The previous evening a German counter-offensive had cut the road between El Aroussa and Medjez el Bab. The commander of Y Division, a scratch force holding this sector of the front, had no idea of the enemy’s strength and he decided to probe the area of Steamroller Farm, four and a half miles to the north, and the pass lying immediately beyond. The troops detailed for the task included a company of the 2nd Coldstream Guards, A Squadron 51 RTR, equipped with Churchills, and a troop of field guns. Hollands, a quiet man with immense resources of physical courage, had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal when, as a sergeant, he had rescued a pilot from a burning aircraft at Dunkirk; now, he was commanding A Squadron’s 1 Troop.
As the force approached Steamroller Farm it was apparent that it was heavily defended and the squadron came under fire from an anti-tank gun screen sited beyond an intervening wadi. A fierce fire fight ensued, during which the tanks were also dive-bombed by a Stuka squadron. At this point the squadron commander, Major E. W. H. Hadfield, was ordered to break through ‘at all costs’ and secure the high ground around the pass. Hadfield now had only nine of his Churchills left and he felt that these would be sacrificed to no purpose if they were committed to such an attack. Nevertheless, he had to comply in some way and ordered 1 Troop to advance on the objective, forgetting that casualties had reduced its strength to a single tank, Hollands’ own Adventurer.
The chances of survival, let alone success, were very slim, and in these circumstances Hollands’ reaction was to give himself up for dead, get on with the job, and do as much damage as he could in the process. Adventurer moved forward, only to find the way ahead blocked by the wadi. Hollands told his driver, Trooper John Mitton, to reverse some little distance, and then swung the tank towards the road on the right, which crossed the wadi on a causeway. This placed the vehicle broadside on to the enemy, but fortunately the latter’s view was interrupted by scrub and their shots cracked harmlessly past. Reaching the road, Adventurer turned left, heading for the causeway, and had just rounded a bend where the scrub ended when it came face-to-face with an Eighty-Eight at thirty yards’ range. The tank rocked to a standstill and got in the first shot, wrecking the gun.
Hollands set off again, believing that he had had his share of luck for the day. Adventurer roared across the causeway, turret traversed left towards the enemy. The road began to climb and, rounding a double bend, Mitton braked sharply when he encountered a barrier of camouflage. For the second time in minutes he was confronted by the yawning black muzzle of an Eighty-Eight. It suddenly vanished within a huge belch of flame. From within the vehicle came a clatter of falling equipment. The round had simply scoured its way along the top of the turret, tearing away the extractor fan casing and smashing the rear stowage bin. In the turret the gunner was frantically struggling to bring the main armament to bear but was thwarted by a loose round that was temporarily fouling the traverse gear. The black muzzle belched flame again, but for some reason the second round missed completely. Meanwhile, Trooper Hank Howsen, the hull gunner, was methodically loading a fresh belt into his Besa machine-gun. He snapped the cover shut, pulled back the cocking handle, laid the weapon and fired a long burst through the Eighty-Eight’s camouflage. The gun crew took to their heels pursued by Adventurer with Hollands firing his Thompson sub-machine-gun and hurling grenades at them from the turret.
Having twice survived sudden death by a whisker, Hollands was fighting mad. Clearing his jammed traverse gear, he turned left off the road and headed for some infantry positions on high ground near pine trees, overrunning slit trenches on the way to the crest. From this, he could see that the enemy had parked their transport, amounting to 27 vehicles, further along the road behind a spur, and his gunners set them ablaze. As Adventurer was now completely alone in the heart of the German position he asked Hadfield to reinforce him as quickly as possible. However, so intent was Hollands on his work of destruction that he was barely aware of the passage of enemy aircraft overhead at about 1730. They dropped paratroops to reinforce the garrison of Steamroller Farm, with the result that A Squadron found itself even busier than before. Hadfield could spare only one tank, that of Lieutenant J. G. Renton, who set off along the same route.
Meanwhile, Hollands had become involved in a very personal duel. A German in a camouflaged slit trench immediately ahead of Adventurer kept bobbing up and shooting at the tank with a rifle grenade thrower. Two belts of Besa and three armour piercing rounds failed to solve the problem. Mitton recalls that when a fourth AP was fired into the ground just short of the trench, ‘It seemed to vanish in a cloud of smoke and dust. The net flapped wildly, breaking free from the blast. When the dust settled the German crawled out, stood looking dazedly at the tank, turned slowly, dropped his rifle and staggered away.’ No one aboard was inclined to take the matter further.
At this point two PzKw IIIs appeared close to the head of the pass. Hollands was unable to depress his main armament sufficiently to engage them but Renton had now come up alongside and his gunner, Trooper Nicholson, put three rounds into each. Shortly after 1800 Hollands received the order to withdraw. Hardly had the move begun than his radio failed completely and with it the intercom. Climbing out of the turret, he sat on the front of the vehicle, directing Mitton with hand signals through the open visor. When they stopped briefly to put two AP rounds into the second Eighty-Eight, the engine stalled and refused to restart. Renton overtook and the two crews attached a tow chain under mortar and machine-gun fire, Renton being wounded as he scrambled back aboard. Adventurer’s engine started at the first pull and the two tanks succeeded in reaching their own lines, picking up the crew of a burning Churchill on the way.
As the combined force was clearly too small to capture the objective, it was ordered to withdraw by the commander of Y Division. A Squadron’s losses amounted to three killed, eleven wounded, three tanks destroyed, two disabled and the rest damaged to a greater or lesser degree. At first, no one was inclined to believe Hollands’ and Renton’s story, but three days later the infantry took possession of the area and reported even greater damage than had been claimed, including two PzKw IIIs, eight anti-tank guns, two light anti-aircraft guns, two mortars, 25 assorted vehicles and up to 200 personnel casualties. The Fight at Steamroller Farm had effectively destroyed the enemy’s chances of taking El Aroussa; an intercepted radio message from the German battlegroup commander, who was evidently unfamiliar with the characteristics of the Churchill, justified his withdrawal on the grounds that he had been attacked by a ‘mad tank battalion that had scaled impossible heights.’ Hollands received the Distinguished Service Order, Renton the Military Cross and Mitton the Military Medal.
The Crusader armies tended to be an ill-assorted mix of troop types and fairly undisciplined. The backbone was provided by mounted men-at-arms and nobles from the Christian kingdoms of Europe. Armoured in chain mail and an open-faced metal helm, the man-at-arms was trained to war all his life. His sidearm was the long sword, but he might also carry an axe or mace as well as his shield and lance. Knights, noblemen and men-at-arms came to the Crusades from all across Europe. The most famous groups were the Knights Templar and the Order of St John (the Hospitallers).
The Knights ‘Templar, otherwise known as the Poor Fellows of Christ, were formed after the First Crusade (1096-99) in response to a need for fighting men to defend the conquered lands. Chaining papal approval in 1120, they were an order of warrior monks who took vows of poverty and chastity and lived according to a very strict code. They wore the white surcoat of their order over a plain and unadorned chain mail shirt called a hauberk, along with a mail coif (hood) and leggings. Their helm was plain and open-faced, similar to that worn by Norman knights at the Battle of Hastings. Under the mail hauberk was a padded jerkin to absorb the impact of blows.
The Templars have become the symbol of Christian knights. They were fearsome and unrelenting in combat against their Muslim foes, believing that death in battle against the enemies of Christendom was a direct route to heaven. The Templars had a fierce rivalry with the Hospitallers that did at times turn violent. Each order had an agreement not to accept men from their rival order.
The Knights of St John began as a charitable order sometime in the 1070s. Their goal was to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Booty from the First Crusade, donated to the order, paid for a chain of hospices across the region. Eventually the order took on the duties of protecting the pilgrims and the city of Jerusalem, and became a militant order. Using mercenaries and knights friendly to the order, the Hospitallers garrisoned several fortresses on the route to Jerusalem. After the Crusader army was destroyed at Hattin in 1187, the pope decided to support the various military orders and gave his blessing to the Hospitallers’ military role.
THE CAVALRY CHARGE
There is much debate about exactly when the mounted warrior began to charge with the couched lance, i. e. with his weapon held under the arm and braced for a head-on impact. At the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066), some Norman knights were using the lance this way while others thrust downwards with it overarm or rode past and speared enemies out to the side from beyond the reach of their weapons. Some men are known to have hurled their weapons into the mass of their enemies. By 1191 the lance was fairly commonly, though not exclusively, couched.
The impact of a charge of armoured cavalry was a tremendous thing, and many enemy forces broke before contact. This allowed the men-at-arms to ride down their foes with relative impunity, protected from random blows by their armour. Even if the enemy stood and fought, few could withstand the onslaught of the heavily armoured Western knights.
This was one of the problems the Crusaders faced in the Holy Land. There they met a foe who knew how dangerous the knightly charge could be, and was quite prepared to fall back or even run away from it. The result was that many times Crusader knights hurled themselves at the foe and hit only empty air. As their horses tired and their numbers were whittled down by the fire of horse archers, the men-at-arms would become exhausted and often found themselves dangerously far from their supporting forces.
The Crusader armies of the time included considerable numbers of foot soldiers and crossbowmen. Most foot soldiers were spearmen with armour of leather or quilted cloth and often a light `helmet’ (i. e. a lesser helm) of leather reinforced with metal bands. Their large shields were their main protection. The crossbowmen were provided with quilted jerkins that offered protection against the relatively weak bows of the Saracen horse archers. Their powerful weapons were slow-firing hut outranged the Saracen bows.
Saladin’s forces at Arsuf were completely different to those of the Crusaders. The backbone of the force was mounted: a mix of light cavalry equipped with short bows and heavier horsemen able to produce a shock effect with their charge, though not so effectively as the European heavy cavalry. The horse archers of Saladin’s force were mainly of Turkish origin. They could attack at close quarters with their light, curved scimitars but these were ineffective against all but the lightest armour. The horse archers were mainly assigned to harass and skirmish with the enemy, though they would swoop down on isolated or broken enemy units to massacre them. The heavy cavalry were mainly of Arab origin. They were equipped with light mail armour and armed with lances, swords and maces. Usually known as Mamluks, these heavy Arab cavalry made up Saladin’s personal bodyguard and more of the army besides. Their function was to deliver the fatal blow to an enemy force shaken by endless horse archery. To back up the cavalry, Saladin had pike- and javelin-armed Arab or Sudanese foot soldiers and Nubian archers. Ideally the pikemen could protect the archers from an enemy attack while they shot down their opponents, then complete the victory by charging with their pikes. In practice this was hard to coordinate, hut the Muslim armies tended to have good discipline and training, and managed combined-arms cooperation better than many European forces of the time.
Arsuf was part of the Third Crusade (1189-92), an attempt by a coalition of Christian forces to capture the holy city of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers. The city had been lost to the Muslims under Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf) after the disastrous battle of Hattin in 1187. Pope Gregory VIII ordered an immediate Crusade to recapture it. The call was answered by Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), King Philip II of France (1165-1223) and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (c. 1123-90). The 70- year-old Emperor Frederick was drowned during the march across Europe and most of his army turned for home, leaving Richard and Philip to continue.
Capturing Cyprus as a forward base, the Crusaders landed at Acre and besieged the port, capturing it soon after. King Philip returned home at this point but Richard, now in control of a port through which to supply his army, decided to press on to Jerusalem. With him went much of King Philip’s force.
Richard’s next objective was the port of Jaffa. Marching down the coast, he imposed strict discipline on his force. The army stayed close to the shore to protect its flank and to benefit from the slightly cooler conditions there. The force was arrayed in three columns plus a rearguard. The knights, suffering terribly from the heat, rode in the column closest to the sea. The two outer columns were of infantry. They suffered from the archery of enemy light cavalry who could ride up, shoot, and escape quickly, but the infantry maintained their discipline and stayed in formation, some men marching with several arrows sticking out of their quilted jerkins. The crossbowmen exacted a steady toll among the horse archers, who could not venture too close to the columns.
Marching under fire in this manner is one of the most difficult of all manoeuvres to carry out. Progress is slow and painstaking, since if the formation breaks up at all the enemy will sweep in and attack. Iron discipline is the key, since the galling fire of the enemy makes individuals want to hurry and opens gaps in the formation for the enemy to exploit. It was particularly impressive that the Crusader army maintained its formation, since discipline in the European armies of the time was very poor. Not only did the knights’ warrior instincts tell them to rush out at the enemy but their very way of life had conditioned them to charge at threats regardless rather than plod along hiding behind a screen of common infantry.
For the infantry themselves, the feat is quite remarkable. Often despised by the flower of chivalry they now sheltered, the infantry were forced to bear the brunt of the enemy’s fire for hour after baking hour, and all to protect the precious horses of the knights. They, the infantry, were soaking up arrows to protect animals!
There were plenty of reasons for the formation to fall apart – internal divisions, pressure from the enemy, heat and exhaustion should by all the odds have combined to wear down the Christians’ resolve. And yet the Crusaders’ discipline held. The formation plodded slowly onward, where possible transferring wounded to the ships that followed it down the coast and receiving supplies in return.
On 6 September the Crusader army passed through a wood north of Arsuf, a town north of Jaffa. Had the Saracens fired the wood, it might have become a death-trap, but they did not, perhaps because Saladin had other plans. Thus far the main Saracen force had shadowed Richard’s army but made no serious attempt to engage. Now the time was ripe.
