The Battle of San Jacinto – Santa Anna’s Folly

The Battle of San Jacinto-1895 painting by Henry Arthur McArdle (1836–1908)

The Mexican Province of Texas, 1836

In 1835 Santa Anna, one of the generals who had led the Mexican people in throwing out the Spanish, was elected president and almost immediately abolished the constitution, making himself a dictator. Like their neighbors to the north, many Mexicans felt strongly about their freedom and constitution. Within a year, the dictator Santa Anna Perez de Lebron reacted to the first resistance to his rule and his having abolished the constitution by leading an army into the formerly prosperous province of Zacatecas. It was an army that burnt, pillaged, and raped its way across the land until the province was both devastated and virtually unpopulated. Santa Anna then made sure that his statement “If you execute your enemies, it saves you the trouble of having to forgive them” was known to every person in Mexico. It was a stern warning, but also showed his total disregard for the “rights of man” and other freedoms lost when he abolished the constitution.

Now, if there was one part of all Mexico that was still willing to revolt against Santa Anna, it was Texas. It was far from the centers of the dictator’s power, and two-thirds of the thirty thousand citizens living in what was then the Mexican province of Texas were immigrants from the United States. The remainder were either established Mexican families with an independent spirit or men who had fled there when Santa Anna took over. The abolition of the constitution angered most Mexicans, and the “Texicans” more than most. Many of the men and officers who fought against Santa Anna, from the Alamo to San Jacinto, were of Mexican descent, and many risked lands that had been in their families for generations. By 1836, things had come to a head and a revolt started in Texas, with a few hundred ill-organized men easily driving out the local garrisons. So far this was all being done in the name of the abolished constitution. But revolution was revolution, and, having led a successful one against the French that freed all Mexico only a few years before, Santa Anna knew he could not allow another revolt to start, even in the distant and relatively poor province of Texas.

The population of Texas was only a tiny fraction of Mexico’s; the Mexican army itself was nearly as large as the entire population of the distant province. Santa Anna had beaten the French army and suppressed much larger revolutions, so it took him several mistakes in Texas to lose both the battle and a war. That he lost at all is more surprising, since Santa Anna was leading battle-tested veterans against men who had no more than a few months at best to train together, and were much more independent-minded and difficult to lead than good soldiers should be. So how did, as Texans so proudly point out, Texas win its independence rather than end up the wasteland that Zacatecas had become?

Santa Anna had been called the Napoleon of Mexico, and he quickly took the name to heart. He was confident, or, as we shall see, overconfident, in the face of any “rabble” in thinly populated Texas. Still, he decided to bring against Texas an army of six thousand of his best troops, most having taken part in devastating Zacatecas the year before. Public statements assured everyone in Mexico City that Texas would meet the same fate as Zacatecas, and that every former citizen from the United States would be killed or driven out of that province permanently. Like Napoleon, Santa Anna felt maneuver was a most important part of warfare. So he carefully directed each march and the routes of every column in his army. Unlike Napoleon, the Mexican dictator took little interest in supplying his army. Determined to put down the revolt before any effective opposition could organize, the dictator ordered his army to move north with forced marches. It being winter, the journey soon took its toll, and more resembled the retreat from Moscow than the start of a new campaign. By the time the army neared the Rio Grande, only about four thousand effectives remained. Two thousand men had fallen from exhaustion, had gotten sick, or had simply deserted during the hard march from the capital to the Rio Grande. These remaining troops were reinforced to slightly more than the six thousand-man army Santa Anna had started with by adding to them the survivors of the Texas garrisons. This meant that there was one Mexican soldier for every five men, women, and children in all of Texas. No one, not even those who wanted it to, such as the president of the United States, expected the Texican revolution to succeed.

The first opposition came on February 23 at the abandoned mission near San Antonio de Bexar, known as the Alamo. As with Zacatecas, Santa Anna quickly made it known that he would take no prisoners. The defenders fought with desperate courage, but by March 6 were unable to hold the large length of walls and were eventually overwhelmed. Those who did survive the assault may have been executed; evidence is mixed. But the final result was that no defender survived.

A few weeks later a mixed force of cavalry and horse artillery caught the largest single force of rebels under Colonel Fannin near Goliad. Trapped in the open, the Texans formed a defense position and drove off the first attacks by the horsemen. Then the horse artillery unlimbered and began punishing them with shot and grapeshot, packets of hundreds of musket balls fired from the cannon like a giant shotgun. Seeing his position was indefensible, Fannin negotiated a surrender. His men would lay down their arms in exchange for being able to return to their homes and the promise to never take up arms against Santa Anna again. These terms being accepted, the Texans surrendered. At this point, Santa Anna ordered that they all be executed. The officers who accepted the surrender protested and were sent away. On March 27, the Napoleon of Mexico forced the prisoners onto an open area and had his men open fire: 342 died, but 28 escaped to spread the tale.

Having destroyed both the only fortress occupied by the Texans and their largest single force, Santa Anna seems to have decided that the revolt was over. Sam Houston was desperately trying to organize what remained of the resistance, but this force of less than a thousand men (at its peak) was being constantly forced north away from the centers of population and their families. So Santa Anna split his force into a number of “flying columns,” which mostly meant they were just small enough to march fairly quickly and live off the land. These columns began to recreate in Texas the atrocities of Zacatecas. You could follow their movement by the smoke from the homes and towns they burnt.

Leading the largest column, about a thousand soldiers, Santa Anna pursued and eventually drove the rebel government completely out of Texas (onto a ship). He continued moving in the general direction of Sam Houston, more concerned with driving the former U. S. citizens out of Texas and burning every building he found than fighting a battle against an already defeated foe.

This overconfidence, and the general exhaustion from a long march and months of campaigning, led to a relaxation of procedures that the real Napoleon would have never tolerated. Pickets and scouts were used only occasionally, and orders were often sent by unescorted couriers.

Sam Houston’s scouts captured a courier riding to the dictator’s camp. The message told him two things. One was that the column Santa Anna led was much closer than he had thought, less than a day’s march away. The second was that in less than a week the Mexican column was to be strongly reinforced. With his own men more than restive, and some ready to mutiny due to inaction, Houston knew that it was finally time to act. He had already stopped running and was marching closer to Santa Anna. Seeing that the weeks of retreating were over, the Texican army’s spirits rose as they marched to meet the men who were burning their homes and towns. When they realized that the battle was imminent, they cheered.

Unknown to Houston, the Mexican reinforcements had arrived earlier than expected. Sam Houston had at most eight hundred men ready to fight, and the additional arrivals meant that Santa Anna had under his command over fifteen hundred experienced soldiers, including mounted lancers and several guns. This gave Santa Anna, already convinced he was merely completing a mop-up following his victories at the Alamo and Goliad, a false sense of confidence. His army was nearly twice as large as Houston’s and in a good defensible position. His men were professionals, and he had heard of the dissention Houston’s constant orders to retreat had engendered. The Texans would never dare to attack, and all he had to do was wait until desertions, already a Texican problem, and frustration eliminated the opposition for him. Even though he knew the Texans were close, the dictator’s confidence was such that he ordered his army to stand down for the afternoon, relaxing in camp rather than preparing for battle. He joined his officers sipping champagne under the shade of a large tree in the center of the camp and soon everyone but a few guards were enjoying their siesta.

When Houston formed his army for the attack, it numbered 793 men. All were ready for a long-awaited fight, but few had ever really been in a battle. The potential for disaster was great, but the chance to defeat and capture Santa Anna was too great an opportunity to pass up. This was probably Houston’s last and only chance for victory. The Texan commander understood that if he held his men from battle much longer they would certainly mutiny or simply desert. So the decision to attack was made, and soon the double line of Texans waited behind a ridge that hid them from the Mexican army’s camp. Upon Houston’s signal, they moved silently forward.

As the men moved toward the Mexican camp, everyone expected to be spotted and hoped they could gain the relative advantage of the top of the ridge before having to face the Mexican regulars. Amazingly, they approached the ridgeline and nothing happened. No one, especially Sam Houston, could believe their luck. When they finally came into sight of the camp, it was a bare two hundred yards away, and still no alarm was being given. Finally, as the entire double line of Texans came into sight, a few cannonballs were fired at their approaching line, sailing safely overhead but alerting the Mexican soldiers that something was happening. A few musket shots rang out from the camp and drums rolled as men struggled to wake up and form into units.

At this point, a small party of men that Houston had sent to check ahead joined the battle and yelled out that the Texans’ only line of retreat, Vince’s Bridge, was down. Every Texan now knew it was most certainly victory or death, in a most literal sense. Santa Anna never took prisoners, and there was no way to escape. Just as this cry went up, the army being a mere eighty yards from the edge of the confusion-filled Mexican camp, Colonel Sidney Sherman bellowed, “Remember the Alamo and Goliad.” It was both a warning and a rallying cry. “Remember the Alamo” was repeated and he then roared it out in Spanish as the advancing Texans opened fire from only a few yards from where Santa Anna’s officers were struggling to bring order to a now panicky army. The galling fire (most of the Texans were frontiersmen, so many shots hit home) broke the morale of the disorganized men. Resistance stopped except in isolated pockets, and most of the Mexican soldiers ran or tried to surrender. These were the same soldiers who had pillaged and raped their way across Texas for the previous three months, and the units that had taken the Alamo, leaving no one alive. Few surrenders were accepted and panic took over, Santa Anna’s officers and men fleeing for their lives.

The battle took less than twenty minutes. The revenge went on for over an hour as Texans pursued and killed the remnants of the column. Riflemen fired into milling mobs and their small cavalry unit was everywhere, slashing the routing soldiers and ensuring no one was able to reform and offer any resistance. It was not until some hours later that Sam Houston was once more in control of his army and some prisoners were taken. But he was worried. While they had broken the column, this was less than a quarter of Santa Anna’s total army, and the dictator had escaped. Thanks to Santa Anna’s overconfidence, Houston had a victory, but the war was far from won.

