Siege of Memel (October 1944) I

The city known today as Klaipeda is on the Baltic coast of Lithuania. In 1944, it was the East Prussian city of Memel, at the northern extremity of East Prussian territory. At the end of the Great War, 80 per cent of the city’s population was German, but most of those living in the countryside around Memel were Lithuanians – a situation analogous to that in and around Danzig. The Lithuanian delegation at the Versailles peace treaty conference requested that ‘Memelland’ be placed within the bounds of the new state of Lithuania, but instead the conference powers removed the area from Germany and placed it under French jurisdiction, under a League of Nations mandate. In 1923, the Lithuanian population in the enclave rose up in revolt. Lithuania’s tiny army went to the aid of their fellow countrymen, and the small French garrison was withdrawn. Despite official protests, there was nothing that the League of Nations could do but accept the Lithuanian annexation of Memelland.

The German population of Memel was never reconciled with the city’s new status, and unrest continued through the 1920s and 1930s. The Nazi Party established a new local branch in 1933 and met with rapid political success, resulting in the party being banned by the Lithuanian government the following year. The party’s leadership was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, which attracted vociferous protests from Germany, especially from East Prussia, where Koch was particularly active in promoting the rights of Germans in Memel. In a series of press announcements, he spoke about the threat to the German population of Memel, and demanded that the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles enforce what had been agreed. This demand was, of course, impossible to satisfy, and formed part of an overall German policy to portray the Memelland Germans as an oppressed group who were not being helped by those who had placed them in their current state. Thus the German government paved the way for Germany to take matters into its own hands.

Plans were laid for a German seaborne invasion of Memelland in 1938, to be implemented in the event of a Lithuanian-Polish conflict. In 1939, Hitler demanded that the region be returned to German control, and in the face of the barely veiled threat of German military intervention, the Lithuanian government had no option but to agree. Nevertheless, they delayed giving their consent as long as they could, with farcical results. Hitler planned a triumphant entry into the city aboard the pocket battleship Deutschland. A last-minute overnight delay left him sending irritated signals to his Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Berlin to determine what was happening. Finally, early on the afternoon of 23 March, a seasick Hitler was able to come ashore in the city and proclaim its return to the Reich.

The following year, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union, a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that also carved up Poland. Many citizens of these countries fiercely resented the presence of the Soviets, and consequently welcomed the Germans when they invaded in 1941. Latvians and Estonians joined the SS in substantial numbers, although the Lithuanians appear to have been somewhat cooler towards the Germans, many regarding the German occupation as the lesser of evils. As General Ivan Bagramian’s armies approached the Baltic in 1944, tensions began to rise.

Ivan Khristoforovich Bagramian was born the son of a railway worker in a village in what is now Azerbaijan. After serving in the Russian Army on the Turkish front during the Great War, he joined the Red Army and took part in fighting during the civil war against nationalist forces in the Caucasus. In 1941, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union found him appointed as Deputy Chief of Staff” of the Southwest Front, based at Kiev. He was one of the few senior officers to escape the German encirclement of the city. After a brief spell as Chief of Staff to Timoshenko in 1942, he was appointed to command first 16th Army, then 11th Guards Army, before taking command of 1st Baltic Front in 1943. He executed his part of the Stavka (Soviet general headquarters) plan for the summer offensive in 1944, enveloping Vitebsk and then pressing on westwards to Polotsk, even though the losses suffered by his armies ‘shook him to the core’. During the exploitation that followed, though, he grew increasingly unhappy about the mass of the German Army Group North, hanging over his armies as they pushed on westwards. He asked in vain several times for permission to strike north towards Riga, in order to isolate the German divisions that were being bloodily prised out of their defensive lines east of the city. Finally, when his forces had penetrated into the heart of Lithuania, taking the town of Siauliai – Schaulen to the Germans – on 27 July, he was given permission to turn north in force. The road from Siauliai to the Baltic coast immediately west of Riga covers a distance of about 120km; Bagramian’s armour travelled along this route in three days, isolating Army Group North in and to the east of Riga.

This triumph was achieved at great cost, and even greater risk. Bagramian’s armies were badly over-extended, and barely able to hold their positions let alone take advantage of their gains. For a few brief days, almost all of western Latvia was undefended by the Germans, but Bagramian simply didn’t have the reserves to exploit this situation. He had his hands foil beating off attacks against his forces from the east, where Army Group North attempted to break out, and more significantly from the west, where several German divisions – Panzer Division Grossdeutschland and 4th, 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions – attempted to force their way through. Although this powerful armoured force was blocked, it was at the cost of weakness elsewhere on 1st Baltic Front’s extended frontline, and an ad hoc German battlegroup was able to re-establish contact with Army Group North along the Baltic coast.

Briefly, the front stabilized, but Stavka now prepared plans for what was intended to be a final blow against Army Group North.

Starting in mid September, the three Baltic Fronts, followed a few days later by the Leningrad Front, would attack Schörner’s armies on all sides. At first, Afanasii Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, part of Bagramian’s command, made good progress, but the attacks of the two other Baltic Fronts made little headway. The Germans were aware of the Soviet build-up, and fell back methodically from one defensive line to the next, inflicting a heavy toll on the attacking formations. It was only when the Leningrad Front joined the attack that significant headway was made. Meanwhile, the German armoured formations that had unsuccessfully attempted to break through from the southwest now attacked again. Although they once more made little headway in difficult terrain, they forced Bagramian to divert forces that he had intended to throw at Riga. It was clear that the concerted assault to eliminate Army Group North was not going to succeed.

On 24 September, therefore, Stavka issued revised instructions. Bagramian’s 1st Baltic Front was to switch its line of advance from a northwards drive towards Riga, to a westwards drive towards Memel. There were several advantages in such a move. First, it would move the attack to an area where there had been no significant fighting since the original German advance in 1941; the roads and bridges over which Bagramian would advance were therefore in good shape. Second, it would allow Soviet forces to reach Reich territory, something of huge political significance. The logistical challenge of this shift of emphasis was formidable, but it was a sign of the growing skill of the Red Army that it was carried out efficiently in less than two weeks. Half a million men, 10,000 guns and mortars and more than a thousand tanks, together with thousands of tons of fuel, food and ammunition, moved west into new positions, a displacement of about 200km over poor roads, many of them already severely degraded by the earlier passage of German and Soviet armoured vehicles. Furthermore, it was carried out mainly at night, to reduce the risk of the Germans detecting the movement. By day, the troops took cover in the plentiful woods of Lithuania.

By early October, though, it was impossible to hide the growing preparations. The 3rd Panzer Army, commanded by Generaloberst Erhard Raus, had two corps covering the frontline in front of Memel. These corps between them had only five divisions, stretched over 200km. In the north was General Hans Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps, and on the eve of the Soviet attack it received welcome reinforcements in the shape of the Panzer Division Grossdeutschland. A shortage of fuel and railway rolling stock, however, meant that the division would arrive piecemeal.

Grossdeutschland was one of the premier formations of the Wehrmacht. Its tank regiment had, in addition to the usual two battalions of Pz. IVs and Panthers, an additional battalion of heavyweight Tiger tanks, with their lethally effective 88mm guns, and a separate battalion of assault guns. Its two armoured infantry regiments, Panzergrenadier Regiment Grossdeutschland and Panzer-Fusilier Regiment Grossdeutschland, were at this stage of the war as weakened as other similar formations, but the news on 3 October that the divisions Tiger battalion, an additional attached tank battalion and the division’s powerful reconnaissance battalion, were to move south to support XXVIII Corps was very welcome. Part of this force was immediately assigned to support 551st Volksgrenadier Division, in preparation for plans to eliminate enemy bridgeheads over the River Venta near Kursenai, secured by the Red Army the previous night. Long experience had taught the Germans the need to eliminate these small bridgeheads as quickly as possible, otherwise the Soviet forces would swiftly increase the strength of the units within them to a point where they could serve as springboards for an attack.

The officers of Grossdeutschland were swiftly brought up to date by Gollnick’s staff at XXVIII Corps. Information from a variety of sources – aerial reconnaissance, radio intercepts and interrogation of deserters and prisoners – suggested that an attack was imminent. It was unlikely that Grossdeutschland would have sufficient time to form up all of its forces. The initial weight of the attack would fall on 551st Volksgrenadier Division.

The total force deployed by the Red Army amounted to 19 rifle divisions, three tank corps and an artillery corps. But the rifle divisions were substantially below their establishment strength, and what manpower they had was often poorly trained. The 43rd and 51st Armies, for example, were composed of a single rifle corps each, consisting of three rifle divisions. On paper, these divisions were intended to number about 11,800 men each, but in practice they rarely had more than 7,000, often as little as 3,000. Nevertheless, the preponderance of power lay greatly in favour of the Red Army. The Baltic coast was roughly a 100km west of the frontline. To the north, 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts continued to exert pressure, squeezing Schörner’s Army Group North back through Riga into Estonia. By the standards of the great summer offensives, the Red Army’s resources, particularly in terms of reserves available to exploit a breakthrough, were limited, but several opportunities presented themselves. A single-minded drive west would sever Schörner’s armies from the rest of the Reich, leaving them dependent on seaborne supplies. Given the weakness of the German defences, there was also the enticing prospect that a breakthrough to the coast would open up the rear of Army Group North, allowing Bagramian’s armoured forces the opportunity of perhaps rolling up the entire German front, or at least of seizing the vital port of Libau, without which the Germans would struggle to keep Schörner’s two armies alive. And to the southwest, there was the possibility of exploiting a breakthrough into East Prussia itself.

Of these options, Stavka knew that the breakthrough to the coast was probably well within the Red Army’s resources, but exploitation to the north or south was less likely to succeed. In both cases, significant rivers – the Venta in the north, and the Niemen, or Memel as the Germans preferred to call it, to the south – would act as major barriers to the advance. The priority, then, would be given to reaching the coast. Anything more would be a bonus.

On the German side, most of XXVIII Corps’ fighting strength consisted of the arriving elements of Grossdeutschland and 551st Volksgrenadier Division. The remnants of 201st Security Division, which had been badly mauled during Bagration, held a segment of front to the north. The three grenadier regiments of Generalleutnant Siegfried Verhein’s newly formed 551st Volksgrenadier Division were, on paper at least, relatively strong, but most of the men had almost no experience of infantry combat, particularly in the brutal conditions of the Ostfront. Furthermore, the division was responsible for an unrealistic 48km of frontline. The initial Soviet artillery bombardment appears to have been relatively ineffective, however, partly due to foggy conditions that prevented observation of fire and grounded the Soviet Air Force. When the Soviet assault began on 5 October, the German grenadiers robustly threw back the first two attacks. When a third attack was thrown at them, however, their decimated ranks gave way. In several sectors, the Red Army forces simply moved forward through deserted positions – much of 551st Volksgrenadier Division had not survived its first proper day of combat.

