the roads and bridges over which Bagramian would advance were therefore in good shape. Second, it would allow Soviet forces to reach Reich territory, something of huge political significance. The logistical challenge of this shift of emphasis was formidable, but it was a sign of the growing skill of the Red Army that it was carried out efficiently in less than two weeks. Half a million men, 10,000 guns and mortars and more than a thousand tanks, together with thousands of tons of fuel, food and ammunition, moved west into new positions, a displacement of about 200km over poor roads, many of them already severely degraded by the earlier passage of German and Soviet armoured vehicles. Furthermore, it was carried out mainly at night, to reduce the risk of the Germans detecting the movement. By day, the troops took cover in the plentiful woods of Lithuania.

By early October, though, it was impossible to hide the growing preparations. The 3rd Panzer Army, commanded by Generaloberst Erhard Raus, had two corps covering the frontline in front of Memel. These corps between them had only five divisions, stretched over 200km. In the north was General Hans Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps, and on the eve of the Soviet attack it received welcome reinforcements in the shape of the Panzer Division Grossdeutschland. A shortage of fuel and railway rolling stock, however, meant that the division would arrive piecemeal.

Grossdeutschland was one of the premier formations of the Wehrmacht. Its tank regiment had, in addition to the usual two battalions of Pz. IVs and Panthers, an additional battalion of heavyweight Tiger tanks, with their lethally effective 88mm guns, and a separate battalion of assault guns. Its two armoured infantry regiments, Panzergrenadier Regiment Grossdeutschland and Panzer-Fusilier Regiment Grossdeutschland, were at this stage of the war as weakened as other similar formations, but the news on 3 October that the divisions Tiger battalion, an additional attached tank battalion and the division’s powerful reconnaissance battalion, were to move south to support XXVIII Corps was very welcome. Part of this force was immediately assigned to support 551st Volksgrenadier Division, in preparation for plans to eliminate enemy bridgeheads over the River Venta near Kursenai, secured by the Red Army the previous night. Long experience had taught the Germans the need to eliminate these small bridgeheads as quickly as possible, otherwise the Soviet forces would swiftly increase the strength of the units within them to a point where they could serve as springboards for an attack.

The officers of Grossdeutschland were swiftly brought up to date by Gollnick’s staff at XXVIII Corps. Information from a variety of sources – aerial reconnaissance, radio intercepts and interrogation of deserters and prisoners – suggested that an attack was imminent. It was unlikely that Grossdeutschland would have sufficient time to form up all of its forces. The initial weight of the attack would fall on 551st Volksgrenadier Division.

The total force deployed by the Red Army amounted to 19 rifle divisions, three tank corps and an artillery corps. But the rifle divisions were substantially below their establishment strength, and what manpower they had was often poorly trained. The 43rd and 51st Armies, for example, were composed of a single rifle corps each, consisting of three rifle divisions. On paper, these divisions were intended to number about 11,800 men each, but in practice they rarely had more than 7,000, often as little as 3,000. Nevertheless, the preponderance of power lay greatly in favour of the Red Army. The Baltic coast was roughly a 100km west of the frontline. To the north, 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts continued to exert pressure, squeezing Schörner’s Army Group North back through Riga into Estonia. By the standards of the great summer offensives, the Red Army’s resources, particularly in terms of reserves available to exploit a breakthrough, were limited, but several opportunities presented themselves. A single-minded drive west would sever Schörner’s armies from the rest of the Reich, leaving them dependent on seaborne supplies. Given the weakness of the German defences, there was also the enticing prospect that a breakthrough to the coast would open up the rear of Army Group North, allowing Bagramian’s armoured forces the opportunity of perhaps rolling up the entire German front, or at least of seizing the vital port of Libau, without which the Germans would struggle to keep Schörner’s two armies alive. And to the southwest, there was the possibility of exploiting a breakthrough into East Prussia itself.

Of these options, Stavka knew that the breakthrough to the coast was probably well within the Red Army’s resources, but exploitation to the north or south was less likely to succeed. In both cases, significant rivers – the Venta in the north, and the Niemen, or Memel as the Germans preferred to call it, to the south – would act as major barriers to the advance. The priority, then, would be given to reaching the coast. Anything more would be a bonus.

On the German side, most of XXVIII Corps’ fighting strength consisted of the arriving elements of Grossdeutschland and 551st Volksgrenadier Division. The remnants of 201st Security Division, which had been badly mauled during Bagration, held a segment of front to the north. The three grenadier regiments of Generalleutnant Siegfried Verhein’s newly formed 551st Volksgrenadier Division were, on paper at least, relatively strong, but most of the men had almost no experience of infantry combat, particularly in the brutal conditions of the Ostfront. Furthermore, the division was responsible for an unrealistic 48km of frontline. The initial Soviet artillery bombardment appears to have been relatively ineffective, however, partly due to foggy conditions that prevented observation of fire and grounded the Soviet Air Force. When the Soviet assault began on 5 October, the German grenadiers robustly threw back the first two attacks. When a third attack was thrown at them, however, their decimated ranks gave way. In several sectors, the Red Army forces simply moved forward through deserted positions – much of 551st Volksgrenadier Division had not survived its first proper day of combat.

Grossdeutschland`s armoured reconnaissance battalion was ordered to move forward in support of the shattered Volksgrenadier division. Under the command of Rittmeister Schroedter, the battalion launched itself into the flank of the Soviet regiment that was moving west. Despite having few heavy weapons, Schroedter’s men swiftly scattered their opponents and pressed on to 551st Volksgrenadier Division’s former positions. Here they found that the battle wasn’t over; a small group of infantry had coalesced around a Hauptmann Licht, and with the help of the reconnaissance battalion, the grenadiers continued to hold the main battleline until the early hours of 6 October. But with Soviet forces up to 15km to the rear of either flank, there was little point in holding on, and the amalgamated force withdrew towards the west.

Other armoured units were also on the move. The 7th Panzer Division was ordered south into the path of the expected Soviet attack, and some of its units were rapidly pressed into service a little further south of Grossdeutschland. Johann Huber was a young officer trainee who had recently joined the division, and was serving as a loader in a Pz. IV. The tank commander and gunner were both middle-ranking NCOs, but had spent most of the war in rear-area units; they had now been drafted into a frontline formation, and in their first encounter with a Soviet T-34 the inexperience of the NCOs was alarmingly apparent:

Now the black gun barrel and then the turret of a T-34 emerge from the branches. Head in, hatch closed, and a shout of’T-34!’… Richard Braumandl [the driver] shouts over the intercom, ‘Herr Feldwebel, T-34 to our front!’ Now there is turmoil… Feldwebel Isecke takes another two or three seconds, then presses the trigger. The shot leaves the barrel, bitter smoke fills the turret, and as soon as the barrel has returned from its recoil, I load the second armour-piercing round and switch on the turret smoke extractor. The breech snaps closed. But Richard Braumandl shouts angrily, ‘Herr Feldwebel, you have overshot, why are you firing high?’ What follows, I don’t hear. Isecke fires a second time.

