What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part I

The Challenge

On 15 June 1888, the twenty-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned emperor of Germany. Although capable of moments of brilliant insight, Wilhelm II was infamous for his obnoxious arrogance, uncontrollable temper and erratic decision making. Intensely Anglophobic, he despised the British Empire and felt that Germany was being denied ‘a place in the sun’ by a conspiracy of British and French interests. Wilhelm II was determined to redress this balance.

Germany began to build its colonial empire in the 1890s using a handful of warships, but Wilhelm II dreamed of creating a fleet that would one day topple the Royal Navy itself. In 1897 he appointed Konteradmiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz shared Wilhelm II’s naval ambitions and had the political skill to steer the proposals through the Reichstag. Within a year, Germany had passed the First Naval Bill, which called for the construction of nineteen battleships by 1904. In 1900, Tirpitz used the pretext of strained Anglo-German relations as a result of the Boer War to increase the provision of battleships to thirty-eight vessels.

The gauntlet had been thrown down to Britain. For almost a century the Royal Navy had been the undisputed master of the oceans. Lord Horatio Nelson’s legendary victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had established such an overwhelming sense of British naval superiority that no other major power had dared to challenge it – until now.

The British government quickly perceived that German naval building was not merely a danger to the empire, but, by virtue of Germany’s geographic position, represented a grave threat to Britain itself. The Royal Navy responded to German construction in kind. The first great arms race of the twentieth century had begun.

In 1906 the Royal Navy changed the terms of the contest with the launch of the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought. This vessel was faster, better armoured and more heavily armed than any ship then afloat. Dreadnought was so advanced compared to her rivals that from that point on battleships would be classed either as modern dreadnoughts or outdated pre-dreadnoughts.

Some strategists in Britain hoped that the launch of Dreadnought would convince the Germans that they were beaten and thus end the ruinously expensive contest. They had reckoned without the determination of Wilhelm II and Tirpitz. Germany saw the launch of Dreadnought as an opportunity, for although the new ship had rendered the German fleet obsolete, it had also done the same for the vast majority of existing British battleships. The balance sheet was cleared and it would now be a contest to see who could build dreadnoughts fastest. The arms race intensified in the years that followed as both sides strained to manufacture ever greater numbers of modern warships.

From Dreadnought onwards, each successive class of ships was bigger, faster, and more powerful than the last. Covered in thick steel plate, driven by the largest and most powerful engines available and carrying the heaviest guns it was possible to mount, the modern battleship was the most powerful weapon system in the world. The dreadnoughts were supported by battlecruisers, formidable vessels of comparable size that were built to emphasise speed and armament at the expense of armoured protection. In addition, both navies constructed numerous light cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats to support the heavy ships.

The naval race strained finances to the limit, but it was Britain which emerged as the clear leader. By the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had launched twenty dreadnoughts, with another twelve under construction, compared to thirteen German dreadnoughts, with seven being built.

Germany now faced a serious strategic problem. During the arms race, Tirpitz had deluded himself with the hope that the fleet would be a deterrent weapon that would intimidate Britain and convince it to stay neutral in the event of war. At its heart the policy was a bluff – and the bluff was abruptly called in August 1914. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) now had to consider how to overcome the numerically superior Royal Navy.

The Balance of Power

Although heavily outnumbered, the High Seas Fleet had some advantages over the rival Grand Fleet. The most obvious was that it was concentrated in the North Sea. Whereas the British had to provide vessels to police the imperial trading lanes, the Germans could focus all their attention on the main theatre of operations. The expectation of operating in the North Sea had influenced German ship design. The vessels of the High Seas Fleet tended to be less heavily armed but more heavily armoured than their British counterparts. This trade-off was considered viable given Germany’s numerical disadvantage. Each vessel was precious and therefore survivability was of foremost importance.

There was no doubt that the German ships were highly resistant to damage. However, this fact was well known to the British Admiralty, and during the naval arms race a number of measures had been taken to nullify the German advantage in armoured protection. The British had increased the calibre of their heavy guns so that their latest vessels mounted mighty 15-inch batteries. More importantly, the British had also given serious thought to the design and effectiveness of their armour-piercing shells. Firing exercises had discovered numerous flaws with existing British ammunition. The most serious was the tendency of the shells to burst against armour plating rather than tearing through the steel and exploding in the interior of the enemy ship as they were intended. The problem was traced to a combination of inadequate fuses and unreliable explosive.

Director of Naval Ordnance and future commander of the Grand Fleet John Jellicoe was at the forefront of demanding improvements in ammunition. Although promotion soon took him away from his role with the ordnance department, he continued a vigorous campaign for better shells. The Admiralty reacted with the tardiness typical of large bureaucracies but Jellicoe refused to let the matter rest. The reform of the design, testing, and procurement process for new shells was painfully protracted but on the very eve of the war a new type of armour-piercing shell was finally accepted. Jellicoe was well pleased with the improved ammunition, claiming that it ‘certainly doubled’ the effectiveness of the Grand Fleet’s big guns. However, production delays caused by the demands of war meant that it took until mid-1915 for the fleet to be fully equipped with the new shells.

At the same time that ammunition was being improved, a fierce and often ill-tempered debate was raging over the best methods of fire control. At the heart of the issue was the firebrand Captain Percy Scott, who campaigned for centrally directed fire control and a wholesale reform of gunnery training. An abrasive and arrogant character, Scott nevertheless drove his reforms through and conclusively proved the value of his methods during gunnery trials. Admiral Sir John Fisher offered a blunt assessment of Scott: ‘I don’t care if he drinks, gambles and womanises; he hits the target.’

A particularly important reform pioneered by Scott was the adoption of a ‘double salvo’ system of fire. Under this system a capital ship would fire two quick salvos spaced several hundred yards apart. The fall of shot would be observed and appropriate corrections made: for example, if one salvo fell short and the other went over the target then the distance clearly lay in the middle and could be quickly calculated. Once the double salvo had acquired the range the guns would switch to rapid fire and smother the target with shells. The advantage of double salvo was that it allowed guns to zero in far quicker than if the range was determined using a single salvo.

The combined effect of these reforms was considerable. The Grand Fleet possessed more numerous and noticeably heavier guns than the High Seas Fleet. It was clear that in a fleet encounter the mighty broadsides of the British ships would prove decisive. As a result, Germany planned to fight a klienkrieg – a ‘small war’ – using mines and submarines. These subtle weapons would whittle away at the Royal Navy’s numerical preponderance until the number of British capital ships was so reduced that a fleet action could be fought on even terms.

Unfortunately for Germany, the strategy was bankrupt from the very beginning. The Royal Navy instituted a distant blockade based on closing the exits of the North Sea and refused to charge recklessly into German waters which were teeming with undersea hazards. For their part, the Germans limited their efforts to some commerce raiding and the occasional ‘tip and run’ bombardment of British seaside towns. However, the latter operations were abandoned after the German battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group barely escaped from a bruising encounter with their British opposites at the Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915.

Forbidden by order of Wilhelm II from taking undue risks, the High Seas Fleet spent the rest of 1915 in a state of inertia. Meanwhile, the British blockade slowly tightened. Rationing was introduced in Germany in early 1915. The German nation was in the grip of a British stranglehold and only the navy had the power to break it.

The Ambush

In early 1916 a new commander, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, took charge of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer recognised that the naval situation was intolerable for Germany. Its attempts to use submarines to attack British commerce had succeeded only in alienating the United States. By contrast, Britain’s surface blockade was unrelenting and would remain so as long as the Grand Fleet was still afloat.

Scheer proposed a new strategy. The High Seas Fleet would take the fight to the British by returning to ‘tip and run’ attacks and aggressive operations designed to lure the Grand Fleet into an unfavourable battle. Scheer hoped to inflict stinging losses by ambushing isolated squadrons of the Royal Navy and escaping before retribution followed. The High Seas Fleet would work alongside submarines and minelayers to draw the British into ambush zones.

Yet unbeknownst to Scheer, the strategy had a fatal flaw – the British knew his every move. In August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg had run aground in the Baltic and been captured by the Russians. Onboard were three copies of the German naval signals book and cyphers.8 The Russians shared a copy with the British, and by November the Admiralty had established a dedicated naval cryptography department codenamed Room 40. By 1916, Room 40 could decode virtually all German naval signals traffic. Relevant information was swiftly passed to Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.

Ignorant of these developments, Scheer spent May 1916 planning an ambush for the British. The fast battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group would draw out the British battlecruisers and lead them on a chase that would ultimately carry them into the arms of the German battleships. Locally outnumbered, the British would be destroyed before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a simple and effective plan that may well have worked – but the British knew of it before it had even begun. In the small hours of 31 May, before Scheer had even set sail, the entire Grand Fleet had left port and was steaming towards the ambush area. Jellicoe planned to turn the tables on the Germans. His battlecruisers, under the command of flamboyant Vice- Admiral David Beatty, would ‘allow’ themselves to be drawn into Scheer’s trap. However, as soon as the German battleships appeared, Beatty was to turn about and lead them into a head-on collision with the awesome force of the entire Grand Fleet. The trap was set.

The Chase

The Battle of Jutland started in unassuming fashion. Beatty’s vessels were cruising in the region of anticipated German activity but the disappointing absence of enemy ships was in danger of dampening the mood. At 2.20 p.m. the light cruiser Galatea noticed a small tramp steamer blowing off an unusually large amount of steam, an action consistent with suddenly being forced to stop. Curious, the Galatea turned away from her sister ships and approached the civilian vessel. It was a minor incident in what had so far been an uneventful sweep.

As she approached the steamer, Galatea observed two unknown ships approaching from the opposite direction. Several pairs of binoculars snapped onto the newcomers and less than a minute later the signal ‘ENEMY IN SIGHT’ was flying from her yardarms and an urgent message had been whisked down to her wireless station. Seconds later she fired the first shot of the great battle, hurling a 6-inch shell at the approaching German ships.

The signal had an electrifying effect on Beatty’s squadron of six battlecruisers – Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand, and Indomitable. With Beatty’s flagship Lion in the lead, the battlecruisers swung around towards the approaching enemy. The call ‘Action Stations!’ was sounded and dense smoke poured from the funnels of the fast, sleek ships as they worked up to their fearsome top speed of some twenty-seven knots. Following close behind were the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron – Barham, Valiant, Malaya, and Warspite – under the command of Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Ships of the Queen Elizabeth class, they were known as ‘super dreadnoughts’ due to their cutting-edge combination of armour, guns, and speed. Due to their high top speed of twenty-five knots the Queen Elizabeth class were the only heavy units capable of operating alongside battlecruisers; however, in any prolonged chase they would inevitably start to lose ground.

Fortunately for the British, Beatty had taken account of 5th Battle Squadron’s lower top speed and had kept the ships close to his battlecruisers so that they would not be left behind in any sudden change of course.9 Both battleships and battlecruisers now turned to the south-east, increasing speed and clearing the decks for action. Union flags were hoisted at the main mast and numerous white ensigns were run up the yardarms. Malaya raised the flag of the Federated States of Malaya. Ten formidable warships were now surging through the sea to meet the Germans head on.

Their opponents were the five battlecruisers of Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group – Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, and Von der Tann. A German gunner onboard Derfflinger recorded the approach of the British ships: ‘even at this great distance they looked powerful, massive … It was a stimulating, majestic spectacle as the dark-grey giants approached like fate itself.’ However, Hipper remained calm. His task was not to engage in a stand-up fight but instead to lure the British into reach of Scheer’s battleships. As Beatty and Evan-Thomas bore down on him, Hipper reversed course and began to race away to the south-east. The chase was on.

The range steadily decreased as the British closed in on the fleeing Germans. Beatty’s battlecruisers had reached twenty-five knots, with Evan-Thomas’s ships straining to keep up behind him. British and German destroyer flotillas rushed into the ‘no man’s land’ between the capital ships, prows bursting from the sea as they raced along at thirty-five knots. The tension was almost unbearable. A stoker in New Zealand remembered an ‘incredible thrill’ at hearing the order ‘All guns load!’ being relayed through the internal telephone system.

It was the Germans who began the firing. The broadsides of their battlecruisers rippled with flame as their sent out their first salvo at approximately 18,500 yards range – and closing fast. The British immediately returned fire. A crewman on Malaya remembered: ‘It was the most glorious sight and I was tremendously thrilled.’ Incoming shells ‘appeared just like big bluebottles flying straight towards you, each time going to hit you in the eye; then they would fall and the shell would either burst or else ricochet off the water and lollop away above and beyond you; turning over and over in the air.’

But shells soon began to smash home. Visibility favoured the Germans and they exploited their advantage to the full. Tiger was set ablaze and a direct hit on Lion blew the roof off a forward turret and started a dangerous fire that threatened to detonate the magazine – and with it the entire ship – until the chamber was flooded by order of the fatally injured Major Francis Harvey, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action. Most seriously of all, the Indomitable was simultaneously struck by almost every shot of a salvo fired from Von der Tann. The damage was catastrophic: ablaze from stem to stern, Indomitable turned away from the action and tried to open the range, but within a minute she was engulfed in a huge explosion and disappeared beneath the waves.

The British battlecruisers returned fire furiously but their gunnery was wayward, for their crews were not as thoroughly trained as their Grand Fleet comrades. However, the big guns of the 5th Battle Squadron were a different proposition. A German crewman recalled of the Queen Elizabeths: ‘There had been much talk in our fleet of these ships … Their speed was scarcely inferior to ours but they fired a shell more than twice as heavy as ours. They opened fire at portentous ranges.’

The effect was swift. Fifteen-inch shells plunged down around the German ships, causing devastation wherever they struck. All of Hipper’s ships felt the force of this fire, but Von der Tann was hit particularly hard. Shells wrecked her superstructure and caused serious flooding below decks. One crewman recalled that the ‘tremendous blow’ of being hit by a 15-inch shell made the ‘hull vibrate longitudinally like a tuning fork’.

Although visibility favoured Hipper’s ships, the greater weight of British fire began to tell on the 1st Scouting Group. German vessels shuddered beneath high-calibre-shell hits that sliced through steel plate as though it were paper. Soon Hipper’s battlecruisers were cloaked beneath the smoke of the numerous fires that raged aboard. Von der Tann was so heavily damaged that she could scarcely fire a single gun, but her captain courageously kept her in the line so that the British could not concentrate fire on her sister ships. German fire slackened as the 1st Scouting Group adopted a zigzag pattern to try and throw off the aim of the British ships.

However, Hipper could endure such punishment as long as he could fulfil his part of the German plan. Every minute of the chase brought the British closer to Scheer’s battleships. The trap was about to be sprung.

What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part II

Montague Dawson paints the German High Seas Fleet, under command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, perform a daring and untested full speed turn in unison to escape the range of the British Grand Fleet under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe on the horizon.

The Run to the North

At approximately 4.35 p.m. a barrage of signals burst from Beatty’s advanced light cruiser screen. The most important was ‘Have sighted enemy battlefleet SE. Enemy course north.’ Scheer and his battleships were on the way.

However, Beatty had been prepared for this due to the information relayed by Room 40. Wasting no time, at 4.40 p.m. he ordered his squadron to swing about and begin its own race to the north. In a role reversal, Hipper’s ships turned and now became the pursuers, whilst Scheer and his dreadnoughts increased their speed and strained to bring their heavy guns to bear.

Fortunately for the British the turn away from Scheer was executed with skill. The 5th Battle Squadron fell into line behind Beatty’s battlecruisers and the two squadrons raced north. The battle against Hipper’s ships continued, and the 5th Battle Squadron exchanged long-range fire with the van of Scheer’s battlefleet. A British sailor remembered that ‘their salvos began to arrive thick and fast around us at the rate of 6, 8, or 9 a minute.’ Visibility once again favoured the Germans, but both sides scored hits. By now the 1st Scouting Group was feeling the effects of an hour of fierce combat. At around 5 p.m. Von der Tann, listing and ablaze, suffered a serious hit to her engine room that brought her to a shuddering halt. Down at the bows and crippled beyond repair, she sank within the hour.

Scheer was prepared to accept these losses if he could catch and destroy Beatty’s force. Unfortunately for the Germans, every minute brought them closer to the British trap. Beatty was sending a steady stream of positional reports to the rapidly approaching Jellicoe, who was well informed as to the German course, speed, and bearing.18 At 4.51 p.m. Jellicoe had felt sufficiently confident to send a tantalising signal to the Admiralty: ‘FLEET ACTION IS IMMINENT’.

Jellicoe had a little longer to wait. It was not until around 5.40 p.m. that Beatty made contact with the advance elements of the Grand Fleet. At this point Beatty made an important and decisive manoeuvre, turning his ships on a north-easterly course and cutting across the German vessels that were running parallel to him. This caused the Germans to turn onto a similar course themselves to avoid Beatty ‘crossing the T’ and being able to concentrate the fire of his entire squadron on the first ship in the German line. A German officer later commented that this was ‘an excellent tactical manoeuvre’, for it blinded Scheer to the approach of the Grand Fleet until it was far too late.

