Marines cross the Matanikau River aboard a permanent ferry, complete with landing stages at both ends. The raft was fashioned by Marine engineers from 55-gallon fuel drums. (Official USMC Photo)
Map of the U.S. Marine offensive around the Matanikau, 7–9 October 1942.
November 1942 was the month in which the tide was seen to turn on Guadalcanal. It was the month in which the beleaguered Marines in the Lunga Perimeter went on the offensive.
In late October 1942, only days after the reinforced 1st Marine Division turned back the supreme Japanese ground effort to destroy the Lunga Perimeter and retake Henderson Field, General Vandegrift authorized a major offensive of his own. The Marines’ objective was to push elements of the Japanese 17th Army far enough to the west to obviate the use of Japanese 150mm long-range artillery against the American air-base complex at the center of the three-month-old land, sea, and air campaign. In what was to be the largest and strongest coordinated American ground operation to date on Guadalcanal, Vandegrift foresaw the use of six Marine infantry battalions in the attack, a U.S. Army infantry battalion in reserve, and elements of two Marine artillery regiments in support. The immediate objective was the coastal village of Kokumbona, which had once, briefly in August, been in Marine hands and which, for some weeks, had been the headquarters of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s corps-level 17th Army. If it was possible for the Marine battalions to drive beyond Kokumbona, they were to do so.
There were mitigating factors to be reckoned with. The main power of the new offensive was to be provided by Colonel Red Mike Edson’s 5th Marines. This renowned regiment had made the initial landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on August 7, and it had since been in a number of serious battles and skirmishes. The 5th Marines was a regiment in name, and its morale remained high, but it was no longer a regiment in strength. Illness, hunger, and battle casualties had withered each of the battalions, and most of the officers and men who remained were malnourished and nearing the limits of physical and emotional endurance. Two battalions of the 2d Marines, a 2d Marine Division regiment that had been on loan to the 1st Marine Division since the start of the campaign, were in slightly better shape. These somewhat larger and stronger battalions had seen far less direct action against the Japanese, but they had been subjected to as much physical and emotional abuse as the battalions of the 5th Marines. Likewise, 3/7, which had been ashore since mid-September and had seen virtually no action, had suffered losses through illness and in the course of several major bombardments leading up to the 17th Army’s October offensive. The army battalion, 1/164, ashore on Guadalcanal for a little over two weeks, was by far the strongest of the battalions assigned to the Kokumbona offensive, and it was in by far the best shape. But it had seen no combat, and that was a factor. Of the artillery battalions, all fielded short-range 75mm pack howitzers whose shells had very limited effect in the closed terrain of rain forests and coconut groves that would be encountered during the coastal sweep.
The Japanese living in the target area were known to be veteran jungle fighters, and Marine scouts reported in advance that the Japanese had dug into several formidable defensive sectors between the Matanikau River and Kokumbona. No one knew how many Japanese soldiers the assault force might encounter, nor how many other Japanese soldiers might be called in to help parry the assault.
The Marine assault battalions moved into their jump-off positions on October 31. At 0630, November 1, a platoon of Company E, 2/5, paddled across to the west bank of the Matanikau River in rubber assault boats and, without opposition, established a shallow bridgehead. Then, in the first operation of its kind undertaken in World War II, three Marine engineer companies threw three prefabricated footbridges across the Matanikau River. The rest of 2/5 quickly crossed to the west bank and attacked straight into the rain forest. At 0700, 1/5 attacked parallel to 2/5, straight up the beach and right across the sandspit at the mouth of the river. The regimental reserve, 3/5, followed 1/5. Farther inland, 1/2 and 2/2 crossed the river and hunkered down to await further orders. The last battalion to cross was 3/7, which passed through the units of the 2d Marines and advanced on 2/5’s inland flank to screen against Japanese countermoves from that direction. The supporting artillery and 1/164 remained east of the river. Working ahead of the advancing battalions were two U.S. Navy cruisers and a destroyer, which were able to deliver pinpoint, on-call fire support as well as area gunfire. And overhead, Marine SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, Army Air Forces P-39 fighter-bombers, and even Army Air Forces B-17 heavy bombers struck Japanese supply dumps, lines of communication, and the Japanese base at Kokumbona.
2/5 met very little opposition as it advanced westward along a line of inland ridges running parallel to the beach, but 1/5 bumped into powerfully manned Japanese emplacements almost as soon as it began its advance on the regimental right, along the beach. Farther south, 3/7 couldn’t find a single Japanese.
The remnants of the 2d Infantry Division’s 4th Infantry Regiment had holed up in a complex of extremely well-camouflaged mutually supporting bunkers and pillboxes around the base of Point Cruz. 1/5 had advanced directly into outposts screening the eastern side of the complex, but 2/5 had passed around the defensive position. Movement along the coast slowed to a crawl as the two leading Marine infantry companies became entangled within the Japanese defenses.
Gains by 1/5 were eventually measured in feet until, during the afternoon, the Japanese counterattacked a platoon of Company C that had extended itself too deeply. Many Marines retreated under the intense pressure, but one who did not was a determined machine gunner, Corporal Louis Casamento. Loading and firing his .30-caliber machine gun alone, Casamento stopped the Japanese in his sector and killed many of them, even though he was soon delirious with blood loss from fourteen separate gunshot wounds. As Casamento finally passed out, Company C swept forward again and retook the lost ground. Because all of the eyewitnesses to Louis Casamento’s incredible stand were wounded and scattered to the winds, it would be nearly forty years before his heroism was officially recognized in the form of a Medal of Honor.
The fight seesawed through most of the day. The 1/5 reserve company was committed without much effect, and finally two reinforced companies of 3/5 were fed in along the beach while 1/5 shifted to the left to try to find the extremity of the Japanese position. No more forward progress was made on November 1, but 1/5 and 3/5 did seal the 4th Infantry Regiment bunker complex on the eastern and southeastern flanks.
The next morning, 2/5 advanced around to the western side of the Japanese position and stretched itself to the beach. The attachment of a company from 3/5 enabled 2/5 to link up with 1/5. The 4th Infantry Regiment was sealed in at the base of Point Cruz, but it remained to be seen if the 5th Marines had the strength to root it out and destroy it.
Heavy artillery concentrations were laid on the dug-in 4th Infantry, but the shells were for the most part unable to penetrate the thick jungle growth, much less the formidable coral-and-log pillboxes that protected the Japanese. Attack after attack was beaten back by the cornered defenders, but a number of Japanese positions were inevitably reduced, so some gains were made.
On November 4, two companies each from 2/5 and 3/5 attacked toward one another along the beach. Hand-to-hand fighting on both flanks reduced several more Japanese pillboxes, and then a 37mm antitank gun was carried by hand to the 2/5 front line. Canister tore away a good deal of the dense growth in that sector and revealed a number of pillboxes, which could then be taken more easily. And so on, until the defense simply collapsed in the middle of the afternoon. A total of 239 Japanese corpses were counted, including those of the commander of the 4th Infantry Regiment and most of his staff.
After burying the Japanese dead on the spot and carrying away tons of stores and weapons, the 5th Marines prepared to continue toward Kokumbona. Before the attack could resume, the regiment was ordered to return to the defense of the Lunga Perimeter. It appeared that a Japanese attack against the perimeter’s eastern flank was imminent. The 5th Marines did withdraw, but the Point Cruz area—which had been repeatedly attacked and even occupied several times since August—was not abandoned; 1/2 and 2/2 were left on the newly conquered ground, and 1/164 was placed in a reserve position a short distance away. The Marines had fought their way across the Matanikau River for the last time.
The events that took place in a high gorge in the western Pyrenees one August day in 778 were turned three centuries later into one of the most famous European epic poems, the Chanson de Roland, the ‘Song of Roland’. The author of the poem is not known, and indeed the historical circumstances to which the poem alludes are sketchy in the extreme. The poem has Roland as a brave Christian hero, betrayed by his jealous step-father Ganelon during a campaign in Spain by the Frankish king Charlemagne. As the Frankish army returns through the mountains to France, Roland and the rearguard are ambushed by thousands of pagans (Muslims) and the nobles are slaughtered. Roland dies, sword in hand, and his soul is taken to heaven by angels. Ganelon is later caught by Charlemagne, tortured, and finally, still alive, torn to pieces by four horses.
There is enough truth in the epic to indicate that over 300 years an oral tradition passed down an embellished Christian version of the death of Roland, prefect of the Breton March, during the withdrawal of Charlemagne’s army from an unsuccessful campaign against the Muslim state of al-Andalus that dominated most of Spain. The poem itself is a fantasy, for little is known of the circumstances of the defeat of Charlemagne’s rearguard at or near the town of Roncesvalles in the present-day Basque country, though it was certainly not a showdown between Islam and Christianity, as the Chanson suggests. The first medieval accounts of Charlemagne’s reign passed over the defeat. Only the ninth-century biography of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli, written by the monk Einhard, has a few hundred words about the ambush. There remains considerable uncertainty about the site of the battle, who organized the ambush, and even if the ‘Hruodlandus’ mentioned in the text really is ‘Roland’. For the details of the ambush itself, this is the only real record. The one thing that seems reasonably certain is that the Franks caught by the men concealed on the forested mountainsides were massacred.
The background to the Roncesvalles ambush gives at least some clues as to what might have happened. In 777, the rulers of small Muslim states in eastern Spain, led by Suleiman al-Arabi, governor of Barcelona and Girona, sent an embassy to Charlemagne in Paderborn asking him to help them in their struggle against the Muslim ruler of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman. There were hints that Charlemagne might gain territory or vassals if he helped them. Since the Frankish kings had spent decades slowly pushing back the Muslim control of southwestern France, Charlemagne was probably attracted to the idea of establishing a Spanish March in the areas of the Pyrenees. He mustered a major army from across his dominions and marched in two columns, one west, and one east of the mountain chain. They met up and moved on Zaragoza, whose ruler, Al-Husein, went back on his promise to co-operate with the Franks. Charlemagne spent a fruitless few weeks trying to besiege the city but abandoned the attempt when he was warned that the troublesome Saxons were again threatening the eastern part of his kingdom. He took Suleiman al-Arabi as a hostage and set off with his army through the passes that linked the Basque territories of northeastern Spain with Gascony, in southwest France.
According to the surviving annals, Charlemagne had a difficult retreat. Some sources suggest that a Muslim attack was made to free Suleiman and other hostages. When Charlemagne reached Pamplona, he found the Basque and Muslim inhabitants no longer willing to submit to him, so he captured and sacked the city. By the time his army began to wind its way through the pass across the Pyrenees, the local Basques and probably some Arab allies had plenty of reason to want revenge on the Franks. The rearguard was their target as it contained the baggage train and treasure taken from Charlemagne’s temporary Spanish allies. Einhard’s account describes a country where ambushes were everyday affairs, easy to mount ‘by reason of the thick forests’. As the rearguard entered the pass (the exact one is not certain), they were suddenly assailed by a more mobile and lightly armoured enemy. They were hurled down ‘to the very bottom of the valley’, where they were slaughtered as they struggled in heavy armour and unhelpful terrain against an enemy evidently familiar with the advantages of deception. Before any help could come from the rest of the army, the ambushers melted away in the dusk, bearing all the booty with them. Einhard confirms that pursuit was useless: ‘not the least clue could be had to their whereabouts’.
The story consists of little more than a classic opportunistic ambush that reversed the odds against what was certainly a large and powerful army. Charlemagne did not return to Spain for another twenty years, but the Carolingian Empire did eventually construct a Hispanic March to end any further encroachment from Muslim Spain. The death of Roland, if indeed it was he, is supposed to have weighed heavily upon Charlemagne. A chronicle in 829, the first time the defeat at Roncesvalles was admitted, claimed that ‘this wound that the King received in Spain almost totally erased from his heart the memory of his success there’. The ambush has since become the famous climax in the Chanson de Roland, the founding work of French literature, enjoying an unexpected afterlife long after any of its details could be recalled. In the poem, Charlemagne takes his revenge on the pagans, but in reality the ambush remained unavenged, a brief moment of triumph for the unruly Basques against the main power of Christian Europe.
Model of Monument Hill and stone wall behind which Colonel Francis’ regiment poured shot down upon the British 24th and Light Infantry Battalion.
When he marched his dejected garrison out of Mount Independence in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 6, 1777, St. Clair intended to head toward Castleton, about 30 miles southeast of Ticonderoga, and then travel the 14 miles back east to Skenesborough. There they would rejoin Colonel Long with the supplies and sick that had been evacuated by water. The dejected Americans retreated along the primitive military road running out of Mount Independence. The route was dictated by the available roads that had not already been cut off by Burgoyne’s army. As the sun rose, the temperature quickly soared, and St. Clair’s exhausted and demoralized men suffered from the intense heat, humidity, and the ubiquitous insects, not to mention anxiety, knowing that the enemy was nipping at their heels.
The British pursuit came quicker than anyone expected. Fraser had immediately put elements of his advance corps on the road to chase the fleeing Americans. To support Fraser, Burgoyne ordered General Riedesel and his men to follow Fraser and support them in case of an attack. The fleet and the rest of the army were to make their way to Skenesborough by water and attack the Americans’ fleet. British warships were soon closing in on Colonel Long’s vessels, and British troops were already following St. Clair and the main body. General Riedesel quickly gathered up his forces and put several of his units in motion behind the advanced corps. In the meantime, Fraser had pushed his men so hard that in six hours, they had closed to within a few miles of St. Clair’s rear guard, comprised of the 11th Massachusetts Regiment of Continentals and men from other units commanded by Colonel Ebenezer Francis.
The Americans were exhausted. Most of the officers and men had slept very little since Burgoyne’s army appeared at Three Mile Point six days earlier, and few had eaten in the prior 24 hours. Convinced that he had put many miles between his army and Burgoyne’s, St. Clair called the main body to a halt at noon near the tiny settlement of Hubbardton, about 20 miles southeast of Mount Independence. Surrounded by five hills to the north and west, Hubbardton lay where the road intersected the Crown Point road, which ran to the north and ultimately ended on Lake Champlain’s east bank across from the ruined fortress. The settlement of nine households, the inhabitants of which had fled south with the British approach, was surrounded by “fields of stumps” and partially cleared woods. About a mile north of the intersection was Sargent Hill. The road ran through a saddle on the southwest slope and crossed the Sucker Brook, a small stream running from the northeast to southwest just west of the hamlet. East of the Sucker Brook and 50 feet above the road was high ground known today as Monument Hill. Still farther to the east, across the Crown Point road, was the Pittsford Ridge. Just south of Monument Hill lay a jagged, rocky eminence soaring well over 1,000 feet high called Mount Zion, which featured a north-facing, mostly bare clifftop.
