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.

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KRONSTADT 1854-5 I

KRONSTADT

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.

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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.

KRONSTADT 1854-5 II

Kronstadt

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.

SMS Lützow: The Skagerrak Battle

One of the only photographs extant that clearly shows the shape of Lützow’s fore funnel after it was fully jacketed.

German Battle Cruiser SMS Lützow Hipper’s Flagship badly damaged by British shell fire.

For the sake of consistency, the times from the Lützow war diary have been altered from summer time to MEZ/CET, a difference of one hour, to match the times given in the official history.

At 02.00 on Wednesday, 31 May the weather in Schillig Roads was cloudy and rainy, with the wind in the NNE. Lützow, with the I AG following, ran out to sea in accordance with Operational Order 6, with the IX TBF as an anti-submarine screen. The day passed quietly until at 15.20 a report was received from the small cruiser Elbing about a smoke cloud to the SW. At 15.26 Lützow went onto course WSW at ‘utmost power’. At 16.08 the I AG was running at 23kts on course NW, and at 16.20 speed was increased to 25kts to chase the British light cruisers. Then large warships came in sight to port ahead. At 16.23 they were made out as British battlecruisers and six minutes later the order was given for fire distribution from the right, as Vizeadmiral Hipper intended to fight the enemy on a northerly course, even though this would take him away from the support of the High Sea Fleet. At 16.28 the enemy ships were observed sending the recognition signal ‘PC’, and then two minutes later at 16.30 they made a turn so that Vizeadmiral Hipper also turned and went onto a SE course at 21kts. Then speed was reduced to 18kts to allow the II AG to catch up.

The wind had changed to the SW, force 2–3, it was sunny, and there was a slight haze. Fire distribution was ordered from the left, ship against ship, and at 16.48 Lützow opened fire on the leading British ship, Lion, at a range of 168hm. During the entire battle Kapitän zur See Harder remained outside the conning tower on the unprotected bridge so he could gain a better overview of the battle, and was accompanied by Signal Offizier Leutnant zur See Schönfeld. Half a minute later the British returned fire, with Lion and Princess Royal firing on Lützow. Korvettenkapitän Paschen, the I Artillerie Offizier, wrote:

For the entire battle Lützow fired with turret salvo fire, forward and aft alternating, a method of fire which I cannot praise highly enough. Both guns worked as one, loaded as one and were directed by one man. After loading all was quiet in the turret. The gunnery leader changed the direction, as and when required. The muzzle smoke collected at the end of the ship, which is most unfavourable for observation conditions. [There was a] 22-second flight time. Impact. 12/16 left, ahead of the bow. 12 to the right. Salvo! A shock from turrets C and D. Impact, over, midships. 8 down, salvo! Over! 8 down, salvo! – straddle! A hit near the bridge! A sigh of relief, and then continue.

Lion was hit twice, at 16.51 and 16.52. Then at 16.57 Lützow was finally straddled, but at 17.00 struck Lion with a hit which penetrated Q turret and blew the roof off. The turret was put out of action and twenty-eight minutes later a huge cordite fire erupted with flames going mast-high, and only the fact that the magazine had been previously flooded saved Lion from destruction. At around 17.00 Lützow suffered the first two hits, both on the forecastle deck. A short time later, at 17.05, Lion sheered out of line and disappeared from sight. She had suffered six hits from thirty-one salvos, whilst Lützow had been hit three times. Target was changed to Princess Royal.

At around 17.15 Princess Royal hit Lützow in the forward dressing station, killing or wounding everyone there. Of the four physicians and doctors aboard Lützow during the battle, two were killed and one was wounded. Then, as the British 5 Battle Squadron approached the I AG and opened fire, at 17.44 Vizeadmiral Hipper ordered the battleships to be taken under fire. In the same minute Lützow hit Barham abreast the aft conning tower. However, relief was now at hand as the German main body came in sight and at 17.51 course north was ordered. So far Lützow had hit the enemy ten times, whilst suffering four hits in return. Of the nine shell-hits on Lion, four did not detonate.

After turning to the north Lützow targeted Lion, and obtained three hits between 17.59 and 18.02. When Lion had passed out of range target was changed to Barham. Nevertheless, observation of the target became increasingly more difficult as visibility deteriorated for the Germans. At 18.13 a 15in shell from Barham struck the armoured belt just ahead and below the port I 15cm casemate. At 18.25 another two 15in shells hit Lützow, striking together between the funnels, and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations, causing heavy loss of life. Vizeadmiral Hipper was instantaneously deprived of his link with his Reconnaissance Groups and with the Flottenchef. Then, at 18.30, the Panzerkreuzer was struck by another 15in shell, this time from Valiant, which hit to port between the IV and V 15cm casemates. At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure below the conning tower.