Grossdeutschland`s armoured reconnaissance battalion was ordered to move forward in support of the shattered Volksgrenadier division. Under the command of Rittmeister Schroedter, the battalion launched itself into the flank of the Soviet regiment that was moving west. Despite having few heavy weapons, Schroedter’s men swiftly scattered their opponents and pressed on to 551st Volksgrenadier Division’s former positions. Here they found that the battle wasn’t over; a small group of infantry had coalesced around a Hauptmann Licht, and with the help of the reconnaissance battalion, the grenadiers continued to hold the main battleline until the early hours of 6 October. But with Soviet forces up to 15km to the rear of either flank, there was little point in holding on, and the amalgamated force withdrew towards the west.

Other armoured units were also on the move. The 7th Panzer Division was ordered south into the path of the expected Soviet attack, and some of its units were rapidly pressed into service a little further south of Grossdeutschland. Johann Huber was a young officer trainee who had recently joined the division, and was serving as a loader in a Pz. IV. The tank commander and gunner were both middle-ranking NCOs, but had spent most of the war in rear-area units; they had now been drafted into a frontline formation, and in their first encounter with a Soviet T-34 the inexperience of the NCOs was alarmingly apparent:

Now the black gun barrel and then the turret of a T-34 emerge from the branches. Head in, hatch closed, and a shout of’T-34!’… Richard Braumandl [the driver] shouts over the intercom, ‘Herr Feldwebel, T-34 to our front!’ Now there is turmoil… Feldwebel Isecke takes another two or three seconds, then presses the trigger. The shot leaves the barrel, bitter smoke fills the turret, and as soon as the barrel has returned from its recoil, I load the second armour-piercing round and switch on the turret smoke extractor. The breech snaps closed. But Richard Braumandl shouts angrily, ‘Herr Feldwebel, you have overshot, why are you firing high?’ What follows, I don’t hear. Isecke fires a second time.

He shoots high again. The two grumble about it. I can’t see anything, I hear from Richard and Karl, who as driver and radio-operator are able to observe. ‘Herr Feldwebel, he’s going to fire on us, his barrel is turning towards us. Why are you shooting too high?’ All I can do is load the third armour-piercing round… Then from quite close to our left, we hear the shot of one of our 75mm guns. Richard shouts, ‘Now he’s hit! He’s burning!’

It wasn’t us, Isecke overshot twice, who was it then? We would probably have copped it, as we were only 120 metres away.

It was Willi Hegen, the gunner in Oberleutnant Jakob’s vehicle. Everyone is trembling inside, as it is clear that our own gunner is a twit. He failed at the critical moment. We were almost done for. I knew why he had overshot. This great bullock didn’t determine the range in his Fitzerei [a term in the war synonymous with anxiety], and perhaps also used the high-explosive range marker instead of the armour-piercing range marker. That was the only way he could have missed.

Soviet infantry were moving forward through the woods around the village. Lacking any infantry support themselves, the German tanks withdrew a few kilometres over a small river, the Shisma. Here they turned to face the advancing Soviet tanks again, and Huber’s tank commander, Feldwebel Sattler, attracted the ire of the company commander, Oberleutnant Jakob, when he decided to pull back from an exposed position. This precipitate retreat nearly ended in disaster, as the rest of the company almost opened fire on Sattler in the gathering darkness. A confused night action followed. Several T-34s were shot up at close range, but in the darkness other Soviet tanks had succeeded in infiltrating into the German position. At dawn, the Germans withdrew from their positions and the Soviet advance continued.

On 6 October, Bagramian committed 5th Guards Tank Army to the battle, which was now raging across a frontage of nearly 200km. Schörner tried to extract units from the Riga front in order to send them south, but 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts, backed by the Leningrad Front, increased their own pressure on Riga. Several days of bloody attacks and counter-attacks around the Latvian capital resulted in little ground being gained or lost; Army Group North was effectively pinned in its defences, however, unable to move troops to counter Bagramian’s thrust towards Memel and the Baltic coast.

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Siege of Memel (October 1944) II

7th Panzer Division in Kurland, 1944

Cloudy conditions prevailed on 7 October, with light rain, but the weather wasn’t bad enough to ground the Soviet aircraft, which continued to attack every road movement they detected. Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer Division, together with whatever remained of 551st Volksgrenadier Division, tried to contain the enemy breakthrough. The frontline near Tryskiai had to be abandoned, with a small group of Grossdeutschland’s Panther tanks providing a rearguard. Not far away, Huber and his comrades were also in action again. They took up a good hull-down position on a ridge, where they endured a brief bombardment:

The shellfire suddenly breaks off.

I get up and position myself in the loader’s hatch to have a look. As far as I can see, they’re not shooting at us any more, but the front rumbles away. The enemy offensive is in full swing… Over there, across the crest of the slope opposite us, the enemy appears: Russian infantry. As far as the eye can see, to left and right, they occupy the entire crest, followed by a second wave. We really didn’t see them. The company commander radios: ‘Hold your fire.’ We couldn’t do anything anyway, the range is too great, I estimate it to be about 3,000 metres.

The attack waves are about 50 metres apart. Now and then a shell flies over, but lands in front of us in the fields, to the right or left. We concentrate on counting the Red Army’s attack waves. There are now seven, eight, nine, now twelve. Thousands of Russians pour forward endlessly, there must be a whole infantry division committed against us. Our eyes flicker along the horizon to left and right; no tanks, no anti-tank guns in sight.

Then we hear the ‘Urrah!’The east wind carries it from the other slope to us. The first waves have already almost reached the bottom of the valley, and we can no longer see them beyond the curve of the slope. There is a continuous ‘Urrah’- to the front, to the left, to the right. We are uneasy. We aren’t able to shoot at what we can see. They are too far away, it would only reveal our positions. Actually, we are in a good position in our sandy hollow, with only the gun protruding forward and the turret above the top of the hollow.

Then it all begins again. The twelfth wave is the last that I see, then I pull myself back inside and quickly close the hatch. There is a further heavy firestrike by the Russian artillery. We are plastered with fire. A 152mm shell detonates a metre from the edge of our pit, hurling earth over the tank, sand flies over the cupola; Sattler has already pulled his head in. Now there’s pandemonium. Just get us out of this hole. Sattler orders, ‘Start the engine,’ and Richard Braumandl shouts, ‘Herr Feldwebel, I know!’ As the tank digs itself out of the sand and moves backwards, our stern points into the air, and everyone fears that if we take an artillery hit, we may flip right over. We drive back out of the pit with our engine howling.

The Red Army, too, was running out of experienced soldiers. The poorly trained replacements included many of the men from the newly liberated areas of the western Soviet Union. All that could be done with such infantry was to attack in great waves, reminiscent of World War I. It was fortunate for them that the Germans lacked sufficient artillery and infantry to smash such easy targets.

The southern flank of the German position had been turned by advancing T-34s, with two Pz. IVs lost in the fighting. A mixture of German units – the remnants of 551st Volksgrenadier Division, parts of 7th Panzer Division, and Kampfgruppe Fabisch (Battlegroup Fabisch) from the Grossdeutschland-now found themselves in the village of Luoke. Maximilian Fabisch’s group had arrived in the village on 6 October, and beat off several enemy attacks. Huber’s tank company was in position near the southern end of the town:

The Russian artillery’s salvoes keep coming, four shells at a time. Right and left of us, the shells explode amongst the houses. Glancing back past the house behind us, I see our infantry running along the road beyond. They are coming from the right. Sattler sees them too, and I ask myself, who’s protecting our right flank? Have we any right flank security at all? The situation isn’t clear to us here, between the houses, amongst the farmers’ gardens. Is 7 Company on our right? Sattler asks via the radio. The right flank is covered, comes the reply from the chief’s vehicle. Two of our tanks are being sent there.

The Russian artillery fires continuously. Half-left of us, at about 11 o’clock, we can see some of our tanks moving. They are Panthers, clearly recognizable with their triangular rears, and their two exhausts visible at the top.

… There, suddenly it happens! Yellow-green tracers fly from the right, a long, poisonous flare behind it! Phosphorus ammunition: I see the shell fly and hit. One of the Panthers is hit on the side of its hull and immediately burns – and how! It blazes like a flare. That was the phosphorus. We know that such ammunition is forbidden under international law, just like explosive bullets. But the Russians use both regardless. All of us have an inner horror of it. So, we are faced by a tank unit with just such ammunition.

Phosphorus ammunition was not actually used as an anti-tank weapon, more as a smoke round. Phosphorus elements were also used to create highly visible tracers for shells, and machine-gun belts with every round containing a small phosphorus tracer were used in World War I as incendiary ammunition when engaging hydrogen-filled balloons. As the use of phosphorus rounds in Iraq has demonstrated, the legal status of such ammunition remains controversial. It is likely that on this occasion, Huber was observing conventional armour-piercing rounds fitted with phosphorus tracers. The sloped frontal armour of the Panther tank was 80mm thick, but the side armour was only 45mm, and had a far less generous slope. The 85mm guns of the Soviet T-34s would have had little difficulty penetrating this side-armour. Panthers also had a bad reputation for catching fire, not least because of the poor quality of synthetic rubber that was now used in the manufacture of seals. Crews often complained of the strong smell of petrol within the fighting compartment, and in such circumstances, penetration by a round with a burning phosphorus tracer was likely to be fatal.

Huber continued to watch helplessly as two more Panthers were hit and destroyed. A short while later Jakob, the company commander, was wounded in the forehead by artillery shrapnel, and as he sagged unconscious in his seat, blood streaming from the wound, the rest of his crew feared the worst. Leutnant Müller took over command of the company, while Jakob was bandaged and, to the relief of his men, soon regained consciousness.

The Soviet artillery bombardment intensified, with Katyusha rockets now falling on the German positions. Müller ordered his tanks to pull back:

We come to a halt in the garden, from where we see the road. It is a dreadful scene. There are dozens of dead and wounded Landsers [soldiers], as I glance to the left over the turret and right to the north, I estimate at least 100, 200 seriously wounded and dead lying there. We can’t drive over them, we have to look out to drive between the many living, who writhe and cry out in pain.

Some of the Katyusha salvoes had struck the 7th Panzer Divisions main field dressing station near the northern end of Luoke. Already overflowing with wounded, the dressing station became a charnel house, and was overrun by the advancing Soviet infantry as the tanks pulled back.

Everyone wants to pull back, the Russians have stormed the southern part of the village; a powerful tank unit must have moved in there, unnoticed by us. We feared as much. To our right, the south, we had no protection. 7 Company wasn’t there to beat off the enemy in good time. Two minutes later, when we are all positioned across the road, ready finally to turn right and descend the hill that we climbed an hour before, an Unteroffizier rises up from the ground. He has been wounded in the belly with shrapnel from a Stalin organ, right through from left to right, sliced right open. He holds his spilled guts with both arms, as if holding a basket, staggers to our tank, wants to climb on, I reach for him, he cries with a pained expression, his eyes full of fear, ‘Comrades, take me with you!’ I want to pull him up over the turret skirting, but he can’t hold on, he doesn’t have the strength. He falls, with a hand to his belly, holding his entrails together, slowly keels over, sits on the road and then pulls himself halfway onto his side. His spilled intestines pour onto the sand. Dreadful. A man falls to his death, trying to reach for his last chance. I couldn’t get hold of his hand, I was left grasping at empty air.

