Karansebes, 20 September 1788 – Myth?

The Story Goes…

Another loud crack followed the crashing and screaming nearby. Caught in that brief instant between sleep and consciousness, the soldier’s mind struggled to filter through the confusion. It was all noise, darkness and shock. And that strange metallic smell of blood. There were no stars to give him light. He hugged the wet ground, his fingers scraped the earth. Where are my boots? Why is everybody shooting? He could hear the sound of battle clearly. The noise and the dying. ‘Not me, oh God, not me …’ His mouth opened in a silent scream. Paralysed by fear, he couldn’t move. He said his prayer over and over again. ‘Not me …’ Cold sweat ran down his face, his chest heaved, he gulped for air. Panic held him in its iron grip. That ugly tangled knot banging on his brain, ‘Now I’m going to die’. There was no hope for dawn, it would be lonely to be dead … Was it all a bad dream? No, this was no dream, the flashes lighting up the night, the roll of cannon’s thunder, the screams of the wounded and the moans of the dying: ‘Save yourselves. Turci! Turci! All is lost, the Turk is upon us.’1

Joseph II, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, had a weakness, and not a small one. He wished to be remembered through history as a military genius, as big as, if not bigger than his shining model, the great Frederick of Prussia. The main problem with the benign Austrian Emperor was that he simply didn’t have what it took. Neither with his diplomatic skill nor with a marshal’s baton. At an already advanced age he suddenly decided to deliver the Balkans from the Turks. The King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm, offered his gracious office to help settle the dispute between the Sublime Porte and the House of Hapsburg in a diplomatic manner. Instead of accepting the gracious offer, Emperor Joseph managed to insult the Prussian king by writing him a note: ‘The House of Hohenzollern came to power by the same fickle means as the evil Turk.’ This affront was enough to make the King of Prussia sign a military treaty with the King of Sweden. Together they marched against the only ally the Austrians had, the Empress Catherine of Russia. In the meantime, Joseph had begun to knock on the gates of the Balkans. But he’d forgotten to inform the Turkish envoy that Austria was actually at war, and had been for the six months since his army had entered Turkish territory.2 To correct this oversight, he sent a brief note to his State Chancellor, the Fürst of Kaunitz: ‘I am sad to say that the Sublime Porte has entered into a war with my ally, the Czarina. According to the treaties between Russia and us I am obliged to go to the help of the Empress. I order you to instruct the Sublime Porte that a state of war exists between Austria and Turkey.’3

In March 1788, Joseph set forth on his long and tiresome journey from Vienna to Walachia,4 the disputed border of confrontation between Islam and Christianity. He undertook it to obtain fame and enter history. He did indeed enter history, but not in the way he intended.

The initial objective of the Austrians was to liberate the Save, a strategic waterway, by subduing the Turkish strongholds of Schabaz, Belgrade and Vidin. And finally, following the conquest of the key fortress of Nis, to incorporate all of Serbia into the Austrian Empire. In order to achieve this the Emperor had gathered the military might necessary for the task. Six army corps, totalling 245,062 men with 36,725 horses. Under his direct command stood a main force of 125,000 soldiers and 22,000 horses. His artillery boasted 898 field guns with 176,700 cannon balls and 1,000 tons of black powder. To feed this army on the march took a daily ration of 800 tons of flour and 200 beef cattle.5

This force was led by men remarkable in the annals of Austrian military history for their stupidity and incompetence. Coburg, Fabius, Wartersleben, Mitrovsky, Devins. The only competent leader, the ageing Marshal Laudon, who served so well his Empress Maria Theresia, was left behind. The Emperor had considered him too old for such an exhaustive exercise. It seems, the only talent the Austrian Emperor possessed was to pick always the wrong man for the job. This time he picked venerable Marshal Lacy, old and worn out.

‘The Austrians beheld with great apprehension the presence of their Emperor in a military campaign. He was well known for his humanitarian views, and nobody could see what his presence would add to win the war. But, because of his attraction towards the glory which comes with victory, Joseph could not be otherwise convinced. Therefore, many predicted already at the beginning of the campaign a bad ending, and future events were to prove them right.’

Joseph’s original plan of campaign, if ever he had one, was to employ his overwhelming forces not, as may be expected, in a major aggressive action, but to settle for a kind of defensive impasse. Thus, the Emperor of all Austrians began his campaign with a whimper, not with a bang.

The attack on the Turkish fort of Belgrade was scheduled for 16 May. The guns were in place, the infantry stood ready. On the evening of the 15th, the Emperor suddenly changed his mind, and, rather than attack the weakly defended garrison, he ordered a retreat. He based his decision on the fact that the Russians had not come to his support. Joseph’s courage was certainly nothing like that of the model he so desperately tried to imitate, Frederick the Great, a leader of men whose grasp of war and harsh decisions he never understood. To make matters worse, the Emperor’s health deteriorated, and with it his indecision mounted. His hesitation sacrificed a sizeable portion of his army to epidemic swamp fever when he ordered his generals to pitch camp in the mosquito infested bogs along the Danube. Soon the situation in the Austrian camp became desperate. Yet the Emperor refused to break camp. The deadly disease decimated the regiments, and the common graves began to overflow. In no time at all, 172,000 soldiers were afflicted by bouts of malaria and dysentery, and 33,000 of his best troops died. Joseph could have taken Belgrade or defeated a great army of Turks alone with the number of troops he had so carelessly sacrificed to the lethal fever. Those who weren’t affected by the fever suffered from military inactivity. While the poisonous climate continued to take its toll of their comrades, the men sat around and played cards. Fights broke out among this patchwork of ethnic auxiliaries: the Hungarians fought with the Croatians, the Lombardians hated the Slovenes, and none of them liked their Austrian officers. Still the Emperor held back, awaiting the arrival of the promised Russian reinforcements, which never materialised. Soon the camp ran out of bread: its flour rations had been used up and new supplies had to be shipped down the Danube from distant Austria. When these arrived they were found to be crawling with maggots. To add to this problem the war chest for the soldiers’ salary was empty.

In the meantime, the Turks had managed to reinforce the fortress of Belgrade with 9,000 fresh troops, and the Turkish governor of the city offered a bounty of 10 gold ducats for every Austrian’s head cut off and presented. This became known to the Austrian troops; whenever a soldier disappeared (probably drowned in the river or simply wandered off to go back to his family), rumours of Turkish atrocities spread throughout the camp. Troops lost faith in their officers and officers grumbled about their Emperor. Finally, Joseph was forced to beg the old Laudon to take over as head of the forces. ‘I do not order you, my dear Field Marshal Laudon, to take command of my troop, but I ask you humbly to do it for the best of state and the love for your Emperor.’

Laudon accepted, not for love of his Emperor but to save his beloved Austrian army. On 18 July he reached Imperial headquarters and on the 19th he conquered the fortress of Dubicza. At last, the army was on the move. Unfortunately, his generals were not as efficient as ‘der Alte’, and suffered a number of setbacks. There were a few notable feats of heroism. In the castle of Rama, the young Lieutenant Lopreski and 23 men held out against 4,000 Turks, until, true to the legend of Leonidas and his forty Spartans, all were dead. On the Boza Pass, a division of 4,000 Austrians bloodied the noses of 10,000 Turks. But such exploits were the exception and made no real difference to the overall conduct of the war.

As the Emperor had no better idea, he issued a plea to the church to offer prayers throughout the monarchy: ‘Oh Lord, the Almighty, you who smites the enemies of your Goodness, grant us your mighty protection. Spare your fighters from the dangers brought upon them by the Infidels.’

It seems that the prayers by the Infidels had more impact: ‘Allah, You who holds the sun, the stars and the whole universe in Your hand, You who has sent us Your Prophet to teach Your children the true faith, why do You let it happen that the enemy destroys our land? Rise, Almighty, and give Your people the power to proclaim Your Gloria in the temple of Mecca.’

Laudon worked miracles and conquered a number of minor places, but his arm wasn’t long enough. A division under General Papilla faced up to 13,000 Turks and was decimated, and on 18 August, Major von Stein had to relinquish the strategic position at Dubowa. After his withdrawal, the Austrians had to give up the Danube Valley all the way to Belgrade. Next came the message that a Turkish force of 70,000 under the Grand Vizier Jussuf Pasha marched on Vidin, while another army of 30,000 led by the Seraskier of Rumelia, was on its way to Nis. For the Austrians it became high time to deliver battle. Which meant that their main force of some 100,000 had to take up a position along the River Timisul around a small town by the name of Karansebes.

‘Here we have to win,’ the Emperor joyfully exclaimed; ‘history has planned it this way. It was here that Prince Eugene achieved a brilliant victory over the Turks, and this is the best place to beat them again.’

Yes, there would be a Second Battle of Karansebes. But what was to take place there is probably unique in the history of warfare. An incident which, more than anything else, demonstrates the moral decline from which the Austrian army suffered, ‘whose worst portion was made up of people from barbaric tribes, and whose better part mistrusted their leaders’.

It was a moonless night, this 19 September 1788, when a vanguard of Imperial Hussars crossed the Timis Bridge at Karansebes. Having reached the opposite shore of the river, they did not find hostile Turks. Instead, they discovered a wagon camp of wandering Walachians who joyfully welcomed the riders and offered them schnapps and girls. After a brief bargaining session, a price was agreed upon and the hussars swung off their horses to indulge in a bout of revelry. Some hours passed when the first companies of foot soldiers crossed the same bridge, their throats equally dry. However, by now the hussars had bought up all the schnapps. To defend against these undesirable newcomers, the hussars quickly established a fortified position around their barrel of schnapps and chased away the foot soldiery. That greatly upset the thirsty men.

A shot rang out, followed by a scream, and a body tumbled forward. The hussars pulled out their sabres and attacked the infantry, driving the soldiers back. It was the noise of the shot that had frightened the men on foot, but once they had recovered from their initial shock, they too began to shoot. Soon a regular little battle was going on. More shots were fired and people began to die. Next, the soldiers tried for a frontal rout but the hussars wouldn’t yield. To chase the riders from their fortified position, the foot soldiers attempted a ruse. They yelled, ‘Turci! Turci!’ The mere idea of facing a Turkish host so frightened the inebriated hussars that they galloped in flight across the bridge. But the foot soldiers also drifted back, frightened by their own shouting. Their colonel tried to stop the rush by barring their way: ‘Halt Stehen bleiben! Halt!’ It was of no use, these men were Hungarians, Lombardians or Slovaks with hardly a word of German between them. There was no such order in their limited vocabulary. They had been taught the word ‘Vorwärts!’ but never ‘Halt!’ Perhaps they simply misunderstood, perhaps they just wanted to move to the rear instead of going into battle.

‘Halt! Halt!’ the Austrian officer kept yelling. Some young soldiers mistook this command for: ‘Allah! Allah!’ and now the shooting began in earnest.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river the whole of the Austrian army had gone to sleep only to be suddenly awakened by firing on the distant shore. The vanguard had encountered the Turks! They couldn’t imagine what else could have started the shooting and screaming, since everything took place in total, frightening darkness. The noise of battle, the moans of the wounded and the death cries helped to intensify their terror. What they heard but couldn’t see confirmed a feeling deep inside them – the big fear of dying.

