Battle of the Bay of Biscay

28 December 1943

After the invasion of the Soviet Union severed German land access to strategic raw materials such as rubber and tin, blockade runners became essential to the Axis war effort, and the Kriegsmarine maintained destroyers and fleet torpedo boats on the French Biscay coast to escort blockade runners into port during the dangerous final leg of their voyage. On December 27, 1943, two German flotillas sortied to meet the blockade runner Alsterufer, not realizing that Allied aircraft had surprised and sunk it the day before. The German units were the 8th Destroyer Flotilla (Kapitän zur See Hans Erdmenger) with the Z27, Z23, Z24, Z32, Z37 and the 4th Torpedo Boat Flotilla (Korvettenkapitän Franz Kohlauf ) with the T23, T22, T24, T25, T26, and T27. Two British light cruisers, the Glasgow and Enterprise, which had been hunting the Alsterufer, were south of the Germans, and, learning of their mission from signals intelligence, they steered to intercept.

The German flotillas united just after noon on December 28 and swept eastwardly. It was a rough day in the Bay of Biscay with a strong easterly wind. Conditions were difficult aboard the German Type 36A destroyers, which were poor sea boats, and they were worse for the torpedo boats, which had green seas breaking over their bows and spray inundating their bridges.

At 1:32 p. m., the Glasgow spotted the Germans, and eight minutes later, the Z23 saw the British cruisers bearing down. At this point, the Germans were steaming south-by-southeast in three columns. Almost immediately, Erdmenger ordered a torpedo attack, which was impractical due to the range and rough seas. Meanwhile, the British closed, and at 1:46 p. m., Glasgow’s forward turret fired the first salvo from a range of 18,000 yards.

Initially both forces ran south-southeast trading long-range broadsides. At 1:56 p. m., Erdmenger ordered another torpedo attack, and the Z32, Z37, and Z34 took station to port and edged toward the cruisers. At 2:05 p. m., a shell from the Z32 struck the Glasgow, killing two men. At 2:15 p. m., the Z37 fired four torpedoes from 14,000 yards.

While this futile barrage churned through seven miles of stormy water, Erdmenger decided to divide his force, even though German shooting had been at least as good as the British. At 2:19 p. m., the T26, T22, T25, Z27, and Z23 turned north as Z32, Z37, Z24, T23, T24, and T27 continued southeast. The Z27 turned toward the British rather than away, and the flagship became the first German vessel damaged when a 6-inch shell from the Enterprise penetrated a boiler room and ignited a huge fire.

As the Germans divided, the Glasgow joined Enterprise and ranged its turrets on the three torpedo boats heading north. At 2:54 p. m., the Glasgow damaged the rear warship, the T25. Then the Glasgow shifted fire to the T26 and hit its boiler room.

After temporarily disengaging to clear some gun defects, the Enterprise joined the Glasgow, and the two cruisers sank the T26, the most southerly of the three damaged ships at 4:20 p. m. The Enterprise dispatched the T25 at 4:37 p. m. with a single torpedo. Finally, the Glasgow found the Z27 drifting with all guns silent. It closed and exploded the German destroyer’s magazines at 4:41 p. m. The British cruisers then made for Plymouth. The Glasgow had been hit once, while the Enterprise received minor splinter damage from numerous near misses. The rest of the German force safely made port.

The Germans fired 34 torpedoes from impossibly long ranges in eight separate attacks, but in rough conditions with extended visibility the better gun platform prevailed. The German commander’s decision to divide his flotilla also proved ill-advised as afterward ranges dropped. In the engagement, the Germans lost three ships.

The two British cruisers met up once more and, seeing no further signs of the German squadron and having accounted for three of them at no significant damage to themselves, withdrew toward Plymouth. They arrived on the evening of 29 December, low on both fuel and ammunition. Glasgow had received one hit that killed two crew members and wounded another three, while Enterprise had no real damage except for shell splinters.

The two German survivors, T22 and Z23, reunited and headed towards Saint-Jean-de-Luz near the Spanish border. The rest of the German ships headed back to the Gironde.

Only 283 survivors of the 672 men on the three sunken ships were rescued: 93 from Z27, 100 from T25 and 90 from T26. British and Irish ships, Spanish destroyers and German U-boats took part in the rescue. About 62 survivors were picked up by British minesweepers as prisoners. 168 were rescued by a small Irish steamer, the MV Kerlogue, and four by Spanish destroyers, and they were all interned.

References Koop, Gerhard, and Klaus-Peter Schmolke. German Destroyers of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003. O’Hara, Vincent P. The German Fleet at War 1939-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004

Postscript

On the 26th December eleven German destroyers and torpedo boats sailed into the Bay of Biscay to bring in the blockade-runner “Alsterufer”. however she was sunk by a Liberator bomber of RAF Coastal Command on the 27th, and next day as the German warships return to base they are intercepted by 6in cruisers “Glasgow” and “Enterprise”. Although outnumbered and out-gunned they sank the 5.9in-gunned destroyer “Z-27” and torpedo boats “T-25” and “T-26”.

Regarding the blockade-runner “Alsterufer”….Sunderland aircraft operating from Castle Archdale…201 & 422/423 RCAF also helped in the tracking and took part in several attacks on the ship.

‘Sixty-four survivors were rescued by the cruisers and several more by an Irish steamer, a Spanish destroyer and U-boats.

KERLOGUE, Wexford S.S. Co. Built in Holland in 1938 for the Wexford S.S. Co. In 1957 the KERLOGUE was sold to Norwegian interests and wrecked in 1960 off Tromso.”

All Irish ships leaving Ireland had to call at Fishguard to obtain a British Navicert before proceeding and likewise when returning to Ireland. In the early hours of the 29 December 1943 when the Irish Vessel Kerlogue was enroute from Lisbon a Focke Wulf 200 circled and signalled ” SOS follow” the ship picked up 168 survivors from the encounter with HMS Glasgow and HMS Enterprise. The little ship with a crew of 12 under Capt Donohue set course for Ireland direct. The senior German officer Kplt. Quedenfeldt requested that they be taken to Brest but he refused. They Irish crew could have been easily overpowered but the refusal was accepted. Despite repeated requests by Lands End radio, to proceed to Fishguard they continued to Ireland and landed the survivors there. They were interned. The Irish captain was at the receiving end of a very abusive Naval officer when he next called to Fishguard, who threatened to have him interned for his humanitarian act.

Bay of Biscay Offensive (February-August 1943)

Major anti-U-boat operation conducted by the British and U. S. air forces. Beginning in January 1942, Allied maritime patrol aircraft carried out air antisubmarine transit patrols in the Bay of Biscay. The advent of the new 10-cm radar in late 1942 and new methods of operations research encouraged a fresh approach to the flagging campaign there. The revised concept foresaw a continuous barrier patrol of the U-boat transit exit routes from the Bay of Biscay into the Atlantic by a total of 260 aircraft equipped with brand-new ASV Mk. III 10-cm-band radars. Operational command would lie with the Number 19 Group of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command. Allied projections for success were vague and excessively optimistic, but the planners assumed correctly that it would take the Germans at least four months to respond effectively to the new 10-cm radar.

The actual offensive was preceded by three trial phases: Operations GONDOLA (February 4-16, 1943), ENCLOSE I (March 20-28, 1943), and ENCLOSE II (April 5-13, 1943). Beset by difficulties, such as the withdrawal of the U. S. Army Air Force’s B-24 Liberator bombers, slow delivery of the ASV Mk. III radar, and lack of aircraft, the operations were nonetheless a success in that they demonstrated an increased efficiency in aircraft allocation and in U-boat sightings.

Air Marshal Sir John C. Slessor, head of Coastal Command, decided to launch the full-scale offensive (Operation DERANGE ) on April 13 with 131 aircraft. The repeated, accurate night attacks by the Vickers Wellington medium bombers of Number 172 Squadron, then the only Coastal Command aircraft equipped with new ASV Mk. III radars and Leigh lights, produced instant, although unforeseen, results. The failure of the German threat receivers to warn the U-boats of the incoming aircraft and the success of two U-boats in shooting down the attacking planes convinced the German U-boat command that the remedy was to give up the night surface transit and to order the U-boats to fight it out with aircraft while on the surface during daylight hours.

Coastal Command aircraft wreaked havoc among the grossly overmatched U-boats during those daylight battles. In May alone, six U-boats were destroyed and seven so severely damaged that they had to return to their bases. In turn, the U-boats accounted for only 5 of 21 aircraft lost by the Coastal Command in the Bay of Biscay that month.

The German withdrawal from the North Atlantic convoy routes following the “Black May” of 1943 allowed Slessor to step up the operation with additional air assets. The Germans took to sending the U-boats in groups in order to provide better antiaircraft defense, yet in June, four U-boats were lost and six others severely damaged. DERANGE peaked in July, when Allied aircraft claimed 16 U-boats- among them three valuable Type XIV U-tankers-compelling Grossadmiral (grand admiral) Karl Dönitz to call off a planned operation in the western Atlantic.

German losses in the Bay of Biscay dropped considerably thereafter, but the air patrols remained a formidable obstacle throughout the remainder of the war by forcing the U-boats to stay submerged for most of the time during transit. Although the Battle of the Atlantic was ultimately won around the convoys, the Bay of Biscay Offensive contributed to the success by preventing many U-boats from reaching their operational areas in time to saturate convoy defenses as they had done in March 1943.

References Blair, Clay. Hitler’s U-Boat War. Vol. 2, The Hunted, 1942-1945. New York: Random House, 1998. Gannon, Michael. Black May. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 10, The Atlantic Battle Won, May 1943-May 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956. Roskill, Stephen W. The War at Sea, 1939-1945. Vols. 2 and 3. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957 and 1960

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Fath ol-Mobin

Participation of child soldiers on the Iranian front (top left); Iranian soldier wearing a gas mask (top right); Port quarter view of USS Stark listing to port after being mistakenly struck by an Iraqi warplane (middle left); Pro-Iraq PMOI forces killed in Operation Mersad (middle right); Iraqi prisoners of war after the re-capture of Khorramshahr by Iranians (below left); ZU-23-2 being used by the Iranian Army (below right).

Iran’s liberation of Khorramshahr in May 1982 drove the final nail in the coffin of the Iraqi invasion. Some 12,000 Iraqis became prisoners of war.

Until September 1981, when the Iraqis were forced out of Abadan in some disorder after some clever manoeuvring by the Iranians that encouraged them to weaken their defences, the war fronts had been generally quiet, with occasional artillery shelling of each side’s entrenched positions. But the Iraqi withdrawal from Abadan, as well as encouraging the Iranian military and people, meant that the roads around Abadan became free again for the movement of troops and supplies, creating possibilities for new Iranian offensives.

