Battle of Slim River II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of himself, Attiwill went on to say that:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Canadian Forces at Valenciennes and Mons 1918

A Canadian Cyclist shouting down a dugout in German for men to come out. His fighting potential far outweighs their own.

Mount Houy barrage map.

The assault on Cambrai was to be the Canadian Corps’s introduction to urban warfare in the Great War. German desertion of the city on the eve of the Canadians’ assault on October 9 1918, however, made the Battle of Valenciennes on November 1–2 the Canadians’ first urban engagement.

Valenciennes was the last major French city still held by the Germans on October 30, and it stood as a key obstacle to the Allied advance along the Western Front. It was heavily fortified, anchoring the last major German defence system, the Hermann Line. Geography aided the German defences here as well. To the south, the Germans had fortified positions on Mount Houy, a 160-yard-high wooded highland that commanded the l’Escaut Valley to the south of Valenciennes. On the west and north sides of the city, the Canal de l’Escaut combined with the German trench system running alongside formed a second key barrier to attack. Five divisions of the German army were dug in to these positions. On the morning of November 1, Canadian forces faced off directly from the south.

Across a front of 2,500 yards, Currie’s plan of attack on Valenciennes was for the 4th Canadian Division to dislodge the Germans from their defensive positions atop Mount Houy with a massive artillery barrage early on the morning of November 1. Then, after the 3rd Division had crossed the Canal de l’Escaut on the left of the Canadian line, infantry units would advance on Valenciennes itself, moving street by street, house by house, “mopping up” the city. (The Allies had forbidden Currie from using artillery within the city due to the large French civilian population.) The Canadians also had a deadline: the main Allied advance on Germany was to resume November 3.

Zero hour at Valenciennes came at 05:15 on November 1, with one of the largest artillery barrages unleashed in the war, the magnitude of which warrants quoting G.W.L. Nicholson in full:

Because its left wing, on the west side of the Escaut Canal, had advanced so far forward, the Canadian Corps was able to arrange a rather unique artillery barrage on the Mont Houy position. Eight field and six heavy artillery brigades supported the 10th Infantry Brigade in its attack. Three field brigades sited south of the Escaut, near Maing, supplied the frontal creeping barrage; one gave oblique fire from the left bank near Trith St. Leger; the other two were near La Sentinelle, west of the Cambrai–Valenciennes road, furnishing enfilade fire along the enemy’s flank. Unable through lack of suitable bridges to cross the Escaut, the heavy artillery remained on the left bank in a position to bring oblique, enfilade and even reverse fire (deliberately arranged for moral effect) on the area of the attack. Some three and a half brigades were employed, on counter-battery work, the remainder bringing down fire on houses which were suspected of containing machine-gun nests. Three batteries of 4.5-inch howitzers fired an intense smoke-screen to cover the attack, and the normal artillery barrage was supplemented by the fire of twelve batteries of the 1st and 4th Canadian Machine Gun Battalions firing in close support or in enfilade from north of the canal. On no other occasion in the whole war was a single infantry brigade to be supported with such a weight of gunfire.

As per Currie’s plan, 4th Division infantry advanced after the initial barrage and took Mount Houy by 06:00. The 3rd Division was equally successful on the Canadians’ left flank, crossing the Canal de l’Escaut and pushing north of Valenciennes by mid-morning. Elements of the 4th Division advanced the remaining mile and a half to Valenciennes itself, with the 44th and 46th infantry brigades crossing the canal and entering the city in the early afternoon.

At Valenciennes, three units from Brutinel’s Brigade were assigned to the 4th Division — the 1st CMMGB, one Canadian Light Horse squadron, and one company of Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion (“B” Company). On the morning of November 1, the 1st CMMGB was assigned to the 4th Division MG Commander to help support the hurricane barrage. The bulk of CLH and Cyclist troops were employed as dispatch riders and runners “between Headquarters of Brigades and the advanced Battalion Headquarters and also for keeping up Communication between the Scouts, Patrols, Companies and Infantry Report Centres.” The remainder of Brutinel’s force was assigned patrol and reconnaissance duties, sending reports back to HQ on the disposition and positions of 4th Division troops, enemy strength and location, and the state of critical infrastructure like bridges and roads. Cyclist Macnab described “B” Company Cyclists’ assignment at Valenciennes like this:

By October 31st advance parties had reached the Canal de l’Escaut, where it passes through the outskirts of Valenciennes. Here all the bridges had been blown up but next morning (November 1st) some Cyclists [working on the left flank of the 10th CIBn] got across on a canal lock gate and established a bridgehead. The Germans had set fire to the buildings along the canal and between fire, smoke and snipers, our lads had quite a hot time until the engineers got over and stopped the fires.

The Cyclists then proceeded on through Valenciennes, clearing out snipers and machine-gun nests. They were officially recorded as the first British troops to go through the town. Three of them, however, never came out as they were killed in action — the victims of enemy machine-gun fire. Here as in other cities and towns the civilians were very helpful in clearing out Germans hiding in houses.


Vastly outnumbered and dangerously under-strength, the 10th and 12th infantry brigades pushed through the streets of Valenciennes from west to east using reconnaissance reports from two patrols from “B” Company Cyclists working in advance. Just before 09:00, the Cyclists reported back to brigade HQ that “the town was clear of the enemy.”

The 10th and 12th brigades “joined hands” on the eastern outskirts of the city north of Marly shortly after 09:00. From here, one armoured car with one Cyclist patrol set off toward Saint-Saulve on the Valenciennes–Mons road and got to a cemetery northeast of Marly where they took up positions against enemy machine guns. “D” Battery guns advanced to these positions and waited for infantry from 54th CIBn to relieve them around noon. The car set off on its own toward Mons in the early afternoon, getting as far as a slag heap on the southeast side of the village.

Against the odds, “those at the sharp end” of the Canadian advance through Valenciennes “cleared the enemy positions, one at a time, in countless stand-up battles that went largely unrecorded in the official records.”6 Currie made this entry to his diary at the end of fighting on November 2: “The operation yesterday was one of the most successful the Corps has yet performed.” A small part of this success was due to Canadian Cyclists, which the commander of the 72nd infantry battalion noted in his report: “The work of the Cyclists attached to this Battalion throughout the recent Operations cannot be too highly spoken of and their services in reconnoitring Cross-roads and Tactical Points was of immense value. The reports rendered to Battalion Headquarters during the operations were concise and accurate.”


The capture of Valenciennes was the last set-piece battle the Canadian Corps fought in the Great War. Although the Canadians and the rest of the Allies were preparing for another on November 3, early-morning reconnaissance confirmed the Germans were again in retreat. Allied HQ ordered a general advance, with individual divisions instructed to “act vigorously” on their own initiative and keep the Germans from establishing firm positions. Units from Brutinel’s Brigade, still attached to the 4th Division after Valenciennes, continued to be deployed as patrols and other capacities as needed. On November 2, two squadrons of CLH and three platoons of Cyclists were used as dispatch riders, runners, and orderlies between the various brigade and battalion headquarters “and also for keeping up Communications between the Scouts, Patrols, Companies and Infantry Report Centres.” One battery of guns from the 1st CMMGB (“E” Battery) and one platoon of Cyclists from “B” Company were sent out as patrols in advance of division infantry once again. Cyclist Macnab described the final push from Valenciennes to Mons like this: “German opposition was slackening but there was still quite a bit of heavy fighting along the Valenciennes–Mons road — unfortunately right up to November 11th.” This type of engagement would repeat itself day after day over the ensuing week.

Working on a much narrower front from the Valenciennes–Mons road on the north to Préseau on the south, 4th Canadian Division forces pushed forward almost to the Estreux–Onnaing road on November 3 without much resistance from the enemy; 3rd Division forces to the north made similar progress. Resistance from the topography was another story. The countryside east of Valenciennes and into Belgium had many more villages, deeper valleys and rivers, and densely treed expanses than encountered up to that point. The roads themselves were made largely impassable by large shell craters, encountered especially at key crossroads. What roads did exist, and the work-around detours hastily built by the engineers, were used by artillery and the lorries from ever-lengthening supply chains. Adding to the chaos were the autumn rains — only one day from November 1 to the 11 was without heavy precipitation. For Brutinel’s mobile forces — especially the Cyclists — this all added up to limited deployment on the final push. On November 3rd, for example, one of the armoured cars and a platoon of Cyclists could only make it halfway from Marly to Estreux “Owing to Mine Craters N. and E. of the Crossroads the Roads were impassable and prevented the Armoured Car from reaching its objective.”

At 05:15 of November 4, “E” Battery from the 1st CMMGB and No. 6 Cyclist Platoon were ordered forward to keep in touch with the enemy and “harass his retreat.” The roads, however, delayed the gunners, so the Cyclists “pushed on alone to Onnaing, where an enemy cyclist patrol was met and a Lewis Gun post established. About 20 of the enemy were encountered here. The post was relieved at 10:30 hours by the 72nd CIBn.” Little resistance was encountered as the Canadians moved through town, save for a few retreating enemy patrols. At the eastern exit of town, though, much stronger resistance was encountered by “E” Battery, which had caught up to the action. The gunners let loose with their eight guns, “forcing the enemy to abandon his positions.” The Cyclists, meanwhile, advanced on the north side of the main road, capturing a few prisoners along with their two field guns.

Upon establishing their line on the east of Onnaing, the Cyclists and gunners found the Valenciennes–Mons road from Onnaing to Quarouble destroyed by mines and made impassable to mobile units. As they set up their positions and waited for infantry relief, stiff enemy fire was encountered; the gunners moved through a cemetery on the right of the cratered road, the Cyclists on the left along the railway. By early afternoon, the enemy guns were out of action.

On the morning of November 5, the 72nd CIBn caught up and established a line connecting the Cyclists and gunners and began organizing the next stage of the advance on Quarouble. Engineers were summoned forward to fill the craters and begin making the road passable for motor vehicles. At 09:00, though, enemy resistance heated up again, artillery first taking out one of the CMMGB’s armoured cars and then laying down enfilade fire on the Canadians’ new positions, “greatly annoying our own Gun Detachments.” The CMMGB, the Cyclists, and the 72nd CIBn fought for position throughout the day, eventually establishing a line about 600 yards to the east of Onnaing.

The 12th CIBn had much more luck to the south of Onnaing. By the early morning of November 5, infantry took the next town along the road, Quarouble, and engaged in heavy fighting over the course of that day and the next. By the evening of November 6, 4th Division forces had established a line along the sunken road immediately to the east of Quiévrechain. The 4th Division was then relieved by the 2nd Division and retired from the line for the last time in the war.