On 7 September the Crusaders had to cover about 10km (6.2 miles) to reach Arsuf, a long day’s march in those conditions. Saladin had no intention of letting them reach the town, however. His forces prepared themselves for an attack that would pin the Crusaders against the sea and crush them.
The Saracen formation was typically fluid, with horse archers darting in to shoot in small groups then withdrawing quickly. There was no idea of forming up for battle, just another day of marching and skirmishing. This went on until about 11.00 a. m., at which point the Saracen force attacked in earnest.
The Crusader army was in effect marching in battle formation, organized in a defensive box around its precious supply wagons and the irreplaceable heavy cavalry. In truth the battle had already been going on for days as the defensive formation held off the horse archers and their supporting forces. There had been no serious attack up until that point but now the Saracens were ready to strike.
The forces of Saladin were kept at bay by a fine piece of combined-arms work. Spearmen protected the crossbowmen from direct attack, while the heavy bolts of the crossbowmen exacted a steady toll on the enemy. And in reserve, the threat of the heavy armoured cavalry prevented the Muslim army from making an all-out assault. For the infantry deployed at the hack of the formation, this was in effect a fighting retreat. Most of the time the infantry marched backwards, keeping their shields and weapons facing the enemy. The Crusader army was a `roving pocket’ cut off in enemy territory yet able to continue its march, albeit slowly. The Muslim forces swirled around the human bulwark; ahead, behind and to the left there was nothing but enemies. On the right flank was the sea. ‘The only hope was to march on – and fight on – so the battle became a contest between the pressure exerted by the Muslims and the discipline of the Crusaders.
The pressure steadily mounted as the Saracen horse archers came in ever closer and more boldly to shoot. Sometimes the crossbowmen were able to keep the enemy at a distance, but increasingly groups of cavalry were able to race in and attack with lance and sword. Then the spearmen of the Crusader rearguard were forced to engage. Their spears were long enough to be effective against the attacking horsemen and their shields offered good protection, but they were desperately tired from day after day of marching.
The rearguard could not afford to become embroiled in a melee with the attackers. If a group of cavalry broke off and was pursued, even for only a few steps, the spearmen would be quickly surrounded and cut down. So the Crusader infantry was forced to fight a defensive battle. Short rushes to drive off attackers were possible, hut it was vital for soldiers to quickly regain the safety of the main force. Dangerous gaps opened up but were sealed by troops who were supposed to be resting inside the defensive formation.
Hoping to draw one of the famously impetuous charges of the Crusader knights, Saladin’s forces concentrated mostly on the rear of the column where the Hospitallers and French Royal Guards rode. If the infantry ever lost control of the situation, the knights would have no choice but to engage. ‘They were already itching for a fight; it would not take much more to provoke them into action. Yet somehow, amid the chaos and constant archery, the rearguard held to its task. It is highly unlikely that there was much order to the formation, not with enemy attacks coming in at various points. The scene would he fluid – chaotic even – changing from moment to moment.
Here a band of spearmen is driving a few paces forward, chasing off yet another attack. There a handfull of crossbowmen are exchanging fire with horse archers; others load and shoot as fast as they can, covering the retirement of the spearmen back to the column. gap in the formation is plugged by a handful of infantry just as Muslim cavalry spur at it, hoping to enter the `box’ and cause mayhem. Finally the spearmen regain the main body and struggle to catch their breath. Things are calm for a moment, with only the constant archery taking its toll. But along the line the scene is being repeated as another attack sweeps in …
For the entire morning the rearguard battled on in this manner, holding off attacks at the end of the column while the force as a whole inched forwards. Despite extreme provocation the knights resisted the urge to charge, and the column continued its march towards Arsuf and safety.
As the day wore on, casualties mounted. The whole force was now under fire, and men were falling dead and wounded. Confined within the formation the knights chafed, forced to take casualties and unable to reply in any way. The crossbowmen did their best and the outer column of foot soldiers heat off a series of minor attacks, hut the strain was becoming intolerable.
As the army neared Arsuf, the pressure became too much for Richard’s knights, The Hospitallers, accompanied by three squadrons of about 100 knights each, burst out of the formation in a reckless charge. Their sudden attack drove back the right wing of the Saracen force, which had been trying to draw such an attack but had ceased to expect it. If Richard did not support the impetuous knights, they would soon he cut off and slaughtered. Yet if he did send more forces after them, he might throw away his whole force. Richard was known for his valour, hut he was also a shrewd tactician. His infantry were near to the shelter of the town. Covered by a cavalry charge they could enter and secure the town as a defensive position, protecting the baggage train and giving the army a safe place to retreat to if necessary.
Richard also knew the temperament of his men. They might attack anway if he did not order it, and without direction their force might he spent for nothing.
Ordering the Templars out, supported by Breton and Angevin knights, Richard launched them at Saladin’s left wing. At last given a chance to release their pent-up rage, the knights threw the Saracens back and repulsed a counter-attack by Saladin’s personal guard. Now the baggage and its accompanying infantry were entering Arsuf. Richard placed himself at the head of his remaining cavalry, Norman and English knights, and led them at the enemy.
Reeling from heavy blows on both flanks, the Saracen army was shattered by the third charge. Saladin’s men scrambled hack into the wooded hills above Arsuf leaving behind about 7000 casualties. No less than 32 amirs had been killed, almost all of them in the three great charges that broke the army.
The Muslim army returned to the field the following day, resuming its harassing tactics as the Crusaders prepared to push on to their next objective. There was no attempt to launch another full assault, however. Saladin had learned that he could not penetrate the Crusaders’ defensive `box’ formation and concluded that he could not draw the impetuous knights out of it either. Richard the Lionheart did not benefit from his victory at Arsuf Although he performed a great feat of arms and won a tactical success, his army was not able to take Jerusalem, though a grudging truce was agreed between Saladin and the Crusaders, allowing Christian pilgrims access to the city. Against almost any other Crusader commander, Arsuf would have been another great victory for Saladin. Although defeated in battle he held his army together. Its existence prevented an attack on Jerusalem and brought Saladin an honourable, if less than ideal, outcome to the war.
Tactically, and taken in isolation, Arsuf was a victory for the Crusaders. However, if Arsuf is seen as part of a gradual wearing down of the European army to make it incapable of capturing Jerusalem, it may be that Saladin came out the strategic victor.
Sweden’s role in World War II has evoked little interest outside of that country. Although we now know this nation would never enter the war, Hitler and Dönitz could not count on this. For Hitler Sweden represented a valuable source of raw materials and manufactured goods, as well as a possible threat to Germany’s position in Norway. To Dönitz this politically unreliable nation’s location potentially endangered the navy’s U-boat training areas in the Baltic. Particularly in the final stage of the war, both Hitler and Dönitz endeavored to ensure at all costs that Sweden remained neutral.
On several occasions Hitler claimed a political motive for retaining a foothold in the Baltic States. He feared that withdrawing from Estonia, and later from Courland, would adversely affect Sweden’s attitude. Hitler believed that the presence of German troops in the Baltic States deterred Sweden from cutting off ore imports. On 5 September 1944, when Army Group North wished to evacuate Estonia in the wake of Finland’s surrender, Hitler insisted that holding the current positions in that sector was politically important as a way of exerting influence on Sweden. Two days later Natzmer phoned OKH to check on the army group’s request to retreat; Berlin replied that Guderian had attempted to convince Hitler to give up the Baltic States but that Hitler had again brought up his concern for Sweden. In the winter and spring of 1945 Hitler returned to this theme, at times responding to Guderian’s demands to evacuate Courland by insisting that only the presence of the Courland armies prevented Sweden from declaring war on Germany. To understand why Hitler feared Swedish belligerence and whether the Swedes had given him cause for suspicion, a brief review of Sweden’s policy since 1939 is necessary.
Upon the outbreak of war Sweden declared its neutrality and continued to trade with both Britain and Germany. Sweden experienced few problems until the end of November 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Sweden found itself in a precarious situation during the Winter War, as it had long maintained very close ties to Finland and traditionally feared Russia. The Swedish government was willing to assist the Finns in almost any way possible, short of war. Sweden provided Finland with substantial aid and sent large quantities of arms and ammunition, seriously depleting its own stocks. The Winter War also brought difficulty on the diplomatic front. Determined to prevent Swedish belligerency, Germany sent several thinly veiled threats demanding that Sweden remain neutral. Hitler feared that Sweden’s entry into the war would jeopardize the delivery of iron ore and that if Russia attacked Sweden, it would be difficult for the Swedes to refuse Allied offers to intervene in Scandinavia. The Germans warned the Swedish government that they would take swift action if Allied troops entered the country. Hitler’s anxiety in this matter was justified, because the British and French made repeated requests that Allied troops be allowed to pass through Sweden to aid Finland; Sweden refused them. The end of the Winter War in March 1940 did not lessen the danger to Sweden, for on 9 April Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark. Although a Swedish military attaché had alerted Defense Minister Per Edvin Sköld, this warning went unheeded.3 Sweden’s military position at this time was even worse than in autumn 1939. Southern Sweden was virtually defenseless, because the Swedes had concentrated their army in the north during the Winter War, and the delivery of arms and ammunition to Finland had deprived Sweden of a significant proportion of the supplies needed for its own defense.
Admiral Raeder provided Hitler with convincing naval arguments for the occupation of Norway, but Hitler’s interest in guaranteeing supplies of Swedish iron also played a role. The Winter War and the danger of Allied intervention in Scandinavia had revealed the threat to Germany’s ore imports. Swedish iron ore reached Germany by two main routes. The Swedes shipped some from ports in the Gulf of Bothnia, mainly Luleå, but most of these ports were closed nearly half the year due to ice. The preferred route was to send the ore to the Norwegian port of Narvik, ice free throughout the year, for transshipment to Germany. Yet with the outbreak of war the Narvik route proved vulnerable to British interference.
Churchill considered halting iron ore shipments to Germany decisive. The British predicted that without these imports German production would cease within months, if not weeks (an assessment that greatly exaggerated the importance of Swedish iron ore to Germany’s war economy). In April 1939 British trade envoys tactlessly warned the Swedes that in the event of war, Britain might have to destroy the iron mines. A major reason for Britain’s interest in assisting Finland during the Winter War was to occupy Sweden’s iron mines.6 In the end the British decided not to take military action against Sweden, but they did mine Norway’s coastal waters and planned to sabotage port facilities at Oxelösund, an ice-free port on Sweden’s southeastern coast from which Germany received ore. During the fighting in Norway in the spring of 1940 the British destroyed port installations at Narvik, significantly reducing its capacity for ore shipments.
Swedish iron ore was of a very high quality, having an iron content of nearly 60 percent, compared to 30 percent for German ores. Germany obtained most of its iron ore from the Reich and Nazi-occupied areas, but about 80 percent of the iron ore it did import came from Sweden. Another vital import was ball bearings. The Nazis received no more than 10 percent of their ball bearings from the Swedes, but these bearings were of the types Germany lacked later in the war due to Allied air raids. Germany also imported from Sweden high-grade steel, finished copper, sulfur, and timber.
After the occupation of Norway and Denmark, German pressure on Sweden increased. Eager to remain at peace, the Swedes granted more and more concessions to Germany. Churchill feared that the Swedes would purchase their neutrality by supplying Germany with all the ore it wanted.9 But in fact Sweden granted the Germans far more than raw materials; its government stretched neutrality past any recognized limits. Hitler had demanded strict neutrality from Sweden in April 1940, when such a policy benefited the Nazis, and the Swedes had agreed on the condition they be left in peace. After the conquest of Norway, Germany received permission for so-called transit traffic, the transport of supplies and soldiers on leave to northern Norway via Swedish rail lines. From June 1940 until November 1943 Sweden’s railroads carried over two million men on leave, more than 700,000 tons of military supplies, and 60,000 wounded (mainly from the front in Finland), many of the wounded on Swedish hospital trains. The Swedes justified these concessions by claiming that once Norway surrendered, these actions did not support or aid a belligerent.
In 1941 and 1942 foreign observers noted a decidedly pro-Nazi stance among many Swedish officials. In March 1941 the Swedish Defense Staff’s naval section prepared a study on a possible Russo-German war that mentioned the possibility of Germany transporting troops to Finland on Sweden’s railroads and hinted at Swedish forces fighting alongside Germans. In January 1942 Goebbels noted in his diary that Sweden had “done more for the German war effort than is generally assumed,” although a few months later he began to complain of the Swedes’ attitude. Sweden was, however, under Nazi pressure. In February 1941 its military attaché to Germany, Curt Juhlin-Dannfelt, spoke with the German Army chief of staff, Halder, about the possibility of granting transit rights to Allied troops if the Soviets attacked Finland again. Halder replied that if Sweden did so, Germany would reduce the nation to rubble. In the spring of 1941 the supreme commander of Sweden’s armed forces, Gen. Olof Thörnell, informed his government that Sweden could not withstand an attack and advised that war with Germany should be avoided if at all possible.
During the planning for the Russian campaign, the Germans hoped for Swedish assistance. The Skl (Seekriegsleitung or Skl (Maritime Warfare Command)) contemplated Sweden’s help in several matters, including laying minefields in its territorial waters to supplement those laid by the German Navy, allowing shipment of supplies for troops in Finland to southern Sweden, and protecting German merchant vessels in Swedish waters with Swedish warships. Hitler declared that he believed the Swedes would participate in the war in return for cession of the Åland Islands, and in early May OKW even considered how to use Sweden’s armed forces if they joined in the war with Russia.
