Tom Hardy’s character’s experience in the Dunkirk movie most closely resembles that of New Zealand Spitfire pilot Alan Christopher Deere.

Dunkirk (2017) History vs. Hollywood

When Allied defense against the German FALL GELB operation broke, London organized Operation DYNAMO: a desperate withdrawal of 340,000 British, Commonwealth, and other Allied (120,000 French and 20,000 Belgian) troops from the beaches and port of Dunkirk. The operation lasted from May 25 to June 2, 1940. Many clamored aboard rescue ships without even basic equipment, while all tanks, trucks, and heavy weapons were abandoned on the beaches. This massive amphibious retreat was made necessary by a German breakthrough that split the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some French and Belgian divisions from the rest of the French Army which forced surrender by Belgium on May 28. There was significant misunderstanding and hostility at first between British and French troops in the enclave, as most of the French who were evacuated were not embarked until nearly all British troops had already left. The main reason was that the French High Command refused to accept the need for any evacuations until after the Belgian surrender on May 28, but later used the British evacuation as an excuse for military failure and signature of the armistice on June 22.

The evacuation was accomplished with the aid of hundreds of civilian craft of all types and sizes, the famed “Little Ships” that included personal yachts, London river barges, and fishing vessels. But mainly it was carried out by Royal Navy minesweepers, destroyers, and other warships. A heroic rearguard defense was made by elements of French 1st Army and selected British and Canadian units, while the RAF fended off Luftwaffe attacks on the beaches and ships and the Royal Navy fought off German E-boats. The RAF lost nearly 200 fighters over nine days defending the Dunkirk enclave; the Luftwaffe lost 240 planes attacking it. The Allies also lost 9 large warships ships and 9 destroyers, with 19 more destroyers damaged. Daylight ship runs stopped on June 1. Another 60,000 French troops and elements of the British perimeter force were evacuated under cover of night on June 2.

Escape of over 320,000 enemy soldiers from Dunkirk was made possible by Adolf Hitler`s “stop order.” For two critical days, May 24-25, he forbade Panzer forces to pursue a retreating and badly demoralized enemy. But it is important to note that the generals of the OKH agreed with Hitler: their attention was drawn south to what they believed would be a large battle in front of Paris. Hitler and the OKH alike wanted to preserve worn and tired Panzer divisions for that fight and to let slower arriving German infantry and the Luftwaffe finish the job along the coast. About 120,000 British troops remained in France after Dunkirk. Smaller evacuations got some men out, but most of the 51st Highland Division was compelled to surrender on June 12. Over 156,000 British, Canadian, and Polish troops were then evacuated from Cherbourg. although 3,000 died when their departing liner was bombed by the Luftwaffe just off the French coast. Behind the German lines, Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS carried out several massacres of French civilians-a sign of occupation practices to come. There were also instances along the perimeter of British troops shooting unarmed or individual surrendering Germans. Dunkirk was not the first time that British forces were chased from Europe by the Wehrmacht and forced into desperate evacuation by sea-British failure in northern Norway was contemporaneous. More dark days and forced amphibious departures from Greece and Crete still lay in the future for the British Army and its Commonwealth and minor European allies. And as Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”


France, the battle launched on 10 May 1940 when German forces attacked through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and forced the capitulation of France on 22 June. Some 40 Australian airmen took part in this brief campaign as members of Royal Air Force squadrons, and ten of them were lost in action. Three were killed while flying protective sorties over the Dunkirk beachheads during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in late May and early June. While none of these pilots were in formed units of the Royal Australian Air Force or retained a formal association with that service, many had received their initial flying training in the RAAF before being seconded (and then usually transferred) to the RAF.

Under these arrangements, the pilots concerned were permitted to wear out their RAAF uniforms before being required to replace them with RAF clothing. It is recorded that at least one man, Flying Officer Leslie Clisby, was still wearing his RAAF tunic-although in an advanced state of disrepair-when shot down over Neuville, France, on 14 May. At the time of his death, Clisby was officially credited with having destroyed fourteen enemy aircraft in combat (his unofficial tally was reportedly nineteen, and possibly higher). Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Clisby was arguably the first `Australian’ air ace of the Second World War.

Lex McAulay (1991) Six Aces: Australian Fighter Pilots 1939-45, Brunswick, Vic.: Banner Books


Late-War Churchill

The Visit of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill To Caen, Normandy, 1944

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the successful outcome of the war, at this stage, was his insistence on the right timing for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northwest Europe. This was necessary for the defeat of Germany, and Churchill made sure it worked and was achieved with minimum loss of life for so immense and hazardous an operation. He argued that an opposed air-sea landing against formidable defenses manned by large, prepared German forces was perhaps the most difficult military undertaking of all. With the costly failure of Gallipoli always in his mind, he insisted that D-day should not take place until overwhelming strength was established and there was a near certitude of success. The Russians had asked for the second front to be opened in 1942. The Americans were willing to risk it in 1943. The “dress rehearsal” at Dieppe in 1942, where Allied losses were unexpectedly high, had shown what hazards lay ahead. Churchill’s conditions could not be met until the early summer of 1944. Even so, Overlord might have failed or proved extremely costly had not a highly successful deception plan persuading the Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint and that the real invasion was planned for the Pas de Calais area—another idea of Churchill’s—prevented a massive German counterattack in the early stages. Thanks to Churchill, and his memories of the Dardanelles, Overlord was a dramatic success. He wished to be present on the first day to enjoy his triumph. It was the last major occasion on which his desire to participate in military action manifested itself. All those concerned in the operation were horrified. Indeed, the desire was foolish in the extreme, a grotesque exhibition of the childish side of his nature. But he persisted, despite unanimous opposition from the service chiefs, the cabinet, his own staff, and the White House. In the end it was only the opposition of King George VI, who said that if his prime minister risked his life he must do so himself, which scotched the plan.

The delay occasioned by Churchill’s ensuring the invasion succeeded necessarily meant the Western forces were behind the Russians in pushing into the heart of the Nazi empire. This had grave political consequences. Churchill sought to mitigate them by demanding a full-speed drive to Berlin by the Anglo-American forces. This was supported by Montgomery, the army group commander, who was sure it was possible and would end the war in autumn 1944, with the West in Berlin first. But Eisenhower, the supreme commander, thought it was risky and insisted on a “broad front” advance, which meant that the war continued into the spring of 1945, and that the Russians got to Berlin first—and Prague, Budapest, Vienna, too. In his last weeks of life, FDR, despite Churchill’s pleas, did nothing to encourage Eisenhower to press on rapidly. Montgomery wrote sadly: “The Americans could not understand that it was of little avail to win the war strategically if we lost it politically.” That was exactly Churchill’s view.

But if he was unable to stop Stalin from turning much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans into Soviet satellites, he did snatch one brand from the burning—Greece. He used British troops, against much well-meaning advice, to intervene decisively in the civil war raging there between Communist guerrillas and forces loyal to the Crown. The politics were complex and made it difficult to decide whom to back among the contending loyalist leaders. Eventually Churchill decided in favor of the republican, anti-Communist general Nikolaos Plastiras. He joked, “The evidence shows we must back Plaster-arse. Let us hope his feet are not of clay.” “Tommy” Lascelles, King George VI’s secretary, remarked, “I would rather have said that than written Gray’s Elegy.”

Churchill also saved Persia by negotiating a highly satisfactory deal with the Russians, which enabled the British eventually to reduce their influence to a minimum. He kept a tight grip on the Persian Gulf and its oil fields. Of course, by saving Greece, he also enabled Turkey to stay beyond the reach of the triumphant Soviet forces. What is more, by picking a first-class general and backing him with adequate forces, Churchill also made a major contribution to victory in the Far East. Field Marshal William Slim was, next to Montgomery, the ablest of the British generals produced by the war. His Fourteenth Army was often called “the Forgotten Army,” in contrast to Montgomery’s famous Eighth Army. But it was not forgotten by Churchill. With his encouragement and support it conducted a hard and skillful campaign in Burma, ending in complete victory, which did a great deal to restore British prestige so cruelly damaged by the Singapore disaster. Indeed within four years Britain was able to get back Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. Of course the restoration of Britain’s power in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East could not be permanent. But for most of a generation, and in some cases longer, Britain was able to enjoy the economic advantages brought by her investments in Gulf oil, Malay rubber and tin, and the mercantile wealth of Hong Kong. For this, Churchill’s energy, foresight, and ability to seize on the essentials deserve much of the credit.

