The Battle of Bronkhorstspruit

One of the lessons learned from the Zulu War by Britain’s enemies was that the British Army was not invincible. The British woes and defeats suffered during the war had been closely observed and so the Boers plotted and planned to seize the day and stand against the British. But Boer dissention was nothing new. The Transvaal Boers had been antagonistic towards the British ever since the Great Trek of 1838, when, in large numbers, they abandoned the Cape in protest at British rule and high taxation in order to seek self-government in the unknown lands to the north – later named the Transvaal (rough translation, ‘across the Vaal River’). The Boers had long memories and many were still smarting from the annexation of the Transvaal by Britain in 1877. Even though Britain partly went to war against the Zulus to facilitate Boer farming expansion into Zululand, the Boers refused to participate in action against the Zulus, with minor exceptions.

On the 11th November 1879, a public meeting of Boers took place at Potchefstroom to express anger at a fine levied by British officials against a local Boer farmer, Pieter Bezuidenhout. The farmer had earlier refused to pay a fine and the British decided to confiscate his wagon in lieu of payment of £27.5s.0d. After the wagon was removed it was immediately offered for sale, whereupon a crowd of Boer protesters seized the wagon and drove it off. The British Administrator in the Transvaal saw this as an act of aggression, which he felt required a firm hand; he sent a military detachment to Potchefstroom, which inflamed growing Boer resentment.

On the 5th December, two companies of the 94th, together with medical, commissariat staff and some families, set off to march to Pretoria. The total strength of the column was 262, commanded by Colonel Anstruther.

Secret meetings of Boers were held across the Transvaal and, on the 13th December, the leading Boers proclaimed the Transvaal a South African Republic. They decided to take immediate military action and despatched three commandos, one to intercept the 94th Regiment marching from its base at Lydenburg to strengthen the British garrison at Pretoria, where local Boer disaffection was growing. Another went to Potchefstroom and the third to the border to discourage any British attempt to send reinforcements from Natal.

Colonel Anstruther delayed his column’s advance from Lydenburg for a week while extra wagons were hired from local Boer farmers. Because there were no other available wagons, exorbitant rates were demanded, which Anstruther reckoned would cost £1,000 in total. Once the column had obtained the requisite wagons, the column could set off. Their progress was limited to about eight miles each day due to the condition of the track and numerous streams that had to be negotiated. On the 15th December, news reached the column that all companies of the regiment would be concentrating at Pretoria. Anstruther wrote that the whole move was due to the Boers agitating, although he noted that the Boer families along the route were ‘friendly and civil’ even if a regular comment was ‘if you don’t give us back the Transvaal we’ll fight like cats,’ which Anstruther took as friendly banter, commenting:

They have, I am sure, no intention of fighting though if we are firm with them, as I hope we will be, there might be one or two little disturbances.

By the 19th December the column was wet and weary, having had to cross the flooded Oliphants River. The following morning they paused at a Boer farm to purchase fresh provisions and make amends after some of the soldiers had stolen fruit from the farmer’s orchard. Little was made of the incident and the stolen fruit was paid for with an apology. At the time, Anstruther noticed an unaccountable number of horses corralled around the farm, all saddled and ready to depart. On the day following the battle, he recalled that he had overlooked the significance of the horses. Unbeknown to Anstruther, the farm was the rendezvous for the Boers detailed to intercept the column but, taken by surprise by the arriving British, the Boers had hidden themselves but had no option but to leave their horses in full view of the approaching British column. At about 10.00 am the column continued on its way with the intention of stopping for the night at a crossing point at the Bronkhorst stream just a few miles distant. The whole column of marching men and thirty-four wagons extended nearly one mile and blissfully continued on its way with the band playing. It was about two miles from the intended campsite when a rider approached the leading wagons showing a white flag of truce. The British were unsure what was happening but Anstruther had the presence of mind to give the order to close ranks. The order was passed down the column and the band stopped playing. The rider approached Anstruther and handed him a document, which was an ultimatum signed by a Boer leader, Piet Joubert, and was countersigned by Paul Kruger. The order instructed Anstruther not to continue over the river until certain diplomatic negotiations between the British and Boers were resolved. It warned that if the troops advanced beyond the stream the Boers would construe the movement as an act of war.

The rider added that two minutes would be allowed for the column commander to decide his course of action. While Anstruther was considering his predicament and the two-minute ultimatum ticked away, the Boer commando, under the protection of the white flag, approached the column to within 200 yards of the wagons and positioned themselves behind rocks and trees. According to witnesses, Anstruther replied:

I have orders to proceed with all possible despatch to Pretoria and to Pretoria I am going, but tell the Commandant I have no wish to meet him in hostile spirit.

As Anstruther made his comment of non-cooperation, the rider holding the white flag turned his horse and made a signal to the Boers, who immediately opened fire on the helpless and unsuspecting column. The unprotected wagons and soldiers, many of whom were unarmed, were sitting targets for the Boer marksmen and within minutes Anstruther was shot and wounded six times and all the officers and most of the NCOs were killed or wounded, as were more than half the soldiers. To save the lives of the remainder, the seriously wounded Anstruther gave the order to cease firing and to hoist something white to signify their surrender. This done, firing ceased on both sides and the Boers closed in. They ordered the surviving soldiers to lay down their weapons, which they did. The Boers then collected up all available weapons and drove off the wagons containing arms and ammunition, and anything else they considered of use or value. The column conductor, Mr Egerton, received permission to ride to Pretoria to get medical assistance. Leaving the column under a Boer guard to fend for itself as best they could, the survivors began tending the wounded and burying their dead. The following day the fit survivors were marched off by the Boers to Heidelberg and the less serious casualties escorted to Pretoria. Boer losses were kept secret; British survivors’ reports of Boer casualties ranged from two to thirty killed.

As with a number of earlier engagements during the Zulu War, of which Anstruther had been an experienced commander, it is surprising that Anstruther blatantly ignored accurate intelligence of Boer unrest and warnings that something was amiss. On the 16th December, Anstruther had received a written warning that British relationships with the Boers were disintegrating and warned him to be fully on his guard and to deploy patrols before advancing his column. Anstruther seems to have ignored the warning as his scouting was casual, with only one man sent in advance of the column to observe the route and one scout to scan the hills. Only thirty rounds of ammunition were carried by each soldier instead of the usual seventy and reserve ammunition boxes remained sealed on the wagons, so it was clear that no one in the column was expecting to be attacked. From Boer reports, it is evident the Boers had tracked the column for several days. A makeshift British hospital was constructed at Bronkhorstspruit and it remained there for three further months before the remaining more seriously wounded were allowed to travel to Pretoria.

The Boer attack on the unsuspecting column was premeditated and shocking in its sudden and wilful execution. The objective was to cause the most serious damage as swiftly as possible in order to send a shock message to the procrastinating British to resolve Boer claims for independence. British losses were in the ratio of thirty-seven to one and it must be acknowledged that had Anstruther not disobeyed orders to expect resistance from the Boers and had he not been careless in the extreme by permitting only thirty rounds per soldier, his column might have fared better. Likewise, he had not considered it prudent to issue weapons or ammunition to the regimental band.

The 94th lost one officer (Lieutenant Harrison) and seventy-three men killed in the carnage of the attack. Another four officers and ninety men received wounds, of which three officers, Anstruther, Captain Nairne and Captain MacSwiney, and eighteen men later died. One officer and 105 men became prisoners of the Boers. The other six companies of the regiments spent the war besieged by the Boers; C, D and H at Standerton, E and G at Pretoria, B in Marabastad, and a small detachment of fifty men at Lydenburg.

At the conclusion of the war the 94th Regiment remained in the Transvaal until the final ratification of the peace convention with the Boers and then, on the 5th November 1881, they commenced their march back to Natal. After almost three eventful years, the end of the regiment’s service in southern Africa was in sight. Having encountered not only the Zulus, Pedi and Boers on the field of battle, they had faced the ravages of disease, the extremes of weather, the boredom of garrison duty and endured the claustrophobia of siege life – it was time to return home. On the 24th March 1882, seven companies embarked on the Dublin Castle and sailed for Queenstown, Cork, where they arrived on the 20th April.

At home, there were celebrations and campaign medals for the survivors. At Bronkhorstspruit, Colour Sergeant Maistre had been one of two NCOs carrying the regimental colours when the column was attacked by the Boers. To prevent the capture of the colours, Maistre hid them in the bedding of another NCO’s severely wounded wife. The next day the Boers permitted two volunteers to walk to Pretoria to seek medical help. Maistre wrapped the colours around his body and smuggled them out to safety. For his actions in saving the colours, Maistre was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The 94th Regiment was entitled to the honour ‘South Africa 1879’ but when the awards were announced in 1882, the 94th had already amalgamated with the 88th Regiment and become the 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers. Due to the previous service of the 88th in the Cape Frontier the honour was awarded as ‘South Africa 1877-78-79’. No battle honour, medal, clasp or bar was issued for the campaign against Sekhukhune in 1879 or for service against the Boers in 1881.

Evaluation

Bronkhorstspruit was another disaster for the British Army, especially in terms of the unnecessary loss of life construed at the time that it was coldblooded murder by the Boers. Yet, with all the disasters of the Zulu War still fresh in British commander’s memories, Colonel Anstruther adopted the identical tactic of ‘it won’t happen to me’. He failed to obey his orders relating to the size of the column and insisted on hiring extra wagons from the Boers, who deliberately procrastinated in order to allow their approaching troops to close with the column. He was then warned that relationships with the Boers were rapidly deteriorating and to make haste with his progress to Pretoria, which he did not. He was further advised that the Boers might take aggressive action against his column, which he ignored, and failed to issue his men with sufficient ammunition, and in the case of the band, no weapons. When he came face-to-face with an unaccountable number of Boers’ saddled horses at the farm stopover, he failed to realise their significance. He was certainly ‘taken in’ when allowing the heavily armed Boers to approach his wagons after the Boer messenger rode up to the column under the white flag of truce, which the Boers then disregarded by opening fire on the defenceless column.

Subsequently, there was considerable anger in the British press at the Boers’ disregard of their own flag of truce but, by the time the regiment returned home, the first Boer conflict was over and Bronkhorstspruit was rarely mentioned. Once again, the incident was widely considered to have been unnecessary and any investigation into the battle would have highlighted Anstruther’s many failings. For the Boers, their situation was identical to that of the Zulus a year earlier. They were the dominant population being controlled by a minor governing authority, the British, by being denied their right to run their own country – for which they rebelled. For the public at home, it all seemed to be an extension of the string of embarrassments following on from the Zulu War – and best forgotten.

