El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part I

General Erwin Rommel and staff in North Africa.

On November 4, the time had come for Eighth Army to pursue a crippled and defeated Axis force. Montgomery was well aware that Rommel’s army was now gravely damaged and in retreat. He launched two armored divisions, the 1st and the 10th, and the New Zealand Division, with an attached armored brigade, in pursuit. The Panzerarmee’s withdrawal presented Montgomery with a priceless opportunity because, according to many German sources, it was poorly conducted. Afrika Korps’ War Diary reported:

Officers of all ranks had lost their heads and were making hasty and ill considered decisions, with the result that confidence had been lost, and in some places panic had broken out. Some vehicles were set on fire on or beside the road, and guns were abandoned or destroyed because there were no tractors for them. A large number of vehicles had left their units and were streaming back without orders.

The Diary also recorded with some surprise, “No contact with the enemy all day.”

The War Diary of the 90th Light Division chronicled similar conditions, admitting that there was “very little discipline during the withdrawal.” It also claimed German transport and supply units were “fleeing in wild panic.” As a result, its withdrawal from Alamein was “very difficult.”

The pursuit phase of the Alamein battle has been strongly criticized by many writers who believe that Montgomery acted with undue caution. The British official history made a perceptive observation that, “Whether they could have captured or destroyed more of the Panzerarmee than they did will be argued as long as military history is read.” This has certainly happened. Alexander McKee accurately stated, “There was no pursuit, merely a follow up.” Correlli Barnett has been one of Montgomery’s harshest critics, believing that Montgomery “signally fail[ed] to take advantage of this astonishing flow of precisely accurate intelligence, which removed all guesswork from generalship” and that his failure to destroy Panzerarmee at Alamein “calls in question Montgomery’s generalship at this stage of his career.” Johnston and Stanley wrote, “The pursuit was poorly planned and confused, a fact Montgomery never acknowledged.” As early as the evening of November 3, Freyberg had warned Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden, 10 Corps commander, that Rommel “will slip away if they are not careful.” The cautious pursuit, including by Freyberg, ensured that this happened.

There was one overriding factor, however, that explains and perhaps excuses Montgomery’s caution. This was the state of his armored corps, his prized corps de chasse. So far in the Alamein battle, 10 Corps had failed in every task it had been allocated, had demonstrated excessive caution, and an inability to follow even the simplest directives. His trust in his armored commanders, especially in 10 Corps commander Lumsden, was “at an all time low.” As it was, this Corps that would be used during the pursuit, it was only natural that Montgomery wanted to keep it on as tight a leash as possible to ensure that it did in fact accomplish even the most limited of tasks assigned to it. John Harding, commanding 7 Armoured Division during the pursuit and “in favour of pressing on all-out, hard as I could go,” thought at the time that Montgomery was being “overcautious” in restraining his armored formations. Harding later changed his mind. “Montgomery was very conscious of the fact that we had already been twice up and twice back and he was determined not to be pushed back for a third time,” Harding said. A third defeat could have prolonged the war in North Africa. “Looking back on it all, I think he was right to be cautious,” was Harding’s conclusion.

And, as John Keegan has pointed out in his history of the Second World War, with the exception of the Soviets’ Operation Bagration, the Allies were never able to encircle and destroy retreating German armies. Montgomery cannot be judged too harshly for not achieving something other British or American commanders were also unable to do when given the opportunity.

Montgomery initially planned to use the New Zealand Division, augmented by an armored brigade, as the main pursuit force. He directed them to the Fuka escarpment some 45 miles to the west. As the New Zealanders set off for Fuka, the British armor of 10 Corps made a series of shorter wheels to the coast of some 10 to 15 miles. But there was a considerable delay before the New Zealanders could get moving. Freyberg recorded about the lull, “The congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies.” Montgomery’s fears about his armored formations soon proved justified as the armor “swanned” about the desert out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements. Nor did the New Zealand Division, which de Guingand described as Montgomery’s “mobile shock troops,” demonstrate much dash or daring. Freyberg was especially concerned not to let his division get mauled by the Afrika Korps for the fourth time. He still erroneously estimated Rommel to have a powerful armored force under command. To his subordinate commanders, Freyberg had stated that “the policy is not to fight but to position our force to bottle him.” Freyberg, the commander of the three left hooks carried out by the New Zealand Division, was in no doubt as to the purpose of a left hook and tended to view it as a substitute for heavy fighting—a way of achieving a victory with minimal casualties. The New Zealanders made three attempts to entrap Panzerarmee using the wide encircling “left hook.” All three failed. Kippenberger informed the New Zealand official historian:

You have one or two tricky questions to deal with in this volume, particularly the conduct of the three “Left Hooks” which seem to me to have been clumsily and rather timidly executed. I thought so at the time and am inclined to the same opinion still.

Ironically, both Montgomery’s and Freyberg’s caution, though understandable, was to prove more costly in the long run. As Rommel pointed out, if Montgomery had abandoned his restraint after Alamein, it “would have cost him far fewer losses in the long run than his methodical insistence on overwhelming superiority in each tactical action, which he could only obtain at the cost of his speed.” The failure to prevent Panzerarmee from withdrawing, especially after the Alamein battle, meant much hard fighting ahead with the North African campaign dragging on for another six months.


There were many reasons for the defeat of the Axis forces at Alamein, not the least important being their weakness in logistics and firepower. Rommel devoted nine pages of his papers analyzing “the decisive battle of the African campaign,” which he had lost. He did this primarily to counter accusations from the armchair strategists that the Axis troops and their commanders had performed poorly at Alamein. Rommel wrote that these accusations came from those whose military careers were “notable for a consistent absence from the front.” Rommel attributed his defeat at Alamein primarily to his weak logistics, especially in weapons, fuel, and ammunition and to British air supremacy. The “extreme concentrations” of Eighth Army’s artillery fire and “locally limited attacks” by infantry with an “extremely high state of training” was also important. He was especially impressed with the British infantry’s ability to attack at night, writing that “Night attacks continued to be a particular speciality of the British.” Rommel finished his analysis by stating that the bravery of all German and many Italian troops “was admirable.” Alamein had been a struggle and a defeat but it was still “a glorious page in the annals of the German and Italian peoples.” But in the end, the enemy was just too strong and their own material resources too small. In this imbalance “lay destruction.”

Other German accounts placed considerable stress on their material weakness at Alamein when compared to the resources available to Eighth Army and the DAF. They seldom gave credit to the performance of Eighth Army’s commanders or soldiers. The War Diary of 15 Panzer Division was especially critical:

The English did not win the battle of Alamein by superior leadership or dash. On the contrary, after their original plan of attack failed they worked their way systematically forward, always probing ahead with the greatest care choosing limited objectives. Often, particularly after our withdrawal from the Alamein line, the enemy failed to perceive or take advantage of good opportunities to destroy German troops.

The main reasons given for the British victory were Eighth Army’s overwhelming artillery firepower and the DAF’s air superiority. The War Diary did admit, though, that Eighth Army’s infantry were stronger and rested and that this infantry was “superior to the Germans, and still more to the Italians, in night fighting.” But Panzerarmee, it stated, had been crushed by the sheer weight of numbers brought against it. Eighth Army’s successful deception plans had convinced Panzerarmee and German military intelligence that its opponents were more than 40 percent stronger than they actually were.

The secretly recorded conversation of a German infantry officer captured on the night of October 29 was particularly revealing about the state of Panzerarmee’s logistics. The lieutenant from 2 Battalion, 125 Infantry Regiment told his cell mate, an officer from submarine U-559:

We’ve been in FRANCE, in the BALKANS, and in CRETE. Throughout the whole of the French campaign my Company only had thirty-five killed and seventy-five wounded. This time there was no way out for us, it was either death or capture. I was right in the front line, about fifty metres behind my platoons. When the infantry came along there was practically nothing more I could do with our 7.65 guns. As for our M.P.’s [Machine Pistols: the German Schmeisser submachine gun], none of them would fire because of the magazine. We’ve had them since 1940. All the springs were bad and we couldn’t get replacements. You can fire one round and that’s all. Our lack of supplies in AFRICA is appalling.

German intelligence officer Hans-Otto Behrendt believed that Ultra intelligence “played a major part” in the defeat of the last German-Italian offensive at Alam Halfa and had played “a crucial part in the sinking of Rommel’s oil tankers and supply convoys.” For the final October battle, though, “The decisive factor now was quite simply the sheer British superiority in tanks, artillery and aircraft for which no amount of tactical skill and self-sacrifice could compensate.”

Certainly, Eighth Army had superior logistics and firepower, tanks that could match the Germans, and the DAF dominated the skies above the battlefield. But it was the way these assets were used that made the critical difference. The Eighth Army’s artillery was concentrated and its firepower coordinated with infantry and armor in a master fireplan. In the twelve days of the battle, Eighth Army’s artillery fired more than one million rounds of twenty-five-pounder ammunition and throughout the battle “some artillery action was occurring all the time, and heavy action for most of the time.” The DAF made extraordinary efforts to support the troops on the ground and was most effective at disrupting enemy concentrations and their communications. During the October battle, the DAF flew 10,405 sorties and their American allies flew 1,181. This compares with just 1,550 German and 1,570 Italian sorties. It made a telling difference and the effect on morale on both sides was critical.

An American study compiled in 1947, written by the German officer Generalmajor Hans-Henning von Holtzendorff, was adamant that Eighth Army’s success at Alamein was primarily through its use of tanks. Von Holtzendorff wrote, “El Alamein was decided by the numerically far superior Panzer forces of the British, which were not dispersed as before, but were now concentrated and to some extent were equipped with American material.” All of these elements made vital contributions to Eighth Army’s victory.

In infantry, though, Eighth Army’s margin was not so pronounced as many historians have claimed, and the October Alamein battle was primarily an infantry battle. While it was a considerable advantage having a materiel superiority over the enemy, it still needed skill, courage, and determination to effectively apply what you had. One thing Eighth Army did in this October battle was to keep the fight going for over a week, which ultimately wore down the Panzerarmee. This was an old-fashioned battle of attrition, but it produced a decisive outcome. The 9 Division’s Report on Operations believed that this was the most crucial “lesson” of the battle. It began this section of the Report with the heading Maintenance of Pressure. Under this heading it perceived:

So often in military history, the battle has gone to the side which had the will or the strength to hang on just long enough to outlast the opponent. By maintaining offensive pressure, the enemy is forced to use his reserves and if this pressure can be maintained until these reserves are used up and he has insufficient resources to meet the new threat, defeat follows.

In this battle, by maintaining pressure by a series of attacks to the north and to the west, the Axis reserves were drawn in and steadily worn down until on 4 November—11 days after it had been planned to occur—penetration was effected.

This pressure was maintained throughout the battle by the numerous sorties of the DAF, the interdiction of Rommel’s supply line by the Royal Navy, and the cooperation of all arms of Eighth Army. An Air Ministry Report recorded that the Alamein battle “demonstrated untold value of good cooperation between all arms and services.” It was an old lesson to learn, but this cooperation between arms and services was a critical development. It signified, as Alexander McKee noted, a crucial shift. He wrote of the battle: “At long last the British were learning how to make war—which is not the same thing as fighting.”

There was little doubt, though, that the primary responsibility for breaking the Alamein position had been with the infantry divisions backed by heavy artillery and air support. Freyberg’s report on the El Alamein operations concluded that the “value of well-trained infantry, capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence, was fully proved.” Jonathan Fennell was correct in his assessment that the infantry units of Eighth Army were “Montgomery’s main offensive force.” Fennell also observed that in winning this last Alamein battle, “many of the frontline battalions of Eighth Army suffered over 50 per cent casualties.” Being the Army commander’s main offensive weapon came with a heavy cost.

It has been argued that Alamein could not have been won without the contributions of the two elite infantry divisions in Eighth Army identified earlier by Rommel—9 Australian Division operating in the north, and two brigades of New Zealand infantry plus supporting units in the center, and later in the pursuit. That the New Zealanders played a vital role was uncharacteristically recognized by Montgomery:

The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of all these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand…. Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory.

Montgomery sent the Australian commander a similar message of praise on November 2, just as Operation Supercharge was underway. Montgomery wrote to Morshead that, “Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played in this battle is beyond all praise.” General Alexander was also effusive in his praise of the 9th Australian Division when he addressed them at a parade on the Gaza airstrip on December 22. He pointed out that “The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory.” Alexander concluded his address by telling the Australians that “one thought I shall cherish above all others—under my command fought the 9th Australian Division.” Churchill too acknowledged in his history of the war that it was the “ceaseless, bitter fighting” that the Australians had endured at Alamein that “had swung the whole battle in our favour.” Twenty-five years after the battle, Montgomery wrote that “it would not be right to single out any for special praise” when all had performed well. But then Montgomery did exactly that, stating, “I must say this—we would not have won the battle in ten days without that magnificent 9th Australian Division.”

It was heady stuff and it was entirely appropriate that the Australians and New Zealanders received high praise for their efforts in the October battle. No historian could ever dispute their key roles. But Montgomery was correct when he gave credit to the fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire, although he perhaps should have mentioned the Empire airmen as well. Throughout the battle Eighth Army had “complete protection from serious air attack and, at the same time, had the benefit of such close co-operation and continuous air support as never before.” There were, of course, other formations and corps that contributed significantly to the outcome of the battle. All German accounts comment on the weight and effectiveness of Eighth Army’s artillery. No infantry division made more attacks nor suffered heavier casualties than 51st Highland Division. And while the armored divisions may not have performed as well as Montgomery and the infantry commanders wanted, no formation did more to win the battle than the 9th Armoured Brigade. The New Zealand official history was correct when it stated that “Finally, tribute for the victory should be bestowed on all those Allied troops who had a share in the fighting and behind the lines.”