Meanwhile, on the left of the Canadian line, the 3rd Division worked its way east on the north side of the Valenciennes–Mons road, now heavily flooded as a result of Germans opening sluice gates on the canal, as well as the heavy autumn rains. The 3rd Division also encountered pockets of vicious resistance, first at the mining town of Vicq from November 4 to 6, and then at Condé alongside British forces from November 7 and 8.


On November 7, the Canadian Corps crossed into Belgium. On the right, the 2nd Division had orders to “act with the utmost boldness” on the final push to Mons. To aid in this last act, Brutinel’s Brigade was reorganized into a two-detachment Independent Force. The Southern Detachment included two squadrons of Canadian Light Horse, two batteries of gunners from the 2nd CMMGB, and one subsection of engineers; the Northern Detachment consisted of two gun batteries, one subsection of engineers, and “B” Company of the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion under the command of Captain Scroggie. The Independent Force had orders to “advance through the Infantry and work ahead of them” if the enemy’s line of resistance was broken or its rearguard pierced.” While the infantry of the 2nd Division made excellent progress over the next four days, the almost complete demolition of the roads effectively grounded the Independent Forces’ mobile units during this period.

On November 7, the Force moved out from Rombies and Quarouble, but immediately came to a halt: the road had been destroyed by four mine craters 40 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. Independent Force troops dismounted and worked with the engineers for six “hard and continuous” hours to fill and bridge the craters. Around noon, the troops remounted and set off down the Valenciennes–Mons road, only to be stopped again at 16:00 by another huge mine crater 1,000 yards east of Quiévrain. The Force retired for the evening, leaving the engineers to source additional bridging material.

A similar routine was followed on November 8: 2nd Division infantry made good progress, reaching the Dour-Hainin Line by noon, but the wheeled units of the Independent Force were sidelined again by systematic mining of the roads and the nonstop rain. Not needing the roads to navigate, the two CLH squadrons were redeployed to the 4th and 5th CIBns as contact patrols and dispatch riders for the duration of the war.

On November 9, the Canadian Corps was on the move once again. To the north, 3rd Division forces were closing in on Mons, the Patricias reaching the suburb of Jemappes that evening. To the south, after much bridging, the Independent Force managed to get to Frameries, three miles southeast of Mons by the evening of November 9, where it reported to 6th CIBn HQ.

On the morning of the 10th, the Independent Force moved to the intersection of the railway and the Maubeuge–Mons road and helped infantry overcome a spirited point of resistance at the Bois la Haut, a wooded hill rising 350 feet above the countryside 2,000 yards to the southeast of Mons. Once at the intersection, the North Detachment headed north, but quickly ran into artillery and machine-gun fire. Here, enemy resistance held out until 03:15. The South Detachment under Captain Scroggie did not fare much better, its progress arrested just north of Ciply by a blown-up bridge. Engineers estimated it would take the better part of the remainder of the day for the bridge to be repaired, so Brutinel’s force retired to Frameries for the night.

By the evening of November 10, the Canadian line ran west from Saint-Symphorien, where the 2nd Division had advanced to, around the south and western outskirts of Mons to Nimy, where the 3rd Division was centred.


The attack on Mons began at 23:00 on November 10 with 3rd Division infantry advancing from the east, south, and north ends of the city. By daybreak, the last of the remaining Germans (who had begun their retreat around midnight) had been pushed out. It was around this time, 06:30 on November 11, that Canadian Corps HQ received a message from Allied High Command that hostilities were to cease at 11:00 that morning. As it took some time for word to reach all units, the pursuit of the retreating Germans continued that morning, with 3rd Division infantry pushing to a point almost five miles east of Mons and Brutinel’s troops with the 2nd Division pushing from the south.

Early on November 11, the Independent Force set out from Frameries ahead of the 6th CIBn through the suburb of Spiennes to the southeast of Mons. The “very bad state of the roads,” however, prevented the Force from “gaining touch” with the retreating enemy, save for one armoured car in the village of St. Antoine by 10:30. Major Humphrey from the “C” Company Cyclist described the last advance made by Canadian Cyclists in the Great War on November 11 like this:

Company left Frameries at 06:30 hours and moved to Spiennes to co-operate with the 2nd CMMGB — the latter were unable to get as far as Spiennes owing to roads being blown. At 10:00 hours Canadians received word that hostilities would cease at 11:00 hours and a message was received by the Company to withdraw to Frameries. The company came under heavy shell fire from 10:45 hours to 11:00 hours, but fortunately no one was hit. Company passed the day and night in Frameries.

Cyclist Macnab recalled how the end of the war ended for members of “B” Company of the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion: “On November 11th there was naturally a big celebration in Mons, including a march past, but some of our men who were then over three miles past Mons did not know that the war was actually over at 11 o’clock until a German official car came through to arrange the take-over by the British.”

Most Cyclists — Canadian soldiers overall — shared Captain George Scroggie’s sentiment:

I breathed a sigh of relief when the hour of the armistice arrived. We got back to Frameries that night and I had a hot bath and went to bed around 9 p.m. and slept soundly until 7 a.m., when I was awakened by the noise of a babble of voices outside the windows of my room. There was a big project under way as the housewives of Frameries were washing the cobblestones of the main street of the town for the Prince of Wales was due to come to town that morning and was going to make a speech at the Town Hall of Frameries.

The Fall of Ctesiphon and the Battle of Jalula

Pushtîghbân Grivpânvâr
[Royal Sassanid Cataphracts]

Farasan Mudar’a
(Islamic Heavy Cavalry

Syria, Palestine and Roman Mesopotamia were not the only regions in which the Muslims were steamrollering an increasingly desperate defence. Much like their victory at Yarmuk, their victory at Qadisiyyah and Sa’d’s ruthless pursuit of Jalinus had exposed the entirety of Persian Mesopotamia and left the road to Ctesiphon open. With its potential as a focal point and possible springboard for a counter-attack whilst still in Persian hands, Umar and Sa’d quickly decided that neutralising or capturing the Sassanid capital should be their next objective. Less than a fortnight after the victory at Qadisiyyah, Sa’d’s army, now reorganised into five separate corps under Zuhra, Abdullah, Shurahbeel, Hashim and Khalid b. Arfatah, set out across the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia towards Ctesiphon. Seemingly aware of the garrison forces along the route to Ctesiphon, Sa’d sent Zuhra on ahead with a strong advanced guard of cavalry, with orders to subdue the garrisons if he could but, should he come up against a sizeable imperial army, he was to await the main column that was proceeding at a more restrained pace.

However, despite the mixture of caution and alacrity, the Muslim advance met with only limited resistance. Zuhra was able to occupy Najaf without any opposition and, while the garrison at Burs resisted, Zuhra defeated its commander, Busbuhra, in single combat and the garrison was quickly overwhelmed. A battle near the ancient site of Babylon is recorded in December 636 against a large concentration of Persian forces, which given that its commanders were Hormuzan, Mihran, Nakheerzan and Beerzan suggests that it was the remnant of the force that Jalinus had extricated from Qadisiyyah. However, given the presence of Beerzan, supposedly killed by Qaqa, and the lack of clear information regarding any battle at Babylon, aside from there being dissension in the Persian ranks and the information that Hormuzan retreated to his homelands in Khuzestan the whole event should probably be downplayed as a major engagement.

Zuhra then continued his pursuit of congregating Persian forces. He is thought to have defeated a Sassanid force at Sura before catching up to Nakheerzan’s force at Deir Kab. Despite the killing of the Sassanid commander in a duel by one of Zuhra’s subordinates, the Persian force seems to have offered stiff resistance. It was only a successful flanking manoeuvre by Jarir that captured a bridge to the rear of the Persian lines that seems to have finally encouraged the Persians to retreat. The last Persian attempt to stall the Muslim advance to the gates of Ctesiphon came in early-January 637 at Kusa, a mere ten miles short of the capital. However, this time all it took was the defeat of the Persian commander, Shahryar, in a duel by one of the mubarizun to force the Persians to retreat.

With the capture of Kusa, nothing now lay between Sa’d’s forces and the walls of the Persian capital. However, despite the rapidity of Zuhra’s advance, properly defended, Ctesiphon would not be easily captured or even surrounded. This was because it was not a single city but a metropolis that incorporated several settlements including Seleucia, Veh-Ardashir, Vologaesocerta and others on the banks of the Tigris, as well as Ctesiphon itself. Indeed, in Arabic, Ctesiphon was and is known as al-Mada’in, meaning `The Cities’. With the direction they were approaching from – the west bank of the Tigris – the Muslims were to come to the sub-cities of Vologaesocerta, Seleucia and Veh-Ardashir first. Of these three, it appears that Yazdgerd and his generals focused their defensive efforts on Veh-Ardashir, probably due to it being the closest to Ctesiphon itself, digging ditches and placing ballistas and catapults. The presence of such siege engines forced the Muslims back from the walls but they quickly evened the odds by employing Persians to build siege engines for them.

By March 637, after almost two months of blockade, the Persian garrison was becoming desperate and sallied forth in an attempt to break the siege. In the subsequent fighting, Zuhra is said to have killed the Persian commander in a duel before being killed himself by an arrow. But one peculiar story stands out most from the siege of Veh-Ardashir: the Persians are said to have used a specially trained lion to disrupt the Muslim cavalry and infantry, with its rampage only being stopped by Hashim, who killed the beast with a single blow with his sword. One cannot help but suggest that this is a prime example of the corruption of the record of a Persian commander either called `lion,’ such as the Greek name Leo, or being described as fighting as fiercely as a lion.

As their sally proved ineffective, the Persians offered to recognise the Muslim conquest of all territory up to the banks of the Tigris in return for an end to the fighting. Sa’d replied by saying that peace would only come when Yazdgerd accepted Islam and paid the jizya. The next morning, the Muslims found Veh-Ardashir abandoned as the garrison had somehow managed to slip across the Tigris to Ctesiphon, destroying many of the bridges and taking any available boats with them.

Despite these measures and the fact that the river seems to have been in flood, the Persians failed to prevent the Muslims from crossing the Tigris. Taking advantage of local knowledge, Sa’d found a location where the river was fordable and sent a contingent of around 600 volunteers under Asim to force a crossing. These were intercepted by Persian cavalry, but Asim’s men were able to fight off this attack, establish themselves on the eastern shore and hold their position long enough for Sa’d to get reinforcements to them. With the Muslim army safely across the Tigris, the Sassanid force in Ctesiphon under Mihran and Rustam’s brother, Khurrazad, decided that any attempt to defend Ctesiphon itself was futile and prompted Yazdgerd to abandon the city with his army and treasury. With that, aside from small pockets of resistance, Sa’d and his Muslim Arab force took one of the ancient world’s greatest cities, along with the large amounts of booty it possessed, without a fight.