Fenced off in the midst of the camp was a herd of carthorses. These animals became so frightened by the increasing bedlam that they knocked down the fence and thundered off, making a sound like advancing cavalry. A corps commander misinterpreted it for an attack and ordered his cannons to open fire. The night was lit up by blue flashes and thunder claps, and more soldiers began to fall. A roar went up: ‘The Turk! The Turk! Save yourself! All is lost!’

Quickly the panic took hold of the entire army, and it became pointless to try telling that polyglot force what had happened at the other end of the bridge. The first regiment drifted to the rear, quickly followed by another and another. Soon a mass of soldiers fled back in a human tidal wave. Owing to their varied ethnic backgrounds, most regiments couldn’t converse with each other, which made them imagine that the shadows rushing at them were the enemy. Terrified by the thought that they were about to be overrun by scimitar-wielding hordes of Turks, they fired into their own decamping ranks.

The Emperor, still weak from his illness, had taken a nap in his carriage. Drugged by sleep and medicine, he stumbled from his coach staring at the bedlam. He could hear the cries of the frenzied mob coming towards him. An aide helped him onto his horse. No sooner up, he was swept aside by the fleeing mob. One of his aides stood firmly in front of him, striking out at the fear-crazed soldiers; he felled a few with his sabre before he was trampled to the ground and his breath crushed from his body. The Emperor was thrown from his horse, ending up in the river. Wet, and beset by the fear that he would soon fall into the hands of the Turks, he crawled into a house in Karansebes from where his personal guards finally delivered him. (An almost similar fate happened to his brother, the Archduke Franz, who was eventually rescued by a carré of his regiment.)

The drivers of the munitions wagons used their horses to make good their escape, swiftly followed by the gunners, who cut the harnesses between horse and cannon before they dashed bareback to the rear, abandoning their field pieces. This mad cavalcade hacked down anyone who dared to put himself into their path. Many officers were killed that way, and the panic took on incredible proportions. Everyone ran, cursed, prayed, fired or died. Houses were plundered, women raped, and villages went up in flames. The path of panic was strewn with discarded muskets, saddles, tents, dead horses, and all the jetsam of a defeated army. It was only much later that the generals managed to put a halt to the mad flight. The Austrian army was in shambles, the shock which followed the devastation was stunning.

Two days later, the Grand Vizier and his army finally showed up before Karansebes. They didn’t find an Austrian army. They did, however, find some 10,000 dead and wounded Austrians whose heads were speedily lopped off by the Turks.

Afterwards

Following the debacle at Karansebes, the Emperor sent a note to his brother: ‘I know not how to continue. I have lost my sleep and spend the night with dark thoughts.’

In a dispatch to his chancellor Kaunitz, the Emperor wrote: ‘This disaster which our army suffered due to the cowardice of some units is incalculable for the moment. The panic was everywhere, among the army, among the people of Karansebes, and all the way back to Temesvar, a good ten leagues from there. I cannot describe in words the terrible rape and killing that went on.’

Only the bravery of Count Kinsky and his cavalry regiment stopped the rider hordes of the Turkish Pasha from annihilating the Austrian army after Karansebes. Later that fall, the old Laudon re-established order in the army and led Austria to a series of victories. Then came winter. The Emperor was near death. This ended the campaign of 1788.

In the spring of 1789, the young Selim III ascended to the throne of the Sultanate and led his army into war. But this time the Turks bit into a stone in the person of Marshal Laudon, who made short shrift of their attempt and pushed them out of the Banat. The Danube became once again an Austrian river. While this combat was still raging, Emperor Joseph II died with these final words: ‘All I wish for is a durable peace over all of Europe.’

History: Joseph II and the Myth of Karansebes, 1788

Advertisements

Battery Wagner

Confederate Sharpshooters or Skirmishers

Plan of Fort Wagner, with overlay showing armament.

In the wake of the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Union Major General Quincy Gillmore wanted to add Charleston to the growing laurels of victory and take his place alongside Meade and Grant as a national hero. Since David Hunter’s June 1862 attempt to capture Charleston and Du Pont’s monitor attack had failed, no progress had been made against the hotbed of secession. Enter the conqueror of Fort Pulaski, Quincy Gillmore, who proposed a plan to capture it. Summoned to Washington, Gillmore outlined his four-part plan to capture Charleston. Gillmore pointed out that guarding Charleston Bay was Fort Sumter and if Fort Sumter fell, then Charleston would follow. First he would land men at the southern end of Morris Island. Second he would capture Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg, which guarded Fort Sumter’s vulnerable southern wall. Third, he would capture Sumter itself and last, have the navy sail in and bombard or cower Charleston into submission. His plan was approved and Gillmore relieved David Hunter.

Gillmore’s men landed on July 10 and easily drove the Confederates away from their rifle pits. Wagner’s garrison was too small to counterattack but reinforcements were rushed to bolster it. They came in handy the next day when Gillmore attempted to capture Wagner by coup de main.

A more carefully planned assault was needed and Gillmore began emplacing artillery that could shell the fort. His attack was launched on July 18 and was led by the 54th Massachusetts. It failed with heavy casualties and Gillmore resorted to a siege. Observing that Gillmore forsook blood for shovels and sweat, the Confederates brought English-made scoped Whitworth rifles to the island. Lieutenant W. D. Woodbery led a detail of twenty-one men who trained on nearby Sullivan Island. Their presence was noted almost immediately when Union sappers were struck at 1,300 yards distance. With Woodbery’s Whitworth-armed sharpshooters present, only light work could be performed somewhat safely during the day and any heavy work would have to wait for night. Long summer days meant progress slowed considerably.

Because the Whitworth fired a smaller diameter projectile than the standard .578 minié ball, its superior ballistic coefficient gave it greater range and penetrative power. The 6-inch-thick rope mantlets that had once protected the Union artillerymen were easily pierced by the Whitworth. This necessitated Gillmore’s engineers to fashion boiler plates around the embrasures.

Since Union pickets were unequal to the task of neutralizing Woodbery’s sharpshooters, better marksmen were needed than the pickets who had been relied upon to sharpshoot. Tests were held and the top fifty marksmen identified. They were detailed to an ad hoc sharpshooter company led by Captain Richard Ela and Lieutenant Albert Clay Jewett, 3rd New Hampshire. To select the gun for the ad hoc company, various rifles that were available on the island were tested and the most accurate one was the humble Springfield rifle musket. Placed in a separate camp, the men trained and when ready, took to the trenches with Captain Ela leading half one day and Lieutenant Jewett the other half the next. Each man carried 100 rounds of ammunition and his rations when he positioned himself in the advanced trenches. At day’s end when they returned to camp, both rations and ammunition were exhausted.

While the Springfield is accurate out to 500 yards, the Whitworth far exceeded it, so the Union sharpshooters were disadvantaged until the distance was closed. To accommodate their sharpshooters, Union sappers left 2-inch loopholes between sandbags “at the proper distances” as they built the siege works. Like the Confederates, the men learned to darken the holes so as to keep their opponents from guessing whether a loophole was being used or not. Stepping up to a lighted loophole told the other side to fire a shot.

As the Union sappers worked their way forward, Woodbery’s men were relieved by another ad hoc sharpshooter detail led by Lieutenant John E. Dugger, 8th North Carolina. Like Ela’s men, for the duration of the siege, Woodbery and Dugger would rotate their sharpshooters on Morris Island, resting somewhere for a few days before returning to duty.

Even with the Union sharpshooters, the Confederate threat was not neutralized and one Union captain had all the fingers of his right hand cut off while installing a gabion. Another Whitworth sharpshooter twice shot the telegraph line that connected the front trench with Gillmore’s headquarters. The Union suffered losses daily because of sharpshooting and to suppress the sharpshooters, Gillmore had his artillery bombard Wagner. Barrages became so heavy that most Confederates remained sheltered in the bombproof [shelter] and the only men who didn’t were the Whitworth sharpshooters.

Confederate sharpshooting became so intense that a frustrated Gillmore pleaded with the blockading squadron’s Admiral Dahlgren to have his monitors’ guns bear on Battery Wagner to suppress them. When they tried, a saucy Confederate even shot at the gunports of the Union monitors as they rotated their turrets to fire. Gillmore finally resorted to a massive bombardment under which his engineers could work.

One particular Confederate sharpshooter earned the enmity of his Union counterparts and both Union Brigadier General George H. Gordon and Lieutenant Albert Clay Jewett mentioned him in their memoirs. Jewett wrote:

while connected with the sharpshooters, I had many and various experiences and among them will mention a few. Not the least in interest were the exploits of one of the Confederates, a remarkable marksman, located somewhere about Fort Wagner. For some reason this man went by the name of the “n*****” sharpshooter. It may be he was one, but I always suspected that he might be a dark skinned southerner or perhaps a mulatto. This man was more to be dreaded than almost everything else opposed to us, for his aim seemed as unerring as fate, anywhere within the range of his rifle. His arm must have been some kind of heavy sporting rifle, as it was of quite large caliber and of astonishing range. He could hit the arms of cannoneers a half a mile or more distant if they exposed them in loading their pieces, and if any poor soldier revealed himself at any exposed point, certain death was his portion if the “n*****” was on duty.

The Confederates were not immune from sharpshooting and one Confederate picket received a ball down his barrel—the Yankee who fired it was that good! Despite their best efforts, Ela’s men were incapable of silencing the Confederates. Another solution was tried and Gillmore brought in the extremely accurate Parrot guns that shelled and destroyed many of the sandbags behind which the Confederate sharpshooters had shielded themselves. The destruction of the sandbags was highly demoralizing too. As the Union lines approached closer, double barrel shotguns were retrieved from the Charleston Armory and issued to the sharpshooters. One was used once to kill one Yankee who got too close.

After fifty-five days, the sappers reached Wagner’s moat. Gillmore’s men were now positioned to storm Wagner in one rush and the date was set for September 7. When the first Union soldiers scaled Wagner’s walls, they expected to be slaughtered like their brethren had been on July 18. Instead of carnage, they found Wagner had been abandoned only moments before. While evacuating Wagner, the Confederates had attempted to blow it up but the fuse failed. The Union soldiers rushed to Battery Gregg, which they also found abandoned.

They arrived in time to see the last boatload of Confederates attempting to evacuate the island. Firing upon it, they convinced the Confederates to roll back to shore and to surrender. Among them were several blacks and it required a lot of effort by the officers to prevent their men from killing them. While elated, Gillmore still needed to capture Fort Sumter before the navy could sail in to bombard the city. Sumter held on and Dahlgren, citing the torpedoes (mines) that could be activated from Sumter, refused to sail past the fort to bombard Charleston. Dahlgren had already lost the semi-ironclad Keokuk to a mine and declined exposing his remaining vessels to harm. Defending Wagner gave the Confederates time to improve Charleston’s defenses. Gillmore for his part became fixated on his plan, wasted time and resources in a lengthy siege and was ultimately stalemated. Sumter and Charleston would not fall until 1865. Between Sherman’s army marching up from Georgia, and Gillmore landing north of Charleston at Bull’s Bay to attack it from the land, the Confederates abandoned Sumter and Charleston to the Union.

