RAF: The Establishment of a Peacetime Service

To understand why the fantasy figure of the airman was created, it is necessary to explore the political establishment of the airforce after the war. To guarantee its place as a permanent military body, the Royal Flying Corps began a series of reforms, under the aegis of General Smuts, in 1917–1918 that ended the division of military and naval aviation and formed the RAF.8 This unification report became one of the most important documents of the 1914–1918 war, developed because, as official naval historian Arthur Marder explained, the ‘intensified competition between the Army and Navy for aircraft’ was wasting resources. Instead the Smuts report of August 1917 ‘recommended the fusion of the RNAS and RFC … under an Air Ministry and Air General Staff.’ This did not immediately mean that the air service was better resourced, but established a system for efficiency. Most significantly, it gave overall control to an aerial ministry rather than a military or naval representative.

The Royal Air Force came into being on 1 April 1918, almost six years after the Royal Flying Corps was first formed. The significance of the Smuts Report is that it made the airmen of the First World War unique. Through their actions, aerial combat was recognized and embodied in a third service, and there would never again be division of control for aerial resources. Yet the disappointment and political manoeuvring between the Admiralty and the War Office that the report engendered had ramifications for the professional culture of the RAF for more than a decade.

Naval pilots were reluctant to accept the new regime. Major Draper of 8 Squadron (No. 208 RAF) was dismayed at the loss of naval identity. ‘I know everyone from myself down to the last man were very upset at the change,’ he complained, because they lost ‘that special distinction which had earned for Naval 8 a reputation second to none … . Unofficially we never dropped the old ways completely.’ Draper then referred to a post-war photograph clearly showing some members of the Squadron still sporting their old RNAS uniforms. ‘PIX,’ a fellow RNAS pilot, described a farewell dinner held on 31 March 1918, demonstrating the loyalty naval men felt towards their dying service. The ‘Royal Naval Air Service was passing away’, he mourned:

It was the oldest of the two British flying services having its origins in 1910 … . But the debt which the nation owes to it for the development of engines and efficient aircraft, no less than for its operations on land and sea over the whole world, had hardly been appreciated … . And now its people were asked to give up the legends about the mighty pilots who had created the service, the traditions which had accumulated so rapidly in war time, the uniform and routine which so well fitted their work, the comradeship which had permeated the personnel owing to its limited number, and the name which numberless brave men had laid down their lives to make honourable … . Below the khaki! I feel hardly human.

His epitaph for the service demonstrates the extremely strong allegiances men had formed to the notion of their flying group. The RNAS man was always naval first and pilot second. The resistance of naval pilots was only in the form of words as their duties still had to be performed. It ‘was a bitter blow to most of us to be suddenly shorn of our glories as sailors’, wrote the pilots of Portsmouth Command, ‘and to discard the Naval uniforms and customs, but again officers and men sunk their personal feelings and entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of things.’ Their words encapsulated the feeling of loyalty and duty, irrespective of service, with which veteran-pilots chose to represent their time at war.

The RFC, however, made little comment on the change; its uniform, titles and chain of command remained largely unaltered. The Smuts report, although necessary to establish the air service as a separate political institution, was not designed to win the allegiance of its pilots. It was based on operational necessities that resulted in frequent clashes between its political and organizational centres, and the needs of its pilots in the inter-war period. Once airmen had achieved their independent status, the airforce seemed at a loss, with nothing left to prove. Although the establishment of the RAF was a political and economic necessity, it did not result in a coherent purpose for the peacetime service. ‘As a result,’ historian Malcolm Cooper argued, ‘the RAF entered the post-war period poorly integrated into the defence community and quite lacking in a clearly defined strategic function.’ This shift from action to politics defined the inter-war period and explains the loss of direction sustained by the RAF at this time.

War had given the RFC both a political standing and a united purpose, but in the 1920s, the RAF found its new role difficult to sustain. First, it suffered from the necessary reduction of all services and the mass demobilization of its men. The Royal Flying Corps had relied heavily on the enthusiasm of youth and the initiative of its pilots to improve combat methods, so the return of a large proportion of these men to the civilian world was a significant blow to the drive of the new air service. The War Office estimated a total of 150,000 men were serving in the RAF by 12 March 1919, but insisted on reducing this to 79,570. The vast majority of these men were between 20 and 30 years old and had exemplified the youthful drive of the service. The RFC, unlike its fellow services, had an informal culture; developments were sustained and propelled by the men within. Without the unifying purpose of war, decline was understandable. Malcolm Cooper’s vivid description of the ‘bonfires of unwanted aircraft’ burning throughout the country could be seen as a metaphor for the shift from action to politics that left the RAF as a vulnerable veteran of war rather than the world-leading service it had been in November 1918.

To survive, the RAF had to carve a permanent role in Britain’s armoury and demonstrate its independent value in both war and peace. The new service, therefore, capitalized on the exuberance of its remaining young men and their enthusiasm for flight, focusing on the development of the new bomber aircraft. A formal Boy’s Service was created, based on a wartime precedent, to feed new recruits through the training system and ensure the RAF’s sustainability. ‘The Air Force also enlists boys between the ages of 15 and 16½, after an entrance examination conducted by the Local Education Authority,’ contemporary writer Wilkinson Sherrin explained, where they were given ‘a first-class technical training and then serve 10 years with the regular Air Force’. This was far longer than service during the war but would offer greater opportunity to train and develop men.

The University Air Squadrons (UAS) also capitalized on the growing association of youth and flight to entice the young men of Oxford and Cambridge into the air. This created and maintained a reserve of potential flyers should war recur. Most importantly, the association with Cambridge in particular allowed the RAF to exploit and promote the academic study of aeronautics at the highest level. Consequently, a Research Flight was included in the Cambridge squadron to develop and test new methods. To further emphasize the link between the study of aeronautics and the role of the pilot, Sir Bennett Melville Jones was simultaneously the university’s first Professor of Aeronautics and the leader of the Research Flight. Once established, academic study was undertaken to further embed the ‘science of flight’ into the country’s academic centres, with ‘investigations ranged from upper air microbiological experiments to the causes of aircraft accidents’. The UAS was a mutually advantageous arrangement, offering an exciting career path to educated recruits, whilst utilizing the resources of the nation’s finest research institutions to refine the processes of aviation.

The University Air Squadrons were extremely popular with Oxbridge students. The Oxford squadron easily filled the hundred student places with a large waiting list. Applications were so numerous that senior members of the institution could select only the most outstanding candidates, adding to their sense of exclusivity and privilege. The majority of men demobilized in 1920 were between 20 and 25 years old, which meant they would have been recruited during the ‘traditional’ university years. The UAS training was similar to wartime teaching, Boys’ Service veteran John Ross explained, with ‘lectures on air navigation, rigging, airmanship and engines’. The UAS offered consistent training to recruits during their time at University, slowly building their knowledge. To do this, Ross explained, each man ‘received an average of nine flights per term, totalling five hours and 45 minutes (dual and solo). Each flight was of about 35 minutes’ duration.’ Over three terms for three years, this culminated in a valuable body of experience and an instinctive knowledge of flight. After taking written and practical examinations, successful candidates were awarded the Air Ministry Proficiency Certificate and could apply to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and then for a permanent commission in the RAF. Should war return to Europe, the University pilots could be readied for active service. This strengthened the position of the RAF and ensured that flight became not only an exciting privilege, but also a serious academic pursuit. By thus exploiting the union of youth and flight, the RAF attracted considerable notice.


Operation Shingle – The Landings I

On the evening of Friday 21 January 1944, Berthold Richter, a nineteen-year-old engineer in 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, wrote a letter to his parents. ‘I am looking forward to some leave soon and hope to see you both. I miss you terribly … I have not been able to write as often as I would have liked and fear that I am not much of a son nor a brother. Please send my love to Anna and tell her that I miss her too. I would imagine that she has grown since I last saw her.’ He signed off ‘Your loving son, Bertie’ and attached a recently taken photograph of himself in uniform posing by the Coliseum. Grenadier Richter was a good-looking young man, with a shock of black hair and bright blue eyes. He had left his family in Hamburg for basic training twelve months before and had not been home since. Had he returned, those that had known him would have noticed that he had changed – he had lost a little weight, but he also stood differendy, and there was something unfathomable about his expression. Richter had seen his officer blown up during the fighting in Sicily, cradled his dying best friend in his arms at Salerno and been wounded twice during the fighting in the mountains. His division had eventually been pulled out of the line for a refit and a time in reserve near Rome. Here Richter had briefly – but fully—sampled the pleasures of the capital city where he drank and smoked heavily, and lost his virginity to a prostitute. He had no time to waste. Now he was at Anzio, one of a 380-man unit that had only the previous day been enjoying the sea air, conducted a little training, and making preparations for the demolition of the harbour. Richter slipped the sealed letter in his breast pocket, as a comrade staggered through the door of their seafront billet with two cases of ‘liberated’ wine. With the town evacuated and offering so little to entice the men, they settled in for some drinking, singing and gambling. Berthold Richter enjoyed himself, at one point falling off a table as he danced with a wooden chair, before falling fast asleep fully clothed on a mattress on the floor. It is likely that he was awoken by the sound of the approaching Allied landing craft and had gone to investigate. The shots that killed him had propelled his comrades out of bed and into the waiting arms of the Rangers. Before being escorted into captivity, Richter’s friends saw his body curled in the foetal position surrounded by a large puddle of blood on the esplanade.