The spent troops lay in the shade along the road, most too tired to eat. St. Clair had received reports of Loyalist activity to the north, and, because Crown Point was held by the British, the Americans could not afford to linger at Hubbardton. Fearing an attack from two directions, St. Clair decided to continue the march to Castleton, leaving behind Colonel Seth Warner and his regiment, along with Colonel Nathan Hale’s 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, to take command of the rear guard when Colonel Francis and his men arrived. As soon as Warner and Francis linked up, they were to follow the rest of the main body to Castleton. St. Clair got the rest of his men back on the road and set out for Castleton and from there to Skenesborough. The main body had gone only a short distance when several officers, including Poor, begged St. Clair to allow the New Hampshire troops to reinforce the rear guard, arguing that they would be quickly overrun if Burgoyne had started a vigorous pursuit. The commanding general refused. After a few minutes march, they asked again, “but without effect.”
By 4:00 p. m. on July 6, Riedesel’s detachment of about a thousand men finally caught up with Fraser’s force. Riedesel told Fraser that Burgoyne had ordered him to support the advanced corps and then continue to Skenesborough. Fraser was angry that Burgoyne had sent the Germans and not the rest of his own men. Plus, the commanding general had not sent food or ammunition or extra surgeons. The aggressive brigadier wanted to keep the pressure on the Americans, but the German general demanded that they halt the pursuit and make camp. Fraser reluctantly agreed though he understood that opportunities to inflict serious damage on a demoralized enemy were rare. Burgoyne had given Fraser “discretionary powers to attack the Enemy where-ever I could come up with them.” He told Riedesel that he intended to do just that, so before halting, the advanced corps units moved 2 miles closer to the enemy, roughly 3 miles west of Hubbardton. The generals agreed that the allies would move at 3:00 a. m. with Fraser’s advanced corps in the lead and Riedesel’s Germans in support. During the short night, the British and German soldiers slept fully clothed on the ground and with their weapons close at hand.
While Fraser and Riedesel formulated their plan for the next day, the American Colonels Warner and Hale waited at Hubbardton until Colonel Francis’s regiment and the sick and stragglers finally appeared late in the afternoon of the 6th. Instead of moving immediately toward Castleton and staying close to the main body, as St. Clair directed, the three colonels met at the cabin owned by farmer John Selleck and decided that their men were too spent to continue their retreat after marching almost nonstop for sixteen hours in the hot and oppressive weather. Plus, they reasoned, while the British were surely following them, they were undoubtedly far behind. They posted sentries along the road, directed the construction of hasty obstacles along the Sucker Brook, and then finally retired for the evening.
Fraser formed up his troops and started down the road at 3:00 a. m. as planned and set off toward Hubbardton. The American sentries arrayed west of the Sucker Brook detected Fraser’s approach at about 5:00 a. m. as they moved through the saddle of Sargent Hill, fired one volley at close range, and then withdrew to rejoin their units. For many of the British soldiers, it was their first time under fire. “I must own,” recalled one young officer, “when we received orders to prime and load, which we had barely time to do before we received a heavy fire, the idea of perhaps a few moments conveying me before the presence of my Creator had its force.”
The rapid approach of Fraser’s men surprised Warner. He had placed the bulk of his men on or near Monument Hill with Francis’s troops and elements of Hale’s regiment occupying forward positions along Sucker Brook. Warner had not been planning for a fight. He had instead been preparing to move his men to Castleton to join the main body. Once the battle began, however, the Americans took advantage of the natural cover provided by felled trees and brush, which were plentiful in the area.
Fraser quickly deployed his units with the advanced guard under Major Robert Grant in the center, supported by the light infantry under Lord Balcarres on the left, with Acland’s grenadiers in reserve. Fraser accompanied Grant as they fought the Americans, who were “aided by logs and trees.” Hale’s New Hampshire regiment bore the brunt of the British attack and fell back shortly after the first shots were fired, but not before one of their volleys killed Grant. Fraser personally led the light infantry and attacked Francis’s men on Monument Hill, and the fighting soon became a contest for the high ground. Acland moved to assist the hard-pressed companies of the 24th Foot along the Sucker Brook. They succeeded in pushing the American defenders back, and Fraser then ordered Acland’s grenadiers to maneuver around the American left and cut off the Castleton road and the most direct route to St. Clair and the main body. Despite being outmaneuvered by Fraser, the Americans fought well and hard under Warner’s and Francis’s leadership.
After multiple attacks on Monument Hill, Fraser finally succeeded in pushing the Americans back to a lower hill a couple of hundred yards to the east just across the Castleton road. There Warner set up another defense along a log fence, and the Americans poured volley after volley into the British soldiers on the crest of Monument Hill. Warner sensed that Fraser’s units were in some disarray even though they had gained the high ground of Monument Hill, so he ordered a counterattack on the British left flank.
Riedesel and the main body of the German troops had also begun their march that morning at 3:00 a. m. but quickly fell well behind the hard-marching units of the advanced corps. As they approached Hubbardton, Riedesel heard musket fire and hurried a smaller detachment of his troops forward to assist Fraser. At the same time, a messenger arrived from the brigadier urging his colleague to rush to his aid. As the German troops approached the battlefield unnoticed by the Americans, Colonel Francis led his regiment back onto Monument Hill to turn Fraser’s left. The tough New Englanders succeeded in pushing back the British main line consisting of the 24th Foot and the Light Infantry. Fraser’s left was soon hard pressed, and it began to look like the American forces might turn the flank and force the British to fall back. Fraser immediately dispatched another messenger to Riedesel, urging him on. Just as Francis was about to push his momentary advantage, Riedesel’s 180-man detachment arrived on the road. It was 8:30 a. m. He immediately and correctly assessed the situation and identified the threat to Fraser’s left. With the German band playing martial tunes, Riedesel sent into the fight each of his units as they arrived on the battlefield. At the same time, Fraser ordered Balcarres and his light infantry to retake Monument Hill with the bayonet and Acland’s grenadiers along with a detachment of light infantry, having completed their flanking movement, hit Warner on his left.
Francis continued to stubbornly hold his position, but now the weight of numbers began to tell. With the combination of Riedesel’s timely arrival with his Jäger, grenadiers, and light infantry, along with Balcarres’s bayonet attack, the Americans were finally forced to fall back, a retreat that quickly turned into a rout. One Braunschweig officer recalled that many of the “retreating enemy discarded his weapons and equipment, an occurrence that afforded certain of our men a large quantity of booty.” Warner, having successfully faced Acland’s flank attack, was soon forced to withdraw to the east. The German attack was so successful that the Americans withdrew before the rest of Riedesel’s force could join the engagement. Riedesel had arrived just in time, and his fortuitous deployment of the light infantry and grenadiers defeated the Americans relieving Fraser’s hard-pressed advanced corps. By 10:00 a. m., the fighting had ended.
As the Americans retreated to the east over the Pittsford Ridge, they left behind more than 130 killed and wounded, including Colonel Francis, who died while trying to reform his fleeing troops after the German attack. More than two hundred Americans were captured, including Colonel Hale, and to the Germans looked “more like bandits than soldiers.” The allied detachment suffered more than 150 casualties, including Major Grant killed in action and the wounding of both Acland and Balcarres. Warner’s regiment retreated east and reformed at Manchester along with other survivors of the battle. The rest of the surviving rear guard rejoined St. Clair and the main body.
The first real battle of the campaign was over, and the casualties were high in proportion to the numbers engaged. Both sides had fought well. The professionalism of the British was telling in the way they deployed and outmaneuvered the Americans. Still, the American troops stood up to the regulars for most of the battle, only giving way with the surprise arrival of Riedesel’s infantry and grenadiers. Francis and Warner had done their job well, though at a very high cost. Fraser and Riedesel both agreed that they were in no condition to follow up their success by continuing the pursuit.
At first light, the attacking tanks came under fire from the arc of anti-tank guns. These were engaged by all three regiments and the 6-pounder of 7th New Zealand and 73rd Anti-Tank Regiments. Nevertheless, tank casualties climbed rapidly. Len Flanakin’s Sherman was hit:
The first enemy shell to hit us knocked off a track and without mobility our chances of survival were nil. We continued firing away knowing that sat amongst all the metal flying about we had to catch another one sometime. When it eventually happened it was, thank God, in the rear quarters. Our driver’s voice came over the intercom informing us we were on fire. I don’t think I heard the order ‘Bale Out’. I was on my way up between the commander’s legs and hitting ground level while he was still trying to unravel his ear phones.
Having baled out, the crew were vulnerable witnesses to scenes of chaos:
When I looked around, what a sight. There must have been over a hundred tanks in various stages of burning, while the ones left intact were either still fighting or carrying the injured to safety. Our driver and co-driver bailed out through their escape hatch in the bottom of the tank but unfortunately the co-driver got drenched in high octane petrol and was suffering temporary blindness. Apart from that all the crew were in one piece, but we were not too sure of the safest place to go. Our minds were made up for us. A passing tank spotted our injured comrade. It stopped and we hauled him aboard together with our driver to hold him on. They were driven off and deposited at a spot where a dug-in tank had previously been parked. We followed along on foot.
The Grant tank of Captain John Mills of C Squadron, Warwickshire Yeomanry, was more fortunate, as its driver, Nevill Warner, recalled:
We kept on the move and belted away at the dug-in 75s and 88s. Tanks were brewing up all around us but we didn’t get hit that morning. There were flashes from guns on all sides and it wasn’t until the sun came up that we knew which direction we were facing. We picked up two survivors from a 1st Troop tank which was hit and dropped them off by a gun pit near another tank. Then the Colonel came on the air ‘For God’s sake, get those bloody guns before they get the lot of us’.
The shortcomings of the reconditioned tanks further hampered the units as they grimly endeavoured to hold the ground taken. The 3rd Hussars in particular found their wirelesses so useless that Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Farquhar and B Squadron commander, Major Mike Everleigh, had to go from tank to tank issuing orders to individual commanders.36 Frustration under fire sometimes compounded the problem – as the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank fitters, always close at hand despite the raging battle, found. Mick Collins remembered:
A common request was to fit a replacement radio hand-set as apparently when they failed to work immediately the irate user would knock the offending thing against the turret and this sort of treatment was not conducive to a quick repair job.
In the tumult of shot and shell, men worked courageously to offer medical assistance to the casualties. The ‘Heavenly Twins’ of the Wiltshire Yeomanry were much admired, by Mick Collins for one:
They were the drivers of two Austin ambulances attached to our Squadron who were forever getting stuck in the sand and having to be yanked out by the nearest available tank or four-wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately for them, their vehicles were only equipped with rear-wheel drive and in soft sand they just dug themselves in. Those two lads did sterling work ferrying the injured back to forward dressing stations irrespective of conditions and it was not until much later that we discovered they were both conscientious objectors. They were averse to carrying any arms whatsoever but that did not deter them from being up in the thick of battle and there were probably many more out there doing similar jobs. Although their consciences barred them from killing their fellow human beings, they had the guts to go into battle areas with soft-skinned vehicles and their faith in God.
Losses mounted alarmingly. The plan called for 1st Armoured Division to come through 9th Armoured Brigade and expand the funnel but Currie’s anxiety must have been great as, well forward in the battle, he watched tank after tank being knocked out. The brigade’s situation might have become untenable had a co-ordinated counter-attack at the gap between the Warwickshires and Wiltshires by the remaining tanks of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen taken place. The Afrika Korps’ confusion over the position of both Axis and British forces was a good illustration of how far tactical intelligence had declined in the Panzerarmee. When the error was finally resolved, the opportunity had passed.
The vanguard of 1st Armoured Division was 2nd Armoured Brigade, consisting of 10th Hussars, 9th Lancers and The Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards). Shortly after 0200hrs they started forwards. It was a nightmare drive, as Anthony Wingfield recalled:
On this occasion the stage-management was not so easy, nor so good, for we had to move from track to track on our approach. Starting on Star, we changed first to Moon and then to the Australian Two Bars track.
Our Recce Troop, under command of Grant Singer, led the column, but was unfortunately misdirected by a military policeman at one of the track junctions which caused a serious delay. Furthermore the sand was so soft – no watering this time – that tank drivers could not see the vehicle in front of them for dust; and often tank commanders had to shine torches to their rear to prevent collisions.
As a consequence, they were delayed by approximately twenty minutes but cleared the minefields at about 0700hrs – just prior to dawn.
The hammering taken by 9th Armoured Brigade was obvious and, according to one account, led to a difficult meeting between Currie and Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Grosvenor of 9th Lancers amidst the raging battle.40 Anthony Wingfield accepted it was ‘more than a misfortune that we were late coming to the aid of 9th Armoured Brigade’ and that Currie had ‘every excuse for his disparaging accusations’.
Tanks from 2nd Armoured Brigade were already getting into action. Wingfield described the scene:
As the 10th Hussars deployed into the open, the situation seemed to be one of chaos; for the enemy was putting down smoke as well as firing rather too accurately at the end of Two Bars Track. As RHQ cleared the end of that track I remember seeing some tanks several hundred yards away on our right front. Jack Archer-Shee thought they belonged to our B Squadron and drove off towards them. Fortunately I held back the rest of RHQ for a few minutes; and then saw Jack’s tank go up in flames. Those tanks belonged to 15th Panzers and not to B Squadron.
Archer-Shee and his crew were lucky to escape unharmed but now the newly arrived regiments knew the type of opposition they were facing and recent combat experience, together with the arrival of dawn, probably conditioned the brigade’s subsequent response.
The decision taken at this stage by Fisher, the brigade’s commander, and supported by his divisional commander, Briggs, although subsequently criticized for excessive caution, was certainly appropriate for a force with a considerable advantage in available assets over its opponent. With the support of Priest self-propelled 105mm howitzers from 11th (Honourable Artillery Company) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, and the Desert Air Force, and using the indirect-fire capability of the Shermans, 2nd Armoured Brigade could retain a hold on the positions gained, allowing the Germans to be the architects of their own destruction through their counter-attacks, whilst making careful forward movement themselves. According to Wingfield:
By 8.00 a.m. the whole of 2nd Armoured Brigade was deployed clear of the minefield. The German tanks had withdrawn from our front leaving four knocked out behind them. The Bays on our right and in touch with what was left of the 3rd Hussars were being heavily counter-attacked. We were ordered to be ready to go and support them. But before we moved another tank counter-attack appeared over the crest of the Aqqaqir Ridge to our front. A and C squadrons held their fire till the enemy tanks were on the forward slope then ‘let them have it,’ reaping a fine harvest before the remainder retired to hull-down positions behind the crest.
Using these tactics, the British armour gradually prevailed. Numerous columns of smoke on the enemy side signified many tank brew-ups. The enemy’s tactics had been to launch concentrated panzer attacks through his anti-tank screen and on a narrow front. We allowed the panzers to come onto our guns, rather than sally forth to meet them. That way, their 88mm anti-tank guns could not assume a decisive role. When rising casualties forced withdrawal, the panzers would reassemble and probe elsewhere. We met them head-on. Although numbers overall were in our favour, it wasn’t always so at the point of contact.
Ironically, the armoured unit commanders were delivering on Montgomery’s Lightfoot attritional aims, rather than the goals envisaged for Supercharge.
