Dargai Heights, 20 October 1897 Part I

For a century the tangled mountains of the North-West Frontier of India provided the British and Indian Armies with a school for soldiers, a hard, unforgiving school in which mistakes cost lives and, above all, a school in which the only certainly was the unexpected. Prominent among the frontier tribes were the Afridi, of whom it was said that robbery, murder, treachery and merciless blood feuds were the very breath of life. The same, to varying degrees, might have been said of all the tribes along the frontier, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Orakzai, Mohmands and Yusufzai. Masters of the ambush and guerrilla war, they fought constantly among themselves and regularly against the British, who could provide much dangerous sport when there was nothing more pressing to occupy their minds. Sometimes a serious incident would require the despatch of a punitive expedition which would fight its way into the tribal territory and destroy the offending villages. In due course, after they had had enough of fighting, the tribesmen would let it be known that they were willing to submit. A ‘jirga’ or council would be held, attended by the tribal headmen and the senior British military and political officers. A fine would be imposed, the troops would leave and all would remain quiet for a while. Then, in a few years’ time, the whole process would be repeated. Such events, however, tended to be local in character and it was unusual for large areas of the Frontier to be affected simultaneously.

Yet, the frontier tribes had another side to their character. Hospitality, for example, was regarded as a sacred trust. Devious with each other, they would react honestly if dealt with the same way. It could take years to win their trust, but once earned it could result in friendship for life. Many enlisted in regiments of the Indian Army and, having served their time loyally, would return home with their pensions and a mellower impression of the British Raj. Against this, the tribes were to a man devout Muslims to whom the killing of infidel Christians and Hindus was entirely impersonal and certainly no matter for conscience searching.

At the beginning of 1897, while those at home were preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Frontier was quiet, although the term was relative, and seemed likely to remain so. In July, however, it suddenly exploded in revolt along its entire length, presenting the authorities with the most formidable challenge they had ever faced, or were likely to again.

There was only one cause capable of uniting tribes normally at each other’s throats, and that was militant Islamic fundamentalism. Fanatical clergy were at work, notably the Mullah of Haddah among the Mohmands, the Mullah Powindah in Waziristan, the Mullah Sayid Akhbar in the Khyber region, and especially the Mullah Sadullah of Swat, known to the British as the Mad Fakir. Eyes blazing with fervour, Sadullah travelled from village to village preaching ‘jihad’ (holy war) against the infidel, accompanied by a thirteen-year-old boy whom he claimed was the last surviving heir of the Great Moghuls and would soon ascend the throne of his ancestors in Delhi. The situation was aggravated by Abdur Rahman, King of Afghanistan, who had recently produced a tract praising the concept of jihad and, displeased with the results of a recent frontier demarkation, urged the mullahs to drive the infidels from their land, although he had no intention of taking the field himself. Perhaps these factors would not on their own have been sufficient to provoke a general rising, but also present on the Frontier were agents of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey, determined to make trouble for the British in revenge for a humiliating diplomatic snub he had received at their hands. The line taken by these agents was to hint that Great Britain had been seriously weakened by its quarrel with the Sultan, and since the truth of this would not suffice, lies would do just as well. The Suez Canal and Aden were now in Turkish hands, they claimed, so that whereas reinforcements from the United Kingdom would normally take three weeks to reach India, they would now take six months; and, that being the case, the jihad would be over long before they could arrive. Being simple people with a limited knowledge of geography and no means of verifying the truth, the tribesmen accepted what they were told and were much encouraged.

The fuze which actually detonated the explosion had been in place since the previous year when a government clerk, a Hindu, was murdered in northern Waziristan. As the culprit was never brought to justice a fine of 2,000 rupees was imposed on the area. One village, Maizar, refused to pay its share and on 10 May 1897 the political agent, Mr Gee, arrived there to settle the dispute, accompanied by a military escort of some 300 men. The troops were offered hospitality to lull them into a false sense of security, then were treacherously attacked by over 1,000 tribesmen. After all three British officers had received mortal wounds the Indian officers took charge and embarked on a difficult fighting withdrawal from the village, despatching several cavalrymen to summon reinforcements. These reached the force during the evening, having covered nine miles in 90 minutes, and enabled it to break contact. Losses among the Indian soldiers amounted to 23 officers and men killed, and a large number of wounded; it was estimated that about 100 of their attackers were killed.

During the weeks that followed the rising spread like wildfire along the Frontier, the garrisons of fortified posts having to fight desperately for their lives against an enemy who, inflamed with religious fervour, launched repeated attacks regardless of losses. At the end of August disaster struck. The forts guarding the Khyber Pass were held by an irregular and locally raised unit known as the Khyber Rifles, officered entirely by Afridis. Raised after the Second Afghan War, they had given good service in the past but had become seriously unsettled by the mullahs’ propaganda. On 23 August the rebels closed in around the forts. That at Ali Musjid was simply abandoned, while the garrison at Fort Maude offered only a token resistance before falling back on a relief column from Fort Jamrud. Next day it was the turn of Landi Kotal, which resisted successfully for 24 hours before treacherous elements opened the gates; some of the garrison joined the rebels, some were allowed to leave after handing over their weapons, but others, remaining true to their salt, managed to fight their way through to Jamrud. Control of the pass, the vital communications route between India and Afghanistan, was not regained until December. Such was the fury of the tribal assault that those holding the smaller posts stood little or no chance of survival.

On 12 September the heliograph station at Saragarhi, midway between Forts Gulistan and Lockhart, covering the important Samana Ridge to the south of the Khyber and held by the 36th Sikhs, was attacked overwhelming strength. The garrison, consisting of twenty men under Havildar Ishan Singh, beat off two frenzied attacks during the morning, strewing the surrounding rocks with bodies. However, some of the Afridis, taking advantage of an area of dead ground, began picking away at the brick wall until part of it collapsed, creating a breach. The Sikhs ran from their fire positions to repel the renewed assault but were too few in number and in ferocious hand to hand fighting were forced back into their barrack block, where they fought to the last man. One sepoy, barricading himself in the guard room, shot down or bayoneted twenty of his assailants before perishing in the flames of the burning building; another, one of the post’s signallers, remained in heliograph contact with Fort Lockhart until the end. Jubilant, the Afridis swarmed to join their comrades who had invested Fort Gulistan that morning. Held in much greater strength, this proved to be a tougher nut to crack and, despite casualties, was still holding three days later when the tribesmen, flayed by the shellfire of a relief column advancing from Fort Lockhart, abandoned the siege and dispersed into the hills. Thanks to the 36th Sikhs, the Samana Ridge forts remained in British hands and in recognition of the fact the regiment was awarded the unique battle honour ‘Samana’.

Such desperate actions as these marked the high water mark of the rising, although months of fierce fighting lay ahead before the Frontier was pacified. The government of India had been taken aback by the sheer scale and ferocity of the revolt but reacted by despatching strong punitive columns to Malakand and against the Wazirs, Mohmands, Afridis and Orakzais. Considerations of space inhibit describing even the more important actions save one, that fought by the 1st Gordon Highlanders at Dargai, which has passed into the legends of Frontier warfare.

A contemporary general inspection report describes the battalion as being ‘A particularly fine one. The officers as a body are an exceptionally nice set; the warrant officers and NCOs seem to be very efficient, and the privates have an admirable physique.’ Like every good unit, the Gordons reflected the personality of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Mathias, whose bullet head, determined jaw, bristling moustache and level blue eyes indicated a no-nonsense, instinctive fighter. In many ways Mathias was a commander well ahead of his time, paying attention not only to the more obvious aspects of his profession but also to the physical condition of his men and their morale. In 1896 the battalion won the Queen’s Cup for shooting and it was regarded as having the best signallers of any British regiment in India. Field exercises took place regularly, one advanced feature being the instruction of NCOs in military sketching, in those days an essential element in reconnaissance, usually taught only to officers. Mathias kept his men fit with a programme of athletics, hill-racing and football, contests being held between companies and against neighbouring units. There were also regimental concert parties and other activities to combat the boredom of cantonment life. The impression given is that the 1st Gordon Highlanders was a highly trained, efficient battalion, entirely at ease with itself and held in high regard; it was, too, an experienced battalion, having taken part in the Chitral Expedition of 1895.

In April 1897 the Gordons, based at Rawalpindi on the Punjab side of the North-West Frontier Province boundary, moved up to their hot weather station in the Murree Hills, expecting to remain there throughout the summer. At the beginning of August, however, in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Frontier, it returned to Rawalpindi whence it was immediately despatched to Jamrud. Here it formed part of a force that prevented the rebels advancing further along the Khyber.

By October the British counter-measures had begun to take effect. Nevertheless, it was appreciated that the tribes would not submit until the war was carried onto their own territory and it was decided to advance deep into the Tirah region. In this area it was estimated that together the Afridis and Orakzais could field between 40-50,000 men and for this reason the Tirah Field Force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, was the largest punitive expedition ever assembled on the Frontier. It consisted of two divisions (the 1st under Major-General W. P. Symons and the 2nd under Major-General A. G. Yeatman-Biggs), two flanking columns, a strong lines of communication element and a reserve brigade. Altogether, 11,892 British and 22,614 Indian troops were involved, accompanied by almost 20,000 followers who performed menial but essential tasks; there were also 8,000 horses, 1,440 ponies for the sick and wounded, over 18,000 mules and an enormous number of camels, carts and baggage ponies. Lockhart’s plan was to concentrate at Kohat and enter Tirah from the south by crossing the Samana Ridge at a pass west of Fort Gulistan. He would then force two more passes which would bring him to his ultimate objective, the Tirah Maidan, a wide fertile valley upon which the surrounding tribes relied for subsistence, rarely if ever visited by Europeans before.

Together with the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, the 15th Sikhs and the lst/2nd Gurkhas, the Gordons constituted Brigadier-General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade, which formed part of the 2nd Division. The Tirah Field Force left Kohat on 7 October, its route taking it past the now deserted ruins of Saragarhi signal station. By 15 October, marching by easy stages, it had reached Shinawari, but beyond this point progress across the Samana Ridge was blocked by a substantial force of tribesmen holding the village of Dargai, located at the summit of a towering spur that dominated the only road. The crest was lined with sangars, while the rocks themselves contained numerous fissures that provided natural rifle pits. Immediately below the village were precipitous cliffs, broken here and there by goat paths, and below these was a steeply sloping open space several hundred yards wide, forming a glacis that could be swept by fire from above. An attacker who succeeded in crossing this would then find his further upward progress restricted to goat paths or funnelled into the narrowing approach to the village itself, where he could be picked off with ease. Nature, therefore, had endowed Dargai with better defences than many a purpose-built fortress.

Lockhart had only the 2nd Division in hand, the 1st Division still being on the march some sixteen miles short of Shinawari. He nonetheless decided that the former would take Dargai at once, conduct of the operation being entrusted to Lieutenant-General Sir Power Palmer, normally responsible for the force’s lines of communication, as Yeatman-Biggs was ill. Palmer’s plan was for Brigadier R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade to mount a frontal attack on the village, covered by two mountain batteries, while Kempster’s 3rd Brigade made a wide detour to the west, threatening the defenders’ right flank and rear.