Concealed from German view and with the element of surprise on his side, Jellicoe gave orders for his massive fleet to change from cruising formation to a battle line. This was a decision that could have momentous consequences. If Jellicoe got the manoeuvre wrong his ships would blunder into battle in a state of disorganisation and possibly be defeated as a result. The stakes were enormous. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, Jellicoe ‘was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’.

If the gravity of the situation weighed on Jellicoe’s mind, his ice-cold demeanour did not betray the fact. His orders were clear and his crews thoroughly trained. With a smoothness that belied the complexity of the manoeuvre, twenty-four dreadnoughts deployed into a compact fighting line approximately six miles in length. Years after the battle, the famous fighting admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham remarked: ‘I hope I would have the sense to make the same deployment that JJ did.’

The Tables Are Turned

Scheer was about to receive the shock of his life. A fellow officer on the bridge of the Friedrich der Grosse noted that Scheer did not have ‘the foggiest idea of what was happening’. The German fleet of sixteen dreadnoughts and six pre-dreadnoughts was heading directly towards the massed broadsides of the Grand Fleet. Beatty’s sharp turn had blinded the Germans to the danger which they were about to face.

Hipper’s battered vessels were the first to feel the force of the British guns. Localised fog had descended across part of the seascape and Hipper was surprised when several fresh British battlecruisers – the vanguard of the Grand Fleet – suddenly emerged at medium range. Both sides opened fire immediately but the British gunnery was exceptionally good. Invincible rained shells on the German ships, prompting her captain to inform his gunnery officer: ‘Your fire is very good. Keep it up as quickly as you can. Every shot is telling!’ The punishment proved too much for Hipper’s flagship Lutzow, which staggered away from the action with mortal damage below the waterline. Hipper transferred his flag to a torpedo boat but was unable to get aboard a capital ship for the remainder of the battle, thus removing his dynamic leadership from the German fleet.

However, this short, violent clash of battlecruisers was only a precursor to the main event. At around 6.20 p.m. ‘the veil of mist was split across like the curtain at a theatre’ and Scheer’s battlefleet was confronted with an image of Armageddon. One officer recalled that all he could see on the horizon was ‘the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships, salvo followed salvo almost without intermission.’

The results were devastating. Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke singled out the König and fired forty-three shells at her in less than five minutes, scoring hit after hit. Shell splinters ripped through the armoured compartments, gun turrets were torn asunder, and an officer recalled being knocked off his feet as a result of ‘several violent concussions in the forepart of the ship’ that produced a drastic list to port. More hits followed until the König suddenly lurched over and capsized.

Elsewhere the courageous battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group finally met their nemesis. The gunnery officer of Derfflinger recalled: ‘Several heavy shells pierced our ship with terrific force and exploded with a tremendous roar which shook every seam and rivet.’ With her lower compartments flooded, her funnels shot away and her gun turrets reduced to burning wreckage, Derfflinger finally disappeared beneath the deluge of fire. Her sister ships Moltke and Seydlitz only escaped a similar fate by retreating into the mist, concealed by smoke from the uncontrolled fires that raged aboard. The 1st Scouting Group had effectively been destroyed. Seydlitz would sink later that night and Moltke was lucky to be able to limp home with severe damage.

Scheer had a single chance to save his fleet. With shells plunging down around his ships and the König vanishing beneath the waves, Scheer ordered a Gefechtskehrtwendung – a sudden, simultaneous turn away – to take his ships away from Jellicoe’s punishing fire. It is a testament to the quality of German training that the manoeuvre was carried out comparatively successfully, although Scheer’s lead ships were subjected to a hail of shells that inflicted further damage. Turning his back to the British, Scheer led his vessels away into the darkening mist.

Jellicoe was not in a position to observe the manoeuvre and was initially perplexed as to what had happened. Expecting Scheer to re-emerge from the fog at any moment, Jellicoe steered his fleet to the south to close in on his quarry. At this point, Scheer made a fatal mistake. As the firing died out, he reasoned that if he were to reverse course again then he would pass in the wake of the Grand Fleet, effectively slipping behind them while they fruitlessly cruised south. This done, he would be able to escape into the dusk and retreat to safer waters.

However, Scheer had miscalculated. Instead of slipping behind the Grand Fleet, he mistimed his turn and led his ships right into the middle of the southbound British line. The position was even worse than during the initial clash. The German line was in a state of disorganisation, many ships were struggling to put out fires caused by the earlier encounter with Jellicoe, and the 1st Scouting Group had been forced to withdraw from the action, leaving the High Seas Fleet partially blind. Visibility decisively favoured the Grand Fleet: British ships were partially concealed in the North Sea mist, but German vessels were silhouetted against the horizon and presented a perfect target.

The German situation was dire. Scheer’s vessels were closely bunched as a result of their earlier sharp turns. The congestion at the head of the fleet was so severe that some ships were forced to stop to avoid collisions with their sisters. One officer described the situation as an ‘absoluten Wurstkessel!’ A tornado of British fire swept through the German line. Salvo after salvo shrieked in from the east, with the source only visible from the constant gun flashes that illuminated the horizon.

With the 1st Scouting Group gone from the battle, the British were able to concentrate every available gun on Scheer’s dreadnoughts. The damage was catastrophic. A shell smashed into the engine room of the Markgraf and exploded with dreadful force. A survivor recalled: ‘The terrific air pressure resulting from [an] explosion in a confined space roars through every opening and tears through every weak spot. Men were picked up by that terrific air pressure and tossed to a horrible death among the machinery.’ Grosser Kurfurst was struck by a 15-inch round that blew a thirty-foot-wide hole below her waterline and caused her to list sharply to port. A shell ripped through a casemate gun battery aboard Kaiser and ignited stored ammunition, causing a huge gout of flame to erupt from the side of the ship.

With his battleships reeling under the remorseless guns of the Grand Fleet, Scheer desperately ordered a second Gefechtskehrtwendung. But the manoeuvre was no easy matter under heavy fire, with the High Seas Fleet dangerously bunched and forced to steer around the crippled Markgraf. In the confusion Kronprinz and Prinzregent Luitpold collided, with both ships suffering severe damage as a result. Attempting to buy time, Scheer ordered his torpedo boat flotillas to rush the Grand Fleet and launch a mass torpedo attack.

The small vessels raced towards the Grand Fleet, braving a barrage of fire from the secondary batteries of the battleships. Jellicoe responded by steering his ships away from the oncoming attack, causing many of the torpedoes to run out of range well short of his battle line. The few that reached the battleships were easily avoided. The manoeuvre was a ‘skilful dodge’ that left Jellicoe’s line undamaged and fully formed.

However, the turn away had broken contact with Scheer’s ships, which had disappeared into the gloomy twilight, leaving behind only the stricken Markgraf, which was swiftly ‘blotted out’ by a hail of heavy shells. Steering towards Scheer’s last position, Jellicoe’s ships sporadically opened fire at dim sightings in the mist, but the fading light prevented a renewal of battle.

The darkness saved the High Seas Fleet from complete destruction, but the German fleet experienced a harrowing night. On several occasions the picket lines of light cruisers and destroyers brushed against one another, prompting sudden, savage skirmishes in which both sides lost ships. More seriously for Scheer, British destroyer flotillas slipped through the German cruiser screen to launch daring torpedo attacks against his battleships. In the confused engagement that followed, the German pre-dreadnought Pommern was hit and sank with all hands.

As the night wore on, Scheer planned his escape route. He guessed that the British would be steaming south to try and cut off his retreat. He hoped to slip behind them and take his surviving ships home to Wilhelmshaven via the Horns Reef. He reasoned Jellicoe would be unlikely to pursue for fear of running into hidden German minefields.

But Room 40 was a step ahead. At 10.10 p.m. they had decrypted a signal from Scheer which asked for zeppelin reconnaissance over Horns Reef at first light. The message was in Jellicoe’s hands by 10.30 p.m. and he altered the Grand Fleet’s course to intercept Scheer at first light. This was not a simple manoeuvre and involved a great deal of what Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt described as ‘groping in the dark’. Tensions were high and the night was punctuated by sudden bursts of gunfire at real or imagined targets.

Both British and German officers anxiously scanned the horizon as the grey dawn began to break over the North Sea. However, it was the weather – the ultimate arbiter of naval warfare – that would define the engagement of 1 June. The sea around Horns Reef was shrouded with dense fog that gradually broke up into thick clouds of drifting mist. Visibility was poor and information sketchy.

In places the mist suddenly cleared and short, sharp actions broke out. These engagements proved fatal for several damaged German vessels. The most serious loss was the Prinzregent Luitpold. The ship was already listing due to severe damage below the waterline as a result of her earlier collision when she was suddenly engaged at long range by Benbow. Prinzregent Luitpold was hit several times in the brief exchange of fire that followed, causing further flooding and forcing her crew to abandon ship.

However, there was to be no general engagement on 1 June. Visibility was poor and although Jellicoe was aware from sighting reports that he was in rough proximity to the southbound High Seas Fleet, he was increasingly concerned that he was in danger of leading his vessels into one of the many German minefields in the area. Ultimately, a fresh Room 40 decrypt informed Jellicoe that Scheer was in the region of Heligoland to the south. The High Seas Fleet had slipped away in the mist. Jellicoe was disappointed and afterwards criticised himself for not pressing the retreating Germans harder, but he was comforted by a letter from Beatty in which the latter reminded his commander, ‘When you are winning, risk nothing.’

Nevertheless, it was clear that the Royal Navy had won a striking victory. The High Seas Fleet had been mauled, losing four battlecruisers in the form of Lutzow, Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Von der Tann, five battleships – König, Kaiser, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf, and Prinzregent Luitpold – as well as the pre-dreadnought Pommern and a considerable number of lighter ships. In addition, unbeknownst to the British the battleship Ostfriesland struck a mine on its way home and sank.

The Battle of Jutland was over. The triumph was not quite on the scale of Trafalgar, but it was a great victory for the Royal Navy all the same.

The Fruits of Victory

The Grand Fleet returned home in a jubilant mood. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Germans and suffered few casualties in return – Indefatigable was the only British capital ship lost during the fighting. Jellicoe was the hero of the hour and was lauded by press, public, and navy. Beatty also received lavish praise, although he was heard to grumble that without the efforts of his battlecruisers the battle would never have occurred, much less been won. After almost two years of difficulties and setbacks on the land front, the British public savoured the moment of triumph. The ‘spell of Trafalgar’ had been recast.

The Admiralty soon sought to capitalise on the victory. There was bold talk of withdrawing the Royal Naval Division from the Western Front and using it in an amphibious assault against one of the small islands that dotted the German North Sea coast. Daring attacks on Heligoland and Borkum were proposed as a precursor to a landing on the coastline of Germany itself. However, the painful lessons of Gallipoli were still fresh in British minds and there was little appetite for another risky amphibious operation. Furthermore, such naval adventures would needlessly place elements of the Grand Fleet at risk and allow the Germans to extract some measure of revenge for Jutland.

Nevertheless some of the bolder officers of the Royal Navy saw merit in making feints against the German coast. They reasoned that the psychological effect of ‘demonstrations, raids, and harassment’ in enemy waters would be considerable. The inability of the High Seas Fleet to prevent such operations would be revealed, thereby harming public morale and perhaps even persuading the German General Staff to transfer additional army resources to defend the coast.

Over the course of 1916 the Royal Navy launched several raids against German coastal islands and associated shipping. The highly trained Harwich Force and its dynamic commander, Commodore Roger Keyes, were at the forefront of these operations. Although the attackers were at risk from mines and submarines, they were secure in the knowledge that the battleships of the cowed High Seas Fleet would not emerge to destroy them. Germany’s coastal defence forces consisted of small or obsolete vessels that were no match for the modern destroyers and light cruisers of Harwich Force. Several German ships were intercepted and sunk during raids in June and July. In August, Harwich Force took advantage of a captured map that revealed the swept channels in the German minefields and carried out a daring bombardment against shore installations on Heligoland. One of the shells struck an overstocked magazine and caused a huge explosion that was visible on the German coastline. The incident sparked alarm amongst the civilian population, who feared that it was a precursor to a British invasion. As a result, the army sent additional forces to Hamburg and invested considerable effort in improving Germany’s coastal defences.

The most important consequence of the Battle of Jutland was the tightening of the Allied blockade. Although the naval cordon was already formidable, there were some weaknesses that allowed neutral powers to continue trade with Germany. For example, Norway had continued to trade materials such as coal, copper ore, and nickel on the basis that they were not classed as contraband under the terms of the London Naval Conference of 1909. However, the dominance of the Royal Navy after Jutland allowed Britain to pressure Norway and other neutrals into ceasing maritime trade with Germany altogether.

In addition, the victory had altered the balance of power in the Baltic. Russian and German vessels had sparred with one another throughout 1915, but Russian efforts were hampered by concerns that Germany would deploy the High Seas Fleet to the east and overwhelm Russia’s Baltic defences. Jutland removed this fear and allowed Russia to adopt a more aggressive naval strategy. Encouraged by Britain, Russia targeted Germany’s iron-ore trade with neutral Sweden. Although the delicate nature of Russo-Swedish relations made it impossible to halt the trade entirely, the efforts of the Russian Navy greatly diminished the flow of the precious raw material.

In combination, these changes applied a deep chokehold on Germany’s economic windpipe. The pressure steadily mounted in the second half of 1916 and the effects would be severely felt the following year.

Recriminations and Consequences

In Germany, the search for a scapegoat began scant hours after the battered remnants of the High Seas Fleet had limped into Wilhelmshaven. On hearing news of the disaster Wilhelm II worked himself to such a pitch of fury that witnesses feared for his health. The worst of his wrath fell upon Scheer. Citing the example of Admiral John Byng, a British officer executed by firing squad in 1757 for ‘failing to do his utmost in battle’, the Kaiser demanded that Scheer be placed on trial for his very life. The demand met with concerted opposition from officers and men of the fleet – including its new commander, Franz von Hipper – as well as from ministers and politicians.

Wilhelm II ultimately backed down in the face of threats of resignation and mutterings of mutiny in the fleet. Soon, his mood had changed from anger to despair. Depressed over the fate of his beloved navy, he refused to visit the remaining vessels of the High Seas Fleet and lost all interest in naval matters. The Kaiser’s apathy hurt the survivors of Jutland deeply, contributing to a precipitate decline in morale that would fester into open mutiny by early 1917.

The Naval Staff remained detached from the post-battle recriminations and devoted their efforts to formulating a new strategy. The possibility of an Allied landing against the German coast was studied in depth. Although the exploits of Harwich Force caused a degree of concern, the Germans judged that the British were unlikely to risk capital ships in mine-infested coastal waters. Nevertheless, the Naval Staff gratefully accepted the offer of army support and the construction of heavy-gun emplacements on the North Sea coastline.

A much more serious problem was the remorseless and intensifying blockade. Planners warned that the German economy would be brought to its knees in 1917 unless the stranglehold was broken. But how was this to be achieved? There was no prospect of defeating the Grand Fleet in battle. In the view of many key naval officers the only hope lay in the submarine. In late June, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff produced a controversial memorandum arguing that a return to unrestricted U-boat warfare was Germany’s only hope of victory. This was a risky proposal, for a new submarine campaign would bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Holtzendorff’s case rested on the belief that submarines could inflict such severe damage on maritime trade that Britain would be forced to seek terms within six to eight months. Britain would thus be defeated long before America had fully mobilised. The plan was a huge gamble, but it offered the tantalising prospect of victory.

On 1 September 1916 Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite initial successes the policy would prove disastrous. Neutral opinion was enraged and the United States declared war in November. Worse still, Britain was ultimately able to overcome the submarine menace through introducing the convoy system and assigning large numbers of destroyers from the Grand Fleet to serve as escorts. The full and terrible consequences of Germany’s policy would become apparent in 1917.

The Reality

The Battle of Jutland is one of the most studied naval engagements of all time. The debate still continues as to which side ‘won’ the battle. The Germans inflicted heavier losses, sinking the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible and only losing the battlecruiser Lutzow in return. But ultimately the High Seas Fleet fled from the engagement damaged and in disorder. The experience was sufficient to convince Scheer that future surface engagements were best avoided. As a result the German Navy would not seek battle in the North Sea for the remainder of the war. After casting about for a solution for several months, Germany finally returned to submarine warfare in February 1917. The High Seas Fleet languished in harbour and was wracked by mutiny in November 1918.

There are innumerable ‘what ifs’ around the Battle of Jutland, many of which focus on the contrasting personalities and decisions of Beatty and Jellicoe. Much of the interest of Jutland centres on how close the British came to a crushing victory. Historically, the British had a tremendous advantage in the form of Room 40 and possession of the German code books. As described in the story, British intelligence on Scheer’s movements was so good that the Grand Fleet actually set sail before the High Seas Fleet had left port. Such accurate intelligence placed the initiative firmly in the Royal Navy’s hands. Beatty managed to lead the unsuspecting High Seas Fleet into range of Jellicoe’s guns and Scheer’s ships were in mortal danger, particularly when they blundered into the Grand Fleet for the second time. However, Jellicoe lost sight of the enemy by turning away to avoid a torpedo attack and was unable to regain contact in the evening gloom.