As the war drew to a close in the early months of 1945, Churchill visibly held back his efforts. His aggressiveness declined. He enjoyed his brief and successful intervention in Greece. But destruction now sickened him. He sent a memo to Harris to slacken off the attack on German cities as opposed to strategic targets, “otherwise,” as he put it, “what will lie between the white snows of Russia and white cliffs of Dover? ” Much of his imaginative energy was spent in trying to get the sick Roosevelt to do the sensible thing. “No lover,” he said, “ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” The death of FDR, however painful to Churchill, came as a relief, especially as Harry S. Truman, brisk, decisive, much better informed on strategy, proved infinitely easier to deal with. When Churchill was tired, he talked, often off the point. He refused to read his papers. Colville noted on April 26: “The PM’s box is in a ghastly state. He does little work and talks far too long, as he did . . . before his Greek adventures refreshed him.” The businesslike and monosyllabic Clement Attlee, his deputy premier, sent him a sharp memo of complaint. Churchill is credited with many jokes about the Labour Party leader. “Yes, he is a modest man. But then he has so much to be modest about.” “An empty taxi drew up outside the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out.” Sometimes they were mean and savage: “Attler, Hitlee.” One of Attlee’s staff used to whistle, a habit Churchill could not bear. His antipathy to whistling is curiously apt, for Hitler was an expert and enthusiastic whistler: he could do the entire score of The Merry Widow, his favorite operetta. It seems expert whistling by music lovers was a feature of pre-1914 Vienna: Gustav Mahler and Ludwig Wittgenstein were whistler maestros.

Tired as he was, Churchill treated the surrender of Germany with suitable rhetoric and champagne popping. He drank a bottle of his prize 1928 vintage Pol Roger. He was relieved by Hitler’s suicide. He had not relished the prospective task of hanging him. As Beaverbrook said, “He is never vindictive.” His saying had always been—it is one of his best obiter dicta—“In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill.” Magnanimity came naturally to this generous, jovial old man (he was seventy at the end of the war). Lord Longford, the British minister for postwar Germany, showed notable compassion for the German people. Churchill came up to him at a Buckingham Palace garden party and said, slowly, “I am glad that there is one mind suffering for the miseries of the Germans.”

The outcome of the Battle of Berlin I

Crew of “M for Mother”, a Lancaster bomber from 467 Squadron, preparing to take off on a raid over Berlin. UK0456

Part of a vertical photographic reconniassance aerial taken over Berlin, Germany after heavy night raids by Bomber Command aircraft on 23/24 August, 31 August/1 September and 3/4 September 1943. Heavy damage is evident in the Steglitz area, near the Friedenau railway station, where most properties have been gutted by fire.
C 3838
Part of
No. 542 Squadron RAF

The outcome of the Battle of Berlin would depend upon the answers to two questions: Would the Luftwaffe be able to recover from the setback to its long established defensive system caused by the introduction of Window, and would the Bomber Command Pathfinders be able to overcome the problems of blind marking over Berlin? In other words, it was the old formula of war: the balancing of the costs of a campaign against the success gained.

The night fighter, not the Flak battery, was the greatest cause of Bomber Command’s losses all through the middle years of the war. Window, introduced in late July 1943, rendered virtually useless the German box system of night fighting. The ground radars which directed a night fighter into proximity with a bomber passing through a box, and the radar set in the fighter required for the final interception, were both swamped by the mass of false returns from the fluttering clouds of Window. The only unaffected form of night fighting was the makeshift Wild Boar method recently introduced, in which single-engined fighters were sent into action over the target cities using the various types of illumination available there. The Wild Boar method was forced upon the whole night-fighter force until a technical response to Window was found. The fifty-eight bombers lost on the first raid of the Battle of Berlin were a testimony of the good effect with which the night fighters made use of Wild Boar and were able to deal such a heavy blow on Bomber Command only five weeks after Window was first used.

Thereafter, the effectiveness of Wild Boar gradually diminished, but this was more than compensated for by the introduction of the virtually Window-proof SN-2 radar which enabled the new Tame Boar method of fighting on the routes to be introduced at the turn of the year. The following list shows the loss rates of Bomber Command aircraft carrying out major raids against German targets during four different periods.

24 April to 25 July 1943, the last three months of mainly box night fighting – 4.9 per cent bomber casualties.

24 July to 16 August 1943, the introduction of Window and the initial period of German confusion – 29 per cent bomber casualties.

17 August to 31 December 1943, from the first widespread use of Wild Boar (on the Peenemünde raid) to the end of the year – 4.6 per cent bomber casualties.

1 January to 31 March 1944, the first three months of widespread Tame Boar use – 5.5 per cent bomber casualties.

These figures show how the use of Wild Boar as a standard method of night fighting brought back the losses inflicted on the bombers almost to the level experienced before Window, and how the Tame Boar method inflicted a greater casualty rate than before Window. There are still former German night-fighter men who say that the changes forced upon the Luftwaffe by the British introduction of Window produced in the long term greater benefit for the Germans than for the British, because the entire German night-fighter force could be effectively employed and not just the experienced crews who had claimed priority in the old box-system engagements.

In the Battle of Berlin, the Luftwaffe forced Harris to remove first his Stirlings from the front line and then the older types of Halifax. Even then, the new Halifaxes took a hiding every time they were committed to action, and Harris was forced to use them only intermittently. Then Harris was forced to break off operations to Northern Germany almost completely after the heavy loss of the Leipzig raid on the night of 19 February. Finally, with the Nuremberg raid at the end of March, the Luftwaffe showed that it had answered the question. It had recovered from Window. It could now defend any part of Germany.

What about that second question? How had the Pathfinders coped with the problems of the blind marking method used on all but one of the nineteen Berlin raids?

It had not worked. The confusion of woods, lakes and small towns outside Berlin after a long approach flight over inland Germany and then the great, sprawling mass of the city itself had defied the best efforts of the Pathfinders. The eighteen blind marking attempts can be analysed. There were two excellent results on the consecutive evenings of 22 and 23 November 1943, when all went well and the Main Force bombing wrought great destruction. There were two raids almost as good at the end of January 1944 – on the nights of the 28th and 30th – when the marking was sufficiently concentrated for serious damage to be caused. There were six other raids when the marking was at least confined to the limits of the city and most of the Main Force bombing hit Berlin, but no degree of concentration was possible. Finally, in eight of those eighteen raids, the marking was so scattered that many of the Main Force aircraft did not even hit Berlin. In at least three of those failed raids, strong winds and high cloud made the Pathfinders’ task almost impossible, but the remaining disappointments were due to the general inability to overcome the problems of blind marking.

There were two main reasons why consistent blind marking was unattainable. First, the existing H2S sets with which most of the Pathfinder aircraft were equipped did not show enough definition of the ground for the average Pathfinder set operator to be sure of his exact position over Berlin. The H2S Mark III saga has been described in earlier chapters. Too few of these sets were available and they were rushed into service too quickly; H2S Mark III had little effect upon the Battle of Berlin. A second factor is worthy of more discussion. There were a number of first-class radar set operators in the Pathfinders who could have made something useful even of the old sets and even over Berlin, but there were not enough such men. Their shortage was part of the greater problem of the low level of experience in Pathfinder crews through the Battle of Berlin. The reader will remember Air Vice-Marshal Bennett’s plea to Harris to secure all second-tour crews returning to operations in Bomber Command. At the time of that appeal, 25 September 1943, Bennett pointed out that the average Pathfinder captain had only twenty operational sorties to his credit, compared to a level of thirty-two sorties when a survey had been made seven months earlier. Harris had not felt able to accede to that request, and the normal method of Pathfinder recruitment had continued. Two-thirds of new crews came from Main Force squadrons, usually crews with about ten sorties to their credit, and one-third were ‘direct entry’ crews selected at training units, often without having any previous operational experience. In that same letter to Harris in September 1943, Bennett had complained that ‘the direct entry crews are a tremendous burden for training in squadrons and it is a very long period before any such crew is raised to “above average” standards for marking’.

Since that time, the Pathfinders had suffered severe operational losses. In the six monthly periods of the Battle of Berlin, 198 crews were lost on operations, at least fourteen more in crashes, accidents, injury to crew members and other forms of wastage, and perhaps another sixty or seventy crews completed their tours and were released from operations. There was a horrifying six-week period between 16 December 1943 and the end of January 1944 when eighty-seven Pathfinder crews became casualties in missing or crashed aircraft. It is significant that the two heaviest losing squadrons in Bomber Command in the Battle of Berlin – 7 and 156 Squadrons – were both from the Pathfinders. The Pathfinders thus had to recruit and retrain to marking standards nearly fifty new crews each month during the Battle of Berlin. There was never a shortage of crews; the numbers required for operations were always provided. But the average level of experience continued to fall.

The standard first tour of operations in the Pathfinders was forty-five operations, including any operations flown earlier in the Main Force. A crew could then be rested before being called for a second tour of twenty operations. But, if a first-tour crew so wished, they could carry on after forty-five operations as far as sixty, this counting as a double tour and relieving them of the obligation to return for a further tour. Such crews were the most effective in the Pathfinders, with a great amount of recent operational experience behind them; they were the very stuff of the good blind-marker crews required to tackle a target like Berlin. But, when casualties were heavy, very few crews volunteered to carry on in this way; a flight commander in one of the Pathfinder squadrons during the Battle of Berlin says, ‘I don’t remember any; everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the end of a standard tour and got away as quickly as possible.’

The results of all this were that the Pathfinders, on Bennett’s own admission, started the Battle of Berlin with a low level of crew experience, suffered heavy casualties throughout the battle and could never during that winter find enough crews sufficiently experienced and qualified to make those H2S sets work properly over Berlin. No criticism whatsoever is intended by these comments. The Pathfinder crews tried and tried again. Their early return rates were the lowest in Bomber Command; their casualties were among the highest.