Battle of Chelsea Creek I

When the three newly arrived major generals disembarked from Cerberus and came to Province House, they found His Excellency Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage busy with another urgent matter. Courtesy of his secret spy network, Gage had learned that the rebels were planning to sneak onto nearby Noddle’s Island that night and destroy or carry off all the livestock thereon, “for no reason but because the owner having sold them for the Kings Use”. This owner was Henry Howell Williams, and though he was a dedicated Whig whom Admiral Graves called “a notorious Rebel”, he was also a merchant, and the lure of profit habitually enticed him to sell his diverse livestock and poultry to outbound British vessels.

Since the Grape Island affair, Gage had been worried about access to the few remaining friendly farms on the various harbor islands and, on May 25 1775, had successfully raided nearby Long Island for additional hay. The Americans meanwhile had turned their attention to the abundant stocks on Noddle’s Island and adjacent Hog Island, which they feared could feed the British for some time and thus negate their Siege of Boston.

In fact, the Americans had been pondering the removal of those livestock for a month. On May 14, the Committee of Safety had advised the selectmen of the coastal towns to consider removing the stock from those islands. When the towns did nothing even in the wake of the raid on Grape Island, the Committee of Safety resolved on May 24 to press the Provincial Congress to immediately clear those islands. It was this resolution that was transmitted to Gage through his spy network by early May 25, perhaps passed by word of mouth via Dr. Church’s go-between when they delivered Church’s latest intelligence. In response, Gage wrote a hasty letter to Admiral Graves, urging the naval commander to order his “guard boats to be particularly Attentive, and to take such Other Measures as you may think Necessary for this night”.

Graves, meanwhile, was busy sorting through the dispatches just received from HMS Cerberus, including one explaining the almost unenforceable Restraining Act lately passed by Parliament. With it, the burden fell upon the admiral to somehow prevent New England vessels from accessing the Newfoundland fisheries and from trading to any sovereign besides Britain. Also among the dispatches just received, Vice Admiral of the Blue Samuel Graves joyously discovered an official notice of his promotion, dated April 13, giving him the new rank of Vice Admiral of the White. Graves apparently decided to keep his new appointment to himself for a day, but it was with this pleasure that he received Gage’s urgent appeal.

When Graves read Gage’s hasty letter, his first thought was not of the livestock, but of a storehouse there of lumber, boards, and spars intended for repairs of his vessels. “The preservation of all these”, he later wrote, “became of great consequence, not altogether from their intrinsic Value, but from the almost impossibility of replacing them at this Juncture.” It was thus with a different agenda that the admiral promptly replied to the general, affirming, “The Guard boats have orders to keep the strictest look out; and I will direct an additional One to row tonight as high up as possible between Noddles Island and the Main”. Graves suggested that the best course of action, however, was to station a guard on the island. Accordingly, about forty marines, perhaps drafted from those of the warships, were sent to Noddle’s Island and barracked in Henry Williams’s hay barn.

That night, all was quiet. But the next morning, May 26, the American siege lines were startled to attention when they heard a sharp cannonade across the harbor. At eight o’clock, the HMS Preston crew lowered the blue admiral’s flag from the ship’s fore-topmast and raised in its place the flag of St. George’s Cross, the famous English white flag with a red cross, while at her stern the crew replaced her blue ensign with the white equivalent, thus formally signifying Vice Admiral Graves’s promotion from Blue to White. Noting the change aboard their flagship, the squadron throughout the harbor likewise exchanged their stern ensigns and then each fired thirteen cannons in salute, to which Preston returned thirteen.

The rest of the day came and went without incident. It was not until late that evening when Massachusetts Col. John Nixon received his orders and so mustered a detachment of between two hundred and three hundred. Together they marched from their camp in Cambridge through Mystick (now Medford), Malden, and Chelsea, where they waited until dawn, whose radiance began to brighten the sky at nearly four o’clock on May 27.

The topography of the islands is difficult to make out today, as most of the old tidal zones and mudflats have been filled in, making both Noddle’s Island and Hog Island now part of the mainland. North of the two islands ran Chelsea Creek, still extant, which separated the islands from the mainland, where the small Chelsea parish of Winnisimmet (now simply Chelsea proper) once stood. To the west and south was Boston Harbor, with Boston itself just across a narrow expanse to the west. To the east, the two islands were further separated from the mainland by narrow Belle Isle Inlet, as it is now called, which at low tide became an easily fordable, knee-high creek with wide mudflat banks. The two islands themselves were separated by an equally thin, shallow inlet, unnamed and since filled in. The mainland just east of the islands was the rolling heights known then as Chelsea Neck, now the south end of Revere before entering Winthrop. It was from there on the eastern heights that the Yankees forded Belle Isle Inlet at near ebb tide and so marched onto Hog Island.

By noon, the Yankees began herding off the 6 horses, 27 horned cattle, and 411 sheep from the Hog Island farms of Whigs Oliver Wendell of Boston and Jonathan Jackson of Newburyport. They did not immediately cross to Noddle’s Island, presumably waiting both for a lower ebb tide and for the mission to make headway on the present island before stirring up the British encamped on the other. It was not until around one o’clock that afternoon that the Americans finally forded the unnamed creek over to Noddle’s Island.

Maybe just thirty Americans crossed, including Amos Farnsworth. The gentle hill centered on Noddle’s Island afforded them some semblance of cover from the British marines situated on the opposite side of the island. Well aware of the marines, Farnsworth and his fellow Yankees crept along the pastures. They spotted the large herd of grazing sheep and lambs, intermingled with handfuls of horses and horned cattle, amounting to nearly a thousand livestock. With such a large herd and with the marines so close, the Yankees knew they could not expect to remove many of the beasts.

Since their raid could do nothing more than harass the British, they decided to kill what animals they could and steal away still others. Yet once they fired that first shot, the marines would be on them in moments. They agreed they had but one chance to make the most of their raid. Daringly, they crept farther into the outlying pastures of the Williams farmstead until they reached a large barn “full of salt hay” (salt meadow hay or marsh grass), which stood next to an old and abandoned farmhouse. As the afternoon approached two o’clock, the Americans prepared makeshift torches, likely using their musket flints and some of the dry salt hay to do so. They then looked at one another, each with a lit torch in one hand and a musket in the other. Finally, perhaps with a nod, they threw their torches into and onto the barn and house, then quickly turned and fled. As the two wooden structures instantly took fire, billowing dark, gray smoke into the air and so drawing the attention of the marines across the field, the Americans fired their muskets at nearby horses and cattle, killing many before grabbing others to steal away.

The marines may have hesitated for a moment, unsure what was happening, but the smoke and the musketry immediately made the situation clear. Their response was quick. They gathered their guns and charged toward the fleeing Americans, giving a scattered volley of musket shot as they did so. The Americans managed to slaughter some fifteen horses, two colts, and three cows, and even with the marines in hot pursuit, they now wrangled two fine English stallions, two colts, and three cows away. The remainder of the stocks would have to wait for some future raid. The Americans rushed their herd of seven beasts eastward toward adjacent Hog Island, the marines hot on their trail.

With the skirmish afoot, the crew aboard HMS Preston in Boston Harbor took notice of both the conflagration and the billowing white smoke from the scattered musketry. Admiral Graves ordered the signal for the landing of marines, to which a sailor gathered a prearranged signal flag and promptly hoisted it up one of the masts of the flagship. As the signal flag was raised, Preston fired a cannon, alerting the other warships of their new orders. It only took moments, but soon all of the men-of-war were floating their longboats full of marines.

Graves next issued orders for the newly purchased and outfitted schooner Diana, under the command of his nephew Lt. Thomas Graves. The vessel was anchored near the path of Winnisimmet Ferry, between Winnisimmet and the north side of Noddle’s Island, an ideal position to aid in the skirmish, but far enough from Preston that a midshipman courier must have been sent by rowboat to Diana to convey the orders. Once they were received, Diana’s crew of thirty began to scurry across the top deck, some weighing her two bower anchors as others unfurled and trimmed her sails. Within moments of receiving her orders, the two-masted schooner was sailing swiftly along Chelsea Creek to the northeast side of the island.

With the British reinforcement on its way and the marines on Noddle’s Island in pursuit, the Yankee raiders soon reached the inlet separating them from Hog Island. But no sooner had they reached it, near three o’clock, than Diana bore down on them, unleashing a hailstorm of cannon shot from its four 4-pounders and twelve swivel guns. “But we Crost the river and about fifteen of us Squated Down in a Ditch on the ma[r]sh and Stood our ground”, according to Amos Farnsworth.78 Perhaps the other fifteen Yankees led their seven stolen livestock farther onto Hog Island, leaving Farnsworth and his fellows to cover their retreat. With the schooner bearing down on them, keeping the Americans pinned in their marsh ditch, the marines from Williams Farm caught up to the fight.

The marines took up position across the narrow and shallow inlet from the Americans and their first platoon fired before falling back to reload, leaving the next platoon in the front position to then fire. While the marines continued to fire in platoons, Farnsworth and his fifteen fellow Americans popped out of their cover and gave a volley, killing or wounding a marine or two. The marines continued to fire back with ferocity. As Farnsworth put it, “we had A hot fiar… But notwithstanding the Bulets flue very thitch [thick] yet thare was not A Man of us kild.” No American died perhaps, but just as one Yankee near Farnsworth popped up to shoot, a marine took aim and fired, the lead ball smacking through one end of the Yankee’s fleshy cheek and out the other, missing the bone, but instantly drawing blood that spurted down his chin and onto his collar.

As these few Americans found themselves pinned down, both sides expected reinforcements. The several British longboats from HMS Somerset, HMS Glasgow, and HMS Cerberus had all streamed toward the island and were now disembarking a combined total of nearly a hundred additional marines. The Glasgow also sent her pinnace and Somerset sent her small sloop tender Britannia, each armed with swivel guns. On the American side, maybe half of the more than two hundred Americans still on Hog Island began to descend toward the battle, while the remainder continued to remove the herds to Chelsea Neck.

Historical Record on the Battle of Chelsea Creek Challenged

Battle of Chelsea Creek II

Both adversaries’ reinforcements stormed toward the small inlet that separated Hog Island from Noddle’s, with the Americans on the former and the British on the latter. The odds were now about even, with nearly 150 ground forces on each side, and at last a general fusillade ensued. The British and Americans both ducked for cover in the ruts and ditches of their respective sides of the inlet, while at the same time Diana tried to vie for a better position, coming up to the inlet “as far as there was water” and laying anchor, even as she continued her salvo of 4-pounders and swivels. Behind her, the sloop Britannia hauled in and fired its swivels at the entrenched Americans, adding to the hailstorm that poured onto the marsh.

The marines may have suffered an additional man or two wounded, while the Americans kept safe enough below their cover. Still, one American had a ball fly through his little finger, shearing it off. Another Yankee’s gun backfired, the barrel bursting open and dusting him with burning black powder, melting his skin. But these two and maybe one more were the only Americans wounded, and none of their number was killed.

In this position, with both sides entrenched and firing inherently inaccurate muskets, they found themselves at a stalemate with neither side giving up nor attempting to gain ground. With the sun falling low in the western sky, Captain Chads aboard Cerberus thought he would try to break the stalemate by sending ashore two of his light 3-pounder cannon with a party of seamen. The seamen soon landed and mounted their guns atop a knoll on Noddle’s Hill and began their cannonade, but with little effect.