The next day, among a few straggling prisoners brought in to join those already under guard, was a dusty, dirty man with a torn shirt that, if anyone had bothered to look closely, was of far higher quality than those of the common soldiers. It was not until his own men began saluting and muttering his name that the Texans realized this prisoner was indeed Santa Anna Perez de Lebron himself. The stained and filthy shirt was, it was later realized, actually held together with diamond studs. Quickly brought before Sam Houston, who was suffering from an ankle shattered in the initial attack, the dictator began negotiating for his life and freedom. Many of the Texans, still desiring revenge for the Alamo and Goliad, wanted to hang Santa Anna right there. But Houston held him prisoner until a month later, when a treaty was signed and Texas became a nation. The deal was that Santa Anna could go free if he let go of Texas. He agreed and returned to Mexico City. After that no one called him the Napoleon of Mexico anymore.

Texas was a thinly inhabited frontier and the Mexican army was nearly as large as the population of the former province. The year before, a much more populous province had been easily turned into a wasteland. Furthermore, Santa Anna was leading battle-tested veterans against men who had no more than a few months, at best, to train and work together. So how did Texas win its independence rather than end up the wasteland the other rebellious province had become? There is one simple reason for this nation-forming defeat: Santa Anna’s overconfidence led to a dispersion of forces, and an overly harsh response that rallied opposition. His real failures were to not maintain local security around his camp or even bother to locate the enemy. It all came down to misplaced confidence and a gross underestimation of the Texicans.

John Tiller’s Mexican-American War

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Caesar Besieged in Alexandria

“Battle of Alexandria Caesar left behind his purple cloak which was later captured by the Alexandrians as a battle trophy”

Shortly after Cleopatra’s October 48 BC arrival, Caesar moved from the villa on the royal grounds to the palace proper. Each generation of Ptolemies had added to that sprawling complex, as magnificent in its design as in its materials. “Pharaoh” means “the greatest household” in ancient Egyptian, and on this the Ptolemies had delivered. The palace included well over a hundred guest rooms. Caesar looked out at lush grounds dotted with fountains and statuary and guesthouses; a vaulted walkway led from the palace complex to its theater, which stood on higher terrain. No Hellenistic monarchs did opulence better than the Ptolemies, the preeminent importers of Persian carpets, of ivory and gold, tortoiseshell and panther skin. As a general rule any surface that could be ornamented was—with garnet and topaz, with encaustic, with brilliant mosaic, with gold. The coffered ceilings were studded with agate and lapis, the cedar doors with mother-of-pearl, the gates overlaid with gold and silver. Corinthian capitals shimmered with ivory and gold. Cleopatra’s palace boasted the greatest profusion of precious materials known at the time.

Insofar as it was possible to be comfortable while under siege, Cleopatra and Caesar were well accommodated. None of the extravagant tableware or plush furnishings of their redoubt detracted, however, from the fact that Cleopatra—virtually alone in the city—was eager for a Roman to involve himself in Egyptian affairs. The rumbles and jeers outside, the scuffling in the street, the whizzing stones, drove that point home. The most intense fighting took place in the harbor, which the Alexandrians attempted to blockade. Early on they managed to set fire to several Roman freighters. The fleet Cleopatra had lent Pompey had moreover returned. Both sides jockeyed for control of those fifty quadriremes and quinqueremes, large vessels requiring four and five banks of rowers. Caesar could not afford to allow the ships to fall into enemy hands if he expected to see either provisions or reinforcements, for which he had sent out calls in every direction. Nor could he hope to man them. He was seriously outnumbered and at a geographic disadvantage; in desperation, he set fire to the anchored warships. Cleopatra’s reaction as flames spread over the ropes and across the decks is difficult to imagine. She could not have escaped the penetrating clouds of smoke, sharp with the tang of resin, that wafted across her gardens; the palace was illuminated by the blaze, which burned well into the night. This was the dockyard fire that may have claimed some portion of the Alexandrian library. Nor could Cleopatra have missed the pitched battle that preceded the conflagration, for which the entire city turned out: “And there was not a soul in Alexandria, whether Roman or townsman, except for those whose attention was engrossed in fortification work or fighting, who did not make for the highest buildings and take their place to see the show from any vantage point, and with prayers and vows demand victory for their own side from the immortal gods.” Amid mingled shouts and much commotion, Caesar’s men scrambled on to Pharos to seize the great lighthouse. Caesar allowed them a bit of plunder, then stationed a garrison on the rocky island.

Also shortly after Cleopatra’s arrival, Caesar composed the final pages of the volume we know today as The Civil War. About those events he would have been writing in something close to real time. It has been suggested that he broke off where he did—with Arsinoe’s defection and Pothinus’s murder—for literary or political reasons. Caesar could not easily discourse on a Western republic in an Eastern palace. He was also at that juncture in his narrative briefly in possession of the upper hand. Just as likely Caesar found himself with less time to write, if not overwhelmed. He was indeed the man who famously dictated letters from his stadium seat, who turned out a text on Latin while traveling from Gaul, a long poem en route to Spain. The murder of the eunuch Pothinus had galvanized the opposition, however. Already it included the women and children of the city. They had no need of wicker screens or battering rams, happy as they were to express themselves with slingshots and stones. Sprays of homemade missiles pelted the palace walls. Battles flared night and day, as Alexandria filled with zealous reinforcements and with siege huts and catapults of various sizes. Triple-width, forty-foot stone barricades went up across the city, transformed into an armed camp.

From the palace Caesar observed what had put Alexandria on the map and what made it so difficult to rule: its people were endlessly, boundlessly resourceful. His men watched in amazement—and with resentment; ingenuity was meant to be a Roman specialty—as the Alexandrians constructed wheeled, ten-story assault towers. Draft animals led those mammoth contraptions down the straight, paved avenues of the city. Two things in particular astonished the Romans. Everything could be accomplished more quickly in Alexandria. And its people were clever copyists of the first rank. Repeatedly they went Caesar one better. As a Roman general recounted later, they “put into effect whatever they saw us do with such skill that it seemed our troops had imitated their work.” National pride was at stake on both sides. When Caesar bested the seafaring Alexandrians in a naval battle, they were shattered. Subsequently they threw themselves into the task of building a fleet. In the secret royal dockyard sat a number of old ships, no longer seaworthy. Down came colonnades and the roofs of gymnasiums, their rafters magically transformed into oars. In a matter of days, twenty-two quadriremes and five quinqueremes materialized, along with a number of smaller craft, manned and ready for combat. Nearly overnight, the Egyptians conjured up a navy twice as large as Caesar’s.*

Repeatedly the Romans sputtered about the twin Alexandrian capacities for deceit and treachery, which in the midst of an armed conflict surely counts as high praise. As if to prove the point, Ganymedes, Arsinoe’s ex-tutor and the new royal commander, set his men to work digging deep wells. They drained the city’s underground conduits, into which they pumped seawater. Quickly the palace water proved cloudy and undrinkable. (Ganymedes may or may not have known this to be an old trick of Caesar’s, who had similarly annoyed Pompey.) The Romans panicked. Did it not make more sense to retreat immediately? Caesar calmed his men: Fresh water could not be far off, as veins of it reliably occurred near oceans. One lay just beyond the palace walls. As for withdrawal, it was not an option. The legionnaires could not reach their ships without the Alexandrians slaughtering them. Caesar ordered an all-night dig, which proved him correct; his men quickly located fresh water. It remained true, however, that on their side the Alexandrians had great cleverness and plentiful resources, as well as that most potent of motivations: their autonomy was at stake. They had distinctly unfavorable memories of Gabinius, the general who had returned Auletes to the throne. To fail to drive Caesar out now was to become a province of Rome. Caesar could only remind his men they must fight with equal conviction.

He found himself entirely on the defensive, perhaps another reason the account of the Alexandrian War that bears his name was written by a senior officer, based on postwar conversations. Caesar indeed controlled the palace and the lighthouse in the east, but Achillas, Ptolemy’s commander, dominated the rest of the city, and with it nearly every advantageous position. His men persistently ambushed Roman supplies. Fortunately for Caesar, if there was one thing he could count on as much as Alexandrian ingenuity it was Alexandrian infighting. Arsinoe’s tutor argued with Achillas, whom he accused of treachery. Plot followed counterplot, much to the delight of the army, bribed generously and in turn more generously by each side. Ultimately Arsinoe convinced her tutor to murder the redoubtable Achillas. Cleopatra knew well what their sister Berenice had accomplished in their father’s absence; she had badly blundered in failing to prevent Arsinoe’s escape.

Arsinoe and Ganymedes turned out to be no favorites of the people, however. This the Alexandrians made clear as reinforcements approached and as Caesar—despite a forced swim in the harbor and a devastating loss of men—began to feel the war turning in his favor. To the palace came a delegation in mid-January, shortly after Cleopatra’s twenty-second birthday. They lobbied for young Ptolemy’s release. Already the people had tried unsuccessfully to liberate their king. Now they claimed they were finished with his sister. They yearned for peace. They needed Ptolemy “in order, as they claimed, that they might consult with him about the terms on which a truce could be effected.” He had clearly behaved well while under guard. Generally he left no impression of fortitude or leadership, though petulance came naturally to him. Caesar saw some advantages in his release. Were the Alexandrians to surrender, he would need somehow to dispense with this extraneous king; Ptolemy could clearly never again rule with his sister. In his absence Caesar would have better reason to deliver up the Alexandrians to Cleopatra. And were Ptolemy to continue to fight—it is unclear if the rationale here was Caesar’s, or attributed to him later—the Romans would be conducting a war that was all the more honorable for being waged “against a king rather than against a gang of refugees and runaway slaves.”

Caesar duly sat Cleopatra’s thirteen-year-old brother down for a talk. He urged him “to think of his ancestral kingdom, to take pity on his glorious homeland, which had been disfigured by the disgrace of fire and ruin; to begin by bringing his people back to their senses, and then save them; and to trust the Roman people and himself, Caesar, whose faith in him was firm enough to send him to join enemies who were under arms.” Caesar then dismissed the young man. Ptolemy made no move to leave; instead he again dissolved into tears. He begged Caesar not to send him away. Their friendship meant more to him even than his throne. His devotion moved Caesar who—eyes welling up in turn—assured him that they would be reunited soon enough. At which young Ptolemy set off to embrace the war with a new intensity, one that confirmed that “the tears he had shed when talking to Caesar were obviously tears of joy.” Only Caesar’s men seemed gratified by this turn of events, which they hoped might cure their commander of his absurdly forgiving ways. The comedy would not have surprised Cleopatra, well accomplished in the dramatic arts, and possibly even the mastermind behind this scene. It is conceivable that Caesar liberated Ptolemy to sow further dissension in the rebel ranks. If he did so (the interpretation is a generous one), Cleopatra presumably collaborated on the staging.