The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered II

The other major consideration is over the employment of tanks on 15 September. Haig’s eagerness to use the new weapon is unquestionable and even after their patchy performance in initial battle testing, his faith in them is confirmed by his striking request, two days later, for 1,000. The charge against him that he used the tanks when he had too few to make an impact and that in using them he was conceding their surprise factor for small reward, does not really stand up against the dual need to use all means available to achieve a breakthrough while the weather held and the fact that the tank had to be proved in battle before mass production could be requested, never mind sanctioned. Where he might have been bolder and intervened in Rawlinson’s plans was in the failure to concentrate those tanks available and to use them in a favourable location in the role for which they had been conceived, breakthrough. Instead, they were carefully spread like some special seed that some might fruit. The role given them was to deal with strongpoints, not to force a way through. Perhaps their slowness and the small number which remained immune to mechanical disorder or becoming ditched made them unfit at this stage for anything more adventurous than was essayed but a case can be made against the way the tanks were initially employed and more particularly against the absence of proper artillery protection of their advance.

The time factor can be used on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there was the urgent need to use tanks almost immediately they arrived because so much was at stake in the effort to achieve strategic initiative, and then, essential battle-testing too, and on the other hand, there was artillery and infantry unfamiliarity with the new engine of war, the small number available, their mechanical unreliability and the inexperience of the crews. All the latter considerations counselled caution, retaining the surprise factor, addressing the problems known to be there and then launching a tank-centred decisive operation.

There were other general matters where tactical thought was developed slowly, like the way in which Lewis and Vickers guns might have been more effectively employed in a mobile attacking role. The same might be said for the need to train and utilise Stokes Mortar teams, but the second barrel of the double-barrelled shotgun charge against Haig for the Somme – the first aimed at the infantry tactics employed – was the prolongation of the battle when, to some at the time and to many who have written about it since, the offensive was maintained long beyond the point of any profit whatsoever. Built into such an indictment is the presumption, frequently stated, that Haig and his staff at their comfortable HQ were totally removed from an understanding of the actual conditions under which the men at the front served and that polished-booted, red-tabbed Staff Officers, coping with the inconvenience of the map obscuring the whisky decanter, drew neat lines which determined the fate of the men towards whom they were callously indifferent. Haig’s immaculate dress and stern gaze out of photographs, the setting for which is usually the steps of some splendid chateau, are mentally juxtaposed against images of men in the line and casualty statistics. Of course such visions derive from judgements already made, presumptions affirmed.

There is substance to the charge of the perceived remoteness of the staff once the important qualification is understood that the nearer the line staff work took place, the more difficult it was. Anyone who was momentarily to doubt this reservation has only to read Staff Officer: The Diaries of Lord Moyne 1914-18.5 Walter Guinness, the first Lord Moyne, was to be engaged in Brigade and Divisional staff work in the second half of the war and his diary documents graphically the well-nigh impossible circumstance for such work when under heavy shelling in a forward position. As it happens, there is too, a delightful illustration of the prejudice he met against staff officers when he himself was simply a regimental officer on the Somme. On 23 August, he wrote of the Adjutant of his battalion, the 11th Cheshires, a man who was a university lecturer in Agricultural Chemistry: ‘He hates and despises all staff officers, feeling no doubt that he has far more brains himself and says that there are many Double First men serving in the Armies who ought to be on the staff. With all his cleverness, however, his manners are such that what the staff might gain in brains, it would certainly lose in friction.’

It has been argued that the gulf between GHQ and the staffs of subordinate HQ lay not least in a combination of Haig’s closed mind and the fear he inspired. The nature of his taciturn personality and of his remote position at the apex of military authority certainly combined seriously to reduce access to him and there is little evidence to demonstrate that the men around him were endowed with exceptional ability or the capacity for innovative thought. On a point of detail, Haig’s keenness to use the tanks scarcely suggests a closed mind but the command structure, inter-communication, the exchange and discussion of ideas, implementation of change, the cooperation of individuals and of Staffs, were not areas in which Haig and the senior echelons of command achieved distinction during the central months of the war. Near the top of the pyramid, there were men whose work subsequently seemed seriously adrift like Brigadier-General John Charteris, in command of Intelligence, who fed Haig unwarrantably optimistic reports on the decline of German morale, but the point has to be made more general – there was simply an insufficiency of well-trained Staff Officers for all levels of this work in the hugely expanded BEF. The disappointing quality of their work on the Somme too frequently reflects this and not just at GHQ. From every point of view there was truth in Lord Moyne’s diary entry. Later in the war, New Army officers would increasingly break into the enclosed professional milieu of the Staff, but during the Somme, a natural prejudice felt by ‘one of us’, that is the Regimental Officer with his men in the line, against ‘one of them’, the briefly visiting Staff Officer, too frequently is evident. It was rooted in the different circumstances of their daily life and the idea of receiving orders from on high through the person of a polished superior being, who seemed to display an unfamiliarity with and a distaste for work at the sharp end of his orders. A discordant thought intrudes here: is this not a normal feature of ‘life at the coalface’ – how well thought of, is the Bishop on his rare visitation, the school inspector at his scrutiny, even the factory foreman on his rounds?

It is also perhaps fair to suggest that Staff Officers, unless by prior experience solidly grounded in regimental work in the line, might cocoon themselves within the idea that the Regimental Officer would have no idea of the burdensome and endlessly problematic nature of the Staff Officer’s work and this perception would hold a measure of truth. There are, however, numerous counterbalancing snippets in letters and diaries from officers and men paying tribute to the organisational work behind the assemblage of so many facilities, so much materiel and so many men of different units engaged in separate but related tasks before the onset of some major endeavour.

Field Marshal Lord Harding, a subaltern in the First World War, told of a lesson he had learned from the Great War was to avoid the gulf between the Staff and the Line which he had experienced in 1915–18. The Field Marshal did not serve in France but much has been written in support of this point. It may be considered however that the gulf was there almost by definition both by reason of the particular nature of the First World War and perhaps by the structure of any army at war. In that event then the missing element was High Command concern to stress the inter-dependence of each and a wider understanding by each of the work of the other. Staff Officers with regimental experience had this, but otherwise ignorance prejudiced the view across the divide. Tackling this in war may not have seemed a high priority and would not have been easy to organise. We can see with hindsight that it would have been beneficial.

It remains to be said on this matter that while Haig’s severest critics make no documented case against him of indifference to his men, the charge remains by implication. However, it simply cannot be substantiated; there is too much evidence to the contrary. From subaltern to general the man in command had men ‘to use’ in battle. For him to be unnerved by the full meaning of this, and for him to have given inadequate thought to the best employment of them to achieve the aims of the endeavour; these two factors together would show an unfitness for command. Perfection, freedom from error, and with tragic significance, freedom to operate outside the constraints of the warfare in which commander and men are engaged, this we cannot expect. Whether Haig were to have failed his men on the Somme will continue to be debated; the baser charge that he was indifferent to them, does not stand serious examination. As a liaison officer at GHQ, Charles Armitage, sharing responsibility for feeling the pulse of the men under Haig’s command, was infuriated by what he termed such a ‘wicked slander which has never been substantiated; the exact opposite is the truth’. By character, personality and upbringing, Douglas Haig was inescapably a product of an age which determined that his paternalistic attitude to his men would give rise among later generations with their different values and social norms, to a range of judgemental reaction – certainly, regret, probably, some lack of comprehension and, in all likelihood, scorn. Could or should anything different have been expected? A hundred years on, the ‘mateyness’ which society seems to expect between leader and led in any walk of life, frequently looks shallow, artificial and unrealistic to a discerning observer. No, in 1916, Haig showed that he had not got the ‘common touch’. In addition to the points already raised, he lacked an essential element in exhibiting it, verbal fluency. How extraordinary it would have been if he were to have had it. Perhaps he did develop something approaching it post-war with his work for the Royal British Legion, but that is another matter.

With German operations at Verdun diminishing rapidly as the Battle of the Somme maintained its momentum in July – on 11 July, Falkenhayn, the Commander-in-Chief, had ordered the suspension of offensive operations at Verdun – had not the Somme justified itself and hence could be halted during the latter part of that month? No, the offensive had been conceived as a huge co-ordinated Allied vision to wrest the war’s initiative from the grasp of the Central Powers and there was the continued belief in the possibility of achieving a breakthrough – 1 July at Montauban and 14 July had both indicated that such a chance might be there. There was something else, previously referred to, but deserving re-emphasis, the advance by the Somme of High Command education in the nature of the war in which they were engaged. Attritional erosion of the capacity of an enemy to continue the fight was not new. It was not new when it was waged by the North in the American Civil War, though it was then on an unprecedented scale, and new in the sense that the North had the basis of industrial power to forge the weaponry for this form of destruction of its adversary, but even if it were fundamentally built-in to Allied strategy as agreed in December 1915, it was to be a new experience for Britain in the following year.

The war had become one in which populous, industrialised societies increasingly utilised every fibre of their national resources. However, regardless of this, the current stage of weapon technology gave every advantage to the defender, in this case the Germans, who had advanced into Belgium and France, been checked and, preserving their 1914 initiative, had dug in. To attack them to throw them out of their gains meant challenging the approach to positions commandingly defended by concealed machine-gun and rifle fire supported from the rear by well-sited artillery. There was no flank to turn except by the huge gamble of seaborne invasion of the occupied coast of Belgium and so a fundamentally frontal assault was decreed by definition though the configuration of the line in some sectors seemed to offer flanks for assault – again frontally. With the Entente committed to attack and the Germans advantaged in their defensive posture, the Western Front had become a battle of will and materiel. For Britain, the Somme was the first major test. Gallipoli had devalued strategic alternatives and French requirements focused concentration upon Picardy. Even when the higher aim of breakthrough dissolved in frustration after 15 September, there could be little question of calling off the battle. Furthermore, in the turning of the screw upon the enemy, valuable objectives had been won in the south which invited exploitation to attack, in the flank, positions which were still resisting frontal assault further north. That this is not simply a Headquarters view, nor a retrospective view, is illustrated in the letter sent home on 30 September by the Medical Officer of the 10th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, C. K. McKerrow: ‘We still push ahead and kill many Huns. Our losses are smaller than at first and I really believe we are doing pretty well. It will be great if we can get Bapaume before the winter sets in.’

The twin arguments of maintaining the pressure and securing further tactical advantage were used in the attempt to sustain a momentum of attack which German resistance and worsening weather were combining to halt. As GHQ and Fourth and Fifth Army HQs weighed judgements based on weather reports, ground conditions, progress on the map, Intelligence gained from aerial photography and written reports, interrogation of prisoners and other sources, further factors were being evaluated. British casualty statistics, ammunition resources, troops in reserve, morale, the needs of allies and an awareness of wavering support and even opposition in Westminster and Whitehall; all this was being considered as the battle was prolonged into exceptionally adverse campaigning conditions. Gough’s keenness to attack has been mentioned and there is the possibility that Haig believed a success might refurbish his damaged reputation, even his command which he may have perceived as being under threat. Were Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt worth their price in November? From the privileged position of hindsight the answer may be in the negative. At the end of September or at some stage in early October, even in the then recognised attritional nature of this battle, there was evidence available on ground conditions alone that there was no profit in its continuance. In a sense, the battle was evidently won, with the aerial photographs indicating German preparations for retirement; however, does the boxer show readiness to halt his assault with his opponent clearly wobbling?

In a denial of access to post-December 1916 developments in assessing the Somme, what can be said about its balance sheet? German casualties could only be estimated, hence British statistics, however gathered or interpreted, lack a point of comparison. Certainly the manpower resources of the British Empire were deeper than the resources of their adversary, and the losses, dreadful as they were, would in a numerical sense be more than made up by the trained readiness of conscripts in 1917.

British losses in killed, wounded and missing have been variously estimated from figures of just over 400,000 to 424,000, the French at around 202,000. German losses may have been as high as 680,000 but there is no consensus over these figures. Even in an understanding of the nature of war and of this war in particular, there can be no minimising of the scale of the blight upon the young manhood of the British nation, the Empire and the other Allies – and of those of their antagonists. However, war is waged within the constraint or with the opportunity of available weapons and technology and the requirement to attack or defend with their attendant disadvantage or advantage – the awful figures simply represent the consequence of the military collision of Great Powers at this particular time. To extend the enquiry into the ultimate areas of responsibility for the actual outbreak of this terrible struggle or still more provocatively but tenuously into the hypothesis that if Britain were to have been better prepared militarily then might war have been avoided.

What is clear is that by joint endeavour France had been protected from the most serious threat both to her front and to the condition of her army since the disasters on the frontiers in 1914. German recognition that she could not maintain her existing position against sustained British pressure was recognised by the September 1916 commencement of the new defence line to which in February 1917 her troops began to retire. In this, Terraine saw an ‘unquestionable Allied victory, mainly a British one’ in that ‘it was a settled German principle not to retire if this could possibly be helped; the decision to do so at the beginning of February 1917 was dictated by one consideration only – the imperative need to avoid another Somme’. If, in view of what was known at the turn of the year, there were evidence for the High Command to claim, as Haig did in his Official Dispatch, that a full half of the German Army, the mainstay of the Central Powers, ‘despite all the advantages of the defensive, supported by the strongest fortifications, suffered defeat on the Somme this year’, then few should dispute that it had been a victory, terrible in its price, but a victory.