In this scenario the main change to the history is technical rather than tactical. A fundamental problem for the Royal Navy was the inadequacy of their armour-piercing shells. A detailed study of damage at Jutland discovered that British armour-piercing shells managed to penetrate heavy armour and explode internally on just one occasion (a 15-inch hit from Revenge on Derfflinger). Historically, Jellicoe was aware of the problems with British shells as early as 1910, but made little effort to make changes.

In the story these problems are corrected by Jellicoe prior to the war. I have assumed the Royal Navy are equipped with the improved shells that appeared in 1917–18, making British gunnery far more powerful. I have also had the navy adopt the ‘double salvo’ system prior to the war; historically it was introduced post-Jutland to speed up gunnery, but there is no reason why it could not have been introduced earlier.

The main tactical change in the scenario is Beatty’s performance in the opening of the battle. In reality, Beatty made a serious tactical error by leaving the 5th Battle Squadron too far behind his battlecruisers, thus denying himself their powerful support in the engagement against Hipper. Here I have assumed he handles his forces with more skill and keeps the Queen Elizabeth class close. This would have dramatically changed the nature of the fighting and probably saved the Queen Mary from destruction. Finally, I have introduced the Room 40 decrypt that revealed Scheer was heading to Horns Reef, thus allowing the Grand Fleet a few parting shots. Historically, it remains a mystery why this message was never passed on to Jellicoe.

I am very grateful to Dr Philip Weir for his assistance in researching this scenario.

By Spencer Jones

The Battle of the Bekaa Valley

Israel gives high priority to destroying and suppressing the enemy’s air- and land-based air defense capability during the initial stages of the battle. The potential scale of Israel’s success in suppressing Syrian air defenses in a future battle over the Golan is indicated by the fact that during the 1982 war, Israel essentially broke the back of the Syrian surface-to-air missile network in the Beka’a Valley in one day, on June 9. Israel shot down over 80 Syrian fighters and lost only one A-4 in flying a total of over 1,000 combat sorties-including the sorties delivered against Syrian ground-based air defenses in the Beka’a. Israel also was able to devote an extraordinary percentage of its total sorties to the attack mission, although it should be noted that even in the 1973 war, some 75 percent of all IAF sorties were attack sorties.

On the ground, when the Israelis finally launched their main assault, the Syrians were ready for it. The 1st Armored Division, reinforced with additional artillery and commando units, was fully deployed in the valley and had been improving its defensive positions for two days. The Syrians deployed with their 76th and 91st Armored Brigades forward, dug-in across the valley floor, anchoring their lines in the mountains on either side. In addition, the Syrians had worked the natural obstacle of Lake Qir’awn into their defensive scheme in the western Bekaa. The 1st Armored Division’s mechanized brigade, the 58th, was deployed in-depth, dug-in behind the two armored brigades, where it could serve either as a secondary line of defense or a reserve that could be brought forward to aid the armored brigades. The Syrians also deployed teams of commandos backed by armor in antitank ambushes farther south to delay, disrupt, and attrite the Israeli forces before they hit the main defense line. Meanwhile, the T-72-equipped 3rd Armored Division was en route to the Bekaa and was expected to arrive some time on June 11.

During the afternoon of June 9, while the IAF was butchering Syria’s air and air defense forces, the Israeli Bekaa Forces Group slogged their way along the narrow roads of the southern entrance to the valley. On a number of occasions, Syrian helicopter gunships—and occasionally fixed-wing aircraft—attacked the Israeli columns, causing little damage but forcing them to take cover and slowing their advance. In addition, the Israelis constantly encountered Syrian commando ambushes, which further slowed and frustrated them. The Syrian commandos were usually well-deployed and tough to root out. Several Israeli units lost armored vehicles and men to these ambushes, while all were slowed by the need to move cautiously and clear out the stubborn Syrian defenders whenever they did trip an ambush.

The Israelis had learned to use infantry, air strikes, and armor when possible, to clear the surrounding hills when they encountered dug-in Syrian antitank teams, but this was a time-consuming process, and the Syrians fought hard and mostly retreated in good order when their positions became untenable. Nevertheless, Syrian aim was poor and the commandos and their armor rarely tried to get out and maneuver against the Israelis. These problems, and the superb gunnery and quick improvisational skills of the Israelis, tended to minimize the actual damage the Syrian commandos were able to inflict, but the lost time was important. Especially since Israel knew that the destruction of the Syrian SAMs would bring immense superpower pressure on them to agree to a ceasefire.

The Israelis finally attacked the main Syrian defense line in the Bekaa in the early morning of June 10. The Syrians were outnumbered in the assault: the reinforced Syrian 1st Armored Division had 350–400 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, and approximately 150 ATGM-equipped BRDM-2s, while the Israeli ugdot [divisions] had over 650 tanks and about 200 artillery pieces. However, the Syrians had the advantages of their dug-in defenses and the superb defensive terrain of the Bekaa.

Two of the Israeli ugdot struck the Syrian lines in the west, on either side of Lake Qir’awn, while the 252nd Armored Division hit the eastern flank of the Syrian lines anchored on the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. Although all three Israeli attacks were frontal assaults against dug-in Syrian units in excellent defensive terrain, which prevented the Israelis from deploying more than a fraction of their forces for the assault, the Israelis punched through rapidly on all three axes. In the far west, the Syrians deployed only light covering forces, believing the terrain too rough for an Israeli armored drive, with the result that the Israelis quickly broke through the Syrian lines and began driving deep into the Bekaa along the eastern slope of the Lebanon range.

The main battle, however, took place to the east of Lake Qir’awn where the Israeli 90th Armored Division attacked up the main north-south road in the Bekaa. The Syrian high command recognized this as a critical threat and fed in ever more reserves to try to stop the Israelis. Although the terrain prevented the Israelis from deploying their full force and the Syrians were well entrenched on the surrounding hills, the Israelis constantly worked against the Syrian flanks, maneuvering for advantage and using their superb gunnery skills to pick off Syrian armored vehicles and grind down the Syrian forces. By 1500 hours, the Syrian lines had buckled and the 90th Division had broken through. In the east, the Israeli 252nd Armored Division drove through the Syrian lines fairly easily, and by late afternoon they were threatening to link up with the 90th Division and encircle the remnants of the forward brigades of the Syrian 1st Armored Division.

Yet the trap never snapped shut, and much of the 1st Armored Division was able to escape as a result of Israeli mistakes. Of greatest importance, most of the Israeli units did not aggressively pursue the retreating Syrians and moved at an almost leisurely pace. Despite the urgency in Tel Aviv for the BFG to reach the Beirut-Damascus highway before nightfall, Ben Gal’s units moved slowly and deliberately. Without Israeli pressure, the Syrians retreated reasonably well, conducting fighting withdrawals all across the front and maintaining good unit cohesion, except among those formations that had suffered most in the combat with the Israelis earlier in the day. On one occasion, a Syrian commando unit conducted a spoiling attack against an Israeli armored unit near Rashayyah, which only destroyed one APC and killed a few soldiers, but still disrupted the Israeli formation and delayed its advance. In addition, the Syrians threw their helicopter gunships into the melee to slow down the Israelis and cover the retreat of their ground forces. The Syrian Gazelles and Mi-24 Hinds generally caused only minor damage to the Israelis, but they further slowed the already cautious advance.

For the most part, the sluggish pace of the Israeli pursuit appears to have been the product of their experience over the previous four days, during which they had been constantly ambushed by Syrian commandos. This seems to have made the IDF reticent to engage in any sort of headlong advance through the hills of the Bekaa, even after cracking the main Syrian lines and putting the 1st Armored Division to flight.

This caution was further reinforced when an Israeli battalion accidentally ran into several battalions of the Syrian 58th Mechanized Brigade, plus other elements of the 1st Armored Division regrouping around the town of Sultan Yaqub during the afternoon of June 10. Most of the Syrian units were part of the second line of defense, and they were not aware that the Israelis had gotten so far north. The vanguard of an Israeli armored brigade pushed into the town against no resistance and then out the other side only to suddenly find itself in the midst of the Syrian forces.

Although the firefight became quite fierce and the Syrians had the advantage of being deployed in hills surrounding their prey on three sides, they did remarkably little damage to the trapped Israelis. The Syrian armor and APCs sat in the hills and were content to fire down on the Israelis, rather than coming down to destroy the Israeli armor in a close assault. Twice, the Syrians did send small antitank units down to attack the Israelis, but they were driven off easily by automatic weapons fire. Finally, at around 2100, the Israelis concentrated virtually every artillery piece in the Bekaa on the Syrians around Sultan Yaqub, creating a “box” of fire through which the trapped battalion was able to withdraw. The Israelis lost only eight armored vehicles at Sultan Yaqub, but the ambush had preoccupied Ben Gal’s command staff and deprived the rest of his corps of artillery support, further slowing the Israeli pursuit. Thus, by night on June 10, the Israelis had routed the 1st Armored Division, but they had not finished it off, nor had they reached the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Despite the IDF’s problems on June 10th, the defeat of the 1st Armored Division, coming on top of the destruction of Syria’s air and air defense forces, threw the Syrian high command into a state of panic. The Syrians recognized that the Israelis had powerful forces threatening to cut the Beirut-Damascus highway, which would split the Syrian forces in Lebanon. The General Staff also could not be certain that the Israelis did not intend to drive up to the Beirut-Damascus highway, turn right, and push into the Damascus plain in conjunction with an assault from the Golan. This fear prompted the Syrians to alert their forces around the capital, dispatch two independent armored brigades to block the Beirut-Damascus highway as it debouched into Syria, and order the 3rd Armored Division to establish a defensive line south of the highway with the remnants of the 1st Armored Division.

Although one of its brigades suffered heavy losses to IAF air strikes on June 10 and 11, by 1000 hours on June 11, the 3rd Armored Division was in the Bekaa and heading south to take up defensive position forward of the Beirut-Damascus highway before the Israelis could get there. The Israelis meanwhile had finally gotten going after a late start and were similarly racing north to get to the Beirut-Damascus highway before noon, when a US-brokered ceasefire was due to take effect. Shortly before then, lead elements of the 82nd Armored Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division collided with the vanguard of the Israeli corps. In the ensuing firefight, the Israelis quickly gained the upper hand through superior marksmanship and maneuver and destroyed as many as 30 T-72s before the Syrians pulled back. The Syrians were unable to knock out any of the Israeli tanks in this exchange. Nevertheless, the fight was still a sort of victory for Syria because the 3rd Armored Division had prevented the Israelis from reaching the Beirut-Damascus highway before the noon deadline.

The Syrians took at least 4,500 casualties and lost 300–350 tanks, 150 APCs, nearly 100 artillery pieces, 12 helicopters, 86 aircraft, and 29 SA-2/3/6/8 batteries. Against the Syrians, the Israelis suffered 1,067 casualties, 30 tanks lost (with another 100 damaged), and 175 APCs destroyed and damaged. Thus, the Syrians were on the wrong side of a 4:1 exchange ratio in casualties, a 10:1 ratio in tank losses, and an 86:0 ratio in aircraft losses.

BEF in Retreat 1940

Map showing the position of the British, French, Belgian and Germany armies on the evening of 25 May 1940. This was the situation when Lord Gort decided to retreat to Dunkirk, and also when Churchill decided not to evacuate the garrison of Calais.

After the shock of the events of the 20th May 1940, the British forces south of the Somme were in complete disarray. HQ 12th Division and two of its brigade HQs had survived intact but between them they could only locate one battalion of the Queen’s Regiment. Two of its battalions – 4th Buffs and 2/6th East Surreys – were nearby having been halted before they reached Abbeville and another – 6th Royal Sussex – sat in a railway siding south of Amiens. All could easily have been brought back under control had they had any signals equipment, as could the three battalions of 46th Division now cut off from their own HQ and it might have been possible to quickly reform them into a cohesive defence line along the Somme. As it was, the chance was lost simply because they were not aware of each other’s presence. Instead, it was now left to Brigadier Beauman and his Lines of Communication staff to take on the role of managing both the defence and withdrawal of millions of tons of supplies with whatever troops were to hand.

After many delays, the 1st Armoured Division had finally arrived at Cherbourg the previous day, having originally intended to reach the BEF via Le Havre but being diverted because of the bombing of that port. They were even now on their way to Rouen, the tank crews fitting their machine guns to their vehicles as they rolled along on the flat bed railway trucks bringing them north. Until reinforcements could be sent out from England, Beauman needed to gather whatever he could. The arrival of even a poorly equipped battalion like the 2/7th DWR was welcome news.

On arrival, Colonel Taylor reported to HQ 12 Division and was directed to the Nissen huts of 101 POW Camp, set up south-west of the town overlooking the docks where his men finally had the chance to get their first meal for three days and a rest, before being set to work constructing roadblocks as part of Liddel Force, another composite unit manned by local AMPC units and the former patients of the BEF’s VD hospital. Their task was the defence of the coast road into Dieppe itself. For now, though, the Germans seemed content to stay north of the Somme.

By the time the Dukes reached Dieppe, the British Line of Communications forces were beginning to recover as best they could. Also cut off by the German advance and far to the east, the 51st Highland Division was attempting to rejoin them and facing a difficult task. The Division had been deployed in the Ligne de Contact before the Maginot Line at Waldweistroff when the German assault began there on 13 May. The Highlanders had fought well until a general withdrawal had been ordered on the 15th, and on 20 May they were removed from the command of the French Third Army and put in reserve as the first stage of the pre-agreed plan to return them to the main body of the BEF. By the 23rd, the concentration of the Division at Etain was complete, ready for the next stage of a move towards Paris, but before the troops could continue, new orders arrived sending them instead to Varennes, about 30 miles from Verdun. Contrary to the terms of the Anglo-French agreement and without consultation, the Highlanders had been redeployed to the French Second Army who wanted them as a reserve for the fighting around Sedan. Following the new orders, Major-General Fortune arrived at Varennes on 25 May, only to find that six battalions of his men had been sent, without his knowledge, to Rouen instead. Infuriated, Fortune was then informed that it was no longer possible for him to rejoin the BEF and that he and his men would now fall under the command of General Robert Altmayer’s Groupement A, an improvised force later to become the French Tenth Army. They were to be deployed along the line of the Somme and would be in position by 2 June.

As the Highlanders made their way across France, the wavering Gamelin had been replaced by General Maxime Weygand and a plan to counterattack was taking shape. Gort had already set in motion an attack to be launched near Arras to relieve the garrison there and to threaten the German flanks. As this attack went forward, it was hoped that the French V Corps under General Rene Altmayer (brother of the Tenth Army commander), would attack northwards to link up and cut the German lines. Gort, fearful of his army becoming encircled, refused to commit large numbers of his badly needed men and instead sent a force of two reserve divisions – in reality little more than two battalions by now – and 83 tanks. The attack was a success in that it caused the Germans to hold back their lightning advance, now seen as potentially overstretching the force and exposing vulnerable flanks, thus contributing to the infamous ‘stop order’ issued by Hitler that saved the 2/5th West Yorkshires on the 24/25th. The anticipated French attack, however, never materialised. The liaison officer sent to find Altmayer reported that the general, who:

… seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. He told me his troops had buggered off. He was ready to accept the consequences of this refusal [to go to Arras] … but he could no longer continue to sacrifice the Army Corps of which he had already lost half.

Despite this, Weygand now proposed a similar scheme, but on a much grander scale. Eight British divisions, supported by the French First Army and Belgian cavalry, would spearhead the attack south to link up with the French armies below the Somme. Weygand spelled out his plan at a meeting at Ypres but Gort was not present. The only officer able to deal in detail with the joint plan was then killed in a traffic accident and the plan was doomed. With a command structure incapable of responding to the speed of the fighting, the collapse of the Belgian Army and the lack of support from his allies, Gort’s confidence in the command and fighting abilities of the latter disappeared. From the highest levels, it seemed, the French authorities had accepted defeat and the fall of France was now inevitable. Despite the British government’s orders to co-operate fully with the French, he decided that the time had come to use his discretionary powers and save the BEF by withdrawing to Dunkirk.

Many in the French High Command, keen to find a scapegoat for the failures of their own staff, chose to portray Gort’s decision to evacuate the BEF as betrayal by ‘perfidious Albion’ and to use it as a bargaining tool as Churchill came under increasing pressure to commit more of Britain’s last line of defence – the RAF’s fighter squadrons – to the battle immediately. French fighter losses had been heavy, but in reality delivery of new aircraft so exceeded their losses that by the end of the fighting, the French air force was actually larger than at the start. These aircraft, however, sat unused far to the south. The need to keep France in the war was urgent, but Churchill had to consider whether the French determination to seemingly defend their country only to the last Briton could be allowed to outweigh the needs of his own people. In France, Fortune and his men would now become the sacrificial gesture needed to prove to France and the world that Britain would support its allies to the end.