This lack of an organised defence of their capital not only demonstrates the poor state to which the Persian military had fallen through its defeats by Romans, Turks, civil war and now Muslim Arabs, but also how unprepared the Persian defences of Ctesiphon were for an attack from the south. Centuries of warfare against the Romans and the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe had concentrated Persian defensive efforts to the north of Ctesiphon. The contrast between the destruction of the bridges over the Nahrawan canal to block Heraclius’ approach in 627 and the ease with which Sa’d approached VehArdashir and then took Ctesiphon in 637 demonstrates the direction in which Persian defences were facing. It could be argued that, by leaving troops in Mesopotamia to slow the advance of the Muslims on Ctesiphon, Yazdgerd assured the capture of his capital by depriving its defence of much needed manpower. However, without garrisons at the likes of Burs, Babylon and Kusa, Zuhra’s advanced guard would have arrived at Ctesiphon before any defensive measures were implemented. Therefore, after the defeat at Qadisiyyah, the Sassanid king and his generals were left with what was a no-win situation with regard to defending Ctesiphon.

However, this Persian evacuation of their capital without a fight meant that there were still sizeable Sassanid armies in the field that needed to be defeated before Muslim control of Mesopotamia could be consolidated. The main Persian force under Mihran and Khurrazad retreated north to Jalula, which, as well as being near the modern site of Baghdad, lay on a strategically important route between the Persian provinces of Mesopotamia, Khurasan and Atropatene. There were also forces congregating to the north at Birtha, usually identified with modern-day Tikrit, as well as the significant garrison of the fortress further up the Tigris recognised as modern Mosul. Its governor, Intaq, appears to have moved south to Birtha with his garrison and along with some survivors from Ctesiphon and new recruits from the local Arab tribes formed a sizeable force.

The relative proximity of Birtha to the main Sassanid force at Jalula meant that Intaq could move to join his forces to those of Mihran and Khurrazad as well as providing a potential route of retreat for the Persian force should it be defeated at Jalula. Therefore, whilst Sa’d sent the majority of his force against Jalula under Hashim in April, he also sent about 5,000 men under Abdullah to preoccupy if not neutralise Intaq. Upon arriving, Abdullah attempted to storm the walls with a lightning attack. However, Intaq’s men held firm and it appears as though Abdullah became concerned about the size of the garrison. To deal with this perceived strength, the Muslim commander attempted to drive a wedge between the elements of Intaq’s force. Muslim spies made contact with the Christian Arab contingent and persuaded them to side with Abdullah rather than Intaq. The Persians seem to have gotten wind of this betrayal or at least suspected it, as they attempted to abandon Birtha along the river. However, they found themselves trapped between the attacking Muslims and their former Arab allies and the Persian garrison was quickly overrun. A few days later, a small Muslim force received the surrender of Mosul without much of a fight.

While Abdullah was cutting off a potential route of retreat and reinforcement for the Sassanids, Hashim had squared up to the Persian forces at Jalula. While the strategic position of Jalula as a crossroads for the Sassanid state meant that it was vital for Mihran and Khurrazad to try to defend it, the position of the town with the Diyala River to the west and foothills of the Zagros Mountains to the east also offered an excellent defensive position. Knowing that the naturally narrow plain in front of Jalula would funnel the Muslim army towards the town and protect their flanks, Mihran prepared diligently for the Muslim attack he knew would come. Jalula itself was turned into a fort, protected by a line of trenches stretching from the broken ground of the Zagros foothills to the Diyala and caltrops to further hinder the Muslim infantry and cavalry. Archers and artillery were also positioned on the fortifications to bleed the Muslims as they approached the walls. Only after inflicting crippling damage on the Muslim ranks would Mihran then leave this defensive position in order to win a decisive victory.

Battle of Jalula, 637: Deployments.

Upon surveying the disposition and defences of the Persian force, Hashim recognised Mihran’s ploy in presenting the Muslims with only one offensive option – a costly frontal assault. This was something that he could ill afford given that the size of the forces arrayed at Jalula were likely very similar, around 12,000 each. Therefore, Hashim decided to draw the Persians away from their defences by employing one of the riskiest manoeuvres in battlefield tactics – the feigned retreat. The danger of this tactic is that a feigned retreat can quickly become an actual one if the morale and discipline of those attempting it is not strong enough and a counter-attack from the opponent is so well pressed and coordinated as to be impossible to resist. Clearly, after the numerous victories they had won up to the battlefield of Jalula, Hashim had every reason to believe in the discipline and prowess of his men to even attempt such a tactic. While there is no evidence to suggest that Mihran’s counter-attack was not well pressed, it could be argued that the presence of their own trenches and caltrops could have prevented the Persians from launching a fully coordinated assault on the `retreating’ Muslims as they had to waste time in placing a bridge over the defences.

The battle therefore began with a Muslim attack on the defences of Jalula, only for them to retreat under the hail of Persian archers and artillery. Mihran took this as a sign that his plan was working and that the Muslim forces were on the verge of breaking and quickly launched his planned counter-attack. Unbeknownst to the Persian commander, his opposite number will have also been pleased that his own plan was going well. His men had fooled the Persians into thinking they were retreating whilst still retaining their own discipline and order. With the Persians now drawn away from their defences, an infantry confrontation took place on the plain before Jalula. Further staged withdrawals by Hashim’s men then opened up a gap between the Persian lines and the bridge route back into the fort and it was then that Hashim launched his counterstroke. Having gathered together a strong cavalry contingent in his rear under Qaqa, Hashim now sent them in an attack around the Persian right flank against the lightly defended bridge. Once word filtered through the battlefront that the Muslims had cut off the only escape route, Hashim ordered his men in a full-scale attack on the Persian lines while Qaqa attacked their rear. Trapped by geography, their own defences and the Muslim forces, the Persian army broke. Despite many men making it back to the fort of Jalula, the defeat of Mihran and the death of Khurrazad had neutralised it as a threat. The exact date for the Battle of Jalula is difficult to pin down from the sources, some of which place the battle at the end of a seven-month siege while others say that the seven-month siege succeeded a battle in April 637.

Whatever the order of events, Jalula had fallen to Hashim by the end of 637. The Muslim general then sent Qaqa after those Persian forces under Mihran who had managed to escape. The cavalry commander caught up to them at the city of Khanaqin, some fifteen miles to the east. Some reinforcements from Hulwan may have reached Mihran but they were not enough to prevent a further defeat and the capture of Khanaqin. It is recorded that Qaqa defeated Mihran in a personal duel, removing one of the more capable Persian commanders as an obstacle. Qaqa was now within 100 miles of Yazdgerd III’s base at Hulwan and was to appear before its walls before the end of January 638. However, upon hearing of the defeat of Mihran at Khanaqin, Yazdgerd had retreated further east into the Iranian heartland of his empire, reaching Qom, around 100 miles south of modern Tehran. This hopping from Ctesiphon to Hulwan to Qom was to become a repeating pattern for the rest of Yazdgerd’s life as he attempted to outrun the Muslim advance whilst at the same time trying to bring together an army strong enough to retake his lost lands.

Battle of Jalula, 637: Qaqa’s Flank Attack.

With the emperor gone and only a modest garrison left to defend it, Hulwan also swiftly fell. Having settled affairs with the citizenry, the ever ambitious Qaqa then sent to his commander, Sa’d, asking if he could drive further into Iran in pursuit of the fleeing Yazdgerd. Sa’d himself appears to have been in favour of such an advance, perhaps thinking that the Persians were sure to return once they had reorganised their forces. However, Umar was unwilling to further stretch his forces given the effects of the `Year of Ashes’ and the Plague of Amwas throughout 638 and 639 and, as he had done in ordering his men to pull back from a potentially decisive confrontation in Roman Anatolia, he denied Qaqa and Sa’d permission to continue east. What is now the border between Iran and Iraq was to be the effective frontier between the lands of the caliph and those of the Persian emperor, albeit temporarily.

The loss of Mesopotamia, let alone their capital at Ctesiphon, was a huge blow, not just to the prestige of the Sassanids but perhaps more importantly to their continued ability to wage war, as those provinces contained a vast proportion of their population and tax revenue. The Persians still held significant territories all the way east to the Oxus and Indus rivers and their Roman neighbours had demonstrated that by identifying the strategic necessity of regrouping such losses were survivable. However, as will be seen, Yazdgerd and his advisers would not exhibit the same restraint and strategic good sense of Heraclius, allowing their loss of dignity to force them into challenging this `Iran-Iraq’ frontier before they had laid any defensive or infrastructural groundwork.

The Battle of Qadisiyyah

Despite the lack of a Muslim capitulation following the Battle of the Bridge, there was a definite lull in the fighting along the Euphrates, stretching out to perhaps a year. With so many of his forces deployed in Syria against the Romans, Umar seems to have had some trouble in finding volunteers for a proposed reinforcement of the Muslim outposts along the Euphrates. So low were volunteer numbers that the caliph turned to a thus far untapped section of Arabia – those tribes that had rebelled during the Ridda Wars. Abu Bakr had refused to use these tribes due to their apostasy but Umar, combining outward leniency with military pragmatism, was only too happy to allow them to enlist. However, even with these new resources, Umar was still unable to bring together a force of any substantial size. Several different tribes did contribute contingents but it was the Tamin and the Bajila who provided the most, around 1,000 men each. Such was Umar’s need for men that the Bajila leader, Jarir b. Abdullah, had a strong enough bargaining position to see himself not just appointed commander of this new force but also permitted the quarter share of the spoils that would normally be due to the caliph. This lofty position accorded to Jarir, along with the size of the force under his command, seems to have led to confrontation with al-Muthanna, who retained some semblance of overall authority.

Despite his wound, al-Muthanna wasted little time in reinitiating the type of raiding that had been so profitable in the run-up to the Battle of the Bridge. Some accounts suggest that he also won a pitched battle against the Persian army at Buwayb. However, it would appear that this `Battle of Buwayb’ was the exaggeration of a minor engagement `designed to enhance the reputation of al-Muthanna and his tribe among later generations and to counter the disgrace of his humiliating defeat at the Battle of the Bridge.’ Even when the reinforcements of Jarir arrived at Hira, the casualties suffered in the reverse at the Bridge and the fear of a repeat performance saw to it that Muslims were careful to avoid any large-scale confrontation with the Persian army, sticking to hitand-run raids.

This somewhat precarious position of not being able or lacking the confidence to fight a pitched battle, along with the squabble over superiority between Jarir and al-Muthanna, led Umar to launch an even more comprehensive recruitment drive. To diffuse the tension between Jarir and al-Muthanna, these new recruits were to be led by a man who was clearly superior to both. Umar originally meant for that person to be himself, with some preparations being made for his journey to Hira. However, he was talked out of this gambit, agreeing instead to appoint a companion of Muhammad to the overall command of the Iraqi front. The choice fell upon Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas, a veteran of the Battle of Badr, who arrived at Medina at the head of 1,000 Hawazin. Sending out calls for further recruits as he travelled north along the MedinaHira road, by the time Sa’d arrived along the Euphrates he must have commanded an army comparable to any Muslim force that had yet been sent against the Sassanids. The Jarir/al-Muthanna squabble had been settled with the latter’s succumbing to his wound and Sa’d also quickly diffused any potential trouble from the Shayban by marrying al-Muthanna’s widow and appointing al-Muthanna’s brother, al-Mu’anna, to council.