Then Richard drives on for another ten metres before halting again. The dreadful moment has passed, but there are still the living. I pull them up onto our tank, as the infantry don’t know where they can climb aboard, I tug at arms, hands, necks. New, fresh clothing, recently issued, I guess they are from a Volksgrenadier division. They have the number 551 on their shoulderboards… We now have a whole group of soldiers on the back, and meanwhile heavy mortar fire continues, with ever more soldiers fleeing from the south towards us; the Russians must be really close. Now we’re off, running downhill, I have to get back into the turret. From the noise of the tracks I realize we’re going faster and faster. And then the fireworks start. Following the Stalin organ salvoes, the firing of the as yet unsighted T-34s and the mortars, all hell now breaks loose. Braumandl shouts, ‘Russians in the open, we’re driving through them, we’re surrounded!’

Have the Russians bypassed us? Have we failed to notice a pincer attack? These thoughts shoot through my head. I see nothing, but Sattler taps me on the shoulder and tells me to prepare the machine-gun, and then Isecke fires like mad with the turret machine-gun towards 2 o’clock. In the front, Karl also fires one burst after another with the radio-operator’s machine-gun, and outside all hell breaks loose. Then Richard Braumandl shouts, ‘Herr Feldwebel, the tank in front of us, dear God!’ He stamps on the brakes, we all pitch forward, and then we’re off again. I am busy loading the machine-gun.

It’s difficult, as the main gun is fully depressed. There is now little space above the machine-gun breech to load the belt. ‘Please don’t jam,’I think. But it works fine.

We drive for a long time, with ricochets clicking constantly off the armour. They’re firing at us with everything they have, it must be Russian infantry! If only there aren’t any anti-tank guns nearby. After a good two kilometres, Isecke, the gunner, stops shooting. He raises the main gun again and Sattler says, ‘We’re through now.’ We must have come about two kilometres through the Russian lines. Isecke orders me, ‘Go out and check the turret, it’s jammed.’ We drive on, but much slower. As soon as I climb out of the hatch, I catch my breath. Our tank is empty. As I climb over the turret skirting, I see that only one of our men is still there, clinging by his fingers to the grill of the engine decking and holding on. I stare for a moment, and realise that all of the infantry must have been shot off the back. None of them has survived. When I reach the Landser and try to pull him aboard, I see that he’s unharmed. He is an old soldier, I reckon at least 50, if not 55. Over the noise of the tracks, I shout to him, ‘Where are the others?’ But he can’t say a word. He just crawls forward across the engine decking and says nothing, his teeth chattering as if it were 30 degrees below zero. He’s in shock. But I need to find out what’s jamming the turret. That is not so easy. Finally, over on the gunner’s side, I find an abandoned rifle that has jammed under the outer skirting. I have to work it back and forth to free it, and then I reckon that Isecke will be able to turn the turret.

Now we halt. Immediately, we turn the turret to 5 o’clock, so that we can shoot backwards… Now what are we to do with the soldier who lies on his side; he will have to move if we are to shoot. But he is not fit to walk, or jump off. I can see that the man has gone through hell and is the only survivor of perhaps a dozen men. Sattler agrees, we leave him up top, but he must move forward to the nose, where I secure him so that he does not place his feet on the radio-operator’s machine-gun and doesn’t obstruct Richard Braumandl’s observation slit, which would be fatal. He still can’t speak, but he understands. I can see that.

As I climb back through the hatch and don my headset, we receive new orders to take up positions either side of the road. The battle continues. The T-34s are pushing on. We are permitted ‘free fire’ on identified targets and are on the left of the road. Apparently, 7 Company is defending the right side. …

About 900 metres away, on the hill in front of us, we hear a shot. Rose-red tracer! Damn, T-34s. So they are already here! Nothing for it but to get back in the tank. The other vehicles in our company have already opened fire, but we can see little of the enemy tanks. Only turrets and cupolas are visible. We can’t hit them beyond the ridge. Isecke also fires twice, then we give up. There’s more going down to our right. 7 Company is over there. Our comrades are more involved in the tank battle than us – but I hear only their tank guns. And then the T-34s must have hit one of 7 Company. The tank burns. It isn’t possible to see who’s been hit. Most, or even all, have to pull back, we hear via the radio. Then we are ordered to withdraw a further two or three kilometres.

Once we are in position and evening is drawing on, Richard Braumandl begins to talk. ‘Herr Feldwebel, what tank was that before us, driving in front of us, when we broke out? I wasn’t able to see, as there were so many infantry in the way. You know how we drove down the hill afterwards.’ The Feldwebel doesn’t know. Richard asks again, ‘Did you really not see him? “I didn’t notice – there was too much happening. “Hmmm, what’s Richard getting at?’ I ask him. Then he explains. ‘I only saw the tank in front of me with infantry that the Russians were shooting. But then the tank slipped into the ditch with its right track, and overran a group of our Landsers who were in the ditch taking cover from the Russians, with its right track. It was awful – arms and legs were hanging from the track, torn off by it, it drove over the soldiers for at least 30 metres, our own Landsers.’ The blood drains from the three of us, Sattler says nothing, but he must have seen it too. Dreadful! The driver in front of us was responsible for the deaths of our own comrades – he simply rolled them flat when we broke out of the encirclement. Richard’s words shock everyone. Nobody speaks a word, everyone thinks back about an hour and a half before when Richard shouted, ‘Herr Feldwebel, the driver in front of us, dear God!’ There’s silence in the vehicle, with the only noise coming from the headsets, the sounds of guns firing. Death has done a dreadful business today.

Both flanks of the Luoke position had been bypassed. The Soviet forces once more demonstrated their mastery of armoured warfare – avoid and bypass strong positions, and probe for weaknesses. The remaining elements of 7th Panzer Division, Grossdeutschland and 551st Volksgrenadier Division had no choice but to pull back; the alternative was to invite encirclement. Moving northwest from Luoke, one battalion of the Grossdeutschland fusilier regiment ran into enemy spearheads in Seda. As it struggled to check the Soviet advance, some of Grossdeutschland`s assault guns were dispatched to support it. Although the town remained in Soviet hands, a further penetration to the west was prevented, at least for the moment. A decision was then made to pull back the fragmented front to the East Prussian frontier, immediately east of Memel. In the chaos, some elements of Grossdeutschland found themselves cut off by the enemy. The well-armoured Tiger tanks simply held their positions until nightfall, and then broke through to the west. A Panzergrenadier battalion was isolated at Luoke, when all other formations had either fallen back or been driven away to the west. In bitter fighting, the Panzergrenadiers fought their way back to Plunge.

Just east of the old Reich frontier lay the East Prussian Defence Position, constructed with such fanfare earlier in the autumn by Knuth’s labour squads. In places, it was a formidable barrier, but only if it were adequately manned. Behind this, a second line of defences had been constructed around Memel itself, following the River Minge for much of its length. It was imperative that the retreating troops hold one or other of these two positions – if they failed, the defence of the city would be right on its outskirts.

Siege of Memel (October 1944) III

Column of Tiger Is, late 1944.

Local Party officials were of course aware of the fighting, and had been enquiring nervously of the Wehrmacht whether there would be a need to evacuate German civilians from Memelland. As early as 5 October, Schörner declared that such an evacuation was unnecessary. Whether an evacuation could actually have been carried out in an orderly manner is questionable, but the fact that it wasn’t even attempted left thousands of civilians in the path of the advancing Red Army.

Whatever Schörner may have believed about there being no requirement for a civilian evacuation, Raus had different views, and on his urging the Party officials along the northern borders of East Prussia finally ordered civilians to leave. The process began slowly, but soon became a panic-stricken stampede as the Red Army drew closer. Troops struggling to withdraw to the East Prussian Defence Position found the roads choked with refugees. Movements were already difficult due to constant air attacks and fuel shortages; in some cases, they now became almost impossible. Huber’s tank had suffered a transmission failure, and had to be towed out of the frontline. On 8 October, Huber and the rest of the crew were towed back in the early hours through Telsche and Plunge:

Beyond Plunge it is even harder to make progress along the congested Rollbahn [main road], with rear-area units, trucks and horse-drawn vehicles, all wanting to move west. There is nothing for it but to stop for hours at a time. … We pull off the congested Rollbahn and make no further progress. Suddenly, at about 1500, all motors are switched off and there’s general silence, and we hear from the left, up front, at about 10 o’clock, a gun firing. Everyone immediately looks in that direction, from where black smoke is now rising: T-34 to the left! So since last night, when we were still defending near Luoke, the Russians have advanced at least 60 kilometres… I quickly estimate the distance to the forest edge where the T-34 is positioned. It is at least 1,400 metres, so there’s no point in shooting. At that range, we would achieve nothing against a T-34’s armour. Our armour-piercing rounds are only effective against this type of enemy tank at less than 800 metres. The T-34 fires again and again, and a good 1,200 metres down the Rollbahn there is now a black cloud – he’s hit something, vehicles are burning. But then there’s one of our yellow tracers going left. A hit! The T-34 immediately starts to burn. It was alone, no more are nearby.

The Soviet advance showed no sign of letting up. By dawn on 8 October, Plunge had already been bypassed, as Huber and his comrades discovered. The town came under increasingly heavy attack throughout the day, but then alarming reports arrived of Soviet tanks with infantry mounted aboard, approaching the River Minge east of Krottingen, and therefore already through the East Prussian Defence Position. These were the leading formations of the Soviet 43rd Army, pressing forward almost unopposed. Elements of Grossdeutschland were dispatched to secure the crossings at Kartena. This reinforced company found its route from Plunge to Kartena had already been cut by the Soviet spearheads, and had to fight its way through.

Difficulties in moving supplies forward to the fighting troops were beginning to bite, and several Tiger tanks had to be abandoned due to fuel shortages. But reinforcements were also arriving: 58th Infantry Division had been moved by sea from Army Group North into Memel, and now took up defensive positions northeast of the city. Heavy fighting continued in and around Krottingen, and further north around Salantai and Polangen. Grossdeutschland created two battlegroups, Battlegroup Schwarzrock and Battlegroup von Breese, which pulled back in stages over the last few kilometres to Memel, while other formations raced the Soviet spearheads westwards, across the Minge and into the developing positions around the city. The division’s reconnaissance battalion effectively formed a third battlegroup, and in heavy fighting alongside Battlegroup von Breese, it was able to hold up the pursuing Soviet forces for a few critical hours. Without this delay, 1st Baltic Front’s armoured spearheads would probably have overrun several of the formations struggling to reach Memel, with serious consequences for the defence of the city. Schwarzrock’s battlegroup had the furthest distance to withdraw; pulling back through Salantai, it drove through Polangen while the town was under aerial bombardment. The rubble-strewn streets hindered, but did not prevent, its withdrawal.

Memel itself had been under increasingly heavy air attack since 6 October, and most of the civilian population had now been evacuated. Von Breese’s battlegroup continued to hold off the Soviet forces near Krottingen. One of its battalions found itself isolated, and during the evening of 9 October it received orders to try to break through to Memel. Despite being badly scattered by a recent encounter with a large group of T-34s, the battalion was able to concentrate its surviving vehicles and pull out, reaching Krottingen unopposed. There they found a new obstacle: the road passed over a bridge, underneath which was an ammunition train set ablaze by air attacks. The vehicles raced across one by one without mishap, and continued their withdrawal.