Despite the onset of the rainy season, the Iranians launched a surprise offensive on 29 November from Susangerd, north-westward toward Bostan. About 13,000 Iranian troops took part; more than a third of them were Sepah, and this was the first time that what became known as `human wave’ attacks were used. Despite rain and mud, Sepah troops surged forward so enthusiastically that regular commanders had to abandon their plan for a preparatory artillery barrage for fear of hitting their own people. Bostan was recaptured and the Iraqis retreated several miles back towards the border. The Iranians carried out a further successful operation (al-Fajr – `Dawn’) in December near Qasr-e Shirin, recovering more territory.

By mid-March 1982 the Iranians had built up the strength of their forces in the area around Dezful and Shush to somewhere around 100,000, including 40,000 Sepah and 30,000 Basij volunteers – the latter mainly young, with only rudimentary training and some unarmed, or carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles captured from the Iraqis. On 22 March they attacked in the first phase of what was called Operation Fatah or Fath ol-Mobin (Victory), initially with waves of Sepah and Basij armed with rocket-propelled grenades [RPGs] and rifles, following up with regular troops, targeting Iraqi conscript units first where possible, to try to force them back and expose the flanks of more experienced troop formations. Before the main ground forces went in, commando troops were carried behind the Iraqi lines by Chinook helicopters to destroy Iraqi artillery. The Iranians suffered heavy casualties but their tactics were successful, pushing the Iraqis back and beginning to encircle them. Iraqi air strikes had some success in stemming the Iranian advance in one area, around Chenaneh, but large numbers of Iranian F-4s and F-5s, plus helicopter gunships, were also in action against Iraqi tanks and troops. The Iranian offensive lasted a week, and by the time it ended more than 300 Iraqi tanks and other armoured vehicles had been destroyed, and a similar or larger number had been captured, along with more than 15,000 Iraqi prisoners. When the Iraqis managed to stabilize their front by bringing in reinforcements, their positions were back within 5-10 miles of the border.

Some of the Basij volunteers that fought in the war were thirteen or even younger (though there were also older men, in their sixties and seventies) and some of them lied about their age to be allowed up to the front with their friends. One spoke to an aid worker in an Iraqi prisoner-of-war camp after he had been captured about his motive for joining up:

I am not very religious so I don’t know much about the subject. It’s true that martyrdom is important to Shi`ites – we all learn about the Emams and how they died – but I didn’t go to war to die for Islam. I went to defend Iran and I think most of my friends went for the same reason.

Another boy, asked a similar question, gave a more conventional religious answer, talking about martyrdom and dying for Islam, but even he put that reason second, saying first: `All Iranians came to war to defend their country from the Iraqi invasion. That is a normal thing to do. I think British people did the same in the Second World War against Germany.’

This is another misunderstanding – or failure of understanding – about the Iran-Iraq War. A lot was written at the time about the so-called fanaticism of the Iranian human wave attacks, about the way the Iranians were whipped into a frenzy by the mullahs, about young men anxious to be martyrs, and so on. But most Iranian veterans speak in this same sober way about their experience and their motivation. We should not need to displace the fact of their bravery into categories like fanaticism and martyrdom in order to comprehend it. Newsreel images from the time show soldiers being harangued by mullahs, chanting religious slogans and beating their chests rhythmically (as in the Ashura rituals), but they also show scared young men preparing for the fighting with determination despite their fear. They were rather like the young men of Kitchener’s army preparing for similar infantry attacks against prepared defences on the Somme in 1916 or elsewhere; with much the same patriotism and commitment to their comrades, and encouraged to volunteer by much the same wish for adventure. They were exploited in much the same way by their governments and generals, because governments and generals need naive young men and boys to fight for them – older men tend to be more cautious.

Another boy said:

It was a game for us . . . We didn’t understand the words `patriotism’ or `martyrdom’, or at least I didn’t. It was just an exciting game and a chance to prove to your friends that you’d grown up and were no longer a child. But we were really only children.

He was asked by the same aid worker whether it was right for Iran to use such young boys in the war:

I am not sure, but it was difficult to stop them. And anyway, the boys who attacked the Iraqis were a very important weapon for the army, because they had no fear. We captured many positions from the Iraqis because they became afraid when they saw young boys running towards them shouting and screaming. Imagine how you would feel. Lots of boys were killed, but by that stage you were running and couldn’t stop, so you just carried on until you were shot yourself or reached the lines.

Another, interviewed separately, years later, recalled his time as a prisoner in Mosul in 1985-6:

When the war started I was sixteen years old. I gave up school and studying and went to the front, but I didn’t last long and after less than six months I was captured. I was there in the camp without anything to do, so started studying. We didn’t have any books – just an English dictionary which was passed around between at least twenty people, and this was the way all of us learned English. I remember that on any given day I could only use the dictionary for an hour – it was torn badly and the pages were in the wrong order. One day, I will never forget, the United Nations Red Cross staff came and asked me what I needed – I replied, a dictionary. But I realized I could only use this dictionary for an hour a day, so another idea occurred to me – to start chatting with the Iraqi guards and learn Arabic. Now, since my release, I can speak English, Arabic and some French.

The commander in Operation Fatah was a young regular army officer who had been promoted recently to chief of staff – General Ali Sayad Shirazi. Shirazi had proved his revolutionary credentials by demonstrating against the Shah, and being demoted and imprisoned before the revolution, and so despite his youth was a natural choice for the revolutionary leadership at a time when they distrusted senior officers who had been promoted by the Shah. Sayad Shirazi was a talented commander and proved his abilities in several later battles also, bridging the gap between the regulars and the Sepah and coordinating their efforts to enable them to make effective attacks together.

The outcome of Operation Fatah was an important encouragement to the Iranians, and appeared to endorse their tactical innovations – particularly the human wave attacks favoured by the Sepah and Basij. A little more than a month later, on 30 April, a further offensive (codenamed Qods/Beit al-Moqaddas – Jerusalem) using similar tactics began, this time towards Shalamcheh. Despite Iraqi counter-attacks the Iranians were successful, and Saddam was again forced to withdraw troops rather than see them encircled and cut off. The Iranians reached Shalamcheh on 9 May – one effect was to put greater pressure on the Iraqi garrison of Khorramshahr, to the south. In the second phase, the Iranians attacked Khorramshahr itself on the night of 22-3 May and within a day had retaken the city, capturing 12,000 Iraqis.

The recapture of Khorramshahr was a major morale victory for the Iranian military and the Iranian people, as its loss had been a humiliation. For Iraq, following on from the previous defeats, it was a moment of crisis – there was unrest and rioting in several Shi`a-dominated towns and cities in southern Iraq. Many observers, within and beyond the region, expected that Saddam would be replaced as Iraqi leader. Instead, Saddam intensified the repression of Shi`a dissidents, reshuffled the top leadership in the country under him (to include more Shi`as, among other changes), offered peace again to Iran, and on 20 June began a withdrawal to the pre-war borders. The withdrawal was completed by the end of the month, but despite Saddam’s announcements the Iraqis stayed in occupation of some Iranian territory. Saddam may also, as a provocation, have ordered the assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov. Argov was shot in the head and permanently paralysed on 3 June 1982; the assassins belonged to Abu Nidal’s organization, which had split from Yasser Arafat’s PLO in 1974 – but one of them was also a colonel in Iraqi intelligence. Although the main, more deep-seated reasons for the invasion were a more important motivation (principally, the desire to remove the PLO from Lebanon), the assassination attempt was used by Israel to justify its invasion of Lebanon on 6 June. When Saddam offered peace again at the end of June, in parallel with the withdrawal to the pre-war borders, he also suggested that this be done so that both Iran and Iraq could use their forces against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

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Battle of Maritsa (Chernomen)

1. Serbian infantry, mid-14th century This man is in almost all aspects identical to the heavy infantry of Italy. His separate mail-covered gauntlets may, in fact, have been a Byzantine and Balkan fashion that had spread to Italy early in the 14th century. Only his massive splinted gorget neck and shoulder protection is different. Such pieces of armour appear quite suddenly in 14th-century Balkan art, and though they are sometimes worn by infidel or alien figures in Italian illustrations they are otherwise rarely seen anywhere else except 14th century Spain. A connection may be possible via the mercenary Catalan Grand Company and Spanish-ruled southern Italy, but it is not known in what direction such hypothetical influence flowed. (Sources: helmet, perhaps of German origin, Milit. Mus., Belgrade; warrior saints, Serbian wall-paintings, 1333—1371, in situ Chapel of St. Nichola Sopocani Monast., Church Psaca, Monastery Church Decani, Church Lesnovo, Yugoslavia; Pride, carved capital, early i4th C, in situ Doge’s Palace, Venice; St. George, early i4th C, wall-painting, in situ Church of Panaghia Kera, Kritsa, Crete; Hungarian manuscript, 1325-50, Pierpont Morgan Lib. M.360-11, New York.)

2. (sredina) Bulgarian pronoia cavalryman, mid-late 14th century The contrast between this warrior and the Serbian infantryman highlights the differing military traditions of the eastern and western Balkans. He is not only very similar to a late Byzantine warrior but his equipment and costume both show considerable Turkish or Mongol influence. This is particularly apparent in his long coat, his reliance on lamellar armour, and the bells on his spear-shaft. The collection of maces may be captured symbols of rank. (Sources: helmet from Khalkhis, Ottoman or late Byzantine, Ethnolog. Mus., Athens; maces from Stara Zagora region, I3th-i4th C, Kazanlik Mus., Bulgaria; Manasses Chronicle, Bulgarian 1344-5, Vat. Lib. Cod. Slav 2, Rome; Psalter, Bulgarian or Serbian £-.1370, Bavarian State Lib. Cod. Slav 4, Munich; wall-painting, c. 1355, in situ Zemen Monastery, Bulagaria; warrior saint Serbian wall-painting, c. 1307, in situ Ch. of Our Lady of Leviska, Prizren.)

3. Charles Thopia(U nasoj literaturi: Karlo Topija), Albania, mid-14th century Although no picture survives of Charles Thopia, lord of Kruja and Petrala, a fine carved relief does illustrate his coat-of-arms and crest. Here his tunic, which is remarkably similar to early Ottoman court costume, is taken from a similarly-dated painting of
Peter Brajan, the Jupan or governor of a neighbouring region of Bosnia. Like the Serbian infantryman he is protected by a brimmed helmet and an even more massive gorget or bevor. (Sources: bronze-covered lead mace from Luk, Archaeol. Mus., Split; bas-relief showing armourial bearing of Charles Thopia, in situ Church of St. John Vladimir, Elbasan, Albania; Peter Brajan, Serbian wall-painting £.1335, in situ Church Karan, Yugoslavia; warrior saint wall-painting 1338—50, in situ Monastery Church, Decani, Yugoslavia; Loyal Address from City of Prato to King Robert of Naples, 1335-40, British Lib. Ms. E. IX, London; barbarian warrior in St. Martin renouncing the sword, wall-painting by Simone Martini, c. 1317, in situ Montefiore Chapel, Lower Church of St. Francis, Assisi.)