Nearly 800 5-inch Allied rockets had crashed into the buildings and along the waterfront of all the invasion beaches. The wall of explosions killed and wounded some of the sentries, dropped masonry down onto the sleeping, cut telephone lines and detonated some of the mines. But its psychological effect on the enemy was even more impressive, sending those still capable of a fight reeling into the first waves of VI Corps. Their confidence boosted by the pyrotechnics, Lucas’s assault waves stormed the beaches to the sound of their own descending might, but silence from an overawed enemy. Assisted by lights (set up on the sand by two-man teams launched from submarines) the assault craft had landed accurately and on time. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recalls:

I braced myself for the shock of the searchlights stabbing out from the shore, followed by the tracers pouring over the waters. But again a silence more intense than ever held the whole area as the assault craft crept in . . . The incredible had happened. We had got the one thing we had never bargained for, utter, complete surprise.

The Allied landings were an unexpected success. An Irish Guards officer wrote: ‘It was all very gendemanly, calm and dignified’, whilst a less restrained 3rd Division officer declared: We hit the beach and shook Hider’s breeches … It sure was a relief after Salerno and that God awful practice.’ The real thing was far more successful than the rehearsals because Lowry and Troubridge had worked tirelessly to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated, and assisted by the benign conditions, they were not. Lucas noted in his diary: ‘We achieved what is certainly one of the most complete surprises in history. The Germans were caught off base and there was practically no opposition to the landing . . . The Biscayne was anchored 3½ miles off shore, and I could not believe my eyes when I stood on the bridge and saw no machine gun or other fire on the beach.’

The landing was an important first step which had been made accurately and securely in order to provide a stable base for further phases. The next step was to push Lucas’s troops and vehicles swifdy across the beaches to instil the attack with some forward momentum. In this intense task the Military Landing Officers (MLO) played an important role. Captain Denis Healey, a future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was an MLO on the British Peter beach. A veteran of landings in North Africa and the Calabria, Healey did not take part in the Salerno landing (where his replacement was killed), but he was an expert in his field. He landed as the engineers were clearing lanes in the minefields when his job was then ‘to make sure that the troops followed the white tape through the lanes, and the vehicles were on the laid metal tracks to stop them bogging … My three days at Anzio were busy, but not dangerous.’ The beaches were extremely busy, with bulldozers creating breaches in the sand dunes, loudspeakers directing the troops, whilst vehicles and guns spilt out onto the sand. Healey and his team ensured that 1 st Division’s paralysis was kept to a minimum, although there was little that they could do when the sand bar that had concerned Penney during planning caused delays. Lucas was not happy and visited an irritated Penney to demand greater efforts as troops waded ashore or were lifted by DUKWs. Had the German defences been stronger they may have been able to exploit such difficulties, an accurate artillery barrage for example might have caused Penney serious problems, but instead the Panzer Grenadiers were rounded up within minutes of the landing. Vaughan-Thomas wrote, ‘The only Germans we saw were a forlorn group standing under guard at a farmhouse door. They had been fast asleep when we landed and clad in pyjamas had jumped into their car and driven it through the door of the barn and had been rounded up before they had gone a hundred yards.’

The three Ranger battalions and the supporting parachutists were extremely grateful for the lack of opposition on Yellow beach in Anzio. Lucas had expected a tough fight to take the harbour and the Rangers had been specially selected for this mission after their excellent performances in Tunisia and Sicily. Their commander, Colonel William O. Darby of Arkansas, ‘a broad-shouldered, thick-chested man’, who ‘moved quickly and spoke with decision’, recognised the nature of the challenge that faced his force as the beach was narrow and overlooked by buildings. He told the planners at Caserta: When I run out of the landing-craft I don’t want to have to look right or left’, and that is exactly what happened. When Darby disembarked from his landing craft he ran straight up the beach, across the road and into the Paradiso sul Mare, the large white twin-domed Art Deco casino built in the 1920s. As he set up his command post, his men, followed by 509th Parachute Battalion, fanned out and within minutes were bringing back prisoners. It was during this time that Berthold Richter had been killed. Richter’s friend Ralph Leitner recalls: ‘I was lucky not to be shot like him. These soldiers had adrenaline pumping through their veins and itchy trigger fingers. They looked fearsome. I recognised them as Rangers from their dress and the black, red and white insignia on their sleeve and knew instandy to respect them.’ The newly arrived Town Commandant also lay dead nearby. He had been driven down the coastal road from Anzio to a headquarters in Nettuno in the company of a Lieutenant to ascertain the source of a droning noise that could be heard out to sea. Minutes into their journey they were caught up in the rocket attack which forced them to take evasive action, but at its conclusion they sped on. As their vehicle entered Nettuno the Rangers ambushed them, drilling them with fire. The driver tried to barge through, but crashed into a ditch. The commandant was killed, the driver was badly wounded, but the Lieutenant cowering in the back emerged unscathed and was taken prisoner. Within minutes he was standing in Anzio harbour, watching the continued landings. He told his interrogators back in England that he had been impressed with what he saw: ‘he never heard a word of command’, they reported, ‘and yet it seemed that everything went clock-work-like’. He could appreciate the careful planning: ‘it was like a big business without confusion, disorder, or muddle.’ The speed and surprise of the attack had given the Germans no time in which to react. The Times later reported on one illustrative action: ‘At a German command post, from which the occupants fled when the Rangers landed, rooms were left in disorder, even to the remnants of a meal which had included sardines, Czech beans, and Danish bacon. Near by lay two German soldiers, shot as they ran from their machine-guns.’ Some Germans did not even have time to get dressed. One American private remembers bumping into a half-naked man in the darkness of Anzio:

As our squad entered a gloomy narrow street I could see a pair of fleshy white buttocks wobbling in the opposite direction and I shouted ‘Halt!’ as loud as I could. The man stopped, raised his hands, turned and walked towards us. We could tell that he was shocked – and perhaps a little embarrassed—because he was only dressed in a vest. At first I thought that he might be an Italian, but he found his confidence when he knew that we were not going to shoot him and started swearing at us in German. His thin legs were shivering below a great pot belly. It was my first encounter with the Master Race.

The Germans were quickly overrun, and Anzio was secured by 0800 hours, with Nettuno secured two hours later.

Soon after 3rd US Infantry Division and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had landed on X-Ray beach, they began to push forward. ‘Once we knew that the division was going to get ashore in one piece and without any hindrance from the enemy,’ recalls Oliver P. Roach who was a Staff Sergeant with 15th Infantry Regiment headquarters, ‘our minds were on our next objective. Making a beachhead was very important, because we just didn’t know when or where the enemy would counter-attack us.’ This was a concern which was shared by the entire corps on the morning of 22 January, and in anticipation John Lucas had planned to create an initial beachhead area some two and a half to three miles deep which could be defended. To facilitate this, reconnaissance platoons were thrown forward and patrols were sent out by units in an attempt to ‘join hands’ across the front as quickly as possible. The probes forward were cautious, but firm. The Americans felt vulnerable as they moved through the open, flat, scrubby marshland on the right of the front towards the Mussolini Canal and an unmade road known as the ‘disused railway bed’ which ran across their front. The British, meanwhile, were circumspect about the prospect of traversing the dark Padiglione Woods. Leading the way on Penney’s left flank was 2nd Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment which advanced with two companies forward using a track through the Umbrella Pines that became known as Regent Street. ‘It was a little nervy being at the forefront of a corps attack striking out for Rome’, recalls an officer from battalion headquarters. ‘It was literally a shot in the dark. We didn’t know what was in front of us and had to constantly co-ordinate ourselves with the rest of the brigade. We were told to speed up then slow down, then speed up again. All we could really do was push on at a steady pace. The Colonel knew what he was doing.’ They ghosted through the darkness, their senses aching, their hearts pounding and their breath freezing at their mouths, expecting to be ambushed at any moment. But the division found no resistance in the wood and their attack developed unhindered in a breaking dawn towards the Moletta River, the Via Anziate and the flyover at Campo di Carne. The first organised German troops were encountered by the vanguard of both divisions after dawn. This weak defensive screen was established by the first German forces to be sent to the area and a number of their 88-mm guns opened fire on the beachhead and the landing vessels. It was the least that Lucas had expected and by mid-morning, as a weak sun gently warmed the embryonic beachhead, he had good reason to feel thoroughly satisfied. The landing had been a great success, and his divisions were forging a beachhead against negligible opposition.