He shoots high again. The two grumble about it. I can’t see anything, I hear from Richard and Karl, who as driver and radio-operator are able to observe. ‘Herr Feldwebel, he’s going to fire on us, his barrel is turning towards us. Why are you shooting too high?’ All I can do is load the third armour-piercing round… Then from quite close to our left, we hear the shot of one of our 75mm guns. Richard shouts, ‘Now he’s hit! He’s burning!’

It wasn’t us, Isecke overshot twice, who was it then? We would probably have copped it, as we were only 120 metres away.

It was Willi Hegen, the gunner in Oberleutnant Jakob’s vehicle. Everyone is trembling inside, as it is clear that our own gunner is a twit. He failed at the critical moment. We were almost done for. I knew why he had overshot. This great bullock didn’t determine the range in his Fitzerei [a term in the war synonymous with anxiety], and perhaps also used the high-explosive range marker instead of the armour-piercing range marker. That was the only way he could have missed.

Soviet infantry were moving forward through the woods around the village. Lacking any infantry support themselves, the German tanks withdrew a few kilometres over a small river, the Shisma. Here they turned to face the advancing Soviet tanks again, and Huber’s tank commander, Feldwebel Sattler, attracted the ire of the company commander, Oberleutnant Jakob, when he decided to pull back from an exposed position. This precipitate retreat nearly ended in disaster, as the rest of the company almost opened fire on Sattler in the gathering darkness. A confused night action followed. Several T-34s were shot up at close range, but in the darkness other Soviet tanks had succeeded in infiltrating into the German position. At dawn, the Germans withdrew from their positions and the Soviet advance continued.

On 6 October, Bagramian committed 5th Guards Tank Army to the battle, which was now raging across a frontage of nearly 200km. Schörner tried to extract units from the Riga front in order to send them south, but 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts, backed by the Leningrad Front, increased their own pressure on Riga. Several days of bloody attacks and counter-attacks around the Latvian capital resulted in little ground being gained or lost; Army Group North was effectively pinned in its defences, however, unable to move troops to counter Bagramian’s thrust towards Memel and the Baltic coast.

Siege of Memel (October 1944) II

7th Panzer Division in Kurland, 1944

Cloudy conditions prevailed on 7 October, with light rain, but the weather wasn’t bad enough to ground the Soviet aircraft, which continued to attack every road movement they detected. Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer Division, together with whatever remained of 551st Volksgrenadier Division, tried to contain the enemy breakthrough. The frontline near Tryskiai had to be abandoned, with a small group of Grossdeutschland’s Panther tanks providing a rearguard. Not far away, Huber and his comrades were also in action again. They took up a good hull-down position on a ridge, where they endured a brief bombardment:

The shellfire suddenly breaks off.

I get up and position myself in the loader’s hatch to have a look. As far as I can see, they’re not shooting at us any more, but the front rumbles away. The enemy offensive is in full swing… Over there, across the crest of the slope opposite us, the enemy appears: Russian infantry. As far as the eye can see, to left and right, they occupy the entire crest, followed by a second wave. We really didn’t see them. The company commander radios: ‘Hold your fire.’ We couldn’t do anything anyway, the range is too great, I estimate it to be about 3,000 metres.

The attack waves are about 50 metres apart. Now and then a shell flies over, but lands in front of us in the fields, to the right or left. We concentrate on counting the Red Army’s attack waves. There are now seven, eight, nine, now twelve. Thousands of Russians pour forward endlessly, there must be a whole infantry division committed against us. Our eyes flicker along the horizon to left and right; no tanks, no anti-tank guns in sight.

Then we hear the ‘Urrah!’The east wind carries it from the other slope to us. The first waves have already almost reached the bottom of the valley, and we can no longer see them beyond the curve of the slope. There is a continuous ‘Urrah’- to the front, to the left, to the right. We are uneasy. We aren’t able to shoot at what we can see. They are too far away, it would only reveal our positions. Actually, we are in a good position in our sandy hollow, with only the gun protruding forward and the turret above the top of the hollow.

Then it all begins again. The twelfth wave is the last that I see, then I pull myself back inside and quickly close the hatch. There is a further heavy firestrike by the Russian artillery. We are plastered with fire. A 152mm shell detonates a metre from the edge of our pit, hurling earth over the tank, sand flies over the cupola; Sattler has already pulled his head in. Now there’s pandemonium. Just get us out of this hole. Sattler orders, ‘Start the engine,’ and Richard Braumandl shouts, ‘Herr Feldwebel, I know!’ As the tank digs itself out of the sand and moves backwards, our stern points into the air, and everyone fears that if we take an artillery hit, we may flip right over. We drive back out of the pit with our engine howling.

The Red Army, too, was running out of experienced soldiers. The poorly trained replacements included many of the men from the newly liberated areas of the western Soviet Union. All that could be done with such infantry was to attack in great waves, reminiscent of World War I. It was fortunate for them that the Germans lacked sufficient artillery and infantry to smash such easy targets.

The southern flank of the German position had been turned by advancing T-34s, with two Pz. IVs lost in the fighting. A mixture of German units – the remnants of 551st Volksgrenadier Division, parts of 7th Panzer Division, and Kampfgruppe Fabisch (Battlegroup Fabisch) from the Grossdeutschland-now found themselves in the village of Luoke. Maximilian Fabisch’s group had arrived in the village on 6 October, and beat off several enemy attacks. Huber’s tank company was in position near the southern end of the town:

The Russian artillery’s salvoes keep coming, four shells at a time. Right and left of us, the shells explode amongst the houses. Glancing back past the house behind us, I see our infantry running along the road beyond. They are coming from the right. Sattler sees them too, and I ask myself, who’s protecting our right flank? Have we any right flank security at all? The situation isn’t clear to us here, between the houses, amongst the farmers’ gardens. Is 7 Company on our right? Sattler asks via the radio. The right flank is covered, comes the reply from the chief’s vehicle. Two of our tanks are being sent there.

The Russian artillery fires continuously. Half-left of us, at about 11 o’clock, we can see some of our tanks moving. They are Panthers, clearly recognizable with their triangular rears, and their two exhausts visible at the top.

… There, suddenly it happens! Yellow-green tracers fly from the right, a long, poisonous flare behind it! Phosphorus ammunition: I see the shell fly and hit. One of the Panthers is hit on the side of its hull and immediately burns – and how! It blazes like a flare. That was the phosphorus. We know that such ammunition is forbidden under international law, just like explosive bullets. But the Russians use both regardless. All of us have an inner horror of it. So, we are faced by a tank unit with just such ammunition.

