Of Tanks and Storm Troops I

Specialized soldiers operating with the German army in France in World War I.

It has often been said that the initial employment of tanks in small numbers on the Somme was a tactical blunder, and that it would have been better to wait until several hundred machines became available and then deliver a concentrated blow with the new weapon, so preserving the element of surprise. There is much to be said for this argument, but there is another side to the coin as well.

Once the Germans had recovered from their initial shock, they set about evaluating a number of tanks which had fallen into their hands. They found that not only were they mechanically unreliable, they were vulnerable to direct gunfire as well. In the opinion of many German officers the tank was a freak terror weapon of limited efficiency and with a strictly local potential. Special anti-tank ammunition, known as the K round, was developed for use by the infantry, and guns brought into the front line for use in the direct fire role. Of greater importance was the German decision not to divert resources to manufacturing their own tanks, a decision which seemed entirely justified by the sight of British vehicles wallowing their way into bottomless mud-holes during the 1917 Flanders offensive. But the German evaluation contained a number of blind spots. It was wrong to assume that the British would not improve the mechanical efficiency of their tanks; wrong to assume that armour thickness would not be increased, so reducing the K round to impotence almost as soon as it was issued; and, above all, wrong to assume that tanks would always be employed across the least suitable going.

The Tank Corps, as the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps became, had as its commander 36-year-old Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, a Royal Engineer officer who had advised Haig during the tank’s development stage. Elles’ Chief of Staff (GSO 1) was Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, an intellectual soldier who had originally served with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and who would later become a distinguished military historian.

Fuller possessed an insight which amounted to genius. Although at first he was somewhat less than lukewarm to the tank idea, his conversion was total. Like many such men, he had little patience with those who failed to grasp what he considered to be an essential truth, treating them with caustic scorn. The cavalry he considered to be completely useless, the artillery an over-subscribed fraternity whose principal contribution was to smash up the ground which his tanks would have to cross. During the Passchendaele fighting he had a board erected outside Tank Corps HQ, saying,

DON’T BE PESSIMISTIC! THIS IS THE LAST GREAT ARTILLERY BATTLE!

Elles made him take it down; it was too close to the truth not to make enemies.

Both Elles and Fuller worked unceasingly for the chance to show what their Corps could achieve fighting en masse and on good going. Haig, more often remembered for his premature comment that the tank was “a pretty mechanical toy” than for the later support he gave to the Corps, granted their request after some prompting from General Sir Julian Byng, whose Third Army sector contained the most promising ground for the attack, consisting of rolling chalk down land as yet little cut up by shellfire.

The object of the offensive was to seize the enemy’s communications centre of Cambrai. The tanks would breach the formidable Hindenburg Line in conjunction with Third Army’s infantry, and the Cavalry Corps would exploit beyond. Artillery preparation was limited to a short hurricane bombardment at H-Hour.

The tank Corps had available a total 376 Mark IV gun tanks, plus a further 32 fitted with grapnels for clearing wire from the cavalry’s path, 18 supply tanks and a handful of communication and bridging vehicles. The Hindenburg trenches were dug both wide and deep, and were considered to be tank-proof by the Germans. To counter this many tanks carried huge bundles of brushwood, known as fascines, on their roofs, which could be released into the trenches, so forming a bridge.

The attack was to commence on the morning of 20th November 1917, and the evening before Elles sat down to scribble his now famous Special Order No. 6.

  1. Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months – to operate on good going in the van of battle.
  2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
  3. It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
  4. In the light of past experiences I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
  5. I propose leading the attack of the centre division.

Hugh Elles,

  1. G.

Commanding Tank Corps. 19th Nov. 1917

Distribution to Tank Commanders.

Elles led out his men in the tank Hilda of H Battalion, proudly flying his Corps’ brown, red and green standard. He had chosen the colours deliberately as a demonstration that the tanks could and would smash through the mud and blood of trench deadlock and advance into the green fields beyond.

That morning, the Tank Corps affirmed another essential element of Blitzkrieg – overwhelming concentration of force at the point of impact. The Germans could offer little effective resistance and fled, routed and panic-stricken, leaving a huge six-mile gap yawning in their laboriously constructed defence system.