Of the men themselves – how had they endured the circumstances and avoided any vestige of a collective breakdown in discipline? The Somme, for the soldier of the New Army and to a large extent for the Territorial who served there, stands in many ways representative of the whole war. We have seen from letters and diaries the evidence of attitude and opinions before initiation into the reality of war, at the enlightening of a man’s ignorance and then during his prolonged exposure to the stress of battle. We have seen men being ‘educated’ by the Somme – tried and tested. The constituent elements which together determined their state of morale can be highlighted but before so doing we must remind ourselves that these elements would need different emphasis if we were to have the Regular soldier predominantly in our sights.

How were men, who were not by profession soldiers, motivated to accept privation and danger and then physically and mentally to exert themselves to do things which, before they had donned uniform, most would have considered totally alien – to fight and to kill? What factors gave a body of men a collective strength of will to strive to achieve a common purpose against opposition of whatever nature and what had to be in each individual, if not by nature then by implantation or constraint, to give the chain of collective will sufficient strength in each link?

If men were to be required readily to do things which did not come naturally to them and which involved their subjugation of every instinct to avoid danger and not think solely of self-preservation, then at the foundation there had to be a strong adherence to a cause which was consistently more inspirational than self. While a range of reasons impelled enlistment in 1914, for most men the bedrock of the decision to enlist was a belief in the case presented by poster and newspaper and from within, that King and Country had need of him. Unemployment, boring jobs, a desire for adventure, breaking away from current constraints, wanting to be with friends, fear of being left out, marginalised, yes, such factors were certainly there in varying measure for many in the queues at recruiting stations but that which drew everything together and for many men was itself the total almost tangible impulsion, was patriotism. It is not appropriate here to account for the springs of such an emotion, to look at education or the power of the press for example, but to recognise the beat of the nation’s pulse, remaining aware, as Peter Simkins properly reminds us, that ‘thousands simply appear to have succumbed to the heady atmosphere which enveloped them in the early months of the war, particularly as the national and local recruiting campaigns got into their stride’. There is no doubt at all that to be out of step with this mood invited external and internal pressure.

Patriotism as a basic element in the morale of a soldier was not going to be sufficient in itself nor of course was there a monopoly of it: field grey as well as khaki was drawing on it for inspiration. In 1914, it was a concept which may have had the personifying face of the King and Kitchener but held within its adherent’s perception, his hamlet, village, town, county, state within a Dominion, that Dominion itself, as well as the idea of Mother Country and of Empire which quite evidently influenced many who came from overseas in support of a call initially made from London. Symbolically it did not have to be London. A New Zealander on his way to war wrote: ‘After the horrors of Hartlepool and Scarborough, I am proud that I will have the chance of getting a little back on them.’ George Bird, a Royal Marine Light Infantryman, spoke for many in trying to get his family to explain to his sister the obligation which impelled him. ‘Poor Florrie, I was sorry to read of her crying about me. It is a matter of duty this war. I am out to save our home and you, the same as millions more are doing.’ Bird, a working-class lad, expressed his simple conviction powerfully; it matches nicely the more sophisticated analysis of a subaltern, O. W. Sichel, but we can scarcely deny the added significance of the latter’s judgement in that it came from a man who had been serving with the 5th Royal Warwicks on the Somme in November 1916: ‘After all this is a splendid cause, a magnificent race to be fighting for. Only he who comes out here can realise the greatness of England, the colossal strength of the Empire – the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have been surmounted.’

However much it may be natural in any conflict situation and whatever may be said about the educational ideals which gave rise to it, the assumption of a moral superiority over one’s foe was a basic factor. It was rooted in the presentation to Britons of their history, raucously chorused in the Music Halls and now newly-proven by German beastliness to Belgians, the shooting of a nurse and a Merchant Navy captain and the sinking of a transatlantic liner. Such a sense of superiority was ample fuel for the engine of BEF morale. This is not to say that the patriotism of the citizen soldier was blazoned: it was felt. When superiority in materiel was added, as seemed the case in late June 1916, and perhaps in mid-September too, then confidence was further encouraged. If disaster were to strike, as it did on 1 July, if periods of protracted stress or misery were to erode that confidence in material superiority, there was still sufficient spiritual resilience. The cause in which they had their faith, retained its compulsion. The Somme of course soon shaved away from most men the expressions of patriotism still enunciated by Oliver Sichel but it left instead a resistant stubble of stoic acceptance of the need to do one’s bit, something wholly different in character from the disillusionment which was the focus of much post-war fixation upon the battle and devalued the endurance of the men who were there.

An additional element in the maintenance of a collective resolve was the special pride and sense of something to prove which animated Canadian, Australian and New Zealand units. It was a powerful competitive stimulant and perhaps particularly in the case of the Australians held a degree of discriminatory judgement against the English, conceived, justifiably or not, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. A similar sense of distinctive difference fuelling resolve lay in the far more ancient pride of Welsh, Scottish and Irish regiments and in the new element of identity in the battalions of Pals from towns in the North and elsewhere.

Regimental pride itself is of course fundamental in all considerations upon morale. Whether of far distant or more recent origin, a regiment’s past achievements raised high expectations of new honour and this was part of the unit’s mystique. It seems that not merely superiority over one’s foe is to be assumed, but over one’s allies and the regiment to left and right. For all its cumulative human tragedy, the Somme played its part in fusing identity with one’s unit. A subaltern, A. C. Slaughter, joining the 18th Battalion King’s (Liverpool) Regiment on 3 July, wrote home: ‘I feel proud of being posted to this Bn. after their work of the last 2 days. The only pity is that it is practically wiped out.’ Officer and man might express it differently but an undeniable pride in one’s battalion, battery or field company is consistently a part of the testimony of men enduring the battle. No silly claim is being made that this was unique to this war or to the British as distinct from allies or enemy but it was certainly intrinsic in upholding the performance of the BEF.

Of unsung but major importance to men of the BEF on the Somme, was the Army’s concern for the general welfare of its men in so far as circumstances permitted. Attempts were made to prevent units being exposed for too long a period in the line. There are numerous exceptions like that documented in William Strang’s diary of the 4th Battalion Worcesters during ten days at the beginning of July and again in October but the need for adequate sleep and a hot meal was recognised. Tributes to the work of men with the Army field kitchens and those bringing meals into the line are frequently recorded. There were rest periods out of the line and, though some were sullied for the men by labouring duties and further training, they provided opportunity for relaxation from the stress of the line, for recreation and the varied pleasures of welfare huts, concert parties and estaminets. In between two fierce actions in the autumn, E. G. Bates, the cheerful Northumberland Fusilier, saw the ‘Duds’ concert party of three officers and seven men assisted by Engineers in the construction of their stage and the setting up of lighting. ‘They had skits on all kinds of things including Chu Chin Chow. It was screamingly funny.’ Film shows, singsongs, band concerts, football and boxing matches were staged and billeting arrangements were at least better than sleeping arrangements in the line. Pay, more variety in food and optional extras, oeufs and frites, beer, vin blanc or rouge, letters and parcels to be received and letter-writing opportunities offered, baths, perhaps in the vats of a brewery, even some sightseeing, sexual release, just talking to women, all had their application towards a man’s sense of well-being.

Albrecht Friedrich Rudolf Dominik, Archduke of Austria (1817–1895) and the Battle of Custozza

Austrian field marshal, victor over the Italians in 1866, and leading military figure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Albrecht Friedrich Rudolf Dominik, second Duke of Teschen, was born in Vienna on August 3, 1817. He was the eldest son of Archduke Charles of Austria, the only Austrian general to defeat Napoleon, in the Battle of Aspern-Essling (May 21–22, 1809). Charles encouraged his son’s inclination toward the military. Although Albrecht suffered from a mild form of epilepsy, it did not adversely affect his military career.

At age 13, Albrecht was commissioned a colonel in the Austrian 44th Infantry Regiment. Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky was his chief military adviser. Albrecht was named Generalmajor in 1840, Feldmarschall-leutnant in 1843, and General der Kavallerie in 1845. As commander of forces in Upper Austria, Lower Austria, and Salzburg, he had charge of troops in Vienna at the onset of the Revolution of 1848. On March 13, his men fired on the crowds in an effort to restore order. Although his troops were able to secure the city center, they failed to win control of the outer districts. Albrecht was himself wounded in the fighting. Following the resignation of Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Klemens von Metternich and the formation of an armed student guard, Albrecht ordered his troops to their barracks.

Albrecht took part in the subsequent effort to suppress revolutionary outbreaks against Austrian rule in northern Italy. Commanding a division under Radetzky, Albrecht played a key role in the victory over Italian forces led by King Charles Albert of Sardinia in the Battle of Novara (March 23, 1849). During 1851– 1860 Albrecht was governor of Hungary. The Italian War of 1859 passed him by as he was then in Berlin, engaged in a fruitless effort to secure an alliance with Prussia.

With war with Prussia looming, in mid-April 1866 Albrecht was appointed to command the South Army rather than the forces against Prussia. Here he faced onerous odds: 75,000 Austrian troops with 168 guns against 200,000 Italians with 370 guns. Yet Albrecht won a decisive victory over the Italians led by General Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora in the Battle of Custozza (June 24, 1866).

The charge of the 13th Regiment of Austrian Uhlans.

Battle of Custozza (June 24, 1866)

The Southern Army of the Habsburgs was made up of many fine regiments. The Archduke commanded barely 75,000 troops against a foe of 200,000 equipped with more than twice the amount of artillery he could muster. As his orders to his army upon declaration of war noted, this disparity in numbers was not at all intimidating: `Soldiers!’ he exhorted them. `Never forget how often this enemy has run away from you!’

Ably advised by his chief of staff, General John, the Archduke Albrecht waited for Marmora’s army to cross the Mincio. Albrecht hoped to disrupt Marmora’s army so as to render it incapable of uniting with another Italian army advancing from the south under Cialdini. To keep Marmora in check while holding Cialdini under observation required some forced marches across the northern Italian plains in scorching heat. Neck scarves and a proliferation of sun- protective materials punctuated the white tunics of Albrecht’s infantry, while his cavalry abandoned their heavy costume and headdress to adopt lighter blouses and, in the case of his lancers, soft caps. By the time the morning of the 24th dawned, the Imperial Royal Army had divested itself of all its Alpine kit and had come to resemble increasingly a lightly armed skirmishing force which, but for the absence of the colour of khaki, might have been recognisable on the North West Frontier a generation later.

Risking serious disruption had he been faced by a more energetic opponent, the Archduke wheeled his forces west to occupy the high ground around Villafranca. His V corps under Rodichad conducted the most punishing night march to Sona but neither Italian skirmishers nor cavalry patrols disturbed their deployment on the hills around Custozza. To the surprise of the Austrians, these hills had not been seized by the Italians. Only around the high ground east of Vallegio did the Italians blunder into the Austrians at 6 a. m. As Marmora rode up to the small eminence of Monte Croce shortly after dawn, he was staggered to see an entire Austrian corps (Hartung IX) moving towards him in three columns less than two miles away. The Italians were about to be swept back to their Mincio crossings in great style. With improvisation, Marmora hastily assembled a defence, ordering two divisions to march up to Villafranca where Albert’s wing was lightly defended by an Austrian division under Ludwig Pulz. As this deployment began, the quixotic opportunities which war affords the alert and energetic mind came into play.

Pulz was under strict orders to `maintain only contact’ with the Italian III Corps under Della Rocca. He was therefore mildly surprised to see four squadrons of his lancers, mostly Poles from Galicia under their colonel Rodakowski, line up in formation, lower their lances as their colonel drew his sword and gallop towards the Italian infantry in the early morning light. Pulz had expected the horsemen to be on a reconnaissance. With the feathers in their caps catching the sun and the pennants of their lances fluttering in the wind, the lancers’ charge threw up a huge cloud of dust.

As Rodakowski galloped forward, he was joined by seven more squadrons of lancers, which had been assigned to watch the Verona road. This breakdown in discipline was at first interpreted as a sophisticated feint. Pulz explained to a puzzled staff officer watching the scene unfold that, despite Edelsheim’s heroic charge at Solferino, there was no real precedent in the Austrian army for the charge of a single light cavalry brigade towards two infantry divisions supported by artillery and twenty squadrons of heavy cavalry.

Pulz, looking on, heard artillery and infantry volley fire open up in response to Rodakowski’s charge and felt compelled to support his horsemen, so he advanced with what was left of his cavalry. 2 Another 300 horsemen thundered off. As an impetuous cavalry commander, Rodakowski had engaged the Italian infantry at their weakest point, the gap between the two divisions, and had succeeded in disrupting some of the Italians. But the majority of the Italian infantry had seen the threat in good time and had formed square. With withering volley fire they had easily repulsed the attack, which cost Rodakowski half his command. As the lancers wheeled around it looked as if they were facing the same fate that had overtaken Edelsheim at Solferino and Lord Cardigan at Balaclava, twelve years earlier.

Some, perhaps no more than a troop, of Rodakowski’s lancers had penetrated beyond the infantry. Their appearance, however brief, had a stupendous effect on the excitable Italian troops milling around the supply wagons to the rear of Della Rocca’s troops. The Italians, promptly fearing being ridden down by enemy horse, excitedly took to their heels. The panic gathered momentum and infected even the Italian reinforcements marching up to support Della Rocca. Suddenly a horde of riderless horses and fleeing Italian infantry began to charge back towards the Mincio, where they imagined safety awaited them. By 9 a. m., the bridge at Goito was a mass of fugitives screaming that the `Tedeschi’ (Germans) were coming to slaughter them.