Phosphorus ammunition was not actually used as an anti-tank weapon, more as a smoke round. Phosphorus elements were also used to create highly visible tracers for shells, and machine-gun belts with every round containing a small phosphorus tracer were used in World War I as incendiary ammunition when engaging hydrogen-filled balloons. As the use of phosphorus rounds in Iraq has demonstrated, the legal status of such ammunition remains controversial. It is likely that on this occasion, Huber was observing conventional armour-piercing rounds fitted with phosphorus tracers. The sloped frontal armour of the Panther tank was 80mm thick, but the side armour was only 45mm, and had a far less generous slope. The 85mm guns of the Soviet T-34s would have had little difficulty penetrating this side-armour. Panthers also had a bad reputation for catching fire, not least because of the poor quality of synthetic rubber that was now used in the manufacture of seals. Crews often complained of the strong smell of petrol within the fighting compartment, and in such circumstances, penetration by a round with a burning phosphorus tracer was likely to be fatal.

Huber continued to watch helplessly as two more Panthers were hit and destroyed. A short while later Jakob, the company commander, was wounded in the forehead by artillery shrapnel, and as he sagged unconscious in his seat, blood streaming from the wound, the rest of his crew feared the worst. Leutnant Müller took over command of the company, while Jakob was bandaged and, to the relief of his men, soon regained consciousness.

The Soviet artillery bombardment intensified, with Katyusha rockets now falling on the German positions. Müller ordered his tanks to pull back:

We come to a halt in the garden, from where we see the road. It is a dreadful scene. There are dozens of dead and wounded Landsers [soldiers], as I glance to the left over the turret and right to the north, I estimate at least 100, 200 seriously wounded and dead lying there. We can’t drive over them, we have to look out to drive between the many living, who writhe and cry out in pain.

Some of the Katyusha salvoes had struck the 7th Panzer Divisions main field dressing station near the northern end of Luoke. Already overflowing with wounded, the dressing station became a charnel house, and was overrun by the advancing Soviet infantry as the tanks pulled back.

Everyone wants to pull back, the Russians have stormed the southern part of the village; a powerful tank unit must have moved in there, unnoticed by us. We feared as much. To our right, the south, we had no protection. 7 Company wasn’t there to beat off the enemy in good time. Two minutes later, when we are all positioned across the road, ready finally to turn right and descend the hill that we climbed an hour before, an Unteroffizier rises up from the ground. He has been wounded in the belly with shrapnel from a Stalin organ, right through from left to right, sliced right open. He holds his spilled guts with both arms, as if holding a basket, staggers to our tank, wants to climb on, I reach for him, he cries with a pained expression, his eyes full of fear, ‘Comrades, take me with you!’ I want to pull him up over the turret skirting, but he can’t hold on, he doesn’t have the strength. He falls, with a hand to his belly, holding his entrails together, slowly keels over, sits on the road and then pulls himself halfway onto his side. His spilled intestines pour onto the sand. Dreadful. A man falls to his death, trying to reach for his last chance. I couldn’t get hold of his hand, I was left grasping at empty air.

Then Richard drives on for another ten metres before halting again. The dreadful moment has passed, but there are still the living. I pull them up onto our tank, as the infantry don’t know where they can climb aboard, I tug at arms, hands, necks. New, fresh clothing, recently issued, I guess they are from a Volksgrenadier division. They have the number 551 on their shoulderboards… We now have a whole group of soldiers on the back, and meanwhile heavy mortar fire continues, with ever more soldiers fleeing from the south towards us; the Russians must be really close. Now we’re off, running downhill, I have to get back into the turret. From the noise of the tracks I realize we’re going faster and faster. And then the fireworks start. Following the Stalin organ salvoes, the firing of the as yet unsighted T-34s and the mortars, all hell now breaks loose. Braumandl shouts, ‘Russians in the open, we’re driving through them, we’re surrounded!’

Have the Russians bypassed us? Have we failed to notice a pincer attack? These thoughts shoot through my head. I see nothing, but Sattler taps me on the shoulder and tells me to prepare the machine-gun, and then Isecke fires like mad with the turret machine-gun towards 2 o’clock. In the front, Karl also fires one burst after another with the radio-operator’s machine-gun, and outside all hell breaks loose. Then Richard Braumandl shouts, ‘Herr Feldwebel, the tank in front of us, dear God!’ He stamps on the brakes, we all pitch forward, and then we’re off again. I am busy loading the machine-gun.

It’s difficult, as the main gun is fully depressed. There is now little space above the machine-gun breech to load the belt. ‘Please don’t jam,’I think. But it works fine.

We drive for a long time, with ricochets clicking constantly off the armour. They’re firing at us with everything they have, it must be Russian infantry! If only there aren’t any anti-tank guns nearby. After a good two kilometres, Isecke, the gunner, stops shooting. He raises the main gun again and Sattler says, ‘We’re through now.’ We must have come about two kilometres through the Russian lines. Isecke orders me, ‘Go out and check the turret, it’s jammed.’ We drive on, but much slower. As soon as I climb out of the hatch, I catch my breath. Our tank is empty. As I climb over the turret skirting, I see that only one of our men is still there, clinging by his fingers to the grill of the engine decking and holding on. I stare for a moment, and realise that all of the infantry must have been shot off the back. None of them has survived. When I reach the Landser and try to pull him aboard, I see that he’s unharmed. He is an old soldier, I reckon at least 50, if not 55. Over the noise of the tracks, I shout to him, ‘Where are the others?’ But he can’t say a word. He just crawls forward across the engine decking and says nothing, his teeth chattering as if it were 30 degrees below zero. He’s in shock. But I need to find out what’s jamming the turret. That is not so easy. Finally, over on the gunner’s side, I find an abandoned rifle that has jammed under the outer skirting. I have to work it back and forth to free it, and then I reckon that Isecke will be able to turn the turret.

Now we halt. Immediately, we turn the turret to 5 o’clock, so that we can shoot backwards… Now what are we to do with the soldier who lies on his side; he will have to move if we are to shoot. But he is not fit to walk, or jump off. I can see that the man has gone through hell and is the only survivor of perhaps a dozen men. Sattler agrees, we leave him up top, but he must move forward to the nose, where I secure him so that he does not place his feet on the radio-operator’s machine-gun and doesn’t obstruct Richard Braumandl’s observation slit, which would be fatal. He still can’t speak, but he understands. I can see that.

As I climb back through the hatch and don my headset, we receive new orders to take up positions either side of the road. The battle continues. The T-34s are pushing on. We are permitted ‘free fire’ on identified targets and are on the left of the road. Apparently, 7 Company is defending the right side. …

About 900 metres away, on the hill in front of us, we hear a shot. Rose-red tracer! Damn, T-34s. So they are already here! Nothing for it but to get back in the tank. The other vehicles in our company have already opened fire, but we can see little of the enemy tanks. Only turrets and cupolas are visible. We can’t hit them beyond the ridge. Isecke also fires twice, then we give up. There’s more going down to our right. 7 Company is over there. Our comrades are more involved in the tank battle than us – but I hear only their tank guns. And then the T-34s must have hit one of 7 Company. The tank burns. It isn’t possible to see who’s been hit. Most, or even all, have to pull back, we hear via the radio. Then we are ordered to withdraw a further two or three kilometres.