For a brief period, the cavalry had the chance to break out into open country. They did not take it, since their Corps Commander had installed himself in a headquarters several miles in the rear, and kept his subordinates on a tight rein. By the time he was fully conversant with what was taking place and authorized a general advance, the enemy had rushed in reinforcements to seal the gap, and the moment had passed; in addition, the horses had been on the move or standing to all day, and badly needed watering. Here again was a lesson that would be absorbed into subsequent Blitzkrieg techniques – that the commander of an exploitation force must travel with the leading troops if he is to make the most of the opportunities he is offered.

But for the moment that did not seem to matter; what really mattered was that at last a way had been found to break the German defences at a comparatively trivial cost in lives. For the only time during the Great War the church bells of Britain rang in joyous celebration of a great victory.

During the next few days, battle casualties and mechanical attrition progressively reduced the numbers of tanks available for action. The tempo of the battle slowed and the front seemed to reach a state of stabilization again. The tanks were gradually withdrawn find despatched by rail to their base.

Then, on 30th November, the unbelievable happened. The Germans counter-attacked with a speed and drive that had never been experienced before on the Western Front. Whole units were isolated and cut off, while others went down fighting to stem the tide. The few tanks which had not been shipped away, often battlefield recoveries, were formed at commendable speed into provisional units which succeeded in eroding the weight of the German effort, but by 7th December much of the ground taken during the great tank attack had been recaptured, and a little more besides. The Battle of Cambrai had ended with honours exactly even, and for the British this was as humiliating as it was inexplicable.

Reports were called for, containing an explanation for the disaster. Neither Haig nor Byng, nor the corps and divisional commanders, could offer any militarily intelligible explanations. To the eternal disgrace of their authors, those reports that were submitted sank to unplumbed depths of moral cowardice in that blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of the regimental junior officers and even NCOs, who, it was said, had failed to exercise proper leadership. These were the very men who had died resisting the German attack, and to whom military discipline denied any right of reply if they survived.

Obviously the general public was not going to accept this outrageous suggestion without making a great deal of trouble for the Government and the military Establishment. Some sort of quasi-plausible excuse was cobbled together, based on the lack of reserves which, it was said, had been absorbed by the Flanders sector or which were in transit to the Italian Front; but it did not explain why the German infantry had managed to break through the defences so quickly. The plain fact was that nobody really knew.

One officer, Captain G. Dugdale, diagnosed one of the symptoms when he wrote his own record of the battle. He wrote that “The German aeroplanes were very active, flying over our lines in large numbers, very low. They were shooting with machine guns at the troops on the ground, and I am quite sure this did more to demoralise our men than anything else.” Here was something that would be instantly recognizable to the Blitzkrieg generation – the use of air power in conjunction with the ground attack to eliminate centres of resistance and induce fear.

This was part of the answer, but only part. The Germans had in fact perfected their own method of breaking the trench deadlock, and the Cambrai counter-stroke was only a foretaste of what was to come.

The story began three months earlier in the most unlikely of settings, on the Baltic coast at Riga. Here the Russian Twelfth Army under General Klembovsky held a bridgehead along the west bank of the River Dvina. Their opponents were General von Hutier’s Eighth Army, which had the task of eliminating the bridgehead and capturing Riga as a prelude to an advance on Petrograd.

Klembovsky knew he was to be attacked, but imagined that von Hutier would first eliminate the bridgehead before crossing the river. He therefore retained his more reliable troops in the bridgehead itself, and detailed divisions of doubtful quality to hold the river line.

However, von Hutier’s strategy was the exact opposite. His plan was to force a crossing of the river and then swing north towards the coast, so placing the defenders of Riga inside a trap. In so doing he was employing the strategic principle of Blitzkrieg known as the Indirect Approach, a recognition that an enemy position could be made untenable as a result of successful operations elsewhere rather than by direct assault.