As German tanks reached Abbeville, the British 1st Armoured Division under Major-General Evans finally reached Cherbourg. Too late to reach the BEF, the leading elements of the division were rushed forward to Rouen, and on 23 May the Queen’s Bays, one of the three cavalry units forming 2nd Armoured Brigade, received an order to seize bridges across the Somme – ‘Immediate advance of whatever elements of your Division are ready is essential. Action at once may be decisive; tomorrow may be too late.’ Evans was aware of the risk of committing his forces piecemeal into an attack but had no way of contacting GHQ to question the order and no alternative chain of command except to contact Gort via London, a slow, unwieldy process. Pushed into the assault supported by troops supplied from the best battalions Beauman could offer, the Bays fought well but found themselves too thinly spread to achieve any real success.

General Georges decided to use the two British divisions to carry out Weygand’s doomed plan to force a link with the northern group and the BEF. Two armoured brigades – the 2nd comprising the Bays, 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers and 10th Royal Hussars and the 3rd comprising 2nd and 5th Royal Tank Regiment (the 3rd RTR having been diverted to support the defence of Calais) – were hastily formed up. The 2nd, on the right, would be under the command of the French 2nd Cavalry Division and the 3rd on the left under the French 5th Division. Evans argued with the French that his division was not equipped for assault, but for pursuit. He was ignored and on the morning of 27 May, the tanks began to roll forward. Although the Germans had been in position for a full week, no real reconnaissance had been carried out and the 10th Hussars, unable to communicate with the French gunners who had postponed their barrage for one hour, went forward unsupported into a sector supposedly held by lightly armed Germans only to find themselves shot to pieces by heavy and accurate anti-tank fire. Their tanks disabled, the Hussars pushed forward on foot armed with pistols and, in one case, just a crowbar.

To their right, the Bays were caught on an open slope by well concealed guns and lacked the smoke canisters that might have provided some cover. The brigade commander, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, held back the 9th Lancers in reserve. The 3rd Brigade made better progress and advanced towards Abbeville and St Valery-sur-Somme. Having lost eighteen tanks, their commander, Brigadier Crocker, tried to organise a co-ordinated assault with French infantry but the promised support again failed to materialise. The 1st Armoured’s attack ground to a halt with the loss of 65 of its tanks destroyed and another 55 broken down from the long and rushed move forward. It was out of action as a co-ordinated whole. General de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division now launched its attack – Weygand’s plan envisaged consecutive, never concurrent, attacks – and took over the assault with its heavier tanks now better aware of the enemy dispositions. Even this was not enough and the Division withdrew.

The disastrous failure of the counterattack at Abbeville was yet another indication of the problems facing the British. Twenty-four hours after the loss of contact with the BEF, word finally reached HQ L of C at Le Mans of the previous day’s events. In near panic, General de Fonblanque issued orders for the immediate removal of all guns north of the Seine and the destruction of any that could not be moved, much to the dismay of Brigadiers Beauman and Shilstone. From the start of the war, the British had been acutely aware of their shortage of weapons. Even before the German attack began, efforts were underway to locate Belgian arsenals with a view to recovering as many anti-aircraft guns as possible if it looked as though the country might be overrun. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the German success in isolating the BEF caused de Fonblanque to consider saving the guns as his top priority; but Brigadier Shilstone, commanding all anti-aircraft defences in the Northern District, chose not to comply, realising that it would leave the vital depots at Rouen and Le Havre completely defenceless in the face of a situation that was, as yet, uncertain. For now, it seemed that the Germans might be held along the line of the Somme, or the Bresle or, at worst, the Seine, but to do so meant developing a co-ordinated plan.

In Britain, General Ironside was made aware of de Fonbalnque’s orders on the evening of the 21st and countermanded them immediately but recognised the evidence of the chaotic conditions prevailing across the Channel. In an attempt to rectify matters, he called on Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Karslake, another victim of Hore-Belisha’s purge in the late 1930s and now in retirement at home. With orders to ‘Get out all you can without alarming the French,’ Karslake sailed the next day armed with a list of priority stores considered essential to Britain’s survival should France fall. The intention was that his arrival would relieve de Fonblanque of the operational management of the Lines of Communication and leave him ‘free to concentrate on the very big administrative problems which will arise’ but when word of the change reached de Fonblanque at 0110hrs on 23 May, he is said to have torn off his insignia in disgust and exclaimed that he might as well serve as a private. After this uncharacteristic outburst, he soon regained his composure and remained in France until sent home at the end of the campaign.

The priority now, Karslake thought, was to put together a scratch defence force to protect the most important depots so that the vital equipment could be removed and evacuated. This force could then also provide a defence line along the rivers to cover the withdrawal of advanced troops should a retreat be necessary. To that end he set about contacting General Georges – still in overall command of the British units – at the HQ of the French Northern Forces. He followed this with a meeting with Beauman at Rouen.

Beauman had already set about the task of establishing a defence force for the L of C, inevitably now called Beauforce. He had passed responsibility for the administrative tasks to his sub-area commanders and was preparing improvised units from infantry base depots and the AMPC. Ironically, these men, largely discounted by Gort and the BEF, were often experienced reservists and better trained than many of their front line compatriots. There was a large cadre of veterans of the First World War who had survived the great ‘Operation Michael’ offensive of 1918 that had almost pushed the BEF into the sea and morale was still high amongst such men. They also had confidence in their commander, who had first led a brigade at the age of 29 and had been one of the youngest generals in the British Army by 1918. He had hoped for better than the treatment he received after the war and, like Karslake, had been retired early. In the current situation he had been given carte blanche by de Fonblanque to do as he saw fit and he had seen in the situation a chance to shine and perhaps to resurrect his military career, so it was a guarded meeting when Karslake first arrived. Karslake, though, was sympathetic and the two men quickly established a good working relationship as Beauman explained his use of the forces available to him to throw a screen north and east of Rouen with its left flank at Dieppe. Karslake agreed and suggested that the screen should be organised on divisional lines.

Karslake also took the opportunity to meet with General Evans of the 1st Armoured and soon realised that the common problem was a sheer lack of information. Immediately he ordered the formation of motorcycle reconnaissance teams under the command of officers from the Royal Tank Regiment to find out exactly where British and French units were and, if possible, German locations too. Without a staff, he made do with the help of only a small number of officers on the ground but managed to complete a detailed report for Ironside by midday on Saturday the 25th. The officer entrusted with delivering this report was taken seriously ill during the flight to the UK so Karslake himself returned that evening, reaching the office of General Ironside at around 2100hrs. There, it was agreed that Beauforce would be formally restructured as a division and two experienced brigadiers recently returned from Norway with knowledge of German tactics would be sent out to work under Beauman as brigade commanders. Karslake, meanwhile, would be given the role of Corps Commander and assume control of all British forces still in France under one unified HQ.

Unfortunately, Ironside was in the process of handing over his post and taking up the command of all Home Forces from Monday 27 May. His replacement, Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill, had returned the day before from a visit to Gort in France and was, presumably, very much aware that the BEF had lost contact with the forces south of the Somme and that French command and control was disintegrating. After the Germans reached the Channel coast, over 140,000 British troops – a number roughly equivalent to that of the entire Allied landing force on D-Day four years later – had been left leaderless. Any communication with Gort had to be sent via London but if Gort had shown little interest in the Lines of Communication before, at least now he had an excuse to be preoccupied. The remaining men were on their own.

Clearly, Ironside’s decision to appoint a single commander to manage the British south of the Somme made sound sense, but for some reason some of the decisions made that evening were never ratified and chief among the orders that were never enacted when Dill took over was that giving Karslake any authority to assume command. Charitably, one might suggest that Dill chose not to follow this plan because he misunderstood the intention and thought it better that Karslake concentrate on the removal of stores rather than combat. Equally, it is possible that he decided to ignore it because he disliked Ironside and, by extension, any potential supporter of Ironside. There is even some evidence that he may have cancelled the order giving Karslake command in the knowledge that his own friend, General Sir Alan Brooke, would be part of the ‘Second BEF’ Churchill was already proposing should be raised and sent to Normandy. If Karslake had command there, Brooke could not be given it. Indeed, one of Brooke’s first actions on arriving in France with the new BEF four days before the final collapse was to order Karslake home – sending the man perhaps best placed to advise him on the situation away within two hours of arriving on French soil and without bothering with any handover briefing.

Whatever the truth, Dill’s decision to cancel Ironside’s orders left the British in France without any centralised command. To compound the problem, Dill then appointed Lieutenant General James Marshall-Cornwall to head No17 British Military Mission with orders to work with the French Army HQ to:

… see every order issued to the British troops, and to report at once to the CIGS if I considered that their survival would be imperilled unnecessarily … [Vice CIGS Lieutenant General Robert] Haining added that it was the Prime Minister’s intention that the British troops should continue to fight to the last extremity in order to give the French no excuse for abandoning the struggle.

Taking up his role on 29 May, he arrived in France on the 31st, completely unaware of Karlsake’s appointment and later complaining that Karslake’s actions in assuming command were ‘injudicious’.

The divisional structure for the Beauman Division had been put in place by 28 May and orders formally raising it were issued by the War Office on the 31st. It is a measure of the confusion Dill had brought with him that the same day he himself ordered its disbandment and the evacuation of its personnel. Karslake was prepared to lose the now redundant HQ 12 Division but was reluctant to see the Beauman Division go. Obliged to comply with Whitehall, he immediately went to General Georges to discuss arrangements. Georges was astonished at the request. Although under no illusions about its origins and weaknesses, Georges pointed out that quite apart from its value in holding its present line, its removal would sent a powerful signal to the French that the British were once again heading for home at the first opportunity. As a result of George’s intervention, Dill reluctantly backed down.

Formally constituted as the first British Army division named after its commander since the Napoleonic wars, Beauman Division consisted of ‘A’ Brigade, (formerly Beauforce) now under the command of Brigadier Green and comprising the 4th Buffs, 2/6th East Surreys, 4th Borders and 1/5th Sherwood Foresters; ‘B’ Brigade (formerly Vickforce) under Brigadier Kent-Lemon and formed around three ‘Provisional Battalions’ – the 1st, 2nd and 3rd but more usually known as ‘Merry’s’, ‘Davies’ and ‘Newcombs’ Rifles respectively. ‘C’ Brigade (formerly Digforce) under Lieutenant-Colonel Diggle was made up of three AMPC battalions – ‘P’, ‘Q’ and ‘R’. To this, he was able to add divisional troops from the three 46th Division battalions stranded south of the Somme and ‘Symes Battalion’. This last was to prove a highly effective example of improvisation, welding soldiers from over 30 different regiments into a single fighting force capable of proving a greater obstacle to the German advance than much of the BEF had managed to accomplish.

Against Beauman and Karslake’s rapid progress in reorganizing the L of C, thus far Dill had managed only to create a system in which General de Fonblanque was in command of the administration of the L of C with Brigadier (now acting Major-General) Beauman commanding the defensive screen and both were answerable to Karlsake who, in turn, answered to General Georges at French Northeastern Command HQ. General Evans, commanding the 1st Armoured Division, was meanwhile answerable to Gort’s GHQ but could only communicate after considerable delay via London as all lines connecting the BEF to the south had been cut and thus was at the mercy of any more senior officer to himself. General Fortune, whose 51st Highland Division were still under French command but working their way back to the British sector from Paris, was answerable to General Ihler of the French IXth Corps but also both Fortune and Ihler were directly under General Altmayer of the French Tenth Army. All were also required to take orders from Whitehall which could conflict with any orders from the French, but would be forced to argue their case whilst agreement between London and General Georges could be met.

In all this, Marshall-Cornwall’s role was ostensibly to act as a liaison officer at Altmayer’s HQ and to co-ordinate British and French efforts but his role owed more to diplomacy than generalship. He reports that he focused his attention on the 51st and 1st Armoured as the ‘only fighting formations’ still in France and dismissed ‘Beauman’s so-called division’ as simply misleading the French into believing it ‘had some fighting value’. This appears not to have simply been a military assessment but a highly personal matter. Beauman writes of having been denied promotion to Major-General because one of his rivals had learned that a member of the selection panel was keen on shooting and so had rented a game lodge where he entertained the panel member for a month. The rival was duly supported by the panel member and promoted. ‘Even if I had been prepared to sink to such tactics,’ Beauman wrote, ‘I could not have afforded them.’ In Marshall-Cornwall’s memoirs, he writes of having added his uncle’s name of Marshall in order to gain an inheritance. He was thus able to rent a mansion near Perth with ‘250 acres of good rough shooting, including a fringe of grouse moor.’ He also notes that this lasted for about two years before ‘I was promoted to the rank of Major-General at the age of 47. This was an early promotion in those days.’ Having gained his colonelcy in 1918 as a result of his staff work in the intelligence field, Marshall-Cornwall felt that this gave him seniority so it is little wonder that Beauman, who ended the war as one of the youngest Brigadier-Generals after leading the 69th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Division during fighting in Italy and before that serving almost continuously as an infantry officer from the outbreak of war, felt that he had been cheated by a technicality – he had not been given sufficient seniority for substantive rank. Throughout his memoir, he refers to Marshall-Cornwall only as the ‘Senior British Officer’ whilst Marshall-Cornwall in turn manages just two passing references to Beauman and in his post campaign report is highly critical of Beauman’s willingness to allow his men to use their initiative. In particular, he notes that Beauman issued orders that his men would be:

… required to give the maximum resistance possible without getting encircled. Orders for your retirement are left to your discretion, but should not be given until the enemy is reasonably near or there is a definite danger of encirclement … This is a very different spirit from Haig’s order of 12 April, 1918: ‘Every position must be held to the last man … With our backs to the wall and, believing in the justice of our cause, each of us must fight to the end.’

Although quickly deciding that the French had lost control of the battle and describing a meeting with Altmayer and the French Commander in Chief Weygand marked by Weygand becoming ‘hysterical’ and ‘screaming’ that positions should be held to the last, with men fighting with their teeth if necessary, it seems odd that Marshall-Cornwall then goes on to criticise Beauman for not taking this same suicidal attitude, especially since he says he was there to avoid British troops being ‘imperilled unnecessarily’ and, in any case, did not regard Beauman’s men as fighting troops. His account is filled with similar apparent contradictions, stating for example, that the 51st Division was ‘not under my orders, but I felt that it was under my wing’ – an odd comment given that he had been sent specifically to guard its interests but perhaps one seemingly calculated to distance himself from the division’s eventual fate. Equally, he wrote to Evans that his own ‘personal feeling and advice to you’ was that Evans must be prepared to sacrifice some of his men ‘to bolster up the French’, even though this would involve Evans deploying his men in ‘an illegitimate role, but I feel this must be accepted.’

For their part, it seems that Generals Beauman, Fortune and Evans had little respect for Marshall-Cornwall or his abilities. Other than brief visits to the front as part of his staff officer duties, Marshall-Cornwall had no combat experience and had never commanded a formation in action. Beauman, for example, describes a ‘stormy interview’ at French Army HQ with Marshall-Cornwall:

This officer had during his service held a long series of staff and military attaché appointments. As a result his knowledge of the handling and management of troops was not based on much personal experience and he appeared to think that they could be moved about like chess pieces regardless of fatigue and the state of their equipment.

After threatening to report Beauman to the War Office, the matter was settled by General Altmayer, who ‘proved much more reasonable’. Marshall-Cornwall himself refers to an incident in which General Evans ‘explained to me forcibly’ that his tanks were in need of maintenance before they could undertake further action – although accepting Evans was ‘right to do so’. It is clear from both his own memoirs and from other accounts at the time that he could contribute little more than an extra level of confusion to the situation and was either powerless or unwilling to countermand French orders for fear of the potential impact on his career rather than his duties to the British troops whose fate he would determine. In his rather self-congratulatory memoirs, he dismisses Karslake as ‘the fifth wheel on the coach’ but, this being the case, he himself became the sixth wheel. What was really needed now was a driver, but that chance had been missed.

The Grimbosq Bridgehead

On 6 August, 176th Brigade, 59th Division, crossed the Orne near Bas de Brieux (near Grimbosq). The 271.ID fought fiercely, but the English were able establish a bridgehead. Kampfgruppe Wünsche counter-attacked on 7 and 8 August with Panther tanks and Tigers from 2nd Company.

SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche, commander of Kampfgruppe Wünsche.

However, the intervention of the 271.Infanterie-Division and Kampfgruppe Wünsche at the bridgehead prevented the 89.Infanterie-Division collapsing of its left flank. Despite their bridgehead, the British would remain temporarily blocked, unable to extend it, and this decisive action remained limited within the context of Operation Totalize.

However, at the time of the fighting, at 21:40 on 7 August, Heeresgruppe B ordered the transfer of the Hitlerjugend Division to reinforce the Panzergruppe, who were fighting next to the 7th Army. The transfer operations were activated and Kampfgruppe Wünsche was to follow at 10:00 on 8 August, after the destruction of the Grimbosq bridgehead. But two hours after the order arrived, at 19:45 on 7 August, SS-Brigadeführer Kraemer told the Panzerarmee that shelling was taking place in the Bretteville-sur-Laize sector and between Boulon and Grimbosq. Meanwhile, violent Allied artillery fire was falling on the German front line, which was the sign of an imminent offensive, and Kraemer requested that the Hitlerjugend Division remained at the disposal of I.SS-Panzer-Korps. It would eventually stay in the sector and thus play an important role in Operation Totalize.