The front line of Della Rocca’s troops held firm but the Polish charge had a demoralising effect on them and they dared not advance for fear of an Austrian counter- attack, even though this sector of the Austrian line was thinly held and could not have withstood a vigorous push by the two Italian divisions.

Rodakowski’s charge, as brilliant (and indeed more effective) as that of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, was a poor start to the battle for the Italians. Albert’s rather thin left wing was the Achilles heel of the Austrian deployment that day and could have proved the beginning of severe problems for the Austrians had it been correctly evaluated and exploited by the Italians, something Rodakowski’s 500 men had rendered impossible.

Elsewhere the battle, though less dramatic, was also not developing as the Italians had planned. On the Austrian right, an Italian division under Cerale was caught in the flank by an Austrian infantry brigade under Eugen Piret containing several `crack’ grenadier battalions and some skirmishing Croats well concealed in the woods on the Italians’ other flank. Within minutes the Italians were fleeing again back to the Mincio, offering only stubborn resistance at the village of Oliosi where repeated attacks by the Austrian grenadiers were repulsed with heavy loss for nearly an hour.

The Austrian Stosstaktik, so disastrous in the Swiepwald two weeks later, proved more successful against the Italians, though almost as costly. Sirtori’s division fell back under the pressure of the Austrian bayonet charges but inflicted heavy casualties on Bauer’s brigade (660 of Bauer’s men fell in less than fifteen minutes as they advanced).

Nowhere this day did the Austrian frontal attacks prove as expensive as at Monte Croce, where two Austrian brigades from IX Corps (Hartung) were virtually annihilated as they attempted to dislodge well dug- in Italian infantry under Brignone. More than 2,500 Austrians were lost in these poorly executed and coordinated attacks, which fizzled out owing to lack of reinforcements.

By 10 a. m. the crisis of the battle had arrived for the Austrians. Everywhere along their line they had failed to seize any strategically important ground and their numbers were dwindling. A concerted push by the Italians, who were fighting well, would unmask the deficiencies of the Archduke’s command and his weakness in numbers, with potentially catastrophic results for the Habsburg army.

After nearly three and a half hours of intense fighting, the Austrians had shown aggressive spirit and it was this which finally demoralised the Italians. Despite their strong defence of Monte Croce, Brignone’s troops began to panic because the Austrians simply kept re- forming into new lines, advancing again: white- coated troops with bands playing and bayonets lowered. Riding `to safety’, on Marmora’s advice, the Italian King instantly saw his troops’ weakness and tried to reinforce them, but to no avail. The Brignone line broke after the fourth assault by the Austrians and the sight of the tall Hungarian grenadiers advancing put even their rearmost lines to flight.

As Marmora rode to try to rally Brignone’s men, he noticed that the nearby heights of Custozza also appeared to be occupied by white- coated troops. These were the soldiers of Böck’s brigade, Romanians, often decried as unreliable but advancing in good discipline. The Italian reinforcements came up, and an Austrian brigade under Scudier, which had advanced up the heights of Custozza, panicked and withdrew rapidly (an act for which their commanding officer Anton Scudier would be court- martialled after the war).

Scudier’s precipitate withdrawal opened a small but dangerous gap in the Austrian centre, which could have been exploited with serious consequences had not Rodic’s corps stormed the Monte Vento and Santa Lucia heights. There, the Austrians discovered evidence of Italian atrocities committed against some captured Jaeger troops, two of whom had been stripped naked and beaten to death before being hanged with leather from their uniforms.

Rodic’s men, notably Piret’s brigade supported later by Moering, neutralised the effects of Scudier’s withdrawal. Custozza became a fragile point d’appui for the Italians. Flanked on either side by Austrians, they withdrew at around 3 p. m. Panic, the greatest enemy of the Italian army that day, took hold across Marmora’s front. Sensing his moment, the Archduke now ordered a grand envelopment but, as Pulz rode towards Villafranca, he found thousands of Italians laying down their arms without a fight as Della Rocca began withdrawing. Everywhere the Italians were breaking, with the exception of the few brave men who had filled the gap vacated by Scudier – and they were about to be ejected by three Austrian brigades. Only the valiant Granatieri di Sardegna saved Italian honour that day, withdrawing in perfect order around 5 p. m. The battle ended after the Austrians brought up a couple of batteries to blow to bits any remaining Italian defenders of Custozza who lingered.

As the Archduke Albert surveyed the scene from the heights he saw a vast shattered Italian army in headlong retreat. Later historians and some of his own officers have severely censured him for not ordering an aggressive pursuit but this was not the Habsburg tradition, as we have seen. Albert, like his father before him, knew that the dynasty could never afford to take the risk. Those who criticise Albert for `timidity’ miss the point. This was not how the Habsburgs waged war, especially, in Albert’s phrase a `defensive war’.

Victory was really concerned with honour and could only be tactical because Venetia had already been surrendered to all intents and purposes. Moreover, to effect a crushing pursuit Albert would have needed fresh troops. The Austrian casualties were high. Nearly 9,000 Austrian dead and wounded, including some 400 officers, lay scattered around the battlefield.

Many of the survivors had been in action without interruption for more than 18 hours. Without exception they had fought bravely against an opponent who enjoyed significant numerical superiority. (In the event the absence of the Italian Cialdini’s corps somewhat evened the numbers out.) In the blistering heat of those June days on the north Italian plain, many of Albert’s troops were utterly exhausted. Some had died of heatstroke; many others were dehydrated and ill. V Corps under Rodic was the only force capable of conducting a pursuit, but to what end? One Italian army was crushed; it did not need to be destroyed. Moreover, like his father, Albert had a realistic view of his strategic gifts and knew that he was no Napoleon.

Any advantage that might have accrued to Austria by this victory and that of Count Wilhelm Friedrich von Tegetthoff over the Italians in the naval Battle of Lissa (July 19–20) was more than offset by the Austrian defeat in Bohemia in the Battle of Königgrätz (July 3). Although Albrecht was named Oberkommandeur (commander in chief) on July 10, 1866, Feldzeugmeister Ludwig von Benedek’s crushing defeat at Königgrätz prevented further military action against Prussia, and Austria was forced to conclude peace with both Prussia and Italy. Albrecht’s victory remained the one bright spot for Austria in the land war and was accorded an eminence that it did not perhaps deserve.

Albrecht continued as Oberkommandeur until 1869, when Emperor Franz Josef I assumed that position. Albrecht then became Generalinspekteur (inspector general), holding that post until his death and carrying out an extensive reform of the Austro-Hungarian military establishment based on the Prussian model. In 1869 Albrecht published Über die Verantwortlichkeit im Kriege (On Responsibility in War).

Extremely conservative in his political views, Albrecht also advocated preventive war against Italy and, following the 1878 Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, urged military action to secure additional Balkan territory to include Salonika. Albrecht was advanced to Feldmarschall in March 1888. He was also made Generalfeldmarschall in the German Army in 1893.

Albrecht continued in his posts until his death at Schloss Arco in the Tirol on February 18, 1895. There is an equestrian statue of him in Vienna near the entrance to the Albertina museum (his former city residence of the Palais Erzherzog Albrecht, which houses Albrecht’s extensive art collection). A conservative and even reactionary figure in many ways, Archduke Albrecht was primarily a bureaucrat rather than a field general but nonetheless carried out important reforms in the Austro-Hungarian Army that helped prepare it for its great test in World War I.

Further Reading

Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Marek, George R. The Eagles Die: Franz Joseph, Elisabeth, and Their Austria. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of the Emperor Francis Joseph. New York: Grove, 1994.

Rothenburg, Gunther E. The Army of Francis Joseph. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1976.

Battle of Klushino


There were some large-scale and decisive field battles in the wars of the Baltic theater (Orsza, Klushino, Dirschau, Warsaw, Kliszow, etc.), but they do not provide a clear test of the superiority of Mauritsian line tactics-this is true even of many of Gustav II Adolf ‘s battles-in part because terrain was often too broken to facilitate line tactics, troops lacked the drill to master more than the most elementary firing systems, and because commanders still preferred to trust to cavalry action to decide the final outcome. At Kirchholm and at Klushino Polish husarz cavalry routed much larger forces of Swedish and Scots musketeers and pikemen. Except in Swedish and mercenary forces pikes were not much used-janissary, haiduk, and strelets infantry largely dispensed with them. To substitute for pike protection musketeers were often deployed behind field fortifications or in a wagenburg.

The battles of Kokenhausen and Kircholm illustrate the devastating effects a well-timed, precisely aimed Husaria charge could have against even a much larger enemy. The two engagements also illustrate the marked superiority the concerted heavy cavalry charge had during this time over Western cavalry still trained in the caracole. However, it is important to note that neither victory would have been attained were it not for the close coordination of infantry, artillery, and cavalry required to create the perfect conditions for the Husaria to strike effectively. Luckily for the Husaria, during the early 17th century the Polish army was fortunate to have been led by a series of truly brilliant battlefield tacticians. In fact, just four years after Kircholm at the Battle of Klushino in 1610, Stanislaw Zolkiewski, despite being outnumbered five to one, skillfully used his Husaria to defeat a Muscovite army of 30,000 under the command of the tsar’s brother.

For the Husaria, their crucial role in such spectacular victories as Kircholm, Klushino, and Chocim solidified their importance as the Polish army’s elite arm. The latter battle in particular, which saw them man the ramparts at times alongside the infantry, earned them a reputation as universal soldiers that could fill any battlefield role when needed. Not surprisingly, the Husaria’s success and prestige, coupled with their noble pedigree and the fact that they were the only purely Polish (and Lithuanian) unit in the army, soon fostered a regimental culture and tradition markedly different from any other unit in the Commonwealth or indeed in Europe.

Sieges were more common than field battles and until the beginning of the eighteenth century the capture of enemy strongholds was considered a more important campaign objective than attriting or destroying enemy field armies. Until the mid-17th century, when some Baltic coast cities were refortified with trace italienne works, most for tresses were old curtain-wall stone fortresses and not very large (with the exceptions of Ivangorod and Smolensk), or, as in Muscovy and Lithuania, palisade or ostrog-style wooden fortresses with high towers. One would suppose both types to be more vulnerable to bombardment than the trace italienne, except that the heavy rains and early freezing of the ground made it difficult to dig trenches to bring siege guns close enough to the wall. Guns were more often moved and positioned behind shifting gabion lines than through trench approaches and behind fortified redoubts. 2 Rain and frost also complicated mining. Gunnery skills before the mid-seventeenth century appear to have been low; there may have been gunners of good eye who knew from experience or intuition how to point a piece, but there was little evidence that knowledge of the principles of scientific gunnery had spread far into Eastern Europe. Although the Muscovites followed the Ottoman practice of acquiring great numbers of heavy bombard-style guns (Russ. stenobitnye pushki, Turk. balyemez), these do not seem to have guaranteed success in besieging enemy castles and fortresses, so that the Muscovites were usually forced to fall back on lobbing incendiary shot over the fortress walls to start fires within and then taking the walls by storm assault.

A spectacular and decisive example of betrayal by mercenaries switching sides in mid-battle occurred at Klushino in 1610 when Vasilii Shuiskii was betrayed by De la Gardie’s Swedes, whose pay was in arrears. This threw open the road to Moscow to the Poles.

By the time the commonwealth was giving Charles IX cause to question his invasion of Livonia, things were starting to fall apart on the eastern frontier once again. Ivan the Terrible may have been a nightmare in life, but in death he was a catastrophe, a fact that Muscovy’s long border with the commonwealth turned into yet another war.

Ivan IV, in one of his many fits of pique, allegedly struck his eldest son with a staff during a fierce argument, killing him. Whatever the true cause of Ivan Ivanovitch’s death, it left the tsar’s half-witted son as the only heir. Fedor I took the throne in 1584, ushering in a period of utter chaos that came to be known as the Time of Troubles.

The sickly Fedor carried on with the help of his chief minister, Boris Godunov, who was proclaimed tsar upon Fedor’s death in 1598. But without unimpeachable legitimacy, and facing a state that had been in decline since the Livonian War, Godunov struggled against resistance to his rule. Ironically, his greatest threat came from a corpse: a series of three pretenders claiming to be Dmitry, a son of Ivan the Terrible who had supposedly died in 1591, bedeviled the stability of Muscovy.

When Godunov died in 1605, he had failed to defeat the “first Dmitry,” whose followers placed him on the throne and then murdered him in 1606 for marrying a Pole and filling the capital with unsavory foreign influences. Vasilii Shuiskii, a boyar, or Russian aristocrat, was elevated to tsar, his first order of business being the destruction of no less than two other Dmitrys and their enthusiastic followers. Bedlam reigned in Muscovy.

From Sigismund III’s perspective, the situation was delicate. The commonwealth was already at war with Sweden, after all. But the troubles in Moscow were drawing in Poles and Lithuanians who had devoted themselves to one or another of the Dmitrys and who now, thanks to increasing Russian consternation and xenophobia, were being killed in the chaos. The first Dmitry had been a Catholic and therefore was seen by Orthodox Russians as an interloper backed by Poland, a largely Catholic nation. Matters in Muscovy were taking an ugly sectarian direction.

