In his statement to us at Viazma in the middle of September, General Sokolovsky had made three important points: first, that despite terrible setbacks the Red Army was gradually “grinding down” the Wehrmacht; secondly that it was very likely that the Germans would make one last desperate attempt, or even “several last desperate attempts” to capture Moscow, but they would fail in this; and, thirdly, that the Red Army was well-clothed for a winter campaign.

The impression that the Russians were rapidly learning all kinds of lessons, were dismissing as useless some of the pre-war theories, which were wholly inapplicable to prevailing conditions, and that professional soldiers of the highest order were taking over the command from the Army “politicians” and the “civil war legends” like Budienny and Voroshilov was to be confirmed in the next few weeks. Some brilliant soldiers had survived the Army Purges of 1937–8, notably Zhukov and Shaposhnikov, and had continued at their posts during the worst time of the German invasion; Zhukov had literally saved Leningrad in the nick of time by taking over from Voroshilov when all seemed lost. Apart from him and Shaposhnikov, Timoshenko—a first-class staff officer who had started his career in the Tsar’s army—was almost the only one of the pre-war top brass to prove a man of ability and imagination.

The first months of the war had been a school of the greatest value to the officers of the Red Army, and it was above all those who had distinguished themselves in the operations of June to October 1941 who were to form that brilliant pléiade of generals and marshals the like of whom had not been seen since Napoleon’s Grande Armée. In the course of the summer and autumn important changes had been made in the organisation of the air force by General Novikov, and in the use of artillery by General Voronov; both Zhukov and Konev had played a leading role in holding up the Germans at Smolensk; Rokossovsky, Vatutin, Cherniakhovsky, Rotmistrov, Boldin, Malinovsky, Fedyuninsky, Govorov, Meretskov, Yeremenko, Belov, Lelushenko, Bagramian and numerous other men, who were to become famous during the Battle of Moscow or in other important battles in 1941, were men who had, as it were, won their spurs in the heavy fighting during the first months of the war. Distinction in the field now became Stalin’s criterion in making top army appointments. It is, indeed, perfectly true that “the summer and autumn battles had brought on a military purge, as opposed to a political purge of the military. There was a growing restlessness with the incompetent and the inept. The great and signal strength of the Soviet High Command was that it was able to produce that minimum of high calibre commanders capable of steering the Red Army out of total disaster”.

Undoubtedly some of the commanders had only a purely nominal Party affiliation, and some of the new men, such as Rokossovsky, had actually been victims of the Army Purges of 1937–8, and so could not have had any tender feelings for Stalin.

The Stavka, the General Headquarters of the Soviet High Command was set up on June 23, and a few days later the State Defence Committee (GKO), consisting of Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Malenkov and Beria; on July 10 the “Stavka of the High Command” became the “Stavka of the Supreme Command”, with Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Budienny, Shaposhnikov and General Zhukov, the Chief of Staff, as members. On July 19 Stalin became Defence Commissar and on August 7 Commander-in-Chief.

The Commissar system was greatly reinforced; the commissars, as “representatives of the Party and the government in the Red Army” were to watch over the officers’ and soldiers’ morale, and share with the commander full responsibility for the unit’s conduct in battle. They were also to report to the Supreme Command any cases of “unworthiness” amongst either officers or political personnel. This was a hangover from the civil war, and, indeed, from the much more recent period when the officer corps was suspected of unreliability. In practice, in 1941, the commissars proved, in the great majority of cases, to be either men who almost fully supported the officers, or were, at most, a minor technical nuisance; but inspired by the same lutte à outrance spirit, and, faced daily by pressing military tasks, the old political and personal differences between officer and commissar were now usually less harsh than in the past. Even so, the dual command had its drawbacks, and, at the time of Stalingrad, the commissars’ role was to be drastically modified.

Whether or not there was any serious need for giving the officer a “Party whip”, there was certainly even less need for the NKVD’s “rear security units” to check panic through the use of machine-gunners ready to keep the Red Army from any unauthorised withdrawals. “What initial fears there might have been that the troops would not fight were soon dispelled by the stubborn and bitter defence which the Red Army put up against the Germans, fighting, as Halder observed, ‘to the last man’, and employing ‘treacherous methods’ in which the Russian did not cease firing until he was dead”. These “rear security units” were a revival of a practice inherited from the Civil War, and proved wholly unnecessary in 1941, the Army itself dealing rigorously with any cases of cowardice and panic.

The role of the NKVD in actual military operations remains rather obscure, though it is known that, apart from the Frontier Guards, who were under NKVD jurisdiction, and who were the first to meet the German onslaught, there were to be some very important occasions in which NKVD troops fought as battle units—for example at Voronezh in June–July 1942, where they helped to prevent a particularly dangerous German breakthrough. But there was a much grimmer side to the NKVD’s connection with the Red Army; thus, not only Russian prisoners who had managed to escape from the Germans, but even whole Army units who—as so often happened in 1941—had broken out of German encirclement, were subjected as suspects to the most harsh and petty interrogation by the O.O. (Osoby Otdel—Special Department) run by the NKVD. In Simonov’s novel, The Living and the Dead, there is a particularly sickening episode based on actual fact, in which a large number of officers and soldiers break out of a German encirclement after many weeks’ fighting. They are promptly disarmed by the NKVD; but it so happens that at that very moment the Germans have started their offensive against Moscow, and as the disarmed men are being taken to a NKVD sorting station, they are trapped by the Germans, and simply massacred, unable to offer any resistance.

Apart from that, however, the NKVD interfered less than before with the Red Army; the border-line between the military and the “political” elements in the Army was vanishing, and Stalin himself presided over this development. Whatever he had done in the past to weaken the army by his purges and his constant political interference, he had learned his lesson from the summer and autumn of 1941. Voroshilov and Budienny were pushed into the background and the role of the NKVD bosses greatly reduced. The patriotic, nationalist and “1812” line was wholeheartedly taken up by all ranks of the army. All the military talent—discovered and tested in the first battles of the war and, in some cases, before that in the Far East—was assembled, all available reserves were thrown into battle, including some crack divisions from Central Asia and the Far East, a measure made possible by the Non-Aggression Pact concluded with the Japanese in 1939.

Whatever bad memories and reservations the generals may have had, Stalin had become the indispensable unifying factor in the patrie-en-danger atmosphere of October–November 1941. There was no alternative. The Germans were on the outskirts of Leningrad, were pushing through the Donbas on their way to Rostov, and on September 30 the “final” offensive against Moscow had started.

The Battle of Moscow falls, broadly, into three phases: the first German offensive from September 30 to nearly the end of October; the second German offensive from November 17 right up to December 5; and the Russian counter-offensive of December 6, which lasted till spring 1942.

On September 30 Guderian’s panzer units on the southern flank of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) thrust against Glukhov and Orel, which fell on October 2, but were then held up by a tank group under Colonel Katyukov beyond Mtsensk, on the road to Tula. Other German forces launched full scale attacks from the south-west in the Bryansk area and from the west on the Smolensk-Moscow road. Large Soviet troop concentrations were encircled south of Bryansk and in the Viazma area due west of Moscow. The Germans had planned to contain Soviet troops surrounded in the Viazma area mainly by infantry, thus freeing their panzer and motorised divisions for a lightning advance on Moscow. But for more than a week, fighting a circular battle of extreme ferocity, the remnants of the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies and the troops under General Boldin tied up most of the German 4th Army and of the 4th Tank Corps. This resistance enabled the Soviet Supreme Command to extricate and withdraw more of their front line troops from the encirclement to the Mozhaisk line and to bring up reserves from the rear.

By October 6 German tank units had broken through the Rzhev-Viazma defence line and were advancing towards the Mozhaisk line of fortified positions some fifty miles west of Moscow, which had been improvised and prepared during the summer of 1941, and ran from Kalinin (north-west of Moscow on the Moscow-Leningrad Railway line), to Kaluga (south-west of Moscow and half-way between Tula and Viazma), Maloyaroslavets and Tula. The few troops manning these defences could halt the advance units of the Heeresgruppe Mitte, but not the bulk of the German forces.

While reinforcements from the Far East and Central Asia were on their way to the Moscow Front, the GKO Headquarters threw in what reserves they could muster. The infantry of Generals Artemiev and Lelushenko and the tanks of General Kurkin which fought here were, by October 9, placed under the direct orders of the Soviet Supreme Command. On the following day Zhukov was appointed C. in C. of the whole front.

But the Germans bypassed the Mozhaisk line from the south and captured Kaluga on October 12. Two days later, outflanking the Mozhaisk line in the north, they broke into Kalinin. After heavy fighting Mozhaisk itself was abandoned on October 18. Already on the 14th fierce battles were raging in the Volokolamsk sector, midway between Mozhaisk and Kalinin, some fifty miles north-west of Moscow.

The situation was extremely serious. There was no continuous front any more. The German air force was master of the sky. German tank units, penetrating deep into the rear, were forcing the Red Army units to retreat to new positions to avoid encirclement. Together with the army, thousands of Soviet civilians were moving east. People on foot, or in horse carts, cattle, cars, were moving east in a continuous stream along all the roads, making troop movements even more difficult.

Despite stiff resistance everywhere, the Germans were closing in on Moscow from all directions. It was two days after the fall of Kalinin, and when the threat of a breakthrough from Volokolamsk to Istra and Moscow looked a near-certainty, that the “Moscow panic” reached its height. This was on October 16. To this day the story is current that, on that morning, two German tanks broke into Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, where they were promptly destroyed; that two such tanks ever existed, except in some frightened Muscovite’s imagination, is not confirmed by any serious source.

What happened in Moscow on October 16? Many have spoken of the big skedaddle (bolshoi drap) that took place that day. Although, as we shall see, this is an over-generalisation, October 16 in Moscow was certainly not a tale of the “unanimous heroism of the people of Moscow” as recorded in the official History.

It took the Moscow population several days to realise how serious the new German offensive was. During the last days of September and, indeed, for the first few days of October, all attention was centred on the big German offensive in the Ukraine, the news of the breakthrough into the Crimea, and the Beaverbrook visit, which had begun on September 29. At his press conference on September 28 Lozovsky had tried to sound very reassuring, saying that the Germans were losing “many tens of thousands dead” outside Leningrad, but that no matter how many more they lost, they still wouldn’t get into Leningrad; he also said that “communications continued to be maintained”, and that, although there was rationing in the city, there was no food shortage. He also said that there was heavy fighting “for the Crimea”, but denied that the Germans had as yet crossed the Perekop Isthmus. As for the German claim of having captured 500,000 or 600,000 prisoners in the Ukraine, after the loss of Kiev, he was much more cagey, saying that the battle was continuing, and that it was not in the Russian’s interest to give out information prematurely. However, he added the somewhat sinister phrase: “The farther east the Germans push, the nearer will they get to the grave of Nazi Germany.” He seemed to be prepared for the loss of Kharkov and the Donbas, though he did not say so.

It did not become clear until October 4 or 5 that an offensive against Moscow had started, and, even so, it was not clear how big it was. There was, needless to say, nothing in the Russian papers about Hitler’s speech of October 2 announcing his “final” drive against Moscow.

However, Lozovsky referred to it in his press conference of October 7. He looked slightly flustered, but said that Hitler’s speech only showed that the fellow was getting desperate.

“He knows he isn’t going to win the war, but he has to keep the Germans more or less contented during the winter, and he must therefore achieve some major success, which would suggest that a certain stage of the war has closed. The second reason why it is essential for Hitler to do something big is the Anglo-American-Soviet agreement, which has caused a feeling of despondency in Germany. The Germans could, at a pinch, swallow a ‘Bolshevik’ agreement with Britain, but a ‘Bolshevik’ agreement with America was more than the Germans had ever expected.” Lozovsky added that, anyway, the capture of this or that city would not affect the final outcome of the war. It was as if he was already preparing the press for the possible loss of Moscow. Yet he managed to end on a note of bravado: “If the Germans want to see a few hundred thousand more of their people killed, they’ll succeed in that—if in nothing else.”