In this fighting, it was the turn of the Germans to find their wireless communications disrupted – as Alfons Selmayr, the regiment’s medical officer, discovered:
We were constantly subjected to jamming on the radios. Tommy had captured the signals operating instructions of Panzer-Regiment 8 and attempted to confuse us and yap his way into our radio traffic.
The doctor was in the thick of the fighting throughout the day, caring for the mounting numbers of casualties:
As I had moved up, Oberleutnant Dübois had waved to me. Now they were also bringing him back with a head wound. It was said he looked so terrible that his crew did not even want to show him to me. We tried to eject Tommy twice, but we were deflected each time. An 8.8-centimetre Flak moved up to support us, but it was blown apart as it unlimbered. The forward lines were hit by mortar fire. A 2-centimetre Flak was hit; two of the crew lay on the ground, badly wounded. I took off! We placed them on our tank despite the fire; one up front, the other to the rear. I knelt on the side of the turret and held on to them so that they did not fall off during the movement. Then the tank took off as fast as it could. All of a sudden, Tommy took notice of us and engaged us with a battery. Always four shells at a time; sometimes to the left of us, sometimes to the right. Thank god they were really firing poorly. Of course I still thought we were moving too slowly. I pressed myself against the turret, held on to my wounded and yelled at Krause to move faster.
Having evacuated these wounded in ambulances, Selmayr returned immediately to the fray.
Rommel was well aware of what was happening to his forces. Above all, he needed to prevent a breakthrough. In his own words:
It was only by the desperate fire of all available artillery and anti-aircraft guns, regardless of the ammunition shortage, that a further British penetration was prevented.
It was now extremely difficult to obtain any clear picture of the situation, as all our communication lines had been shot to pieces and most of our wireless channels were being jammed by the enemy. Complete chaos existed at many points on the front.
British tactical intelligence via the ‘Y’ Service, on the other hand, ensured that XXX Corps was aware of Rommel’s counter-attack plans by 0935hrs. The attack would use those elements of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen together with Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer to attack from the north and south of the incursion. Rommel continued:
Violent tank fighting followed. The British air force and artillery hammered away at our troops without let-up. Inside an hour at about midday seven formations, each of 18 bombers, unloaded their bombs on my troops. More and more of our 88mm guns, which were our only really effective weapons against the heavy British tanks, were going out of action.
This ignored the armour and firepower of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2 and G ‘Specials’, but these were now too few in number to turn the tide.48 Nevertheless, the British armour could not make even cautious progress and, with the arrival of 8th Armoured Brigade, the attack salient became very congested, as Arthur Reddish observed:
The 2nd Armoured Brigade adopted the role of static defence and 8th Armoured that of the fire brigade, responding to threats to the salient as they emerged. We were first in action facing north-west, then were directed south. On one occasion, a column of enemy tanks came down the Rahman Track completely side-on to us. It was like shooting tin ducks at a shooting gallery.
However, despite this success, Reddish, like other Sherman crewmen, was learning of the tank’s shortcomings through the experience of combat:
The high-explosive shell we used against the 88mm guns had no tracer and it was necessary to observe the fall of shot to determine accuracy. With the desert shimmering in a heat haze, this was by no means easy. And the gunsight of the Sherman didn’t help. For such a good tank, the sights were disappointing.
A tremendous battle between the armour of both sides now raged throughout the rest of the day. Reddish’s descriptions capture the spirit of the day’s fighting:
The day was hot. High temperatures, aircraft active on both sides, shelling very heavy and sniper-fire also. Armour-piercing shot came from right, left and centre. A blazing Grant tank exploded as we passed by, its side flattening and the turret hurling some 50 metres into the air. The explosion was tremendous, even when wearing earphones. Each member of the crew had a set of earphones and a microphone. We could talk within the crew and the commander with other commanders. All could hear the talk on the regimental radio network, so knew the score…
We in the heavies kept the battle at long range when possible to exploit our [ad]vantage in that area. The Italian tanks were hopelessly outranged and the German Mk IIIs also. But the German Mk IV and Mk III Specials fought us on equal terms.
This wasting fight was something the already-depleted Panzer units could ill afford and approximately seventy tanks were destroyed or damaged. Equally important was the loss of experienced Panzer commanders such as Oberst Willi Teege and Hauptmann Otto Stiefelmayer – both Ritterkreuzträger (Knight’s Cross holders) of Panzer-Regiment 8. The situation was so serious that Divisione ‘Ariete’ – the last remaining intact armoured formation – was already being drawn piecemeal into the fighting.
In the north, the arrival of the British tanks, and especially 8th Armoured Brigade, had finally relieved the pressure on Leo Lyon and the hard-pressed Australian battalions in the ‘Saucer’. Lyon recounted:
I remember about midday attempts by the Germans to wheel up an 88mm gun to our front. We had excellent observation both to the right and the left as we faced. I could see the silhouette of this gun behind the road. I could see the tractor bring it up, the tractor disengage, and then the gun crew manhandling it up to where it could be brought in to fire. But as soon as it came into position to fire, the machine-gunners mounted their guns on them and destroyed the gun crew.
At almost the same time, to our left flank I could see our armour attack appearing and I could see a larger number of tanks – it would be about thirty or forty I would have thought – with their smoke dischargers – on the turret of each tank there’s a smoke discharger – and they were firing these as they went forward to try and cover the fire against them. This was a most spectacular scene and apparently they were making progress because the attack on our front seemed to disappear.
The exhausted Australians, finally given respite, still managed to launch aggressive fighting patrols later in attempts to prevent Panzergrenadier-Regiment 125 extricating itself from the coastal sector.
At 2015hrs that evening, Thoma told Rommel the Afrika Korps would have, at most, thirty-five tanks available for action the following day. Nevertheless, the British advance, which Thoma considered cautious and deliberate, had been contained. However, there was further bad news from the Panzerarmee’s Higher Artillery Commander (Arko), Generalmajor Fritz Krause, who reported that 450 tons of ammunition had been fired that day, but only 190 tons had arrived. Three hundred tons had been lost when the Brioni was sunk by allied bombers whilst unloading in Tobruk harbour that afternoon.
With this information, Rommel recognized that in order to avoid annihilation of his forces, it was essential to make a withdrawal to positions previously reconnoitred at Fuka. In informing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) of this decision, Rommel spared nothing in painting a realistic and bleak picture. The ten days’ fighting had been ‘extremely hard’ and had left the Panzerarmee no longer able to prevent the next breakthrough attempt:
An orderly withdrawal of the six Italian and two German non-motorized divisions and brigades is impossible for lack of MT [Motorized Transport]. A large part of these formations will probably fall into the hands of the enemy who is fully motorized. Even the mobile troops are so closely involved in the battle that only elements will be able to disengage from the enemy. The stocks of ammunition which are still available are at the front but no more than nominal stocks are at our disposal in rear. The shortage of fuel will not allow of a withdrawal to any great distance. There is only one road available and the Army, as it passes along it, will almost certainly be attacked day and night by the enemy air force.
In these circumstances we must therefore expect the gradual destruction of the Army in spite of the heroic resistance and exceptionally high morale of the troops.
In a narrow sense, the initial Supercharge assault can be portrayed as a failure. But the critical outcome – Rommel’s acceptance of the Panzerarmee’s defeat – was accomplished by the evening of 2 November. Irrespective of what happened subsequently, 9th Armoured Brigade’s sacrifice had helped achieve a significant success. It remained for Eighth Army and its commander to turn this into a complete victory.
In London, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, anxiously awaiting each fragment of news of the battle, experienced a tremendous fillip from Ultra. In Brooke’s own words:
Whilst at lunch I was called up by DMI [Director of Military Intelligence] and informed of two recent intercepts of Rommel’s messages to GHQ and Hitler in which he practically stated that his army was faced with a desperate defeat from which he could extract only remnants!
This was a remarkable and early indication of the possibility of imminent victory.
Rommel now formally confirmed the move of Divisione ‘Ariete’ northwards to join with the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata. Together with the Afrika Korps, they would cover the withdrawal of the other two Italian corps which consisted essentially of infantry, as well as Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke and 164. leichte Afrika-Division. The infantry formations began pulling out that night.
That evening, 51st Division was tasked with broadening and strengthening the corridor now created. Successful attacks with strong artillery support were made against objectives on the south-west edge of the salient by 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 5th Royal Sussex. To X Corps’ commander, General Herbert Lumsden, at 2030hrs it seemed that the opportunity of smashing through the remnants of the anti-tank screen that night was too good to miss. Consequently, 7th Motor Brigade, consisting of 2nd and 7th Rifle Brigades and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), was given orders to attack on a front of two miles, to make a passage for 1st, followed by 7th, Armoured Division. Corporal Donald Main of 7th Rifle Brigade remembered:
In the early evening we were told that [we] would attack at midnight to force a gap for our tanks. It was considered that the area of the Rahman Track was lightly held, although we never found out who was responsible for this view. As we had motored into the line we had heard shouts for stretcher bearers, presumably from the Sherwood Foresters and Green Howards, who were survivors of the previous attack. In view of the barrage, it would have been suicide to attempt to reach them. It was, therefore, decided that we would make a silent attack i.e. without a barrage from our guns, although the 2nd KRRC on our left and the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade on our right were to receive artillery support.
The attack commenced at 0115hrs on 3 November. In fact, whilst 2nd KRRC had strong artillery support, 2nd Rifle Brigade did not. In Main’s attack with 7th Rifle Brigade, all was quiet until the battalion was about fifty yards from the German positions. Suddenly, all hell was let loose when the Germans opened fire from the flanks with machine guns, together with flares and mortar bombs:
Above the noise of explosions I heard the Company Commander, Major Trappes-Lomax, shout ‘Up the Rifle Brigade! Charge!’ Major Trappes-Lomax disappeared through a hail of tracer bullets. I felt that he could not go in by himself and gave the order to charge. I went through the enfilade fire and felt my body as I could not understand how I had not been hit. I was shouting ‘Brino, where are you?’ It was like daylight with the flares and mortar explosions. Before I could reach Sgt Brine, Major Trappes-Lomax said ‘Go to your right’. Sgt Brine had run straight on and into a German machine-gun. He was hit all over and asked another member of the platoon to put his tin hat back on and to be put facing the enemy. His last message was ‘Give my love to my wife’
Upon reaching the rear of the German positions, Main and the remnants of his company had to deal with one of the guns that formed an important part of the Axis defence:
From where we lay I could see an 88mm gun and I told Sandy that I was going for this. It was at least 50 yards away. As I ran with my rifle and bayonet the tracer from a German machine-gun was going all around me. However, I considered that if I continued running I would not be hit and eventually reached the gun followed by several riflemen.
Both Rifle Brigade battalions destroyed German anti-tank and machine-gun posts and killed the occupants. However, several posts still survived and, in each battalion’s case, it was necessary to withdraw because they could not bring up sufficient numbers of anti-tank guns in time for defence in the morning against what was assumed would be the inevitable counter-attacks. The KRRC did, however, retain its gains. Main’s account continued:
We met Major Trappes-Lomax and found that only twenty-two of the Company were left. We also met up with the surviving KRRC and our 2nd Battalion. We now received the order to withdraw and I was asked which way we should fight our way out. I was in favour of another route, but it was decided that we should go back the same way as we had come, also we were under no circumstances to stop for any wounded. My rifle by this time had jammed with sand and I could not move the rifle bolt. We ran back and I would frequently look over my shoulder to watch the tracer fire which followed us from the German positions.
It was an ignominious end to 7th Motor Brigade’s efforts but at least these units escaped in time. A hastily planned and executed and poorly supported improvised operation had failed once again. Fortunately, the consequences were less serious in their effect than 4th Sussex’s attack on 27–28 October, although for a survivor like Donald Main, the experience was no less painful. On his return the roll-call revealed that his company had only fourteen men left and his platoon consisted of only three men – himself included. Many of those killed were friends from Main’s pre-war Territorial days. Another such friend was Colour Sergeant Eric Kealsey, whose attempts to cheer up the survivors on the evening of 3 November when they were out of the line, led to an unfortunate misunderstanding, as Main recounted:
Later that afternoon we were relieved by a battalion of the Black Watch, and we were taken by our vehicles to an area behind the line, to obtain reinforcements and replace equipment lost during the battle. When we arrived at what appeared to us to be an unreal world, free of explosions, we went for our evening meal presided over by Colour Sergeant Kealsey. Kealsey was a great character from Territorial days and he was very fond of impersonating a queer. He and the cooks were very upset to find that D Company now consisted of only fourteen men, as they had cooked a meal for one hundred and twenty. Colour Sergeant Kealsey said to me in an effeminate voice ‘What can I get for you, ducks?’ I replied ‘Some stew please, Eric’. Unfortunately the person next to me was a reinforcement and when asked the same question replied ‘Stew, darling’. This caused a major explosion as Kealsey shouted ‘Colour Sergeant to you, you little worm!’
This was the postscript to a ‘trifling, inconsequent, nameless battle’ within a battle. A failed attack and a heavy toll of casualties – soon lost in the bigger picture of general success for the British, Imperial and Dominion forces and decline of the German and Italians.
Churchill III tanks of ‘Kingforce’, 1st Armoured Division, 5 November 1942. The unit was named Kingforce after its commander, Major Norris King MC.
The mixed fortunes of the infantry operations meant that Lumsden revised Briggs’ orders; at 0530hrs. 2nd KRRC was to be supported by 2nd Armoured Brigade whilst 8th Armoured Brigade worked south-westwards. The poet Keith Douglas was a lieutenant with the Sherwood Rangers and wonderfully evoked the atmosphere of this (and perhaps many another) armoured move at dawn:
The moment I was wakeful I had to be busy. We were to move at five; before that, engines and sets had to be warmed up, orders to be given through the whole hierarchy from the Colonel to the tank crews. In the half-light the tanks seemed to crouch, still, but alive and like toads. I touched the cold metal shell of my tank, my fingers amazed for a moment at its hardness, and swung myself into the turret to get out my map case. Of course, it had fallen down on the small circular steel floor of the turret. In getting down after it, I contrived to hit my head on the base of the six-pounder and scratched open both my hands; inside the turret there is less room even than in an aircraft, and it requires experience to move about. By the time I came up, a general activity had begun to warm the appearance of the place, if not the air of it. The tanks were now half-hidden in clouds of blue smoke as their engines began one after another to grumble, and the stagnant oil burnt away. This scene with the silhouettes of men and turrets interrupted by swirls of smoke and the sky lightening behind them was to be made familiar to me by many repetitions. Out of each turret, like the voices of dwarfs, thin and cracked and bodyless, the voices of the operators and of the control set come; they speak to the usual accompaniment of ‘mush,’ morse, odd squeals, and peculiar jangling, like a barrel-organ, of an enemy jamming station.