The troops swiftly moved through the deserted streets of Memel to their assigned defensive positions. The 58th Infantry Division would hold the northern part of the bridgehead perimeter; 7th Panzer Division would hold the centre; and Grossdeutschland was to hold the southern part.

The Soviet 53rd Army took Polangen on 10 October, isolating Army Group North. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army swept past the southern edge of Memel and pressed on to the coast, cutting off Memel from the rest of the world. The first objective of 1st Baltic Front, to isolate the German forces north of the East Prussian border, had been carried out in a mere five days. Despite repeated attempts by Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer Division to re-establish a continuous frontline – at Tryskiai, Luoke, Telsche, Plunge and finally the East Prussian Defence Position – the Soviet assault troops were unstoppable.

In addition to the main drive from the Kursenai-Schaulen area, a second Soviet thrust came further south, between Kelmy and Raseinen. Here, the attacking infantry had secured a bridgehead across the River Dubrissa. On 2 October, General Karl Decker’s 5th Panzer Division was ordered south from Estonia to join XL Panzer Corps in an assembly area near Kelmy, but by 5 October only small elements of the division – mainly its infantry, without any of its tanks or rear-area formations – had arrived. XL Panzer Corps’ commander was General Gotthard Heinrici, a veteran of the Eastern Front who would, just a few months later, take command of the armies arrayed to defend Berlin from the final Soviet assault. His corps had originally consisted of two divisions, 201st Security Division and 548th Volksgrenadier Division, but he had been forced to transfer the former to the neighbouring XXVIII Corps. Until 5th Panzer Division arrived, his only asset was the single Volksgrenadier division. On the evening of 5 October, Braumüller, commander of 5th Panzer Division’s anti-aircraft battalion, was ordered to take up positions east of Kelmy with a battery of 88mm guns, supported by one of the divisions Panzergrenadier battalions and an artillery battalion. Rather than risk taking the artillery too far forward, Braumüller ordered it to deploy west of the town.

The Soviet attack was led by 2nd Guards Army, with I Tank Corps as its spearhead. On its southern flank, 39th Army – the northern wing of Cherniakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front – would join the attack as it developed. The assault formations simply bypassed Braumüller’s position and moved west, passing either side of Kelmy. Beyond the town, they ran into the artillery battalion that Braumüller had tried to keep out of harm’s way. In a confused fight, the gunners knocked out four tanks at close range, but lost ten of their guns and were swept away.

Decker prepared to mount a counter-attack. The 21st Panzer Regiment, the division’s tank force, arrived during the afternoon of 6 October. Like Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer Division, it had been heavily involved in fighting further north since August, and was below its establishment strength, with only 12 Pz. IVs and 15 Panthers. Nevertheless, its commander, Oberstleutnant Hans Herzog, was immediately ordered to attack, supported by the division’s 14th Panzergrenadier Regiment. The battle raged all afternoon, with Herzog’s battlegroup claiming 26 Russian tanks destroyed, but the gap between it and the next German unit to the north – an ad hoc Panzergrenadier brigade commanded by the energetic Oberst Meinrad von Lauchert – remained at least 8km. With other elements of his division being driven back to the west, Decker ordered a halt to the attack. Instead, his division would try to set up a defensive line that could link up to 548th Volksgrenadier Division on the right. The gap to the left remained wide open, and the Soviet I Tank Corps roared through it, heading west and southwest, monitored by 5th Panzer Division’s armoured reconnaissance battalion. Even if 5th Panzer Division were able to link up with 548th Volksgrenadier Division on its right, this union would be of limited value.

To the south of the 548th, another Soviet assault had fallen on 95th Infantry Division. This division had been almost annihilated during the summer battles near Minsk, and had been reformed from its survivors, combined with the remnants of 197th and 256th Infantry Divisions. Although these disparate fragments had been fighting together since the summer disasters, they had yet to bed down properly as a new division. Under heavy pressure, its left flank was driven back on 7 October, sundering its link with 548th Volksgrenadier Division to the north. With much of its artillery lost and its infantry battalions taking heavy casualties, the division fell back under constant pressure.

At 3rd Panzer Army’s headquarters, Raus was critical of the way that XL Panzer Corps committed the division. The corps diary includes the following entry:

6 October was marked by an attempt by 5th Panzer Division – even though it didn’t have most of its armour – to deploy for a mass operation. A telephone conversation from the army reproached the corps for its ‘dribbling’ deployment. In the opinion of the corps, this was unfounded. The development of the situation in view of the fact that there were insufficient forces to hold both the right and left flanks of the corps, and particularly the developments in the neighbouring corps had a not insubstantial effect. A mass operation by 5th Panzer Division might well have stabilized the situation, but could not have prevented the enemy from succeeding in achieving and widening breakthroughs at other points. Crucially, the late arrival of the armoured elements of 5th Panzer Division by rail affected the conduct of operations.

In addition, the supply elements of 5th Panzer Division were still far to the north; consequently, the fighting troops had to be careful about their consumption of fuel and ammunition.

Decker continued to struggle to keep his far-flung division from being swept away by the Soviet attack. Late on 7 October, he was driven back along the road from Kelmy towards Tauroggen, forced to pull back his flanks to prevent envelopment. To the south was the inexperienced 548th Volksgrenadier Division, and on 8 October a Soviet thrust by the Soviet 39th Army pierced its front and threatened to break into the rear of 5th Panzer Division. Abandoning all attempts to link up with von Lauchert’s forces to the northwest, Decker sent his remaining mobile assets to deal with the most threatening Soviet penetrations on his own flanks, and with the assent of XL Panzer Corps, pulled back towards a small bridgehead north of Tilsit. The 5 th Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, the division’s reconnaissance battalion, could only watch impotently as Soviet forces pushed on towards the Baltic coast.

The town of Heydekrug was overrun on 9 October, and several thousand civilians, with fragmented army formations amongst them, were trapped against the coast to the north. Using pioneer boats, army engineers laboured to evacuate them from the small town of Minge and the nearby coast. Ad hoc companies of soldiers set up a rudimentary perimeter, but for the most part the Red Army made little attempt to prevent the evacuation, which was completed on 15 October. The evacuees were landed on the Kurische Nehrung, the long sandy strip running parallel to the coast, north of Rositten. From here, they were able to withdraw south to East Prussia. Prökuls was also taken by the Red Army on 9 October. A large portion of the civilian population left it too late to attempt to leave, and those who did escape brought tales of rape and slaughter.

Pressure continued against the Tilsit bridgehead. Here, 5th Panzer Division and 548th Volksgrenadier Division, with 1st Paratroop-Panzer Division Hermann Goring now arriving on the western flank, beat off a series of attacks between 11 and 13 October. The 5th Panzer Division claimed to have shot up 65 Soviet tanks; whatever the true figure may have been, the Red Army was unable to break up the German bridgehead. Finally, the need for German armoured forces elsewhere necessitated the withdrawal of both Panzer divisions from the bridgehead, and it was completely evacuated by 22 October.

On the Soviet side, preparations were in hand for an assault across the Niemen on 31 October in order to seize Tilsit. The town was on high ground, dominating the northern side of the river, and an assault against prepared defences would be difficult to say the least. The 87th Guards Rifle Division was given this daunting task, and its personnel spent several days preparing wooden rafts for the crossing. There were no doubts amongst the Soviet troops about the difficulties posed by such an attack; Isaak Kobylyanskiy, serving as an artillery officer in the division, wrote a sombre letter to his girlfriend as preparations continued: ‘I am on the verge of a very serious battle, and only the Lord knows what end is waiting for me. This letter might be fated to be the last one.’

To the relief of Kobylyanskiy and his comrades, the assault was called off on 30 October. Fighting along the Niemen valley died down as both sides took stock. General Decker left his division to take command of a Panzer corps in East Prussia and was replaced by Oberst Rolf Lippert.

It is hard to assess whether the southern flank of the drive to the Baltic coast achieved all of its objectives. On the one hand, in cooperation with 39th Army, the right-hand formation of Cherniakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front, 2nd Guards Army rolled the Germans back to the Niemen valley and secured a large stretch of coastline. On the other hand, the envelopment of German forces east of Tauroggen was not successfully carried out, not least due to the presence of 5th Panzer Division. Clearly, as shown by the preparations of Kobylyanskiy’s division, there were plans to secure a bridgehead at Tilsit, and there is certainly some evidence that 39th Army was expected to sweep over the Niemen into the northern parts of East Prussia, but the timely withdrawal of 548th Volksgrenadier Division and 5th Panzer Division to the Tilsit bridgehead effectively prevented this movement. As was the case further north, the Soviet spearheads swiftly identified the location of the strongest German defenders, in this case 5th Panzer Division, and shifted their main points of effort to either side. One consequence was that Second Guards Army was perhaps unable to turn south sufficiently early to threaten an envelopment of the German forces pinned against the frontline. Finding a gap to the left of 5th Panzer Division, the Red Army simply surged through to the coast. Further incursions into East Prussia would have to wait for another day.

Horst Messer, a German panzer soldier, was at Memel when he was wounded. He described his evacuation confirming that in late 1944, evacuations were reasonably orderly.

On 6 October 1944 the Russians attacked, broke through south of our front and penetrated as far as Memel. Our Army Group was cut off and encircled by this move. On 28 October there began the first of the six so-called Battles of Kurland—bloody butchery which by the end of November 1944 had cost 70,000 German soldiers and the same number of Russians their lives…We ‘seriously wounded’ were loaded aboard a bus standing ready to convey us to the port of Libau. Here a hospital ship awaited. Had I left as ordered, probably in a couple of days I would have been returned to the front. Instead, that evening I was in a convoy crossing the Baltic on course for home. The whole ship was full of wounded. Because I was actually only lightly wounded, I hung around the upper deck in case of torpedo attack. This was because I had no desire to go down in this steel coffin; I would have preferred to jump in the ice-cold water, for which purpose everybody had been given a lifejacket. When a submarine alarm was actually given, the mood of patients and crew fell to rock bottom. The fear can hardly be imagined — in the middle of the Baltic in icy temperatures, expecting the ship to be sunk by a torpedo at any moment. We were lucky, however, for nothing happened.

During the day we berthed at Danzig. A hospital train stood at the quayside and took us towards Berlin. On the way groups of wounded were unloaded at the big stations, my destination was Schneidemuehl in Pomerania. I spent fifteen days in the hospital there, afterwards got fourteen days’ convalescent leave and fourteen days’ leave from the front enabling me to spend the time between 15 November and 15 December 1944 at home. A wonderful time.

Horst Messer

On 9 October the Red Army reached the Baltic Sea near Memel cutting off Army Group North from East Prussia. As the year ended, things became more desperate at Memel. Guy Sajer, the Wehrmacht soldier, described the scene.