By six o’clock that evening, the Britannia sloop had broken away from the fight. Lieutenant Graves was determined to back Diana away as well, partly in response to the American onslaught now mostly directed toward his schooner, and partly because of his orders from his uncle the admiral, which explicitly instructed him “not to remain in the River upon the Turn of the Tide”. The flooding tide up Chelsea Creek was sure to hinder Diana’s escape, so Lieutenant Graves complied with his orders and brought her about, hoping to move her back toward Winnisimmet.

But Lieutenant Graves found the winds calm. So he ordered Diana’s one longboat floated, which took aboard it the kedge anchor, and by warping (dropping an anchor ahead and then pulling the boat forward, repeatedly), the crew of Diana fought against the slowly flooding tide and moved her away from Hog Island. Yet the incessant musketry from the Americans, coupled with the flooding tide, made the warping a struggle. At length, as many as seven longboats from the other warships, those that had been used to disembark the fresh marines, rounded Noddle’s Island and joined the effort to haul off Diana, taking lines from the struggling schooner and attempting to tow her by rowing.

The Yankees, meanwhile, seeing the schooner in dire circumstances, turned their entire musketry in that direction, completely ignoring the marines across the inlet. Diana was now turned so that her stern and port side faced Hog Island, her bow aimed northwestward. The perhaps eight longboats were thus ahead of the bow, the schooner herself partially protecting them from the rebel musketry. Nevertheless, the ferocity of the American attack was daunting, and even as the seamen desperately labored to row Diana out from harm’s way, others mounted swivels aboard each boat and fired their half-pound balls back toward shore. At the same time, the marines on Noddle’s Island, seeing the colonial attack had shifted to the vulnerable Diana, moved into a better position, trying to draw away the rebel musketry.

In spite of all the musketry and cannonading, it was mostly just noise, and few on either side were wounded, leaving Diana to slowly make headway westward. By sunset, just after seven o’clock, Diana was well out of range of the Americans on Hog Island. Colonel Nixon then ordered his men to fall back. Nearly out of ammunition, suffering from exhaustion from lack of both sleep and food, and fatigued too from their long fight that had now run nearly five hours, Amos Farnsworth and his fellow New Englanders were only happy to comply. As they left the island, they found that the other half of their force had succeeded in driving all the horses and livestock from Hog Island across to the mainland of Chelsea Neck. If only they had had the means to strip Noddle’s Island of its considerable livestock too, their mission would have been a complete success.

Meanwhile, Diana had moved away from Hog Island, but she was not yet out of danger. As she continued to be warped and towed against the flood of Chelsea Creek, Connecticut Brig. Gen. Israel Putnam appeared on the mainland at the head of nearly three hundred men, perhaps proudly wearing a blue Connecticut militia uniform with red facings, white waistcoat, and breeches.88 Beside him stood Dr. Joseph Warren, the able volunteer who always sought to be at the center of the action, be it political or military. Together they marched the Americans to the marshy shores and lined the riverbank somewhere east of Winnisimmet, drawing near the toiling schooner with their muskets at the ready. Just behind them was the newly formed Massachusetts artillery company under Capt. Thomas Wait Foster, maybe near forty strong. They brought with them two horse-drawn 4-pounders, which they began unlimbering atop the overlooking hills.

The time was approaching eight o’clock, and dusk was quickly dissolving into a dark and moonless night. All was quiet now except for the rhythmic splashing of the oars into the water, the pulling of the hemp lines that stretched from Diana’s bow, and the sounds of the struggling seamen. Neither side had yet fired, but both adversaries sized up one another. Lieutenant Graves, aboard Diana, privately admitted that his towboats had gained him little ground. Toiling as they were against a contrary flood tide, failed as they were by the wind, and seeing too a fresh colonial force on the nearby shore, the hapless young naval officer knew his chances for escape were slim. On shore, Putnam knew it too, so he decided to offer Lieutenant Graves a way out. He stormed down to the creek’s edge and sloshed into the muddy water, yelling to the schooner’s crew and to the rowboats: if they would submit, they should have quarters. Diana’s crew looked to Lieutenant Graves for the reply. All was quiet for a moment.

The fresh colonial troops waited along the north side of the riverbank in anticipation. Suddenly, two of Diana’s starboard cannon erupted with thunder, belching forth white smoke and flame, spitting two cannon shot that whizzed by Putnam and dispersed the Americans. Lieutenant Graves had given his reply, and the American cannon immediately fired two return shots into Diana. All along Diana’s starboard gunwales and stern, the swivels came alive once more.

Putnam put his men “up to their waists in water, and covered by the bank to their necks.” There they immediately joined the chorus of cannon, giving a scattered bombardment across Diana and her towboats. Perhaps the 150 marines still on Noddle’s Island also fired a few useless volleys from that long range across Chelsea Creek. Certainly, the two 3-pounders from Cerberus, still mounted on Noddle’s Island, joined with their own cannonade.

Seeing the battle again renewed, General Gage in Boston sent over some of his own artillerymen with two heavy 12-pounders, along with a fresh body of one hundred to two hundred of his marines. The artillerymen soon mounted their 12s alongside the naval 3-pounders on Noddle’s Island, but with twilight nearly faded to utter darkness, they could provide only harassing fire. The new marines there could do nothing.

Aboard the longboats, a few seamen again manned the swivels, firing at an unseen enemy obscured by the dim shoreline. The rest ducked low to avoid the whizzing balls overhead, even as they continued to row helplessly against the tide. Here it seems the British took the most casualties, with several wounded both in the schooner and the boats. On the American side of the fight, Putnam encouraged his men, urging them not to fear the wayward cannon balls and musketry, all of which failed to hit their mark.

As the two sides continued with renewed ferocity, the last glimmers of light finally faded from the sky. The cannonade and musketry soon became sporadic, for all one could do was shoot in the direction of the orange, fiery blasts spewing from the opposing guns. The darkness forced Putnam and his men to leave their tide-pool ditches and wade deeper into the creek itself, striving to draw near enough to make out the dark vessel and her boats. So the battle continued even in the darkness, though with far less intensity. Yet under such fire, the valiant seamen persevered until, at last, nature intervened. At about half past ten o’clock on that moonless night, the flood tide having crested, the waters of Chelsea Creek slowly began to ebb once more.

Now Lieutenant Graves had his opportunity, because the gently ebbing tide was advantageous to his escape. He ordered the boats to cast off, and once they had, Diana began to drift away from the battle westward toward Winnisimmet. No sooner had she begun to ride the current away than a contrary fresh breeze sprung up from the southwest, and with the fresh ebb tide not strong enough to counter it, Diana lurched sideways toward the rebels pursuing along the riverbank. Before Diana’s crew could regain control, “five or 6 Minutes would have secured her”, she drifted into the shallow banks of the mainland near the Winnisimmet Ferry Way, running aground about 180 feet from the shore at around eleven o’clock.

The sailors in the nearby longboats quickly rowed near and again took the towlines to try to free Diana, but the Americans concentrated all their firepower on them, enfilading the vessel and her boats. The provincial cannon meanwhile homed in on the schooner in the darkness, until it at last found its mark and began blasting holes into her starboard side. The sailors struggled hard to break Diana free, but soon the creek was fast ebbing away, forcing many sailors to hop from their boats and wade in the waters abeam her, braving the sporadic musket fire to push on Diana’s hull by hand and floundering in the mud as they tried desperately to float her.

For the British sailors, the Battle of Chelsea Creek became not one of defeating the Americans but of saving the schooner. Some aid came from the sloop Britannia, which again drew near, courtesy of the fresh breeze, and so provided cover fire with her complement of swivels. For hours, the sailors struggled beside Diana even as the Americans continued to harry them with sporadic musketry despite the darkness, all while both sides blindly cannonaded one another. Yet there was little more the British could do. With the creek continuing to ebb, the water soon fell below the seamen’s knees as they floundered and pressed against the hull. At near three o’clock in the morning, Diana began to lurch once more, then totter, and at last fell on her beam-ends, her obstinate but valiant crew jumping or falling off her deck as she keeled over.

On her side, Diana could no longer be manned, nor her guns fired. All the sailors could do was use the hulk as one giant shield from the American musketry while they awaited rescue. There in the shallow, ebbing, muddy water behind Diana, the officers and seamen took cover before wading over to the nearby Britannia and the longboats, at last abandoning their schooner. Once they climbed aboard, the British boats rode the ebb tide away to safety, even as the water around Diana drained entirely away, leaving her beached on the expansive mudflats.

The Opening Round of the Battle of Britain I

Barry Spicer is a celebrated aviation artist from Adelaide, Australia. Barry considers himself lucky to be able to do something he loves, and his fascination in aviation goes back to his childhood. At the age of 6, his parents took him to see the film “The Battle of Britain” and was so inspired by the sight of the graceful but deadly aeroplanes that he turned his already established pastime of drawing to aircraft. Since then he has been fascinated by flight and just about anything that flies which is evident in his finished works, be they drawings or oil paintings.
This recent work entitled “Combat Over the Channel” captures a dramatic Battle of Britain dogfight between a pair of Bf 109s and Hurricanes over the Channel coastline.

The largest attack to date was carried out by waves of He111s – 16 of I/KG27, 12 of II/KG27, 12 of III/KG27 and 10 of I/KG4, 11 of II/KG4 and 10 of III/KG4 – on the night of 18/19 June, the Home Office Intelligence Summary revealing the extent of the raids and the damage inflicted during the period 18:00 on 18 June to 06:00 on 19 June:

Coastal districts from Middleborough to Portsmouth were under warning and sirens were sounded in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Huntingdonshire and Kent during the night. London was under yellow warning during the period, and so was the Barrow-in-Furness district on the South-West Coast. Some bombs dropped in the North-Eastern Region, and, a substantial number in the North Midland Region; the chief damage, however, was done at Cambridge, where houses were demolished and nine people were killed, at Southend, where houses and a boys’ school were damaged, and to oil installations Canvey Island. Incendiary and high explosive bombs were used. Ten civilian deaths [in total] and 26 people injured have been reported.

KG27 headed for the Midlands while East Anglia bore the brunt of KG4’s raids as bombers targeted RAF stations in Suffolk and Norfolk. Warned of the approaching enemy aircraft, Blenheim night fighters of 29 Squadron from RAF Debden were ordered off, while a lone Spitfire of 19 Squadron flown by Flt Sgt Jack Steere was scrambled from RAF Duxford at 23:15. At about the same time more Blenheim night fighters of 23 Squadron were taking-off from RAF Wittering. Heinkel 5J+GA of Stab/KG4 flown by Ltn Erich Simon with Oblt Heinz-Georg Corpus as observer led the way on a pre-attack reconnaissance, and was followed by the main force flying in sections at intervals. The first of these reached Clacton at 23:00, and 15 minutes later another was illuminated by searchlights, at which the crew released their bombs. Three exploded in nearby Holland-on-Sea, damaging houses in King’s Cliff Avenue and Medina Road. Another Heinkel jettisoned its bombs over Southend, where one of the thirteen casualties later died. By now the leading section of three Heinkels was approaching Bury St Edmunds, but east of the Suffolk market town they were intercepted by a Blenheim of 29 Squadron flown by Sqn Ldr John McLean. They proved too fast for the Blenheim, one Heinkel opening fire on its pursuer without effect. This, or another, jettisoned its bombs, which fell at Rougham Rectory and near its churchyard.