The tank units were straight into action that morning. Arthur Reddish recalled:
At first light on November 3, the Sherwood Rangers tanks were on the left flank of an attack by the 1st Armoured Division on the remnants of the Panzerarmee’s anti-tank gun screen dug-in before and behind the Rahman Track. The day started propitiously for our crew. As the regiment assembled behind the infantry line prior to advancing, a young Highlander officer left his slit-trench and jumped onto the back of the tank. He’d spotted an enemy anti-tank gun, he said. It was in the scrub only 200 metres [approximately 220 yards] away and was right in front of our position. John quickly got him into the tank and into the gunner’s seat. His first shot missed but not the second. The third caused an explosion. Presumably, he’d hit the ammunition.
Major Anthony Wingfield was concerned by the ammunition shortages his unit was suffering, but was soon temporarily bolstered by the arrival of another new weapon in the Eighth Army’s armoury:
At first light our Recce Troop and the Crusaders of B Squadron moved out to make contact with [the] KRRC, and support them against any tank counter-attack. The situation had become grave because the replenishment of 75mm ammunition to the Shermans of A and C Squadrons had not arrived during the night. However 4 or 5 new Churchill tanks, as an experimental detached troop, now arrived between ourselves and The Bays. These heavy tanks had been sent out to the Middle East for battle trials; whether it was the sight of these new monsters which scared the German tanks I did not know, but they withdrew behind a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns. The latter then promptly halted the Churchill tanks whose crews were possibly concussed if their tanks were not actually ‘brewed up’.
There were too few Churchills – a heavy ‘infantry’ tank for close-support work designed to replace the Valentine – for losses to these tanks to be significant at this time. Nevertheless, this British-built tank ‘made a favourable impression on their crews, and also on the co-operating troops’. On a more personal level, it was Wingfield’s misfortune that day to be caught quite literally with his trousers down by the Germans:
It was while we were withdrawing a short way to find hull-down battle positions that Nature gave me her morning call. I dismounted but stayed close to my tank for protection. Just at ‘le moment critique’ an HE shell burst underneath my tank and a red flame shot between my bare legs. A momentary thought of my ancestor at ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ passed through my mind. Motion – in every sense – was quick and I was back in my tank in a flash and before there was another one.
Throughout the day, the British armour was held up by the continued resistance offered by the screen of anti-tank guns and by the remaining tanks covering the slow withdrawal of the Axis forces on foot or in vehicles. The work of the remaining elements of Panzerjäger-Abteilungen 605 and 33 and Flak-Division 19 was especially noted by the British. Nevertheless, the Axis withdrawal was observed by the Desert Air Force and the coastal road consequently came under almost-constant attack from the air.
The Panzerarmee and its commander suffered another significant blow to morale in the early afternoon with Hitler’s response to Rommel’s plans for withdrawal, which constituted a direct order to stand and fight and, if necessary, die. In Hitler’s view, this was a battle in which the commander with the strongest will to fight would ultimately win through. If that was indeed the case (which it was not, of course, given the attritional effects of the last ten days’ fighting), it was already too late. Alamein was lost in the mind of Rommel. A characteristically magniloquent message from Mussolini only served to compound the Panzerarmee’s confusion as Rommel ordered all units to defend their present positions till the last although permitting Thoma to withdraw the Afrika Korps ten miles east of El Daba. This, in effect, abandoned infantry without motor transport – almost exclusively Italians and Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke – to their fate.
Meanwhile, the continued resistance of the Panzerjäger units and the Luftwaffe 88mm gun teams, combined with Freyberg’s perception of the imminent collapse of the Panzerarmee as a whole, led him to suggest to Leese that a breakout through the salient’s south side should be attempted. This would avoid the screening anti-tank positions. An attack by 5/7th Gordon Highlanders of Wimberley’s division supported by 8th RTR was decided upon. The events of this attack were especially tragic and another indication of the problems beneath the veneer of Eighth Army’s ruthless efficiency. Wimberley described them as follows:
On the afternoon of 3rd November I was ordered to attack again, and selected the 5/7 Gordons as the freshest battalion available. With the help of George Elliot, we laid on a heavy barrage to take them forward on to the Rahman Track. Shortly before the attack was due to go in, I was amazed to be rung up by Oliver Leese to be told that our Armour was already on the objective, that the Gordons had been ordered by me to capture, and it was only a question of their moving forward. This was not my information at all, and I pleaded hard for the Tanks, if there were any there, to clear out and let my attack go in properly under a Barrage. I was told, No. It was only with difficulty that I could get leave to let, at least, a smoke barrage be fired to guide the Jocks. So, late in the afternoon they were launched in a divisional attack under Saunders with smoke only. As in the case of the ‘Kidney’ feature, we were again right and the Armour’s Intelligence was all wrong. This time it had even more tragic consequences on many lives.
Wimberley took no pleasure in being right where Leese and Briggs, whose 1st Armoured Division’s headquarters was the source of the erroneous information, were mistaken:
The position was, as we had reported, strongly held. Not a sign of our tanks was to be seen, but plenty of enemy ones. To move forward in daylight, under smoke only, was impossible. The Gordons made little progress, and lost a lot of men, and I felt it had been sheer waste of life and was sick at heart. Worst of all, thinking that it was an advance rather than an attack, the Gordons put a number of their Jocks on the top of the tanks to be carried on them forward to the objective. I saw those tanks, later, coming out of action, and they were covered with the dead bodies of my Highlanders. It was an unpleasant sight and bad for any troops’ morale.
The two units suffered ninety-four casualties, including sixteen officers; nine Valentines were destroyed and a further eleven damaged from about thirty-two starters.
Two further attacks were planned for 4 November. The first involved 5th Indian Brigade which, according to Major-General Francis ‘Gertie’ Tuker:
after struggling and buffeting its way through the choked corridor, was eased forward by over 350 guns, and punched a narrow hole four miles deep through a few pickets covering the retreat, out into the open desert.
The number of guns mentioned by the division’s commander was important. After the debacle over the 5/7th Gordons attack, Wimberley was insistent that 1/4th Essex and 4/6th Rajputana Rifles should have the support of a fully constituted and effective artillery programme of counter-battery fire, concentrations and creeping barrage. This was all organized in a short time by the combined efforts of the staffs of 51st and 4th Indian Divisions, 5th Indian Brigade and Brigadier Weir’s 2nd New Zealand Divisional artillery – a remarkable example of the maintenance of operational tempo. As a consequence, the two battalions encountered only sporadic opposition.
Before 1st Armoured Division’s tanks could break out into the open desert, however, a dawn attack by 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders went in. The attack of the Argylls – ‘almost the last reasonably fresh infantry available’ – was, as Wingfield described:
directed onto Tel el Aqqaqir, the top of the whole ridge to our front. They found the enemy gone. 2nd Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance immediately, with 10th Hussars leading (always their rightful place!), with The Bays on the right and 9th Lancers on the left. But it was not till 9.00 a.m. that we got under way.
As a consequence of this action, more armoured cars were also able to break out to the south and into the open desert.
The sight of the armour passing through 5th Indian Brigade moved one overawed Havildar, Nila Kanten, to hyperbole:
Our role was something less than a participant and more than a spectator… We were asked to break through at Ruweisat Ridge and allow all the armoured divisions to pass through and trap him. When we captured our objectives, then came the thunder of these armoured divisions passing through us. I remember that. I had never seen so many tanks going in one go. Two divisions, I think, passed through. If the head of the column of an armoured division was in Bangalore, the tail would be in Madras – so many vehicles there were and they were all racing. So many tanks, so many armoured vehicles, so many personnel carriers. Oh, the dust cloud! We created dust, we ate dust, we drank dust… Then the whole Eighth Army started moving.
However, after 4,000 yards, the tanks met the Panzerarmee’s rearguard of 90. leichte-Afrika-Division and the Afrika Korps under Thoma’s personal command. The Afrika Korps commander and Kampfstaffel were in the midst of the fighting throughout the morning before the battle group was destroyed and the courageous Thoma surrendered. Fittingly, as the armour was let loose to pursue its quarry, the officer who took the general prisoner was Master of Foxhounds with the Hursley Hunt. Wingfield recalled:
One of our tanks had ‘brewed up’ a German tank at considerable range and I could see a man waving a red cross flag near it. Grant Singer – the Recce Troop leader, went forward to investigate and found a highly decorated General coming towards him. Grant returned with this prize to the Colonel who decided that Grant should take him at once to Brigade HQ. On arrival there Grant was told to take him straight to Monty at Army HQ as quickly as possible, for it transpired that he was Rommel’s deputy who had been on a forward reconnaissance to convince Rommel of the British breakthrough when he had been captured.
At Army Headquarters, liaison officer Carol Mather described the meeting of Montgomery and Thoma:
Well, of course, I couldn’t judge him [Thoma] as a commander at all, although he was deputizing for Rommel at the time. What he had to face at Alamein was something quite new as far as the Germans were concerned, which was a set-piece attack. As a man he seemed rather a charming fellow actually. Very civilized and you couldn’t help thinking he was quite a decent one. The meeting was so short it was difficult to judge. Montgomery was tickled to death at the idea of having the commander of the opposing forces in his tent having dinner and questioning him and discussing the progress of the battle. This was a great feather in his cap really. It was just the kind of situation he enjoyed. And it was a very amusing meeting.
Whilst 1st Armoured Division was engaged in this action, Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured, led by Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts of 22nd Armoured Brigade, was out in the open desert from 0830hrs. But it too encountered strong resistance from the remaining Italian armour, XX Corps’ artillery and some 88mm guns. Despite Roberts’ urgings by radio to his units to ‘Brush them aside, we have bigger fish to fry!’, the opposition proved a tough nut to crack. A long-range artillery duel in which the excellent Italian guns, under centralized control, performed well, went on all day and there were frequent clashes between Roberts’ brigade and the inferior Italian armour of Divisione ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’. Soldato Antonio Tomba of ‘Ariete’ remembered:
Our poor M13s with their 47mm guns could never be effective against them – we could only hope to hit their tracks in order to immobilize them at least; our shells just bounced off when we hit their armour. In addition, while they numbered sixty, we had little over half of that. We did everything possible, giving our very best… We had no chance, but we proved a difficult opponent for the English: the secret lay in manoeuvring the tank properly. Our tactics were simple: always keep moving, never expose your flank to their guns, and don’t let them fire first. All the crew must act as a single unit: everyone must know what to do and when to do it, in complete harmony with each other. We managed to hold off the enemy that day, but they replaced their losses again while we could only count how many of us were left alive. We could never have resisted for another day… Everyone fought an unequal battle without complaint and without yielding, even when there was no water and no food. We were lucky when it started to rain as this slowed the English advance, and we, the last survivors of the Ariete Division, were able to escape their pursuit.
The Germans were grudgingly admiring of their allies’ bravery, which undoubtedly made possible the escape of many remaining German units. Doctor Alfons Selmayr saw assault guns of Divisione ‘Ariete’ conduct an attack. ‘Despite their poor armour, they advanced boldly. Of course, they were blown to bits in a miserable fashion.’
Major Hans von Luck was more generous:
It was heart-rending to have to witness how the Ariete Division (our most loyal allies) and the remains of the Trieste and Littorio Divisions, fought with death-defying courage; how their tanks (the ‘sardine tins’ so often mocked by us) were shot up and left burning on the battlefield. Although I was engaged in actions myself, I kept in contact with the XX Italian Corps until it was almost surrounded. At about 1530 hours, the commander of the Ariete Division sent his last radio message to Rommel: ‘We are encircled, the Ariete tanks still in action.’ By evening, the XX Italian Corps had been destroyed. We lost good, brave friends, from whom we demanded more than they were in a position to give.
The Italians’ resistance was finally overcome when 4th Armoured Brigade tanks attempted to complete their encirclement from the south. Roberts described the day as ‘very good battle practice for the brigade!’92 but 7th Armoured’s momentum had been arrested and night intervened shortly after the advance started again. Jack York remembered the scene:
As we carried on in the direction our tanks had taken, we could see, reaching up into the sky, great columns of black smoke, and enormous dust clouds. This was the funeral pyre of the Italian Armoured Corps (Ariete, and remnants of Littorio and Trieste Divisions), who had been engaged for several hours by nearly 100 tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Nearly all their tanks had been knocked out, and a large number of field and anti-tank guns were destroyed or abandoned. The Italians had fought with exemplary courage in this action, and although nearly surrounded, had held their positions to the last. During this day also, our 1st Armoured Division to the north of us, had severely battered the weakened Afrika Korps, giving them no choice but to retreat. We spent the night concentrated behind the tanks of the 22nd Armoured.
Churchill had seen an intercept of Hitler’s ‘victory or death’ message at 1020hrs on the morning of 4 November. Ever cautious, Brooke had implored him not to order the ringing of church bells in celebration until ‘we were quite certain that we should have no cause for regretting ringing them’. Alexander, whose statement confirming that the Panzerarmee was breaking reached the Prime Minister in the afternoon, was contacted with Churchill’s arbitrary figure of ‘at least 20,000 prisoners’ as ‘proof’ of victory. That night, in his diary, even Brooke, with his knowledge of the imminent landings in Algeria, was prepared to see the possibilities victory at Alamein offered for the future direction of the war. It was the culmination of many of his hopes and his constant toil:
The Middle East news has the making of the vast victory I have been praying and hoping for! A great deal depends on it as one of the main moves in this winter’s campaign in North Africa. Success in Libya should put Spaniards and French in better frame of mind to make Torch a success. And if Torch succeeds we are beginning to stop losing this war and working towards winning it! However, after my visit to Cairo and the work I had done to put things straight, if we had failed again I should have had little else to suggest beyond my relief by someone with fresh and new ideas! It is very encouraging at last to begin to see results from a year’s hard labour.
Only on the evening of 4 November, with the remnants of the forces that once stood on the brink of capturing Alexandria and Cairo in tatters, did Hitler offer vague promises of significant numbers of reinforcements for the North African theatre and, finally, give Rommel permission to act as necessary in the light of events. This was prompted by the arrival at his headquarters of Rommel’s aide, Alfred-Ingemar Berndt, with full details of the crisis. However, Rommel had already been forced to act. At 1530hrs he had ordered a general retreat to positions near Fuka. This decision, essentially confirming the instructions of his chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Westphal, to the Afrika Korps the previous evening was the Panzerarmee’s official sanction for the mobile units to abandon the Italian infantry and the parachute units of both nations in the south. Many Italians never forgave their allies; others, like Tenente Emilio Pulini, were restrained in their response:
We were slightly uncomfortable about the idea of being left there without no transport. Our division had very little transport. Because we were paratroops we had very little transport of our own. But as far as I know the majority of the German troops withdrew before us and not too much transport was left to us.
As Eighth Army’s advance recommenced on 5 November, the victorious troops encountered similar scenes throughout the day, as Gervase Markham observed:
We were able to advance. My first experience of advancing across a battlefield and seeing a defeated army with all the relics that they’d left behind, and their dugouts still there with meals half eaten and Italian troops standing there waiting to be captured because the Germans had taken all the transport and had driven away, leaving the Italians to look after themselves without food or water or transport, begging to be taken into captivity.