And like many of the battlefields of the Zulu War, the location of the ambush at Bronkhorstspruit has long since vanished. The roadway where Anstruther’s column was ambushed has disappeared. The original road ran on an east/west line and has subsequently been reclaimed by nature. The new road cuts across where the ambush occurred, near where the monuments are, and runs north/south. The British gravestones are there to be found but they have been moved at some point as they are now set flat in the ground and are therefore difficult to find.

Neither side could be proud of the Boer rebellion. The British would not treat with the Boers, who became militant and, at Bronkhorstspruit, the Boers should have honoured the flag of truce and did not. There could be no pride attached to what had happened and both sides needed to move on. Bronkhorstspruit was soon forgotten.

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Dieppe: Warning and Encouragement!?

Why pay much attention to a small-scale raid on a French port that lasted only one day (August 18–19, 1942) before the attackers were kicked back into the sea? By all measures of size and intention, the Dieppe Raid was nothing like as significant as Walcheren, Gallipoli, or Crete in the history of amphibious warfare; even if it had proven to be successful, it was not intended to go anywhere. Yet while it was certainly not successful, it pointed to many a lesson that British Empire planners still had to learn. It was a badly arranged operation that led to a disproportionate number of casualties, chiefly Canadian. In that setback, ironically, lay its significance: it had the same perverse utility as had the losses in Convoys HX 229 and SC 122 in March 1943 and the appalling USAAF bomber losses during the October 1943 Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids. All three heavy blows dealt by the Germans at the tactical-operational level—convoy escort, strategic air, and amphibious landing—compelled the Western Allies to rethink seriously their previous assumptions and to search energetically for new weapons, tactics, training techniques, and organization.

But Dieppe was somewhat special as compared to the convoys and the bomber raids, which were inherently strategic to begin with. It was always thought of as a test, a trial run against the Atlantic Wall, which the Wehrmacht had been constructing ever since the decision to abandon Operation Sealion in late 1940. This operation was intended to produce lessons that might help preparations for later, greater actions. Many historians have used this utility argument—“the lessons of Dieppe”—as its ultimate justification, while Canadians have been outraged at the idea that the first deployment of their troops in the European theater was as a form of guinea pig in an experiment, and so badly bungled.

The planning and execution of the raid was urged on by Mountbatten’s Combined Operations. They would seize and hold a major enemy-defended port for a short time, gather information, and gain a chance to measure the German reaction. All this made sense militarily, and it also reflected political realities: both Stalin and Roosevelt were pressing for an early opening of a second front in France, the British public was restive at the setbacks in North Africa and the Far East, and the Canadian public was wondering whether their troops would ever be launched into battle. The original operation, code-named Rutter, was actually planned for early July, although, ominously, it was disrupted by a nighttime Luftwaffe attack upon the vessels assembling in the harbor. Renamed Operation Jubilee, it was dispatched across the Channel five weeks later, as the largest combined operation in the region hitherto. Some 6,100 troops were involved, the bulk of them in two Canadian infantry brigades. Most of the obvious features for an amphibious assault were incorporated. There would be aerial protection, a naval bombardment, and two flanking attacks as well as the main assault. The landing craft would also be carrying tanks. The convoy of 250 vessels would be preceded by minesweepers and escorted by destroyers. Specialist forces such as the commandos (plus fifty U.S. Rangers, the first American land troops to fight in Europe, and the first to die) would join in, and the central forces would hit the beaches just before dawn. On paper it looked good. Fair stood the wind for France.

In the middle of the night, the northern flank group bumped into a small German convoy going along the coast and got into a fight with enemy torpedo boats, coming off worse; the German land defenses were thus alerted. Only a small contingent from No. 3 Commando managed to get ashore, climb the cliffs, and snipe at the shore batteries. In the south, No. 2 Commando had a much easier task and carried out its demolitions. In the center, once landed, the main force simply could not get off the beaches, the steep shingle being as much an obstacle as the iron and concrete barriers; the tanks ground to a halt in the pebbles.

The destroyers offshore made little impression upon the German defenses and could not communicate with the troops onshore. The large number of Spitfire squadrons were operating at their extreme range—the opposite of the Battle of Britain conditions—and although part of the plan was to inflict a lot of damage on the Luftwaffe, in fact the opposite happened: the RAF lost 119 aircraft, the German air force only 46. German bombs and shells sank a destroyer and thirty-three landing craft. The Canadians suffered terribly as they tried to scramble back to the sea. Of the 6,100 men dispatched, more than 1,000 were killed and 2,300 captured; many of the survivors came back seriously wounded. About 1,000 troops never had the chance to get ashore. By midmorning it was over.

The literature about the Dieppe Raid has split into two separate categories. The first consists of multiple expressions of Canadian outrage (and not just in books but in movies, songs, and poems) against British military incompetence—not unlike the ANZAC criticisms about Gallipoli, even if the casualties at Dieppe were far fewer. The second argues for the benefits of the tactical-operational analyses of the existing weaknesses in the raiding plan and thus the longer-term benefits of trying it out. Churchill certainly believed it had been worthwhile when he explained this operation in his history of the Second World War. And that unrepentant buccaneer Bernard Fergusson, of Black Watch and the Chindits, whose last amphibious operation was to be the Suez debacle in 1956, concludes his account with these words: “Out of the fire and smoke and carnage on the beaches of Dieppe emerged principles whereby many lives were to be saved, and victory to be won.” A critic might observe that even without Dieppe much was going to be learned from other amphibious operations that would help the D-Day planners—after all, the North African landings were only three months away.

Still, many lessons were learned from the debacle at Dieppe. Intelligence preparations were inadequate, and it seems that Mountbatten and his staff had pushed ahead with their intentions without the Joint Intelligence Committee knowing about them. How could the planners not know that a German coastal convoy would be in the same waters that night, or that German forces along the coasts had been put on high alert, with additional machine gun battalions recently brought in to Dieppe itself ? The strength of the German defenses was not properly measured, nor the nature of the terrain appreciated—how exactly would one get a heavy Churchill tank up a steep pebble beach, and even if the vehicles managed to crest such a rise, how would one get them past solid antitank walls without special equipment? Ship-to-shore movements were clumsy, and few if any of the Canadian commanders had amphibious warfare experience. Landings were late, sometimes in the wrong place. There was no control from offshore, because there was no command ship. Daytime aerial support was inadequate because the RAF did not have full command of the air. There was no preceding heavy bombing by Bomber Command, nor provision made for tactical air strikes. The strength of the naval bombardment was completely inadequate; if 15-inch battleship guns could not make much impact at Gallipoli, why should 4-inch destroyer guns do so off Dieppe? Above all, there was the chief blunder: making the main attack against a heavily held harbor rather than on some less protected part of the coast. If the Allied planners wanted to test the possibilities of seizing a defended port, at Dieppe they got their answer.

But there was something else about the value of the Dieppe experiment that was larger and rather more nuanced, more of a psychological lesson. The second front, whenever it came, was definitely going to take place along the Atlantic-swept waters of France and against well-trained German troops. That was a combination of challenges that really had to be tested. If the results of the raid confirmed all of Alanbrooke’s worries—and supplied him and Churchill with the ammunition to argue for postponing Operation Overlord through 1943 and into 1944—it also presented the Anglo-American planners with a new and much higher benchmark. When, eventually, they did come ashore in France to pursue a full invasion, they were going to have to be very, very good.

That was so, of course, for one further worrying reason. Although well emplaced, the German garrison in and around Dieppe was actually not very large. The 571st German Infantry Division had around 1,500 men in the area, but only 150 of them were there to pour fire onto the main beaches; yet that, with the defensive works, turned out to be enough (again, one thinks of Cartagena de Indias in 1741). The Atlantic Wall would never again be so minimally held, and the next two years would see more and more German divisions moved to that front and fantastically more obstacles, pillboxes, and minefields put in place. In sum, each side could learn much from what had really been a small-scale operation at Dieppe.

The Battle of Susangard

The rains had come in November 1980 and fighting along the extended front had died down through to the end of the year. The Iraqis had expected this would last until the weather improved in March, and the ground would be dry enough for military operations to resume. But in early January, the Iranians launched a series of offensives from north to south. The attack in the south, not surprisingly, received the main attention, as the Iranians attempted to drive the Iraqis out of Khuzestan. Unfortunately for the offensive’s prospects, the Iranians broadcast much of their tactical radio traffic en clair and thus warned the Iraqis as to what was afoot.

The fact that the Iranians chose to launch these offensives at such a bad time indicated the political pressures under which Bani-Sadr was working. He had been one of Khomeini’s close advisors when the ayatollah had been in exile in Paris; upon his return, Bani-Sadr had become the president of Iran. Almost immediately on the onset of hostilities, he was under pressure from the fanatics around Khomeini to attack the Iraqi invaders, because Allah was on Iran’s side. When Bani-Sadr did not act as quickly as the ayatollahs thought he should have, they attributed the president’s lack of action to outright treason. As one pro-Khomeini account of the war noted, “Bani-Sadr, after becoming the president and commander in chief, sought to build not an Islamic army, but one that was directly under his influence so that he could work [against] the Imam’s vision.” As a result of such political pressure, Bani-Sadr prematurely committed a disorganized regular army to a series of major offensives against the Iraqis to bolster his political position in Tehran and his influence with Khomeini.

The Iranian regular army conducted the January 1981 offensive with the Pasdaran under its control, something that raised suspicions within the clerical establishment. The plan, designed by the new leaders of Iran’s regular army, was ambitious. It aimed to smash the Iraqi armored forces surrounding Susangard, drive south behind Iraqi positions to Ahvaz, and then push on to Khorramshahr, having destroyed most of Iraq’s ground forces in the area. Had Bani-Sadr allowed the army to wait until the weather was better for major military operations, the Iranians might have succeeded to some degree, which might have had political overtones in Tehran.

Members of the revolutionary guard were already accusing Bani-Sadr of suffering from “Bonapartist tendencies” and feared a battlefield victory under the regular army might have encouraged a march on Tehran to seize power. However, the Iranian president rejected the advice to wait.

On 5 January 1981, the Iranian offensive began with much of Iran’s armored force attacking Iraqi positions near Dezful and Susangard. Accompanying Iranian armor was the army’s parachute brigade, most probably to help clear out the Iraqis from the urban terrain in the two cities it targeted. Iraqi signals intelligence appears to have warned the defenders as to what was coming. The Iraqi Army’s chief of staff described the scale and intensity of the battles when he informed Saddam that “I cannot imagine a battle like [this] in the area or the entire Middle East … [it] was walls of fire, one in the direction of the enemy and one in our direction.” In heavy fighting, some Iranian tanks achieved significant penetrations and even managed to surround the 9th Division’s command post. However, the battle ended up resembling the defeat of Soviet forces in May 1942 at Kharkov. The initial breakthrough soon foundered in heavy rains; the ground surrounding the roads becoming a morass. Armored fighting vehicles of both armies remained confined to the roads.