The 12.SS-Panzer-Division was no longer at full strength, having suffered casualties following two months of heavy fighting, and some of its elements had been detached to the west (Kampfgruppe Olboeter). It currently comprised of Kampfgruppe Wünsche (as we have seen), which gathered all available panzers, Panthers at the Grimbosq bridgehead;, thirty-nine Panzer IVs, and around twenty Tigers (2nd and 3rd companies of SS Panzer-Abteilung 101), three grenadier battalions (I./25, I./26, III./26) and artillery (SS-Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 12 and SS-Werfer-Abteilung 12).

On I./SS-Panzer-Korps’ right flank, to the east, the 272.Infanterie-Division would play an intermittent role against the left flank of the Allied offensive. But overall, the balance of power was very much in II Canadian Corps’ favour, which launched 60,000 men and more than 600 tanks into battle, meaning the odds were about three to one for men, and ten to one for tanks.

The 12 Manitoba Dragoons: This was the II Canadian Corps reconnaissance group and was launched into battle on 9 August 1944. 13 August was a black day for this unit, when nine vehicles were destroyed. C Squadron was in contact with elements of the 51st Infantry Highland Division in the Saint-Sylvain area. The unit would then participate in the closing of the Falaise Pocket. A Staghound from A Squadron.

The Canadian Corps

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division provided the other armed force of the offensive, and was part of the 1st Canadian Army and II Canadian Corps, commanded by Major General George Kitching. It was created in Canada in 1942 and transferred to Great Britain from the autumn of 1943. It landed in Normandy in the last week of July 1944, taking over from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on the night of 30-31 July. By 2 August it was already advancing towards Tilly-la-Campagne, although it failed to capture this position, and then came to a halt at La Hogue on 5 August. However, it was now preparing for the new operation and was comprised of an armoured brigade, as well as an infantry brigade.

– Reconnaissance was provided by the 29th Reconnaissance Regiment, The South Alberta Regiment.

– The 4th Armoured Brigade aligned the 21st Armoured Regiment (The Governor General’s Foot Guards), the 22nd Armoured Regiment (The Canadian Grenadier Guards), the 28th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Regiment) and a motorised infantry battalion attached to The Lake Superior Regiment.

– The 10th Infantry Brigade aligned The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, The Algonquin Regiment, and The Argyll and Sutherland Regiment (Princess Louise’s).

– It also included artillery from the 15th and 23rd Field Artillery Regiments, 5th Anti-Tank Regiment and the 8th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. In addition, engineering support was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Engineers and communication and information was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Signals.

Two Canadian infantry divisions would also join the offensive.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was under the command of Major General Charles Foulkes. Born on 3 January 1903, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1926, made captain by 1930, lieutenant colonel in 1940, brigadier in September 1942, then finally major general in 1944, when he took command of division on 11 January.

– Its 1st Infantry Brigade (4th Brigade), aligned The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and The Essex Scottish Regiment.

– Its 2nd Infantry Brigade (5th Brigade) aligned The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, Le Régiment de Maisonneuve and The Calgary Highlanders.

– Its 3rd Infantry Brigade (6th Brigade) aligned Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada and The South Saskatchewan Regiment.

Reconnaissance was provided by the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) and artillery was provided by the 4th, 5th and 6th Field Artillery Regiments, the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the Toronto Scottish Regiment (machine guns and mortars), the 2nd Canadian Divisional Engineers and the 2nd Canadian Divisional Signals.

The division was formed at Aldershot in 1940 and participated in the landing attempt at Dieppe in August 1942. It landed in Normandy in the first week of July 1944, attached to the II Canadian Corps with the 51st ID, and took part in Operation Atlantic from 18 July onwards. It then unsuccessfully attacked the Verrieres ridge on 20 and 21 July, before taking part in Operation Spring from the 25th. The Black Watch had lost 324 men after finally taking Verrieres, but now remained stuck at May-sur-Orne, Saint-André-sur-Orne and Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay. However, all this meant that the men knew the area well.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major General R.F.L. Keller, had been fighting in the Battle of Normandy since 6 June 1944. It was formed on 20 May 1940 and was chosen in July 1943 as the first Canadian division to land in Normandy. It fought bravely in the fighting to the west of Caen against the Hitlerjugend, and was the first to enter the city on 9 July. It was attached to the II Canadian Corp as of 11 July, along with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. It proceeded to participate in Operation Atlantic on the 18th and Operation Spring on the 25th, before finally being relieved by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on the night of 30-31 July and being sent to the rear to recuperate. On 7 July it was recalled in order to participate in Operation Totalize and would be in action on the night of 9-10 July.

– Its 7th Brigade comprised of The Royal Winnipeg Rifle Regiment (The Winnipegs), The Regina Rifle Regiment (the Reginas) and the 1st Battalion The Canadian Scottish Regiment.

– Its 8th Brigade comprised of The Queen’s Own Rifle of Canada, Le Régiment de la Chaudière and The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.

– Its 9th Brigade comprised of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada (HLI), The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders (Glens or SDG) and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders (Novas or NNSH).

Reconnaissance was provided by the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars) and artillery by the 12th, 13th and 14th Régiments, the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and the 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

The Canadian Corps also included the 51st (Highland) Division, a British unit, which was commanded by Major General Tom Gordon Rennie. He had been injured on 12 June while in charge of the 3rd Infantry Division, and then took over command of 51st Division on 26 July following the dismissal of Major General C. Bullen Smith. The division comprised of three battalions of the Black Watch, a regiment that had first been created in 1740.

– Its 152nd Brigade comprised of the 2nd and 5th Battalions The Seaforth Highlanders, and the 5th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

– Its 153rd Brigade aligned the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, and the 1st and 5th/7th Battalions The Gordon Highlanders.

– Finally, its 154th Brigade was made up of the 1st and 7th Battalions The Black Watch, and the 7th Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

German Advisors at Shanghai 1937

Seeckt served as a member of parliament from 1930 to 1932. From 1933 to 1935 he was repeatedly in China as a military consultant to Chiang Kai-shek in his war against the Chinese Communists and was directly responsible for devising the Encirclement Campaigns, that resulted in a string of victories against the Chinese Red Army and forced Mao Zedong into a 9,000 km retreat, also known as the Long March.

Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

Alexander Ernst Alfred Hermann Freiherr von Falkenhausen (29 October 1878 – 31 July 1966) was a German General and military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. Some 80,000 Chinese troops, in eight divisions, were trained and formed the elite of Chiang’s army. However, China was not ready to face Japan on equal terms, and Chiang’s decision to pit all of his new divisions in the Battle of Shanghai, despite objections from his both staff officers and von Falkenhausen, would cost him one-third of his best troops. Chiang switched his strategy to preserve strength for the eventual civil war.

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”

#

Baba Toraji, a 21-year-old employee of the exclusive department store Mag-asin Franco-Japonais, was growing more nervous for every minute that passed on the morning of August 18. A younger colleague of his, fellow Japanese Sakanichi Takaichi, had left earlier to buy bread for his colleagues, and he had not returned. In the end, Baba decided to go looking himself. It did not take long before he found Sakanichi, caught up in a Chinese crowd that had identified him as Japanese. Both men were mauled severely and left on the street. Baba was pronounced dead by the time medical personnel arrived. His younger colleague was sent to hospital with serious injuries.

Earlier in the month, a group of eight Japanese had unwisely shown up on the Bund, trying to push their way through a dense crowd. Jeers started. Someone picked up a discarded shoe and threw it at them. The Japanese broke into a run, and seven managed to escape. A huge brick went sailing through the air and hit the eighth in the back. He fell to the ground, and the mob was upon him. “Men could be seen jumping in the air to land with both feet on the unfortunate man’s body,” the North China Daily News reported. “Others, with stick and bricks that seemed to come from nowhere, belabored him from head to foot.” He was eventually rescued and hospitalized in a critical condition.

Being Japanese in Shanghai in August 1937 was dangerous. By contrast, Shanghai’s western residents only came into contact with the horrors around them in an indirect fashion. They watched the dense black smoke rising over Hongkou, and they saw the flotsam drifting down Suzhou Creek—cows, buffaloes, and a steady stream of uniformed corpses. The debris of war served as a warning that the battle was escalating and could soon engulf the foreign enclaves. It was time for the women and children to leave. A total of 1,300 British and American evacuees departed from Shanghai on August 17. The British left for Hong Kong on the Rajputana, while the Americans boarded the President Jefferson for Manila. On August 19, 1,400 more British citizens, mostly women and children, sailed on destroyers to board the Empress of Asia at Wusong.50 This was part of a scheme to evacuate a total of 3,000 British nationals, including 85 percent of the women and children in the city.

Staying on the fringe of a great battle, as the foreigners did, made life more dangerous. Even so, they were not deliberately targeted, and that made them the envy of the Chinese population. Shanghai shops saw brisk sales of the national flags of major non-belligerent nations, as Chinese residents hung them at their doorways in the hope that the sight of a Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes would ward off enemy fire, very much in the fashion that the images of guardian deities kept traditional Chinese homes safe from evil spirits. However, few had faith that anything they could do would make a difference, except running away. Desperate crowds, many uprooted from their homes in the north of the city, gathered in the International Settlement, clamoring for food. Looting soon became widespread. Crowds attacked trucks transporting rice, or smashed their way to shop supplies. The authorities were merciless in tackling the problem. On at least one occasion, French police opened fire on a crowd that had attacked a food hawker. Law enforcers in the International Settlement handed over dozens of looters to the Chinese police, knowing perfectly well they would be shot within hours.

Violence in many forms, often lethal, was meted out in liberal doses among the Chinese. An atmosphere of intense suspicion permeated the city, and everyone was a potential traitor. On the first day of fighting, six Chinese nationals were executed. All were sentenced to death for spying on behalf of the Japanese or for carrying out acts of sabotage in Zhabei and other areas under the control of the Shanghai municipal government. On another occasion, two women and seven men were decapitated for working for the Japanese. Their heads were placed on top of poles and put on display in the market square, as thousands of men, women and children watched with glee.

Following rumors published in the local press that the Japanese had bribed collaborators to poison the water supply, gangs armed with clubs and other primitive weapons raged through the streets, stopping suspicious-looking individuals. Anyone caught with a powdery substance, even medicine, was severely beaten. Fifteen innocent Chinese were killed and 40 injured that way, according to police. Even having the wrong appearance could be deadly. On the morning of August 17, an unregistered Portuguese man was beaten to death by a mob because he was thought to look Japanese. A Sikh police officer who came to his rescue was in turn badly mangled by the crowd.

One group of Shanghai residents was particularly unfortunate and unable to go anywhere, despite being directly in the middle of some of the worst fighting. They were the inmates of Ward Road Jail, Shanghai’s largest prison, located in Yangshupu. Thousands of them, along with their wardens, were trapped when the battle started. On the morning of August 17, a shell struck the prison, killing ten people and causing extensive damage to both the cells and the prison staff’s quarters. In the days that followed, the prison suffered several direct hits when Chinese artillery in Pudong or at the North Railway Station misfired.

By August 20, the penal authorities began evacuating the prisoners, starting with the criminally insane, who would pose the greatest danger if a chance grenade were to make escape possible. On August 22, a more comprehensive evacuation was planned to take place, but buses meant to bring 150 juvenile criminals to the Chinese district via the International Settlement were stopped by Japanese guards at the Garden Bridge. The juveniles were young and could be recruited for the Chinese war effort and they were returned to their prison. From then on, the evacuation drive nearly stopped, and weeks later, the Ward Road facility was still brimming with inmates, exposed to the deadly fire from both sides.

#

The Japanese marine units dispatched from Manchuria on August 16, the day of crisis for their compatriots in Shanghai, arrived in the city during the morning of August 18 and were immediately thrown into the battle. A few hours later, the Japanese Cabinet announced the formal end of a policy of non-expansion in China, which by that time had been a hollow shell for several weeks anyway. “The empire, having reached the limit of its patience, has been forced to take resolute measures,” it said. “Henceforth it will punish the outrages of the Chinese Army, and thus spur the (Chinese) government to self-reflect.”

On the same day, the British charge d’affaires in Tokyo, James Dodds, suggested a peace proposal to Japanese Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Horinouchi Kensuke. The proposal, drafted two days earlier by the British, American and French ambassadors to Nanjing, called for the transformation of Shanghai into a neutral zone based on a commitment by both China and Japan to withdraw their forces from the city. Japan was not excited about the idea, and on August 19, Horinouchi presented the British diplomat with his government’s official refusal, stating that China would have to retreat to the boundaries outlined in the truce that ended hostilities in 1932. Japan was gaining confidence.

Meanwhile, there was a growing feeling on the Chinese side that important opportunities had been missed. On August 18, Chiang Kai-shek dispatched Deputy War Minister Chen Cheng, one of his main military aides, to the Shanghai front in order to confer with Zhang Zhizhong about how to carry the battle forward. The two generals reached the conclusion that rather than focusing the attacks on the heavily fortified Hongkou area, they should turn their attention to the Yangshupu district, seeking to push through to the Huangpu River and cut the Japanese forces in two. This was the decision the German advisers and the frontline commanders had been waiting for. The gloves had come off, and the self-defeating reluctance to attack Japanese troops inside the settlement borders was gone.

As the forces that had been in Shanghai since the start of hostilities were beginning to show signs of attrition, the generals decided to place the main responsibility for the attack with the 36th Infantry Division, which had only just arrived, and was being moved to the eastern side of the Hongkou salient. It was an obvious choice, as its soldiers were from the same German-trained elite as those of the 87th and 88th Divisions. Two of the division’s four regiments were ordered to attack straight south in the direction of the Huangpu, down streets running perpendicular to the river. In order to reach the wharf area, the soldiers would have to pass five heavily defended intersections. Severe casualties were expected.

The two regiments launched the attack almost immediately, moving out in the early hours of August 19. Sabotage and incendiary bombs resulted in a number of large fires that helped improve visibility during the night fighting. However, the intersections proved a problem. The Chinese soldiers, most of whom were seeing battle for the first time, became defenseless prey to Japanese infantry posted on the rooftops or in windows on the upper floors of buildings along their route. In the absence of any other cover, they often had to duck behind the bodies of those already killed. Even so, for a brief period of time, the Chinese believed they had finally managed to break the back of the hated Japanese. “I thought we could push the enemy into the river and chase them out of Shanghai,” said Zhang Fakui, watching the battle from the other side of the Huangpu.

Once they had reached Broadway, the last street running parallel with the Huangpu River, they faced the most formidable obstacle of them all. The Japanese defenders had taken up positions on top of high walls protecting the wharfs. Dislodging them was akin to storming a medieval castle. A large steel gate formed an entrance into the wharves, but it yielded to no weapon that the Chinese had brought; even the 150mm howitzers could not destroy it. Officers and soldiers tried to scale the gate, but were mowed down by enfilading Japanese machine gun fire. Also located near the river were Japanese-owned factories, many of which had been turned into veritable fortresses. One example was the Gong Da Cotton Mill at the eastern edge of the International Settlement. Again, the Chinese attackers did not possess weaponry powerful enough to penetrate the Japanese defenses there.

While the Chinese were short of large-caliber guns, the Japanese had plenty aboard the Third Fleet anchored in the Huangpu. The 36th Infantry Division was subjected to merciless bombardment, which threw several of its units into disarray. The following night, between August 19 and 20, the 88th Infantry Division for the first time showed that its ability to wage war had been so severely compromised it was, temporarily at least, unable to carry out meaningful offensive action. When ordered to attack, it moved in a belated and reluctant fashion, and got nowhere. While the Chinese were getting weaker, the Japanese were growing stronger. The marines dispatched from Sasebo arrived in Shanghai on that same night, boosting the number of marines inside the garrison to 6,300 well-armed men.

Despite a propensity to husband expensive equipment, the Chinese decided at this point to throw major parts of their new tank force into the battle. As was the case with the German-trained divisions and the air force, this was another key asset that had taken years to build up. Following the 1932 incident, when Japan had used its armor to some effect, the Nationalist government had decided to acquire its own tank arm, purchasing tanks from a variety of European nations, including Germany, Britain and Italy. As a result of these efforts, by the outbreak of hostilities in 1937, China was able to deploy the British-built, 6-ton, single-turret Vickers model in Shanghai.

The 87th Infantry Division was given disposal of two armored companies, and it lost everything. Some of the tanks had just arrived from Nanjing, and their crews had not had any time to undertake training in coordinated attacks, or even simply to establish rapport with the local troops. As a result, the tank companies were mostly left to their own devices without infantry support. The Chinese also often neglected to seal off adjacent streets when deploying their tanks, allowing Japanese armor to outflank them and knock them out. To be sure, the Japanese, too, lacked experience in coordination between armor and infantry and frequently saw their tanks annihilated by Chinese anti-tank weapons.