Fortunately for Caesar and Cleopatra, a large army of reinforcements hurried toward Alexandria. The best help came from a high-ranking Judaean official, who arrived with a contingent of three thousand well-armed Jews. Ptolemy set out to crush that force at nearly the same moment that Caesar set out to join it; he was for some time frustrated by the Egyptian cavalry. All converged in a fierce battle west of the Nile, at a location halfway between Alexandria and present-day Cairo. The casualties were great on both sides, but—by storming the high point of the Egyptian camp in a surprise early-morning maneuver—Caesar managed a swift victory. Terrified, a great number of the Egyptians hurled themselves from the ramparts of their fort into the surrounding trenches. Some survived. It seemed Ptolemy did not; he was probably little mourned by anyone, including his advisers. As his body never materialized, Caesar took special pains to display his golden armor, which did. The magical, rejuvenating powers of the Nile were well known; already it had delivered up queens in sacks and babies in baskets. Caesar did not want a resurrection on his hands, though even his meticulous efforts now would not prevent the appearance of a Ptolemy-pretender later.

With his cavalry Caesar hurried to Alexandria, to receive the kind of welcome he had doubtless expected months earlier: “The entire population of the town threw down their weapons, left their defenses, assumed the garb in which suppliants commonly crave pardon from their masters, and after bringing out all the sacred objects with whose religious awe they used to appeal to their displeased or angry monarchs, went to meet Caesar as he approached, and surrendered to him.” Graciously he accepted the surrender and consoled the populace. Cleopatra would have been ecstatic; Caesar’s defeat would have been hers as well. She presumably received advance word but would in any event have heard the raucous cheers as Caesar approached on horseback. His legions met him at the palace with loud applause. It was March 27; the relief must have been extreme. Caesar’s men had given him more than a decade of service, and on arrival in Alexandria believed the civil war to be over. They had by no means counted on this last, little understood exploit. Nor were they alone in their consternation. Rome had heard nothing from Caesar since December. What was keeping him in Egypt, when all was off-kilter at home? Whatever the reason for the delay, the silence was unsettling. It must have begun to seem that Egypt had claimed Caesar as it had Pompey and—as some would argue—in an entirely different way, it ultimately would.

Operation Shingle – The Landings I

On the evening of Friday 21 January 1944, Berthold Richter, a nineteen-year-old engineer in 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, wrote a letter to his parents. ‘I am looking forward to some leave soon and hope to see you both. I miss you terribly … I have not been able to write as often as I would have liked and fear that I am not much of a son nor a brother. Please send my love to Anna and tell her that I miss her too. I would imagine that she has grown since I last saw her.’ He signed off ‘Your loving son, Bertie’ and attached a recently taken photograph of himself in uniform posing by the Coliseum. Grenadier Richter was a good-looking young man, with a shock of black hair and bright blue eyes. He had left his family in Hamburg for basic training twelve months before and had not been home since. Had he returned, those that had known him would have noticed that he had changed – he had lost a little weight, but he also stood differendy, and there was something unfathomable about his expression. Richter had seen his officer blown up during the fighting in Sicily, cradled his dying best friend in his arms at Salerno and been wounded twice during the fighting in the mountains. His division had eventually been pulled out of the line for a refit and a time in reserve near Rome. Here Richter had briefly – but fully—sampled the pleasures of the capital city where he drank and smoked heavily, and lost his virginity to a prostitute. He had no time to waste. Now he was at Anzio, one of a 380-man unit that had only the previous day been enjoying the sea air, conducted a little training, and making preparations for the demolition of the harbour. Richter slipped the sealed letter in his breast pocket, as a comrade staggered through the door of their seafront billet with two cases of ‘liberated’ wine. With the town evacuated and offering so little to entice the men, they settled in for some drinking, singing and gambling. Berthold Richter enjoyed himself, at one point falling off a table as he danced with a wooden chair, before falling fast asleep fully clothed on a mattress on the floor. It is likely that he was awoken by the sound of the approaching Allied landing craft and had gone to investigate. The shots that killed him had propelled his comrades out of bed and into the waiting arms of the Rangers. Before being escorted into captivity, Richter’s friends saw his body curled in the foetal position surrounded by a large puddle of blood on the esplanade.

Nearly 800 5-inch Allied rockets had crashed into the buildings and along the waterfront of all the invasion beaches. The wall of explosions killed and wounded some of the sentries, dropped masonry down onto the sleeping, cut telephone lines and detonated some of the mines. But its psychological effect on the enemy was even more impressive, sending those still capable of a fight reeling into the first waves of VI Corps. Their confidence boosted by the pyrotechnics, Lucas’s assault waves stormed the beaches to the sound of their own descending might, but silence from an overawed enemy. Assisted by lights (set up on the sand by two-man teams launched from submarines) the assault craft had landed accurately and on time. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recalls:

I braced myself for the shock of the searchlights stabbing out from the shore, followed by the tracers pouring over the waters. But again a silence more intense than ever held the whole area as the assault craft crept in . . . The incredible had happened. We had got the one thing we had never bargained for, utter, complete surprise.

The Allied landings were an unexpected success. An Irish Guards officer wrote: ‘It was all very gendemanly, calm and dignified’, whilst a less restrained 3rd Division officer declared: We hit the beach and shook Hider’s breeches … It sure was a relief after Salerno and that God awful practice.’ The real thing was far more successful than the rehearsals because Lowry and Troubridge had worked tirelessly to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated, and assisted by the benign conditions, they were not. Lucas noted in his diary: ‘We achieved what is certainly one of the most complete surprises in history. The Germans were caught off base and there was practically no opposition to the landing . . . The Biscayne was anchored 3½ miles off shore, and I could not believe my eyes when I stood on the bridge and saw no machine gun or other fire on the beach.’

The landing was an important first step which had been made accurately and securely in order to provide a stable base for further phases. The next step was to push Lucas’s troops and vehicles swifdy across the beaches to instil the attack with some forward momentum. In this intense task the Military Landing Officers (MLO) played an important role. Captain Denis Healey, a future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was an MLO on the British Peter beach. A veteran of landings in North Africa and the Calabria, Healey did not take part in the Salerno landing (where his replacement was killed), but he was an expert in his field. He landed as the engineers were clearing lanes in the minefields when his job was then ‘to make sure that the troops followed the white tape through the lanes, and the vehicles were on the laid metal tracks to stop them bogging … My three days at Anzio were busy, but not dangerous.’ The beaches were extremely busy, with bulldozers creating breaches in the sand dunes, loudspeakers directing the troops, whilst vehicles and guns spilt out onto the sand. Healey and his team ensured that 1 st Division’s paralysis was kept to a minimum, although there was little that they could do when the sand bar that had concerned Penney during planning caused delays. Lucas was not happy and visited an irritated Penney to demand greater efforts as troops waded ashore or were lifted by DUKWs. Had the German defences been stronger they may have been able to exploit such difficulties, an accurate artillery barrage for example might have caused Penney serious problems, but instead the Panzer Grenadiers were rounded up within minutes of the landing. Vaughan-Thomas wrote, ‘The only Germans we saw were a forlorn group standing under guard at a farmhouse door. They had been fast asleep when we landed and clad in pyjamas had jumped into their car and driven it through the door of the barn and had been rounded up before they had gone a hundred yards.’

The three Ranger battalions and the supporting parachutists were extremely grateful for the lack of opposition on Yellow beach in Anzio. Lucas had expected a tough fight to take the harbour and the Rangers had been specially selected for this mission after their excellent performances in Tunisia and Sicily. Their commander, Colonel William O. Darby of Arkansas, ‘a broad-shouldered, thick-chested man’, who ‘moved quickly and spoke with decision’, recognised the nature of the challenge that faced his force as the beach was narrow and overlooked by buildings. He told the planners at Caserta: When I run out of the landing-craft I don’t want to have to look right or left’, and that is exactly what happened. When Darby disembarked from his landing craft he ran straight up the beach, across the road and into the Paradiso sul Mare, the large white twin-domed Art Deco casino built in the 1920s. As he set up his command post, his men, followed by 509th Parachute Battalion, fanned out and within minutes were bringing back prisoners. It was during this time that Berthold Richter had been killed. Richter’s friend Ralph Leitner recalls: ‘I was lucky not to be shot like him. These soldiers had adrenaline pumping through their veins and itchy trigger fingers. They looked fearsome. I recognised them as Rangers from their dress and the black, red and white insignia on their sleeve and knew instandy to respect them.’ The newly arrived Town Commandant also lay dead nearby. He had been driven down the coastal road from Anzio to a headquarters in Nettuno in the company of a Lieutenant to ascertain the source of a droning noise that could be heard out to sea. Minutes into their journey they were caught up in the rocket attack which forced them to take evasive action, but at its conclusion they sped on. As their vehicle entered Nettuno the Rangers ambushed them, drilling them with fire. The driver tried to barge through, but crashed into a ditch. The commandant was killed, the driver was badly wounded, but the Lieutenant cowering in the back emerged unscathed and was taken prisoner. Within minutes he was standing in Anzio harbour, watching the continued landings. He told his interrogators back in England that he had been impressed with what he saw: ‘he never heard a word of command’, they reported, ‘and yet it seemed that everything went clock-work-like’. He could appreciate the careful planning: ‘it was like a big business without confusion, disorder, or muddle.’ The speed and surprise of the attack had given the Germans no time in which to react. The Times later reported on one illustrative action: ‘At a German command post, from which the occupants fled when the Rangers landed, rooms were left in disorder, even to the remnants of a meal which had included sardines, Czech beans, and Danish bacon. Near by lay two German soldiers, shot as they ran from their machine-guns.’ Some Germans did not even have time to get dressed. One American private remembers bumping into a half-naked man in the darkness of Anzio:

As our squad entered a gloomy narrow street I could see a pair of fleshy white buttocks wobbling in the opposite direction and I shouted ‘Halt!’ as loud as I could. The man stopped, raised his hands, turned and walked towards us. We could tell that he was shocked – and perhaps a little embarrassed—because he was only dressed in a vest. At first I thought that he might be an Italian, but he found his confidence when he knew that we were not going to shoot him and started swearing at us in German. His thin legs were shivering below a great pot belly. It was my first encounter with the Master Race.