Another Staffel crossed the coast at Sheringham, near where Sgt Alan Close in a 23 Squadron Blenheim (L1458/S) engaged a Heinkel held in searchlights, only to be shot down by return fire. Close was killed but his gunner LAC Laurence Karasek managed to bale out. The Blenheim crashed in flames at Terrington St Clement. A second Blenheim (YP-L), flown by Flt Lt Myles Duke-Woolley (with AC Derek Bell as gunner) was soon in the area and engaged the same Heinkel – 5J+DM of Stab II/KG4:

00:45. Observed a ball of fire, which took to be a Blenheim fighter in flames, break away from behind the tail of the E/A. I climbed to engage this E/A and attacked from below the tail after the searchlights were extinguished. I close to a range of 50 yards and opened fire. E/A returned fire and appeared to throttle back suddenly. My own speed was 130-140mph and I estimate the E/A slowed to 110mph. I delivered five attacks with front guns and during these my air gunner fired seven bursts at various ranges. After the last front gun attack my gunner reported that the E/A’s port engine was on fire. As my starboard engine was now u/s I broke off the engagement and returned to base, where several bullet holes were found in the wings and fuselage, including cannon strikes in the starboard wing and rear fuselage.

One bullet had lodged in Derek Bell’s parachute pack, fortunately without harming him. The Heinkel finally ditched in shallow water in Blakeney Creek on the north Norfolk coast. Coastguards captured the crew, Major Dietrich Fr von Massenbach (the Gruppenkommandeur), Oblt Ulrich Jordan, Obfw Max Leimer and Fw Karl Amberger, who was severely wounded. A subsequent news report revealed:

Two local auxiliary coastguard patrols saw an aircraft in obvious difficulties, off the coast. Flames were issuing from one of its engines, and it crashed in shallow water close to the beach. They gave the alarm and ran to the beach. They intercepted the crew of the aircraft, a Heinkel bomber, as they swam and waded ashore with the help of their rubber dinghy. It seemed at first that the crew, consisting of four men, would show fight. The auxiliary coastguard men thereupon covered the Germans with their firearms. The Germans shouted and surrendered. They were searched and disarmed and detained until the arrival of the military.

By now, other bombers had reached RAF Stradishall, home of Wellingtons, bombs falling around the village of Hargrave, six miles south-west of Bury St Edmunds. The rectory was hit and the vicar’s daughter injured by flying glass. More bombs fell on Lodge Farm, Rede and in Fersfield Street, Bressingham, without causing further casualties. RAF Marham in Norfolk was attacked by a lone bomber, the bombs missing the airfield and exploding near King’s Lynn, while RAF Mildenhall also escaped damage when the intended bombs fell near the village of Culford, four miles north-west of Bury St Edmunds. Bombs also fell near the sugar beet factory – one of the largest in Europe – on the outskirts of the town, slightly injuring two residents of Westfield Cottages in Hollow Road.

In addition to the Blenheims searching for the intruders, which now included aircraft from 604 Squadron, more Spitfires had been scrambled by 19 Squadron. Moments before midnight, a Heinkel released its bombs over Cambridge, where two bombs demolished eight houses in Vicarage Terrace, killing nine persons while another ten were admitted to hospital, three of whom were seriously injured. Among the dead were five children. Bombs also fell at West Fen, Ely, killing one civilian and 30 cattle, and elsewhere in the area. AA guns at RAF Feltwell engaged the raiders but claimed no successes.

Three Heinkels were credited to 29 Squadron’s Blenheims, Plt Off John Barnwell (L6636) engaging one illuminated by searchlights over Debden, which reportedly crashed with its starboard engine on fire. However, Barnwell’s aircraft was hit by return fire and crashed in the sea off the Stour Estuary. He and his gunner Sgt Long were killed. Plt Off Lionel Kells in L1508 fired at another Heinkel and believed that he had shot this down off Felixstowe. This was possibly a 4.Staffel machine that returned damaged by fighters during a sortie to attack Mildenhall airfield. One of Fw Heinz Schäfer’s crew was badly wounded in the stomach and on return was admitted to hospital in Lille. Shortly thereafter, Plt Off Jack Humphries in L1375 damaged another Heinkel near Debden, but his own aircraft was hit by return fire and crash-landed at Debden. His opponent was possibly Fw Erich Gregor’s Stab I machine that belly-landed, badly damaged, on a beach east of Calais on return. Gregor and his crew, Oblt Falk Willis (observer), Fw Karl Brucker and Uffz Josef Jochmann all survived unhurt although their aircraft was written off.

Meanwhile, Flt Lt Sailor Malan in a Spitfire of 74 Squadron encountered a Heinkel, a machine of 4./KG4 in which the Staffelkapitän Hptm Hermann Prochnow was flying. This was probably the aircraft previously engaged by Plt Off Barnwell. Malan pursued it to the coast and finally shot it down to crash into the sea near the Cork Light Vessel moored off Felixstowe. The captain and crew (Obfw Hermann Wojis, Uffz Franz Heyeres and Fw Richard Bunk) were killed and only the Staffelkapitän’s body was recovered. Malan’s subsequent combat report revealed:

During an air raid in the locality of Southend, various E/A were observed and held by searchlights for prolonged periods. On request of [74] Squadron I was allowed to take off with one Spitfire. I climbed towards E/A, which was making for the coast and held in searchlight beams at 8,000 feet. I positioned myself astern and opened fire at 200 yards and closed to 50 yards with one burst. Observed bullets entering E/A and had my windscreen covered in oil. Broke off to the left and immediately below as E/A spiralled out of beam.

The reconnaissance Heinkel – 5J+GA – was then engaged by Flt Lt Malan and crashed at Springfield Road in Chelmsford, ending up in the Bishop of Chelmsford’s garden at 00:30. Oblt Corpus, Obfw Walter Gross and Fw Walter Vick died in the crash, while Ltn Simon had managed to bale out. He was quickly captured. Malan’s report continued:

Climbed to 12,000 feet towards another E/A held by the searchlights on northerly course. Opened fire at 250 yards, taking good care not to overshoot his time. Gave five 2-second bursts and observed bullets entering all over E/A with slight deflection as he was turning to port. E/A emitted heavy smoke and I observed one parachute open very close. E/A went down in spiral dive. Searchlights and I followed him right down until he crashed in flames near Chelmsford.

As I approached target in each case, I flashed succession of dots on downward recognition light before moving into attack. I did not notice AA fire after I had done this. When following second E/A down, I switched on navigation lights for short time to help establish identity. Gave letter of period only once when returning at 3,000 feet from Chelmsford, when one searchlight searched for me. Cine-camera gun in action.

Raiders were reported in the Mildenhall and Honington areas, a salvo exploding a mile from the latter airfield, and, at 01:20, AA guns at RAF Wattisham opened fire while searchlights at Honington illuminated one Heinkel, whose gunner fired down the beams. At about the same time Flg Off John Petre, flying Spitfire L1032 of 19 Squadron, located a bomber near Newmarket. This was 5J+AM of 4./KG4, which then turned and headed towards RAF Honington. Petre opened fire, seeing smoke issue from a damaged engine, but had to sheer off hard to one side to avoid colliding with another aircraft that appeared alongside – a Blenheim – also firing at the Heinkel. At that moment, searchlights illuminated Petre’s Spitfire, allowing the Heinkel’s gunners to return accurate fire. The Spitfire, hit in the fuel tank, burst into flames. Petre was able to bale out but his face and hands were badly burned. On landing he was rushed to hospital in Bury St Edmunds. Meanwhile, his burning Spitfire hit the roof of Thurston House before crashing in its garden.

The Blenheim (K8687/X) was flown by Sqn Ldr Spike O’Brien of 23 Squadron. He opened fire, seeing smoke gushing from the Heinkel’s starboard engine, but had then lost control and went into a spin. The navigator Plt Off Cuthbert King-Clark – actually a qualified pilot flying to gain operational experience – baled out but was killed instantly when hit by a propeller. O’Brien baled out, landing safely, but the gunner Cpl David Little was killed in the crash. O’Brien reported:

Opened fire on E/A with our rear turret gun from below and in front as it was held by searchlights. The E/A turned to port and dived. I gave him several long bursts with the front guns from 50 to 100 yards range and saw clouds of smoke from the target’s starboard engine and a lesser amount from the port engine. I overshot the E/A and passed very close below and in front of him. My rear gunner put a burst into the cockpit at close range and the E/A disappeared in a diving turn, apparently out of control. I suddenly lost control of my own aircraft, which spun violently to the left. Failing to recover from the spin I ordered my crew to abandon the aircraft and I followed the navigator out of the hatch.

Flt Lt Duke-Woolley later related the story as told to him:

In the gunfight the Heinkel went down, then Spike’s Blenheim went out of control in a spin. At that time, popular opinion among pilots was that no pilot had ever got out of a spinning Blenheim alive, because the only way out was through the top sliding hatch and you then fell through one or other of the airscrews! The new boy (King-Clarke) probably didn’t know that but nevertheless he froze and Spike had to get him out. He undid his seat belt, unplugged his oxygen and pushed him up out of the top hatch while holding his parachute ripcord. He told me afterwards that he felt sick when the lad fell through the airscrew. Spike then had to get out himself. He grasped the wireless aerial behind the hatch, pulled himself up by it and then turned round so that his feet were on the side of the fuselage. Then he kicked outwards as hard as he could. He felt what he thought was the tip of an airscrew blade tap him on his helmet earpiece but luck was with him that night.

The damaged Heinkel crashed at Fleam Dyke near Six Mile Bottom in Cambridgeshire at 01:15. Oblt Joachim von Armin, Fw Wilhelm Maier and Fw Karl Hauck were captured, but Uffz Paul Görsch was killed. Flt Lt Duke-Woolley added an amusing sequel to the account:

Spike parachuted down safely to the outskirts of a village and went to the nearest pub to ring Wittering and ask for transport to fetch him home. He bought a pint and sat down to await transport and began chatting idly to another chap in uniform who was in the room when he arrived. After a while, thinking that the chap’s uniform was a bit unusual, Spike asked him if he was a Pole or a Czech. “Oh no” replied his companion in impeccable English, “I’m a German pilot actually. Just been shot down by one of your chaps.” At this point – so the story goes – Spike sprang to his feet and said. “I arrest you in the name of the King. Anyway, where did you learn English?” To which the German [presumably Oblt von Armin] replied, “That’s all right. I won’t try to get away. In fact, I studied for three years at Cambridge, just down the road. My shout, what’s yours?” So that’s just what they did, sat and had a drink.

