The Battle of the Falkland Islands III

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Inflexible standing by to pick up survivors from the German cruiser SMS Gneisenau after the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

The three pursuing British ships now followed two Germans: Glasgow and Cornwall pursued Leipzig to the south, while Kent went after Nürnberg to the east. Cornwall began hitting Leipzig with her fourteen 6-inch guns, while Leipzig gamely hit back at Cornwall with her ten 4.1-inch guns. Cornwall, shielded by her armor, thrust on without hesitation to give and take punishment. Using Sturdee’s tactics, she closed the enemy at full speed, firing her forward guns, then, as soon as Leipzig began to hit back, turned sharply to starboard to bring her broadside to bear. And while Cornwall was drawing Leipzig’s fire, Glasgow closed in from a different direction to hammer the enemy with her own 6-inch and 4-inch batteries. For nearly an hour, these tactics continued. Leipzig, hit time after time, was doomed, but her gunfire remained expert. She fired rapidly, hitting Glasgow three times and Cornwall ten.

At 6:00 p.m., with the range down to 7,000 yards, Cornwall began firing special high-explosive shells. The effect was immediate. A large fire broke out forward on Leipzig and her gunfire became sporadic. Nevertheless, the German light cruiser continued to fire back until 7:05 p.m., by which point her mainmast and two of her funnels were gone and she had become an inferno of flashes and dark smoke. At this point, Cornwall ceased fire, expecting the enemy to strike her colors. Leipzig did not strike. Accordingly, Cornwall closed to 5,000 yards and fired more salvos. When the two British cruisers drew in to see whether she had struck, she was seen to be a wreck, but her flag was still flying on the remains of her foremast. Luce waited. He was about to signal, “Am anxious to save life. Do you surrender?” when Leipzig fired another—and as it turned out, final—shot.

What happened next was the result of a grim misunderstanding. Leipzig had fired her last shot. Captain Haun was ready to abandon and scuttle his ship; her seacocks had been opened and Haun had ordered all hands on deck with their lifesaving gear. A hundred and fifty men gathered amidships, hoping to be saved. But the German ensign was flying. Luce, for his part, was ready to accept Leipzig’s surrender, but with the flag still flying she was considered an active enemy. The difficulty was that the fires burning around the base of the mast where the flag was flying prevented anyone from lowering it. Haun already had told his men, “If anyone can reach the ensign, they can haul it down, for we shall sink now”; one sailor had made a dash through the inferno and collapsed, burning, before he reached the mast. The British waited for a reply that did not come, and at 7:25 p.m., Luce ordered both Glasgow and Cornwall to resume firing. The effect on the groups of men gathered on Leipzig’s open deck was appalling. The shells burst in the middle of the groups; a few minutes earlier, when the light cruiser had fired its last shot, there had been 150 men left. Now fifty remained.

At 8:12 p.m., Leipzig, listing and seeming about to capsize, fired two green distress lights. Luce took these as a signal of surrender, ordered another cease-fire, and cautiously approached within 500 yards. At 8:45 p.m., Luce ordered boats put in the water. Glasgow and Cornwall each lowered two boats as fast as they could be made seaworthy. Among those still alive on Leipzig was Captain Haun, who, when the British again stopped firing, sat calmly sharing his cigarettes. When he saw the rescue boats approaching, Haun ordered the survivors into the water. Then, still smoking, he walked forward and disappeared. The boats were within forty yards of the stricken ship and the boat crews saw German seamen jumping into the water when Leipzig sank. Heeling over to port, a mass of flames and smoke, she disappeared at 9:23 p.m., eighty miles from the point where Gneisenau had gone down. Glasgow’s boats picked up seven officers and ten men; Cornwall, one man. The high proportion of officers saved was due to the whistles they carried for use in the water.

Leipzig had hit Cornwall eighteen times, but because of her armor plate, the British cruiser had not lost a single gun or man. Glasgow was hit twice; one man was killed and four wounded. Because Glasgow’s magazines were empty of 6-inch shells, the two British ships returned to Port Stanley.

At 4:15 that afternoon, Kent had just begun firing at Leipzig when Nürnberg left her sisters and steamed away to the east. Kent followed Nürnberg. The two ships were different in almost every way. Kent was an armored cruiser with heavier guns, but she was old and had been recommissioned only sixty-seven days before. Three-fifths of her crew were from the naval reserve. When she left Portsmouth for the South Atlantic on October 12, half her crew became seasick in the Bay of Biscay. By November 13, the ship’s doctor was writing in his diary, “We are a crippled old ship, rushed out before our engine room was really efficient. We are now unable to condense water quickly enough and cannot steam more than ten knots. So we crawl south.” Kent joined Stoddart’s squadron at the Abrolhos Rocks before Sturdee’s arrival and went out to fire her 6-inch guns at a target 5,000 yards away. “Our shooting was rotten,” her doctor summarized. Nürnberg, on the other hand, was a modern light cruiser with a professional crew. Her armament was inferior but her shooting was excellent. On paper, both ships were listed as capable of 23 knots, but Kent, having repaired her old engines and by some nautical miracle, would actually exceed that. By 11:00 on the morning of the Falklands battle, she reached 23 knots; by 4:00 p.m. she was moving at 24, partly because she was light, having loaded no coal since Abrolhos. Kent’s speed also owed something to the frenzied efforts of the crew, who, to make up for the shortage of coal, fed everything made of wood aboard the ship into the furnaces: gunnery targets, ship’s ladders and doors, the officers’ wardroom furniture, the crew’s mess tables, benches, the chaplain’s lectern and the paymaster’s desk; at the end, timbers were being ripped from the decks.

As the afternoon wore on, the weather turned to mist and drizzle. Nevertheless, the race went on and Kent began to catch up. At 5:00 p.m., when Kent was 11,000 yards astern, Nürnberg opened fire. Nine minutes later, Kent fired back with her bow 6-inch gun. For some time no apparent damage was done to either ship. Then, at 5:35, just as Kent had begun to despair of a decisive action before dark, Nürnberg abruptly slowed to 19 knots. Two of her careworn, salt-contaminated boilers had burst and, although outwardly she still appeared undamaged, she was unable to flee. With the range reduced to 4,000 yards, Captain von Schönberg took his ship around for her last fight, broadside to broadside. Kent, willing to accept hits on her armor, bored in, using her heavier guns. Most of Nürnberg’s 4.1-inch shells failed to penetrate, exploding against the armored sides of Kent. One shell, however, burst in a gun position, killing or wounding most of its crew. Shortly before 6:00 p.m., another hit wrecked Kent’s wireless room; thereafter, the ship could receive wireless messages, but could not transmit.

Meanwhile, Nürnberg was on fire, her funnels were torn and twisted, her mainmast was gone, and only two guns on the port side were firing. Still, she refused to surrender. By 6:25 p.m., she was dead in the water; after 6:35, she fired no more shots. Kent then ceased fire and stood off awaiting surrender, but the German colors remained flying. The British fired again and at 6:57 p.m., the colors were hauled down. Nürnberg, now a burning wreck, lowered wounded men into her one surviving boat, which promptly sank. Kent closed in through the mist and saw the flames dancing above the light cruiser’s deck and shooting out from portholes and jagged holes in the hull. The rain pattering on the decks and hissing into the fires had little effect because it was accompanied by gusts of wind that fanned the flames more than the rain quenched them. As Kent launched two hurriedly patched boats, Nürnberg’s captain gathered the survivors, thanked them, called for three cheers for the fatherland, then marched to his conning tower to await the end. With Nürnberg settling by the bow, Kent’s searchlight picked up a German seaman, standing high in the air on her upraised stern, waving a German ensign lashed to a pole. At 7:27 p.m., Nürnberg turned on her side and sank. Those on Kent’s deck heard faint cries from the water and the British ship steamed slowly toward them, throwing ropes over the side and using searchlights to assist the searching boat crews. The sea was growing rougher, the water was intensely cold, and albatrosses arrived to attack the living and dead floating in their life jackets. Nevertheless, until 9:00 p.m. Kent’s boats continued to search. Of 400 men in Nürnberg’s crew, twelve were picked up alive; five of these later died. Otto von Spee was never found and became the third member of his family to die that day.

Kent had been hit thirty-seven times by 4.1-inch shells, but her armor had not been pierced. Her casualties were four killed and twelve wounded. That night, Kent’s officers ate boiled ham and went to bed. Next morning, they found their ship surrounded by deep fog and their captain uncertain as to where he was. The ship was critically short of coal and with her radio out of action, they could hear other ships calling “ ‘Kent! Kent!’ . . . but we could not transmit”; the result was that for twenty-four hours, Admiral Sturdee and the rest of the British squadron remained ignorant of her fate. The following afternoon, Kent limped into Port Stanley.

Sturdee, hearing nothing from Kent and fearing the worst, had taken Invincible, Inflexible, and Bristol to the southwest at 18 knots, making for Kent’s last known position. She might be sunk; her men still might be alive in the sea. He found nothing; the following afternoon a message from Macedonia announced that Kent was making for Port Stanley and that she had sunk Nürnberg. Sturdee still wanted Dresden, but by 10:30 a.m. on December 10, when he was within fifty miles of Staten Island at the eastern end of Tierra del Fuego, the fog was so thick that continuing the search was useless. With his battle cruisers short of coal, Sturdee abandoned the hunt and returned to the Falklands, arriving in Port William at 6:30 a.m. on the eleventh. There, with a strong west wind chopping the waters of the bay, he found the other ships of his squadron anchored and coaling. As soon as her anchor was dropped, Invincible’s divers went down and found a hole in her hull six feet by seven feet.

That night, Commander Pochhammer of Gneisenau was invited by Sturdee to a dinner party aboard the flagship. As the guest of honor, he was placed at the British admiral’s right hand and, during the meal, responded to questions about the battle. At the end of the dinner, glasses of port were passed around and Sturdee informed his guest that he was about to propose the traditional toast of “The King” but that he would understand if Pochhammer preferred not to drink. The German commander replied that, having accepted Sturdee’s invitation to dinner, he would conform to the Royal Navy’s established custom, which he knew well from prewar days. Back in Germany after the war, however, Pochhammer gave a different version of the incident. When Sturdee proposed the toast, he said later, he considered it “outrageous” and had “an overwhelming desire to throw my glass of port on the deck. My glass almost shivered in my hand, so angry did I feel. For a moment, I meditated throwing the contents in the face of this high personage [Sturdee].” Eventually, in fact, Pochhammer placed the glass back on the table without raising it. An awkward silence followed until Phillimore of Inflexible resumed conversation. In general, British hospitality was extended to all German officers. What particularly impressed Verner was the German officers’ “emphatic and unanimous statement that when they received the news that Great Britain had allied herself with France, they could hardly believe their senses. In their own words it was to them ‘absolutely incredible’ that Englishmen could ever become the Allies of so degenerate a race as the French.” From Macedonia, which left Port William with the German pris-oners on board on December 14, a German lieutenant wrote home, “There is nothing at all to show that we are prisoners of war.”

At 3:00 a.m. on the thirteenth, Sturdee was awakened and handed a report from the Admiralty: the British consul in Punta Arenas had reported that Dresden had arrived in that harbor on the afternoon of the twelfth and was coaling. The original message had been sent thirty-six hours before and only Bristol was ready for sea, but at 4:00 a.m. she sailed. At 8:30 a.m., Inflexible and Glasgow followed. Bristol arrived at Punta Arenas on the afternoon of the fourteenth to find that Dresden had departed at 10:00 the night before. Invincible remained at Port William for three days, making temporary repairs. She had been hit twenty-two times; twelve of these hits were by 8.2-inch shells. Two bow compartments were flooded. Most serious was the nasty hole on the waterline, which flooded a coal bunker alongside P turret, giving the ship a 15-degree list to port. This hole was beyond the capacity of the ship’s company to repair so the bunker was left flooded and all surrounding bulkheads were shored up. Remarkably, despite the physical damage to the ship, not one of Invincible’s crew of 950 had been killed and only two were slightly wounded. Inflexible, obscured so long by the flagship’s smoke, had received only three hits. Splinters had killed one man and wounded three others.

On December 15, Invincible, with Sturdee on board, steamed out of Port Stanley. On the twentieth, she anchored in the river Plate to coal, then coaled again at Abrolhos on December 26. On January 11, the battle cruiser reached Gibraltar and went into dry dock. Sturdee and his staff departed from there for England on January 28 on board the liner India. Leaving Invincible, the admiral shook hands with all the officers while the crew, lining the rails, gave him three cheers. Sturdee was enormously pleased with himself. The night after the battle, he had turned to Invincible’s captain and said, “Well, Beamish, we were sacked from the Admiralty, but we’ve done pretty well.”

How well, in fact, had he done? Sturdee’s assignment had been to destroy a far weaker enemy, one who had neither the strength to defeat him nor the speed to escape. Why had it taken so long—three and a half hours to sink Scharnhorst and five to sink Gneisenau? The two battle cruisers had fired as many as 600 shells apiece, the greater part of their 12-inch ammunition, to sink the two armored cruisers. There were many reasons for what at first sight seemed inefficient ship handling and inept gunnery in the British squadron. Before the war, few British naval officers had appreciated the inherent inaccuracy of naval guns at long range. The only time that Lieutenant Commander Dannreuther, the gunnery officer of Invincible, had been allowed to fire at ranges in excess of 6,000 yards was during the practice authorized by Sturdee on the way south to the Falklands—and he had been gunnery officer of the battle cruiser since 1912. Nor had peacetime practice disclosed the difficulties of shooting accurately from a rapidly moving platform at a rapidly moving target. Further, no one had considered that when ships were traveling at high speed, the intense vibration created by engines and propellers might rattle and blur the gun layers’ and trainers’ telescopes. Nor had prewar maneuvers revealed the obscuring effects of billowing funnel smoke at high speed. As the war went on, the expected rate of shells fired to hits achieved became 5 percent. That was approximately the ratio in the Falklands, but at this early time in the war, everyone expected better and therefore it seemed a failure.

Nevertheless, Sturdee had in large part fulfilled the task entrusted to him. His achievement, within four weeks of leaving the Admiralty, was hailed, not least by the inhabitants of the Falklands. “It really is a spanking victory,” wrote the governor’s aide-de-camp. “Last night His Excellency had all the Volunteers and most of the so-called leading people of Port Stanley up to Government House for a drink to the King and the Royal Navy.” The king himself sent congratulations and, on December 11, Sturdee received signals from Jellicoe on behalf of the Grand Fleet and from the French and Russian admiralties. Beatty, tired of constant criticism of the navy, said, “It has done us all a tremendous amount of good. . . . I hope it will put a stop to a lot of the unpleasant remarks . . . that the British Navy has been an expensive luxury and is not doing its job.” Beresford sent his “warm congratulations on the splendid achievement of my old friend and chief of staff . . . how clever of him to find out the enemy so quickly.”

[On the matter of promptitude, Sturdee subsequently gave no credit to Luce for the timely arrival of the British squadron at Port Stanley. Indeed, when Luce reminded him of their discussion at Abrolhos Rocks, Sturdee reacted coldly. Yet if Luce had not persuaded the admiral to leave Abrolhos a day before he meant to, Spee would have reached the Falklands first. What might have happened then, no one can say.]

Fisher was overjoyed at the victory, but not at all pleased with Sturdee. The triumph was, in fact, Fisher’s greatest of the entire war and praise was heaped on the First Sea Lord, because of the victory and because it vindicated his conception of the battle cruiser. This was what battle cruisers had been designed to do: to hunt down enemy armored cruisers “like an armadillo and lap them up.” Gleefully, he called the battle “the only substantial victory of ours in the war (and as Nelson wished, it was not a victory, it was annihilation). . . . And the above accomplished under the sole direction of a septuagenarian First Sea Lord who was thought mad for denuding the Grand Fleet of our fastest battle cruisers to send them 14,000 miles on a supposed wild goose chase . . . and how I was execrated for inventing the battle cruisers.” On December 10, Fisher wrote to Churchill, “We cannot but be overjoyed at the Monmouth and Good Hope being avenged! But let us be self-restrained—not too exultant—till we know details! Perhaps their guns never reached us! (We had so few casualties!) We know THEIR gunnery was excellent! Their THIRD salvo murdered Cradock! So it may have been like shooting pheasants: the pheasants not shooting back! Not too much glory for us, only great satisfaction. . . . Let us wait and hear before we crow! Then again, it may be a wonder why the cruisers escaped—if they have escaped—I hope not. . . . How Glasgow must have enjoyed it!” Churchill wrote back: “This was your show and your luck. I should have only sent one greyhound [battle cruiser] and Defence. This would have done the trick. But it was a niggling coup. Your flair was quite true. Let us have some more victories together and confound all our foes abroad—and (don’t forget) at home.” Delighted, Fisher replied, “Your letter pleasant. . . . It is all too sweet for words. . . . It is palpably transparent.”