Once we are in position and evening is drawing on, Richard Braumandl begins to talk. ‘Herr Feldwebel, what tank was that before us, driving in front of us, when we broke out? I wasn’t able to see, as there were so many infantry in the way. You know how we drove down the hill afterwards.’ The Feldwebel doesn’t know. Richard asks again, ‘Did you really not see him? “I didn’t notice – there was too much happening. “Hmmm, what’s Richard getting at?’ I ask him. Then he explains. ‘I only saw the tank in front of me with infantry that the Russians were shooting. But then the tank slipped into the ditch with its right track, and overran a group of our Landsers who were in the ditch taking cover from the Russians, with its right track. It was awful – arms and legs were hanging from the track, torn off by it, it drove over the soldiers for at least 30 metres, our own Landsers.’ The blood drains from the three of us, Sattler says nothing, but he must have seen it too. Dreadful! The driver in front of us was responsible for the deaths of our own comrades – he simply rolled them flat when we broke out of the encirclement. Richard’s words shock everyone. Nobody speaks a word, everyone thinks back about an hour and a half before when Richard shouted, ‘Herr Feldwebel, the driver in front of us, dear God!’ There’s silence in the vehicle, with the only noise coming from the headsets, the sounds of guns firing. Death has done a dreadful business today.

Both flanks of the Luoke position had been bypassed. The Soviet forces once more demonstrated their mastery of armoured warfare – avoid and bypass strong positions, and probe for weaknesses. The remaining elements of 7th Panzer Division, Grossdeutschland and 551st Volksgrenadier Division had no choice but to pull back; the alternative was to invite encirclement. Moving northwest from Luoke, one battalion of the Grossdeutschland fusilier regiment ran into enemy spearheads in Seda. As it struggled to check the Soviet advance, some of Grossdeutschland`s assault guns were dispatched to support it. Although the town remained in Soviet hands, a further penetration to the west was prevented, at least for the moment. A decision was then made to pull back the fragmented front to the East Prussian frontier, immediately east of Memel. In the chaos, some elements of Grossdeutschland found themselves cut off by the enemy. The well-armoured Tiger tanks simply held their positions until nightfall, and then broke through to the west. A Panzergrenadier battalion was isolated at Luoke, when all other formations had either fallen back or been driven away to the west. In bitter fighting, the Panzergrenadiers fought their way back to Plunge.

Just east of the old Reich frontier lay the East Prussian Defence Position, constructed with such fanfare earlier in the autumn by Knuth’s labour squads. In places, it was a formidable barrier, but only if it were adequately manned. Behind this, a second line of defences had been constructed around Memel itself, following the River Minge for much of its length. It was imperative that the retreating troops hold one or other of these two positions – if they failed, the defence of the city would be right on its outskirts.

Tobruk Besieged: 4 May 1941 – 25 October 1941 Part II

An aspect of the struggle between the Tobruk garrison and the Luftwaffe that has gone virtually unremarked is the role played by camouflage and deception. The man behind it was Captain Peter Proud RE, who arrived at Tobruk after an eventful journey from Cyrenaica during the Benghazi-Tobruk Handicap. He was appointed ‘G3 (Camouflage) Desert Force Attached to the 9th Australian Division’ at some point shortly before 16 April 1941, and on that date wrote to a Major Barkas at GHQ Middle East explaining the importance of his work and recommending the formation of a dedicated force to help him carry it out; at the time of writing he was co-opting Indian Sikh troops in increments of 200 on a day-to-day basis. The latter were employed gathering and preparing a stock of materials that included approximately 2,000 coloured nets, 20,000 yards of natural Hessian, 250 gallons of assorted paint, a number of stirrup pumps for use as improvised sprayers, and an ex-Italian workshop with tools and an electrically powered band saw among other equipment. The nets were modified with strips of Hessian referred to as ‘garnish’ and part painted to match the terrain, the colour of which was likened to the shade of the foundation cosmetic Max Factor No.9. The nets were then configured for specific applications, such as covering pre-manufactured metal frames artillery gun pits. Sufficient equipment was provided to permit artillery sites to place all gun pits, crew bivouacs, slit trenches, ammunition storage and latrines under camouflage.

The latter idea was adapted for other purposes, with smaller frames being manufactured in the workshop to suit positions and even individual slit trenches out on the perimeter, and not just there. A large net was made to cover the gunboat Gnat when occupying her berth in a narrow cove on the south side of the harbour, the vessel’s mast and searchlight top being removed to ease its deployment, and a similar expedient was employed to protect A Lighters while berthed in the harbour. The Lighters were run into the shore bow first near a small headland projecting into the harbour and covered with garnished nets pegged to the shore. The open end of the net was then draped over cables stretched taut behind the Lighters and allowed to dangle down to the water; from the air the camouflaged vessels looked like an innocuous extension of the headland. A system for camouflaging aircraft was also formulated, using three thirty-five foot square camouflage nets linked in a T-shape, pegged out over specially made support posts mounted in sand-filled petrol cans. Blast walls and slit trenches for ground crew were constructed under the netting.

Many of Proud’s initiatives were equally simple but effective. A drive-through paint-spray booth was set up for vehicles at the building Proud had commandeered as a combined store house and workshop. To stretch the limited supply of paint, vehicles were sprayed with used engine oil scrounged from the garrison’s REME vehicle workshops before being driven outside for a second coat of sand and dust that blended perfectly with the surrounding terrain; instructions, oil and other kit were available for units to camouflage their own vehicles on request. The booth was later augmented with a mobile spray unit, using a captured Italian compressor mounted on a 15 cwt truck, equipped with fifty gallon oil drums as a paint reservoir and a folding ladder for spraying tall buildings and tents. Fuel dumps were concealed by distributing the fuel cans in irregular linked patterns stacked only one or two cans high to avoid casting tell-tale shadows. These were then flanked by berms formed from supply boxes filled with sand and then coated with oil and more sand to protect the fuel cans from shrapnel.

In addition to merely hiding things from enemy view, Proud supervised the construction and execution of a number of novel and in some instances highly sophisticated deception measures. At the lower end of the scale wrecked vehicles were positioned to the south of weapon pits in order to cast them in shadow, and discarded Italian uniforms were stuffed to create dummy personnel to man dummy positions. Decoy tanks were constructed from camouflage nets covering a stone sangar to the front surmounted by a wooden frame and pole to simulate the turret and gun. Proud’s workshops also produced a more sophisticated version of wood and canvas with painted running gear and folding mudguards fashioned from petrol cans along with a 3 ton truck of similar construction, some mounted on wheels to ease movement. There was also a plan to produce dummy fighter aircraft of similar construction, complete with compressors to simulate propeller wash, although it in unclear if they were actually produced. Convoy movements were simulated by single vehicles towing a number of weighted sledge-like devices, while sea water was used to damp down the dust created when moving guns between locations.