Flg Off George Ball of 19 Squadron, in Spitfire K9807, was vectored to the Newmarket area to investigate another intruder, finding 5J+FP of 6./KG4 illuminated by searchlights. He pursued this, closing in to 50 yards, seeing his fire entering the Heinkel as it flew southwards, jettisoning its bombs on the way. The Heinkel, flown by Ltn Hans-Jürgen Bachaus, eventually ditched off Sacketts Gap, Margate, at 02:15. Bachaus and two members of his crew Uffz Theodor Kühn and Uffz Fritz Böck were rescued, but Fw Alfred Reitzig had attempted to bale out but his parachute snagged in the tailplane and he was killed.

One of the last claims on this dramatic night was made by AA gunners at Harwich, who believed they shot down into the sea a departing Heinkel at 01:13. This was probably an aircraft from I Gruppe that returned badly damaged by AA fire. There were no crew casualties. The last of the raiders was recorded crossing the coast at 02.50, releasing its bombs in the Clacton area. An empty house in Salisbury Road received a direct hit. Claims were submitted for 10 Heinkels but this was reduced to five and two probables. In fact, six were lost including the one that belly-landed near Calais. Two others returned damaged. Three Blenheims were also lost to return fire, as was one Spitfire. The commander of 5J+AM, Oblt Joachim von Armin, later reflected:

Until the night of our operation no British night fighter operations were reported. There we did not camouflage our aircraft, flew in at 4,500 metres [15,000 feet], and did not anticipate anything but anti-aircraft gunfire from the ground.

Duxford’s station commander Wg Cdr A. B. Woody Woodhall witnessed the action in which 5J+AM was shot down – and shot down its first assailant, the Spitfire of 19 Squadron:

John Petre’s Spitfire burst into flames and he had baled out. I was an eye witness to all this because it occurred over the aerodrome. My immediate concern was for John and after giving instructions for civil police to be alerted to round up the enemy, I sent search parties out. I next learned that John had been picked up suffering from nasty burns and taken to the nearest hospital. After giving orders that the prisoners when captured were to be placed in the guardroom if unhurt, in the sick quarters if injured, I set off in my car to see how John was faring in hospital.

Dawn was just breaking when I returned to Duxford and I was informed that the civil police had collected the prisoners and were bringing them to the guardroom. I left strict orders that there was to be no fraternizing. When the prisoners they were to be given a meal and cigarettes and left in cells until collected by the security people. I was told that there were two German NCOs in the cells, but that the pilot, an officer, had been taken over to the Officers Mess. I found the German pilot taking his ease in the guest room with a cocktail in hand, chatting to Philip Hunter [CO of 264 Squadron] and several of our pilots. Our boys immediately stood up as I came into the room and said ‘Good morning, sir’ but the Hun, an arrogant young Nazi of about 20, remained lounging in his armchair and insolently eyed me up and down, but not for long. I got him to his feet smartly. Needless to say, I had him transferred to the guardroom cell. The boys thought me very hard-hearted and strict. When I told the boys about how badly John Petre was burnt, I think they understood my anger.

The Manchester Guardian reported:

Three German airmen who lost their lives when their bomber was brought down in an Essex town during Tuesday night’s raid were buried in the town’s cemetery yesterday. Full military honours were paid by officers and men of the RAF and a firing party fired three volleys over the one large grave in which the three coffins covered with Nazi flags were interred. The Bishop of Chelmsford officiated. The Bishop’s wife was one of the mourners. There was a wreath from the RAF and another from girl telephonists of the AFS stationed in the town inscribed ‘When duty calls all must obey.’

At the end of the month Marshall Göring issued a general order regarding the air war against Great Britain. In it he stated:

The Luftwaffe War Command in the fight against England makes it necessary to co-ordinate as closely as possible, with respect to time and targets, the attacks of Luftflotten 2, 3 and 5. Distribution of the duties to the Luftflotten will, therefore, in general be tied to firm targets and firm dates of attack so that not only can the most effective results on important targets be achieved but the well-developed defence forces of the enemy can be split and be faced with the maximum forms of attack.

After the original disposition of the forces has been carried out in its new operational areas, that is after making sure of adequate anti-aircraft and fighter defence, adequate provisioning and an absolutely trouble-free chain of command, then a planned offensive against selected targets can be put in motion to fit in with the overall requirements of the commanders-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.

To save us time as well as ensuring that the forces concerned are ready:

(A) The war against England is to be restricted to destructive attacks against industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces. These attacks under suitable weather conditions, which should allow for surprise, can be carried out individually or in groups by day. The most thorough study of the target and its surrounding area from the map and the parts of the target concerned, that is the vital parts of the target, is a pre-requisite for success. It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civil population.

(B) By means of reconnaissance and the engagement of units of smaller size it should be possible to draw out smaller enemy formations and by this means to ascertain the strength and grouping of the enemy defences. The engagement of the Luftwaffe after the initial attacks have been carried out and after all forces are completely battle-worthy has for its objectives:

(C) By attacking the enemy air force, its ground organisations, and its own industry to provide the necessary conditions for a satisfactory overall war against enemy imports, provisions and defence economy, and at the same time provide necessary protection for those territories occupied by ourselves.

(D) By attacking importing harbours and their installations, importing transports and warships to destroy the English system of replenishment. Both tasks must be carried out separately, but must be carried out in co-ordination one with another.

As long as the enemy air force is not defeated the prime requirement for the air force on every possible opportunity by day or by night, in the air or on the ground, without consideration of other tasks.

 

The Opening Round of the Battle of Britain II

The RAF’s Bomber Command showed the desperation of the situation when it issued counter-invasion instructions to its groups:

Now the enemy occupies the western seaboard of Europe, the threat of invasion is very real. If it comes it will be by air and sea preceded by attacks on communications, airfields and naval bases. 2 Group is to be reinforced, at a time to be decided later, by aircraft operating from these stations:

RAF Bassingbourn – 24 Audax and up to 18 Ansons

RAF Cottesmore – 24 Audax and up to 18 Ansons

RAF Upwood – 16 Blenheims and up to 18 Ansons

RAF Wyton – 15 Blenheims

In the event of a landing the Commander’s authority is to have control of 50% of the available effort of the affiliated stations. This call takes authority over all other tasks.

All aircraft not under army control are to attack enemy convoys at sea. If a landing is effected the main body of the convoys at sea may be attacked at places where the landing has been mad, depending on the situation at the time. Enemy forces caught at sea, and craft containing landing parties, are to be primary targets irrespective of enemy warships in the vicinity. If a landing has been affected and it is decided to attack beaches, enemy craft laying off the beaches and stores on them are to be primary targets.

AOC 2 Group added his own instructions to his squadrons:

You must bear in mind that your forces may have to play a most important part in repelling an invasion of this country, and you should be prepared at short notice to divert your squadrons to the attack of the invading enemy force at points of departure and subsequently at sea, and points of landing in this country. To meet the threat of invasion twelve aircraft are to stand by (at each station) every morning at 20 minutes’ notice from twilight to sunrise.

A plan to use every available aircraft in a last-ditch effort to repel a threatened German invasion was also devised, known as Operation Banquet. An Air Ministry meeting outlined a series of ambitious plans to make use of various aircraft in the event of an invasion, thus the AOC-in-C Training Command was ordered to plan to make the maximum practical number of aircraft available for operations. The overall plan was divided into a number of separate operations that could be enacted independently. Sub-groups of the plan, as envisaged, were: Training (Battle, Audax, Harvard, Hind etc.), Transport (Harrow), 2 Group (Blenheim, Battle), Technical (Wallace) and 6 and 7 Groups (Whitley, Anson, Hereford).

Aircraft allocated under Banquet would, in many cases, lack bombsights, armour for the protection of the crew, defensive guns and self-sealing fuel tanks. While these were to be fitted where possible, RAF instructions were very clear that no aircraft was to be considered unfit for want of such niceties. Anything that could fly and drop bombs would suffice. The air crew would be the experienced instructors as well as those students that had reached ‘a reasonably satisfactory standard of training’.

The most ominous – and potentially suicidal – of the plans was Banquet Light which would see the formation of striking forces composed of Tiger Moth biplanes and other light aircraft of the EFTS. De Havilland put forward plans for converting the Tiger Moth into a bomber by equipping it with eight under-fuselage racks beneath the rear cockpit, each able to carry a 20 lb bomb. As an alternative, the bomb-racks could be installed four on each side beneath the lower wings, this obviated trimming difficulties. The racks had been designed for the military version of the Dragons supplied to Iraq eight years previously. Modification of the relatively small number (16) of Magister trainers were also attempted, but this proved troublesome. Of this idea, Sgt Tom Naylor, Senior NCO Ops Room, recalled:

There was one man [in the Ops Room] with over 1,000 hours flying experience. That was Dudley Mason. He was quickly winkled out and given a different job just before the threat if invasion reached its climax … old Dudley was given a Tiger Moth somewhere down in Surrey, where they were busy welding milk crates under the wings to carry bombs with which to bomb the beaches when the Germans landed. He told me, “The darn thing won’t even fly, never mind carry bombs, with all that garbage on it!”

Another proposed use for the Tiger was the ‘Paraslasher’; fitted with a scythe-like blade intended to cut parachutists’ canopies as they descended to earth. Flight tests proved the idea, but it was not officially adopted. There was also the ‘Human Crop-Sprayer’ version, which had a tank fitted in the front cockpit with powder dispensers located under the wings. The tank would be filled with an extremely poisonous insecticide and probably violating the terms of the Geneva Convention. It was intended that low flying aircraft would dust the German troops as they waded ashore.

The Banquet Light strike force was to be employed in an Army co-operation role, which would likely mean being sent to bomb concentrations of airborne troops or soldiers landing on the beaches. They were to be based at advanced landing grounds around the country including Grangemouth, Inverness, Macmerry, York, Firbeck, Hooton, Hatfield, Snailwell, Bury St Edmunds, Sawbridgeworth, Gatwick, Odiham, Tilshead, Weston Zoyland. The intention was that the two-seater Tiger Moth bombers should be flown solo into an attack at low altitude until the enemy was identified and then climb to 800 feet and dive to 500 feet to release the bombs.

Most of the pilots for Banquet Light were to be students who had not yet graduated. The scheme required that trainee pilots were introduced to bombing at an early stage in their instruction – just in case they needed to go into action immediately. Instructors were told to take every opportunity to carry out practice bombing. However, with no dummy bombs available, training exercises were carried out with the aircraft flown from the front cockpit by instructors and house bricks were thrown over the side from the rear cockpit. It was discovered that the bricks fell faster than a diving Tiger Moth and instructions were given to throw the bricks forcibly away from the aircraft. About 350 aircraft were available. This was not an insignificant force, but the Moths and their inexperienced pilots would have been very vulnerable to enemy aircraft and the plan was widely regarded as virtually suicidal.

Other proposals included Lysanders fitted with twin 20 mm belly-cannon, and another fitted with a four-gun turret in the tail. Both modifications were made and the respective aircraft flew. There already existed a few cannon-armed Hurricanes and Spitfires, although these had proved problematical due to continuous gun stoppages. Undoubtedly, Harvard advanced trainers would have been made available, suitably equipped. By mid-summer, some 24 Masters had been converted to fighters by having the second seat removed along with some of the excessive cockpit glazing, and three. 303 Brownings installed in each wing. Practically everything that could fly would have been thrown into the battle. Consideration was also given to adapting civilian aircraft for Banquet Civil. However, the plan was not thought worthwhile and the idea was dropped.