Despite these glowing words, the First Lord and the First Sea Lord soon found themselves in acute disagreement. The subject was Sturdee. Fisher was furious that Dresden had not been destroyed and, in a vindictive spasm, declared that Sturdee should not leave South American waters until the fugitive light cruiser had been hunted down. As Invincible and Inflexible had to come home, this would have meant transferring Sturdee to Carnarvon, an inferior command for a vice admiral and a public slap on the heels of his recent triumph. When Churchill vetoed this proposal, Fisher went into a sulk. Dresden’s escape, the First Sea Lord said, was “criminal ineptitude.” After the battle, Fisher complained, Sturdee had swept a limited area for only a single day, then abandoned the search. Fisher felt that it must have been obvious where Dresden was headed and that immediately after the action, Sturdee should have sent at least one ship to Punta Arenas. On December 13, when Sturdee was informed that Dresden was back at Punta Arenas intending to coal, the Admiralty ordered him to destroy her before she could be interned by the Chilean government. Once again, Dresden escaped before Sturdee’s cruisers could arrive. On all these counts, Fisher’s wrath boiled high. In three blunt messages, he asked Sturdee to “report fully reason for course you have followed since action.” Highly irritated, Sturdee retorted, “Their Lordships selected me as Commander-in-Chief to destroy the two hostile armored cruisers and I endeavoured to the best of my ability to carry out their orders. I submit that my being called upon in three separate telegrams to give reasons for my subsequent action was unexpected.” Fisher would have none of this. “Last paragraph of . . . your signal . . . is improper and such observations must not be repeated,” he thundered, adding, “Their Lordships await your written report and dispatches before coming to any conclusion.”

In Fisher’s view, he himself was primarily responsible for the Falklands victory and Sturdee was simply lucky. Fisher, as First Sea Lord, had designed the ships and had sent them out on time. Now here was Sturdee, praised in every newspaper, returning to London to receive public acclaim for an easy victory won with Fisher’s greyhounds. Here, too, was Sturdee, offered command of the eight dreadnoughts of the 4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. And eventually, in the 1916 honors list, Sturdee was to be named a baronet, the first promotion to an hereditary knighthood for a naval officer since Trafalgar. Jealous and infuriated, Fisher continued to characterize Sturdee’s tactics as “dilatory and theatrical.” After the battle, when Sturdee passed through London and reported to the Admiralty on his way to Scapa Flow, he was kept waiting for several hours before the First Sea Lord would see him. The interview lasted five minutes, during which, according to Sturdee, Fisher displayed no interest in the battle except to criticize his failure to sink Dresden.

Captain Herbert Richmond, a staff officer who disliked Sturdee, agreed wholeheartedly with Fisher. It was “an irony,” he said, “that Sturdee, the man who more than anyone else is responsible for the loss of Cradock’s squadron, should be . . . made a national hero. . . . The enemy . . . [ran] into his arms and [saved] him the trouble of searching for them. He puts to sea with his . . . greatly superior force and has only to steer after them and sink them which he not unnaturally does. If he didn’t he would indeed be a duffer. Yet for this simple piece of service, he is acclaimed as a marvelous strategist and tactician. So are reputations made!” Fisher, whose hates were inscribed on granite, never forgave. “No one in history was ever kicked on to a pedestal like Sturdee,” he wrote in 1919. “If he had been allowed to pack all the shirts he wanted to take, and if Edgerton . . . [the port admiral at] Plymouth had not been given that peremptory order, Sturdee would have been looking for von Spee still.”

Meanwhile, Dresden had disappeared. After the battle, she had rounded Cape Horn, passed through the Cockburn Channel, and anchored at Scholl Bay in the wildest region of Tierra del Fuego. On December 11, with her coal bunkers empty, she made her way sixty miles north to Punta Arenas, where she was allowed to coal and from where her presence was reported to Sturdee at Port Stanley. Captain Lüdecke’s next refuge was in lonely Hewett Bay, 130 miles down the Barbara Channel, which offered many avenues of escape into the Pacific Ocean. Thereafter, the fugitive ship spent weeks hiding in the maze of channels and bays that divided the desolate islands on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego.

The British began a methodical search. There were dozens of possible hiding places and Glasgow and Bristol looked into most of them, searching the Magellan Straits and the islands and channels around Cape Horn, ferreting through uninhabited bays, sounds, and inlets. Inflexible steamed up the coast of Chile, into the Gulf of Penas and Bahía San Quintín, where Spee had coaled before rounding the Horn. Glasgow and Bristol passed through the Darwin Channel and into Puerto Montt, searching the Chilean coastal fjords along the way, then rendezvoused with Inflexible off Cape Tres Montes. On December 19, Inflexible, having gone up the coast as far as Coronel, was withdrawn from the search and ordered home to England. She returned, ultimately, not to the North Sea, but to the Dardanelles.

All summer—this was the southern hemisphere—Kent and Glasgow continued hunting Dresden through narrow channels lined by mountains, glaciers, and forests. “Occasionally,” wrote Glasgow’s Hirst, “at the head of some magnificent gorge, the lower slopes of a glacier show pale green shades against the snow. . . . The water has all the glassy calm of a Scottish loch, but a tide line of streaky bubbles shows on either side and occasionally we meet twisted tree trunks. . . . The majestic silence leaves a deep impression unrelieved by any cheering signs of human habitation. As night closes in and the vault darkens, the ship seems proceeding slowly up the aisle of a cathedral . . . deep bays become transepts and choir and a fringe of low islands ahead lining the channel draped in snow are the surpliced priests. Solitude reigns eternal in this abyss of waters.” But solitude did not mean peace for the British crews. Approaching an unknown headland, the men were at action stations, their guns training slowly, as the ship steamed cautiously around bare rock cliffs, the far side of which they could not see. They were playing hide-and-seek and the enemy might pounce on them from behind any headland with guns firing at point-blank range and torpedoes in the water. They found only uninhabited landscapes, flocks of aquatic birds, and myriads of fish and other sea creatures.

In mid-February, Dresden began moving north up the coast of Chile, keeping 200 miles out to sea to avoid detection. Her luck was waning, however, and on March 8, an afternoon fog burned off and Kent and Dresden suddenly sighted each other, 11,000 yards apart. For five hours, Kent struggled to get within range: at one point flames thirty feet high were coming out of her funnels; at another, most of the crew was ordered aft to sit over the propeller to make it “bite” harder. It was not enough: once again, Dresden drew off and disappeared. During the chase, however, Kent intercepted a signal from Dresden telling a collier to meet her at Más á Tierra in the Juan Fernández Islands. The following day, Dresden arrived in Cumberland Bay on Más á Tierra and anchored 500 yards from shore. Twenty-four hours passed and the Chilean government declared that, in accordance with international law, the German ship must consider herself interned. Captain Lüdecke argued that his engines were disabled and that international law permitted him to stay eight days for repairs. As the island had no wireless communication with the mainland, the governor could do nothing except to send a lobster boat to inform his government. Dresden, of course, down to forty tons of coal, was waiting for her collier.

On the basis of the intercepted message, Kent summoned Glasgow and together the two ships steamed toward Más á Tierra. At dawn on March 14, the two British cruisers rounded Cumberland Point. There at last, half hidden against the volcanic walls rising 3,000 feet behind her, they saw Dresden. She was at anchor, her flag flying, smoke wisping up from her funnels. As Glasgow approached, Dresden trained her guns. Luce, deciding that this was not the behavior of an interned ship and justifying his own action by Dresden’s repeated violations of Chilean neutrality, opened fire. The Germans fired back. At this point, the Chilean governor, who was in a small boat headed out to meet the British ships, found himself on a battlefield with shells falling near his boat. He hurried to safety. Within four minutes, the battle was over and Dresden, on fire and with a hole at her waterline, hoisted a white flag. A steamboat flying a parley flag from Dresden brought Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris to complain that the German light cruiser was in Chilean territorial waters and therefore under Chilean protection.

[Canaris later became an admiral and chief of Hitler’s military intelligence. In 1944, he was involved in an anti-Hitler conspiracy, for which, in the final weeks of World War II, he was hanged by the Gestapo.]

Luce called out to him that the question of neutrality could be settled by diplomats and that meanwhile, unless Dresden surrendered, he would blow her out of the water. During this time, Captain Lüdecke had been busy with preparations to scuttle his ship and when the parley boat returned, Dresden’s company, many of them still half dressed, scrambled into their boats and made for the shore. The sea valves were opened and the German crew gathered on the beach to watch their ship sink. For twenty minutes, they were anxious as the vessel showed no signs of going down. Then, suddenly, she rolled over to port, water pouring down her funnels, and sank. On shore, the Germans sang their national anthem.

One midshipman and eight sailors from Dresden had been killed and three officers and twelve men were wounded. The ships’ doctors from Glasgow and Kent went ashore and amputated the right leg of Dresden’s second in command. One British doctor, feeling that Lüdecke, the captain, was rude, retaliated by writing in his journal that Lüdecke had a “villainous-looking face” and “a great pendulous nose.” Now that Dresden had disappeared, the Chilean governor switched his protest of violated neutrality to the British, who, he said, had caused property damage: two British shells had come ashore without exploding and other shell fragments had ricocheted. Luce resolved the matter by taking ashore a bag of gold sovereigns and asking the inhabitants to line up and make their claims. The wrecking of a lobster shed was settled for £60. A claim on behalf of a cow, said to be so frightened by a falling shell that she might never again produce milk, was liquidated for £15. The governor then gave Luce a certificate declaring that all claims against the British navy had been settled.

Dresden was the last survivor of the German overseas cruisers scattered around the world at the outbreak of war. She had traveled farthest—19,000 miles—and survived longest, yet she had done the least damage. Over seven and a half months, she sank only four British merchant ships, totaling 13,000 tons. From the time of her escape from the Falklands on December 8 until she was destroyed on March 15, Dresden sank two sailing ships. Of the five German captains who reached the Falklands with Admiral von Spee, only Lüdecke survived the battle and the war.

It was only a matter of weeks before the oceans were entirely clear. Early in March, the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich, which had captured ten vessels in the preceding two months, arrived at Newport News, Virginia, with a number of prisoners to put ashore. The ship claimed the right of refit and engine repairs, but while she was in port it became public knowledge that one of her victims had been an American vessel. The American government interned her. This left only the German armed merchant cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm still at large. She gave up in April and voluntarily came in to Newport News to be interned.

During the search for Dresden, the British were also hunting for Karlsruhe, last reported in October off the coast of Brazil. In her raids along the South Atlantic trade route, Karlsruhe sank sixteen British ships before she met a sudden end off the coast of Barbados. Her fate was shrouded in mystery until March 1915. The first clue came when some of her wreckage washed ashore 500 miles away. Her survivors eventually found their way back to Germany and reported that on November 4, 1914, she had suffered an internal explosion and foundered with the loss of 261 officers and men. This German disaster occurred three days after Coronel, but for the next four months, the British Admiralty did not know.


Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part I

Codenamed Operation Marita, the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece sent the German Second Army, composed of four army corps and a panzer group, into Yugoslavia from Bulgaria, Hungary, and southern Austria. Against Greece, the Germans assembled their Second Army, comprising the XXX Korps in the east, the XVIII Gebirgs (Mountain) Korps in the centre (opposite the Rupel Pass), and the formidable 40 Korps on the German right. The key lines of attack for the Germans into Greece were through the Rupel Pass and the Metaxas Line, a task given to the mountain troops of XVIII Gebirgskorp, and a flanking manoeuvre further west by the 40 Korps. This unit included two panzer divisions, the mechanised SS Leibstandarte Brigade, and the 72 Infantrie Division.

Its commander, General Georg Stumme, was an experienced soldier who had led a light armoured division in the invasion of Poland. Now at the helm of a powerful armoured corps, he directed the 2nd Panzer Division through what the British called the ‘Doiran Gap’ (named for the nearby lake), cutting down the valley of the Axios River to Salonika. At the same time, Stumme sent the rest of his corps sweeping through southern Yugoslavia, crashing through the Yugoslav Third Army, strung out along the border with Bulgaria in a classic ‘double envelopment’ manoeuvre in which the German armoured formations specialised. What his inner wing did not cut off in Salonika, Stumme would deal with courtesy of his outer wing, driving down the Monastir gap into central Greece. As we have seen, this latter move had been accurately forecast by British military intelligence five weeks earlier.

While the British W Group attempted to consolidate on the Vermion–Olympus line, Papagos had left four-and-a-half divisions in Thrace, organised as the Eastern Macedonian army. The Greek commander-in-chief was determined not to besmirch his nation’s honour by a premature withdrawal, as the British desired, or dash his hopes of keeping open a supply route to the Yugoslavs, for which the communication and supply line running north from Salonika was essential. The eventual accession of Yugoslavia to the Allied cause validated Papagos’ defence of Thrace, but it counted for little because of the rapidity with which Yugoslav defences collapsed. Like Papagos, the Yugoslavs were determined to defend their national sovereignty, and they allowed this political calculation to override military logic. Papagos correctly identified the best defensive option for the Yugoslavs: mobilise around a central position in southern Yugoslavia where a junction could be affected with the Anglo–Greek forces in northern Greece.

Such an option was probably never open to the Yugoslavs, any more than abandoning Salonika was agreeable to Papagos: the disposition he favoured for the Yugoslavs meant, in practice, abandoning Belgrade to its fate, and few national armies would willingly abandon their capital in favour of a position preferred by allies. However, their patriotic determination left the Yugoslav armies strung out along the borders with Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary; lacking depth, they were quickly penetrated by panzer spearheads.

The Greek troops on the Bulgarian border were better prepared, to the extent that they occupied the fixed fortifications of the Metaxas Line, but they were wholly without air cover. Contrary to some of the unkind observations made of their army by the British and Anzac commanders, the Greeks in the Metaxas Line fought magnificently. Subjected to repeated Stuka attacks, they held out in their mountain bunkers for days, forcing the German mountain troops to blast them out. So fierce was the Greek resistance, the Germans gave up their attempts to take a number of bunker complexes, preferring to take the line of least resistance and bypass the most difficult garrisons. The German mountain troops (Gebirgsjaeger) were admittedly hampered by the snow and their inability to get more than pack artillery up the mountains; nevertheless, the fighting was ‘hard, bitter and sometimes fanatical.’ A German war correspondent later reported that Greeks lying wounded in captured trenches still fought on with knives and bayonets. It took four days for the Germans to take Rupesco, the last bunker complex guarding the Rupel Pass; at the end of the fighting, the 5th Gebirgs Division buried 160 of its men.

While the Greeks fought hard on this, the eastern end of their line, the Allies rapidly faced a debacle around Doiran and further west. The 2nd Panzer Division pushed the Greek 19 Division aside in its drive down the Axios River, and Salonika itself fell on 9 April, even before the last of the Greek forts on the border had capitulated. Further west again, the rest of the 40 Korps drove through southern Yugoslavia such that, by 8 April, its leading formation, the SS Leibstandarte Brigade, was already rushing toward the Monastir Gap. This opening in the mountain ranges of the Balkans allowed the Germans to threaten the Florina Valley in northern Greece — by cascading down this valley, the Germans could not only complete a double envelopment of the Greeks in Thrace, but turn Wilson out of the Vermion–Olympus line as well.

Rowell later wrote bluntly that ‘our troubles started on 8 April’. At a command conference at 11.00 a.m. that day, Wilson attempted to deal with this crisis by creating a blocking force ‘to stop a blitzkrieg down the Florina gap’. Orders from this conference went to Mackay at 7.30 p.m., instructing him to take command of the Florina Gap operation.

Wilson chose the Australian 19 Brigade as the basis of ‘Mackay Force’; but, with only two of its three battalions available in time, he brought its infantry up to strength by attaching to it the 1/Rangers taken from Briagadier H. Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade. To stiffen his roadblock, Wilson also added to it half of the 27 MG Battalion of the NZ Division, together with a range of artillery units, including the British 2 Royal Horse Artillery and the 64th Medium Regiment. The artillery element was then completed with the 19 Brigade’s own 2/3rd Field Regiment and, to cope with the expected German tanks, a divisional unit from Mackay’s 6th Division, the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. In charge of the whole operation, Mackay devolved local command forward at Vevi to Brigadier G. A. Vasey of the 19 Brigade. On 9 April, Vasey got orders to hold the northern entrance to the Kleidi Pass, south of the tiny village of Vevi, for as a long as possible, so that the rest of W Group could prepare a position on the Aliakmon River and the defiles around Mount Olympus.