On August 20, Zhang Zhizhong was inspecting the Yangshupu front when he met one of his former students from the Central Military Academy, who was in charge of a tank company that was about to attack the wharves. Some of the tanks under his command had been under repair and hastily pulled out of the workshop. “The vehicles are no good,” the young officer complained. “The enemy fire is fierce, and our infantry will have trouble keeping up.” Zhang was relentless, telling the young officer that the attack had to be carried through to the end nonetheless. A few moments later the tank company started its assault. The young officer and his entire unit were wiped out in a hail of shells, many of them fired from vessels anchored in the Huangpu River. “It saddens me even today when I think about it,” Zhang wrote many years later in his memoirs.

In this battle, modern tank warfare mixed with scenes more reminiscent of earlier centuries. Wu Yujun, an officer of the Peace Preservation Corps, was manning a position in the streets of Yangshupu on the morning of August 18 when a detachment of Japanese cavalry attacked. The raid was over almost instantly, and left numerous dead and injured Chinese in its wake. The Japanese repeated the assault two more times. The third time, Wu Yujun prepared an elaborate ambush, posting machine guns on both sides of the street. As the riders galloped past, they and their horses were chopped to pieces. Apart from four prisoners, all Japanese lost their lives. The 20th century had met the 19th century on the battlefield, and won. It was a typical incident, and yet in one respect also very atypical. In the streets of Shanghai in August 1937, Chinese soldiers were far likelier to confront a technologically superior enemy than the other way around.

Many of the Chinese units arriving in Shanghai had never tasted battle before, and in the first crucial days of fighting, their lack of experience proved costly. Fang Jing, a brigade commander of the 98th Division, one of the units to arrive early in Shanghai, noticed how his soldiers often set up inadequate fortifications that were no match for the artillery rolled out by the Japanese. “Often, the positions they built were too weak and couldn’t withstand the enemy’s 150mm howitzers,” he said. “The upshot was that men and materiel were buried inside the positions they had built for themselves.”

#

No one was surprised that the Japanese soldiers put up a determined fight in Shanghai. Since their 1904–1905 triumph over the Russian Empire, the legend of the “brave little Jap” had become firmly established in the mind of the global public. So widespread was this view that if Japanese soldiers did not fight to the death, it was a source of genuine surprise. However, at moments of absolute frankness, the Japanese themselves could feel a need to add nuance to foreign stereotypes about their countrymen’s behavior in battle. “Our soldiers would prefer death to surrender,” a Japanese diplomat was quoted as saying, “but the majority secretly hope that they will return honorably to their own country, either wounded or unscathed.”

Foreign journalists noticed to their astonishment that there seemed to be little in the Japanese code of honor that prevented them from fleeing from a hopeless situation. One of them remembered seeing a number of Japanese soldiers run back from a failed attack during the battle of Shanghai, with the Chinese in hot pursuit. There were even rare instances of Japanese soldiers raising the white flag. The same correspondent witnessed a party of about 50 Japanese motorcyclists who had become bogged down in a rice paddy near the city and were surrounded by Chinese. They surrendered immediately without making any effort to resist.

These were minority cases. Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”

#

On August 20, five Chinese aircraft were returning after another fruitless attack on the Izumo, which was still moored in the middle of the Huangpu, when they encountered two Japanese seaplanes over western Zhabei. A Chinese plane broke formation, went into a steep dive and fired a short machine gun salvo at one of the Japanese. It did not have a chance. It burst into flames and plunged to the ground. The other Japanese plane disappeared in the clouds. The entire encounter had only taken a few seconds. It was one of a series of hits that the Chinese Air Force scored during a brief period in August before it was completely subdued by its Japanese adversary.

Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber

In particular, it posed a threat to Japanese bombers, such as the highly flammable Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber aircraft assigned to striking targets in Shanghai and other cities in central China. Japan’s First Combined Air Group lost half of its medium attack planes in the first three days of the battle for Shanghai, some missing, some confirmed shot down and others heavily damaged. Their crews were particularly vulnerable, since they did not bring parachutes on their missions. From late August, the air group’s bombers were escorted by Type 95 Nakajima A4N fighter biplanes. This action amounted to a humiliating admission that China’s nascent air force was a force to be reckoned with.

Nakajima A4N

“In view of the pressing situation in the Shanghai area,” said the First Combined Air Group’s commander, “our air raids reminded me of that famous, costly assault against the 203-Meter Hill.” The battle for 203-Meter Hill had been one of the bloodiest episodes of the entire Russo-Japanese War, claiming thousands of casualties on both sides. The Chinese performance was significant enough that even foreign military observers paid attention. British intelligence, in a report summarizing military events in the middle of August, noted Chinese claims of having downed 32 Japanese aircraft. “This statement appears well-founded,” the report’s writer added.

Even so, the Chinese airmen had been mostly untested and only partly trained when the war started. Their inferiority, especially against Japanese fighters, began to tell, and they gradually disappeared from the skies over Shanghai. Their compatriots on the ground expressed frustration over the lack of air cover. “We occasionally spotted two or three of our own airplanes, but the moment they encountered enemy anti-aircraft fire, they disappeared,” said Fang Jing, a regimental commander of the 98th Infantry Division. “They were no use at all. After August 20, I never saw our planes again.”

That may have been hyperbole, but it was undeniable that the evolving Japanese air superiority proved a major handicap for the Chinese. The Chinese commanders soon realized that they had to carry out major troop movements under the cover of darkness. Japan’s domination of the skies affected everything the Chinese soldiers did and even determined when they could get food. “We didn’t eat until at night,” said Fang Zhendong, a soldier of the 36th Infantry Division. “That was the only time we could get anything. In the daytime, it was impossible to transport provisions to the frontline.”

Without fighter protection the troops on the ground were dangerously exposed. They had very little in the way of anti-aircraft weaponry, mostly 20mm Solothurn guns produced in Switzerland. However, even these weapons made next to no difference as they were primarily deployed against enemy infantry. Also, the Chinese officers were reluctant to use their anti-aircraft guns lest they reveal their positions to the Japanese aircraft. In late August when Japanese Admiral Hasegawa was asked by a Reuters journalist visiting his flagship if he was in control of the air, his reply was prompt: “Yes,” he said. “I believe so.”

‘We Are Heroes After All, Aren’t We?’*

Capture of a French regiment’s eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

Northern Flank: Austerlitz

2 December 1805

While Vandamme’s division dispersed the final remnants of IV Column from the plateau, Saint-Hilaire’s battle for control of the Pratzeberg still raged. At about 11.00am Langeron, still personally involved in the fighting, received word from adjutants despatched from IV Column, advising him with stark simplicity of the collapse of this force. Langeron ordered these messengers to pass on the shocking news to Buxhöwden, who remained inactive about a mile away on the hillock overlooking the Goldbach. Having been away from the rest of his command, fighting in Sokolnitz, for an hour and a half, and with no sign of help coming from Buxhöwden, Langeron realised he must find reinforcements himself. Leaving Kamenski to continue the fight, Langeron galloped off back to Sokolnitz.

At around the same time Weyrother, Kolowrat and Kutuzov approached the Pratzeberg, following the defeat of the other half of IV Column, doing their best to encourage the Austrian troops. Kutuzov, accompanied by a staff officer, Prince Dmitry Volkonsky, then reached Kamenski’s brigade just as it was in danger of being broken by a French attack, but Volkonsky rallied the Phanagoria Regiment by grasping their standard and leading them forward: order was again restored.

As Langeron headed off to find reinforcements, the Austrian battalions recovering from their attack on Thiébault’s line reformed within reach of Kamenski’s brigade. Their brigade commander, Jurczik, anchored his position on a small rise, where he concentrated some of his artillery. Major Mahler brought his battalion of IR49 Kerpen to the rise and drew the battalion of IR58 Beaulieu in to protect the flank. At the same time he moved two guns to a position from where they could enfilade the French line, which brought their fire to a halt for a while. Jurczik applauded his actions shouting, ‘Bravo! Major Mahler!’ Shortly afterwards Jurczik fell to the ground, fatally wounded by a French musket ball. He died two weeks later.

Once the Austrian battalions had recoiled from the French artillery, Thiébault joined his men with the rest of the division and together they attacked Kamenski’s brigade, driving them back and capturing a number of limbered Russian guns as well as retaking their own previously lost guns. Their impetus took them right to the summit of the Pratzeberg, and it was only with some difficulty that the officers managed to control the ardour of their men and halt the line. In fact, the infantry had now left their supporting artillery behind and with no word from Maréchal Soult or imperial headquarters, Saint-Hilaire felt his isolation keenly. Recognising the urgent need to drive the French off the plateau, and aware of their current exposed position, the Allies prepared to make:

‘a general and desperate attack at the point of the bayonet. The Austrian Brigade, with that under General Kamenski, charged the enemy; the Russians shouting, according to their usual custom; but the French received them with steadiness, and a well-supported fire, which made a dreadful carnage in the compact ranks of the Russians.’

But the Russians pressed on. Thiébault, close to the centre of the action, watched as the Russians:

‘charged on all sides, and while desperately disputing the ground, we were forced back. It was only by yielding before the more violent attacks that we maintained any alignment among our troops and saved our guns … Finally after an appalling melee, a melee of more than twenty minutes, we won a pause; by the sharpest fire and carried at the point of the bayonet.’

According to the notes kept by Thiébault, this ‘twenty minute bayonet battle’, claimed the lives of both Colonel Mazas, 14ème Ligne, and Thiébault’s ADC, Richebourg. Thiébault was fortunate to escape injury himself when his horse fell to a Russian shot. But as both sides recovered their breath, Général de division Saint-Hilaire rushed up to his brigade commanders, Thiébault and Morand, saying: ‘This is becoming intolerable, and I propose, gentlemen, that we take up a position to the rear which we can defend.’ Almost before he finished speaking, Colonel Pouzet of the 10ème Légère interrupted: ‘Withdraw us, my General … If we take a step back, we are lost. We have only one means of leaving here with honour, it is to put our heads down and attack all in front of us and, above all, not give our enemy time to count our numbers.’ Pouzet’s stirring words did the trick, and reinvigorated, the French clung tenaciously to the ground they held, repelling all Russian attacks.

While the Russians doggedly continued to attack, the Austrian battalions were being pressed back, despite the best efforts of Weyrother and Kolowrat. Having reformed close to a small rise, supported by their artillery, the battalions reformed and engaged the 36ème in a firefight, halting an enemy advance with volley fire. However, the French recovered and attacked again, driving IR58 Beaulieu back. Mahler attempted a counter-attack with his battalion of IR49 Kerpen and that of IR55 Reuss-Greitz but reported coming under ‘a very severe fire’ that caused many casualties. With his left flank now exposed to attack due to the repulse of IR58, his position was becoming extremely dangerous. However, he managed to keep his men together and prevented them from falling back for a while with the help of his adjutant, Fähnrich Jlljaschek. Moreover, by maintaining volley fire, he was able to remove his wounded safely to the rear.

But elsewhere, the Austrians were gradually being forced back. Mahler started the battle with only 312 men in his battalion and was now reduced to around eighty, through casualties and men lost as prisoners. There was little more his tiny force could achieve and as the battalion of IR55 on his flank began to retreat he ordered his men away down the eastern slopes of the plateau.

The odds were now stacked against Kamenski’s resolute brigade as more French troops approached the Pratzeberg. Released by Vandamme, the 43ème Ligne moved to rejoin Saint-Hilaire’s division and Boyé’s brigade of cavalry (5ème and 8ème Dragons) was also on its way to add their support. The weight of French numbers now began to tell on the Russian line. On his left, the threat of an attack on his open flank by the French dragoons forced Kamenski to wheel back the extreme left-hand battalion of the Ryazan Musketeers. Having soaked up all the preceding Russian attacks, Saint-Hilaire, judging that the time was right, ordered the French line forward, in what turned out to be the decisive charge. This time Kamenski’s men had little left to offer as the French poured forward over ‘ground strewn with the dead’, leaving no wounded Russians in their wake, capturing the Russian battalion artillery and retaking the highpoint of the Pratzeberg. Yet even in this moment of victory on the Pratzeberg the Russians inflicted another notable casualty: Saint-Hilaire was wounded and forced to retire to Puntowitz to have his wound dressed.

Having arrived back at Sokolnitz, Langeron sent for General Maior Olsufiev, who was fighting in the village and informed him of the need to send reinforcements to the plateau. The only troops immediately to hand were the two battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, held in reserve just outside Sokolnitz. With no time to lose, Langeron directed these to the plateau. He then attempted to extract his other battalions from the village but only succeeded in pulling back 8. Jäger and the Vyborg Musketeers. The remaining battalion of Kursk Musketeers and the Permsk Musketeer Regiment, now so completely entangled with III Column and its battle for the village, could not be withdrawn. But even as the two Kursk battalions began their march, unknown to them, they were marching to their destruction.

Kutuzov recognised that any further resistance by Kamenski’s brigade, after two hours fighting, would lead to their total destruction, so he ordered the retreat. Abandoning the plateau, they descended the south-eastern slopes to the valley of the Littawa, where they reformed. All along the valley other Allied units that had been driven off the plateau took up defensive positions or retreated to better ground. Before he left the plateau, Kutuzov despatched a hurried note to Buxhöwden, who still had not moved, ordering him to extract his three Columns from their bottleneck and retire. Soult’s two divisions were complete masters of the Pratzen Plateau, having swept away Allied IV Column along with Kamenski’s brigade of II Column by the sheer determination of their attacks. The time was probably around noon when, into this killing ground, marched the two lone battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, sent from Sokolnitz.

Believing the troops ahead of them to be Russian, they approached confidently but as they closed, Thiébault turned his exhausted men to face them and another firefight exploded. At the same time, Lavasseur’s brigade of Legrand’s division (IV Corps), which was occupying Kobelnitz, marched southwards presenting a possible flank threat to the Kursk battalions. To combat this move, the Podolsk Musketeers, part of III Column reserve, advanced to oppose them. Even without this intervention, the French troops on the Pratzeberg were in overwhelming numbers and soon began to surround the isolated Kursk battalions, who fought on for a while before collapsing amidst massive losses.

The victorious Thiébault, now mounted on his third horse – a small grey liberated from a captured Russian artillery limber – surveyed the destruction all around him. His own brigade had lost about a third of its strength, while another of his regimental commanders, Houdard de Lamotte of the 36ème Ligne, joined the growing list of wounded.

While this final struggle to clear the Allies from the Pratzen Plateau had reached its climax, elsewhere on the battlefield matters were also coming to a bloody conclusion.

Grand Duke Constantine, at the head of the Imperial Guard, had received no orders since a request arrived for him to send a battalion of infantry up onto the plateau. Since then his Guard Jäger had fallen back from Blasowitz, along with a supporting battalion of Semeyonovsk Guards. With only limited military experience, Constantine considered his options. To his right, masses of French infantry and cavalry were pressing aggressively towards Bagration, while to his left the Austrian cavalry, which had offered some protection on that flank, were withdrawing, having temporarily held back the advance of a massed infantry formation (Rivaud’s division of Bernadotte’s I Corps). Further to the left, up on the plateau, he could see that the French were driving back at least part of IV Column. Having surveyed the position, Constantine elected to pull back to his left rear (south-east), towards the Austrian cavalry and hopefully a junction with a reforming IV Column somewhere near Krzenowitz. At around 11.30am he turned his force, deploying the Guard Jäger as a flank guard.

In fact, he had not moved very far when he realised that the French troops previously held in check by the Austrian cavalry were now slowly advancing towards him. Up until now, Bernadotte had shown a marked reluctance to move forward since he crossed the stream at Jirschikowitz earlier that morning. Napoleon sent his aide, de Ségur, to ensure that Bernadotte carried out his orders, but the imperial messenger found the commander of I Corps agitated and anxious. Bernadotte indicated the Austrian cavalry to his front and bemoaned the fact that he had no cavalry of his own with which to oppose them, begging de Ségur to return to Napoleon and obtain some for him. De Ségur did as he requested but Napoleon had none to offer. However, now that the Austrian cavalry had withdrawn, Bernadotte cautiously advanced his corps, Rivaud edging slowing forward between the plateau and with Blasowitz to his left front, while Drouet led his division onto the lower slopes of the plateau in support of Vandamme.

Aware now of this forward movement, Constantine halted the Guard and faced them to confront this new threat. Behind him, the single bridge over the Rausnitz stream represented a very dangerous bottleneck. To gain time for his crossing, Constantine decided to strike a blow at the advancing French in an attempt to halt their advance. Forming the two Guard fusilier battalions from both the Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Regiments for the attack, he held back the battalion of Izmailovsk Guards in reserve and organised the cavalry in a supporting role. Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments took up positions protecting the left and right rear of the Russian Guard: 5. Nassau-Kürassiere to the left with 1. Kaiser and 7. Lotheringen-Küirassiere to the right. The four battalions leading the attack advanced with much confidence, roaring ‘Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!’ and when still 300 paces from the opposing French line, they broke into a run that their officers were unable to control. Although facing a withering barrage of musketry, the Russian guardsmen did not halt and smashed straight through the first line of massed skirmishers, pushing them back onto a formed second line of infantry, which they attacked with the bayonet. These too gave way, but although elated with their success, the Russian attack ground to a halt and when French artillery opened up on them they began to fall back in disorder. But the threatening presence of the Russian Guard cavalry prevented any attempt at pursuit and kept Rivaud’s division firmly anchored to the spot.