1: Serbian auxiliary, 14th century
The frescoes of c. 1309-14 on which this figure is based demonstrate that 14th century Serbian equip¬ment, like 14th century Bulgarian, differed little from that of Byzantium, though the Serbs, whilst making some use of the triangular shield by then preferred in the Empire, continued to favour the almond-shaped variety. Their preferred weapon combination appears to have been lance (still often wielded overarm), sword, mace and composite bow. The fact that Serbian armoured cavalry of the 13th and 14th centuries were prepared to fight as horse-archers is confirmed bv Kantakouzenos’ military
memoirs and pictures in Serbian manuscripts. Cer¬tainly the Serbs in the Nicaean army at the Battle of Pelagonia in 1259 were horse-archers.

2: Bulgarian auxiliary, c. 1345
Pictorial sources demonstrate that the similarity be¬tween Bulgarian and Byzantine equipment persisted until Bulgaria fell to the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century. Bulgarian costume, however, re¬mained distinctly Balkan. The source for this figure is the Manasses Codex made for Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331—65), the illustrations of which indicate that the long gown often concealed light body-armour (Bul¬garian mail or lamellar corselets often reaching only to the waist or hips). All Bulgarian cavalrymen were customarily armed with a composite bow, though their heavy cavalry at least also carried a lance.

3: Serbian knight, 15th century
Under constant pressure from the Ottomans throughout the second half of the 14th century, Serbia began to import a growing volume of its arms from the West, in particular from Venice and Lombardy. By the 15th century better-equipped Serbs had become indistinguishable from their Italian counterparts, except in retaining a shield (probably in response to the Ottomans’ dependence on archery). Ironically contingents of Serbian heavy cavalry consequently appeared in most Ottoman field armies during the first half of the 15th century, becoming famous for the effectiveness of their close-order charge . A 1,500-strong Serbian contingent even attended the siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Territories before the Battle. You can see Chernomen marked with an X.

Victory for Murad I in the first pitched battle for the Turks in Europe. He defeated the Serbians under King Vukashin by the Maritza west of Adrianople. The Serbs had Bulgar allies. The Byzantine emperor John V was in the west seeking aid. The Turkish force was smaller but surprised the Serbs, who broke and fled, the end of a powerful medieval Serbia and of the independent Serbian principality of Serres. Macedonia fell to the Turks while Byzantium and Bulgaria became Murad’s clients. Constantinople was surrounded by Turkish territory.

It was not until the reigns of Orkhān and Murād I (1362-1389) that Ottoman armies reorganized to take better advantage of infantry, and there is little doubt that this was the reason for the increased military success in capturing more lands and facing new enemies. In particular, Murād I used a mixed array of ordinary and elite infantry troops and mounted archers and more traditional cavalry to defeat opposing Serbians at the Battle of Maritsa in 1371 and crusaders at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. In both, Turkish infantry- the first ranks composed of ordinary soldiers and the rear of elite ones-were used to lure opposing heavy cavalry into a trap between two flanks of their own lighter, more maneuverable cavalry forces where the now halted and exhausted attackers were immobilized and defeated.

After the death of Stephan Uros in 1355, the Serbian kingdom began to decline. The vast territories in Macedonia and Greece were divided between different rulers from the central dynasty. Some of those considered themselves so independent from the main hierarchy that they called themselves kings. This was the case with the two brothers Vukašin and Uglješa. They both controlled territories in today’s Macedonia. Vukašin claimed to be “The king of all Serbians and Greeks” – in opposition to his brother.

In 1371 the army was ready. However, there is no hard evidence about the size of their army. It’s considered to be anywhere between 20,000 to 70,000. Based on the land they held and the tactic they employed, however, a smaller number is more likely.

The Ottoman force for the battle was significantly smaller, but the exact number can again be debated. Their contemporary historical sources say they were no more than some 800 strong. We could possibly put their numbers at around half of what the Serbian alliance had.

The difference which decided the battle’s outcome was more the quality than the quantity. The entire Ottoman force consisted of seasoned warriors, who had survived numerous battles, sieges, and raids. On the contrary, the Serbian force consisted of an undisciplined rebel army and a small amount of cavalry.

Furthermore, it was logical that the Ottoman ghazis had superior experience. After all, they were in constant clashes with the resistance of the Balkan people. The Ottomans probably had a smaller but far better army.

Confident in their bigger force, the two brothers began their march. They looked forward to expelling the Ottomans from Erdine and stopping their expansion. Their plan was to go down the stream of the river Maritsa and lead a surprise attack. Lala Shahin, however, knew what was going on. He also had extensive experience fighting in a rough terrain and organizing ambushes.

Considering his tactical advantage, he took measures in order to stop the Serbians’ advancement.  The Ottoman leader sent trackers to scout the region. The Serbians were overly confident, and never bothered to do that.

Thus, the Lala Shahin waited for the right moment to rout the marching rebels. His chance came in the early morning hours of the 26th of September. The Serbians had made their camp near the Maritsa and had made one final crucial mistake. They decided to celebrate their future victory and held a feast. By the morning, the camp largely unguarded and many of the men were drunk.

The force of the Ottoman leader Lala Shahin entered the camp in the morning. His men took their knives out and began slaughtering their sleeping enemies. In the Massacre that followed the two Serbian leaders were mercilessly killed. Whoever did not die from the Ottoman blades drowned in the river of Maritsa, in an attempt to escape.

Lazar I

(d. 1389)

Serbian ruler Since at least the 19th century Serbs have memorialized the defeat and death of Lazar I at the Battle of Kosovo in (1389) as an event of central significance in the nation’s history. The defeat of Lazar’s forces by the army of Ottoman sultan Murād I is frequently used to mark the end of independent, medieval Serbia and the beginning of Turkish rule. Popular songs and poems dating back to the 16th century or earlier recount the martyrdom of Lazar, who according to tradition was visited by an angel the night before the battle and offered a choice between a heavenly and an earthly kingdom. Choosing the former he was then betrayed by a rival prince secretly allied to Murād. Some versions of the story include a Serb nobleman who demonstrated his true loyalty by sneaking into the Ottoman camp and killing the sultan before the battle. The traitorous prince is commonly identified as Vuk Branković and the loyal noble as Miloš Obilić, both supposedly sons-in-law of Lazar and rivals for his attention. Nationalist writers have used this tale of divine selection, betrayal, loyalty, and deceit to symbolize the historical destiny of Serbia and explain its subsequent incorporation into the Ottoman Empire: 1299-1453.

Between the 12th and early 14th centuries Serbia was united under the Nemanyich dynasty, which consolidated Serb control over much of the central Balkans. The last ruler of the dynasty, Czar Stephan Dušan (r. 1331-55), built a short-lived Serbian empire, extending his control over Albania, Macedonia, and much of Greece, and promoting the elevation of the archbishop of Ipek to the position of patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Following Dušan’s death his son Uros proved unable to maintain his father’s legacy, and real authority quickly slipped into the hands of a number of regional lords. In 1371 one of his supporters, Vukašin, was killed at the head of a large Serb army in battle with the Turks on the Maritsa River. Uros died two months later, ending the Nemanyich dynasty and with it any real hope for the revival of the Serb empire. The country disintegrated into a number of independent but weak principalities, each vying for territorial control.

The strongest of the remaining Serb rulers was Lazar Hrebeljanovic of Kruševac. In 1374 a gathering of Serb nobles at Ipek recognized him as their leader. Lazar consolidated his position by concluding marriage alliances with the leading nobles in Kosovo and Montenegro, Vuk Branković and Gjergj Balsha. He also developed close relations with King Tvrtko of Bosnia, the strongest ruler in the region. To further bolster his position, he cultivated the support of the Serb patriarch by granting the church additional lands and founding the monastery of Ravanica. Though successful in establishing and defending his role as the leading prince in Serbia, Lazar was unable to reunite a Serb state.

As for other Serb rulers, Lazar’s relations with the Ottoman Turks were complicated. In the 14th century Ottoman influence in the Balkans was growing rapidly, capitalizing on the internal disorder and decline of the Byzantine, Bulgarian, and Serbian empires. Numerous Christian rulers entered into alliance with the Turks or accepted vassalage in return for Ottoman support in their struggle with neighboring princes. Christian forces were commonly found fighting on the sultan’s campaigns and Turkish soldiers were occasionally lent to Christian princes. Throughout, the Ottomans steadily gained territory and strength, emerging as the leading power of the region.

In 1386 Murād seized Niš from Lazar and two years later raided Bosnia. The following spring the Ottomans prepared to occupy Lazar’s possessions in Kosovo as a prelude to an attack on Bosnia. Lazar called on the assistance of Tvrtko, who provided a large force, as did Lazar’s son-in-law, Vuk Branković. The two armies met at Kosovo Polje on June 15, 1389. Both armies suffered heavy casualties and Lazar and Murād died in the battle, at the end of which Lazar’s army fled. Though the Ottoman army controlled the field, Murād’s son Bayezid I abandoned the campaign in the Balkans and led the remaining Turkish forces against his brother in Anatolia in order to secure his succession to the throne.

There is no direct historical evidence supporting the details of the popular legends associated with the Battle of Kosovo. The identification of Vuk Branković as Murad’s secret ally in the battle and the betrayer of Lazar is unlikely given his subsequent, firm resistance to the Ottoman advances in the region. Similarly the suggestion that Lazar’s defeat marked the end of the medieval Serb empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule fails to account for the dissension of the Serb nobles following Dušan’s death, their continued independence in the half-century following the battle, and their frequent cooperation with the Turks throughout the period.

Though it was likely not the epic confrontation described in Serb folk traditions, Lazar’s defeat in the Battle of Kosovo, as the battle on the Maritsa in 1371, marks the gradual decline of Serb resistance to Ottoman expansion in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. In both cases, the Serbs suffered large casualties. After the battles Serb princes were divided in their reaction to Ottoman victory, with some continuing to resist and others seeking to accommodate the Turks.

Further reading: Fine, John. The Late Medieval Balkans. Detroit: Michigan University Press, 1987; Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1998; Sugar, Peter. Southeast Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977.

Of Tanks and Storm Troops I

Specialized soldiers operating with the German army in France in World War I.

It has often been said that the initial employment of tanks in small numbers on the Somme was a tactical blunder, and that it would have been better to wait until several hundred machines became available and then deliver a concentrated blow with the new weapon, so preserving the element of surprise. There is much to be said for this argument, but there is another side to the coin as well.