The troops moved off during the early hours of 18 October. The route of Kempster’s brigade, which Palmer accompanied, took it up a dry watercourse that had its source near the western summit of the spur. The higher they climbed, the rougher became the going, the narrower the stream bed, the larger the boulders and the steeper the slope. After five miles had been covered the Gurkhas, in the lead, gave the appearance of flies walking up a wall. A point had now been reached at which the mules were unable to cope with the precipitous going and Palmer decided to send back his guns and the field hospital, escorted by the Dorsets and part of the 15th Sikhs. The Gordons, bringing up the rear, had perforce to halt and let them through. From about 09:00 onwards the steady thumping of guns indicated that the mountain batteries were engaged in their preliminary bombardment of Dargai.

At about 11:00 heliograph contact was established with Westmacott’s brigade, which was making slow but steady progress, often in single file, up the direct route towards the village. By noon the Gordons, after a stiff two-hour scramble, had joined lst/2nd Gurkhas and 15th Sikhs on the slopes above the source of the watercourse, attracting sporadic long range fire. The coordination between the two brigades had been excellent, for Westmacott’s battalions were now in position to launch their assault. Under a hail of fire from above, the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers and lst/3rd Gurkhas swarmed across the open slope and up the goat tracks to the village. The tribesmen hastily abandoned their positions and fled, sped on their way by a few long range volleys from Kempster’s men. The capture of Dargai had been a model operation, costing the Borderers only six casualties and the Gurkhas thirteen. Undoubtedly, the enemy’s resistance would have been far stiffer had not Kempster’s brigade threatened their rear, always a sensitive area in tribal warfare.

By mid-afternoon both brigades had been concentrated at Dargai. For the reasons quoted below, Palmer decided to abandon the position, despite the fact that two large groups of tribesmen, one estimated to be over 4,000 strong, could be seen converging on the spur from their camps in the Khanki Valley. Westmacott’s brigade, less two companies of Borderers, led off first. Between 16:00 and 17:00, with the sun falling towards the western skyline, Kempster’s brigade prepared to follow, covered initially by the 15th Sikhs. They, in turn, were covered by the Gordons and the two Borderer companies as they disengaged and passed through. By now the tribesmen, having reoccupied the sangars along the crest, were directing an increasingly heavy fire at those on the open slope below the cliffs, making the officers their special target. Major Jennings Bramly was killed and Lieutenant Pears was wounded; Second Lieutenant Young had his helmet shot off; and Lieutenant Dalrymple Hay, feeling blood running down his cheek, discovered that it had been grazed by a bullet.

When the moment came, Colonel Mathias released the Borderers then ordered three of his own five companies back into fresh fire positions from which they could support the withdrawal of the remaining two. One of the latter had succeeded in disengaging, as had half of Captain F. W. Kerr’s company, when a body of the enemy broke cover some 30 yards distant, fired a ragged volley and charged the small group remaining. Six of them were dropped almost at bayonet point, four of them falling to Private W. Rennie, and the rest made off when they were engaged by Captain Miller Wallnutt’s company from its new fire position. While this was taking place Lieutenant Young, Surgeon-Captain Gerrard and Colour Sergeant Craib, went out and rescued a wounded man who was in immediate danger of being hacked to death.

Darkness put an end to the fighting. In addition to the casualties mentioned above, the Gordons had sustained another man killed and seven wounded. Dead and wounded alike were carried down the rough two-mile track to the road, on reaching which the battalion formed up and marched the six miles back to the camp at Shinawari.

The reasons given by Palmer for abandoning Dargai include the following:

1. The 2nd Division was not strong enough to hold the position, guard Shinawari camp and maintain communications between the two.

2. There was no water supply between Dargai and Shinawari, and no supply of firewood at Dargai.

3. The continued occupation of Dargai would have revealed the proposed axis of advance into tribal territory, which was not desirable.

4. The 1st Division was still a day’s march short of Shinawari.

The reader might agree that some of these look extremely thin, while others might be regarded as excellent reasons for not having mounted the operation in the first place. As it was, the Orakzais could claim to have repulsed a British attempt to capture the position, and at this stage of the revolt the mere suggestion of a tribal victory was the last thing that was wanted. Nevertheless, for the better part of the next day Lockhart, lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of the 1st Division, refused to accept the reality of the situation, expressing the opinion that the continued work of improvement on the road, protected as it was by strong covering parties, would in itself deter the enemy from re-occupying Dargai. However, when he was informed that evening that Dargai Heights were now held by an estimated 12,000 Afridi and Orakzai, he reacted with commendable speed. Because it knew the ground, the 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 1st Division, would again clear the spur. This time, there would be no subtlety of manoeuvre against the enemy’s flank and rear; what he intended was a straightforward frontal attack in strength, supported by the fire of the divisional artillery, supplemented by an additional battery. At this point personalities began to have a bearing on subsequent events. Lockhart detested Westmacott, and decided that Kempster, whom he merely disliked, would deliver the assault, under the control of Yeatman-Biggs, who had returned to duty.

When the troops, having been briefed on the operation, marched out of camp at 04:30 on 20 October, their muttered opinion of the generals was ripe, to say the least. No doubt Kempster,1 whom they loathed, received the lion’s share of the blame, which in this case was a little unfair as the decisions had not been his.

By 10:00 the guns were pounding the summit, which the Gordons also brought under long range rifle fire. The enemy, secure in their sangars and rocky clefts, were little affected by this; they had, moreover, strengthened their defences and from one point they were also able to direct a crossfire across the all-important open slope below the cliff. Thus, when the 1st/2nd Gurkhas rose to attack, the entire summit erupted in a wild storm of fire. Under the impact of thousands of bullets the dusty surface of the slope was churned into a dust cloud in which it seemed nothing could live. Gurkhas could be seen falling and their casualties strewed the ground. Despite this, three companies reached the cover of a rocky shelf approximately halfway across, but further progress was impossible. Worse still, every attempt by their comrades to reach them resulted in more men shot down. Jubilant, the tribesmen began waving their flags, beating drums and shouting defiance.

Kempster ordered the 1st Dorsets to make the attempt. A few managed to sprint across the fatal 150 yards to the safety of the ledge, but as a whole the battalion was stopped in its tracks. It was then the turn of the 2nd Derbyshire Regiment,2 but they fared no better. As each attack failed the frenzy of the tribesmen reached higher levels of exultation.


Dargai Heights, 20 October 1897 Part II

It was now mid-afternoon and, despite the carpet of dead, dying and wounded covering the lower half of the slope, Dargai Heights still remained firmly in enemy hands. The crisis of the battle having been reached, Yeatman-Biggs ordered Kempster to commit the Gordons and the 3rd Sikhs, his last reserves. The latter were providing an escort for the guns on a lower spur and had to await relief by a Jhind state infantry battalion, but the Gordons moved off at once.

As they clambered up the narrow path they were not encouraged by the steady stream of dead and wounded being carried past in the opposite direction. At length they formed up in dead ground screened by some low scrub at the lower edge of the slope. Nearby, grim-faced Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas lay firing at the enemy, now capering among the rocks and yelling derisive insults.

It is a matter of record that Highland infantry, heirs to a long and violent history in which the carrying of arms and settlement of disputes by force was usual, have always launched their attacks with a unique speed and a berserk ferocity that was very difficult and often impossible to stop. Colonel Mathias knew how best to awaken these qualities in his men and, having been told that his assault would be preceded by three minutes’

concentrated artillery fire on the summit, he used the interval to address them very briefly, his voice cutting like a whiplash through the sounds of gunfire, musketry, savage drumming and yells:

The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it!’

There was a moment’s silence. The men knew the terrible risks involved, but the Colonel had given his word on their behalf and not one of them would let him down.

‘Aye!’ It was a spontaneous roar from 600 throats.

‘Officers and pipers to the fore!’

It was now, as the sun glinted on the officers’ drawn broadswords and the Pipe Major took his place, throwing his plaid and drones across his shoulder with infinite swagger, that the inherited instincts of countless bloody if long-forgotten clan battles began to surface, causing the scalp to crawl and the hackles to rise. Like their forebears of old, they, led by their chief men and pipers, were going out to meet the enemy, steel to steel. Suddenly, the supporting gunfire ceased.

‘Bugler – sound Advance!’

Like a tidal wave the Gordons poured out of cover and onto the deadly open slopes. The pipers struck up the regimental march, The Cock o’ the North,3 a fine ranting tune that skirled across the hillside, evoking a response from every man present. Yelling, the entire battalion swept upwards. Mathias, still up with the leaders, had unleashed the full fury of his Gordons and knew that they would give the shortest shrift to anyone who got in their way.

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the battalion caught the enemy unawares. If so, the respite was only of seconds’ duration. Once again, the crest blazed with fire and, once again, the dust was stirred into a fine mist by the pelting hail of bullets. And now the Gordons began to go down. Lieutenant Lamont was killed outright at the head of his men. Major Macbean, shot through the thigh, crawled to a boulder and continued to cheer on the assault. Lieutenant Dingwall, hit in four places and unable to move, was carried to safety by Private Lawson, who then returned to bring in the wounded Private Macmillan, being hit twice while doing so. The pipers, who could neither run nor take cover and still play, continued to walk upright and thus became a special target for the enemy. Lance-Corporal Milne, among the first to set foot on the slope, continued to march upwards until shot through the chest. Piper George Findlater suddenly felt his feet knocked from under him by a sharp blow. Sitting up, he discovered that he had been shot through both ankles but, disregarding alike the enemy’s fire, the pain and the fear that he might never walk normally again, he continued to play his comrades into action. Mathias was hit but kept moving. Major Downman got a bullet through his helmet. Other men felt rounds twitching at their kilts and tunics. Major Macbean, reaching for his water bottle after the assault had passed by, found it empty save for the bullet responsible for draining the contents.

It took less than two minutes for the leading companies to reach the ledge where the Gurkhas were sheltering, although it seemed far longer. There they paused briefly to get their breath back while the others closed up. Then, with a wave of the broadsword and a sharp shout of ‘Come!’ the officers led a second rush across the ledge to the foot of the escarpment. This time the Gordons were accompanied by kukri-wielding Gurkhas, keen to exact payment for the long hours they had spent pinned down. Another pause, and then the Gordons were scrambling up the goat paths towards the summit. Already the enemy’s triumphant drumming had stopped and his firing become ragged. Instinctively the tribesmen understood that the green-kilted soldiers could not be stopped and, recognising the murder in their attackers’ eyes, they began shredding away. Those with a mind to stay quickly changed it when, far below, they saw the 3rd Sikhs crossing the open slope, big, bearded, turbaned men coming steadily on behind a line of levelled bayonets. There were, too, large numbers of Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas who, inspired by the Gordons’ assault, were rushing forward to join in the attack.

Thus, when the Gordons finally reached the summit, they found the sangars contained only a handful of dead and wounded. The reverse slopes of the spur, however, were black with the running figures of thousands of tribesmen, into whom a rapid fire was opened, sending many tumbling among the rocks.

Mathias, out of breath and bleeding, reached the summit alongside Colour Sergeant Mackie.

‘Stiff climb, eh, Mackie?’ he remarked. ‘I’m not quite so young as I was, you know.’

‘Och, never you mind, sir,’ replied the colour sergeant, slapping his commanding officer on the back with a familiarity justified by events, ‘Ye were goin’ verra strong for an auld man!’ If the compliment was unintentionally back-handed, the admiration was genuine, as Mathias found when his Gordons, now laughing and joking, gathered round to give him three cheers.