Up on the plateau, Maréchal Soult studied the ground, now that Vandamme had cleared Miloradovitch’s men from his front. He noticed the movement of a large body of troops from high ground near Blasowitz towards the Rausnitz stream, imagining them some of Lannes’ men moving to cut off the Allied retreat, but then, near Krzenowitz they turned and headed west. The movement puzzled him and he ordered Vandamme to send a battalion out to the left flank of the division to observe it. Selecting 1/4ème Ligne, Vandamme sent their commanding officer, Major Auguste Bigarré, at their head to investigate, detailing his own ADC, Vincent, to accompany him. The undulations of the plateau hid the lower ground from view and Bigarré had advanced about 1,200 yards when Vincent, who preceded him with a few scouts, came galloping back and warned him of the presence of a large body of enemy cavalry. Bigarré instructed the battalion to move to its left and then returned with Vincent to see the enemy formation for himself. As he approached the vantage point, five squadrons of Russian cavalry began to accelerate towards his battalion that now moved into view. Bigarré and Vincent galloped back to the battalion and hurried it into square to receive the inescapable charge.

The Russian Guard cavalry had kept a watchful eye on their infantry as it fell back from the French lines, which presented a formidable obstacle to a cavalry attack. But then, descending from the plateau, a lone infantry battalion appeared. As the cavalry moved towards this tempting target, the battalion scrambled into square formation. The cavalry halted at what Bigarré described as long musket range, and instead of charging, unmasked a battery of six guns, which opened canister fire on the square, creating havoc in the packed ranks. Observing this from the high ground, Vandamme ordered the two battalions of 24ème Légère forward to support the 1/4ème, but they were too late, for the cavalry was already on the move.

Considering that the artillery had done enough damage to the square, two of the five squadrons of Horse Guards charged. The leading squadron rode into a hail of musketry and veered away, but the second squadron reached the square before the men had time to reload and smashed their way in, hacking and slashing at the infantry, who defended themselves furiously. The squadron swept right through the square, turned and rode back though it again.

Two previous bearers of the 1/4ème’s eagle standard already lay dead on the ground: now, gripped desperately by the battalion’s sergeant major, a soldier of twelve years’ experience named Saint-Cyr, it was under attack again. Three horsemen surrounded him and hacked it from his grasp leaving him with five sabre wounds to the head and right hand. By now the 1/4ème had collapsed and those still standing were fleeing back towards the plateau leaving about 200 dead and wounded on the ground. The two squadrons of Horse Guards retired eastwards to reform. Even before the battalion disintegrated, the 24ème Légère arrived, advancing in line. The remaining three Horse Guard squadrons spurred forward, and despite receiving a close range volley, smashed through the thin infantry line and sent them reeling backwards too. In the confusion and panic that followed, a soldier of the 1/4ème picked up a fallen eagle standard of 24ème Légère believing it to belong to his battalion and carried it to safety. It was now perhaps around noon as Napoleon arrived on the Pratzen Plateau to oversee the next moves.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

No sooner had he arrived than those accompanying him observed a great dark mass of men coming towards the plateau in some disorder. Maréchal Berthier commented, ‘what a splendid crowd of prisoners they are bringing back for you.’ But Napoleon was not so sure and ordered one of his aides, Général de brigade Jean Rapp, to investigate. Leading two squadrons of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde Impériale, supported by a squadron of the Grenadiers à cheval and a half squadron of the Mameluks, Rapp advanced down from the plateau towards the site of the Russian Guard cavalry attacks. As soon as he cleared the plateau he saw that:

The cavalry was in the midst of our squares and was cutting down our soldiers. A little to the rear we could see the masses of infantry and cavalry which formed the enemy reserve. The Russians broke contact and rushed against me, while four pieces of their horse artillery come up at the gallop and unlimbered. I advanced in good order, with brave Colonel Morland on my left, and [Chef d’Escadron] Dahlmann to my right. I told my men: “Over there you can see our brothers and friends being trodden underfoot. Avenge our comrades! Avenge our standards!”’

Rapp led his Guard cavalry straight towards the Russian Horse Guard squadrons that had just cut up 24ème Légère. The Russians, disordered by their attack on the infantry, turned away and galloped off after a brief struggle leaving the chasseurs à cheval to ride on into the ranks of the reforming Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Guard battalions, as these infantrymen defended themselves with the bayonet. The French cavalry soon received support from the half squadron of Mameluks, who slashed their way into the ranks of the Preobrazhensk battalions, currently dispersed as skirmishers in the vineyards and already engaged with Rapp’s chasseurs. But now Rapp’s formations were disordered and Constantine took the opportunity to send in the leading three squadrons of the Russian Chevalier Garde to break their attack and free his beleaguered infantry. The charge met with success, causing Rapp to withdraw and reform while allowing the Russian battalions to draw back. But their respite was brief, as the rest of the French Garde Impériale cavalry now joined Rapp. The great cavalry battle – Imperial Guard against Imperial Guard – that followed is difficult to recount in much detail from the accounts that survive. Indeed one observer, Coignet, a soldier in the Grenadiers à Pied of Napoleon’s Guard, described how: ‘For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust.’

The Russian Guard cavalry drawn from the Horse Guards, Chevalier Garde and Guard Cossacks mustered about 1,800 men – the Guard Hussars appear not to have become directly involved in the fighting. Against them the French Garde mustered about 1,100 men, from the Chasseurs à cheval, Grenadiers à cheval and Mameluks. Although short on numbers, the well-disciplined French cavalry were able to withdraw from the fighting and fall back on their nearest infantry formations, reorganise and re-enter the fray in formed bodies. The Russians did not have this luxury, as their own Guard infantry battalions were caught up in the mêlée and unable to fire for fear of shooting their own horsemen. It became clear that the French were gaining the upper hand and Russian casualties mounted alarmingly, particularly in the Chevalier Garde. In particular, the fourth squadron of this elite formation was all but destroyed – only eighteen men reputedly making good their escape – and its wounded commander, Prince Repnin-Volkonsky, captured and presented to Napoleon.

Russian reports claim that the Chevalier Garde lost sixteen officers, 200 men and 300 horses killed and wounded. The Guards battalions extracted themselves from the maelstrom and fell back on the support of the Izmailovsk battalion, then all continued back towards Krzenowitz. The battered Russian cavalry also broke off the engagement and fell back too, their retreat protected by the Guard Hussars who hovered threateningly to the north, and the stand made by Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments. The belated appearance above Krzenowitz of the three battalions of Russian Guard Grenadiers, numbering almost 2,000 men, but suggesting to the French the arrival of a new strong Russian formation, limited any further significant advance in this direction.

While the great cavalry battle to their front delayed Rivaud’s movements further, Drouet had finally led his division up onto the plateau to the rear of Vandamme. The retreating battalion of 4ème Ligne, which had fled back onto the plateau and streamed past Napoleon without stopping, eventually rallied when they rejoined Vandamme’s division, and despite their recent traumas, took an active part in the latter stages of the battle, unaware they had lost an eagle.

With the Pratzen Plateau secured by the gradual arrival of Bernadotte’s corps, Napoleon turned his back on the northern flank. It was now clear that his grand plan to swing Lannes and Murat unopposed into the rear of the Austro-Russian army had failed, but it was also clear that the attacks by Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme had split the Allied army in two. Leaving Lannes and Murat to drive Bagration back, Napoleon issued new orders that he hoped would lead to the destruction of the left wing of the Allied army, which still remained locked in the Goldbach valley.

On the extreme right of the Allied line, General Maior Prince Bagration, like Constantine, received no fresh instructions from army headquarters. His original orders, which he viewed with little enthusiasm, required him to hold his position until, becoming aware of progress by the Allied left wing, he was to advance directly ahead and, initially, capture the Santon. Accordingly, he had pushed forward at about 10.00am but encountered extremely strong and determined opposition from Lannes’ V Corps and Murat’s cavalry. His attempt on the Santon had failed and now the French cavalry had pushed his own horsemen back after a series of ferocious mêlées. The French had secured the village of Blasowitz and the Russian Imperial Guard appeared to be moving further away, cutting his last tenuous link with the rest of the army. Bagration abandoned any offensive plans and looked to the preservation of his command.

With the Russian cavalry driven back behind their infantry to reform once more, Lannes ordered his two infantry divisions forward: Suchet on the left, Caffarelli on the right. In the face of this advancing wall of infantry, Bagration ordered all eighteen guns of his battalion artillery to open fire, along with twelve from a horse artillery battery. The brunt of this bombardment fell on the 34ème and 40ème Ligne of Suchet’s division and 30ème Ligne from Caffarelli’s, while also mortally wounding GB Valhubert, who commanded a brigade in Suchet’s second line.

With the French infantry brought to a halt by this concentrated firepower, Lannes drew all his available artillery together and focused on knocking out the Russian guns. The more powerful French artillery came out on top in this duel and after a deadly exchange, the Russian horse battery was forced to withdraw with mounting casualties, leaving just the Russian battalion guns to support the infantry against the increasing threat. Lannes pushed his infantry on once more but now Suchet’s division became the target for a series of desperate cavalry charges by Bagration’s reformed horsemen.

However, assailed by musketry, canister fire and then French cavalry countercharges, all they could manage was to slow this advance. Caffarelli’s division, operating south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, encountered less opposition and pushed ahead of Suchet’s men to threaten Bagration’s left flank, secured on the villages of Krug and Holubitz. In fact, the garrison of these villages was not strong, both defended by the men of 6. Jäger under General Maior Ulanius – who had already suffered considerably at Schöngrabern – with recovering cavalry formations to their rear. Sometime around noon, GB Demont’s brigade (17ème and 30ème Ligne) and part of Général de brigade Debilly’s brigade (61ème Ligne), advanced determinedly against the two villages.

Up until now the jäger had managed to repulse any French cavalry showing an interest in their position, but heavily outnumbered by Caffarelli’s infantry – and despite an initial stout resistance – French troops drove 6. Jäger out at the point of the bayonet. However, despite a lack of support, Ulanius did manage to extricate some of his men and reach safety.

With the villages of Krug and Holubitz now in French hands, Caffarelli redirected 17ème and 30ème Ligne against the left flank of Bagration’s threatened line. To oppose them the Russian commander sent his reserve infantry, the Arkhangelogord Musketeer Regiment, commanded by General Maior Nikolai Kamenski II. Although the French and Russian infantry were fairly evenly matched, the French were always able to bring up supporting cavalry and artillery to disrupt the Russian lines whenever their own infantry fell back to reform for a fresh assault. At times the Arkhangelogord Musketeers were under attack from all sides, and at one point faced a charge by d’Hautpoul’s 5ème Cuirassier, suffering horrendous casualties in the process. This regiment, which marched into battle with about 2,000 men, later showed losses of 1,625. Kamenski II had his horse shot from under him and only escaped capture when another officer gave up his own mount.

With Suchet’s division pressing him more and more from the front, Caffarelli making inroads on his left flank and Murat’s cavalry ready to exploit any opportunity, Bagration gave the order to retreat. Despite constant French cavalry attacks, the Russian infantry held together, supported by self-sacrificing charges by the exhausted Russian horsemen, and fell back steadily, abandoning the road to Austerlitz and reoccupying the high ground north of the Posoritz post house. However, this constant pressure eventually caused a split and the Russian cavalry of V Column, commanded by General-Adjutant Uvarov broke away. In his report Uvarov wrote:

‘we continued to fight with fervour, from which the losses on both sides were substantial. At the same time artillery and infantry of the enemy, moving on my flanks, opened such a fire that even with all the courage of the regiments which were under my command, we had to retreat across the river situated behind us.

Podpolkovnik Ermolov of the horse artillery recalled the confusion that then prevailed:

‘Our losses multiplied even more when the men crowded together at the very boggy stream, over which there were very few bridges, and it was not possible to cross it in any other way than via a bridge. Here our fleeing cavalry plunged in wading, and a lot of men and horses drowned, while I, abandoned by the regiments to which I was assigned, stopped my battery, attempting by the means of a short range action to stop the cavalry pursuing us. The first pieces of ordnance that I was able to release from the press of our own cavalry, making several shots, were captured, my men were cut down and I was captured as a prisoner. The division of General-Adjutant Uvarov, crowding at the bridge, had the time to look around and see that it was running away from a force small in number and that the majority of the forces were concentrated on the heights and were not coming down into the valley. Those who pursued us were then forced to retreat and exterminated, and my freedom was returned to me shortly, when I was already close to the French line.’

When Ermolov returned and crossed the Rausnitz stream he found Uvarov’s command still in great disarray at the foot of the hill held by the Russian Guard Grenadiers. With them now stood the tsar, prompting Ermolov to observe that ‘there were no confidants present, on his face there was a look of supreme grief, and his eyes were filled with tears.’

Bagration continued his withdrawal in the face of ceaseless French cavalry attacks and artillery bombardment, drawing back across the Brünn-Olmütz road onto high ground overlooking it between Welleschowitz and Rausnitz. The Pavlograd Hussars suffered at the hands of the French cavalry as they protected this final move, but their sacrifice gained enough time for Bagration to take up this new position. Lannes and Murat now advanced to occupy the position abandoned by Bagration north of the Posoritz post house and found themselves in possession of row upon row of Russian knapsacks. It was the habit of the Russian soldier to take off his knapsack before entering battle to allow more freedom of movement, leaving behind him all his meagre personal belongings. But if the French soldiers expected to find luxuries and warm clothing they were disappointed. Captaine Lejeune, Berthier’s ADC, reported that each bag contained only:

‘triptych reliquaries, each containing an image of St Christopher carrying the infant Saviour over the water, with an equal number of pieces of black bread containing a good deal more straw and bran than barley or wheat. Such was the sacred and simple baggage of the Russians!’

Bagration must have been wondering just how long he could continue to hold his force together against these constant French attacks when help arrived. Advancing down the road from Olmütz with all speed appeared an Austrian artillery officer, Major Frierenberger, at the head of a column of twelve guns. As he came level with Welleschowitz he turned off and positioned his guns on the high ground rising to the north of the road. The official Austrian account of the incident continues the story:

‘The army he faced was a victorious one. It had deployed at the Posoritz post house, and was now in full advance, firing with its powerful artillery against whatever Russian troops and batteries came into view. The Austrian battery now opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians shot with such extraordinary skill that they compelled the enemy to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the hostile pieces were silenced altogether, and the advance of the whole French left wing was held back.’

The battle on the northern flank now ground to a halt. Lannes and Murat had expected an almost unopposed advance but became embroiled in a lengthy and costly duel that had lasted almost three hours. In the face of the resolute defence now offered by these fresh Austrian guns, with their own ammunition supplies almost completely expended and their cavalry exhausted, the two corps forming the French left wing halted, and like Bernadotte’s I Corps, awaited developments elsewhere on the battlefield.

Granted this unexpected respite, the survivors of Bagration’s Army Advance Guard and to the south, IV and V Columns, and the Russian Guard, did what they could to instil some sense of order in their greatly depleted ranks. These latter formations nervously occupied the eastern bank of the Rausnitz stream, anticipating a renewed French assault at any moment, but it never came. Napoleon saw a greater prize elsewhere.

* Captured Russian cavalry officer to Lieutenant Octave Levasseur, of the French horse artillery, 2 December 1805.

Balaklava: 25 October 1854 – What If Part I

Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army through any arduous task. He is a brave good soldier, I am sure, and a polished gentleman, but he is no more fit than I am to cope with any leader of strategic skill.

WILLIAM HOWARD RUSSELL

We are commanded by one of the greatest old women in the British Army, called the Earl of Cardigan. He has as much brains as my boot. He is only to be equalled in want of intellect by his relation the Earl of Lucan . . . two such fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command.

CAPTAIN PORTAL, 4TH LIGHT DRAGOONS

‘You have lost the Light Brigade!’ It was thus that Lord Raglan bitterly reproached Lord Lucan on the evening of 25 October 1854. As a simple statement of fact the words were not unfounded. Before the charge, according to Captain Portal who rode in it, the Light Cavalry Brigade had mustered on parade some 700men; after it they numbered a mere 180. But was it Lucan who lost it? Controversy as to who was to blame has featured in many an analysis of the battle. The truth is, of course, that many people were to blame, Lucan among them. It was a combination of personal ill-feeling, general mismanagement and peculiarly bad orders which led to so great, yet glorious, a blunder. Given the circumstances which prevailed, however – a Commander-in-Chief who had no clear idea of how to conduct a battle, and who, unlike his former chief, Wellington, was in the habit of expressing himself with ambiguity rather than precision; a Commander of the cavalry, Lucan, who was at odds with Raglan’s handling of the campaign and with his subordinate, Cardigan, in charge of the Light Brigade; and given too that the aide-de-camp who delivered the fatally misconstrued order was half insane with impatience and injured pride, so much so that he actually seemed to indicate the wrong objective – then it was perhaps not so remarkable that things went awry, although why General Airey, Raglan’s Chief of Staff, should have pronounced the Light Brigade’s charge as ‘nothing to Chilianwala’ may still puzzle us. It was after all a feat of arms recalled for courage and discipline rather than for foolhardiness and waste.