The arrival of Sa’d proved to be well timed, for, having finally established full control over his realm and buoyed by Bahman’s victory at the Battle of the Bridge, Yazdgerd was now giving his full attention to his southern border. For the task of crushing this Muslim menace, the Persian king appointed Rustam Farrokhzad to command the large force of infantry, cavalry and elephants that he was bringing together. However, there is little agreement over just how big this Persian force was, with anything from 30,000 to 210,000 being recorded. However, despite the absurdity of the latter, it is likely that even the smallest recorded size of Rustam’s force held a significant manpower advantage over the combined forces of Sa’d.

Despite some sources claiming that the Muslims were able to field a force of enormous proportions, it is far more likely that Sa’d commanded a force of between 6,000 and 12,000.20 Attempts have been made to back this up by establishing the tribal composition of the Muslim force, with six distinct contingents being identified: Sa’d’s 1,000 Hamazin; 2,300 Yemeni; 700 from al-Sarat; anything from 2,800 to 7,000 tribal recruits from central Arabia; the pre-existing forces of Jarir and al-Muthanna, which probably numbered around 3,000; further reinforcements sent by Umar of up to 2,000; a contingent of 400-1,500 under al-Mughira b. Shu’ba from south-eastern Iraq; and two separate armies sent from Syria under Sa’d’s relative, Hashim b. Utba, and Iyad b. Ghanm of 300-2,000 and 1,000-5,000 respectively. Sa’d is also accredited by some of the sources with bringing a greater level of organisation to this army, dividing his men into units, each with their own commander and based on a subdivision of ten men. While it is likely that there is some anachronistic reporting from the sources, it is possible that lessons were learned from the defeat of Abu Ubayd on the Bridge and that Sa’d’s army was far more organised as a military force than the previous Arab hordes of tribal warriors.

Marching from Ctesiphon, Rustam took up a position opposite the Muslim force about thirty miles to the east of Hira. Neither Rustam nor Sa’d seems to have been overly hurried in forcing battle on their opponent, as it is suggested that, while both forces took up their respective positions in July 636, the Battle of Qadisiyyah does not seem to have occurred until mid-November. It would be easy to suggest that Sa’d’s failure to force a confrontation was due to a wariness of another sizeable defeat; however, he did not attempt to extricate his men from battle at any stage. His sending out of reconnaissance scouts and raiding parties into Mesopotamia, along with his arrogant demand that Rustam accept Islam, also suggest that he was not shirking away from a fight. However, it does seem that he was in repeated contact with Umar and will therefore have known that there was a steady drip of reinforcements from Arabia, Syria and southern Iraq on the way to bolster his ranks. For his part, Rustam may have been hoping for a repeat of the Muslim debacle at the Battle of the Bridge. However, Sa’d did not allow himself to be goaded into the same kind of reckless attack that had cost Abu Ubayd so dearly. It is also possible that Rustam, much like Heraclius and his generals in Syria, may have thought that the Muslims might crumble in the face of the large host he had brought to Qadisiyyah.

Battle of Qadisiyyah, 636: Deployments.

Day 1 – 16 November 636

The course of the Battle of Qadisiyyah is muddled by the lack of `an overall picture of the evolving tactical situations’ and relies heavily on oral traditions, which tend to embellish the actions of individuals and tribes. However, it appears that by mid-November Rustam had decided that, as the Muslims gave little inkling of retreating and had actually increased in strength through reinforcements, he would have to initiate battle. With that, early on 16 November 636 he ordered a canal of the Ateeq that separated the armies to be filled in to allow his forces easy passage. With the Persians safely across the canal, both forces now deployed for battle in a similar formation of four separate divisions of infantry, each supported by a division of cavalry. Aside from size, the only real difference in the tactical layout of the armies was that the Sassanids had a corps of eight elephants deployed in front of each of their four infantry divisions.

The Persian right was commanded by Hormuzan, the right centre by Jalinus, the left centre by Beerzan and the left by Mihran. Rustam took up a position behind his right centre near the Ateeq to provide him with a good view of the battlefield. The Muslim right was commanded by Abdullah b. al-Mutim, the right centre by Zuhra b. al-Hawiyya, the left centre by Asim b. Amr and the left wing by Shurahbeel b. al-Samt. The cavalry contingents of the right centre and right wing were commanded by Ath’ath b. Qais and Jarir respectively. Sa’d seems to have been taken unwell in the run-up to the battle and was therefore not active on the battlefield, choosing instead to take up a position in the town of Qadisiyyah from where he could direct operations through his deputy, Khalid b. Arfatah.

Battle of Qadisiyyah, 636: Day 1, Phase 1

With the two armies arrayed less than a kilometre apart, the increasingly traditional duels took place, with the Muslim mubarizun once again proving their superiority. By the middle of the day, having lost several of his champions and not wanting to risk more of them or the morale of his men, Rustam ordered Mihran to launch an attack against the Muslim right. Preceded by a hail of arrows, the Persian elephants charged Abdullah’s infantry forcing them backwards. An attempt by Jarir to stabilise the situation by leading a flank attack with his right-wing cavalry was intercepted and routed by Mihran’s heavy horse. Recognising that his right flank was in danger, Sa’d reacted quickly to restore it. From the Muslim right centre, regiments of Ath’ath’s cavalry and Zuhra’s infantry launched a flank attack on Mihran’s infantry while Jarir’s cavalry reformed and checked the Sassanid cavalry advance. These counter-attacks undid Mihran’s early advances and restored the Muslim line.

Battle of Qadisiyyah, 636: Day 1, Phase 2

With his left-wing attack stalling, Rustam ordered similar attacks on the Muslim left and left centre. Once again, in the face of a barrage of arrows, flank attacks by Hormuzan and Jalinus’ cavalry, and the trampling power of the elephants, the Muslims began to give ground. However, Asim was able to blunt the Persian charge. His light infantry and archers disrupted the elephants to such good effect that Jalinus had to remove them from battle. Building on this success, Asim launched a counter-attack with his entire right centre that forced Jalinus’ corps back to its starting point. Buoyed by this, Shurahbeel’s left was able to affect a similarly successful counter-attack, first taking out the elephants and then forcing Hormuzan back. With three-quarters of the Sassanid force now in some kind of retreat, Sa’d attempted to take advantage of this by ordering a general attack along his entire line. It is suggested that this Muslim offensive was only rebuffed by the failing light and Rustam rallying his men by personally joining the fighting. While Sa’d may have ended the day on the offensive, despite the casualties endured by both sides, the fighting had been largely inconclusive.

Day 2 – 17 November 636

The second day of the battle began in a similar vein to the first with Sa’d sending forward his mubarizun to challenge Persian champions. This second set of duels may seem like something of a missed opportunity by Sa’d, given the momentum that his men had gained through their counter-attacks in the latter part of the first day. However, it is possible that not only was he looking to further undermine Persian morale, Sa’d may also have known of the imminent approach of reinforcements from Syria, which began to arrive while the duels were still taking place. These reinforcements under Hashim b. Utba were divided into several groups in order to give the Sassanids the impression of a steady stream of men arriving in the enemy camp. With the continued success of the mubarizun and the arrival of Hashim, Sa’d decided to launch a similar general attack along the length of the battle line. However, perhaps again with Rustam risking his own life in the fighting, the Sassanid lines remained firm throughout the day and at dusk both armies retreated back to their camps.

The arrival of this first batch of Muslims reinforcements from Syria brought with it an individual who would achieve particular prominence throughout the remainder of the Battle of Qadisiyyah and the Muslim advances in the years to come – the commander of Hashim’s advanced guard, Qaqa b. Amr. Even before he arrived on the battlefield, Qaqa was receiving praise for being at least partially responsible for dividing his advanced guard into numerous groups to give the impression of larger numbers. Once he reached Qadisiyyah, Qaqa is credited with plunging straight into the ongoing duels and personally killed not only Beerzan, commander of the Persian left centre, but also Bahman, the victor at the Battle of the Bridge. During the subsequent general attack ordered by Sa’d, Qaqa is recorded as deploying a ruse to disrupt the dangerous Sassanid cavalry, disguising camels as monsters. He is also said to have led a group of the mubarizun through the Persian lines in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Rustam. Such inventiveness and initiative would appear to have impressed Sa’d as it is reported that Qaqa was promoted to battlefield command for the remainder of the fighting. However, without taking too much away from his potential ingenuity and skill, many of these episodes attributed to Qaqa seem suspect and were probably the invention of later Muslim written and oral sources.

Battle of Qadisiyyah, 636: Day 3, Phase 1

Battle of Qadisiyyah, 636: Day 3, Phase 2.

Day 3 – 18 November 636

The threat of further reinforcement of the Muslim army encouraged Rustam to seek a decisive breakthrough on the third day of battle. Therefore, the Persian commander launched a full-scale general attack. Its ferocity, particularly the elephants, pushed the Muslim corps back and opened sizeable gaps between them. Rustam took advantage of this by sending his cavalry into these breaches. One Sassanid cavalry regiment is thought to have penetrated as far as the old palace at Qadisiyyah that Sa’d was resident in. With his line in trouble, Sa’d had to react quickly and his immediate aim was to neutralise the Persian elephants wreaking havoc amongst the Muslim infantry. To that end, he ordered his skirmishers, archers and spearmen to concentrate on the great beasts and by the middle of the day the Muslims had succeeded in driving them back into the Sassanid ranks. Taking advantage of the confusion the retreating elephants caused, Sa’d then ordered an all out counter-attack by his forces. However, despite the confusion caused by the retreat of the elephants and a repeat of Qaqa’s disguised camels, the Sassanid forces once again stood firm. With that, the battle settled into one of attrition as both sides inflicted heavy casualties on their opponent without being able to break the other, even as night fell.

Battle of Qadisiyyah, 636: Day 4, Persian Collapse.