Apart from the overall strategy of the Riga operation, its tactical execution is of great interest as well. The first German attempts to use poison gas had been clumsy, involving the release of chlorine from cylinders in the front line when a favourable wind was blowing, but of course any change in wind direction tended to make this a very two- edged weapon. Since the early experiments chlorine had been replaced by phosgene, otherwise known as mustard gas, which required only one part to four million of air to be effective. It was, therefore, possible to incorporate a small cylinder of the gas into the filling of a conventional high explosive artillery shell, thus ensuring its accurate delivery. The beauty of the device, if that is quite the right word, was that the recipients were unaware that they were being gassed until it was too late. The results were extremely unpleasant, consisting of painful blistering and violent attacks of vomiting, with a consequent reduction in both the capacity and the will to fight. The new shell had not been used in offensive operations before, and von Hutier’s artillery was to treat the Russians to a very stiff dose.

The German infantry, too, would be employing new tactics. Once across the Dvina, the assault troops would rely on speed and infiltration to work their way through the enemy’s successive defence lines, while waves of ground attack aircraft raked the trenches with machine-gun fire.

They went in on 1st September, following a five-hour bombardment, a mere disturbance by Western Front standards, but enough to drench the Russian positions with gas, shake their occupants with high explosive and blind them with smoke. When the German infantry swarmed across the river their rapid advance past sectors which were still holding out completely unnerved the remainder of the defenders, who began streaming away to the east in panic. Within hours the front had been broken.

The very speed with which success was attained prevented von Hutier from reaping the full fruits of his victory. He had prepared a strict timetable which had been overtaken by events, and it took him some time to accelerate the northern thrust that was meant to be decisive. In that time Klembovsky, reacting with a promptness foreign to the majority of Russian general officers, re-appraised the situation and withdrew the remainder of his army through Riga and along the coast road to Pskov.

Casualties in terms of killed and wounded had been negligible for both sides, although 9000 Russians had been taken prisoner. The Kaiser, delighted at von Hutier’s almost bloodless capture of Russia’s second most important port, paid him the compliment of a personal visit.

On 24th October the same tactics were employed again, this time against the Italian Second Army on the Caporetto sector of the Isonzo front, by General von Below’s Fourteenth Austro-German Army. The Italian Commander in Chief, General Luigi Cadorna, had suspected that this sector had been chosen as a target for a major offensive, and had given instructions for a defence in depth to be prepared; his instructions were ignored, with catastrophic consequences.

The German bombardment, erupting among the surprised Italians, disrupted all communications with the rear, so that formation headquarters were left floundering in a fog of war as dense as that which enveloped their choking front-line troops. And then came the assault infantry, sinister grey ghosts flitting in groups through the zone of gas and on towards the artillery and administrative areas, followed by more substantial formations which eliminated any centres of resistance which had been by-passed. Regiments shredded away from the front, while those on either flank, bereft of instructions from the paralysed command system, were forced to conform to the movement. Soon the whole of Second Army was straggling towards the rear, thus compelling the withdrawal of Third Army on its right as well.

Cadorna hoped to check the flood along the line of the Tagliamente, but the pursuit was as rapid as it was ruthless. Crossings were forced before the Italians could reorganize their shattered forces, Second Army HQ being reduced to the common lot of fugitives, incapable of organizing a coherent front from the drifting wrack of its troops. Not until 7th November did the Italians turn and fight again, manning a hastily dug defence line which followed the southern bank of the River Piave.

In less than three weeks they had sustained a staggering 300,000 casualties, lost 2,500 guns, and been propelled back more than 70 miles from their original front line. It was a blow which almost knocked Italy out of the war, and which caused the urgent despatch of sorely needed British and French divisions from the Western Front to stiffen the defence.

The conduct of war is subject to certain inescapable rules, one of which is that the power of the attack diminishes in proportion to the distance it has covered. The operation of this rule had given the Italian Army the time it needed to form a new front; von Below had available neither armoured cars nor cavalry with which to exploit the sudden collapse, and the pursuit had been carried out by infantry who had reached the limit of their endurance.

Riga, Caporetto and the Cambrai counter-stroke all pointed to the way in which the German Army planned to fight its 1918 battles, but the evidence was too fragmented by distance for the Western Allies to draw any firm conclusions. Riga had been fought against troops already war-weary and demoralized by revolution; the Italians were not considered to have a first-class army, and anyway, mountain warfare was different; and of course Cambrai remained an enigma.