There was another factor: the composition and performance of the Main Force. However well the Pathfinders marked the target, no raid was successful if a Main Force carrying enough bombs did not come in and bomb the markers accurately. Let us look at the bomb loads first. The weight of an attack was not measured in the number of aircraft dispatched but in the tonnage of bombs carried. The early raids of the Battle of Berlin did not carry large tonnages because of the proportion of Stirlings and Halifaxes in the Main Force. But an early peak of over 2,500 tons was achieved on the night of 22 November 1943, when the increased numbers of Lancasters together with the use of the shortest possible route enabled this tonnage to be carried. The bombing results on that night were the most successful in the Battle of Berlin. But bomber casualties forced the removal of the Stirlings and the older Halifaxes from the Main Force, and on other nights even the Halifax IIIs were left out of the battle. At the same time, the improving Luftwaffe tactics forced the use of longer and longer routes. The figure of 2,500 tons of bombs was not achieved again until mid-February; less than half that tonnage was dropped on some of the midwinter raids. But by February the battle was almost over; the Luftwaffe was forcing Bomber Command to abandon the task.

How many of the bombs loaded reached Berlin and were properly aimed at the markers? Surviving bomber crew members will confirm that the worst part of any flight was the bomb run. The temptation for a bomb aimer to release his bombs just a second or two early, to get rid of that lethal weight and allow his pilot to dive, increase speed and get out of the target area was almost irresistible. The same urge was present among the Pathfinders. The tendency for both marking and bombing to creep back was present on every raid but it was even more likely to be present when defences were fierce. The Bomber Command staff knew all this, and bombing tactics were planned accordingly. The Aiming Point for the Pathfinders was always placed beyond the centre of the area intended for destruction. A tail wind was used in planning the route through the target if possible. Pathfinder Backers-Up were ordered to overshoot existing markers by two or three seconds. Above all, at every Main Force squadron briefing, the crews were urged to press right on up to the centre of the markers before releasing their bombs, not to bomb the first markers they saw.

Some of the raids on Berlin were successful because these rules were observed. But there were too many other nights when they were not. An interesting correspondence took place in November 1944 between Air Vice-Marshal Bennett, commander of the Pathfinders, and Bomber Command Headquarters over what had gone wrong in the Battle of Berlin. The British Official History quotes Bennett’s views:

‘There can be no doubt’, he said, ‘that a very large number of crews failed to carry out their attacks during the Battle of Berlin in their customary determined manner.’ He referred to ‘enormous numbers’ of reports each night about bombs being jettisoned in the North Sea or over Denmark and he said that the reports of Pathfinder crews ‘consistently showed that the amount of bombing on the markers which they dropped was negligible. I feel quite sure in my own mind’, Bennett concluded, ‘that many bombs were wasted en route in an effort to increase aircraft performance and that, unfortunately, the Command suffered from many “fringe merchants”.’

Undoubtedly Bennett was trying to deflect criticism of the Pathfinder performance over Berlin, but there is some truth in what he wrote. Morale among aircrews held up remarkably well during that winter, but there was a gradual loss of heart and determination as the winter drew on. The rate of early returns, always a measure of morale, increased, even the Lancasters being affected when the other aircraft types were not flying in the lower height bands to absorb the first attentions of the night fighters. Other aircraft jettisoned part of their bomb load in the North Sea. Then, at the target, there were what Bennett called the ‘fringe merchants’. The presence of cloud and the scattering of Skymarkers by the wind on so many of the Berlin raids gave crews the opportunity to avoid the centre of the target and bomb on the edge of it, bringing back a ‘cloud photograph’ which did not reveal where they had bombed, or a photograph showing just a single Skymarker. But the earlier chapters in this book have shown how, on those nights when the Pathfinders were able to produce concentrated and accurate marking, the Main Force responded well, and Berlin suffered accordingly. It was no one’s fault; the task of destroying Berlin was beyond Bomber Command’s capabilities at that time.

What is amazing is the fortitude of the bomber crews in sticking to such a fearful task as well as they did. I asked more than three hundred ex-Battle of Berlin men about the state of morale on their squadrons. The Pathfinders, feeling themselves a selected élite, held well. The small number of Australian squadrons – three out of the four were flying Lancasters – were also steady. The Canadians of 6 Group had been expanded too rapidly, sometimes suffered from poor leadership and were mostly flying the Halifax, which nearly always suffered heavier casualties than the Lancaster when committed to action. Their morale and that of most of 4 Group, which was completely Halifax-equipped, was not so high, although it varied from squadron to squadron. The picture in the Main Force Lancaster squadrons which bore the brunt of the Battle of Berlin was more one of enormous strain, mostly faced and endured, morale being much sustained by the crews’ faith in the aircraft they flew.

These are a selection of individual views. Pilot Officer Joe Sheriff was a Canadian wireless operator on 57 Squadron at East Kirkby.

The Battle of Berlin did cause morale to sag. Crews were weary and angry, strained and more fearful of their next trip than usual, cursing ‘Butch’ Harris for his unrelenting demands and his apparently uncaring attitude towards his own men. The results didn’t appear to come anywhere near justifying the losses and the hardship.

I knew three crews during the Battle of Berlin who obviously were in bad shape because of fatigue and should have been rested. Two didn’t survive. One of the crews had several close calls and the pilot was a nervous wreck. On one trip they were hit by Flak and the navigator and wireless operator were injured. On another trip they were sprayed by shells from a night fighter. One shell came through the windshield right in front of the pilot – the shoulder of his jacket was sliced through. He was not injured but his journey home was a nightmare because of the blast of air through the hole in the windscreen and manhandling a Lancaster which had some of its controls damaged. It was obvious that this crew had had its nine lives and was so shattered by fatigue and tension that there was little chance of them surviving if they continued to operate. They were not rested and they perished.

In attacking Berlin, we paid dearly for a morsel.

Flight Sergeant Dennis Cooper was a wireless operator on 630 Squadron, which also flew Lancasters from East Kirkby.

‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ was a label which frightened everyone because, if you stopped flying, you were stripped of rank and posted out as an A.C.2 to some other station. There was a case of a gunner who twice damaged his turret so that the aircraft had to turn back; no aircraft could continue unless fully serviceable. Station Medical Officers had instructions to keep aircrew off the sick list. I broke out in boils under the crotch and on the buttocks after Berlin on the 15 February raid and the S.M.O. still passed me fit for flying. As a result, on my next op, I sat on the metal of my parachute harness and crushed the boils. With the pain and the cold, I was very uncomfortable until landing. After debriefing, I went to Sick Quarters where a very hard medical officer told me to drop my trousers and, using a scalpel, cut them. In spite of the fact that I fainted, I was on ops the next night. Bomber Command was terrified of too many people going sick and reducing the available force and that other crews might catch the ‘don’t want to fly’ bug.

Crews were beginning to look untidy in dress and manner, and even the ground sergeants, who had previously thought nothing of us because we got our stripes too quickly, began to have pity on us as they could see what we were going through. Many of us could see no hope of completing a tour the way losses were showing. We drank and smoked too much when we were not flying and things were generally depressed.

Flying Officer Eric Tansley was a Halifax bomb aimer on 158 Squadron at Lissett.

We joined our squadron at a time when morale was extremely low. Losses had been heavy and it seemed to us that there were very few experienced crews left; certainly none were completing tours. Our flight engineer was evidently shattered by the mortality rate at the squadron because, almost overnight, he departed from our ranks, branded L.M.F.

I was assigned a room which I shared with another young officer; he seemed a very pleasant person. Less than a week later, I was in charge of a funeral party for the funeral of the pleasant young man and his crew. They had crashed and blown up returning from a raid.

We lived under great strain. I remember one occupation was looking for signs of ‘twitch’ in other aircrew and hoping all the time that oneself was still sane.

Sergeant Ken Scott was a twenty-year-old navigator on 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna who flew to Berlin fourteen times.

A strange symptom developed which I have not mentioned to anyone until now. At night, after getting to sleep, I would suddenly feel awakened by a buzzing sensation in my mouth. My face would then distort with the feeling that the flesh was being drawn back; I would then feel myself half-rising from the bed, with all the muscles and sinews of my torso and arms straining and stretching to breaking point. This sensation would reach a climax and then I felt myself falling back on the bed, exhausted. I would then awake to the reality that I hadn’t moved at all in bed and it had been some kind of dream. This was all very exhausting and it happened perhaps two or three times a week. In time, I learnt not to resist, sort of lay back and let it all happen; this way, although it always ran the gamut, I felt less drained. After I finished my tour, I was never troubled with it again. I put it down, rightly or wrongly, as a symptom of stress.

Flying Officer Bob Lloyd was a Canadian pilot, flying Lancaster IIs of 408 Squadron from Linton-on-Ouse.

My navigator lost his mind during our 26 November trip to Berlin. My mid-upper gunner got hit in the ankle with a 20-mm shell on the same trip; he never flew again. My bomb aimer went absolutely wild over the target area on a later raid, to such a degree that we couldn’t let him wear an intercom; the navigator had to drop the bombs. Then I finally got hurt, smashing my left femur, and the bomb aimer had to fly out the rest of his tour with another crew; he ‘bought it’ the first night out. They were as frightened as hell, but their morale was good. They flew until they couldn’t fly any more. They could have begged off L.M.F. had they wanted to.