Hitler had little reason to doubt Sweden’s good will in this period. Immediately after the invasion of the Soviet Union, its government allowed the Germans to transfer a fully equipped division through Sweden to Finland. This represented Sweden’s most flagrant breach of neutrality. The Swedes refused transit rights for a second division at the end of July 1941 but later permitted the transport of an SS battalion. In addition, the government doubled the normal allowed leave traffic. Swedes also provided a valuable service by repairing all types of vehicles from German units in northern Norway and Finland, saving the Nazis a great deal of time and transport space. Furthermore, Sweden allowed German merchant vessels to pass through its territorial waters, and on one occasion a German division sailed from Norway to Finland through Swedish waters. Despite the pro-German attitude of several prominent military and political leaders, however, Sweden’s press was virulently anti-German, frequently enraging Hitler and above all Goebbels. In the fall of 1940 the government confiscated several issues of the Göteborgs Handelstidning to placate the Germans and in June 1941 introduced a law curtailing freedom of the press.
Britain’s naval attaché in Sweden, Henry Denham, claimed that the Swedish Navy was especially pro-German. Denham also charged that the Swedish secret police worked very closely with German intelligence and kept track of his movements. Thörnell himself had a reputation for being very pro-German. In April 1941 he suggested to the government that Sweden participate in an anticipated war against the Soviets, and at the end of 1944 Thörnell reportedly was almost in tears over Germany’s defeats.
Yet the Swedes made most concessions during the years of German victory. The declaration of war on the United States, the Allied landings in North Africa, and the Soviet victory at Stalingrad caused Sweden to reassess its relations with Germany. During the second half of 1943, once Sweden had built up its armed forces to a respectable level, the Swedes began to restrict concessions previously granted. In August the Swedish government informed the Germans that it would halt the transit traffic to northern Norway and that it would no longer allow German vessels in Swedish territorial waters. Once the Swedes began to steer away from Germany, they came under increasingly heavy pressure from the Anglo-Americans to reduce exports to Germany, especially ball bearings.
Hitler viewed Sweden’s increased independence with growing mistrust. At the end of 1941 he feared the British might invade Norway to exert pressure on Sweden, and only a month later he began to suspect Swedish hostility, claiming that the Swedes would support a British landing in Scandinavia. Hitler declared that Allied domination of Sweden would deprive Germany of freedom of movement in the Baltic. In April of 1942 he notified Mussolini that Sweden would defect if the British invaded Norway. Explaining that a link between Britain and Sweden would be dangerous for Germany, he informed his Italian ally that he had reinforced Norway with seventy thousand men and deployed an armored division near Oslo to threaten Sweden. The Germans received reports that the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 had made a profound impression in Sweden. To this Hitler declared that Scandinavia’s protection was more important than a major offensive in Russia for the coming year, and he accordingly ordered the armored division in Norway reinforced. Hitler’s reaction to Sweden’s announcement ending the transit traffic to Norway, however, was surprisingly calm. By the fall of 1943 Jodl too was convinced that a successful Allied landing in Norway would bring Sweden into the war, leading to the collapse of the entire Scandinavian front and endangering the Baltic.
Swedish intelligence rendered an invaluable service to its government by cracking Germany’s codes at a relatively early date. In April 1940 the German military rented telephone and telegraph lines between Narvik and Oslo, and Trondheim and Oslo, which passed through Swedish territory. The Swedes promptly tapped these lines, as well as German lines from Berlin, Oslo, and Helsinki to Stockholm. Although in the beginning the Swedes read only military traffic, a direct line from Berlin to the German legation in Stockholm at the end of 1940 yielded diplomatic messages. A mathematics professor at Uppsala University, Arne Beurling, succeeded in forcing the machine code (Geheimschreiber) used by the Germans for communications with Norway, and he built a deciphering machine of his own. In this way the Swedes learned of Hitler’s preparations to invade Russia by the spring of 1941. Swedish intelligence also provided the government with advance warning of German intentions in diplomatic and economic negotiations. In mid-1942, however, the Finns alerted the Germans to Swedish code-breaking activity, and the Nazis tightened their communications security. The Germans transferred many of their communication wires to underwater cables and introduced more sophisticated code machines, so that after the end of 1942 Swedish intelligence rarely could decrypt German messages. The Swedes assumed that by this time the greatest danger had passed, because Germany had been forced on the defensive, but they were dangerously mistaken. The Swedes lost the ability to read German messages just as Hitler was seriously considering invading the country.
Nazi Germany contemplated attacking Sweden on several occasions throughout the war. In planning for the invasion of Norway at the end of February 1940, one of Warlimont’s subordinates in OKW submitted a proposal to occupy parts of Denmark and Sweden. Interest in Sweden’s iron ore was evident in this plan, which called for the seizure of Luleå and the rail line Luleå–Narvik. Warlimont altered the plan to envision the occupation of all of Denmark, leaving the Swedes alone, because on 1 March Hitler had ordered that no moves be made against Sweden. German suspicion of Sweden’s unreliability, however, increased. In January 1943 OKW noted that reports from Stockholm and Helsinki indicated the Swedes would suspend transit traffic if the Allies invaded Norway, concluding for that reason that German troops in northern Norway and northern Finland required additional supplies. In March, Hitler ordered German forces in Norway to prepare a study for operations in Scandinavia in the event of a change in the military or political situation. He also commanded OKW not to issue this order in writing but to impart its contents orally to staff officers from Norway and Finland who would soon be coming to Führer Headquarters. A few days later Hitler’s mistrust of Sweden had grown even deeper. He commanded Jodl to reinforce German troops in Norway and to provide the armored division there with the heaviest offensive weapons, against which the Swedes had no defense.
The plan to invade Sweden envisioned an assault by a half-dozen divisions. In the north one division was to cross the border east of Trondheim toward Östersund and then thrust to the Gulf of Bothnia, supported by an armored division advancing somewhat farther south. In the south two to three divisions were to storm the frontier and drive on Stockholm, while one to two divisions dealt with Swedish troops near Lake Vänern. In addition, the Germans planned several small-scale amphibious and airborne landings on Sweden’s southwest coast and north of Stockholm to tie down Swedish reserves. At the beginning of 1943 the Germans had twelve divisions in Norway, including one armored division, and from April through June OKW sent further reinforcements. Yet in August, following the reverses Germany suffered in the summer of 1943, Hitler ordered the armored division to the continent, and the following month OKW transferred a division from Norway to the Balkans. This stripped German forces in Norway of operational reserves and ended the serious threat of invasion.
Swedish war plans during World War II reveal a surprising, perhaps overoptimistic, confidence and aggressiveness after 1940. In the early interwar years Swedish planning had focused on two potential enemies, the Soviets and an unnamed western power, presumably Britain. In view of the international situation in the late 1930s, in 1939 the Swedes revised their plans to include war with Germany. When Germany occupied of Norway and Denmark, Sweden suddenly faced a hostile power along its 1,200-kilometer-long western border, as well as to the south in Denmark. Sweden’s 1940 plans were entirely defensive and called for concentrating most of its army in the southern and central part of the country. Swedish plans in early 1941 again emphasized defense against a possible German attack from Norway, but now the Swedes began to show signs of greater confidence. They assumed that with Germany’s depleted naval forces heavily engaged against Britain, the anticipated German attack on the Soviet Union would make Sweden’s fleet an important factor in the Baltic and that their army could seriously threaten Germany’s position in Norway. Nonetheless, this plan proposed a benevolent attitude toward Germany, since it was in Sweden’s interest to see the Soviets defeated. Plans from the autumn of that year provided for minor offensive action across the border into Norway—for example, to cut the rail link to Trondheim. By early 1942 the Swedes felt capable of an offensive to seize a Norwegian port to establish a link to Britain. The Swedes showed, however, a particular fear of airborne assault, against which they had no defense. In 1943 Sweden’s army planned, after repulsing a German invasion, for an attack toward Oslo as well as a thrust to capture the port Mo i Rana, approximately midway between Narvik and Trondheim. The 1943 plans remained essentially unchanged until the end of the war. Beginning in 1944, however, the Swedes began to pay closer attention to a possible threat from the Soviets.
The Swedish Navy’s primary task was coastal defense. Since the army would concentrate its forces on the southern coast and along the Norwegian border, the burden of protecting Sweden’s long eastern shore fell to the navy. On the whole, the navy viewed its mission as defensive. By the spring of 1942 the Swedish Navy’s plans included provisions for limited offensive operations. If Germany controlled the Åland Islands the navy planned to attack supply routes to the islands. If the islands remained unoccupied, the navy intended attacks on German lines of communication in the Gulf of Bothnia, as well as on German bases in the Reval–Libau area. Surprisingly, the navy’s plans at the end of 1942 were much more pessimistic than in earlier years. The Swedes now realized that the Germans might invade not only from Norway, Denmark, or northern Germany but from Finland or the Baltic States as well. Swedish planners envisioned German landings almost everywhere. Plans in later years were not quite so gloomy, though they remained generally defensive.
If by the fall of 1943 the German Army rarely considered attacking Sweden, the navy still eyed Sweden with suspicion. The Swedish Navy was probably the most pro-German of all branches of its armed forces, but the Skl was dissatisfied. In April 1941 Raeder had complained to the Swedish naval attaché, Anders Forshell, about Sweden’s attitude. The Swedish Navy, however, proved extremely accommodating on several occasions. In the spring of 1940 Sweden’s naval vessels assisted the Germans in laying an antisubmarine net in the Sound between Denmark and Sweden (Öresund). In June 1941 the Swedish Navy laid mines in its territorial waters to supplement German mine barrages that blocked the Baltic from Swedish waters to the coast of the Baltic States. In addition, in the fall of that year Swedish warships repeatedly escorted German vessels carrying supplies to Finland.
Dönitz was even more wary of Sweden than Raeder. When he assumed command of the navy in January 1943 Hitler wanted him to scrap the surface fleet, but Dönitz pointed out that powerful German naval forces in the Baltic would help influence Sweden’s attitude. A major irritant to Dönitz was the activity of Swedish aircraft in the Baltic. On several occasions German warships reported being “buzzed” by Swedish planes. In July 1943 the Skl ordered German vessels to open fire if approached by Swedish aircraft, maintaining that the Swedes repeatedly had been requested through diplomatic channels to halt this activity. The next month, following another incident of this type when Swedish aircraft shadowed a German convoy, Schmundt (Naval High Command, Baltic) complained that the Swedes would certainly pass any information on to Germany’s enemies. Schmundt regarded the Swedes with great mistrust; in fact, he counted them as already in the enemy camp. In August 1943 he warned the Skl that Swedish shipping represented a sizeable reserve for the Anglo-Americans. Noting Sweden’s increasingly hostile stance, he insisted that Germany must prevent the enemy’s use of these vessels. Schmundt proposed sending commandos to destroy ships in Swedish ports. Apparently the Skl considered this suggestion too far-fetched and an invitation for trouble.
The navy’s problems with Sweden persisted. Swedish fishing boats on at least two occasions entered a forbidden area and sabotaged lights on German buoys. In retaliation the Germans sank two Swedish fishing boats in the area in August 1943. Following this altercation the Foreign Ministry instructed the Skl to avoid further incidents with Sweden. Yet cases of “buzzing” and violations of German airspace continued, until events came to a head on 14 May 1944, when a German fighter shot down a Swedish plane near Libau. At first Kummetz (Schmundt’s successor) assumed that it had been a Soviet plane with Swedish markings, but he suspiciously added that if it were Swedish, it was spying on German U-boat training areas for Britain or Russia. Kummetz soon received a report that three Swedish air-men had been picked up in a dinghy, and early the next day the Germans shot down a second Swedish plane near Windau. Kummetz declared that Sweden and Germany’s enemies alike recognized the importance of air reconnaissance over this part of the Baltic and that the extraordinary search and rescue operation the Swedes had mounted when their plane had been downed revealed the importance of this information.
Kummetz’s problems with the Swedes were not yet over. At the beginning of July a German patrol boat spotted a Swedish destroyer. Swedish aircraft had not reappeared over the coast of the Baltic States, but, Kummetz argued, now destroyers had taken their place. Within a month the Germans sighted Swedish warships near the Irben Straits on three occasions. A German patrol boat near Moen fired on a Swedish plane after it approached to a distance of nine hundred meters. To the Germans’ utter surprise, the aircraft returned fire! Perplexed, Kummetz remarked that this was the first instance of Swedish aircraft fighting back. Finally, less than a week after that incident a U-boat training flotilla reported encountering a Swedish destroyer eighteen nautical miles north-northwest of Libau. Stunned, Kummetz exclaimed, “The Swedes are in the middle of our U-boat training area!”
Although regarded with great suspicion by the Germans, especially Schmundt and Kummetz, Swedish air and naval reconnaissance in the Baltic had been carried out for defensive purposes. The Swedes periodically worried about a German attack, either because the government was about to announce a measure displeasing to the Germans or because intelligence warned of an imminent German invasion. For example, on 28 July 1943, a few days before Sweden canceled the transit agreement, the Swedes began to carry out secret reconnaissance flights from the Kalmar Sound to the area near the island of Bornholm. As a further precaution, naval vessels laid mines along Sweden’s southeastern coast. In the first week of August the Swedes supplemented their air reconnaissance with patrols by destroyers near the island of Gotland and off the southeastern coast. Another invasion scare occurred at the end of March 1944, as a result of deteriorating relations between Finland and Germany. Sweden attempted to arrange peace talks between the Soviets and the Finns, angering Germany. The Swedes stepped up their air reconnaissance, and on 14 May a plane failed to return. The following day a minesweeper hailed a Latvian fishing boat and learned that the plane had been shot down. On 16 May Sweden’s Naval Staff ordered reconnaissance in this area halted. The Swedish airplane had been sent to search for transports at sea or around ports in the Baltic States, an area where the Swedes’ intelligence was poor. It had merely been a case of mutual suspicion.