Once the Germans had recovered from their initial shock, they set about evaluating a number of tanks which had fallen into their hands. They found that not only were they mechanically unreliable, they were vulnerable to direct gunfire as well. In the opinion of many German officers the tank was a freak terror weapon of limited efficiency and with a strictly local potential. Special anti-tank ammunition, known as the K round, was developed for use by the infantry, and guns brought into the front line for use in the direct fire role. Of greater importance was the German decision not to divert resources to manufacturing their own tanks, a decision which seemed entirely justified by the sight of British vehicles wallowing their way into bottomless mud-holes during the 1917 Flanders offensive. But the German evaluation contained a number of blind spots. It was wrong to assume that the British would not improve the mechanical efficiency of their tanks; wrong to assume that armour thickness would not be increased, so reducing the K round to impotence almost as soon as it was issued; and, above all, wrong to assume that tanks would always be employed across the least suitable going.

The Tank Corps, as the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps became, had as its commander 36-year-old Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, a Royal Engineer officer who had advised Haig during the tank’s development stage. Elles’ Chief of Staff (GSO 1) was Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, an intellectual soldier who had originally served with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and who would later become a distinguished military historian.

Fuller possessed an insight which amounted to genius. Although at first he was somewhat less than lukewarm to the tank idea, his conversion was total. Like many such men, he had little patience with those who failed to grasp what he considered to be an essential truth, treating them with caustic scorn. The cavalry he considered to be completely useless, the artillery an over-subscribed fraternity whose principal contribution was to smash up the ground which his tanks would have to cross. During the Passchendaele fighting he had a board erected outside Tank Corps HQ, saying,

DON’T BE PESSIMISTIC! THIS IS THE LAST GREAT ARTILLERY BATTLE!

Elles made him take it down; it was too close to the truth not to make enemies.

Both Elles and Fuller worked unceasingly for the chance to show what their Corps could achieve fighting en masse and on good going. Haig, more often remembered for his premature comment that the tank was “a pretty mechanical toy” than for the later support he gave to the Corps, granted their request after some prompting from General Sir Julian Byng, whose Third Army sector contained the most promising ground for the attack, consisting of rolling chalk down land as yet little cut up by shellfire.

The object of the offensive was to seize the enemy’s communications centre of Cambrai. The tanks would breach the formidable Hindenburg Line in conjunction with Third Army’s infantry, and the Cavalry Corps would exploit beyond. Artillery preparation was limited to a short hurricane bombardment at H-Hour.

The tank Corps had available a total 376 Mark IV gun tanks, plus a further 32 fitted with grapnels for clearing wire from the cavalry’s path, 18 supply tanks and a handful of communication and bridging vehicles. The Hindenburg trenches were dug both wide and deep, and were considered to be tank-proof by the Germans. To counter this many tanks carried huge bundles of brushwood, known as fascines, on their roofs, which could be released into the trenches, so forming a bridge.

The attack was to commence on the morning of 20th November 1917, and the evening before Elles sat down to scribble his now famous Special Order No. 6.

  1. Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months – to operate on good going in the van of battle.
  2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
  3. It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
  4. In the light of past experiences I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
  5. I propose leading the attack of the centre division.

Hugh Elles,

  1. G.

Commanding Tank Corps. 19th Nov. 1917

Distribution to Tank Commanders.

Elles led out his men in the tank Hilda of H Battalion, proudly flying his Corps’ brown, red and green standard. He had chosen the colours deliberately as a demonstration that the tanks could and would smash through the mud and blood of trench deadlock and advance into the green fields beyond.

That morning, the Tank Corps affirmed another essential element of Blitzkrieg – overwhelming concentration of force at the point of impact. The Germans could offer little effective resistance and fled, routed and panic-stricken, leaving a huge six-mile gap yawning in their laboriously constructed defence system.

For a brief period, the cavalry had the chance to break out into open country. They did not take it, since their Corps Commander had installed himself in a headquarters several miles in the rear, and kept his subordinates on a tight rein. By the time he was fully conversant with what was taking place and authorized a general advance, the enemy had rushed in reinforcements to seal the gap, and the moment had passed; in addition, the horses had been on the move or standing to all day, and badly needed watering. Here again was a lesson that would be absorbed into subsequent Blitzkrieg techniques – that the commander of an exploitation force must travel with the leading troops if he is to make the most of the opportunities he is offered.

But for the moment that did not seem to matter; what really mattered was that at last a way had been found to break the German defences at a comparatively trivial cost in lives. For the only time during the Great War the church bells of Britain rang in joyous celebration of a great victory.

During the next few days, battle casualties and mechanical attrition progressively reduced the numbers of tanks available for action. The tempo of the battle slowed and the front seemed to reach a state of stabilization again. The tanks were gradually withdrawn find despatched by rail to their base.

Then, on 30th November, the unbelievable happened. The Germans counter-attacked with a speed and drive that had never been experienced before on the Western Front. Whole units were isolated and cut off, while others went down fighting to stem the tide. The few tanks which had not been shipped away, often battlefield recoveries, were formed at commendable speed into provisional units which succeeded in eroding the weight of the German effort, but by 7th December much of the ground taken during the great tank attack had been recaptured, and a little more besides. The Battle of Cambrai had ended with honours exactly even, and for the British this was as humiliating as it was inexplicable.

Reports were called for, containing an explanation for the disaster. Neither Haig nor Byng, nor the corps and divisional commanders, could offer any militarily intelligible explanations. To the eternal disgrace of their authors, those reports that were submitted sank to unplumbed depths of moral cowardice in that blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of the regimental junior officers and even NCOs, who, it was said, had failed to exercise proper leadership. These were the very men who had died resisting the German attack, and to whom military discipline denied any right of reply if they survived.

Obviously the general public was not going to accept this outrageous suggestion without making a great deal of trouble for the Government and the military Establishment. Some sort of quasi-plausible excuse was cobbled together, based on the lack of reserves which, it was said, had been absorbed by the Flanders sector or which were in transit to the Italian Front; but it did not explain why the German infantry had managed to break through the defences so quickly. The plain fact was that nobody really knew.

One officer, Captain G. Dugdale, diagnosed one of the symptoms when he wrote his own record of the battle. He wrote that “The German aeroplanes were very active, flying over our lines in large numbers, very low. They were shooting with machine guns at the troops on the ground, and I am quite sure this did more to demoralise our men than anything else.” Here was something that would be instantly recognizable to the Blitzkrieg generation – the use of air power in conjunction with the ground attack to eliminate centres of resistance and induce fear.

This was part of the answer, but only part. The Germans had in fact perfected their own method of breaking the trench deadlock, and the Cambrai counter-stroke was only a foretaste of what was to come.

The story began three months earlier in the most unlikely of settings, on the Baltic coast at Riga. Here the Russian Twelfth Army under General Klembovsky held a bridgehead along the west bank of the River Dvina. Their opponents were General von Hutier’s Eighth Army, which had the task of eliminating the bridgehead and capturing Riga as a prelude to an advance on Petrograd.

Klembovsky knew he was to be attacked, but imagined that von Hutier would first eliminate the bridgehead before crossing the river. He therefore retained his more reliable troops in the bridgehead itself, and detailed divisions of doubtful quality to hold the river line.

However, von Hutier’s strategy was the exact opposite. His plan was to force a crossing of the river and then swing north towards the coast, so placing the defenders of Riga inside a trap. In so doing he was employing the strategic principle of Blitzkrieg known as the Indirect Approach, a recognition that an enemy position could be made untenable as a result of successful operations elsewhere rather than by direct assault.

Apart from the overall strategy of the Riga operation, its tactical execution is of great interest as well. The first German attempts to use poison gas had been clumsy, involving the release of chlorine from cylinders in the front line when a favourable wind was blowing, but of course any change in wind direction tended to make this a very two- edged weapon. Since the early experiments chlorine had been replaced by phosgene, otherwise known as mustard gas, which required only one part to four million of air to be effective. It was, therefore, possible to incorporate a small cylinder of the gas into the filling of a conventional high explosive artillery shell, thus ensuring its accurate delivery. The beauty of the device, if that is quite the right word, was that the recipients were unaware that they were being gassed until it was too late. The results were extremely unpleasant, consisting of painful blistering and violent attacks of vomiting, with a consequent reduction in both the capacity and the will to fight. The new shell had not been used in offensive operations before, and von Hutier’s artillery was to treat the Russians to a very stiff dose.

The German infantry, too, would be employing new tactics. Once across the Dvina, the assault troops would rely on speed and infiltration to work their way through the enemy’s successive defence lines, while waves of ground attack aircraft raked the trenches with machine-gun fire.

They went in on 1st September, following a five-hour bombardment, a mere disturbance by Western Front standards, but enough to drench the Russian positions with gas, shake their occupants with high explosive and blind them with smoke. When the German infantry swarmed across the river their rapid advance past sectors which were still holding out completely unnerved the remainder of the defenders, who began streaming away to the east in panic. Within hours the front had been broken.

The very speed with which success was attained prevented von Hutier from reaping the full fruits of his victory. He had prepared a strict timetable which had been overtaken by events, and it took him some time to accelerate the northern thrust that was meant to be decisive. In that time Klembovsky, reacting with a promptness foreign to the majority of Russian general officers, re-appraised the situation and withdrew the remainder of his army through Riga and along the coast road to Pskov.

Casualties in terms of killed and wounded had been negligible for both sides, although 9000 Russians had been taken prisoner. The Kaiser, delighted at von Hutier’s almost bloodless capture of Russia’s second most important port, paid him the compliment of a personal visit.

On 24th October the same tactics were employed again, this time against the Italian Second Army on the Caporetto sector of the Isonzo front, by General von Below’s Fourteenth Austro-German Army. The Italian Commander in Chief, General Luigi Cadorna, had suspected that this sector had been chosen as a target for a major offensive, and had given instructions for a defence in depth to be prepared; his instructions were ignored, with catastrophic consequences.

The German bombardment, erupting among the surprised Italians, disrupted all communications with the rear, so that formation headquarters were left floundering in a fog of war as dense as that which enveloped their choking front-line troops. And then came the assault infantry, sinister grey ghosts flitting in groups through the zone of gas and on towards the artillery and administrative areas, followed by more substantial formations which eliminated any centres of resistance which had been by-passed. Regiments shredded away from the front, while those on either flank, bereft of instructions from the paralysed command system, were forced to conform to the movement. Soon the whole of Second Army was straggling towards the rear, thus compelling the withdrawal of Third Army on its right as well.

Cadorna hoped to check the flood along the line of the Tagliamente, but the pursuit was as rapid as it was ruthless. Crossings were forced before the Italians could reorganize their shattered forces, Second Army HQ being reduced to the common lot of fugitives, incapable of organizing a coherent front from the drifting wrack of its troops. Not until 7th November did the Italians turn and fight again, manning a hastily dug defence line which followed the southern bank of the River Piave.

In less than three weeks they had sustained a staggering 300,000 casualties, lost 2,500 guns, and been propelled back more than 70 miles from their original front line. It was a blow which almost knocked Italy out of the war, and which caused the urgent despatch of sorely needed British and French divisions from the Western Front to stiffen the defence.