Meanwhile, the Germans were refining their techniques, forming their Stosstruppen into special battalions which would form the spearhead of their respective divisions. The Storm Troopers were chosen from among young, fit men of proven initiative and represented the cream of the army. They moved in groups, their favourite weapons being the grenade, of which each man carried at least one bag, the light machine-gun and the man-pack flamethrower. They came on at a run, rifles slung, taking advantage of all available ground cover, and if they encountered opposition they worked their way round it, jumping trenches without pausing to fight for them. Their object was to get into the enemy’s artillery zone, overrunning batteries and pressing on towards brigade and divisional headquarters with little respite. Continual movement was the essence of their tactics. On occasion, an attack might make ground so quickly that it was in danger of running into its own supporting artillery fire, and a system of rocket signals was evolved to inform the gunners when to lift onto the next target.

Behind the Storm Troops would come the Battle Groups, specially trained to reduce strong-points which had been left unsubdued, followed by the mass of the infantry divisions, which would eliminate the last pockets of resistance and secure the captured ground. The whole system resembled a gigantic snake in that once the tail had caught up, the head would shoot off again.

Overhead flew the Schlachtstaffeln (Battle Flights), more specialists who concentrated on ground strafing enemy troops in the immediate path of the Storm Troopers. Generally the Schlachtstaffeln, consisting of up to six Hannover or Halberstadt machines, attacked from a height of about 200 feet, sometimes dropping bundles of grenades to supplement the fire of their guns.

Both the Royal Flying Corps and the German Imperial Air Service had begun ground strafing in mid-1917. The RFC did not, however, believe it necessary to form special units for the work, which was considered to be an extension of normal squadron duties, and employed a variety of machines of which the best remembered is the famous Sopwith Camel. The British produced the better results by flying at ground level, there being several recorded instances of German soldiers being knocked flat by the wheels of British aircraft. The moral effect was considerable, provoking bitter complaint from the Storm Troops that the Schlachtstaffeln were not doing their job properly. An enjoyable diversion for the British pilots was the pursuit of motor-cycle despatch riders and staff cars – not quite the trivial occupation it sounds, since the undelivered message and the general prevented from exercise command can both contribute to the failure of an operation already plagued by difficulties. The French formed a large organization for heavy local ground support, the Division Aerienne, which could be moved about the front as required.

In previous offensives along the Western Front it had been the practice of the higher command to commit its reserves against the strongest resistance encountered. The strategy of infiltration differed radically in that only successful penetrations were reinforced; in this way the merest trickle through a broken defence could become a flood and ultimately a torrent. Whereas offensives had until now burst like a wave against the rock of defence, the new system could be likened to an in-coming tide, probing insidiously into the channels between sandbanks, flowing round them yet still maintaining its advance against the shore, while behind came the great mass of water under which the sandbanks would ultimately vanish.

As 1917 drew to a close it appeared that of the two alternative forms of attack, only the German method produced lasting results. For General Erich von Ludendorff, effective commander of the German armies in the west, it seemed as though the New Year was to be one of great promise.

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Of Tanks and Storm Troops II

Following the `holing’ of two Mark IV (female) tanks by `Nixe’, which forced the British tanks to withdraw from the Cachy Switch, 2nd Lieutenant Frank Mitchell’s Mark IV (male) engages his German adversary, striking its starboard plate.

Russia had at last staggered out of the war and was preoccupied with her own internal struggles, while it would be some months before American troops could reach the battlefields in any significant numbers. In the period before the American presence could make itself felt, the troops released from the Eastern Front could be used to deal the tired British and French armies a series of knock-out blows.

In Ludendorff’s eyes, Great Britain had become the dominant partner in the Alliance, not merely at sea, but also on land. He reasoned that if the French were beaten into surrender, the British would continue to fight; that the reverse did not apply; therefore the next major offensive must be designed to inflict a severe defeat on the British and physically separate them from their Allies.

The offensive, codenamed Michael, would begin with a massive attack on the Arras – Cambrai – St Quentin sector. The strategic objective would be the communications centre of Amiens, and a mere twenty miles beyond lay an even more glittering prize, the Somme estuary and the sea. If only the sea could be reached, the Western Front would be ripped apart and the British armies confined to a coastal enclave; from that point onwards the British would be fighting for survival and not for victory. It was an attractive strategy, and one which, some twenty-two years later, would form the basis of a plan presented to the Führer by Field Marshal von Manstein.