The news on the night of the 7th was even worse, with the first official reference to “heavy fighting in the direction of Viazma”.

On the 8th, while Pravda and Izvestia were careful not to sound too alarmed (Pravda actually started with a routine article on “The Work of Women in War-Time”), the army paper, Red Star, looked extremely disquieting. It said that “the very existence of the Soviet State was in danger”, and that every man of the Red Army “must stand firm and fight to the last drop of blood”. It described the new German offensive as a last desperate fling:

Hitler has thrown into it everything he has got—even every old and obsolete tank, every midget tank the Germans have collected in Holland, France or Belgium has been thrown into this battle… The Soviet soldiers must at any price destroy these tanks, old and new, large or small. All the riff-raff armour of ruined Europe is being thrown against the Soviet Union.

Pravda sounded the alarm on the 9th, warning the people of Moscow against “careless complacency” and calling on them to “mobilise all their forces to repel the enemy’s offensive”. On the following day it called for “vigilance” saying that, in addition to advancing on Moscow, “the enemy is also trying, through the wide network of its agents, spies and agents-provocateurs, to disorganise the rear and to create panic”. On October 12, Pravda spoke of the “terrible danger” threatening the country.

Even without the help of enemy agents, there was enough in Pravda to spread the greatest alarm among the population of Moscow. Talk of evacuation had begun on the 8th, and foreign embassies as well as numerous Russian government offices and institutions were told to expect a decision on it very shortly. The atmosphere was becoming extremely tense. There was talk of Moscow as a “super-Madrid” among the braver, and feverish attempts to get away among the less brave.

By October 13, the situation in Moscow had become highly critical. Numerous German troops which had, for over a week, been held up by the “Viazma encirclement”, had become available for the final attack on Moscow. The “Western” Front, under the general command of General Zhukov, assisted by General Konev, and with General Sokolovsky as Chief of Staff, consisted of four sectors: Volokolamsk under Rokossovsky; Mozhaisk under Govorov, Maloyaroslavets under Golubev and Kaluga under Zakharkin. There was absolutely no certainty that a German breakthrough could be prevented, and on October 12, the State Defence Committee had decided to call upon the people of Moscow to build a defence line some distance outside Moscow, another one right along the city border, and two supplementary city lines along the outer and inner rings of boulevards within Moscow itself.

On the morning of October 13, Shcherbakov, Secretary of the Central Committee and of the Moscow Party Committee of the Communist Party, spoke at a meeting called by the Moscow Party Organisation: “Let us not shut our eyes. Moscow is in danger.” He appealed to the workers of the city to send all possible reserves to the front and to the defence lines both inside and outside the city; and to increase greatly the output of arms and munitions.

The resolution passed by the Moscow Organisation called for “iron discipline, a merciless struggle against even the slightest manifestations of panic, against cowards, deserters and rumour-mongers”. The resolution further decided that, within two or three days, each Moscow district should assemble a battalion of volunteers; these came to be known as Moscow’s “Communist Battalions” and were, like some of the opolcheniye regiments, to play an important role in the defence of Moscow by filling in “gaps”—at a very heavy cost in lives. Within three days, 12,000 such volunteers were formed into platoons and battalions, most of them with little military training and no fighting experience.

It was on October 12 and 13 that it was decided to evacuate immediately to Kuibyshev and other cities in the east a large number of government offices, including many People’s Commissariats, part of the Party organisations, and the entire diplomatic corps of Moscow. Moscow’s most important armaments works were to be evacuated as well. Practically all “scientific and cultural institutions” such as the Academy of Sciences, the University and the theatres were to be moved.

But the State Defence Committee, the Stavka of the Supreme Command, and a skeleton administration were to stay on in Moscow until further notice. The principal newspapers such as Pravda, Red Star, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Trud, continued to be published in the capital.

The news of these evacuations was followed by the official communiqué published on the morning of October 16. It said: “During the night of October 14–15 the position on the Western Front became worse. The German-Fascist troops hurled against our troops large quantities of tanks and motorised infantry, and in one sector broke through our defences.”

In describing the great October crisis in Moscow it is important to distinguish between three factors. First, the Army, which fought on desperately against superior enemy forces, and yielded ground only very slowly, although owing to relatively poor maneuverability, it was unable to prevent some spectacular German local successes, such as the capture of Kaluga in the south on the 12th, of Kalinin in the north on the 14th, or that breakthrough in what was rather vaguely described as “the Volokolamsk sector” to which the “panic communiqué”, published on October 16, referred. Even long afterwards it was believed in Moscow that on the 15th the Germans had crashed through much further towards Moscow than is apparent today from any published record of the fighting. Only then, it was said, did Rokossovsky stop the rot by throwing in the last reserves, including scarcely-trained opolchentsy, and troops from Siberia as soon as they disembarked from the trains. There are countless stories of regular soldiers and even opolchentsy attacking German tanks with hand grenades and with “petrol bottles”, and of other “last ditch” exploits. The morale of the fighting forces certainly did not crack. The fact that fresh troops from the Far East and Central Asia were being thrown in all the time, though only in limited numbers, had a salutary effect in keeping up the spirit of the troops who had already fought without respite for over a fortnight.

Secondly, there was the Moscow working-class; most of them were ready to put in long hours of overtime in factories producing armaments and ammunition; to build defences; to fight the Germans inside Moscow should they break through, or, if all failed, to “follow the Red Army to the east”. However, there were different shades in the determination of the workers to “defend Moscow” at all costs. The very fact that not more than 12,000 should have volunteered for the “Communist brigades” at the height of the near-panic of October 13–16 seems indicative; was it because, to many, these improvised battalions seemed futile in this kind of war, or was it because, at the back of many workers’ minds, there was the idea that Russia was still vast, and that it might be more advantageous to fight the decisive battle somewhere east.

Thirdly, there was a large mass of Muscovites, difficult to classify, who were more responsible than the others for “the great skedaddle” of October 16. These included anybody from plain obyvateli, ready to run away from danger, to small, medium and even high Party or non-Party officials who felt that Moscow had become a job for the Army, and that there was not much that civilians could do. Among these people there was a genuine fear of finding themselves under German occupation, and, with regular passes, or with passes of sorts they had somehow wangled—or sometimes with no passes at all—people fled to the east, just as in Paris people had fled to the south in 1940 as the Germans approached the capital.

Later, many of these people were to be bitterly ashamed of having fled, of having overrated the might of the Germans, of having not had enough confidence in the Red Army. And yet, had not the Government shown the way, as it were, by frantically speeding up on all those evacuations from the 10th of October onwards?

Especially in 1942 the “big skedaddle” of October 16 continued to be a nasty memory with many. There were some grim jokes on the subject—especially in connection with the medal “For the Defence of Moscow” that had been distributed lavishly among the soldiers and civilians; there was the joke about the two kinds of ribbons—some Moscow medals should be suspended on the regular moiré ribbon, others on a drap ribbon—drap meaning both a thick kind of cloth and skedaddle. There was also the joke of a famous and very plump and well-equipped actress who had received a Moscow Medal “for defending Moscow from Kuibyshev with her breast”.

I remember Surkov telling me that when he arrived in Moscow from the front on the 16th, he phoned some fifteen or twenty of his friends, and all had vanished.

In “fiction”, more than in formal history, there are some valuable descriptions of Moscow at the height of the crisis—for instance in Simonov’s The Living and the Dead already quoted. Here is a picture of Moscow during that grim 16th of October and the following days—with the railway station stampedes; with officials fleeing in their cars without a permit; the opolchentsy and Communist battalion men sullenly walking, rather than marching, down the streets, dressed in a motley collection of clothes, smoking, but not singing; with the “Hammer and Sickle” factory working day and night turning out thousands of anti-tank hedge-hogs, which are then driven to the outer ring of boulevards; with its smell of burning papers; with the rapid succession of air-raids and air-battles over Moscow, in which Russian airmen often suicidally ram enemy planes; with the demoralisation of the majority and the grim determination among the minority to hang on to Moscow, and to fight, if necessary, inside the city.

By the 16th, many factories had already been evacuated.

All the same, below all the froth of panic and despair there was “another Moscow”:

Later, when all this belonged to the past, and somebody recalled that 16th of October with sorrow or bitterness, he [Simonov’s hero] would say nothing. The memory of Moscow that day was unbearable to him—like the face of a person you love distorted by fear. And yet, not only outside Moscow, where the troops were fighting and dying that day, but inside Moscow itself, there were enough people who were doing all within their power not to surrender it. And that was why Moscow was not lost. And yet, at the Front that day the war seemed to have taken a fatal turn, and there were people in Moscow that same day who, in their despair, were ready to believe that the Germans would enter Moscow tomorrow. As always happens in tragic moments, the deep faith and inconspicuous work of those who carried on, was not yet known to all, and had not yet come to bear fruit, while the bewilderment, terror and despair of the others hit you between the eyes. This was inevitable. That day tens of thousands, getting away from the Germans, rolled like avalanches towards the railway stations and towards the eastern exits of Moscow; and yet, out of these tens of thousands, there were perhaps only a few thousand whom history could rightly condemn.

Simonov wrote this account of Moscow on October 16, 1941 after a lapse of nearly twenty years; but his story—which could not have been published in Stalin’s day—rings true in the light of what I had heard of those grim days only a few months later, in 1942.




This idealized bird’s-eye view of the battle of Moncontour, between French Catholics and Huguenots in 1569, shows a typical Renaissance battlefield: an opening artillery barrage, followed by advancing squares of pikemen, flanked by musketeers, with cavalry in support. The battle was a victory for the Catholics (in the foreground) who were supported by troops from Spain, the Papal States, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany

The Third War of Religion broke out on August 18, 1568, when Catholics attempted to capture Louis de Bourbon, prince de Condé (1530–69), and Comte Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72), the primary Protestant leaders. The Royalist Catholics continued to suppress Protestantism. Sporadic fighting occurred throughout the Loire Valley for the remainder of 1568. In March 1569, the Royalists under Marshal Gaspard de Tavannes (1509–73) engaged in battle with Condé’s forces in the region between Angoulême and Cognac. Later in March, Tavanne crossed the Charente River near Châteauneuf and soundly defeated the Huguenots at the Battle of Jarmac. Although Condé was captured and murdered, Coligny managed to withdraw a portion of the Protestant army in good order. About three months later, help for the Huguenots arrived in the form of 13,000 German Protestant reinforcements. This enlarged force laid siege to Poitiers. Then on August 24, 1569, Coligny sent Comte Gabriel de Montgomery (c. 1530–74) to Orthez, where he repulsed a Royalist invasion of French held Navarre and defeated Catholic forces arranged against him. Royalist marshal Tavanne then relieved Poitiers and forced Coligny to raise the siege.

The major battle of the Third War of Religion occurred on October 3, 1569, at Moncontour. The Royalists, aided by a force of Swiss sympathizers, forced the Huguenot cavalry off the field and then crushed the Huguenot infantry. The Huguenots lost about 8,000, whereas Royalist losses numbered about 1,000. The following year, however, Coligny marched his Huguenot forces through central France from April through June and began threatening Paris. These actions forced the Peace of St. Germain, which granted many religious freedoms to the Protestants.