The sight of large numbers of Italian troops walking towards captivity seemed confirmation of the widely held view that Mussolini’s forces were a liability to their ally. Sergeant Neville Howell of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment was struck by what he saw:
There were just hundreds and hundreds of Italians walking in groups and we were passing through them. Literally hundreds of them… They were asking for water. The Italians. That was the one thing they were asking for. Water. Hundreds of them. How long it took them to reach somewhere where they were given water, I don’t know. Of course, we couldn’t give them water. We only had a limited amount. You’d got to look after it. If you stopped – which you weren’t allowed to do of course – you’d have been surrounded by them in no time.
The sacrifice of the ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’ and the tough ‘Folgore’ was quickly forgotten. Yet without them the Afrika Korps could not have garnered the laurels it had, survived at Alamein as long as it had, or escaped in the manner it did.
Only one ‘infantry’ unit of significant size managed to escape, despite its lack of transport. Hans von Luck recounted:
On 7 November, in the depths of the desert, a patrol putting out a long feeler to the east, discovered General Ramcke, the commander of the paratroop division, which had been in action on the right wing south of Alamein. General Ramcke was brought to us in a scout car. He looked emaciated and asked to be taken, at once, to Rommel. His paratroops – an elite unit – had been through an adventurous time. I at once sent a radio message to Rommel: ‘General Ramcke, with 700 men and all weapons, has been discovered by us; he himself is with me at the command post.’
The exhausted paratroops had nothing except their weapons and water. They had captured a small British convoy on 5 November and used this to reach the Axis lines. It was small comfort to Rommel, given that on 5 November Eighth Army had easily exceeded Churchill’s target for prisoners of war. Alexander had duly signalled: ‘Ring out the bells!’
The battle was over. It was theoretically time for the victors to pursue and annihilate their opponents. It did not happen. There was no single reason why not, but many could be laid at the door of Eighth Army’s commander. To the amazement of their enemy, the British remained cautious in their operations. Ambitious plans to cut off the retreating Axis forces were not attempted. Proper reserves for pursuit had not been prepared. Congestion prevented units from getting forward. Personal animosity between Montgomery and several subordinates – especially Lumsden, Briggs and Gatehouse – stood in the way of effective use of the armoured formations they commanded. Poor staff work was the cause of at least one brigadier’s subsequent dismissal. Tanks worn out by continuous action and needing overhaul consumed so much fuel they outran their supplies. Bad weather – something outside the control of any commander – played a part as heavy rain fell on 6 November hampering movement and preventing air reconnaissance. However one informed critic felt ‘this was a very thin excuse, seen through by all who had known the desert dry out in a few hours after rain the previous November.’
Nevertheless, as the Official History rightly points out, the fact that a small part of Rommel’s command managed to break away probably seems more of an anti-climax in retrospect than it did at the time to the men of Eighth Army. The remarkable Charles Potts – ‘The Fighting Parson’ – writing on 12 November summarized the experience of Second Alamein for many of the survivors:
The shelling was terrific for the first 13 days of the battle while we struggled through the rows of enemy minefields. All day and all night the noise was deafening, gun flashes and explosions all round us. It was horrible, and very frightening. Some men lost their nerve altogether and shivered and chattered with terror. It was a job to keep some of them going. I was lucky in that I managed to keep pretty cheerful all the time, except for such ghastly moments as when my best corporal, of whom I was extremely fond, had his head blown clean off; I had to cover him up so that the others shouldn’t see him. And now everywhere there is wreckage, vehicles, including huge tanks, blown to smithereens. Thank God the dead are mostly burned. It was not an easy victory – at least not at first. We had a bitter struggle and a taste of bloody hell. It must have been even worse for the Germans. Our artillery pounded them mercilessly and our bombers strafed them continuously (Damn these b____ flies – they are all over me).
There are two contemporary maps of the battle of Bunker Hill, one drawn by Lieutenant Henry de Berniere and the other by Lieutenant Page, British officers both. On them, one notices rigidly straight lines of advance and retreat, symmetrically precise formations, neatly dotted vectors of artillery fire. Just as a highway map cannot convey the actual feeling of driving, their sketches are an abstraction of the battle. In a manner typical of Enlightenment military science—not art—they depict an idealized and rational vision of what happened, not the gritty, addled reality. During battle itself, similarly, soldiers are rarely sure what happened. Blurriness, scattered memories, tunnel vision, and fuzziness are almost universal among veterans. That both Berniere and Page mistakenly transposed Breed’s Hill with Bunker Hill—and that no one noticed—is only further evidence of their maps’ illusory qualities.
Superimposing ex post facto a neat, easily comprehensible pattern on the tumult and bedlam of battle, any battle, is ultimately an exercise in futility, albeit a necessary one—for how else could we construct a coherent account of their course? In this respect Bunker Hill suffers from a defect common to every clash in history: No man was everywhere at once. Each individual present had his own restricted view of how the fighting progressed. Those in the redoubt, for instance, could barely see their comrades behind the rail fence, and vice versa. For that reason, in his account Colonel Prescott vaguely mentions “a party of Hampshire, in conjunction with some other forces, lined a fence at the distance of three score rods [330 yards] back of the Fort”—the redoubt—and never again refers to the events that happened there. Mirroring Prescott’s confined perspective, Captain Charles Stuart, who watched the battle from Boston with his brother-in-law, Lord Percy, talks only of an attack on the “Fort” and had no idea what was happening at the rail fence, which he could not see from his position. Likewise, Colonel Stark would have been as cut off from the redoubt as Howe, who could not have known in any timely manner how Pigot was faring against Prescott’s defenses. Consequently, envisaging the battle, as traditional narratives do, as a sequence of coordinated, planned actions and reactions is wrongheaded from the outset. Each commander instead worked autonomously and tried to make sense of what was happening only in his immediate area.
Within the lower ranks, similarly, every memoir, diary, account, and letter tends to capture only a snippet of the broader battle; their takes are microscopic and subjective, not panoramic and objective. In scientific terms, combat is anisotropic, in the sense that its properties and characteristics vary according to the changing perspectives of observers and participants.
There are, in other words, many Bunker Hills, or rather, multiple facets of the same battle. Every soldier, in short, focused solely on what was happening directly before his eyes to the exclusion of all else. He could not help but do otherwise. When engaged in a battle, soldiers pay virtually no heed to the precise topographical names or characteristics of where they are: They classify terrain not as map coordinates but as, say, a useful hill from which to hold off the enemy or a bit of woodland with good cover or a difficult field to traverse. It is only afterward, sometimes long afterward, when they consult maps and photos or talk to former comrades or read a history of the battle that they begin to work out, piece by piece, where they were and what happened. By that time, “official” names have been bestowed upon various geographical features or famous episodes, and the old soldiers naturally adopt them to help make sense of their experiences.
Even then, owing to the cunning of memory, their recollections of what happened are inevitably jerky and disordered. Of combat, vivid details seem real yet may be false, uncontestable facts become uncertain, and the conventional linear progression from past to present to future dissolves into a half-remembered sludge periodically interrupted by disturbing flashbacks, out-of-order sequences, and fragmented recollections. These disconcerting effects are not a product of passing time and increasing age but set in immediately after combat.
At Bunker Hill, for that reason, nobody seems even able to give a universally accepted answer to the basic question of how long the fighting lasted. Participants and spectators variously estimated the time between the first exchanges of musketry and the militias’ withdrawal at “ten or fifteen minutes,” “about an hour,” “battle began about 3, and retreat about 5,” “thirty-five minutes,” “above an hour,” “three quarters of an hour,” “about three hours,” “four hours,” “an hour and a half,” and “half an hour,” to list just a few. The disparities are partly owing to the companies’ different arrival times and the subjective reliance on tracking the sun’s passage across the sky to estimate the time of day, as well as the extent of their heavy combat involvement, but the faulty memories that attend combat are generally caused, or at least exacerbated, by underlying psychological and physiological factors.
Under conditions of high stress and extreme excitement, such as during a gunfight, the way in which individuals process incoming sensory information alters. They think less rationally, their deliberative and analytical skills rapidly deteriorating as their cortexes filter or tune out stimuli unessential to survival. Actions become automatic, instinctive—a type of cognition known as “experiential.” A common symptom of operating in such mode is that sensory perceptions undergo severe distortion.
Studies have found at least half of participants will experience the event in slow motion, a fifth in faster-than-normal time; two-thirds will hear at “diminished volume,” meaning that the sound of nearby gunshots is greatly muffled, and a fifth at amplified levels; about half will see what is happening with tunnel vision and black out everything not directly ahead and the other half with amazingly heightened clarity. Most individuals will suffer memory loss, while others will “remember” events that never occurred. These symptoms nearly always overlap. So someone with tunnel vision may see objects in startling, swollen detail—such as shell casings apparently the size of beer cans—swimming within their narrow field of vision while being oblivious to all else.
Weirdly, too, combat can turn men into supermen, or so they think. More than half of respondents to a detailed questionnaire on their physical changes during shooting events said they experienced a sense of increased strength or a potent adrenaline rush.6 Some, as a result, become impervious to pain. At Bunker Hill, the British captain Edward Drewe was so enraged by fighting that he was shot three times (thigh, foot, and shoulder), dislocated his shoulder, and received two serious contusions before he finally fell—but he survived. Others may not even realize they’ve been wounded. Abel Potter, for instance, was bayoneted in the leg but was shocked to discover later that his “boot was filled with blood.” David Holbrook of Massachusetts was not only bayoneted (also in the leg) but “thump[ed] on the head” by a musket and yet felt fine until he almost lost consciousness through loss of blood. Interestingly, it was only some time after they had left combat that these men noticed the flow of their own blood. In high-stress environments, the body restricts the blood supply to the extremities in order to ensure the core functionality of the heart, lungs, and other major organs. Owing to vasoconstriction, then, a soldier may be wounded in the arm or leg without bleeding much; ironically, once the external danger recedes, the risk to life increases as the wound reopens.
Even when they remain unscathed, soldiers experience a host of powerful physiological effects in combat. Whereas a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute, hormonal or fear-induced pulse spikes allow individuals to reach their optimal combat-performance level—complex motor skills, visual reaction times, and cognitive reaction times hit their peak, though fine motor skills have deteriorated—between 115 and 145 bpm. They may feel as if they are gods.
Nevertheless, if stress levels continue to rise, so do heart rates. Between about 150 and 175 bpm, mental and physical abilities begin to deteriorate and their ability to process cognitive information and to use logical reasoning to act quickly, effectively, and decisively on that data plummets. Researchers have found that the deficits on performance at this stage are greater than for major alcohol intoxication, drug sedation, or clinical hypoglycemia (low blood glucose). Understandably, for many soldiers the heady combination of elevated heart rates, adrenaline surges, and a euphoric sense of invulnerability makes war feel great. For some, the experience becomes narcotically addictive, as any hallucinogenic, dreamlike state would be.
Above 175 bpm, however, individuals regress to infantilism or animal instinct. Soldiers engage in submissive behavior and lose control over their bowels or bladders. They will tend to freeze, torn between the desires to fight and flee. Headlong, unstoppable, unthinking flight frequently results but if they plunge ahead, their gross motor skills—used in charging or running—are at their zenith and may cause them to carry a position, though this condition renders soldiers useless for any task other than overwhelming an enemy.
The ambiguity, fragmentation, and distortion that come with combat should raise suspicions about the “official version” of what happened during any given battle. It certainly does for Bunker Hill, where accounts continue to insist that at the redoubt, the British were repulsed twice by the Americans before launching a third successful assault that swept away the defenders. We first read of this interpretation in a missive from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to the Continental Congress dated June 20—just three days after the battle. Accordingly, the Committee of Safety’s official report—the one communicated to His Majesty’s Government in London five weeks later, on July 25—observed that there were two failed assaults followed by a third, triumphant attack. In Britain, the press followed this line in their reports of the battle—a remarkable instance of newspapers printing a story essentially dictated by the enemy, one that has proved amaz ingly resilient over the centuries. Small wonder, perhaps: The battle of Bunker Hill, seen this way, appears to have been a rationally organized, straightforward affair with discernible lines, precise movements, and three meticulous attacks.
Yet it was not nearly so clear and easily comprehensible to those who participated in it. Militiamen and soldiers alike were much vaguer on what happened. Said Sergeant Thomas Boynton, who was in the redoubt, after the enemy “came within gun shot we fired, and then ensued a very hot engagement. After a number of shots passed, the enemy retreated, and we ceased our fire for a few minutes. They advanced again, and we began a hot fire for a short time.” His chief, Prescott, told John Adams that “the enemy advanced and fired very hotly on the fort, and meeting with a warm reception, there was a very smart firing on both sides. After a considerable time, finding our ammunition was almost spent, I commanded a cessation till the enemy advanced within thirty yards, when we gave them such a hot fire that they were obliged to retire nearly one hundred and fifty yards before they could rally and come again to the attack.” On the other side, Captain Charles Stuart observed that “our men, astonished at the heat of their fire, retreated from the Fort, but were rallied by the courage and intrepidity of their officers, and renewed the charge again and again till they conquered.”
These recollections all describe intervals of waiting interrupted sporadically by “hot” or “smart” bouts of firing comprising “a number” of shots back and forth. Prescott at one point managed to orchestrate a volley when the British were thirty yards away, but aside from an initial organized line advance, there does not appear to be a succession of distinct attacks and retreats in formation, only multiple bursts of piecemeal rallies and advances in, as we shall see, various locations.
The “charges” alluded to by Captain Stuart were made in fact by small knots of men gamely attempting to keep the line but failing. Some took cover, others opportunistically rushed ahead ten yards while the defenders were reloading, and still more stumbled backward before recovering and moving forward again. The soldiers did not uniformly move as one but followed a ragged, ad hoc combination of keeping up, keeping down, keeping back, and above all, keeping moving. This is the reality of close combat with small arms, then as now.
The nitty-gritty details of Pigot’s assault emerge more clearly if we ignore the official version and focus instead on the random snippets of what participants saw and experienced. Thus, once the British landed and began forming up for the initial attack, Prescott—a more conventional commander than Stark—followed Putnam’s directions and ordered his defenders to reserve their first fire. He even became “indignant” when a few miscreants did not toe the line. Prescott “threatened to shoot any man who disobeyed; his lieutenant-colonel, Robinson, sprang upon the top of the works and knocked up the leveled muskets.”
In the meantime, the 1st Marines and the 47th, 38th, and 43rd Regiments had found that the upwardly sloping ground before them, like that stretching ahead of Howe’s Grenadiers, was covered with “rails, hedges, and stone walls,” according to Lieutenant John Waller. Here, however, they were at least told to “shelter ourselves by laying on the grass” as they waited to climb the obstacles. Still, once they surmounted them they persisted in marching “rather slowly, but with a confident, imposing air.”