Around this time the British 3 Battlecruiser Squadron unexpectedly arrived in the east and the German I AG had to turn towards the east to counter this new threat. However, soon 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons began to direct heavy fire on the I AG and at 18.59 Vizeadmiral Hipper carried out a battle turn onto the opposite course, to withdraw from this fire and to close on his main body. At 19.05 Lützow hit Lion again and then at 19.10 the I AG turned back to the NE and took position at the head of the German line. Virtually nothing could be seen of the British forces through the smoke and haze.

Then, at 19.16, part of the British 1 Cruiser Squadron, Defence and Warrior, which had been firing on the small cruiser Wiesbaden, suddenly became visible to the I AG. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Then something unexpected happens. From right to left a ship passes through the field of view of my periscope, improbably large and near. From the first glance I make out an older English armoured cruiser and give the necessary commands. Someone pulls me by the arm: ‘Don’t shoot, that is the Rostock!’ But I see clearly the turrets on the forecastle and stern. – ‘Passing battle. Armoured cruiser, 4 funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Measurement! 76hm, salvo!’ Five salvos fall in swift succession, of them three straddle, and then what happened to the battlecruisers was repeated, and the ship blew up in full view of both fleets. The English main body also has Defence in sight at this time, although to us they are invisible and remain so.

Defence sank at 19.20.

Whilst fighting the 1 Cruiser Squadron, Lützow was hit twice at 19.19 by Lion. One shell struck far forward above the bow armour. The other went through the port casemate roof deck and passed forward to detonate just aft of B turret. During this time Lützow was also evading torpedoes fired by British destroyers, and in return hit Onslow twice, and Acasta twice.

With the 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons enveloping the German head of the line, Lützow came under increasingly heavy fire. Korvettenkapitän Paschen described it thus:

the English battlecruisers require our entire attention. They stand to port aft 130hm away, as we have swung onto an easterly course, and for us are barely recognisable. And then it began, which made everything before look like a game. Whilst the target of our guns was hidden from me by smoke, I gave the direction to the aft position, when suddenly a hail of hits struck from port aft and port ahead. There was nothing to see other than red flashes, not the shadow of a ship.

Between 19.26 and 19.34 Lützow was hit eight times, all from Invincible and Inflexible. The most devastating of these hits were two 12in shells that struck the forward broadside torpedo room and two 12in shells that struck the bow torpedo room. One shell struck below the armour in the broadside room, the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick forward belt. Both penetrated the broadside room. The two other shells struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline. The entire forecastle ahead of frame 249 and below the waterline immediately filled with water. Speed was reduced to 15kts and then 12kts to reduce pressure on bulkhead 249, but water quickly leaked from compartment XIV into compartment XIII through the joints of bulkhead 249 and through speaking tubes.

Then at 19.30 one of Lützow’s assailants suddenly became visible. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Meanwhile we had turned onto a southerly course, and suddenly an English battlecruiser of the Invincible type appeared out of the haze clearly and relatively near, four points to port astern. I cannot say strongly enough what satisfaction I felt, to finally have this pest presented before my eyes, and as quick as lightning the commands were given out. But already a dark object slides between my periscope and the opponent: the corner of the admiral’s bridge, which limits the angle of vision of my periscope object lens to about 10°. ‘Has the aft position measured?’ – ‘Jawohl! 100hm!’ – ‘Direction aft position!’ Kapitänleutnant Bode gives brief and clear orders, and to the inexpressible joy of the whole ship, 15 seconds later our guns crash out again, with the exception of B turret. I heard everything myself through the headphones; what Bode and the artillery transmitting station said, and now also saw the opponents again. ‘Over! 4 down, salvo! Straddle! Salvo!’ As the sound of the fall of shot indicator screeched, the columns flickered out of the water around the enemy and again the beautiful and unmistakable dark red flares up.

Invincible had been struck on Q turret and the shell had detonated inside, blowing off the turret roof. A great explosion followed almost immediately as the magazine exploded and the ship broke in two and sank within ten to fifteen seconds. The magazine of A turret is also thought to have exploded. The two halves of the ship came to rest on the shallow bottom and were clearly visible above the water for some time. The time of the explosion was 19.32. Derfflinger had also been firing on Invincible and it had taken just two minutes to destroy her, whilst Defence had been sunk in just three minutes.