What Vasey lacked was tanks. Wilson, who had driven the tank expert Percy Hobart out of the British army in 1939, showed his ignorance of armoured warfare on arrival in Greece by deploying his only tank unit — the 1st Armoured Brigade — as an old-fashioned cavalry screen. Rather than hold back its hitting power for the decisive moment, Wilson sent the 1st Armoured forward to the northern end of the Kozani Valley, where it was ‘given the role of holding the line of the River Vardar [Axios] with the object of delaying the enemy and covering the preparations for demolitions’. With this work done, the brigade withdrew into reserve under Mackay, albeit with its infantry battalion and artillery detached to Vasey, leaving just the tanks at the rear. This misuse of the only Allied armoured unit would prove disastrous.

Vasey would need all of the artillery Wilson gave him, because the German force approaching the Allies at Vevi was led by one of the most feared units of the Reich. To give his conquests an overt political flavour, many of Hitler’s attacks were led by units of the Waffen Shutzstaffeln — the fanatical SS. And so it was in Greece, where heading toward the Australians and their allies at Vevi was the premiere unit of the Waffen-SS, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, then a brigade-sized formation and, later, expanded to a full division. This would be the only time in the whole of the Second World War that Australian troops were in action against these notorious Nazis.

Hitler’s ascension to power had been achieved by an adroit combination of credibility at the ballot box and force of arms on the streets, and it was the SS that played a leading role in the violence. Translated, schutzstaffeln means protection squads, and this was the literal role of the SS — to protect Hitler and other leading Nazis from the strong German communist movement, and to advance Nazi aims where violence was needed to achieve them. Yet as Nazi political strength grew, so too did tensions within the movement. Along with Hitler, Ernst Röhm was a founding member of the Nazis, and indeed had mentored Hitler while the latter was still a corporal in the defeated German army in 1919. Under Röhm’s leadership, the SA (Sturmabteilung), or ‘Brown Shirts’, developed as the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing but, throughout the 1920s, Röhm and Hitler squabbled over its control and mode of operation. To Hitler, the Brown Shirts were a sub-component of the larger Nazi organisation, and therefore subject to its political needs and strategy. For Röhm, the SA was a means by which the spirit of German militarism could be kept alive, so that when the German army was freed from the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, a mass army would be readily at hand; at that moment, the SA would be merged into the Wehrmacht, the regular army.

Röhm’s ideas alarmed the generals, which at this stage of his career Hitler could ill-afford. As political differences over the role of the SA intensified, Hitler’s need for a paramilitary counter-weight grew, something he found in the expansion of the Nazi bodyguard organisation. As the violent spearhead of Nazism, Heinrich Himmler’s SS embodied its most fundamental beliefs. First was an unquestioning commitment to the Fuhrerprinzip — loyalty to the leader. When Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit was reorganised in November 1933 as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, its members swore an appropriate oath: ‘We swear to you Adolf Hitler, loyalty and bravery. We pledge to you and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience unto death. So help us God.’

Second, the SS practised the anti-Semitic racism on which Hitler built his wider political program. Qualification requirements for the Leibstandarte therefore included not only rigorous physical requirements (a minimum height of five feet eleven inches), but also a genetic test — ‘pure Aryan blood’ dating back to 1800 for the enlisted men, and a similarly pristine lineage to 1750 for officers. It was these fanatics who dealt with Röhm in the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, rounding up and murdering hundreds of SA leaders on Hitler’s orders. The commander of the Leibstandarte, Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, played a prominent role in this gangland war. On Hitler’s express orders, he murdered the Munich leadership of the SA, including several former close comrades.

Still in command of the Leibstandarte, it was Dietrich who led the Germans into action at Vevi against Mackay Force. He had joined the Nazi Party in 1928, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the SS. Like many Nazis, he was a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. A highly experienced soldier, he helped pioneer storm-troop tactics, in which specially trained assault units were equipped with a combination of arms to achieve maximum firepower in breakthrough operations. Beside their revolutionary military doctrine, the development of these elite forces had ideological consequences that Dietrich would later personify. The storm-troopers were granted a range of special privileges, and a greater sense of egalitarianism existed between men and officers than prevailed anywhere else in the hide-bound army of the kaiser. The success of storm-troop tactics on the battlefield generated a joy of conquest that resulted in a ‘spiritual, almost mystical state of mind compounded by a profound contempt for the civilian world and bourgeois way of life’. Many storm-troopers, unable to adjust to civilian life, joined the Freikorps: right-wing vigilante groups formed by militant officers opposed to the Treaty of Versailles.

Schooled in this milieu, Dietrich had rounded out his military education with service in the first tank units of the German army in 1918. During the tumult of the German civil war in 1919, Dietrich served in the Bavarian police force. Far from keeping the peace, this was a bastion of far-right extremism that cooperated with, and protected, the various Freikorps brigades, which had slaughtered the German left in a series of street battles at the behest of the weak constitutional government newly established at Weimar. Having supped with the devil, the Weimar cabinet then found the Freikorps activists bent on a campaign of assassination against even themselves, including foreign minister Walter Rathenau, Germany’s munitions-production expert in the First World War. He was gunned down in 1922; in a sign of things to come for Germany, one of Rathenau’s ‘crimes’ was that he was Jewish. Dietrich was a fixture in this reign of terror. His services were in constant demand, and his pre-Nazi street-fighting career ended with a spell in the Reinhard Brigade, another Freikorps force established to repel a Polish attempt to occupy Upper Silesia. The success of that campaign in 1921 later became a standard in Nazi folklore. Coincidentally, Dietrich met Hitler for the first time that year.

Dietrich’s senior commanders at Vevi had much in common with him. The Nazi movement was built on lower-middle and working-class discontent, by men who had served Germany in the First World War, and who bitterly resented the failure of traditional, conservative German politics as represented by the Prussian, Junkers aristocracy. Casting around for a new political force to revive German nationalism, they found their leader in Hitler. Few had a university education, or occupied leadership positions in business or public administration — Nazism truly was a revolution of the corporals.

Before 1914, Dietrich was an apprentice in the hotel trade, and after the war he worked as a clerk and garage attendant. The commander of his reconnaissance unit, the Aufklärungsabteilung, was Kurt Meyer, the son of a factory worker — Meyer himself worked as a factory hand and miner, and was wounded in the First World War. In command of the Leibstandarte’s I Battalion was Fritz Witt. Too young to have seen service in the kaiser’s army, his civilian career in textile sales never rose to dizzy heights. In Germany, Witt’s generation was brought up in the shadow of wartime slaughter, and then felt the white heat of post-war economic catastrophe: their most popular cultural response was to recoil from the modern world, and to seek solace in return-to-nature movements. Idyllic perhaps, but a contemporary commentator observed of young Germans like Witt that ‘their most significant feature is their lack of humanity, their disrespect for anything human’. Witt would honour the epithet with horrifying commitment.

Like the Australian infantry at Vevi, the Leibstandarte already had extensive war experience, and through it gained a reputation for brutality and atrocity. In Poland, the Wehrmacht sought to have Dietrich court-martialled for atrocities against civilians, but the Nazi leadership solved that problem by removing the SS from the legal jurisdiction of the army. In the blitzkrieg campaign against France and the Low Countries, Dietrich’s men were again to the fore, driving rapidly into Holland and ending the campaign at Dunkirk. Faced there with stiffening British resistance, Dietrich narrowly avoided death when his car was ambushed by British machine-gunners. The men of the Leibstandarte responded to this affront by massacring 80 British prisoners outside the Belgian village of Wormhouldt. The SS mixed this kind of bestiality with extraordinary bravery under fire. In one of the few substantial British counterattacks in May 1940, Witt won Nazi Germany’s highest decoration, the Knights Cross, by taking on 20 Matilda tanks armed only with hand grenades.

The SS naturally took their military philosophy from the tenets of Nazi ideology. Hitler himself was anti-modern, in the sense that he valued the will to victory and selfless attack as supreme military virtues: he therefore disliked the machine-gun because it heralded the end of hand-to-hand combat. The mythic figure of an invincible Aryan warrior hurling himself at the enemy at all costs was at the heart of SS tactical doctrine. Personifying the point, Meyer later acquired the nickname ‘Speedy’ in the fighting in the Soviet Union, in honour of his propensity for lightning attacks, pressed home whatever the situation. The SS cultivated for themselves an image as latter-day Teutonic knights whose duty in life was to preserve German blood from contamination by Semites, Slavs, and communists. Publicity portraits of Dietrich, Meyer, Witt, and other SS ‘stars’ celebrated the Nazi enthusiasm for martial pageantry, a propaganda role they revelled in. Witt in particular was known as an immaculate dresser who took great pains with the arrangement of his SS regalia and decorations, a celebrity image completed by his frequent companion — a pet German shepherd, Bulli.

Paradoxically, despite the Nazi indifference to technology as a determinant of battle, the SS enjoyed the use of some superb equipment in the first half of the war. Despite massive rearmament in the 1930s, German munitions production was still quite limited between 1940 and 1941, forcing the Nazis to concentrate their best weapons in a handful of units. This turned their army into something of an anachronistic spear, with a mechanised, twentieth-century tip and a nineteenth-century horse-drawn shaft. The Leibstandarte and the panzer divisions were definitely at the sharp end and, due to the excellence of German science and engineering, went to Vevi with outstanding equipment. Their automatic infantry weapons, the MP38 machine pistol and the MG34 machine-gun, combined mechanical reliability with light weight and high rates of fire — the MG 34 fired at twice the rate of the British Vickers, but weighed only half as much. For battlefield mobility, the SS could call on the SdK 251 armoured personnel carrier, which had no rival in British ranks. A ‘half track’, the SdK 251 had normal truck wheels at the front, and tracks like a tank at the rear. This married truck-like speed with the cross-country performance of a tank. Atop this chassis was an armour shell, which allowed the SdK 251 to carry its section of ten infantrymen into battle on all terrains with the benefit of armoured protection.

For close-fire support, the Leibstandarte had the StuG III assault gun, a kind of turret-less tank. A brute of a machine, with its pushed-in nose the StuG III looked uncannily like a bull terrier, and for good reason — both were designed for close-quarter combat. Erich Manstein, the officer whose brilliant plans were the basis of the German campaign against France, developed the StuG III in the mid-1930s, looking for an uncomplicated armoured vehicle that could provide support to infantry in attacks on defended positions. He achieved his goal by removing the turret from a standard tank and installing a 75-millimetre gun into the body of the vehicle itself. Brought up close to fortified positions, it simply blasted a way through for German troops; with its heavy armour, the StuG III was invulnerable to the standard two-pound anti-tank gun of the British armies (a gun named for the weight of the shell it fired). The Leibstandarte had a battery of StuG III assault guns at Vevi; for anti-tank and anti-aircrarft artillery, the SS had batteries of the dual purpose 88-millimetre gun, an outstanding weapon that would dominate battlefields until 1945.

In using these fearsome weapons, the SS also benefited from the revolution in German tactical doctrine that had taken place between the wars. Whereas the British, content with their victory in 1918, reverted to tradition and neglected the innovative possibilities of armoured warfare, German officers like Heinz Guderian took up the lessons of the first tank actions and theorised a totally new way of waging war. Central to this thinking was not so much the tank in isolation, but the combination of all arms around the tank. Guderian understood that infantry now needed to move at the same pace and with the same protection as the tank, to accompany it into battle and deal with its enemies — anti-tank and field artillery. Likewise, artillery needed to be mechanised, so that it, too, could go where the tank could. The point of this combination was not to batter against the enemy’s strongest fortifications, in repetition of the Somme and Verdun, as the British anticipated with their Matilda tanks. Instead, Guderian and his disciples sought out the line of least resistance. A breakthrough at the weakest point of the enemy line would then allow the fast-moving armoured columns to penetrate to, and destroy, the heart of modern armies — their supply and command organisation. Even with the quality of their equipment, it was these doctrinal advances that gave the German army its advantage over its British rival in the first half of the war.

These differences in military philosophy extended to how the aeroplane should be used over the modern battlefield. Apart from the SS, the Luftwaffe was the German armed service most imbued with Nazi politics. Germany had been banned from forming a military air service by the Treaty of Versailles, and it was the Nazis who publicly resuscitated a German air force. Even by then, however, the German army had conducted a rigorous analysis of air tactics and doctrine during the 1920s, and even formed a clandestine air wing, using a rented base in the Soviet Union as a training venue. While the British and Americans spent the inter-war years pursuing the fantasy of ‘independent’ strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, the Germans emphasised the aeroplane’s use as an assault and reconnaissance weapon on the battlefield itself (one British air force officer, who wrote a pre-war book which argued that the bomber was not a battlefield weapon, remarked with some chagrin after the Luftwaffe’s efforts in the Battle of France that he was now being ‘considerably ragged’ for it).

Each of the German panzer divisions in Greece commanded their own aircraft reconnaissance squadron; and, of course, blitzkrieg itself was indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the dive-bombing raids of the bent-winged ‘Stukas’, the Junkers 87s, which blasted defensive positions right in front of attacking troops. The doctrinal superiority of German air-support tactics was then infinitely compounded by the sheer weight of aircraft they could put into Greek skies.

In Bulgaria, for the close support of the invading German army, was Fliegerkorps VIII with 414 aircraft; further back, in Austria and Rumania, Luftflotte 4 had a further 576 aircraft available. Even these formations did not exhaust the German riches; in Sicily was Fliegerkorps X with another 168 aircraft, which was already being used to interdict Allied sea routes, operations crowned by the obliteration of Pireaus. The British, by contrast, had to split their Mediterranean airpower between North Africa and Greece, where they could deploy just ten squadrons, most of them based on airfields around Athens, with a nominal strength of 72 twin-engined Blenheim bombers, 36 modern Hurricane fighters, and even 18 antique Gloster Gladiators biplanes, which were little different in design, construction, and armament from a First World War fighter. Small wonder that Australian and New Zealand veterans remarked that in the three weeks of fighting in Greece, they scarcely saw any friendly aircraft overhead.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part III

The Battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941

The Allied line had therefore already lost cohesion when Witt launched his full assault from 2.00 p.m. This was supported in earnest by the StuG III assault guns. Slocombe was astounded by their presence, as his unit had been unable to get their feeble Bren-gun carriers onto the same ground. Another 2/8th veteran, Jim Mooney, found the German armour ‘untouchable’ with the Boys rifle, the standard British anti-tank weapon for infantry units. When the German armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) came onto an Australian position, there was little that could be done other than move back, covered by the fire of a supporting section.

The collapse of the infantry line exposed the remaining units in the valley who were preparing for the withdrawal. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company was getting ready the last of the demolitions to break the railway line deep in the pass, south of Kleidi, and Sergeant Scanlon, the leader of this party, found his work interrupted mid-afternoon by the arrival of the SS: ‘We commenced work at about 1500 hours, and had to do a hasty but thorough job as the enemy was advancing both along the road and the railway line with his armoured fighting vehicles.’ Scanlon’s attention to detail was greatly assisted by the nature of the explosives he had to work with, which included two naval depth charges, each with about 250 pounds of TNT packed within. These were used to blow the road: the railway line was disposed of with guncotton charges fixed to the rails. Scanlon readied his getaway car, which was a ‘utility truck with a Bren gun mounted’. He ordered his men to light their charges on the approach of the Germans and then, he describes:

[T]hey had just sighted enemy movement and lit their fuses, when a German patrol, who had worked their way onto a hill commanding this place, opened fire on them with M.G.s. This was at approx 18.30 hrs and was about half an hour after completing the preparation of the demolition. Luckily they got through, the two men on the railway line having to run about 200 yards under fire to gain the vehicle.

With the Vevi position unravelling, Vasey, regrettably, was out of touch with events. As Scanlan got about his work at 3.00 p.m. in the shadow of the panzers, Vasey reported confidently to the 6th Division that he ‘had no doubt that if the position did not deteriorate he would have no difficulty in extricating the Brigade according to plan’.

An officer of the 19 Brigade thought the atmosphere at brigade headquarters that afternoon was ‘almost too cool and calm’, and the implied criticism was warranted. Vasey had wanted to find a headquarters position further forward, but had not found anywhere suitable: as a result, the battle was determind while the Australian commander could only react to events.