The Germans were quickly overrun, and Anzio was secured by 0800 hours, with Nettuno secured two hours later.

Soon after 3rd US Infantry Division and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had landed on X-Ray beach, they began to push forward. ‘Once we knew that the division was going to get ashore in one piece and without any hindrance from the enemy,’ recalls Oliver P. Roach who was a Staff Sergeant with 15th Infantry Regiment headquarters, ‘our minds were on our next objective. Making a beachhead was very important, because we just didn’t know when or where the enemy would counter-attack us.’ This was a concern which was shared by the entire corps on the morning of 22 January, and in anticipation John Lucas had planned to create an initial beachhead area some two and a half to three miles deep which could be defended. To facilitate this, reconnaissance platoons were thrown forward and patrols were sent out by units in an attempt to ‘join hands’ across the front as quickly as possible. The probes forward were cautious, but firm. The Americans felt vulnerable as they moved through the open, flat, scrubby marshland on the right of the front towards the Mussolini Canal and an unmade road known as the ‘disused railway bed’ which ran across their front. The British, meanwhile, were circumspect about the prospect of traversing the dark Padiglione Woods. Leading the way on Penney’s left flank was 2nd Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment which advanced with two companies forward using a track through the Umbrella Pines that became known as Regent Street. ‘It was a little nervy being at the forefront of a corps attack striking out for Rome’, recalls an officer from battalion headquarters. ‘It was literally a shot in the dark. We didn’t know what was in front of us and had to constantly co-ordinate ourselves with the rest of the brigade. We were told to speed up then slow down, then speed up again. All we could really do was push on at a steady pace. The Colonel knew what he was doing.’ They ghosted through the darkness, their senses aching, their hearts pounding and their breath freezing at their mouths, expecting to be ambushed at any moment. But the division found no resistance in the wood and their attack developed unhindered in a breaking dawn towards the Moletta River, the Via Anziate and the flyover at Campo di Carne. The first organised German troops were encountered by the vanguard of both divisions after dawn. This weak defensive screen was established by the first German forces to be sent to the area and a number of their 88-mm guns opened fire on the beachhead and the landing vessels. It was the least that Lucas had expected and by mid-morning, as a weak sun gently warmed the embryonic beachhead, he had good reason to feel thoroughly satisfied. The landing had been a great success, and his divisions were forging a beachhead against negligible opposition.

Churchill wanted to be in London when Operation Shingle was launched and had arrived back at Downing Street on 18 January. He was still weak from illness, but his high expectations for Shingle helped sustain his morale. However, on the eve of the attack the Prime Minister was in a contrary mood, snapping at staff and colleagues alike, and clearly anxious about the operation. He found it difficult to concentrate on his work that evening, but within minutes of the first wave landing he received a message: ‘Personal and Most Secret for Prime Minister. From General Alexander. Zip repeat Zip’ – Operation Shingle had been launched. The lack of any further word on the situation at Anzio for several hours did not help the Premier’s mood. Having only slept fitfully for a couple of hours that night, he pounced on Alexander’s next communication at 0900 hours. We have made a good start’, it read. ‘We have obtained practically the whole of our bridgehead and most of the supporting weapons will be ashore tonight I hope.’ With that the Prime Minister relaxed – but he demanded frequent updates fearing German counter-attacks. Alan Brooke, meanwhile, went shooting. The newly promoted Field Marshal did not feel paternalistic towards Shingle which he viewed very much as Churchill’s baby; he allowed the Prime Minister to enjoy the ordeal of its delivery alone. ‘Very good shoot, only 4 guns: Cobbold, uncle Philip, Barney and I’, he recorded in his diary for 22 January. ‘Howling wind, almost gale force. Shot 172 pheasants. At lunch was called up by War Office and told that landing south of Rome had been a complete surprise. This was a wonderful relief!’

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring

It is not certain who raised the alarm, but by 0300 hours the news had reached Kesselring’s headquarters in Monte Sorrate. The Field Marshal had been awoken with the words: ‘Case Richard.’ As he dressed hurriedly a staff officer appraised him of the situation – there had been a landing in the Anzio—Nettuno area, but details were scant – but it could be up to four divisions. Kesselring’s mind lurched into action, running through the implications of the news and various scenarios that it could lead to. But he made no assumptions until he had the facts. There had obviously been a massive intelligence failure. Spies had failed to spot Allied preparations, and its armada had not been spotted approaching Anzio. He had been wrong-footed, and it was now his job to restore stability, and to strike back. Within minutes he was in a large briefing room with Siegfried Westphal, where a clutch of befuddled officers were talking animatedly over a map of Italy. The briefing by the intelligence officer was short and at its conclusion Kesselring launched immediately into questions. Making his apologies, an NCO bearing papers interrupted proceedings with new information. Civitavecchia, a promising invasion area sixty miles to the north of Anzio, was being bombarded. Kesselring smiled and nodded; the Allies were toying with him. Already unsure whether the landings were a raid, a feint or a full-scale attack, this complicated matters. Albert Kesselring strode over to the map table and leaned heavily over it. We have a problem,’ he announced, ‘but not an insurmountable one’, and proceeded to launch into a speech which those present later recalled as a bravura lecture on Allied intentions. The Field Marshal declared that the landing at Anzio was the opening gambit of an attempt to seize the Alban Hills, which would cut Tenth Army’s lines of communication fighting in the Gustav Line thus blocking their route of withdrawal. He remained calm throughout, even joking occasionally at the expense of his colleagues. ‘We have been caught a little off-guard,’ he explained, ‘as we are over-stretched trying to contain the fighting in the south. But we can recover. The British and American aim is to threaten Rome, have no illusions about that, but can they seize the city swiftly? Not, gendeman, if I have a say in the matter – and I intend to be very vocal.’ Pausing, he turned to Westphal and demanded to know what assets he had between Anzio and Rome. ‘Virtually nothing in the landing area,’ came the reply, ‘and perhaps another 800 men in the vicinity in total.’ Kesselring nodded again and then smiled. Throughout he exuded a confidence that infected all those who listened to him that morning. Kesselring acted as though this was merely a long expected—and eagerly anticipated – exercise. His sang-froid was securely rooted in his anticipation of Allied landings, albeit not necessarily at Anzio and at that time, and the preparations he had made for it. The terse instructions that he issued that morning were not a knee-jerk reaction to events, but had been carefully prepared for such an eventuality. The aim was to have 20,000 troops in the area by evening.

By 0430 hours the words ‘Case Richard’ had been signalled all over Italy, alerting commands that an Allied amphibious assault was under way at Anzio-Nettuno and ordering certain units and formations to move to contain it. The military commandant of Rome, Lieutenant General Kurt Mältzer, was to block routes in to the city with all available forces, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Defence District of Rome (who was also the commanding general of all Luftwaffe forces in the Mediterranean theatre), General Max Ritter von Pohl, was to move all his flak formations stationed south of Rome into defensive positions. Major General Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Parachute Division, the majority of which was still north of Rome, was to move without delay to the beachhead whilst its spearhead, Kampfgruppe Gericke, was to be sent immediately to block the Via Anziate and the secondary roads in the area. A kampfgruppe from 29th Panzer Grenadier Division stationed near Velletri, as yet uncommitted against British X Corps on the Garigliano, was sent towards Cisterna to block the only other main Allied exploitation route. Thus by the time that Adolf Hitler had been informed of the landings at around 0600 hours, a small, but highly mobile force had already been deftly despatched to contain the Allies. That morning the Führer was at his Wolfschane (Wolf’s Lair) headquarters in an East Prussian forest east of Rastenburg. Although still under development it covered an area the size of twenty-one football pitches. Only a small percentage of the Wolfschanze contained underground bunkers, but these were impressively built with a shell of reinforced concrete six feet thick. Narrow corridors connected the rooms which all had electric heating, running water, fitted furnishings, and ventilation machinery which drew fresh air through the ceiling. Hitler’s personal bunker – the Führerbunker – also boasted air conditioning. It was cramped, claustrophobic, but safe. On receiving the news of the attack Hitler had been calm but intense, for Kesselring had shrewdly forewarned him about the likelihood of just such a landing. He had watched Mark Clark’s recent offensive develop with interest, but was confident that Kesselring’s defence would hold firm. He now relied on the Field Marshal to deal a blow to the Anzio-Nettuno landings, and provide a victory that would shake Allied faith in their ability to conduct successful amphibious warfare.

Hitler’s composure allowed him to maintain his usual routine without interruption on 22 January. There was the usual pre-breakfast situation report in the Map Room at which he was given the latest news about the landings, followed by a communal breakfast with his staff. Here Hitler always sat facing a large wall map of the Soviet Union and spoke passionately about the Eastern front and the evils of Bolshevism, but the main situation conference that morning was dominated by the situation south of Rome. By this time it was clear that the attack was no feint, but a major strike, and the meeting decided to send formations from other theatres to deal with it: 715th Infantry Division was to be moved from the south of France, the 114th Jaeger Division from the Balkans, three independent regiments – including the highly regarded Infantry Lehr Demonstration Regiment – from Germany, and two heavy tank battalions from France. The meeting also gave Kesselring the authority to use any division from Fourteenth Army in northern Italy, which were under the control of the Chief of High Command of the German Armed Forces (OKW), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. As a result the larger parts of 65th Infantry Division and 362nd Infantry Division, together with elements of the newly formed 16th SS Panzer Division, were ordered south of Rome. Kesselring also ordered Tenth Army to stop counter-attacking British X Corps and go onto the defensive all along the Gustav Line in order to facilitate the release of as many units for Anzio as possible. Von Vietinghoff was displeased, arguing strongly that Mark Clark’s offensive was still a threat, but was forced to concede. Tenth Army subsequently released 26th Panzer Division and elements of 1st Parachute Division from its left, and units from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, 71st Infantry and 3rd Panzer Grenadier Divisions from his right. The newly arrived I Parachute Corps headquarters was also returned to Fourteenth Army with Schlemm ordered to take command at the beachhead Anzio-Nettuno until General Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army headquarters could be moved from Verona. Hitler was impressed with Kesselring’s continuing sang-froid and the fact that his headquarters had not mentioned the word ‘withdrawal’. In the late afternoon, the Führer took tea with his secretaries and then sat down to dinner with Keitel and his aides where their strategy was discussed. There had been no panic at either the Wolfschanze or Monte Soratte.