The Battle in Detail

The battle of Moncontour (3 October 1569) was a major Catholic victory during the Third War of Religion that followed the unsuccessful Huguenot siege of Poitiers, and seemed to bring the Protestant cause to its knees. After recovering from an earlier defeat at Jarnac, the Huguenots received reinforcements from Germany, and against the advice of Admiral Coligny, the senior Huguenot commander, decided to besiege Poitiers (27 July-7 September 1569). The siege dragged on for so long partly because the Royal army had been disbanded after the spring campaign, but by early September Henry, duke of Anjou, the future Henry III, was ready to move (Anjou was officially in charge, but the real command was probably held by Gaspard de Tavannes).

Anjou did not believe that he was strong enough to risk a direct attack on Coligny’s army around Poitiers, so instead he moved to attack Châtellerault, a Huguenot-held city 18 miles to the north. A breach had soon been battered in the walls, forcing Coligny to lift the siege of Poitiers. On 7 September he marched north. Anjou moved north-west to Chinon, further down the river Vienne. Coligny followed him for a short distance, then crossed to the left bank of the Vienne and took up a position at Faye-la-Vineuse, fifteen miles to the south of Chinon. Coligny’s plan was to move into southern Poitou, where he could link up with the Army of the Viscounts, a successful Huguenot army that had recently re-conquered Bearn.

Anjou moved before Coligny. On 29 September the Royal army crossed the Vienne, and reached Loudun, due west of Faye. On 30 September Coligny began by moving south, then swung to the west to head towards Moncontour, on the River Dive. This meant that he was advancing across the route being taken by the Royal army, and the Huguenot rearguard ran into trouble at Saint-Clair, four miles to the east of the river. Coligny was able to extract his army from a dangerous situation, and by the end of the day had reached comparative safety at Moncontour, where he was protected by the line of the fast-flowing Dive.

Coligny was now faced by a crisis within his army. Although the Huguenots were probably outnumbered, and had not yet recovered from the siege of Poitiers, most men in the army wanted to fight. Coligny was less eager, and would have preferred to unite with the Army of the Viscounts first, and so he had to disguise his plans.

On the night of 2-3 October the Huguenot army was ordered to prepare to march south-west to Airvault, where it could cross the River Thouet. At the same time the Royal army was on the move, heading south to get around the upper reaches of the Dive. On the morning of 3 October Anjou was moving north, towards Moncontour.

If Coligny had been able to move when he had wanted, Anjou’s bold move would have failed, but on the crucial morning the Huguenot’s German troops mutinied and demanded to be paid. It took two hours for order to be restored, by which time Anjou had appeared from the south and it was clear that a battle would have to be fought.

Anjou’s first move was to try and deploy to the west to block the Huguenot line of retreat towards Airvault, but Coligny prevented this by ordering Louis of Nassau to block him with the ‘battle’, in this case the right wing of the army. Nassau’s line stretched out to Douron, about half way between the two rivers. Coligny commanded the Huguenot ‘van’, which was deployed on the left, to the north-east of Nassau.

The Catholic line was deployed with its van (under the Duke of Montpensier) on the right, facing Coligny, and the ‘battle’, under Anjou, was on the left. The Catholics also had a reserve, under Biron.

The exact size of the two armies is uncertain, although most sources agree that the Huguenots were outnumbered. Coligny had 6,000 cavalry and 12,000-14000 infantry, while Anjou had 7,000-8,000 cavalry and 16,000-18,000 infantry. The Huguenots had a strong German contingent, the Catholics a Swiss contingent.

The battle began with a clash between the two vans (the Protestant left and Catholic right). The Huguenot left was put under severe pressure, and Coligny was forced to call for aid from the right. He then led a charge against the German reiters, who were advancing with John Philip I, Rhinegrave of Salm-Dhaun Rhinegrave at their head. Coligny almost certainly killed the Rhinegrave himself, before being wounded and forced to retire to the rear for treatment.

On the Royal side Anjou led his own cavalry in an attack that left him dangerously exposed. The reserve was ordered into the fray to restore the line, and their extra pressure began to force the Huguenots back. The Huguenot’s reiters made a disastrous attack on the Swiss, and then fled from the field. This left the landsknechts exposed to attack by the Swiss, who massacred them, killing around 3,800 out of a total of 4,000. This represented nearly half of the Huguenot casualties of 8,000.

After a battle that lasted for four hours the Huguenots were forced to retreat. Louis of Nassau and Wolrad of Mansfeld were largely responsible for the escape of the surviving part of the army (10,000-12,000 men depending on the actual size of the army). The retreating Huguenots were able to cross the Thouet at Airvault, and then moved to Partenay and finally to safety at Noirt.

The Catholics failed to take advantage of the crushing nature of their victory. Instead of pursuing the defeated Huguenots, Anjou decided to concentrate on capturing their cities. On 10 October he began a siege of Saint-Jean d’Angély that would last until 3 December and prove to be just as fatal to the Royal cause as the siege of Poitiers had been for the Huguenots. This gave Coligny the time he needed to raise a new army in the south of France, which he then led back into the north in 1570, eventually forcing the court to come to terms at St.-Germain on 8 August 1570.


Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin in an T34/85 and 501st Heavy Tank Battalion

The heaviest tank produced during World War II, the Tiger II was also known as the King Tiger in literal translation of the German Königstiger, or Bengal tiger. At 63.5 tonnes (62.5 tons), it outweighed any other heavy tank deployed in appreciable numbers. Its 88mm (3.5in) KwK 43 L/71 high-velocity gun was the finest implement of warfare of its kind in the German arsenal when production began in earnest in mid-1944. Although the Tiger II was a formidable foe in combat, fuel shortages and mechanical failures resulted in a number of the massive tanks being abandoned in the field or destroyed by their crews to prevent capture.

Although many features of the Tiger II were actually ahead of their time, the tank was plagued by mechanical issues. Many of the problems stemmed from an unreliable drivetrain. Its tremendous weight strained the Maybach powerplant and resulted in frequent breakdowns, while the suspension was also suspect in varied weather conditions. The weight of the Tiger II contributed to difficulties with cross-country movement, particularly over marshy terrain and across rivers. Long-distance travel was accomplished on railway flatcars.

The cost of Tiger II production was prohibitive as well, several times greater per unit than that of other German tanks. Each Tiger II further required the investment of 300,000 man-hours to complete. Fuel consumption was extreme and limited the range of the Tiger II, particularly during the crucial hours of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.

Guards Lieutenant A. P. Oskin

Following their destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, the Red Army launched a massive offensive across the Ukraine and into Eastern Poland against Army Group North Ukraine.

It culminated in the seizure of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Vistula River, notably in the region of Sandomierz. Despite their losses, the German forces were still full of fight and threw whatever units they could muster against the Soviet enclaves.

One of these units was 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, newly equipped with Tiger IIs and under the command of Major von Legat. In common with most of the German heavy tank units in the latter part of the war, the 501st was fated to become a ‘fire brigade’ force, transferred from place to place as the situation demanded and denied the time to build up an operational relationship with the units it supported.

However, its baptism of fire as a Tiger II unit was yet to come, as, on 6th August 1944, all serviceable vehicles were loaded onto flat cars and shipped to Poland, leaving behind 14 of these brand new, but temperamental monsters in the battalion workshops.

In the vicinity of Staszow, at the southwestern extremity of the Sandomierz bridgehead, the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Corps was in the van of the Russian advance; the village of Ogledow its latest conquest. However, resistance had hardened and reconnaissance led Corps HQ to order its tank units to pull back and establish defensive positions west of Staszow.

The German heavy tank battalion had just arrived in Poland with their new Tiger IIs (first unit with the Tiger II in the East). After unloading at Kielce, 45 Tigers set out for Ogledow 30 miles or so away, only 8 Tigers made it with the rest failing on route.

On 12 August 1944, a lone T-34/85 under Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade employed its 85mm gun against the latest German heavy tank, the Tiger II. Lt.Oskin was outside of Ogledow hiding in a corn field.

Oskin observed three Tigers along a dirt road and realized that from his concealed position he could fire at their flanks. At a range of 200m (656ft), Oskin ordered his gunner, Abubakir Merkhaidorov, to fire at the second tank in line. The shell penetrated the turret. Two more hits were scored. The fourth shell set the Tiger alight. As the first Tiger in line rotated its turret, Oskin got off four rounds. Three did little damage, but the fourth set the Tiger ablaze.

Blinded by smoke and fire from the other two German tanks, the third Tiger began to withdraw, but Oskin manoeuvred behind it. A single round destroyed the tank. Oskin had demonstrated what the T-34/85 could do in combat and was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Prisoners captured prior to the action had revealed the arrival of a new heavy tank battalion, but the Russians appear to have had no idea that it was equipped with the Tiger Is replacement. In fact 501st Heavy Tank Battalion had only been able to muster 11 serviceable vehicles for this attack, due to the mechanical problems that dogged most of the late war German ‘super weapons’, which tended to be rushed into service without sufficient field trials.

With this assault beaten back the Soviet forces launched a counter attack, surprising the German forces and recapturing Ogledow. Amongst the spoils were three Tiger IIs, allegedly still in running order and abandoned by their crews. It is likely that these had suffered minor malfunctions and, as no other vehicle was capable of towing them, couldn’t be moved in time.

Other clashes followed, which, according to Soviet sources, resulted in the loss of more Tigers to the guns of Soviet tanks, including the IS-IIs of the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Battalion. Seven King Tigers attacked Soviet positions from the height 272.1. Waiting in an ambush near Mokre Guards Lieutenant Udalov in his IS-2 tank (with number 98 painted on the turret, fitted with the D-25 cannon) let the German tanks to come to the distance of 700-800 metres and started firing. After few hits the first tank was set on fire and the second was knocked out. German tanks reversed and moved back. Udalov drove towards enemy and from the edge of the forest fired again. With one more tank burning Germans retreated. Soon King Tigers attacked again, this time towards Poniki, where Guards Lieutenant Beliakov’s IS-II set up the ambush. He commenced fire at the distance 1000 metres and after third round had set enemy tank on fire. The Germans realized the grave situation and retreated again.

Guards Senior Lieutenant V. A. Udalov

During three days of continuous fighting between August 11th and 13th, 1944, in area of Staszów and Szyldów the 6th GTC destroyed and captured 24 enemy tanks, 13 of them were newly introduced King Tigers.

“From 9th to 19th of August 1944, the 52nd GTBr took 7 POWs and eliminated 225 soldiers and officers, destroyed one machine gun, captured three cannons, destroyed 6 tanks, 10 trucks and 2 other vehicles.”

Whatever the full truth, the German heavies had been poorly deployed in ill-judged frontal attacks and after the action Major von Legat was replaced as the unit commander.

Plans for the T-34/85 tank gained impetus following the pivotal Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. By March 1944, the upgunned variant of the original T-34 medium tank was being deployed with elite Guards units of the Soviet Red Army.

The long barrel of the high-velocity 85mm (3.35in) ZIS-S-53 gun enhanced the sleek, streamlined profile of the T-34/85 medium tank with its turret forward atop the hull. The design was characteristic of Soviet tanks for decades to come.

T-34/85 medium tank

The improved firepower of the T-34/85 medium tank came about following analysis of the T-34 performance during the Battle of Kursk. Three 85mm (3.35in) weapons were considered before a decision was made to mount the ZIS-S-53.

Following the victory at Kursk in July 1943, thwarting the German offensive Operation Citadel, the Soviets began to assess the performance of their T-34 medium tank in combat with the German PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw VI Tiger tanks. The T-34 was equipped with a 76.2mm (3in) main weapon, while the German tanks mounted high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) and 88mm (3.5in) guns respectively.

Both sides lost tanks in great numbers, but it was determined that the T-34’s main weapon did not provide sufficient muzzle velocity to penetrate German armour at a reasonable distance, compelling the Soviets to execute mass charges to close rapidly with the Germans in something resembling a Wild West shootout.