At 19.45, whilst still under heavy enemy fire, the torpedo boat G39 was called alongside and Vizeadmiral Hipper and his staff disembarked to move to another flagship. Lützow was down by the bows and was unable to maintain speed and the wireless had been destroyed. The heavily damaged cruiser took course at slow speed off to the SW to withdraw from the enemy fire, but at 20.15 she came under a particularly pernicious and destructive fire. The British battleships Monarch and Orion hit Lützow a total of six times between 20.15 and 20.30 at a range of approximately 169hm. One shell struck turret B, putting it out of action, another struck the right gun of turret A, showering the turret in splinters. A further hit struck the starboard belt armour below B barbette. Another struck the casemate armour of the IV starboard casemate. A further hit struck the deck aft of C turret and destroyed the aft dressing station. Stabswachtmeister Behrens wrote:

Then a report arrived that a heavy hit had penetrated the aft dressing station from above and exploded there. Obermaat Meyer, wounded, brought this report forward to me. His wound did not appear too bad, and briefly after his report he sat down and began to smoke. In reality he was badly wounded by a splinter and succumbed to this wound 14 days later.

Now it was frighteningly clear to me that all the doctors and specially trained medical personnel were dead or injured. The vision earlier seen: the commander of the ship, surrounded by the four doctors, came before my eyes, and now the present situation; both dressing stations knocked out or destroyed by heavy artillery hits and connected with that the injuries to doctors and specialist medical personnel, and destruction of the greater part of the medicines and medical equipment.

Because there was no alternative the badly wounded were simply taken to a Zwischendeck compartment and laid out.

The final hit during this period sent the top of the main mast crashing down on deck.

Lützow was veiled in a smoke screen laid by four escorting torpedo boats and at 20.40 the enemy ceased fire as Lützow crept off to the SW at just 3–5kts. At 21.13 it was reported to the bridge that there were 1,038 tonnes of water in the ship. At 21.35 it was attempted to run at a higher speed, but this had to be abandoned because the bulkhead between compartment XII and XIII could not stand the pressure. Then at 22.05 the first enemy destroyer attack against the fleet was observed to port ahead at a range of about 60hm. At 22.15 there were approximately 2,395 tonnes of water in the ship.

By 23.12 Lützow and four escorting torpedo boats were in grid square 018 epsilon, course SSW, speed 13kts. The draught forward was 13m. The ship quickly sank deeper and deeper by the bow and by 00.05 on 1 June water was washing about the barrels of A turret and the draught was approximately 15m. By 01.00 the pumps could no longer hold the port diesel dynamo room drained. The forward group of pumps had failed as the ‘leak’ pump room was flooded and the pipes in the forecastle were shot through. Water began to penetrate boiler room VI. Even though revolutions were maintained for 7kts the speed achieved was just 5kts. As related by Korvettenkapitän Paschen the battle to save the ship was slowly being lost:

I still held out hope for the ship, but at about 2am in the morning the commander called the senior Offiziere to a conference, and the First Offizier reported 7,500 tonnes of water in the ship, and gave his view that at the longest we could remain afloat was until 8am in the morning. The news was a bitter blow. Our beautiful ship! However, it must be so; the forecastle was now 2m under water; through the open casemates the water entered the battery in streams, and poured through the torn deck into the Zwischendeck. The large forward oil boiler room had to be abandoned to save the men.

The last figures from damage control indicated that there were 4,209 tonnes of water below the armoured deck, and 4,142 tonnes above, giving a total of 8,351 tonnes, but this was still increasing and the draught forward was approximately 17m. Shortly after 02.00 an attempt was made to steer the ship stern first, but this failed because the propellers were already too far out of the water. Likewise an attempt to tow the Panzerkreuzer with torpedo boats was abandoned. Kapitän zur See Harder ordered ‘Fires out’ and gave the order to abandon ship. However, tragically, there were some men trapped in an air pocket in the flooded bows. A Leutnant zur See wrote:

I had to think of the six poor stokers that were still alive when the ship sank. They sat in the forward diesel-dynamo switch room, just like a diving bell, and could not get out. They had called me once, as I had a connection with them, and reported that the water was slowly rising in their room. It was held by pumps at a certain height. They maintained their courage and optimism until the last. They were still trapped.