Driven by this, as well as the signing of a new Russo-Swedish alliance, Sigismund opted for war against Muscovy in 1609. Chief on his list of priorities was Smolensk, the mighty fortress near Muscovy’s border with Lithuania, the conquest of which would place the commonwealth in an ideal bargaining position. He began siege operations against it in 1609, the year before his hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski won his spectacular victory at Klushino against enormous odds. Matters took a decisive turn when a group of boyars in Moscow, having defeated Vasilii Shuiskii, elected Sigismund’s son Wladyslaw as tsar.

Smolensk, along with Danzig, Poland’s largest city, was one of the most heavily fortified places in Europe. Between 1595 and 1602, the Russians had undertaken the modernization of the city’s defenses, embarking on one of the grandest construction projects in European history. The result was a stronghold that Sigismund, with 22,000 men and some thirty heavy guns, could not take in less than two years.

But take it he did, opening all Muscovy to invasion. In one of the most notorious chapters of Russian history, a garrison of Poles occupied Moscow until 1612. Although they were ultimately starved into submission by an angry populace, the event served as the high-water mark of Poland’s interminable fight against Muscovy.

The Battle of Klushino, part of the Polish-Muscovite War of 1609–1619, served to highlight the strengths of Polish-Lithuanian tactics. But as dramatic as Zolkiewski’s victory was, it could do little to help shape events in a decisive manner in this part of the world where war had become endemic.

This was a part of the world where perpetual war was all but unavoidable. To begin with, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created to ensure the safety of its citizens in a volatile region, lay near the epicenter of a four-way grudge match for control of the Baltic world. Moreover, dynastic complexities and the rivalries they invariably sparked locked the commonwealth in power struggles that paid little heed to borders. Religion, an inflammatory issue in Early Modern Europe, also played a role in fueling conflict, as predominantly Catholic Poland found itself surrounded by Orthodox and Protestant powers.

Then there was the nature of Eastern Europe itself, a vast, sparsely populated region that dissipated the best efforts of invaders, ensuring that wars rarely, if ever, ended decisively. Finally, there was Muscovy—the tsars of which proved most dangerous of all to Poland for their unyielding desire to gain access to the Baltic and command the vast, almost fluid, frontier that separated the two countries. Its control ensured the upper hand in this tumultuous part of the world.

Cavalry played an important role in battle and campaigning. The Poles won cavalry victories over the Swedes at Kokenhausen (23 June 1601), Reval (June 1602), Kirchholm (27 September 1605) and, over a much larger Russo-Swedish army, at Klushino (4 July 1610), although at Klushino the firepower of the Polish infantry and artillery also played a major role. At Kirchholm and Klushino, the mobility and power of the Polish cavalry, which attacked in waves and relied on shock charges, nullified its opponent’s numerical superiority and the Poles were able to destroy the Swedish cavalry before turning on their infantry. Exposed once the cavalry had been driven off, the Swedish infantry suffered heavily. At Kircholm, they lost over 70 per cent of their strength. This was a powerful reminder of the need to avoid an account of European military development solely in terms of improvements in infantry firepower. Similarly, on 8 July 1659 at Konotop, Russian cavalry were heavily defeated by steppe cavalry: the Crimean Tatars allied with Hetman Vyhovsky of the Ukraine and the Cossacks. The Russians lost largely due to poor reconnaissance and generalship: they let their main corps get lured into a swamp.

Polish cavalry tactics influenced those further west, not least thanks to commanders such as Pappenheim who had served in Poland. Aside from providing a warning about the customary emphasis on infantry, these battles also suggested that the novel military techniques that are held up for particular praise, were of only limited value. At Klushino, the Swedish force was largely composed of mercenaries familiar with conflict in Western Europe, while one of the commanders, Jakob de la Gardie, had served under Maurice of Nassau.

The Battle

The ability of Polish-Lithuanian troops to defeat western troops, when Zolkiewski led a small army of 5,556 hussars, 679 cossack horse, 290 petyhorcy (the Lithuanian equivalent), 200 infantry and two small field guns to victory at Klushino on 4 July 1610 against a combined Muscovite-Swedish army with a massive numerical advantage. Żółkiewski took his small army on a forced march at dead of night through difficult forested terrain to arrive just before dawn at the Muscovite-Swedish encampment. The Muscovites, led by Vasilii Shuiskii, numbered some 30,000 if the numerous peasant auxiliaries are included; of this, perhaps 16,000 were strel’tsy, pomest’e cavalry and mounted arquebusiers. The Swedes, led by Christoph Horn and Jakob de la Gardie, who had spent two years in Holland learning the art of war from Maurice of Nassau himself, were largely composed of French, German and British mercenaries, some 5–7,000 in all: on their own they possibly outnumbered the Poles Żółkiewski enjoyed the advantage of surprise, but his plan of an immediate attack on the two enemy camps before they awoke was thwarted. As the Poles emerged from the forest, they had to negotiate a palisade and a small village before reaching the enemy camps. At first light, as Żółkiewski’s men smashed gaps in the palisade and set fire to the village, the Muscovites and Swedes began to deploy. The battle which followed was a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness and endurance of the Polish cavalry. Żółkiewski directed his first assault against the Muscovite horse on his right. With no possibility of a flanking attack, he sent Zborowski’s hussar regiment, no more than 2,000–strong, in a direct attack on the hordes of Muscovite horse. Samuel Maskiewicz, who took part, described how:

The panic-stricken enemy … began to stream out of their encampments in disorder; … the Germans were first to form up, standing in their usual fieldworks, on boggy ground by the palisade. They did us some damage, by the numbers of their infantry armed with pikes and muskets. The Muscovite, not trusting himself, stationed reiters amidst his formation, and drew up the common folk, a numberless horde so great that it was terrifying to observe, considering the small number of our army.

Some units charged into the mass of Muscovite horse eight or ten times:

for already our arms and armour were damaged and our strength ebbing from such frequent regrouping and charges against the enemy … our horses were almost fainting on the battlefield, for we fought from the dawn of a summer’s day until dinner-time, at least five hours without rest– we could only trust in the mercy of God, in luck and in the strength of our arms.

The hussars were seriously hampered by the palisade, which had only been partially demolished: the gaps were only large enough for ten horses to pass through in close order; this prevented them attacking in their usual extended formation and the steady fire of the foreign infantry, protected by the palisade, was causing heavy casualties. The Muscovite horse, however, was beginning to crack. Vasilii Shuiskii asked de la Gardie to support it with his cavalry. As the reiters advanced, however, the hussars exposed the caracole as a useless parade-ground manoeuvre:

they handed us the victory, for as they came at us, we were in some disorder, and immediately, having fired their carbines, they wheeled away to the rear in their normal fashion to reload, and the next rank advanced firing. We did not wait, but at the moment all had emptied their pieces, and seeing that they were starting to withdraw, we charged them with only our sabres in our hands; they, having failed to reload, while the next rank had not yet fired, took to their heels. We crashed into the whole Muscovite force, still drawn up in battle-order at the entrance to their camp, plunging them into disorder.

As the Muscovite cavalry fled, Żółkiewski turned on the Swedes. His hussars, many of whose lances were shattered, had little chance of defeating the ‘Germans’ unsupported. At this point, however, Żółkiewski’s small force of infantry and the two guns, which had become bogged down in the forest, arrived to rescue the situation. As the infantry and the cannon shot gaps in the palisade and inflicted casualties on the foreigners, Żółkiewski sent in Jüdrzej Firlej’s company, whose lances were still intact, against ‘the whole foreign infantry … standing in battle-order, protected by stakes, beside their camp … Firlej broke this infantry, having attacked it with courage. We … supported him; … having broken our lances, we could only join the attack with our sabres in our hands.’ As the rest of the foreign cavalry was driven from the field, accompanied by de la Gardie and Horn, the infantry took refuge in their camp. Abandoned by their commanders and by the Muscovites, individuals and groups began to slip over to the Poles. By the time Horn and de la Gardie returned to the battlefield, it was too late; they were forced to negotiate an honourable surrender. Many of the foreign mercenaries entered Polish service; de la Gardie led the Swedes and Finns to Novgorod.

Russian historians have frequently explained the outcome of Klushino as the result of foreign treachery. This is a travesty of what happened. Polish and foreign accounts agree that it was the Muscovite horse which left the battlefield first, and it was the foreigners who felt abandoned. If Klushino demonstrated anything, apart from the inadequacy of the pomest’e cavalry, it was that western methods were no magic elixir. Foreign mercenaries had been involved in Muscovy from the start of the Time of Troubles. De la Gardie had instructed Muscovite troops in western methods, especially pike tactics, and there were native Muscovite units of mounted western-style arquebusiers, officered by foreigners, at Klushino. Yet if western-style tactics certainly improved the defensive capacity of the Muscovite infantry, they could not win the war. For that, cavalry was still the decisive arm in eastern Europe. Pike and shot alone could not produce a military revolution in the east.



POSITIONS AT KRONSTADT, 1855 A major British fleet was sent to the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War, but the outclassed Russians, based at Kronstadt off St Petersburg, refused to engage in battle. As a result, the British were able to engage coastal targets, notably Sveaborg, the fort that guarded the approach to Helsinki, although not to inflict decisive damage. The Russians mobilized large number of steam-powered gunboats with heavy pivot guns to defend Kronstadt. It was to be attacked by British naval aircraft during the Russian Civil War. The map shows the positions at Kronstadt on 1 June 1855.

The blockade of all the Russian ports in the Gulfs of Livonia, Finland and Bothnia had been formally effected by Sir Charles Napier before the French arrived and was officially notified in the London Gazette on 16 June. Napier had delayed his advance up the Gulf of Finland partly to await the arrival of the French contingent and partly because of major difficulties placed in his way – not the least of which were the dense fogs lasting days on end and the Russian removal of the channel buoys, beacons and lights which had served as landmarks along dangerous coastlines.

With the French acting in concert, Napier took up a position in Baro Sound just within the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, about 12 miles from Sveaborg and 15 from Reval. By the end of June there was a combined fleet of no less than 51 warships, comprising 28 ships-of-the-line, 5 first-class frigates and 18 steamers anchored in the sound; such a fleet, carrying about 2,700 large-calibre guns and 30,000 seamen and marines, had never been seen in the Baltic.

Apart from a ‘simple’ blockade of the outlets of the Baltic north of Denmark, to cripple Russia’s import and export trade and to prevent the Russian Baltic Fleet from operating against the British and French coasts, there were several obvious targets for Anglo-French naval attacks – if the right forces had been available. Any number of towns, ports and coastal fortifications could have been hit – Viborg, Abo, Pernau, Nystad and others were open to attack and some indeed were ‘visited’ in 1854 and 1855. But the main focuses of serious operations were easily identified – Reval, Sveaborg, Kronstadt and Bomarsund. Reval on the coast of what was then Courland and Sveaborg (once known as ‘the Gibraltar of the north’) both served as ‘flank defences’ to the approaches to Kronstadt and were home to ships of the Russian Baltic Fleet. There were hopes that they could be ‘neutralised’ by direct attack and no doubt public opinion in Britain expected news of an early assault on at least some of these enemy bases. In fact, three major targets, Reval, Sveaborg and Kronstadt, though frequently reconnoitred and ‘watched’, were protected by such formidable defences that Napier in the end simply could not contemplate a serious attack on any one of them with the fleet under his command, lacking the sort of mortar and gunboats he would need for coastal operations and almost entirely without adequate military force to follow up any successful naval attack.

Nevertheless, some major action had at least to be considered. During the last week in June the allied commanders decided on an advance in strength into the Gulf of Finland towards Kronstadt. A massively fortified island that constituted the main defence of St Petersburg and its approaches, Kronstadt was the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet. This famous stronghold – island, town, harbour and fortress – lies in the Bay of Constadt, 31 miles from St Petersburg and was surrounded by a series of heavily fortified outcrops and islets apart from those defences actually sited on the island itself. Kronstadt was not only the main station of the Baltic Fleet but was also the outer harbour of St Petersburg and all vessels en route to the capital were searched here, their cargoes sealed and trans-shipment made to vessels intending to ascend the Neva. Kronstadt had three harbours – an outer one for warships, an inner one for merchant shipping and a large dockyard for fitting and repairing vessels. The town looked more like a military depot and arsenal than a commercial port, dominated by buildings and fortifications belonging to the Imperial navy. A range of fortresses, such as Fort Alexander and Fort Constantine, dominated the southern side of the island, whilst the northern side was equally defended by forts and redoubts, in addition to six or seven batteries on the mole. These works were begun by Peter the Great but had been constantly added to and strengthened over succeeding generations. Not only were the town and harbour defended by massive granite batteries, but every islet and passage was equally covered so that any enemy vessel attempting to sail up to St Petersburg from the north or south of the island would have to pass within range of at least two arrays of batteries. Furthermore, the 6 miles between the island and the mainland were so broken up by inlets, shoals and mud banks that the navigable channels were narrow and any approach difficult. The Russians had converted some of the small islets into strong gun positions and had even built forts on piles driven into the mud, defending the approaches from all directions. It was believed that up to 1,500 large-calibre guns, besides those carried on the Russian fleet, protected the island ands its seaways.