The conduct of war is subject to certain inescapable rules, one of which is that the power of the attack diminishes in proportion to the distance it has covered. The operation of this rule had given the Italian Army the time it needed to form a new front; von Below had available neither armoured cars nor cavalry with which to exploit the sudden collapse, and the pursuit had been carried out by infantry who had reached the limit of their endurance.

Riga, Caporetto and the Cambrai counter-stroke all pointed to the way in which the German Army planned to fight its 1918 battles, but the evidence was too fragmented by distance for the Western Allies to draw any firm conclusions. Riga had been fought against troops already war-weary and demoralized by revolution; the Italians were not considered to have a first-class army, and anyway, mountain warfare was different; and of course Cambrai remained an enigma.

Meanwhile, the Germans were refining their techniques, forming their Stosstruppen into special battalions which would form the spearhead of their respective divisions. The Storm Troopers were chosen from among young, fit men of proven initiative and represented the cream of the army. They moved in groups, their favourite weapons being the grenade, of which each man carried at least one bag, the light machine-gun and the man-pack flamethrower. They came on at a run, rifles slung, taking advantage of all available ground cover, and if they encountered opposition they worked their way round it, jumping trenches without pausing to fight for them. Their object was to get into the enemy’s artillery zone, overrunning batteries and pressing on towards brigade and divisional headquarters with little respite. Continual movement was the essence of their tactics. On occasion, an attack might make ground so quickly that it was in danger of running into its own supporting artillery fire, and a system of rocket signals was evolved to inform the gunners when to lift onto the next target.

Behind the Storm Troops would come the Battle Groups, specially trained to reduce strong-points which had been left unsubdued, followed by the mass of the infantry divisions, which would eliminate the last pockets of resistance and secure the captured ground. The whole system resembled a gigantic snake in that once the tail had caught up, the head would shoot off again.

Overhead flew the Schlachtstaffeln (Battle Flights), more specialists who concentrated on ground strafing enemy troops in the immediate path of the Storm Troopers. Generally the Schlachtstaffeln, consisting of up to six Hannover or Halberstadt machines, attacked from a height of about 200 feet, sometimes dropping bundles of grenades to supplement the fire of their guns.

Both the Royal Flying Corps and the German Imperial Air Service had begun ground strafing in mid-1917. The RFC did not, however, believe it necessary to form special units for the work, which was considered to be an extension of normal squadron duties, and employed a variety of machines of which the best remembered is the famous Sopwith Camel. The British produced the better results by flying at ground level, there being several recorded instances of German soldiers being knocked flat by the wheels of British aircraft. The moral effect was considerable, provoking bitter complaint from the Storm Troops that the Schlachtstaffeln were not doing their job properly. An enjoyable diversion for the British pilots was the pursuit of motor-cycle despatch riders and staff cars – not quite the trivial occupation it sounds, since the undelivered message and the general prevented from exercise command can both contribute to the failure of an operation already plagued by difficulties. The French formed a large organization for heavy local ground support, the Division Aerienne, which could be moved about the front as required.

In previous offensives along the Western Front it had been the practice of the higher command to commit its reserves against the strongest resistance encountered. The strategy of infiltration differed radically in that only successful penetrations were reinforced; in this way the merest trickle through a broken defence could become a flood and ultimately a torrent. Whereas offensives had until now burst like a wave against the rock of defence, the new system could be likened to an in-coming tide, probing insidiously into the channels between sandbanks, flowing round them yet still maintaining its advance against the shore, while behind came the great mass of water under which the sandbanks would ultimately vanish.

As 1917 drew to a close it appeared that of the two alternative forms of attack, only the German method produced lasting results. For General Erich von Ludendorff, effective commander of the German armies in the west, it seemed as though the New Year was to be one of great promise.

Of Tanks and Storm Troops II

Following the `holing’ of two Mark IV (female) tanks by `Nixe’, which forced the British tanks to withdraw from the Cachy Switch, 2nd Lieutenant Frank Mitchell’s Mark IV (male) engages his German adversary, striking its starboard plate.

Russia had at last staggered out of the war and was preoccupied with her own internal struggles, while it would be some months before American troops could reach the battlefields in any significant numbers. In the period before the American presence could make itself felt, the troops released from the Eastern Front could be used to deal the tired British and French armies a series of knock-out blows.

In Ludendorff’s eyes, Great Britain had become the dominant partner in the Alliance, not merely at sea, but also on land. He reasoned that if the French were beaten into surrender, the British would continue to fight; that the reverse did not apply; therefore the next major offensive must be designed to inflict a severe defeat on the British and physically separate them from their Allies.

The offensive, codenamed Michael, would begin with a massive attack on the Arras – Cambrai – St Quentin sector. The strategic objective would be the communications centre of Amiens, and a mere twenty miles beyond lay an even more glittering prize, the Somme estuary and the sea. If only the sea could be reached, the Western Front would be ripped apart and the British armies confined to a coastal enclave; from that point onwards the British would be fighting for survival and not for victory. It was an attractive strategy, and one which, some twenty-two years later, would form the basis of a plan presented to the Führer by Field Marshal von Manstein.

On the forty-mile stretch of front no less than 67 divisions of the German Seventeenth, Second and Eighteenth Armies had been concentrated against a total of 33 belonging to Gough’s Fifth and Byng’s Third Armies. In addition Ludendorff’s team would include a number of very important names, including those of von Hutier, hero of Riga, and von Below, the victor of Caporetto.

Also present was a Colonel Bruchmuller, who had fired the crucial opening bombardment at Riga. Bruchmuller was a brilliant artilleryman who commanded a “travelling Circus” of medium and heavy guns which moved up and down the line throughout Ludendorff’s 1918 series of offensives. He insisted that all batteries under his command should register their targets by mathematical survey rather than by the more usual ranging shellfire, thus achieving total surprise when they did open up. During its career, the Bruchmuller Circus consistently achieved such spectacular results that the colonel became know throughout the army as Durchbruch Muller (Break-Through Muller).

In great secrecy the German artillery was focused against Gough and Byng, so that 4,010 field guns opposed only 1,710, and 2,588 medium and heavy pieces were ranged against the 976 available to the British. In the meantime, events on the other side of the wire were also tending to further the success of the German plans. Not only had more of the front been taken over from the French, a new system of defence was being developed as well. This contained three elements: a Forward Zone, consisting of a series of strong-points which were in effect little more than fortified outposts; a Battle Zone trench system manned by about one third of the defenders, some two to three miles behind the Forward Zone; and a Rear Zone trench system, housing the reserves, some four to eight miles beyond the Battle Zone.

Every aspect of the system played right into Ludendorff’s hands. The Forward Zone provided the Storm Troops with the very opportunities they sought to infiltrate: the Battle Zone was within range of the German artillery yet lacked dug-outs in which the troops could shelter during bombardment; and in places the Rear Zone had not even been dug, its location being marked by a line of spit-locked turf. The system was, in short, a recipe for complete disaster, revealing how little the British understood of the new German artillery and infantry tactics, compounded by the fact that each nine-battalion division was badly below strength, battalions containing an average of 500 effectives in contrast to the 1000 with which they had gone to war.

Deserters had warned of the impending offensive, but none of the defenders had the slightest inkling of just what was in store for them.

At 0440 on 21st March almost 7,000 guns rocked the atmosphere with the opening salvo of the most concentrated bombardment in the history of the war. It is said that when the 2,500 British guns opened up in reply there was no appreciable difference in the noise level, since the air was too disturbed by continuous shock waves to conduct more than an impression of sound.

From 0440 until 0640 Bruchmuller’s men fired a mixture of gas and high explosive shells into the British gun batteries, command posts, communication centres and bivouac areas, punctuated at 0530 by a ten-minute switch directly onto the Forward Zone. At 0640 there was a 30-minute pause to rest the sweating gun crews, during which batteries fired check rounds only.

At 0710 the guns thundered out again, hammering the British trench systems while the heaviest pieces engaged targets in the rear. By 0940 the whole area had been combed and swept several times, and what was not smashed by high explosive was drenched in gas and shrouded in drifting smoke. At 0900 the fire rose to a crescendo, its pattern changing ominously to a barrage which obliterated what remained of the Forward Zone, then lifted 300 metres, halted for three minutes, lifted 200 metres, halted for four minutes, and lifted again, maintaining a steady progress into the Battle Zone.

0940 was the Storm Troopers’ H-Hour. Their rapid advance across No Man’s Land was cloaked by a natural mist and they met little resistance in the shattered Forward Zone. They pressed on into the Battle Zone, their green signal rockets soaring to request an acceleration of the creeping barrage, and were seen working their way through gaps in the main trench line. Behind came the Battle Groups, isolating and subduing small pockets of stubborn defenders, and in their wake followed the main weight of the attack. Only the Schlachtstaffeln were absent, grounded by the mist, but as this cleared they began to arrive over the battlefield about midday, their activities covered by a swarm of fighters.

One characteristic of the British soldier is his stubborn immobility in defence. With their telephone links to the rear cut by shellfire, battalions fought their battles with little direction from their higher formation. Some, the luckier ones, were able to withdraw, doggedly covering the retreat of the artillery; others, more quickly surrounded, fought on to the death and were never heard from again. These, and little group of cooks, clerks, batmen, signallers and drivers, rushed into the line at a minute’s notice, all took toll of their attackers, but the fact remained that by nightfall a forty-mile gap had been punched in the line and Fifth Army was on the point of disintegration.

The week that followed was one of deep trauma for the British both in France and at home. The Flesquiers salient, last remnant of the great tank attack at Cambrai, was swallowed up in the first day’s advance; four days later all the ground that had been bought so bloodily during the Somme battle was once more in German hands. British and French divisions, hurrying to plug the gap, found themselves caught up in the general retreat.

The crisis was of such proportion that on 26th March the Allies appointed a Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, to co¬ ordinate counter-measures. Everyone appreciated the strategic significance of Amiens and divisions from both the British and French sectors were despatched quickly into the danger area. By 5th April the line had been stabilized at Villers-Bretonneux, a mere ten miles east of Amiens, partly because of these counter-measures and partly because the German offensive was running down in obedience to the laws of the attack.

The Storm Troops, having advanced up to forty miles in a week in the van of a hard-fought battle, were exhausted and had suffered a fiercer rate of attrition than had been allowed for. Their casualties been caused by the stubborn defence, by the RFC’s universal ground- strafing, and by encounters with tanks fighting in the counter-attack role.

These last encounters are of interest, for while it is true to say that tanks can take ground but not hold it, they can buy time, which in war is the most priceless commodity of all. On a number of occasions tanks caught Storm Troop and Battle Group units in the open and dispersed them with some slaughter, effectively blunting divisional spearheads and so delaying the advance of the main body until a reorganization could be effected.