Day 4 – 19 November 636

As the fighting of the third day continued into the early hours, breaking only at the first signs of daybreak, it might be expected that there was little or no fighting on the fourth day. Rustam and his army certainly seemed to think so. However, Sa’d and his increasingly prominent battlefield commander, Qaqa, saw this as an opportunity to force a decisive breakthrough. Addressing his troops, Qaqa proclaimed that, as the Persians were tired from the previous day and night’s fighting, an unexpected attack so quickly after the break-off of hostilities would give the Muslim army victory. With that, Asim’s left centre attacked Jalinus’ right centre, followed by a general advance by the rest of the Muslim line. This took the Sassanids by surprise and, with the Muslim cavalry staging flanks attacks, the corps of Jalinus and Hormuzan were soon giving ground to those of Asim and Shurahbeel. Hormuzan stabilised the Persian right flank and, as Zuhra and Abdullah had been unable to match the progress of Asim, Hormuzan’s successful counter-attack left both flanks of Asim’s corps exposed, forcing it to also retreat.

However, it was at this point that news of the decisive move of the battle began to filter through to the Persian ranks. Taking advantage of Asim’s early success against Jalinus, Qaqa had led his band of mubarizun through the Persian right centre and killed Rustam. As news of the death of their commander spread amongst the Persian ranks, resolve began to dissolve as the weight of three days’ hard fighting with little sleep the previous night began to weigh heavily. Recognising his opportunity, Sa’d ordered one last general attack from his own exhausted forces in the hope of taking advantage of the demoralising effect of Rustam’s death. Under this renewed Muslim onslaught, the Persian line finally buckled and then broke.

With the death of Rustam, Jalinus took charge of the Persian force and, while he could do nothing to prevent their defeat, he does seem to have held the remaining Persian units together in an orderly retreat across the Ateeq and then the Euphrates back towards Ctesiphon. However, much like their compatriots in the aftermath of Yarmuk, Sa’d exploited his victory to its fullest. While Jalinus was able to establish defensive bridgeheads over the Ateeq and Euphrates, allowing a large proportion of his surviving forces to cross safely, once the Persian army was exposed on the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia they were ruthlessly pursued and cut down by Sa’d’s cavalry. Much like Vahan’s army, the force that Rustam led out from Ctesiphon ceased to exist.

There is some suggestion that Heraclius and Yazdgerd planned to coordinate their offensives of 635. They may even have cemented this understanding with a marriage alliance between the two. However, if such a marriage took place or was ever planned, the name of the female offered to Yazdgerd by Heraclius or her relationship to the emperor was not firmly established. Furthermore, whatever coordination the emperor and king hoped to accomplish aside from two individual victories is difficult to ascertain. Aside from Khalid’s trek to Damascus in early 634, the possibility of Roman troops being at the Battle of Firaz and the arrival of Hashim at Qadisiyyah, the theatres in Roman Syria and Persian Mesopotamia were completely independent from each other. If such a dual venture did take place, it must have called for simultaneous action and decisive military victories. As it was, neither was achieved. The Roman and Persian counter-offensives were launched months apart and neither Vahan nor Rustam were able to defeat their Muslim opponents.

But, of course, the most important point about such proposed coordination was that not only did both Vahan and Rustam fail to achieve decisive victories, they both suffered catastrophic defeats that led to the complete undermining of the defensive positions of both Syria and Mesopotamia. By the end of the following year, the Romans would be forced back beyond the Taurus Mountains, attempting to establish some sort of defensive line capable of preserving their Anatolian provinces, while Qadisiyyah initiated a series of further defeats and retreats that would not only see the Persians lose Mesopotamia but over the course of the next twenty years lead to the virtual extinguishing of the Sassanid state.

The Schweinfurt Raid – Americas Worst Day

14 OCTOBER 1943

“The mission of October 14th had demonstrated that the cost of such deep penetrations by daylight without fighter escort was too high … the Eighth Air Force was in no position to make further penetrations either to Schweinfurt or to any other objectives deep in German territory.” US Official Report on the Schweinfurt Raid.

It is a great tragedy of war that commanders can blindly persist with plans which have been repeatedly proven to be dangerously misguided. After World War I, visionary young officers in a number of countries argued that in the future wars would be won not by armies or navies but by fleets of aircraft bombing enemy cities, in what became known as `strategic’ bombing. World War II saw the creation of such strategic bombing fleets, chiefly by the British and Americans, of which perhaps the strongest and the most famous was `The Mighty Eighth’, the USAAF (US Army Air Force) Eighth Air Force. This was air war in what had always been seen by its advocates as its most pure and effective form. But the practical problems of carrying out long-range strategic bombing were immense. One issue in particular came to dominate the argument: in the absence of an effective fighter escort with enough range, was it possible for heavy bombers to fly unescorted over the heart of Germany in daylight? After heavy losses sustained in the first attacks on German cities after May 1940, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command concluded that it was not, and switched to night bombing. The USAAF persisted in unescorted daylight bombing. On 14 October 1943 it launched an air armada against Schweinfurt, one of the most heavily defended industrial towns of the Third Reich.

The Strategic Context

On 21 January 1943 the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) issued the `Casablanca Directive’ in support of a plan from Lieutenant General Ira C Eaker, commander of Eighth Air Force, to start a Combined Bombing Offensive (CBO) against Germany, with the British bombing at night and the Americans by day. This confirmed that the primary objective of the CBO was `the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’.

Planned in four phases between April 1943 and April 1944, the CBO only reached its full significance when the `Point Blank Directive’, which amended the `Casablanca Directive’, was issued by the CCS on 10 June 1943. While listing various categories of targets, it gave absolute priority to the destruction of German fighters and the factories where they were built, as it was realized that `Operation Overlord’, the projected liberation of France in 1944, could not be launched until air supremacy had been achieved. The directive reflected also the express wish of the US bomber commanders, who, during the first 14 operations of the CBO, had sustained virtually all their losses from enemy fighters as opposed to Flak (German anti-aircraft fire). Eaker concluded that only once he had annihilated the German fighter air arm would it be safe to penetrate into the heart of Germany.

Behind this rationalization of objectives lay the prolonged, often bitter Anglo-US debate over the merits of daylight strategic bombing. While General Henry H (`Hap’) Arnold, commander of the USAAF, had been greatly impressed by the British theory of strategic bombing, neither he nor his subordinates approved of the costly results of RAF night bombing. Daylight bombing, the Americans argued, would enable them to hit pinpoint targets, such as oil installations and aircraft factories. The main US heavy bombers, the B-17 `Flying Fortress’ and B-24 `Liberator’, were also less suited to night flying.

The American Plan

A draft version of `Point Blank’ issued on 14 May had already noted the critical importance of ball bearings to the German war effort. The `concentration of that industry’, it pointed out, made 76% of German ball¬ bearing production `outstandingly vulnerable to air attacks’. US strategic planners prioritized the five ball-bearing plants located at Schweinfurt – which between them supplied 52.2% of all German ball-bearing production, and 39.1% of ball bearings obtained from all sources – for their increasingly ambitious daylight bombing offensives. RAF Bomber Command declined to take part in an offensive against such small, remote targets.

The first major USAAF raid on Schweinfurt, and subsequent raids on Germany, had already demonstrated the immense problems in planning and executing such deep penetration operations, especially when the limit of US fighter cover was 250 miles out from England, barely reaching the westernmost towns of Germany. A double mission of 376 Flying Fortresses had been despatched to Schweinfurt and Regensburg on 17 August, unescorted for most of the way. In the consequent ferocious air battles, 60 US bombers were shot down, mostly by the Luftwaffe fighter command, a loss rate of 16%. Since each crew flew 25 missions before a rest, a loss rate above 4% for each mission made death almost a statistical certainty.

Despite these losses and the evident problem of lacking long-range fighter aircraft protection, US commanders stubbornly persevered with plans for a second raid on Schweinfurt. Lieutenant General Eaker remained convinced of the strategic and economic necessity of completely eliminating ball-bearing production at these key plants, which had only been partially destroyed during the first raid. Eaker also remained confident of the merits of precision bombing, so recently improved by the invention of the Norden bombsight, and new electronic and radar navigation systems. Despite the recent heavy losses, US commanders remained convinced of the high survivability of their self-defending bomber force, provided they strictly adopted the correct tactical formation. By 1943 US bombardment groups had developed the `combat box’, a new staggered formation comprising three squadron formations, each covering the other at different heights and with complementary arcs of fire. Within this box, it was theorized, the recently increased armament of the B-17s and B-24s (up to twelve .50-calibre machine guns, mostly situated within power-driven plexiglass turrets), could successfully protect them from all angles. Given such an extremely tight formation, it was contended that the R-17s and the B-24s, carrying 5,000-lb and 8,000-lb bomb loads respectively, could fend off any serious German attacks.

The second Schweinfurt raid was scheduled by Eaker and his staff for Thursday, 14 October 1943. Three simultaneous penetrations were initially planned. Eighth Air Force’s 1st and 3rd Bombardment Divisions, comprising 360 B-17s, were to cross the Netherlands in two task forces 30 miles apart. Meanwhile 60 B-24s of 2nd Bombardment Division would form a third task force to fly further south. As the B-17s’ routes would take them beyond normal maximum endurance, it was planned that those without long-range `Tokio’ fuel tanks would carry an extra fuel tank in the bomb bay, reducing their bomb-load capacity. One group of short-range P-47 Thunderbolt fighters was to escort each of the penetrating task forces as far as possible, and an additional group was to provide cover from about half-way across the English Channel. To protect stragglers, two squadrons of RAF Spitfire IXs would sweep the assembly area five minutes after the last of the attacking forces had left, and other RAF squadrons would be held in readiness for action if required.

The German Plan

The US plans had been conducted against the background of several ominous developments in German ground and fighter defensive organization. During 1943 the emphasis had shifted increasingly to concerted action against daylight raiders. Even though the British raids over Germany were still more numerous, the US precision raids were of much greater potential consequence for the German war industry. The first raid on Schweinfurt had come as a particular shock to the German high command, who regarded the ball-bearing industry as their Achilles’ heel. After this first raid, Albert Speer, the armaments minister, had predicted that if the raids continued at such levels the German armaments industry would come to a standstill in four months.

The major reorganization required to meet these new mass precision raids was no easy task. There was an overall shortage of trained and experienced Luftwaffe pilots, with many of them increasingly diverted to the beleaguered Eastern Front. During 1943, as the tide of war slowly turned against Germany, Luftwaffe fighter defences were further undermined by direct political interference by Adolf Hitler himself, who ordered a reduction in fighter construction in favour of ground-level attack aircraft and bombers. Consequently, of the 7,477 single-engined fighters produced in the first eight months of 1943, only a small proportion were allocated to home defence units

Despite these crises, by August 1943 German defensive plans had created a formidable network. This consisted basically of two elements – anti-aircraft guns and fighters. In the course of 1943 the number of Flak guns deployed in Germany significantly rose from 14,949 to 20,625, chiefly light guns of 20-40 mm calibre and heavier guns of 88-128 mm calibre. New `Flak towers’ and associated guns were reorganized to provide arcs of predicted fire, to engage bombers from the start of their level bombing run with box barrages put up at their approximate height just short of their anticipated bomb release point.