When the fleet was within 10 miles of the island, three small paddle-frigates, Lightning, Bulldog and Magicienne, were sent ahead to sound and reconnoitre more closely, and especially to search for any mines (‘infernal machines’) or submarine explosives, which reports (correctly) claimed the Russians had planted in the approaches. Following at a short distance to offer protection were three larger warships, Imperieuse, Arrogant and Desperate. No ‘infernal machines’ were encountered on this occasion but the reconnoitring vessels approached Kronstadt near enough to see its formidable array of granite batteries and pick out the large fleet sheltered within the harbour. The Baltic Fleet’s Surveying Officer, Captain Bartholomew James Sulivan in the lightly armed survey vessel Lightning, had orders from the hydrographer Sir Francis Beaufort ‘to assist with the important operations of the Baltic Fleet by making such skilful and rapid reconnaissance as well as by occasional hydrographic surveys wherever it may be considered necessary’, and – interestingly – to make everything ‘more or less subservient to the great object of improving our charts’. He reported that Kronstadt was too well protected to risk attacking without, as Sulivan said, the use of a significant number of mortar vessels, which Napier’s fleet did not possess. He counted no less than 17 ‘sail-of- the-line’ warships ‘moored outside the basin’, with 3 smaller vessels and 6 steamers nearby and a host of other armed ships around the island.

Although the main element of the Russian fleet within the harbour caused no problems and made no attempt to sally out and offer battle, it was simply not possible for allied ships to approach near enough to carry out a thorough examination, let alone actually try to force a passage. Napier and his subordinates rapidly agreed that to take on Kronstadt or attempt to bypass its defences was quite beyond their powers – no matter what uninformed opinion in the British press might claim, already growing critical of the lack of a major victory. Admiral Napier, as the man on the spot and responsible to the nation for the safety of his fleet, wisely declined to take on Kronstadt and the Admiralty concurred in his decision.

After an examination of the area the allied fleet returned to Baro Sound early in July 1854, remaining at anchor for some days whilst the commanders discussed the probabilities for and against the success of any great enterprise. Whilst they worried over the possibility of attacks against major targets like Kronstadt or Sveaborg, detached squadrons continued to carry out the rest of Napier’s brief in the Gulfs of Finland, Riga and Bothnia – to ‘watch’ enemy ports in case Russian warships emerged to offer battle, to stop, search and if necessary seize enemy merchant ships breaching the blockade and, where possible, to harass enemy positions ashore.

If Kronstadt, Sveaborg and Reval were deemed to be beyond reach, attention had to fall on the capture of Bomarsund on the Åland Islands as at least a potentially achievable goal and one suggested in Napier’s original orders. In contrast to the other three Russian bases, Bomarsund, a fortress complex guarding an impressive potential harbour, was vulnerable; as it was still under construction it was likely to be incomplete and undermanned and did not have any element of the Russian fleet nearby to support its defence.

There was huge and publicly expressed disappointment in Britain that if Sveaborg and Kronstadt had proved to be too formidable, the allies could have taken or bombarded Riga or Reval or Abo. On the other hand, some commentators argued that the advantages resulting from the campaign should not be ignored. Many contended that the force placed at Napier’s disposal was both too strong and too weak – too strong to tempt the Russian fleet to emerge and risk an open engagement but too weak to capture or destroy Kronstadt or Sveaborg. During the campaign, Napier felt he was hampered by contradictions in the Admiralty’s instructions and especially by the attitude of the First Lord, Sir James Graham. In fact some of the Naval Lords seemed to react more to adverse coverage in the British press than to Napier’s assessments on the spot and relations between them deteriorated badly. Not one to mince words or submit to what he felt to be unwonted criticism, Napier sealed his professional fate by frequently adopting what was called a ‘disrespectful’ tone in some of his dispatches, which the Admiralty disliked. On his return in December 1854, ‘where disappointment was loudly expressed at the small results of the naval campaign’, he was ordered to haul down his flag, told that his command was terminated and placed on half-pay. It is noticeable that none of Napier’s flag officers of the 1854 campaign was allowed to return to the Baltic in 1855, the new fleet being given to Admiral the Hon. Richard Saunders Dundas, then the Second Sea Lord.

The Admiralty attempted to make Napier a scapegoat for what British public and press opinion perceived to be the failure of the campaign but it is interesting that although there were many who had criticised and carped at Napier’s actions, some of the leading officers of the Baltic Fleet maintained that his strategy had been wise and that the faults lay with the Admiralty themselves. In the end, though lacking any major dramatic action apart from the capture of Bomarsund, Napier had achieved something. His ships had effectively neutralised (though not destroyed) the Imperial Baltic Fleet, preventing the deployment of additional warships outside the Baltic and perhaps even to the Black Sea. He had maintained through all weathers a successful blockade which had disrupted Russian trade, fishing and supply routes and had demonstrated the allies’ ability to attack at will targets like ports, shipyards and stores and the corresponding inability of the Russians to defend their own coastlines. In addition, Russian land forces in their thousands had been held along the Baltic shores in anticipation of allied landings and were thus prevented from reinforcing the Russian Army in the Crimea or elsewhere. Also, Napier’s constant emphasis on training had welded the fleet’s personnel into a much more competent force for the coming campaign and not a single ship had been lost. One result of all this was that even Sir James Graham, who really had become Sir Charles Napier’s enemy, recognised that new types of warship were needed for the planned Baltic campaign of 1855. In October 1854, a programme of construction was put into action which would produce five new blockships and no less than twenty new gunboats. These would enable Napier’s successor, Admiral Richard Dundas, to contemplate an attack on the fortresses of the Baltic in 1855 with some hope of success.


The perceived failure of the allied expedition to the Baltic in 1854 – if indeed it was actually a failure – led to acrimony in Britain and the removal of its commander, Admiral Sir Charles Napier. But it did at least force their Lordships at the Admiralty to reconsider the aims and needs of the naval force for the campaign season of 1855. It was becoming clear that the old sailing ‘wooden walls’ and even the larger screw warships, powerful as they were, were not the right sort of vessel for the coasts and waters of the Baltic or for the operations being planned there. Attacks on harbours and strongly defended installations required a more manoeuvrable but powerfully armed fleet which could deliver overwhelming firepower against static land targets, not just enemy warships. Consideration would also have to be given to the carrying of sizeable land forces for possible operations ashore.

The Admiralty announced in February 1855 that no sailing warships of any kind would be sent to the Baltic in the new season, experience having shown that ‘the mixture of screw and sailing ships was not conducive to the interests of the service’; the new Baltic Fleet would consist only of steamers, twenty of which would be ready for service within two months. In particular, it was expected that in 1855 there would be a greater degree of planning and concerted action than seemed to be the case in 1854. A correspondent in the United Service Gazette wrote: ‘The general subject of complaint last year in the Baltic was that no plan of operation appeared to have been determined upon. From Kiel the fleet went to Kioge. They went up the Gulf of Finland and came down again – they buzzed about everywhere without fixing anywhere and they did not take Bomarsund until it was nearly time to conclude the campaign.’ The writer went on to urge attacks on the fortresses of the Baltic since ‘the most complete plans and drawings of the chief Russian fortresses are in the possession of our government’. It seems that the Emperor Napoleon III was equally anxious that some degree of proper planning should go into the new campaign – he understood that the French navy would play second fiddle to the British, but nevertheless thought that Britain’s reputation had suffered (‘terribly shaken by the nullity of our campaign in the Baltic last year’) and urged that thorough planning must be in place. Interestingly, the French reduced their Baltic contingent in 1855, perhaps in view of the strength of the British fleet and considering that their greatest efforts were needed in the Crimea.

The result in Britain at least was the creation of a new Baltic Fleet for 1855. There were to be over 100 vessels comprising only steam-powered ships, both screw and paddle, many of them smaller, faster vessels of shallower draught capable of operating in the waters of estuaries and rivers. But, in stark contrast to that which had set off so hopefully a year before, the impressive new fleet that sailed from Spithead on 4 April 1855 did so without any great show or pageantry; it left simply as a fighting force with a job to do and with no ceremony or public celebration. It was a powerful fleet:

The Baltic Fleet this year is in all respects much stronger than the last; it has more steam power, more guns, a new class of gun-boats and floating batteries, adapted for creeks and shoals and – what more than anything else marks a resolution to do something – a new commander . . . We certainly had wished that after last year’s experience we should have less of such floating castles as the Duke of Wellington and the Royal George and rather more of the gun-boats and other small craft on which we must mainly rely in our offensive operations

The ‘new commander’ was Rear Admiral Richard Saunders Dundas.



Since the total blockade maintained in 1854 was to be resumed, the 1855 campaign season began with the dispatch of an ‘advanced squadron’ under Captain Rundle Watson (in Imperieuse) on 20 March, which reached the Baltic in mid-April and formally declared a renewed blockade on the 17th. At much the same time, most of the larger warships of Dundas’ fleet were passing through the Kattegat, heading for anchorage at Kiel, where they concentrated on 13 April. Most of the fleet remained there for nearly a month, waiting for the last of the solid winter ice to recede, but Dundas finally left Kiel on 2–3 May with twenty ships, joining the advanced squadron at Gothland on the 7th. Whilst the main fleet then proceeded to Nargen Island, opposite Reval, which became Dundas’ advanced base, smaller squadrons were deployed as in 1854 to range around the Baltic – to reconnoitre Sveaborg, Riga, Kronstadt, the Åland Islands and Hängo Head, to blockade the Gulfs of Riga and Finland and the coast of Courland and to intercept enemy trading vessels. Although the fleet at Nargen was in easy reach of Reval, any thought of an attack on the town was quickly abandoned, given that its defences had been massively strengthened over the winter. The truth is that the Russians had used the winter very well, not only to strengthen or fortify many of their previously undefended smaller ports but to deploy large forces of infantry, guns and cavalry at strategic points along the Baltic shores to fend off possible allied landings. Allied landing parties were to find a much warmer reception in 1855 than they had in 1854.

The French squadron under Rear Admiral Andre Penaud joined on 1 June when Dundas was reconnoitring Russia’s great Baltic base at Kronstadt, which was clearly the most important potential target of allied efforts in 1855. Dundas had over thirty vessels off Kronstadt in June and repeated reconnaissance picked out at least twenty-eight Russian warships at anchor in the harbour. But they showed no signs of coming out to give battle and the allies, despite long discussions on the possibility and method of an attack, really saw no hope of success with a naval assault. Similarly, Dundas himself, having personally reconnoitred Kronstadt in Merlin, reached the conclusion that ‘no serious attack appears to me to be practicable with the means at my disposal’. As at Reval, Sveaborg and other Baltic ports, the tranquility of winter had allowed a significant strengthening of the port’s defences and outer approaches, which included submarine piles and the novel deployment of two sorts of underwater mines (or ‘infernal machines’) which were a largely unknown and much-feared weapon. If Kronstadt had been considered unassailable in 1854, it was equally so in 1855. A completely different sort of naval force was required even to consider the attempt – one with a mass of small gun and mortar vessels and with a significant landing force. As a result of the experiences in the Baltic in 1855 (see below), ‘The Great Armament’ of 1855–6 set out to rectify this need and eventually produced the necessary type of vessels in large numbers, but in the campaign season of 1855 they were simply not available. The case was quickly closed: however closely Kronstadt might be ‘watched’ over the rest of the season, it could not be attacked by sea in 1855.

Bombardment of Sveaborg.

At 7.00am on the 9th the bombardment began, employing the moored mortar boats, a French sandbag battery on a rocky outcrop and the gunboats. The gunboat flotilla, wheeling round in large circles to bring their few heavy guns to bear, was under the command of Commodore Hon. F.T. Pelham. The gunboats and sandbag battery fired nearly horizontally against the forts, whilst the 12-inch and 13-inch mortars fired at a high elevation, over the other ships, so that their shells, about thirty an hour, dropped into the interior of the defences or between them and Helsingfors, to destroy magazines, ships stores and buildings. The largest island and seat of the governor, East Svarto, was somewhat sheltered by Vargon but could nevertheless be hit by highangled dropping fire. Some of the larger warships cruised to the east and west, to distract the attention of troops and batteries visible on shore.

This heavy bombardment was returned with great resolution by the defenders but before long the whole line of defences was being pounded by thickly falling shells and shot and hit by falling fragments of buildings, roofs and burning timbers. Dundas recorded that about 10.00 o’clock in the forenoon, fires began to be observed in the different buildings and a heavy explosion took place on the Island of Sargon [Vargon], which was followed by a second an hour later. A third and far more important explosion occurred about noon on the Island of Gustavsvard, inflicting much damage upon the defences of the enemy and tending to greatly slacken the fire from that direction . . . [there were] continued fresh conflagrations which spread extensively on the Island of Sargon.

In the campaign season of 1854, Admiral Napier had on several occasions considered an attack on Sveaborg (and perhaps on Helsingfors) and had the islands reconnoitred and ‘watched’. But, to the consternation of many of his younger subordinates, he refused to be drawn into what he regarded as a futile attack; he did not believe his firepower great enough to reduce the forts, he did not have mortar or gun vessels that could do serious damage and he had no land forces to operate ashore if the forts fell. His brief from Sir James Graham at the Admiralty was, after all, very clear – he was not to endanger his fleet on desperate enterprises against fixed defences. In the campaign season of 1855, the situation was somewhat different. Since the Admiralty had at least learned something from the omissions of 1854, the new Baltic Fleet under Admiral Dundas was better equipped to take on some of the fortifications that had been beyond Napier’s capacity in 1854. In particular, he had powerful gunboats and a number of mortar vessels capable of heavy bombardment with some hope of doing damage. The allied attack on Sveaborg in 1855 was to be the largest purely naval operation in the Baltic but the allied fleet did not, however, carry anything in the form of significant land forces to serve ashore, so any attack could never be more than a demonstration of allied naval might. It could do whatever damage it liked at long range, but it could not seize or permanently hold the forts or operate on shore from them. The Russians, for their part, clearly believed that although no attack on Sveaborg had been made in 1854, there was every likelihood that a new, more powerful fleet would make an attempt in 1855.