The initial conclusion was that the T-34 required more armour and additional plating was affixed to a small number of the tanks. During testing it was determined that the additional armour so eroded speed and manoeuvrability that the experimental model, the T-43, was discarded.

The Power of Suggestion

The designers came to the realization that the answer to enhancing the T-34’s combat capability laid in a new main weapon. Soviet records indicate that during a meeting on 25 August 1943, V.G. Grabin, the chief designer at Artillery Factory No 92, suggested arming the T-34 with a more powerful 85mm (3.35in) gun. Three separate designs were tested before the ZIS-S-53 gun, sponsored by General F.F. Petrov, was accepted. The gun was also used in the KV-85 and IS-2 heavy tanks, as well as the SU-85 tank destroyer.

The one-piece cast turret was enlarged to accommodate a third crewman, bringing the total to five, with the commander no longer required to serve the main gun in combat. The new configuration substantially improved the combat efficiency of the T-34/85. The commander was positioned in the rear of the turret to the left with the gunner in front of him and the loader on the right. The driver and a second machine gunner were positioned forward in the hull. The basic turret redesign was completed within weeks at Production Works No 112 in Gorky.

Other changes to the T-34/85 from the original T-34 included a commander’s cupola atop the turret with five vision slits. A hatch was installed in the turret roof for the loader and included ventilation slits to evacuate fumes from the main weapon and a turret-mounted 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine gun. A second machine gun remained in the hull. Pistol ports were placed on the turret sides.

Due to space restrictions, the size of the fuel tanks was reduced, slightly curbing the T-34/85’s range compared to the earlier T-34. The heavier turret also required that stronger springs be introduced to the Christie suspension to adjust for the additional weight.

Prescribed Production

The exigencies of war greatly influenced the hurried production of the T-34/85. By 15 December 1943, on the strength of proven hull designs – three of which were in production with only slight differences between them – the Soviet State Defence Committee ordered production of the T-34/85 to commence. The turret itself, however, had not been finalized and its designers were required to catch up with the pace of hull production.

Production Works No 112 actually began manufacturing the new tank in January 1944 and the first T-34/85s were delivered to elite Guards armoured units in March 1944. During the spring, two more manufacturing facilities, in Omsk and Nizhnij Tagil, were assigned to produce the T-34/85. Most of the new tanks actually were produced in Nizhnij Tagil. Throughout wartime production, the turret and other components of the tank were refined and improved. At one time, the three factories were producing three slightly different turrets.

Battlefield Improvement

The T-34/85 indeed brought better combat survivability to Soviet armoured forces. The greater range of the new main weapon and its muzzle velocity of 780 metres per second (2559 feet per second) improved penetration of German armour plating with armour-piercing ammunition. Combat experience revealed the need for additional protection against German anti-tank weapons such as the shoulder-fired Panzerfaust. Additional thin plating or wire mesh was welded into areas around the hull and turret that were susceptible to ‘trapping’ shells or hollow charges. These were often successful at deflecting otherwise damaging strikes.

Approximately 22,500 T-34/85 tanks were produced during the war and production continued into the late 1950s. Variants included the OT-34/85, mounting an AT-42 flamethrower instead of the hull machine gun. The flamethrower was capable of emitting a stream of fire up to 100m (327ft).


(Levin August Theophile) (b. 10 February 1745, Brunswick – d. 3 October 1826, Hannover) was born to a Hanoverian noble family in the Brunswick, where his father was a colonel in the guards. His family also owned estates at Banteln in Hanover. Due to his father’s connections at the Hanoverian court, Bennigsen began his service at the age of ten as a page. Four years later he was commissioned as ensign in the guard and, in 1763, as a captain, he participated in the final campaign of the Seven Years War. A year later, after the death of his father and his own marriage to the Baroness Steimberg, he retired to his estates at Banteln, disillusioned with military service and widely regarded as an unpromising officer. Bennigsen apparently squandered his inheritance and, after his wife’s untimely death, he briefly reentered Hanoverian service before deciding to seek a career in Russia. He was accepted into the Russian service with a rank of premier major and assigned to the Vyatka Musketeer Regiment in 1773.

During the Russo-Turkish War, Bennigsen served in the Narva Musketeer Regiment and was noticed by Rumyantsev and Saltykov. In January 1779, he became a lieutenant colonel in the Kiev Light Cavalry Regiment. In 1787, he was appointed commander of the Izumsk Light Cavalry Regiment and fought at Ochakov and Bender, receiving promotion to brigadier in 1788. In 1792-1794, Bennigsen took part in the operations against the Polish insurgents, was promoted to major general on 9 July 1794 and awarded the Order of St. George (3rd class) on 26 September 1794. In 1795, he commanded a brigade at Vasilkov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he formed a close association with Valerian Zubov, the brother of the Empress’ last favorite. In 1796, he took part in the Persian Campaign along the Caspian Sea and fought at Derbent. After Paul’s accession to the throne, Bennigsen was named chef of the Rostov Dragoons Regiment (14 December 1796) and was promoted to lieutenant general (25 February 1798). However, he was dismissed from service on 11 October 1798 during Paul’s military purge of high-ranking officers. He participated in the conspiracy to overthrow Paul and according to the memoirs of the participants, was chosen to lead the coup d’état because of his reputation for audacity and courage. Despite his role in the conspiracy, Bennigsen’s career did not suffer under Alexander. He was appointed the Military Governor of Vilna and inspector of the Lithuanian Inspection on 23 July 1801. Bennigsen was then promoted to general of cavalry on 23 June 1802 with seniority dating from 4 December 1799.

During the 1805 Campaign, Bennigsen commanded a reserve corps of some 48,000 men arranged between Taurrogen and Grodno. In 1806, he was directed to take up quarters in Silesia and assist the Prussians against the French. After the Prussian defeat, Bennigsen withdrew to Poland, where he fought the French army at Golymin and Pultusk. He claimed these battles as decisive Russian victories, received the Order of St. George (2nd class) on 8 January 1807 and was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army on 13 January 1807. He launched an offensive in January 1807 and fought the French army at Eylau (received the Order of St. Andrew the First Called), Guttstadt, Heilsberg and Friedland, where his poor tactics resulted in the Russian defeats with heavy losses. Displeased with his actions, Emperor Alexander discharged Bennigsen on 9 July 1807. Bennigsen remained in exile until 1812, when he was ordered to join the Imperial Retinue (8 May 1812). He was considered for the post of commander-in-chief in August 1812, but was rejected in favor of Mikhail Kutuzov. Instead, he was appointed the chief of staff of the united Russian armies and bickered with Kutuzov for command throughout the campaign. After Borodino, he advised against abandoning Moscow to the French. He distinguished himself at Tarutino, where he was wounded in the leg. However, in late 1812, Bennigsen was finally dismissed because of his ongoing disagreements with Kutuzov.

Bennigsen returned to the army in early 1813 and received command of the Army of Poland. He later fought at Lutzen, Bautzen and Leipzig and besieged Torgau and Magdeburg; for his actions, he was conferred the title of count of the Russian Empire on 10 January 1814. He then commanded the Russian troops besieging Hamburg and was decorated with the Order of St. George (1st class) on 3 August 1814 for his conduct. He commanded the 2nd Army in 1815-1817 but was criticized for poor administration and forced to retire on 15 May 1818. He spent next eight years at Hanover. He was awarded almost all the highest Russian awards, including the Orders of St. Andrew with diamonds, of St. Vladimir (1st class), of St. Alexander of Neva, of St. Anna (1st class), of St. George (1st class) and a golden sword with diamonds for courage. In addition, he had six foreign decorations, the Prussian Order of Black Eagle, the Hanoverian Order of Guelf, the Dutch Order of the Elephant, the French Legion of Honor, the Swedish Order of the Sword and the Austrian Order of Maria Theresa.

Bennigsen is an over rated general. Brave officer, he showed no tactical or strategic abilities in 1806-1807 and 1813 Campaigns. Despite his claims to victories, the battles of Pultusk and Eylau were draws at best. At Heilsberg, he lost consciousness and other senior Russian commanders conducted the battle. At Friedland, he chose disadvantageous positions that led to heavy Russian casualties. Bennigsen was very ambitious officer and able courtier, who easily navigated in the court politics. His three-volume Mémoires du général Bennigsen, published in Paris in 1907-1908, contain fascinating details on the Russian operations in 1806-1813 but often embellish facts.

Battle of Tarutino on 6 (18) October 1812

Germany, 1847 by Peter von Hess, 1792-1871

The painting is a part of the series devoted to the great battles of the Patriotic War of 1812. On 6 (18) October 1812 in Tarutino the Russian Army made the first attack since the beginning of the war which resulted in the defeat of Murat’s unit. The next day Napoleon ordered his soldiers to leave Moscow. Here the critical stage of the battle after the attack of ten Cossack Regiments under the command of Vasily Orlov-Denisov is depicted. Cossacks rapidly attacked elements of the 2nd Cavalry Corps of the French. “…At 9 a.m., when we were going to look for provisions, lots of Cossacks attacked us. The 4th Division of Cuirassiers and the whole unit of Seguin were defeated – all fled in disorder.” That was how a French cuirassier captain recalled these events in his letter. The Cossacks returned with rich booty and captives after the defeat of the enemy bivouacs. Several soldiers caught by surprise were still in their coats which they used as wrapping for the night and in caps that they usually wore out of ranks. General Levin (Leonty) Bennigsen on a bay horse is depicted on the left. His command staff includes Quartermaster-General Karl Toll and a company officer of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment wearing the Order of St. Vladimir of the Fourth Class with a bow and the Prussian Pour le Merite. General Vasily Orlov-Denisov, the commander of a Cossack unit, approaches them riding a grey horse. He is wearing a red jacket of the Cossack Life-Guards Regiment, which he commanded. Several Cossacks escort French cavalry captives; among them there are carabineers in white collars, gilt cuirasses and helmets with red horse hair plumes, cuirassiers in blue jackets, silver cuirasses and horsetail helmets. One of the Cossacks raises the Standard of the 1st Cuirassier Regiment high in the air – the first French colour that was captured by the Russians as trophy during the Patriotic War. Imperial Cossacks (who differed from other Cossack Regiments which wore blue uniform by wearing a red one) are passing by and greeting their commander and the trophies. In the right corner of the picture the artist portrays a Don Cossack Artillery team entering their position. On the left there are elements of the unit commanded by General Egor Meller-Zakomelsky. Imperial Hussars in red hussar pelisses are riding with their sabers naked, ready for battle. A French cuirassier, who helps a wounded officer, is asking for aid. In the middle, behind the Hussars the Imperial Uhlans, Dragoons and horse artillery are placed. Egor Meller-Zakomelsky wearing a Hussar uniform and a hat with a white plume is shown next to Bennigsen. He gives orders to an officer of the Chuguevsk Uhlan Regiment. In the background of the picture one can see Cossacks and French Cavalry still fighting as well as other French elements approaching. Murat “… was throwing himself on all bivouacs, gathering all horsemen on his way and when he managed to gather a squadron of those, immediately started an attack… During his entire military career Murat, who was nicknamed “the child of victory” (L’enfant gate de la Victoire), had never been wounded before that day, when he shed his blood for the first time. He got hit by a [Don Cossack] pike in his thigh”. At a distance a church of the Teterinki village can be seen, where the French artillery is bombarding the attacking Russian infantry.

Hell’s Battlefield: Heilsberg.