But if by chance Raglan had shown the same sort of drive and initiative at the first battle of the campaign as Wellington did at Salamanca, then the charge of the Light Brigade, indeed the entire affair at Balaklava, need never have taken place at all. And even if he had behaved as he did during that first encounter and the British army had still found itself at Balaklava in October 1854, it only required the Light Brigade’s commander, Cardigan, to display some spark of military daring, some inkling of the cavalry spirit, even some modicum of tactical know-how for the charge of his brigade, to have been a very different matter with a possibly decisive outcome. We must go back to the start of the campaign to see how things might have developed.

In spite of all the fuss about custody of the Holy Places,5 the Crimean War came about because Czar Nicholas I believed the time had come to expel the Turks from Europe and divide up the property of ‘the sick man’. At the same time Emperor Napoleon III of France was possessed of an ardent desire to cut a figure in the world and add to the military glory attained by his uncle. Moreover, Britain was determined to maintain Turkey’s integrity and put a stop to the extension of Russian power in the East. Thus a relatively trivial dispute was used to justify a struggle for supremacy in the East.

The Czar could hardly have chosen an envoy more likely to provoke Turkey’s ire than Prince Menschikoff, who went to Constantinople in March 1853 and demanded that the Sultan should recognize both the Greek Church’s claim to custody of the Holy Places and – much more significantly – Russia’s right to protect the Sultan’s Greek Orthodox subjects. Menschikoff was both tactless and insolent, but these disagreeable qualities were largely offset by the diplomatic skills of the highly regarded British Ambassador at the Sublime Porte, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, who had been there for ten years, had encouraged reform and who, in spite of his hostility to the Czar, persuaded the Sultan to satisfy the Greek Church with regard to the Holy Places, at the same time lending his support to the Sultan in rejecting Russia’s claim to be protector of Turkey’s Greek Christians. Whereupon in June 1853 Russia invaded the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and after the failure of the Great Powers to reach some compromise, Turkey declared war in October. An extension of the war swiftly followed. Turkey defeated a Russian army at Oltenitza, the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope, the French and British fleets passed the Dardanelles and entered the Black Sea in January 1854. Two months later France and Britain declared war on Russia.

Thus France, Great Britain and Turkey were Allies. For centuries in the past the British had been fighting the French. With the exception of the Vichy episodes in the Second World War, they were never to do so again. Yet Lord Raglan could not get out of his head that the enemy – even when in this particular war they were fighting side by side with him – were the French, and would frequently refer to them as such during the campaign. This was not the only difficulty encountered by the Allies.

It was all very well to declare war on Russia, but where was it to be waged? The Allies wished to ensure that the Russian armies evacuated the principalities and did not reach Constantinople. But what strategy should they adopt to realize these aims? By the end of May 1854 both the French and British armies had arrived at Gallipoli and Scutari, and the striking difference between their administrative arrangements was at once evident. The French were properly equipped with tents, medical services and a transport corps. The British were hopelessly ill prepared in all these respects, although Raglan had requested proper transport, only to be refused by the War Office. When the two armies made their way to Varna in order to deal with the Russians in the principalities, they found they had gone. It was now August and both malaria and cholera devastated the Allied soldiers. But at least some strategic idea emerged, and it was decided that the Allies would attack and take Sebastopol, thus removing this base of Russian power in the Black Sea and its threat to Turkey. This decision was made, not by commanders on the spot, who opposed it, but by the Allied Governments, hardly an auspicious beginning. None the less, in September the British and French armies – composed respectively of 26,000 men, 66 guns and 30,000 men, 70 guns – landed in the bay of Eupatoria, north of Sebastopol, and began their advance.

We have already observed that Lord Raglan was not distinguished for either his fitness to command or the clarity of his direction. His counterpart, General St Arnaud, was gravely ill – he was shortly to die – and was in no condition to provide bold leadership or offensive spirit. Moreover, Raglan’s subordinate commanders hardly inspired confidence. Lucan and Cardigan, leaving aside their sheer incompetence, were at loggerheads, and were soon to demonstrate their absolute inability to handle the cavalry properly. The two infantry divisional commanders, Sir George Cathcart and the Duke of Cambridge, were not as useless as the cavalrymen – no one could have been – but they had none of the experience or dash of men like Craufurd, Picton, Pakenham and Hill who had served under Wellington. Raglan’s Chief of Staff was General Airey, who should have been aware that apart from giving sound advice, his main purpose was to ensure the clarity of his Commander-in-Chief’s orders, which he singularly failed to do.

Happily for the British army this weakness of leadership at the top was more than counterbalanced by the strength of the regimental system. It was Humphrey Ward who praised Kipling for discovering Tommy Atkins as a hero of realistic romance. No army, said Ward, had so strong a sense of regimental unity and loyalty as our own. Arthur Bryant too was eloquent in emphasizing regimental pride:

the personal individual loyalty which each private felt towards his corps gave to the British soldier a moral strength which enabled him to stand firm and fight forward when men without it, however brave, would have failed. To let down the regiment, to be unworthy of the men of old who had marched under the same colours, to be untrue to the comrades who had shared the same loyalties, hardships and perils were things that the least-tutored, humblest soldier would not do.

Raglan was fortunate therefore in having under his command regiments of the Light Division, the Highlanders and the Brigade of Guards when it came to tackling the enemy. What would these famous regiments have to fight?

Opposing the Allied advance towards Sebastopol was a force of some 40,000 Russian soldiers under the command of Prince Menschikoff, who had positioned his men and about a hundred guns on the high ground overlooking the river Alma, fifteen miles north of Sebastopol. The battle of Alma was fought on 20 September and was characteristic of most Crimean encounters as far as the Allies were concerned. There was no proper reconnaissance, no clear plan, no thought about exploitation of success, no coordination between armies, no control or direction by Raglan, and the outcome was determined by the sheer courage and endurance of the British infantry. This dereliction of duty by those who were supposed to be directing the battle may be gauged by the fact that the Great Redoubt, key to the whole Russian defence, had to be taken twice, first by the Light Division and 2nd Division, and then again – because the reserve divisions were not moved forward quickly enough to consolidate its capture, thus allowing the Russians to reoccupy it – by the Guards and Highlanders. Its initial capture shows us the mettle of the British infantry:

The first line of the British army, the Light Infantry Division and the 2nd Division, rose to its feet with a cheer, and, dressing in a line two miles wide, though only two men deep, marched towards the river. Under terrific fire – forty guns were trained on the river, and rifle bullets whipped the surface of the water into a bloody foam – the first British troops began to struggle across the Alma, the men so parched with thirst that even at this moment they stopped to drink . . . During the terrible crossing of the river formation was lost and it was a horde which surged up the bank and, formed by shouting, cursing officers into some ragged semblance of a line, pressed on up the deadly natural glacis towards the Great Redoubt. It seemed impossible that the slender, straggling line could survive . . . Again and again large gaps were torn in the line, the slopes became littered with bodies and sloppy with blood, but the survivors closed up and pressed on, their officers urging, swearing, yelling like demons.

The men’s blood was up. The Light Division, heroes of a dozen stubborn and bloody battles in the Peninsula, advanced through the smoke, swearing most horribly as their comrades fell . . . suddenly, unbelievably the guns ceased to fire . . . the British troops gave a great shout, and in a last frantic rush a mob of mixed battalions tumbled into the earthwork. The Great Redoubt had been stormed.

But, alas, the Duke of Cambridge’s division with a brigade of Guards and the Highland Brigade, which should have been following up, had not moved from its position north of the river, allowing large numbers of Russians to take advantage of their own artillery bombardment, move forward and reoccupy the Great Redoubt. Thereupon the Guards and Highlanders, under terrible fire from cannon and rifles, advanced with the same steadiness as if taking part in a Hyde Park review. So heavy were the casualties suffered by the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards that one officer suggested to Sir Colin Campbell that they should retire or risk destruction. He received the magnificent reply that it would be better for every man of Her Majesty’s Guards to lie dead on the field than for them to turn their backs on the enemy. Neither course of action was necessary, however, for not only did the Guards and Highlanders retake the Great Redoubt, they successfully repelled a further Russian infantry attack. As they charged forward the enemy fled, leaving the Allies in triumphant possession of the battlefield.

Now we come to the first great If of the Crimean campaign. If at this point the British cavalry, who were poised ready for pursuit, had been launched against the fleeing enemy, they could have inflicted frightful loss. Lucan and Cardigan were aching to do so. It was one of those rare opportunities which when seized lead on to triumphant success, but when neglected deliver only frustration and guilt. Yet Raglan positively forbade the pursuit. There could be but one reason for his doing so – the French refused to go further and Raglan dared not go on alone. Had he been more forceful or decided to act with British troops only, he might have ended the campaign there and then, by capturing Sebastopol. As it was, the defeated Russians, totally unmolested, streamed into the city.

When we consider that the whole purpose of the Crimean campaign, as directed by the Allied Governments, was to take Sebastopol – and here as a result of the very first battle of the campaign, an absolutely heaven-sent chance of doing so presented itself, yet was not taken – we may perhaps sympathize with the outraged sentiments of Captain Nolan, 15th Hussars. A passionate advocate of cavalry’s proper and aggressive use, Nolan burst into William Howard Russell’s tent and gave vent to his sense of outrage – a thousand British cavalry contemplating a beaten, retreating army, complete with guns and colours, with nothing but a few wretched, cowardly Cossacks, ready to gallop away at the mere sound of a trumpet call, to dispute their passage, and nothing done: ‘It is enough to drive one mad! It is too disgraceful, too infamous.’ The generals should be damned. We shall meet Captain Nolan again when another great chance, another great If, and another gross mishandling of cavalry occurred.

Having omitted to take this tide at the flood, Lord Raglan was obliged to put up with the shallows and the miseries of what was left of his life’s voyage. It would not be for long and would lead to his humiliation and death. Instead of seizing Sebastopol the Allied armies made their ponderous way to the east and then the south of the city, giving the Russians time both to reinforce its defences and indeed to pour more troops into the Crimea. This new deployment of the British army emphasized the strategic importance of Balaklava, through whose port all the sinews of war had to come. It was the Russian attempt to capture it that resulted in the battle of Balaklava. On the morning of 25 October the British army was singularly ill deployed to meet and defeat this Russian attack. Apart from the 93rd Highlanders and about 1,000 Turks, the only troops between the port and General Liprandi’s advancing force of 25,000 horse, foot and guns were the two brigades of the Cavalry Division, positioned some two miles north of Balaklava at the foot of the Fedioukine Heights.

The idea that chaos is a good umpire and chance a well-known governor of battles was well illustrated at Balaklava, for nothing could have been more chaotic or chancy. During the action of 25 October, Lord Lucan received four orders from Lord Raglan. Not one of them was either clear or properly understood. Each one was either too late to be executed as intended, violently resented by Lucan, ignored or so misinterpreted that the outcome was calamitous. We may perhaps comfort ourselves with the reflection that there was nothing unusual about this. Even today, with superlative communications when orders are transmitted from one level of command to another, their purpose and emphasis are subject to very different translation into action, for each commander has his own view of a battlefield, broad or narrow. Each has his own intention. No wonder they seldom coincide.

Raglan’s first order to Lucan was: ‘Cavalry to take ground to left of second line of Redoubts occupied by the Turks.’ To execute the order, although he did so, was not merely distasteful to Lucan, for the very last thing cavalry was designed for was to take or hold ground, but, much more important, it was tactically dangerous, since moving to the Redoubts on the Causeway Heights, the cavalry would further isolate Sir Colin Campbell’s small force of 500 Highlanders, the final defence of Balaklava itself. Thus at the very beginning of the action, we find Lucan totally unable to comprehend what his Commander-in-Chief had in mind. Indeed, from his point of view Raglan was guilty of a gross tactical error. We may perhaps discover the reason for this absolute discord when we remember that being in very different positions on the ground, the two men had very different conceptions of what was taking place. This perilous disparity of view was magnified by what happened next.

To those coolly sitting on their horses with Lord Raglan on the Sapouné Heights, the incident must at first have appeared to be an instance of that insolent indifference to danger which characterized many a British military operation in the nineteenth century. Later, it must have seemed more like culpable inactivity, and indeed it was only comprehensible when the contours of the ground beneath these onlookers were properly appreciated. A substantial body of Russian cavalry advancing to attack the Highlanders had seemed to pass within a few hundred yards of the British cavalry, now stationed where Raglan had ordered them, to the left of the second line of Redoubts. Yet although the Russian cavalry passed so close to Lucan’s division, the two formations could not see each other, were not in fact aware of each other’s proximity, simply because of the high ground between them, screening each from the other’s view. Yet to Raglan and his staff looking down upon them, this mutual unawareness was not apparent. When the Russian cavalry then set about attacking the 93rd Highlanders, ‘the slender red line’ proved more than a match for the enemy squadrons. Three times the Russians came at then; three times they were repulsed by the disciplined steadiness and accurate fire-power of the 93rd. At one point Campbell had to quell his men’s eagerness to charge with some fitting oath, but they had done the trick. The enemy withdrew.

Yet these half-dozen or so squadrons were but the vanguard of a much larger body of Russian cavalry which had followed them across the Causeway Heights. Perceiving this further threat, Raglan had issued his second order – indeed, had done so before the Highlanders’ gallant action had been fought – and this order, ‘Eight squadrons of Heavy Dragoons to be detached towards Balaklava to support the Turks who are wavering,’ arrived too late to be executed in the way that Raglan had intended. In command of these Dragoon squadrons was Brigadier-General Scarlett, whose face was as red as his tunic, a brave and competent cavalryman who had won the respect and affection of his men for his unassuming and good-natured ways. He was now about to bring off ‘one of the great feats of cavalry against cavalry in the history of Europe’. As he led his eight squadrons, two each from 5th Dragoon Guards, Scots Greys, Inniskillings and 4th Dragoon Guards, towards Balaklava, with the Causeway Heights on their left, he observed on the slopes of these heights a huge mass of Russian horsemen. There were three or four thousand of them. Yet Scarlett with his mere 500 or so Dragoons was quite undismayed and coolly ordered his squadrons to wheel into line. It was at this point that Lucan arrived on the scene and ordered Scarlett to do what he was about to do anyway – charge the enemy. It was fortunate that the Russian cavalry came to a halt with the intention of throwing out two wings on their flanks in order to engulf and overwhelm Scarlett’s force. Thereupon Scarlett ordered his trumpeter to sound the charge.

Although the Light Brigade’s action at Balaklava is more renowned, it was the Heavy Brigade’s charge which was truly remarkable as a feat of arms. In spite of the appalling disparity of numbers, the British cavalry enjoyed one great advantage. The Russian hordes were stationary, and it is an absolute maxim that cavalry should never be halted when receiving a charge but should be in motion. By remaining stationary, the Russians would sustain far more devastating a shock. For those surveying from the heights, what now transpired was breathtaking. Scarlett and his first line of three squadrons seemed to be positively swallowed up by the mass of grey-coated Russian cavalry, and although this enemy mass heaved and swayed, it did not break. Indeed, their two wings, in motion again now, began to wheel inwards to enclose and crush the three squadrons. But now Scarlett’s second line took a hand in the game. The second squadrons of the Inniskillings and 5th Dragoon Guards flung themselves wildly into the fray on the left, while the Royals, who had not received orders to do so, but rightly acted with timely initiative, charged in on the right. There was further heaving and swaying by the Russians, but no sign yet of breaking.

No such initiative as that of the Royals was displayed by Lord Cardigan, who was about to be presented with the chance of a lifetime. He and his Brigade were a mere few hundred yards from the flank of the Russian cavalry, observing the action, most of them consumed with impatience, yet no thought of joining in the fray even occurred to Cardigan. The best he could do was to declare that ‘These damned Heavies will have the laugh of us this day.’ Any commander possessed of the real cavalry spirit would have been longing for the moment to arrive when his intervention would have been decisive. And this moment was about to come. Despite his dislike and contempt for his superior commander, Lord Lucan, Cardigan took refuge in his contention that he had been ordered to remain in position and to defend it against any enemy advance. It would have been far more in keeping with his custom to have ignored Lucan’s order. Indeed, Lucan himself maintained that his instructions had included a positive direction that the Light Brigade was to attack ‘anything and everything that shall come within reach of you’. There could be no gainsaying that the Russian cavalry, already reeling from the Heavy Brigade’s assault, came within this category.