Yeatman-Biggs was determined that the tribesmen would not be given a second chance to reoccupy the heights and detailed the Gurkhas and the Dorsets to hold them. The Gordons volunteered to carry down their wounded, an act of kindness that was greatly appreciated. Afterwards, as they marched to their own bivouac, each regiment they passed broke into spontaneous cheering, officers and men pressing forward to shake their hands and offer their water bottles, a small gesture but a very generous one considering that no further supplies could be obtained until the following day.

As the Widow of Windsor’s parties went, the second capture of Dargai Heights was small in scale but it was as bitterly contested as any. The cost was three officers and 33 other ranks killed and twelve officers and 147 other ranks wounded, the majority of these casualties being incurred on the lowest 150 yards of the open slope. The Gordons’ share amounted to one officer and six other ranks killed and six officers and 31 other ranks wounded. In the circumstances this was little short of astonishing but can be attributed to the speed with which the attack was delivered across the most exposed portion of the open slope, this being cited in later tactical manuals.

Mathias was to receive many congratulatory telegrams on behalf of his battalion; from the Queen and from the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, from the Gordons’ 2nd Battalion, from the regiment’s friendly rivals the Black Watch, and from Caledonian societies all over the world, including the United States.

Yeatman-Biggs recommended that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, Piper Findlater and Private Lawson. In Mathias’ case the supreme award was denied, thanks to an incredibly priggish decision by the War Office that neither general officers nor battalion commanders were eligible for the Cross, presumably because they were doing nothing less than their duty.4 Queen Victoria made her own feelings known in no uncertain manner by promptly appointing him as one of her aides de camp with the rank of colonel, although he continued to command the battalion until its return to Scotland the following year. Piper Findlater5 and Private Lawson received the award in the field. In addition, Colour Sergeants J. Mackie and T. Craib, Sergeants F. Ritchie, D. Mathers, J. Donaldson and J. Mackay, and Lance-Corporal (Piper) G. Milne were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the last mentioned being decorated personally by the Queen when he was invalided home.6

The Tirah Field Force fought many more battles as it penetrated deeper into tribal territory, but none was as fiercely contested or as critical as Dargai. Early in November it reached its objective, the Tirah Maidan, a beautiful, fertile valley one hundred square miles in extent, flanked by pine-clad slopes and dotted with copses. There were numerous houses, each of which, significantly, was fortified against its neighbours. In the storerooms were piled high the fruits of the recent harvest – Indian corn, beans, barley, honey, potatoes, walnuts and onions. The entire valley was deserted, the inhabitants having taken their families with them into the hills. Lockhart despatched columns into every corner of the Tirah, where the resistance encountered clearly indicated that the tribes had no intention of submitting. Reluctantly, he decided that if they would not talk he would begin laying waste the valley. The troops, many of whom came from farming stock, did not enjoy the work, but the sight of groves being felled and columns of smoke rising from burning buildings produced the desired result. With the exception of the ungovernable Zakha Khel, who did not submit until the following April, the tribes sent in their leaders to a jirga where they accepted their punishment: they would give up 800 serviceable rifles, pay a fine of 50,000 rupees and return all the property they had stolen during the rising. On 7 December, with the worst of the winter snows approaching, the evacuation of the Tirah Maidan began. The withdrawal of the 1st Division was comparatively uneventful, but that of the 2nd Division was subject to constant ambushes and attacks that inflicted 164 casualties and were obviously not the work of the Zakha Khel alone. Nevertheless, so thoroughly had the rising been put down that during the next twenty years only five major punitive expeditions were required to police troublesome areas, and never again was fighting so widespread along the Frontier.

It would be absurd to suggest that any love was lost between the British and the tribes, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and during both World Wars thousands of the latter volunteered for service with the Crown. There was even a sense of loss when the British left India, for now no one remained for their young men to prove themselves against, even their hereditary Hindu enemies having been removed far to the south of them by the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Yet the world was to hear of them again, for when the Soviet Union launched its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 the Frontier again became an arsenal and huge numbers crossed to fight alongside their co-religious kindred in the Mujahideen. For all its size, the Soviet Army was unable to cope. In the end, therefore, the mullahs’ promise of a successful jihad had been fulfilled, albeit a century after it was made and against a very different kind of infidel.


1. Kempster had an unfortunate personality and was so unpopular throughout the Tirah Field Force that its members coined the verb ‘to be kempstered,’ that is, generally mucked about. For all that, he was a capable enough officer in action.

2. Later the Sherwoood Foresters.

3. The Cock o’ the North was the nickname of the Duke of Gordon who had raised the regiment 104 years earlier.

4. At the time the Victoria Cross warrant also incorporated a clause to the effect that in the event of subsequent ‘scandalous conduct’ the award would be forfeit. This rarely happened but when it did there was an understandable public outcry in protest. King Edward VII put an end to this sort of sanctimonious humbug.

5. To quote from a footnote in Chapter 26 of the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental history, The Life of a Regiment: The incident of the wounded piper continuing to play, being telegraphed home, took the British public by storm, and when Findlater arrived in England he found himself famous. Reporters rushed to interview him; managers offered him fabulous sums to play at their theatres; the streets of London and all the country towns were placarded with his portrait; when, after his discharge, he was brought to play at the Military Tournament, royal personages and distinguished generals shook him by the hand; his photograph was sold by thousands; the Scotsmen in London would have let him swim in champagne, and the daily cheers of the multitude were enough to turn an older head than that of this young soldier. A handsome pension enabled Findlater to rest on his laurels and turn his sword into a ploughshare on a farm near Turriff. He re-enlisted for the Great War, though not fit for foreign service.’

6. Throughout their subsequent history the Gordon Highlanders celebrated the anniversary of Dargai wherever they were stationed. Thanks to government economies that have reduced the Army’s strength to the lowest level for 300 years, the regiment no longer has an independent existence, having merged with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form a new regiment, The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons). This will, however, continue to celebrate the anniversary of the action.

Tirah Field Force (1897-1898)

The North – West Frontier of India was ablaze in Pathan tribal hostilities in 1897. The British sent many punitive expeditions to suppress these tribal revolts. The Tochi Field Force was sent to quell the Isazais in the Tochi Valley, and the Mohmand Field Force was organized to suppress hostile Mohmands. The Malakand Field Force conducted operations against the Swatis, Utman Khel, Mamunds, and Salarzais, and the Buner Field Force punished the rebellious Bunerwhals.

The Afridis had been receiving a subsidy from the Indian Government for many years to safeguard the strategic Khyber Pass. On 23 August 1897, hostile Afridis and Orakzais attacked and seized the forts at the Khyber Pass. Four days later, Orakzais attacked in overwhelming strength the British posts on the Samana Ridge, about 30 miles south of the Khyber Pass and the southern boundary of the Tirah region, and close to Peshawar.

To punish the rebellious tribes and dis courage any further hostilities to the south, especially in Waziristan, it was decided to form the Tirah Field Force and invade Tirah, the homeland of the Afridis and Orakzais. It was initially difficult to assemble a sufficient number of men due to other ongoing punitive operations. On 10 October 1897, however, under the command of General Sir William S. A. Lockhart, the Tirah Field Force was assembled at Kohat and prepared to advance. Numbering 34,506 British and Indi an officers and troops, with 19,934 noncombatant followers and 71,800 transport animals, the Tirah Field Force was the largest British Army expedition to deploy to the field in India since the Indian Mutiny.

The Tirah Field Force consisted of two divisions, plus support and reserve elements. The 1st Division was commanded by Major General W. P. Symons, with its 1st Brigade commanded initially by Colonel (later General Sir) Ian S. M. Hamilton, then by Brigadier General R. Hart, V. C., and the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brigadier General A. Gaselee. Major General A. G. Yeatman – Biggs commanded the 2nd Division, which consisted of Brigadier General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade and Brigadier General R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade. The lines of communication were commanded by Lieutenant General Sir A. P. Palmer, and the Rawalpindi Reserve Brigade by Brigadier Gener al C. R. Macgregor. There were also two mobile columns (the Peshawar Column , commanded by Brigadier General A. G. Hammond, V. C., and the Kurram Movable Column, by Colonel W. Hill) to provide flank security and support. Support elements included 10 field and mountain artillery batteries, totaling 60 guns, and the first machine- gun detachment deployed to the North- West Frontier.

The Tirah Field Force strategy was to advance north, subjugate the Tirah region, then move farther northeast to recapture the Khyber Pass. The Tirah area, however, was basically unknown to the British, and the combined strength of the Afridis and the Orakzais was estimated at around 40,000-50,000.

The British advance began on 11 October 1897. Seven days later, routes over the Samana Ridge were reconnoitered, and fighting broke out almost immediately. The 5,000-foot high Dargai Heights, key terrain dominating the area, were seized by the British on 18 October with casualties of 10 killed and 53 wounded. It was decided not to hold the Dargai Heights and the British evacuated the position.

After more units and supplies, including ammunition, had arrived, the Dargai Heights were again attacked on 20 October 1897. The Pathans had reinforced their positions on the Heights, and a British artillery barrage failed to dislodge the tribal warriors. Gurkhas led the attack, but were pinned down by accurate rifle fire. At about noon, the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders- with bayonets fixed and the regimental bagpipes playing “Cock o’ the North” – led a five battalion assault. Before the British reached the summit, the tribesmen fled. The second capture of Dargai cost the British 36 killed and 159 wounded, and was the only set – piece battle of the campaign.

A pause in the hostilities ensued as the 1st Division and transport, traveling on bad roads, rejoined the leading 2nd Division. The advance continued on 28 October 1897, and the next objective was the 6,700-foot Sampagha Pass. The Tirah Valley was reached after little resistance on 1 November 1897. The following eight days were spent gathering supplies and reconnoitering the area. The Orakzais were showing signs of submission although there was constant harassment and sniping from the Zakha Khel, a powerful Afridi clan. Lockhart retaliated by launching a scorched earth campaign, leveling villages, destroying crops, and felling orchards. On 11 November, Orakzais tribal chiefs agreed with peace terms to return all captured weapons to the British, surrender 300 of their own breech – loading rifles, pay a 30,000 rupee (£10,000) fine, and forfeit all allowances and subsidies.

British units continued operating to eliminate resistance throughout November 1897, but the Zakha Khels engaged in frequent hit – and – run engagements, especially against vulnerable support and transport elements. The Afridis, as a tribe, had not submit ted fully to the British, but with the approach of winter, the British began their 40-mile march through the Bara Valley to the Khyber Pass on 7 December 1897. Each division marched on a separate route. In snow and frigid temperatures, the British continued. The 2nd Division was harried the entire way and fought numerous rear- guard actions. The British march “looked more like a rout than the victorious withdrawal of a punitive force”(Miller 1977, p. 279).After having been separated, the Tirah Field Force’s two divisions converged at the Indian frontier town of Barkai on 14 December.

Lockhart did not feel he had totally accomplished his mission. On 22 December 1897, the 1st Division marched to the Bazar Valley, the home of the Zakha Khel, and the Peshawar Column advanced to the Khyber Pass. (This latter operation is frequently called the Bazar Valley Expedition.) By 1 January 1898, three British brigades held the Khyber Pass, while two additional brigades blockaded the Afridi territory. The British fought a few engagements and destroyed Afridi villages and captured Afridi cattle and sheep. The last of the Afridi clans submit ted to British demands in April 1898, signaling the end of the Great Pathan Revolt. From 12 October 1897 to April 1898, the British suffered 1,150 total casualties (287 killed, 853 wounded, and 10 missing).