The four torpedo boats that had remained with Lützow – G40, G38, V45 and G37 – were now called alongside. Three at a time, they lay contiguously alongside to starboard to take off the crew. Kapitänleutnant Jung wrote:

The survivors assembled on the quarterdeck. Above them fluttered the battle flag, shot to pieces by the enemy shells. Where there was no longer any Offiziere, the senior Unteroffizier took command. Still it was a black night. Only in the east the hesitating dawn appeared, heralding the new day. The address of the commander was short and concise. He concluded with the request that we be proud of SMS Lützow and her crew today for their selfless and extraordinary service for the Fatherland. Then three cheers were called for the ship and Kaiser.

‘And now go to the boats!’ The last words of the commander were almost paternal, sounding out of the dark. They touched the deepest emotions of all of his subordinates.

Kapitän zur See Harder was the last to leave the ship. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

The disembarking of the crew was exemplary; first all wounded, then quietly, all the remaining. When we cast off as the last boat, I could see in the first of the morning gloom the ship as follows: turret A under water, B an island. The bridge stood in water to the upper deck. The stern was approximately 2m higher than usual.

On the orders of the commander the torpedo boat G38 fired a torpedo to scuttle the cruiser, but the draught aft was so reduced and the torpedo ran under the sinking ship; a second struck amidships and Lützow lay slowly over to starboard and capsized. The time was 02.47. Her position was 56° 15’ N, 5° 52’ E.

The torpedo boats steered to Horns Reef light vessel. In the grey dawn there was a brief firefight with three enemy destroyers steering to the SW, and soon after with two British light cruisers and about six destroyers, which, however, did not take up the pursuit. G40 received a hit in the starboard turbine and was towed by the other boats, and thereby could only run at 10kts. Upon receiving news of these events the II FdT (Führer der Torpedoboote), Kommodore Heinrich, made a turn at about 09.45, on his own initiative, and took Regensburg and three boats of the IX TBF to meet the tow unit near Graa-Dyb light vessel. Some of the Lützow crew were transferred to Regensburg and reached Wilhelmshaven during the evening. During the battle Lützow is reported to have lost 116 Offiziere and men, but this number climbed subsequently to a final figure of 128, as in the days following the battle other crew, including Stabarzt Gelhaar and Obermaat Meyer, died from their wounds.

Damage Suffered During the Battle

As the Panzerkreuzer Lützow was scuttled and sank on the morning after the battle, the detailed hit descriptions found with the other cruisers are absent, and the order and location of hits must be reconstructed from reports and an excellent hit diagram. This deals with the hits from bow to stern, but we shall look at them in chronological order.

Hit One

At 17.00 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle near the capstans and made a large hole. The explosion shook turret A and it rocked from side to side. Three men in the working chamber were knocked out but later recovered. Poisonous gases entered the gun barrels and when the breeches were opened the gases entered the turret and rendered three men unconscious.

Hit Two

Likewise at 17.00, this 13.5in shell-hit from Lion also made a large hole in the forecastle deck, and later these two hits allowed great quantities of water to enter the ship.

Hit Three

A heavy-calibre shell from Princess Royal struck between A and B turrets at 17.15 and destroyed the forward combat dressing station.

Hit Four

Hit number four was also at 17.15 from Princess Royal and struck the belt armour aft at approximately frame 120. The shell did not penetrate the thick armour, but the ship was shaken and vibrated powerfully.

Hit Five

At 18.13 a 15in shell fired from Barham struck the belt armour around frame 210 just below the waterline. The shell shattered on the armour, but the plate was displaced and allowed the two outer wing compartments to fill with water.

Hits Six and Seven

At 18.25 two 15in shells from Barham struck the superstructure between the two funnels and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations. With this hit the shell hoist to the starboard III 15cm cannon temporarily failed, but was soon re-switched and operating again.

Hit Eight

A 15in shell from Valiant struck at 18.30 between the IV and V port 15cm casemates. The shell burst above the armoured deck without causing serious damage.

Hit Nine

At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure side to port just below the conning tower, causing minor damage.

Hit Ten

At 19.19 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle far forward.

Hit Eleven

Also at 19.19, a second hit from Lion – this time the shell struck the port casemate roof and penetrated before passing forward to detonate just behind turret B. A fire was started amongst the damage-control material stored there, which created a lot of smoke.

Hits Twelve and Thirteen

At 19.26 Lützow was struck by two 12in calibre projectiles, from either Invincible or Inflexible, below the waterline. One shell struck the broadside torpedo room below the armoured belt; the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick armour and likewise penetrated the broadside torpedo room.