Of far greater significance in German defence planning against future US daylight raids were its interceptor fighters, of which the most common were the Messerschmidt Me 109G, with a speed in excess of 380 mph, and the even faster Foche-Wulf FW 190A, compared to 200 mph for the US bombers. The basic Luftwaffe operational unit for defensive purposes continued to be the Jagdgeschwader (`fighter group’ or JG) of about 120 aircraft.

German methods and plans for attacking the improved US bomber formations increased in variety and efficiency during 1943. The main objective was for fighters to continually break up the bomber formations so that individual aircraft could be finished off as they fell away damaged. German fighter pilots soon realized that the new US box formations produced far less fire from the front than from any other angle. Consequently, the Luftwaffe developed several different methods of head-on attack, which varied from Scbwarm (`swarm’ of 4 aircraft) to Staffel (`squadron’ of about 12 aircraft) strength. Often flying parallel and in front of US bombers, on a signal from their coordinator (frequently in a converted Junkers Ju 88 light bomber) the fighters would sweep into their attack, either half rolling away in front of the bombers or pulling up over the top of them, and then flying back to attack from the front. By early August 1943, the increased firepower of the FW 190s also encouraged Schwarm-strength attacks in line abreast from the rear. During deep penetration missions such as Schweinfurt, fighters would refuel and each attack the bombers two or three more times.

Other methods of breaking up offensive bomber formations included using twin-engined aircraft, such as the Messerschmidt Me 110 and Me 410s, to fly above the tightly packed bombers and drop fragmentation bombs. Explosive rocket projectiles, carried by FW 190s and Me 109s, could also cause immense damage when lobbed into tightly packed bomber formations at between 1,000 and 1,700 yard range.

The Early Stages

From the very start, the massive bombing raid launched against Schweinfurt on 14 October 1943 was significantly compromised by the one uncontrollable factor in any battle plan: inclement weather. The heavily overcast conditions caused chaos at designated rendezvous points. This problem, combined with % the heavy losses of the previous week over Munster and elsewhere, meant that it was impossible to muster the projected 360 battle-worthy B-17s. The B-24s of 2nd Bombardment Division were also particularly badly affected. With only two units of 29 planes finally joining together, numbers were insufficient for any deep penetration raid, and they were forced to fly an uneventful diversionary feint across the North Sea towards the Frisian Islands.

Vivid memories of the first costly August raid meant that morale among many bomber crews was unusually low. A medical officer present at the final briefing noted how the first mention of Schweinfurt, `shocked the crews completely… it was obvious many doubted that they would return’. Over Walcheren Island, the escorting P-47 fighters managed to repel the first German attacks, made by single-engined fighters from JG26. It was a deceptively easy start. As on the first Schweinfurt raid, the Luftwaffe made its appearance in force at around 1.00 p. m., immediately after the P-47 escorts had turned back near Aachen.

The Main Battle

Between Aachen and Frankfurt the now unprotected 1st Bombardment Division faced a relentless onslaught, mainly from FW 190s and Me 109s. For three solid hours the unescorted bombers were exposed to the full fury of the German flak and fighters. Wave after wave of fighters closed in for the kill. Most of the tactics used by the German fighters that horrendous day had been used before – formation attacks, the use of rockets and heavy-calibre cannon, air-to-air bombing, concentration on one group at a time and on stragglers. But never before had the enemy made such full and expertly coordinated use of these tactics. As Lieutenant General Eaker later privately confessed to his superior General Arnold, the Luftwaffe `turned in a performance unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed’. Most alarming for the US aircrews was the sheer scale of the enemy attacks. General Adolf Galland recalled that he `managed to send up almost all the fighters and destroyers [Me 110s and Me 410s] available for the defence of the Reich, and, in addition to this, some fighters of the Third Air Fleet (Luftflotte 3) in France. Altogether some 300 day fighters and 40 destroyers took part in the battle which for us was the most successful of the year’.

One unpleasant variation of the Luftwaffe’s normal tactics was the use of single-engined fighters as a screen for twin-engined aircraft to close in for rocket attacks. These rockets, which travelled slowly enough to be clearly visible, presented an especially chilling sight. One US bomber pilot recalled watching in horror as one rocket arched through his formation heading straight for a nearby B-17. Striking the fuselage just to the rear of the cockpit it tore open the side of the plane and blew one wing completely off. The pilot briefly glimpsed the men in the cockpit still sitting at their controls, then they were engulfed in flames.

The German fighters systematically concentrated on one formation at a time, breaking it up with rocket attacks and then finishing off cripples with gunfire. In a further comment upon this desperate period after the P-47s had turned back, another pilot remembered how `all hell was let loose… the scene [was] similar to a parachute invasion, there were so many crews bailing out’. It was a sadly mauled 1st Bombardment Division that finally reached the target from Frankfurt. Its leading element, 40th Combat Bombardment Wing, lost 27 aircraft before Schweinfurt was even reached – its 350th Group losing all but three out of 15 aircraft.

By contrast, 3rd Bombardment Division escaped far more lightly. Departing the English coast about 10 miles south of Harwich at 12.25 p. m., five minutes after the 1st Bombardment Division, it picked up its escort of 53 P-47s 30 minutes later after crossing the Belgian coast. At Eupen, just after the escorting P-47s had turned back, a sharp southward turn took the B-17s away from the route of 1st Division towards Trier and Mosel. Flying to the east of Luxembourg, the bombers avoided the Ruhr Flak concentrations. At 2.05 p. m., 3rd Division again turned east towards the `Initial Point’ of the bombing run, near Darmstadt. Only between Mosel and Darmstadt did the air battle intensify, and the first serious pass was made around the Trier area. By the time they reached Schweinfurt their leading formation, 96th Combat Bombardment Group, had lost only one aircraft.

The Bombing Run

The US bombing over the target itself was unusually effective. A sudden change of course near the `Initial Point’ confused enemy fighters, and the air attacks diminished significantly as the B-17s turned into their bomb run. For once the weather was kind, and good visibility allowed 1st Division to drop a high concentration of bombs on all its Schweinfurt target areas. Even the crippled 40th Group put over half its bombs within 1,000 feet of the aiming point. The thick smoke from 1st Division’s attack meant that 3rd Division was less successful. In all, 228 surviving B-17s dropped some 395 tons of high explosive bombs and 88 tons of incendiary bombs on and about all three of the big ball-bearing plants. Of 1,222 high explosive bombs dropped, 143 fell within the factory area, 88 of which were direct hits on the factory buildings.

After the final bombing run, 1st Division turned south and then west below Schweinfurt, but there was no let-up in the Luftwaffe attacks. Fighters from JG3 and JG51 attacked the trailing 41st Wing, while FW 190s shot down three B-17s of the leading 379th Group. Around Metz and Stuttgart, twin-engined night fighters joined the attack, continuing as the bombers flew across France. By the time of its return to England, 1st Division had lost a further 10 aircraft, making a total of 45 for the mission, not counting crew losses in damaged aircraft.

Having reached the target with relatively few losses, 3rd Division suffered much more heavily on the homeward journey. Immediately after leaving Schweinfurt a very intense attack took place by about 160 single-engined aircraft, backed by twin-engined Me 110s, Me 210s, and Ju-88s, with the lower flying bomber groups as the main focus. Particularly badly hit again was 96th Group; 14 aircraft were lost in the return.

Poor weather again played a critical role on the final return leg as thick fog, reducing visibility to 100 yards, closed airfields in England. This prevented Allied fighters from escorting either division to their home bases, while German fighters from JG2 were able to pursue and inflict even more casualties on the dismayed and weary bomber crews as they limped across the normally friendly English Channel waters.

The Aftermath

The battle had been an unmitigated triumph for German defensive plans and a huge blow to US air power. Eaker’s doctrine of unescorted daylight precision bombing had been shattered beyond repair. Out of 260 bombers which pressed the attack, 60 B-17s had been shot down – an appalling loss rate of almost 25%. A further 12 aircraft which made it home were fit only for scrap, and 121 needed repairs. Only 62 out of 260 aircraft were left relatively unscathed. Over 600 men, many of them experienced crewmen, were missing either as prisoners or dead. Wild US claims of first 288, and then 186, enemy fighters destroyed were soon disproved – the Germans lost 38 fighters destroyed in combat and 20 damaged.

The attack on 14 October remained the most important and successful of the 16 Allied bombing raids on Schweinfurt in the course of the war. Albert Speer later suggested that 67% of the plants’ ball-bearing production had been lost – a possibly exaggerated figure. German reorganization and redeployment of factories was so rapid and thorough that further attacks – the next now delayed by four months due to the terrible US losses – were far less successful.

Forever known as `Black Thursday’ in US air force history, the Schweinfurt raid represented the highest percentage loss to any major USAAF task force during the whole wartime campaign. Only with the development of the long-range P-51 Mustang fighter, capable, with its extra fuel tanks, of escorting heavy bombers all the way to such distant targets, did deep penetration daylight precision bombing become a feasible way of waging the war in the air.

The Battle of Gazala – Rommel’s Masterpiece

26 MAY-21 JUNE 1942

“It was only in the desert that the principles of armoured warfare as they were taught in theory before the war could be fully applied and thoroughly developed. It was only in the desert that real tank battles were fought by large-scale formations ” Erwin Rommel

The wide open spaces and lack of inhabited areas have always given desert warfare its own particular quality. In World War II, the campaigns fought in the coastal desert of Italian Libya had their own special importance for believers in the tank and in the blitzkrieg. They offered the chance of manoeuvre and the interplay of rapidly moving armoured forces almost in their purest form. It was in this arena that Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most famous of all the German generals of the war, earned his formidable reputation as a winner of armoured battles.

The battle that was fought south of Gazala in eastern Libya, between 26 May and 14 June 1942, is crucial in that it was Rommel’s greatest victory over the British Eighth Army. His German Afrika Korps, combined with substantial Italian elements, took on and decisively defeated British, Imperial, and Allied forces which were dug-in behind minefields in a strongly defended position. Furthermore, the Eighth Army had a narrow superiority in numbers of men, tanks, and guns. This might seem unexceptional, were it not that orthodox tactics required a 3:1 advantage to the attacker, which was precisely what Montgomery demanded before he attacked Rommel at El Alamein 6 months later. Seen in this light, Rommel’s victory was nothing less than miraculous. Yet it should also be remembered that it almost never came to pass, and that for 12 hours at the battle’s crisis it was Rommel who contemplated surrender.

The British Plans

The British Eighth Army was no easy opponent for Rommel. Not only had it tasted victory over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941, but it had also driven back an over-extended Afrika Korps to El Agheila in `Operation Crusader’ at the end of 1941. In May 1942 it was in position covering Tobruk (held by its 2nd South African Division), because it had been forced back there by Rommel’s outflanking manoeuvre in January. Yet Rommel had been compelled to halt before the apparently well-planned defences of the Gazala Line. Almost 60 miles of minefields (known as the `mine marsh’) stretched south from the coast to the fortress at Bir Hacheim, designed to protect the desert flank of Eighth Army from encirclement.