The advance took the lead Iranian units across the al-Karkh River as far as Hoveyzeh. However, due to the poor conditions, the Iranians failed to widen the salient’s neck. There, the Iranian tanks and supporting forces found themselves under fire from Iraqi tanks on both sides of the penetration. Despite the desperate conditions, the Iranians performed well at a tactical level, especially in tank gunnery. They destroyed approximately 100 of the 350 Iraqi tanks involved in the battle. The initial setbacks to Iraqi forces caused significant concern in Baghdad. Early reports described the give-and-take battle as two men pulling on a rope, “sometimes we go and sometime [they go].” In reply, Saddam commented to his staff “I don’t get mad about give and take; I get mad when someone leaves their position for no reason.” For a time, the Iranian attack produced a chaotic retreat of some of the 9th Division units. That division would soon establish a reputation among the Iraqi high command for gross incompetence.

Nevertheless, an extensive after-action report completed in late February by the commander of the 43rd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division indicated:

At 0830, on 5 January 1981, the racist Persian enemy began an intense artillery shelling towards the positions of our brigade contingents which were occupying their sectors of defensive responsibility in Khaffaji [Susangard] region …

The enemy followed his artillery shelling by an approach with three large main convoys, two from al-Kut – al-Hawashem – Umm al-Sukur – al-Jalaliya and the other one from Hawr al-Hawizeh. Each convoy included tanks, BMP combat vehicles, armored troop carriers, part of which were carrying anti-tank missiles, wheeled vehicles carrying 106mm anti-tank weapons … The fight against the enemy was severe and very fierce and could not be imagined. The enemy’s losses were significant with regard to tanks and special forces at the time. The enemy maintained the intensity of his attack with new armored units which advanced very quickly at the expense of the accuracy of [their] firing. Our units were able to destroy a large number of them.

Several months later, Saddam and his senior military staff received a number of reports on Iranian fratricide during these winter battles. Had they resulted from a disagreement among the Persians? Did units arrive on the battlefield in a state of “ignorance” as to situation, terrain, or enemy? Saddam noted the slaughter of Iranian volunteers appeared to be the way that the regular Iranian Army “deals” with volunteers. In the face of Iraqi firepower “it sends them [our] way and whoever gets killed … is fine.” Whatever the cause, the III Corps commander reported to Saddam that “[the Iranians] come to us looking poor and attacked our troops, and that’s when God’s mercy got active and our youth sweep them away with our machine guns.”

In a conversation during the battle in early January, Saddam zeroed in on a more troublesome aspect of the encounter, when some Iraqi units had panicked:

If they [the soldiers bearing the brunt of the initial Iranian attacks] had stood firm for just [a few] minutes, had they opened their tank fire and shot just one round from each tank and then retreated, that would have been bad [but] they could have hit a percentage of the enemy forces coming [against] them. The force that stands firm does not give up losses. I wish I knew the reason for this so I could punish them … It seems the enemy has brought his armor from everywhere and made us ineffective while they are in a very effective situation. This is attributable to the ignorance of the intelligence; there is no intelligence on the field.

The dictator then indicated the effect of the battle on his psyche:

I slept, yes, I slept. You may be surprised in spite of your knowledge of my sensitivity. I did not expect an Iraqi to retreat even an organized retreat. I mean, I despise it: How could an Iraqi [retreat without fighting?] I was upset with one point; the point is how this force gets ousted by a force smaller or equal to it? But this is what happened.

Perhaps sensing the long-term seriousness of frontline forces not standing their ground, Saddam added: “We have to change this tendency in training … by education … I know this from a long time ago. You tell an Iraqi to go forward, two of them run! And they take thousands with them. But if you say to him ‘go back,’ the first two at the front will go back and also take thousands with them.”

In fact, while Saddam was bemoaning the lack of effective resistance to the Iranian offensive, Iraqi forces were already fighting fiercely and inflicting heavy casualties on their attackers. The Iraqi corps commander had reacted with unusual dispatch, reflecting the signals intelligence available. With access to road networks on both sides of the Iranian advance, he concentrated Iraqi armor on the flanks of what turned out to be a murderous killing zone. The brigade commanders were no doubt assisted by the capture of the Iranian 92nd Division’s operations order early in the fighting. By the battle’s end, upwards of one hundred of Iran’s M-60s and Chieftain tanks were destroyed, with an additional 150 armored fighting vehicles captured. More importantly, the Iranians lost tanks they would not be able to replace given the Khomeini regime’s pariah status. In particular, the Iranian 16th Armored Division was nearly a complete wreck. On the other side, the Iraqis lost approximately 100 tanks, many reparable.

Almost 300 kilometers to the northwest of Susangard, frontline troops of the II Corps had found themselves after their initial advance 50 kilometers inside Iran without clear objectives. The Iraqi brigades, deployed in defensive positions at the foothills of the Zagros Mountains for four months, had been under constant artillery harassment from the increasingly organized Iranians. Although Iraqi positions blocked the roads leading southwest to the Iran–Iraq border, the Iraqi advance had failed to interdict the network of major roads to the north and east. On 14 January, Saddam’s senior military advisors briefed him on the situation of the 6th, 18th, and 50th Brigades. All three were showing signs of psychological “stress” after enduring near constant attacks.

The problem for Iraq’s military planners was that they had few infantry units available to secure the foothills near Ilam and the road network that made maneuver by armored vehicles dangerous. The army chief of staff reported losing thirty-five tanks in the attempt, some of which had been lost to American TOW missiles. Saddam’s frustration was clear: “Well, what is the solution … we do not want a common solution; we need a solution to face the current situation … Our current situation is that our units are losing too much.” The normally non-committal army chief of staff General Shanshal suggested that Iraq force Kurdish groups to carry the fight to the Iranians. Iraq should arm “partisans” to augment the armored units. The director of the GMID told Saddam that the Kurdish al-Jaf group could put 1,500 fighters into the hills to conduct ambushes and patrols. Their efforts would cover the flanks of Iraqi armor protecting the road networks. Saddam was not impressed: “We need a big operation to demoralize the Iranians [in the central sector], because they did not have any important losses at the beginning of the war … The use of the [tactics] they are mastering … will [result] in crushing our units one after another.”

Several days into the offensive, the Iraqi general staff described Iran’s tactics to Saddam as a series of “small local battles.” The army’s senior operations officer remarked that “[t]hey [the Iranians] want local battles. While their air force is working in one direction their army is working in [another]. The [Iranian] air force is planning on hitting targets that may not mean anything to the army.” Saddam, expressing some confusion at the direction of the various Iranian attacks, noted “his territory is occupied and yet he just chops at our territory.” Nevertheless, he appeared to miss the significance of the major Iranian defeat that had just occurred.

An assessment of Iranian and Iraqi tactics by Staff Brigadier Abdul Jawad Dhannoun, director GMID, concluded that the Iranians were capable of “limited success” in inflicting losses of soldiers and equipment, capturing Iraqis, and “raising the spirits of the Persians” through localized operations. He went on to note the failings of Iraqi tactics that “may be” enabling this Iranian approach: “The front of [Iraqi] units was [not being] covered by continuous surveillance. [Iraqi soldiers] [were staying] in shelters during the enemy artillery bombardments. There were no minefields and barbed wire within the defensive area of units. There was no alerting (either guard or screening force) in front of the principle defensive sites.”

Considering the Iran–Iraq War as a whole, the battles in January 1981 were militarily important for several reasons: the Iranians were unable to rebuild their armored forces because they could not buy enough first-class armored fighting vehicles. Politically, the Iranian defeat placed the secularists, Bani-Sadr in particular, in an increasingly tenuous situation, while it strengthened the hand of radical religious leaders who increased their attacks on the regular army and its reliability. The chroniclers of the Pasdaran efforts in the first years of the war argued that Iran’s president had launched the offensive with the express political purpose of placing the secularists in control of Iran. Nevertheless, the grand ayatollah had supposedly seen through the president’s efforts and understood that “this line of thought would have forced us once again to become dependent on the imperialist powers.”

The success in January led Saddam to tell his staff somewhat hopefully that “[the Iranian] defeat [will make] them realize that they will not be able to defeat the Iraqi Army.” However, while the Iraqis had repulsed the attack, they failed to build on that success and turn a defensive victory to operational utility. Despite Saddam’s 7 January order to “tell them [the Iraqi division commanders] to continue the momentum and not to [break off] contact with the enemy forces. The enemy will absolutely not be given a chance, [they] must be chased with all [we] have,” Iraqi counterattacks had culminated. Perhaps the heavy fighting had drained the Iraqis’ willingness to counterattack. Nevertheless, an equally plausible explanation is that their commanders simply lacked the imagination or will to pursue a beaten enemy. Certainly, Susangard was open to an Iraqi repost. But Saddam and his generals were unwilling to push reserves into the area to exploit the defeat of the Iranian armored forces.

Saddam had begun to realize the war would not be short as early as late October 1980. He noted to his senior military leaders:

Yesterday, I was speaking with the Pakistani minister. He said to me, no, they [the Iranians have] started to understand. I told him they do not understand. He said the whole world knows that the Iraqi Army is victorious and that they [the Iranians] are defeated. I told him that they do not understand, because they have no idea of what defeat means … The situation, the situation is of denial … he [Khomeini] will not feel anything until blood is at his feet … and then he will say to his soldiers “advance” and the soldiers will say they will not advance … because you have made me lose my faith.

Saddam reiterated his belief that the war would last a long time in conversation with his military advisors in early spring 1981. He described the pattern of future events with surprising accuracy:

We start another operation so that we can keep them [the Iranians] occupied … so we do not give them a chance to pull together and start an [offensive] … I think they are not going to give up. They will start another offensive and that is it. What will they do afterwards? … They will begin to think. They will give themselves a year so that they can secure military supplies and American spare parts … We will then have to think what to counter within that case. The dead will not come to life again in this short period of time.

In March 1981, while discussing a corps commander’s request to be allowed to use six Luna missiles in an upcoming operation, Saddam argued that the Iraqis should use these missiles against more lucrative military and psychological targets than enemy troop concentrations. This sparked a conversation between the dictator and his military advisors about how the Iraqis could use such missiles to best effect in the future:

SADDAM: … the missiles [could] be used tactically … in [a] chemical war?