On a grander scale, a fake fuel dump was constructed, complete with a convoy of wrecked Italian vehicles towed into position on the supposed approach road. The dummy AA positions with gunfire simulators and other equipment constructed in the vicinity of the harbour have been mentioned above, and a similar site was constructed 1,000 yards from one of the 51st Heavy AA Regiment’s positions facing the Ras El Medauar in mid-May. The dummy incorporated four unserviceable guns and was sufficiently convincing to draw German artillery fire directed by a Henschel 126, while the real site was left unmolested. Perhaps the most spectacular was a scheme to deceive the enemy into thinking that Tobruk’s coal-fired power station had been damaged and put out of action. During a daylight raid smoke bombs were set off near the station and one of its tall chimneys was brought down by a demolition charge, empty crates were scattered in the vicinity along with pieces of corrugated iron and other bits of scrap metal; sheets of hessian painted to represent bomb holes were hung on the building itself later.

Unfortunately camouflage and deception was of limited value to the vessels carrying supplies into the besieged port and evacuating the wounded and prisoners on the return trip. Air attacks thus took an increasing toll on shipping in the approaches to Tobruk and the harbour itself. On 1 May the minesweeper Milford Countess was machine-gunned while picking up the crew of a downed Blenheim, and a high-level bombing attack on two A Lighters being reloaded for the return trip on their designated beach in the north-east corner of the harbour killed one crewman and wounded another; other A Lighters nearby beneath Captain Proud’s camouflage netting remained unnoticed. As a result of the incident it was recommended that A Lighters only be used for embarkation at Tobruk in an emergency. On the afternoon of 2 May a dozen Stukas attacked shipping therein and two days later, in a rerun of the events of 14 April, another dive-bombing attack set the engine-room of the Hospital Ship Karapara ablaze on the vessel’s second trip to the port after being redirected from Aden; she was towed out of danger and reached the safety of Alexandria on one engine and with jury-rigged steering. On 12 May another mass afternoon raid by thirty Stukas and eight Junkers 88s caught the gunboat Ladybird at the western end of the harbour. One bomb hit a 2-Pounder AA gun on the vessel’s stern, killing its crew and wounded two men manning Italian 20mm weapons mounted nearby, and another detonated in her boiler room blowing out the ship’s bottom and setting her fuel oil tanks ablaze. As the Ladybird listed heavily to starboard her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Jack Blackburn, ordered the wounded evacuated while the forward 3-inch and 2-Pounder guns continued to engage the attackers; the latter remained in service after the gunboat had settled upright in ten feet of water.

In all eight ships were lost during May, and not all of them in Tobruk harbour or its environs. The sloop HMS Grimsby and merchantman SS Helka, carrying a cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk, were sunk after being caught by dive-bombers forty miles north-east of the port on 25 May; the anti-submarine trawler Southern Maid which was also accompanying the Helka shot down one of the attackers and damaged another before ferrying the survivors to Mersa Matruh. By the end of May it was virtually impossible to use Tobruk harbour in daylight, and vessels were instructed to avoid approaching the port before dusk and to be well clear before first light. Matters were complicated yet further by Axis aircraft assiduously sowing the harbour and approaches with mines, usually at night, which had to be painstakingly cleared by the minesweepers Arthur Cavanagh, Bagshot, and Milford Countess. Axis torpedo bombers also proved adept at attacking at night, and the movement of petrol and water carriers like the ill-fated Helka was restricted to no-moon periods as a result. A variety of small craft were pressed into service as supply carriers by the Inshore Squadron, and warships visiting Tobruk invariably carried supplies in and wounded out.

Thus by the end of May 1,688 men had been carried into Tobruk and 5,198 lifted out, the latter including wounded, POWs and unnecessary administrative personnel. In addition, 2,593 tons of assorted supplies had also been delivered, a daily average rate of eighty-four tons and fourteen tons above the estimated daily requirement. Even so, at the beginning of June the loss rate had become prohibitive and Eastern Mediterranean Fleet HQ in Alexandria temporarily decreed that only destroyers should be employed on Tobruk supply runs because their speed permitted them to make the round trip in darkness. The wisdom of this decision was highlighted on 24 June, when an attempt to get another cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk aboard the SS Pass of Balmaha, escorted by the sloops HMS Auckland and HMAS Paramatta, again ended in disaster. The little flotilla was attacked by torpedo bombers approximately twenty miles north-east of Tobruk, and then by a total of forty-eight Junkers 87s in three groups. The Auckland was abandoned after being badly hit and sank after almost breaking in two while the Paramatta was picking up survivors. The Pass of Balmaha was also badly damaged and temporarily abandoned, but was eventually towed into Tobruk after dark by the destroyer HMAS Waterhen. Even then, night runs provided insufficient protection for the destroyers as Axis aircraft proved adept at locating them and attacking with the aid of moonlight, and the fast runs had to be further restricted to no-moon periods. Runs were made by up to three destroyers per night and the fast minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona once a week; during the no-moon period in August 1941 the minelayers made seven round trips to Tobruk and the destroyers twenty-seven.

The regular Spud Runs by the A Lighters and other small vessels continued throughout. The latter, consisting of a number of small, aged merchantmen and four captured Italian fishing schooners, were responsible for carrying in most of Tobruk’s food. The schooner Maria Giovanni, commanded by Lieutenant Alfred Palmer RNR, was perhaps the most famous, making runs into Tobruk loaded to capacity with assorted victuals, sometimes including live sheep and bristling with jury rigged weaponry. She was lost after a German decoy lured her onto the shore in mistake for the light marking the entrance to Tobruk harbour; Palmer was shot and wounded trying to escape and was repatriated to his native Australia two years later. The A Lighters were based at Mersa Matruh from June 1941, carrying vehicles, ammunition and fuel into Tobruk and, time and enemy activity permitting, returning with cargoes of damaged equipment for repair in Egyptian workshops, wounded and prisoners. Attack could come at any time. One A Lighter was sunk by a magnetic mine as it approached its unloading point inside Tobruk harbour, and on another occasion two more were attacked by dive-bombers off Sidi Barrani. A four hour fight ensued during which the A Lighters fired off over 1,000 rounds, in the course of which one was sunk by multiple bomb hits. Only one crewman survived, after forcing himself through a small scuttle as the vessel went down, breaking all his ribs in the process. The second was taken in tow by a tug from Tobruk, but was so badly damaged she broke up and sank en route.