Leaving Admiral Sir Robert Baynes with a squadron to blockade Kronstadt, Admiral Dundas assembled at Nargen a fleet of 22 steamers, 16 gunboats and 16 mortar vessels, carrying an armament of the largest ordnance used in naval warfare up to that time. They were joined by a French contingent under Rear Admiral Penaud in Tourville. Once extra supplies of ammunition had been received from England, the admirals agreed their plans and steamed from Nargen for Sveaborg, where they brought their vessels into battle array on 8 August. In his dispatches Dundas stated that by erecting batteries on every advantageous position (including the shore around Helsingfors, which was heavily defended) the Russians had so commanded all the approaches to the harbour that he abandoned any intention of making a general attack, limiting his operations to a naval bombardment of the islands and the destruction of any fortresses and arsenals that could be reached by mortar shells and gunfire. The plan for the bombardment was largely adopted from that written in 1854 by Captain B.J. Sulivan of Lightning; he now commanded the larger Merlin but in the event was not allowed to exercise overall command of the attack and was in fact angered by suggested changes to his plan. It was difficult to find suitable positions for the long line of 16 British and 5 French mortar vessels amid the rocks and islets, but ultimately these boats, towed to into position by steamers, were ranged in a curved line facing the island defences at a range of 3,300 yards and 4 lighter mortars were placed on the islet of Otterhall. The larger warships – Magicienne, Vulture, Euryalus and Dragon – were 400 yards behind them ranged in line. Operating in front of all of these, closer to the actual defences at a range of about 2,500 yards, were the French and British gunboats. The rest of the allied fleet lay at anchor further to the rear of the battle lines between the islets of Skogsholm and Skogskar.

As night arrived, the gunboats withdrew and the fleet’s smaller boats, armed with rockets, took over, firing into the forts throughout the night so that the interior of Sveaborg’s defences was engulfed in a spectacular sheet of flame, filling the air with masses of smoke. Early in the morning of 10 August, some adjustments having been made in the line of mortar boats, the full-scale bombardment recommenced. Once again, columns of smoke and flashes of flame lit up the sky and the depots on East Svarto were soon seen to be in flames. Again, the firing continued all day so that, as Admiral Penaud recorded in his dispatch to the French government, Sveaborg looked like ‘a vast fiery furnace’ so numerous were the fires and explosions of magazines, storehouses, barracks and other buildings. As before, the attack was continued through the night by rocket boats. It was clear by dawn the next day that just about everything – short of a landing and occupation – that could be achieved by naval firepower had been done.

In Helsingfors, the local population, many of whom had crowded onto high points to watch the action, now prepared to flee the city, certain that an allied landing would follow. But as the ships could not penetrate further into the intricate channels between the islands, the allies brought operations to a close and no further action ensued. The attack had used, it was estimated, over 100 tons of gunpowder and 5,000 tons of iron shot and shell in 48 hours. Nevertheless, the actual seaward defences of the forts and batteries seemed comparatively undamaged and the admirals could only point to the destruction of property within the interior as proof of the success of their operations. Considering that the mortars and guns fired at an average distance of more than 2 miles from their targets, it was no great surprise that the stone forts were so little damaged.

One unusual feature of this action was that the larger ships were virtually spectators, since the admirals did not want to risk them in close action; their crews, agog with excitement at the sight of the burning forts, could only envy those in the mortar boats and gunboats and could do nothing but run up the rigging to get a view and shout and cheer whenever a good shot from the gunboats struck the forts or a shell from the mortar boats burst within the defences. Some of the larger ships – the Cornwallis, Hastings, Amphion, Arrogant, Cossack and Cruiser – did manage to put some shots into the forts, especially one at Sandhamn, 6 miles from the main action but the smaller boats did most of the work. The bombardment of Sveaborg was yet another example of the value of heavily armed, lighter-draught, manoeuvrable ships rather than the old line-of-battle heavyweights.

When the great effect of the gun and mortar boats was made public in England, Sir Charles Napier wrote to the newspapers, demanding as an act of justice that his operations in 1854 should be judged in the light of the action of 1855: this seemed no more than fair, seeing that he had neither gunboats nor mortar boats and could not have done what Dundas was able to do. The letter he had written to the Admiralty on the 12 June 1854 – over a year before Dundas’ attack – is worthy of notice:

The only successful manner of attacking Sveaborg that I can see . . . is by fitting out a great number of gun-boats carrying one gun with a long range, and placing them west of Sveaborg and south of Helsingfors; every shell from them would tell somewhere, and perhaps not five per cent. from the enemy would take effect; back them by the fleet to relieve the men, and in the course of the summer Sveaborg would be reduced to ashes, and Helsingfors also, if it was thought proper.

A French report, printed in the Moniteur, stated that during the 2 days’ bombardment of Sveaborg, the allied fleet destroyed 2 powder magazines, 2 shell magazines, a flax and rope storehouse, 2 granaries filled with corn and flour, a pitch manufactory, a medicine store, the house and office of the governor general and 17 private houses. Besides this, a 3-decker and 18 other Russian vessels were more or less damaged by shot and shell, whilst 2,000 Russians were killed or wounded. Not surprisingly, the Russian papers produced rather different statistics and their accounts of the damage, related in various European newspapers and in official Russian reports, naturally varied enormously; some reported immense damage and loss of life, whilst others belittled the ‘insignificant’ damage and long-term effects of the allied action and claimed serious loss in the enemy fleet. One dispatch, published in the Invalide Russe, claimed that the allied fleet numbered no less than 80 vessels of various kinds and that their marines had been prevented from landing on the island of Drumso; that the excellent fire of the defenders’ artillery caused great damage and loss to the gunboats that came within range; that 1 battery sent such a volley against 2 screw steamers, as to compel them to retreat, 1 towing the other; that although the fire of the allies was tremendous, resulting from 21,000 projectiles thrown during 2 days, and although many conflagrations and explosions occurred, the damage done to the main fortresses and to the batteries in general was insignificant and, finally, that the loss of men was by no means severe, comprising 65 killed and 201 wounded. In the end, it has to be assumed that no accurate picture of the damage done or casualties sustained by the defenders could really be established.

Remarkably – and again largely because of the range – there was little damage to the allied vessels and few casualties. The gunboats had steamed round slowly in a wide circle, firing first their bow gun, then their midship gun and reloading both whilst completing the rest of their circuit; the Russian gunners simply could not take accurate aim at such continually moving targets and hardly a ship was hit. The mortar vessels, which were moored and thus more or less stationary, suffered rather more damage but much of this was simply from the sheer rate of their own fire which severely damaged the new mortars; several burst36 after firing literally dozens of rounds and many others were temporarily put out of use by overheating or the risk of fracture. But remarkably not a single sailor was killed throughout the allied fleet during two days of continuous firing, though several suffered minor wounds and burns or injury from the premature bursting of rockets.

The flotilla of steam gunboats, nicknamed the ‘Mosquito Squadron’, really did demonstrate its power and worth here for the first time in a significant action. The result was spectacular. The Admiralty became so convinced that these small, light boats represented the future of naval operations against fixed land targets that they immediately embarked on the mass construction of gun and mortar vessels. In a radical building programme over the winter of 1855 – really nothing less a than the rapid construction of a massive new fleet in what became known as ‘The Great Armament’ – over 200 new gunboats, 11 armoured floating batteries and 100 mortar vessels and rafts were laid down to be ready for use in 1856. A huge strain was placed on Thames-side construction yards (for example, at Blackwall where many of the Dapper class were laid down), so that on the whole private tenders were taken for the basic building of the ships whilst the official or royal dockyards were employed for finishing – equipping them with engines and armament. New steam battleships were also prepared (for example, Conqueror). The ultimate target of all this activity would no doubt have been the mighty defences of Kronstadt itself, but as the war ended before the new fleets could be deployed in 1856, they were never tested. Only a ‘flying squadron’ of steam frigates and two new battleships, Caesar and Majestic, reached the Baltic for what would have been the campaign season of 1856. In fact, the end of the Russian war saw a rapid return to pre-war Anglo-French tensions and naval rivalry which required, from Britain’s point of view, the construction of larger steam battleships and frigates, rather than a host of small gunboats.

The Allies Take Tunisia

The desert pendulum had at last stuck, pointing west. There were now only two more battles for 8th Army to fight, and by this time the Allied air forces were so strong–during March an average of more than 700 sorties were flown every day– that the Luftwaffe was unable seriously to challenge them for mastery of the air. Allied superiority was not confined to one particular sphere of operations. It was all-embracing. Attacks on Axis aircraft on the ground, in the air, neutralizing airfields, sinking convoys at sea, to say nothing of the support given to the advancing Armies. ‘Never before,’ said de Guingand, ‘had our Desert Air Force given us such superb, such gallant, and such intimate support.’ The Axis command was compelled to admit that they could put up no effective fight against such relentless concentrations.

While 8th Army was battling its way through the Mareth Line, Patton’s II US Corps was not idle. Indeed they greatly helped Montgomery by drawing 10th Panzer Division away from Mareth. By 17 March II Corps had occupied Gafsa. Patton’s unconventional and flamboyant methods were recalled by Alan Moorehead. When he first saw Patton he noted the weather-beaten face, the pearl-handled revolver and the remark he made to his ADC–‘Go down that track until you get blown up, and then come back and report.’ In fact the Germans had already evacuated Gafsa, and the Americans simply motored into it. El Guettar, 15 miles further east, was entered next day, and Maknassy on 22 March. A week later Alexander directed II Corps to drive forward to the Gabes road, a mission well suited to Patton’s thrusting spirit. He in turn gave the job to the 1st us Armoured Division. The United States Official History shows how the Americans were to learn, as the British had before them, that armoured strength, however courageously pressed forward, could not prevail in the face of a properly organized anti-tank defence.

The task was given to Benson Force which contained two tank battalions, a reconnaissance unit, two artillery battalions, some engineers, two infantry battalions and a tank destroyer unit. The attack began on 30 March, but did not get far. It was a familiar story. The German artillery and anti-tank weapons, well sited, mobile and used in conjunction with minefields, were just too strong. By day the leading American tanks were knocked out, and the only way to get on was to clear lanes through the mines with infantry at night

Even Patton was reluctant to order tanks to advance against such successful and expensive enemy tactics, although he toyed with the idea of sacrificing a complete tank company to blast a hole in the defences. Instead he instructed Benson to wait for air support and coordinate his attacks accordingly. In fact Benson made slow, costly progress in a series of tank-infantry actions, but the fact was that in ground so totally unsuitable for decisive fire and movement, sheer weight of artillery and numbers of tanks could not do the trick. Such skilled and determined resistance imposed on the Americans a bit by bit advance. There was no question of grand armoured exploitation.

The fact that Patton’s Corps did not make much progress was less important than the threat which they offered to the right flank of General Messe’s 1st Panzer Army, a threat which brought about the move of 21st Panzer Division to reinforce 10th Panzer Division opposite Patton, and so lighten the defensive capacity of Wadi Akarit, which Montgomery now had to overcome. The dividend of Alexander’s ability to ring the changes, thrust right-handed, left-handed or both-handed as he chose, was about to be reaped.

8th Army closed up to the Wadi Akarit position on 29 March. Montgomery decided on yet another set-piece attack by 30th Corps with 10th Corps held ready to dash forward once the last natural obstacle to his breaking into the Tunisian coastal plain had been removed. His proposal to attack on the night 4–5 April fitted well with Alexander’s plans for getting hold of the Gabes gap. Alexander intended first that Montgomery should be assisted once more by pressure from US II Corps, and then to use his main reserve, 9th Corps, to capture the Fondouk gap and get behind von Arnim’s southern corps. As might have been expected at a time when things were going badly for them, Axis counsels were divided. Kesselring wanted to hold Akarit as the last defence line in the south, and beat off any threat to the area east of Maknassy-El Guettar with armoured counter-attacks. Mussolini, on the other hand, had already authorized withdrawal to Endfidaville. Von Arnim meanwhile declared that without the fuel and ammunition, which, like Rommel before him, he so urgently needed–on 1 April he mentioned 8,000 and 10,000 tons for these two commodities as being essential requirements by German forces alone–defeat was unavoidable. He even admitted to ‘squinting over his shoulder for ships’. Like Rommel he had to make do with promises. Nevertheless the Akarit position was held, and strongly. In addition to two Panzer Grenadier Regiments, 90th and 164th Light Divisions were in the line together with four Italian divisions. 15th Panzer Division was in reserve.

The ground was mountainous, and once again it was necessary to blast a hole through the defences. Manoeuvre by itself would not do the trick. Here in these mountains was to be seen yet another change in the conduct of a battle. Montgomery’s History of Warfare contains a curiously relevant passage in which he discusses Greek tactical ideas in relation to mountainous country. He condemns the battles as mere slogging matches in which fire and movement played no part. There was no opportunity for manoeuvre, no master planning, no skilful generalship. This is not inapposite when we examine what happened at Wadi Akarit, except, of course, that there was, as customary in a Montgomery battle, plenty of fire–450 guns’ worth–and that at the lower level, notably General Tuker’s with his famous 4th Indian Division, generalship was sound. Tuker did not like Leese’s Corps plan, which was to go for and seize Roumana, and pointed out that Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa, being the key to the whole position, must be taken first. Furthermore, since the enemy was weak in infantry, the very thing needed to hold these mountainous features, whereas 8th Army was strong, and his own 4th Indian Division peculiarly suited by temperament and training to mountain fighting, Tuker guaranteed that he would take Fatnassa. 50th and 51st Divisions could then capture Roumana and the positions between Roumana and Fatnassa. All this was good advice. It was adopted, and as things turned out the decision to attack Fatnassa first, then the other objectives, with three divisions at night with no moon and as early as 5–6 April surprised the enemy. Montgomery’s signal to Churchill of 6 April contained this sentence: ‘I did two things not done by me before, in that I attacked centre of enemy position, and in the dark with no moon.’ The Nelsonian ace of using his subordinates’ ideas was up Montgomery’s sleeve too, and much of the credit both for the concept of this attack and its execution must go to Tuker and his magnificent Division.