At 5.00 p.m., Vasey at last informed 6th Division headquarters that the situation was serious. In response, at 7.45 p.m. the 6th Division sent forward a driver with a message authorising Vasey to bring forward the withdrawal at his discretion; but, in the chaos, the driver could not find him. By then, the position was a good deal worse than serious — the 2/8th was in desperate trouble, having its left flank exposed by the collapse of the 1/Rangers, and outflanked on the right by the withdrawal of the Dodecanese. The strong Allied artillery force at the southern end of the pass was under small-arms and mortar fire by the time of Vasey’s message, forcing the 2/3rd Field Regiment to pull back its 5th Battery, while its 6th Battery covered the movement with fire over open sights — a sure sign that the defence was in trouble, because it meant that the defending gun line was under direct attack. Even Vasey’s own brigade headquarters was under mortar attack. Vasey had little choice but to warn the 2/4th battalion commander, I. N. Dougherty, to get ready to withdraw. ‘The roof is leaking,’ he told Dougherty; as a consequence, the 2/4th had ‘better come over so we can cook up a plot’. Vasey at least took the sensible precaution of ordering his transport to remain where it was: had it come up as arranged, it may well have been mauled by the German armour, and the means to extricate the Allied force may have been lost. He also sent back to the 6th Division a liaison officer to give Mackay an eyewitness report: he arrived at 8.30 p.m., and Mackay thereby learned of the ‘increasing pressure’ on the 19 Brigade and of the discomfiture of the 2/8th Battalion.

Meanwhile, at the 2/8th Battalion headquarters, Mitchell attempted to regain contact with brigade headquarters, the phone line having gone dead. Two signallers sent to repair it were not seen again, so at 4.45 p.m. he despatched his signals officer, Lieutenant L. Sheedy, to the rear to report on the battalion’s plight. Sheedy found what he described as a tank (again, almost certainly a StuG III) already astride the road outside Kleidi, basking in the flames of a wireless truck it had destroyed. The presence of this vehicle cut the most direct and easiest line of withdrawal along the road. Sheedy also observed parties of Germans armed with sub-machine-guns chasing the fleeing 1/Rangers over the neighbouring hills.

By skirting trouble, and gaining shelter behind one of the few light tanks of the 4th Hussars behind the battlefront, Sheedy gained the forward position of the 2/3rd Field Regiment. Even as he gave his report, the artillery headquarters came under German machine-gun fire, and there was nothing in any event that could be done for the 2/8th, as the observation posts needed by the artillery for accurate fire had been swept away in the collapse. Liley, with the Kiwi machine-gunners, had already concluded that, as far as he could see, ‘there was no infantry reserve and no tanks or anything else to restore the position’, so he led his platoon to the rear. For extricating his men and their guns under fire, Liley received the Military Cross.

A conference of company commanders of the isolated 2/8th was called at 5.00 p.m., but Mitchell unwisely did not go forward to attend it, instead sending his adjutant, Captain N. F. Ransom: Mitchell apparently thought he was needed in the rear to restore communications with brigade headquarters. As soon as this command conference got under way, it was shelled by a tank on the ridge where C Company should have been, and subjected to machine-gun fire from the left. Under these anxious circumstances, the Australian commanders decided to withdraw in succession from the left. By now, three StuG III assault guns, together with an estimated 500 enemy infantry, were firmly ensconced on the position of C Company. One man from the 18 Platoon who stood up from his weapon pit at this time was blown apart by a direct hit from a 75-millimetre shell. B Company was assailed on three sides, and the battalion headquarters, medical-aid post, and ammunition dump were all under machine-gun fire. On the right, A Company was being flanked as the Dodecanese fell back under pressure from Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt.

In these desperate circumstances, a staged withdrawal was impossible and the retreat of the 2/8th Battalion became a rout. Denied the use of the road by German armour, the Australian infantry faced a march of 19 kilometres across waterlogged ridges to the reserve position, chased all the way by bloodthirsty packs of SS infantry. Men of their own volition began discarding their heavier weapons, particularly the useless Boys anti-tank rifle, but also the much more efficient Bren gun. D Company, the last to leave the forward position, was naturally under the most strain: the company’s second-in-command, Lieutenant S. C. Diffey, resorted to ordering his men to abandon their personal weapons to speed their escape. Such an order was nearly unthinkable in a disciplined military force and, when he learned of it, Vasey was unimpressed. He annotated the 19 Brigade war diary with the observation that after the action, the 2/8th could only raise 50 armed men, and wrote that Mitchell was ‘completely exhausted’.

Bob Slocombe of the beleaguered 14 Platoon eventually came across some British tanks, and was carried out on the back of one; many of his companions in the 2/8th were not so lucky, and only 250 answered the battalion rollcall that night in the village of Rodona. Mitchell, the battalion commander, got as far back as Perdika, and was interviewed there by the 6th Division CO Iven Mackay who, with possible understatement, thought Mitchell ‘a bit upset’. When Mackay learnt later that men of the 2/8th came back without their personal weapons, he was incensed: ‘It is my intention to hold an enquiry into this position to ascertain how and why so many members of this Bn [Battalion] came to be separated from their weapons.’ This inquiry never got underway because of the pressure of events later in the campaign.

On the other side of the valley, things were not greatly better for the 2/4th Battalion. At 5.00 p.m., Dougherty got the orders from Vasey to get out as best he could. This cheerful order followed several hours fighting on the battalion’s front, which had left Dougherty’s B Company nearly surrounded. The position here was similar to the problem faced by the 2/8th: with a flank in the air, this time on the right, the battalion could not hold its ground. Freed up by Vasey, Dougherty ordered that his right hold until dark to allow the rest of the battalion to fall back. Earlier in the day, Dougherty had wisely placed his carrier section in the rear of the battalion, where it could do the most good in assisting in a withdrawal.

An order like this, to stand fast in the face of overwhelming odds so that others may withdraw, is a desperate one, and it fell to Dougherty’s B Company to comply with it. Their hard and selfless work done, the men of B Company were eventually released to attempt their own escape. The story of Private ‘Dasher’ Deacon exemplifies the courage required. Holding on until virtually surrounded, Deacon lived up to his nickname, performing what he called a ‘Stawell Gift’ (a famous Australian foot race) up the forward slope, under artillery fire as he went. On the reverse slope, the Germans — with ‘Teutonic efficiency’, he caustically wrote — barred the way with mortar fire: a bomb fell between Deacon and two mates, killing the latter and blowing off Deacon’s boot. Staggering back, dazed and barefoot in the bitter cold, Deacon stumbled in the dark upon some of the battalion’s well-placed Bren-gun carriers, one of them occupied by Dougherty himself. Hauled aboard with his commander, Deacon recalled after the war that Dougherty’s help at this stressful moment had left a lighter legacy: ‘Why even today, when I see an unemployed Lieutenant Colonel walking, I always give him a lift!’ Unfortunately, Dougherty could not be everywhere at once, and only 49 of B Company’s 130 men answered rollcall that night.

As the dazed and disheartened Australian infantry stumbled to the south, the Leibstandarte celebrated taking the pass, but it was a victory that came at a cost. Witt’s Kampfgruppe saw 37 men killed and 95 wounded, and the Germans thought enough of the battle to award their highest decoration for valour, the Knight’s Cross, to Obersturmfuhrer Gert Pleiss, who led the final assault on the 2/8th.

Whatever the German casualty list, Mackay Force was devastated. Included in its losses were a further ten two-pound guns and 80 men of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, captured when the commanding officer of the column ignored Dougherty’s advice and attempted to retreat down the line of the railway, where the Germans were waiting. The senior staff officer of the 6th Division, Colonel R. B. Sutherland, went forward to assess the situation and reported at 10.00 p.m. on 12 April that the retiring motor transport of the 19 Brigade was in a state of disarray: he sought to re-establish order at Kozani by diverting the trucks west onto the ground allotted to the brigade in the withdrawal plans. The Greeks, however, were unimpressed by the work of the Mackay Force, Papagos complaining that its withdrawal, without (in his view) serious fighting, exposed the flank of the Greek 20 Division in the west.

Further forward, Vasey rallied his troops on a stop line along the ridge just south of Sotire, where the remaining company of the Rangers and two companies of the 2/4th received the support of the 1st Armoured Brigade. At dawn on 13 April, the SS were dug in 1000 yards from the Australian positions, and a fire-fight broke out immediately. Vasey, performing one of the battlefield reconnaissances that would make him a deeply popular commander, was caught in no-man’s-land. Dressed in a white raincoat, the Australian brigadier must have made a tempting target: Vasey scrambled out on hands and knees.

Also caught in no-man’s-land were over 100 Australian, British, Greek, and New Zealand prisoners who had been taken by the Germans during the night. Some were killed, and more than 30 others wounded in this exchange, before a further German attack went in against the Rangers on the left of the Allied line at 7.30 a.m. What was left of the English battalion was rescued by the intervention of the cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), which held the ground while the infantry got away.

The RAF attempted to disrupt the German pursuit, but was unable to repeat its success on the roads approaching Vevi three days before. As RAF bomber crews found, to their cost, with airfields now further forward, the Germans were in a better position to maintain air superiority over the battlefield. Thus, as it ran in to attack a German column near Florina, an entire formation of six Bristol Blenheim bombers was shot down by Bf 109 fighters of 6 Staffeln, Jagdgeschwader 27. The Germans also maintained constant bombing and strafing raids on the British aerodromes, especially the northern most airfield at Larisa, and these operations succeeded by mid-April in reducing RAF strength to just 26 Blenheims, 18 Hurricanes, 12 Gladiator biplanes, and five Lysander army cooperation aircraft.

With British air support failing, the 19 Brigade and the 1st Armoured Brigade fell back to a second stop line south of Ptolemais, but the Germans caught up with them again by 2.30 p.m. By then, the German pursuit was the responsibility of the 9th Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte having been ordered by Stumme to the west to cut off the retreat of Greek forces falling back from the Albanian front. Faced by the British armour south of Ptolemais, the division’s 33 Panzer Regiment pressed home its attack immediately, moving through swampland on the left of the British, hoping to catch the tanks of Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade in the rear. Again, the cross-country performance of the German armour was excellent, and even though seven of the panzers became bogged, the rest of the regiment emerged to fight a sharp tank battle with the 3rd Royal Tanks and the 4th Hussars around the village of Mavropiye.

The action was short but bitter. British anti-tank gunners claimed to have destroyed eight panzers, and the 3rd RTR thought they had accounted for five more. But as the battle reached a climax, Charrington found himself without a reserve with which to counter-attack, having made a cardinal sin before the battle. Lacking armoured cars with which to conduct reconnaissance patrols prior to the battle, Charrington split up his tanks, sending the 7 cruiser tanks of his headquarters troop to the New Zealand Division, in exchange for some of the Kiwi’s Marmon Harrington armoured cars. This division of the available tank fleet was a bad mistake, since the first principle of armoured warfare is concentration, and Charrington’s decision to split up his tanks again underlined British shortcomings in the way they handled what armour they had in Greece.

Charrington and his men now paid the price for this error, unable to meet the out-flanking advance of the German panzers. With the enemy just a few hundred yards from brigade headquarters, the unit’s war diarist later recorded with some understatement, ‘the lack of the protective troop

[that is, the tanks exchanged with the New Zealanders for armoured cars]

was very sorely felt …’ One of Charrington’s senior officers, Major R. W. Hobson, found a British cruiser tank withdraw into a position close by:

Up to now I had been unable to see anything, so I went down to the tank — whose commander I knew — and asked where the enemy were. ‘Just over there, about 300 yards away,’ he said; ‘and I don’t think it’s very healthy for you on your feet.’ Almost at that moment something whizzed and the ground was torn up just in front of my feet. Moments later that tank received a direct hit and burst into flames.

Under cover of sacrifices of this kind, Charrington quickly withdrew his headquarters, but the rapidity with which the British brigade left the battlefield caused its greatest losses, because vehicles broken down due to their poor mechanical reliability had to be destroyed: the 33rd Panzer Regiment reported 21 British tanks set ablaze by their crews. By the end of the day, the 1st Armoured Brigade was down to the strength of a weak squadron, and the only Allied tank force in Greece was effectively no more.

When men fight and die in wars, many more are horribly wounded. Once the Greek campaign began for the Anzacs at Vevi, that reality became clear to Mollie Edwards, who was back with the 2/5th AGH at Ekali. As the first casualties of the new campaign were ferried back to the hospital, she found peacetime medical procedures radically transformed by necessity. Medical staff performed their own sterilisations, using kerosene tins and a primus, and eventually made their own dressings as well. In normal times, nurses waited patiently while doctors prescribed drugs such as morphia; but, at Ekali, these demarcations evaporated overnight. Edwards was given a vial of morphia and a syringe, and told to get on with it. Writing out doses in red pen on tape, and sticking these on the foreheads of patients, Edwards was soon tending to 50 patients on a night shift, doing what she could for young men mangled in combat — ‘Many a time I held their hands while they died.’

Edwards had more work than she might otherwise have faced because of leadership failures in the days leading up to Vevi. Maitland Wilson was one of the traditionalists in the British army who derided the theories of armoured warfare advocated by Percy Hobart. He and Wavell had already paid one half of the account for dismantling their armoured formations, when Rommel gobbled up the dismembered 2nd Armoured Division in the desert on 8 April; at Vevi, they paid the balance. The basic error in splitting the 2nd Armoured was then compounded by the way Wilson handled his available tanks in the days leading up to Vevi, where his ignorance of armoured warfare showed all too clearly. The most precious commodity available to him — the all-arms 1st Armoured Brigade — was despatched to the extremity of the Allied line, and then broken up, its infantry and artillery detached from it, and the tanks left to operate in the old-fashioned role of a cavalry screen. This ensured that the force at Vevi was beaten in detail. At the first decisive engagement on 12 April, Vasey was routed for the want of armoured support. The pattern was repeated on the next day, only in the reverse, when the British tanks fought with little infantry or artillery support. Even a small number of tanks at Vevi operating behind an infantry and artillery screen would have allowed the 2/4th and 2/8th battalions to withdraw down the pass road, rather than face a cross-country retreat, pursued by fresher SS infantry and the deadly assault guns.

It was clear from the presence of German armour around Vevi on 11 April that the attack would be led by armoured vehicles but, on the crucial day, the available allied armour was at Amindaion, well behind the vital ground. Once again, as in France a year earlier, the British had failed to coordinate their forces in a way that brought a combined force into action at the decisive point.

Mackay, who was eventually given command of 1st Armoured Brigade as it fell back, had little experience in armoured warfare, like most of the Australian commanders at that time. He failed to get tank support forward to Vasey, perhaps because both the 19 Brigade and his own headquarters took such a benign view of the fighting for most of the day.

Admittedly, the Greek campaign was strategically flawed from the start, and was then further compromised by the commanding officers’ inability to face the inevitable loss of Thrace and to pull all remaining forces back to a central line that might be held, at least for some time. Wilson’s efforts, however, ensured that the campaign quickly degenerated into a rout, leaving the rear echelons of his army open to dislocation and loss. On the Vermion–Olympus Line, Wilson needed to follow the line of thinking that allowed the Australian general, Lavarack, to hold Tobruk when Rommel first assaulted it on 14 April, just days after Vevi. At that battle, Lavarack decisively stopped a German tank attack for the first time in the war, and he did so with infantry supported by a strong gun line, with his limited armour operating behind those defences to contain any breakthrough. Applied to Greece, these tactics would have seen the 1st Armoured Brigade operating as an integrated formation, behind the mountain passes held by infantry and artillery around Mount Olympus. Wilson’s handling of the 1st Armoured Brigade was but the latest rendition of a common British saga in the first half of the conflict — the persistent failure of British generals to handle tank forces with any sophistication or success, mainly because they defied the principles of concentration and all-arms cooperation.

At Vevi, the victims of this ineptitude were the long-suffering infantry. However, Mackay, the commanding officer of the 6th Division, was unimpressed by the showing of his units. Admittedly, he thought the anti-tank guns were sited too far forward, but he wrote critically that the Australians were not sufficiently trained to deal with German infiltration, and that ‘[i]n some cases the inf [infantry] did NOT show that essential determination to stay and fight it out when the enemy did filter around their flanks’. These drives around the flanks meant that ‘a few local successes by the enemy immediately rendered localities on either flank untenable for the enemy was too quick to reinforce these successes’.