Dynastic Egypt’s Naval Warfare

Battle of the Delta was a sea battle between Egypt and the Sea Peoples, circa 1175 BCE when the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repulsed a major sea invasion. Illustration by Igor Dzis

A contingent of the Sea Peoples Invasion came by water. The Ramesses III reliefs text at Medinet Habu, Western Thebes, states that there was a naval encounter at the mouths of the Nile in the Delta. The king’s defensive measures included a stockade of lances that was set up on the shore to impede the enemy ships. At the minimum, this was done to prevent the Sea Peoples from landing their troops. In the accompanying reliefs, perhaps reflecting artistic sensibility, only four Egyptian ships attack five Sea Peoples war vessels. The king remained on land while his archers provided the necessary attack force. No chariots were employed because the battle was fought from shore to ship and from ship to ship. The naval victory was celebrated at a coast fortress. Ramesses III indicates the types of ships employed in this defense, and that they were also divided into three groups: ordinary transporters, galleys, and coasters. The first term was the most common one, and we can assume that the king requisitioned all types of Nile-bound vessels in order to provide his defense. The second refers to cargo ships whereas the third was employed for naval vessels undertaking lengthy voyages in the Mediterranean along the eastern coastline of Palestine and Syria.

The naval battle, quite rightfully, has been the subject of much study. The ships of the enemy reflect an Aegean tradition, one that was based on relatively long sea voyages across a large extent of water. In other words, they were not mere coasters or trading vessels. The hulls of the enemy fleet were angular and the prows and sternposts vertical. In addition, it seems that the Egyptian fleet blockaded the river outlets in order to prevent the enemy from escaping. This novel interpretation implies that Ramesses purposely waited until the enemy was close to disembarking and then, after having trapped them between shore and sea, attacked. In the scenes of battle, the enemy ships are stationary and within range of the land-based archers. Their vessels appear slender and lower in the water than the Egyptian ones, but a problem remains concerning the artistic impression. The Egyptian ships, on the other hand, reveal quite astounding details. Their high angular sternpost has no native parallel. The aftercastles were built with two stories, thereby providing a higher base for the naval archers and giving the helmsman a better position. But the high bulwark that protects the rowers is not known in the Nile Valley even though it was commonplace among the Aegean Bronze Age galleys. The low prow may imply the practice of ramming and therefore reflect a technological defense against the maritime activities of the Sea Peoples. This interpretation, however, seems questionable. Under Ramesses II and III the Egyptians began to employ a type of merchant ship hitherto unknown within the Nile Valley. These ships, called menesh, were probably built in the royal dockyards. But they were not developed from local sailing vessels known to the Egyptian for many centuries earlier. Lucien Basch has proposed that these menesh were derived from the north, and he pinpoints Syria, although Phoenicia is meant, as the origin. Known from the early years of Ramesses II, these ships were also present in the naval battle of Ramesses III against the Sea Peoples but operated as well in the Red Sea for voyages to the fabulous land of Punt, inland from the Somali coast or, as has been recently argued, along the southern coastline of Arabia. By and large, it seems reasonable that in Dynasty XIX, if not somewhat earlier, the flotilla of Egypt was reorganized according to the naval traditions of the Phoenicians. Their ports had close connections with various peoples traversing the eastern Mediterranean, and possibly their shipwrights had developed the high prows and sterns of other foreign sea cruisers. Moreover, these high prows were also common in scenes of the Syrian ships that unloaded their produce at Thebes in Dynasty XVIII. It appears reasonable to conclude that the Egyptian state improved its own merchant and combat navy during the second half of Dynasty XVIII and the first part of the succeeding dynasty in order to transport soldiers and to deliver “tribute” from Asia. Later, however, they would be used in sea combat.

The reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus. At any rate, the juxtaposition of both fleets is so close that we must conclude that only the final hour of the battle is pictorially recorded. The melee appears similar to a land battle, with the tactics of the Egyptian navy dependent upon the use of archers, thereby reflecting the New Kingdom tradition of the composite bow. In other words, just as with chariots, bows and arrows provided the main element of fighting.

Although the navy (such as it was) was certainly not as extensive as the navies of contemporary nations/states. For much of the Dynastic Period, shipping in the Mediterranean was mostly commercial, not military, but this seemed to change towards the latter part of the New Kingdom, when the Delta coastline was under threat from several seaborne foreign armies. For example, there was a raid by Sherden pirates in the second year of Ramesses II’s reign; these pirates were not only defeated, but were also incorporated into the Egyptian military as mercenaries. However, Ramesses II’s reaction to this seemed to be the building of multiple fortresses along the coastline, rather than increasing the number of military ships.

Most of the time, the ancient Egyptian fleet seems to have been used more for the transport of troops to battlefields as quickly as possible for the active engagement in naval battles. For example, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, Kamose (making a point to emphasise the amount of timber to be used in the construction of the flotilla) arranged for his fleet to lay siege to the Hyksos capital of Avaris, the soldiers and war supplies being transported to the site more quickly than they could be by marching overland. This would change to some extent later in the New Kingdom, but not hugely.

Much of the evidence for actual naval battles and warships seem to come from the reign of Ramesses III, when (in the eighth year of his reign) the Sea Peoples attacked at the Delta border. They came first over land (but were defeated in a single battle at the northern edge of the Sinai desert) and then by sea, where they were defeated in what seems to have been a fairly epic naval battle. This naval battle is portrayed at the mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, where the relief depicts handto-hand combat between the Sea Peoples (on five boats) and the Egyptians (on four boats which were, naturally, larger than their Sea Peoples counterparts). Ancient Egyptian artistic sensibilities and aesthetics must be taken into account here and it is safe to say that perhaps the numbers of vessels depicted on the reliefs do not accurately reflect the actual numbers that took part in the battle. It is possible, as with the smiting scenes discussed elsewhere, the artists were instructed to portray the superiority of the Egyptian fleet, or maybe there simply was not enough room on the relief to fit in the correct numbers of vessels.

The Egyptian vessels have rows of up to twenty-two oarsmen along with archers and foot-soldiers (although the exact numbers are difficult to discern with any precision), outnumbering the people on board the Sea Peoples vessels, where it is argued that the figures on-board must have doubled-up as warriors and rowers. The Egyptian vessels are described as having low prows, high, angular sterns, with ‘aftercastles’ of two storeys, and a high bulwark. The Sea Peoples boats were angular, with vertical prows and sterns (very much in the tradition of Aegean ships), designed to do well on long sea voyages. One of the Sea Peoples vessels has seemingly capsized or been brought down by the Egyptian flotilla and the Sea Peoples dead are seen floating in the surrounding water. As with the Sherden pirates discussed above, the Sea Peoples were apparently also assimilated into ancient Egyptian empire after Ramesses III’s victory, although in the long-term this solitary victory was only putting-off the unavoidable as the region of Canaan was lost to the Sea Peoples by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

It would seem that most of the time, particularly during the latter part of the Dynastic Period, any Egyptian fleet was mostly used to protect and enforce Egypt’s trade interests. For example in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the Saite pharaohs created a large fleet of war-galleys, in the style of Graeco-Phoenician ships, in order to regain (albeit temporarily) control of trade in the Levantine.

Despite this evidence for some aspect of naval warfare later on in Dynastic Egypt, throughout most of the Dynastic Period Egypt’s military forces were chiefly land-based, resorting to naval battles rarely, with the flotilla mostly being used to transport equipment and soldiers to battles. Certainly, there is a dearth of evidence for Egypt’s flotilla in the New Kingdom, but there is a wealth of evidence for the land-based forces; this either suggests that the sea-based military was not as important or developed as the land-based army, or that there is simply an annoying lack of primary resources providing relevant information. The former is the most likely explanation, with the land-based military indeed being far more advanced and essential to Dynastic warfare than the ancient Egyptian navy (such as it was).

From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable I

German Brandenburger commando troops firing at Soviet troops on a bridge over the Oder River with an 8.8 cm Flak anti-aircraft cannon, 1945. Photograph by Heinrich Hoffman.

In early 1945, the Eastern Front was what it had been since the Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa: a German graveyard, the theater that claimed the lion’s share of the army’s divisions and generated the most casualties. The German strategic decision in 1944 to prioritize the Western Front, deal the Anglo-Americans a sharp blow, and then turn back with redoubled fury to the east was also the same thing it had been all along: nonsense. Errors on the strategic level are always the most serious, trumping operational brilliance and tactical acumen. Indeed, strategic errors have a way of being fatal. The Wehrmacht’s dramatic path in 1944 from defeat to catastrophe to rebirth on the Western Front was an epic in its way, but an empty one. By late 1944, the Eastern Front had gone into free fall.

The Red Army had spent the autumn mercilessly gouging into the flanks of the German strategic position. A series of offensives smashed Army Group North—always the weakest and most undersupported of the army groups—and herded its two component armies (the 16th and 18th) into one of the most senseless military positions of all time: the Courland Pocket. The small hump of western Latvia from Libau in the west to Tuckum in the east held over thirty German divisions that were cut off from the rest of the Wehrmacht and from the homeland—a force that had to be supplied by sea. The Soviets launched three great offensives into Courland in 1944, two in October and one in December, and then three more in 1945 (January, February, and March). The German force, renamed Army Group Courland in January 1945, warded off all of them, a masterpiece of defensive positional warfare against a powerful enemy, but in the end these thirty divisions stayed right where the Red Army wanted them: in a self-imposed prison camp. Indeed, the defense of the Courland Pocket benefited from the large number of German divisions packed like sardines into a very tiny front. For once on the Eastern Front, German divisions didn’t have to defend outrageously extended fronts, and under such conditions they gave a good accounting of themselves. From time to time, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff since July 21, 1944, pleaded with Hitler to evacuate Courland and bring the lost armies home to bolster the defenses of the homeland. Over and over again, Hitler refused, and he could always count on a reliable ally in the argument: Admiral Dönitz. He claimed that keeping a toehold in the Baltic Sea was essential to testing Germany’s new, fully submersible Type XXI U-boats, one of those miracle weapons that Hitler claimed was eventually going to win the war. At any rate, as 1945 dawned, it was unlikely that Germany could have scrounged up enough ships, transport capacity, and fuel to evacuate Army Group Courland—even if Hitler had agreed.

Likewise, in the south, the Red Army spent the autumn leveraging the advantages gained by Romania’s defection. The Soviets overran the Ploesti oil fields, coerced Bulgaria to declare war on Germany, drove into Yugoslavia, and captured Belgrade in October. These successes fatally compromised the position of German forces in Yugoslavia and Greece, and the German occupation force in the southern Balkans, General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E, received orders to evacuate Greece, southern Albania, and southern Macedonia in October. Löhr brought his force north, with Tito’s Partisan forces nipping at their heels the whole way. Over and over again, German forces had to fight their way out of encirclements, but they could always amass sufficient force against the lighter-armed Partisans to do so. The Wehrmacht was less well equipped to deal with Allied air attacks, however, especially on the twisting mountain roads of central Bosnia, and the entire march north was an exercise in misery.

The next target in line—and Soviet strategy in this period of the war has all the meticulous sense of purpose of a clerk checking off boxes on an inventory sheet—was Hungary. After the huge losses the Hungarians suffered in the Soviet Union since Stalingrad, the country had clearly been wavering in its allegiance to the Axis. On March 12, 1944, the Germans had carried out Operation Margarethe, occupying the country to prevent an Italian- or Romanian-style defection. By October, Soviet forces had driven deep into Hungary, and fierce armored battles were raging around Debrecen in the Great Hungarian Plain. The Hungarian head of state, Admiral Miklós Horthy, negotiated an armistice with the Soviets. His announcement of the armistice on October 15, 1944, led the Germans to carry out Operation Panzerfaust, a coup by fascist fanatics of the Arrow Cross movement. Horthy was out, and Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi was in. The Germans purchased Horthy’s acquiescence by kidnaping his son, Miklós Jr., beating him senseless, rolling him up in a rug, and transporting him to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany (Operation Mickey Mouse): a suitably gangsterish event that tells us all we need to know about the nature of Nazi foreign policy. Keeping Hungary loyal had little impact on the military side, however. After clearing the plain on the eastern bank of the Tisza River, the Soviets stormed toward Budapest. On December 5 they launched an offensive on both sides of the capital and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve 1944. The siege, with four full German divisions inside the ring, would rage well into 1945.