On the forty-mile stretch of front no less than 67 divisions of the German Seventeenth, Second and Eighteenth Armies had been concentrated against a total of 33 belonging to Gough’s Fifth and Byng’s Third Armies. In addition Ludendorff’s team would include a number of very important names, including those of von Hutier, hero of Riga, and von Below, the victor of Caporetto.

Also present was a Colonel Bruchmuller, who had fired the crucial opening bombardment at Riga. Bruchmuller was a brilliant artilleryman who commanded a “travelling Circus” of medium and heavy guns which moved up and down the line throughout Ludendorff’s 1918 series of offensives. He insisted that all batteries under his command should register their targets by mathematical survey rather than by the more usual ranging shellfire, thus achieving total surprise when they did open up. During its career, the Bruchmuller Circus consistently achieved such spectacular results that the colonel became know throughout the army as Durchbruch Muller (Break-Through Muller).

In great secrecy the German artillery was focused against Gough and Byng, so that 4,010 field guns opposed only 1,710, and 2,588 medium and heavy pieces were ranged against the 976 available to the British. In the meantime, events on the other side of the wire were also tending to further the success of the German plans. Not only had more of the front been taken over from the French, a new system of defence was being developed as well. This contained three elements: a Forward Zone, consisting of a series of strong-points which were in effect little more than fortified outposts; a Battle Zone trench system manned by about one third of the defenders, some two to three miles behind the Forward Zone; and a Rear Zone trench system, housing the reserves, some four to eight miles beyond the Battle Zone.

Every aspect of the system played right into Ludendorff’s hands. The Forward Zone provided the Storm Troops with the very opportunities they sought to infiltrate: the Battle Zone was within range of the German artillery yet lacked dug-outs in which the troops could shelter during bombardment; and in places the Rear Zone had not even been dug, its location being marked by a line of spit-locked turf. The system was, in short, a recipe for complete disaster, revealing how little the British understood of the new German artillery and infantry tactics, compounded by the fact that each nine-battalion division was badly below strength, battalions containing an average of 500 effectives in contrast to the 1000 with which they had gone to war.

Deserters had warned of the impending offensive, but none of the defenders had the slightest inkling of just what was in store for them.

At 0440 on 21st March almost 7,000 guns rocked the atmosphere with the opening salvo of the most concentrated bombardment in the history of the war. It is said that when the 2,500 British guns opened up in reply there was no appreciable difference in the noise level, since the air was too disturbed by continuous shock waves to conduct more than an impression of sound.

From 0440 until 0640 Bruchmuller’s men fired a mixture of gas and high explosive shells into the British gun batteries, command posts, communication centres and bivouac areas, punctuated at 0530 by a ten-minute switch directly onto the Forward Zone. At 0640 there was a 30-minute pause to rest the sweating gun crews, during which batteries fired check rounds only.

At 0710 the guns thundered out again, hammering the British trench systems while the heaviest pieces engaged targets in the rear. By 0940 the whole area had been combed and swept several times, and what was not smashed by high explosive was drenched in gas and shrouded in drifting smoke. At 0900 the fire rose to a crescendo, its pattern changing ominously to a barrage which obliterated what remained of the Forward Zone, then lifted 300 metres, halted for three minutes, lifted 200 metres, halted for four minutes, and lifted again, maintaining a steady progress into the Battle Zone.

0940 was the Storm Troopers’ H-Hour. Their rapid advance across No Man’s Land was cloaked by a natural mist and they met little resistance in the shattered Forward Zone. They pressed on into the Battle Zone, their green signal rockets soaring to request an acceleration of the creeping barrage, and were seen working their way through gaps in the main trench line. Behind came the Battle Groups, isolating and subduing small pockets of stubborn defenders, and in their wake followed the main weight of the attack. Only the Schlachtstaffeln were absent, grounded by the mist, but as this cleared they began to arrive over the battlefield about midday, their activities covered by a swarm of fighters.