Hits Fourteen and Fifteen

At 19.29 two further 12in shells from the same antagonists struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline and bow armour. As a result of these four hits the entire forecastle beneath the armoured deck immediately filled with water. The bulkhead at frame 249 came under huge pressure and speed had to be reduced, first to 15kts, then 12kts and finally just 3kts. Bulkhead 249 was not completely watertight and water penetrated compartment XIII and then XII. Later on water finally penetrated into compartment XI, the forward boiler room. The draught forward quickly increased to 12m.

Hit Sixteen

At 19.27 a 12in projectile from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the upper deck of the forecastle, producing a large hole in the deck.

Hit Seventeen

A 12in shell from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the belt armour near its lower edge to port at approximately frame 165, below the IV 15cm casemate. The projectile penetrated the armour and was found wedged on the Böschung (sloping armour) without detonating. Gas pressure damaged the IV 15cm cannon and rendered it unserviceable.

Hit Eighteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the belt armour above the waterline between the port III and IV casemates and shattered without detonating.

Hit Nineteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the port side net shelf just below the V 15cm cannon and detonated.

Hit Twenty

At 20.07 a heavy shell struck the port casemate and put the port combat signal station out of action. The signal personnel were killed and a fire resulted.

Hit Twenty-one

At 20.15 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the right barrel of A turret and detonated just outside the gunport. Splinters showered into the turret, the aft hoop was torn off the barrel of the right 30.5cm gun, which was jammed. The left gun was protected by the splinter shield inside the turret and remained serviceable.

Hit Twenty-two

Likewise at 20.15, a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch penetrated the deck between C and D turrets. The aft dressing station was badly hit and there were heavy casualties amongst the wounded and medical personnel. In addition, the electrical cable to D turret, which ran above the armoured deck in this position, was severed so that D turret had to resort to hand training. Nevertheless, before Lützow sank the electrical personnel successfully restored the cable connection.

Hit Twenty-three

At 20.16 a projectile from either Orion or Monarch struck to starboard in the area of B turret barbette, causing the flooding of the starboard I 15cm gun munitions chamber.

Hit Twenty-four

At 20.17 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the 250mm-thick armour of the starboard side of turret B, which was still traversed to approximately 280° to port. The aft lower right side wall was penetrated, leaving a calibre-sized hole approximately 0.25sq m in size. The shell was kept out but the punched-out piece of armour was found on the right gun carriage cradle. The loading facilities and right upper hoist were destroyed and men to the rear of the gun were killed. A fore charge on the right upper powder hoist burned, but a main charge directly above it did not. The turret Offizier, Kapitänleutnant Fischer, was killed by toxic gas, whilst others escaped, although some suffered burns.

The right hydraulic pump in the powder handling room was destroyed.

Hit Twenty-five

Sometime between 20.15 and 20.30 a heavy shell struck the upper main mast above the observation position. Inside the aft conning tower a deafening impact was heard directly beside the tower as the upper mast fell from a great height.

Below is a copy of Kapitän zur See Harder’s combat report. Not all of his observations and impressions are entirely accurate. (The times used are summer time.)

‘Lützow’ survivors. Wilhelmshaven, 8 June, 1916. B. N°. Gg 14.

The Baltic Part I

Interpretation of the Gustloff’s final moments by Irwin J. Kappes

The Soviets, with a little help from their Scandinavian neighbours, made up their mind for them in the Baltic. On 27 September 1944, the neutral Swedish government announced that its Baltic harbours were no longer open to German shipping of any kind and a couple of days later the Finns led the first three of fifteen Soviet submarines from the Gulf of Finland past the defence posts on Hangö and Abo out into the Baltic beyond where they could begin operating off the Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish coastlines. On 29 September the Soviets reinforced the message that the Germans were unwelcome in these waters by landing troops on Moon Island. A German retreat to Ösel (Hiiumaa) swiftly followed. Dagö was taken next on 3 October and a further withdrawal from Ösel to the Sworbe Peninsula on the island of Saaremaa followed later in the month. In an effort to arrest this breakthrough into the Baltic, the Germans employed their heavy cruisers, Lützow and Prinz Eugen, three destroyers and four torpedo boats against the new Soviet positions on the coast between Libau (Liepāja) and Memel (Klaipẻda) in the second week of the month and then used some of these vessels to bombard the enemy troops on the Sworbe Peninsula on 22–24 October. Few could have doubted that these were merely delaying tactics by the Germans for the war in the Baltic States had moved inexorably against them. Much of Estonia had gone, entry into the Gulf of Riga had been secured and Latvia’s ‘liberation’ was at most only weeks away. As part of these measures, the final attack on the Sworbe Peninsula was made by the Soviet 8th Army on 18 November, with fire support coming from three gunboats and eleven armoured cutters gathered off the east coast. Despite putting up some naval resistance over the next few days, the game was essentially up for the Germans and the arrival of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, along with a task force of two destroyers and six torpedo boats, was merely designed to slow the advance of the 8th Army and cover the latest evacuation that took place during the night of 23–24 November.