Battle of Saragarhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

British heroic…

One shell burst right in front of the CO and it shot away his lower port wing. His Swordfish shuddered and dipped but Esmonde kept it flying. With blood pouring from wounds in his head and back Lt Cdr Esmonde hung onto the controls, holding his course steady for the Prinz Eugen. In the rear cockpit lay PO Clinton and the Observer Lt Williams, both killed in the last attack by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190.

In a last desperate effort he pulled the Swordfish’s nose up and released his torpedo just before a direct hit blew the Swordfish to pieces in a red flash. As pieces crashed into the sea lookouts on the Prinz Eugen reported the torpedo track, Captain Brinkmann ordered “Port 15”, and the ship turned easily to avoid the torpedo. Aboard the German Battleships all this heroism by the Swordfish crews produced no sense of danger whatever, but certainly a feeling of compassion for the fliers sacrificing themselves against impossible odds. Admiral Ciliax, watching from the Scharnhorst Bridge, the Swordfish lumbering towards her, remarked to Captain Hoffmann: “The British are now throwing their mothball Navy at us. Those Swordfish are doing well to get their torpedoes away”. While all 3 ships steamed full speed ahead, firing everything they had, the torpedo planes continued flying straight towards them, just skimming the waves.

The Channel Dash Association

Lt Cdr Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde VC, DSO, the commanding of­ficer of 825 Squadron from May 13, 1940 to November 13, 1941 and again from January 1, 1942 to his demise on February 12, 1942.

Glad to be alive, Don Bunce’s pilot (left), Sub Lt Charles Major ‘Pat’ Kingsmill and his observer, Sub Lt Reginald McCartney Samples recovering from their injuries in March 1942.

An account by TAG Don Bunce, one of the five survivors of the ill-fated attack.

Taking part in a `fiasco’

Making our way to the dispersal, on that February day, the weather was no different to the previous days, bitterly cold, with snow covering the grass airfield. Blissfully unaware that we were taking part in a `fiasco’, what dominated our minds was that a planned night attack was now to take place at midday. As usual, TAGs were excluded from the briefing sessions and had to rely on the Observer for any `Gen’. Four TAGs (including myself), one former pilot of mine, one Observer, and, of course, Esmonde himself, had taken part in the torpedo attack on the Bismarck, from HMS Victorious, and we were only too aware of the implications of a daylight action. This time it was not the middle of the North Atlantic, but the Straits of Dover, and a warning was ringing in our ears from the RAF types in the mess: a new German fighter, the Fw190, was now operational.

We took off and formed up over the coast, and I well remember exchanging a `thumbs up’ sign with fellow TAG `Ginger’ Johnson, just before seeing Spitfires overhead, and assumed all our escort had arrived; we were already at sea level. Soon after, we were headed out to sea, in line ahead formation. I was in the first flight of three, with Esmonde leading, our aircraft bringing up the rear. The second flight was some distance from us, still in `V’ formation, and I cannot recall seeing them again. I began to prepare the VGO machine gun, loading a magazine and then sitting down and waiting. The weather was overcast, with low cloud and poor visibility, and the Spitfires were just below the cloud base. Perhaps at this point, I should remind the reader, and indeed myself, just how short actions of this sort are; everything happens so quickly. Trying to recall it now gives a type of `time lapse’ element to the story.

Fw190 target practice

At this stage, with the Spitfires weaving overhead in an attempt to stay with us, I ventured a look forward and, through the mist, saw a destroyer. Then it all happened:

tracer from the destroyer `floated’ our way, that is, until it came close, when it took on the characteristics of an express train, and in came the Fw190s. I have no recollection of how many there were, but only concentrated on those that were on our tail. It seemed endless; as soon as one peeled off another was in its place, with tracer speeding toward us.

What was my reaction? Apart from using every Naval swear word I could muster, my instinct appeared to be to place as much of the feeble .303in tracer in front of the 190s as I could, stoppages permitting; all drill in this respect went overboard, as indeed went any malfunctioning magazine. There simply isn’t time to do other than that. The whole affair, from my backward viewpoint, was developing into a practice shoot for Fw190s, and we were the drogue target; they were coming so close. As they peeled off to the port I had a sideways clear view of the pilot. I had a quick visual image of the shells hitting the water, giving them perfect alignment to hit the old Swordfish.

Strange to say, throughout the entire action, I had no impending sense of danger or injury to myself, despite all the hardware being thrown at us. I just considered myself `fireproof’. Alas, my Pilot and Observer were less fortunate, both being hit.

Just as suddenly as it had started, the fighters left. Presumably our torpedo had been launched; one is usually aware of the drop, but not on this occasion. Now I could look around. I turned, to sit down, and found a gaping hole to the port side of the seat. Gingerly, I tried sitting, in order to send some kind of distress signal, but the wireless set was dead. However, the IFF worked, and I immediately switched to the distress position, but as this relied on radar contact, at sea level, this must have been a useless exercise.

Taking casualties

At about this time, I turned to the Observer, `Mac’ Samples, (although I didn’t refer to him as `Mac’ in those days, but over the years we have become fi rm friends) to ask if he was ok. In reply, he reached down with one hand and brought it up covered in blood; his leg and foot were badly injured. It appeared the Pilot, Pat Kingsmill, was also hurt in the lower leg at the same time.

A glance to starboard showed a group of small boats – MTBs? And we appeared to be heading for them. As we closed, their true identity was revealed: they were E-Boats, and gunfire from them immediately began hitting us, and Pat, with great skill, began to crab away, and I, with further oaths, emptied my last magazine in their direction.

It was all the old Swordfish could do to crab, because the damage was considerable, and we began to assume a tail-down position. Then, suddenly, great flashes streaked down the port side; a large square hole in the upper main plane meant that the dinghy had been shot away; the marine distress flare was lodged in place, and our last encounter with the E-Boats must have ignited it; a few more flashes and it sputtered out. What of the rest of the damage? The Stringbag was beginning to live up to its nickname. Everywhere a shell had passed through the fabric, a three-cornered tear had appeared; there was no fabric at all on the port tail plane. Oil was dripping down the starboard fuselage, where the oil cooler had been punctured. Pat Kingsmill told me afterwards that it is quite normal to be able to see three cylinders of the Pegasus engine. Two were shot away, and we still managed to fly; not for long though: with the tail well down, we ditched perfectly.

ML rescue

Mac and I could see a single MTB type boat on the starboard and, as we appeared to be heading that way, I was convinced that Pat had seen it too, but, no, it was a pure coincidence, we dropped into the sea a few hundred yards short. It was a Motor Minelayer (ML), sent out for just this purpose. On impact, I hit my harness release button and threw it off, then, literally, stepped overboard into the Channel, to help Mac. A jerk on my head told me that I had forgotten to unplug the headphones and, quickly yanking off my helmet, I found that Mac had floated free. The ML was now alongside, and I hung back, thinking that I might be able to help the others, but was `politely’ informed that, if I was ok, to get out and leave it to the experts. I was grateful, for it was extremely cold!

Once aboard, I was bundled down below, to lie between the giant diesel engines, given dry clothes and a cup of `pussers’ rum. Pat Kingsmill was in the wheelhouse, and Mac Samples lay on the after deck, a big matelot attempting to keep him warm, for his injuries were quite severe. The passage to Ramsgate harbour, at full speed through a choppy sea, must have been a nightmare to the other two. The rum helped me, but the roar of the engines precluded any conversation, leaving me with my own thoughts.

An ambulance was waiting on the quayside and quickly whipped us off to hospital. The others received treatment immediately, and I was left to loaf about the corridor until transport picked me up that evening. I did manage a bedside visit before leaving, but it was to be many years before I was to see them again.

No news is not good news

I now began to look forward, with some trepidation, for news of my mates. Edgar Lee, (Observer in the second aircraft) who, too, was uninjured, must have arrived back at Manston at about the same time as I did, his pilot, Rose, told me. Rose had severe back injuries but, to my dismay, his TAG, `Ginger’ Johnson DSM, had been killed early in the action. There was no news of the rest, but there was still hope. Next morning, it became increasingly evident we who had made it back were to be the only ones!

The impact of this must have put me in a kind of daze, and it didn’t help when, along with the PO Fitter, we were ordered to assemble and pack the kit of the other five TAGs. Stowing photographs and other personal items was very traumatic, but it had to be done, and rather me than anyone else. Quite how I arrived back at Lee-on-Solent escapes me. I vaguely remember being hauled out in front of Sunday Divisions, with Edgar Lee, to be told that we were some kind of heroes. A week or so later, the Daily Mirror front page announced, along with the VC for Esmonde, DSOs for the officers; the CGM had come my way. What was the CGM? Nobody could tell me! The rest of the squadron were `Mentioned in Dispatches’.

`Buy’ your own ribbon

During this time, I saw no Medical Officer, nor indeed anyone else, except when passing `Jimmy the One’ (The First Lieutenant, also referred to as `Number One’; second in command on a ship). One morning, he stopped me and asked why I wasn’t wearing my medal ribbon. `No idea what it looks like, Sir,’ I replied.

With that, he hauled me off to examine the records, and eventually came up with the `gen’. It was some time before I could trace a source and `buy’ some.

Counselling, of course, wasn’t heard of in those days, so I was packed off on leave, with the idea, no doubt, that it was a cure for everything! It was, perhaps, the worst thing that could happen. All my mates from pre-service days were either in the Services themselves, or working all hours, so I became completely isolated. At one point, I became so disturbed that I was afraid to cross the road and, in those, days, even in the centre of Oxford, you couldn’t say there was a traffic problem. What of my fellow TAGs whose experiences that day easily overshadowed my own? Some of us had been together for almost twelve months; it seemed much longer.

Remembering the TAGs

Jack, or `Clints’, Clinton had been in the third sub-flight on the Bismarck attack, and on that day was TAG to Esmonde. At the height of the action, he was seen outside the cockpit, astride the fuselage, beating out a fire with his hands, witnessed by a Spitfire pilot. I’m sure that if this had been known at the time he would have collected a VC, like his pilot. His swap of duties with Les Sayer, our Squadron PO, is well known, and must give Les the miss of the century. `Clints’ is buried at St James Church, Ruislip. Laurence `Ginger’ Johnson and I were alongside each other in the first sub-flight on the Bismarck attack, and retained the same position that day. He was awarded the DSM, after the Bismarck action. My abiding memory of `Ginger’ is on the Ark Royal. Every time he was flying, you could always see his father, a member of the Ship’s Company, waiting anxiously for his return. I received a very sad letter, many years later, from `Pop’ Johnson. No doubt, by now, he has joined his son on that Final Draft.

Henry Wheeler had been in the second sub-flight against the Bismarck and is best known for the yarns he could spin on being a gasman in London.

Ernest `Horse’ Tapping joined us, I think, on the Ark Royal, and was famed for his consumption of beer. The rest of us tried to keep in step at those very enjoyable lunchtime sessions in the NAAFI at Lee, prior to moving down to Manston.

William `Bill’ Smith had joined us, again, on the `Ark’. His family were Thames watermen, a career he intended to follow. Smithy is at rest a few yards from Lt Cdr Esmonde, in Gillingham cemetery. Nothing is known of the fate of the second sub-flight that day. They were led by my pilot on the Bismarck action, Lt Thompson, and also included my pilot from the Ark Royal, Sub Lt Wood, an ex-Rating Pilot.