All of these attacks in the northern and southern sector of the front left the center more or less untouched. Soviet forces still stood where they had since August: along the Vistula River, opposite Warsaw. And for anyone who had been paying attention to Soviet strategy thus far in the war, clearing the flanks could mean only one thing as 1945 began: an offensive along the central Warsaw-Berlin axis and a drive into the heart of Berlin. The end of the fighting back in August had seen Soviet armies seize three great bridgeheads over the Vistula south of Warsaw: at Magnuszew, at Pulawy, and on a long stretch of the Vistula between Baranow and Sandomierz, moving north to south. To the north of Warsaw, the Soviets held three more bridgeheads over the Narew River, two around Pultusk and a third at Lomza. Again, to anyone cognizant in Soviet battle planning, the maintenance of such numerous and expansive bridgeheads was a clear expression of operational intent. Unlike past offensives, the Soviets did not go to great lengths to employ maskirovka or deception. There could be no fooling the Germans as to the site of an attack so monstrous in size, and with German reserves chewed up in the Ardennes and in the fighting in Hungary, it hardly mattered how sly the Soviets tried to be. Most of the massive preparations for the great offensive—the Vistula-Oder operation—took place in the open.

And massive they were: two Soviet fronts bursting with men, tanks, and guns. On the Soviet right, directly opposite and to the south of Warsaw, 1st Byelorussian Front (Marshal G. K. Zhukov) assembled ten armies (eight combined-arms armies for the initial penetration, two tank armies, and two cavalry corps for exploitation along the attack axis) plus an air army. Such a robust force offered unlimited operational possibilities, and Zhukov seemed determined to try them all. He envisioned no fewer than three penetrations: the major one from the Magnuszew bridgehead, a 15-mile-wide by 6-mile-deep bulge over the river just south of Warsaw. Zhukov crammed three armies into Magnuszew, the 8th Guards Army under General V. I. Chuikov (formerly the 62nd Army, the heroes of Stalingrad), 5th Shock Army, and 61st Army. They would make the penetration, setting the stage for the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 2nd Guards Tank Army to launch the exploitation to the west. Zhukov designed a second, smaller penetration north of Warsaw, where 47th Army would take advantage of the general rupturing of the German line to cross the Vistula, loop around Warsaw to the north, and link up with the 61st Army coming up out of Magnuszew to encircle the city. Finally, a third drive would emerge out of Pulawy, in the southern reaches of Zhukov’s sector: 69th Army and 33rd Army would penetrate the German lines and link up with forces coming down out of Magnuszew, creating a series of tactical encirclements.

To the south (left) of Zhukov lay Marshal I. S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Here, too, stood ten full armies at the commander’s disposal, eight combined-arms armies and two tank armies. Konev’s plan was the opposite of Zhukov’s, however, and much simpler: while Zhukov was attacking in many places at once, Konev planned on one single great thrust. He jammed no fewer than five of his armies—half the total force—into the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead (the 6th, 13th, 52nd, 3rd Guards, and 5th Guards). Moreover, Konev planned to insert 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Guards Tank Army into the breakout from the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead on day one. The assault of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front might well have been the single greatest concentration of land power in all of World War II.

Taken together, the two Soviet fronts amassed shocking numbers for the upcoming offensive. Konev and Zhukov had no fewer than 134 rifle divisions, 33,000 guns, 7,000 tanks, and 4,700 aircraft. In all, they commanded 2.25 million men. The two fronts contained about one-third of all infantry formations on the entire front and almost one-half of all the tanks. One authority calls the Soviet advantage “both absolute and awesome, fivefold in manpower, fivefold in armor, over sevenfold in artillery, and seventeen times the German strength in the air.” As always, the prelude to deep battle was concentration of massive force on extremely narrow fronts, and the Vistula-Oder operation was no different. The Soviets were able to lay on 220–250 guns per kilometer of front, a (theoretical) artillery piece every 4 meters, along with 21–25 tanks. It was a devastating concentration of offensive power, beyond anything the Soviets had yet achieved, even in their megavictory in Byelorussia the previous summer. A five-to-one advantage in armor across the entire front can easily become a superiority of ten- or even twenty-to-one in certain chosen assault sectors.

Moreover, the Soviet Stavka constructed this behemoth force while simultaneously planning another two-front offensive against East Prussia. The 2nd Byelorussian (Marshal K. K. Rokossovsky) and 3rd Byelorussian (General I. D. Cherniakhovsky) Fronts would launch a vast concentric operation against the exposed province. The operational scheme was essentially that of the Tannenberg campaign in 1914. Cherniakhovsky’s force would launch a frontal blast due west, driving on a direct route through Gumbinnen and Insterburg toward Königsberg. Once he had pinned German forces in place, Rokossovsky would come up from the south though Osterode and Allenstein, head toward the Baltic Sea at Elbing, and drive into the deep flank and rear of the German defenders. German forces in the province belonged to Army Group Center, under the command of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt. He had three weak armies (from left to right: 3rd Panzer, 4th, and 2nd) and a badly distended position, with 4th Army occupying a lazy, indefensible bulge looping out toward the east. The initial Soviet attacks intended to Kessel 4th Army by smashing the two armies on its flanks. Launching two vast offensives at once, the Soviet Union had become a military superpower by 1945, the purveyor of strategic land power par excellence.

And what of the German force defending the Vistula line? Here stood Army Group A (formerly Army Group North Ukraine, renamed after its brusque eviction from Ukrainian soil in July 1944), under the same officer who had commanded it during that previous catastrophe: General Joseph Harpe. Army Group A contained four relatively threadbare armies stretched over a 420-mile front and deployed along a more or less straight line stretching from north to south:

9th Army (General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz)

—opposite the Magnuszew and Pulawy bridgeheads

4th Panzer Army (General Fritz-Hubert Gräser)

—opposite the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead

17th Army (General Friedrich Schulz)

—south of the Vistula to the Beskid Range in the Carpathians

Armeegruppe Heinrici: 1st Panzer Army and 1st Hungarian Army

(both under the command of General Gotthard Heinrici)

—holding the army group’s right wing in the Carpathians.

Altogether, Harpe’s army group could call upon a mere twenty-five divisions on line to hold this long front (standing against 134 Soviet divisions), along with 1,300 tanks (against 6,500). Twelve panzer divisions stood in reserve, but few were at full strength and fuel was in short supply—the Wehrmacht’s “new normal” since the loss of the Ploesti fields. Air support for the front, courtesy of VIII Fliegerkorps flying out of Kraków, was minimal. The Fliegerkorps could barely put 300 aircraft into the air (against 4,700), and those that were theoretically available to fly often didn’t, due again to serious fuel constraints. Army Group A also suffered from a serious shortage of munitions of all sorts, and many of Harpe’s units in January 1945 had an ammunition load for only two or three days of high-intensity combat.

All these numbers were indicative of the Soviet strategic edge: resources, industrial capacity, and increases in productivity, of course. They were also a product of German decision-making over the last six months. Hitler and the OKW had made a particularly fateful choice the previous fall when they decided to form a new army (the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich) rather than transfer newly raised units to strengthen German armies already holding the line against the Soviets. We might say the same for their decision to deploy that new army in the west for the Ardennes offensive. That choice meant that German defenses in the east would lack a reserve army that Harpe or the General Staff and the OKH could insert to smash a Soviet breakthrough with a bold Panzer counterstroke. Finally, once it was clear that Wacht am Rhein was finished, Hitler and the OKW decided to transfer the 6th SS Panzer Army not to the east, as originally promised, but rather to the southeast, to Hungary, where it launched a series of three failed relief offensives to break the Soviet siege of Budapest (Operations Konrad I–III). All of these choices meant starving Army Group A and the other German forces currently defending the long line from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. And yet, we cannot merely label these decisions “wrong.” However Hitler or anyone else shuffled them, there simply were not enough German divisions, corps, or armies to do all that needed to be done. Whether 6th SS Panzer Army fought in Budapest or on the Baranow bridgehead line was hardly going to change the ultimate verdict of the war—not at this late date.

We could say the same thing about the operational scheme mooted by Harpe’s chief of staff, the young and energetic General Wolfdietrich Ritter von Xylander. In the current conformation of the front, the Baranow and Magnuszew bridgeheads jutted into German-held territory. German forces deployed on that sector of the front, therefore, were in a salient pointing east, nearly encircled even before the start of the fighting. Xylander devised a plan he dubbed Schlittenfahrt (“Sleighride,” named, incidentally, for the signature maneuver of the Great Elector of Brandenburg in the Winter Campaign of 1678–1679). Just before the offensive, German forces would evacuate the bulge, moving back in three stages to the previously prepared Hubertus Line. The immense Soviet bombardment would therefore strike air—and so would the irresistible momentum of the initial Soviet attack. They would still come forward, but without their usual power. German forces would be standing in good order on a well-prepared, fortified line and be able either to hold the Soviet drive or even to strike a counterblow if conditions were favorable. Moreover, Xylander calculated that Schlittenfahrt would free up, at a minimum, four divisions, which he could use to form a strategic reserve for the army group.

Guderian presented Schlittenfahrt to Hitler at a conference at the Eyrie on January 9, along with a demand for reinforcements from the west and the by now obligatory demand for the evacuation of the Courland Pocket. While the scheme seems sensible enough, the Führer wasn’t having it. The proposed operation was just another retreat, he said, just another refusal to follow his orders to hold the line. Manuever wasn’t important to the outcome of the upcoming battle. Determination and strength of will: those were the keys. Hitler responded to Guderian’s presentation of the dire situation at the front with all the contempt he had built up for years against the generals, their propensity to “operate,” their constant demands for retreat. He didn’t believe Guderian’s intelligence estimates on Soviet tanks and guns, labeling them “completely idiotic.” Guderian responded that they came from the intelligence service, particularly from General Reinhard Gehlen in the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) office. “If you think he belongs in a madhouse, then lock me up, too!” Even though the rage on both sides subsided, and the discussion returned to a more civil space, the entire experience “was extremely unpleasant,” Guderian wrote. Hitler had reverted to an “ostrich strategy.” Meanwhile, the Eastern Front had become “a house of cards. If the front is penetrated at any point, the whole thing would fall apart.” Hitler’s response had all the charm of a funeral bell tolling: “The East must rely on itself and survive on what it has.”

Guderian’s account of the January meeting has become the accepted narrative, and no indications that he was lying, or even exaggerating, have ever come to light. Indeed, in a nighttime conference after the Chief of the General Staff departed, Hitler expanded on his skepticism of the reports he had heard earlier that day:

I looked at the numbers today, and we have 3,000 tanks and assault guns in the east. Since we usually shoot up enemy tanks at a 3–1 ratio, the Soviets need 9,000 tanks to destroy us. They need a 3–1 superiority. But they don’t have 9,000 tanks, not at the moment.

And here: if we look at the whole front, they’re supposed to have 150 guns every kilometer. That’s 1,500 guns on a ten-kilometer front. There is no way that can be true! That would mean 15,000 guns on a 100-kilometer front, and 20,000 guns on a 150-kilometer front. The Russians aren’t made of artillery!

In fact, we can say that they were made of artillery. Hitler’s departure from reality—born either of ignorance or of willful self-deception—is striking. The time had long passed when the Führer’s intuition and amateurish luck could lead to positive battlefield outcomes. His “unprofessional and defective” decisions were leading them all to doom, and they were directly responsible for the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.