HEAD OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COUNCIL: And bacterial war, also.

SADDAM: Yes.

CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE ARMY: The missile?

SADDAM: Yes, it can be used in bacterial and chemical war.

CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE ARMY: It can be used for carrying … warheads.

SADDAM: And place containers in it.

AIR FORCE AND AIR DEFENSE COMMANDER: The missile warhead will be replaced by [chemical and biological] containers.

SADDAM: Let’s start the implementation of this program.

A briefing for Saddam in May 1981 suggests how senior officers were describing the military effectiveness of their ground forces to the dictator. The reporting officer described his favorable impressions of one of the two divisions he had recently visited:

The … officers, sir, are doing a great job … The major general, sir, of the second division is very organized and excellent in training his soldiers. When I attended their training, he presents his regiment by numbers and in a very organized way. Everyone moves forward very smoothly, as if the major general has measured every inch … like a robot … everyone knows his position and his duty, very impressive sir!

It is doubtful whether Saddam recognized the weaknesses in such a top-down approach. After all, everything the division commander was doing conformed exactly with the intellectual and cultural nature of Ba’ath ethos.

As the Iranians licked their wounds, contact along the front declined to artillery exchanges. This stalemate led the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to attempt a brokered peace. In January 1981, a conference of the OIC’s foreign ministers and diplomats met in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It comprised forty-seven Islamic states that were to “reinforce our solidarity and set in motion the process of our renaissance.” Iraq forcefully pressed its case. Yet, the best Saddam could muster was a lukewarm restatement of UN Security Council Resolution No. 479 expressing “deep concern at the continuation of hostilities between two Islamic countries” and a call for an immediate ceasefire. The problem of being forced, at least publicly, to choose sides in a conflict portrayed by the combatants as a struggle between pan-Arab and pan-Islamic philosophies proved difficult, if not impossible, for the members.

The Second Battle of Newbury 1644 Part I

The size of the two army groups that faced one another near Newbury in late October is difficult to assess. Oliver Cromwell’s estimate that the Parliamentary armies comprised 11,000 foot and 8,000 horse is almost certainly too large. Other sources suggest the London brigade contained between 3,000 and 4,000 men, Manchester’s just over 3,000, and Essex’s a similar number. None of Waller’s infantry regiments was present. The number of cavalry was probably 1,000 less than Cromwell claimed, but even so the Parliamentary armies outnumbered the Royalists by a substantial margin. On 30 September the two Royalist armies are supposed to have comprised less than 10,000 horse and foot. Since then Northampton’s brigade, possibly 800 strong, had been detached to relieve Banbury Castle in cooperation with troops from the Oxford garrison, but 800 infantry had apparently joined the colours, half impressed men from the West Country, the rest musketeers from the Winchester garrison.

It took the Parliamentary generals some time to decide how to attack the Royalist armies. Initially they thought in terms of an engagement to the south of the Kennet. The king’s armies appeared to have taken up quarters in Newbury itself, and a clash between cavalry units occurred in the Aldermaston area on 24 October. When the Earl of Manchester and Oliver Cromwell fell out at the end of the Newbury campaign, Cromwell claimed that a great opportunity had been lost by not advancing on the enemy immediately after the rendezvous at Basingstoke three days earlier. However, he was surely mistaken in thinking that the king’s army would have risked a battle defending the south-eastern approaches to Newbury. The extensive open heath land around Greenham that came to within a mile of the town would have given the Parliamentarians a major advantage with their superiority in cavalry. Moreover, if the king’s forces had been unable to hold their position, a successful retreat to the north bank of the Kennet and so to Wallingford across a single bridge would have been difficult to carry out in a hurry. Falling back along the south bank towards Devizes or Bristol was problematic for another reason. The country between Newbury and Hungerford was enclosed, with plenty of passes to hold up the pursuit, but further west the Kennet valley turned into a bottleneck. There the chalk downs, which extended for miles around on all sides, would provide the ideal terrain for Parliamentary cavalry to hunt down and destroy the king’s fleeing infantry. The most logical response of the king’s commanders to the threat of a direct attack on Newbury from the south-east would have been to cross the Kennet immediately, knowing that it would be very costly indeed, if not impossible, for the enemy to force their way across the river. Indeed the Royalists may have begun doing so as early as 22 October when a substantial part of the king’s forces were drawn up on the north bank to witness the knighting of John Boys, the governor of Donnington Castle.

On learning that the Royalists had in fact crossed Newbury Bridge and were putting up defences in the narrow tongue of land between it and the Lambourn, the Parliamentary generals led their armies over the ford at Padworth and approached Newbury along the Bath road, which hugged the north bank of the Kennet. On the afternoon of 25 October they took up a position on Clay Hill between Thatcham and the Lambourn and less than two miles from the town. The following day the armies were deployed in Shaw fields in the Lambourn valley, but probing attacks revealed the strength of the Royalist position. It was therefore decided to assault it from two directions. The major attack was to be from the west. A force led by Sir William Waller comprising the Earl of Essex’s infantry and the London Trained Band regiments supported by at least two-thirds of the cavalry belonging to all three armies was to skirt around the northern flank of the Royalist position and attack it from the general direction of Hungerford. Once fighting had begun, the Earl of Manchester was to lead an assault on the enemy defences in the Lambourn valley. At his disposal were his own infantry regiments, 3,000 strong, and a mixed force of 1,800 or so horse and dragoons. The Earl of Essex played no part in the preparations for battle. Having approved the decision to move the armies to the north bank of the Kennet, he retired to Reading. For the past ten days he had been suffering from stomach problems, and these had suddenly worsened.

Cromwell at the time, and some historians since, have remarked on the risks involved in attempting to assault the Royalist position from diametrically opposite directions. The principal danger, as with all manoeuvres of this nature, was that the two attacks might not go in at the agreed times. If this happened, an alert enemy could use interior lines to throw his entire weight against one pincer and destroy it before the other could make its influence felt. On the Newbury battlefield, however, the risks of this happening were quite small. In the first place, although the plan was for the two attacks to occur almost simultaneously, this was not necessary for success. The force Waller commanded, as large if not larger than the king’s two armies combined, had the potential to win the battle on its own. The attack on the enemy position protecting the western side of the Royalists’ fortified triangle must therefore have been seen as the decisive encounter. Manchester’s force of 5,000 men or less would be too weak to achieve much on its own. Thus its role must almost certainly have been a subsidiary one, as the earl and his supporters subsequently claimed, most particularly preventing the king’s generals throwing all their military might against Waller. All the earl had to do was ensure that he was not the first to attack in case they threw most of their resources against him. Second, there was little chance of the assaults getting out of sync with one another. Waller’s was to go in first, but the initial bombardment of the enemy position would be the signal for Manchester to throw his troops against the defenders of Shaw, and even if the sound of the big guns did not carry that far, fighting around Church Speen would be easily visible from Clay Hill. Third, although the Parliamentary generals did not know it, the Royalist commanders, confident of the strength of their defences and believing the enemy armies to be demoralized, had no intention of making a pre-emptive strike against either of the pincers.

Waller’s force set out from Clay Hill on the afternoon of 26 October, bivouacking for the night at North Heath, halfway along its sixteen-mile journey. Initially it marched in a northerly direction as if Sir William’s intention was to block the king’s retreat to Oxford via Wallingford. No attempt was made to conceal the march from the Royalists. Writing to Prince Rupert on the morning of 27 October, Lord Digby advised him that a twofold attack was probably under way, but left open the possibility that Waller’s march was merely intended to cut the Royalists off from their supplies, presumably in the hope of forcing the king’s forces into a Lostwithiel-type capitulation. Suspicion of an attack from the west became a certainty when Waller’s force, having crossed the Lambourn unopposed at Boxford, climbed the hill to their front, and turned eastwards to march along Wickham Heath towards Church Speen.

Before nightfall on 26 October the king’s commanders took steps to defend the rear of their position against attack. The whole of Prince Maurice’s infantry, supported by the Duke of York’s regiment of foot from the king’s army, about 2,500 men in total, and nine artillery pieces, were ordered to take up a position to the west of Speen village where several tracks converged. Here a formidable barricade was constructed. Its defence was entrusted to 400 musketeers; the rest of the foot were deployed in the enclosures slightly to the rear but in front of Speen village. The exact position of the Royalist barricade, however, is unclear. It could have been immediately to the west of Speen where the road from Wickham met the Bath road, or it could have been half a mile to the west in Stockcross. The former looks the more likely. Sir Edward Walker’s account describes the Parliamentary troops as advancing the last few hundred yards across a small heath with a wood behind them to attack the barricade. This does not fit Wickham Heath, which extended over an area of six or more square miles and could not be described as small. It also did not have a wood adjacent to it in Rocque’s map. Speen Lawn on the other hand, to the east of the enclosures that Rocque depicts at Stockcross, was a tenth of its size and bordered by Dean Wood, which has since been cut down. Second, Walker explained that adjacent to the barricade on its south side was a narrow field and then a steep escarpment. This dovetails with the enclosure map of 1780, and with Skippon’s description of the engagement at Speen, which implies that there was little ground to the right of his infantry’s line of march in which it might deploy when it got close to the Royalist position. Rocque’s map, however, shows that a barricade at the Stockcross position would have been a mile away from the escarpment. Moreover, one contemporary stated that the Royalist position dominated all the lanes leading westwards from Church Speen and was within range of the cannon in Donnington Castle, whilst a second portrayed Waller’s horse and foot as having an easy march across a heath, then passing with difficulty through lanes and enclosures, and only then having sight of the Royalist barricade a quarter of a mile ahead. These descriptions can only fit the western outskirts of Speen, where the lane from Wickham joins the London to Bath Road.

Thus the Royalist defence line facing westwards appears to have been well sited. However, the king’s men apparently had insufficient time or lacked the inclination to improve it by digging trenches. Another near contemporary account was critical of the decision not to try to slow down the enemy advance, but there may be an explanation for this. Walker claimed that Sir James Douglas was sent with a body of 300 horse and 200 foot to hinder the enemy’s crossing of the Lambourn, but his force would have been far too small to have much of an impact. Moreover, Douglas appears to have been sent north from Donnington, not west from Speen, and may therefore have failed to make contact with the enemy. The only opposition Waller apparently faced before crossing the Lambourn was even tinier, the Donnington Castle troop of horse.