1/2 Gurkhas were in the van of 7th Brigade and almost at once struck into the Italians of Pistoia Division. In helping to open the door which led to Axis defeat, Subedar Lalbadur won the Victoria Cross:

The dense darkness of that boulder-studded ravine hid a great feat of arms. Under command of Subedar Lalbadur Thapa, two sections of Gurkhas had moved forward to secure the only pathway which led over the escarpment at the upper end of the rocky chimney. This trail reached the top of the hill through a narrow cleft thickly studded with enemy posts. Anti-tank guns and machine guns covered every foot of the way, while across the canyon, where the cliffs rose steeply for some 200 feet, the crests were swarming with automatic gunners and mortar teams. Subedar Lalbadur Thapa reached the first enemy sangar without challenge. His section cut down its garrison with the kukri. Immediately every post along the twisted pathway opened fire. Without pause the intrepid Subedar, with no room to manoeuvre, dashed forward at the head of his men through a sheet of machine gun fire, grenades and mortar bombs. He leapt inside a machine gun nest and killed four gunners single-handed, two with knife and two with pistol. Man after man of his sections were stricken until only two were left. Rushing on, he clambered up the last few yards of the defile through which the pathway snaked over the crest of the escarpment. He flung himself single-handed on the garrison of the last sangar covering the pathway, striking two enemy dead with his kukri. This terrible foe was too much; the remainder of the detachment fled with wild screams for safety. The chimney between the escarpments was open, and with it the corridor through which 5th Brigade might pass. It is scarcely too much to say that the battle of Wadi Akarit had been won single-handed several hours before the formal attacks began.

By 0830 on the morning of 6 April most of Fatnassa was in the hands of 4th Indian Division. On their right 51st Highland Division’s attack had also gone according to plan, and Roumana was captured. 50th Division’s progress had been slower, but even so Horrocks, commanding 10th Corps, was sufficiently satisfied that a big enough hole had been made by 30th Corps for his own to pass through. He asked Montgomery for permission to do so, permission that was granted, yet it did not happen, at least not in time to finish off 1st Panzer Army at Wadi Akarit. Once again they were allowed to get away. German skill in plugging gaps with tanks and anti-tank guns obliged 10th Corps to pause, and as so often before the Axis commander authorized withdrawal just at the time when 8th Army issued orders for continuing the advance. It was a story often repeated during 8th Army’s successful exit from Alamein. Time after time the door seemed to have been pushed open by one formation for another, and equally time after time they somehow or other did not manage to get through it. There were three explanations possible for such failure. Either the door had not been properly opened, or the exploiting units were not sufficiently pushing, or the problem of dealing with the enemy’s rapidly thrown together anti-tank screen, well beyond the door, unsuspected, unanticipated and thus unplanned for, simply had not been tackled, still less solved. Of the three, the last is most likely to hold water. This omission reflected two weaknesses in the higher echelons of command–inability either to cope rapidly with the unexpected or to call for their almost overwhelming close air support at the critical moment which arbitrated between partial and complete success.

Yet Wadi Akarit had once more taken heavy toll of the Axis forces. Messe had withdrawn them back to Enfidaville, but in admitting to serious losses gave his view that it had not been una bella battaglia. From 8th Army’s position in the ring, it might have been a good battle; the three divisions of 30th Corps had all fought well. But of them all it was the Indians’ exploits in the mountains which rang loudest through the world. Even Tuker, who knew his men so thoroughly, marveled at their skill and courage. Good battle though it was, however, it was another win on points. The knock-out eluded them still.

But the ring was tightening. It was Army Group Africa which was at bay now. 1st and 8th Armies had linked up near Gafsa on 7 April and again near Kairouan four days later. Their operations became even more closely reciprocal, and with the Axis forces thus besieged, one of the questions facing Alexander was with which hand the final blow should be delivered. Montgomery understandably enough wanted his own Army to be the one, and as he closed up to Enfidaville on 11 April, he sent a signal to Alexander asking for another armoured division so that he would be strong enough to direct the next main operation. He requested that 6th Armoured Division be put under his command at once. Alexander thought differently. He wished to make use of the easier country in front of 1st Army and go for Tunis from the west. By this means he hoped to cut the Axis forces in half, drive some of them to the south to be further mauled by 8th Army, and allow the remainder to be mopped up in the north. His reply to Montgomery, therefore, far from giving 8th Army another division, took one away, 1st Armoured Division was to reinforce 9th Corps for part of the main effort by 1st Army, while 8th Army exerted maximum pressure to help. Alexander’s directive of 16 April laid down that offensive operations to destroy or take all enemy forces in Tunisia would now get under way, and that the pressure would be such that together with naval and air forces, no enemy would be able to withdraw by air or sea.

Alexander’s plan was that, whilst 8th Army contained Messe’s forces at Enfidaville, 5th and 9th Corps of 1st Army would conduct the main attack up the Medjerda Valley to Tunis; meanwhile II US Corps would make for Bizerta and the French for Pont du Fahs. 1st Army, in short, and more particularly 5th Corps, was to provide the relentless pressure, although before it was all over, 8th Army had to hand over still more reinforcements. Naval and air forces had a good deal to congratulate themselves on. It was not just that they were now required to prevent the enemy’s withdrawal–a mission they accomplished with almost total success; it was that they had been of infinite consequence in bringing about the very situation where the enemy had no alternative, except annihilation, but to attempt the withdrawal which they were to prevent. All Hitler’s efforts to increase the monthly tonnage of supplies to Tunisia failed. The principal reason for more and more sinkings was that the Allied air forces, notably those of the United States, had grown so strong that in March 1943 two thirds of the Axis ships sunk by air attacks were accounted for by us aircraft. Allied submarines also enjoyed many kills off Sicily and the west coast of Italy. Nor was this all. British and American aircraft were savaging the Axis air transport fleet. On 22 April, for example, out of 21 of the huge Messerschmitt 323s carrying ten tons of fuel each, losses from the interception of Allied fighters were so heavy–16 of them were ‘hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky’–that Göring vetoed all transport flights to Africa, until Kesselring persuaded him to relax so absurd a ruling. But only a quarter of the former sortie rate was ever again realized. The effect of all this was that in March and April sea tonnages transported were 43,000 and 29,000 compared with an average of 60,000 to 75,000 in previous months. The measure of the shortfall becomes clear when we read that even these latter, higher figures were as much as 100,000 tons per month lower than what was actually needed. Air transport, which managed 8,000 tons in March, 5,000 in April, could not make up the sum. Some reinforcements of soldiers got to Africa, but far from being able to turn the Axis tide, they at once created the need for yet more supplies, and in the end simply swelled the Prisoner of War camps.

On the other hand Allied supplies flowed in with a regularity that spoke highly of their leaders’ cooperation and machinery. Malta’s days of starvation were over for good, and having been so instrumental in winning the battle for North Africa, the island was now to figure largely in the next great Allied enterprise in the Mediterranean–the invasion of Sicily. If by severing Axis sea communications, whilst preserving their own, Allied naval and air forces had made an overwhelming contribution to the armies’ operations, their reward was in sight. The armies’ clearing of the North African shores, the opening of the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, not having to sail to the Middle East and India via the Cape of Good Hope, the advantage gained from those precious commodities, time and tonnage–the value of these prizes was incalculable. Naval forces under Admiral Cunningham had yet one more great moment of triumph just ahead of them. They stopped the enemy escaping. The entirety of Cunningham’s success is recalled for us on the last page of Heinz Schmidt’s memoirs: Six hundred and sixty three escaped. They went by air.

Before they went, however, and before the gigantic haul of men and material fell into Allied hands, there were three weeks of hard fighting to be done. This was to be an Army Group battle –the first in North Africa. In fact it was a series of smaller ones. Alexander’s general offensive, Operation Vulcan, allotted these tasks to his subordinates:

First Army will:

(a) Capture Tunis.

(b) Cooperate with 2 US Corps in the capture of Bizerta.

(c) Be prepared to cooperate with Eighth Army should the enemy withdraw to Cap Bon Peninsula.

2nd US Corps will:

(a) Secure suitable positions for the attack on Bizerta, covering the left flank of First Army.

(b) Advance and capture Bizerta with the cooperation of First Army on the right flank …

Eighth Army will:

(a) Draw enemy forces off First Army by exerting continuous pressure on the enemy.

(b) By an advance on the axis Enfidaville-Hammamet-Tunis prevent the army withdrawing into the Cap Bon Peninsula. …

This was what was supposed to happen and very broadly it was what did happen, but not without much shifting of weight, pausing, re-grouping and trying again. 8th Army took Enfidaville on 20 April, 1st Army re-took Longstop Hill on 26 April, and the 1st us Armoured Division captured Mateur on 3 May. Then Alexander made his arrangements for the last attack. In the north was the whole of II US Corps, in the south 8th Army less 4th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigade, and in the centre 1st Army, with 9th Corps comprising the three formations taken from 8th Army, plus the 4th Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions. It was 9th Corps under Horrocks which was to deal the final blow. On 6 May, it did, supported by over 2,000 bomber and fighter bomber sorties and more than 1,000 guns. It was blitzkrieg on the grand scale. Ironmongery of this sort could hardly miscarry. Tunis was occupied the same day, Bizerta the next. Finally 6th Armoured Division broke through the Hammam Lif to Hammamet.

8th Army’s battle for Djebel Garci and Enfidaville preceded Vulcan by four days, and in these actions 4th Indian Division and the New Zealanders showed again what matchless soldiers they were. At Garci 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was invited to capture the Djebel itself, and during the savage fighting for it, Jemadar Dewan Singh sustained one of the bloodiest and most exciting encounters which even the famed Gurkha warriors could boast. It was while he was scouting forward by himself:

I was challenged in a foreign language. I felt it was not the British language or I would have recognized it. To make quite sure I crept up and found myself looking into the face of a German. I recognized him by his helmet. He was fumbling with his weapon so I cut off his head with my kukri. Another appeared from a slit trench and I cut him down also. I was able to do the same to two others, but one made a great deal of noise, which raised the alarm. I had a cut at a fifth but I am afraid I only wounded him. Yet perhaps the wound was severe, for I struck him between the neck and the shoulder.

I was now involved in a struggle with a number of Germans, and eventually, after my hands had become cut and slippery with blood, they managed to wrest my kukri from me. One German beat me over the head with it, inflicting a number of wounds. He was not very skilful, however, sometimes striking me with the sharp edge but oftener with the blunt.

They managed to beat me to the ground where I lay pretending to be dead. The Germans got back into their trenches.… My platoon advanced and started to hurl grenades among the enemy. But they were also falling very near me, so I thought that if I did not move I really would be dead. I managed to get to my feet, and ran towards my platoon. Not recognizing me, I heard one of my platoon call: ‘Here comes the enemy ! Shoot him!’ I bade them not to do so. They recognized my voice and let me come in.

My hands being cut about and bloody, and having lost my kukri, I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol out of my holster and put it in my hand. I then took command of my platoon again.

Battles for Tunisian Djebels were apt to be costly, and the Garci-Enfidaville affair caused 8th Army many casualties. All battalion commanders in Kippenberger’s brigade, for example, were wounded. Nor did 1st Army find the steep, bare hills north of Medjez, such memorable features as Tangoucha, Longstop, the Kefs and the Djebel Ang, easier going. 38th Infantry Brigade, part of the renowned 78th Division, had much savage fighting to do there. The brigade commander, Russell, described the battle area as a series of ‘impossible fortresses’. When he later went over the battle-field accompanied by the Corps Commander, the general asked him how on earth the men had managed it. He found himself equally at a loss, but was convinced that it never would have been done at all but for first class troops led by the very best junior commanders.

Brigadier Russell might have added that his brigade was composed of Irish riflemen and fusiliers.

Further north II US Corps advanced and went on advancing. The US 1st Armoured Division, off the leash at last, swept into Mateur on 3 May, with its eye on Ferryville and beyond, whilst the 9th Infantry Division was directed on Bizerta. Perhaps the most spectacular and tactically valuable stroke was that of the British 6th Armoured Division in penetrating the German defences at Hammam Lif and driving on to Hammamet, so frustrating enemy hopes of evacuation from the Cap Bon Peninsula. Even before this was done, scenes of victory, so often to be repeated in the towns of Europe, were being enacted. A troop leader of the 17th/21st Lancers remembered being amongst the first British soldiers to reach St Germain. The fact that the enemy were only 2,000 yards away and sending shells at them and that he in his tank was firing back did not deter the French civilians. They climbed on to his tank, put flowers round it, thrust roses and bottles of wine at him. One girl even embraced him from behind while he was giving a fire order to his gunner. Outside the tank delighted watchers picked up the empty shell cases as they were thrown through the revolver port and sent a flow of wine bottles back in. Flags waved, tricolours were unfurled, women wept, firearms were discharged in the air. The hysteria of liberation took over.