But in the interests of historical accuracy and fairness, let us note that Xylander’s plan was no more realistic than Hitler’s. The notion that the proposed Schlittenfahrt or any similar operational stratagem could ward off the dark fate awaiting Army Group A on the Vistula belongs to the realm of fantasy. Consider the words of the German official history. The controversy over Schlittenfahrt was “irrelevant,” the author argues:

Plans of this sort could not replace the German army’s losses in materiel and personnel or reduce the opponent’s superiority, neither on the Vistula nor weeks later on the Oder.

On the basis of the numbers alone, the outcome of the upcoming offensive was not in doubt. For the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich, the time for brilliant maneuver was over, since space was lacking. The depth required [for a war of maneuver] lay to the east, not west, of the Vistula. Each retreat brought the eastern opponent to the borders of the Reich. The danger loomed of ground operations on the soil of the homeland.

Indeed, like Model and Rundstedt pressing their point with Hitler and Jodl for the “small solution” during the 1944 Ardennes planning cycle, Xylander, Harpe, and Guderian were declaring allegiance to a way of war they had learned in the War Academy and then tested in the field in the early days of World War II: that war consists above all of a series of cleverly designed and boldly executed military operations, devoid of context, politics, or economics.

Handed impossible orders to hold out to the last man but lacking enough men to do so, Guderian attempted to compensate by digging a series of fortified positions on and behind the Vistula line. Hundreds of thousand of civilians, both German and Polish, as well as prisoners of war, went to work digging trenches and artillery emplacements, felling trees for roadblocks, and protecting the major towns and cities with all-around fortifications. The system was impressive enough on paper, including a Hauptkampflinie (main battle line) backstopped by no fewer than four lines (designated “a” through “d”) extending to a depth of 150 miles, with intermediate positions between them. A final barrier, the Nibelungen-Stellung (Nibelung Position), stretched from Bratislava in the south to the Stettin on the Baltic Sea coast. East Prussia, too, had an impressive system of prepared defenses. Many of them, like the Lötzen Triangle in the lakes district, were of great antiquity but still useful as defensive force multipliers within the dark forests of the province.67 Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht lacked many of the necessary materiel to build and hold a modern fortified line, including concrete, construction tools, fuel for the tractors, and, above all, artillery to place in the new bunkers; the works remained inadequate and incomplete on the eve of the Soviet offensive.

Mobilizing civilian labor was a double-edged sword for the army, moreover, since it brought the civil administration into play. As they had with the formation of the Volkssturm, the Gauleiters sensed that that their moment had come. They could see that fortification-building and civilian mobilization meant access to greater power and funding. Nazi officials in the eastern provinces soon began to intervene in the process of fortification building. The results were catastrophic. Arguments over jurisdiction and precedence arose between the army and the civilian authorities, resulting in confusion, waste, and redundancy of effort. Erich Koch, for example, former Gauleiter of occupied Ukraine and now holding the same office in East Prussia, was an energetic fellow—in all the worst ways. While he knew nothing of fortification or military affairs in general, he was certain that he “was smarter than a trained commander.” East Prussia wound up with a haphazard gaggle of poorly placed bunkers, trenches that meandered off into nowhere, and observation posts without a line of sight through the forest. Koch also came up with one of the war’s most absurd inventions: a concrete tube two feet in diameter, sunk into the earth so it could allow enemy tanks to pass; a man would then open its lid to spray enemy infantry with machine-gun fire. The test of battle soon showed the problems: the man inside the tube was terrified, he had no real contact with the outside world once he’d gone underground, and any sort of artillery strike on his position led to shattered concrete and the grisliest wounds imaginable. The infantry called it the Koch-Topf (“cooking pot”).

Der Halte Befehl – France, 21 May 1940 Part I

‘We have lost the battle for France.’

French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud

to Winston Churchill, 15 May 1940

In the evening hours of 10 January 1940, a German Junkers-52 transport plane made an emergency landing in a field near Mechelen-sur-Meuse. On board was a staff officer of the 7th German Infantry Division, who carried on him detailed plans of the invasion of France. He was captured before being able to burn his maps. These showed the German plan for a spring attack through the Ardennes with a crossing of the Meuse (Maas) south of the Belgian border. The captured plans were rushed to General Maurice Gamelin, Commander-in-Chief of Allied armies.

He didn’t believe it, as much as he didn’t believe his chief of espionage, Colonel Payol of the Deuxième Bureau, who had confirmation from their source deep in Berlin, ‘Bertrand’, an official in the German Ministry of War.

No, decided General Gamelin, no army could ever cross the Ardennes, although, only two years before, during French Army manoeuvres conducted by himself, General Prétalat had used exactly the same breakthrough route as was shown on the captured German plans. Finally, the French military attaché in Bern informed Gamelin to expect a German push on Sedan by 8 May. He was only two days out.

On the morning of 10 May 1940, a special unit of German paratroopers, which had practised their assault on a mock-up model of their target, dropped on Fort Eben Emael, which controlled three vital bridges along the border between France and Belgium. Within twenty minutes, this strategic junction was in the hands of the Germans, and the road into France laid open.

On 1 September 1939, the world was given its first taste of Germany’s Blitzkrieg strategy. It was based on lightning thrusts by panzer forces in combination with tactical air strikes, a technique developed during the inter-war years by the German panzer genius, Heinz Guderian. While Germany had developed an élite tank force, the British Army had Mark I tanks equipped with a machine gun, and even their heavier Matildas were no match for the fast German armour. The French were even worse, their tanks lumbered along at 4 m.p.h. to allow their fantassins (foot soldiers) to follow the attack. The German panzers moved at 60 km p.h.

Despite the Polish demonstration, the men who dominated Allied military planning were ossified and locked into a static defence. Major General Sir Louis Jackson’s view was typical of their thinking when he referred to the decisive battle of the First World War, the breakthrough by British armour at Amiens: ‘The tank was a freak. The circumstances which called it into existence were exceptional and are not likely to recur. If they do, they can be dealt with by other means.’

The short-sighted view of the Imperial General Staff was matched by the French. ‘We are not Poles,’ stated General Gamelin, ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ The French General Staff counted on the invulnerability of the Maginot Line. The main flaw of this highly sophisticated defence system was that it did not reach all the way to the sea but stopped at the Belgian border! The French assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that it would invite German forces to push through Holland, where the might of French, Belgian and British armies could crush their advance along the fortified Dyle River line. It was precisely this concentration of Allied forces in Flanders which led to the French debacle.

The plan for their lightning march to victory was presented to Hitler by the chief of staff of General von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A), General Erich von Manstein. He suggested a surprise thrust with the bulk of German panzers, seven divisions, through the weakest point in the French defences, the heavily wooded Ardennes mountain range, leaving it to General Bock’s Heeresgruppe B (Army Group B) to fake the expected advance into Holland along the established invasion routes of the First World War. The French fell into the trap, even the ageing Marshal Henri Pétain, the hero of Verdun, who stated: ‘The Ardennes are impenetrable, this sector is not dangerous.’

One hundred and fifty kilometres of dense woodland separated the Maginot Line from the fortified Dyle River line in Belgium. For this – the key to the German attack plan, General Gamelin allotted only fourteen reserve divisions. Against these stormed forty-five crack German divisions, including all their heavy panzer units.

Myths surround the swift and conclusive German conquest. One is that victory was achieved by German tank superiority. This assertion is false. The Germans had 2,574 tanks to the Allies’ 3,254. Also, the Allies’ armour-plating and guns were superior to those of the German Mark II and Mark III models. The French were simply out-generalled. They had developed a Maginot mentality, basing their entire plan on an inflexible concept, outdated battle strategy and, most of all, an exaggerated confidence in static defence. (The Maginot Line was handed intact to the Germans the day following the French surrender!)

Yet, history tends to overlook a relatively minor action fought by seventy-four British tanks near Arras which was to prove of major significance to the continuation of the war.

After only two days of fighting, the leading German panzers had reached Sedan and the Meuse. On 12 May, an erroneous report that German panzer units had already crossed the Meuse reached General Corap, commander of the French Ninth Army. Corap panicked and ordered a precipitated withdrawal. He was replaced by General Giraud who was captured the following day.

On the 13th, General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzers did cross the river on a hastily assembled pontoon bridge. They were unopposed and quickly overran a new French defence line before it could even be manned. This rout opened a gaping hole in the French line. The panzer advance was so lightning fast that the Germans did not bother to stop and take prisoners. Long lines of surrendering French soldiers marched alongside the speeding panzers, many still carrying their weapons. Sometimes a German tank would stop, collect their rifles and crush them under the cleats of the panzer.

The French still had at their disposal three armoured divisions capable of stopping the German steamroller. Though their military Intelligence had by now established that the German panzers were definitely not headed towards Belgium, Gamelin, a man never prepared to change his preconception and beset by an inability to adapt to a rapidly changing situation, was at the root of the military debacle. When General Weygand replaced Gamelin, and a decision was taken – already too late – to move the three tank units into position, the 1st French Armoured Division of General Bruneau was simply wiped out by Guderian’s 19th Panzer Corps, assisted by the Luftwaffe’s Sturzkampfbombers (aka Stuka) near Beaumont, the 2nd Tank Division (General Bronché) unloaded at the wrong place, owing to a faulty train schedule, and the 3rd Tank Division ran out of fuel on their way to the front.

The forward movement by French and British reinforcements faced another serious problem, one not ‘Made in Germany’. Thousands of refugees streamed out of Eastern France and Belgium, and choked the main roads with their human flood. They came with every sort of transport imaginable – baby prams, wheelbarrows, pushcarts – piled with everything they owned or thought indispensable, useless items grabbed in panic – guitars, pictures and umbrellas. Automobiles soon ran out of gas, or their owners were pulled from them by others trying to reach safety, and now these vehicles lay in the middle of the road, adding to the traffic jam. Hungry people picked unripe corn and green fruit from trees, and then suffered the consequences. A child, clinging to her mother’s skirt, stumbled along on legs stiff from tiredness; the mother dumped what she was carrying to caress her child. A momentary scene of caring amidst a crowd in panic. Many sat down next to the road and waited for the inevitable to happen. They were a mass of ragged, tired people stumbling past the rotting corpses killed by strafing aircraft. The continued harassment by the German Stukas hung as a dark cloud over the scenes of tragedy along the road.

These refugees accomplished what ten additional German divisions couldn’t hope to achieve – they effectively blocked the badly needed Allied reserves from reaching their prepared defensive positions. By the evening of 15 May, the three German Panzer Corps of Hoth, Reinhardt and Guderian were pushing unopposed into France and a gallant attempt by a quickly assembled 4th French Armoured Division under a young colonel, Charles de Gaulle, had no effect on Guderian’s progress. The Battle for France had begun only five days before and France was already stumbling towards a humiliating surrender.

OKW (German Supreme Command), 15 May, afternoon. The two-week Polish campaign had been achieved through the talent of Hitler’s tank commanders, but the political leader of Germany sadly lacked the military experience to grasp the complexity of modern tank warfare. With the Führer’s conviction of his special mission in history, surpassed only by his belief in his unique military genius, he had surrounded himself with generals who were as incompetent as their French counterparts, yes-men like Keitel and Jodl. The Germans’ real strength lay in their front-line commanders, men such as Guderian and a young divisional general, Erwin Rommel. He was to become the best of German generals, since he alone managed to overcome the rigid German military spirit. He was never a party man, and, like his superior, Guderian, considered the generals at OKW incompetent and useless worriers. His intense dislike of men like Himmler, Jodl and Keitel was well known and he never became hypnotised by the political structure on which his personal security depended. The admiration he initially carried for Hitler was quickly transformed into deception and disgust. And for a valid reason. When the three tank corps had broken out of the Meuse bridgehead, and pushed ever deeper into France, driving the defeated armies before them, Hitler’s nerves gave and his anxiety grew in direct relation to the speed of the panzers’ advance. On that spring afternoon, a barrage of messages from their advance units flooded into OKW. The generals in the map room could hardly keep up with the movements of the arrows and flags. Hitler studied the general map and became highly fidgety. Keitel saw his Führer’s worries and agreed with him. ‘I agree with your appreciation of the present situation, mein Führer. We are over-extending our panzer forces. We must expect a counter-offensive.’