The outcome of the Battle of Berlin II

But there are less gloomy views. Pilot Officer David Oliver was a Lancaster pilot on 12 Squadron and then 626 Squadron.

Morale was high throughout the period that I was at Wickenby. An efficiently run station and intelligent leadership, including inspiration from a few whose exploits were legendary, helped a lot. Some other factors predisposed to high morale. The average age of aircrew was twenty or twenty-one and very few had the close attachments and responsibilities of wife and children. We were just as well educated academically as the young men of today but we were less socially and politically aware. We had not experienced the clamorous debate in the media on every conceivable subject, nor the continuous dissection of authority that goes on today. In the event, we were united in our belief in the cause and in giving unquestioning support to those in authority.

We were intensely preoccupied with our own crew and very strongly motivated not to let it down. Apart from our commanders and three or four other crews that were close contemporaries, we knew few other aircrew on the station as more than passing acquaintances. The effect on morale is less severe if casualties are not known to one personally. By far the highest casualty rate occurred amongst the very inexperienced crews, whom established crews were unlikely to know personally.

And youth is ever resilient. Sergeant Tommy Marchant was a flight engineer on 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna and then with the Pathfinders of 7 Squadron at Oakington. He obviously took in his stride his crew’s seventeen raids to Berlin, probably a record for any crew in Bomber Command.

Being a mere lad of nineteen, with little emotional or imaginative maturity, I probably did not notice the signs of people cracking up. So far as I recall, none of our crew exhibited any signs of the stress etc. so beloved of dramatic film makers. I did sometimes wonder if I would survive but it certainly wasn’t a recurring or dominant thought. I was more concerned as to whether the local pub would run out of beer and if a certain Waaf would be there.

I am sure that morale was quite high on the squadrons with which I served. I personally look back on those days as a happy and exciting adventure – the old ‘Biggies’ books of my youth come true for me – and a feeling that you really were contributing to the war effort. But then I didn’t get shot down or injured.

Young Tommy Marchant’s seventeen operations to Berlin lead into another story. At the end of the Battle of Berlin, Señor Adalbert Fastlich of Panama gave some money for the purchase of gold watches which were presented to those Bomber Command pilots who had flown most Berlin raids. It is believed that his brother had been killed in London by German bombing earlier in the war. (There may have been another contributor to this fund – Mr Harold Lindo of Jamaica, whose son, Squadron Leader Harold Lindo, a navigator on 103 Squadron, was killed on one of the Berlin raids.) The crew of which Sergeant Marchant was a member was found to have flown more Berlin raids than any other, so was allowed to have two watches. One was for the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bob Sexton from Queensland; the remainder of the crew drew lots for the second watch, and Marchant, the young flight engineer, was successful.

Let us turn now to the German side and try to assess what the efforts of the bomber crews achieved. The great disadvantage in any judgement of the outcome of the Battle of Berlin is that no comprehensive survey was ever made on the effects of the bombing that winter. The Berlin authorities produced excellent factual reports on the damage and casualties in individual raids, and this book has made much of those reports; but no overall assessment was made. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of bombing in many German cities, hardly mentions Berlin. A British Bombing Survey Unit was established, but the new Labour Government of 1945 refused to allocate funds for detailed surveys, and little work on Bomber Command’s huge wartime effort was ever carried out by the British. Sir Arthur Harris’s post-war dispatch claimed that 6,427 acres or 33 per cent of Berlin’s built-up area was destroyed by bombing during the whole war. (The ‘built-up area’ of a city was defined as that part of it which was more than 40 per cent occupied by buildings.) Of those 6,427 acres, an estimated 480 acres had been destroyed by bombing before the Battle of Berlin started, and a further 750 were credited to American bombing after the Battle of Berlin. A further unknown acreage should be credited to the numerous Mosquito raids made in the last year of the war, but this might be balanced by the damage caused in the non-built-up suburbs during the Battle of Berlin. This leaves approximately 5,200 acres, nearly 27 per cent of Berlin’s built-up area, to be credited to Bomber Command in the Battle of Berlin. These figures tend to be confirmed by Berlin’s own records, which show that 556,500 or 37 per cent of the city’s pre-war flats were destroyed during the war by all forms of bombing and by the street fighting with the Russians in 1945. The difficulty of concentrating both marking and bombing on those sectors selected for attack led to western parts of the city being hit too often and the eastern parts not often enough. There was a similar inability to concentrate both marking and bombing sufficiently for complete destruction to be achieved anywhere. Squadron Leader Arthur Fawssett, an Intelligence Officer at Bomber Command Headquarters at that time, writes:

What was not sufficiently appreciated at the time was that nothing less than another Hamburg in the space of two or three days, something quite unbearable, was needed, and that a long period of attrition was unlikely to achieve the aim and could be self-defeating, in that the more piecemeal the damage became, the more difficult it was to create a self-destructive holocaust.

Finally, there was the sound construction of Berlin’s buildings and the width of the streets of this modern city, factors which reduced the spread of fire. Much destruction was undoubtedly caused, but sufficient of Berlin’s housing remained, supplemented by quickly erected wooden accommodation, for all essential workers to be housed.

Turning now to the human casualties in Berlin during the battle, it can be estimated from the civilian records that 10,305 people died in the nineteen raids, made up as follows:

German civilians in Berlin 9,390

Foreigners (mostly forced workers) 637

Service personnel 187

Country areas outside Berlin 91

And what of civilian morale, that primary target? There is no need to spend long on this subject. The Germans’ innate patriotism, the particularly tough character of the Berliners and the strict discipline of the Nazi Party combined to hold the spirit of Berlin sufficiently intact to weather the storm. There was fear and, at times, terror. There was apathy. There were temporary breakdowns in the supply of power and water, and of some administration, but restoration of all these was swiftly achieved. Berlin was never overwhelmed. There was never the mass, panic-stricken flight of people from the bombed city as was sometimes seen in other places. The Japanese Embassy in Berlin was sending regular telegrams to Tokyo on the state of the city. In January 1944: ‘Internal collapse will certainly not be brought about by means of air raids.’ Morale in Berlin was noted as falling to its lowest in January and February, but ‘because the Government used its enormous power and influence well, the fighting spirit of the people has been intensified to the pitch of seeing no course but to fight to the finish’. This assessment was made just when Harris was forced by the Luftwaffe to break off the Berlin raids.

Prominent among the means by which the authorities bolstered the population were the threat of what would happen to Germany if the war was lost and the massive retaliation promised by Hitler against Britain by the new ‘Revenge Weapons’. Hitler retained the confidence of most people although he never came to see the bombed cities of Germany but remained away at his headquarters, loftily directing every aspect of Germany’s war effort. Not for him the visiting of people in bombed streets as Churchill and the King and Queen did when London was ‘blitzed’ in 1940 and 1941. That work he left to his Gauleiters. Joseph Goebbels, either Reichstag Member or Gauleiter for Berlin continuously since 1929, respected by the ordinary people, often out on foot in the bombed areas without a large escort, looked after Berlin, and much credit for the steadfastness and performance of the city should go to him.

The effect of the bombing upon industrial production in Berlin is difficult to measure. The factories were never direct targets, although they were often hit. The fire at the Alkett tank factory on the night of 26 November 1943 is described in Speer’s memoirs and is thus often quoted elsewhere as being an example of serious damage to the war factories.1 Nearly every major factory in Berlin was hit at some time or another, but often only by a few bombs, and none of the large factories was destroyed. Fire-fighting and then reconstruction work at the factories had the highest priority. It is probable that a much greater direct effect upon Berlin’s war production was achieved that winter by the area bombing of the semi-residential areas. Here were situated a mass of small workshop industries supplying components to the larger factories. These were often wiped out by a single bomb or large fire. Much dislocation of both raw materials and finished goods was also caused by bomb damage to railways and canal traffic in Berlin.

It is time to come to a conclusion. Should the results of Bomber Command’s vast effort and heavy losses in the Battle of Berlin be classed as success or failure? How have others answered the question? Some views are so bland as to be of little use. Air Marshal Saundby, Harris’s deputy, was a much respected man but he obviously did not wish to be controversial when summing up the Battle of Berlin in his book: ‘There could be no doubt that the target marking by the Pathfinder Force had been carried out with great skill and that the operations of the night bombers had been highly successful.’ Harris was much more restrained:

Judged by the standards of our attacks on Hamburg, the Battle of Berlin did not appear to be an overwhelming success. … The Battle of Berlin cost us 300 aircraft missing, which was a loss rate of 6.4 per cent. This could not be considered excessive for a prolonged assault on this distant, most difficult, and most heavily defended target.[1]

The British official historians were more blunt: ‘The expectations of the Commander-in-Chief had not been fulfilled and by that standard the Battle of Berlin had been a failure. … Moreover, in the operational sense, the Battle of Berlin was more than a failure. It was a defeat.’

Harris’s authorized biographer, Dudley Saward, who had been an officer on Harris’s staff, disputes this view.