We passed through towns and villages where the inhabitants had still been living a more or less normal life until four or five days earlier, although they had realized that their danger might become imminent at any time. Now, for the last two days, old men, women, and children had been desperately digging out the trenches, gun pits, and anti-tank ditches which were to stop the waves of enemy tanks. This pathetic and heroic effort before the infernal debacle which would sweep them into the flux of terrorized civilians was a preliminary shock for these virtuous civilians, who saw the front coming toward them in the form of exhausted, half-starved troops, tired of fighting and of living, who brushed aside human pawns without a qualm, as if they were pieces in a losing game of chess.

We arrived in Memel with trucks pulled by men, and tanks serving as locomotives to trains of incredible length. We had reached the absolute limit of our capacities. Everything which still possessed a shred of human or mechanical life was moving, suppressing misery to a sense of gratitude that so much, at least, was still allowed them. Bombings stopped only those who were definitively dead. The rest—the merely wounded or dying—kept on, with burning eyes, pushing past the collapsing and the collapsed, whose bodies lay strewn along the road.

The town of Memel was still alive, in ruins beneath the flames, the smoke-darkened sky, the throb of Russian fighter-bombers, the heavy artillery, the terror, and the whirling snow.

The ruins of Memel could neither hold nor shelter the large segment of the Prussian population which had sought refuge there. This population, to which we could give only the most rudimentary help, paralyzed our movements and our already precarious system of defense. Within the half circle we were defending, ringing with the thunder of explosions which covered every sort of shriek and scream, former elite troops, units of the Volkssturm, amputees re-engaged by the services organizing the defense of the town, women, children, infants, and invalids were crucified on the frozen earth beneath a ceiling of fog lit by the gleam of fires, or beneath the blizzards which emptied their snows over this semi-final act of the war. The food ration was so meager that the occasional distributions which were supposed to feed five people for a day would not now be considered enough for a school child’s lunch. Appeals for order and observation of the restrictions rang incessantly through the fog, which in part veiled the scene. Ships of every kind were leaving by day and by night, loaded with as many people as they could carry. Long files of refugees, whom the authorities tried vainly to register, moved toward the piers, creating targets for Russian pilots which were impossible to miss. The bombs opened hideous gaps in the screaming crowd, which died in fragments beneath these blows, but remained in line in hopes of getting on the next ship. These people were exhorted to patience, reminded of the rationing, and told to fast while they waited for deliverance. Old people killed themselves, and mothers of families, who would hand their children over to another woman, begging her to feed them with the ration card she herself was giving up. A gun taken from a dead soldier would accomplish these jobs. Heroism and despair were closely intertwined. The authorities tried to keep up the spirits of the crowd by speaking of the future, but at that time and place everything had lost its importance.

Guy Sajer

Most units realized there was no point in holding out but a few did, anyway.

While many troops escaped encirclement, Hitler ordered that Memel be held at all costs. On 14 October the Red Army launched an assault to seize Memel that failed. The German troops were dug in and were supported by naval gunfire. While the Wehrmacht moved forces to reinforce Memel, the Red Army then shifted their offensive to Courland and East Prussia. When the defenders realized that Soviet armored units had been withdrawn and replaced by infantry, they settled in for a long siege. Their crisis had passed.

Battle of Saint-Quentin

1557 Battle of Saint Quentin. Spanish arquebusiers in street fighting in the suburbs of the town.

 

The earliest chronogram found depicts the siege and battle of Saint Quentin in 1557.

Saint-Quentin, Battle of 10 August 1557 English forces fighting with the armies of Philip II of Spain, husband and ally of Mary I, assist in defeat of French army outside besieged French town of Saint-Quentin.

The Battle of Saint-Quentin of 1557 was fought at Saint-Quentin in Picardy, during the Italian War of 1551–1559. The Spanish, which is to say the international forces of Philip II’s Spanish Empire, who had regained the support of the English whose Mary I of England he had married, won a significant victory over the French at Saint-Quentin, in northern France.

The king of Spain in 1556, when he took the throne over from his father, was aged twenty-eight, a man of few words, of medium build, with fair hair and blue eyes. A devotee of hunting and jousting, cultured, serious and deeply religious, he had spent nearly five years travelling through the principal countries of Europe. Regent of Spain since 1543, when he was aged sixteen, he had accumulated ample experience of the problems of government. After several months in England with his wife Mary Tudor, he crossed over to Brussels to receive from his father in 1555 the territories that from then on constituted his inheritance. Charles did not abdicate from Sicily, Naples and Milan, for these realms already belonged to Philip, who had been given the right of succession to the dukedom of Milan as early as 1540 and was invested as its duke three years later. He also received the crown of Sicily and Naples the day before his wedding to Mary Tudor in 1554. It only remained to give the prince the Netherlands, the Crown of Castile (which included the New World), and that of Aragon together with Sardinia. Philip’s right to rule remained the same as that of his father: it was dynastic, that is, based purely on the principle of inheritance in the family. His title in all his European territories continued to be dynastic. But under him a fundamental difference began to operate for the first time. Because the territories he controlled were centred on the Mediterranean, very quickly their political focus moved to Spain, since the king chose Spain as his centre. He stayed on four more years in the Netherlands, where a new war with France, provoked principally by events in Italy, demanded his attention. But it was Spain, and the men of Spain, that from now on began to make the decisions and wield the power.

While a French army invaded Italy to attack Milan, another invaded the Netherlands. By July 1557 Philip in Brussels had assembled a defensive army of thirty-five thousand men, commanded by Emanuele Filiberto, the duke of Savoy, and William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, with cavalry under the orders of Lamoral, Earl of Egmont. Of Philip’s total available forces (not all of whom took part in the battle) only twelve per cent were Spaniards. Fifty-three per cent were Germans, twenty-three per cent Netherlanders, and twelve per cent English. All the chief commanders were non-Spaniards. The king threw himself with energy into the campaign.3 In the last week of July he was busily arranging for the scattered Italian and German troops under his command to rendezvous at St Quentin. His duties made it impossible for him to go to the front, but he insisted to Savoy that (the emphasis is that of the king himself in his letter) ‘you must avoid engaging in battle until I arrive’. On 10 August, the feast of St Lawrence, the Constable of France at the head of some twenty-two thousand infantry and cavalry advanced upon Savoy’s positions before St Quentin. The town was of crucial importance to the Netherlanders, both for blocking the French advance and for clearing the way to a possible march on Paris. Unable to avoid an engagement, Savoy counter-attacked.

In a short but bloody action the army of Flanders routed and destroyed the French forces, which lost over five thousand men, with thousands more taken prisoner. Possibly no more than five hundred of Savoy’s army lost their lives. It was one of the most brilliant military victories of the age. Philip’s friend and adviser Ruy Gómez remarked that the victory had evidently been of God, since it had been won ‘without experience, without troops, and without money’. Though Spaniards played only a small part in it, the glory redounded to the new king of Spain, and Philip saw it as God’s blessing on his reign. The Spanish contingent in the battle had constituted only one-tenth of the troops, thereby undermining the classic view that St Quentin was a Spanish victory. The Spanish troops may have been few, but they were more effective than the rest, making it a Spanish victory. In any case, the victory belongs to him who paid for the battle, and that was Spain. One way or the other it must have been, and therefore was, a Spanish triumph: ‘the battle was won by the Spanish contingent’

The French were forced into peace negotiations, and peace talks, which began late in 1558, ended with the signing of a treaty in April 1559 at Cateau-Cambrésis.

Philip returned home to Castile in September 1559, confident that the peace he had just made with the French would be a lasting one. ‘It is totally impossible for me to sustain the war’, he had written earlier that year. There were serious financial problems that needed to be resolved. In 1556 – omen of much graver events to come – a Spanish regiment in Flanders had mutinied when not paid. ‘I am extremely sorry’, Philip wrote to the duke of Savoy, ‘not to be able to send you the money for paying off this army, but I simply do not have it. You can see that the only possibility is to negotiate with the Fuggers.’ The costs of war, not only in the Netherlands but also in Italy, were already insupportable.

Cateau-Cambrésis promised a pause. It was the end of the long dynastic conflict between the houses of Valois and Habsburg, and was sealed by Philip’s marriage to the daughter of Henry II of France, Elizabeth. Seeing the vast territories he controlled, however, other powers feared the king’s intentions. The Venetian ambassador at his court took a more hopeful view. Philip’s aim, he reported, was ‘not to wage war so that he can add to his kingdoms, but to wage peace so that he can keep the lands he has’. Throughout his reign, the king never veered from this idea. ‘I have no claims to the territory of others’, he wrote once to his father. ‘But I would also like it to be understood that I must defend that which Your Majesty has granted to me.’ He stated frequently and firmly to diplomats that he had no expansionist intentions. He employed officials who made clear their opposition to policies of aggression. On the other hand, the realities of political life made it inevitable that he should almost continuously be drawn into war situations, both defensive and aggressive. There were also serious problems to be dealt with, above all the debts accumulated by his father. The financial arrears in Flanders were very bad, he admitted to his chief minister there, Cardinal Granvelle, but ‘I promise you that I have found things here worse than over there. I confess that I never thought it would be like this.’

Notes:

Henry Kamen, Philip of Spain (1997) gives a brief account based on contemporary sources, noting that Spanish troops constituted about 10% of the Habsburg total. Kamen claims that the battle was “won by a mainly Netherlandish army commanded by the non-Spaniards the duke of Savoy and the earl of Egmont”. Kamen, Henry: Golden Age Spain. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 023080246X, p. 28.

On the other hand, Geoffrey Parker states that Spanish troops were decisive in defeating the French at St. Quentin owing to their high value, as well as in defeating the Ottomans at Hungary in 1532 and at Tunis in 1535, and the German protestants at Mühlberg in 1547. Parker, Geoffrey: España y la rebelión de Flandes. Madrid: Nerea, 1989. ISBN 8486763266, p. 41

Five Forks

By 1 p.m. on the 1st of April 1865, Sheridan had deployed Federal cavalry under Wesley Merritt in front of George Pickett’s Confederates, who were entrenched at Five Forks. Sheridan planned to pin down Pickett with the cavalry while Warren’s V Corps assaulted the Angle on the Confederate left. It was 4 p.m. before Warren came into action, and because of faulty deployment, V Corps nearly missed its objective. Despite the confusion and delay, Warren’s attack struck Pickett a decisive blow; by 7 p.m. the Confederate force had been virtually destroyed.

Actions at Petersburg before and during the Battle of Five Forks.

RICHMOND

The war clerk, John Beauchamp Jones, felt better in the clear, pleasant weather of this Saturday. He walked to the War Department offices through Richmond crowds that were vaguely uneasy, speaking to acquaintances, and when he had reached his office made one of his meticulous diary entries:

Vague and incoherent accounts from excited couriers of fighting, without result, in Dinwiddie County.…

Jones peered curiously into the record books of the conscript office and was stunned by what he saw: more than 60,000 troops were absent without leave—deserters. All Virginians, he noted.

John M. Daniel, the fiery editor of the Richmond Examiner who had poured vituperative scorn on the heads of President Davis and General Lee and officers and politicians without number, was dead today. Jones noted no signs of mourning.

A rumor was adrift in the streets that the Confederacy had signed a treaty with the Mexican government of Maximilian.

Early in the morning Captain William H. Parker, of the Navy’s school ship, Patrick Henry, went up from the James to Secretary Mallory’s house, seeking news.