Mackay had less to say about the lack of Allied armour at Vevi, and his own failure to get British tanks forward to help his infantry. Overrun by the Leibstandarte, the Australian 2/4th and 2/8th battalions were temporarily disabled as effective military formations. The later careers of the battalion commanders reflected their relative performance at Vevi — 34-year-old Dougherty was promoted to command a brigade in 1942, and led the 21 Infantry Brigade to the end of the war. In contrast, 50-year-old Mitchell was the oldest battalion commander in the AIF. The Australian army had set an age limit of 45 for battalion leaders, but Mitchell had pulled enough strings to escape the prohibition. However, his showing at Vevi validated the original wisdom of an upper-age limit — he was relieved of his command and relegated to lead a recruit-training centre for the rest of the war.

With the Mackay Force streaming back from Vevi in tatters, the door to central Greece was open. The Allied commanders now faced the prospect that their forward positions on the right, to the north of Mount Olympus, would be turned, and their whole force encircled. Much now would depend on the staying power of the Anzac infantry, who had to withdraw across snow-covered mountain passes, harried by the German air force.


On November 4, the time had come for Eighth Army to pursue a crippled and defeated Axis force. Montgomery was well aware that Rommel’s army was now gravely damaged and in retreat. He launched two armored divisions, the 1st and the 10th, and the New Zealand Division, with an attached armored brigade, in pursuit. The Panzerarmee’s withdrawal presented Montgomery with a priceless opportunity because, according to many German sources, it was poorly conducted. Afrika Korps’ War Diary reported:

Officers of all ranks had lost their heads and were making hasty and ill considered decisions, with the result that confidence had been lost, and in some places panic had broken out. Some vehicles were set on fire on or beside the road, and guns were abandoned or destroyed because there were no tractors for them. A large number of vehicles had left their units and were streaming back without orders.

The Diary also recorded with some surprise, “No contact with the enemy all day.”

The War Diary of the 90th Light Division chronicled similar conditions, admitting that there was “very little discipline during the withdrawal.” It also claimed German transport and supply units were “fleeing in wild panic.” As a result, its withdrawal from Alamein was “very difficult.”

The pursuit phase of the Alamein battle has been strongly criticized by many writers who believe that Montgomery acted with undue caution. The British official history made a perceptive observation that, “Whether they could have captured or destroyed more of the Panzerarmee than they did will be argued as long as military history is read.” This has certainly happened. Alexander McKee accurately stated, “There was no pursuit, merely a follow up.” Correlli Barnett has been one of Montgomery’s harshest critics, believing that Montgomery “signally fail[ed] to take advantage of this astonishing flow of precisely accurate intelligence, which removed all guesswork from generalship” and that his failure to destroy Panzerarmee at Alamein “calls in question Montgomery’s generalship at this stage of his career.” Johnston and Stanley wrote, “The pursuit was poorly planned and confused, a fact Montgomery never acknowledged.” As early as the evening of November 3, Freyberg had warned Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden, 10 Corps commander, that Rommel “will slip away if they are not careful.” The cautious pursuit, including by Freyberg, ensured that this happened.

There was one overriding factor, however, that explains and perhaps excuses Montgomery’s caution. This was the state of his armored corps, his prized corps de chasse. So far in the Alamein battle, 10 Corps had failed in every task it had been allocated, had demonstrated excessive caution, and an inability to follow even the simplest directives. His trust in his armored commanders, especially in 10 Corps commander Lumsden, was “at an all time low.” As it was, this Corps that would be used during the pursuit, it was only natural that Montgomery wanted to keep it on as tight a leash as possible to ensure that it did in fact accomplish even the most limited of tasks assigned to it. John Harding, commanding 7 Armoured Division during the pursuit and “in favour of pressing on all-out, hard as I could go,” thought at the time that Montgomery was being “overcautious” in restraining his armored formations. Harding later changed his mind. “Montgomery was very conscious of the fact that we had already been twice up and twice back and he was determined not to be pushed back for a third time,” Harding said. A third defeat could have prolonged the war in North Africa. “Looking back on it all, I think he was right to be cautious,” was Harding’s conclusion.

And, as John Keegan has pointed out in his history of the Second World War, with the exception of the Soviets’ Operation Bagration, the Allies were never able to encircle and destroy retreating German armies. Montgomery cannot be judged too harshly for not achieving something other British or American commanders were also unable to do when given the opportunity.

Montgomery initially planned to use the New Zealand Division, augmented by an armored brigade, as the main pursuit force. He directed them to the Fuka escarpment some 45 miles to the west. As the New Zealanders set off for Fuka, the British armor of 10 Corps made a series of shorter wheels to the coast of some 10 to 15 miles. But there was a considerable delay before the New Zealanders could get moving. Freyberg recorded about the lull, “The congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies.” Montgomery’s fears about his armored formations soon proved justified as the armor “swanned” about the desert out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements. Nor did the New Zealand Division, which de Guingand described as Montgomery’s “mobile shock troops,” demonstrate much dash or daring. Freyberg was especially concerned not to let his division get mauled by the Afrika Korps for the fourth time. He still erroneously estimated Rommel to have a powerful armored force under command. To his subordinate commanders, Freyberg had stated that “the policy is not to fight but to position our force to bottle him.” Freyberg, the commander of the three left hooks carried out by the New Zealand Division, was in no doubt as to the purpose of a left hook and tended to view it as a substitute for heavy fighting—a way of achieving a victory with minimal casualties. The New Zealanders made three attempts to entrap Panzerarmee using the wide encircling “left hook.” All three failed. Kippenberger informed the New Zealand official historian:

You have one or two tricky questions to deal with in this volume, particularly the conduct of the three “Left Hooks” which seem to me to have been clumsily and rather timidly executed. I thought so at the time and am inclined to the same opinion still.

Ironically, both Montgomery’s and Freyberg’s caution, though understandable, was to prove more costly in the long run. As Rommel pointed out, if Montgomery had abandoned his restraint after Alamein, it “would have cost him far fewer losses in the long run than his methodical insistence on overwhelming superiority in each tactical action, which he could only obtain at the cost of his speed.” The failure to prevent Panzerarmee from withdrawing, especially after the Alamein battle, meant much hard fighting ahead with the North African campaign dragging on for another six months.


There were many reasons for the defeat of the Axis forces at Alamein, not the least important being their weakness in logistics and firepower. Rommel devoted nine pages of his papers analyzing “the decisive battle of the African campaign,” which he had lost. He did this primarily to counter accusations from the armchair strategists that the Axis troops and their commanders had performed poorly at Alamein. Rommel wrote that these accusations came from those whose military careers were “notable for a consistent absence from the front.”16 Rommel attributed his defeat at Alamein primarily to his weak logistics, especially in weapons, fuel, and ammunition and to British air supremacy. The “extreme concentrations” of Eighth Army’s artillery fire and “locally limited attacks” by infantry with an “extremely high state of training” was also important.17 He was especially impressed with the British infantry’s ability to attack at night, writing that “Night attacks continued to be a particular speciality of the British.”18 Rommel finished his analysis by stating that the bravery of all German and many Italian troops “was admirable.” Alamein had been a struggle and a defeat but it was still “a glorious page in the annals of the German and Italian peoples.” But in the end, the enemy was just too strong and their own material resources too small. In this imbalance “lay destruction.”

Other German accounts placed considerable stress on their material weakness at Alamein when compared to the resources available to Eighth Army and the DAF. They seldom gave credit to the performance of Eighth Army’s commanders or soldiers. The War Diary of 15 Panzer Division was especially critical:

The English did not win the battle of Alamein by superior leadership or dash. On the contrary, after their original plan of attack failed they worked their way systematically forward, always probing ahead with the greatest care choosing limited objectives. Often, particularly after our withdrawal from the Alamein line, the enemy failed to perceive or take advantage of good opportunities to destroy German troops.

The main reasons given for the British victory were Eighth Army’s overwhelming artillery firepower and the DAF’s air superiority. The War Diary did admit, though, that Eighth Army’s infantry were stronger and rested and that this infantry was “superior to the Germans, and still more to the Italians, in night fighting.” But Panzerarmee, it stated, had been crushed by the sheer weight of numbers brought against it. Eighth Army’s successful deception plans had convinced Panzerarmee and German military intelligence that its opponents were more than 40 percent stronger than they actually were.

The secretly recorded conversation of a German infantry officer captured on the night of October 29 was particularly revealing about the state of Panzerarmee’s logistics. The lieutenant from 2 Battalion, 125 Infantry Regiment told his cell mate, an officer from submarine U-559:

We’ve been in FRANCE, in the BALKANS, and in CRETE. Throughout the whole of the French campaign my Company only had thirty-five killed and seventy-five wounded. This time there was no way out for us, it was either death or capture. I was right in the front line, about fifty metres behind my platoons. When the infantry came along there was practically nothing more I could do with our 7.65 guns. As for our M.P.’s [Machine Pistols: the German Schmeisser submachine gun], none of them would fire because of the magazine. We’ve had them since 1940. All the springs were bad and we couldn’t get replacements. You can fire one round and that’s all. Our lack of supplies in AFRICA is appalling.

German intelligence officer Hans-Otto Behrendt believed that Ultra intelligence “played a major part” in the defeat of the last German-Italian offensive at Alam Halfa and had played “a crucial part in the sinking of Rommel’s oil tankers and supply convoys.” For the final October battle, though, “The decisive factor now was quite simply the sheer British superiority in tanks, artillery and aircraft for which no amount of tactical skill and self-sacrifice could compensate.”

Certainly, Eighth Army had superior logistics and firepower, tanks that could match the Germans, and the DAF dominated the skies above the battlefield. But it was the way these assets were used that made the critical difference. The Eighth Army’s artillery was concentrated and its firepower coordinated with infantry and armor in a master fireplan. In the twelve days of the battle, Eighth Army’s artillery fired more than one million rounds of twenty-five-pounder ammunition and throughout the battle “some artillery action was occurring all the time, and heavy action for most of the time.” The DAF made extraordinary efforts to support the troops on the ground and was most effective at disrupting enemy concentrations and their communications. During the October battle, the DAF flew 10,405 sorties and their American allies flew 1,181. This compares with just 1,550 German and 1,570 Italian sorties. It made a telling difference and the effect on morale on both sides was critical.

An American study compiled in 1947, written by the German officer Generalmajor Hans-Henning von Holtzendorff, was adamant that Eighth Army’s success at Alamein was primarily through its use of tanks. Von Holtzendorff wrote, “El Alamein was decided by the numerically far superior Panzer forces of the British, which were not dispersed as before, but were now concentrated and to some extent were equipped with American material.” All of these elements made vital contributions to Eighth Army’s victory.

In infantry, though, Eighth Army’s margin was not so pronounced as many historians have claimed, and the October Alamein battle was primarily an infantry battle. While it was a considerable advantage having a materiel superiority over the enemy, it still needed skill, courage, and determination to effectively apply what you had. One thing Eighth Army did in this October battle was to keep the fight going for over a week, which ultimately wore down the Panzerarmee. This was an old-fashioned battle of attrition, but it produced a decisive outcome. The 9 Division’s Report on Operations believed that this was the most crucial “lesson” of the battle. It began this section of the Report with the heading Maintenance of Pressure. Under this heading it perceived:

So often in military history, the battle has gone to the side which had the will or the strength to hang on just long enough to outlast the opponent. By maintaining offensive pressure, the enemy is forced to use his reserves and if this pressure can be maintained until these reserves are used up and he has insufficient resources to meet the new threat, defeat follows.

In this battle, by maintaining pressure by a series of attacks to the north and to the west, the Axis reserves were drawn in and steadily worn down until on 4 November—11 days after it had been planned to occur—penetration was effected.

This pressure was maintained throughout the battle by the numerous sorties of the DAF, the interdiction of Rommel’s supply line by the Royal Navy, and the cooperation of all arms of Eighth Army. An Air Ministry Report recorded that the Alamein battle “demonstrated untold value of good cooperation between all arms and services.”28 It was an old lesson to learn, but this cooperation between arms and services was a critical development. It signified, as Alexander McKee noted, a crucial shift. He wrote of the battle: “At long last the British were learning how to make war—which is not the same thing as fighting.”

There was little doubt, though, that the primary responsibility for breaking the Alamein position had been with the infantry divisions backed by heavy artillery and air support. Freyberg’s report on the El Alamein operations concluded that the “value of well-trained infantry, capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence, was fully proved.” Jonathan Fennell was correct in his assessment that the infantry units of Eighth Army were “Montgomery’s main offensive force.” Fennell also observed that in winning this last Alamein battle, “many of the frontline battalions of Eighth Army suffered over 50 per cent casualties.” Being the Army commander’s main offensive weapon came with a heavy cost.

It has been argued that Alamein could not have been won without the contributions of the two elite infantry divisions in Eighth Army identified earlier by Rommel—9 Australian Division operating in the north, and two brigades of New Zealand infantry plus supporting units in the center, and later in the pursuit. That the New Zealanders played a vital role was uncharacteristically recognized by Montgomery:

The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of all these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand…. Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory.

Montgomery sent the Australian commander a similar message of praise on November 2, just as Operation Supercharge was underway. Montgomery wrote to Morshead that, “Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played in this battle is beyond all praise.” General Alexander was also effusive in his praise of the 9th Australian Division when he addressed them at a parade on the Gaza airstrip on December 22. He pointed out that “The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory.” Alexander concluded his address by telling the Australians that “one thought I shall cherish above all others—under my command fought the 9th Australian Division.”35 Churchill too acknowledged in his history of the war that it was the “ceaseless, bitter fighting” that the Australians had endured at Alamein that “had swung the whole battle in our favour.” Twenty-five years after the battle, Montgomery wrote that “it would not be right to single out any for special praise” when all had performed well. But then Montgomery did exactly that, stating, “I must say this—we would not have won the battle in ten days without that magnificent 9th Australian Division.”

It was heady stuff and it was entirely appropriate that the Australians and New Zealanders received high praise for their efforts in the October battle. No historian could ever dispute their key roles. But Montgomery was correct when he gave credit to the fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire, although he perhaps should have mentioned the Empire airmen as well. Throughout the battle Eighth Army had “complete protection from serious air attack and, at the same time, had the benefit of such close co-operation and continuous air support as never before.” There were, of course, other formations and corps that contributed significantly to the outcome of the battle. All German accounts comment on the weight and effectiveness of Eighth Army’s artillery. No infantry division made more attacks nor suffered heavier casualties than 51st Highland Division. And while the armored divisions may not have performed as well as Montgomery and the infantry commanders wanted, no formation did more to win the battle than the 9th Armoured Brigade. The New Zealand official history was correct when it stated that “Finally, tribute for the victory should be bestowed on all those Allied troops who had a share in the fighting and behind the lines.”


It was surprising that General Alexander, in his Despatch published in 1948, was somewhat dismissive of the casualties incurred in this third battle. Alexander claimed that Eighth Army’s losses at El Alamein “were not unduly severe” and later that: “Our casualties were a negligible factor as far as the pursuit was concerned.” But Alexander was comparing Alamein to the attritional battles of the First World War. As he pointed out in his Memoirs, there was “one rather big difference.” At Alamein, casualties averaged just over 1,000 a day. On the first day of the Somme they had numbered “some 60,000.”

As with any battle of attrition, the cost of success was high. Eighth Army suffered 2,350 men killed in action; 8,950 wounded; and 2,260 men missing—a total of 13,560. In addition, 500 tanks and 111 guns were put of action and the DAF lost ninety-seven aircraft during the battle. These are not negligible figures and prove, as the British official history stated, “the battle was anything but a walk-over.” Panzerarmee losses were high too. An estimated 1,149 German and 971 Italians were killed in action, with a further 3,886 Germans and 933 Italians wounded. A more precise figure was recorded for the number of Axis prisoners taken during the battle. By November 11, it had reached 30,000.

The breakdown of Eighth Army’s losses indicates its multinational character. Of the total casualties incurred in the October battle, the percentages suffered by various nationalities were: UK troops 58 percent, Australians 22 percent, New Zealanders 10, South Africans 6, Indians 1, Allies (Free French, Greeks) 3. Two Australian historians have made much of these figures. They write that:

The Australian Division, although representing just under a tenth of the Eighth Army’s strength, had suffered more than one in five of its casualties. Further reports revealed the scale of the Australian contribution to the battle. Thirteen per cent of the 9th Division’s men had been killed or wounded, which is exactly double the British percentage and three times that of the other Dominion formations.