Churchill wanted to be in London when Operation Shingle was launched and had arrived back at Downing Street on 18 January. He was still weak from illness, but his high expectations for Shingle helped sustain his morale. However, on the eve of the attack the Prime Minister was in a contrary mood, snapping at staff and colleagues alike, and clearly anxious about the operation. He found it difficult to concentrate on his work that evening, but within minutes of the first wave landing he received a message: ‘Personal and Most Secret for Prime Minister. From General Alexander. Zip repeat Zip’ – Operation Shingle had been launched. The lack of any further word on the situation at Anzio for several hours did not help the Premier’s mood. Having only slept fitfully for a couple of hours that night, he pounced on Alexander’s next communication at 0900 hours. We have made a good start’, it read. ‘We have obtained practically the whole of our bridgehead and most of the supporting weapons will be ashore tonight I hope.’ With that the Prime Minister relaxed – but he demanded frequent updates fearing German counter-attacks. Alan Brooke, meanwhile, went shooting. The newly promoted Field Marshal did not feel paternalistic towards Shingle which he viewed very much as Churchill’s baby; he allowed the Prime Minister to enjoy the ordeal of its delivery alone. ‘Very good shoot, only 4 guns: Cobbold, uncle Philip, Barney and I’, he recorded in his diary for 22 January. ‘Howling wind, almost gale force. Shot 172 pheasants. At lunch was called up by War Office and told that landing south of Rome had been a complete surprise. This was a wonderful relief!’

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring

It is not certain who raised the alarm, but by 0300 hours the news had reached Kesselring’s headquarters in Monte Sorrate. The Field Marshal had been awoken with the words: ‘Case Richard.’ As he dressed hurriedly a staff officer appraised him of the situation – there had been a landing in the Anzio—Nettuno area, but details were scant – but it could be up to four divisions. Kesselring’s mind lurched into action, running through the implications of the news and various scenarios that it could lead to. But he made no assumptions until he had the facts. There had obviously been a massive intelligence failure. Spies had failed to spot Allied preparations, and its armada had not been spotted approaching Anzio. He had been wrong-footed, and it was now his job to restore stability, and to strike back. Within minutes he was in a large briefing room with Siegfried Westphal, where a clutch of befuddled officers were talking animatedly over a map of Italy. The briefing by the intelligence officer was short and at its conclusion Kesselring launched immediately into questions. Making his apologies, an NCO bearing papers interrupted proceedings with new information. Civitavecchia, a promising invasion area sixty miles to the north of Anzio, was being bombarded. Kesselring smiled and nodded; the Allies were toying with him. Already unsure whether the landings were a raid, a feint or a full-scale attack, this complicated matters. Albert Kesselring strode over to the map table and leaned heavily over it. We have a problem,’ he announced, ‘but not an insurmountable one’, and proceeded to launch into a speech which those present later recalled as a bravura lecture on Allied intentions. The Field Marshal declared that the landing at Anzio was the opening gambit of an attempt to seize the Alban Hills, which would cut Tenth Army’s lines of communication fighting in the Gustav Line thus blocking their route of withdrawal. He remained calm throughout, even joking occasionally at the expense of his colleagues. ‘We have been caught a little off-guard,’ he explained, ‘as we are over-stretched trying to contain the fighting in the south. But we can recover. The British and American aim is to threaten Rome, have no illusions about that, but can they seize the city swiftly? Not, gendeman, if I have a say in the matter – and I intend to be very vocal.’ Pausing, he turned to Westphal and demanded to know what assets he had between Anzio and Rome. ‘Virtually nothing in the landing area,’ came the reply, ‘and perhaps another 800 men in the vicinity in total.’ Kesselring nodded again and then smiled. Throughout he exuded a confidence that infected all those who listened to him that morning. Kesselring acted as though this was merely a long expected—and eagerly anticipated – exercise. His sang-froid was securely rooted in his anticipation of Allied landings, albeit not necessarily at Anzio and at that time, and the preparations he had made for it. The terse instructions that he issued that morning were not a knee-jerk reaction to events, but had been carefully prepared for such an eventuality. The aim was to have 20,000 troops in the area by evening.

By 0430 hours the words ‘Case Richard’ had been signalled all over Italy, alerting commands that an Allied amphibious assault was under way at Anzio-Nettuno and ordering certain units and formations to move to contain it. The military commandant of Rome, Lieutenant General Kurt Mältzer, was to block routes in to the city with all available forces, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Defence District of Rome (who was also the commanding general of all Luftwaffe forces in the Mediterranean theatre), General Max Ritter von Pohl, was to move all his flak formations stationed south of Rome into defensive positions. Major General Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Parachute Division, the majority of which was still north of Rome, was to move without delay to the beachhead whilst its spearhead, Kampfgruppe Gericke, was to be sent immediately to block the Via Anziate and the secondary roads in the area. A kampfgruppe from 29th Panzer Grenadier Division stationed near Velletri, as yet uncommitted against British X Corps on the Garigliano, was sent towards Cisterna to block the only other main Allied exploitation route. Thus by the time that Adolf Hitler had been informed of the landings at around 0600 hours, a small, but highly mobile force had already been deftly despatched to contain the Allies. That morning the Führer was at his Wolfschane (Wolf’s Lair) headquarters in an East Prussian forest east of Rastenburg. Although still under development it covered an area the size of twenty-one football pitches. Only a small percentage of the Wolfschanze contained underground bunkers, but these were impressively built with a shell of reinforced concrete six feet thick. Narrow corridors connected the rooms which all had electric heating, running water, fitted furnishings, and ventilation machinery which drew fresh air through the ceiling. Hitler’s personal bunker – the Führerbunker – also boasted air conditioning. It was cramped, claustrophobic, but safe. On receiving the news of the attack Hitler had been calm but intense, for Kesselring had shrewdly forewarned him about the likelihood of just such a landing. He had watched Mark Clark’s recent offensive develop with interest, but was confident that Kesselring’s defence would hold firm. He now relied on the Field Marshal to deal a blow to the Anzio-Nettuno landings, and provide a victory that would shake Allied faith in their ability to conduct successful amphibious warfare.

Hitler’s composure allowed him to maintain his usual routine without interruption on 22 January. There was the usual pre-breakfast situation report in the Map Room at which he was given the latest news about the landings, followed by a communal breakfast with his staff. Here Hitler always sat facing a large wall map of the Soviet Union and spoke passionately about the Eastern front and the evils of Bolshevism, but the main situation conference that morning was dominated by the situation south of Rome. By this time it was clear that the attack was no feint, but a major strike, and the meeting decided to send formations from other theatres to deal with it: 715th Infantry Division was to be moved from the south of France, the 114th Jaeger Division from the Balkans, three independent regiments – including the highly regarded Infantry Lehr Demonstration Regiment – from Germany, and two heavy tank battalions from France. The meeting also gave Kesselring the authority to use any division from Fourteenth Army in northern Italy, which were under the control of the Chief of High Command of the German Armed Forces (OKW), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. As a result the larger parts of 65th Infantry Division and 362nd Infantry Division, together with elements of the newly formed 16th SS Panzer Division, were ordered south of Rome. Kesselring also ordered Tenth Army to stop counter-attacking British X Corps and go onto the defensive all along the Gustav Line in order to facilitate the release of as many units for Anzio as possible. Von Vietinghoff was displeased, arguing strongly that Mark Clark’s offensive was still a threat, but was forced to concede. Tenth Army subsequently released 26th Panzer Division and elements of 1st Parachute Division from its left, and units from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, 71st Infantry and 3rd Panzer Grenadier Divisions from his right. The newly arrived I Parachute Corps headquarters was also returned to Fourteenth Army with Schlemm ordered to take command at the beachhead Anzio-Nettuno until General Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army headquarters could be moved from Verona. Hitler was impressed with Kesselring’s continuing sang-froid and the fact that his headquarters had not mentioned the word ‘withdrawal’. In the late afternoon, the Führer took tea with his secretaries and then sat down to dinner with Keitel and his aides where their strategy was discussed. There had been no panic at either the Wolfschanze or Monte Soratte.

The race between the belligerents to build up their forces at Anzio–Nettuno had begun. Several units had formed the defensive screen which the Allies had run into that morning. These included the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division Kampfgruppe which used its five armoured cars south of Cisterna to block the road from Nettuno. At 0715 hours it engaged an American reconnaissance force and took the first Allied prisoners of the battle. Shordy after the first troops from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division arrived at Cisterna, and the spearhead of 4th Parachute Division’s Kampfgruppe Gericke on the Via Anziate. Battalion Hauber blocked the road at Campoleone Station and sent a patrol out to Ardea where it stopped the British 1st Reconnaissance Troop as it drove up the coastal road. In a matter of hours the Germans had not only recognised Alexander’s intentions for Operation Shingle and set in motion a plan to heavily reinforce the area, they had also focused their activity on roads that Lucas would rely on to exploit the success of his initial landings. Moreover, by occupying Ardea, Campoleone Station and Cisterna, the Germans retained strong foundations for a counterattack. As if to underline Kesselring’s intent, several German Messerschmitt 109 fighters and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter bombers broke through to strafe the beaches, and drop light bombs on VI Corps at its most vulnerable point. Ross Carter of 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment wrote:

The deck of our LCI was crowded with troops standing around waiting to unload into the icy water and make the three hundred yards to the beach. Just as Berkely was reaching for one of Pierson’s cigarettes, a dive bomber came in and hell opened its doors. The bomb missed the bow by five feet or so, but the explosion lifted the boat clear out of the sea and blew a column of oily water into the sky which fell back on the boat and left us oil-coated for several days.