The Official History of the bomber offensive states in emphatic terms that the Berlin campaign was a failure, and that losses were at a level that made it impossible to continue the campaign. This is incorrect. The reasons for the cessation were twofold: by the end of March the nights were becoming too short for operations against such distant targets as Berlin and, secondly, the requirement for the preparation for the invasion of France. … The suggestion that the Berlin campaign was a failure is not supported by the facts. An examination of the results reveals not failure but success, but as Harris himself admits, judged by the standards of the attacks on Hamburg, the Battle of Berlin was not an overwhelming success. However, for Germany it was an unprecedented disaster.

‘Unprecedented disaster’? What about Hamburg?

The Battle of Berlin obviously reduced Germany’s war effort and made a contribution to victory. Every anti-aircraft gun or fighter aircraft kept back to defend Berlin was one less which might otherwise be serving at the fighting fronts. Berlin was itself a front. Every pane of glass broken in Berlin was a tiny drain on Germany’s economy; every bomb which hit a small workshop or large armaments factory was a direct blow against the war effort; and every workman killed or prevented from coming to work because his family had been bombed out was one less man producing war material. But the extent of the achievements at Berlin was not sufficient either to satisfy the aims set for the battle – breakdown of civil morale and destruction so great that the normal life of Berlin would cease – or to justify the bomber casualties. The cost was too high in relation to results. Bomber Command lost the equivalent of its entire front-line strength in attempting to destroy Berlin, and a similar loss was incurred in raiding other targets in Germany during the same period.

The ability of Bomber Command to hit Berlin and of the Luftwaffe to defend it, now come together. The Luftwaffe hurt Bomber Command more than Bomber Command hurt Berlin.

[1] Bomber Offensive, pp. 187 and 188. Harris has his aircraft casualty figures all wrong. The total losses of missing heavy bombers were 624 aircraft in the whole battle and 499 in the main November 1943 to March 1944 period to which he may have been referring. The percentage rates were 5.8 for the whole period and 5.5 for the November to March period.

Action on Aidbourne Chase, 18 September 1643 Part I

Rupert had with him around 5,000 cavalry; Lisle’s 1,000 musketeers, probably accompanied by a small artillery train (four six-pounders had been prepared for this task), were trailing behind but well ahead of the rest of the Royalist army. Their route lay almost due south from Broadway to Northleach and then southeast towards Newbury. The prince had undoubtedly been galvanised by Essex’s escape and he must have pushed his men on at a rapid pace. They rode throughout the day on 16 September and then, while Essex’s regiments slept in and around Cricklade, through the following night. It rained. Men and horses fell out of the column and were left to their own devices to catch up. Rupert was at his best as a leader in these circumstances, moving at speed to take opponents off balance. In this case, however, his efforts would be wasted if the Royalist infantry were not being marched in his wake with equal urgency.

Despite the collective lassitude of previous days, King Charles and his generals had been belatedly infected by Rupert’s energy. Hyde attributed their vigorous response to the king himself and suggested that he was angry at the ‘supine negligence’ of those he had trusted, presumably including Forth and Percy. But Forth’s experience would be essential if the infantry were to get under way quickly, regain contact with Essex and then be in a state to fight a decisive battle before the Parliamentarians could reach the security of the Reading garrison. Percy too would have a vital part to play in ensuring that the artillery arrived in time and, even more importantly, that the ammunition train kept up with the rest of the army.

Digby recorded that the march began on the morning of 16 September but Parliamentarian intelligence reported that the king, his forces and 500 wagons did not leave Evesham until the evening. The latter timing is more likely. Gathering the infantry regiments from quarters across the Vale of Evesham will have been a prolonged exercise. Some of the more remote units were given orders to follow separately. Sir William Vavasour’s brigade appears to have lagged behind, perhaps because they had been quartered on the west bank of the River Avon, beyond Pershore. The Prince of Wales’ Foot marched from Worcester east towards Banbury and Oxford, to join the main force near Newbury. Other units did not follow at all. Colonel Samuel Sandys was later accused of having remained behind with his regiment ‘contrary to his Majesty’s orders for him to march in Sir William Vavasour’s Brigade’. Orders were also sent to Oxford for reinforcements from the Thames valley garrisons to join the king on his march and, in all probability, for Sunderland and other absentees to do likewise.

The infantry marched through the night of 16–17 September to reach their former camp at Sudeley Castle at about eight o’clock in the morning. They had covered eight miles but their exertions were only just beginning. After a muster, a Parliamentarian spy saw them setting off again ‘towards Oxford’. In fact, their route was rather further to the west, towards Northleach. King Charles joined them at Sudeley after a few hours snatched sleep at Snowshill Manor and then rode with them the ten miles to Northleach, which he reached during the late morning. Here the king and his commanders reviewed the army’s progress over dinner. Their original plan had been to quarter that night at Burford, but that would put them some way north of the most direct line of march to Newbury and Royalist scouts reported that supplies were more plentiful four miles further southeast at Alvescot. At midday, the king’s decision to press on to Alvescot was set down in a letter to Prince Rupert, explaining that the army would thereby ‘save three or four miles march’. The decision to quarter at Alvescot meant that the Oxford Army infantry would have slogged through the autumn rain for thirty miles in about twenty-four hours, a feat comparable to that achieved by the Earl of Essex in taking Cirencester. There does, however, seem to have been a significant difference between the two forced marches. The inevitable stragglers aside, Essex had kept his army and its supply train together but contemporary accounts show that on the Royalist side King Charles, Forth and Percy were unable to do so.

Further ahead, Rupert had chosen to divide his forces in an effort to harry and delay the Parliamentarians. His main body pressed on southeastwards through Fairford and Lechlade towards Stanford-in-the-Vale, where he planned to give them a much-needed night’s rest. But the experienced Colonel Urry was sent with 1,000 cavalry to follow Essex’s steps. During the morning of 17 September he stormed into Cirencester and took prisoner forty Parliamentarian stragglers. When one of Luke’s scouts arrived with the news, Sergeant Foster of the Red Regiment was unsympathetic: men ‘who stayed behind drinking and neglecting to march with their colours … are not much to be pitied’.

By late afternoon, a report from Urry that Essex ‘was no so far out of reach as was feared’, and perhaps ‘not much further than Cricklade’, had reached Rupert at Stanford-in-the-Vale. Within three hours, the king at Alvescot had been briefed by letter from the prince. It is clear from the surviving correspondence between them that Rupert was now in the driving seat. At eight in the evening, Digby signed a reply on the king’s behalf seeking urgent guidance on how the main army should proceed on the following day. If the intelligence picture remained favourable, ‘His Majesty’s desire’ was that Rupert should ‘send speedily your opinion which way, and to what place it will be fit for the king to march with his army tomorrow’. Seen from Alvescott, ‘we conceive that Wantage will be the aptest place: but in this His Majesty conceives he is to be governed wholly by directions from Your Highness’.

Rupert was best placed to take these decisions but he was not given a clear picture of the condition of the main force to help him do so. Digby wrote that the army was ‘all, except stragglers, well up hither to Alvescot’, which was at best wildly optimistic. Moreover, in a postscript, Digby added: ‘I am commanded to add, that you should consider to allow the foot here as much rest as can well be without losing the opportunity’. Rupert was rightly sceptical about the state of the infantry. By one in the morning, the king had received another message, asking for details and suggesting a plan of campaign. This time, the Duke of Richmond replied. He confirmed that the king ‘is loath to weary the foot after so great a march’ but admitted that many of them had fallen out and been left behind. In addition, Vavasour’s brigade had not arrived, although it was expected that day together with the Prince of Wales’ Regiment, which had spent the previous night at Warmington, over twenty-five miles to the north. More importantly, however, Richmond confirmed that Rupert’s proposals for coordinating the Royalist campaign: ‘I have let the king see what you writ who approves all in it, and will accordingly perform his part, only desires to have certain knowledge when Essex moved or shall move from Cricklade, that if his Majesty’s army can come time enough … he will take up his quarter this night at, or about, Wantage, so to reach Newbury as you propose’. Forth had been marginalized; the king would ‘acquaint my Lord General’ with the new plan.

No matter how hard the king pushed the infantry, Rupert did not believe that they would reach Newbury before the Parliamentarian army. Perhaps he had been sufficiently startled by the dash to Cirencester to reappraise the normally pedestrian earl. His plan therefore required the cavalry to intercept and delay Essex, a task they had signally failed to achieve around Stow-on-the-Wold during the advance from London. On the morning of 18 September, Rupert led his tired regiments southwest from Stanford-in-the-Vale, past the ancient white horse below the Ridgeway and up onto the Wiltshire Downs. His scouts must have been in contact with the Parliamentarians, and he will have known that their pace had slowed since Cirencester. They had spent that night in and around Swindon and now had to cross sixteen miles of open down-land to reach the relative safety of the River Kennet at Hungerford, during which they would for the last time be vulnerable to the Royalist cavalry. Ideally, the Royalists would hope to catch Essex with his men spread out in line of march on Aldbourne Chase, where there was little natural or man-made cover. Lisle’s musketeers were now well behind but Urry had rejoined the prince after Cirencester and was now sent ahead with 1,000 men. Behind them, the main body of Royalist cavalry streamed across the downland, a stiff ride of some twelve miles. Arriving on the Chase in early afternoon, they found Essex’s army still strung out on open ground, well short of Aldbourne village. The advantage he had seized between Tewkesbury and Cirencester had somehow been lost in the subsequent three days, and the earl again faced the prospect of one of Rupert’s trademark cavalry actions, and perhaps even the threat that the king’s infantry would soon appear as well.