One characteristic of the British soldier is his stubborn immobility in defence. With their telephone links to the rear cut by shellfire, battalions fought their battles with little direction from their higher formation. Some, the luckier ones, were able to withdraw, doggedly covering the retreat of the artillery; others, more quickly surrounded, fought on to the death and were never heard from again. These, and little group of cooks, clerks, batmen, signallers and drivers, rushed into the line at a minute’s notice, all took toll of their attackers, but the fact remained that by nightfall a forty-mile gap had been punched in the line and Fifth Army was on the point of disintegration.

The week that followed was one of deep trauma for the British both in France and at home. The Flesquiers salient, last remnant of the great tank attack at Cambrai, was swallowed up in the first day’s advance; four days later all the ground that had been bought so bloodily during the Somme battle was once more in German hands. British and French divisions, hurrying to plug the gap, found themselves caught up in the general retreat.

The crisis was of such proportion that on 26th March the Allies appointed a Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, to co¬ ordinate counter-measures. Everyone appreciated the strategic significance of Amiens and divisions from both the British and French sectors were despatched quickly into the danger area. By 5th April the line had been stabilized at Villers-Bretonneux, a mere ten miles east of Amiens, partly because of these counter-measures and partly because the German offensive was running down in obedience to the laws of the attack.

The Storm Troops, having advanced up to forty miles in a week in the van of a hard-fought battle, were exhausted and had suffered a fiercer rate of attrition than had been allowed for. Their casualties been caused by the stubborn defence, by the RFC’s universal ground- strafing, and by encounters with tanks fighting in the counter-attack role.

These last encounters are of interest, for while it is true to say that tanks can take ground but not hold it, they can buy time, which in war is the most priceless commodity of all. On a number of occasions tanks caught Storm Troop and Battle Group units in the open and dispersed them with some slaughter, effectively blunting divisional spearheads and so delaying the advance of the main body until a reorganization could be effected.

There was another influence at work too, a factor which could not have been foreseen by either side. God tends to remain aloof from Man’s foolishness, but the devil does not and the battlefield is his playground. On 28th March German air reconnaissance reported that the country between Albert and Amiens was clear of Allied troops, but for no intelligible reason the advance did not proceed beyond the town of Albert itself. A staff officer was sent forward by car to investigate. On arrival he found a state of complete bedlam. Drunken men, some wearing top hats and other looted clothing, were staggering about the streets, helping themselves to whatever they fancied, quite beyond the control of their officers. By the time the advance was resumed, Amiens was no longer attainable.

Elsewhere along the front similar scenes were taking place whenever an Allied supply depot was captured. Weary Storm Troopers, suddenly presented with stocks of drink, real tobacco, real coffee and items of food which the British maritime blockade had long since made a memory in Germany, found themselves unable to resist the temptation to gorge themselves with unaccustomed luxuries; even such mundane things as boot polish and notepaper had not been seen in the trenches for many months, and now they were to be had for the taking.

The advance was resumed as soon as order had been restored, but the Storm Troops’ keen psychological edge had been dulled and the élan of the early days was lacking. The daily advance rate became slower and slower until it was clear that the Michael offensive was over.

Disregarding the demoralizing effects of the Allied supply depots, it must be admitted that Ludendorff had it within his power to capture Amiens. That he did not do so stemmed from a decision taken as early as 23rd March. Instead of maintaining the westward march of his three armies, he dispersed their effort, insisting that Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies should turn respectively north-west and south-west, while in the centre Second Army alone continued along its original axis.

This can be justified only in part as the conventional strategy of building protective shoulders for the huge salient which was forming, but it also denied a basic military tenet and fundamental principle of Blitzkrieg, namely Maintenance of the Objective; in other words, having set Amiens as his primary strategic objective, the majority of his effort should have been directed at capturing the city in accordance with the aims of his original plan.

His decision, in conjunction with the various other factors already mentioned above, did not merely cost him a meticulously planned and gallantly executed infantry Blitzkrieg victory; ultimately it cost Germany the war.

The following month Ludendorff would attack again, this time in Flanders, recovering all the ground lost during the 1917 British offensive, and in May the French were forced back more than thirty miles on the Chemin des Dames sector, but neither operation possessed the same strategic menace as had the great drive on Amiens. Not that Amiens had been forgotten. On 24th April the Germans mounted a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux, heralded as usual by an intense bombardment with gas and high explosive. This time, however, it was not the Storm Troops who emerged from the morning mist but tanks of a totally unfamiliar design.