Parker was a thirty-four-year-old veteran of the Mexican War and an old U.S. Navy hand. When he came near Mallory’s home he gave no sign of surprise at the strange sight:

Stephen Mallory paced up and down on the peaceful walk with a big pistol in his hand. His manner was so calm that Parker assumed he had been out target shooting.

Mallory was a smiling, urbane man who had brought much to the Confederacy. The son of a New England engineer, born in Trinidad, he had grown up in Key West, fought the Seminoles, practiced law, been collector of customs and served in the U.S. Senate, where he had fought for naval reforms. He had literally given the Confederacy its little ironclad Navy. Parker admired him greatly.

“Any news from the army, sir?” Parker asked.

Mallory seemed distracted. “The word from General Lee is good. Affairs about Petersburg are promising, they say. Promising.”

“I’ll spend the night in the city,” Parker said, “if nothing is likely to happen that would call for me aboard ship.”

“No, no,” Mallory said. “I know of nothing to keep you there. Do as you wish. I’ll call if I need you.”

Parker went out with friends for the evening, but he noticed in the streets some of the home guard, marching out the Brook Turnpike. Bystanders spoke vaguely of a threatened raid on the city. The night passed in quiet.

The camp of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry was east of the city and north of the James, within sight of the enemy. Saturday morning was peaceful and almost soundless, but Edward M. Boykin, who was at headquarters when orders came, thought this must be the day they had long dreaded.

The orders were simple enough: Send the dismounted men of the regiment to Lieutenant Colonel Barham of the 24th Virginia Cavalry, for duty on the lines.

Cavalrymen to stand in the trenches. It gave him a feeling of what was to come, Boykin said, but he added, “It was difficult to say what was expected.”

A party of the regiment trailed off toward the bluecoat lines, leaving behind a row of bony horses.

Not far away from the South Carolinians, near Chaffin’s Bluff, was the remarkable force commanded by Custis Lee, a patched-up emergency brigade of 1300 local guards from Richmond, chiefly clerks and an artillery group of six battalions.

The artillerymen, except for a Georgia crew, had seen no field service; the others had been posted at guns in Richmond for months. And though enlistment cards read “heavy artillery,” many were light artillerymen, and one company was, in truth, of cavalry.

The gunners, however, had a talented leader, Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield, once chief gunner to Stonewall Jackson; he was only now recovering from a wound suffered almost two years ago, when Jackson had fallen.

The dress of the gunners set them apart from any other Confederate troops—scarlet caps and trim.

Custis Lee’s sector was near Fort Harrison, the scene of bitter fighting in the past few months, where the pickets were almost face to face. At one spot the hostile lines were divided by logs thrown across a path a few feet apart as the limits of sentry beats.

Between 10 and 11 P.M. of this night Captain McHenry Howard of Baltimore, of Custis Lee’s staff, was falling asleep in his tent when a red glare lighted it, and distant gunfire aroused him:

“The night was very dark and cloudy, the atmosphere damp and heavy.… Dressing ourselves and mounting the works, we watched and listened for half an hour, but the battle was across the James, and all remained quiet on our part of the lines; and the ‘Richmond defenses’ came to the conclusion that so far it was no affair of theirs, and like true soldiers went to sleep as fast as they could.”

Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, commander of the city’s defenses, had lost none of his vitality, for all that he had lost a leg and wore a gray fringe on his domed bald head. He was up through the night, driving his staff, tagged at every step by his Apache boy, “Friday,” a relic of his days on the plains.

Ewell piped in his thin voice and gave orders with the quaint gestures that had won him the sobriquet “The Woodcock.” In his convalescence two years before, Ewell had married his widowed cousin, Lizinka Campbell Brown, whom he still introduced to friends as “Mrs. Brown.” Ewell had done his best to organize the city’s defenses.

He had laid careful plans for this night; months ago he had given orders as to how tobacco warehouses should be burned, at the threat of enemy occupation.

Ewell had foreseen that the city might be looted by its own people: “I begged them to organize a volunteer guard force for an emergency, promising the necessary arms. I regret to say but one man volunteered.”

Not long after dark, Ewell had a sobering message from General Longstreet: Old Pete had been called south of the James with his divisions. He would leave General Kershaw on the Richmond front line. Ewell was to assemble all troops he could find, send them down the Darbytown Road and report to Longstreet’s headquarters.

Ewell sent his staff to collect convalescent soldiers and militia, and mounted for the ride. This was not a simple process, for he must be strapped into the saddle by his wooden leg while the patient old gray, “Rifle,” waited for the Indian boy to be done.

Longstreet ordered Ewell to relieve two brigades left on picket duty, using his home guard, and send the regulars to the relief of Petersburg.

THE ARMY

After dark the rain had stopped, though it was little enough comfort to George Pickett’s troops, waiting in the pines. The roads were still liquid, and the men were cold and hungry.

General Pickett had reassured himself yesterday, pushing the enemy from Five Forks to within half a mile of Dinwiddie Court House, where he now camped.

At 9 P.M. cavalry scouts brought in two prisoners, and at sight of their corps insignia Pickett’s confidence began to seep away. The Federals were infantrymen. Not only had Sheridan 12,000 troopers in his path, but a big force of Grant’s real power was at hand, perhaps more than one corps.

Pickett hesitated until well after midnight, and then got off a dispatch to Robert Lee: The day had brought victory to the isolated right wing, but now he was seriously outnumbered. He would fall back nearer the comforting flank of the entrenched Confederate line.

In short, Pickett would give up the ground won the previous day, and await the enemy attack nearer Lee’s entrenched line. His courier left with the message at 2 A.M.

Lee did not conceal his surprise at this dispatch. He replied immediately with a warning that Five Forks must be held at all costs, as the shield to the Southside Railroad and key to the entire position. He gave reluctant blessing to Pickett’s retreat.

It was not quite two years since Gettysburg, when Pickett had led a fateful charge of which Lee had written him:

You and your men have covered yourselves with glory.

Pickett’s name had been heard less often in the days since, and the commander had at least once chided him for bickering and controversy with other officers. It was months ago that the ordnance chief, General Josiah Gorgas, entering in his diary a rumor that Pickett had been relieved of his command, wrote: “Pickett is very dissipated, it is said.”

Pickett could not be criticized for lack of promptness tonight, at any rate. His men were moving back toward Five Forks at the moment the dispatch went out to General Lee. It was slow work, for the route was as nearly a stream as a roadway, and pine torches gave scant light to the troops. They came, exhausted, to Five Forks at dawn. There was no sign of Federal pursuit.

Pickett left the choice of a defensive battle line to no one else. He rode in the gray morning along the White Oak Road, at right angles to the Ford Road. The Southside Railroad was some two miles in his rear. Pickett had the men entrench, but took little time in selection of the ground, which was in places low and difficult to defend. Crews felled trees in front of the line until in some places the logs were piled chest-high, at the edge of a woodland. Men sensed no anxiety in the general; the worst to be expected was a sharp attack by Sheridan’s cavalry, which could surely be driven off. If blue infantry came in, they had only to call up help from the end of the entrenched line. No one on the isolated flank yet knew that the anchor regiments of Lee’s thin line had already attacked on their front and been so roughly handled that they now huddled in the trenches, ready for retreat.

By late morning Pickett was satisfied with his line at Five Forks. From left to right he had placed his infantry:

The brigades of Matt Ransom and William Wallace, acting as one command, since they were under 1000 strong; George Steuart’s brigade of about 1000; Corse’s, about 1100; and William Terry’s, no more than 800.

Beyond these there was only cavalry. To the left, hardly more than a picket line stretching toward the Petersburg trenches, was a regiment of T. T. Munford’s horsemen and the decimated brigade of twenty-four-year-old General William Roberts. To the right of the line was Robert Lee’s son Rooney, with some 2500 troopers.

Pickett sent his wagons back, to the north of Hatcher’s Run, with his meager reserve strength to guard them—two brigades of cavalry under Thomas Rosser.

Fitz Lee, the senior cavalry commander, came up after noon with about half his men, some 900 of them. Soldiers cooked their meals, but few of them had more than parched corn. The morning passed with nothing more serious than brief distant crackling of skirmishes with the enemy, which came on slowly.

Pickett had chosen the gun positions as well as the infantry line, though Colonel William Johnson Pegram, the twenty-two-year-old genius of artillery, was there. He had six guns, three of them in the center of the line, commanded by two of Pegram’s boy lieutenants. Farther to the right, where they swept an open field before a farmhouse, were the other guns, under a skilled veteran, Captain Thomas Ellett.

William Pegram was a handsome boy who had fought his guns since his enlistment as a private in 1861. Only his youth had cost him a general’s stars; he had been often praised by Lee, A. P. Hill and Stonewall Jackson, and, since the death of the legendary John Pelham, had been the army’s favorite gunner.

Today he was worn from two days of fighting, in the saddle night and day, wet to the skin most of those hours as he drove the guns through muddy roads to this front, fighting off cavalry patrols of the enemy. For breakfast this morning he had taken a handful of corn from his horse’s ration and parched it over a fire, sharing even that with an officer of his command.

Pegram did not protest Pickett’s gunsites, though they were far from ideal; the center position in particular seemed vulnerable. Pegram watched in the quiet until noon, and while axes still rang and the little line grew, he fell asleep on the wet ground near Ellett’s guns on the right. He had no blanket.

General Thomas Rosser had about him the aura of the cavalry’s great days—an immense young man, high-shouldered, black-eyed, quick-tempered, with a weakness for alcohol which he fought manfully. Drinking had not affected him as a field commander, and before Jeb Stuart’s death last spring, Rosser had been at the head of many reckless charges which had saved the army from disaster.

There was smoldering enmity between Rosser and Thomas Munford, for a recent quarrel had led to a court-martial. Munford had won acquittal and now had his own division of cavalry, but no one had forgotten.

Rosser was fresh from triumphs in the Shenandoah Valley, in a hard campaign which had left his horses jaded and sore-backed. But yesterday, as he crossed the Nottoway River riding down to this flank, Rosser had succumbed to his weakness for good food. He borrowed a seine and waded the cold water with a Negro servant and aides, and caught a number of big shad. He had carried the fish in a headquarters wagon through a sharp skirmish yesterday, when he got a painful flesh wound in an arm. Rosser was not ready for action this morning.

He explained to Pickett that he must rest the mounts of his command.

“I’ve got to go back and unsaddle and feed,” he said. “I won’t be able to fight from horseback much longer, if I don’t cure those saddlesores.”

Pickett agreed. Rosser turned for a last word:

“I want you to come back and have lunch with me. A shad bake, I might say. We’ve got some nice ones.”

Pickett accepted immediately. “Fine, fine. I’ll be with you in an hour.”

Rosser rode off, but paused on his way to invite Fitz Lee to the feast.

There was quiet on the line at Five Forks; from the distant left, toward the lines of the main army, there was a rattle of fighting, but it had a scattered sound and was not thought to be serious. Far in the rear, at Rosser’s camp, the tantalizing aromas of hickory smoke and broiling shad began to rise.

Fitz Lee was in the saddle at Five Forks, ready for the two-mile ride back to Rosser’s camp, when Tom Munford rode into sight. Munford was excited. He passed Lee a dispatch from one of his troopers on the left flank.