Nazi preparations to seize the Åland Islands, “Tanne West,” began in the spring of 1944 and brought Sweden under even closer scrutiny. In July Kummetz warned of the possibility that Sweden might seize the islands itself. When the Germans sent heavy warships to aid Finland in the summer of 1944, the Skl instructed them to remain beyond the previously envisioned time, due to the unfavorable situation in the Gulf of Finland and also in consideration of Sweden. Although an announcement informing Sweden of Germany’s reasons for seizing the Åland Islands had been prepared, Hitler decided to cancel the operation out of regard for Sweden. In early 1944, as Sweden arranged peace talks between the Soviets and the Finns, concern for a German invasion of the Åland Islands, and possibly of Sweden itself, became acute, and the Swedes considered occupying the islands themselves. From the end of March until mid-April Swedish preparations for war steadily increased. After the Soviet summer offensive in Karelia the Swedes again briefly fretted about a German attempt to seize the Åland Islands. When word of the Germans’ unsuccessful attempt to seize Hogland arrived, the Swedes stepped up their reconnaissance near the Åland Islands but ordered no overall change in defensive readiness.
The string of Allied victories in the summer of 1944 convinced the Swedes that Hitler would lose the war and that it would be advisable for Sweden to distance itself from Germany. In the second half of that year the Swedes dealt the Germans a series of economic blows. In August, Sweden’s government announced that it would no longer insure shipping to German ports, in effect forbidding its vessels to sail to Germany. The government halted the last transit through its territory on 9 September. On 27 September, fearful that Soviet submarines would soon reach the Baltic, Sweden closed its Baltic ports and territorial waters to all foreign shipping. Finally, on 12 October the Swedes ended the export of ball bearings to Germany. All of these measures were serious, but the withdrawal of Swedish shipping was most damaging, because from 1941 to 1944 Swedish vessels had brought an average of at least 40 percent of the iron ore to Germany, and Finnish vessels nearly 10 percent. With Finland out of the war and Swedish shipping to Germany halted, the Nazis faced the loss of half of the vessels engaged in transporting ore to the Reich. The closure of Sweden’s ports also meant that iron ore, even if Germany could scrape together ships to transport it, had to travel the long, dangerous route from Narvik. These events sobered the Skl, which on 29 September issued a directive to avoid all violations of Swedish territorial waters. In view of the current political tension with Sweden, that nation could be given no excuses for going over to the enemy side.
Yet the German Navy was furious over these measures. The Skl viewed Sweden’s actions as proof that it had submitted to Allied demands to halt ore deliveries to the Reich. Dönitz declared that the Swedes had taken these steps because of “fear and dependence on international Jewish capital.” He added that Germany could still fight without Swedish ore and that the Swedes had best beware. On several occasions in the latter part of 1944 the Skl insisted that it must retain its heavy surface vessels not only to engage the Soviet fleet but with regard to Sweden as well. At the beginning of October the navy proposed the erection of launchers for Germany’s unmanned rockets to threaten cities in southern Sweden, but on 15 October Keitel announced that it was in Germany’s interest to avoid incidents with Sweden.
At the beginning of October 1944, Soviet submarines entered the Baltic. In response to this the Skl wanted to declare the entire eastern Baltic, including the Gulf of Bothnia, an operational zone. Kummetz was clearly still angry about Swedish incursions in the area during the summer. He claimed that militarily it was unnecessary to include the Gulf of Bothnia and Åland Sea but that the declaration of the eastern Baltic as an operational zone made it possible to sink all merchant ships without regard to their nationality, and Swedish warships and aircraft in the area would be fair game. Kummetz also pointed out that mines would be effective in disrupting shipping between Sweden and Finland. Dönitz replied that the navy had no interest in traffic between Finland and Sweden. After the official declaration of the eastern Baltic as a war zone as of 11 November, the Skl repeatedly instructed U-boats to fire only if they were certain the target was not a Swedish vessel.
At the beginning of 1945, OKW considered a report from the military attaché in Stockholm that warned of Sweden’s entering the war, and it returned to the proposal of erecting launching pads for V-1 and V-2 rockets pointing toward Stockholm. The Germans believed that this would dampen any enthusiasm for war in Sweden. But a few days later Hitler decided that Sweden’s entry into the war was unlikely and that no preparatory measures for Swedish belligerence should be taken. In mid-February OKW noted that relations with Sweden had further deteriorated, citing a report from the German military attaché in Sweden, Bruno von Uthmann, describing Sweden’s attitude as “unsettling.” Hitler too viewed Sweden with increased suspicion. In March he refused a proposal to evacuate northern Norway because he feared it would provide an incentive for Sweden to enter the war if the Anglo-Americans seized Narvik and established a link with Sweden. The presence of Norwegian “police troops” in Sweden was another cause of concern.
The German Navy also drew up plans for an invasion of Sweden and reviewed them regularly. The navy first examined a landing operation on Sweden’s coast around the turn of the year 1939–40. This study, however, was only theoretical and does not appear to have been linked with plans to invade Norway and Denmark then under consideration. In the spring of 1943 the navy again analyzed the possibility of attacking Sweden. In this study the Skl asserted that the seizure of Sweden’s fleet would considerably strengthen Germany’s navy. The Skl also declared that Sweden’s navy represented a “considerable threat,” due to the lack of German escort vessels and the decisive importance of the Baltic for Germany. Indicating that it could not destroy the Swedish Navy, the Skl explained that the elimination of Sweden’s fleet required the German Army to capture its ports by land, which it should do as quickly as possible. But the Skl expressed grave reservations about the entire scheme. War with Sweden would reduce, if not paralyze, U-boat training in the Baltic; disrupt supply shipments to Finland, the Baltic States, and Norway, as well as the delivery of ore imports; and end the transit traffic to Norway. If Sweden and its ports could be occupied within days or even a few weeks, the navy considered the operation worthwhile. But if the Swedes continued longer to hold parts of their country, it could invite disaster. This would serve as an invitation for the Allies to invade Scandinavia and base aircraft in Sweden, which would endanger the Baltic—and loss of the U-boat training areas in the Baltic signified the death of the U-boat war. The Skl concluded that action against Sweden without a compelling reason was justifiable only if the success of the operation within a very short time was guaranteed. In view of Germany’s current situation, this was quite unlikely.
The navy, therefore, did not recommend the invasion of Sweden. The reason was that at the end of March 1943 the Skl had considered the repercussions of an Allied invasion in northern Norway. Although the Skl feared an undesirable effect upon the attitude of both Finland and Sweden, it regarded an Allied presence in Sweden as the greatest danger. In the Skl’s eyes Sweden would serve as a bridge to the Baltic, whereas the continuation of the U-boat war required Germany’s absolute control of the Baltic. In October 1943 the question of war with Sweden again surfaced. Meisel claimed that political developments, presumably Sweden’s halt to the transit traffic, raised the possibility of Sweden’s declaring war on Germany. He ordered a reexamination of the May study, based on the assumption of Swedish belligerence due to an Allied landing in Norway, Jutland, or western Sweden. Schmundt looked into this matter, but his assessment was no brighter than the previous one. He warned that the greatest danger from war with Sweden would be the Allies’ immediate use of Sweden as an air base. This would necessitate a vast increase in air defense for all ports and important bases in the central and eastern Baltic, as well as the Gulf of Riga and Gulf of Finland. Furthermore, the mere threat of Swedish submarine activity would require the formation of antisubmarine flotillas and the gathering of escorts for supply transports to Finland, the Baltic States, and Norway. Ending on a most discouraging note, Schmundt pointed out that one could draw parallels to the situation in the Mediterranean, especially the struggle to retain North Africa. Another report on this subject from Naval High Command, Norway, reached similar conclusions.
Following the numerous steps the Swedish government took to throttle trade with Germany in the fall of 1944, the possibility of Sweden’s belligerence arose once more in mid-October. Meisel requested Wagner and the Skl’s operations section jointly to examine the consequences of war with Sweden. An Skl report from the same day noted that several problems raised in the 1943 study, such as supply of Finland and loss of imports from Sweden, no longer had any bearing on the situation. The loss of U-boat bases on France’s Atlantic coast, however, had increased the importance of control of the Baltic entrances and sea routes to Norway. The greatest problem facing Germany in the execution of such an operation was that there simply were no ground or air forces available to fight Sweden. For this reason, Germany had endeavored to keep Sweden neutral and avoid incidents. On 29 October this latest study, bearing Wagner’s signature, was completed. In it he claimed that the most effective way to eliminate the dangers resulting from Sweden’s belligerence would be to conquer and occupy the country, at least its southern half, either as a preventive measure or immediately after Sweden declared war. Wagner, however, realized that there was no chance of obtaining forces to attack Sweden. If Sweden entered the war it would almost certainly coordinate an attack of its own on Norway, probably toward the Oslo–Bergen area or Trondheim, with an Allied landing. One of Wagner’s greatest concerns was that Germany’s sea routes and U-boat training areas lay open between the German and Swedish coast. Wagner did not present a particularly optimistic assessment either.
At the beginning of December Dönitz stressed that the question of whether or not Sweden entered the war was of the utmost importance. He insisted that the disadvantages would be so serious as to outweigh any possible gains. Dönitz explained that he had informed Keitel and Ribbentrop of his views on this subject. On 9 February 1945, at the Skl’s request, Jodl issued instructions to Germany’s armed forces that Sweden’s entry into the war was unlikely and that Hitler wished no directives for war with Sweden issued.
Sweden’s reaction to Germany’s defense of Courland was not quite what Hitler claimed. Instead of becoming alarmed, Sweden’s military paid scarcely any attention to the German troops in Courland. In early September the Swedes ordered defenses on the island of Gotland strengthened due to the situation in the Baltic States. Otherwise, they did not display much concern. In fact, at the very time Schörner’s supposedly threatening forces went over to the defense in Courland, the Swedish Defense Staff ordered a decrease in readiness Although Swedish military leaders considered an Allied invasion of Norway or Denmark still possible, the threat from Courland seems to have escaped them. In general, the Swedes believed Germany was so tied down in defensive fighting that by the end of 1943 they considered an invasion of Sweden remote indeed. Actually, the Defense Staff’s naval section expressed more concern about a possible threat to the Åland Islands from the Soviet Union once it captured the Baltic States. The Swedes were probably quite content to have German troops in Courland.
Dönitz’s attitude toward Sweden reveals an interesting mixture of fear and contempt. He probably would have liked nothing better than to see Sweden brought to its knees by Nazi armies, because Sweden’s conquest and occupation would have removed a potential threat to the Baltic. But by mid-1943, when Germany seriously began to consider invading Sweden, it was too late. Dönitz had realized that he could not afford any disruption to U-boat training. If Sweden survived the initial onslaught, Allied air and possibly naval forces would arrive and gain direct access to the Baltic. Dönitz realized all too well what that would mean. As Churchill later wrote, “Without command of the Baltic we could not ask for a Swedish harbour. Without a Swedish harbour we could not have command of the Baltic.” Although Dönitz was more than willing to threaten Sweden, as the navy’s proposal to aim V-1 and A-4 rockets at Stockholm demonstrates, his intention was never to provoke the Swedes but to cow them into maintaining the course they had followed since September 1939.
For the watching Bernard Freyberg the barrage for Operation Supercharge was disappointing. He had envisaged something more spectacular than Lightfoot. The anti-climax was almost certainly because, despite the barrage’s use of 192 field guns with 168 further guns employed on other tasks like counter-battery fire, the attack front was considerably narrower than before. Consequently, the artillery flashes were much more concentrated.1 It was rather different for the attacking infantry, as Private Jackson Browne of 8th DLI observed:
‘Get your kit on’. And then when the time comes, everybody’s just waiting. Half a dozen guns opened up – pop, pop, pop, pop ssshhhhhwwww!! Then all of a sudden you hear – Bugger! The earth starts to shake. Well, you looked back and saw that lot. God Almighty! Hell!
It was well organized. On each flank – on the battalion flanks – they had Bofors guns firing tracer every two or three minutes so that you could keep on line. The barrage was going now for about two minutes then they’d drop two or three smoke bombs – they were a bloody nuisance… But when they dropped you knew the barrage was lifting. You just moved in.
Never before had British infantry received such artillery support in the Desert War. The tried and trusted techniques from the Great War (as during Lightfoot) were again applicable, as Captain Ian English described:
We realized that [the barrage] in fact was our armour. That was our protection. The barrage stood on the opening line for twenty minutes while we closed up. This was the first attack behind a barrage we’d done and it was emphasized that one should always be within a hundred yards of it so one can arrive on the enemy position within a few moments of the barrage passing over.
Among 9th DLI, it was Lieutenant Wilfred White’s first action:
The noise was terrific, gunfire, shell bursts, mortars, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, the skirl of the bagpipes, the shouts of our charging infantry all combining in an incredible and unbelievable cacophony of sound. And above this noise we could hear from time to time the call of our Company Commander’s hunting horn. It made us feel rather special and somehow comforted us.