This attitude did not last long. The problem of fire control yet again proved the Achilles heel of the British. According to Isaac Glynney, the British first formed up and “marchd on towards us [and] as soon as they Came within gun Shot they Begun to fire upon us.” We should assume that “within gun shot” range means roughly 100 yards away—way too far to have inflicted any significant hits on the protected militiamen. In some places, conversely, Prescott’s threats held true. Referring to his company commanders, “our officers,” said Glynney, “thinking it more Proper to Reserve our fire we with Held till they Came within four or five Rods [between 22 and 27.5 yards, or 66–82 feet] of us[. T]hen we were Orderd to fire which we Did.” But in many other spots along the wall, the militiamen opened up as they wished, as Prescott acknowledged in his letter to Adams. He was not altogether happy about it, noting archly that “after a considerable time … our ammunition was almost spent,” thanks to all the enthusiastic free firing.
Part of the problem, of course, was that Prescott could not be everywhere at once, especially as the attacks occurred at unpredictable times and varying speeds on opposite sides of the redoubt. To the south, the 1st Marines and the three battered regular regiments were already struggling, but to the north, Howe inadvertently came to Pigot’s rescue when elements of the Grenadiers, the 5th, and the 52nd swerved to avoid the rail-fence fire and ran toward the rough breastwork that was connected to the redoubt. Prescott was now under attack on two flanks.
Only now, belatedly, did the British artillery come into its own. Mired in mud, too distant to threaten the rail fence, and low on suitable ammunition, these cannon were coincidentally close to the outlying American defenses. Dragged at great cost into position—two captains, one lieutenant, a sergeant, and eight privates were wounded in the process—the guns raked the breastwork with grapeshot to open a path for the beleaguered Grenadiers and their support. The Americans stationed outside the redoubt’s walls now began to incur heavy losses as they fled the breastwork. Of Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor’s “own immediate command of thirty men and one subaltern, there were eleven killed and wounded; among the latter was myself, though not so severely as to prevent my retiring.”
It was the first British success of the day. Seizing upon it, Howe adapted his plan. No longer was the rail fence his primary objective. Instead, he ordered the Lights to continue to hold their ground there as a feint to draw off militia fire while the Grenadiers, 5th, and 52nd exploited their position. According to a rather surprised Henry Dearborn, who had been expecting a renewed assault at the fence, “only a few small detached parties again advanced, which kept up a distant, ineffectual, scattering fire.” All the action now switched to the redoubt.
Howe was also optimistic that reinforcements from Boston would soon arrive. General Clinton, who had been impatiently cooling his heels in the city, had taken the opportunity to “embark 2 marines [2nd Marines] and another batt[alio]n”—the 63rd—and ordered them to sail to the peninsula as quickly as possible. Clinton himself did not wait for the 63rd and the 2nd Marines to finish boarding; he raced for the battlefield in his own boat and “landed under fire” on the beach near the redoubt. Once there, Clinton roused “all the guards and such wounded men as could follow which to their honour were many and advanced in column.”
As best we can make out, to the south the British were creeping forward and had made it to around 30 yards from the redoubt. As Clinton indicates, the redcoats were no longer in a hidebound line formation but had organized into much more mobile columns that were surging closer and closer. Prescott husbanded his men on the wall and urged them to hold fire. When he gave the word, as Isaac Glynney wrote, “we Shoed [showed] them yankey Play & Drove them Back again[.]” There was probably another volley of sorts a little later, when the British reached a distance of ten yards. By now, wrote Prescott, “the ground in front of the [redoubt was] covered with dead and wounded, some lying within a few yards.” A man inside the redoubt noted that “it was surprising how they would step over their dead bodies, as though they had been logs of wood.” As losses mounted, the British columns naturally dissolved into small groups of men spread out and taking cover where they could.
It was becoming evident that this was the beginning of the end. Prescott was now so short of ammunition that he ordered any remaining shells for his cannon broken open and their precious grains of powder distributed. More alarmingly still, his little army was shriveling, not through death or dismemberment but by desertion. Scores of militiamen had made themselves discreetly scarce by means of the gap, or exit, at the northwestern side of the redoubt. Prescott’s force by now may have amounted to just 150 men.
The only good news was that the reinforcements General Ward had sent from Cambridge had by now arrived at the Neck or were standing atop Bunker Hill. Yet some were balking from entering the fray. Amos Farnsworth in the redoubt was annoyed to see “a great body of men near by” who were doing nothing to help. Others, noticed Captain Chester, were being too helpful: “Frequently twenty men round a wounded man, retreating, when not more than three or four could touch him to advantage.” Colonel Gerrish’s regiment, for instance, was not budging from its safe spot, but his deputy, a Dane named Christian Febiger, roused enough men to form a useful detachment and led them into battle. While heading toward the redoubt with his unit, Chester met “with a considerable company, who was going off rank and file”; he “ordered my men to make ready. They immediately cocked, and declared that if I ordered would fire. Upon that [the other company] stopped short, tried to excuse themselves,” and complied with Chester’s instruction to follow him to the redoubt. Thanks to the influx of fresh men (and the not entirely voluntary additions commandeered by Chester), Prescott’s outpost was able to hold out for some time longer.
Inside, nevertheless, the situation was growing ever more precarious. The British, too, had received reinforcements and were obviously girding themselves for a renewed attack. The militiamen were each grappling with the dilemma of staying or going. Wrote Captain Bancroft, “Our men turned their heads every minute to look on the one side for their fellow soldiers … and on the other to see a sight to most of them new, a veteran enemy marching on firmly to the attack, directly in their front. It was an awful moment.”
Their spirits remained halfheartedly hearty (“We are ready for the redcoats again!” they cheered, with one eye on the exit). In preparation for the final struggle, Prescott “directed the few [of his men] who had bayonets to be stationed at the points most likely to be scaled” around the redoubt. Then came, remembered Bancroft, “the very crisis of the day, the moment on which every thing depended.” As more and more of the men decided to sneak toward the rear, he accompanied Prescott to harangue them. Prescott’s unflappable assurance and his towering reputation momentarily held them in check. He did not order the defenders to stay—that was no way to motivate a militiaman—but he earnestly pleaded with them to hold fast the line for a short time, if only for the sake of honor, before promising to allow the faithful to go in peace.
Bancroft, who was convinced nothing could be done to stem the rising panic, was so amazed by the speech he claimed to recall it verbatim nearly half a century later. Prescott entreated his listeners “that they must not go off, that if they did all would go; that it would disgrace us to leave at the bare sight of the enemy the work we had been all night throwing up, that we had no expectation of being able to hold our ground, but we wanted to give them a warm reception, and retreat.”
Reassured that they were not expected to sacrifice themselves as a futile gesture to salvage American honor, the men returned to their posts—Amos Farnsworth proudly recorded that subsequently “I did not leave the intrenchment until the enemy got in”—after which Prescott told all to hoard their ammunition and prepare for one last point-blank broadside before they could escape to the rear.
In the meantime, according to Abel Parker, the colonel “ordered the men from one side to the other, in order to defend that part which was pressed hardest by the enemy,” while bellowing (added Bancroft) that they were “to take particular notice of the fine coats and to aim as low as the waistband, and not to fire till ordered.”
Given the contradictions in the various accounts, which side of the redoubt was being “pressed hardest” at that moment is hard to say. What is incontrovertible is that the British now had the bit between their teeth and were pressing hard on both flanks.
To the south and under “a very heavy and severe fire,” Lieutenant John Waller of the 1st Marines and his men were “checked … but did not retreat an inch” as they approached the redoubt’s walls. Nearby, however, the situation was fast unraveling. The Marine commander, Major John Pitcairn, was shot and severely wounded while “rallying the dispersed British troops” (according to the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap in 1787), who were, in Waller’s words, “jumbled” and “in confusion” and “half mad” near the foot of the redoubt’s earthen walls. Since Pitcairn (claimed the Rev. Dr. John Eliot) “received four balls in his body,” his shooting was a collective one by diverse hands. Pitcairn, no doubt wearing a “fine coat,” would certainly have made a tempting target for any of the militiamen guarding the walls, but the number of wounds he suffered gives some indication of the ferocity of the fighting taking place. (Major John Tupper of the 2nd Marines would report to the Admiralty that Pitcairn “died about two or three hours later,” after being transported to Boston.)
With Pitcairn incapacitated, Captain Stephen Ellis assumed command of the remnants of the 1st Marines near the wall. It was do or die. “Had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off,” Lieutenant Waller told his brother, so he rushed to form “the two companies on our right” while begging “Colonel Nesbitt, of the 47th, to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing; while this was doing, and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.”
On the opposite side, the Grenadiers, the 5th, and the 52nd were mounting their own push toward the redoubt wall and were also making headway despite heavy losses among their officers. Among them was Major Williams of the 52nd, who after being wounded was left to lie there bleeding out because his juniors, said Ensign Martin Hunter, refused to leave cover for fear of being shot. Perhaps he might still have done the right thing, Hunter admitted, but Williams “was not a very great favorite [with me], as he had obliged me to sell a pony that I had bought for seven and sixpence.” (The major would die in a Boston hospital of his wound.)
Captain George Harris was more fortunate. Upon his being shot in the head, Lieutenant Francis Rawdon ordered four men to rush Harris to safety despite the captain’s murmuring, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” So hot was the American fire—perhaps the sight of a killable officer attracted it—that two of his escorts were wounded and a third killed (thus bearing out Hunter’s reluctance to lend aid). Meanwhile, as his men roared, “Push on, push on,” Rawdon was impressed that the Americans kept up their shooting until “we were within ten yards of them.” Indeed, “there are few instances of regular troops defending a redoubt till the enemy were in the very ditch of it,” but Rawdon saw “several [Americans] pop their heads up [over the wall] and fire even after some of our men were upon them.”
By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army.
The British paused at the foot of the walls, fearful that the defenders were reserving their main broadside for a point-blank massacre. But then, said one American, “one of our people imprudently spoke aloud that their powder was all gone, which being heard by some of the regular officers, they encouraged their men to march up [the parapet] with fixed bayonets.”
It may have been a sergeant of the 63rd’s Grenadiers, or perhaps a Lieutenant Richardson, who was the first to mount the parapet and shout “Victory!” Elsewhere, Lieutenant Waller clambered to the top while a captain and lieutenant fell next to him. It was now, he mourned to a friend, that “poor Ellis,” “Archy Campbell,” and “Shea” were killed and “Chudleigh, Ragg, and Dyer” wounded. Across from him, he saw that “three captains of the 52nd”—Nicholas Addison, William Davison, and George Smith—“were killed on the parapet,” as well as “others I knew nothing of.”
Even as their chances of turning back the assault were inexorably declining, the Americans were giving as good as they got. When “a British officer mounted the embankment, and cried out to his soldiers to ‘rush on, as the fort was their own,’ ” Phinehas Whitney shouted “ ‘let him have it,’ and he fell into the entrenchment.” Ensign Studholme Brownrigg of the 38th was so astounded by the tenacity of the defenders that he thought there were 3,000 of them. Another officer told his friend in England that at this point he honestly believed that he and his men would end up as nothing more than “food for gunpowder.” “They advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” the redoubt’s young Peter Brown later proudly told his mother, “but they found a choaky mouthful of us.”
Finally, noticing that the British were placing their muskets on top of the wall as they scrambled on top, Prescott bawled, “Take their guns away—twitch ’em away! And you that can handle stones, seize ’em and knock about!” Isaac Glynney picked up a few and pelted the invaders while others fired at whoever was in front of them. Ebenezer Bancroft “was loading my gun the last time, just withdrawing the ramrod,” when “an officer sprang over the breastwork in front of me and presented his piece. I threw away the rammer which was in my hand, and instantly placed the muzzle of my gun against his right shoulder, a little below the collar-bone, and fired, and he fell into the trench.”
Prescott later maintained that he could have held the position “with the handful of men under his command, if he had been supplied with ammunition.” He believed the enemy “would not have rallied, if they had been again repulsed” by a good couple of volleys. Perhaps so, but this is immaterial, given that by now the militiamen were almost out of ammunition. Though the conventional narrative of the battle, in order to magnify for patriotic and cultural reasons the disparity between the modest yeomen-militia and the superior, tyrannical foe they faced, has emphasized that the Americans had been short from the very start, in fact most men were initially more than adequately equipped. Or more precisely, they had sufficient ammunition for an ordinary firefight, but they exhausted their supplies when Bunker Hill proved an extraordinary one.
“Each individual was furnished with one quarter of a pound of powder in a horn, one flint, and lead sufficient to make fifteen charges either of ball or buck shot,” attested James Wilkinson.61 It has naturally been assumed that these officially distributed fifteen rounds were all that was obtainable, yet in fact the amount of available ammunition was highly variable by province. Thus, the troops in some Connecticut regiments received eighteen rounds apiece even as Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor’s company enjoyed no less than “one pound of gunpowder and forty-eight balls” per man. On the other hand, Colonel Brewer’s Massachusetts regiment initially had to make do with just five rounds.
Moreover, the ammunition supply was not static. The walking wounded were employed to hurriedly pare and scrape dead men’s ammunition down to roughly compatible sizes for the varying barrel calibers and hand them out so that none went to waste. And ammunition could be pooled: Aaron Smith later said that “a man at his side, a negro, [was] so crippled by a shot in the leg that he could not rise up to discharge his gun, but could load and re-load, which he continued to do, both Smith’s and his own, and then hand them to Smith to fire, until their ammunition was expended.”
Even so, let us assume that on average each militiaman arrived on the field with fifteen rounds. Few before Bunker Hill had imagined that men could blaze through so much ammunition in a single brief encounter: That number was judged by American commanders as more than sufficient and at the time was counted as a needlessly lavish distribution. George Washington, for his part, believed that between twelve and fifteen rounds per man could last for an entire months-long campaign, while the British, less parsimonious, regarded sixty as enough for a season of several battles—but they expected a lot to be left over for the following year.
In the event, Jesse Lukens reckoned that at Bunker Hill alone he and his comrades had each fired about sixty rounds, and Josiah Cleaveland remembered that he “fired 40 cartridges; borrowed 3 more.” Another Bunker Hill soldier boasted that “he discharged his piece more than thirty times,” while Nathaniel Rice of East Sudbury claimed that he fired his musket twenty-six times and another militiaman “seventeen times at our unnatural enemies.” Still others “fired at the enemy twenty times, some thirty, and some till their guns were so heated, that they dared not to charge them any more.” Even accounting for the men’s exaggerations and erroneous recollections, judging by the amount of ammunition used relative to the smallness of the battlefield, the brevity of the battle, and the limited number of participants, Bunker Hill featured perhaps the heaviest, fiercest combat of the eighteenth century.
But finally run out of rounds the militias did—heralding the inevitable collapse of the redoubt. Throughout the battle, the Americans had wisely avoided close-quarters combat in favor of shooting from afar, but during the struggles for fixed defenses bayonets came into their own. This was a British specialty, and the opportunity they had panged for all day. As General Burgoyne advised, against enemies who placed “their whole dependence in intrenchments and [firearms,] it will be our glory, and our preservation to storm when possible.” When confronted by such obstacles as walls and breastworks, he was implying, it was more sensible to risk one’s life charging them than to lose it waiting to be picked off by distant musketry.