About 100,000 strong, the bulk of Eighth Army formations were concentrated into `boxes’, independent strongpoints combining infantry and artillery. In the north, there was the 1st South African Division, then the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division, stretching as far as the Sidi Muftah box in the centre of the position. A brigade-sized force of Free French under Major General Joseph Pierre Koenig held Bir Hacheim, yet 20 miles of mine marsh between these two boxes was left uncovered by artillery.

In addition, the British commander Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie had forgotten the lessons of the early desert war. While one of his successful predecessors, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, had recognized the need to keep a deep cushion of reconnaissance forces between him and the enemy, Ritchie had almost all his infantry in the front line. His tank formations, 1st Armoured Division, and the famous 7th Armoured Division (the `Desert Rats’), were kept a little to the right rear of the main position, but they were not properly integrated into the defence and not capable of coordinating with the other arms to best effect. This was despite reforms instituted by the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck (known as The Auk’ to all). The `Crusader’ operation, although eventually successful, had proved the inflexibility of grouping armour and infantry in separate divisional formations, so Auchinleck broke them down into self-contained brigade groups with their own engineers and supporting artillery. By the start of the Gazala battle an armoured division was, theoretically at least, composed of an armoured brigade and two motorized infantry brigade groups, and the intention was to combine armour and anti¬ tank weapons in imitation of successful German tactics.

Yet the Eighth Army lacked the tactical doctrine to operate these novel formations effectively, and the infantry and armour were condemned to fight separate battles. Ritchie’s unimaginative deployment was matched by the clumsy command structure. The area north of the Trigh Capuzzo highway he designated as under XIII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General William (`Strafer’) Gott. South of this line lay XXX Corps under Lieutenant General Baron Willoughby Norrie, who commanded troops in the boxes as well as the two armoured divisions, an unhappy arrangement further worsened by their scattered dispositions. Auchinleck advocated a concentration of armour centrally around the box code-named `Knightsbridge’, but Ritchie did not take this advice. Both British commanders were aware that a sweep around Eighth Army’s left or desert flank was a likely option; but they were expecting an attack on the centre of their position along the Trigh Capuzzo.

The German Plans

The German attack was code-named `Operation Theseus’. Field Marshal Rommel’s plan, as expressed in his planning order of 1 May, was no less than the destruction of the enemy forces opposing him and the subsequent capture of Tobruk. This fortress had held out against an eight-month siege in 1941, and seizing it was crucial to the wider plan of Rommel’s attack upon Egypt. Axis forces numbered about 90,000, including 561 tanks, although 228 of these were of Italian manufacture, known to the British as `mobile coffins’. Rommel’s 333 German tanks, or Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw), included 220 PzKw IIIs, most of the rest being PzKw IVs with short-barrelled guns more effective in the infantry support role. There were also upgraded versions of both types, known as `Specials’, whose long 75-mm guns gave them greater penetration, but Rommel had only 4 PzKw IV Specials and 14 PzKw Specials at the beginning of the battle. This was important because it meant that the Germans did not have the decisive qualitative superiority in armour with which they have so often been credited. The British possessed an enormous numerical superiority in armour – 849 tanks – although only 167 were the new US-built M3 Grants, which carried a 75-mm gun and were superior to the PzKw Ills.

A crucial part of the Desert War was fought in the air. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe, Rommel’s immediate superior, was acutely conscious of the need to keep the Panzerarmee supplied with petrol, food, and other necessities. In order to do this he directed an intensive bombing campaign against Malta, the British island base which threatened the Axis supply route from Naples to Tripoli. The results led to Kesselring prematurely declaring on 11 April that: `Malta as a naval base no longer demands consideration’. In the build-up to the Gazala battle, supplies reaching Rommel greatly increased. In January 1942, the Afrika Korps received 60,000 tons of fuel; in April this had risen to 150,00 tons. Also, on 26 May, Kesselring was able to assemble some 260 aircraft to support Rommel’s attack. Against them, the British Desert Air Force could only muster 190 aircraft, and its US-built P-40 Kittyhawk and Hawker Hurricane fighters proved inferior to the new Messerschmitt Bf 109F. As a result, the Germans were able to maintain a considerable air superiority throughout the battle.

The Opening Moves

Rommel launched his attack on the afternoon of 26 May. Gruppe Cruewell under Lieutenant General Ludwig Cruewell, himself a former Afrika Korps commander, consisting of four Italian infantry divisions under X Corps and XXI Corps, attacked the British and South African positions north of the Trigh Capuzzo. This was a feint to persuade the enemy that Cruewell’s was the main point of attack.

In fact, Rommel was already leading 10,000 vehicles southeast. At about 9.00 p. m., on the pre-arranged codeword `Venezia’ (Venice), Rommel swung this force around Eighth Army’s southern flank. On the inside of the wheel were the Italian Trieste Motorized Division, then their Ariete Armoured Division, then the German mobile forces: 21st Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division, and, on the extreme right flank, 90th Light Division. The last named carried aircraft propellers to create more dust and convince the British that theirs was also a tank formation.

At 6.30 a. m. on 27 May the Ariete fell upon the surprised 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade and, although held up momentarily, dispersed it with the help of a few tanks from 21st Panzer Division. One hour later, 90th Light Division came into contact with the 7th Motorized Brigade (part of 7th African Division) was supposed to coordinate with 22nd Armoured Brigade’s 156 tanks, but this simply failed to happen because the infantry and armour had not trained together. In the north, an attack by 32nd Army Tank Brigade was struck in the flank by German panzers, and of the 70 Matilda and Valentine infantry tanks only 20 survived the attack.

On the afternoon of 5 June the Germans counter-attacked; a pincer movement with 21st Panzer Division and Ariete in the north and 15th Panzer from the south. That evening, Major General Messervy’s headquarters was overrun again, and the Indian units’ command and control broke down completely; 22nd Armoured Brigade was unable to provide any support, having already been withdrawn into leaguer for the night. It too had been severely handled, losing 60 tanks. The following day 15th Panzer struck through Bir el Harmat to close the line of retreat: 3,100 prisoners, 96 guns, and 37 anti-tank guns fell into German hands. Eighth Army had lost over half its cruiser tanks (down from 300 to 132), and 50 out of 70 infantry support tanks. Rommel’s assessment of the situation was that Ritchie had missed a great opportunity to form a Schwerpunkt (`critical point of an attack’) in front of 21st Panzer Division.

One area in which the British did enjoy success was in raids upon the German supply line. On 8 June, Italian positions were overrun by four troops from 8th Royal Tank Regiment supported by South African armoured car and reconnaissance units. On the same day an infantry column of 2nd Rifle Brigade destroyed over 40 lorries, 4 tanks, and 7 artillery pieces. Important though such moves were, they were no more than flea bites in comparison to the kind of response that was needed to hold Rommel in check. With the hapless British assault crushingly repulsed, he was able to turn his attention to the destruction of the isolated Free French at Bir Flacheim.

Crisis at Bir Hacheim

From 2 June to 9 June there were 1,300 German air attacks on the Bir Hacheim position, 120 on the last day alone. Rommel appreciated the difficulty of the task, since he considered the carefully prepared strongpoints within Bir Hacheim as `practically proof against air and artillery attacks’. Effective ground attacks began on 6 June, the day that Rommel broke out of `The Cauldron’, when two attacks by infantry with tank support were beaten off. On 8 June, 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division, combined with 15th Panzer Division and supported by heavy Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive- bombing attacks, eventually began to the crack the position – `the thorn in my side’, as Rommel described it. Attacks the next day left 250 Axis dead in front one defending battalion’s position alone. But by the end of 9 June it was apparent to Koenig that Bir Hacheim could no longer be held.

Still, Rommel was unwilling to try and overrun the position with tanks because of the heavy losses which he knew he would have to take. On 11 June, Koenig engineered a breakout which left only 500 men in German hands, although losses in equipment had been heavy. By holding on so determinedly the Free French had bought time for their Allies. Could this now be used to the best advantage? Although Rommel had turned Eighth Army’s flank, all was not lost for the British. They held a strong defensive position stretching from the original Gazala Line in its northern portion and along the Trigh Capuzzo from the Knightsbridge box over 20 miles east to Sidi Regezh. This was defended in depth, and behind lay the garrison of Tobruk, although crucially, the town’s fortifications had not been repaired since its recovery six months earlier. Also, the Afrika Korps had taken substantial damage. It was below half its original strength and some, infantry units were down to a third; the Germans had 160 tanks and the Italians 70 tanks, although the Axis artillery was almost entirely intact, and was to be increased in strength by the large numbers of captured British guns which were distributed to its units.

The End of the Battle

For the next phase of the battle, Rommel was determined to repeat the medicine as before. Once more he intended the total destruction of the enemy. On the afternoon of 11 June, 90th Light Division moved south and leaguered for the night 7 miles south of El Adem, while 15th Panzer followed as far as Naduret el Bhesceuasc. The new British plan was to break through southeast to Bir el Gubi with 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, which would bring them upon the flank of 15th Panzer as it attacked El Adem. But the British armour was still forming up on 12 June when it was attacked from the north by 21st Panzer and Ariete and counter-attacked from the south by 15th Panzer. Although 22nd Armoured Brigade came to the assistance, it was severely mauled by German tanks. The other armoured brigades were then surrounded and destroyed. Although the figures are uncertain, it seems that on the morning of 12 June there were some 250 cruiser tanks and 80 infantry tanks available to the British; by the next day these had been reduced to 50 and 30 respectively, with 4th Armoured Brigade having only 15 tanks, and 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades only 50 tanks between them.

On 12 June, Auchinleck flew up from Cairo to assume direct command from Ritchie, but he was too late to save the situation. Almost the only factor in Eighth Army’s favour was the extreme exhaustion of the German forces, whose attacks began to falter towards the end of 13 June. The Gazala Line had become untenable. Auchinleck drew up plans for a new defensive position, centred upon Acroma, to prevent the investment of Tobruk, and Eighth Army troops west of this line were effectively abandoned to the enemy. On the night of 14 June, the South Africans in the north of the original line fell back down the Via Balbia to Tobruk. Elements of 50th (Northumbrian) Division actually broke through the Italians opposing them and swung through the desert, escaping to Egypt. For the rest of the British forces, Tobruk provided an illusory refuge. They fell back in disorder to a position that had not been maintained to provide an effective defence. Unlike the previous year when the garrison had held out for eight months, the situation was to prove impossible, and by 21 June the town had fallen. Some 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including over 13,000 South Africans) were taken prisoner, together with huge amounts of guns, ammunition, and especially fuel essential to the Afrika Korps’ continued mobility.