From Swindon, there had been four possible routes for Essex to reach the security of the Kennet Valley. The first, south past Chiseldon and then down the Og valley to Marlborough, reached the Kennet soonest yet was by far the longest march, twenty miles to Hungerford along the external sides of an isosceles triangle. Marlborough was also used as a quarter by the Royalists and may have been garrisoned (if so, Luke should have known since he had despatched one of his spies there on the previous day). Essex therefore dismissed it.

The three alternative routes took the earl’s army along the triangle’s hypotenuse, southeast over the downs between Marlborough and Lambourn, through the village of Aldbourne, and finally along a valley to meet the Kennet near Hungerford. All three were shorter marches of around fifteen miles and the bridge at Hungerford was only lightly guarded. For Essex, the question was how best to cross the exposed downland before Aldbourne. The most northerly route, east past Wanborough and Callas Hill, then southeast along a Roman road between Hinton Downs and Sugar Hill, was nearest to the Royalists, provided no protection from Rupert’s cavalry and obliged the Trained Bands to retrace their steps from Chiseldon. A better choice would have been to climb the downs between Callas and Beacon Hills, and make for Aldbourne along a wide dry valley between Sugar Hill and Aldbourne Warren, where the landscape was still open but Rupert was marginally farther away and Sugar Hill offered a potentially defensible position. More attractive again was the most southerly route, south past Chiseldon then east across Aldbourne Chase, a 1,400-acre deer park dotted with woodland and bordered by rabbit warrens. According to the earliest detailed maps (eg Andrews and Dury, 1773, William Stanley’s Ordnance Survey drawing surveyed in 1818), the Chase covered the high ground south of a dry valley that ran west to east from beneath the crest of the downs, through the hamlet of Snap to Aldbourne village. To the north was Aldbourne Warren, which conveniently shielded the Snap valley from prying eyes.

All but one of the contemporary accounts point to Essex using the most southerly route across Aldbourne Chase, which involved the shortest march across the open downs and made tactical sense since it allowed the earl to pick up the London brigade at Chiseldon. The strongest evidence for this option is Foster’s description of the position when the Royalists appeared: ‘our whole army being in a deep valley, and the enemy upon the hills on our left flank’. Even a city dweller like Foster would not have considered the broad dry valleys to the north to be worth commenting upon and visibility from the hills on either side is good, making hidden movement of the kind that took place during the action almost impossible. The Snap to Aldbourne valley has an entirely different feel. It is far narrower and both slopes are steep. It meanders in an extended S-bend and visibility within the valley and even from the hills is often extremely limited. An army caught in the valley bottom would feel very threatened by cavalry on the hills above. If those cavalry had infantry to support them, it would be hard to force a passage, yet the steepness of the slopes and the tightness of the terrain would make it difficult for cavalry on their own to exploit their apparent advantage. Mercurius Aulicus gave a similar description to Foster, reporting that the Parliamentarians were found in a ‘bottom’.

Essex had therefore marched his army from Swindon south past Chiseldon and then east across the top edge of Aldbourne Chase into the Snap valley. His scouts should have given some warning of the approaching Royalists but most of his men were still spread out in a long winding column along the valley bottom when the first of Rupert’s cavalry appeared above them on Aldbourne Warren, the spur running from Upper Upham down past the Giant’s Grave tumulus that forms the northern slope of the valley. According to Mercurius Aulicus, the prince ‘with the whole body of horse’ discovered the Parliamentarian army at about three in the afternoon. Prince Rupert’s Diary recorded that Essex’s cavalry rearguard was two to three miles adrift from the main body. Estimates of the Royalists’ strength varied considerably. The Parliamentarians reported from 5,000 to 8,000, Digby 3,000 only. The latter is probably an underestimate but some of the 5,000 or so cavalrymen that had begun the march will have fallen out and the remainder will have been tired after almost three days of hot, and often damp, pursuit. Of Rupert’s brigade commanders, Wilmot, Sir John Byron and Charles Gerard were certainly present, together with Urry, who had to all intents been acting in that role.

In the valley below the Royalist advance guard, Essex had drawn up his men in some form of battle order but they were still too widely dispersed to support each other properly. One wing of cavalry under Sir Philip Stapleton was at the head of the column, perhaps as far away as Aldbourne itself. Most of the infantry deployed along a low ridge running almost east-west along the valley floor, where they were joined by the artillery train. Some light guns were hastily prepared to provide support. They had no benefits from the terrain, which was unenclosed arable land or sheep pasture. The rest of the cavalry, under Colonel John Middleton, formed the rearguard and were ‘somewhat distant’ from the main body, probably escorting the baggage train.

Having brought Essex to bay, what were Prince Rupert’s intentions? Sir Edward Hyde had no doubt:

to get between London and the enemy before they should be able to get out of those enclosed deep countries, in which they were engaged between narrow lanes, and to entertain them with skirmishes till the whole army should come up.

In fact, however, it is clear from the correspondence between Rupert and the king that the infantry and artillery were at the time marching directly towards Newbury. This was therefore a delaying operation to allow the king to block the Kennet valley. But the form it took became a matter of dispute between those involved. Sir John Byron alleged that Rupert failed to fully brief his subordinate commanders:

notwithstanding the necessity there was of fighting (at least if they persisted in their marching to London and we in ours of preventing them) yet no orders were given out for the manner of our fighting and how the army should be embattled as usually is done on the like occasions.

Action on Aidbourne Chase, 18 September 1643 Part II

Byron implies that Rupert prevaricated and thereby lost the chance to inflict a major reverse on the Parliamentarian army:

we were placed that we had it in our power both to charge their horse in flank and at the same time to have sent another party to engage their artillery, yet that fair occasion was omitted, and the enemy allowed to join all their forces together.

Prince Rupert’s Diary places the blame elsewhere, explaining that Rupert had deployed his forces in preparation for an attack when a cabal of senior officers including Wilmot, Digby and the queen’s favourite, Colonel Henry Jermyn ‘importuned the prince not to fight’. Rupert was enraged and while the generals argued on their hilltop, the Parliamentarian horse and foot combined in the valley below and the opportunity was indeed lost.

Neither interpretation tells the full story. Despite Byron’s criticism, other contemporary accounts show that the prince’s opening move was decisive enough. Noting that some at least of Middleton’s rearguard was still isolated from the main body, Rupert sent Urry with 1,000 cavalrymen to circle around to the west to take them in the flank. How far Middleton’s men were from the security of Essex’s infantry and artillery is unclear. According to Mercurius Aulicus they were on the far side of a ‘village’, probably a reference to Snap, a substantial medieval settlement reduced in the seventeenth century to a single row of cottages. In that case, Middleton was still perhaps half a mile or more from the rest of the army.

Urry was able to outflank the rearguard without being observed. He could have used any one of a number of ridges to hide his progress from the opposite slopes, where Middleton’s troopers were slowly shepherding the baggage towards the safety of the infantry. Middleton had five regiments with him, well over a thousand men, but 200 or so were at the very rear of the column, standing on another ridge. This was probably Colonel James Sheffield’s Regiment. Their attention was presumably focused on the main Royalist formation so that they did not see Urry’s detachment until too late and were quickly overwhelmed by a savage surprise charge. As the Royalist cavalry poured along the valley, firing pistols and carbines as they came, disorder spread through the Parliamentarian rearguard. Some of the baggage train was abandoned. Two ammunition carts overturned and by one account exploded. The Royalists claimed to have killed forty or fifty and captured two officers. Even the official Parliamentarian report conceded that ‘the enemy pursuing hotly both on rear and flank, our retreat was not without some confusion and loss’. Sheffield’s Regiment lost a standard and took no further part in the day’s events.

Urry could not charge the entire Parliamentarian army with 1,000 cavalrymen. He was already coming under ineffective fire from the light guns deployed among the infantry. But from the opposite hillside, it seemed that his surprise attack had so unnerved Essex’s whole army that Rupert was tempted to bring the rest of his force down into the valley to mount a full attack. Perhaps this was Byron’s idea, which was why he was piqued when it was not followed. Digby explained, however, that at that moment news arrived that ‘our foot, was beyond expectation, advanced within six or seven miles of us’. This ‘imposed upon his Highness prudence’ and it was decided to wait for these reinforcements to arrive the next day before seeking battle. Meanwhile, the Royalist cavalry would continue to ‘hinder their march’. Taken at face value, Digby’s explanation appears implausible. As discussed above, on 18 September the main body of Royalist infantry was well to the east, trudging from Alvescot towards Newbury; King Charles was at Farringdon for dinner and Wantage for supper, at no time nearer than twelve miles from Aldbourne. Even if diverted, the Royalist infantry would not arrive until late on the following day. A more credible explanation is that the reinforcements were Lisle’s musketeers, who should certainly have arrived by the next morning. If Rupert could keep Essex pinned down overnight in the steep-sided valley bottom, 1,000 musketeers would improve substantially his ability to harass the Parliamentarians throughout the following day, thereby increasing the likelihood that the king would then win the race to Newbury. This is probably when Digby, Wilmot and Jermyn urged caution and the Parliamentarians were able to regroup.