Stranded off the beach, one of the men swam ashore with a rope and tied one end to the strut of an amphibious Piper Cub, a light aircraft, sitting on the sand. Loaded up with equipment, weapons and ammunition, the men held the rope, jumped into the water and pulled themselves along. ‘The water’, the young paratrooper recalled, ‘was eight to ten feet deep and icy as a spinster’s heart.’ It was a fitting introduction to Anzio, for the men emerged from it ‘wet, cold, miserable, mad, disgusted and laughing,’ a list of adjectives that accurately reflect what troops were to feel during the coming battle. Indeed, as Carter says, he and his comrades had ‘embarked upon an adventure that staggers the mind.’ Private Robert E. Dodge, meanwhile, managed to get off his LCI safely, only to come under immediate aerial attack:

We doubled-time off the L.C.I. and kept going. We had run for quite a distance when Jerry planes came in strafing and bombing. Our anti-aircraft guns sent up such a cloud of aerial bursts, you wouldn’t think anything could fly through it. We instinctively hit the ditches. All around you could here the zap of shrapnel from our guns’ shells hitting the ground. The noise of the planes and guns was really frightening. This time no one was hurt, but now we realised it was for real. Before we could get out of the ditches, we were being urged on with shouts of ‘Move it’.

The Luftwaffe disturbed some of the Allied new arrivals on the first day of Shingle, but caused no significant damage due to their small numbers and the success of Allied Spitfire and Kittyhawk fighter patrols which accounted for seven enemy aircraft for the loss of three Allied. Thus, although the Germans had begun to move troops into blocking positions, and the Luftwaffe had been active, by noon the assaulting forces had reached Lucas’s initial beachhead line. British 2nd and 24th Guards Brigade were firmly lodged in the Padiglione Woods and patrols had reached the Campo di Carne flyover. It was a damp and exposed spot with a few farmhouses, but little else. ‘It gave me goose bumps’, says the 5ft 2in Corporal ‘Lofty’ Lovett of the North Staffordshires, ‘and it did not help when I was told that “Campo di Carne” translated to “Field of Flesh”. Here we were in the middle of God knows where, with precious little cover, waiting for something to happen. It was as still as could be, just the occasional boom of a German gun, or the noise of an aircraft, but otherwise quite quiet.’ Meanwhile, to Lovett’s right, 2nd Special Service Brigade had taken a position astride the Via Anziate two and a half miles north of a defensive line around Anzio-Nettuno created by the Rangers and 509th Parachute Battalion. The Americans had also occupied its soggy initial beachhead area with 7th Infantry Regiment on the left, 30th in the centre and 15th on the right, with patrols pushed forward to the Mussolini Canal where they prepared bridges for demolition to secure the flank.

Included in the invasion force into Anzio were 150 Carabinieri whose job it was to maintain public order in the towns after the landings. They were understandably extremely apprehensive at being part of a dangerous amphibious assault, but were relieved to walk ashore knowing that the Americans were already in control. Setting up a headquarters in a restaurant on the seafront, this armed police force, resplendent in their black uniforms, found that they had very little to do as the populations of Anzio and Nettuno had been evacuated. However, these native Italian speakers became extremely useful when refugees from elsewhere on the battlefield started to congregate in towns during the day. The first had started to arrive mid-morning, some carrying suitcases, children, and even family heirlooms. But there were others who had only too obviously run from their homes in a hurry, some without coats, and one or two still in nightclothes. A proportion of these were injured, their bruised and bloody bodies covered in a thick layer of dust. Many spoke of the dead that they had left behind. These people had lived with the war for years, but the violence had come with appalling suddenness on 22 January. Antonia Paolo who lived with her husband and four children on the edge of the Padiglione Woods recalls the experience:

Our farmhouse was sturdy, but not strong enough to stop the rockets. Only one hit our roof, but brought it down. Luckily nobody was hurt. The children were screaming and my husband grabbed them into his arms and carried them down into the cellar. We sat in the dark listening to the bombardment. It was the worst moment of my life and we prayed together. But it ended as quickly as it had started and within what seemed like minutes, a British officer who spoke fluent Italian was standing in our parlour apologising for the damage, and promising that somebody would be along soon to help us. My husband thought that they would help rebuild the roof and our demolished wall, but what he meant was that we would be escorted down to the port.

Once down at Anzio, the Paolo family were quickly put on an LCI with around twenty other families, and by evening were being administered to by the Allies in Naples. Some families left the danger area at the first opportunity, others as the battle spread, but many had to be prised from their homes or waited until the fighting was on their doorstep before electing to leave. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas witnessed one family which only fled once their house was under direct German fire: ‘The battle was a mere few hundred yards down the road’, he wrote, ‘and the bewildered civilians, clutching their bedding and a few battered suitcases, would stumble through the darkness, the noise and the shell-bursts to the dubious safety of the rear.’ Over the coming weeks a constant trickle of civilians asked to be taken to safety and at times it was a major task feeding and sheltering several hundred often frightened refugees. A church on the outskirts of Anzio was eventually used as an embarkation centre, although it was frequently overflowing with people, a significant number of whom were very young, very old or sick. Occasionally there was panic when a shell landed close by, and sometimes the evacuees had to wait several days before a ship could be found to take them to safety, but eventually 20,000 were taken to Naples.

The Mons Myth

Evaluation of British Effectiveness

Armies fight the way they have trained to fight. For a century, the British army trained for colonial war. The short duration of the Haldane reforms was not adequate to prepare the British army for continental warfare. Therefore, at Mons and Le Cateau II Corps attempted to fight colonial-warfare battles.

Due to lack of preparation, the BEF made grave errors at both the operational (army and corps) and tactical levels, the worst of which was ignorance of the enemy. The British were to engage the premier military force of the twentieth century, and should have been much more circumspect. By rights, the BEF should not have lived to tell the tale.

The BEF had to avoid casualties and fight only for a very good reason. Mons performed no useful operational purpose; it gave the Germans a day to close the distance with the BEF, and could have led to a disaster. During the retreat to Le Cateau the BEF failed to delay the Germans with rearguards. Combined with deficiencies in British staff work and traffic control, which by the morning of 26 August caused command and control to collapse, the German IV AK and HKK 2 were allowed to catch II Corps and force it to fight under extremely unfavourable circumstances. Motivated by the pounding it took at Le Cateau, II Corps finally got serious about retreating on the night of 26–27 August, and in two days of continuous movement broke contact.

BEF troop-leading was poor. The army and corps commanders did not issue clear, timely orders. Subordinate commanders did not understand the commander’s intent. Confused and uninformed battalion commanders failed to exercise their initiative.

There was no rhyme or reason to the distribution of forces for the defence at Mons and Le Cateau. The most exposed and most important sectors were weakly held. The salient north of Mons and the 5th Division right flank at Le Cateau were indefensible. The positions at Le Cateau offered the enemy covered and concealed avenues of approach and close-range firing positions. Most seriously, while the commander’s intent at Le Cateau was clearly to withdraw, most of the positions were on the forward slope, where withdrawal would lead to a massacre.

The British Cavalry Division was an operational liability. Before Mons it failed to perform its reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions. On 24 August it left the II Corps left flank floating in the air. In the retreat to Le Cateau it failed to delay HKK 2 and IV AK; indeed, the cavalry division could provide no useful information concerning enemy strengths or locations. At Le Cateau, citing exhaustion, it did nothing.

The artillery failed to effectively support the infantry. At Mons it was unable to provide fire support at all. During the withdrawal there were no artillery rearguards. At Le Cateau the British artillery was completely dominated by equal or inferior numbers of German guns and was generally unable to put fire on the German infantry. Indeed, it drew German fire onto its own infantry by setting up in their immediate vicinity.

Individual physical fitness was inadequate: many of the troops, particularly the reservists, were not marching fit. From 24 August on, British commanders began ordering their men to abandon equipment in order to ‘march light’. On 25 August the British infantry was outmarched and overtaken by infantry of IV AK and the Jäger of HKK 2.

‘Rapid rifle fire’ was not the battle-winning wonder weapon that British historians have made it out to be. Repeatedly German infantry, supported by artillery and MG fire, was able to cross hundreds of metres of open ground in the face of ‘rapid rifle fire’, close with the British infantry and throw it out of its position or destroy it in place. The idea that ‘rapid rifle fire’ was so effective that the Germans took it for MG fire finds no support in German sources.

German Military Effectiveness

German tactical doctrine and troop training proved themselves unequivocally in combat. The BEF escaped destruction at Mons and Le Cateau solely due to egregious errors by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff.

The organisation of HKK 2, combining cavalry, large numbers of machine guns, artillery and high-quality infantry, was a resounding success and HKK 2 performed superbly, in spite of Marwitz’s command failures at Haelen. It screened the strength and movements of the 1st and 2nd Armies so effectively that they gained operational surprise over the BEF and the French 5th Army. The operational mobility HKK 2 displayed on 24 and 25 August is nothing short of astounding. At Le Cateau HKK 2, though heavily outnumbered, delivered a stinging defeat to the British 4th Division and the 7th Brigade of the 3rd Division.