In the Baltic in the new year [1945], the writing had been on the wall for Dönitz and the Kriegsmarine from mid-January onwards when the Soviets had opened their three-front drive on East Prussia from Pultusk in the south and Gumbinnen (Gusev) and Tilsit (Sovetsk) in the north. This move had prompted the Germans to evacuate their XXVIII Corps from Memel (Klaipẻda) across the ice to the Kurische Nehrung over a four-day period (24–28 January) and to withdraw the injured, sick and refugees by boat from Memel before either Soviet submarines or the men of the 1st Baltic Front from Tilsit could prevent them from doing so. Unless the Soviets were stopped in their tracks, all hope for Germany would be lost. Staring defeat in the face, the Germans responded by organising a series of counter-attacks in an effort to restore land communications between Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and its port of Pillau (Baltiysk). Dönitz was obliged to support these efforts from offshore and did so by deploying the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer, Lützow and Prinz Eugen, a couple of gun carriers, together with a handful of destroyers and torpedo boats to provide as much artillery bombardment as possible against the advancing Soviet troops around Königsberg. It was never going to be anything more than a mere delaying tactic, but it was vital if the Germans were to succeed in organising a massive evacuation from the Baltic States and East Prussia to the western ports of Germany. Generaladmiral Oskar Kummetz and the Marineoberkommando Ost/Ostsee (German Naval High Command East) were given overall responsibility for planning and delivering what was to become the largest evacuation exercise ever attempted. Faced with the enormity of this problem, Kummetz and his team needed to utilise as many ships of a decent size as they could lay their hands on. This vital task was entrusted to Konteradmiral Conrad Engelhardt, the Wehrmacht’s naval transport commander and he became responsible for procuring the evacuation vessels. Fourteen large passenger ships, a dozen of which were over 13,000 tons, twenty-two freighters of over 5,000 tons, unknown numbers of smaller vessels, as well as auxiliary warships and escort vessels were all pressed into service over the course of the next few months as the scale of the military crisis became increasingly more evident as time went by. Organising convoys was difficult enough at the best of times, but under real pressure from an advancing army the logistical complexities became even more horrendous than normal. In order for their scheduling system to work efficiently, Kummetz and Engelhardt needed more than organisational discipline and great stoicism. They also needed a monumental slice of luck – not least because the Soviet submarine fleet had every intention of disrupting the evacuation as and when it could. Lacking the cutting-edge of a suitable number of destroyers and other anti-submarine vessels until the latter half of February, the Germans were left with making the best of the flotillas of minesweepers, patrol boats, submarine chasers, heavy and light gunboats, gun ferry barges, naval fishing cutters, naval ferry barges, converted trawlers and many small fishery vessels that were available to them in Baltic waters.

A start was made to the evacuation on 25 January when three passenger ships sailed from Pillau with the first batch of 7,100 refugees. Within three days some 62,000 people had been moved westwards away from the Red Army, but merely boarding the boats that ranged alongside the dockyards was no guarantee that safety was assured. Apart from the Soviet submarines that initially concentrated on the sea route from Courland, and their larger boats which congregated in the area of the Stolpe Bank and off the Danish island of Bornholm, the greatest threat to these evacuees came from the RAF dropping a total of 3,220 air mines in the western Baltic and as far east as the Pomeranian coast in the first three months of 1945. These mines were to reap a rich harvest of shipping victims. In all some 137,764 tons of German shipping was sunk and 71,224 tons was damaged in this mining blitz. Although the mines were completely undiscriminating – taking out hospital ships as well as transports, destroyers and minesweepers – it could have been much worse had the Soviet Air Force been actively involved. Instead they were largely deployed on land operations and so Kummetz and Engelhardt were given an extended opportunity to continue evacuating large numbers of Germans from the dwindling Eastern Front. Each of the large passenger ships involved in these operations could take 5–9,000 passengers on board and the freighters could hold up to 5,000 at a time. It was crucial, therefore, that these ships should be pressed into making as many return journeys as possible to extricate the largest number of evacuees from the Baltic States. Unfortunately, not all of these ships could be escorted to and fro and occasionally a passenger vessel or a freighter sailing independently was discovered by a submarine and sunk with impunity. In this way the third largest passenger ship used in the evacuation operation, Wilhelm Gustloff, a liner of 25,484 tons with 10,582 people on board, was sunk off the Polish coast on 30 January by S-13 with the loss of over 9,330 victims making it the largest maritime disaster of all time. S-13, loitering with intent off the Stolpe Bank, also managed to evade two escorts in order to sink the tenth largest passenger ship General Steuben on 10 February with the loss of another 3,608 lives.