No one could ever question the contribution of the Australians to the final outcome of the battle and their heavy casualties are just one indication of the hard fighting they endured. But using casualty figures as a yardstick of contribution is misleading. It needs to be remembered that the UK casualties were not evenly spread across all its formations and some UK formations, such as the 51st Highland Division and 9 Armoured Brigade, suffered heavier percentage casualties than the Australians. In fact, 51st Highland Division, with 2,827 killed, wounded, and missing, suffered the highest number of casualties during the battle. The bulk of this Division’s casualties were in its nine infantry battalions, which collectively had a casualty rate of around 40 percent. The 2nd New Zealand Division losses had also been heavy, given that it was well understrength before the battle began. More than 1,700 New Zealanders became casualties during this second battle of El Alamein. More than a third of these casualties, some 651, had occurred in the first twenty-four hours of the battle, the highest number suffered amongst the five infantry divisions used on the opening night. Among the 7,350 graves of Allied servicemen in the Alamein cemetery are those of 1,049 known and fifty-six unknown New Zealanders. After the October battle, the New Zealand Division was now below strength by 3,600 men, a deficiency felt especially keenly in the infantry, the artillery, and the engineer corps. It had commenced the long campaign in June with nearly 20,000 men. In November 1942, its strength had almost reached 13,000 again. Niall Barr was correct in his assessment of the human cost of the last Alamein battle. He wrote that, “Eighth Army had finally crushed the Panzerarmee but the human cost to both sides had been grievous.”

The Destruction of the Manchester Column I

Indian cavalry on patrol, c.1918

1920’s Mesopotamia

While General Haldane’s attention was focused on the besieged garrison at Rumaytha, the insurgency continued to spread, gathering in more and more tribesmen, their sheikhs swept up in a great swell of religious fervour and primitive patriotism which gave them little room to manoeuvre, even when their sheikhly interests might have been better served by remaining obedient to the British. By mid-July 1920 around 35,000 Arab tribesmen were in arms and the number of British garrisons and outposts at risk of being cut off and destroyed was increasing.

In particular, fears grew for the safety of the British outpost at Kufa, where a small detachment of Indian troops from the 108th Infantry Regiment was keeping a wary eye on the rebellious city of Najaf seven and a half miles to the south-west. Kufa, a town of around 3,500 inhabitants, situated on the right bank of the channel of the same name, lay thirty-three miles south of the British base at Hilla. For twenty-one miles of that distance a narrow-gauge railway, built during the war, ran as far as Kifl, another small British outpost and railway terminus and the point where the Hindiyya branch of the great Euphrates divides, forming two further channels, the Kufa and the Shamiyya. As early as 11 July, the stationmaster at Kifl had reported that attacks on the railway station and telegraph lines were anticipated and the railway staff were authorised to withdraw north to Hilla. However, the following day, the PO for the Hilla Division, Major Pulley, considered it safe enough for the railway staff to return.

Meanwhile, Major P. Fitzgerald Norbury, the PO for the Shamiyya Division, accompanied by his youthful APO, Captain Mann, began a series of visits to the sheikhs of the Khaza’il, Bani Hasan and Shibl tribes, attempting to bribe them to abandon the al-Fatla, who were currently the most actively engaged insurgents. But this was to no avail and on 13 July the al-Fatla and their allies began to threaten Kufa.

The defenders of Kufa totalled 730 men, 486 of whom were Indian troops of the 108th Infantry plus their four British officers. The only other fighting men were a motley force of 115 Arab and Persian levies commanded by six British officers and three British NCOs. There were also 102 Indians and fourteen British employed by the Civil Administration. However, Norbury had selected a strong defensive position of stone buildings on the edge of the town and adjacent to the river and ensured that this strongpoint was well stocked with supplies and ammunition. Moreover the gunboat HMS Firefly had just arrived at Abu Sukhair, a few miles south of Kufa, having steamed down from the Upper Euphrates, and could easily return to Kufa in a few hours.

Signs of hostility began to show themselves on 14 July when insurgents opened fire on a British launch carrying supplies which would have certainly been captured without the intervention of Firefly, after which the gunboat was ordered upriver to Kufa. Then, on 20 July, the British base in the town came under sporadic rifle fire.

By the following day the British outpost was completely encircled and the attacks grew fiercer. Soon a number of buildings near to the British defensive perimeter were set on fire and Norbury and Mann repeatedly led fire-fighting parties to try to extinguish the flames. On 22 July, in the course of another of these sorties, Captain Mann was shot and killed by the Arab attackers. Wilson had lost yet another of his ‘young men’. Meanwhile, insurgent raiding parties began to threaten Kifl and on 23 July its railway station was overrun by a section of the Bani Hasan tribe, and the railway staff, who had been ordered back to their posts on 12 July, were captured and taken prisoner to Najaf.

As the military situation in the Shamiyya Division deteriorated, on Thursday 22 July Major General Leslie, still at Diwaniyya, was summoned to Baghdad for a conference with the GOC-in-chief and the following day was flown up to Baghdad for the meeting with Haldane. Afterwards he paid a visit to his own 17th Division HQ and it was there, later that Friday morning, that he received a telegram from Colonel R.C.W. Lukin, commanding officer at Hilla, who had replaced the ‘hysterical’ General Wauchope a few days earlier. With Kifl overrun by rebel tribesmen and the Hilla–Kifl railway cut in a number of places, Colonel Lukin informed Leslie that he was under intense pressure from the local PO, Major Pulley, to send out a detachment towards Kifl, in order to ‘show the flag’ in the hope that this would deter the ‘wavering’ northern sections of the Bani Hasan from joining the insurgency. The telegram requested authorisation to do so.

The only troops at Hilla available for this purpose were the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment (less one company), a field artillery battery, a field ambulance section, a company of Indian pioneers and two squadrons of Indian cavalry, in total around 800 men, all units from the 18th Division which had been sent to Hilla, on GHQ’s order, to form a column there for the purpose of retaking Kifl and relieving Kufa – but only when a sufficiently strong force had been assembled.

Colonel Lukin’s telegram informed Leslie that he intended to send a column made up of the units currently available down the road to Kifl to a point six miles south of Hilla called Imam Bakr, which had been reconnoitred and was reported as having a good supply of water for both animals and men. The objective was to ‘show the flag’ as requested by the PO. Lukin asked Leslie to approve this move and to authorise a continuation of the advance towards Kifl if circumstances allowed.

Leslie, who by now was fully aware of his commanding officer’s strictures about sending out under-strength columns at the behest of POs, decided to pass the request to the GOC-in-chief himself, so he telephoned GHQ and, in the presence of his own two staff officers, he read out Colonel Lukin’s telegram to Brigadier General Stewart, Haldane’s general staff officer who had taken the call. A few minutes later, Stewart replied, giving GHQ’s permission for the Manchester Regiment and other units to advance towards Kifl but, for the time being, to go no further than Imam Bakr, which was to be considered ‘an outpost of Hilla’. The commander of the column was also ordered to avoid becoming engaged with superior hostile forces. Leslie then transmitted these instructions to Lukin at Hilla, sending a copy of his telegram by special dispatch rider to GHQ, and later that day he boarded an aircraft at Baghdad to fly back to Diwaniyya.

Precisely why General Haldane authorised the Manchester Column’s movement to Imam Bakr is something of a mystery. It was completely inconsistent with his previously stated objections to making an ‘unready push’ and the manoeuvre had no clear objective. Certainly, there was no reason why GHQ should defer to the judgement of the PO who had been pressing for the column’s dispatch. One possible explanation is that Haldane was expecting the arrival at Hilla of some of the units from the Rumaytha relief column he was planning to withdraw north from Diwaniyya and which could then be sent on immediately to reinforce the Manchesters at Imam Bakr. It was this more substantial force which would then advance further towards Kifl and Kufa.

However, when the Manchester Column was sent out on the afternoon of 23 July, neither Colonel Lukin at Hilla nor the officer commanding the column, Colonel Hardcastle, had any idea that reinforcements were en route to them and might be arriving shortly, a communications failure that was to have tragic results.

To better understand the course of events which was now about to unfold, let us first examine the terrain through which the column was to move. Between Hilla and Kifl the landscape was almost entirely flat and featureless except for the ruined Babylonian tower of Birs Nimrud – locally reputed to be the Tower of Babel – which would have been just visible, situated on a mound, about ten miles south-west of the column’s point of departure. At that time of year the terrain itself was a mixture of grey-brown desert covered with scrubby ‘camel thorn’ bushes intersected by a number of half-empty canals which fed off the Hilla branch of the Euphrates. Where these irrigation canals watered the land, rice fields – some of them quite extensive – broke the monotonous vista. Two of these irrigation canals, the Amariyya and the Nahr Shah, ran roughly north–south, to the east of the road and the 2’6” railway line from Hilla, while two smaller canals, the Mashtadiyya and the Rustumiyya lay broadly east–west. Imam Bakr – the position six miles south of Hilla where Colonel Hardcastle had been ordered to halt, make camp and water the cavalry and transport teams from local wells – was a short distance north of the point where the road and railway line crossed the Mashtadiyya canal. As to the ‘road’ to Kifl along which the column would march – it was little more than an unmetalled track.

Let us try to picture the small British force on Friday 23 July 1920 as it begins its advance into enemy territory under the baking Mesopotamian sun. A few months earlier the newly planted rice fields and small plots of winter wheat ready for harvesting would have been bright green and dotted with spring flowers, but now all has turned to drab dusty yellow. There is nothing to raise the men’s spirits as they set off towards their equally cheerless destination.

‘B’ Company of the Manchesters, under the command of Captain G.M. Glover, are at the head of the column followed by ‘A’ Company. But after only a couple of miles these pale young men from Lancashire in their solar topees and baggy shorts are already in a sorry condition, sodden with a fine perspiration, like a downy mist, which seems to leak out of every pore, and desperately thirsty; but the British Army believes that troops should refrain from drinking water in the heat of the day while marching, so ‘water discipline’ is being rigidly enforced. Behind them march a company of sepoys – strong, lean men of the 1st Battalion the 32nd Sikh Pioneers, ready in an instant to drop their rifles and seize their entrenching tools; normally a six-mile march would be nothing to them but with the shade temperature touching 120°f, even these tough, experienced soldiers are beginning to suffer. The six horse-drawn 18-pounder guns of the 39th Royal Field Artillery battery are in the centre of the column together with 150 ‘Animal Transport’ (AT) carts each pulled by two mules, carrying ammunition and the impedimenta required for constructing a camp. As their Indian drivers whip them forward, the animals churn up the fine dust of the alluvial soil, choking the men of ‘D’ Company of the Manchesters who are marching behind them. And in the rear, and on either flank, are two squadrons of the 35th Scinde Horse, the pennants of their lances fluttering in the scorching breeze of the shamal as they scan the horizon for enemy tribesmen; but, as often as not, in the shimmering heat, what first appears to be a horseman is just a mirage – or nothing more than a six-foot high clump of wild liquorice or a strangely twisted grey-leaved native poplar tree.

Forty-four-year-old Colonel R.N. Hardcastle, in command of the column, marches with the infantry, alternately on horseback or on foot, resting his mount. The son of a ‘gentleman of independent means’ of Wakefield, Yorkshire, Colonel Hardcastle joined the army with the rank of second lieutenant in December 1897.9 By now he is a very experienced soldier. He fought in the Boer War of 1899–1901, serving with the Manchester Regiment’s 1st Battalion, and was awarded the DSO for bravery in September 1901. In 1914 his unit formed part of the British Expeditionary Force in France and between 18 and 20 October it saw very heavy fighting at Richebourg-l’Avoué, where Hardcastle, by now a captain, had to assume temporary command of the battalion after its lieutenant colonel was sent to hospital. In April 1915 he was promoted to major and the following year his unit was sent to Iraq, where it took part in the futile campaign to relieve General Townshend’s men besieged at Kut al-‘Amara and during which Major Hardcastle was wounded. By July 1918 Hardcastle, now with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel, was commanding the 1st Battalion of the Manchesters in General Allenby’s successful campaign against the Turks in Palestine. It was with the same rank that Hardcastle was placed in command of the Manchester Regiment’s 2nd Battalion in November 1919.

Many of the column’s other officers are equally experienced and decorated. But brave and experienced as they may be, these officers are no less affected by the intense heat than their men and on arrival at Imam Bakr in the early evening all ranks are exhausted and some have already collapsed from dehydration and heatstroke.

At this point events begin to take an unfortunate turn. In spite of the enforcement of ‘water discipline’, the column has insufficient water supplies for an operation in such extremes of temperature.10 Colonel Hardcastle has been assured that there will be plentiful water supplies at Imam Bakr but when his cavalry patrols reach the nearby wells it is discovered that the water is so brackish that even the animals refuse to drink. However, the column is within a short distance of the Mashtadiyya canal so the men and animals trudge onwards to that location. But once again they are disappointed – the Hilla branch of the Euphrates, from which the matrix of irrigation channels is fed, is very low this year and there is no water entering the Mashtadiyya canal. So the weary and despondent British and Indian troops march back to Imam Bakr.

However, a junior PO accompanying the column who is familiar with this area, Lieutenant P.H.S. Tozer, is sent out scouting for alternative sources of water and soon returns informing Hardcastle that there are adequate supplies in another canal, the Nahr Shah, further to the south-east; there is also a good defensive position at which to make camp eight miles south of Imam Bakr, where the railway and Hilla–Kifl road cross another canal with water, the Rustumiyya. So Hardcastle now sends a message back to Hilla informing Colonel Lukin that he intends to continue his advance to the Rustumiyya, asking his senior officer to approve the movement.

On receiving this request, at 00.15 on 24 July, Colonel Lukin sends a telegram to Major General Leslie at Divisional HQ Diwaniyya informing him of the column’s plight and of his intention to allow the column to advance further southwards towards Kifl, principally to obtain water but also to continue to ‘show the flag’ in this unsettled area. Leslie is informed by Lukin that he has authorised the column to set off from Imam Bakr ‘in the morning’.

At this point Leslie is still hours away from his HQ, being flown back from his conference with Haldane in Baghdad. When he does eventually receive Lukin’s message at 10.40 a.m. on Saturday the 24th, he is puzzled by the expression ‘in the morning’ – does Lukin mean he is intending to order the advance to begin this morning (in which case he would have already departed) or the following morning – on the 25th? He therefore telegraphs back to Hilla asking for clarification, at the same time informing Lukin that substantial reinforcements will soon be on their way to him from the units which are expected to return to Hilla from the relief of Rumaytha.

Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that the Nahr Shah canal does indeed contain adequate water supplies and Hardcastle has sent part of the column there with the animals without further authorisation. The operation is successful but because of difficulties leading the horses and mules down the steep banks of the canal, they can only be watered in small batches.

Consequently the party does not return to the camp at Imam Bakr until 8.15 a.m. An hour later, Hardcastle has still not received a reply from Hilla to his telegram of 00.15 as to a further advance to the Rustumiyya canal, so because the temperature is already above 100°f, he decides to give the order to advance without waiting any longer. However, it is not until 4.00 that afternoon that Leslie receives a telegram from Lukin at Hilla informing him that the column has already set off ‘that morning, early’. The stage is now set for a tragic denouement.

By midday on Saturday 24 July, Colonel Hardcastle and his men eventually reached the Rustumiyya canal, by which time 60 per cent of the Manchester Regiment troops were so exhausted and affected by the heat as to require, in the opinion of the column’s medical officer, a complete rest for twenty-four hours. However, the column was now close to Kifl, whose single white minaret could clearly be seen from the canal bank, and, faced with the possibility of an attack by marauding bands of insurgents, Hardcastle decided that a protected camp would have to be constructed. So after only a few hours’ rest the men were set to work preparing a defensible position while two troops of the Scinde Horse were posted as standing patrols on the road and light railway line leading to Kifl.

The Destruction of the Manchester Column II

General Aylmer Haldane, British Commander-in-Chief in Iraq, 1921


The spot chosen for the camp was a naturally strong one. It was sited to the east of the road from Hilla to Kifl in the angle between the road and the canal.

 On three sides there were earthen banks a few feet above the level ground which served on the southern side to retain the ten-foot-wide canal while on the east was an irrigation cut of lesser width. The protection of the third side, which bordered the road, consisted of a dry ditch with a low bank on both sides of it. Beyond this side to the west and making an acute angle with the road, outside the perimeter selected for the camp, ran a line of mounds, possibly the remains of an ancient canal bank of which all other traces had disappeared. Since the highest of these was around ten feet above level ground, and the highest point in the vicinity, these positions were also occupied.