The Germans fought as a combined-arms team, which allowed them repeatedly to successfully execute one of the most difficult missions in modern warfare: hasty attack over open terrain against a deployed enemy. At Mons the German artillery provided effective fire support, often moving to within a few hundred metres of the British positions to do so. At Le Cateau the German artillery engaged, suppressed or destroyed the British artillery, which was generally unable to fire effectively on the German infantry. The massing of six MGs under a company commander allowed a concentration of fire at the decisive place and time. Artillery and MG fire support gave the German infantry fire superiority and allowed it to move across large stretches of exposed ground to close with the enemy. German engineers brought the infantry and artillery across obstacles and assisted the infantry in street fighting.

Day after day the German infantry marched hard. This operational mobility allowed it to appear where the enemy did not expect, and in force. German marches were well-organised: the troops always got some rest at night, even if it was a wet bivouac, and the field kitchens ensured that they got a hot meal.

At Mons the IV AK commander concentrated his Schwerpunkt, his main point of effort, against the weakest point in the British line, as did the 7th Division commander at Le Cateau. Tactical leaders of all grades were aggressive and exercised their initiative to utilise covered and concealed avenues of approach and firepower to close with the enemy.

Taken together, these factors produced superior combat power. At Mons all three engaged German corps were able to establish bridgeheads over the Canal du Centre at the cost of casualties that were little higher than those of the defenders. In two days of pursuit III AK caught up with I Corps and forced it to retreat away from II Corps, splitting the BEF in half, while IV AK and HKK 2 were able to overhaul II Corps and force it to fight. At Le Cateau the German troops, although significantly outnumbered, inflicted disproportional casualties on the British and drove them from their position.

Superior German operational mobility and tactical combat power was negated by unforced errors made by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff. The real culprit was Hermann von Kuhl, the chief of staff; for the army commander, Kluck, was not a General Staff officer and operational decisions were clearly Kuhl’s responsibility. All Kuhl had to do was make the obvious staff-school solution to the operational problems at hand and the BEF would have been destroyed. Instead, Kuhl was too clever by half.

Cavalry reconnaissance reports made it clear on 22 August that a large British force was west of Mons. Nevertheless, Kuhl retained the notion that the British would concentrate at Lille for so long that the 1st Army missed its chance to inflict a truly serious defeat on II Corps on 23 August.

The BEF was now in range, only a day’s march ahead of the 1st Army or even less. The only correct solution to the operational problem facing the 1st Army on 24–25 August was to continue the march south-west. With HKK 2 coming up on the right, there was every prospect of turning the BEF left flank and forcing the British to fight. Instead, Kuhl decided that on 25 August the British were withdrawing to Maubeuge and turned the entire 1st Army and HKK 2 south-east. This was the wrong solution. Even if the British were moving to Maubeuge, the correct solution would be to continue the march south-west to allow the 1st Army to conduct a deep envelopment of the Anglo-French left.

Kuhl had been one of Schlieffen’s star pupils, one of the officers closest to the old master strategist. Schlieffen had continually warned against shallow envelopments, which the enemy could avoid. Kuhl was breaking Schlieffen’s cardinal rule.

Throughout the campaign, Kuhl would display a consistent inability to make operationally sound decisions. His mistakes from 5–9 September would be the reason for the failure of the German campaign and the loss of the Battle of the Marne. He would offer the French the 1st Army’s unprotected right flank. He then disregarded orders to fall back and defend the German flank in favour of a pointless offensive which allowed the French to pry open the German front.

Had the 1st Army merely continued the march south-west on 25 August, it would not have required Hindenburg and Ludendorff to produce a western Tannenburg on 26 August. Three brigades of IV AK alone had inflicted a severe defeat on II Corps. Had III AK been attacking the II Corps right and IV AK the left, the British would have been facing eight brigades and the result would have been a British disaster. The British left was guarded only by Sordet’s cavalry and French Territorials: HKK 2 had already convincingly demonstrated an ability to summarily deal with these and advance rapidly into the British rear, turning disaster into catastrophe.

The destruction of II Corps would not have ended the war, as Tannenberg did not end the war with Russia. The German advance into France was going to run out of momentum and come to a halt on 5 September in any case. But the removal of three divisions would have been a serious blow to the British army.

The Significance of Mons and Le Cateau

The Mons Myth encourages soldiers, policymakers and citizens to believe that doctrine and years of tactical training are unimportant: war is simple and all that an army needs is patriotism, ‘field sports’, personal heroism and rifle marksmanship. Such a belief, widespread in the British army and British society before the First World War, resulted in the death or maiming of an entire generation of young Britons.

This is what happens when an army that has neglected doctrine and tactical training meets up with an army that made a religion of both. The denouement came at Le Cateau, where the German army showed that it knew how to attack a numerically superior enemy force and win.

Reaching such a pinnacle is complex and difficult. Most armies never do. It requires realistic doctrine, combined-arms cooperation, mobility, security and intelligence, troop-leading procedures, and individual initiative, all perfected in long, hard training. There must be an institutional commitment to tactical excellence. These qualities, developed in forty years of peacetime work, were the reasons for German success at Mons and Le Cateau.

1st Army Tank Brigade in France in 1940

Matilda II

This brigade was commanded by Brigadier Pratt and consisted of three Battalions: 4RTR, commanded by Lt-Col Fitzmaurice, 7RTR, Lt-Col Heyland and 8RTR which did not join the brigade due to shortage of tanks. The establishment of these battalions was 50 ‘I’ tanks, seven light tanks and eight (Bren gun) carriers. As the establishment assumed fifty 2-pdrs, it must have been assumed that the Matilda I’s would soon be replaced by Matilda II’s.

The first troopships of the BEF left for France on 9th September. The infantry divisions went first, then 4RTR. 7RTR was still awaiting its tanks. 4RTR was up to establishment, but only with Matilda I’s. It spent the winter at Domart, close to the Somme.

When the brigade was first deployed a study drawn up to consider its use concluded that, because the Matilda I’s lacked an AT gun, they could only be used to defend static AT guns against infantry assault. This should be in an anti-tank defence zone behind the front line.

The study’s conclusion was that until the Matilda II’s were issued, the contribution of the Army Tank Brigade was limited. This comment may be taken as something of a criticism of the general who drew up the specification for the Matilda I.

7RTR arrived in early May 1940. On 10th May the German offensive started. 7RTR had 27 Matilda I’s, 23 Matilda II’s, and seven light tanks. Some of the Matilda I’s had been upgunned to mount .5-in MGs.

The two battalions would have had no time to exercise together when, in response to the German attack, Plan ‘D’ was activated and the BEF trundled forward to take up its position on the Dyle. The tanks were sent by rail, admin vehicles by road, and arrived at the railhead at Halle during the night of 14th/15th May. Next night the brigade took up a position in the Forest of Soignies. This move of the BEF fell in with the German plans and they mounted a major attack in the Sedan area and crossed the Meuse on 13th May. Then, with seven panzer divisions, they surged due west towards the Channel.

The result was a long salient, 20 to 30 miles wide. On the map it was very vulnerable to an Allied counter-attack which, even if only partly successful, would have choked off supplies for the German tanks. The Germans were well aware of this and their infantry divisions were hard at work widening the breach. To make this counter-attack the 1st Army Tank Brigade was ordered to Tournai. The tanks should have been entrained at Enghien, but as a result of air attacks there were no trains available, so the tanks had to drive on their tracks, mostly at around 3 mph, the whole way.

British plans evolved at two levels. On the higher level the plan was to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the enemy salient and counter-attacks were proposed, a French one from the south and a British one from the north. However on a local level the plan was for a spoiling attack designed to interrupt German communications and assist the defence of Arras. Initially the plan was for two divisions to be involved, but circumstances whittled this down to one brigade, which could only put two battalions into the assault, and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The French attack was not a success, but even so the limited success of the British attack made a surprising impression on the German command and is a hint of what could have been achieved in slightly more favourable circumstances.

The attacking force was to be commanded by Major-General Martel who commanded the 50th Division which supplied the infantry component of one brigade. The force was organised into two columns, the term ‘battle groups’ was not yet current. Each column was a battalion of infantry and a battalion of tanks with artillery attached. 7RTR with 8DLI were the right, or western, column; 4RTR with 6DLI were the left, or eastern, column. The Tank Brigade having moved on its tracks around 120 miles since leaving the railhead, had lost a considerable number of tanks. It was down to 58 Matilda I’s and 16 Matilda II’s. To equalise firepower seven Madilda II’s, with crews, were lent by 7RTR to 4RTR.

The brigade was ordered to form up behind, north of, the Arras-Doullens road. This road ran roughly south-west from Arras and looked like a good start line on the map, but the Germans were already north of it, having troops on the Arras-Hesdin road, which ran west-north-west from Arras. It is not known why this information was apparently ignored, perhaps British staff procedures were still geared to trench warfare speed. Aerial reconnaissance also let the army down. This may be because the RAF was returning to England while this action was afoot.