Neither were mines and aircraft the only threat. In the evening of 9 October a convoy of three A Lighters, A2, A7 and A18, left Mersa Matruh loaded with tanks, intending to rendezvous with an anti-submarine trawler and air cover at around noon the following day. At 04:00 on 10 October they were attacked by a U-Boat on the surface, whose gunfire damaged the A18’s bridge, cut her degaussing cable, carried away her mast and badly wounded her navigator. The A Lighter responded with its own armament and A7, commanded by Sub-Lieutenant Dennis Peters, part lowered her bow ramp with the intention of ramming but the U-Boat disappeared. The convoy then became split, with A18 limping back to Mersa Matruh while the other two A Lighters pushed on to Tobruk. The remainder of the voyage was far from uneventful. The air and sea cover failed to materialise and the A Lighters came under attack from a dozen aircraft at 17:00, from two more at 22:00 and from enemy coastal guns at around midnight; to round things off Tobruk was undergoing a heavy air raid when they finally arrived at 01:30 on 10 October. After unloading A2 and A7 sailed back out of Tobruk harbour at dusk on 11 October. They were ambushed at around midnight by U-75 lurking inshore, again using guns rather than torpedoes. A7 suffered several hits that set her engine room and mess deck on fire, while return fire forced the U-Boat to submerge. The A2 took the A7’s wounded aboard and put the vessel in tow when the latter’s commander, Sub-Lieutenant Bromley, declined to scuttle her. The U-75 then reappeared and sank both vessels with gunfire. Only one crewman of the thirty-seven men aboard the two vessels survived, being picked up by the same U-Boat after twenty-four hours in the water. Eleven days later the gunboat Gnat was torpedoed by the U-79 off Bardia; she was towed back to Alexandria by the destroyer Jaguar where she was beached and written off.

The first attempt to relieve Tobruk came in mid-June, using recently arrived equipment from the UK. When the presence of 15 Panzer Division in Libya was confirmed in mid-April 1941 Lieutenant-General Wavell had appealed to London for reinforcements, and on 21 April Churchill and the Defence Committee authorised the despatch of a special convoy. Codenamed TIGER, the convoy consisted of five fast merchant vessels, the Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Clan Campbell, Empire Song and New Zealand Star, carrying a total of 295 tanks and forty-three Hurricane fighters. By mid-May Wavell’s need had grown even more acute, as the failure of Operation BREVITY reduced the Western Desert Force’s armoured strength to a single Squadron of Cruiser Tanks located at Mersa Matruh and up to forty vehicles undergoing workshop repair. Arriving at Gibraltar on 5 May, TIGER was directed through the Mediterranean rather than taking the longer Cape route in order to cut forty days from the journey time; this was the first convoy to run the gauntlet since January 1941 when Fliegerkorps X had badly mauled Operation EXCESS, sinking the cruiser Southampton and seriously damaging the cruiser Gloucester and aircraft-carrier Illustrious. Virtually the entire strength of H Force and the Mediterranean Fleet operating from Gibraltar and Alexandria respectively was mobilised to protect TIGER, including the battleships Barham, Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Warspite, and the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Formidable. The convoy docked in Alexandria on the morning of 12 May, after fighting off numerous day and night air attacks and accompanied by a telegram from Churchill quoting Scripture: ‘For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of Salvation have I succoured thee; behold now is the day of salvation.’ The TIGER convoy did not escape totally unscathed. The New Zealand Star and Empire Song detonated mines at around midnight on 8 May. The former suffered minor damage but the latter caught fire, blew up and sank at 04:00 on 9 May, taking fifty-seven tanks and ten Hurricanes with her.

The Western Desert Force thus received a total of 238 tanks: twenty-one Mark VIC Light Tanks, thirty-two Cruisers, fifty of the latest Mark VI Cruisers dubbed ‘Crusaders’ and 135 Matildas. These were immediately earmarked for Operation BATTLEAXE, for which Wavell issued his orders on 28 May. The attack was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, and carried out by Major-General Frank Messervy’s 4th Indian Division and the ubiquitous 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh. The first phase was to be a three-pronged attack to recapture the frontier area with the 4th Indian Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade securing the Halfaya Pass, Sollum, Bardia and Fort Capuzzo, while the 7th Armoured Division looped around to the south to deal with the Panzers believed to be concentrated in the vicinity of the Hafid Ridge, just west of Fort Capuzzo. With this done the attack force was to relieve Tobruk and destroy any enemy forces in the region of El Adem before exploiting as far west as possible toward Mechili and Derna. Although the TIGER convoy arrived on 12 May, it took some time to unload the new vehicles, disperse them to workshops and modify them for desert service, and 10 June 1941 was earliest possible date for launching BATTLEAXE. In the event several days were added to allow the crews time to train with their new tanks, and for the 7th Armoured Division to train as a formation, having not operated as such for several months. In parallel with this the RAF stepped up its day and night attacks upon Axis airfields, the port of Benghazi and the columns carrying supplies and munitions up to the border area, right up to the point where the BATTLEAXE force left its concentration areas for its start lines near Buq Buq and Sofafi on the afternoon of 14 June. It was going up against a number of fortified positions strung out between Sidi Azeiz and Halfaya, equipped with mines and anti-tank guns. The line had been ordered by Rommel as a precaution after BREVITY and was backed by newly arrived Generalleutnant Walther Neumann-Sylkow’s 15 Panzer Division, with the Trento Division under command; 5 Leichte Division was held in reserve south-east of Tobruk.

The attack began at dawn on 15 June. The 7th RTR had taken Fort Capuzzo by the early afternoon, and after being reinforced by the 22nd Guards Brigade, succeeded in repelling a series of small counter-attacks by elements of Panzer Regiment 8. Other elements subdued a German position atop a height to the south known as Point 206, after a hard fight that saw one Squadron from the 4th RTR reduced to a single Matilda, while a battalion from the 22nd Guards Brigade occupied Musaid to the south-east. However, the attack to secure the Halfaya Pass was stopped by a combination of mines, anti-tank guns and armoured cars despite numerous attempts by tanks and infantry to push forward. The 7th Armoured Brigade reached the Hafid Ridge at around 09:00, but then ran into dug-in German anti-tank guns that the Cruisers lacked the firepower to deal with; at least four of the German guns were 88mm pieces. An attempt to outflank the guns from the west in the late morning was halted when the complexity of the enemy positions became apparent, losing a number of tanks in the process. At around 17:30 the Crusader-equipped 6th RTR launched a hasty attack after receiving reports that the German anti-tank screen was withdrawing; the withdrawal was a ploy and eleven Crusaders were knocked out in a well-executed ambush. The British withdrew under cover of long-range gunnery and the action tapered off with the onset of darkness despite the arrival of a number of Panzers from the north. By nightfall the attack had achieved only one of its initial objectives, and at some cost. The 7th Armoured Brigade had thus been reduced to forty-eight tanks, and the 4th Armoured Brigade had only thirty-seven Matildas left of the hundred or so it had begun the battle with. Many of these were repairable but the withdrawal made retrieval difficult.