Major Teddy Worrall’s hunting horn – another example of the eccentricities of British officers in combat throughout the Second World War.
The barrage rolled forwards, battering a path, until pausing at 0220hrs on the first objective. Both infantry brigades advanced to time behind it, as English recalled:
Promptly at 0105hrs we crossed the start line in formation with bayonets fixed. At that time it was a pretty dark night because the moon was well past full and ten minutes later the barrage started. We had been expecting a lot of noise. We heard the guns behind us and the flashes we could see and the whistle of the shells going over our heads and then an enormous crash and clouds of dust in front of them.
The terrain, seemingly flat, did little to assist the advance. English described the scene:
It wasn’t flat, but it was extremely open. There were little bits of scrub. When you got down on the ground you could see in fact there were undulations and little crests. If you took a quick look at it, standing on your feet, you’d say they weren’t there at all. But in fact these little crests and pieces of dead ground were extremely useful.
Dead ground, however, could conceal Italian and German defenders whilst the absence of any features, except the line of telegraph poles marking the Rahman track, made it especially hard for any officer or sergeant with compass and map ‘trying to walk a straight course through the inferno for more than two miles to an objective which was only a pencil line on a map’.8 Jackson Browne remembered:
The company commander had a bloke – his batman. He had to pace this out all the way. He had a hell of a job. He had to count the paces. Somewhere along the line – it was about 5–6,000 yards we had to do – I think when we got to about three and a half thousand yards we had to stop for consolidation. Find out what was happening.
Despite assistance from 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, which was to deal with a strongpoint on the right flank, it was the three DLI battalions who encountered the greatest problems. Initially, however, their advance met little opposition, as Jackson Browne recalled:
The first thing I knew was some of the Germans were coming out hysterical. What a bloody state they were in. God Almighty! There was dozens of them coming out. Some of them was cradling and crying and one thing and another. It must’ve been bad then right under that barrage. But his machine-gunners were still having a go – the diehards, y’know. Odd mortars and that coming over.
The Māori battalion had a tough fight in fulfilling its task and suffered almost 100 casualties, including its inspirational commander, Fred Baker, who was seriously wounded. The attack was conducted wholly in the spirit of its warrior heritage, as one of its officers, Major Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett, made clear:
We had to fight almost every inch of the way. We were never far behind the barrage which gave us good protection and did some damage too… At one spot we were opposed by a wall of enemy firing at us with all they had. We all broke into the haka ‘Ka mate! ka mate!’ and charged straight in with the bayonet… It was the most spirited attack that I myself had taken part in.
The advance of 151st Brigade was led by 8th and 9th DLI. Ernie Kerans was with the latter’s Headquarters Company when they first met determined resistance:
The barrage was literally raising the dust and through it I could see the single explosions of shells and grenades and multiples from scores of Spandaus and other machine-guns. My Alamein was in full swing. I realised I still had my rifle slung. Bullets were now plucking at our clothes in large numbers. The bullets and bits of shrapnel came like a shower of deadly hailstones and we had to throw ourselves down to live. On the right a vehicle burst into flames and by the light I could see A Company men trying to advance. We were ahead of them but some of them were still on their feet, others were falling or had done. There were tracers amongst them and explosions all around them. Over the sounds of the barrage and the small-arms could be heard curses and the cries of the wounded. Someone in a pitiful voice was crying for his mother.
Kerans, surrounded by the terrifying sights and sounds of battle, did what the ‘poor bloody infantry’ always did in such circumstances: buried his nose in the dirt and hoped not to get hit:
From everywhere ‘Stretcher Bearer, Stretcher BEARER!’ Whatever had been on fire went out and we were just left with noise. Sight had gone but the screams and curses mixed with the chatter of the machine-guns and explosions of shells continued. We hugged the ground and bullets skimmed our heads. Ken took a bullet in his shoulder.
Similar resistance was met by 8th DLI. Men were helpless as they saw mates killed by their side.
Private John Drew’s memories were bitter:
Though we had to keep apart Joe and I kept in touch with one another till we were held down by machine-gun fire… Things here looked pretty grim and it was only the audacity of an NCO that got us out of it and which cost him an arm. By this time Joe and I had got our Gun going again and we began to advance with the section. The next thing I knew was a tremendous crash behind us. As I fell forward I caught a glimpse of Joe going down. Picking myself up, I discovered that, except for a few scratches, I was OK. I then walked over to Joe and found much to my regret that there was nothing I could do for him. Looking round I found what had been the cause of it all, one of the Jerrys had feigned dead. I then picked up the Gun. I must admit I was pretty mad by this time and let him have a full magazine. I am pretty certain he never lived to tell the tale.
As the attack fragmented, control by officers and NCOs became difficult to exercise. Lieutenant Jamie Kennedy of 9th DLI, describing his experiences in the third person, admitted his helplessness:
The company came to tanks, some dug into the ground, and here the fear of the power of the tanks seemed to make Jamie’s men crazed; he realised that they were beyond accepting any orders other than his finger pointing out targets. If a German tried to get out of his tank no one waited to see if he was surrendering; two men jumped on the tank, pushed the German back in, dropped a grenade in and closed the lid.
From a variety of motivations, men in this extreme environment of savage violence and fear committed acts that defied justification by rational explanations of revenge, orders or conditioning. The most basic instinct of survival – kill or be killed – overwhelmed them. Clear concepts of ‘combat’ and ‘atrocity’ were lost, as is evident from Jackson Browne’s account:
Quite a few went back as prisoners but there was a hell of a lot got their come-uppance. You see that list of Montgomery’s – the last list we got, the final one about what he was going to do – he said the watchword is ‘Kill Germans’. So that’s what they did. They were shooting the buggers down like they was flies. Blokes who’d never shot any bugger before were having a go. They certainly were. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It was good from our point of view!
Browne witnessed further callous and brutal actions, some committed in cold blood:
We were having casualties what with one thing and another but we had no problems with mines or anything like that. We found two blokes – one was dead with the barrage and the other was typical German with his blond hair and that. They had a tin box. I think they’d been going to lay booby traps and they’d been caught in the barrage. So, he’s lying there and Phil Thompson from Bishop Auckland shot the bugger. He said: ‘_____ !’ (Bad Language – you know). ‘Laying so-and-so booby traps!’
Distasteful as it may be to citizens of the modern democracies, such acts were committed in the defeat of fascism, giving the lie to the myth of ‘Krieg Ohne Hass’. Moreover, these actions were exceptional neither in the desert nor in the war in general.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Watson’s 6th DLI followed the lead battalions. The necessity of adequate ‘mopping up’ of resistance after the first advance (another Great War principle that was still applicable) was brought painfully home to Watson:
The tragedy was that in our enthusiasm we must have walked over some of these Italians – single chaps or ones or twos – who lay ‘doggo’ as we passed. Undoubtedly one of them killed my RSM, [Arthur] Page, killed my doctor who was tending [the wounded] and also Sergeant Fairley, who … played cricket for Crook and for the battalion down in Dorset. They all three were killed together and it was a great blow. I also think young Vickers, who had just come to the battalion, who was a splendid junior officer from a well-known Durham family and whose father farmed and was an auctioneer and valuer, he too was killed.
Watson, a true County Durham man, felt these losses of his ‘neighbours’ keenly. His men sought out the line of dug-in Italian armour marking the point at which they swung to form a north-facing flank for the bridgehead:
Sure enough, we came across this group of dug-in tanks. It was almost too good to be true that we should find them there. Practically every one of the crews was still inside and I remember walking up to one and the corporal shouting ‘Stand back, sir, stand back!’ after planting a limpet mine that sticks onto the armour plating. It just blew inwards and killed the crew. I saw A Company having great fun trying to set one alight. But we did the turn and we got into these positions. The positions that we held were absolutely in the right place. Then the guns opened up again for the 8th and 9th Battalions to continue their advance.
When the advance resumed, it was inexorable, as Browne described:
The barrage had stopped for that time and then, when it started, it was time to start moving forwards. You weren’t charging forward. I mean, you weren’t more than a bloody stroll, y’know. There were dugouts and such as that and, whether there was anybody in or not, you either fired a burst in or threw a grenade in. A lot of these Germans, they didn’t know how to give themselves up they were in such a bad state and blokes were just shooting the lot of them down.
Private Corley, Ian English’s batman, still paced out the distance:
After we’d gone about 35 minutes from the first objective, Corley said that by his reckoning we were just about on the objective. So I said ‘Right, we’ll go on about another 200 yards to make certain we are there.’ We realized we must be because the barrage had halted and we came up to it and started to consolidate the position. This was at 0340hrs and the barrage went on till 4 o’clock. The silence when it stopped was absolutely amazing. One thought one had almost got used to this deafening noise. Then it stopped and you could see the stars and the moon and it was a different world.
On their objective, perhaps even a little beyond it, the Durhams attempted to dig in. Their survival until the tanks’ arrival depended upon it.
The advance of 152nd Brigade met less opposition. The men, dressed (unlike the Durhams) in full battledress and each wearing a St Andrew’s Cross made from strips of ‘four-by-two’* on their backs for recognition purposes, went forwards to the sound of bagpipes. Douglas Wimberley recounted:
It was not an easy attack, and George Murray and his Brigade did splendidly. Casualties were by no means light. For instance, 5 Seaforth, whose first attack it was, as they had held the whole start line on the night of the 23rd, lost 12 officers and 165 men. The whole Brigade reached its objective up to time on the instant and began to dig in on the hard ground.
In its wake, two squadrons of armoured cars from the Royal Dragoons succeeded in breaking out to the west to attack supply lines and installations. With 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade also completing its task on the left of the attack and with heavy losses inflicted on Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 and 65o Reggimento Fanteria Motorizzata, the infantry awaited 9th Armoured Brigade’s ‘Balaclava charge’. 9th DLI’s Jamie Kennedy wrote:
The armoured might of Brigadier John Currie’s three regiments was something of a façade. Montgomery had ordered on 29 October that it be brought up to full strength, but this was accomplished by supplying repaired and reconditioned tanks as imagined by Guingand. The process had been too rushed and many had mechanical faults. Of seventy-nine Shermans and Grants and fifty-three Crusaders, only a total of ninety-four tanks reached the start line.
The eccentric use of fox hunting terminology was again in evidence, with the brigade assembly and advance referred to as ‘The Meeting of the Grafton Hounds’.26 The tanks encountered various problems in ‘attending the meet’. For one regiment, the approach march was ‘painful’ as ‘the track was narrow and the dust appalling’.27 At 0500hrs Currie requested a half-hour postponement of the attack and supporting barrage because the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s passage of a minefield was delayed. Nevertheless, this regiment, like the Wiltshire Yeomanry and 3rd Hussars, was ready at the original ‘Zero’. However, the revised artillery arrangements meant the attack started at 0615hrs. Len Flanakin, with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, met a horrific sight:
We were in the vanguard of the armour and as we came out of the minefields we fanned out to form a line. I had just witnessed the most gruesome sight I had ever seen in my life. Where the infantry had passed by they had left a tangle of bodies from both sides but the most pathetic sight was that of a Pipe Major in kilt and bagpipes hanging on the barbed wire. We had lost a few tanks in the mines but the remainder of us reached the start line and waited for the signal to advance.
The three regiments used Crusader tanks in front of Grants and Shermans but on the right 3rd Hussars had only three still running. They and the Wiltshires, in the centre, met only slight opposition initially but the Warwickshire Yeomanry, whose path of advance diverged from the other regiments, was engaged early, as Flanakin recounted:
We charged in with dawn not too far off and were soon in action against dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns including the nasty sort, the dreaded 88s. All the tanks by now were fighting their own individual battles and I was too busy to notice anything. The turret was filled full of acrid smoke each time the 75mm ejected a spent cartridge case and another shell had to be pushed in.
Since the battle opened, Lance-Corporal Mick Collins and his team of ‘flying fitters’ had worked flat out to give the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank crews every conceivable combat advantage. Collins described how:
We were doing our damnedest to keep the old Crusaders mobile and in fighting condition. When the crews asked us if we could give them a bit more pep for their engines we were only too glad to oblige. The Nuffield Liberty engine on the Crusaders was fuelled through a ‘Solex’ carburettor that was sealed to limit the speed and revolutions. To appease the tank drivers we broke the seals and adjusted the carburettors to allow maximum revs and the speed increased noticeably. After all, we agreed with the drivers that a good turn of speed is vitally essential when you know there is a distinct possibility of an 88mm shell chasing you with the sole intention of blowing you and your tank apart.
Now the value of applying learning from previous combat experience was revealed:
Our Squadron of Crusaders were able to travel quite smartly when conditions permitted and it was becoming fashionable with some of the lads to indulge in what was termed ‘beetle crushing’. If a Jerry 88mm was being troublesome and was within range the Crusader was driven straight at the gun emplacement and straight over it, thereby inflicting considerable damage to the gun and its crew. This manoeuvre depended entirely on getting in quick before Jerry could loose one off at the Crusader. Now you can appreciate why the drivers wished to have the governors removed from their carburettors. The six-pounders on the Crusaders were a definite improvement on the two-pounder on their previous tanks but even so it is a pity they were not fitted with 75s as on the Shermans.
In fact, some Crusaders in the attack were armed only with the 2-pounder gun. More significantly for their crews’ chances of survival, the artillery barrage, advancing at 100 yards every three minutes, was too slow for these tanks, which depended on speed and manoeuvrability in the absence of thicker armour.32 Those from the Wiltshires, therefore, drove rapidly through the barrage to get onto the Rahman track ahead of the heavy squadrons.