The tanks’ break-through at Cambrai had at last convinced the Germans that they must, after all, form their own Panzer Corps. Experiments had been going on in a dilatory sort of way since October 1916, conducted by the secret Allgemaine Kriegsdepartment 7 Abteilung Verkehrswesen (General War Department 7, Traffic Section), known as A7V for short, which also gave its name to the finished product, of which only a handful had been built by the Spring of 1918.

In form the A7V followed the French concept of an armoured box on a tracked chassis. Its armament consisted of one 57-mm Russian Sokol gun in the front plate, two machine-guns on each side and two at the rear. Although possessing a sprung suspension the vehicle was a poor cross-country performer and had a high centre of gravity. Inside no less than eighteen men were stuffed in supreme discomfort into a space measuring 24 feet by 10 feet, which also housed two 100-h.p. Daimler engines.

In conjunction with five captured Mark IVs, four A7Vs had been used in penny packets on the first day of the Michael offensive. Their use had gone unrecorded by the British, since those who had seen the tanks had either been killed or captured. Thereafter, the tanks’ low mechanical endurance had prevented them from keeping up with the advance.

At Villers-Bretonneux the Germans led their attack with a total of twelve A7Vs. The effect of the tanks on the British infantry was precisely the same as it had been on the German. A three-mile gap appeared in the line, through which the Storm Troops poured into the shattered town.

However, a little way to the south-west lay the Bois de l’Abbe, and lying up in the wood were two Female and one Male Mark IVs of No 1 Section A Company 1st Battalion Tank Corps, commanded by Captain J. C. Brown. The crews were still suffering from the effects of gas but those who had not been totally incapacitated manned their vehicles and proceeded towards the still unbroken Cachy switch-line. Throughout the subsequent action Brown controlled his tanks on foot, running across open ground between them to direct their movement.

No sooner had No 1 Section emerged from the wood than they were warned by the infantry of the presence of German armour. The following extracts are taken from an account of the engagement written by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, commanding the Male tank.

“I informed the crew, and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole, I looked out. There, some 300 yards away, a round, squat¬ looking monster was advancing; behind it came waves of infantry, and farther away to the left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises.”

Mitchell’s right-hand gunner at once engaged the German vehicle with his 6-pounder. He worked under the greatest difficulty, being all but blinded by gas, and was forced to load for himself while the Male pitched in and out of shell holes, his usual loader being one of those left behind in the wood. Meanwhile the A7V, Elfriede of 3rd Panzer Abteilung, was firing at the other tanks in the section with its 57-mm gun. The two Females, being armed only with machine-guns, were powerless to reply and were quickly forced to retire with holes blown in their armour plate. Simultaneously the A7V’s machine gunners were engaging Mitchell’s vehicle, sending the crew diving to the floor as a continuous shower of sparks and splinters flew off the inside of the hull. Mitchell decided to halt so as to give his gunner a better chance.

“The pause was justified; a well-aimed shot hit the enemy’s conning tower, bringing him to a standstill. Another round and yet another white puff at the front of the tank denoted a second hit! Peering with swollen eyes through his narrow slit, the gunner shouted words of triumph that were drowned by the roar of the engine. Then once more he aimed with great deliberation and hit for the third time. Through a loophole I saw the tank heel over to one side; then a door opened and out ran the crew. We had knocked the monster out! Quickly I signalled to the machine gunner and he poured volley after volley into the retreating figures.”

Elfriede’s driver, probably concussed by the thunder-clap explosion of the first 6-pounder round against what Mitchell calls, with some justice, the conning tower, had lost direction and run his tank slantwise onto a steep slope. The second and third hits seem to have caused little damage, but the ground had given way beneath the A7V, which slowly toppled onto its side into a sand pit.

Well pleased with the result of the action, Mitchell set off in a slow-motion pursuit of the two remaining German tanks, which had begun to retire towards their own lines. Unfortunately, a direct hit from an artillery shell brought an end to the chase and Mitchell and his crew were forced to evacuate their vehicle and shelter in the nearest infantry trench.