The pendulum swung to some extent on 16 June. Panzer Regiment 8 launched a pincer attack on Fort Capuzzo at 06:00, led by Generalleutnant Neumann-Sylkow in person. The attack was fought off by dug-in Matildas and 25-Pounder guns brought up during the night; by 10:00 approximately fifty Panzers had been put out of action, and Neumann-Sylkow broke off the attack at around midday. British attempts to renew the attack on the Halfaya Pass were stymied again, while the 7th Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Support Group fought a day-long running battle with 5 Leichte Division that ran south for the fifteen miles from Hafid Ridge to Sidi Omar, and then east toward the Cyrenaica–Egypt border. The Panzers skilfully orchestrated the superior range of their 50mm and short 75mm guns, using the latter to knock out the British 25-Pounders to clear the way for the Panzer IIIs, which then exploited the superior range and penetrating power of the former against the 2-Pounder armed Cruisers Tanks. By evening the 7th Armoured Brigade had been pushed well east of the border, and only darkness saved it from a strong German attack launched at 19:00. Rommel, meanwhile, had decided to concentrate his force to encircle and destroy the 7th Armoured Brigade, and at 16:00 ordered 15 Panzer to leave a screen at Fort Capuzzo and move south-east through the night to join 5 Leichte Division.

The redeployment of 15 Panzer Division threatened to leave the 4th Indian Division and 4th Armoured Brigade high and dry in the vicinity of Fort Capuzzo and Sollum. Fortunately for them Messervy learned of the German move during the night of 16–17 June and ordered a withdrawal on his own initiative, instructing the surviving Matildas to form a protective screen to cover the infantry. The Panzers resumed their advance at 04:30, and by 08:00 5 Leichte Division had reached Sidi Suleiman, twenty miles or so inside Egypt and due south of the Halfaya Pass. Two hours later they made contact with the armoured screen protecting the withdrawal of the 11th Indian Brigade and the 22nd Guards Brigade, sparking a battle that went on for the rest of the day. The British armour held the Panzers back until 16:00, by which time Messervy’s infantry had successfully evaded the developing trap.

Thus by 17 June Egypt lay virtually undefended once again, and Rommel was once again incapable of exploiting his advantage, having overtaxed his tenuous supply line. Operation BATTLEAXE cost the British 122 dead, 588 wounded and 259 missing, along with sixty-four Matildas and twenty-seven assorted Cruisers and Crusaders; many of the tanks were only damaged or broken down but had to be abandoned on the battlefield during the withdrawal. Overall, Afrikakorps tank losses were substantially lower for although a total of fifty Panzers were put out of action in the course of the battle, only twelve were totally destroyed. The remainder were returned to service by recovery and repair crews, underscoring the importance of retaining control of the battlefield. There was less disparity in the human cost with German units suffering a total of ninety-three killed, 350 wounded and 235 missing, while the Trento Division lost an additional 592 casualties. The failure of BATTLEAXE also prompted a major reshuffle among the British senior commanders. Dissatisfied with Wavell but unable to simply remove him for political reasons, Churchill arranged a sideways exchange with the Commander-in-Chief India, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, with effect from 1 July 1941. Beresford-Peirse was replaced as Commander Western Desert Force by Lieutenant-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, and Creagh was supplanted as commander of the 7th Armoured Division by newly promoted Major-General William Gott.

While the Ras El Medauar salient saw the most intense fighting of the siege, matters were far from quiescent elsewhere on the perimeter due to Morshead’s First World War policy of dominating no-man’s land. On a day-to-day basis this consisted of maintaining outposts forward of the main defence line, manned by two or three men equipped with a field telephone during daylight and carrying out aggressive patrols during the night, with larger raids to pre-empt enemy action or keep him off balance being mounted where necessary. On 13 May, for example a company from the 2/43rd Battalion, supported by eight Matilda tanks and seven Bren Carriers launched a dawn attack on an Italian strongpoint straddling the Bardia Road a mile east of the perimeter, and on 30 May a clash between a patrol of three Light and four Cruiser Tanks and a force of enemy tanks on the southern side of the perimeter sparked a roving skirmish that lasted most of the day. The garrison also disrupted the largely Italian construction of minefields and defences along the southern sector, not least by lifting and stealing newly laid enemy mines. On 1 July Lieutenant-Colonel Colonel Allan Spowers of the 2/24th Battalion led a party of fifty with three trucks that returned with 500 German anti-tank mines, and exactly a month later a patrol from the 2/13th Battalion occupied a partly built position during darkness and ambushed the Italian working party as it came forward to work, killing four, taking one prisoner and scattering the remainder. It was not all ambushes and hostility on the perimeter, and in another echo of the First World War a live-and-let-live system developed between friend and foe. Local truces to allow the dead and wounded from clashes to be evacuated were common, and on the sector straddling the El Adem road both sides observed a daily semi-official cease-fire for the two hours before midnight, the end of which was signalled by a burst of tracer fired vertically into the air.

Such niceties were not unknown on the Ras El Medauar sector, but relations between the Australians and the German units manning the salient had an edge not apparent in the formers’ relatively benign attitude to the Italians. Sniping was a popular pastime, and the commander of 2 Bataillon, Infanterie Regiment 115 referred to the remarkable marksmanship of his opponents, who he credited with killing a number of NCOs doing their rounds in front-line positions. Morshead launched another attempt to reduce the Ras El Medauar salient at 03:30 on 3 August, after intensive reconnaissance patrolling had mapped out the defences. The attack was again a two-pronged affair intended to envelop the feature carried out by the 2/28th Battalion to the north and the 2/43rd Battalion to the south. The latter failed to get beyond the anti-tank ditch protecting Post R6, and while the former managed to secure S7 the small party holding it were again cut off and overwhelmed by a German counter-attack the following night. The attack cost the attackers a total of 188 casualties from the 264 men involved, while the defenders from Infanterie Regiments 104 and 115 lost twenty-two killed and thirty-eight wounded. The 3 August attack proved to be the final Australian attempt to retake the Ras El Medauar.

In the event, the 9th Australian Division was not to see Tobruk relieved either. Sir Robert Menzies’ Government had despatched the 2nd AIF to the Middle East in 1940 as a complete Corps, and on the understanding that its constituent divisions and sub-formations would continue to serve in that capacity. To this end the commander of the 2nd AIF, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, reported directly to the Australian Minister of Defence and was tasked to ensure the integrity of his command. With the exception of the 18th Australian Brigade’s temporary posting to the UK in the wake of Dunkirk, the understanding was respected until circumstances conspired against it in 1941, with Blamey’s Corps HQ and the 6th Australian Division joining the Greek expedition while the 7th Australian Division fought the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria and the 9th Division went to Cyrenaica before being trapped at Tobruk. Blamey began agitating for the reassembly of his Corps after the Greek evacuation, and officially requested Wavell relieve the 9th Australian after the failure of BATTLEAXE, to join its sister divisions in Palestine. He was supported in this by Menzies and the Australian Government from at least 20 July 1941, when Menzies raised the matter with Churchill, which he did again on 7 August. The Australian Government’s interest was driven at least in part by public opinion, which gained the erroneous impression from news reports and German propaganda that Morshead’s men were fighting the Desert War single-handed, and there was also widespread and exaggerated concern over the privations they were suffering. The resulting furore forced Menzies to resign on 28 August. By that time Auchinleck, loath to lose seasoned units on the front line, had reluctantly agreed to the relief of part of the garrison and the operation had been going on for nine days.