439th [TCG] [91st TCS] glider taking off for Bastogne resupply 27 December 1944.
The heroic efforts of American forces in action at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge need no retelling. However, few historians give more than a casual mention of the part that gliders and glider pilots played in this important action during late December 1944. Flying their frail aircraft into a hail of enemy flak and ground fire, the glider pilots who participated in this battle carried to the besieged defenders badly needed ammunition and medical supplies that enabled them to hold out and secure the ultimate victory.
Several iconic images and phrases emerged from the Second World War: the raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima; St Paul’s Cathedral bathed in light through the smoke of nearby burning buildings following a German air raid on London in late December1940; the encouragement of the navy chaplain to his shipmates during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition;’ Winston Churchill’s speech to the British House of Commons, and to the world, that ‘never was so much owed by so many to so few; and General Douglas MacArthur’s declaration following his ordered departure from the Philippines, ‘I shall return.’ But, it is arguable that one of the most famous in this collection of war-time memories for the ages is the response to a demand to the American general, Anthony McAuliffe, that he surrender his garrison of beleaguered troops who, in late December 1944, were holding Bastogne against superior numbers of German forces that surrounded the town. The general’s written response was terse and mystifying to its intended audience: ‘Nuts!’
It was one of the coldest winters in years as Allied soldiers huddled to stay warm and somehow defend a front that stretched for eighty-five miles through the Ardennes forest. And, it was this very combination of foul weather and a thin line of enemy troops that persuaded Hitler to punch through and drive toward the prize of the port of Antwerp. Taking this seaport would shutter the supply line that was bringing men and materiel to the both the British and Americans who had made advances toward the German Siegfried Line.
In the early morning hours of 16 December 1944 the Germans launched a massive offensive of 200,000 troops and columns of Panzer tanks that had been gathering unseen under cover of the forests of the Ardennes. The 83,000 Allied defenders along the Luxembourg and Belgium line were “too thinly dispersed to offer any great resistance against the powerful enemy attack and were forced to fall back.” By 21 December the German advances penetrated through to a depth of nearly sixty miles along a Panzer created thirty mile-wide bulge in the line of Allied defenses.
For fear of losing the gains the Allies had made since the Normandy landings on D-Day, Eisenhower brought in reserve forces including the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions who had only recently been fighting in the Market Garden campaign in Holland. But, by 20 December the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne found themselves surrounded in Bastogne, a transportation center with seven highways and three rail lines spreading out from the village.
Because Bastogne was the key to the road-net not only to the northwest but to southwest and south as well, and since nobody knew for sure at the time which way the Germans wanted to go, the need to hold Bastogne never came into question.
Supply drops to the forces in Bastogne by C-47s from England could hardly be considered a milk run since the weather and fog forced the pilots to fly low and on instruments, easy targets for German gunners on the ground. Although they brought in 300 tons of supplies at a cost of eight planes, what the ground forces needed most was gasoline and ammunition, items not conducive to successful parachute drops.
Also desperately needed were medical supplies and doctors for the more than 400 wounded soldiers, their surgical and care needs unmet as the result of the Germans capture of a field hospital and its doctors and other medical personnel, a clear violation of Geneva Convention. McAuliffe’s Christmas Eve greetings to his troops answered the question many troops in the battered city may have asked: What’s so Merry about this Christmas? We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. And to the German Commander’s proposal that we surrender, my response was, “Nuts!”
On the next day, Christmas, McAuliffe sent an urgent request for glider-delivered combat surgeons, gasoline and ammunition, the highest priority given to the medical teams. The first glider carrying two volunteer medical teams arrived on the 26th after about an hour’s flying time from its base in Étain, France. This flight was soon followed by ten additional gliders carrying additional medical personnel, gasoline and artillery shells.10 Fifteen minutes after the last glider touched down in its LZ, Patton’s first tanks broke through from the south. On the following day, an additional fifty gliders were dispatched from Châteaudun, France to fly to Bastogne, this time meeting heavy ground fire and suffering multiple hits, from anti-aircraft guns and machineguns, rounds ripping through the canvas and pinging off the metal frame, some piercing the Jerry cans of gasoline.
One of the pilots who flew into Bastogne remembers that:
Orders quickly came for twelve gliders to be loaded with five gallon Jerry cans of gasoline stacked double decked. I was one of the “lucky guys” assigned to fly the gasoline tankers! One tracer bullet and KABOOM! Hey, someone had to do it, and by that time we had all heard about Gen. McAuliffe’s one word reply to the Kraut’s surrender ultimatum: “NUTS!” Our loaded gliders sat on the tarmac a couple of days when word came (that) the Gooney Birds could immediately take off for Bastogne towing our loaded gliders, including my lil ole gasoline tanker. At the moment I really had big time mixed emotions. I really wanted to fly into Bastogne, but I really wasn’t all that excited about flying that gasoline tanker.
Another pilot recalls that:
The timing of the arrival was good. The sun had already set and the moon had not yet risen. We came in between five and six hundred feet which meant the enemy had difficulty in getting our range. Every glider landed with nearly all gasoline intact, although some of the cans of gasoline had been pierced by small-arms fire, none, fortunately, had been hit by incendiary bullets.’
McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne got a monumental amount of well-deserved glory as did Patton and his 4th Armored Division for breaking through the Krauts to relieve Bastogne. But the volunteer combat glider pilots who flew into Bastogne received very little, if any, recognition for what they did, and no glory at all! But ask the troopers of the 101st whose gas tanks were empty and who were running out of ammunition and ask those medics who were in desperate need of medical supplies and they would tell you how they felt about those “unknown pilots” who wore the silver “G” wings.
And in the final analysis, isn’t it the thanks and admiration of your fellow soldiers that matter most? Isn’t it satisfaction enough to know that you had been responsible for saving the lives of some of your comrades by flying in teams of medical personnel, and that you were just ‘doing your job?’
During the Battle of the Bulge, two supply operations were flown with gliders; 11 were dispatched on 26 December 1944, 50 were sent on the 27th. Sixteen pilots of the 72 sent out were reported as missing in action, one was wounded, none were killed.
The Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, Bastogne, Operation Repulse—the battles fought here were bloody and muddy. It was miserably cold, and it cost thousands of lives. The campaign:
… which delayed the Rhineland Campaign for six weeks secured no major terrain objectives for either side. The Germans who had employed some of their best remaining units, lost nearly 250,000 men, 600 tanks and assault guns, and about 1,600 airplanes. The Allies suffered 72,000 casualties.
A correspondent for the U.S. serviceman’s magazine, Yank, reported the grizzly side of the conflict at the Battle of the Bulge:
The Ardennes campaign was more than a fight against the strongest German attack we had faced since the early days in Normandy. It was also a fight against almost daily snowstorms in near sub-zero temperatures and face-freezing winds which doubled the difficulty of rolling back the German advance.
We learned a lot about winter warfare in the Ardennes. Some of it was learned the hard way, by frostbitten hands and feet, pneumonia, and even death by freezing. Besides physical difficulties, there was the added trouble of frozen weapons, equipment, and even food.
… (D)own the street is a US Army hospital, formerly a Belgian schoolhouse, which was evacuated this morning. The wounded and sick who slept there last night are now in ambulances and trucks, bouncing over that road which has just been bombed … Our jeep stalls beside a bomb crater on the right side of the road … in the muddy crater are two American bodies and an abandoned stretcher. They had been pushed off the road so that the passing vehicles would not run them over. An Army blanket covers each corpse. Beside one body is a helmet with a medic’s red cross painted on it. There is a hole drilled clean through it.
The second year of the campaign began with dissension in the Jacobite camp; a not uncommon state of affairs for any force without a clear leader and command hierarchy, especially one that has suffered military defeat and has not received the promised support in terms of men and money.
To exacerbate matters, there were some minor losses at the year’s onset. Lieutenant Colonel Mackrigour, ‘one of the greatest Robber and Plunderers’ was taken by Kilmarnock’s Horse. Cannon wrote to Mackay to tell him that this man must be treated well or he would cause 10 of his own prisoners to die. Meanwhile, Laird Macknel of Colloughie submitted with 30 men. There were two reported minor attempts to take government-held towns in January. One hundred Jacobites attacked Aberdeen, but in the fighting they lost 20 men dead and 15 taken, the government losing eight men killed. A planned Jacobite attack on Inverness at the end of January by Colin Mackenzie with 200-300 men was discovered and so was repulsed, with some of the attackers being killed or captured.
Hopes for – and promised – support from Ireland and France were largely disappointed. On 8 February three ships arrived from the former, bringing a number of officers: Colonels Buchan, Maxwell, Wauchop and others. The Earl of Seaforth, a Catholic Highland nobleman, came in the spring, but ‘brought nothing with him butt Letters and Commissions to the Chiefs: Cameron had written to James in a letter of 14 February to ask for supplies, and the reply, dated from Dublin on 31 March, was as ever optimistic. James, after explaining that the delay was due to the difficulty in transporting horses, stated that the French fleet was there and so ‘Now, we shall take all necessary measures, and loose as little time as we can in executing them: As always, though, no immediate help, was forthcoming, and so James urged his followers in Scotland to keep the faith, as he knew from experience that they had in the past, stressed how they had risked much for him and that he was convinced that Providence would be with them. Yet there were some crumbs from their master’s table. On 18 January, James sent £900 to Buchan, of which £300 was earmarked for Cannon, £100 to Purcell and the remainder for the Irish troops in Scotland.
The chiefs held a council of war after receiving such letters. Present were Seaforth, Generals Buchan and Cannon, Colonel Brown and others, as to how to conduct the year’s campaign. Apparently ‘they were generally so enraged at finding themselves disappointed of the relief they expected of men, arms and other provisions of war, that many proposed to offer their submissions to King William, upon terms which they were then very sure to obtain: They recalled their losses which had reduced some to poverty, they cited the imminent garrisons planned for subduing the Highlands and expected nothing but ruin by Scotland being ‘the seat of a bloody war’ and that it was therefore best to come to terms in order to save what they could from the wreckage.
Others went further and accused James of leaving them to their mutual enemy and that it was madness to continue supporting him. They thought that it must be easy to ‘waft over some thousands of the Irish: James was blamed for neglecting his own affairs and for ignoring his ministers. Therefore, ‘it was now high time for them to look to themselves, and to observe the first principles of nature, which was self-preservation: Many present subscribed to such sentiments. The laird of Glenmoriston told Livingstone he wished to come to terms.
These sentiments were not universally held. Sir Donald MacDonaId, Sir John MacLean and the Captain of Clanranald all declared their continued adherence to James. Cameron then delivered a major speech. He said that what he had already heard from many was shocking. That they had ‘renounced their duty and allegiance, as well as the respect they owed to the majesty of their Sovereign’ was disgraceful. He wondered whether they had been deceived by their enemies. He claimed that he would support their legitimate sovereign as long as he was able to as he was their lawfully anointed. He reminded them of James’ pledges of support and future rewards. He spoke at length and ‘After this discourse, which was delivered with great warmth and zeale, none present had the assurance to speake any more of peace: Buchan was appointed as commander-in-chief until that year’s general rendezvous. He encouraged waverers with promises of French aid in the way of supplies to look forward to.
Glengarry received a letter of encouragement from James, written on 1 April: ‘Wee need not therefore exhort you to the continuance of your Endeavours for us, since wee have it from all hands that none is more earnest and zealous . . . how intent we are upon helping you out of your present difficulties:
Yet all was not well with their enemies, either. Mackay was also despondent and had lobbied to be sent to Holland at the year’s beginning, but William wanted him to remain in Scotland ’till the things were further settled: Meanwhile in January 1690, Mackay had further orders to reduce the number of units in the Scottish establishment from 10 to seven regiments of infantry, losing Mar’s, Bargany’s and Blantyre’s, and to disband 12 troops of horse and dragoons. Mackay thought that the reduction in cavalry was folly for there was ‘the necessity of a considerable body of horse and dragoons, without which it was impossible to secure the authority of the government in the north: Instructions came from the court dated 4 January to disband others, too. If there were insufficient funds to maintain regiments, then the number ofcompanies in each should be reduced. The troopers in Annandale’s and Ross’ cavalry were to be distributed among the remaining cavalry troops to make their numbers up to the establishment strength; any remaining were to be discharged. Mackay also noted the instructions from the court to put Leven, ‘tho’ but a colonel and a youth without service’ on an equal footing with him and deemed that this was ‘a token of His Majesty’s mistrust of him’, but avoided showing his displeasure.
The extent of the suggested troop reduction was ameliorated. Mackay, Leven and Major General Munro wrote to the King that the retention of the cavalry was essential for the security of Scotland. The infantry loss was also softened for the men of the disbanded regiments formed a new regiment, Cunningham’s, and the remainder made up a company in each of the other seven regiments.
Mackay wanted Captain John Hill of Leven’s regiment to be appointed as adjutant general. Mackay had no one in this role and he stated that it was necessary in order to distribute orders, muster troops and have the cavalry made useful for service. Such work would greatly assist Mackay in bringing the war to a swift resolution.