After the battle, angry participants would allege that it was “barbarous to let men be obliged to oppose bayonets with only gun barrels.” In an enclosed area, like the redoubt, soldiers thrusting bayonets for ward would herd defenders toward a wall or corner by impaling or pricking them with the steel points. The writhing and flailing bodies could then be used as a kind of bulldozer to push deeper into the crowd of other defenders and cram them into a still more constricted space for easier killing.
For their part, the militiamen “began to knock the guns [with bayonets] aside—to spring on ’em with stones—to give ’em heavy punches, feeling that they must sell their lives there,” said Maynard. The Americans tore muskets away from their British owners and “for a moment we had a pretty good time: We hit ’em … with their own guns. We took about 30 of their guns, I should think.” One of Lieutenant Webb’s militiamen, Edward Brown, “sprang, seized a regular’s gun, took it from him and killed him on the spot.”
Nevertheless, the weight of the British had the advantage, and the Americans fell back. For Waller, “nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming of this work. We tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt.” The “gorge” to which he referred was the exit that Prescott had prudently left clear. Acknowledging that his militiamen had done all they could, he sounded a general retreat. Most gratefully took up the offer. There was nothing dishonorable in their decision; these men were exhausted. Unlike the British, who had enjoyed a sound night’s sleep and a hot breakfast, Prescott’s defenders had been awake since early Friday morning, nearly thirty-six hours before. After a busy day in camp, they had marched to the peninsula and spent the night building the redoubt with barely a morsel or gulp to sustain them. In the morning they had been under prolonged artillery fire and, of course, for most of Saturday afternoon, they were fighting for their lives. Ravenous, thirsty, disoriented, scared, dusty, outnumbered, the Americans could hold out no longer.
For his part, Peter Brown “jumped over the walls and ran half a mile, where balls flew like hailstones and cannon roared like thunder,” while David How remembered that after his friend was shot right next to him, he grabbed his musket, “let fly” at a looming redcoat, and fled for the rear. Meanwhile, to cover them, Prescott and a band of diehards heroically defended the gateway to Bunker Hill, the Neck, and safety.
The scene became one heaving, bloody bedlam amid the swirling dust and smoke—so thick and dark that men had to feel their way to an exit.76 With bayonets bent and muzzles dipped in gore, the British thrust ahead, delayed only by Prescott’s paladins, who swung their cutlasses and employed muskets as makeshift poles to parry the enemy’s bayonets. Another particularly effective method was to “club” a musket: holding it by the muzzle and swinging it with force at a head or face, often shivering to pieces their wooden stocks. In general during such melees, men do not tackle each other individually but instead lunge or swing at, hit or cut anyone nearby not instantly recognizable as an ally. When two men do come to blows, the resulting fight is rarely a thing of choreographed beauty; it is all flailing fists and clumsy rebuffs and desperate slashes.
Understandably, then, for this stage in an infantry action, that of hand-to-hand combat, it is rare to find coherent or authoritative accounts of what happened. As it is probably the most exhilarating, terrifying, animalistic, anarchic, primitive experience of all, this mode of fighting is more prone to memory blackouts, disjointed recollections, and sensory kaleidoscoping than even conventional combat. Descriptions of what happened are accordingly sparse, but we are fortunate in possessing a few vivid snapshots of what the final moments in the redoubt were like.
Israel Potter and some comrades had “to fight our way through a very considerable body of the enemy, with clubbed muskets,” in order to escape. Fortunately, Potter had brought a cutlass, with which he parried a sword slash at his head by an officer. The point of the latter’s blade cut his right arm near the elbow, but Potter managed to make “one well-directed stroke” that almost severed the other’s arm. Captain Bancroft, meanwhile, had “a severe struggle to escape out of the fort.” Holding “my gun broadwise before my face,” he “rushed upon” the redcoats in the way “and at first bore some of them down, but I soon lost my gun.” Now disarmed, he “leaped upon the heads of the throng in the gateway and fortunately struck my head upon the head of a soldier, who settled down under me, so that I came with my feet to the ground.” Immediately, “a blow was aimed at me, with the butt of a gun, which missed my head but gave me a severe contusion on the right shoulder. Numbers were trying to seize me by the arms but I broke from them, and with my elbows and knees cleared the way so that at length I got through the crowd.” There was now just one man standing between Bancroft and life, “and the thought struck me that he might kill me after I had passed him.” So, “as I ran by him I struck him a blow across the throat with the side of my hand. I saw his mouth open, and I have not seen him since.”
Once the majority of militiamen had fled, the ground, said Lieutenant Waller of the Marines, was “streaming with blood and strewed with dead and dying men.” At least thirty Americans had been bayoneted or killed in the fort during the fighting, but now “the soldiers [were] stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” It “was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on.”
As many of the wounded as possible had been borne away by their friends, but some thirty-six or thirty-seven were left behind, including Colonel Parker and two or three other officers. Some of these, if we rely on Waller, were later murdered in the redoubt. We can be quite sure, as well, that all the victims were Americans, for killing takes time and possession of the field, and the fleeing militiamen had neither.
Such is the savagery of hand-to-hand combat that it is hard to leash one’s intense emotions, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the fighting. It is then that the overwhelming majority of slayings occur of prisoners and the wounded, not days or even hours later, when passions have cooled. At Bunker Hill, the British repeatedly bashed in the skulls of the wounded—or the already dead—with the butts of the muskets and ran them through multiple times with bayonets. We see this kind of frenzied “overkill” erupting among victors in any number of past battles. To take one example, in England, at Towton in 1461, there was a fierce clash between the Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses. Recently excavated skeletons reveal that out of twenty-eight skulls, fully twenty-seven bore multiple wounds—nearly all inflicted after the killing stroke on the first or second blow. Some men had been hit up to thirteen times. One typical victim received five strokes from a bladed weapon to the left front side of his head, followed by another powerful down-to-up slash from behind that left a wide horizontal gash. With the corpse lying face up, one of the soldiers then delivered a massive blow with a heavy sword that cleaved open his face diagonally from the left eye to the right jaw, severing most of his throat at the same time. As at Bunker Hill, not only did these manic attacks occur once the victim was already dead but also after the main fighting was over and the perpetrators were no longer in danger.
Had the British found Prescott among the wounded, there can be little doubt of his awful fate. However, quite astoundingly—almost as much so as Howe’s miraculous survival—the colonel escaped from the maelstrom with nothing worse than a coat rent by several bayonet slashes and a ripped waistcoat. One of his men remembered that Prescott “did not run, but stepped long, with his sword up” throughout. One can only speculate that the British did not focus all their energies upon killing him because Prescott was dressed as an ordinary farmer and did not stand out.
The refugees from the redoubt had exchanged one hell for another. As they ran toward Bunker Hill, the British followed and shot at them from behind. A large number of men who had escaped relatively unscathed from the melee now fell, more severely wounded. Israel Potter, for instance, who had so far received only that “slight cut” from an officer’s sword, now suffered two hits, one in the hip and the other in his left ankle.
The retreat could easily have turned into a rout had a mixed bag of companies and a few packets of militiamen not rapidly set up a rough line to cover those men streaming their way. Captain Chester’s Nutmeggers, as well as the units headed by James Clark and William Coit, plus a hodgepodge of companies from Colonel Moses Little’s and Colonel Thomas Gardner’s regiments banded together on the south slope of Bunker Hill, looking toward Breed’s. They took positions “just by a poor stone fence, two or three feet high, and very thin, so that the bullets came through.” “Here we lost our regularity,” wrote Chester, with “every man loading and firing as fast as he could. As near as I could guess, we fought standing about six minutes.” His lieutenant affirmed that that they held back the British with “a brisk fire from our small-arms.”
General Clinton appealed to Howe, who was still shaken by the debacle at the rail fence, to let him chase and catch the militiamen before they could exit the peninsula. He would have only minutes to regain the initiative. “All was in confusion,” Clinton noted. “Officers told me that they could not command their men and I never saw so great a want of order.” Howe allowed him to take whatever troops he could round up and try to flank the troops on Bunker Hill—a plan that held out the possibility of severing the disrupted Americans from the Neck. Clinton ran with his men to the abandoned fort, ordered Lieutenant Colonel John Gunning to “remain in the redoubt with 100 with positive orders to keep it, and took with me all the rest” toward the thin American line.
Clinton’s boldness might have paid off had the militias utterly collapsed in panic, but on Bunker Hill the initial chaos was instead subsiding into an orderly withdrawal across the Neck. Small groups of militiamen paused to shoot at Clinton’s troops to cover others moving to the rear, until they in turn were relieved and fell back. Lieutenant Rawdon acknowledged that the Americans maintained “a running fight from one fence, or wall, to another, till we entirely drove them off the peninsula.” General Burgoyne agreed, saying “the retreat was no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill.”
It was a hard fight. Colonel Gardner was mortally wounded and, according to a neighbor, Colonel Little “narrowly escaped with his life, as two men were killed one on each side of him, and he came to the camp all bespattered with blood.” And of Captain Nathaniel Warner’s twenty-three-man company, no fewer than seventeen were killed and wounded.90 Robert Steele, a drummer boy, was told to go fetch two quarts of rum and a pail of water to succor the twice-hit Major Willard Moore and other injured militiamen. The beverages, perhaps unsurprisingly, “went very quick,” he wrote.
The British could see wounded men being carried from the field under fire. Among those who made it across the Neck was a Peterborough, New Hampshire, sergeant named McAlister—a Scotsman who had deserted the British army some years before; he had been shot “in the face and side of the neck, the ball having entered the mouth, and coming out one-half in the back of the neck and the other half in the mouth.” He was rescued by a comrade who, knowing his fate as a deserter should he be captured, threw him across his back and brought him to safety. Another man, John Barker, saw his friend Captain Benjamin Farnum fall wounded. Ignoring the oncoming British, Barker hauled Farnum across his shoulders, told him to hold on for dear life, and ran to safety, mumbling to himself, “The Regulars sha’n’t have Ben.” In 1829, aged eighty-three, Farnum had the honor of becoming the last captain at Bunker Hill still alive, though he was somewhat lamed by the two musket balls in his thigh.
Thanks to the American refusal to abandon their comrades, only thirty-one prisoners were eventually taken by the British, many of whom were severely injured. Most lay in the redoubt, but others would have fallen along the line of retreat. None were treated with much gentleness. Hit in the hip, a Mr. Frost had “crept in among the British wounded,” presumably for warmth, companionship, or in hopes that someone would take pity on him and help him. Unfortunately, when he was found, the soldiers threatened to run him through if he did not get up. “But I was too stiff to move,” so “they hauled me about till I became more limber,” and he was taken to Boston. Bill Scott suffered a fractured leg early in the fighting and would be shot another four times over the next few hours. Waking from unconsciousness and bleeding from “nine orifices” (entry and exit wounds, presumably), he discovered a British soldier looming over him. The redcoat demanded to know why he should not execute him, to which Bill, now beyond caring, replied, “I am in your power and you can do with me as you please.” The soldier was pleased to but a passing officer stopped him and took Scott prisoner. Left out overnight, the militiaman was trundled onto a wagon and transported to Boston for treatment the following day. Like Frost, he was later evacuated to Halifax in Canada (and, like Frost, escaped a year later). They were the lucky ones: By September, just ten of the wounded prisoners were still alive.
There were even some uninjured Americans trapped on the peninsula, who hid as best they could, but by the early evening they were emerging—armed, scared, and dangerous, as Lieutenant John Dutton of the 38th would find out. Suffering from gout, he had left his company to change his stockings and was warned by his orderly that two men were approaching. The orderly thought it prudent to fall back, but Dutton laughed off the suggestion, supposing that “they were coming to surrender and give up their arms.” But “his incredulity proved fatal to him [when] they lodged the contents of their muskets in the bodies of the hard-fated lieutenant and servant, notwithstanding that the King’s Troops were within fifty yards of him when he lost his life, and some of the Light Infantry quite close to him.” The Americans were killed a few minutes later. Dutton and his luckless servant were the last British casualties of the bloody day.
Meanwhile, noticing that knots of militiamen were holed up in some houses on the Neck, Clinton urgently requested Howe to permit him to take some game Light and Grenadier companies to pursue them once they were flushed out by artillery. “I knew it would be a complete finishing to a great though dear bought victory”—another such, he admitted, “would have ruined us”—but, he sadly noted, “my scheme was not approved.”
Howe was probably right. There was no point in continuing the battle. It was getting dark, and his soldiers would have found it impossible to force their way across the Neck, let alone to continue on to face Ward’s forces in Cambridge. It would have been hard attritional fighting every step of the way, for, as Burgoyne reported, all the Americans had done was proceed “no farther than to the next hill [Winter Hill], where a new post was taken, new intrenchments instantly begun.”
The British troops, also, were exhausted, a result of the typical crash after a lengthy bout of combat. The burn-off of adrenaline causes soldiers intense fatigue and helps explain why even victorious commanders can find it difficult to execute a knockout blow against a weakened opponent in the closing moments of an engagement. At Bunker Hill, officers often spoke of their men, even in victory and no matter how high their spirits before the battle, to be “weak and outdone,” “very dull,” “confused,” and “discouraged and beat out” immediately following it.
Soldiers who have not yet fully purged adrenaline from their system tend to suffer from jitters—a hallmark of insomnia.102 As the sky darkened over the peninsula, any number of men found themselves unable to sleep. One such was Martin Hunter of the 52nd, who never could forget “the night of the 17th of June” as he vainly sought restfulness. “The cries of the wounded of the enemy … and the recollection of the loss of so many friends was a very trying scene for so young a soldier.” On the other side, John Trumbull felt “that night was a fearful breaking in for [the] young soldiers” surrounded by such a scene “of military magnificence and ruin.”
For most of those present that day, the battle of Bunker Hill was over. For the wounded, it was as if it had never ended.
By early April the situation for Army Group North, now renamed Army of East Prussia, deteriorated further. Its forces were now hemmed in around the Bay of Danzig from Samland and Konigsberg to the mouth of the Vistula. The remnants of two corps were given the task of holding positions north of Gotenhafen on the Hel peninsula. Hitler demanded that it be held and all costs. He instructed all forces in the Army of East Prussia and Army Group Kurland, to stay in the front, and then hold in order to draw the maximum enemy forces toward itself and hopefully away from the main Soviet drive on Berlin.