The aim was for the two columns, which would be operating about two miles apart, to make a 180 degree sweep round the south of Arras, and finish up by taking up a position on the Scarpe to its east. The orders were passed on to the battalions at 7.30 am. Unfortunately it was not defined which of the two battalion commanders should command each column. This would cause problems not helped by the poor radio communications of the time. A French tank unit of around 60 tanks was to co-operate on the right flank, and the French insisted that the start line was changed to the Arras-Hesdin road. This was to be crossed at 2.0 pm. The tanks had to cover nearly eight miles to reach it. General Martel followed the attacking columns in a staff car but it does not appear that he was able to influence the course of the action. Also totally out of contact with the tanks was Brigadier Pratt. He was visited close to the start line by Brigadier Pope, who was the Adviser on Armoured Fighting Vehicles at HQ, BEF. Pope urged him forward to his brigade, but it is not obvious what he could have done when he got there. There was certainly no shortage of chiefs, but without radios they could achieve little.

Remarkably, one tank commander had not yet sloughed off his peacetime habits and halted at a level crossing barrier. Another tank, with a more resolute commander, rolled past him and smashed through it.

In the event the attack started half-an-hour late, and then not all the troops had closed up. Before crossing the start line the troops had to cover three miles and cross the Scarpe, where there were still bridges standing. Then they were in action.

It was a great misfortune that in the haste to get started there was no time for reconnaissance. Each column should have had a motorcycle platoon provided for short-range reconnaissance but the right hand column did not receive theirs. So they only found out about the enemy when they opened fire. This they did at the village of Duisans which was cleared by the DLI and some French tanks. The 8DLI continued on but were stopped by mortar fire before reaching the Arras-Doulens road. 7RTR marched on without them Soon after crossing the start line a troop of the right hand company (squadron) shot up a German AT unit in half-tracks. This unit must have been a flank guard for an infantry unit of the 7th Panzer Division or the SS Totenkopf division, for, as the rest of the battalion breasted a small rise they could see a large number of lorries full of infantry crossing their front to their right. The MGs on the tanks opened up, causing heavy casualties. The Germans got some 37-mm AT guns into action, but the shot bounced harmlessly off the thick armour of the Matildas of which one of the Mk IIs absorbed 14 hits with equinamity. Some of the German troops showed signs of panic.

German dive bombers were commendably quickly on the scene, and were effective against the infantry, but only destroyed two tanks. In one case bombs bursting close to a Matilda I turned it over, killing the commander, in another a light tank was blown into the air. Brigadier Pratt wrote that it was believed that it was actually blow 15 feet in the air!

4RTR fought its way through to Wancourt, causing havoc, but then it ran into the German field batteries, following their infantry. The result was tragic. The Colonel, who had been commanding from a light tank because of the better radio, was killed and around 20 tanks were knocked out. The adjutant led a charge that destroyed one battery, but there were others and he had to order the battalion to pull back.

Partly as a result of the tanks’ charge the infantry of 6DLI had been left well behind by 4RTR. They were slowed down by mopping up and collecting prisoners, and in terms of practical co-operation, had lost contact with the tanks.

7RTR had not only cast off from its infantry but took a different direction. It should have been making for Warlus, but swung towards Wailly. At this moment communications within the battalion failed. The Colonel dismounted from his light tank to try, by hand signals, to restore order and direction. He was killed by MG fire, as was his adjutant who bravely tried to carry on for him. 7RTR tanks rumbled into Wailly and Mercatel and caused great destruction, but by that time General Rommel, who commanded the 7th Panzer Division, had returned from the division’s spearhead to the west to direct the defence against the two tank battalions.

He set about deploying various artillery pieces, most notably some 88mm guns, to build up what was later termed a ‘pakfront’. If the tanks could not charge artillery and machine gun the crews they were helpless, not being able to fire high explosives, and the infantry could not tackle the German guns having been left far behind. 7RTR was forced to retreat.

This was really the end of the part played by the British tanks in this action. They pulled back over the Scarpe. There were only two Matilda IIs and 26 Matilda Is left. A small number of damaged tanks was salvaged, but the bulk had to be abandoned. Some German tanks joined in the fray, but found that their guns could not defeat the Matildas’ armour, whereas the 2-pdrs were very effective against German armour.

Fortunately the German follow-up was hindered, not only by the chaos of the battlefield but also by British infantry units holding villages, and AT guns that scored many successes against the German tanks. The Germans quickly learned not to charge AT batteries. They also learned that they would need thicker armour on their tanks and soon set about a program of bolting extra plates on the fronts of them.

This action is justly celebrated in the history of the RTR and is often stated as the cause of the halt order that allowed the BEF to escape at Dunkirk. That view might be something of an exaggeration but the action certainly made a significant impression of the German command. As Field Marshal von Rundstedt later commented: ‘A critical moment in the drive came just as my forces had reached the Channel. It was caused by a British counter-stroke southwards from Arras. For a short time, it was feared that the Panzer divisions would be cut off.’

It is no exaggeration to say that the 1st Army Tank Brigade was destroyed as a result of this action. After Arras, reorganised as a regiment, it carried out only small and unimportant actions until the last two surviving tanks were disabled by their crews at Dunkirk.

Avro Lancaster – Coastal Command

Designed as a back up in case Merlin production was interrupted, the 300 Hercules-powered Lancaster Mk.IIs built were dropped by Bomber Command in the interests of commonality in autumn 1944. Because of their better performance at lower altitudes many of them found their way to Coastal Command, operating alongside Liberators in the long range anti-submarine role.

Bulged bomb bay doors and ventral turret were removed to reduce drag and nose-mounted Yagi aerials formed part of the ASV equipment. Front turrets were faired over and provision was made for 4 fixed 20mm cannon in the nose, although only 2 were often carried. Some aircraft had their upper turrets removed to save weight and increase range.

Though the Lancaster is rightly associated in particular with Bomber Command, it was briefly a Coastal Command aircraft too during the war and served in peacetime. It would have added considerably to the ability of the Command to perform a number of its tasks, had it been made available in larger numbers and on a permanent basis. Here was an example of “Cinderella Service” treatment.

In 1940 the Avro Chief Designer Roy Chadwick and his team were working on a four-engine version of the Avro Manchester, two-engine bomber, which would be equipped with Rolls Royce Merlin engines. With the Merlin badly needed for Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, the Air Ministry did not encourage the project at first. Eventually, a request to go ahead with the design was made, with the stipulation that as many Manchester components as possible should be used.

The first flight of a prototype Lancaster took place on January 9 1941. On December 24 1941 No. 44 Squadron, based at Waddington, Lincolnshire, became the first squadron in Bomber Command to receive Lancasters. The earliest Lancaster participation in an operation occurred on March 3 1942 when four of the type from No. 44 Squadron laid mines in the Heligoland Bight between the mouth of the River Elbe and the Heligoland Islands.

Over 7,000 Lancasters were built and fifty-seven Bomber Command squadrons were equipped with them during the Second World War.

Today the Lancaster lives on most prominently in the shape of PA474, the aircraft operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from Coningsby, in varying guises.

Nearby, at the former Bomber Command airfield at East Kirkby, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre offers the chance to taxi in Lancaster NX611, “Just Jane”. There are hopes that this aircraft will fly again.

During the Second World War, Coastal Command made representations to be allocated Lancasters, but it was not until after hostilities had ended that Lancasters were formally added to the Command. During the war itself some Lancasters were loaned to Coastal Command, but the pressure to keep all of these outstanding aircraft focused on the bomber offensive was always very strong. The Lancaster represents one of the key instances where Coastal Command did not reach the top of the list of Air Ministry priorities.

Coldstream Guards 1700-1763

David Morier (1705?-70) Grenadiers, 1st and 3rd Regiments of Foot Guards and Coldstream Guards, 1751 c. 1751-60

Coldstream Guards

“Lieutenant Thomas George Southwell, Coldstream Guards”, Charles Jervas, 1739; National Army Museum NAM. 1964-02-5

The Coldstream Guards on Parade at Horse Guards, by John Chapman, c. 1755.

The War of the Spanish Succession, 1702–13

The War of the Spanish Succession began in 1702 and saw the British Army under John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, win a series of brilliant successes. The Regiment was not involved for the first six years of the main campaign in Europe, but nevertheless won a third Battle Honour – at Gibraltar.

In September 1704 a Composite Battalion, composed of 200 First Guards and 600 Coldstreamers, was sent first to Lisbon and then to Gibraltar. The Rock had been captured from the Spanish in July by a detachment of Marines under Admiral Sir George Rooke, but it was then closely besieged and reinforcements were called for. The Composite Battalion landed on 20 January 1705 and was involved in repelling several attacks; it then remained as part of the garrison until the siege was lifted in April 1705.

Meanwhile, on the mainland Marlborough won his ‘famous victory’ at Blenheim on 13 August 1704; the Regiment did not take part, but was well represented by its Colonel, General ‘Salamander’ Cutts, who led the crucial attack with his usual bravery.