After the Battle

Rommel’s plan had succeeded brilliantly. Although it had come near to failure on 29 May, and he himself had been prepared to surrender, Rommel was able to rescue the situation and inflict upon Eighth Army the most severe defeat it had ever suffered. His signal of 21 June epitomizes his style of command: Tor all troops of the Panzerarmee… Fortress of Tobruk has capitulated. All units will reassemble and prepare for further advance’. Five days later he was at El Alamein, the last-ditch defence line before Egypt – but that is another story. – Summer 1942 was the zenith of Rommel’s career in North Africa. He himself summed up why the British could not beat him by asking, `What is the advantage of enjoying overall superiority if you allow your enemy to smash your formations one after another; your enemy who manages in single actions to concentrate superior forces at a decisive point?’ That was the essence of the kind of war he practised: blitzkrieg.

Japanese Cruisers at the Battle of The Java Sea

In May 1937 Ashigara represented Japan in the Coronation Review for King George VI. Afterwards she paid a goodwill visit to Germany. In the course of this tour she became the most heavily photographed member of the class.

The two forward turrets and the tower bridge of Haguro are shown in this photograph from March 1941. The ship has completed her Second Modernisation and the upward slanting yardarms on the new tripod foremast are clearly shown. Under orders to reach peak efficiency by July 1941, Japanese warships significantly changed appearance in this period. Gone were the light natural canvas dodgers and main gun blast bags, which contrasted so smartly with the grey of the paint scheme, in favour of much less visible brown stained canvas.


This is the tower bridge of Haguro in March 1941. The ship has already taken on a wartime appearance. Canvas dodgers, originally left in natural canvas colour, and the rope-filled canvas bags for additional splinter protection are now dyed a light to mid brown, as were the blast bags for the main guns.


In July 1922, after Japan had signed but not ratified the Washington Treaty, a new naval program proposed four new 10,000-ton cruisers, as well as two more 7,500-ton cruisers, which was the Aoba class. Authorised in March 1923 the new 10,000-ton design was known officially as large model cruisers. The original requirement was for eight 200mm guns in three twin mounts forward and one twin mount aft, four 120mm (4.7in) guns, eight 610mm torpedo tubes in four twin fixed mountings, protection against 200mm shells in indirect fire and 6in shells for flat trajectory direct fire for critical areas, a 10,000 nautical mile range at 13.5 knots, and a maximum speed of 35.5 knots. Captain Hiraga Yuzuru was assigned as Constructor for the design. Captain Hiraga convinced the naval staff to make some changes to the requirements. These were an increase in main armament to ten 200mm guns, reduction of range to 8,000nm at 13.5 knots and deletion of torpedo armament. Captain Hiraga thought the torpedo mounts, located inside the hull above the engine spaces, would present as much danger to the ships themselves as to the enemy. Hiraga was promoted to Rear Admiral and Lieutenant Commander Fujimoto Kikuo took over the design. The design was approved on 23 August 1923. The new cruisers were to be 10,000 tons standard in English tons, 11,850 metric tons at 2/3 trial displacement, so the original construction order had the ships meeting the terms of the Washington Treaty.

However, additions were quickly made to the design, each of which added weight. The Torpedo Branch convinced the Naval General Staff to add back the four twin tube torpedo armament and the staff increased the secondary to six 120mm HA single gun mounts. While the ships were under construction the twin tubes were changed to triple tubes and in 1928 a deckhouse on either side of the bridge and forward stack was added for additional living accommodation. The Naval General Staff calculated that these changes would add 500 metric tons and that the revised 2/3 trial displacement would be 12,350 metric tons. Since the original design was right at the treaty limit, the staff knowingly exceeded treaty limitations with these additions. Called the Myoko class, the first of the cruisers to complete was Nachi. The trial displacement of Nachi was 13,338 metric tons, which was 12% over design trial displacement. This would place the ship at about 11,250 tons standard, clearly in violation of treaty limits. Of course the Japanese reported the design as in compliance with the treaty.

As built the Myoko class had an armour belt of 102mm in thickness and inclined inward at 12 degrees. The belt started forward of No 1 barbette and ended aft of No 5 barbette. For torpedo and mine protection, the ship was fitted with underwater bulges that were 300 feet (93m) long and 8 feet (2.5m) in depth. They were to be left as a void but in case of war, watertight steel tubes would occupy the space. Since the cruisers were 12% over designed displacement, other design calculations were out of kilter as well. Draft was increased by almost 4ft (1.2m), so amidships only 6ft (1.8m) of the belt was above the waterline and only 1ft (0.3m) at the bow and stern. In any sort of seaway any battle damage to the hull could entail a significant intake of water.

The ten Type 3 20cm/50 main guns were capable of 40 degrees elevation with a maximum range of 26,700m. The main gun turrets were more gun houses than turrets as they were armoured by only 1in (25.4mm) plates. They were proof against splinters but not against 6in shell strikes. On completion the Nachi carried her six 4.7in (120mm) secondary guns in open, hand-operated mounts, but these were quickly replaced with power-operated mounts with gun shields. The catapult was offset to starboard of centreline on the quarterdeck level, just forward of the aft turrets. Although the requirements were for the ship to carry two floatplanes, only one Type 15 seaplane was carried by the ships in the class until November 1932. To reach the designed speed of 35.5 knots a power plant generating 130,000shp was installed. It is interesting to note that the Japanese ran the ships in light condition for their speed trials. Instead of running at the stipulated 2/3 trial displacement, which would have been around 13,300 tons, they were actually tested at a displacement of 12,350 metric tons. This would be far less than their operational displacement, and in this unrealistically light condition all four cruisers attained 35 knots, but only Nachi and Haguro exceeded the designed 35.5 knots.

Battle of The Java Sea

The Dutch East Indies were the major prize for which Japan had gone to war. With the pre-war oil embargo against Japan strangling Japanese fuel supplies, the Japanese government saw the capture of the oil fields of Borneo and the Dutch East Indies as essential to make their country self-sufficient. The northern barriers to the Java Sea, Borneo and the Celebes, surrendered in January 1942, and operations against Java and the rest of the Dutch possessions began. The Japanese planned a double envelopment of the islands. The 5th Cruiser Squadron was assigned the mission of covering force for the eastern invasion force.

Opposing the Japanese naval force was a polyglot allied force of American, British, Dutch and Australian warships entitled the ABDA Combined Force. Established on 10 January 1942 ABDA’s organisation and communications were appallingly poor and in the event only provided targets for the extremely well prepared and coordinated Japanese attack on the islands. On 3 February 1942 the bulk of the allied warships still operational in the area were placed under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman.

Nachi was the flagship of Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi, commander of Main Body, Eastern Invasion Support Force. The 5th Cruiser Squadron was down to just Nachi and Haguro, as Ashigara was acting as flagship for Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, overall Southern Force commander, and the Myoko was at Sasebo for repairs. The eastern invasion force sailed on 19 February but their southward passage was not confirmed by ABDA command until 24 February. Admiral Doorman’s strike force consisted of the heavy cruisers HMS Exeter and USS Houston, the Dutch light cruisers, Java and De Ruyter, along with HMAS Perth. With minimal reconnaissance the allied force started making a series of sweeps in an effort to find Japanese troop convoys, and on 27 February it ran into the Japanese screening forces.

On paper the two forces looked fairly closely matched. In addition to the two heavy and three light cruisers, Doorman’s force also had nine destroyers – four American, three British and two Dutch. Facing them were three groups of Japanese forces. One group was the light cruiser Jintsu and four destroyers. Another was the light cruiser Naka and six destroyers. Furthest north of the Japanese forces were Nachi and Haguro, along with another four destroyers. However, the allies only had a total of twelve operational 8in guns as Exeter had only three twin turrets and Houston had only her two forward turrets in operation (Houston’s aft turret had been wrecked by a bomb earlier in the month). The forces sighted each other around 15.21 and one of the rarities of the Pacific War occurred: a daylight surface engagement in which aircraft played a minimal role.

In the first of a series of engagements, Nachi scored a serious hit on Exeter setting her on fire. Two minutes later, a Long Lance torpedo from Haguro blew up the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer. Doorman turned his force away from the Japanese; the Exeter, down to 5 knots and screened by the one Dutch and three British destroyers, separated.

At 17.20 it appeared to Doorman that the Japanese forces were retiring, so he reversed course in another effort to get at the transports, but at 17.28 the Japanese light cruisers with their destroyers altered course towards the Exeter group, and the destroyer HMS Electra was hit twice and sank at 17.46. The forces lost sight of each other and it appeared that the battle was over. After some time passed, Doorman made his third attempt to find and attack the Japanese troop transports. At 18.50 contact was restored and Java, Houston, Perth and De Ruyter, with one British and four American destroyers engaged in a harmless skirmish with the Japanese Nachi, Haguro, Jintsu and eight destroyers before contact was again broken.

HMS Jupiter was lost when she ran into a mine and Doorman detached his four American destroyers to return to port to refuel. So at 22.33 when the Nachi, Haguro, Jintsu and eight destroyers regained contact with the allies there were just the Houston and three light cruisers left in the allied force. Long range gunfire failed to hit on either side but then the Japanese fired more torpedoes, eight from Nachi and four from Haguro. As they would continue to prove through 1942 and 1943, the 24in Japanese Long Lance torpedoes were the battle winners for the Japanese Navy. One hit De Ruyter and she soon sank, taking Admiral Doorman with her. In a few minutes another struck Java and she quickly followed. The surviving Houston and Perth broke contact and headed back to Batavia, while the Exeter, Encounter and US destroyer Pope were at Surabaya.

On the evening of 28 February the Exeter force put to sea again with orders to escape to Ceylon. On 1 March the crippled HMS Exeter and her two destroyers were trapped between all four members of the Myoko class, the Ashigara and Myoko to the north and the Nachi and Haguro to the south. Torpedoes from either or both Nachi and Haguro struck Exeter and she sank at 11.30. At 11.35 Encounter went down due to hits from Ashigara and Myoko. The USS Pope was the last to go, when she too succumbed to overwhelming fire at around 12.05. The Battle of the Java Sea had lasted two days and was an overwhelming victory for the Japanese Navy. The Myoko class cruisers were the key Japanese components in the battle, and although their gunnery at long range had been unimpressive, there is no doubt about the value of their heavy torpedo battery.

Although Chokai was with the Suzuya and Kumano in the 7th Cruiser Squadron, the other three Takao class cruisers still made up the 4th Squadron, supporting the western pincer against Java. Maya and two destroyers encountered and sank the destroyer HMS Stronghold on March 2, and Takao and Atago sank the old four-stack destroyer USS Pillsbury; it took only seven minutes.