‘I had been going ahead partly submerged, with about five feet of my periscope showing. Almost immediately I caught sight of the first cruiser and two others. I submerged completely and laid my course so as to bring up in the centre of the trio, which held a sort of triangular formation. I could see their grey-black sides riding high over the water. When I first sighted them they were near enough for torpedo work, but I wanted to make my aim sure, so I went down and in on them. I had taken the position of the three ships before submerging, and I succeeded in getting another flash through my periscope before I began action. I soon reached what I regarded as a good shooting point.

Then I loosed one of my torpedoes at the middle ship. I was then about twelve feet under water, and got the shot off in good shape, my men handling the boat as if she had been a skiff. I climbed to the surface to get a sight through my tube of the effect, and discovered that the shot had gone straight and true, striking the ship, which I later learned was the Aboukir, under one of her magazines, which in exploding helped the torpedo’s work of destruction. There was a fountain of water, a burst of smoke, a flash of fire, and part of the cruiser rose in the air. Then I heard a roar and felt reverberations sent through the water by the detonation. She had been broken apart and sank in a few minutes. The Aboukir had been stricken in a vital spot and by an unseen force; that made the blow all the greater.

Her crew were brave, and even with death staring them in the face kept to their posts, ready to handle their useless guns, for I submerged at once. But I had stayed on top long enough to see the other cruisers, which I learned were the Cressy and the Hogue, turn and steam full speed to their dying sister, whose plight they could not understand, unless it had been due to an accident. The ships came on a mission of inquiry and rescue, for many of the Aboukir’s crew were now in the water, the order having been given, “Each man for himself.” But soon the other two English cruisers learned what had brought about the destruction so suddenly.

As I reached my torpedo depth, I sent a second charge at the nearest of the oncoming vessels, which was the Hogue. The English were playing my game, for I had scarcely to move out of my position, which was a great aid, since it helped to keep me from detection. On board my little boat the spirit of the German Navy was to be seen in its best form. With enthusiasm every man held himself in check and gave attention to the work in hand.

The attack on the Hogue went true. But this time I did not have the advantageous aid of having the torpedo detonate under the magazine, so for twenty minutes the Hogue lay wounded and helpless on the surface before she heaved, half turned over and sank. But this time, the third cruiser knew of course that the enemy was upon her and she sought as best she could to defend herself. She loosed her torpedo defence batteries on boats, starboard and port, and stood her ground as if more anxious to help the many sailors who were in the water than to save herself. In common with the method of defending herself against a submarine attack, she steamed in a zigzag course, and this made it necessary for me to hold my torpedoes until I could lay a true course for them, which also made it necessary for me to get nearer to the Cressy.

I had come to the surface for a view and saw how wildly the fire was being sent from the ship. Small wonder that was when they did not know where to shoot, although one shot went unpleasantly near us. When I got within suitable range, I sent away my third attack. This time I sent a second torpedo after the first to make the strike doubly certain. My crew were aiming like sharpshooters and both torpedoes went to their bullseye. My luck was with me again, for the enemy was made useless and at once began sinking by her head. Then she careened far over, but all the while her men stayed at the guns looking for their invisible foe. They were brave and true to their country’s sea traditions. Then she eventually suffered a boiler explosion and completely turned turtle. With her keel uppermost she floated until the air got out from under her and then she sank with a loud sound, as if from a creature in pain.

The whole affair had taken less than one hour from the time of shooting off the first torpedo until the Cressy went to the bottom. Not one of the three had been able to use any of its big guns. I knew the wireless of the three cruisers had been calling for aid. I was still quite able to defend myself, but I knew that news of the disaster would call many English submarines and torpedo boat destroyers, so, having done my appointed work, I set my course for home. . ..

I reached the home port on the afternoon of the 23rd, and on the 24th went to Wilhelmshaven, to find that news of my effort had become public. My wife, dry eyed when I went away, met me with tears. Then I learned that my little vessel and her brave crew had won the plaudit of the Kaiser, who conferred upon each of my co-workers the Iron Cross of the second class and upon me the Iron Cross of the first and second classes.’

German Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, recalling his part in the sinking of the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue by U-9 in September 1914, cited in Source Records of the Great War, vol. 2, pp. 297–300.

The opening gambits of the war in 1914 did provide Germany with some spectacular U-boat successes. Significantly, and quite unexpectedly, these were not against unarmed merchantmen, but against powerful surface warships that conventional wisdom claimed were immune from underwater attack. On 5 September 1914 Kapitanleutnant Otto Hersing’s U-21 made history by launching the first submerged torpedo attack of the war, sinking the British light cruiser HMS Pathfinder near Scotland’s Firth of Forth; on 22 September 1914 Kapitanleutnant Otto Weddigen’s U-9 created the first piece of enduring combat iconography by destroying three of the Royal Navy’s 12,200-ton Cressy-class cruisers in a single hour: HMS Cressy, Aboukir, and Hogue. In doing so, Weddigen vindicated the submarine as an offensive weapon and provided his country with a naval hero when it sorely needed one. Every aspect of the attack was a new venture and would be described in surprisingly accurate detail in postwar literature.

Surfacing that morning near the Maas Lightvessel after having ridden out the previous day’s storm submerged, Weddigen and his crew found calmer weather and clearer visibility. Captain, engineer, and the watch-officer Johannes Spieß (who also would become a famous skipper) were taking in the morning air after a fetid night and were bracing themselves against the heavy swell. It was 0545, just before sunrise. As the U-boat began charging her batteries with her notoriously smoky gasoline engines, Spieß cursed the billowing exhaust that could betray her presence. Weddigen reduced speed in order to cut down the smoke and went below, leaving Spieß to carry out a lazy zigzag course along the Dutch coast, some twenty miles from the town of Scheveningen. The crew were anxious to catch their first glimpse of the enemy; anxious, too, to avenge the loss of their “chummy ship” U-15, which had been rammed and sunk by the cruiser HMS Birmingham in August. Thus when the first target hove into sight over the horizon, Spieß all-too-readily identified it as one of the “Birmingham-class.” That meant a light cruiser, U-9’s crew went swiftly to battle-stations. A series of automatic commands triggered well drilled responses: battening hatches, flooding tanks, switching from petroleum engines to batteries, arming torpedoes. And in all this controlled swirl of activity, the last navigational fix and target bearing were taken to begin setting up the first outlines of the tactical picture. Poised at periscope depth despite the swell that could thrust her exposed hull to the surface, U-9 waited for the target to approach. It soon became clear that not one cruiser, but three were heading their way, steaming in line ahead. No U-boat had ever faced such a threat before, and only one had ever fired a torpedo in hopes of killing such Goliaths. So new was both the situation and the technology that no one really knew for certain what would happen when the fight began. Would U-9 survive against such massive surface power? And if she could get in close enough for a kill, would the explosion of her torpedoes against the cruisers’ hulls destroy her as well? These questions were by no means idle. The officers all knew the fate of U-15 and they knew that U-21 had been severely shaken by the explosion when torpedoing HMS Pathfinder from a range of 1200 meters. It was generally accepted that at a virtually lethal range of 500 meters they could expect heavy bow damage and the possible destruction of her diving planes. In a series of short, snappy periscope sights, Weddigen coolly calculated his chances and decided to strike the cruiser steaming in the middle of the column. Weddigen cautioned the crew to take the boat down to fifteen meters and stay there once he had fired, for the range was “rather tight.” It was, in fact, just under 500 meters.

As Spieß later recalled, these were nerve-tingling moments. At 0720 Weddigen fired the first shot. Thirty-one seconds later a dull blow announced the detonation and triggered jubilation in the U-boat. Unable to see, they could only guess what was happening by listening to the abrasive underwater sounds of cracking and wrenching soon emanating from her victim’s death-agony. After a cautious wait, Weddigen brought u-g to periscope depth to watch Aboukir sink. Meanwhile all available crew of U-9 were kept running between bow and stern in order to maintain diving trim in the swell. The bow had immediately become buoyant once the torpedo had fired and would only regain its displacement as the bow tube was reloaded. A quick look from close range revealed a serious miscalculation: the targets were not light cruisers at all, but huge Cressys. By this time U-9 was committed. At 0755, thirty-five minutes after his first shot, Weddigen made two direct hits on Hague from 300 meters. But despite all efforts to tighten her turning-circle in the escape maneuver racing full speed ahead on one screw and full speed astern on the other, U-9 scraped her periscope along Hogues’s hull. There was just time to reload when HMS Cressy loomed into range. At 0820, precisely one hour after the first shot, Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes and struck from a range of 1000 meters. Cressy died slowly, and Weddigen fired his last torpedo into her as a coup de grace. Spieß’s final periscope glimpse of the scene was especially vivid. Up until now U-9 had been witnessing the destruction of machines and had not yet seen men die: “But now life entered this tragic theater. The giant with his four stacks rolled slowly but inexorably over onto his port side, and like ants we saw black swarms of people scrambling first onto one side and then onto its huge flat keel until they disappeared in the waves. A sad sight for a seaman. Our task was now done, and we had to see to getting ourselves home as quickly as possible … When we blew tanks and surfaced at 0850 there was no enemy to be seen. The sea had closed over the three cruisers.” For many years to come, veterans would hallow 22 September as “Weddigen Day,” and heroic tales would capture much of the flavour of wartime reality, U-9’s successful triple attack had been unprecedented, and many national presses – including those of Allied powers – recognized the fact. The Kaiser cabled congratulations and awarded Weddigen and his crew the Iron Cross; “bundles of congratulatory telegrams,” one of the officers later wrote, awaited the submarine on arrival home. The crew allegedly required a special shed to keep all the gifts and letters that a grateful German public showered upon them. Admiral Scheer explained the national euphoria thus: “Weddigen’s name was on everyone’s lips, and especially for the navy his deed was sheer relief from the feeling of having as yet achieved so little in comparison with the heroic deeds of the army. Such a success was necessary in order to appreciate the value of the submarine for our conduct of war.”

Yet once the euphoria had died down, many voices began to minimize the success. The three cruisers, as the British press had correctly pointed out, had been old and should never have been deployed in the exposed area that had been Weddigen’s patrol zone. Indeed, as a British submariner would observe in 1930, Weddigen’s success had been in large part due to Britain’s “early policy of heroic but useless sacrifice.” Moreover, the Royal Navy’s standing orders had actually required the warships to stop to pick up survivors after the initial hit. This effectively turned the remaining two warships into stationary targets for the likes of Weddigen. But on 15 October 1914 Weddigen’s U-9 again vindicated the U-boat when it torpedoed and sank the modern 7,800-ton cruiser HMS Hawke northeast of Aberdeen. The U-boat’s mission had covered over 1700 nautical miles and had expended virtually all her fuel. It now seemed abundantly clear that submarine technology was allowing German sailors to operate deep within British waters and to destroy heavily armed ships. Weddigen this time won the coveted Prussian award Pour le merite.

U-Weddigen had become the stuff of legends. They persisted long after his death in action in 1915, “an event which was felt most painfully by the whole nation,” as his former watch-officer recalled in 1930. Myths conveniently ignored the fact that when attacking a British ship of the line on 18 March 1915 in his new boat, U-29, he had been ignominiously destroyed by an ancient maritime weapon – the ram. Ironically, the fatal blow had been struck by the bow of the obsolescent battleship HMS Dreadnought. Weddigen’s exploits had nevertheless encouraged public and naval leadership alike. Widely disseminated throughout the country, a volatile mix of fact and fiction about submarine adventures encouraged boldness in both naval and civil circles.