The first lift of the relief was codenamed Operation TREACLE, allegedly because the RN personnel charged with carrying it out thought it would be a ‘sticky business’. The lift was carried out across the no-moon period beginning on 19 August in order to avoid moonlight air or surface attack. The RAF bombed Axis airfields after dark, loitering to prevent the airfields operating their runway lights, while the RN and the garrison’s own guns bombarded enemy artillery positions near Bardia. The latter was also intended to suppress ‘Bardia Bill’, the garrison’s nickname for a heavy gun or guns that had taken to dropping shells into Tobruk harbour. Most sources are vague on the details with the weapon or weapons being described as being of 8-inch calibre of possibly German or Italian provenance. The guns may have belonged to Artillerie Kommand 104, a siege artillery train despatched to Libya on Hitler’s orders to assist with the reduction of Tobruk. Commanded by Generalmajor Karl Böttcher, the unit was deployed around Belhammed, five miles south-east of the perimeter and was equipped with almost 200 assorted guns, including nine 210mm pieces. In Tobruk the harbour defences were strengthened by moving mobile 3.7-inch AA guns back from the perimeter, and two wrecked vessels were pressed into service as improvised jetties; according to one account they were connected to the shore by pontoon bridge. In addition the small vessels and A Lighters from the Inshore Squadron in the harbour on the nights of the lift were held back to assist with unloading. The lift was carried out by the minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona and the destroyers Encounter, Havoc, Jarvis, Jaguar, Kimberley, Kipling, Latima and Nizam.

For ten consecutive nights two destroyers, carrying 350 troops apiece and one of the cruisers, carrying an additional 400, entered Tobruk harbour, accompanied by a third destroyer carrying up to 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser was unloaded at anchor out in the harbour by the A Lighters and small vessels, and the supply destroyer moored alongside the permanent quay while the troop-carrying destroyers exchanged their human cargo over the improvised jetties. According to an eyewitness, the destroyers completed their exchange in ten minutes, and all four vessels were underway again with their new passengers within thirty minutes. This was not an arbitrary time period, for if the ships spent any longer in Tobruk harbour they would not be clear of Sollum and thus the clutches of the Luftwaffe by dawn. By 29 August General Stanislaw Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade had been delivered safely to Tobruk. Formed in 1940 from Polish regular troops who elected to continue the fight with the French, the Brigade had been posted to Syria and defected to the British in preference to serving the Vichy French regime after the fall of France in 1940. In exchange Brigadier George Wootten’s 18th Australian Brigade had been carried to Alexandria, along with the 16th Anti-Tank Company, the 2/4th Field Company, the 2/4th Field Ambulance, the 51st Field Regiment RA and the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment. The lift did not go totally unscathed. The destroyer Nizam was damaged by an air attack, and the cruiser HMS Phoebe, part of the treacle covering force, was so badly damaged by an Italian torpedo bomber on 27 August that she had to be sent to the US for repair.

Churchill and the British senior command appears to have hoped that returning the 18th Australian Brigade to its parent 7th Australian Division in Palestine would placate the Australian Government, but it soon became apparent that only the relief of the 9th Australian Division in its entirety would do. Menzies’ successor Arthur Fadden took up the gauntlet with Churchill within days of taking office, and reiterated the Australian position in no uncertain terms to the Dominions Office ten days later. Auchinleck appears to have been resigned to the fact by 10 September, given that he was discussing options with the War Office on that date. In the event, the 9th Australian Division left Tobruk in two lifts. Operation SUPERCHARGE ran from 19 to 27 September, and saw the 24th Australian Brigade and the 2/4th Field Park Company carried to Alexandria in exchange for the 16th Infantry Brigade and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade Forward HQ. The latter was augmented by four Light Tanks and forty-eight Matildas from the 4th Armoured Brigade, carried into Tobruk by A Lighter. C Squadron 4th RTR came in aboard Lighter A7, part of the convoy with A2 and A18 that ran into the unknown U-Boat on the night of 9−10 October. The tank crews were sleeping on the tarpaulins covering their vehicles, and when the gunfire began they unshipped their Matildas’ co-axial Besa machine-guns and went on deck to join the fray. A Trooper Weech was credited with scoring hits on the U-Boat when it appeared fifty yards off the Lighter’s port side, along with Sub-Lieutenant Peters wielding a Thompson gun on the bridge. According to one account C Squadron’s commander talked Peters out of trying to ram the U-Boat by pointing out the importance of delivering his tanks intact, and the two shared a celebratory whisky on the bridge after the U-Boat finally disappeared.

The third and final lift, codenamed CULTIVATE, ran for thirteen days beginning on 12 October, the extension being necessary because the lift had been expanded to include the remaining two-thirds of Morshead’s Division. Thus the 9th Australian Division HQ, Australian 4th Field Hospital, 20th and 24th Australian Brigades were taken off and replaced with the 14th and 23rd Brigades, the 62nd General Hospital and the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion, which was attached to General Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade. Moving the Australian infantry off the front line and getting the newcomers in place without weakening the defences or alerting the enemy was a complex and fraught business, and the timetable and organisation was a triumph of staff work in its own right. The Operation nonetheless proceeded as smoothly as its two predecessors until the final individual lift scheduled to move the 20th Australian Brigade HQ and the 2/13th Battalion on the night of 25−26 October. The convoy, consisting of the cruisers Abdiel and Latona and destroyers Encounter and Hero were spotted on the inbound leg near Bardia, possibly by a U-Boat, and underwent fifteen attacks by aircraft between 19:00 and 23:00. The Latona was hit in the engine room and the resulting fire grew out of control. The Hero closed in to take off the cruiser’s troops and crew and suffered structural damage from three bomb near-misses in the process. The Latona sank two hours later after a magazine explosion, possibly with the assistance of Encounter; thirty seven of Latona’s crew died in the attack. By the time all this was over it was too late to proceed safely to Tobruk and the convoy thus returned to Alexandria leaving the 2/13th Battalion stranded in Tobruk, a victim of its battalion number according to some of its men. The unit therefore returned to its positions within the perimeter where it remained until Tobruk was relieved by ground forces at the end of the following month; through this accident the 2/13th Battalion thus earned the distinction of being the only Australian unit to serve with the Tobruk garrison throughout the siege.

In all Operations TREACLE, SUPERCHARGE and CULTIVATE successfully shuttled in the region of 15,000 men out of Tobruk and carried a similar number into the port over a total of thirty-one nights. The shortest, SUPERCHARGE, took out 5,444 men and in excess of 500 wounded, and brought in 6,308 and 2,100 tons of supplies in just eight nights. Apart from the stranded 2/13th Battalion, the Australian role in the story of Tobruk now came to an end, although a large number of Morshead’s men would not be leaving under any circumstances. Between April and October 1941, the 9th Australian Division lost 744 men killed, along with 1,974 wounded and a further 476 missing. In the process they and their comrades established a legendary reputation based on standing firm in the face of stifling heat, sandstorms, thirst, hunger and everything Rommel could throw at them. It was now up to their replacements to carry out the final act in the siege.