The race between the belligerents to build up their forces at Anzio–Nettuno had begun. Several units had formed the defensive screen which the Allies had run into that morning. These included the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division Kampfgruppe which used its five armoured cars south of Cisterna to block the road from Nettuno. At 0715 hours it engaged an American reconnaissance force and took the first Allied prisoners of the battle. Shordy after the first troops from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division arrived at Cisterna, and the spearhead of 4th Parachute Division’s Kampfgruppe Gericke on the Via Anziate. Battalion Hauber blocked the road at Campoleone Station and sent a patrol out to Ardea where it stopped the British 1st Reconnaissance Troop as it drove up the coastal road. In a matter of hours the Germans had not only recognised Alexander’s intentions for Operation Shingle and set in motion a plan to heavily reinforce the area, they had also focused their activity on roads that Lucas would rely on to exploit the success of his initial landings. Moreover, by occupying Ardea, Campoleone Station and Cisterna, the Germans retained strong foundations for a counterattack. As if to underline Kesselring’s intent, several German Messerschmitt 109 fighters and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter bombers broke through to strafe the beaches, and drop light bombs on VI Corps at its most vulnerable point. Ross Carter of 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment wrote:

The deck of our LCI was crowded with troops standing around waiting to unload into the icy water and make the three hundred yards to the beach. Just as Berkely was reaching for one of Pierson’s cigarettes, a dive bomber came in and hell opened its doors. The bomb missed the bow by five feet or so, but the explosion lifted the boat clear out of the sea and blew a column of oily water into the sky which fell back on the boat and left us oil-coated for several days.

Stranded off the beach, one of the men swam ashore with a rope and tied one end to the strut of an amphibious Piper Cub, a light aircraft, sitting on the sand. Loaded up with equipment, weapons and ammunition, the men held the rope, jumped into the water and pulled themselves along. ‘The water’, the young paratrooper recalled, ‘was eight to ten feet deep and icy as a spinster’s heart.’ It was a fitting introduction to Anzio, for the men emerged from it ‘wet, cold, miserable, mad, disgusted and laughing,’ a list of adjectives that accurately reflect what troops were to feel during the coming battle. Indeed, as Carter says, he and his comrades had ‘embarked upon an adventure that staggers the mind.’ Private Robert E. Dodge, meanwhile, managed to get off his LCI safely, only to come under immediate aerial attack:

We doubled-time off the L.C.I. and kept going. We had run for quite a distance when Jerry planes came in strafing and bombing. Our anti-aircraft guns sent up such a cloud of aerial bursts, you wouldn’t think anything could fly through it. We instinctively hit the ditches. All around you could here the zap of shrapnel from our guns’ shells hitting the ground. The noise of the planes and guns was really frightening. This time no one was hurt, but now we realised it was for real. Before we could get out of the ditches, we were being urged on with shouts of ‘Move it’.

The Luftwaffe disturbed some of the Allied new arrivals on the first day of Shingle, but caused no significant damage due to their small numbers and the success of Allied Spitfire and Kittyhawk fighter patrols which accounted for seven enemy aircraft for the loss of three Allied. Thus, although the Germans had begun to move troops into blocking positions, and the Luftwaffe had been active, by noon the assaulting forces had reached Lucas’s initial beachhead line. British 2nd and 24th Guards Brigade were firmly lodged in the Padiglione Woods and patrols had reached the Campo di Carne flyover. It was a damp and exposed spot with a few farmhouses, but little else. ‘It gave me goose bumps’, says the 5ft 2in Corporal ‘Lofty’ Lovett of the North Staffordshires, ‘and it did not help when I was told that “Campo di Carne” translated to “Field of Flesh”. Here we were in the middle of God knows where, with precious little cover, waiting for something to happen. It was as still as could be, just the occasional boom of a German gun, or the noise of an aircraft, but otherwise quite quiet.’ Meanwhile, to Lovett’s right, 2nd Special Service Brigade had taken a position astride the Via Anziate two and a half miles north of a defensive line around Anzio-Nettuno created by the Rangers and 509th Parachute Battalion. The Americans had also occupied its soggy initial beachhead area with 7th Infantry Regiment on the left, 30th in the centre and 15th on the right, with patrols pushed forward to the Mussolini Canal where they prepared bridges for demolition to secure the flank.

Included in the invasion force into Anzio were 150 Carabinieri whose job it was to maintain public order in the towns after the landings. They were understandably extremely apprehensive at being part of a dangerous amphibious assault, but were relieved to walk ashore knowing that the Americans were already in control. Setting up a headquarters in a restaurant on the seafront, this armed police force, resplendent in their black uniforms, found that they had very little to do as the populations of Anzio and Nettuno had been evacuated. However, these native Italian speakers became extremely useful when refugees from elsewhere on the battlefield started to congregate in towns during the day. The first had started to arrive mid-morning, some carrying suitcases, children, and even family heirlooms. But there were others who had only too obviously run from their homes in a hurry, some without coats, and one or two still in nightclothes. A proportion of these were injured, their bruised and bloody bodies covered in a thick layer of dust. Many spoke of the dead that they had left behind. These people had lived with the war for years, but the violence had come with appalling suddenness on 22 January. Antonia Paolo who lived with her husband and four children on the edge of the Padiglione Woods recalls the experience:

Our farmhouse was sturdy, but not strong enough to stop the rockets. Only one hit our roof, but brought it down. Luckily nobody was hurt. The children were screaming and my husband grabbed them into his arms and carried them down into the cellar. We sat in the dark listening to the bombardment. It was the worst moment of my life and we prayed together. But it ended as quickly as it had started and within what seemed like minutes, a British officer who spoke fluent Italian was standing in our parlour apologising for the damage, and promising that somebody would be along soon to help us. My husband thought that they would help rebuild the roof and our demolished wall, but what he meant was that we would be escorted down to the port.

Once down at Anzio, the Paolo family were quickly put on an LCI with around twenty other families, and by evening were being administered to by the Allies in Naples. Some families left the danger area at the first opportunity, others as the battle spread, but many had to be prised from their homes or waited until the fighting was on their doorstep before electing to leave. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas witnessed one family which only fled once their house was under direct German fire: ‘The battle was a mere few hundred yards down the road’, he wrote, ‘and the bewildered civilians, clutching their bedding and a few battered suitcases, would stumble through the darkness, the noise and the shell-bursts to the dubious safety of the rear.’ Over the coming weeks a constant trickle of civilians asked to be taken to safety and at times it was a major task feeding and sheltering several hundred often frightened refugees. A church on the outskirts of Anzio was eventually used as an embarkation centre, although it was frequently overflowing with people, a significant number of whom were very young, very old or sick. Occasionally there was panic when a shell landed close by, and sometimes the evacuees had to wait several days before a ship could be found to take them to safety, but eventually 20,000 were taken to Naples.

1st Army Tank Brigade in France in 1940

Matilda II

This brigade was commanded by Brigadier Pratt and consisted of three Battalions: 4RTR, commanded by Lt-Col Fitzmaurice, 7RTR, Lt-Col Heyland and 8RTR which did not join the brigade due to shortage of tanks. The establishment of these battalions was 50 ‘I’ tanks, seven light tanks and eight (Bren gun) carriers. As the establishment assumed fifty 2-pdrs, it must have been assumed that the Matilda I’s would soon be replaced by Matilda II’s.

The first troopships of the BEF left for France on 9th September. The infantry divisions went first, then 4RTR. 7RTR was still awaiting its tanks. 4RTR was up to establishment, but only with Matilda I’s. It spent the winter at Domart, close to the Somme.

When the brigade was first deployed a study drawn up to consider its use concluded that, because the Matilda I’s lacked an AT gun, they could only be used to defend static AT guns against infantry assault. This should be in an anti-tank defence zone behind the front line.

The study’s conclusion was that until the Matilda II’s were issued, the contribution of the Army Tank Brigade was limited. This comment may be taken as something of a criticism of the general who drew up the specification for the Matilda I.

7RTR arrived in early May 1940. On 10th May the German offensive started. 7RTR had 27 Matilda I’s, 23 Matilda II’s, and seven light tanks. Some of the Matilda I’s had been upgunned to mount .5-in MGs.

The two battalions would have had no time to exercise together when, in response to the German attack, Plan ‘D’ was activated and the BEF trundled forward to take up its position on the Dyle. The tanks were sent by rail, admin vehicles by road, and arrived at the railhead at Halle during the night of 14th/15th May. Next night the brigade took up a position in the Forest of Soignies. This move of the BEF fell in with the German plans and they mounted a major attack in the Sedan area and crossed the Meuse on 13th May. Then, with seven panzer divisions, they surged due west towards the Channel.

The result was a long salient, 20 to 30 miles wide. On the map it was very vulnerable to an Allied counter-attack which, even if only partly successful, would have choked off supplies for the German tanks. The Germans were well aware of this and their infantry divisions were hard at work widening the breach. To make this counter-attack the 1st Army Tank Brigade was ordered to Tournai. The tanks should have been entrained at Enghien, but as a result of air attacks there were no trains available, so the tanks had to drive on their tracks, mostly at around 3 mph, the whole way.

British plans evolved at two levels. On the higher level the plan was to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the enemy salient and counter-attacks were proposed, a French one from the south and a British one from the north. However on a local level the plan was for a spoiling attack designed to interrupt German communications and assist the defence of Arras. Initially the plan was for two divisions to be involved, but circumstances whittled this down to one brigade, which could only put two battalions into the assault, and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The French attack was not a success, but even so the limited success of the British attack made a surprising impression on the German command and is a hint of what could have been achieved in slightly more favourable circumstances.

The attacking force was to be commanded by Major-General Martel who commanded the 50th Division which supplied the infantry component of one brigade. The force was organised into two columns, the term ‘battle groups’ was not yet current. Each column was a battalion of infantry and a battalion of tanks with artillery attached. 7RTR with 8DLI were the right, or western, column; 4RTR with 6DLI were the left, or eastern, column. The Tank Brigade having moved on its tracks around 120 miles since leaving the railhead, had lost a considerable number of tanks. It was down to 58 Matilda I’s and 16 Matilda II’s. To equalise firepower seven Madilda II’s, with crews, were lent by 7RTR to 4RTR.