On the other hand the defenders of the positions at Shaw facing the Earl of Manchester on Clay Hill apparently had all the time they needed to strengthen them still further by filling up gaps in hedgerows and deepening ditches. The two centres of resistance, the enclosures around Shaw village and Shaw House, also had one major advantage over the position at Speen, as they could be easily reinforced from Speenhamland. Their defence was entrusted to 1,200 musketeers and pikemen drawn from the most experienced infantry brigades in the king’s army, those of Thomas Blagge and George Lisle. Lisle himself was in command of the troops defending the enclosures, whilst Lieutenant Colonel Page of Sir James Pennyman’s regiment was in charge at Shaw House. In support was a single regiment of veteran cavalry, the Prince of Wales’s, some 200 strong. The rest of the Royalist horse, apart from some of Maurice’s regiments that were at Speen, was kept in reserve on Speenhamland. So also was the third brigade of Royalist foot, Colonel Bernard Astley’s, and the pikemen and the remaining musketeers belonging to the other two. However, despite such careful preparations, the opening engagement in the battle, the breaching of the line of the Lambourn, was an unpleasant surprise for the king’s commanders.

Early on the morning of the 27 October several companies of Manchester’s musketeers made ready to cross the Lambourn somewhere to the south of Shaw village, probably near Shaw Mill but possibly close to Ham Mill situated adjacent to the broken down bridge that had carried the Bath road over the river. The Royalists, possibly heartened by the departure northwards of most of the enemy regiments, were merely patrolling this section of the west bank of the river, which was almost certainly in flood. Crossing it by anything other than a bridge would therefore have been very dangerous, but Manchester’s men had brought a portable footbridge with them and were over the river and into Speenhamland in no time. However, foot soldiers belonging to Bernard Astley’s brigade, which had originally formed part of Hopton’s corps in the Western Army, marched down from Speenhamland and pushed the enemy back across the river, inflicting some casualties. Even if the encounter took place exactly as Simeon Ashe described, he may have been wrong to follow it up with the claim that it had satisfied the primary objective of Manchester’s corps, namely to force the enemy to commit his reserves to the less important sector of the battlefield, ‘long before our friends on Speen Hill did engage’ (with the enemy). Hopton’s men are described in another source as being withdrawn from the Lambourn valley in the late afternoon to strengthen the western defences of Speenhamland against a possible attack from the direction of Church Speen.

After crossing the Lambourn Waller’s forces met with no resistance in their march towards the barricade to the west of Speen. When they were less than a mile from the barricade, they were drawn up in conventional battle formation for open country, infantry in the centre and cavalry on the wings, but it is most likely that the regiments were stacked up three or four deep. This almost certainly explains why many never appear to have seen action that day, most particularly the London brigade. In Parliamentary accounts they are described as having fought well, but there were no casualties amongst their officers and in Royalist accounts they do not receive a mention.

There are two descriptions of the way in which the infantry of the western pincer of the Parliamentary army was deployed. Samuel Bedford, Sir Samuel Luke’s deputy as scout master general and his principal correspondent in the Earl of Essex’s army, describes Essex’s regiment and two regiments of the London Trained Bands as being on the right. In reserve was Colonel Aldridge’s brigade, and on the left Colonel Barclay’s brigade supported by another London regiment. Several days after the battle Skippon described the infantry formation in a letter to the Earl of Essex as follows: the Lord General’s own regiment on the right, Colonel Aldridge’s brigade and a forlorn hope of about 800 musketeers in the centre, and two London regiments also on the right and behind giving covering fire, with one London regiment and Colonel Barclay’s brigade in reserve and apparently to their left. The two accounts, however, are not incompatible. Bedford was describing how Waller’s forces were deployed on Wickham Heath a mile before they reached the Royalist line, Skippon their positioning at the start of the assault on the barricade. When Waller’s forces emerged from the enclosures at Stockcross and entered Speen Lawn, the fact that the main Royalist defence work was constructed seemingly to the south of their line of advance, namely across the Bath road rather than the lane from Wickham, might have caused Essex’s and the two London regiments to veer to the right, thus skewing the entire formation and necessitating some redeployment. This may account for the length of time between the march across Wickham Heath and the attack on the barricade.

The right wing of the cavalry, commanded by Sir William Balfour, included most of Essex’s regiments supported by one of Manchester’s, the left most of the remainder of the Eastern Association regiments under Oliver Cromwell and Sir William Waller’s horse under Lieutenant General Middleton. Waller himself seems to have ridden with the cavalry regiments of his own army instead of managing the reserves, as he specifically states that he charged with ‘my troopers’. This seems odd from a command and control point of view, given the strength of the reserves, but he may have thought that the decisive cavalry breakthrough would take place between Speen and the Lambourn where the going was easier, rather than between Speen and the Kennet. If this was indeed the case (and the only evidence for it is Waller’s own words) his escape from death in a mêlée that followed a charge by the Parliamentary horse is difficult to place, as other sources state outright or strongly imply that the left wing saw very little in the way of fighting. It is, however, possible that Waller was with the forlorn hope, as described below. As for the Parliamentary artillery pieces, Walker describes them as being deployed in a wood, presumably Dean Wood, which would have been to the left rear of the Parliamentary infantry as it marched towards the barricade, but their deployment in a wood is not confirmed by any of the Parliamentary sources.

The hour at which Waller’s troops launched their attack seems to slip backwards in time as divisions emerged between the Parliamentary commanders. Most of the earliest reports of the battle opt for 4 p.m., as does Simeon Ashe; later ones place it between 3 and 3.15 p.m., and Cromwell at 2 p.m. Cromwell was almost certainly lying or repeating the lies of others in order to cast doubt on the commitment of the Earl of Manchester to outright victory. There is no doubt whatsoever that preparations began at about 3 p.m. with an artillery barrage. This is what was reported in Royalist accounts written straight after the battle and they, unlike the Parliamentarians, had no reason for falsifying the time. However, none of the eyewitness accounts says how long the bombardment lasted. The assault itself could therefore have been launched at 3.30 p.m. or even later, as the earliest written report of the battle implies.

The Second Battle of Newbury 1644 Part II

Descriptions of the action in front of Speen come primarily from Parliamentary accounts of the battle, but none sets out to provide a comprehensive narrative. Keen to gain some credit for a battle in which so little was achieved, the writers concentrate overwhelmingly on the excellent performance of Essex’s veteran infantry, who regained the reputation for bravery that they had gained at Edgehill and First Newbury but lost at Lostwithiel. Of the Royalist accounts Walker and Mercurius Aulicus merely mention that the barricade was captured and with it the village of Speen, whilst Murray claimed that the performance of some of Prince Maurice’s foot was ‘ill’. Bulstrode is less terse. He gives a short account of the stout resistance against overwhelming odds made by the Cornish regiments supported by the Earl of Cleveland’s cavalry brigade, until both were pushed back. As Cleveland fought on the right of the Royalist position between Donnington Castle and Speen Lawn, the Cornish cannot have been the defenders of the barricade, despite some claims that they were. Instead they were probably deployed on a small rise in the ground that can be seen immediately to the north-west of Speen village. Circumstantial evidence for this is provided by what Parliamentary accounts do not say about the capture of the barricade. They make much of the retaking of several guns lost in Cornwall and the emotion shown by Essex’s foot soldiers as they greeted their lost friends. In such circumstances if the Cornish regiments had been the defenders of the barricade they would probably have mentioned it.

After the artillery barrage a division of the right wing of the Parliamentary cavalry cleared a small brigade of Cornish horse from the heath, thus preparing the way for an infantry assault. According to Skippon Aldridge’s brigade carried out a frontal assault on the barricade, whilst Essex’s regiment attacked the Royalist infantry position to its right. The assault was apparently delivered with great vigour and valour, but nevertheless it seems to have taken the Parliamentarians about an hour to drive the enemy from Speen village and down the hill towards Speenhamland. Possibly the Royalist infantry continued to resist for some time after the barricade had fallen, thus holding up a general advance. Writers on both sides, however, agree that the retreat stopped at the hedge that separated the enclosures to the east of Speen from Speenhamland itself, but there is no evidence of Colonel Blagge’s brigade being drawn in to stop the rout, as Reid claims. Although there would have been at least half an hour’s daylight left, Waller did not attempt to storm the hedge. It would have been difficult to feed fresh troops through Speen village into the gathering gloom in the valley below; and there was no sign of the Parliamentary cavalry, whose support Skippon described subsequently as being essential if a full victory was to be achieved.

Bulstrode, Sir Edward Walker and Mercurius Aulicus all agree that George Goring, the king’s lieutenant general of cavalry, put himself at the head of the Earl of Cleveland’s brigade and charged the enemy, but Bulstrode saw the objective as being to relieve pressure on the Cornish regiments defending Speen, whilst for Walker and Mercurius Aulicus its purpose was to prevent the enemy horse deploying in a position that threatened the king’s reserves on Speenhamland. Cleveland’s brigade apparently hit the foremost troop of Cromwell’s vanguard in overwhelming numbers as they were in the process of crossing a ditch. Brushing off a counter-charge as they sought to establish a position on the enemy side of the ditch, Cleveland’s brigade moved forward under flanking fire from several bodies of enemy musketeers, and then attacked an infantry brigade, possibly as many as three times, without any attempt by the Parliamentary cavalry to intervene. In the process the brigade lost many officers including Cleveland himself, who was captured when his horse was killed under him. Interestingly, the earl was taken prisoner by an officer belonging to Barclay’s regiment of foot, which was probably in reserve on the Parliamentary left. This indicates the depth to which Royalist horse had penetrated the enemy position. It also implies that the Parliamentary horse on that wing had fallen back into the enclosures around Wood Speen. Otherwise, they would have been able to charge Cleveland’s troopers in the flank as they made their way uphill towards Barclay’s brigade, which would have been somewhere near Dean Wood. However, the Royalist push quickly came to an end. Cleveland’s brigade, like Sir Charles Lucas’s at Marston Moor, did not have the strength to overwhelm a brigade of veteran infantry, whilst the king had insufficient foot to exploit the achievements of his right wing horse without compromising the safety of his troops elsewhere in the fortified triangle.

The earliest Parliamentary accounts of the Second Battle of Newbury had very little to say about the cavalry action that took place between Speen village and Donnington Castle. The first sign of a change is in a letter written by Skippon to the Earl of Essex on 30 October in which he hints that his infantry could have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Royalists had they had cavalry support. When the quarrel over the outcome of the Newbury campaign broke out in mid-November, much more information emerged, but only from the Earl of Manchester and his supporters. Criticizing Cromwell’s cavalry for doing nothing at the Second Battle of Newbury was one of the more effective ways of challenging the multiple charges of inaction that were being made against the earl by Cromwell and his allies. However, to be fair to Manchester, there is no evidence in any other primary sources that Cromwell and his Eastern Association cavalry regiments did play a significant part in the fighting. The earl’s next allegation, that Cromwell was nowhere to be seen and that Waller’s lieutenant general, John Middleton, was unable to persuade the Eastern Association regiments to charge by personally (and unsuccessfully) leading a squadron against a much larger body of enemy horse, is not substantiated by any other report, but it is possible that this is a reference to the unsuccessful counter-charge against Cleveland’s brigade mentioned above.