Arms, ammunition and uniforms were also insufficient at the beginning of the year. The Privy Council requested 3,000 muskets with ammunition on 10 January. On 1 April they asked for new uniforms for Mackay’s, Ramsay’s and Lauder’s regiments. Beveridge’s regiment was poorly armed because the men had muskets of different calibre; perhaps a mix of matchlocks and flintlocks. Yet in other ways, the condition of the troops at the year’s onset was good. They were being paid out of English resources and were mostly up to strength ‘and in good order’. Mackay also ordered six three-pounders for use in the field, but there is no evidence they ever fired a shot in anger.
Mackay’s policy was to have towns, cities and other places garrisoned to deny them to the Jacobites and to restrict supplies available to the Jacobites. The Castle of Erchless, to the south-west of Inverness, belonging to Chisholm of Strathglass, was garrisoned by Lieutenant Colonel Lumstone with seven companies of Strathmore’s regiment, for example. Expeditions were sent to attack and capture Jacobites. On 1 March Captain John Hay of Livingstone’s Horse, at Banff took suspected Jacobites at Lord Oliphanfs house at Bachlen. At the end of the month, Livingstone sent horse and dragoons to Strathglass, killing and capturing Jacobites there, and taking some cattle to Inverness.
The first prong of Mackay’s strategy was to have a garrisoned fort in the West Highlands, an issue which he had raised in the previous year. He later wrote ‘the only formidable rebels then in the kingdom might be subdued by placing a garrison in Innerlochy: This meant ships, boats, spades, shovels and pickaxes and frigates to convoy them there. Yet delays occurred, due to the overriding precedence claimed by William’s expedition to Ireland and the Scottish government lacking money. It was not until March that such necessaries could be supplied. Mackay met members of the Privy Council and gave them an account of what he had requested to the court.
Feeling that the Privy Council would be unreceptive to his plan, he suggested to them that troops be transported along the coast to prevent any of the Islanders from reinforcing the Jacobites on the mainland. Paying for war was difficult: the Lords of the Treasury supplying £600, but this was inadequate given ‘so great was the disorder and poverty of the government: Glasgow was zealous for the cause and made up the shortfall in funding.
Fort William was thus established. It had three six-pounders, six three pounders with 130 balls, and a dozen culverins, with 20 balls each. There were also 800 grenades. However, instead of 1 ,200 men in the garrison as planned, there were only 900 allocated, which was further reduced by desertions. The palisade was weak. On 21 July, Hill wrote of the Jacobites, ‘they stir not yet but come not in.
Secondly, part of Mackay’s strategy to defeat the Jacobites was to send the newly promoted Major Jacob Ferguson of Lauder’s regiment, with 600 men to be shipped at Greenock and for Captain Edward Pottinger of HMS Dartmouth with other ships, to work together against the Jacobites of the Western Islands. They were to ‘resolve and do every thing unanimously and with one accord: Pottinger was to have the final word on seaborne matters, Ferguson to have the lead as to landing troops and in land-based operations.
The aim was stated by Mackay in his instructions to Ferguson:
The main desseyn of this detachment being to make a diversion, allarme the rebel coasts, cut their communication with the Islanders now in rebellion against their Majesties authoritie, and to take away or burn all their boats and berlins whether on the Isles or along the coasts of the rebelles upon firme land: the Major is to undertake nothing as to landing but upon visible and apparent advantages and humane assurance of success.
Mackay added that although this was to be done ‘with all the rigour of military executions, such as shall continue obstinate in their rebellion, with this proviso, that women and children be not touched or wronged in their persons.
There were difficulties and delays. Ferguson had to wait five weeks for the provisions for his expedition. Meanwhile, Mackay broadcast his plans for Ferguson, though stating that he had far more men than was the case in reality, in order that numbers accruing to Cannon and Buchan would be reduced. According to Mackay, the Jacobites, instead of supplying 4,000- 5,000 men, only 700-800 were sent out with Buchan. Thus ‘the gross of the rebels, particularly such as dwelt near the sea with the inhabitants of the isles stayed at home to guard their country against the frigates, with Ferguson’s detachment, at the every noise whereof they were very much terrified.
Ferguson’s raiding, assisted with help from the Campbells, resulted in property belonging to Jacobites in Mull being destroyed. Castle Duart, stronghold of the MacLeans, was left alone. However, inhabitants of Kintyre and Mull yielded by early June.
If Ferguson thought that with 300-400 men he might master the Isle of Mull, he was to contact the laird of Ardkinglas, sheriff depute of Argyllshire, who was then to assist him with ‘the most resolute and best armed men of the shire’ (later that year 600 Argyllshire militia aided his troops). Generally, boats held by the Jacobites were the main target for without them they would be unable to assist their allies on the mainland with men or provisions. Men swearing allegiance to their Majesties and delivering their weapons were to be protected but their chiefs had to surrender themselves to Ferguson in person. The major also had to keep his men under control or else punish them. MacLeod, though he had not declared his open allegiance to their Majesties, was to be assured of protection once Ferguson was on the coast.
From May to October there were three ships cruising off the north-west of Scotland. These were HMS Dartmouth, a 32 gun frigate with a crew of 135 men under Pottinger. Then there was the smaller Larke, a sixth-rate frigate of 1 8 guns and 85 men under Captain Andrew Douglass. Finally there was the Fanfan, of two guns and 30 men under Richard Finch. There were at least 500-600 Jacobites on Mull near the castle Duart to oppose them.
Initially the two larger ships focussed their attention on Islay. On 19 May they landed troops there, on different sides of the islands. Pottinger’s and Captain James Hackett’s detachments had orders to ‘burne and destroy those rebels, and [the latter] did accordingly land 30 men: The Lark sent another 19 soldiers ashore. Four prisoners were taken. On the next day they were at Mull. Captain Robert Mackay took 200 sailors and soldiers ashore to march to Castle Boy, ‘they having sett severall towns afire’ by nightfall. On the following day, further towns were burnt and boats were destroyed. In the remainder of the month and in June, the ships landed men to destroy further boats and houses and to make prisoners, destroying ‘such as fall in their way:
Pottinger wrote ‘glowing’ reports on Ferguson’s effectiveness. On 19 June, whilst cruising off Mull, he wrote:
Major Ferguson, his men, ships and boats, done the best service wee were capable of, by burning & destroying the severall islands & houses, boats, cattle &c. of such as are in actuall Rebellion. To be particular would be too tedious to yo. Hon., tho’ on some islands the souldiers have scarce a beast, nor a hutt to shelter in.
Pottinger noted, following Mackay’s orders, that he had given instructions that the men had been ‘strictly charged not to molest’ women and children. Yet his initial incursions had been resisted. The MacLeans, Glengarrys and Camerons ‘continue as obstinate as Jews’ but ‘which in good time I hope shall be reduc’t: Ferguson lost a dozen men in his expeditions, mostly by straggling. One man had been caught by the Jacobites and hanged ‘most barbarously.
The Fanfan, on 20 June, landed a Captain Piercy Kirk of the Queen Consort’s Foot and 50 soldiers on an unnamed island, after firing from the ship at Jacobites on the shore. The raiding party killed three Jacobites and the rest fled to the mountains. No losses were incurred by the soldiers. On the following day the ship fired at people on the shore of the Isle of Mull.
Sir Donald MacDonald’s son sought terms with Ferguson by early July, but his father objected to such a surrender. This led to his house ‘the prettiest house in the Highlands of Scotland’ being reduced to ‘flames and ashes: The Dartmouth, a half mile away, fired ‘betwixt 3 and 400 shott’ at it before men landed to finish the job, ‘what my guns could not batter down: Pottinger, writing on 31 July, considered that his expedition had been a success, for it had ‘kept ye clans of these islands from joining: who could have brought in a body above 3,000 men to have joined Buchan and Cannon. The apprehension they concerned of our landing, kept each of them to preserve their own self interest’.
Yet for Pottinger, this success would come, ultimately, at a very high price. The expedition was not without loss, apart from those men already referred to. On 18 September Fanfan’s captain learnt that the Dartmouth had been lost at sea in Collander Bay. Only five men and one boy had been saved. Pottinger was dead. Colonel Hill wrote, ’tis a very great loss.
Thirdly, Mackay ordered Livingstone, who had been at Aberdeen and Inverness since August 1689, to march north with his dragoon regiment for he knew the country, the people and the latter’s intention better than any other. Mackay gave him varying instructions dependent on the intelligence he received from Livingstone.
On 6 February, Mackay wrote an upbeat letter to Melville, assuring him that ‘no man serves his interest with lesse regard to his owne than I doe: He added, ‘I question not but with Gods assistance, to be able to give a good account of the Highland rebellion before the end of Appril: His difficulties, though were a lack of experienced officers as subordinates who could hold independent commands and advance notice of supplies sent northwards.
Fighting was occurring on a low level. At the end of March, two troops of horse and two of dragoons, along with a few infantry, were besieging Castle Glendaleth. There was firing on both sides, but the besiegers could not enter. Captain Charles Dundas of the Royal Regiment of Foot was killed, ‘being over forward with two or three mor ofye dragoons, and a few wounded of ye Foot: They then retreated on hearing that 500 Highlanders were on their way.
Meanwhile in the north of Scotland on 22 April, Livingstone, having recovered from the illness that had afflicted him in February, heard that there were Jacobites at Mackintosh’s house at Aberarder, Strathearn, which was 15 miles from Inverness. With 1 ,000 infantry, four troops of horse and some dragoons, with artillery, moved to attack them. The Jacobites retreated when they were within six miles of them. Ramsay’s and Angus’ regiments were to march to join Livingstone, but on hearing there was a Jacobite threat to Montrose, returned there.
Mackay’s plans were known about by the Jacobites and apparently, ‘the very noise of it occasioned such alarm among the rebels: Buchan, as the senior major general to Cannon, took over command of the Jacobite army. According to Balcarres, the plan was for him ‘to go down to the borders of the low country, to amuse the enemy and fatigue their troops by allaruming them in severall of their quarters.
He asked the clans to supply him with 100 men each (on 18 March Cluny of MacPherson was asked for 200 men) and had 1,200-1,500 men with him; the low numbers due to the attacks on the West as already noted. He hoped to collect more supporters before marching to the Lowlands. At the end of March they marched from Keppoch to Kilwinny at the end of Loch Ness. By the middle of April, they were in Strathspey and remained on the north bank for 10 days; Balcarres writing that instead of taking action as discussed, he ‘continued there without doing anything: He was advised to quarter his men in the woods of Glenlochy ‘where they could not be attacked but under great disadvantage, yet he would not hearken to this advice: Instead he put his men in the villages near Cromdale, ‘though all the clans positively protested against that march’. Two hundred men led by Grant and Brody were sent to guard the fords over the Spey, and apparently they ‘were so well posted that they might have stopt the enemy from crossing that great river: They would have known that their enemies were at Inverness and so the danger was from the north.
The attack on the Wytschaete-Messines ridge was a limited ‘bite and hold’ operation designed to clear the southern flank of the forthcoming Third Battle of Ypres. Messines was meticulously planned by General Herbert Plumer, who had taken to heart the key lesson of the Somme, that careful rehearsal and comprehensive planning were even more important than massive artillery bombardments. Plumer kept a firm personal grip on every possible aspect of his operation, from the barrage plan to the co-ordination of the mines, and from the water supply to the new backpacks used to take supplies to the front. The Australian general John Monash once famously said that trench warfare was ‘simply a problem of engineering’, and the battle of Messines, at which he was present as a division commander, was doubtless the sort of thing that he had in mind.
Plumer certainly believed in overkill, with some three million shells being fired during the two-week preliminary bombardment that was designed not only to break the Germans’ wire, but even to starve out their front-line infantry by preventing supplies being moved up to them from the rear. Then these supposedly starved troops would be blown sky-high by the simultaneous detonation of massive interlocking mines. The effects of the shock waves were to be multiplied as they rebounded off each other, and in the event as many as some 10,000 Germans were killed. The explosion could be heard in London, 130 miles away. Then a comprehensive creeping barrage began immediately and the attacking infantry captured the crest of the ridge along the whole of the attack frontage, at small loss. Casualties slowly mounted as the Germans gathered their wits and launched counter-attacks during the following days, complete with ground attack aircraft, but overall the battle had been a remarkable demonstration of Plumer’s tactical virtuosity.
Unfortunately the same could not be said of the early stages of the next battle, which was to be a much larger offensive out of the Ypres salient and Nieuport. One of the problems was that the operation had multiple aims, the incongruous first of which was to help the Royal Navy by capturing enemy naval bases on the Belgian coast. A major bridgehead across the mouth of the Yser Canal was to be set up opposite Nieuport, from which a drive on Ostend and Zeebrugge could be launched in conjunction with amphibious landings. However, while the bridgehead was still garrisoned by only one brigade, the Germans very cleverly counter-attacked and wiped it out. It soon became clear that the whole coastal wing of the British offensive would have to be abandoned. If Ostend were to be captured at all, it would have to be taken by an overland thrust of almost thirty miles due north from the Ypres salient, rather than the ten miles north-east from Nieuport. This was, of course, very much further than had been achieved by any offensive on the Western Front since 1914. Even if the rail junction north of Roulers (Roeselare) were accepted as a compromise or intermediate target, it was still twelve miles northeast from Ypres, and in a divergent direction.
As if this confusion were not bad enough, a number of other conflicting aims were also jostling for attention. One was the tactical consideration that the best way to clear the Germans away from the Ypres area was to capture the Gheluvelt plateau to the east of the city, in the direction of Menin, which was commanding high ground. Thus Haig found he had three possible directions for his thrust – towards Ostend, Roulers or Menin – which was of course no more than the logical result of starting in a salient where the enemy occupied almost three out of the four points of the compass.