The Regiment only became involved in 1708 when six companies were sent to Flanders as part of a Composite Battalion with the First Guards and took part in the Battle of Oudenarde on 11 July 1708, which became the fourth Battle Honour.

In April 1709 a further Coldstream detachment was sent to join the war, whereupon a Guards Brigade was formed, consisting of a First Guards battalion and a Coldstream battalion. On 11 September 1709 both these battalions took part in the Battle of Malplaquet; it was an exceptionally bloody contest and the Regiment’s losses were among the heaviest of the twenty battalions involved. They undoubtedly distinguished themselves and it became a well-deserved Battle Honour.

Thereafter the war petered out and when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713 the Regiment returned home in March for a welcome period of twenty-seven years of peace and home service.

The War of the Austrian Succession, 1740–1748

The peace was broken by the outbreak in 1740 of the War of the Austrian Succession. The origins are complex and the campaign only concerns us because the expeditionary force sent to the Continent in 1742 included a Guards Brigade consisting of the 1st Battalions of all three regiments of Foot Guards.

In 1743 King George II not only joined the army in Flanders but also assumed command. On 27 June 1743 he fought the Battle of Dettingen, well known as the last occasion on which a King of England personally led his troops into action. He led them, in fact, into a dangerous trap, carefully prepared by the French, and the situation was only saved by several gallant charges made by the cavalry, including, for the first time, a Household Cavalry Brigade.

The Guards Brigade formed the rearguard and so was not involved in the battle until the later stages. The French finally suffered a severe defeat, losing 5,000 men, and Dettingen became the Regiment’s sixth Battle Honour.

In 1745 the King handed over command to his 25-year-old son, The Duke of Cumberland, whose first action as a commander was the Battle of Fontenoy on 11 May 1745. Things did not go well and the Allied army was forced to make a frontal assault against the enemy centre, which involved an advance of half a mile across flat, open country under intense fire from their front and also from French strongpoints on both flanks.

The Guards Brigade was on the right of the leading line, with the regiments in their customary positions, that is the First Guards on the right, the Coldstream on the left and the Third Guards in the centre. The brigade was commanded by Colonel George Churchill, Coldstream Guards. With shouldered arms the three battalions marched steadily forward, despite the fierce fire from three sides. Finally, as they topped a slight ridge, now seriously reduced in numbers, they found, thirty yards in front of them, four complete battalions of French Guards, as yet unscathed.

It was the first time that the British and French Guards had met in battle and it was a dramatic confrontation. The French fired first, but to little effect. Then the Guards replied and their first volley laid low nineteen French officers and 600 men. Steadily they reloaded, firing in disciplined sequence six platoons at a time, so that the volleys never ceased. Finally the French gave way and the Guards advanced. But they did not receive any support and found themselves isolated; for three hours they had to hold their positions against both infantry and cavalry attacks, but finally were forced to withdraw, having lost around half their strength. It had been a bloody and bitter defeat, and was not allowed to count as a Battle Honour, though it was perhaps deserved.

The ‘Forty-Five’, 1745

July 1745 saw a new threat, this time at home, as the Scots rebelled in support of Charles Stuart, grandson of King James II, who was claiming the English Crown. The Guards Brigade in Flanders was hurriedly recalled, while in London the grenadier companies of the Guards battalions stationed there were formed into a scratch force for the defence of the capital.

The threat faded, however, and The Duke of Cumberland pursued the Jacobite Army back into Scotland, where they were crushed at the Battle Culloden on 16 April 1746. With Scotland subdued, he then returned in 1747 to the campaign in Flanders, taking with him a new Guards Brigade, composed this time of the 2nd Battalions of each Regiment. They did not, however, see any major action and returned home in 1748 when the war was ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

The Seven Years War, 1756–1763

The peace that followed lasted only eight years and in 1756 another campaign began, again against the French. The Foot Guards were not involved initially, but in 1758 the 1st Battalions of each Regiment were formed into a Guards Brigade and took part in several rather abortive raids on the French coast.

In 1760 another Guards Brigade, composed of the 2nd Battalion of each Regiment, was sent to Germany under the command of a Coldstreamer with the unusual name of Major General Julius Caesar. A year later the grenadier companies of each Regiment were formed into a composite Grenadier Battalion, which became the fourth battalion of the brigade, a practice that would continue over the next fifty years.

In 1763 the 2nd Battalion returned home, landing at Yarmouth, which meant that the Regiment had spent twenty-four out of the last sixty years fighting somewhere on the Continent. Its next campaign would be on the other side of the Atlantic.

Coldstream Guards 1940

When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the 1st Coldstream was training at Pirbright, while the 2nd Battalion was at Albuhera Barracks, Aldershot. The 3rd Battalion was in Egypt, serving in the Canal Brigade, and based in Mustapha Barracks, Alexandria.

The outbreak of war was greeted (in 1st and 2nd Coldstream) by some with relief, even celebration; war, long anticipated, was now a reality and provided a degree of certainty. Some felt that it would be like the manoeuvres that the Battalions had done during the summer. A feeling of inevitability prevailed, however, among the many sons of those who had fought the Germans only twenty years before. Orders to mobilize had arrived on 1 September and, within hours, Reservists joined both Battalions.

Mechanization of the Army at home was completed in 1938 and battalions (twenty-three officers and 753 men in four Rifle Companies) had the .303” Bren light machine-gun, ten lightly armoured Bren Carriers, and a 3” Mortar Platoon. Anti-tank defence was provided by the Boys .55” anti-tank rifle, regarded as infamous for its savage kick. Battalions were expected to march (they lacked troop transport) and were equipped only to company level with radio. Tactics were based on the mobile warfare of 1918 with some emphasis on positional defence. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was partly organized for a war of manoeuvre, but it lacked armour and all arms training.


The 2nd Battalion was in 1st Guards Brigade (with 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Hampshire Regiment, under Brigadier Merton Beckwith-Smith) in Major General the Hon Harold Alexander’s 1st ‘Strategic Reserve’ Division (I Corps). Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Bootle-Wilbraham, the Battalion moved to Southampton on 19 September and sailed for Cherbourg, continuing by rail (as in 1914) in ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’ trucks to Sillé-le-Guillaume (near Le Mans) then marching on pavé (cobbles) to Conlie and later Arras.

The 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Cazenove in 7th Guards Brigade (with 1st and 2nd Grenadiers, under Brigadier Sir John Whitaker, a Coldstreamer) was in Major General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division (II Corps) and arrived in Cherbourg on 30 September. They followed the same route, arriving near Roubaix on 12 October.

In 1938 plans had been made to deploy the BEF to Northern France which was unprotected by the much-vaunted Maginot Line. A few pillboxes and an incomplete anti-tank ditch existed along the border with neutral Belgium, and so the BEF had to construct a twenty-mile defensive line from Halluin (near Menin) to Maulde, south of Tournai.

The battalions spent the winter of 1939–40 constructing trenches, pillboxes and wire entanglements. The single battledress issued was inadequate for the cold and Guardsmen were mostly quartered in unheated barns. Little training was done in the Regular divisions, except 3rd Division where General Montgomery anticipated that battles would be fought on each river line. Bachy station platform was used for Adjutant’s Drill Parades by 2nd Coldstream, and in December His Majesty the King visited the Battalion on one of the coldest days of the winter. Efforts were made to maintain morale and concerts by George Formby, Gracie Fields and others were popular. Morale was high and the Guardsmen, despite the most arduous conditions, complained little during this ‘Phoney War’.

Lord Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, attended the Paris conference in November at which it was decided that if Belgian neutrality was violated the Allies would move forward sixty miles from the River Escaut to the River Dyle, east of Brussels. This – Plan ‘D’ – would shorten the Allied line, preserve Brussels, deny the Channel ports to Germany and might bring the Belgian Army on to the Allied side. No reconnaissance of Belgium was allowed, however, and the wisdom of moving forward was much debated.

In February 1940 the 2nd Battalion served in the Maginot Line near Lorry-lès-Metz and the companies were, for the first time, in sight of the enemy. Useful battle lessons were learned, particularly about dominating no-man’s-land. Some Guardsmen acquired ‘On ne passe pas’ Maginot badges; after Dunkirk many Coldstreamers felt that, unlike the Maginot defences, no one had passed them!

1st Battalion

The German invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May was followed by the advance into Belgium. 1st Coldstream moved to Vilvorde outside Brussels, then to Louvain and Herent, on the Mechelen-Louvain canal, where Coldstreamers first engaged German troops (14 May). An assault crossing in the Battalion area was repulsed next day, but during the action Lord Frederick Cambridge, commanding No 2 Company, was killed. The loss of this popular figure, the first Coldstream officer killed in the campaign, was a shock. The Battalion counter-attacked to the canal, but on 16 May the Germans crossed in the Belgian sector. Worse news followed; German tanks had broken through over the River Meuse eighty miles further south, outflanking the Maginot Line and threatening the BEF’s flank.