The inactivity of the left wing horse cannot be explained by cannon fire from Donnington Castle. It also seems most unlikely that they were taken at a disadvantage when crossing from enclosed country into open field. The belt of enclosures between Eddycroft Field and Wickham Heath at Wood Speen was narrow, and if the Parliamentary cavalry had been crossing a ditch between enclosed country and open field when the cavalry encounter began, they would have been far to the rear of their infantry brigades, which would have locked horns with the Royalist infantry at the eastern end of Speen Lawn by that time. Moreover, to get at them, Cleveland’s brigade would already have outflanked the Parliamentary infantry brigades, and therefore could not have encountered infantry only after crossing the ditch. It therefore seems likely that the ditch followed the line of the old Speen to Bagnor road (now no longer in use), which bisected the present Donnington Park, and probably formed the boundary between Worthy and Claypit Fields.

It therefore seems likely that Cromwell’s men were already deployed in open country when the cavalry engagement began, and that they were so severely trounced that they fell back to a position from which it was impossible to take pressure off Barclay’s brigade. Later, when Cleveland’s brigade had exhausted itself in fruitless attacks on the enemy infantry, a body of cavalry belonging to the Parliamentary left wing helped to herd the Royalists back across the ditch. There is a brief reference to this in the first letter to the Committee of Both Kingdoms from Johnston and Crewe, whilst Symonds describes the encounter on the Royalist right wing as if Goring’s charge had not been defeated by infantry alone: ‘the Earl of Cleveland before our charge was taken prisoner, most of his officers hurt and killed, his men beaten, being overpowered with horse and foot.’ But that was all. If the Parliamentary cavalry regiments had then tried to cross the ditch a second time, the result might have been another embarrassing spoiling attack, as there were still several brigades of uncommitted Royalist cavalry drawn up on Speenhamland.

Most of these comments concerning the performance of the left wing of the Parliamentary cavalry at Newbury commanded by Cromwell, however, are no more than speculation, as the traces of the past are so fragmented and generalized that making correlations between them is well nigh impossible. All that can be said with any degree of certainty is first that the Parliamentary horse on that wing failed to make an assault on the enemy which had any significant impact on the outcome of the battle; second that Cleveland’s brigade was able to attack an infantry brigade without initially encountering any opposition from Parliamentary cavalry; and finally that, whilst not retreating entirely under their own volition, Cleveland’s brigade was not pursued for any great distance. The extent to which the failure of Waller’s troops to push eastwards between Speen and the River Lambourn and thus threaten the centre of the Royalist position was due to the inertia of the troops commanded by Cromwell or to the valour of the Royalists can only be a matter of speculation. However, fighting on that part of the battlefield seems to have begun well before 4 p.m., when there was sufficient daylight for a major cavalry encounter to have taken place and been resolved, and where superiority in numbers and the open terrain would have made a Parliamentary victory a distinct possibility.

Matters were very different on the Parliamentary right wing where Sir William Balfour, Essex’s lieutenant general of horse, was in command, if the almost exclusively Royalist accounts of the engagement are not guilty of gross exaggeration. Here, once the Cornish brigade of horse had been driven back, nothing much seems to have happened until after 4 p.m. when the fighting on the left and centre was coming to an end. This was probably because the track linking Speen Lawn with the narrow field that lay between the south side of Speen village and the River Kennet left the London to Bath road at a point that was so close to the Royalists’ barricade that it could not be accessed until after their artillery had been silenced and their musketeers driven back. Another problem that would have impeded the quick deployment of Balfour’s cavalry in the narrow field was the steepness of the gradient on the track as it descended the escarpment. Nevertheless 500 or so of Balfour’s cavalry seem to have been able to make their way into the field, and they were supported by several companies of musketeers, who crept forward under the cover of the hedges separating the water meadows lining the Kennet from the cultivated land. Part of Prince Maurice’s regiment of horse apparently failed to see Balfour’s cavalry

The left wing of Parliamentary horse, seemingly under Cromwell’s overall command, began its advance along the Lambourn valley towards the north-eastern corner of Speenhamland soon after 3 p.m. Its progress was apparently impeded by enclosures, even though these are now known only to have covered a small area of land around Wood Speen, but it then suffered a significant setback for which there is little direct evidence in the traces of the past. Royalist reports provide some detail, but their prime concern is to make the most of one of the more positive features of their armies’ performance at Second Newbury.

off. Then Sir Humphrey Bennett’s brigade of horse fell back before them, though accounts differ as to whether it fled as far as Newbury bridge or simply retired behind some enclosures in order to find ground on which to fight more effectively. However, whatever the reason for its withdrawal, the departure of Bennett’s brigade gave Balfour’s men the chance to move forward as far as the edge of Speenhamland where they began to deploy.

The danger to the whole Royalist position was obvious, particularly if, as Symonds suggests, the rest of the Parliamentary cavalry on that wing, possibly 2,000 strong, were not far behind the vanguard. Desperate measures were called for. However, intervention by the Queen’s regiment of horse, which brought Balfour’s men to a halt, followed by a flank attack by the King’s and the Queen’s Lifeguard led by Lord Bernard Stuart did the trick. If, as seems likely, they were deployed on the most easterly point of the spur between the Lambourn and the Kennet alongside the hedge that marked the western edge of Speenhamland, the Lifeguard would have had the advantage of momentum provided by the slope leading down towards the Kennet, whereas their opponents were strung out across the slope and probably in not as close order as they would have liked. At about the same time Bennett’s brigade reappeared and helped in the vigorous pursuit of the enemy during which many of the musketeers, deserted by their cavalry and cut off from the rest of the infantry, were apparently slain. However, that was the end of the matter. The steepness of the slope above the narrow field would have made it impossible for the king’s horse to deliver a flank attack against Waller’s infantry in and around Speen village.

Having experienced two cavalry setbacks, and stalemate in the infantry battle, Waller seems to have ordered hostilities to cease some time before full darkness fell. His and Haselrig’s report to the House of Commons describing the events of 27 October implies that, having driven the king’s forces from their prepared positions and reduced their perimeter very significantly, the generals commanding the western pincer were happy to wait for the morrow before settling the issue. However, before discussing why events did not work out as they anticipated, it is necessary to describe the fighting in and around Shaw, which, unlike the cavalry encounters around Speen, is well documented in reports written by witnesses on both sides.

Considerable confusion surrounds the time at which the Earl of Manchester launched his attack. One of the earliest Parliamentarian accounts claimed that it coincided almost exactly with the assault on the barricade to the west of Speen, but once the ‘great debate’ got under way witnesses swore to an interval of as long as two hours between the two. A gap there certainly was. Four of the five Royalist accounts are very clear about it, and even Manchester’s chaplain, who wrote a well-argued pamphlet in the earl’s support, admitted to a delay, but without offering a clear justification for it. Manchester’s enemies implied that the delay was evidence that the earl had deliberately held his men back, as he wanted the war not to end in outright victory but in a negotiated peace. Elsewhere I have defended Manchester’s conduct of operational and strategic matters prior to the Second Battle of Newbury, but traces of the past that explain his inaction are as deficient as those which might explain Cromwell’s. All I can offer is surmise supported by nothing more than circumstantial evidence.

A possible reason is that the casualties Manchester’s infantry regiments had suffered in the morning attack across the Lambourn were as high as Mercurius Aulicus claimed, and that as a result the earl was not prepared to resume the attack until he was certain that things were going very well on the other side of the battlefield. It is also possible that the attack at Speen had gone in much later than originally agreed, and as twilight was imminent Manchester was unwilling for safety’s sake to follow suit until he could clearly see that victory was assured. However, whatever the reasons behind his reluctance to order an attack on the Royalist positions at Shaw, Manchester did send his troops in soon after 4.15 p.m., by which time witnesses claim that he could see enemy infantry and cavalry running in panic from Church Speen towards Speenhamland. He may then have thought that the defenders of Shaw and Shaw House would be so demoralized by what was happening behind them that they would quickly abandon their positions. Not surprisingly, after the earl’s forces suffered even heavier casualties than they had in the morning, he blamed Waller and his fellow commanders of the western pincer for bringing fighting to a close just when total victory was within Parliament’s grasp.

The eastern pincer began its attack with a cannonade, which, like Waller’s, was of unknown duration. It was followed by an assault on the hedges adjacent to the bridge over the Lambourn to the south of Shaw house. Initially the Eastern Association foot had some success, the Royalists being driven from one hedge line, but this opened up the Parliamentary flank to devastating fire from Shaw House and the attack petered out. Manchester’s next move was against Shaw House itself, but this was completely ineffective and was followed by a counterattack in which the Royalists recaptured the hedge line and in the process took two field pieces, which had been brought forward to support the assault. Manchester’s infantry then retreated to the top of Clay Hill pursued by the single regiment of Royalist cavalry deployed on that side of the Lambourn. After darkness had fallen, Manchester’s horse tried to recover the cannon their infantry had lost, but were driven off by concentrated musket fire. There had been few losses amongst the defenders, many amongst the attackers. To make matters worse, some Parliamentary formations had fallen victim to friendly fire in the confusion caused by the gathering gloom. The assaults on the Royalist positions defending the eastern approaches to Speenhamland had therefore failed to influence the course of the battle. On the other hand it was unfair of one of Cromwell’s supporters to blame Manchester for attacking the Royalists at their strongest point rather than attempting to cross the Lambourn between Shaw and Speen where the river was not guarded. As has been explained earlier, the high levels of water in the river on 27 October would almost certainly have made that impossible.

After dark, fighting died down in all parts of the battlefield, but the situation for the Royalists looked bleak. Despite the resilience of the forces defending the line of the Lambourn, what took place on that sector of the battlefield was no more than a sideshow. The next day the enemy could throw a vastly superior force against the hedge lining the western edge of Speenhamland; Prince Rupert’s forces were too far away to provide assistance; and even if the Royalists retained control of Newbury bridge, there was no avenue of retreat southwards or westwards that did not ultimately lead into open country where the Parliamentary generals’ superiority in cavalry was likely to be decisive. However, there was an escape plan that had been agreed by the Royalist council of war on the morning of the battle. Before 9 p.m. the king’s forces began abandoning their positions defending Speenhamland and Shaw. They then crossed Donnington bridge and assembled in the narrow valley of a tributary of the Lambourn that flowed northwards just under Donnington Castle.