It was certainly Haig’s duty to select one out of the three possible directions for his attack, and explain clearly to his subordinates exactly what the aim was intended to be. Alas, he failed to do either, but retreated into veiled talk of secret ‘higher considerations’ which prevented him from explaining his master plan. This has often been taken as a reference to the need to draw German attention away from the French mutinies, at a time when he felt he could not state out loud that they actually existed, in the same way that the Somme had relieved the pressure on Verdun in 1916. Modern research apparently rejects this interpretation of both 1916 and 1917, although of course Haig always saw it as his duty to fight alongside his French allies. Linked to all this, in Haig’s mind there must also have been some sort of theory of attrition, or ‘putting pressure on the Germans’, which in turn implied ‘seeking to fight frontal battles with as many of them as possible’, thereby ‘killing as many of them as possible’. This, of course, was a totally different objective from the idea of making a clean and deep breakthrough to Ostend, or Roulers, or across the Gheluvelt plateau. In all his battles Haig invariably retained some ultimate faith in at least the possibility of such a breakthrough, although he never actually managed to achieve one. In the particular case of Third Ypres it meant that he appointed the cavalryman Gough to command the major part of the battle, while Plumer, the more methodical expert in ‘bite and hold’ operations, was left in a secondary role.
There were thus considerable uncertainties within Haig’s planning staff. In which direction should they attack, and should they go for a breakthrough or a limited objective? In the event an ingenious compromise was agreed, whereby a whole series of ‘bite and hold’ attacks would be mounted in quick succession, hopefully at three-day intervals, until perhaps a final decisive breakthrough might be achieved. As for the direction, it was optimistically believed that because the attack frontage would be so long, and the attacking troops so numerous, all the various different objectives could be captured, and so every point of the compass could be covered. It might even be said, with the benefit of hindsight, that if only the battle had started a month earlier, and if only the weather gods had bestowed a little bit more luck upon it, it just might have worked.
Behind all this, however, is the much darker question of why Haig should have chosen to fight at Ypres at all. Even if we accept that he absolutely had to fight a major battle somewhere – to relieve the French or even to make a breakthrough all the way to Berlin – we are still free to question his precise choice of battlefield. His battles around Arras had only just finished in May, so we can understand why he might not have wished to return to the charge in that particular area. Nor had he personally any good memories of the sector facing Lille, between Vimy and Armentieres. Conversely, however, he must surely have treasured warm memories of his own personal triumph at the first (defensive) battle of Ypres in 1914. For Douglas Haig himself, the Ypres salient must have seemed almost like a benign environment, even though it was a notoriously malevolent one for those who had to actually live in it. Not only was it surrounded and overlooked on three sides by the enemy, and especially by his artillery, but it was a notoriously damp and muddy site in its own right. It had already won a particularly evil reputation among the rank and file of the BEF during Haig’s first battle in 1914, which was not at all improved by the frightening German use of gas in the second battle in 1915.
There was, however, another potential site for the great midsummer offensive of 1917, which with today’s hindsight we can suggest would have been considerably better than Ypres. This was the Cambrai sector, to the south of Arras, where the British were not in a salient and where the well-drained ground had not been churned up by years of shell fire. Admittedly it was a sector in which the Germans were especially well fortified in their new Hindenburg Line, but they were extremely well fortified at Ypres too, so maybe there was no significant disadvantage in that respect. As it happens, Cambrai would be the scene of a dramatic British success on 20 November, but by that time too many of the available resources had already been consumed in the Ypres salient. The Cambrai battle – really it should be called little more than a ‘raid’ – could not be sustained for more than ten days. We may speculate that if only the main weight of the BEF had been deployed to Cambrai in midsummer, the overall level of success might have been very much higher than it actually was.
The reality, however, was that Haig had committed himself un- shakeably to Ypres as the site of his main battle of 1917. Ideally it should have started very soon after the preliminaries at Messines in early June, but in fact it was delayed, for a variety of reasons, for over a month. The bombardment did not start until 18 July, at which point the Germans sprang their first nasty surprise, in the form of a counter-battery bombardment using their new blistering agent, mustard gas. The British artillery had to struggle against this horror at the same time as it was trying to suppress the German artillery, so naturally its efficiency was reduced. Finally the infantry went over the top on 31 July.
The first ‘bite and hold’ operation went very well over ground that had been thoroughly prepared by the artillery. However, it was found that the Germans had very strong positions in great depth, including many concrete bunkers, and it was only their forward outposts that had been captured. Then it began to rain, and the rain did not stop before the battlefield had been turned into a total quagmire. The preparations for the second ‘bite’ were delayed, and it turned out to be far less decisive than the first. The artillery could not move forward as quickly as planned; the tanks bogged down unless they stuck to the roads; many of the infantry weapons became jammed with mud, and the Germans were remorseless in their counter-attacks. The initial optimism for a rapid advance started to fade away. As the days ticked by criticisms of Gough’s methods began to mount, until at the end of August Haig eventually restricted the frontage for which he was responsible, and brought in Plumer to impose the strict organization and planning that had served him so well at Messines.
Plumer Takes Over
At this point the rain stopped and the sun once again began to shine, but for the next three weeks the British were unable to exploit the dry weather. Plumer was reorganizing the assault forces, so the offensive was temporarily halted. It resumed on 20 September in grand style, with a succession of three textbook ‘bite and hold’ attacks, culminating at Broodseinde on 4 October. Of particular note was the inability of the German counter-attacks to make progress against the massive weight of British artillery fire. Whatever tactics the Germans attempted to employ, they appeared to be powerless in the face of this dominant arm. It was exactly how Haig’s battle had been supposed to run in late June, and British spirits rose just as German optimism dissolved. However, it was now autumn moving into winter, and the rains began again, never to relent. In the long weeks after the heady success of Broodseinde the battlefield reverted to a heavily cratered bog, in which men could easily drown if they strayed away from the all too few duckboard paths. Depression and frustration set in as even the most normal operations became practically impossible. The Gheluvelt plateau was never totally captured, although the village of Passchendaele, at its summit, was captured by Canadian troops on 6 November, after which the whole operation was soon closed down. The allies had got nowhere near either Roulers or Ostend, and the cavalry Corps de Chasse had long ago been sent back to its stables.
The name ‘Passchendaele’ has entered the English language and consciousness as a symbol of the same type of futile sacrifice as was perceived to have occurred on the Somme a year earlier. However, in this case there were some added horrors which seemed to make the whole experience even worse. The most obvious was the rain and the all-pervasive mud, which the British public soon came to understand in a very vivid manner when the photographs were published after the war. The moonscape of shell craters filled with water, and devoid of all vegetation, made a very powerful impression. The very name ‘Passchendaele’ is itself resonant of squelching through deep, slimy mire.
Less well understood were some of the other horrors that were seen for the first time in this battle. Mustard gas was the first, and it was probably the nastiest gas of the entire war. The systematic use of concrete pillboxes by the Germans might be seen as another, in the sense that they made it much harder than previously to knock out or neutralize an enemy machine gun post. A third horror, widely noted in the memoirs of participants, was what in modern parlance is called ‘the deep battle’, or the ability to reach deep behind enemy lines with firepower delivered by artillery and aircraft. Before Third Ypres the troops knew that they were almost totally safe from attack as soon as they had moved a couple of miles back from the front line. In the second half of 1917, however, this could no longer be relied upon. In particular the techniques of night bombing had become more advanced. Soldiers sleeping ten miles behind the front now found they were likely to be woken up, and perhaps even killed, by air raids. At the same time truly long-range artillery was available in ever increasing numbers and on the British side, at least, the science of first-round accuracy (‘predicted fire’) was being perfected for its use.
Many different sub-sciences had to be brought together before a gun could be relied upon to hit its target with its first shot. The weather had to be studied at every altitude through which the shell would travel. The firing characteristics of each individual gun had to be exactly known, especially since they were constantly changing as the barrel wore out. Each batch of shells was also subtly different from every other batch, and these differences had to be fully understood if their line of flight was to be predicted. Precise and detailed mapping was especially vital, to establish the locations of both the firing gun and its target. To achieve this it was necessary to set up a vast network of aircraft taking photographs of the terrain on a daily basis; laboratories to process and interpret the photographs; workshops to convert the data into an accurately surveyed set of maps; and finally a printing and distribution system to get the maps to the guns and the tactical air photos to the infantry. During some operations new sets of maps and photographs had to be issued daily, as the situation on the ground kept changing. There was also a need for certain specialized techniques for locating enemy gun batteries, such as flash spotting or sound ranging. All this was enormously more sophisticated than anything that had been known before the war, and it amounted to a significant step forward in the ‘art of war’.
Apart from anything else, the new artillery techniques meant that guns no longer needed to be pre-registered by the lengthy old methods of trial and error. In the past, this prolonged process had always given away the presence of the guns many days before an attack was launched, which in turn was a key intelligence indicator that an attack was imminent. An attacker was unable to achieve surprise, however well he might camouflage the build-up of his troops, so the defender had every opportunity to concentrate his reserves at the key point. With the new techniques of ‘predicted fire’, by contrast, the guns needed to support an attack could be kept hidden and silent right up to the moment when the infantry climbed out of its trenches and began its assault. The enemy could be kept in total ignorance of the impending offensive until about two minutes before it arrived on his forward positions.
This represented a revolution in tactics, which came to be understood by the British high command soon after the battle of Third Ypres had begun. Obviously by that stage it was already far too late to achieve surprise at Ypres itself, but General Byng, commanding the Third Army further to the south, realized that he had an ideal opportunity to do so on his frontage facing Cambrai. He devised a plan of attack, based around a surprise artillery bombardment using ‘predicted fire’. Tanks were not originally part of this plan, as many have subsequently claimed, but they were added only later as an afterthought, to help crush the wire. The attack was carefully prepared in total secrecy during the first three weeks of November, and achieved total surprise when it was finally unleashed in the dawn mists of 20 November.
Despite the great strength of the Hindenburg Line defences, the assault troops rolled forward in splendid style. Most of the German artillery was knocked out almost instantly by accurate long-range fire; the wire was crushed under the tracks of some 378 tanks, and the infantry quickly occupied the enemy’s front-line trenches. Only in front of Flesquières, in the second line of defence, did the attack encounter stiff resistance. The leading tanks had the misfortune to encounter a specialist battery that had been trained in anti-tank tactics, and were shot to pieces as they climbed up the slope. For all their strengths and shock value, Flesquières demonstrated that tanks were far from invulnerable to enemy fire, and in fact during the day as a whole no fewer than sixty-five were knocked out. A further 114 were immobilized by mechanical problems or bogging, so the attrition rate was running at around 50 per cent per day of combat. Another major problem was that the build-up of carbon monoxide and petrol fumes within each tank, especially when combined with motion sickness, severely limited the time its crew could continue in action. Six hours was a very good average; eight hours was absolutely heroic. When advancing carefully over a broken and complicated battlefield, this factor greatly restricted the distance a tank could advance in a day from its starting point, which would itself necessarily be some way behind the infantry’s start line. In the case of Cambrai some tanks managed to advance as far as five miles into enemy territory on 20 November, but many more went much less far.
In the conditions of the Great War the tank could never possibly be considered a weapon of breakthrough. It had very limited range and speed, not to mention many other important tactical limitations. What it achieved at Cambrai was a great political triumph, in that at long last there were hundreds of tanks on the battlefield, rather than just a few dozens, and the progress made on 20 November was spectacular in the context of the Western Front. The church bells were rung in Britain upon receipt of the news, and the ‘myth of the tank’ entered the popular consciousness. The future of tank development and funding, which had been controversial ever since Bullecourt in April, was assured. The responsibility for making a breakthrough nevertheless remained firmly where it had always resided – with the horsed cavalry.
On 20 November it was the cavalry that was supposed to break through ‘to the green fields beyond’, and ultimately capture Cambrai itself. However the wide St Quentin Canal lay across the path of their intended advance, and by the time they got there only one rickety bridge remained. Some of the cavalry got across and established a bridgehead; but the whole impetus of their forward charge had been wrecked. The Germans were granted time to bring up reinforcements and make a fight of it after all. This meant that the successes of the first day, which had certainly been great, would lead to no breakthrough but only a new round of attritional trench warfare. It became focused on Bourlon Wood, a hill feature overlooking the whole battlefield from the north. The British finally took it on 23 November, only to lose it again on the 27th. At this stage of the battle Byng had run out of reserves, since his operation had only ever been conceived on a relatively small scale when compared with the major offensive that had just finished at Ypres. Indeed, he now found he had perilously few troops left to defend the ground he had won.
The Germans duly exploited the British weakness by mounting two major counter-attacks on 30 November, of which the one towards the south-east flank of the British salient was particularly effective. Much of the ground captured on the 20th was retaken and the balance of casualties, which had previously been heavily in favour of the British, was restored almost to equality. For the British it made a disappointing end to a battle that had started so well. For the Germans it demonstrated that in favourable circumstances they could still land well-prepared offensive blows with infantry spearheads following a hurricane bombardment. At Ypres the British artillery had been too strong and the terrain too broken for this tactic to work; but at Cambrai it worked well and pointed the way to a series of successful offensives in spring 1918. Nevertheless, the overall result at Cambrai was something of a drawn match. The breakthrough that had eluded tacticians in 1916 thus continued to elude them right to the end of 1917.