There was another influence at work too, a factor which could not have been foreseen by either side. God tends to remain aloof from Man’s foolishness, but the devil does not and the battlefield is his playground. On 28th March German air reconnaissance reported that the country between Albert and Amiens was clear of Allied troops, but for no intelligible reason the advance did not proceed beyond the town of Albert itself. A staff officer was sent forward by car to investigate. On arrival he found a state of complete bedlam. Drunken men, some wearing top hats and other looted clothing, were staggering about the streets, helping themselves to whatever they fancied, quite beyond the control of their officers. By the time the advance was resumed, Amiens was no longer attainable.

Elsewhere along the front similar scenes were taking place whenever an Allied supply depot was captured. Weary Storm Troopers, suddenly presented with stocks of drink, real tobacco, real coffee and items of food which the British maritime blockade had long since made a memory in Germany, found themselves unable to resist the temptation to gorge themselves with unaccustomed luxuries; even such mundane things as boot polish and notepaper had not been seen in the trenches for many months, and now they were to be had for the taking.

The advance was resumed as soon as order had been restored, but the Storm Troops’ keen psychological edge had been dulled and the élan of the early days was lacking. The daily advance rate became slower and slower until it was clear that the Michael offensive was over.

Disregarding the demoralizing effects of the Allied supply depots, it must be admitted that Ludendorff had it within his power to capture Amiens. That he did not do so stemmed from a decision taken as early as 23rd March. Instead of maintaining the westward march of his three armies, he dispersed their effort, insisting that Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies should turn respectively north-west and south-west, while in the centre Second Army alone continued along its original axis.

This can be justified only in part as the conventional strategy of building protective shoulders for the huge salient which was forming, but it also denied a basic military tenet and fundamental principle of Blitzkrieg, namely Maintenance of the Objective; in other words, having set Amiens as his primary strategic objective, the majority of his effort should have been directed at capturing the city in accordance with the aims of his original plan.

His decision, in conjunction with the various other factors already mentioned above, did not merely cost him a meticulously planned and gallantly executed infantry Blitzkrieg victory; ultimately it cost Germany the war.

The following month Ludendorff would attack again, this time in Flanders, recovering all the ground lost during the 1917 British offensive, and in May the French were forced back more than thirty miles on the Chemin des Dames sector, but neither operation possessed the same strategic menace as had the great drive on Amiens. Not that Amiens had been forgotten. On 24th April the Germans mounted a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux, heralded as usual by an intense bombardment with gas and high explosive. This time, however, it was not the Storm Troops who emerged from the morning mist but tanks of a totally unfamiliar design.

The tanks’ break-through at Cambrai had at last convinced the Germans that they must, after all, form their own Panzer Corps. Experiments had been going on in a dilatory sort of way since October 1916, conducted by the secret Allgemaine Kriegsdepartment 7 Abteilung Verkehrswesen (General War Department 7, Traffic Section), known as A7V for short, which also gave its name to the finished product, of which only a handful had been built by the Spring of 1918.

In form the A7V followed the French concept of an armoured box on a tracked chassis. Its armament consisted of one 57-mm Russian Sokol gun in the front plate, two machine-guns on each side and two at the rear. Although possessing a sprung suspension the vehicle was a poor cross-country performer and had a high centre of gravity. Inside no less than eighteen men were stuffed in supreme discomfort into a space measuring 24 feet by 10 feet, which also housed two 100-h.p. Daimler engines.

In conjunction with five captured Mark IVs, four A7Vs had been used in penny packets on the first day of the Michael offensive. Their use had gone unrecorded by the British, since those who had seen the tanks had either been killed or captured. Thereafter, the tanks’ low mechanical endurance had prevented them from keeping up with the advance.

At Villers-Bretonneux the Germans led their attack with a total of twelve A7Vs. The effect of the tanks on the British infantry was precisely the same as it had been on the German. A three-mile gap appeared in the line, through which the Storm Troops poured into the shattered town.

However, a little way to the south-west lay the Bois de l’Abbe, and lying up in the wood were two Female and one Male Mark IVs of No 1 Section A Company 1st Battalion Tank Corps, commanded by Captain J. C. Brown. The crews were still suffering from the effects of gas but those who had not been totally incapacitated manned their vehicles and proceeded towards the still unbroken Cachy switch-line. Throughout the subsequent action Brown controlled his tanks on foot, running across open ground between them to direct their movement.

No sooner had No 1 Section emerged from the wood than they were warned by the infantry of the presence of German armour. The following extracts are taken from an account of the engagement written by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, commanding the Male tank.

“I informed the crew, and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole, I looked out. There, some 300 yards away, a round, squat¬ looking monster was advancing; behind it came waves of infantry, and farther away to the left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises.”

Mitchell’s right-hand gunner at once engaged the German vehicle with his 6-pounder. He worked under the greatest difficulty, being all but blinded by gas, and was forced to load for himself while the Male pitched in and out of shell holes, his usual loader being one of those left behind in the wood. Meanwhile the A7V, Elfriede of 3rd Panzer Abteilung, was firing at the other tanks in the section with its 57-mm gun. The two Females, being armed only with machine-guns, were powerless to reply and were quickly forced to retire with holes blown in their armour plate. Simultaneously the A7V’s machine gunners were engaging Mitchell’s vehicle, sending the crew diving to the floor as a continuous shower of sparks and splinters flew off the inside of the hull. Mitchell decided to halt so as to give his gunner a better chance.

“The pause was justified; a well-aimed shot hit the enemy’s conning tower, bringing him to a standstill. Another round and yet another white puff at the front of the tank denoted a second hit! Peering with swollen eyes through his narrow slit, the gunner shouted words of triumph that were drowned by the roar of the engine. Then once more he aimed with great deliberation and hit for the third time. Through a loophole I saw the tank heel over to one side; then a door opened and out ran the crew. We had knocked the monster out! Quickly I signalled to the machine gunner and he poured volley after volley into the retreating figures.”

Elfriede’s driver, probably concussed by the thunder-clap explosion of the first 6-pounder round against what Mitchell calls, with some justice, the conning tower, had lost direction and run his tank slantwise onto a steep slope. The second and third hits seem to have caused little damage, but the ground had given way beneath the A7V, which slowly toppled onto its side into a sand pit.

Well pleased with the result of the action, Mitchell set off in a slow-motion pursuit of the two remaining German tanks, which had begun to retire towards their own lines. Unfortunately, a direct hit from an artillery shell brought an end to the chase and Mitchell and his crew were forced to evacuate their vehicle and shelter in the nearest infantry trench.

The state of play was now as follows. On the British side, Mitchell’s Male had been immobilized and Brown’s two Females had retired with battle damage; to balance this one German tank had been knocked out and two more had voluntarily withdrawn, leaving the Storm Troops vulnerable to counter-attack if more British tanks appeared.

That this actually occurred was rather the result of personal initiative than of any grand design. An RFC pilot, flying over the area of the tank battle, had observed the stalled German infantry preparing to advance again towards the switch-line and had dropped a message to that effect into the harbour area of a 3rd Battalion Tank Company three miles west of Cachy.

The tank company consisted of seven Whippets commanded by Captain T. R. Price, who at once set his vehicles in motion. As he approached the battle area Price deployed his tanks into line abreast and advanced at top speed over good going. The Germans, amounting to two battalions, were taken completely by surprise while forming up in a hollow and were massacred as the Whippets tore into them, machine-guns blazing. At the end of their run the tanks wheeled round and combed the area again, the crews later being sickened by the discovery that their tracks were “covered in blood and human remains”. Both German battalions were utterly dispersed with the loss of 400 men killed. British casualties amounted to three killed and two wounded. Three Whippets were slightly damaged by shellfire. A fourth, which against Price’s orders had shown itself on a skyline, was knocked out – at the time it was thought by artillery, although it was later found to have fallen victim to a solitary A7V which remained in the area.

So ended the first tank battle in history. The Germans abandoned their attempt to take Cachy and during the night an Australian attack threw them out of Villers-Bretonneux.

 

Battle of Slim River I

SLIM TO NONE

In the battle of Slim River on 7 January 1942, some 30 Japanese tanks and a motorized infantry battalion completed the virtual destruction of the 11th Indian Infantry Division.

 

Japanese Armor at Slim River

The Japanese used two types of tanks at the Slim River battle. The main medium tank used was the Type 89 I-Go, which was the most common Japanese medium tank throughout the early part of the Pacific war. The light tanks used were Type 95 Ha-Gos, which were encountered by Allied forces throughout the entire war.

The Type 89 I-Go was an older design that was first introduced in 1934. Weighing 15 tons, its armor was only 17mm at its thickest. The tank had a maximum speed of 16 mph, due to its being relatively underpowered. The 57-mm gun was a good infantry support weapon; however, there was no coaxial machine gun – the turret machine gun faced out of the turret rear. In addition, there was a hull machine gun. The Type 89 did carry a large amount of ammunition: 100 57- mm rounds and 2,800 rounds of machine gun ammunition. It was cramped for its crew of five men, and visibility from it was poor. There was no radio to communicate with other vehicles, communication being done by flags or shouted orders. The Type 89 had an unrefueled range of 110 miles.

The Type 95 Ha-Go light tank was a slightly newer design that had some of the same problems of the Type 89 as well as many of its own. The 7.4-ton tank had even thinner armor than the Type 89 (16mm). It was faster than the Type 89 and could achieve its maximum speed of 28 mph. It was armed with a 37-mm gun, as well as two machine guns in a similar arrangement to the Type 89. However, the three-man crew could not operate all the weapons at once. The commander was particularly overtaxed, having to load and fire the main gun or turret machine gun, as well as command the tank. The Type 95 also had an operational radius of about 130 miles.

The Battle

“On this first day of the new year, I breathe the air of the South,” Tomoyuki Yamashita wrote in his diary as the pivotal year of 1942 opened on an IJA in motion across Southeast Asia. “I was up at 5 am and it was already hot. I must put away recollections of the past. My duty is half done, although success is still a problem. The future of my country is now as safe as if we were based on a great mountain. However, I would like to achieve my plan without killing too many of the enemy.”

Writing of the Japanese tactical plan in the Malay Peninsula as 1942 began, Masanobu Tsuji could have been speaking of the Japanese strategic perspective on the entire operation from Sumatra to Luzon when he observed that “the 5th Division pushed southward as fast as possible in order to give the enemy no time to develop new defensive positions.”

However, on New Year’s Eve, it was Tsuji who was scrambling for a defensive position. As the bridge work on the Perak River was ongoing, the spearhead of Japanese 5th Division infantry troops, specifically Major General Saubro Kawamura’s 9th Brigade, including the 41st Infantry Regiment, continued cycling southward on the highway. They had penetrated another 40 miles southward toward the capital of British Malaya at Kuala Lumpur, and had reached a point north of the city of Kampar by December 30. Tsuji and a couple of aides had “requisitioned” an automobile in Ipoh and had decided to drive south “to share a glass of wine with the troops in the line to celebrate the New Year on the battlefield.”