The brigade was ordered to form up behind, north of, the Arras-Doullens road. This road ran roughly south-west from Arras and looked like a good start line on the map, but the Germans were already north of it, having troops on the Arras-Hesdin road, which ran west-north-west from Arras. It is not known why this information was apparently ignored, perhaps British staff procedures were still geared to trench warfare speed. Aerial reconnaissance also let the army down. This may be because the RAF was returning to England while this action was afoot.

The aim was for the two columns, which would be operating about two miles apart, to make a 180 degree sweep round the south of Arras, and finish up by taking up a position on the Scarpe to its east. The orders were passed on to the battalions at 7.30 am. Unfortunately it was not defined which of the two battalion commanders should command each column. This would cause problems not helped by the poor radio communications of the time. A French tank unit of around 60 tanks was to co-operate on the right flank, and the French insisted that the start line was changed to the Arras-Hesdin road. This was to be crossed at 2.0 pm. The tanks had to cover nearly eight miles to reach it. General Martel followed the attacking columns in a staff car but it does not appear that he was able to influence the course of the action. Also totally out of contact with the tanks was Brigadier Pratt. He was visited close to the start line by Brigadier Pope, who was the Adviser on Armoured Fighting Vehicles at HQ, BEF. Pope urged him forward to his brigade, but it is not obvious what he could have done when he got there. There was certainly no shortage of chiefs, but without radios they could achieve little.

Remarkably, one tank commander had not yet sloughed off his peacetime habits and halted at a level crossing barrier. Another tank, with a more resolute commander, rolled past him and smashed through it.

In the event the attack started half-an-hour late, and then not all the troops had closed up. Before crossing the start line the troops had to cover three miles and cross the Scarpe, where there were still bridges standing. Then they were in action.

It was a great misfortune that in the haste to get started there was no time for reconnaissance. Each column should have had a motorcycle platoon provided for short-range reconnaissance but the right hand column did not receive theirs. So they only found out about the enemy when they opened fire. This they did at the village of Duisans which was cleared by the DLI and some French tanks. The 8DLI continued on but were stopped by mortar fire before reaching the Arras-Doulens road. 7RTR marched on without them Soon after crossing the start line a troop of the right hand company (squadron) shot up a German AT unit in half-tracks. This unit must have been a flank guard for an infantry unit of the 7th Panzer Division or the SS Totenkopf division, for, as the rest of the battalion breasted a small rise they could see a large number of lorries full of infantry crossing their front to their right. The MGs on the tanks opened up, causing heavy casualties. The Germans got some 37-mm AT guns into action, but the shot bounced harmlessly off the thick armour of the Matildas of which one of the Mk IIs absorbed 14 hits with equinamity. Some of the German troops showed signs of panic.

German dive bombers were commendably quickly on the scene, and were effective against the infantry, but only destroyed two tanks. In one case bombs bursting close to a Matilda I turned it over, killing the commander, in another a light tank was blown into the air. Brigadier Pratt wrote that it was believed that it was actually blow 15 feet in the air!

4RTR fought its way through to Wancourt, causing havoc, but then it ran into the German field batteries, following their infantry. The result was tragic. The Colonel, who had been commanding from a light tank because of the better radio, was killed and around 20 tanks were knocked out. The adjutant led a charge that destroyed one battery, but there were others and he had to order the battalion to pull back.

Partly as a result of the tanks’ charge the infantry of 6DLI had been left well behind by 4RTR. They were slowed down by mopping up and collecting prisoners, and in terms of practical co-operation, had lost contact with the tanks.

7RTR had not only cast off from its infantry but took a different direction. It should have been making for Warlus, but swung towards Wailly. At this moment communications within the battalion failed. The Colonel dismounted from his light tank to try, by hand signals, to restore order and direction. He was killed by MG fire, as was his adjutant who bravely tried to carry on for him. 7RTR tanks rumbled into Wailly and Mercatel and caused great destruction, but by that time General Rommel, who commanded the 7th Panzer Division, had returned from the division’s spearhead to the west to direct the defence against the two tank battalions.

He set about deploying various artillery pieces, most notably some 88mm guns, to build up what was later termed a ‘pakfront’. If the tanks could not charge artillery and machine gun the crews they were helpless, not being able to fire high explosives, and the infantry could not tackle the German guns having been left far behind. 7RTR was forced to retreat.

This was really the end of the part played by the British tanks in this action. They pulled back over the Scarpe. There were only two Matilda IIs and 26 Matilda Is left. A small number of damaged tanks was salvaged, but the bulk had to be abandoned. Some German tanks joined in the fray, but found that their guns could not defeat the Matildas’ armour, whereas the 2-pdrs were very effective against German armour.

Fortunately the German follow-up was hindered, not only by the chaos of the battlefield but also by British infantry units holding villages, and AT guns that scored many successes against the German tanks. The Germans quickly learned not to charge AT batteries. They also learned that they would need thicker armour on their tanks and soon set about a program of bolting extra plates on the fronts of them.

This action is justly celebrated in the history of the RTR and is often stated as the cause of the halt order that allowed the BEF to escape at Dunkirk. That view might be something of an exaggeration but the action certainly made a significant impression of the German command. As Field Marshal von Rundstedt later commented: ‘A critical moment in the drive came just as my forces had reached the Channel. It was caused by a British counter-stroke southwards from Arras. For a short time, it was feared that the Panzer divisions would be cut off.’

It is no exaggeration to say that the 1st Army Tank Brigade was destroyed as a result of this action. After Arras, reorganised as a regiment, it carried out only small and unimportant actions until the last two surviving tanks were disabled by their crews at Dunkirk.

Battle of Houdilcourt

2nd Pz.Div. actions in the Houdilcourt area June 10, 1940.

Army Group A launched its offensive on June 9, four days later than the units near the English Channel. Guderian now had two Panzer corps at his disposal, both of which had been positioned in the Reims area. His grouping was the easternmost of the German mechanized formations and included four Panzer divisions and two infantry divisions. They were to be committed when infantry divisions had secured bridgeheads across the Aisne.

On June 9, Guderian’s units remained in reserve. One of them was the 2nd Panzer Division, which was cautiously moved forward. Although the main offensive had been launched, it remained important not to reveal the Panzer divisions and thereby disclose the overall intensions of the Germans. The commander of the division, Lieutenant-General Rudolf Veiel, continuously received information on how the attack progressed. He issued instructions accordingly to the battle groups formed in his division. They gradually moved south, troubled by traffic jams but not unduly hindered.

Early in the afternoon, alarming reports from the fighting infantry division were received. They indicated that French resistance was stiff. Heavy French tanks had also been observed, and so Lieutenant-General Veiel was requested to send tanks in support. He resisted, as he believed his tanks were inferior to the heavy enemy tanks and he did not want to reveal the presence of his division yet.

The 2nd Panzer Division’s preparations proceeded virtually according to plan, and early on June 10 it was ready to attack south. Veiel’s division had two Panzer regiments, the 3rd and 4th, with two battalions each. They belonged to the 2nd Panzer Brigade, which was commanded by Major-General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron. He had elected to advance with the 4th Panzer Regiment in the lead. It had taken longer than expected to cross the Aisne during the night, but at 6.30 a.m., the 4th Panzer Regiment attacked. An hour later, the 3rd Panzer Regiment joined in Beautiful summer weather accompanied the tanks of the 4th Panzer Regiment as they set out. The tanks made good progress across the billowy fields, but soon fire from a wooded area was aimed at the German tanks. The tankers asked for infantry to clear the woods. The request was first made on the radio, and then by a liaison officer. However, nothing had happened after fifteen minutes. The commander of the Panzer regiment did not wait any longer. The German tanks continued south and were soon able to report that the defenders had been defeated.

High tempo was vital to the German success. Accordingly, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued attacking, and soon after 7.30 a.m. it neared the village of St. Loup. The tanks had thus advanced approximately 5 km south of the Aisne. To maintain the tempo of the attack, one Panzer battalion from the 3rd Panzer Regiment was directed to outflank St. Loup to the east while the 4th Panzer Division attacked into the village as well as outflanking it to the west.

At this moment, the Germans observed French tanks moving north. The German tankers immediately opened fire and could soon see the French tanks turning south. Further west, the Germans found a French battery, which was also rapidly taken under fire. The French gunners tried to evade the attackers with their equipment, but the German Panzer IIIs and IVs continued to shell them. Only remnants of the battery managed to escape. St. Loup was captured without much trouble.

After this objective had been attained, the commander of the Panzer regiment ordered the advance to continue towards Houdilcourt, located approximately 8 km west-southwest of St. Loup. As was customary in the German Army, the brigade commander issued his orders orally by visiting his subordinates at their command posts. They did not find the brigade commander’s instructions surprising given the overall mission. The exact direction was, of course, not self-evident, but the brigade commander indicated it clearly.

From the St. Loup area, German tanks drove towards the slopes northwest of the village, but some of them remained at the village until the infantry arrived. Most of the 4th Panzer Regiment did, however, begin to move, initially without encountering any significant opposition. The 5th Company advanced on the left flank and the tank commanders raised their heads above the turret hatch to search for the enemy. They suddenly saw muzzle flashes from antitank guns north of Sault-Saint-Remy. One of the German platoons immediately opened fire and knocked out the French battery before any tanks were knocked out.

The battle grew fiercer as the German tanks approached Houdilcourt. The village was located along an east–westerly stretch of woodland. The German maneuver brought them alongside the woods. Concealed French antitank guns, fire controllers for the artillery and heavy infantry weapons lurked beneath the branches. After the command was given, they opened fire on the German tanks, which lacked supporting infantry at this stage. Neither were the German tanks accompanied by fire controllers for the artillery.

Despite their disadvantages, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued the attack and tried to envelop the French position by advancing west, which would allow it to roll up the defense. However, the attempt failed as the French flank extended further to the west than anticipated by the Germans. The 6th Company did manage to break into Houdilcourt and clear the village, but the strongest French defenses were located in the woods east and west of Houdilcourt. The French were also protected by minefields and the bridges across the Retourne river—the swampy banks of which extended westwards through the woods—had been barricaded.