Only on the fourth side facing north-west were there no naturally defensible features and so at 5.30 p.m. those men who were still fit enough were ordered to commence digging trenches along this line. However, a few minutes later an orderly from the cavalry troop stationed on the railway line galloped into the camp with news that a large party of Arabs were tearing up the rails and destroying the culverts. This was followed by the arrival of a wounded cavalryman and then, shortly afterwards, by the remainder of the cavalry with worrying news: at least 10,000 insurgents were said to be advancing on the camp and were only about two miles away. Although this estimate of enemy combatants was later revised down to about 3,000, the British and Indian troops were clearly heavily outnumbered.

A short time later both sides opened fire, although there was some delay in getting the British artillery into action because the British gunners, who were also the column’s telephonists, were currently trying to get in touch with Hilla by attaching their instruments to the telegraph line. By 7.50 p.m. the fighting became more intense and the Arabs were seen to be working round the flanks of the encampment, some of them closing to only 150 yards from the camp perimeter. Colonel Hardcastle was aware that he had been ordered to avoid an engagement with superior forces but he was now in a quandary: his orders indicated that the column should probably withdraw to a position of greater safety, nearer to Hilla; but with nightfall approaching he also knew that conducting such a movement in good order would be extremely hazardous. What he did not know, however, was that within the next twenty-four hours reinforcements from the Rumaytha relief force would be available at Hilla ready to be sent on the short distance to support Hardcastle’s men. If the Manchester Column had dug in and taken advantage of their superior firepower they would probably have been able to hold their position until those reinforcements arrived.

In the event, Colonel Hardcastle’s judgement seems to have failed him. Instead of taking a firm decision as commanding officer, he called all the officers to a council, including the two POs accompanying the column, Lieutenant Tozer and his superior, APO Captain W.E. Hunt. These two urged an immediate withdrawal, claiming that, seeing such a force of British troops pinned down in this manner, all the local Arabs would rise up and even Hilla itself might be overwhelmed and captured. The outcome of the conference was that a decision was taken to abandon the camp and retire northwards towards Imam Bakr and Hilla. ‘B’ Company of the Manchester Regiment was to act as the advance guard split into two files either side of the AT wagons and artillery. They would be followed by ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies; the Sikh Pioneers and the two squadrons of the Scinde Horse would make up the rearguard.

At 8.40 p.m., in a darkness unrelieved by any moonlight, the Manchester Column begins to move off in the direction of Hilla along what is little more than a dirt track. For the first half mile of progress the column holds together well. Morale has now improved somewhat. British and Indian soldiers have enjoyed at least a few hours of rest and they are relieved to be returning to the modest comforts of Hilla after the privations of the march. And for the time being they are able to fend off sporadic attacks by mounted insurgents who are reluctant to come into close combat with their better-armed opponents.

Then, suddenly, there is a commotion among the AT wagons. Something has panicked the mules and horses, which begin to charge off in different directions. In the pitch darkness, the men of ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies of the Manchesters have no idea what is happening until careering transport wagons carve through their ranks. In the chaos, the inexperienced young infantrymen who cannot get out of the way are trampled, injured and killed while the rest are split up into isolated groups of men left stranded and in many cases separated from their officers and NCOs.

From now on any sense of there being an organised military formation has disintegrated. Loose horses, led by a white pony, continue to career up and down the road on which some of the Manchesters are endeavouring to make an orderly retreat. The combat degenerates into a scattering of individual fights between little groups of British and Indian troops and a swirling mass of Arab horsemen and foot soldiers. As they retreat, the gunners halt for a few minutes, firing their guns into the Arabs at almost point-blank range, and with drawn swords the sowars of the Scinde Horse make repeated charges into the enemy tribesmen to prevent them surrounding and capturing the guns and gunners. In the course of these charges, all six of the cavalry’s British officers have their horses shot from under them; two of their officers are badly wounded and the senior Indian officer, Risaldar Muhammad Azim, who has shown the greatest coolness and bravery throughout the fighting, is shot in the stomach and dies shortly afterwards. And as the struggle to extricate the guns dies down, two-thirds of the cavalry are now fighting on foot.

In another of these close-quarter combats the twenty-six-year-old Captain George Henderson, commanding ‘D’ Company of the Manchesters, orders his men to fix bayonets and leads a charge into the nearest mass of insurgents.16 For a while this body of rebels pulls back but within minutes they have recovered and threaten to surround Henderson’s men. Once again he leads a charge at bayonet point towards the Arabs but this time he is badly wounded. Nevertheless, after this show of resistance, the insurgents pull back, turning their attention to the substantial amount of equipment, rifles and ammunition in the AT wagons which the Manchester Column has had to abandon. At this point Henderson manages to extricate his men and escape up the road to Hilla. After a few hundred yards the men of ‘D’ Company halt at a defensible position. It is only now that the severity of Henderson’s wound becomes apparent. He asks a sergeant to lay him down on the canal embankment where they are sheltering. His last words, spoken to one of his NCOs are, ‘I’m done now, don’t let them beat you.’ Henderson was later awarded the Victoria Cross ‘for most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice’.

Meanwhile, Captain Glover and 128 men of ‘B’ Company of the Manchesters, originally at the head of the column, have become completely disorientated and have veered away from the Hilla ‘road’ to the left, on a track leading to Birs Nimrud. At some point along this track they are surrounded and attacked by a swarm of mounted insurgents. None of these men would ever be seen again. Glover and his men were later classed as ‘missing’, but according to a survivor from another unit, they were ‘slaughtered to a man’, a conclusion broadly confirmed by a subsequent court of inquiry.

By around 6.00 a.m. on 25 July, some men of ‘D’ Company of the Manchesters and other units had eventually managed to find their way back to Hilla. But what of the remainder of the column? The first Major General Leslie heard of the Manchester Column, since he had been informed of its advance to the Rustumiyya canal, was at 10.30 p.m. the previous day, when he received a telegram from Hilla saying that the column had been in action and was ‘withdrawing to Hilla under fire’. As he later described it to his wife, ‘I knew only too well what this meant with six guns and a lot of transport withdrawing at night and so few infantry to protect them.’

If Colonel Hardcastle had decided that the Manchester Column remain in its fortified camp it would probably have been able to defend its position until reinforcements arrived, especially since the Rustumiyya canal provided an adequate water supply. Indeed, while the column was beginning its ill-fated retreat to Hilla, Leslie was commandeering as many railway trucks as possible with which to transport the Royal Irish Rifles from Diwaniyya to Hilla from where they could be rushed to support the Manchester Column. Then, at 10.30 in the morning of 25 July, Leslie received the news he had been dreading: the Manchester Column had ‘suffered disaster’; only two guns had reached Hilla and the rest of the column was believed to be returning but ‘its whereabouts was unknown.’

Leslie had little choice but to continue with the entrainment of the Royal Irish Rifles in the hope that these reinforcements might yet do something to obviate the ‘disaster’. So at 11.30 a.m. the train carrying the Irish Rifles, accompanied by Leslie himself, left Diwaniyya station, arriving at Hilla at 6.00 that Sunday evening.

At Hilla Leslie found ‘everybody in a state of the utmost gloom’. And to his amazement, instead of retiring to Baghdad as Leslie had ordered, General Wauchope was still in situ, having decided, on his own account, to stay on to ‘advise’ his replacement Colonel Lukin. Not surprisingly, the scant information being received as regards the fate of the Manchester Column had more or less unhinged him. ‘General Wauchope is almost a gibbering lunatic,’ Leslie later informed his wife and immediately packed the unfortunate brigadier off to Baghdad.

Indeed, such was the ‘gloom’ at Hilla that Colonel Lukin – apparently aided and abetted by Wauchope – had begun to turn two large buildings in the town into a fortified position from which to make a ‘last stand’. Leslie at once put a stop to this and, going round the outskirts of the town, he selected the best spots for piquets, had them manned and put what Arab levies were available into the most easily defended ones. The remnants of the Manchester Column were placed on the least exposed side of the town and a general night-time curfew imposed on the town’s residents.

And as this most depressing Sunday wore on, an account – albeit a very provisional one – of what had happened to the Manchester Column began to emerge. Writing from Hilla in the evening, Leslie described how he intended to set up a court of inquiry into the affair but in the meantime his initial account of the debacle was as follows:

At 8.00 p.m. – i.e. after dark – the Officer Commanding took the fatal resolve to retire on Hilla. Some transport carts stampeded and panic set in. The Arabs closed right in on them and the withdrawal became very much disorganized. I understand that only one squadron of the 35th Horse and a portion of the Pioneers under their British officers continued to conduct an orderly rearguard action. I hear, but don’t yet believe, that the men of the Manchester Regiment never recovered the panic. The gunners behaved well, firing their guns at ranges of 80 yards or so. The Arabs got amongst some of the teams stabbing the horses with daggers. They had one gun out of six hopelessly over-turned in a large water channel and it had to be abandoned after the breech block and sights were removed. They also had to abandon some ammunition wagons. The cavalry lost very few men, the Pioneers had 24 missing and 6 wounded out of 141, but the Manchesters account for only about a dozen known killed or rather less wounded, but have nearly 200 missing! They also lost practically all their Lewis guns. It looks bad for them, but one must await the enquiry … A very bad show of which I do not see the end …

In fact, as we have seen, some of the Manchesters did put up a strong fight, but overall Leslie’s initial views as to the extent of the defeat were largely borne out by the final tally of casualties. The disastrous night action south of Hilla cost the British 178 killed or missing, 150 captured and 60 wounded – a loss of 388 from a total of around 800 men. In addition, considerable amounts of ammunition and an 18-pounder field gun were captured by the insurgents. The loss of the field gun was to have further unfortunate consequences.

It didn’t take long before news of the rout of the Manchester Column, and in particular the capture of so many British infantry by the rebels, spread throughout the country. Indeed, it reached the coffee houses and mosques of Baghdad almost as soon as it reached the British GHQ, via the occupiers’ own telegraph and telephone system. So panicked were the military authorities in Hilla that they failed to take the elementary precaution of transmitting news of the disaster in code. Since there were many sympathisers and supporters of the insurgency working in the British telegraph and telephone offices, tales of the British mishap – some of them wildly exaggerated – were already sweeping through the narrow streets of the old city by the Sunday afternoon.

Gertrude Bell apparently did not hear about the incident until she arrived at work the following morning. In a letter to her father dated 26 July she begins with some private family matters after which she describes how, ‘Things have moved a little since I wrote last week. We have relieved Rumaytha and at the same time our own minds, for the couple of hundred people who had been shut up there for 3 weeks were a great anxiety.’

But then, after discussing the political situation in Baghdad, the letter continues,

The above was written before breakfast. When I got to the office I found that the whole complexion on the Euphrates had changed. All the tribes are out … Whether we can hold Hillah or not I don’t know … But it’s a bad business. The military authorities seem to me all through to have been more inept than it’s possible to conceive. The crowning scandal was the despatch two days ago of a battalion of the Manchesters from Hillah to Kifl. They were ordered to leave at 4 am and left at 10, with one day’s rations and water bottles. You remember that hot and barren road? Think of marching down it in July at midday! 17 miles out of Hillah they were dropping about with heat stroke. The tribes attacked – not viciously, I gather, but it was more than enough for the Manchesters, for there wasn’t a kick left in them. The tribes carried off the artillery and ammunition they were convoying down to Kifl … I believe there are more troops coming from India but unless they send a new higher Command with them, I think they may easily send 20 divisions in vain.

Inept or not, on receiving news of the Manchester Column disaster, any reluctance that General Haldane felt with regard to requests for reinforcements evaporated entirely. However, so far, both Haldane and Wilson had contrived to confuse the War Office as to exactly what reinforcements were required. On 18 July, the day after Churchill announced to the cabinet that, in response to General Haldane’s request, an additional full division was being mobilised to reinforce the beleaguered garrison in Iraq, a bemused War Office received a telegram from GHQ Baghdad informing them that they should postpone the dispatch of any more units, except the one brigade which Haldane had originally requested on 8 July. Given that on 18 July the battle for Rumaytha was still in the balance, Haldane’s apparent willingness to postpone substantial reinforcements – in his own words ‘from motives of economy’ – must have seemed inopportune to say the least; and to complicate matters further, the following day, Wilson (as usual ignoring instructions to refrain from commenting on purely military matters) offered his opinion that there was no need for any additional units – what was needed was to bring all the existing units up to strength. While that observation may have had some merit, its impact at the War Office merely added to the general state of confusion. Five days later, any clarity about reinforcements for Iraq further dissolved when Haldane telegrammed the War Office asking that ‘divisional staff and ancillary services’ should be sent ‘at the earliest opportunity’ from which it was inferred that, after all, Haldane was still expecting ‘the remainder of the division at an early date’.

Meanwhile, on 21 July, the cabinet had been informed of the military action on the road to Rumaytha. ‘The fighting was severe’, it was recorded, ‘but our attack was successful and a counter-attack by the enemy after dark was beaten off.’ After which the cabinet, seemingly reassured that matters in Iraq were not quite so bad as they had expected, moved on to grapple with the host of other problems with which they had been struggling with since the end of the war – the ‘Bolshevik threat’, Poland, the Irish rebellion, Egypt, strikes etc. etc. And in spite of Churchill’s fierce admonition to the contrary, no decision was taken about the withdrawal of British troops from Persia to support the counter-insurgency campaign on the Euphrates. Then, on 26 July, in the aftermath of the Manchester Column disaster, Haldane requested not one, but two divisions of reinforcements.

Replying two days later, Churchill informed Haldane that ‘the provision of any such [second] division is extremely problematical and that as regards Ordnance and Royal Army Service Corps personnel we are at the end of our resources’, to which he added, more in hope than expectation, that Haldane should consult with the civil commissioner, and decide ‘a definite course of policy’ but one which would bear in mind the limitation of Britain’s military resources.

Whilst your difficulties in the situation are fully appreciated, we think that it should be possible for the civil and military authorities on the spot to arrive at an agreed appreciation of the political situation on which you can estimate your military requirements and formulate a definite military policy, including the number of days supply reserves considered essential.

What Churchill apparently did not understand was that ‘an agreed appreciation’ between Haldane and Wilson was simply not possible: these two men had fundamentally different objectives. As the insurgency gained momentum, Wilson’s main preoccupation was, more than ever before, the safety of his ‘young men’, scattered all over the country, facing a very real threat of capture or murder. To counter this threat Wilson believed that the army should be deployed so as to provide as much protection to his young POs as possible. Haldane, on the other hand, was increasingly worried by his lack of any reserve with which to counter a really serious threat – for example a coordinated attack on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in the telegram of 28 July, Churchill had explicitly ordered him to hold ‘some reserve in your own hand over and above the troops necessary to meet your visible military requirements at any one time’, until more troops arrived from India. The only way Haldane could do this was by withdrawing outlying units and concentrating his forces nearer to the capital while at the same time refraining from responding to each and every request for support from the Civil Administration. A fortnight after receiving Churchill’s response to his request for further reinforcements, Haldane therefore issued the following instructions to his officers.

Responsibility of Officers.

On two recent occasions on the advice or recommendation of a political officer, risks quite unwarrantable from a military point of view have been taken by officers in command of troops. Unfortunate results have followed …

Having described these ‘unfortunate results’ as involving both losses of men and equipment but also contributing to the spread of the insurrection, the GOC-in-chief,

impresses on all officers in command of troops the responsibility which they incur should they act in a manner not strictly in accordance with sound military principles, more especially in a country such as Mesopotamia where the climate is in itself our greatest enemy. Political like other information is often untrustworthy and must not be blindly accepted; and to keep his Division quiet at all costs is with the political officer a natural and paramount instinct.

General Haldane, however, was making it abundantly clear to his officers that no such ‘instincts’ should be countenanced.

The G.O.C.-in Chief does not wish in any way to cramp the initiative of officers but there is a wide distinction between initiative and rashness. The present situation is such that the least set-back must have harmful results and it is every officer’s duty to reflect before acting and realise how great a responsibility he accepts if he is not certain in his own mind that he can fully justify his action.

Haldane could not have made it clearer. Henceforth Wilson’s ‘young men’ were going to be left to fend for themselves until victory over the rebels was in sight. After such an injunction no officer who cared for his military career was going to send troops to the aid of POs unless explicitly ordered to do so by the GOC-in-chief himself. To Wilson, the order was little more than a death sentence for some of those under his command and for whom he had the deepest respect and affection.

And among those to whom General Haldane’s order was addressed there were some army officers who would have been equally unhappy with the wording of the order. It contained strong implications – indeed virtually accusations – that one or other senior officer had indeed, been taking ‘risks quite unwarrantable from a military point’ and behaving in a manner ‘not strictly in accordance with sound military principles’. Major General Leslie, for one, would have bitterly resented these words because from the testy encounters with his commanding officer which he had already experienced, he had a strong impression that Haldane was in some way pointing the finger of blame at him for the setbacks of the past few days. For his part, Leslie had taken to referring dismissively to his commander-in-chief as ‘the early-Victorian baronet’.