In the first two weeks of April as German forces tried to maintain their unstable position in the north the Red Army pulled together its forces into three powerful fronts with the main front being directed against Berlin. In the north the 2nd Belorussian Front was to cross the Oder north of Schwedt and strike toward Neustrelitz. Its thrust was intended to drive out the defending 3rd Panzer Army back against the coast and cover the advance toward Berlin on the north. German forces, however, were determined to try and hold their positions for as long as possible and prevent the Russians from taking possession of German territory. But in spite of dogged resistance in many places the Germans no longer had the man power, war plant or transportation to defend their positions effectively. The 3rd Panzer Army had 11 remaining divisions, whilst the 2nd Belorussian Front had 8 armies totalling 33 rifle divisions, 4 tank and mechanized corps, and 3 artillery divisions plus a mixture of artillery and rocket launcher brigades and regiments. The Germans were dwarfed by enemy superiority but continued to fight from one fixed position to another.
By mid-April the 2nd Belorussian Front had successfully pushed back the 3rd Panzer Army and had taken a bridgehead ten miles long above the city of Stettin. Inside Stettin the city had been turned into a fortress and was being defended by ‘Fortress Division Stettin’. It was formed out of parts of the 3rd Panzer Army, and during its defensive battle it put up a staunch defence.
Elsewhere on the Eastern Front the Germans were trying their utmost to hold back the Russian drive. By April 1945 the atmosphere among the troops of Army Group Vistula became a mixture of terrible foreboding and despair as the Russians prepared to push forward on the River Oder. Here along the Oder and Neisse fronts the troops waited for the front to become engulfed by the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed by the Russians. General Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and General Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front were preparing to attack German forces defending positions east of Berlin. For the attack the Red Army mustered some 2.5 million men, divided into four armies. They were supported by 41,600 guns and heavy mortars as well as 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns.
At dawn on 16 April 1945, just thirty-eight miles east of the German capital above the swollen River Oder, red flares burst into the night sky, triggering a massive artillery barrage. For nearly an hour, an eruption of flame and smoke burst along the German front. Then, in the mud, smoke, and darkness, the avalanche broke. In an instant, General Zhukov’s soldiers were compelled to stumble forward into action. As they surged forward, the artillery barrage remained in front of them, covering the area ahead.
Under the cover of darkness on the night of 15th, most German forward units had been moved back to a second line just before the expected Russian artillery barrage. In this second line, as the first rays of light prevailed across the front, soldiers waited for the advancing Russians. Along the entire front the 3rd and 9th Armies had fewer than 700 tanks and selfpropelled guns. The largest division, the 25th Panzer, had just 79 such vehicles: the smallest unit had just two. Artillery too was equally spurse with only 744 guns. Ammunition and fuel were in a critical state of supply and reserves in some units were almost non-existent. Opposing the main Russian assault stood the 56th Panzer Corps. It was under the command of General Karl Weidling, known to his friends as ‘smasher Karl’. Weidling had been given the awesome task of preventing the main Russian breakthrough in the area.
When the Soviet forces finally attacked during the early morning of 16 April, the Germans were ready to meet them on the Seelow Heights. From the top of the ridge, hundreds of German flak guns that had been hastily transferred from the Western Front poured a hurricane of fire into the enemy troops. All morning, shells and gunfire rained down on the Red Army, blunting their assault. By dusk the Russians, savagely mauled by the attack, fell back. It seemed the Red Army had underestimated the strength and determination of their enemy.
By the next day, the Russians had still not breached the German defences. But General Zhukov, with total disregard for casualties, was determined to batter the enemy into submission and ruthlessly bulldoze his way through. Slowly and systematically the Red Army began smashing through their opponents. Within hours hard-pressed and exhausted German troops were feeling the full brunt of the assault. Confusion soon swept the decimated lines. Soldiers who had fought doggedly from one fixed position to another were now seized with panic. The Battle for Berlin had now begun.
Fortress Berlin – Encirclement
On Monday, 23 April in the weakly beating heart of Nazi Germany the less-important courtiers of Hitler’s regime were taking their leave. As some left, others moved in, among them were Magda Goebbels and her six children. Outside the Fuhrer bunker, across the bomb- and shell-ravaged city, Berliners waited for the battle to begin on their doorsteps.
Having fallen back on Berlin, General Helmut Weidling, commanding LVI Panzer Corps, although under sentence of death, arrived at the Fuhrer bunker to find that he was now commander of the capital’s defenders. His own corps consisted of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions, the Muncheberg Panzer Division, the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and fragments of 9th Parachute Division. All were now at a tithe of their titular strength, therefore Weidling told off all bar 18th Panzergrenadier Division, which constituted his reserve, to strengthen the eight defence sectors. The force available to Weidling numbered approximately 45,000 army and SS men and 40,000 Volkssturm with roughly 60 tanks. It was anticipated that stragglers and more cohesive groups would swell the numbers over the next few days.
However, according to NKVD General I. A. Serov’s report on the condition of the city’s defences there was little for Weidling’s men to stand behind: ‘No serious permanent defences have been found inside the 10–15km zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun pits and the motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches as one comes to the city, but less in fact than any other city taken by the Red Army.’ Further comments included intelligence gained from Volkssturm POWs who told how few regular troops were in Berlin, how short of arms and equipment they were and how unwilling the Volkssturm was to fight.
Unaware of this report, troops of First Belorussian Front began to move cautiously into suburban Berlin from the north, the east and the south-east. The main thrust was an attack by Fifth Shock, Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies. Several units of Eighth Guards crossed the Spree and Dahme rivers in the direction of the suburb of Britz, on the Teltow canal. To their right, Fifth Shock, with the support of gunboats of the Dnieper Flotilla, also crossed the Spree.
Further west along the banks of the Teltow canal Konev’s Third Guards Tank Army, supported by a colossal concentration of artillery, prepared to launch itself across this vital water barrier. Opposing them were numerous Volkssturm battalions braced with elements of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions.
The Nordland Division, falling back in the face of Zhukov’s Guards infantry and tanks, took the opportunity to refuel its armour at Tempelhof airfield. Any possible repairs were made, and they even received armoured reinforcements. However, the bulk of the fighting rested on the weary shoulders of the infantry, and on 24 April they were launched in a series of counterattacks to push the Soviets back across the Spree river. As Weidling’s counterattacks began, so did Konev’s canal crossing. Soviet artillery and mortars began firing at 06.20 hrs, and 40 minutes later the first footholds had been established. Fighting desperately, the Panzergrenadiers and Volkssturm were unable to hold the line and by midday T-34s began to cross the newly erected pontoon bridges.
To the east Zhukov’s troops held their ground and then counterattacked so successfully in their turn that they overran Treptow Park and reached the line of the S-Bahn railway, where they halted to regroup and bring up supplies.
Third Shock Army, approaching the outskirts of Berlin from the north-east, made steady progress passing through the infamously communist district of Wedding to reach the Schiffahrts canal.
Surrounded though Berlin was to the north-west and the west, the Soviet ring was as yet fairly porous as a group of French Waffen SS men found out as they made their way from the north, passing on the way thousands of refugees, Wehrmacht stragglers and escaping foreign workers. The French were subordinated to the Nordland Division just at the time it was retiring to defend Tempelhof airfield alongside the few tanks and men of the Muncheberg Panzer Division. This latter formation was a remarkable unit, having been formed less than two months previously around a cadre of men and machines from the Kummersdorf equipment-testing facility. Its armoured component included examples of nearly every tank and armoured fighting vehicle ever produced, including one-off experimental types. Even after the losses it had suffered at Seelow Heights and during the retreat into the city the Muncheberg Division could still pack a punch. But even this armoured miscellany could not hold Tempelhof indefinitely. LVI Panzer began to withdraw towards the city centre during the afternoon of 25 April. An officer of the Muncheberg Division described ‘incessant Russian artillery fire…despite strong artillery fire the civilians population tried to escape’ but more ominously the wounded soldiers were ‘left where they were for fear of running into the hands of the mobile courts.’ In the hell that Berlin was becoming, drumhead courts martial roamed the streets rounding up apparent deserters and hanging them from any convenient tree or lamppost with a sign describing them variously as ‘traitors to the Reich’, ‘cowards’ or any other suitable insulting epithet. The officer continued describing the cries of women and children, the whistles of Stalin Organs and the smell of death and explosives mixed with chlorine. His last words were ‘The fight continues tenaciously.’
With Zhukov’s forces heavily engaged around Tempelhof and the Hohenzollern–Schiffahrts canal and the Fifth Shock Army moving into the Freidrichshain district on the eastern edge of the city, First Ukrainian Front had split the defences on the Teltow canal forcing 20th Panzergrenadier Division onto Wannsee Island as its left flank pushed through the Grunwald forest towards Charlottenburg and the centre advanced driving the Volkssturm and 18th Panzergrenadier Division back towards the city centre.
Now, almost everywhere the fighting was taking place in densely built-up areas which neither the Soviets nor the Germans had experienced so seriously since Stalingrad 30 months before. Bombing and shelling had destroyed many buildings creating ready-made fortresses in which defenders could take cover and from which they could launch tip-and-run ambushes. Trams, shattered vehicles, rubble and all manner of everything to hand was pressed into the creation of barricades to block roads and junctions. Where possible, slit trenches and machine-gun or Panzerfaust pits were dug. Railway tunnels were demolished and the guns of the three immensely strong Flak towers were turned to face the approaching Soviet armour.
In the cellars of buildings German troops waited with Panzerfausts, and suddenly Soviet tank and infantry losses began to rise dramatically. Countermeasures were drawn from Chuikov’s notes made during the Stalingrad campaign with updates from his recent experience of urban warfare in Poznan, and the small infantry assault group made its return.
But outside the city events were shaping somewhat differently, and in Hitler’s bunker the last politicking of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ continued at fever pitch.
Fortress Berlin – Fantasy Armies
So far the advance into Berlin was proceeding well but German Ninth and Twelfth armies were beginning to fight back and pose problems for Konev’s rear to east and west. Moscow had been lax in dealing with these formations as its focus was the battle for Berlin. However, when it came, the reaction was swift. General Busse’s Ninth Army included men from XI SS Panzer Corps and V SS Mountain Corps as well as survivors of the Frankfurt garrison and V Corps, in all, upwards of 80,000 troops. The number of civilians who had attached themselves to Ninth Army was not recorded. However, Busse still had 31 tanks fuelled from abandoned vehicles. Ninth Army had been in contact with Wenck’s Twelfth Army on the Elbe river. On 22 April Hitler had agreed to General Field Marshal Jodl’s suggestion that Twelfth Army should be rotated eastwards from its position opposite the Americans on the Elbe and set out to rescue Berlin. Ordering General Field Marshal Keitel to ‘co-ordinate the actions of Twelfth and Ninth armies’, Hitler packed him off with brandy, sandwiches and chocolate for the journey to Wenck’s HQ. Back in the Spree forest Busse was heavily engaged fighting off units of First Belorussian Front. Keitel reached Wenck on 23 April and delivered the order to save the capital. Hitler so lacked trust in his senior officers that he demanded that the order to save Berlin be broadcast on the national radio channel. When Keitel departed, Wenck and his staff planned their move. Part of Twelfth Army would march to Potsdam at the extreme western edge of Berlin while the greater part would head east to link up with Ninth Army. The objective was simple – to save as many soldiers and civilians as possible from the Soviet advance and then fall back to the west, where a screening force was to remain on the Elbe. When the men of the Twelfth Army were informed of this operation there appears to have been little dissent. For the people of Berlin, Wenck’s arrival could not come too soon, as it was about their only hope of deliverance from the Soviets, other than the arrival of the Anglo–Americans. Indeed, so wrapped up in the fantasy was Hitler that he informed Weidling on 25 April that Ninth and Twelfth armies would ‘deliver a crushing blow to the enemy’. Just what sort of blow could be delivered by two small, understrength forces that lacked fuel, armour, men and munitions was not detailed.
Wenck’s XX Corps, composed of four inexperienced, newly raised infantry divisions, set off eastwards on 24 April. One of its units, the Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division, headed for Potsdam, and the others for Ninth Army.
The route that both Ninth and Twelfth armies were to follow led through forests, the most dangerous points of which were the crossing of open spaces, notably the roads that ran across their path. Busse’s force began its exodus on 25 April, ignoring all signals from Berlin. However, behind Ninth Army’s rearguard followed Zhukov’s II Guards Cavalry Corps and elements of Thirty-Third and Sixty-Ninth armies. Konev contributed Third Guards and Twenty-Eighth armies. It was a gap between these two armies that Ninth Army broke through on 26 April after bitter fighting. For the next five days Ninth Army fought its way through three lines of extemporised Soviet defence. Finally, on 1 May, Busse’s advance guard linked up with Twelfth Army at the village of Beelitz. Behind them came the rest, moving, as Busse described it, ‘like a caterpillar’. Roughly 25,000 soldiers had escaped, along with uncounted civilians.
Although Konev had had to switch his focus to his rear flanks the effect on the Berlin operation had not been critical.
Tactically the Soviet style had altered. Tanks no longer drove in column down the centre of a road but operated in pairs, one on each side of the road, giving cover to each other from Panzerfaust-wielding ambushers in the cellars and basements, or Molotov cocktails dropped from windows and rooftops. Supporting infantry operated in assault groups of between six and eight, armed with close-order weapons such as submachine-guns, grenades, knives and sharpened shovels. Artillery of all calibres was deployed to clear away barricades and stubborn pockets of resistance. And everywhere were flamethrowers and engineers with demolition charges for ‘bunker busting’.
Late on 26 April, Tempelhof airfield was abandoned as the Muncheberg and Nordland divisions’ remaining armour was ordered back to the Tiergarten. With room to manoeuvre, Chuikov projected his left flank across Konev’s right, cutting First Ukrainian Front off from the Reichstag and glory. As the fighting began to close in on the central defensive area, the Citadel, German reinforcements arrived in the shape of some Kriegsmarine personnel and Latvian SS men.
Elsewhere, Spandau Prison, on the Havel river to the north-west was taken and Gatow airfield came under ground-attack. Along the Landwehr canal, Fifth Shock Army was making progress onto the Wilhelmstrasse while Third Shock Army crossed the Westhafen canal. Pushing on throughout 27 April, the Soviets reduced the German defence area to a zone 5km by 15km, which roughly ran from the Alexanderplatz in the east to Charlottenburg and the Reichssportsfeld in the west.
News, inside this enclave and outside, as Soviet control of many areas was incomplete despite their best efforts, was at a premium as the radio service had virtually ceased to function, therefore one of the major sources was the tabloid Der Panzerbar – The Armoured Bear, referencing Berlin’s symbolic animal, the bear. Der Panzerbar’s headline for 26 April ran, ‘The battle has reached its climax, German reserves are rushing to Berlin.’ Lower down the page, a box read: ‘Whoever shows cowardice over fighting like a man…is nothing but a low-down bastard.’ The same day an attempt was made to relieve 20th Panzergrenadier Division but failed.
In some areas the defenders established in strongly built structures held out. On Third Shock Army’s front the Stettiner Railway Station posed particular problems, as did the Schleisischer Railway Station and the Lowen Brewery for Fifth Shock Army. In these cases the Germans enjoyed the fire support of the two massive flak towers at Humboldthain and Friedrichshain respectively.