As they approached Kampar, they came under fire from British artillery in the surrounding hills. The 11th Indian Infantry Division, temporarily commanded by Major General Archie Paris (of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade), had chosen Kampar to erect the sort of defensive barrier the defenders should probably have established on the Perak. Tsuji arrived just as the battle was being joined, and apparently he left shortly thereafter, as Kawamura’s troops undertook a bloody fixed battle that halted the Japanese advance for four days.

At exactly the same time that the battle of Kampar was taking place, Tsuji’s boss, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the commander of the 25th Army, was implementing a daring tactical move with which his planning officer, Tsuji, fervently disagreed. Indeed, it would result in a brief tantrum of gekokujo from Tsuji that threatened to mar the amazing precision and achievement of the operation thus far.

Yamashita’s plan – brilliant in retrospect as are all unorthodox plans that succeed – was to circle behind the British defenses. This plan, conceived before the battle of Kampar, was to outflank Archie Paris’s 11th Division line, which ran for roughly 30 miles, from Kampar to Telok Anson (now Teluk Intan), where the meandering Perak River flows into the Straits of Malacca. Using the motorized landing boats from the Singora landings that had been brought up for the Perak River crossing, as well as others captured along the way, Yamashita would land 1,500 men, mainly from the 5th Division’s 11th Regiment, behind the enemy’s lines, south of the mouth of the Perak.

Tsuji complained that he was sure the men would be intercepted by British air or naval assets, and not only the men, but vessels necessary for the eventual landings on Singapore’s fortress island, would be lost. In his memoirs, Tsuji writes dramatically that as he watched the regimental commander walk away to undertake the operation, “I could see the shadow of death on his back.”

The contingent put to sea late on December 30 from Lumut, and landed on January 4 near Sungkai. While en route, they were strafed once, but only once, by British aircraft. Realizing that they were sitting ducks for a determined air attack, they expected to be finished off at any moment, but the British never returned. The “shadow of death” that Tsuji had seen was merely an apparition. Yamashita’s plan worked.

In the meantime, Kawamura’s spearhead, reinforced by replacements rushing south from the Perak River crossing, were able to claw their way through the 11th Indian Division positions in Kampar and the surrounding hills. The 11th suffered severe casualties in the battle, but Japanese 5th Army’s 41st Infantry Regiment, which bore the brunt of the unexpectedly difficult fight, had to be withdrawn from combat to regroup.

Despite the damage inflicted to the Japanese at Kampar, this battle had been conceived as a delaying action, not as a counterattack, and in the aftermath, the British executed a further withdrawal, this time to the town of Slim River (now Sungai Slim), near the river of the same name. Meanwhile, any small measure of satisfaction that might have been gained from the successful holding action was offset for the British by the discovery of Japanese troops in their rear along the coast. This only served to hasten the withdrawal and add to the confusion.

By January 5th, 1942, the British were in full retreat from northern Malaya. They had suffered through a month of disastrous engagements, forced out of position after position by Japanese envelopments. On more than one occasion, the road bound British units had to attack through Japanese roadblocks to be able to retreat. This unbroken string of disasters had left its mark on all the British units engaged, particularly the 11th Indian Division, which had done much of the fighting. The men who were to occupy the defenses at Slim River were punch-drunk with fatigue and suffering the low morale of constant defeat.

The Japanese, on the other hand, were on a roll. Although fewer in aggregate numbers, they were able to more effectively mass their combat power along the maneuver corridors. Their tactics were simple but effective. Their advance guard, a reinforced battalion of combined arms elements, including infantry (often mounted on bicycles), armor, and engineers would advance down the maneuver corridor until they made contact. If not able to immediately fight through, the Japanese would launch battalion- or regimental-sized infantry envelopments to get behind the British positions, cut their lines of communications, and attack them on their unprotected flanks. The key to the Japanese success was their ability to sustain momentum and keep the pressure on the British.

By January 4th, the 12th and 28th Brigades of the 11th Indian Division moved into positions forward of Trolak and extending in depth back to the vicinity of the Slim River bridge. The division commander, General Paris, hoped to forestall the previous effects of shallow Japanese envelopments by lacing his troops in depth. To quote him:

“In this country, there is one and only one tactical feature that matters – the roads. I am sure the answer is to hold the roads in real depth.”

This statement is not as unreasonable as it may first appear.

Although the Japanese logistical tail was considerably shorter than that of the British, it still had to use the road system to sustain its force. General Paris reasoned that any Japanese attempt to conduct a short envelopment through the jungle, as previously experienced, could be counterattacked by the brigade in depth. The maneuver corridor did not present much more than a single battalion’s frontage, even considering outposts and security elements placed up to a kilometer into the jungle on either side. Instead of trying to extend their forces into the bush to confront the Japanese while they were infiltrating, the British would commit reserves to counterattack them when they appeared. This would keep their forces mobile along the road system.

The 12th Brigade took up forward positions with its battalions arrayed in depth, beginning in the vicinity of mile post 60 and extending back to mile post 64 (see map, following page). Two battalions of the Indian Army occupied the forward positions; the 4/19th Hyderabad occupied the initial outpost position and the 5/2nd Punjabi occupied the main defense about a mile back.

A third British battalion, the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, was positioned in the vicinity of Trolak village, where the jungle began to open out onto an estate road. The brigade reserve, the 5/14th Punjabis, was positioned at Kampong Slim with the mission of being prepared to move to a blocking position one mile south of Trolak near mile post 65. The 28th Brigade’s positions were south of the 12th along the maneuver corridor, and were arrayed as single battalions in depth, much like the 12th Brigade. However, on the early morning of January 7th, the brigade had still not occupied the positions, having been instructed by General Paris to rest and reorganize. The British infantry units had 12.7-mm antitank rifles and 40-mm antitank guns. The AT rifles were only marginally effective. The AT guns would penetrate any Japanese tank with ease.

A key to the defensive scheme would be the defenses and obstacles along the main road. The British should have had enough time to construct defenses that would have precluded a quick Japanese breakthrough. The British were also in the process of preparing to demolish numerous bridges along the main road. However, several factors were to conspire against them.

The first factor was fatigue. Their forces were tired, to the point where they didn’t do a good terrain analysis when setting in their defense. There were many sections of the old highway running parallel to the newer sections that had been straightened. These old sections ran beside the main road through the jungle and were excellent avenues of approach. There were also numerous side roads through the rubber plantations, and many of these roads were overlooked. Others were noted, but did not have sufficient forces allocated to them.

Secondly, the British units had all suffered numerous casualties. Many of their formations were under new and more junior leadership. These leaders were trying to cope with the monumental task of reorganizing their stricken units while conducting defensive preparations, and they were suffering from fatigue as much as (if not more so) than their troops.

Another critical British deficiency was communications equipment. The 11th Indian Division had lost a great deal of its signal equipment in the month-long retreat prior to the Slim River battle. As a result, there was not sufficient communications equipment to lay commo wire between the brigades. This lack of communications, combined with fatigue, also prevented the British artillery from laying in and registering its batteries to support the infantry positions. Lastly, the Japanese had complete mastery of the air. This precluded the British from moving up their supplies in daylight and severely limited the extent of their defensive preparation.

All of these factors combined to rob the British of their opportunity to build a cohesive defense. They had sufficient barrier material, in the form of mines, concrete blocks, and barbed wire to construct an effective obstacle system in depth, but at the time of the Japanese attack, only a fraction of it had been brought forward. In the location where the Japanese actually broke through, there were only 40 AT mines and a few concrete blocks emplaced when the Japanese attacked.

On the afternoon of the 5th, the British 5/16th (the covering force) withdrew, and soon afterward the advance guard of the Japanese 42nd Regiment, 5th Infantry Division, made contact with the forward elements of the Hyderabad battalion. The Japanese probed the Hyderabads’ forward positions and were repulsed. The Japanese advanced guard commander, Colonel Ando, decided to wait for tanks and other supporting troops. The 6th of January was spent by the Japanese reconnoitering the British defenses and preparing for their usual infiltration along the British flanks.

Major Shimada, the commander of the Japanese tank unit attached to the 42nd Infantry (a company plus of 17 medium and 3 light tanks from the organic tank battalion of the Japanese 5th Infantry Division) implored Colonel Ando to be allowed to attack straight down the road. Ando was at first skeptical, but finally acquiesced, reasoning that if the tank attack failed, the infiltration could still continue. The Japanese tank company, with an attached infantry company and engineer platoon in trucks, was set to begin the assault at 0330 the next morning.

The Japanese attack began with artillery and mortar concentrations falling on the 4/19th Hyderabad’s forward positions, while at the same time infantry units assaulted the forward positions of the Hyderabads, and engineers cleared the first antitank obstacles along the road. At approximately 0400, the Japanese armored column started forward, crewmembers initially ground-guiding their vehicles through the British obstacle.

The Hyderabads had no antitank guns, but did manage to call artillery fire on the Japanese, which knocked out one tank. The rest of the Japanese column swept through the breach and continued down the road to the next battalion position. Behind them, the remainder of the 3rd Battalion, 42nd Infantry, completed the destruction of the Hyderabad battalion, leaving only disorganized and bypassed elements to be mopped up later.

The Japanese column moved on. By 0430, it had reached the main defensive belt of the 5/2nd Punjabi battalion. The lead tank hit a mine and was disabled, and the remainder of the column stacked up behind the disabled vehicle almost bumper to bumper. The Punjabis attempted to knock out the Japanese tanks with Molotov cocktails and 12.7-mm antitank rifles, but were largely stopped by a heavy volume of fire from the Japanese tanks and infan try. At this point, the Japanese found one of the unguarded loop roads that paralleled the main road and took it, bypassing the Punjabi defenses and taking them in the flank. The Punjabis’ defense collapsed into a series of small units fighting where they stood or trying to escape. The Japanese armor continued on, leaving the tireless 3d Battalion, 42nd Infantry, and other elements of the Japanese advance guard to complete the destruction of the Punjabis.

Unfortunately for the British, this was the last prepared defensive position facing the Japanese. The Punjabis had emplaced only a single small minefield. In spite of this, they somehow managed to hold the Japanese for almost an hour, taking heavy casualties from the tanks’ fire, before the Japanese found another loop road and were off again. It was about 0600; the Japanese were exploiting like broken-field runners. Almost 1,000 British and Indian soldiers were dead, prisoners or fugitives in small groups heading south along the edge of the jungle.

Battle of Slim River II

Tragically for the British, no word of the fiasco had reached either the remaining battalions of the 12th Brigade (the Argyls and the 5/14th Punjabis) or the 28th Brigade. The Japanese armored juggernaut, (about 16 tanks strong at this point), with what remained of the accompanying infantry and engineers, continued south at a fast pace.

The next unit they encountered was the unsuspecting Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, who had established two roadblocks in their defensive sector. The speed of Japanese movement, and the abysmal nature of British communications, caught the Argyls unaware and unprepared. The Japanese column burst through the first blocking position almost before the Argyls could offer any resistance. The fight at the second roadblock took only a little longer, with the Japanese destroying several British armored cars before continuing on. The remainder of the Argyl battalion was engulfed by the follow-on Japanese infantry in much the same manner as the other battalions.