Whatever the reason, Rupert decided not to press home Urry’s advantage. There was some skirmishing between dismounted dragoons, and the prince and his advisers may have expected that this and the continuing threat of cavalry attack would be sufficient to deter Essex from attempting to disengage. They were wrong. Digby wrote that they ‘had not stood long, when we discovered that the enemy prepared for a retreat, and by degrees drew away their baggage first, then their foot, leaving their horse at a good distance from them’. Middleton had rallied his regiments and they now covered a slow withdrawal. Although disengagement in these circumstances was a difficult and risky operation, the Parliamentarians had noted that the Royalists had no infantry present. Rupert had shown on the Cotswolds that he was unwilling to commit his cavalry alone against the pike walls and musket volleys of formed infantry brigades. The valley’s southern slope is relatively steep. Though the artillery was scrambled up it, the rustled sheep and cattle were abandoned, together with three cartloads of ammunition and fourteen carrying wheat or other foodstuff. When the infantry reached the top, they deployed again to cover the rest of the baggage train and wait for Middleton’s cavalry to rejoin them. They were now little more than a mile from Aldbourne village and the ground would become increasingly enclosed as they descended towards it from the Chase.

As at Stow-on-the-Wold, Essex seemed to have faced down and evaded the Royalist cavalry. This time, however, Rupert decided not to stand idly by. According to Digby, his initial inclination was to launch a full-scale attack before the Parliamentarian army could follow their baggage train into the lanes in front of the village. But dusk was falling and the Parliamentarian withdrawal was happening so slowly that the prince chose instead to try to provoke Middleton’s rearguard, which was still in the valley, into fighting rather than retreating. These tactics smack of another compromise between the combative prince and his more cautious senior officers so it is not surprising that Rupert turned yet again to the like-minded Urry. Across the valley, some of Middleton’s force had already started to make their way up the slope. With about 500 commanded men, Urry moved forward to engage the remaining regiments before they too could withdraw. To tempt Middleton to fight not flee, Rupert gave Urry little immediate support. Two regiments only followed him down onto the valley floor. Nonetheless, for the second time that day, Urry carried all before him, at least to begin with, putting the tail end of the Parliamentarian rearguard ‘into the like disorder’.

The ploy succeeded in drawing Middleton back into the valley. At the head of his own regiment and three attached troops, together probably similar in strength to Urry’s force, he counterattacked the Royalists with unusual effectiveness. His men will have been charging downhill and in tight order, whereas the Royalist had lost their formation in the first clash. As Urry was pressed back down the slope, the two supporting Royalist regiments should have intervened but Digby admitted that they did not do ‘their part as well as they ought’ and Urry was ‘forced to make somewhat a disorderly retreat’. Middleton’s troopers now turned on the two supporting Royalist regiments, probably part of Gerard’s northern brigade, who were also routed. Digby commented ruefully that while Rupert’s aim had been to tempt the Parliamentarian cavalry to engage, they had done so ‘with a little too much encouragement’.

Nevertheless, the prince persisted with his plan. Rather than commit his full strength, which would have obliged Middleton to retreat, he ordered a third detachment forward into the valley. The Queen’s Regiment of Horse was the largest regiment in Gerard’s brigade, with as many as 500 officers and men, including mercenaries and French volunteers. At its head rode Jermyn, newly ennobled at the queen’s request as Baron Jermyn of St Edmundsbury, with Digby and the Marquis de Vieuville, a young French nobleman, at his side. In their own minds, they were the elite of the Royalist horse. By the time that the Queen’s Regiment had made its way down the slope into the valley, Middleton’s men had reformed. When the Royalists attacked, they were received not by a counter charge but by an old-fashioned volley of pistols and carbines. Digby wrote with approval of the unusual steadiness of the Parliamentarian cavalry who waited until the Royalists were within ten yards before firing, and in particular of the remarkable composure of their commander, presumably Middleton, who peered at the Royalist commanders in turn before deciding

to discharge his pistol, as it were by election at the Lord Digby’s head, but without any more hurt (saving only the burning of his face) than he himself received by my Lord Jermyn’s sword, who (upon the Lord Digby’s pistol missing fire) ran him with it into the back; but he [Middleton] was as much beholden there to his armour, as the Lord Digby to his headpiece.

Past precedent suggested that the momentum of the attacking Royalists would sweep away the static Parliamentarians, but as the Queen’s Regiment drove into Middleton’s men they were themselves charged in the flank or rear. Colonel Richard Norton led his own regiment and that of Colonel Edmund Harvey into the mêlée. The Parliamentarian rearguard was becoming increasingly embroiled as Rupert intended, yet they were also fighting with unexpected vigour. Jermyn’s regiment recoiled from the surprise assault, ‘the greatest part of it shifting for themselves’. The officers, at the head of their troops and already hacking and slashing at Middleton’s front ranks, were suddenly deserted and isolated. Unable to retreat and with his arm shattered by a pistol ball, Jermyn showed great presence of mind by leading his officers through Middleton’s Regiment, which had been disrupted by the initial impact of the Royalist charge, past a body of Parliamentarian infantry and around the edge of the action back to their own lines. He had, however, lost de Vieuville who had been hit three times, in the chest, shoulder and face, although reports published in London suggested that he was actually killed by a blow from a pole-axe when he tried to escape from a lieutenant who had captured him. Stunned and blinded by the pistol shot to his helmet, Digby too was taken prisoner.

Essex’s rearguard were now completely committed, and the earl had sent a party of dragoons and musketeers from his own regiment back into the valley to support them (they were the infantry that Jermyn evaded), and recalled the rest of his cavalry. Urry, Gerard and Jermyn having been defeated in detail, Rupert led his own brigade, probably 1,000 or so strong, down the steep slope in an effort to regain the initiative. Even now, the despised Parliamentarian cavalry stood their ground. Grey’s and Meldrum’s regiments, supported by the musketeers, saw off the first Royalist charge but the prince reformed his men and at the second attempt broke the Parliamentarian line and sent them retreating back towards the main body. From the hilltop, Foster thought that the cavalrymen ‘performed with as brave courage and valour as ever men did’. Digby was

fortunately received out of the middle of a regiment of the enemy by a brave charge, which Prince Rupert in person made upon them with his one Troop, wherein His Highness’ horse was shot in the head under him.

Rupert had to accept that his men could achieve no more. The Parliamentarian cavalry had reformed on the slope under the guns of the infantry brigades where the Royalist horse had no hope of following. Moreover, Middleton’s rearguard had been reinforced by Sir Philip Stapleton with the remainder of Essex’s cavalry regiments, together with the Trained Band and Auxiliary Regiments, so that Rupert was clearly outmatched. With night falling, the prince withdrew to his original position on the far side of the valley. Skirmishing between dragoons continued for an hour or so, but the main action was over.

The Parliamentarians claimed to have inflicted heavy losses, and to have captured up to sixty prisoners, including a lieutenant colonel and four other officers, but they also admitted two or three of their own captains killed, numerous other officers injured and ‘some common soldiers slain’. A Parliamentarian soldier told a London newspaper that about 100 from both sides had been killed. Essex’s biographer, Codrington, later estimated a combined total of 80 dead and more than 80 wounded. The Royalists were especially concerned about de Vieuville, who was believed at first to have been taken prisoner, but Hyde later acknowledged that many other officers had been wounded.

Aldbourne Chase had been a hectic cavalry skirmish of the kind at which Rupert usually excelled. On this occasion, however, Essex and the Parliamentarian horse had taken the tactical honours. Byron’s sarcastic comment that no action was taken until the enemy had joined their forces together, after which ‘we very courageously charged them’ is justifiable criticism of the action as a whole. Yet Rupert’s mistake was not to do too little, but to attempt too much. His unexpected appearance imposed delay on the Parliamentarian march; Urry’s original charge was sufficient to persuade Essex to abandon seventeen wagons and one thousand hobbled sheep; a full-scale attack during the afternoon could perhaps have inflicted further damage. But once the prince had accepted, however reluctantly, the advice of Wilmot and Digby not to provoke a major battle, the evening’s skirmishing had done little more than further tire and frustrate his own men, and boost the morale of the Parliamentarian cavalry.


In 1940 the War Office established the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in Surrey. It was the preserve of a mixed bag of individuals including Hugh Cott, a distinguished Cambridge zoologist who applied the coloration found on animal skins to guns and tanks. From the art world there was the Surrealist artist and friend of Picasso, Roland Penrose, who wrote the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage. Penrose’s party trick was successfully to hide his lover, the acclaimed American model, photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller, in a garden, naked, camouflaged from prying eyes with body paint and netting. He reasoned that if he could hide a naked woman in a garden full of people, anything could be hidden.