A tide of Federal cavalry had poured over White Oak Road, scattering the brigade of Bill Roberts. Pickett’s force appeared to be cut off from the main army.

Fitz read the message, too hurriedly, Munford thought, and gave no sign of concern.

“Well, Munford,” he said, “I wish you would go over in person at once and see what this means. If necessary, draw up your division and let me hear from you.”

The message did not go to Pickett, though it was about this time that Munford watched Fitz Lee and Pickett ride to the rear. The troops lying in line paid no attention to the departing generals, and big Rooney Lee, at the far right with his troopers, was not told of the shad bake, nor that his superiors had left the field, leaving him the senior officer.

The shad bake on the banks of Hatcher’s Run was a great success. Rosser’s headquarters cook served the big fish, brown and succulent from the glowing mounds of coals. It was a familiar rite to Tidewater Virginians, with the shad split and spread flat across green withes cut from the woods, a crude method of planking. The networks of spiny bones did not mar the contentment of the generals. None of those who watched the feast in the lee of Rosser’s wagon recorded that there were drinks, possibly because so familiar a custom was beneath special notice. In any event, the officers were around the fire for two or three hours.

Two couriers from the front rode up swiftly.

“The enemy’s coming in on White Oak Road, General,” one of the men said.

Rosser, Pickett and Fitz Lee listened, but heard no firing from the front. A dense pine forest lay between them and Five Forks, but it did not occur to the hungry officers that it could muffle the rolling of musketry. They lingered, and Rosser continued to listen. He recorded: “Some time was spent over the lunch, during which no firing was heard, and we concluded that the enemy was not in much of a hurry to find us at Five Forks.”

About 4 P.M. Pickett asked Rosser for a rider to carry a message to Five Forks, though he was not visibly alarmed. Rosser called up two men, and took his usual precaution of sending one a few hundred yards in front of the other, for the safety of the message. The two riders galloped off, but a moment later gunfire rolled through the woods.

The generals saw a line of bluecoats seize the leading courier. The other trooper galloped back to Rosser.

“Woods full of ’em, sir. They’ve got behind the men at Five Forks, too.”

Pickett rode quickly toward the front. Within a moment he was back, calling for the Dinwiddie Troop to guide him; he seemed to be cut off from the command.

During the hours of the shad bake, Tom Munford rode to the left to carry out Fitz Lee’s orders. He carried with him three or four couriers and a favorite staff officer, Fitz’s brother, Captain Henry Lee.

He reached the far end of the line and saw Federals on White Oak Road. An officer told Munford the enemy riders were MacKenzie’s cavalry. Munford soon saw more: In a field near White Oak Road, columns of blue infantry had formed; through his glasses he made out their insignia: 5th Corps. Munford sent a rider to Fitz Lee and Pickett with this information and ordered his division to him by way of a narrow woods road.

Munford was impatient and, as the Federals continued to gather in his front, sent Henry Lee to hurry the troops and then carry word to Fitz Lee and Pickett. “Tell them personally what you’ve seen,” Munford said.

For some time Munford had no reply, and sent more couriers after Henry Lee. He had little time for more; his division was under brisk attack and being forced back through the woods. Munford left the field to call for help.

He and a few men were pursued by Federal riders into the Ford Road, where he met Pickett.

Pickett’s dark curls were tousled around his flushed face. He shouted to Munford, pointing to the front.

“What troops are those?” he called, but did not pause for an answer. “I’ve got to get in to Five Forks. For God’s sake do something to hold them off while I get by.”

Captain James Breckinridge, commanding the sharpshooters of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry, was beside Munford, and without waiting for a command, rode at the oncoming Federals with his handful of riders, firing rapidly. Breckinridge fell dead from his saddle, but Pickett, racing past in Indian fashion, his head low on the neck of his horse, escaped a volley from the bluecoats and was soon out of sight. Fitz Lee, who tried to follow, was driven rearward. Up ahead, furious firing shook the woodlands.

Tom Munford noted that the shadows were already growing long.

The first volley of musketry brought Willie Pegram to his feet among Ellett’s guns, and he was soon galloping on his white horse toward the vulnerable center. A witness, W. Gordon McCabe, recalled the spot at this moment: “The little salient was literally ringed with flame. The guns were using double canister at short range and their cannoneers were serving their pieces with a coolness and rapidity beyond all praise. Within thirty yards or less of the guns the dense columns of the enemy were staggering under a rapid fire.”

Pegram rode to this battery shouting encouragement to his men. McCabe saw “a sweet serenity” on his face as the boy colonel studied the effects of his gunfire.

“Fire your canister low, men!” Pegram shouted. It was his last order. He tumbled from his saddle and into McCabe’s arms. “Oh, Gordon,” Pegram said, “I’m mortally wounded. Take me off.”

The gun’s lieutenant fell across the barrel a moment later, shot through the head. The battery continued to fight, ripping the blue lines until it was overrun. Federals came from both flanks. A gunner felled the first man with a sponge staff, but the graycoats were borne under and the guns fell quiet. Thousands of men overran the position and swept into the woods behind.

On the left of the line Matt Ransom’s men were hurled back by the attack. The outside regiment was the 24th North Carolina, rolled in on its neighbors in a melee of flight and carrying the adjoining four regiments from the line. Ransom lost his hat, and one of his soldiers, W. N. Rose, Jr., saw him floundering in the thick pines on horseback, rallying his men. Rose wrote of the swift Yankee victory: “They were a sublime sight in their long lines of blue. We prepared to receive them as they came, but soon yelling commenced on the right of Ransom’s brigade, and they came in both front and rear and poured into us a heavy enfilading fire.… We were now powerless to help ourselves, as the Yankees were closing in upon us from every quarter, and the order was given to fall back by companies, beginning on the left of the regiment; but before the right companies received the order the enemy had cut off all chances of retreat.”

The 24th North Carolina was gone, except for a handful who escaped the woods. Even then, Major Thaddeus Love did not surrender. He twisted the U.S. flag from the hands of a color-bearer who charged by him, and went down, flailing about him with the staff.

General Ransom made a last effort to hold the flank after one mount had been killed under him. He led a thin line of survivors from the woods, but went down with his horse in a volley. Rumors went through both armies that Ransom was dead, but two captains ran to him, found him pinioned under his thrashing horse, and freed the general; he escaped on foot.

Tom Munford pointed out to Ransom a good gun position, but the infantryman refused to send artillerymen there. Munford himself had no orders.

When Pickett reached the men of his front line, he found they had been pushed back half a mile or more from the original position. He flung himself into the work of rallying the men as if he would atone for his absence.

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Harrison, his adjutant general, was near the lank-haired commander:

Pickett got a sergeant and men enough to put one piece in position on the left and fired eight rounds into the head of the enemy column, when the axle broke and the piece was disabled.… He had also pulled out Terry’s brigade from their position and threw them on the left flank, charging over Wallace’s men and forcing them back to their position.

Even then, with all the odds against us, we might have held until night, which was fast approaching, but the ammunition was fast giving out. Colonel Flowers’ regiment fought hand to hand after the cartridges were gone, but to no avail, though the enemy lay in heaps. The left was completely turned.

The staff tried to stem the ensuing panic, but it was too late.

Corse’s brigade was standing firm, and some men from broken regiments rallied on it; it was a momentary pause.

Pickett was still with the broken battery when he was startled by a bluecoat trooper jumping the breastwork on a mule, crying to him to surrender.

“Damn you,” Pickett shouted, and galloped from the enemy ring just before it closed. He fled with his men toward White Oak Road, but was forced to turn; the blue regiments of Crawford and MacKenzie were sweeping up survivors there. Elsewhere, the men of Custer and Devin were scattering the last organized Confederate troops through the woodland.

At last only Rooney Lee’s troopers withdrew in good order, having beaten off savage attacks. Even they paid dearly. Walter Harrison thought their clash with the enemy on the cleared field near the Gilliam farmhouse “one of the most brilliant cavalry engagements of the war,” a series of charges and head-on collisions with ringing sabers and banging pistols.

A staff officer who had seen every battle, from the first of Jeb Stuart’s clashes, said he never saw such desperate fighting as the last charge provided, when nine colonels went down within his view. Mrs. Gilliam later reported that her lawn and garden, a space of not more than a dozen acres, was so littered with the bodies of horses that it took many days to drag them away and end the overpowering stench of the field.

When the troopers made camp that night they lacked even the spirit to sing the grim song which had become the favorite in the shrinking ranks of late:

Stand to your glasses steady,

’Tis all we’ve left to prize;

Here’s to the dead already,

Hurrah for the next man who dies!

After dark, when the field had cleared, Gordon McCabe had Willie Pegram’s stretcher loaded into an ambulance and rode with him through the confusion of Pickett’s retreat. The jolting wagon, driven rapidly toward Ford’s Station on the Southside Railroad, wrung groans of agony from the colonel.

McCabe held Pegram in his arms, and now and then prayed aloud for him. He kissed the white face several times. Pegram stirred.

“If it is God’s will to take me, I’m perfectly resigned. I only want to live for the sake of my mother and sisters.”

A few minutes later Pegram muttered, “Take my love to Mother and the girls, and tell them I thought of them at the last.”

McCabe groaned. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

“Don’t say that, Gordon,” Pegram said. “It isn’t right.”

McCabe kissed Pegram once more. “I never knew how much I loved you until now, Willie.” It was the first time he had called the colonel by that name.

Pegram squeezed McCabe’s hand. “But I did,” he said.

The ambulance rocked on in the darkness, with the sound of McCabe’s prayers so loud that the driver heard it over the creaking of the wagon and the hoofs of the mules.

It was after 10 P.M. when they halted at Ford’s Station. McCabe found a bed for Pegram there, gave him morphine until his pain was eased, and sat beside his cot for hours, despite a midnight alarm that the enemy was coming. McCabe sent off an orderly with their horses, pistols, sabers, and spurs, expecting to be captured, but they were not disturbed. McCabe wrote:

“I shall never forget that night of waiting. I could only pray. He breathed heavily through the night, and passed into a stupor. I bound his wounds as well as I knew how and moistened his lips with water. Sunday morning he died as gently as possible.”

McCabe had Pegram wrapped in a blanket, saw him buried in a trench which he helped to dig, and read the Episcopal funeral service over him.

The day passed slowly at Lee’s headquarters in the Turnbull house. There were discouraging reports from Anderson’s fight at the end of the trenches, but for hours there was nothing from Pickett. Rumors flew.

In the afternoon there was a long message from President Davis in Richmond, a rather querulous dispatch about assigning officers to raise Negro troops. The President complained:

I called for the recommendations made by you, and so few names were presented that I infer you do not find it desirable to rely on officers sent to recruit for their own commands.

I have asked often but without satisfactory reply how many of the exchanged prisoners have joined the army. Your force should have been increased from that source 8,000 or 10,000 men.

Last night we had rumors of a general engagement on your right. Your silence in regard to it leads to the conclusion that it was unwarranted.…

Near the end the President came dangerously close to revelation of his secret desperation:

The question is often asked of me, “Will we hold Richmond?” To which my only answer is, “If we can, it is purely a question of military power.” The distrust is increasing, and embarrasses in many ways.