Nimy Bridge August 1914

The initial German assault on Mons consisted of five divisions attacking the British II Corps of two divisions commanded by Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorrien, an old India hand. The German attack must have seemed quite familiar to him; they advanced in tight ranks across open ground, as ignorant of the effect of concentrated firepower as any tribesman he had faced on the Northwest Frontier. Von Kluck’s men suffered heavy casualties and the first assault was thrown back. They regrouped and a more extended order of attack advanced on the British line a half-hour later. This probe managed to find and dislodge the exposed flank of the British 3rd Division and turn the previously defensible perimeter of the British force into a dangerous salient.

Despite the tremendous casualties inflicted by the defenders, the sheer weight of numbers worked against them; what had initially resembled Omdurman was rapidly turning into something more akin to Isandlwana. The point companies holding the bridge approaches suffered what for this early stage of the war were heavy losses, but still managed to hold on. There at the Nimy Bridge Lieutenant Maurice Dease, machine gun officer of the Royal Fusiliers, won the first Great War Victoria Cross. `The gun fire was intense, and the casualties very heavy, but the lieutenant went on firing despite his wounds, until he was hit the fifth time and was carried away to a place of safety where he died.’ The second VC followed in short order, as Private Sidney Frank Godley took Dease’s place at the gun and kept it firing until the position was overrun. In a final gesture of defiance, Godley smashed the firing mechanism and tipped the gun into the canal just before retiring:  

We carried on until towards evening when the order was given for the line to retire. I was asked by Lieut. Steele to remain and hold the position while the retirement took place, which I did do, although I was very badly wounded several times, but I managed to carry on. I was on my own at the latter end of the action. Of course, Lieut. Dease lay dead by the side of me, and Lieut. Steele, he retired with his platoon. I remained on the bridge and held the position, but when it was time for me to get away I smashed the machine gun up, threw it in the Canal, and then crawled back on the main road where I was picked up by a couple of Belgian civilians and was then taken to hospital in Mons…I was being attended by the doctors…when the Germans came in and took the hospital.

In a phenomenal act of courage, German private August Niemeyer swam across the canal under intense British fire and brought back a boat so that his patrol could cross. The German patrol then crossed the canal and engaged the defending British soldiers. Then, Niemeyer set the swing mechanism in motion that moved the bridge back into position across the canal and reopened the bridge to road traffic. In its closed position, the Nimy swing bridge allowed traffic to cross the canal. When a water vessel needed to pass, motors rotated the bridge horizontally about its pivot point out of the way. The British troops rotated the Nimy bridge away from the banks but did not disable the mechanism. As a result, even after Niemeyer was killed, German troops were able to charge across and secure the bridge. By 1:40 p.m., the British infantry was falling back under fire from the Germans advancing through Mons to Ciply. Had the machine guns been placed at an angle in a protected position from which they could have swept the bridge, the British might have held it much longer.

Warrior (1861)

Warrior is a ship of imposing appearance. The hull was painted black, unlike the chequered style of sailing frigates, and seemed immensely long to contemporaries. The great space between foremast and mainmast is very noticeable. When it and the similarly painted Black Prince joined the Channel Fleet they were described as ‘two black snakes among the rabbits’. They were the only British ironclads with wooden lower masts and caps, though at an early design stage four or even five iron masts had been considered. The original bowsprit was 14.9m (49ft) long but because of the ship’s excessive weight in the forward section it was halved in length in March 1862, and the full head-gear was not restored until the poop deck was added between 1872 and 1875, giving the vessel a better balance. Total sail area was 4496.5m2 (48,400sq ft) including stunsails.

The steam ironclad Warrior was planned as a direct response to France’s Gloire. Laid down at Mare’s yard at Blackwall on the Thames on 25 May 1859, launched on 29 December 1860, commissioned at Portsmouth in August 1861 and finally completed on 24 October that year, it cost £377,292.

Its hull construction marked a clear break with the old wooden-hulled tradition. It was to carry 40 large guns on a single deck. But the design showed compromises between the new and the old: Warrior’s heavy ‘knee bow’ design was a convention rather than a structural requirement, and weighed the vessel down at the bow end until a shelter-deck was erected at the poop. The wide stern was simply copied from existing sailing frigate models. Warrior was one of the last three Royal Navy ships to be given a carved figurehead. Another traditional feature, not necessary on an ironclad, was the solid timber bulwarks surrounding the upper deck.

The teak-backed armour plating was applied to the midships section only, 64.9m (213ft) long and 8.23m (27ft) vertically, with 1.83m (6ft) below the waterline. Two bilge keels were fitted to reduce any propensity to roll. The Penn horizontal trunk engine was the most powerful yet installed on a warship.


The new ship presented a problem of classification: its single gun deck defined it as a frigate but as it was expressly designed to overtake and defeat any existing warship, that was clearly inappropriate. The solution was to use its 707-man complement (equivalent to that of a third-rate) as a reason to classify it and its sister ship Black Prince as third-rates. The 114mm (4.5in) steel plating was impenetrable by any naval gun of the time (but by 1863 guns had been introduced to pierce such armour). Warrior’s 103.6m (340ft) length was notable: great length was identified with the ability to go fast. Sir Baldwin Walker, Controller of the Navy, considered that speed was of the utmost importance ‘and absolutely essential in seagoing ships cased with iron’. Care had been taken in designing the underwater lines – even under canvas alone, Warrior recorded 13 knots under plain sail and stunsails, and under combined power on 15 November 1861 it made 16.3 knots.

Auxiliary equipment

Warrior was still a broadside ship, its guns arranged in traditional fashion facing outwards. In 1867 the ship was completely re-gunned, with 24 178mm (7in) MLR, 4 203mm (8in) MLR, and 4 9kg (20lb) breech loaders. The Admiralty was slow to take advantage of steam power for auxiliary equipment. Originally the only extra was a steam pump. The two-bladed, 9 tonne (10 tons) screw (the largest hoisting screw ever in service) was said to need 600 men to hoist it using the sheerlegs mounted above the double sternposts. Black Prince received a steam capstan before Warrior, geared to the pump engine. Prior to that, 90 men were needed to work the main capstan. Steering gear was done with a fourfold handwheel set abaft the mizzen mast, and directed from a low bridge mounted on the quarter-deck bulwarks, with an armour-plated blockhouse structure beneath. But the steamships’ length had an adverse effect on manoeuvrability. The Navy Controller’s specification required only three turns of the wheel to give a full degree of helm, as with narrow-ruddered sailing ships; this made steering of a long screw-driven ship an immensely heavy task (a fourth turn was conceded in 1861 for steamships of more than 298kW (400hp). Warrior carried two bower and two sheet Admiralty-pattern wooden-stocked anchors, each weighing 4.3 tonnes (4.75 tons), 1.42 tonne (1.67 tons) iron-stocked stream anchor, and two iron-stocked 0.87 tonnes (0.96 tons) kedge anchors.

Years of service

In 1904 it was a torpedo school and later an oil hulk before restoration to original condition in the 1980s. It is now a museum ship at Portsmouth. With Black Prince it towed a floating dock across the Atlantic from Madeira to Bermuda in 1869. Another refit between 1872 and 1875 saw it provided with the poop deck and steam capstan, and it served as coastguard ship at Portland, then from 1881 to 1884 as a training ship for reservists on the Clyde. In 1881 it was re-classified as an armoured cruiser. In 1904 it was adapted for service with the HMS Vernon torpedo school and the cut-down hull was finally transferred to Pembroke to provide a pier for an oil pipe-line.

General characteristics

Class and type:   Warrior-class armoured frigate

Displacement:    9,137 long tons (9,284 t)

Length:  420 ft (128.0 m) (o/a)

Beam:    58 ft 4 in (17.8 m)

Draught:              26 ft 10 in (8.2 m)

Installed power:

    5,772 ihp (4,304 kW)

    10 rectangular boilers

Propulsion:         1 shaft, 1 Trunk steam engine

Sail plan:             Ship rig

Speed:   14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph)

Range:   2,100 nmi (3,900 km; 2,400 mi) at 11 kn (20 km/h; 13 mph)

Complement:     706 officers and enlisted men


    26 × Smoothbore muzzle-loading 68-pounder (206 mm) guns

    10 × Rifled breechloading 110-pounder (178 mm) guns

    4 × Rifled breechloading 40-pounder (121 mm) guns


    Belt: 4.5 in (114 mm)

    Bulkheads: 4.5 in (114 mm)

Madagascar: The Long Island I

WWII: MADAGASCAR, 1942. English soldiers landing in Diego-Suarez (now Antsiranana) in Madagascar. Photograph, 1942. Full credit: Tallandier – Rue des Archives / The Granger Collection.

Vichy French officials did not capitulate on the island of Madagascar until November 1942, the same month the Allied landings during Operation Torch were conducted in North Africa. Here, British troops land at Diego Suarez during the effort to gain control of the port city’s facilities.

Radio reports from the island of Madagascar indicated that the governor general, Armand Annet, had asked for a cease firing order. British troops were reported to be within 100 miles of the capital at Tananarive, Sept. 16, 1942. French troops about to fire cannon on Madagascar. (AP Photo)

Vichy French forces on Madagascar included both French soldiers and colonial troops from Senegal and other locations. In this photo, colonial soldiers fire a canon under the watchful eye of a French officer in 1942.

British operations on Madagascar encountered stiff resistance from the Vichy French, including a series of reinforced strongpoints that were assaulted during a period of heavy fighting.

The control of Diego Suarez was the crucial part of the operation against Madagascar. It was the most important place from the strategic point of view, since holding it denied the port to the Japanese fleet, and to its possible use by German or Italian submarines. It was also the first step in the campaign to suppress the Vichy administration of Madagascar. Some may well have seen it as all that was necessary, given the relative naval unimportance of the rest of the island by comparison. It was also, of course, hoped that Governor-General Paul Annet might crumble and change sides. Certainly there was no danger of the British in Diego Suarez being dislodged by the local Vichy forces, though a distant threat from the Japanese fleet might still exist – but without eliminating Somerville’s Eastern Fleet first, the stretch right across the Indian Ocean was too much, even for Nagumo’s ships.

The 5th Division was now urgently required in India, for Burma had been almost completely conquered by the Japanese army and an invasion of India looked probable. Thirteen Brigade, with sickness beginning in the troops, sailed on 20 May. Five days later Madagascar was transferred to the East Africa Command, under Lieutenant-General Sir William Platt, who had very competently commanded the liberation of Ethiopia the year before. His first task was to get 17 Brigade also on its way to India; he sent two battalions of the King’s African Rifles across to the island from Mombasa, and 17 Brigade left on 20 June. In the meantime the area under British control in northern Madagascar was expanded, partly for security reasons, in case the Vichy forces in the rest of the island tried a counter-attack, unlikely though this was, and partly to control the area from which Antsirane could be fed.

The overall purpose of the operation had been to pre-empt any Japanese seizure of Diego Suarez. While it was going on the Vichy Premier, Pierre Laval, had asked the Japanese to occupy the island in order to exclude the British, a neat reversal of the former Vichy idea of asking the US for help to exclude Japan, but even before that it had been made clear to Governor-General Annet that he should allow Japanese submarines to use Diego Suarez. This was in late April 1942, before the French anywhere knew of the British expedition: it was, that is, a gratuitous offer clearly founded on hostility to Britain, and presumably to the United States as well. (This offer was made in the aftermath of the raids on Boulogne-Billancourt and St Nazaire, when Laval believed he had some popular support for his collaborationist policies – certainly there were some anti-British demonstrations in the wake of the landings.)