During the latter part of May, a number of Station Defence Flights were strengthened with the arrival of redundant Gladiators. Manston operated G Flight with K6970, K7928 and K8033; Andover received N5702; Gosport received K6149, K7898 and K7995; RAE Farnborough received K5200; and Prestwick formed a Fighter Flight with N5912 and N5514. Elsewhere, various Station Flights were formed, some with two or three Hurricanes, some with one or two Spitfires. Decoy airfields (known as K-sites) sprang up where cows had previously grazed, and often dummy aircraft, made of wood and fabric, appeared overnight. Even similarly-constructed hangars and other buildings would soon adorn the ‘airfield’. Many hundreds of dummy ‘aircraft’ were produced, representing Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons amongst other types. Elsewhere similar sites were prepared to bamboozle German night bombers, being fields equipped with gooseneck flares, known as Q-sites, to mimic operational airfields.

Those in the know, however, were quietly confident that the one great advantage the RAF had over the Luftwaffe was its embryonic radar system, particularly as its operators gained experience; in fact, the first successful use of radar by ground control to guide an interceptor had occurred on 12 May, when a He111 from 2./LG1 was intercepted near Vlissingen by Blenheim P4834 of A&AEE from Martlesham Heath, crewed by Flt Lt Chris Smith and AC A. Newton. The bomber was damaged and its gunner, Gfr Walter Jenderny, wounded.

Although Britain had acquired an example of the German Enigma coding machine, its use and value during the coming summer months was limited, and had little bearing on the forthcoming battle. AOC Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, appreciated the difficulty of his task:

After the evacuation from Dunkerque [Dunkirk] the pressure on the Fighter Command became less intense, but it by no means disappeared. Hard fighting took place along the coast from Calais to Le Havre to cover the successive evacuations from that coast. Then the centre of gravity shifted to Cherbourg and its neighbourhood, and the Battle of Britain followed on without any appreciable opportunity to rest and reform the units which had borne the brunt of the fighting.

The fall of Belgium and France had increased the danger to the South and West of England, and had necessitated a considerable modification of the original arrangements when bombing attacks could start only from German soil.

As has been explained above, few squadrons were fresh and intact when the Battle began. No sufficient respite has been granted since the conclusion of the Dunkerque fighting to rest the squadrons which had not left the Fighter Command and to rebuild those which had undergone the ordeal of fighting from aerodromes in northern France. These last had been driven from aerodrome to aerodrome, able only to aim at self-preservation from almost continuous attack by bombers and fighters; they were desperately weary and had lost the greater part of their equipment, since aircraft which were unserviceable only from slight defects had to be abandoned.

At the insistence of Prime Minister Churchill, the Air Ministry now asked the Admiralty for the loan of 50 FAA fighter pilots to partially make good losses suffered in France and over Dunkirk. Fighter Command reported its pilot losses as 284 killed, missing or prisoners of war, plus 63 wounded or injured during May and June including those who became casualties due to flying accidents. The Admiralty responded by placing 804 (Sea Gladiators) and newly formed 808 Squadrons under Fighter Command control, although the former remained at Hatston for local defence while the latter, formed on 1 July, was under training at RNAS Worthy Down with a few Skuas, and a dozen Fulmars that were just being introduced into service.

Cecil James at the Air Historical Branch of the Air Ministry later wrote:

The measures that were taken to increase pilot output during June and July chiefly concerned Flying Training Command. But the earliest important accession of strength, and the more welcome because it came so shortly after the heavy losses in France, was the result of an agreement with the Admiralty for the loan of Fleet Air Arm pilots. The matter was first discussed in the War Cabinet as the Dunkirk evacuation drew to a close; and the Prime Minister instructed the Air and Naval staffs to see whether any naval pilots could be transferred to Fighter Command. He had in mind an allocation of fifty pilots by the end of June.

On 6 June the Admiralty issued instructions for the release of 45 pilots (including seven [sic] RAFVR pilots who had been serving with the Fleet Air Arm), half of them trained, half semi-trained. The Air Ministry, however, asked for half the output of the two flying training schools serving the Fleet Air Arm to be allotted to the RAF, beginning with thirty pilots by the end of June. The Admiralty could not agree on the grounds that the casualties amongst their pilots in April and May had been nearly four times as large as postulated and that, in addition, the war with Italy meant more work for the Fleet Air Arm than had been visualised earlier. Thirty more pilots – making sixty-eight naval pilots in all – were loaned during June; but ten were recalled early in July for service in the Mediterranean; and later in the month the First Lord informed the Secretary of State for Air that no further attachments would be possible. The loans, however, were timely and, considering the Admiralty’s difficulties, substantial.

As it transpired, neither 804 or 808 Squadrons were required for operational duties per se, the FAA’s major contribution being the 27 pilots seconded to RAF squadrons during the coming weeks: Sub-Lt(A) A. G. Blake joined 19 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) G. G. R. Bulmer to 32 Squadron; Sub-Lts(A) J. H. C. Sykes, F. Dawson-Paul and G. B. Pudney to 64 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) D. A. Hutchison and T/ Sub-Lt(A) I. J. Wallace to 74 Squadron; Mid(A) M. A. Birrell to 79 Squadron; SubLts(A) D. H. Richards, R. W. M. Walsh, T. V. Worrall and Mid(A) P. R. J. Gilbert to 111 Squadron; Sub-Lts(A) I. H. Kestin and F. A. Smith to 145 Squadron; SubLt(A) H. W. Beggs and Mid(A) O. M. Wightman to 151 Squadron; Sub-Lts(A) H. G. K. Bramah, D. M. Jeram and W. J. M. Moss to 213 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) J. C. Carpenter to 229 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A)s R. J. Cork, R. E. Gardner and Mid(A) P. J. Patterson to 242 Squadron; Mid(A) R. F. Bryant to 245 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) H. laF. Greenshields to 266 Squadron; and Mid(A) P. L. Lennard to 501 Squadron. In addition, Sub-Lt(A) David Marks had been killed while flying a Hurricane of 7 OTU in preparation for his transfer to an RAF squadron. It should be noted that most of these pilots were not considered operational and were sent to RAF OTUs initially for conversion training and a rapid course in fighter tactics. Some did not reach squadrons until late August/early September. Others lasted only a few days and were sent away for further training.

FAA observers, in particular, were occasionally seconded to Bomber and Coastal Commands during this period, and even earlier. With the build-up of invasion barges and other craft in the harbours at Calais and Boulogne, these immediately became a priority target not only for the FAA but also Battle light bombers of Bomber Command, particularly 103, 142 and 150 Squadrons. To assist the RAF crews a number of newly qualified FAA pilots and observers were attached to these units. Others were seconded to fly heavy bombers, mainly Whitleys involved in over-sea flying.

Eight RAFVR fighter pilots who had been seconded to the FAA and were currently undergoing a refresher fighter course at Donibristle with 769(T) Squadron were released to return to Fighter Command; these being Sgt D. K. Ashton to 32 Squadron; Sgt D. Ayres to 600 Squadron; Sgt H. W. Ayre to 266 Squadron; Sgt O. R. Bowerman to 222 Squadron; Sgt E. N. Kelsey to 611 Squadron; Sgt R. O’Donnell to 19 Squadron; Sgt J. Pickering to 64 Squadron; Sgt W. J. Timms to 43 Squadron. Two who had deliberately failed the FAA course – Sgt F. N. Robertson and New Zealander Sgt R. J. Hyde – were already flying Spitfires with 66 Squadron. Another former RN pilot, Plt Off A. R. H. Barton (who had been trained to fly Swordfish) arrived to posting to 32 Squadron following a brief conversion course.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September-November 1918

Hunter Liggett, commander of the I Corps in the Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne Offensives, before succeeding General Pershing as commander of the American First Army in the Meuse-Argonne. Pershing’s willingness to overlook reasoned dissent when the man or the argument merited was also evident in the case of Major General Hunter Liggett. From the moment that he took command of the AEF, Pershing made it clear that he would not tolerate any officer who was too old or unfit to endure the stress of combat. To appease Pershing, Secretary Baker required generals preparing to deploy their units to France to take a month-long tour of the AEF. Although these tours were intended to give the officers a greater appreciation for what they faced on the Western Front, it also gave Pershing time to evaluate their abilities and physical condition. If a general was not to Pershing’s liking, he usually was excluded from returning to the AEF. When Liggett arrived in France for his tour, he was 61 years old and quite fat. When Pershing questioned his physical abilities, Liggett proceeded to run up a nearby hill to demonstrate his stamina. When Pershing criticized the large general’s corpulence, Liggett simply and forcefully replied that the most important fact about his physique was that his fat stopped squarely at his neck, and in no way extended to his head. Impressed by Liggett’s earnestness and proven intellect, Pershing accepted him into the AEF’s fold. This proved to be a wise decision, for Liggett became one of the AEF’s most reliable commanders. During the war he rose to command the 1st Corps and eventually the AEF’s First Army

With the end of major operations on the St. Mihiel front, the main effort of Pershing and the AEF shifted forty miles to the northwest along the west bank of the Meuse. Over the next two weeks, the AEF executed a complex and massive movement of troops, artillery, and supplies to its new battleground. The transfer involved 820,000 men: 220,000 French and Italian troops left the area, and about 600,000 Americans entered. Of the fifteen American divisions that took over the sector, seven had been involved in the St. Mihiel operation, three came from the Vesle sector, three from the area of Soissons, one near Bar-le-Duc, and one from a training area. The movement was confined to the hours of darkness to maintain secrecy and further limited by the availability of only three roads capable of supporting heavy traffic. That it took place without a serious setback was largely attributable to the careful supervision of a young staff officer from Pershing’s First Army, Col. George C. Marshall.

The AEF’s attack into the Meuse-Argonne region was part of Foch’s larger general offensive against the Germans, with the British and French attacking in their respective sectors, which would force the Germans to defend the entire front. Foch’s objective was to cut the enemy’s vital lateral rail lines and compel the Germans to retire inside their own frontier before the end of 1918. For this grand offensive, Foch had 220 divisions, of which 42 were the big divisions of the AEF.

The American First Army would attack northward in conjunction with the French Fourth Army. Its main objective was the rail line between Carignan-Sedan-Mézieres, an artery of the important rail system running through Luxembourg, Thionville, and Metz. That objective was about thirty miles from the jump-off line north of Verdun. In addition, by attacking east of the Argonne Forest, the First Army’s offensive would outflank the German forces along the Aisne, in front of their French counterparts to the west.

The American army’s area of operations was fifteen to twenty miles wide, bounded by the unfordable Meuse River on the east and the dense Argonne Forest and the Aire River on the west. The heights of the Meuse dominated the east side of the American sector, while the Argonne sat on high ground that commanded the western side. Between the river and the forest, a hogback ridge ran southeast and northwest from Montfaucon, Cunel, and Barricourt. A series of three lateral hill lines presented barriers to a northward advance. In addition to the Argonne, the area was dotted with various woods that presented even more obstacles to the American advance.