Long before he heard from Pickett, Lee telegraphed Davis of his concern. He left little to the imagination:

The movement of General Grant to Dinwiddie C. H. seriously threatens our position, and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg.… It also renders it more difficult to withdraw from our position … and gives the enemy an advantageous position in our rear.… I fear he can readily cut both the Southside and the Danville Railroads, being far superior to us in cavalry.

This in my opinion obliged us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course. I should like very much to have the views of your Excellency upon this matter as well as counsel, and would repair to Richmond for the purpose, did I not feel that my presence here is necessary. Should I find it practicable I will do so, but should it be convenient for your Excellency or the Secretary of War to visit headquarters, I should be glad to see you.…

When Lee at last heard of the disaster to Pickett, he took emergency measures left to him. He called Longstreet down from the north side of the James, removing most of Richmond’s protection in an effort to bolster for a few hours the doomed lower reaches of his line.

Tank Brigades, Stalingrad 1942

133rd Tank Brigade’s had nearly 17 heavy KV tanks. At the start of the battle on September 13, 1942, the 62nd Army had some 105 tanks (78 T-34s, 17 KV-1s and ten T-70s) in Stalingrad: in the city south of the Tsaritsa were the 26th and 133rd Tank Brigades with 35 tanks. In the central district were the 6th and 6th Guards Tank Brigades with 37 tanks, and near the Red October Factory in the north were the 27th and 189th Tank Brigades with 33 tanks. However, many of these AFVs were immobile and could only be used as fixed firing points.

 

One of the destroyed tanks of the 6th Tank Brigade at the intersection of Nevskaya and Karskaya streets, Zapolotnovsky district.

 

Disabled KV-1 from the 133rd Tank brigade on Sovetskaya Street, coming from the Astrakhansky bridge (October 1942)

In mid-July the Red Army began its defensive plan for Stalingrad by creating a new Stalingrad Front, its command transferred from Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Timoshenko to Lieutenant-General Vasily Gordov on July 23. Stalin reinforced the theatre with three fresh reserve armies (the 63rd, 62nd, 64th), the latter two (commanded by Major-General Vladimir Kolpakchi and Lieutenant-General Vasily Chuikov, respectively) being placed on the west bank of the Don to block any direct German advance to the city. In addition, two new tank armies, the 1st and the 4th, were formed and headed for deployment in the Don Bend.

Stalingrad itself was prepared for battle by the evacuation of livestock and food supplies, and the construction of bunkers, trenches and gun emplacements. Two days after Directive No. 45 was issued, the 6. Armee was dead in its tracks for lack of supplies, and was to remain so until the end of the first week of August, but now it was up against the new Stalingrad Front. This comprised seven armies, three of them fresh reserve armies and two in the process of conversion to tank armies, as well as the 8th Air Army. Paulus’s force of 290 panzers was thus facing over 1,200 Red Army tanks with more on the way.

The Stalingrad offensive got off to an inauspicious start as General der Panzertruppen Friedrich Paulus’s 6. Armee soon was struggling in front of stiffening resistance. The lead units encountered the main line of resistance of the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies on July 23. Although seriously low on fuel and supplies, Paulus began to unseat Kolpakchi’s right flank and push him towards the Don to reach the strategic bridge over the river at Kalach. Significant Soviet armoured forces were sent to the Kalach bridgehead to bolster the position and by the 24th plans had been formulated for a counter-attack by the 1st and 4th Tank Armies, which included the 133rd and 158th Heavy Tank Brigades. Between July 25 and 28, 550 Soviet tanks were committed in the offensive to relieve the 62nd Army, being hammered mercilessly by the Luftwaffe on the open steppe while Paulus tried to hold on to and even complete his encirclement of the 62nd Army.

The first assault on Stalingrad city began at 13 of September 1942 Wehrmacht formations (295th and 71th Infantry Divisions of the 6. Armee, reinforced with SPGs of the 244th and 245th assault gun battalions) reached the western outskirts of the city from the Razgulyaevka road junction and railroad station Opytnaya near the height 112.5 and Aviagorodok. Soldiers of 42th Separate Rifle Brigade in their trenches near Dubovaya Balka would fight for four more days in half-encirclement before starting to retreat under constant German fire alongside Tsartitsa river to the banks of the Volga.

4. Panzer Armee units (24th and 14th Panzer divisions, 94th Infantry and 29th Motorized divisions) reached Stalingrad to the south of the Tsaritsa basin cutting off Chuikov’s 62nd Army from Shumilov’s 64th Army at the line between Minin outskirts – Kuporosny village – unfinished Amusement Park at the border between Kirov and Voroshilov districts of the city. Soon this area will become an arena for fierce fighting of 64th Army and their attempts to force their way back to the north.

The air was completely dominated by the Luftwaffe, the German spotters had the heights on the outskirts and almost the entire city which was stretched in the arc along the river could be seen like the palm of your own hand.

The headquarters of the 62nd Army (Pushkinskaya St., Building 3, underground command post) in the central district of the city and the main ferries were almost entirely undefended. Only the remains of the 272nd NKVD regiment reinforced by 28th detachment of anti-tank dogs were trying to entrench in the area of the Komsomolsky garden in the grove near train station. Soldiers of 84th separate construction battalion were building defensive positions in the ruins of the Stalingrad-I railway station and depot. The ferries were defended by cadets of the Ordzhonikidze Military School (115 soldiers) and several border guards from the 79th Border Guard Regiment. A joint force of people’s militia and NKVD (45 people) operated at the square of January 9. An armored train cruised along the Volga coast, several gun crews from the 748th anti-aircraft artillery regiment were entrenched near the Holzhunov monument (ferry No.2), covering the pier from the air.

The situation to the south of the Tsaritsa, in the area of mill (grain silos) and a cannery plant, was no better: the 35th Guards Rifle Division, the 244th Rifle Division, the 10th Rifle Brigade, the 271st NKVD Regiment and the 20th Motor Rifle Brigade were marked on the army maps in that area but existed only on paper. Their actual combat strength was only few hundred of men. The only mobile reserve, two battalions of KV-1 heavy tanks (14 vehicles) from the 133rd Tank brigade, defended the approaches to the grain silos.

Monday of the September 14 began very early. At 03:30 the 272nd Regiment of the 10th Division of NKVD, the combined regiment of the 399th Rifle Division and the surviving tanks of the 6th Tank Brigade made an attempt to take back the settlement by the airfield as Germans captured it by the evening of the previous day. The attack took place without recon, artillery preparation, aviation support and with no support from the neighbours on the right and left flanks. Commander of the battalion of the 272nd Regiment Dmitry Stupin and the senior political officer Vladimir Partugimov were killed after the attempt to personally lead the attack. The commanding officers of the combined regiment simply fled, the regiment commander and the commissar were shot the next day.

One of the few remaining T-34s of the 6th Tank brigade was the tank of Lieutenant Mikhail Vlasenko. He fought for ten hours straight on the previous day, constantly changing positions between the height of 112.5 and the Airfield settlement. The officers of the 6th Tank brigade was hastily evacuated the command post in the Aviagorodok to the river crossing and the remaining tanks of the brigade were left without control. Vlasenko’s tank broke one of its tracks, the turret was jammed. The loader was unable to withstand the tension of the battle and fled. The remaining crew (Vlasenko himself, driver Ivan Lyashenko and radio operator Norkin) repaired the track under fire and after avoiding an air attack took a position near the buildings of the Krasnie Kazarmy complex.

After a doomed attack attempt by the weakened units of the 62nd Army, the infantry and panzer divisions of the two German armies began their advance to the city. It was necessary to hold them out for the whole day before the arrival of the relatively fresh 13th Guards Rifle Division. The entire frontline of the 62nd Army from Mamayev Kurgan to the central railway station was wide open. After the aerial bombardment and artillery preparation, the infantry of the 71st and 295th Infantry divisions with the support of assault guns attacked. The goal for the Wehrmacht soldiers was simple – to break through all the way to the bank of Volga and the crossings.

Battle of Saragarhi

The Punjab Frontier Force was set up and comprised the 1st, 2nd (Hill), 3rd and 4th Regiments of infantry as well as cavalry units. Acting primarily as rapid-response regiments, they would patrol the British borders in search of any Afghan aggression. The Sikhs displayed great bravery during the war and were employed effectively at both Ahmed Khel and Kandahar towards the end of the conflict in 1880. Their courage and dedication was admired by the British and would be utilised to greater effect in future campaigns.

A British victory came in 1880, but the war was now more than just an Anglo-Afghan affair, as Russia waded into the conflict. A period known as the `Great Game’ was initiated, and in what has been known since as the `Cold War of the 19th century’, the two powers sidestepped each other without ever locking horns. To stabilise their forces, the British raised two more Sikh regiments, the 35th and the 36th, who would see battle in the next big conflict in the region, the Tirah Campaign.

The war was almost inevitable. In the face of further British expansion during the Great Game, the empire became tangled up in issues with various local hill tribes. Although rarely united, they put their forces together against the British in what became known as the Tirah Expedition. As a result, the British lost a fair amount of land in the north west including the strategically important Khyber Pass. With access to the pass now in Afghan hands, the security of the British Raj was in jeopardy. Up to 40,000 soldiers were called into the area including many Sikhs, who were keen to put their skills to the test after being marginalized from the main army in the previous Anglo-Afghan War. After initial assaults by the Gurkha and Highland regiments, the Sikhs were called in to supplement the Highland charge on the bloody but successful Dargai Heights.

Undoubtedly the greatest Sikh achievement of the war was the Battle of Saragarhi. A backs-to-the-wall conflict of Thermopylae proportions, 21 Sikh soldiers managed to defend a small outpost from 10,000 tribesmen for more than seven hours. Despite receiving no aid from any of the surrounding British forts, the 36th Sikhs Regiment fought courageously and, even in defeat, managed to blunt the Afghan assault for long enough to save the two forts of Gullistan and Lockhart. To this day, Saragarhi Day is celebrated annually in honour of this heroic sacrifice and each of the 21 received the Indian Order of Merit posthumously.

The main British Field Force was now in the ascendancy, but guerilla warfare was taking its toll on the beleaguered soldiers. In November 1897, a unit from the Northamptonshire Regiment was going through a village in the Saran Sar Pass when it came under heavy fire. In the end, the group had to be saved and extracted by a combination of Sikhs and Gurkhas, who managed to haul the British out of harm’s away with only 18 men killed.

The terrain and local knowledge of the Afghans even made life difficult for the impressive Sikhs, who were ambushed while on the hunt for straggling Afridis, one of the many Afghan tribes. Along with two companies from the Dorset Regiment, the Sikhs were cornered in a number of burned-out houses before making it to safety. 25 men and four officers were killed. The next move of the expedition was to starve the Afghans of their winter food supplies. Accompanying the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 36th Sikhs made a grave error and, after a misunderstanding, abandoned the strategically valuable heights to the west of a pass. Their position was taken up by a group of Afridis, who inflicted casualties on the men from Yorkshire, forcing them to escape with the aid of a relief column.