The British capture of Diego Suarez harbour was thus fully justified since it was about to become a hostile base. On 29 May the Japanese submarine I-10 sent her aircraft to fly over Diego Suarez to locate the British naval force; the next night two midget submarines from I-16 and I-20 went into the bay and attacked the battleship Ramillies and the tanker British Loyalty. Ramillies was badly damaged and the tanker was sunk. (Two Japanese sailors were captured a couple of days later, and papers on them confirmed their mode of attack.) The submarine sent its aircraft over the harbour again the next day to check the results. None of these air reconnaissances seem to have been noticed, still less intercepted, by the British aircraft.

The Japanese attacks were not a response to the appeal by Laval, but their presence may well have been to investigate the possibility of French hospitality at the port. The submarines involved had been touring the Indian Ocean looking for the British Eastern Fleet, though they never did find it. They had investigated the entire East African coast from Djibouti to Durban and even Simonstown in South Africa. Five submarines were involved in the search, and between them they sank twenty-two ships. For the British, however, the attack on the Ramillies was confirmation that Madagascar would have been vulnerable to a Japanese landing.

At the same time it was obvious that such an event as the Japanese occupation of Diego Suarez would hardly take place out of the blue. Madagascar was scarcely the first Indian Ocean target for Japanese forces, and the patrols by hostile submarines or even by German auxiliary cruisers were by no means new or unexpected in the Indian Ocean. If an expedition aimed at Madagascar set out it would in all probability be noticed, and to reach its target it would need to sink the Eastern Fleet first, by which time it would itself be damaged. On the other hand, if it did get through, now that there was a British military presence on the island, and a British naval presence at Diego Suarez, it would probably be welcomed by the Vichy authorities at some other port on the island, especially given the earlier instruction for Vichy to be hospitable.

So, while there was no particular urgency about further conquests on the island, it would clearly be helpful to the war effort for the British to have control of the whole island in a fairly short time. This also raised the issue of who should control the island once the Vichy authorities had succumbed. The British had no real wish to keep it, but to hand it over to the Gaullist Free French was only marginally more acceptable than to leave the Vichy government in charge, and might well stimulate a stronger Vichy resistance; not that either of the French groups believed British protestations of a lack of interest in the island in the long term; de Gaulle was, or claimed to be, convinced that part of Britain’s war aims was to take over the French Empire; Vichy said the same thing, but with more fervour in that it was Vichy’s Empire which was being demolished. If Annet and his officials could be brought to agree to accept some sort of detailed British supervision, that would be acceptable. Free France was not going to be given the island on a plate, considering the long difficulties and arguments which had resulted from the similar situation in Syria and Lebanon over the past year. So the British wanted Gaullist concessions on Syria before handing over Madagascar – that is, Madagascar was dangled as a carrot before the Free French: accept the British terms on Syria and they would get the great island; the stick was that without concessions they would gain neither Madagascar nor Syria.

But there was still another consideration. Free France had been kept out of the planning and execution of the Madagascar expedition because of its bad security. This had in fact proved to be a sensible decision, and the arrival of British forces and their landings at Diego Suarez had come as a complete surprise to the Vichy regimes in both France and Madagascar. (At Vichy the government learned of the British landing in a message from President Roosevelt.) And now an even greater and more important expedition and landing in a different Vichy territory was in its final planning stages. This was Operation Torch, the Anglo-American landings in French North Africa. It was of infinitely greater importance to have this expedition kept secret and made successful than that of Madagascar.

This consideration had its effect also on the situation in Madagascar. If the Vichy French regime in France thought that their administration in Madagascar would be maintained, in however subordinate a position to the British conquerors, they might be induced not to oppose the North African landings very strongly. If they saw, on the other hand, that the British quickly handed over the island to the Free French and its traitor leader de Gaulle, and dismissing or even interning Vichy’s faithful officials, they might be so incensed that their opposition to the North African landings could be intensified. So until the issue in North Africa was determined, Free French control of Madagascar would need to be delayed. At the same time the Free French could not be told any of this, because of their past security lapses. So the Syria-Madagascar linkage proved very useful, not just in hopefully promoting a deal over Syria, but in distracting the Free French away from North Africa. It also meant that there was no urgency in Madagascar, for so long as fighting was going on the British had a good excuse to delay any political decisions.

In Madagascar the linkage with Syria was not visible, any more than was the prospect of landings in North Africa. Contacts between the Vichy administration in Tananarive and the British commanders in Diego Suarez began soon after the landing had succeeded. The intermediaries were Captain Fauché, Governor-General Annet’s aide and military intelligence officer, and Leslie Barnett, the representative of the Vacuum Oil Company of South Africa in Tananarive, who was presumably in the city at the time of the invasion. Annet was intent on preserving as much of the island under his control as possible, and on maintaining his control over its administration, and so he appeared to be offering a quasi-acceptance of the British position; the British commanders did not really wish to embark on a conquest with the relatively weak force they had on hand after 5th Division and the big ships had left. So both sides thought they were playing for time, and stringing the other along, while blaming the other for doing so. The War Cabinet in London was quite content with the stalemated situation, though eventually it was the British intention to deliver the island, all of it, to the Free French, once its usefulness as a bargaining chip and distraction was ended. Meanwhile no Free French representatives could get anywhere near the island because the British controlled their transportation.

The changeover of the British forces at Diego Suarez took place over a period of two months, for the British were really in no hurry, and partly because of the shortage of shipping. The campaign now became a largely African affair. Apart from the British 29 Independent Brigade, the specialists in opposed landings, and 5 Commando, the rest of the British forces present were the 27 Brigade of the King’s African Rifles, with battalions from Kenya, Tanganyika, and Nyasaland, the 7 South African Brigade, recruited mainly from the Transvaal, and assorted artillery, engineering, and other units. On 11 August the overall commander, General Sir William Platt, was given permission from London to begin a campaign to conquer the rest of the island. Again speed was hardly of the essence, but thorough planning was. Late in August 29 Brigade was taken to Kenya for further training. The 1 City Regiment of the 7 South African Brigade (the ‘city’ was Pretoria) was also given rudimentary training in landing from the sea at the island of Nosi Mitsio off the north-west coast, beginning on 4 September. They had to use dhows, not the most convenient vehicles for the purpose, but all that was available.

The night of 9 September was designated for the next forward movement. A new brigade, 27 Northern Rhodesian, had arrived in a convoy at Diego Suarez late in August. That same convoy was now to be used to collect the East African Brigade and bring it to the landing place, with the hope that the enemy, whom it was reasonably assumed had good sources of information in Diego Suarez, would think that this was a process of routinely exchanging brigades. The Eastern Fleet once more provided a substantial covering force, including the carrier Illustrious, the cruisers Birmingham and Gambia, and the Dutch cruiser Jacob van Heemskerck, plus three British, one Australian, and two Dutch destroyers.

No less than five separate operations were to begin at the same time on 9 September. In the north the 1 City Regiment began its march southwards on a rough road from Diego Suarez along the west coast, while one company of the regiment made the landing they had practiced for at Antanambao in advance of the main body. Eight armoured cars of the Pretoria Highlander Regiment, a field battery, and part of the 88 Field Company (engineers), were with it. This set of forces – armoured cars, some guns, infantry, and some engineers, was to be the norm for any force which set out to campaign in Madagascar. It took the force two days to move along the road and join the landing force at Antanambao. The road was basically of sand, and went through mangrove swamps at times. Physical progress was therefore slow and laborious. There was only occasional opposition from Vichy forces, but those forces did carefully destroy every bridge along the road, and planted roadblocks as well. The movement of the northern force therefore depended mainly on the speed with which 88 Field Company could lay its one box-girder bridge over a waterway where the original bridge had been broken, get everyone across, then pick up the bridge and move it on to overcome the next obstacle the infantry had encountered. Occasional snipers were the other real obstacle – apart, of course, from the active and numerous mosquitoes and the high sickness rates these produced among the white soldiers.

At the same time a company of the regiment moved by land across to the east coast, where there was a road of sorts, rather better than that on the west coast, connecting the coastal towns and villages. Progress was reasonably good for the first two days during which a hundred miles was covered as far as the village of Vohemar. But the road deteriorated, and from then on culverts and bridges were regularly broken. It took another nine days to go the next hundred miles to Sahambava. After that just one more village was to be reached, but this campaign was not going to win the war.

The island of Nosi Bé, off the north coast, was attacked before dawn on 9 September, preceded by a bombardment by the minelayer Manxman. Then the landing by part of the Pretoria Highlanders and some Royal Marines captured the local town of Hellville. The island was in British control by noon, with the few uncaptured Malagasy soldiers coming in to surrender voluntarily.

This was the first of five landings at different places which took place on 9 and 10 September. The main landing was to take place at Majunga, 200 miles south of the operations at Nosi Bé and Antanambao. This was an important port at the mouth of the island’s main river, the Betsiboka, and from the town a relatively good road ran through to the capital Tananarive. Majunga also had an airfield, and when this was taken there would be no Vichy air capability north of the capital. The force to be used in the landing was, of course, 29 Brigade, coming directly from its training in Kenya, together with 5 Commando.

Landings were made at three places, one of them some miles north of Majunga and one in Majunga itself. The third was to take place south of the harbour, where it was thought there was a coastal battery; 5 Commando carried out this part of the operation, but there was no battery. The commandos went on inland to secure a bridge thirty miles along the road to block the arrival of any force which might come from inland to interfere. None did.

The main landing was the northern one, a few miles from the town, undertaken by the East Lancashires and the Welch Fusiliers. There was little resistance and by daylight on 10 September they had moved inland and had reached the road which led to the town. The landing in the town itself was by the South Lancashires and again they met some resistance which ceased when the local garrison commander was captured and immediately ordered his men to cease fire; he then toured the town with a British officer to ensure that various separated groups of his men stopped fighting. The East Lancashires captured the airfield, and had been about to attack a Vichy position north of the town when the potential defenders were alerted that the fighting had ended.

The fifth landing was by a single troop of 5 Commando, who landed by boat from the destroyer Napier at the small port of Morondava almost 400 miles south of Majunga. This was also the terminus of another road from the capital to a port, but the object of the landing – which was by only a few men, after all – was to cause a distraction, like Hermione’s antics at the battle of Diego Suarez. They landed in daylight, met no opposition, occupied the town, and sent a party inland supposedly to mark out the billets for a larger force, meanwhile carefully being careless to ‘reveal’ that a larger force was due to arrive. The absence of opposition seems to have been accompanied by an absence of local alarm at the attack, so they themselves had to telephone the capital to report the landing of a large British force. Hoping to have distracted the government in the capital and to have caused the dispatch of a force which might have gone to Majunga down the road to Morondava, they then withdrew. It seems unlikely that anything was achieved, for the official in Tananarive who answered the phone had said that they could do nothing to help.

The 29 Brigade was used just for the initial landings at Majunga, and not even all the men had been landed by the time the fighting in and around the town ended. In the rest of the convoy was the East African Brigade, who were landed over the next few days while 29 Brigade was withdrawn. The change having been completed, a curiously constituted army began to advance along the road from Majunga to the capital, over 250 miles away. A squadron of South African armoured cars manned by Afrikaners from the Pretoria region of the Transvaal was accompanied by successive battalions of the infantry of the King’s African Rifles, recruited from various parts of East Africa. The infantry was intended to be moved in trucks where possible, but this turned out to be very optimistic. The first objectives were two bridges, over the Kamoro and the Betsiboka Rivers. The first, ninety miles along the road, was reached and crossed by 4.00pm, but on the succeeding part of the route they met delays in the form of plenty of roadblocks, so the Betsiboka Bridge was not actually reached that day. When the advance resumed on the morning of 11 September they found that the bridge cables had been cut and the bridge itself had been tumbled into the river, though it proved to be relatively easy to get across the next day.