Perhaps the most famous of the British camoufleurs was the popular stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. Following the publication of his memoirs in 1949, Maskelyne has long been seen as the leading light in the deception world. However, the truth about the ‘war magician’ appears somewhat less fantastic under scrutiny. Maskelyne arrived in Cairo on 10 March 1941 as part of a detachment of 12 camouflage officers sent to work with Barkas. He spent much of his time performing magic shows for entertainment purposes and later went on to work for the escape and evasion department MI9, where he helped in devising concealed escape devices for POWs.

Maskelyne’s actual involvement in military deception appears to have been a bit of a sham. Curiously enough, people appeared much more confident with the dummy vehicles when they were told they had been devised by a well-known illusionist. It also appears that Dudley Clarke encouraged Maskelyne’s boasting to some extent, because it diverted attention away from A Force and himself. Somewhat ironically, then, Maskelyne’s main contribution to deception may have been to provide a cloak behind which others could work in secret.

Maskelyne’s more limited role is also suggested by the artist Julian Trevelyan, a fellow graduate from Farnham. An interesting character in his own right, Trevelyan was a member of the British Surrealist movement and before the war had experimented with injections of hallucinogenic synthetic Mescalin crystals, an experience which led him to exclaim: ‘I have been given the key of the universe.’ His feet firmly back on the ground, Trevelyan was sent from the United Kingdom on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East to witness the deceptions being carried out there by Barkas’s department.

In March 1942 Trevelyan visited Tobruk and then went to Barkas’s Camouflage Training and Development Centre at Helwan near Cairo. He was generally impressed with what he saw, except perhaps with a dummy railhead complete with dummy rolling stock and station, which he claimed that the Germans complimented by dropping a wooden bomb on. Having witnessed the hand of Barkas at work, the artist remarked: ‘It is thanks to Barkas, principally, that the formidable technique of deception has been elaborated. You cannot hide anything in the desert; all you can do is to disguise it as something else. Thus tanks become trucks overnight, and of course trucks become tanks, and the enemy is left guessing at our real strength and intentions.’

Returning to the situation at El Alamein, Barkas followed Auchinleck’s orders to congregate his dummies behind the main lines and was overjoyed that he, for the first time, received the magic words ‘operational priority’ to assist him. Operation Sentinel saw the land between El Alamein and Cairo become dotted with camps, complete with smoke rising from cookhouses and incinerators. Canteens were set up with dummy vehicles parked outside while their imaginary drivers were inside enjoying an equally notional ‘brew’. To thicken the defensive positions, the craftsmen at Barkas’s school at Helwan developed a wide range of decoys, including batteries of field guns that could be stowed inside a single truck. Within three weeks of starting the build up Barkas was simulating enough activity to indicate the presence of two fresh motorized divisions in close reserve to the main line.

After his failure to break through the Alamein line Rommel was forced onto the defensive. With an impatient Prime Minister anxiously watching proceedings, the British made their preparations for a counter-attack scheduled for 23 October. To cover this attack, two cover plans were developed, Operations Treatment and Bertram.

Shortly after Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army on 13 August he held his first meeting with Colonel Dudley Clarke and was given an appraisal of his command’s activities, which centred on maintaining a notional threat against Crete. Montgomery did not disapprove of Dudley Clarke’s tactics; in fact he endorsed them. When planning the counter-offensive, in addition to the notional threat against Crete, Montgomery wanted A Force to use its intelligence channels to make the Germans believe the start date, or D-Day, for the forthcoming Allied desert counter-offensive would be 6 November, two weeks later than actually planned. This A Force ruse was codenamed Treatment.

At the time, Dudley Clarke was heavily involved with the planning for Operation Torch. In October he was called to attend a meeting with the London Controlling Section, which was set up to ensure Anglo-American cooperation in deception once the US forces began operating in North Africa. As he would be away from Egypt at the crucial time, Clarke handed over management of Treatment to his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Noël Wild.
Having been acquainted with him for some time before the war, in April 1942 Clarke had poached Wild from his job as a staff officer at GHQ Cairo. The circumstances of his recruitment were somewhat irregular. One evening Major Wild went to a Cairo hotel to cash a cheque and was ambushed by the A Force chief, who bought him drinks to celebrate Wild’s promotion to lieutenant colonel as Clarke’s deputy. When Wild enquired what the promotion entailed, and what exactly Clarke did, he was met with evasive replies. The only certainty was that Clarke wanted someone he knew and trusted in the post.

After a night’s sleep Wild accepted the position and was indoctrinated into the weird and wonderful world of A Force. By the time of Treatment, Wild was well enough versed in its techniques to use the A Force channels to hint that there were no plans to commit to a major offensive against Rommel. As long as German forces continued to advance into the Caucasus through the Soviet Union, the British were said to be apprehensive about their rear. Instead, Montgomery’s sole purpose was to use the lull in the fighting to train and test his troops for future operations. According to information sent out by the Cheese network, if there was going to be any major British attack it would be against Crete. This information was taken so seriously that Hitler ordered the island’s garrison to be strengthened on 23 September. He reiterated this order on 21 October, just two days before the British offensive was due to open.

To divert attention away from the last week of October, a conference was scheduled in Tehran. In attendance would be the British Commanders-in-Chief Middle East, PAIFORCE (Persia and Iraq) and India. This conference was scheduled for 26 October, three days after D-Day. In Egypt the last week of October was left open for officers to take leave and many had hotel rooms booked in their names.

The tactical counterpart to Treatment was codenamed Bertram and was given to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Richardson to devise and implement. An engineer by training, Richardson had only recently joined the planning staff of Eighth Army HQ after having spent a year with SOE in Cairo. Privately he was dismissive of the dummy tanks Auchinleck had used in Sentinel as a ‘pathetic last resort’. Richardson was sceptical about the chances of fooling the Germans, in particular the Luftwaffe and its photo-reconnaissance interpreters.

Richardson was summoned by Montgomery’s chief of staff, Freddie de Guingand, and received the outline of the British plan, which was a direct assault along the coastal road, on the right of the British position. He was then told to go away and come up with a suitable cover plan that would conceal the intention of the offensive for as long as possible, and when that was no longer possible, to mislead the enemy over the date and sector in which the attack was to be made.

For this purpose Montgomery wanted a plan that advertised false moves in the south, while concealing his real moves in the north of the sector. Pondering the situation from Rommel’s point of view, Richardson thought that the German field marshal might ‘buy’ the suggestion of a British attack from the south, as it was the sort of tactic he might resort to himself. The other thing Richardson had to consider was how to persuade Rommel the attack was not going to be delivered on 23 October, as was the case. The preparations for the battle were so vast that Richardson supposed they could only stall the enemy’s thinking by about ten days. The way he proposed to do this was ingenious. His idea was to construct a dummy pipeline bringing water to the southern flank. German reconnaissance would no doubt spot this pipeline and, by gauging the speed with which it was being constructed, they would be able to project the date on which the British would be ready to begin their operations. This date would be set at ten days after D-Day. Richardson took the plans to de Guingand, who approved them, and passed them on to Monty for his final endorsement.

With official approval granted, Richardson needed someone actually to implement the plans. Richardson was aware of A Force’s existence, probably through de Guingand, who had until recently been the Director of Military Intelligence in GHQ Cairo. However, Richardson was reluctant to use A Force because he believed Clarke’s work was so ‘stratospheric and secret’ it was best to keep well out of it. Instead Richardson used GHQ’s Camouflage Department under Barkas.

On 17 September Barkas and his deputy, Major Tony Ayrton, were invited to de Guingand’s caravan and warned that what they were about to hear was top secret. The Chief Engineer of the Eighth Army was about to make a number of bulldozed tracks running from an assembly area codenamed Martello towards the front line, running parallel with the coast road and railway. Shortly afterwards large concentrations of vehicles and tanks would begin concentrating at Martello along with vast quantities of stores and munitions. Beyond Martello, but about five miles behind the front line, a great number of field guns would be marshalled at an area codenamed Cannibal 1. These would then be moved closer to the front line to deliver an opening barrage from positions directly behind the front line codenamed Cannibal 2. De Guingand wanted to know if the Camouflage Department was able to assist with the following objectives:
1.   To conceal the preparations in the north.
2.   To suggest that an attack was to be mounted in the south.
3.   When the preparations in the north could not be concealed, to minimize their scale.
4.   To make the rate of build up appear slower than it actually was, so that the enemy would believe there were still two or three days before the attack commenced.

Although sobered when told he had about a month to achieve all this, Barkas was inwardly jubilant that at last Camouflage was about to make a ‘campaign swaying’ contribution.
Barkas and Ayrton left the caravan to formulate their plan and took a stroll along the beach where their voices were drowned out from prying ears by the waves breaking on the shore. Two hours later, having typed up an appreciation and report on the subject, they went back to de Guingand, offering to suggest

For this purpose Montgomery wanted a plan that advertised false moves in the south, while concealing his real moves in the north of the sector. Pondering that two armoured brigade groups were concentrating to the south. When Montgomery’s reply was delivered a few days later, Barkas was told to make provision for an entire phantom armoured corps in the south.

This entailed making 400 dummy Grant tanks and at least 1,750 transport vehicles and guns. Barkas was given ample resources, including three complete pioneer companies, a transport company and a POW unit. While he masterminded production of the material and devices, Barkas charged Ayrton and his colleague, the former Punch illustrator Brian Robb, with the actual deception work on the battlefield.