For their defense of the area, the Germans took full advantage of the rugged terrain. The high ground on either flank gave them excellent observation points from which to rain artillery on the Americans. Moreover, like the St. Mihiel salient, the Germans had occupied the area for several years and had developed an elaborate defensive system of four fortified lines featuring a dense network of wire entanglements, machine gun positions with interlocking fires, and concrete fighting posts. In between these trench lines, the Germans had developed a series of intermediate strong points in the numerous woods and knolls. The defensive system was about fifteen miles deep with five divisions on line and another seven in immediate reserve. Petain believed that the defenses were so strong that the Americans would do well if they captured Montfaucon, on the second line, before winter.

Against this imposing defense, the American First Army mustered over 600,000 men. It would attack with nine divisions on line and another five in reserve, with Bullard’s III Corps on the east flank, Cameron’s V Corps in the center, and Liggett’s I Corps on the west flank. A total of 2,700 pieces of artillery, 189 tanks, and 821 aircraft supported the American infantrymen.

Pershing and his staff envisioned the offensive in two stages. First, U. S. forces would advance about ten miles and penetrate three of the German lines, clearing the Argonne Forest to link up with the French Fourth Army at Grandpré. The second stage would consist of an advance of ten miles to outflank the enemy positions along the Aisne and prepare for further attacks toward Sedan and Mézieres on the Meuse River. Additional operations would then clear the heights along the east bank of the Meuse.

The initial attack would kick off on 26 September. The operations plan called for two thrusts on either side of the high ground around Montfaucon, with a linkup achieved before the Germans could bring in additional reinforcements. The V Corps would make the main attack, taking Montfaucon and penetrating the second German line. On either side, the I and III Corps would advance to protect the army’s flanks, while their corps artillery suppressed the German artillery. Pershing wanted to seize Cunel and, to its west, Romagne, by the end of the second day.

At 0530, after a three-hour artillery bombardment, the three corps launched their attacks. Despite a heavy fog, the rugged terrain, and the network of barbed wire, the weight of the American onslaught quickly overran the Germans’ forward positions. On both flanks, the corps made good progress. In the III Corps sector, Maj. Gen. John Hines’ 4th Division pushed ahead about four miles, penetrated the German second line, and defeated several counterattacks in the process. On the western flank, Liggett’s corps reached its objectives, advancing three miles on the open ground to the east of the Argonne. Maj. Gen. Robert Alexander’s 77th Division made lesser gains in the Argonne itself. In the center, however, the V Corps experienced problems and was checked to the south of Montfaucon; it was not until the next day that Cameron’s men were able to seize the position.

Throughout the remainder of September, the First Army slowly plodded forward. Heavy rains on 27-28 September bogged down the few tanks that had not already succumbed to mechanical failure. The rains also interfered with the forward movement of the supporting artillery and the resupply efforts as the already congested roads became muddy. Moreover, the Germans had used the delay in front of Montfaucon to rush local reserves to the strong positions in the center of their line, south of Cunel and Romagne. As the American battalions and companies encountered German machine gun positions in depth, the advance slowed further. Once the American infantry silenced the forward positions, supporting guns to the rear opened fire. In addition, the German artillery poured enfilading fire onto the attackers from the heights of the Meuse and the Argonne Forest. The advance had become a continuous series of bloody, hard-fought engagements.

Not all the First Army’s difficulties came from the enemy or the weather. Of the nine divisions in the initial assault, only three (the 4th, 28th, and 77th) had significant combat experience. The 79th Division, which had the critical mission to take Montfaucon, had been in France for only seven weeks. The heavy fog and rain and the broken terrain exacerbated the situation for the inexperienced troops. Many divisions suffered from a lack of coordination among their own units and liaison with adjoining and higher units. Teamwork between the infantry and their supporting artillery often proved awkward and ineffective, especially in those divisions that had to rely on artillery brigades from other divisions because their own brigades were unavailable.

Overcoming these problems, the First Army advanced eight miles into the German lines by the end of September. Remarkably, it had fought through some of the strongest positions on the Western Front and captured 9,000 prisoners and a large amount of war supplies, including 100 guns. With the severity of the fighting and the intermingling of units in the twisted terrain, Pershing had little choice but to pause to reorganize.

Elsewhere on the Western Front, the remainder of Foch’s general offensive had also slowed. The effort in Flanders had bogged down in the rain and mud, while the French armies in the center of the Allied line had not yet begun their attacks. Along the Somme, Haig’s British armies did make a penetration of the German Hindenburg Line, with the help of the 27th and 30th Divisions of the AEF’s II Corps. The British expanded the penetration to create a gap all the way through the German fortifications; but at the beginning of October, the British had to pause to improve their own lines of communications.

During the first days of October, Pershing took advantage of the pause to rotate three battle-hardened divisions (the 3d, 32d, and 1st) into the line, relieving some of the less experienced (the 37th, 79th, and 35th). As the First Army reorganized its line, the Germans also strengthened their position with six new divisions brought into the area for a total of eleven. The numerical odds were beginning to even.

At 0530 on 4 October the First Army renewed its general attack. The III and V Corps were to take the heights around Cunel and Romagne, respectively. Meanwhile, the I Corps was to neutralize the enemy’s flanking fire from the Argonne and gain some room to maneuver around the forest. The fighting was especially severe. The American infantry launched a series of frontal attacks to penetrate the German lines and then to exploit the exposed enemy flanks. Progress was slow. The III and V Corps made some gains against their objectives, but the Cunel and Romagne heights remained in German hands. On the west, the 1st Division advanced three miles and the I Corps captured an important ridge on the east edge of the Argonne. As new American divisions were rotated into line, the Germans continued their reinforcement efforts; and by 6 October they had twenty-seven divisions in the area.

As the two corps on the east continued their fight for high ground in the center of the First Army sector, Liggett’s I Corps executed an effective flanking operation. On 7 October, as the 77th Division attacked northward in the Argonne, Liggett sent the 82d Division almost due west into the rear of the German positions. By noon the Germans were withdrawing from the forest. By 10 October, the I Corps had cleared the forest.

With the divisions of First Army fighting in the Meuse- Argonne region, other American divisions were providing crucial assistance to the French and British advances. To the north, two divisions of General Read’s II Corps continued to support the British advance. The 2d Division (now commanded by Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune of the Marine Corps) operated with the French Fourth Army on the First Army’s western flank. Lejeune’s soldiers and marines captured Mont Blanc Ridge, which provided the only natural defensive line south of the Aisne River, in a hard-fought battle from 2 to 4 October. On 10 October the 36th Division relieved the 2d Division and advanced to the Aisne River by 13 October, which brought the French Fourth Army on line with the American First Army.

On 8 October Pershing had the French XVII Corps attack across the Meuse near Brabant, due east of Montfaucon. The corps’ two French and two American divisions advanced two miles and captured 3,000 prisoners and several important observation points. This limited operation also forced the Germans to divert divisions away from the main battleground between the Meuse and the Argonne.

On 14 October the First Army launched a general assault all along the German lines. The III and V Corps once again aimed at taking the fortified hills and forests of the Cunel-Romagne front. Over the next four days the 3d, 5th, and 32d Divisions battled for and captured the vital strong points. On the western flank, the I Corps advanced to the southern half of Grandpré on 16 October. By the third week in October the First Army had reached most of the objectives of the first phase of the campaign: penetration of the third German line and clearing of the Argonne.

By mid-October Pershing realized that too much of the operational and tactical direction of the war was concentrated in his hands. As AEF commander, he was the American theater commander responsible for the administration, training, and supplying of the American troops in France as well as coordination with the other national commanders. In addition, he was the field commander for three corps of fourteen divisions in a desperate fight over rough terrain. Moreover, the First Army had become unwieldy, with over a million men along an 83-mile front.

On 12 October Pershing organized the American Second Army and named Bullard its commander. Bullard and his army assumed control over thirty-four miles of the front-the quiet sector between the Meuse and the Moselle south of Verdun. The active Meuse-Argonne sector remained the First Army’s responsibility, and on 16 October General Liggett assumed command of that army. Pershing could now focus his attention on the larger strategic issues of theater command.

After visiting the First Army’s corps and divisions, Liggett discovered that the Army was in deplorable shape after weeks of continuous and bitter fighting. Several divisions were combat ineffective, having less than 25 percent of their authorized strength. Liggett estimated that there were over 100,000 stragglers, which drained the army’s strength. A lack of draft animals immobilized the artillery. The army needed to rest and refit, so for the next two weeks Liggett allowed it to do just that and resisted pressure to do more than local attacks.

More important, however, Liggett retooled and remodeled the First Army. He took particular care in retraining his infantry and artillery. Some infantry received special training in techniques for attacking strong points, while the rest were trained to bypass these defenses. Artillery batteries laid out supporting plans to use interdicting fires to isolate objectives and to conduct counterbattery fires against German artillery. Liggett instilled in his commanders the need to maximize supporting fires and gas to suppress enemy defenses.

To prepare for the second phase of the offensive, Liggett ordered a series of limited attacks aimed at securing a suitable line of departure. Both III Corps, now under General Hines, and V Corps, now under General Summerall, launched local attacks to clear forests and seize hills in the center of the line. Some of these operations involved heavy and hard fighting, with the bloodiest being the I Corps’ ten-day battle to capture Grandpré, which fell on 27 October. Meanwhile, Liggett and his army staff ensured that supplies were stockpiled and roads repaired. By the end of October the First Army was ready for the next general attack.

On 1 November Liggett’s First Army resumed the offensive. The main objective was the Barricourt Ridge in the center, a realistic advance of five miles. Once the Americans secured the ridgeline, they would push west to maneuver around the Bourgogne Forest, link up with the French Fourth Army, then drive northeast toward Sedan. On the first day of the attack Summerall’s corps, in the center, easily gained control of the ridgeline. Hines’ corps, in the east, kept pace and advanced to the Meuse River. Only Dickman’s corps, in the west, failed to gain much ground. On the following day, however, the I Corps made excellent progress and cleared the flank of the French Fourth Army. Over the next several days, Liggett’s army continued to advance as fast as it could displace its artillery and supplies forward. At one point the advance was so rapid that it ran off the AEF headquarters’ maps. By 4 November the First Army had elements along the heights overlooking the Meuse and was able to place artillery fire on the railroad from Sedan to Mézieres. The Americans had achieved their objective.

Liggett’s careful preparation of the First Army paid off. Infantry and artillery coordination was superb. Troops pushed through and around German strong points, while special assault troops reduced them. Improved staff work and coordination afforded the First Army the flexibility to bypass German defenses. Unlike former attacks that made strong first-day gains followed by smaller ones, this attack was different: the advance on the third day exceeded that of the first. Under Liggett’s tutelage, the American units had finally developed into a well-trained, well-organized fighting force.

A week after Liggett’s forces reached the Meuse, the warring nations signed the Armistice. The fighting ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month-11 November 1918.

The Meuse-Argonne Campaign was the greatest battle that the U. S. Army had fought in its history. Almost 1.25 million American troops had participated during the course of the 47-day campaign. American casualties were high-over 117,000-but the results were impressive. The American First Army had driven forty-three German divisions back about thirty miles over some of the most difficult terrain and most heavily fortified positions on the Western Front. It had inflicted over 120,000 casualties on the Germans and captured 468 guns.