Soon afterwards, the king, who cannot have had much confidence in the plan, rode off with the Prince of Wales and a guard of 500 cavalry to join Prince Rupert. Then Prince Maurice, assisted by Goring, Astley and Hopton, led all the remaining Royalist troops in a march out of the valley and across the Berkshire Downs towards the Thames valley, helped for the vital first few hours by a full moon. Speed was essential if they were not to be caught by the Parliamentary cavalry before they reached the safety of the garrison at Wallingford. The generals therefore left the remaining artillery and the wounded (including the Lord General, the Earl of Forth) at Donnington Castle. Soon after first light the task was successfully accomplished. Both horse and foot reached safety at Wallingford without experiencing the slightest disturbance from the enemy. Crossing to the north bank of the Thames, they headed for the Woodstock area where they had the option of either defending the line of the Cherwell or sheltering in Oxford until Rupert arrived with reinforcements.

But why had the Parliamentary generals done nothing to prevent the Royalists from escaping? Manchester suggested during the great debate that sentries would have heard the king’s forces leaving Speenhamland and reported this to their officers, as Cromwell and Waller’s horse, the nearest troops to the lane leading to the bridge over the Lambourn at Donnington, were only half a mile away, whilst Essex’s infantry on the edge of Speenhamland were nearly as close. Gwyn put them even closer. His brigade retreated, probably from Speenhamland to Donnington, through a narrow filthy pass of puddle and mire just by the hedge side that ‘parted us and the two armies … which were as quiet as if they had taken the same opportunity of drawing off too’. Subsequently, however, it was the Earl of Manchester who got the blame for not noticing the enemy retreating from Shaw on the grounds that his troops were ‘little more than a musket shot away’. However, the charge is a spurious one. The earl’s troops had returned for the night to Clay Hill.

There is no doubt in my mind that Manchester was right. Waller and Haselrig had given the game away in their report to the House of Commons in which they stated that they had expected the Royalists to offer battle the following day in a position directly under Donnington Castle. Another Parliamentary source written immediately after the battle is more explicit. It admitted that the generals knew the Royalists were abandoning their defensive triangle, but this information was hidden from contemporaries and historians, probably through the actions of Lord Wharton. Putting the two together, there is now very clear evidence that the generals commanding the western pincer knew before 9 p.m. that the Royalists were falling back, but were probably delighted that they were heading northwards across the Lambourn rather than southwards towards Newbury. If they crossed the Kennet breaking down the bridge behind them, it might take days before another confrontation took place. By marching in the opposite direction the enemy was heading straight into a trap. The valley to the north of Donnington, like that of the Kennet beyond Hungerford, led straight into open downland where Waller may have seen himself inflicting on the Royalists a carbon copy of the disaster they had visited on him at Roundway Down in July 1643, namely the routing of their cavalry followed by the surrender of their infantry. What, of course, the Parliamentary generals did not anticipate was that the Royalists would withdraw so far and so fast.

The Second Battle of Newbury: Context and Landscape

Context

The last major battle of 1644 took place close to Newbury on 27 October. During the summer the king and his forces in the south of England had fought an effective defensive campaign. Avoiding battle in late May and early June when faced in the Oxford area by the armies of both the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller, they took full advantage of the Committee of Both Kingdom’s over-optimistic appraisal of the strategic situation, which had resulted in Parliament’s armies going their separate ways. With Essex and his regiments well on their march towards the Royalist-held south-west of England, the king’s generals humiliated Sir William Waller’s army at Cropredy Bridge near Banbury at the end of the month. They then combined with Prince Maurice’s Army of the West to force Essex’s infantry and artillery to surrender near Lostwithiel in Cornwall in late August. His infantry regiments were allowed to return to Parliament’s quarters, but the king retained his cannon, arms and other military supplies. In the meantime Rupert, having abandoned the hopeless task of trying to maintain a strong Royalist presence in the north of England without gunpowder, had moved his headquarters to Bristol, whilst quartering his remaining troops in the southern part of the Welsh Marches.

During September the victorious Royalist armies made their way slowly eastwards, their progress delayed by various initiatives designed to enable the four counties of south-west England to defend themselves. The original strategic plan for the late autumn, agreed at discussions with Prince Rupert at Sherborne Castle in Dorset in early October, was for the King’s and Prince Maurice’s armies to march to Marlborough in Wiltshire, where they would be joined by forces under Rupert’s command including the Northern Horse and a new corps raised by Charles Gerard in south-west Wales. The Royalist army group would begin by relieving three besieged garrisons in what can be loosely described as the Thames valley theatre of war, Banbury, Donnington Castle near Newbury and Basing House near Basingstoke, all of which were close to surrendering. It would then march into East Anglia to take up winter quarters.

Opposing the king’s forces was a cavalry screen stationed on the Wiltshire-Dorset border composed of elements from Essex’s and Waller’s armies, and also from Manchester’s, which the Committee of Both Kingdoms had ordered to march south just before receiving news of the disaster in Cornwall. By the end of the Sherborne conference, Manchester’s infantry regiments were quartered between Newbury and Reading, whilst Essex’s infantry were re-equipping at Portsmouth after the long march back from Cornwall into Parliament’s quarters.

Within a week of Rupert’s return to Bristol, the king was persuaded to try to attack the scattered Parliamentary forces before they could combine. It was a bold plan, but it failed because the royal armies were too slow. Goring’s attempt to take Waller’s cavalry by surprise at Andover on 19 October was frustrated by the failure of Prince Maurice’s infantry to arrive on time, and the king failed by two days to prevent Essex’s infantry making a rendezvous with the rest of Parliament’s three armies and a corps of the London Trained Bands at Basingstoke on 21 October. Charles’s next intention was to relieve Basing House, but to proceed any further eastwards would be like walking straight into the jaws of a trap. The two Royalist armies therefore turned north and set up camp at Newbury where, well supplied with foodstuffs and ammunition and surrounded by friendly features in the landscape – rivers, woods, enclosures and passes – they could spin out the time until either Rupert came to the rescue or the enemy forces withdrew through lack of food, fodder and adequate shelter. Such was the Royalist Council of War’s confidence that, having arrived at Newbury and thus relieved Donnington Castle, it sent three of the king’s best cavalry regiments under the Earl of Northampton to break up the siege of Banbury. However, the Parliamentary generals, probably aware that the enemy facing them at Newbury was not as numerous as intelligence had earlier suggested,8 decided on an attack rather than a stand-off.

Landscape

On 25 October 1644 the Royalist armies began fortifying an area of land covering the northern approaches to Newbury. Shaped like a narrow letter V pointing eastwards, it was situated on the opposite bank of the Kennet to the town and to Wash Common and Round Hill where the First Battle of Newbury had been fought. Its sides, some two miles in length, followed the course of the Kennet and its tributary the Lambourn. Between the two was a spur of chalk along the crest of which ran the road from Bath to London. The descent through the village of Church Speen to the Kennet valley was steep, as was the slope between the road and the river. The slope facing the Lambourn, however, was much less steep with a much larger gap between the road and the river. Despite John Gwyn’s allegation that taking up so restricted a position hampered the king’s forces’ ability to manoeuvre, the Lambourn in particular was to provide a good line of defence for the royal armies.

Four bridges crossed the Lambourn within the letter V. The most northerly carried the Newbury to Oxford road, which passed through the village of Donnington immediately after crossing the river; the second, which connected Newbury with the countryside to the north-east, carried a road that passed through the village of Shaw in a similar manner. The third, probably no more than a footbridge, was at Shaw Mill. All three were left intact by the Royalists, but they had almost certainly destroyed the large bridge close to the confluence of the Lambourn with the Kennet half a mile to the east of Newbury which carried the Bath road. Small water meadows lined the north bank of the Kennet as far as the only bridge over the Kennet within the V, which led to the town itself. This bridge also remained intact, probably because it might serve as a vital, if narrow, escape route should the fortified area have to be abandoned for any reason.

The side of the letter V facing Donnington and Shaw was defended by two strong-points. A force trying to cross the Lambourn at Donnington bridge would have to face heavy fire from cannon and several hundred musketeers of Sir John Boys’s regiment stationed in Donnington Castle, which was situated on a piece of high ground on the north bank of the river. Also on the north bank of the Lambourn, and a mile or so closer to its confluence with the Kennet, was Shaw House, known at the time as Mr Dolman’s house. Close to the bridge that carried the road from Newbury to Shaw, it was described in one of the Parliamentary accounts of the battle as a second castle ‘being set about with earthworks, hedges and a dry moat’. Moreover, between Shaw House and the bridge at Shaw were other hedge lines that could provide cover for musketeers and field artillery. All these would have to be cleared of the enemy before an army could cross the river from the east.

The remainder of the north bank of the Lambourn between Donnington and Shaw appears to have been open field arable, but within a short distance the land rose rapidly to Clay Hill, which provided a panoramic view over the whole of the battlefield and a convenient assembly point for a force intending to attack the fortified area from the east. Here a corps of the Parliamentary armies was stationed between 26 and 28 October, and from here two major attacks were launched against the Royalists defending Shaw in the early morning and the late afternoon of the 27th.

However, the strength of the position between the Kennet and the Lambourn was compromised by the decision of the Parliamentary generals to launch their main attack from the west rather than the east, using the ford at Boxford, some two miles above Donnington. Here there was no river to assist the defence, but the third side of what now needed to become a fortified triangle was not that easy to attack. Wickham Heath, the most prominent feature in the landscape between Boxford and Church Speen, was set about with small fields and woods, and no more than half a mile across at its widest point. As a result a large army approaching from the direction of Lambourn or Hungerford would find it impossible to deploy there in conventional battle array without much bunching up of units. Moreover, as it came closer to Speen, it would first have to make its way through some enclosures at Wood Speen and Stockcross, and then pass down a narrow heath in the shape of a funnel known as Speen Lawn. This was a potential killing ground if the Royalists placed musketeers and artillery pieces in the hedges and woodland that surrounded it.

The enclosures also extended in a narrow band around the south of Church Speen, but they were most thickly concentrated to the east of the village along both sides of the Bath road. Beyond these enclosures in the low ground where the Lambourn joined the Kennet was Speenhamland, two large, relatively flat open fields extending from the lane connecting Church Speen with Donnington to the road leading from Newbury bridge to Shaw bridge. Speenhamland’s southern boundary for some of its length was the London to Bath road, but as it neared the outskirts of Newbury it crossed the edge of one of the open fields. Its southern boundary then became the hedge that bordered the water meadows which lined the Kennet.