The same tactics had thus been employed as in the north: breaking down the bridges, occasional snipers opposing the advance, and frequent roadblocks, which were clearly rapidly improvised. They could also be fairly quickly cleared by recruiting local Malagasies, who were often actually the same people who had blocked the road in the first place on French orders, but it always meant that the soldiers had to disembark and deploy. Often they had to drive out the snipers, and sometimes had to cross the rivers under fire, before the bridges could be restored. This was all somewhat annoying and had held up the advance considerably, as it was intended to. At the same time it was not clear whether this was all a process of drawing the British forces ever deeper into the interior as a prelude to mounting a more determined resistance, perhaps by a series of ambushes at the broken bridges or at particularly large roadblocks when the British had outrun their supplies and support. It was therefore necessary to advance with some care. It was slow and laborious, as in the north, but progress was maintained.

Madagascar: The Long Island II

September 1942 Uganda Battery of Kings African Rifles in action against the Vichy-held positions near Ambositra, Madagascar.

Royal Air Force Westland Lysander aircraft fly over Madagascar in 1942.

In the north the advance along the western coast road by the Pretoria Regiment was as slow as any other movement in this island of bad roads. There was the usual lack of large-scale opposition, but this ended on 14 September 1942 when a force of some size in an apparently strong position south of Jangoa was at last encountered. It seemed to be strong enough to be able to hold up the advance and cause some casualties, so a landing was organized in the rear of the position, by the force of Pretoria Highlanders which had held Nosi Bé for the past few days. They were landed at Sahamalaza Bay on the 15th, and marched inland to cut the road behind the Jangoa position. Whether it was the prospect of being attacked from the rear, or the ominous deployment of the rest of the Pretoria Highlanders in their front, or the bombardment of their position by the 16 Field Battery, or more likely a combination of all these factors as well as being outnumbered, the defenders of the Jangoa position surrendered on the 16th, a day after the landing, and they included in their surrender all the forces in the region. The fighting in the north was thus effectively over. But it took four more days for the force moving south to meet up with the men coming northwards from the bridgehead at Majunga. Even without opposition, travel was tediously slow.

The main force advancing along the road towards Tananarive, the armoured cars and the askaris of the KAR, faced the same problems as all the other columns, but since they were aimed at the capital, the problems were greater. The Betsiboka crossing had to be taken under fire by a platoon of Nyasaland infantry, who drove off the defendants – Malagasies – and captured most of them. The crossing then took a day, but the next village, Maevatanana, was defended, again imposing a slowing down of the advance. On 16 September a fight at the next crossing place took place, Nyasalanders against Senegalese this time. Then the bridge had to be replaced.

That was also the day when the defenders of the Jangoa strongpoint surrendered. The defeat of the Senegalese took place near the town of Andriba, which meant that the main force was by then halfway along the road from Majunga to Tananarive. But with his northern force defeated and the road to his capital clearly fully available to the invaders despite all the delaying tactics being employed, Governor-General Annet now asked for terms. He sent envoys to discuss them with General Platt at Majunga, but it appears that surrender and the acceptance of British authority was not an option for them – so it was probably just another tactic designed to delay the British advance. The envoys returned to Tananarive, and two days later Annet moved out of the capital southwards, apparently fully intent on continuing the fight to the end, as he had proclaimed in May.

His going may have been hastened by another landing by 29 Brigade. The troops had been re-embarked at Majunga, once the askaris had arrived then were ferried round the island to Tamatave on the east coast. This was another port, but more importantly it was also the terminus of the railway which connected Tananarive with the coast. It was clearly a place which needed to be controlled, both because it was a port and because it was a possible escape point for the Governor-General and his remaining forces.

The troops, in the transports and in the landing craft, were covered by the presence once more of Illustrious and her aircraft, and by the battleship Warspite with the cruisers Birmingham and Jacob van Heemskerck, together with some destroyers. The implied threat of the bombardment of the town was made explicit when the envoys that went in to discuss the surrender of the town were fired on. At this, the ships opened fire, though Warspite restrained herself. After only three minutes’ shelling a white flag indicated the town’s surrender; the charade – ‘honour’ – had cost the lives of several men. When the troops did land, half an hour later, they were welcomed, but it soon became clear that the Vichy forces which had been in the town had used the delay over the surrender to withdraw inland – and they left the usual roadblocks and broken bridges behind them as they moved.

So the same painful advance along roads broken at bridging points and blocked here and there by obstacles appeared likely. However, a train arrived at the station unexpectedly – no doubt the driver had not been told what had happened – and was quickly commandeered, so the advance went partly by rail, though a couple of the railway crossings had been blown up as well as those on the parallel road. This advance was not going as quickly as had been hoped – but then none of the moves in this island went quickly.

On the main advance from Majunga the last village before the capital, Mahitsi, was the scene of the nearest thing to a battle since the fight at Diego Suarez. A ridge overlooking the road was occupied by Vichy troops, and their guns were ranged in on the obstacles of trees and stones blocking the road, which could not therefore be removed. It took all day on the 21st to bring up guns to counter those on the ridge, and an infantry attack by askaris on the right flank was resisted with some determination. The fighting set the bush afire, which did not help. The ridge itself and some of the infantry positions were taken before nightfall, and the next day the Vichy gun positions were located and their guns were bombarded into silence. Attacks on both flanks finally drove the defenders out.

Another position just outside Tananarive had to be threatened and bombarded, but it was held by only about 250 men, who were thus very badly outnumbered, and hardly capable of much resistance. Once these troops had given up a flag of truce appeared and the city was surrendered. This took place on 23 September; the force coming up the railway from Tamatave was still only halfway there, and a little annoyed to come in second in the race to the capital.

Governor-General Annet had moved south, to the town of Fianarantsoa, another 200 miles away. On 25 September the main column of South African armoured cars and East African infantry left Tananarive once more in pursuit, meeting with the same obstacles as before. Occasional brief fights took place, bridges had to be repaired, and roadblocks were removed. Again, speed was eschewed (even had it been possible), and more than one pause for rest was made. An attempt by a small mobile Vichy force to cut the column’s communications never came to much. Just in case the Governor-General was still considering escaping by sea the last port under his control, Tulear, at the southern end of the road along which the advance was taking place, was occupied by part of the Pretoria Regiment, which was carried from the north in the cruiser Birmingham. Two French transport ships were also captured and sunk near the southern end of the island by the destroyer Nizam, the first on the 24th, the day after Tananarive was captured, and the second on the 30th, the day after the occupation of Tulear. Annet now had neither a port nor a ship available for his escape.

Nevertheless it took another month and more and another battle to complete the conquest of the island. The only hope for Annet and his people now was that the British would become exhausted and simply stop, since any help which might come from elsewhere could no longer reach the island. But, after all the effort, the road clearances, the landings, the small fights, it was hardly likely that the invaders would give up. Sickness among many of the soldiers was common, and they were undoubtedly weary of clearing roadblocks and rebuilding bridges. After a fairly short advance south from Tananarive, at Antsirabe, the column halted for several days’ rest. Perhaps the Vichy forces were encouraged; they certainly were thereby given time to organize further resistance.

South of Antsirabe the land was higher, less wooded and a lot more open and rocky, but the climate was wetter and often misty. The column ran into a series of small ambushes, and had to fight a battle at Ambositra. Then, soon after that fight, they reached a well-held and well-chosen position which had to be elaborately outflanked and subjected to a formal bombardment. The resistance by the Malagasies was strong against the first frontal attack by the Kenya Battalion, until the Tanganyika Battalion opened fire on them from their rear. Eight hundred prisoners were taken at the end, so, assuming that some men escaped and some died, Annet clearly had kept a substantial force with him until that time.

But the fact that most of the enemy had given up, together with the surrender of a steady stream of deserters from the Vichy forces, were clear signs that the end was near. The column of South African armoured cars, British artillery, and African infantry reached Annet’s headquarters at Fianarantsoa on 29 October – but of course he had gone again, further south, to Ihosy. So yet another chase went on, but the capture of a weakly-held position on 4 November at Ambalavao ended his last hope. The Pretoria men at Tulear had begun to advance up the road towards the Ihosy on 2 November, so the area of Annet’s authority was reduced to perhaps no more than a couple of hundred miles of road, blocked at both ends by his enemies, and steadily shrinking. Next day, 5 November, he asked for an armistice, was presented with the same terms as six weeks before, and this time accepted them.

Annet’s resistance had been long and stubborn – though he had not, as he had exhorted his troops, fought to the end – and he had managed to hold the loyalty of many of his troops, even if they did tend to surrender rather too readily when faced with a serious fight. His methods had evoked a certain admiration from the British higher command, though the foot soldiers were less complimentary. He had, however, been only feebly supported by the French settlers and by his officials. The former had generally welcomed the arrival of the British troops, for British conquest implied access to British markets and money – this was the same reaction as had been seen in Equatorial Africa. The officials had almost entirely settled down once more as soon as the occupation began and had continued their administrative duties with only a passive show of enmity, which did not last. The troops Annet could rely on were largely Malagasy, who were not prepared to do much more than fight briefly, no doubt mainly because they knew they were outnumbered and that Annet’s strategy was to retreat. Inevitably they were demoralized. He had not received any material assistance from Vichy, and he was not really helped by a radio message from Admiral Darlan on 6 November, the day after the armistice had been signed and implemented, urging him to fight on. He did his best to obstruct the new administration, but this only lasted until he was removed to South Africa to be interned. He deserved to be commended by his Vichy superiors for the long fight he had made – but this was also a tactic which had played into British hands, though he and they cannot have realized it.

The conquest had taken long enough to allow the British to delay any promised handover to the Free French with the plea that the fighting was still going on. Investigations on the island made it clear that de Gaulle had almost no support among the French settlers and officials, other than from a small number of individuals who had been jailed for expressing themselves too publicly. If further trouble on the island was to be avoided a period of time was clearly needed to accustom the French there to the idea that they were no longer subject to Vichy regime, and that they would soon be part of Free France. The success of the Torch landings (which began two days after the armistice in Madagascar), and the consequent German conquest of the unoccupied zone of France, no doubt helped the French in Madagascar to realize Vichy’s failure, and its likely extinction. The officials of the administration proved to be very adaptable, first to Vichy, then to the British, and then, perhaps with some relief, to their fellow Frenchmen – so their salaries and pensions were safe. By the time the Free French were ceded control of the island, it was clear to those who could see what was going on that they were now on the winning side. When General Legentilhomme finally arrived to take up the island’s governorship in January 1943 there were not even any murmurs of annoyance.

Meanwhile the Free French had been capitalizing on the British victory by snapping up yet another little island. Three hundred miles east of Madagascar was the French island of Réunion. On 30 November the Free French destroyer Léopard (one of those seized at Portsmouth two years before) landed a force on the island, having first bombarded and silenced a defensive battery. As usual this independent Free French activity annoyed both its allies and Vichy, but it was Léopard which eventually brought Legentilhomme to take up his post at Madagascar. Of course, Free France’s allies eventually realized and accepted that the removal of Vichy authority from Réunion was a worthwhile action.