Meanwhile, official opinion fluctuated wildly as to the advisability of withdrawing from the Mosul vilayet in order to concentrate British forces in the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra and hopefully forestall any further catastrophes like the Manchester Column debacle. However, in a telegram of 24 July Sir Percy Cox, recently arrived in Britain to brief the cabinet, weighed in with his own views on the matter. ‘I can only contemplate with the greatest dismay the suggestion that we should withdraw from Mosul,’ he stated. Apart from the impact upon ‘our prestige throughout Mesopotamia’,

I regard the maintenance of our position in Mesopotamia as a factor of enormous importance to our general interests in the Middle East and India. From an economic point of view I think it is common knowledge that the possibilities of Mesopotamia in oil, cotton and wheat make it a great country of promise … Oil is of course, an uncertain quantity but the prospect is at any rate sufficient to attract to Mesopotamia the interest and capital of very large concerns.

And he continued by pointing out the key importance of holding on to Basra (control of which would be threatened by any withdrawal from more northern parts of Iraq).

We have previously considered the control of the port of Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf to be most important for the strength of our position in those waters. It is especially so now a days in view of our large vested interested in Abadan and in the oil of Arabistan; but its value would be entirely vitiated were Baghdad in the hands of a hostile Power.


General Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) directing the 2nd Battalion 12th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry (now part of Punjab Regimental Centre, Pakistan Army) at the Battle of Assaye, 1803

The British advance against the Maratha army at Assaye on 23 September 1803.

On 23 September 1803 British troops chased the line of Maratha troops back and broke them, forcing them back into Assaye and then across the Juah river.

Considered by the Duke of Wellington to be his finest victory, the Battle of Assaye was one in which a small but well-trained British army faced native forces well equipped and well tutored in European combat techniques. Won against overwhelming odds, it demonstrated the indomitable spirit of the colonial powers when faced with militarily sophisticated opponents. Assaye also served as an early showcase for the Duke of Wellington’s talents.

European imperialism began in earnest in the 16th century with the conquest of the Americas. European soldiers operating in the New World overcame the native cultures with surprising ease. A number of factors accounted for this, among which were logistical organization and extraordinary bravery, by means of which handfuls of Spanish conquistadors were able to defeat great kingdoms such as that of the Aztecs. A similar pattern was repeated elsewhere in the world, with native cultures being confronted, found to be ill-prepared and far less able to withstand the early modern warfare techniques which confronted them. The Russians conquered Siberia, while in India the trading stations of Portuguese, French and British merchants were turned into the stepping stones of empire.


Britain’s involvement in India during the 18th century had reached a crucial point with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when Robert Clive defeated the nawab (governor) of Bengal. The nawab’s army was ten times the size of Robert Clive ‘s force of two thousand sepoys (native soldiers trained by the British) and nine hundred Europeans. Despite the overwhelming odds, Clive was victorious and the nawab was executed. This victory secured Britain’s possessions in the subcontinent and entitled it to raise massive revenues from the native population, which Britain then used to increase its military presence further.

The influence of the Mughals, the most dominant power in southern Asia up to that point, had been in decline since 1707 with the death of Aurangzeb. The British were clearly in the ascendant, but unlike those in the Americas, where native cultures never really rose to the challenge posed by European military power, the rulers of India understood the nature of the force they were up against. While the British considered themselves as successors to the Mughals, there was an indigenous force in the form of the Maratha confederacy that also claimed the right to rule India. The confederacy was a grouping of various influential clan chiefs under the leadership of a peshaw (chief minister); at times, the clans warred with one another, particularly for leadership, but they also combined in various coalitions to resist the British. The result was three Maratha wars fought in 1775-82, 1803-05 and 1817-18.

Recruiting European military advisers, frequently from one of the competing imperial powers, such as the French, the peshaws and clan chiefs rapidly transformed their feudal armies and equipped their soldiers with artillery, muskets and Western-style military training. In a very short time, these native armies could rely on twice as many cannons as the British. Major Thome, a veteran of many battles in the region, complained of ‘the changes that have taken place among the warlike tribes of India through the introduction of European tactics and French discipline, which, combined with their natural courage, often bordering on enthusiastic frenzy, and their numerical superiority, has rendered our conflicts with them sanguinary in the extreme’.

By the late 18th century it was no longer easy for Britain to overawe its opponents in India. And yet, such was their hunger for the wealth to be derived from India that the British took on ever more difficult and challenging campaigns in an effort to subdue the native population. Against such a background, the Battle of Assaye emerges as being typical of a period in which British forces outfought – rather than outgunned – otherwise impressive native armies. It is also interestmg to note that the British were commanded by a young Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington. Assaye demonstrates the strength of British fighting skills in the face of superior numbers; Wellington, when asked forty years later which was his finest moment in battle, answered with one word: ‘Assaye.’


The Marathas had replaced the Mughal dynasty m central and northern India, and in 1779 they defeated the British at the Battle of Wadgaon, following Britain’s attempt to favour a candidate for peshwa. It was only a matter of time before there would be a further clash, and in 1803 it arose. This time the British were determined to intervene more forcefully. Richard Wellesley. governor general of Bengal, sent his younger brother Arthur to offer protection to Peshwa Baji Rao II, who had been defeated by the Holkar clan. Other clans then objected to the British intervention. Wellesley penetrated Maratha territory and stumbled across an army at the junction of the Juah and Kaitna rivers. It was an impressive array: some 30,000 cavalry; 10,000 infantry, trained and equipped in the Western style by French soldiers; and 200 pieces of artillery. All Wellesley commanded was 4.500 regulars, mostly sepoys, and half of these were cavalry. Despite this, Wellesley was supremely confident, demonstrating efficiency and organization in abundance.

Later historians have praised Wellesley ‘s logistical abilities above his triumphs in battle, and it is important to consider how the British supported their armies in India, because it frequently proved decisive in campaigns. Throughout history, most armies had supported their troops by taking what they needed from the lands they passed through. Understandably, this alienated local people, who frequently fought back and added to the difficulties of a campaign. The British forces in India, however, adopted a system in which they bought food and supplies from merchants who came to their camps. This not only resulted in less incidental fighting, but also ensured the goodwill of the local population. Intelligence information could also be obtained at these military bazaars, sourced from merchants acting as spies. The relatively wealthy British enjoyed the support of merchants who were not slow to exploit their generosity. Wellesley did not invent this system but, with his excellent eye for detail, he ran it superbly and it gave him an added edge over his Maratha opponents.

Having left his baggage train in the village of Naulniah, which he instructed to be fortified, Wellesley rode out to inspect the position of his enemy at Assaye. Wellesley was well practised in this process of reconnaissance, getting to know the landscape of the forthcoming battle so as to be able to use it to his advantage. Ignoring the suspect knowledge of his guides, he discovered a ford across the Kaitnathat he could make use of to speed up the transport of his troops without making them vulnerable. It meant he could also surprise the enemy. Wellesley led the way into the river, but as his troops waded into the water, some Maratha artillery opened up. Fortunately for him, it was half-hearted fire and it ceased when Wellesley formed his men up on the opposite shore.

Wellesley placed his Madras sepoys between two units of regular British troops and began the advance. Maratha cavalry were reported to have crossed the river further west and could have threatened Wellesley ‘s rear, but because his baggage tram was well fortified, he did not mind losing communication with it for the duration of the battle. The Marathas had lost the advantage of having their troops protected by the river, but they still possessed superior numbers and a formidable array of cannons. As the two lines of artillery began to duel, Wellesley knew he would lose the encounter if it was prolonged and so he ordered his men forward, with the kilted troops of the 78th Highlanders leading the way.


Sheer aggression was the only way to win this contest; the British fixed their bayonets and charged the well-trained Maratha troops. The two Maratha commanders, Berar and Scindia, lacked the courage of Wellesley and retired from the fighting, but their senior European adviser, Pohlmann, a Hanoverian, remained in command of the Indian troops. The 78th Highlanders halted at 55m (180ft), fired their muskets in a mighty volley, then charged and plunged in with their bayonets.

It was this sort of hard, close-quarters fighting that the British favoured and which would frequently send their enemies reeling, in theatres of war from India to Spain.

Having taken a line of Maratha artillery, the 78th Highlanders fired a second volley, which finally broke Pohlmann’s troops on the southern flank. The Madras sepoys followed up on this success and also broke the Maratha line. Carried away by their triumph, however, some of the sepoys became disorganized and vulnerable to the nearby Maratha cavalry, but the British cavalry was there to protect their flank and the sepoys regrouped. At the forefront of the action, Wellesley had his horse shot from beneath him. On the northern flank, the 74th Highlanders came under intense fire and had to form a defensive square with ramparts composed of the bodies of their dead comrades. They stood their ground long enough for the British cavalry to gallop past and clear the ground before the village of Assaye.

The entire British line now swung round and pushed Pohlmann’s men back to the Juah. Wellesley became caught up in the fighting and a second horse was fatally wounded beneath him. His bravery must have inspired his men; it certainly stood in stark contrast to that of the Maratha leaders, who seemed more concerned with their personal safety. Faced by a renewed British attack, the Marathas decided they had had enough and crossed the river, leaving behind much of their equipment.

Wellesley’s victory decisively curbed Maratha power in central India, but his losses had been heavy, with some 1,500 troops dead and wounded – a casualty rate of more than 27 per cent. The Marathas had lost at least 1,200 dead and had abandoned 98 cannons on the battlefield. A further British victory at Argaum ended the war, but the British had many more campaigns to fight in India against tough opponents, and their final conquest of the subcontinent was a very hard-won experience not achieved until the middle of the 19th century.

Battle of Falciu/Tiganca

Soldat (soldier), Romanian Infantry December 1942 Sergent (cape), Romanian cavalry, 1942 Capitan, Romanian Infantry, late 1941

July 02, 1941 – July 15, 1941

Operation München was the name of the main offensive by the German and Romanian armies on the Prut river, which separate Bessarabia and Bukovina to the north of Romania. The 5th Romanian Army Corps had to establish a bridgehead on the Prut in the Falciu-Tiganca area. After a short artillery initial fire (due to a lack of ammunition), the 6th Romanian Guards regiment crossed river and swamps and engaged Russian units in defense in the heights. The battle lasted 2 weeks with the engagement of infantry and engineer units as well as guards units. Tiganca, Stoenesti, hill 93 and Epureni Hill were the place of fierce combats. On the 15th July, the 5th Army Corps succeeded to clear the bridgehead and carried on his advance. But the battle of Tiganca had cost more of 8 000 losses (KIA and injured) to the two Romanian divisions engaged in the battle.

The 5th Corps, made up of the Guard Division (CO: brig. gen. Nicolae Sova) and the 21st Infantry Division (CO: maj. gen. Nicolae Dascalescu), received the task of establishing a bridgehead over the river Prut in the area opposite of Falciu. It had rained a lot and this only added to the difficulty of offensive. The lunca was flooded and the water barrier was 200-600 m wide.

The initial attack started on 5 July and was carried out by the Guard Division. However it failed. The Romanians had been stopped by the powerful resistance encountered on the Epureni Hill and near the villages Stoenesti and Tiganca. At noon, the 21st Infantry Division received the order to force the river Prut and assist the offensive of the Guard Division. The attack was going to take place during the night. The infantry was supposed to cross on the railroad bridge near Bogdanesti. The artillery was going to remain behind on the right bank, until a bridge could be built at Falciu.

Following his reconnaissance, gen. Dascalescu decided that the attack should be carried out by the 24th Infantry Regiment , with two battalions in the first line. At 1:00 am the troops started to cross the bridge, which had previously been damaged by a bombardment, through the rain. The next day (6 July), the two battalions were ready to attack at 9:00 am. But the bombers which were supposed to assist them did not arrive. At 10:00 am it was decided to start the attack without air support. The airplanes appeared, but at 10:30 and attacked the Romanian troops by mistake. With all the confusion, the 2nd Battalion managed to approach the village of Stoenesti, advancing with difficulty through the marshes in the area. The assistance of the 30th Artillery Regiment was requested, but for unknown reasons it did not materialize. However, at 8:00 pm, the 24th Regiment had already reached the Epureni Hill and the 1st Battalion was assaulting it. The losses of the first day: 26 dead and 166 wounded. Meanwhile, the Guard Division managed to brake the Soviet resistance in front of it and establish a solid bridgehead, through an attack carried out by a detachment of 5 battalions, under the command of col. Alexandru Cozloschi.

During the night, the 24th Regiment had to face a powerful artillery bombardment and then was pushed back. The next day, the attack started at 11:00 am. The fighting lasted until 5:00 pm. The Epureni Hill had been captured. The 11th and 12th Regiments (from the 21st Infantry Division) started to cross the river Prut, and the 6th Guard Regiment ‘Mihai Viteazu’ (from the Guard Division) advanced in the south of the Leca Plateau. But the 24th Infantry had suffered heavy casualties: the 1st and 3rd Battalion were at 50% and the 2nd Battalion at 75%. The recon company had been reduced to 25% its original size. The operation was supported by the 1/2nd Guard Vanatori (infantry) Regiment. The 3rd Battalion attacked through the heavy rain, it crossed the Balacea creek under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire and managed to advance to the western side of the Tiganca Hill., between the villages Stoenesti and Tiganca.

On 8 July, the 11th Regiment entered in the first line south of Tiganca. It was however powerfully assaulted. At about 10:00 am, col. Bardan, the regiment’s Coreported that he was in a desperate situation together with the 1st Battalion. They were almost out of ammo. At noon, it was again attacked. Two companies pulled back, but col. Bardan remained on the position together with 68 men. He ordered the regiment’s flag to be raised and the trumpet sounded the attack. Meanwhile, gen. Dascalescu took over the rest of the 11th Regiment and counterattacked, saving the situation. The 12th Regiment, situated in the area of the Epureni Hill was also attacked, but it stood firm.

On 9 July, the 1/2nd Guard Vanatori Regiment attacked on the direction of Hill 120 – Hill 196 on in the Toceni Hills. After very heavy fighting and numerous Soviet counterattacks, the regiment managed to take Hill 196 at about 5:00 pm. It had advanced 7 km. Two young officers were awarded the ‘Mihai Viteazul’ Order 3rd class, following this action. The fighting continued intensively in the sector of the 21st Infantry Division, where col. Gheorghe Nicolescu, the CO 12th Regiment, died heroically in the line of duty.

The battle reached its climax on 12 July. The Guard Division was strongly attacked in the sector of the 1/2nd and 2/9th Guard Vanatori Regiments. The assault lasted 16 hours. The two regiments held their positions with much difficulty. All the reserves were thrown into the battle, the pioneers and even the command groups. The violence was extreme. Hand to hand combat was frequent. The example of the 3rd Battalion from the 1/2nd Guard Vanatori Regiment is eloquent. Although almost surrounded on the Cania Hill, it continued to resist on its position. The 21st Infantry Division, reduced to 4 battalions, was also attacked by two Soviet divisions, but it stood firm.

The Combat Air Grouping had an important role in the defeat of the Soviet offensive. Between 8:50 am and 5:30 pm, almost 37 tons of bombs were dropped on Soviet artillery positions and concentration areas. 120 sorties were flown, of which 59 were by bombers. The POWs taken stated that the air bombardment caused up to 40% of the casualties suffered by the Red Army that day near Tiganca. Thus the evacuation planed for the night of 12/13 July was cancelled. During the fighting in July, the Combat Air Grouping dropped 134.5 tons of bombs in support of the 5th Corps. The Soviet attacks continued until 14 July, but much weaker. On 15 July, the Guard and 21st Infantry Divisions managed to break out of the bridgehead and advance into Bessarabia. The Battle of Falciu/Tiganca was over. The casualties suffered by the two divisions were very high: 2,743 by the Guard Division and 6,222 by the 21st Infantry Division.

No less than 17 ‘Mihai Viteazul’ Orders, 3rd class, were awarded for this battle, of which 6 posthumously. The highest ranking officer decorated was maj. gen. Nicolae Dascalescu. Apparently, Antonescu took off his own MV order (received during WWI) and gave it to the general, during an inspection. Dascalescu was in fact the first Romanian officer this distinction during WWII (after Antonescu got the 2nd and 1st class). The 21st Infantry Division’s battle flag was also decorated with this award.

Operation München – retaking Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina – 1941