16/5 OKW: Der Franzose führt anscheinend aus seinem Reservoir Dijon-Belfort Kräfte nach der linken Seite des Durchburchkeils heran. (The French are bringing up from their Dijon-Belfort reserves new forces against the left flank of our breakthrough.)

The generals Keitel and Jodl accepted their leader’s assessment of the situation. Only Halder, the brilliant strategist, argued that the advance was much too rapid for the British to adjust to and that French morale had collapsed outright. He was right. But Hitler would only listen to his yes-men. On 17 May the initial order went out to stop the 19th Panzers.

HQ, 19th Panzer Corps. ‘But, general, it’s an order from OKW, a personal order from the Führer himself.’

‘I don’t care if it comes from the Pope. Get General List at 12th Army on the line, tell him I’m resigning my commission’, fumed Guderian. More than just another general, List proved an astute diplomat, and a compromise was reached. He allowed Guderian to carry out a ‘reconnaissance in force’. It was a farce. To conceal his moves from his Füher, Guderian had a telephone wire strung from his advancing command car to the place where OKW had stopped him. And thus it happened that the German panzers raced for the Channel coast before Hitler knew what was going on.

General Gamelin’s Directive No. 12 was issued at 09.45 hours on the 19th. It ordered all Northern Armies to head southwards at all costs and not find themselves encircled and pushed towards the Channel ports. While General Georges and his forces were to attack from the north in a southerly direction, the French 2nd and 6th Armies would attack northwards from Mezières. An event precipitated this order. At 19.00 hours that day, General Gamelin, greatly suffering from depression brought about by an advanced stage of syphilis, was replaced by Maxime Weygand. Weygand’s new plan, worked out with General Georges, his North-East Army Group commander, was for a pincer movement against the exposed German advance units. Georges, a mentally and physically unfit leader who, after the debacle on the Meuse had burst into tears, visited General Gort at his headquarters. He asked Gort, Commander-in-Chief BEF, (British Expeditionary Forces), to throw in his remaining tank reserves and cut off the two lead panzer divisions which had outrun their support infantry. BEF was to establish a new defence line Arras–Cambrai–Bapaume. In exchange, Georges promised a powerful French tank attack from the south.

BEF Commander Gort did not bother to inform General Georges that he was already considering a withdrawal towards Dunkirk. However, he did advise his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who ordered plans for ‘Operation Dynamo’ to be drawn up, a move which was to save the British Army from annihilation.

While the French and English wasted precious time negotiating who should attack and where, Rommel’s 7th Panzers were racing hell-bent for the heart of France. His panzers moved along a front only 3 km wide and 50 km from his nearest resupply unit. He took a considerable risk, since both his flanks were held by sizeable Allied forces. On the 18th, he pushed them on again. ‘Weiterer Marschweg: Le Cateau-Arras. Auftanken! Antreten!’ (Next direction: Le Cateau–Arras. Fill up! Stand at ready!’)

Soon he had no more petrol for his panzers. (It has been said that some filled up at local gas stations.) This made him furious until he discovered the reason, one of his own making. His advance had been so fast that his support division was still in Belgium! When Hitler heard about this, it gave him stomach cramps and his OKW generals, a sleepless night. Rommel’s daring was amply rewarded. For only 35 killed and 50 wounded, his division had taken 10,000 prisoners and captured or destroyed over 100 enemy tanks.

On 20 May, the day that the first units of Guderian’s panzers pushed into Abbeville, BEF Commander Gort put General Sir Harold Franklyn in charge of the Arras sector. In the corps command centre, a farmhouse near St Eloi, General Franklyn gathered his chief staff officers. Opinions were hopelessly different and no clear picture emerged. According to the latest reports from their retreating units, German panzers had already crossed the Scheldt at Cambrai and were approaching the final defensible water barrier, the Canal du Nord. The Germans were obviously trying to envelop Franklyn’s corps, and with it the whole Allied North-East Command of the French First and Seventh Armies, the Belgian Army, and the British Expeditionary Force.

Gort told Franklyn that he could not count on aerial support. He had to rely on his own ground forces – two divisions, the 5th and the 50th, plus the 1st British Tank Brigade, made up of units of the 4th and the 7th Royal Tank Regiments. The plan was for a concentrated thrust by infantry and tanks along the Arras–Bapaume highway to sever the head of the viper, Rommel’s 7th Panzers before the German support infantry could link up. Franklyn’s tank units were strong enough to carry out this objective as long as they didn’t meet up with Rommel’s main force. What finally put the scheme into operation before a unified plan could be worked out was an urgent cable by Churchill to Prime Minister Reynaud: ‘… The tank columns in the open must be hunted down by numbers of small mobile columns with a few cannons …’

General Gort set D-hour for 21 May at 14.00 hours. General Martel was put in command. The first wave was composed of the 13th and 151st Infantry Brigades plus sixty-five Mark I and eighteen Mark II tanks. Martel was promised flank support of seventy light tanks of the French 3rd Mechanised Division – but no air cover. There was one problem, and not a small one at that. Though Intelligence had correctly identified the 7th Panzers of General Rommel, they missed out on the 8th Panzers, the 5th Panzers, as well as a mechanised SS Panzergrenadier Division which was following Rommel’s Blitz – 400 tanks and 20,000 men.

A few days earlier. The moustachioed commander of the 1st British Tank Brigade was sitting in his command truck. A message arrived. Unit under heavy attack from the south–west. How could that be? South-east, yes, but south-west? His men were still holding the river line. Had the Germans managed to cross over the Dyle in the south, perhaps at their junction point with the First French Army?

The radio ended his doubts: … Lead units of German 39th Panzer Corps have crossed Dyle … we suffer heavy casualties …’ Followed by: ‘Attention all units. Hoth’s 5th and 7th Panzers seen general heading Maubeuge–Le Cateau …’

That was yesterday. Today he saw them. The panzers were fanning out, heading for his position. This time he couldn’t expect anyone else to solve the problem for him. He couldn’t retreat; for that it was too late. Bullets whipped past, slapped into trees and earth. All along the line his men were firing their rifles at armoured vehicles. Not much of a contest.

‘Need artillery support. Over.’ A distant bang. Another bridge went up before the enemy’s panzers got to it. ‘What’s happening?’ he enquired.

A tired voice came over the speaker. ‘We’re being clobbered, govn’or, dat’s wot.’

‘Blue 14, this is Foxtrot 7, do you read?’

‘Go on, Foxtrot 7.’

‘Blue 14, request permission to pull back.’

‘Foxtrot 7, permission denied. You hold with whatever you’ve got. Out.’

He knew that he had just sealed the fate of a battalion, but he had no choice. If they’d pulled back, it would leave the division’s, and, with it, the BEF’s entire flank wide open for the panzers. An officer stumbled in, his face grey and sweaty. ‘Sir, we cannot raise division headquarters, they’re either down or dead. We need tanks. Those Matildas of the 4th Royal would do us nicely.’

‘All right.’ He turned to his radio operator.’ Forget division, patch me through to GOC.’

‘I’ll give it a try, sir.’

‘You do better than that, son, or you’ll walk from here to there by foot.’

He had to launch a counter-attack, and very soon. For that he needed those heavy Royal tanks before the whole division was mashed under the cleats of German armour. The main railway bridge was already blown, but Jerry pioneers had thrown an assault bridge across the water. And now their panzers were streaming across, supported by heavy artillery. He turned to his radioman, headphones clamped to his head, listening to messages relaying firing orders and enemy positions.

‘Sir, confirmation, the Germans are across the river at Wavre.’

‘What about our sector?’

‘Sir, GOC orders a holding action, no further orders.’

The noise of distant shelling increased, explosions were creeping towards his positions. From across the river, an 88 scored a direct hit on a position of Alpha Company. Five men were killed. ‘Sir, GOC on the line.’

‘Hand me the mike. This is Blue 14 …’

The room was lit by a ball of yellow, followed by a mind-blowing crash. The radio operator tumbled forward, a big hole in his tunic. ‘This is Blue 14 …’ yelled the brigadier into the mike. It was no use. The splinter that had killed his radioman had also smashed the radio tubes. The brigadier jumped from the command truck. Had to get to another radio. Alpha Company had one. It wouldn’t carry far, but his message could be relayed down the line. When he reached the men of Alpha, he was told that their commander had been killed.

‘You there, sergeant …’

‘Yes, sir.’ The man saluted smartly.

‘Take over Alpha Company.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Finally he established contact with GOC only to hear that the Germans were already deep behind everybody, behind the French to the south, the Belgians to the north and now moving behind the British. Divisional commanders ordered places to be held that had already fallen. It was those cursed panzers. There was only one solution. Throw at them all the tank reserves in one single blow, and try to cut the Germans’ thrust in two. For this, his unit was ideally placed: the main panzer force had passed directly to his south and now their flank was open to his brigade. He passed the proposal through to GOC. The reply he got was not what he had expected. It wasn’t for attack, but another ‘disengage from the enemy’. ‘All units withdraw to Delta Blue line. Immediate.’ He checked his Michelin road map. Just like the Germans, his side also depended on these fabulous French road maps one could purchase at any petrol station. It showed that the Germans were racing for the Dendre, another river, already west of the Dyle. They had to move back. But not in panic. If he could achieve an orderly withdrawal his men would be available to fight another battle another day. He had to work out a scheme to extract his forward companies from their exposed position. They had to sneak back quiet like, leaving behind only a thin covering screen.

‘Major, we’re moving out. The guns are mechanised, the men are not. A problem?’ The major turned to the Regimental Sergeant Major who came to attention, stiff as a ramrod. Nothing would perturb this man, not even German panzers. ‘Try and organise us something with wheels for the boys.’

‘Yessah. There’s the equipment and food trucks.’

‘Dump it, we need men, not tents’, said the brigadier. ‘Here’s the plan. The guns move at 03.00 hours, the men at 03.20 hours. No lights. We head for the Dendre River. As soon as the last man is across, blow that bridge.’ He would be helped by artillery support. Shells from a German field battery screamed overhead. The last British unit along the Dyle line managed the move out without losses. They drove and walked and stumbled until they reached a forest. The troops were exhausted and wanted to sleep. Instead, they were ordered to dig in.

‘Sir,’ argued a company commander, ‘the men are a bit tired.’

‘Bloody hell, who isn’t?’ replied the brigadier.

Messages crackled over the ether: 30 German tanks, 60 half tracks, 20 guns, five miles east of Grosart, heading north-west at 0715 hours.

Dendre River line under heavy attack. Request permission …

By the time they had fixed one defence line the Germans were already past them. The brigade faced the threat of being completely cut off.

18 May, 22.00 hours. Heavy panzer units advancing rapidly along Le Cateau–Cambrai and Valenciennes–Douai axis.

Which meant that the Germans had already broken through to his south and were coming straight at his unit. The Germans expected to roll up the entire British Expeditionary Force from the rear. A barrage from some 25 pounders whistled overhead, ranging in on the advancing panzer column. A new order from GOC superseded the last: BEF to establish by 1200 hours May 19 along Escaut line, Oudenarde-Maulde.

Pull back again! The men were worn out. And another message.