Complications set in with the Soviet advance on Eastern Pomerania in late February since some of the ships and naval ferry barges as well as the Gun Carrier Flotilla being used in the East Prussian and Courland evacuations were now needed off the Pomeranian coast to take more refugees from the port of Kolberg (Kolobrzeg), or to support the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, three destroyers and a torpedo boat in defending the bridgehead at Wollin (Wolin). Desperate measures resulted in another 75,000 refugees, soldiers and wounded being withdrawn from this front by 18 March. They had not even finished this tricky assignment when the Germans were forced to respond to yet another setback – this time the opening of a Soviet drive from Marienwerder (Kwidzyn) to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and Danzig (Gdańsk). Once again, naval firepower was needed to keep the Soviet 2nd White Russian Front from breaking through before refugees could be evacuated. On 10 March the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was pressed into service and five days later the obsolete battleship Schlesien along with three heavy auxiliary gunboats and a gunnery training vessel also battered the Soviet positions from offshore. After Schlesien ran out of shells, the heavy cruiser Lützow and two destroyers replaced her on 23 March and the light cruiser Leipzig was added to the bombardment force. Evacuations of refugees began from the naval base at Gotenhafen and the ports of Danzig and Hela (Hel) as the Red Army moved ever closer to the Gulf of Danzig, but on this occasion two divisions of the Soviet Naval Air Force were also involved in carrying out over 2,000 sorties against the operation. In an effort to neutralise the torpedo-bombers over these ports, Kummetz ordered a group of destroyers, torpedo boats and other warships to stand by and provide an effective curtain of A.A. fire to cover the transports as they took on their passengers and left port with them. Although Soviet aircraft still managed to sink five transports, two minesweepers and a submarine-chaser, many German ships were still able to enter and leave these three ports unscathed. Soviet mine barrages did claim a couple of torpedo boats and a U-boat (U367) and their submarines did sink a freighter, a patrol boat and a tug while on passage, but the vast majority of craft laden with refugees made safe landfall in other German ports further to the west. A day before Gotenhafen fell on 28 March the battleship Gneisenau – a constant and frustrating nemesis of the Allies throughout the war – made an undistinguished exit when she was finally sunk as a blockship. At that late stage this sacrificial act served very little useful purpose. Once Danzig was captured on 30 March, Hela became the operational centre for the evacuation. It became a kind of halfway house for refugees from those ports around the Gulf that hadn’t been occupied by Soviet troops and a total of 264,887 evacuees found their way to the port in a multitude of small boats and naval ferry barges in April alone. Adding to the armada of vessels making for Hela were retreating troops and other refugees from collapsed fronts, such as the Oxhöfter Kämpe bridgehead and Engelhardt’s passenger ships which by now had plenty of practice at being used as evacuation transports. Such was the scale of the operation that by 10 April 157,270 wounded servicemen had left Hela for the west. Increasingly, however, the casualties of this evacuation would grow as Soviet air and sea forces devoted more time and resources to attacking this traffic.