The regiment commander regarded artillery support as necessary for successfully attacking the French position. Over the radio, he requested fire support from the divisional howitzers, but this could not be provided immediately. It was not until 12.20 p.m. that the tankers received any information suggesting that artillery support could be expected soon. The tanks in Houdilcourt were ordered to move out of the village to avoid being subjected to the artillery fire. The howitzers would commence firing at 12.45 p.m.

The German tank crews anxiously waited for the shells to hit the French positions, but despite straining all their senses, they could not see any artillery fire when their watches passed 12.45. Neither did they receive any information on the radio, leaving them with no option but to wait—they could not risk being hit by their own artillery.

A sort of stalemate resulted from the poor communication between the German tanks and artillery. Finally, tanks from the 5th and 6th Companies began to move in order to find firing positions on a slope, but they drew fire from French antitank guns. Several German tanks were knocked out by the well-concealed French guns, which the Germans were unable to locate. At this moment, the German tankers decided not to wait any longer, despite the uncertainty of the artillery fire. II Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment attacked east of the French position, thus rolling it up from the flank. Around 200 prisoners were captured, as well as five antitank guns.

Shortly thereafter, the Panzer regiment was able to establish a connection with the neighboring division, which detailed two of its artillery battalions to support the tanks. The latter could thus continue its attack and dislodge the defenders from their positions. The tanks could not pursue south in force until the minefields and other obstacles had been removed. However, the tanks and the temporarily subordinated artillery from the neighboring division fired upon the retreating French defenders.

Later in the evening, the 3rd Panzer Regiment took up defensive positions south of Houdilcourt, near the northern outskirts of St Etienne sur Suippes. The French line of defense had been broken, but at a cost. No fewer than twenty-one of the tanks in the 3rd Panzer Regiment had been knocked out, although it was possible to repair many of them. The 2nd Panzer Division recorded twenty-five killed in action, seventy-one wounded and three missing. Of these, three of those killed, twenty-one of those wounded and one of those missing belonged to the 3rd Panzer Regiment. Casualties within the 4th Panzer Regiment were far smaller: two killed in action, nine wounded and one missing.

In the evening of June 10, two pieces of news were received by the 2nd Panzer Division. The Allies had evacuated Narvik, and thus the campaign in Norway had come to an end. Also, Italy had declared war on Britain and France. This information was enthusiastically received, but the 2nd Panzer Division ad no time to rest on its laurels. During the night, the bridges across the Retourne were cleared of mines and obstacles. Another river, the Suippes, flowed across the German axis of advance further south, and the retreating French blew up the bridges spanning it. Nevertheless, the 2nd Panzer Division advanced on a broad front east of Reims on June 11.

The battles northeast of Reims had shown that the spirit of the French Army was not yet broken. However, once the Germans had broken through the prepared defenses, they could not be stopped. The losses suffered previously in the north had left France bereft of any significant reserves, and when the fighting became more fluid, the Germans held all the trump cards. No significant opposition would bother Guderian’s divisions after June 11.

180 rounds of rifle fire

RAF Hawker Hurricanes take on Luftwaffe He-111’s in 1940 Battle of Britain.

The German invasion came not by water but by air, because Hermann Göring promised Adolf Hitler that his airmen would win command of the skies before the army and navy crossed the sea. In 1937, while entertaining Lord Trenchard, boasting of the superior powers of his secretly rebuilt Luftwaffe, Göring took his guest outside for a magnificent firework display in the chilly night. Loudspeakers blared out an amplified recording of an artillery barrage, mixed with the whine of dive-bombers swooping to drop their whistling loads of explosive bombs. This was barely two months after the destruction of Guernica. ‘That’s German might for you,’ Göring shouted. ‘I see you trembled. One day German might will make the whole world tremble.’ ‘You must be off your head,’ the founder of the RAF angrily replied. ‘I warn you, Göring, don’t underestimate the RAF.’

From July to October 1940 the Luftwaffe and the RAF clashed above southern England in the series of air combats that became known as the ‘Battle of Britain’. Some doubt if there was ever a coherent German plan; bombers would simply bash Britain until it gave up, which it surely had to. But the illogical British stubbornly refused to surrender, and what ensured was the mythic battle of which Churchill said, in August 1940, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ The ‘few’ were British, Canadian, Czech, Polish and South African pilots.

London’s Croydon Aerodrome was attacked on 18 August, when the Home Guard managed to shoot down a Dornier with 180 rounds of rifle fire. Central London and the City were first hit by the German air force on the night of the 24th. Then it became a war of tit for tat. RAF Bomber Command bombed ‘military targets’ in the German capital Berlin. Major Nazi reprisal bombing started at teatime on Saturday, 7 September 1940. A huge armada of enemy aircraft flew up the Thames estuary in broad daylight, over 300 bomber planes with more than 600 fighters protecting them. The journalist Virginia Cowles, weekending in the country, saw them in the distance like a swarm of insects. They were heading for the wharves and warehouses.

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15 October 1940
RAF Spitfire X4418 was shot down by a Spitfire over Maidstone:

“… I was shot down at the end of a battle — and by a Spitfire! This actually happened quite often — a Spitfire shooting down a Spitfire. With inexperienced chaps and the sky full of planes, there wasn’t all that much difference between our fighters and theirs at certain angles. We camouflaged the planes at first, trying to make the wretched things invisible, but then our own anti-aircraft guns used to go for us, so we gave them a more spectacular underside. The incident in question happened over Maidstone on October 15, 1940. There had been an engagement and I was gliding back to Biggin Hill after using up all my ammunition … I throttled back at about 25,000 feet. There was nothing in the sky except three Spitfires behind me. Then suddenly — bang! The aeroplane was full of holes. I was bloody indignant I can tell you. All at once I realised, ‘Christ! I’ve got to bail out!’ I had a bullet through one leg and my controls had gone. I had to get out!
As I was parachuting down I remembered that I was wearing a German Mae West! It was one that had been taken from a crashed plane — they were a sight more comfortable than ours. At that I began to get very worried. There I was dangling on my parachute going down outside Maidstone, and I could see a crowd gathering below. What if someone decided to take a shot at me, I thought! I believe there were instructions then to the Home Guard on how to deal with parachutists — apparently some of the Germans were coming down disguised as nuns! So one instruction said, ‘In order to ascertain sex of the parachutist, put hand up up skirt.’ Those were certainly desperate times! Anyhow, I landed safely, and the crowd soon realised from my language that I was English. In fact, as I said, it was by no means uncommon to be shot down by your own planes. I could name you a half dozen who were — the commander of Biggin Hill for one. And another chap I know of was deliberately shot down and killed by his own squadron. They didn’t like him, apparently …”
Brian Kingcombe
92 Squadron, RAF

See p.72-74, Haining, Peter, ed. The Spitfire Log: A 50th Anniversary Tribute to the World’s Most Famous Fighter Plane (London: Souvenir Press Ltd., 1985)

Minden 1759 I

The day before Minden fell (11 July) Ferdinand received another carping letter from Frederick, chiding him for his Fabian tactics. Exhorting him to remember Rossbach, Frederick admonished his brother-in-law that it was better to join battle with the enemy and lose than demoralise the troops by constant retreat; in a particularly nasty jibe, Frederick suggested that Ferdinand was a second Cumberland. At the same time George II was growing anxious about the lack of good news from Germany and was also starting to nag him for results. The effect on a man already suffering self-doubt can be imagined. His particular current anxiety was that the French would move on Hanover and cut him off from his communications with Frederick; perhaps the Prussian king had spoken more truly than he knew and it was now to be his (Ferdinand’s) fate to suffer Cumberland’s 1757 humiliation. This was the moment when his secretary, Christian Heinrich Philipp Edler von Westphalen, stiffened his resolve with a famous letter, urging Ferdinand to follow his own lights and not just agree with the last person he spoke to. From a secretary, this sounds at first like impertinence, but Westphalen had already shown that, when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to waive protocol and to go beyond the bounds of his formally subordinate station. Devoted to Ferdinand, having been with him at the battles of Lobositz, Prague and Rossbach, Westphalen was the Prince’s chief planning officer and strategist, a devotee of boldness and imagination as against the sound space-time logistics of the military manuals. Ferdinand trusted him, listened to him and always took his advice seriously. On this occasion his response to Westphalen’s written homily was as decisive as his secretary could have wished. Ferdinand decided he would make no attempt to retake Münster but would march to the Weser river and establish himself on both sides of the river, daring Contades to dislodge him.

Contades though, exhibited the usual inertia of French commanders in Germany in the 1750s. Excessively circumspect, by covering all possible options he left himself with insufficient troops to mount an offensive. Even the capture of Minden was something of an embarrassment to him, as his distribution of numbers left him in no real position to take advantage of it. Nonetheless he decided that the town gave him another impregnable base from which to operate, so he dug in there. Ferdinand then tried all the ruses he knew to get Contades to leave his Minden position and fight before French reinforcements arrived, but Contades refused to take the bait. There were constant skirmishes along the Weser and both sides’ big guns blazed away pointlessly at each other. After failing to coax Contades out of his prepared positions, Ferdinand tried to threaten his communications at Minden by a march on Lübbecke. This operation he entrusted to his favourite commander, the twenty-four-year-old Erbprinz of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who had won Ferdinand’s undying respect and affection by serving under him even after his father (the Duke of Brunswick) had forbidden it. Ferdinand’s thinking was that Contades would have to deal with this threat either by turning south or giving battle. When the Erbprinz with his force of nearly 10,000 men brushed the French aside at Lübbecke on 28 July, Contades decided this was a challenge he could not ignore and sent the Duc de Brissac to intercept him. Brissac was told to buy time until reinforcements, expected under the command of the veteran Lieutenant-General, the Comte de St-Germain, arrived, guaranteeing overwhelming numerical superiority. The vanguards of the two armies collided near Bünde on 31 July, but this did not halt the Erbprinz’s probe and soon he had advanced as far as Kirchlengern and Quernheim. Now in serious alarm at the threat to his communications, Contades realised that inaction was no longer an option. But would he plump for retreat or battle? Ferdinand made contingency plans for either eventuality, detaching a liaison force under General Gilsa to make sure he was in constant touch with the Erbprinz, but meanwhile disposing his army so that it could operate at a moment’s notice in the Minden plain.