The 1st Battalion withdrew that night to the Escaut (temporarily beside the 2nd Battalion) and later into reserve. Refugees hindered movement and everyone witnessed terrible sights where civilians had been dive-bombed. On 22 May the 1st Battalion moved again to Wattrelos, east of Roubaix. The discipline and bearing of the Guardsmen on the march made a strong impression on many observers.

2nd Battalion

The 2nd Coldstream received news of the attack on 10 May at Pont-à-Marcq, south of Lille. The Battalion marched twenty-one miles to Tournai next day before being lifted to Brussels, but had to march a further twelve miles to Duisburg village, and later Leefdaal, on the Brussels-Louvain road. Similar scenes of refugees choking the roads and rumours of ‘Fifth Columnists’ were encountered. No.3 Company’s cookhouse in Leefdaal was bombed and the CQMS and a cook were killed, the first casualties suffered by the Battalion.

On 15 May, following the German crossing of the Dyle, the Battalion prepared to move amid order and counter-order. That night it withdrew, marching seventeen miles back to Zuun on the Brussels-Charleroi canal; two days later it completed another twenty miles to the Dendre at Ninove. The Commanding Officer commented that the Guardsmen marched well and were cheerful despite little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. The boots stood the test, but many felt that they had ‘slept on the march’. On 19 May 2nd Coldstream had to withdraw in daylight in contact, under shellfire, from its positions forward of the Dendre.

The twenty-seven miles to Pecq on the Escaut were completed mostly on foot, fortunately without air attack, and the Battalion arrived late on 20 May. The Escaut was “as wide as the Basingstoke canal”, but shallow; it gave Lord Gort the chance to deploy the BEF in the defence of a major obstacle, although he had troops committed around Arras, thirty-five miles to the south-west. The BEF defences ran for thirty-two miles with 1st Guards Brigade in the centre.

The Guardsmen were tired – “over everybody there was a heavy air of fatigue and depression” one Company Commander wrote – but two platoons per company immediately began to dig in along an 1800 yard frontage, overlooked by the Mont St Aubert feature, 430 feet high, less than two miles away. No 3 Company guarded the bridge, demolished that night (20/21 May), while No 1 Company was behind the canal bank. During the dark night it was realized that there was a gap between the Coldstream and 3rd Grenadiers on the right, and a limited re-deployment took place. The Royal Artillery shelled movement on the far bank, but before dawn German mortaring started and heavy shellfire later hit both Battalions.

A determined river crossing by 31st Infantry Division against the Coldstream-Grenadier boundary followed. Despite heavy fire, several German companies crossed and advanced towards the Pecq-Tournai road, digging in on rising ground (‘Poplar Ridge’). Attempts by Coldstream Bren carriers to support No 1 Company, forced out of position, were only partially successful, several carriers being lost to assault guns. The attack towards Pecq was halted.

The situation was unclear; communications were difficult. Brigadier Beckwith-Smith, the Brigade Commander, ordered the Commanding Officers to restore the situation as best they could. No 3 Company of the Grenadiers counter-attacked, but, when this faltered, Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls of the Grenadiers (Imperial Forces Heavyweight Boxing Champion) charged the positions on Poplar Ridge firing his Bren, destroying the machine guns and causing numerous casualties, despite several wounds. This superb act of gallantry wrested the initiative from the Germans and Lance Corporal Nicholls was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Coldstream re-established their forward positions and by nightfall reported their front clear of enemy. The Battalion had suffered thirty casualties (fifteen killed) including several officers and seniors. In 1st Guards Brigade sector a Corps river crossing had been defeated and only one small penetration had been made down the whole Escaut Line.

In the south, tanks from Panzer Gruppe von Kleist, the German main effort, reached the Channel late on 20/21 May. The BEF’s resolute defence of the Escaut caused General von Bock to switch the effort of Army Group B (a subsidiary to the attack in the south) to the Courtrai-Ypres axis, the BEF boundary with the Belgians, in order to outflank the Escaut position. A salient began to develop around Lille.

Lord Gort saw the trap and decided, despite Allied pressure, to save the BEF. After several confused meetings in Ypres on 22 May Lord Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to the ‘Gort Line’ constructed during the winter. This released divisions to attack south into Panzer Gruppe von Kleist (the offensive never materialized), to secure Dunkirk and to strengthen the northern flank with the Belgians.

The Dunkirk Perimeter. 1st and 2nd Battalions

The 2nd Battalion withdrew from Pecq on 22 May to ill-prepared positions near Leers (east of Roubaix) but it was well supplied from the Lille NAAFI. On the 27th the Commanding Officer announced that 1st Division was to move to the Dunkirk perimeter. The intention “to march 55 miles back to the coast” produced misgivings!

On 26 May 1st Coldstream received orders regarding evacuation from Dunkirk, but with Army Group B attacking the BEF flank near Menin, the Battalion moved to Roncq (south of Menin). The German VI Armee broke through 5th Division at Houthem (near Ypres) and the position was only restored by a determined attack by 3rd Grenadiers, whose defence prevented Army Group B encircling the BEF. The 1st Coldstream withdrew (28 May) over Messines Ridge to Reninge, on the Yser, twelve miles from Dunkirk, down roads clogged with French, British and Belgian troops. (Belgium surrendered on 28 May). The Yser was the last significant obstacle south of the Dunkirk perimeter. The Battalion moved to Furnes, destroying its transport and keeping only the fighting vehicles. Dunkirk lay under a pall of smoke.

During 30 May German pressure increased north of Furnes; their 56th Division attempted to cross the Bergues-Furnes canal. 1st Coldstream was ordered to relieve a battalion on the canal, but No.1 Company, reaching the position in the dark, found Germans on the near bank. An immediate counter-attack was mounted, but the situation remained confused. The Adjutant, Captain George Burns, took over No 1 Company and the Transport Officer No 3. At first light mortars and artillery opened fire and the crossing was defeated.

Pressure on 1st Coldstream increased on 31 May; the 3rd Division was ordered to embark that night and No 4 Company formed the Battalion rearguard. By 0300 hours the Guardsmen – and thousands of other troops – were on the beach at La Panne waiting for the tide. On 1 June 1st Coldstream, each man with his rifle and equipment, returned to England.

The 2nd Coldstream had also been moving on 27 May from Roubaix, past Ploegsteert and Kemmelberg, to Locre, between Ypres and Bailleul, where it rested after marching thirty-two miles, and a thunderstorm soaked everyone. The Battalion marched a further fifteen miles, passing chaos in Poperinghe, to the Bergues-Furnes canal (with only a few miles in transport) before setting about the defence of a wide frontage astride a main route into the Dunkirk Perimeter. By late on 29 May 2nd Coldstream was dug in, but its strength was only 200 men. A detachment, 120 strong, later rejoined the Battalion from Houthem (near Hondschoote).

Troops, including wounded, straggled across the bridges all day, only ambulances being allowed to drive across. Two platoons of the Welsh Guards “marched across in formation, looking like Guardsmen and remarkably … well turned out compared with the rabble which was shuffling along the roads. It did us good to see them,” wrote the Commanding Officer. On the 30th the Coldstream was ordered to form the rearguard for the BEF, fighting until receiving orders to evacuate. Rations were scanty and ammunition short.

Shelling increased, but it was not until 1 June that the position became precarious. German tanks crossed the canal, forcing No 1 Company back onto No 3, both Company Commanders being killed; but the Battalion held on, before withdrawing to the beaches that night. The Guardsmen spent 2 June hiding from Stukas in dunes near Dunkirk until evening before leaving in various craft. Colonel Bootle-Wilbraham (now commanding the Brigade) and Major W.S. (‘Bunty’) Stewart Brown, Acting Commanding Officer, were picked up by HMS Sabre. No Coldstreamer was allowed to board without his weapon; but once aboard, cocoa was served in galvanized buckets, and most Guardsmen slept until reaching Dover.

The achievements of the Royal Navy and the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk are well known. Dispersion to Reception Areas was another feat of improvisation; 545 trains were used to move the 338,226 men evacuated. Hundreds of volunteers produced tea and sandwiches. The 1st Battalion re-assembled at Aldershot, while the 2nd collected at Walton, near Wakefield. Reorganization and training against an invasion was the priority.

The recovery of the BEF was a major success, but it was not a victory. Almost all heavy equipment was lost: over 84,400 vehicles were abandoned, including 98% of the tanks. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since 10 May, inspired the nation, but stated that “wars are not won by evacuations”. Britain had, however, recovered a third of a million trained Servicemen, and Dunkirk veterans went on to fight in every theatre of war. “Being evacuated,” wrote one, “was the start of the road back.”

The War Office Report later concluded that “without question the British soldier is at least as good as the German,” but it was clear how ill-equipped the BEF had been for the campaign. The BEF and RAF had gained valuable experience, but there was much to learn.

Months later the 1st Battalion Commanding Officer’s Bunting, battle-scarred and bloodied, arrived at Regimental Headquarters from HMS Winchelsea which had carried Colonel Cazenove back from the beaches. It now hangs in the 1st Battalion Sergeants’ Mess, a symbol of the Coldstreamers who maintained traditional standards and discipline under very difficult circumstances during the Dunkirk campaign.