To their credit, the Argyls fought ferociously in small groups and held the Japanese infantry longer than any of the other battalions. This, in turn, increased the distance between the Japanese armored column and the follow-on infantry. Had the 28th Brigade been in a better defensive posture, this might have made a difference. As it was, the Argyls’ sacrifice was in vain.

The Japanese tankers took full advantage of the confusion in the British defense to continue their advance down the main road towards the Slim River bridge. Upon reaching Trolak, they scattered the engineers who were preparing the bridge for demolition. The lead tank platoon leader, Lieutenant Watanabe, personally dismounted from his command tank and slashed the demolition electrical wires with his sword. The lieutenant and his company commander sensed that they had the momentum in this drive and that it was urgent to keep the pressure on the disorganized British. The Japanese tanks and the few remaining infantry and engineers that had somehow stayed with them raced ahead. It was approximately 0730. South of Trolak, the Japanese armor encountered the 5/14th Punjabis, who were moving along the road in march column towards their designated blocking position. The tanks literally raced through the surprised battalion, machine-gunning a large number of the Punjabis before they could even get off the road. In only a few minutes, the 12th Brigade’s reserve ceased to exist as an effective unit. The Japanese armor continued its unchecked advance along the main road.

The British had lost track of the battle. General Paris was not informed of the breakthrough until 0630.6 He immediately ordered the 28th Brigade to occupy its defensive positions and to detach its antitank battery forward to the 12th Brigade. Unfortunately, the battery met the Japanese while moving up the road and was destroyed before it could unlimber its guns and engage the enemy. Thus, one of the few units in the 28th Brigade that was capable of stopping the Japanese armor was eliminated at the outset of that brigade’s fight. Incredibly, the 28th Brigade had not received word of the complete penetration of the 12th Brigade. The Japanese armor slammed into the 28th Brigade while it was moving to its defensive positions and swept it aside in a series of short bloody encounters. Like the 5/14th Punjabis, the 2/1st Gurkhas were surprised in march column on the road while moving to their defensive positions and suffered severe casualties before they could get out of the way of the Japanese armor. The other battalions of the 28th Brigade, 2/9th and 2/2nd Ghurkas, tried to engage the Japanese armor, but with no antitank obstacles and only a few 12.7-mm AT rifles, they were quickly bypassed.

The Japanese armor continued to move down the road, shooting up transport columns and disrupting demolition efforts on the road and at three lesser bridges. The Japanese tanks had by now completely outrun their accompanying infantry and engineers. The follow-on infantry battalions continued to fight through the disorganized defenses bypassed by the armor. The Japanese tanks next shot up two artillery batteries of the 137th Field Regiment before reaching the Slim River bridge at approximately 0830. The antiaircraft defenses of the bridge consisted of 40-mm Bofors antiaircraft guns. These engaged the Japanese tanks but were ineffective – their shells would not penetrate. Their crews took many casualties from Japanese return fire. The antiaircraft gunners and the engineers preparing demolitions on the Slim River bridge scattered. Lieutenant Watanabe (who was wounded by this time) directed the machine gun fire of his tank against the wires to the bridge demolition and succeeded in severing them. The Japanese force (by this time consisting of about a dozen tanks) left two of their number to guard the bridge and continued south along the main road. Finally, after continuing for two more miles, the Japanese ran into another British artillery battalion, the 155th Field Regiment. This artillery unit deployed its 4.5-inch howitzers in the direct fire mode and engaged the Japanese over open sights at less than 200 meters. The lead Japanese tank (commanded by Lieutenant Watanabe) was destroyed and the entire crew killed. Other Japanese tanks were damaged. Checked at last, the Japanese tankers returned to the Slim River bridge to guard their valuable prize. The Japanese infantry accompanying the tanks, not less than a company in strength, arrived a few hours later. The main body of the 42nd Infantry Regiment did not link up with the armored unit until almost midnight. The Japanese had lost about eight tanks, some of which were recoverable. Their infantry losses had been moderate, but replacable. Their morale was sky high.

In his book Singapore Burning, Colin Smith quotes Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Harrison, a British artillery commander who was at the battle, as paying a respectful comment to Watanabe. “Heedless of danger and of their isolation they had shattered the [11th Indian Division],” Harrison admits. “They had captured the Slim Bridge by their reckless and gallant determination.”

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart, commanding the 12th Indian Brigade, meanwhile, accepted the blame for having not destroyed the line of tanks at the beginning of the battle when it might have made a huge difference in the outcome. As he wrote to the British Army’s official historian after the war, “I am rightly criticized for … not using the Field Artillery in an anti-tank role … It is no excuse, but I had never taken part in an exercise embodying a coordinated anti-tank defence or this type of attack. The use of tanks on a road at night was a surprise.” “Surprise” had been the purpose of the night attack, and this gamble, which might have failed, worked splendidly for the vanguard of Yamashita 25th Army.

If the time it took his engineers to rebuild the Perak River bridge is an indication, capturing the Slim River bridges intact shaved a week off Yamashita’s timetable. Meanwhile, the battle of Slim River devastated the 11th Indian Division. Its 12th and 28th Brigades were so badly mauled that they were practically erased, as was the 2nd Argylls. As many as 500 men were killed, and more than 3,000 were captured. Of those who were unable to retreat southward along the main road, a few managed to escape into the jungle. Some were captured and others simply disappeared. One man was found alive, still living off the land, in 1949.

Aftermath

The Japanese had won a smashing victory. In the space of about seven hours, with a single company of obsolete tanks supported by infantry and engineers, and followed by an infantry regiment, they had almost completely destroyed an entire British division. By the afternoon of the 7th of January, the British units the Japanese armor had bypassed were a jumble of disorganized fugitives. In the best shape were the infantry battalions of the 28th Brigade, who could retreat across an adjacent railroad bridge. In the worst shape were the men of the 12th Brigade; literally all of them were either killed, taken prisoner, or moving in fugitive groups trying to infiltrate back.

The losses to the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders were especially tragic to the British, as they had repeatedly proven themselves to be the best trained battalion in Malaya. Had they not been surprised by the Japanese armor, they could conceivably have held the Japanese advance long enough for the 28th Brigade to have reached its positions and unlimbered its antitank guns. The battle probably could not have been salvaged, but at least a more orderly retreat would have been possible, followed by the demolition of the Slim River bridge. As it was, less than one hundred men of this battalion managed to reach British lines. The magnitude of the disaster is reflected in the number of survivors from each brigade. Only 400 men of the four battalions in 12th Brigade managed to break out and rejoin the retreating British army. The 28th Brigade did slightly better, with approximately 700 men, but this unit was also clearly decimated. All in all, the British lost two brigades in the Slim River battle, along with most of two battalions of artillery, as well as transportation, signal, engineer, and other supporting units. Those British and Indian soldiers and units that escaped, escaped on foot. Not a single vehicle was retrieved from north of the Slim River.

The remainder of the Japanese pursuit of the British down the Malay peninsula retained the same flavor as the Slim River actions – relentless, aggressive Japanese pursuit of tired British units who had suffered too many losses in personnel and equipment and who could never keep the Japanese from operating inside their decision cycle. The Japanese did meet a series of reverses when they encountered fresh Australian troops of the 8th Australian Infantry Division. A cautionary note on headlong armored exploitation was sounded just 11 days later near the small town of Bakri. The Japanese attempted to repeat their Slim River success by sending a light tank company to attack down the main road. The Australians defending the antitank obstacle on the road coolly waited for the Japanese to begin negotiating the obstacles and then quickly knocked out nine Japanese tanks with antitank gun fire. The accompanying infantry was also temporarily stopped by the Australians, suffering numerous casualties. The Japanese formula from Slim River was unchanged. The defenders however, were fresh troops who had had the opportunity to emplace their defense properly. Unfortunately for the Australians, the rest of the British forces were simply too depleted from their earlier defeats to offer an effective resistance. As a result, they were compelled to retreat to the island of Singapore with the rest of the British army, abandoning Malaya to the Japanese on 30 January. Singapore would surrender two weeks later.

As the morale of the IJA soared with every victory, that of the Allied defenders plummeted. Kenneth Attiwill later wrote:

brooding above all, adding weakness to morale as well as to military efficiency, lies the jungle itself – a terrifying morass of tangled vegetation, steamy heat, nerve-racking noises and the discomfort of insects; mosquitoes by the myriad, moths, beetles, insects of all kinds, biting, buzzing, irritating and debilitating. Rubber, too, with its gloom, dampness and sound-deadening effect breeds a feeling of isolation. The enemy may be anywhere – everywhere – in front or behind to left or to right. Noise is difficult to pinpoint; men appear and disappear like wraiths. Rumor begins to spread. In the monsoonal season there is the added handicap of torrential rain, hissing down incessantly upon the greenery, dripping dankly on heads and bodies, humid, sweaty, destructive.

Speaking of himself, Attiwill went on to say that:

it was like this for the young and inexperienced troops who took up their places for the first defensive battle of the Malayan campaign, a battle which was noteworthy for two reasons – it was Britain’s first defeat in the jungle; it was the pattern of future defeat in all the attempted defensive actions down the Malayan peninsula.

Masanobu Tsuji recalls debriefing an unnamed British brigade commander who was among the large army of prisoners that had been captured, asking, “Why did your men raise their hands so quickly?”

“For what reason did you attack only on the front where we had not prepared to meet you?” replied the British officer. “When we defend the coast, you come from the dense jungle. When we defend the land, you come from the sea. Is it not war for enemies to face each other? This is not war. There will be no other way than retreat, I assure you.”

As Tsuji comments, “this criticism was characteristic of the British attitude throughout the whole period of operations, and was common to every front.”

The stunning British defeat at the Slim River and the equally surprising Japanese amphibious landings along the coast were met with great consternation by the British. The initial outflanking maneuver along the coast had worked so well that Yamashita conducted more of these using troops of General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division.

Bibliography Allen, Louis, Singapore 1941-1942, Associated University Press Falk, Stanley, Seventy Days to Singapore, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1973 Hall, Timothy, The Fall of Singapore, Mandiran Books, Australia, 1983 Kirby, Woodburn S., Singapore, The Chain of Disaster, Macmillan Co., 1971 Owen, Frank, The Fall of Singapore, Pan Books, London, 1960 Palit, P. K. Brigadier, The Campaign in Malaya, The English Book Store Press, New Delhi, 1960 Percival, Arthur, Lieutenant General, The Campaign in Malaya, Byrne and Spotteswoode Publishers, London, 1949 Stinson, Arthur, Defeat In Malaya, The Fall of Singapore, Ballantine Books, 1969 Tsjui, Manasoburu, Singapore, The Japanese Version, Oxford University Press, 1960 Wigmore, Lionel, The Japanese Thrust: Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957