The two open fields were of great advantage to the king’s generals as they enabled troops to be moved quickly from one point to another within the fortified area as the military situation developed. Not surprisingly, it was there that they placed their reserves. However, gaps in the defensive perimeter gave an enemy advancing on Speenhamland along the river valleys direct access to the heart of the Royalist position. First, despite the steep slope separating the Bath road from the Kennet, it was possible with difficulty to bypass Church Speen to the south and enter Speenhamland via a long narrow field that separated the enclosures around the village from the water meadows lining the river. However, the narrow field was not ideal cavalry country. The gradient between Speen village and the Kennet, which steepened as it approached Speenhamland, would make it difficult for squadrons riding across the slope to maintain formation.

A second and much more serious problem was caused by the wider corridor of land that lay between Church Speen and the river Lambourn. A body of troops advancing on Speenhamland from Boxford would not have to pass through a wide belt of enclosures and then across Donnington Park, as the first edition of the six-inch Ordnance Survey map of the Newbury area would suggest. Instead most of the route would be across an extensive area of open field arable. This covered not only the whole of present-day Donnington Park, it also extended back past the northern edge of Dean Wood, the principal piece of woodland bordering Speen Lawn, as far west as a thin belt of enclosures at Wood Speen separating Wickham Heath from Worthy Field. It was without doubt the Achilles heel of the Royalist position.

LCT 614 on Dog Red – Omaha Part I

The H+60 wave arrived in the transport area in much better order. At about 5:30 a.m. on June 6, the 614’s crew started going to their battle stations. Because half the crew were already at their underway watch stations, which were also sometimes their battle stations, there was no sounding of the klaxon or running about. The men on watch below simply came up when they were ready and relieved the men at their stations.

Since about 3:45 a.m., Carter had been on watch at the wheel. Peering through the little slits that served as windows or out the door, latched open to provide air, he had seen the invasion begin to shape up. At first he saw nothing at all; the blacked-out ships revealed nothing of their presence that he could see. After a few moments, though, he began to see a few tiny blinking lights on buoys left by the minesweepers as they cleared a channel to the beach and then red, green, and white flares from the control craft marking the beach landing zones. Shoreward, over the horizon, bombs flashed like summer lightning. By about 4:30 a.m. a gray light let him see the other LCTs, but they soon dispersed so that the 614 had only three companions. LCT 613 had the lead, LCT 536 was the wave guide in second position, and then LCT 612 followed by 614.

As Pequigney came up to take the wheel, the battleships and cruisers began opening up with their big guns at targets ashore. Because of the narrow channels that the minesweepers had hurriedly cleared, the LCTs had to chug past the gunfire support ships, and the concussion from the 8-inch guns of the Augusta felt worse than the bombs that had fallen around them in Portland. Carter stood for a moment to watch the shooting; the smoke drifting away from the ships struck him as nonchalant. He then went below to get into his battle clothing of a blue coverall treated with a sticky substance that was supposed to protect him from the flash of a nearby explosion or from poison gas if the Germans decided to use it. He then picked up his helmet, life jacket, and gas mask. Before going up, he rummaged through C and K ration boxes in the compartment, looking for snacks, and ended up stuffing his pockets with chocolate bars.

Topside, Carlson was standing watch in the gun tub, and Sparky was already there, eating crackers and orange marmalade. As Carlson went below, Carter and Sparky began getting the gun ready. “How do you feel, Sparky?” Carter asked.

“Kinda shaky,” he replied. “How about you?”

“The same,” Carter agreed.

About the time the gun was ready, Carlson came back, his pockets bulging with cigarette packs. Carlson noticed that the shoreline had finally become visible.

“Mornin’,” he said. “So this is France, huh? Take me back to Oregon.”

With his bulky life jacket on, Carter needed the help of both Sparky and Carlson to strap himself into the mount. Once in, he told Sparky to go ahead and put tension on the magazines in the ready service locker in case they needed to reload quickly. As Sparky worked on that, Irwin shouted down at him from the conning tower: “Sparky! Put on your life jacket.”

“I can’t load with the thing on,” Sparky replied.

But Irwin insisted. “Put one on. You might get blown into the water.”

To Irwin, standing on the conning position on top of the pilothouse, things on the beach seemed to be going fairly well. All the shooting he could see came from Allied ships; no shooting seemed to be coming from the beach. As Irwin conned the ship, keeping an eye on LCT 536, the wave leader, Pillmore scanned the shore with binoculars, trying to find their landing area. Since they were supposed to beach just to the right of the Les Moulins draw, exit D-3, he thought it would be easy to identify. But now, in the gloom and smoke and distance, he had trouble picking it out. But there was still time.

To get to the line of departure, the 614 and other landing craft had to sail around the Augusta, past the French light cruisers, and then form up in front of the battleship Arkansas. The blast from Augusta’s 8-inch guns jarred the LCT, and the sharp reports of the light cruisers’ 6-inch guns hurt the ears of the men on deck. But just as they rounded the Arkansas, the battleship loosed a broadside from its 12-inch guns. The blast and noise rattled the little LCT and hurt the men on deck. Carter thought that, had they been any closer, the concussion from the big guns could have easily flipped the little craft over. Irwin, perhaps even more exposed on the conn, turned around at the painfully horrendous sound and thought he was looking straight down the muzzles of the battleship’s guns. From his vantage point atop the wheelhouse, Kleen could easily see the big shells arching over them on their way to the shore.

About 6:30 a.m. they received the word to head to the line of departure. With the incoming tide, the LCTs made good time down the line of ships and reached the position sixteen minutes early. They milled around, watching the firing, until finally Leide radioed the order to beach. Irwin ordered Kleen to sound the beaching signal—five short blasts on the horn—and shouted down the voice tube to Pequigney to come about on a southerly heading. The three LCTs to starboard—703, 622, and 704—continued west and headed for Dog Green at the very end of the beach. LCT 569 held back, ready to go in on Easy Green to the east of the Les Moulins draw. The 614 was then exposed on the right side of the wave; suddenly Carter thought they were a much better target.

At first, the hour-long trip to the beach was quiet. Pillmore located the correct area of the beach and pointed it out to Irwin. He then left the conn to supervise getting the vehicles ready for landing. Irwin thought that Captain Wright had been correct when he said that the bombers and battleships would clear the Germans from the beaches. When shells started exploding in the water ahead of them, Irwin’s first thought was that the ships behind them were shooting short. He needed a moment to realize the 614 had finally come under mortar and artillery fire. He also began to see that the promised gaps in the obstacles had not been blown. He ordered reduced speed and began looking for a way through.

With Irwin stuck on the conn piloting the ship, Pillmore roamed the deck, making sure everything went according to plan. When they turned to head for the beach, they exposed themselves to a quartering sea that made the ride all the more uncomfortable for the crew and the soldiers. Many soldiers stood in the jeeps and bulldozers to see where they were headed, and Pillmore saw Andin, Gudger, and Cromer clearing the tie-downs and chocks from the vehicles. Since they were about finished, he told Cromer to loosen dogs on the ramp and take his position on the port bow locker. Resembling a Wild West hero hitching up his gun belt, Cromer tucked his hammer into his belt and headed forward. Andin worked his way aft to loosen the anchor in its bracket, and Gudger grabbed a Thompson sub-machine gun from the compartment and went to the ramp to direct the traffic off.

Pillmore climbed back up to the pilothouse. By now the LCT was drawing some rifle and machine-gun fire. He stayed near the door to the pilothouse and called up to Irwin that the ship was ready to beach. Irwin had finally picked out what seemed to be a path through the obstacles, ordered full speed ahead, and then told Carlson to drop the anchor. Carlson released the catch, but nothing happened. “I said drop the anchor,” Irwin shouted.

“It’s stuck!” Carlson called back. Pillmore ran across the catwalk to see what the problem was. “I dunno,” Carlson said. “We’ve never dropped the anchor before.” Pillmore was taken aback a moment.

“You mean you have never dropped this anchor the whole time you’ve been on the ship?” Pillmore asked.

“No, sir,” Carlson replied. “As far as I know, this anchor hasn’t been dropped since this boat was built.”

Pillmore bit off a curse. He was going to need some help, and fortunately the giant Stefanowicz was at hand. “Sparky, get back here,” Pillmore ordered. He and Sparky began pulling the cable from the reel hand over hand while Carlson manually kept the reel rolling. Several tense moments passed under fire in the exposed area around the anchor winch before the anchor bit into the sandy bottom and enough cable came off that its weight took over and the drum began paying out freely. Pillmore ran back to the cover of the pilothouse, and Carlson and Sparky jumped back in the gun tub with Carter. Only later did Pillmore realize that those men probably saved the ship, but of course, it was still early in the day.

The 614 neared the obstacles, catching up to a line of LCVPs carrying the bulk of the 116th RCT’s Company M, which was also trying to find a way through. The congestion of men and equipment drew increased mortar and machine-gun fire plus aimed artillery fire. The distinctive rip of an 88mm gun firing from the Vierville draw occasionally punctuated the hiss of the antitank rounds.

“God, look at those shells,” Sparky said.

The soldiers on deck began to move toward the ramp, ready to move off. The soldier Carlson had befriended the day before came up to the gun tub and sat down facing Carlson. But before he said anything, a chunk of shrapnel banged against the back of his helmet, saving Carlson’s face. Without saying anything, he climbed back down on deck.

Despite the intensifying small arms fire and mortar explosions, the men stood at their battle stations, ready to get the soldiers and vehicles off the ship as quickly as possible once the ramp dropped. Johnson, manning the starboard 20mm, glanced over at Carter from time to time and wondered whether they were going to shoot even without orders. Neither Carter nor Johnson thought that standing while strapped to their guns and drawing fire was the way to go to war. Jarvis, Johnson’s loader, had even less to do with the guns not in action. He stood beside Johnson, crouched behind the tub’s shield, scanning for targets. A tracer round zipped through his life jacket, puffing out a small cloud of the filler material. He jumped and shouted, “Jesus Christ!” In the tension, Carter and the others found themselves laughing at Jarvis.

The ship pushed through the obstacles, scraping against the hedgehogs and knocked a Teller mine off one of the posts. Irwin shouted course changes to Pequigney in such rapid succession that the quartermaster could do nothing but spin the wheel around. About 7:20 a.m., actually some ten minutes early, the LCT grounded a hundred yards away from the beach. Irwin thought they were still too far out, so he delayed ordering the ramp dropped. That left Cromer, lying on top of the starboard bow locker with his hammer, fully exposed to small arms fire and shrapnel from the shells. From his vantage point he could clearly see the wreckage of men, vehicles, and landing craft on the beach