The Baltic Part II

By the beginning of April the Baltic was the only area where the Kriegsmarine could make a real contribution to the war. It couldn’t win it any longer, but it could do something to rescue its comrades in arms and other German citizens from falling into the hands of the dreaded Soviet enemy. All around the eastern shoreline of the Baltic from Courland in the north to East Prussia in the south the various campaigns were beginning to show very similar responses. Soviet attacks were held for a time and possibly even beaten off (as had been the usual case in Courland) but eventually the incessant pressure told and a breakthrough was made. Amazingly in these extraordinarily dramatic circumstances, the logistical exercise that was the evacuation operation continued in unabated fashion from Windau (Ventspils) and Libau (Liepāja) in Latvia south to Pillau. Disruptions and delays in the schedule of sailings became more pronounced as the war closed in on the German forces. Once a renewed drive on Königsberg began on 6 April 1945, for example, the situation at Pillau became increasingly critical. Within three days the city was surrounded and on 10 April its defenders capitulated. Faced with a swelling refugee population and the necessity of trying to get as many people away from the port as possible before it fell, German ships kept on returning for another fortnight before the town and its harbour were finally abandoned to the Soviets on 25 April. By that time, however, 451,000 refugees and 141,000 wounded servicemen had been evacuated from this icefree port in the four months that the operation had lasted. It was a quite staggering achievement and reflected the pivotal role Pillau had played in the entire evacuation operation. As the escape routes through that port and others around the Gulf of Danzig were being choked off, however, the Germans had been forced to rely upon the facilities at Hela to keep the process going. These went into overdrive as the port became besieged with refugees from the region of the Lower Vistula. As they did so, the Soviets immediately responded by increasing their aircraft sorties over the port. In the process five transports, two supply ships and a hospital ship were lost along with a handful of other craft. Notwithstanding these losses, Hela performed with distinction. In the month of April alone as many as 387,000 evacuees left the port for the west. These sailings were chillingly tense affairs with the ships hounded by air and sea attacks and with survival never guaranteed. Nonetheless, the alternative – of not attempting to run the Allied gauntlet and accepting captivity at the hands of the Soviets – was unthinkable. For every ship that was sunk on passage from Hela, many more somehow managed to get through with their precious human cargo. There was little time to waste and the Germans herded the refugees aboard with admirable and startling efficiency. In so doing they set a record of embarking 28,000 passengers in a single day (21 April) and ran it close a week later when a mere seven steamers collected a further 24,000. They were the lucky ones. Many more who tried to leave in the last days of the war were nothing like as fortunate.

On the day that the Soviets completed their encirclement of Berlin (25 April), Dönitz and the OKM were forced into beginning a policy of destruction and deprivation. Principal units of their Kriegsmarine were not going to be allowed to fall into the hands of the hated communists and so those ships that couldn’t be moved and were most in danger of being seized by the Red Army – such as the uncompleted aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin – were blown up in Stettin (Szczecin) along with four steamers and other smaller vessels. Schlesien and Lützow were the next to go. Schlesien, after being gravely damaged by a British air ground mine as she attempted to make her way into the Griefswalder Bodden on 2 May, was towed back to Swinemünde and beached as the Lützow had been just over a fortnight before. They shared the same fate again when both were blown up on 4 May. It signified that Swinemünde was finished as a German base.

That didn’t stop about sixty of them in the Baltic from opting to try to get to Norway. In making this journey they found themselves, as did many other surface vessels, confronted by swarms of RAF bombers seeking to destroy them. In a four day blitz (2–6 May) a mixture of Beaufighters, Liberators, Mosquitoes and Typhoons did just that. Seventeen of the U-boats, eleven steamers, three minesweepers, a gunboat and an MTB, along with other minor vessels, were set upon anywhere from the Baltic to the Kattegat and didn’t survive the experience.

Those submariners in German ports from Wilhelmshaven and Bremerhaven in the west to Lübeck and Warnemünde in the east, for instance, were left with the defiant, if doleful, task of scuttling their own craft. In the first three days of May as many as 135 Uboats perished in this way. Even more extraordinary scenes greeted the British XII Corps as they occupied the city of Hamburg on 3 May when as many as nineteen floating docks, fifty-nine large and medium-size ships and roughly 600 smaller vessels littering the harbour were scuttled or blown up by German forces within the port. The next day (4 May) when the U-boat captains in the area heard about the signing of the surrender document applicable to German forces in Denmark, Holland and northwest Germany, they put the coded operation Regenbogen (Rainbow) into practice scuttling eighty-three U-boats in fourteen different locations stretching from the Danish port of Aarhus in the Kattegat southeast to Lübeck in the Baltic and west to the outer Weser in the North Sea.

While this was going on in the North Sea and the Belts around Denmark, every kind of ship from naval barges, freighters and transports to destroyers, torpedo boats and much smaller vessels were making their way either to or from Hela in the Baltic with the last of the refugees and troops to be moved from the east to relative safety in the west. By the time the German unconditional surrender came into force on 8 May some 1,420,000 refugees had made their way by sea to the west from the Pomeranian coast and the ports around the Gulf of Danzig in the period from 25 January to the end of the war. In addition, at least another 600,000 had also been evacuated over much smaller distances within the Gulf of Danzig itself. It had been a quite phenomenal achievement. It took raw courage to keep going back into the dangerous maelstrom that swirled around the eastern half of the Baltic. It ended characteristically with the last two convoys containing sixty-one small naval vessels leaving Windau and four convoys of sixty-five similar craft escaping from Libau on 8 May with a total of 25,700 troops and other refugees on board. Of these only a few of the smallest and slowest ships, containing roughly 300 men, were caught by the Soviets on the following day – the rest made it through safely to the west.