Contades had been in Minden for sixteen days, in a position of great strength, with his right resting on the Weser and Minden and his left covered by the Bastau marshes. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Bastau and Weser, Minden looked out to the north-west over a plain where on the horizon could be seen the villages and hamlets of Hahlen, Stemmer, Kutenhausen and Maulbeerkamp; the principal features on the skyline were a windmill and a cemetery. As one headed north and east from Hahlen, the landscape became more choppy, broken up by smallholdings, plantations and orchards abutting the hamlets. Contades’s idea was to recall Armentières from the protracted siege of Lippstadt, leaving Chevreuse to invest it and with the Armentières and St-Germain forces to overwhelm Ferdinand. Contades was irritated that the Brunswick prince had given him the slip since Bergen and wanted to finish him off in one go. His preference was to wait for Ferdinand to attack him, but he was under the same sort of nagging pressure from Belle-Isle and Versailles as Ferdinand was experiencing from Frederick and Berlin. He wanted to win the glory of being the French commander who made the definitive conquest of Hanover, and it was also in his mind that Versailles needed a decisive breakthrough in west Germany so that it could switch some of the 100,000 troops there to the invasion of the British Isles.

Contades therefore decided to launch a surprise attack on Ferdinand. But first he had to extricate his troops from the bottleneck – perfect for defence but not offence – between the Bastau marshes and Minden and this, he decided, was best done at night. Because of the difficult terrain, the infantry would have to be on the flanks of the cavalry instead of the other way round as in normal circumstances. Meticulous planning was necessary for the surprise attack, since while this night manoeuvre in unorthodox formation on a narrow front was going on, Broglie’s troops would have to be brought over from the other side of the river. At 6 p.m. on 31 July, therefore, Contades summoned his generals and issued his orders. Broglie was to march at dusk, cross the Weser by a stone bridge, proceed through Minden and link up with the artillery and eight battalions of Grenadiers. Situated on Contades’s right, at dawn he would launch a sudden attack of unparalleled ferocity, exposing Ferdinand’s left flank. The main army meanwhile would cross the Bastau by bridge and draw up, ready for daybreak, with the infantry on the flanks and the cavalry in the centre; artillery would cover the cavalry by enfilading fire from both flanks. Between Broglie’s corps and the right of the main army, a third column, eight battalions strong under General Nikolai (yet another veteran who would have to wait until his sixties to receive a Marshal’s baton) would support Broglie’s left and make sure the enemy could not drive a wedge between Broglie and Contades. Nikolai, whose forty-seventh birthday it was on the morrow, hoped to celebrate with a notable victory. Contades’s left meanwhile would be protected against flank attack by the Duc d’Havre and four battalions. Making sure that proper contact was maintained with the Duc de Brissac in the reserve, d’Havre would initiate the action by feinting across the causeway towards Ferdinand’s right just before dawn.

The plan might have worked had not Ferdinand almost simultaneously decided that he would launch a surprise attack on the French after a night march. The army was to be ready to march at 1 a.m., the right was to seize the Hahlen windmill and the left to occupy the hamlet of Stemmer. The best scholarship discounts the idea that Ferdinand was forewarned of French intentions by a peasant who brought him a package containing Contades’s battle orders; what is not explained in the traditional story is how a peasant with anti-French sentiments could have been entrusted with top-secret documents – and ones, moreover that were in clear and not coded. The most likely explanation is that Ferdinand simply intuited what Contades intended and beat him to the punch. By this time he too probably wanted a decisive confrontation. The strain on him of the chivvying and carping George II and Frederick was not assuaged by an extremely difficult relationship with the British commander, Lord George Sackville.

Estimates of Sackville’s character range from the moderately critical to the outright denunciatory. According to Lord Shelburne, who knew him well, Sackville was the avatar of all the vices: he was incompetent, cowardly, an intriguer, a vindictive enemy, a lover of low company and an unbalanced individual who swung violently from spurious optimism to false pessimism. The reference to ‘low company’ was code for the consistent canard that Sackville, even though he was married and would sire five children, was a homosexual. Even his friends conceded that he was a difficult man, reserved, haughty and socially isolated even among his peers and equals. Relations between Ferdinand and Sackville by 31 July 1759 were icy, and it is clear that at one of the many conferences Ferdinand liked to convene, Lord George had given deep offence by something he had said. The most plausible explanation is that Sackville expressed his frustration with the constant retreating before the French and threatened to pull the British troops out of the campaign. The threat could not be presumed to be idle, for in the War of Spanish Succession the great Duke of Marlborough had done just that to his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The upshot of the two converging night marches was that by dawn on 1 August Contades’s army was drawn up along a line stretching from Hahlen to Maulbeerkamp and Ferdinand’s from Hartum to Stemmer. The British troops during their night march had noticed that the fields and hedgerows were teeming with wild red and yellow roses, so they picked the flowers and put them in their hats. Broglie’s corps completed the march as planned, made contact with the enemy left at about 5 a.m. and opened fire. Lieutenant-General Georg August von Wangenheim, the Hanoverian commander who enjoyed the best relations with the British – he had been a battalion commander in England in 1756–57 during the invasion scare – was taken by surprise as a heavy pre-dawn thunderstorm drowned the noise of the approaching attackers. But the French plans began to unravel almost immediately. Instead of pressing home his advantage, Broglie waited for Nikolai to come up in support, giving Wangenheim time to get his big guns ready. There followed a pounding artillery duel, in which Broglie’s leading troops, the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties. By 6 a.m., with Wangenheim’s artillery gaining the advantage, Broglie sent Nikolai to try to loop round the enemy and occupy Kutenhausen. But, cautious like all French commanders, he first reconnoitred and seems to have persuaded himself that a German cavalry charge was imminent.

Contades, realising that his plans were already behind schedule, sent a mounted messenger to find out why Broglie had not advanced. Broglie then wasted further time by galloping over to Contades’s headquarters to explain his fears. In the meantime Contades, as dithering as his second-in-command, became alarmed by a supposed threat to his left, so told Broglie to return and contain the enemy right, until the situation on the left wing was sorted out; he even discussed with Broglie contingency plans for withdrawal. So, only two hours into the battle, things had already gone seriously awry; instead of launching a dawn attack, Broglie was now in limbo and even thinking of retreat. He could scarcely feel pleased with the morning’s work. He should not have waited for Nikolai, but attacked Wangenheim without delay; since Wangenheim was caught unawares, Ferdinand’s left would then have been turned. Broglie showed himself indecisive: he mistook a movement by Wangenheim’s men when taking up their position as an attack and therefore decided to wait for Nikolai. And so Broglie’s advance, on which the whole battle plan of Contades was supposed to turn, petered out. The unintended consequence was that he spent the rest of the battle containing Wangenheim – a stalemate that was compatible with Ferdinand’s tactics, but not with Contades’s.

Meanwhile Contades’s infantry had been delayed crossing the Bastau. They saw the sky lit up by flashes of gunfire and assumed that Broglie’s attack was proceeding as planned. The consequence was that the Comte de Lusace, on the French left, commanding fifteen battalions of Saxons, came to a halt near Hahlen at dawn, in close contact with another sixteen French battalions who were already in the village. This was the precise moment when Ferdinand, unaware that the enemy was present in strength, ordered forward Karl, Prinz von Anhalt-Bernburg and his men to occupy the village. Luck was with the Germans that morning. As they stormed forward into a potential death-trap, houses on the western side of the village caught fire, probably from incendiary shells. The wind caught up the fire and fanned it into the faces of the French defenders, who were driven back by the fierce heat and blinding smoke. The first British troops seriously engaged in battle in Germany now came into play as Foy’s Light Infantry Battalion collided with the French at the windmill just north of Hahlen. Seeing his attack now well under way on the right, Ferdinand ordered Wangenheim on the left to advance, and also gave the signal to Spőrcken’s corps on the right centre to close the gap left as Anhalt advanced.

General Freiherr von Spőrcken was, at sixty-one, the oldest officer on the field that day, an unspectacular plodder as a soldier but very popular with his men. Although nominally a German column, Number Three column (Spörcken’s) was actually comprised largely of British troops, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (51st Foot) and the other troops commanded by General Waldegrave and Colonel Kingsley, six regiments all told. Spörcken’s column came on at the double, at first hidden by woods, then deploying as it emerged from the sylvan darkness. To his alarm Ferdinand noticed Spörcken’s men getting ahead of the rest of the army and sent word for them to slow down. They made a brief halt in a copse but then recommenced their advance at the same rapid pace. Swerving to the left, and thus not hitting their intended target, they caught the left flank of the French cavalry. So on Ferdinand’s right, the situation was that the leading British and Hanoverian infantry were not only ahead of the rest of their comrades but had cut across them and were beginning to crowd them out. Nobody knows exactly why Spörcken’s men decided to fight virtually at running pace. Some say the orders were garbled in transmission because of language problems, but since Spörcken was in command this hardly makes sense. Others say the British wanted to show the other regiments their mettle, as they had been criticised for being raw troops. Doubtless a combination of élan and naivety caused the near-fiasco. Having dislocated the order of battle and being caught alone out in the open, they should have been severely punished and defeated in detail. But luck was with Ferdinand in all sectors this morning.

The battle for Hahlen now settled into a grim slugging match between the big guns of the French and those of Spörcken. This was a critical moment in the battle for, as Spörcken’s men stumbled towards them, the French infantry should have been able to seize the big guns before the artillery duel began. Unaccountably they failed to do so – later it was said they had been blinded by smoke and dust from the battle. That Ferdinand’s artillery was able to engage the French big guns was a hugely significant development, as the French were thereby prevented from sweeping away the opposition facing their own cavalry. Had these German guns not come into play at this juncture, the right flank of the British infantry would have been at the mercy of the French guns, causing heavy casualties and possibly affecting the entire result of the battle. In a letter to his mother written on the afternoon of the battle, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery of the 12th Regiment of Foot explained the atmosphere that morning:

We advanced more than a quarter of a mile through a most furious fire from a most infernal battery of 18-pounders, which was at first upon our front, but as we proceeded, bore upon our flank, and at last upon our rear. It might be imagined, that this cannonade would render the regiments incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount almost any difficulty.