The state of play was now as follows. On the British side, Mitchell’s Male had been immobilized and Brown’s two Females had retired with battle damage; to balance this one German tank had been knocked out and two more had voluntarily withdrawn, leaving the Storm Troops vulnerable to counter-attack if more British tanks appeared.

That this actually occurred was rather the result of personal initiative than of any grand design. An RFC pilot, flying over the area of the tank battle, had observed the stalled German infantry preparing to advance again towards the switch-line and had dropped a message to that effect into the harbour area of a 3rd Battalion Tank Company three miles west of Cachy.

The tank company consisted of seven Whippets commanded by Captain T. R. Price, who at once set his vehicles in motion. As he approached the battle area Price deployed his tanks into line abreast and advanced at top speed over good going. The Germans, amounting to two battalions, were taken completely by surprise while forming up in a hollow and were massacred as the Whippets tore into them, machine-guns blazing. At the end of their run the tanks wheeled round and combed the area again, the crews later being sickened by the discovery that their tracks were “covered in blood and human remains”. Both German battalions were utterly dispersed with the loss of 400 men killed. British casualties amounted to three killed and two wounded. Three Whippets were slightly damaged by shellfire. A fourth, which against Price’s orders had shown itself on a skyline, was knocked out – at the time it was thought by artillery, although it was later found to have fallen victim to a solitary A7V which remained in the area.

So ended the first tank battle in history. The Germans abandoned their attempt to take Cachy and during the night an Australian attack threw them out of Villers-Bretonneux.

 

Battle of Slim River I

SLIM TO NONE

In the battle of Slim River on 7 January 1942, some 30 Japanese tanks and a motorized infantry battalion completed the virtual destruction of the 11th Indian Infantry Division.

 

Japanese Armor at Slim River

The Japanese used two types of tanks at the Slim River battle. The main medium tank used was the Type 89 I-Go, which was the most common Japanese medium tank throughout the early part of the Pacific war. The light tanks used were Type 95 Ha-Gos, which were encountered by Allied forces throughout the entire war.

The Type 89 I-Go was an older design that was first introduced in 1934. Weighing 15 tons, its armor was only 17mm at its thickest. The tank had a maximum speed of 16 mph, due to its being relatively underpowered. The 57-mm gun was a good infantry support weapon; however, there was no coaxial machine gun – the turret machine gun faced out of the turret rear. In addition, there was a hull machine gun. The Type 89 did carry a large amount of ammunition: 100 57- mm rounds and 2,800 rounds of machine gun ammunition. It was cramped for its crew of five men, and visibility from it was poor. There was no radio to communicate with other vehicles, communication being done by flags or shouted orders. The Type 89 had an unrefueled range of 110 miles.

The Type 95 Ha-Go light tank was a slightly newer design that had some of the same problems of the Type 89 as well as many of its own. The 7.4-ton tank had even thinner armor than the Type 89 (16mm). It was faster than the Type 89 and could achieve its maximum speed of 28 mph. It was armed with a 37-mm gun, as well as two machine guns in a similar arrangement to the Type 89. However, the three-man crew could not operate all the weapons at once. The commander was particularly overtaxed, having to load and fire the main gun or turret machine gun, as well as command the tank. The Type 95 also had an operational radius of about 130 miles.

The Battle

“On this first day of the new year, I breathe the air of the South,” Tomoyuki Yamashita wrote in his diary as the pivotal year of 1942 opened on an IJA in motion across Southeast Asia. “I was up at 5 am and it was already hot. I must put away recollections of the past. My duty is half done, although success is still a problem. The future of my country is now as safe as if we were based on a great mountain. However, I would like to achieve my plan without killing too many of the enemy.”

Writing of the Japanese tactical plan in the Malay Peninsula as 1942 began, Masanobu Tsuji could have been speaking of the Japanese strategic perspective on the entire operation from Sumatra to Luzon when he observed that “the 5th Division pushed southward as fast as possible in order to give the enemy no time to develop new defensive positions.”

However, on New Year’s Eve, it was Tsuji who was scrambling for a defensive position. As the bridge work on the Perak River was ongoing, the spearhead of Japanese 5th Division infantry troops, specifically Major General Saubro Kawamura’s 9th Brigade, including the 41st Infantry Regiment, continued cycling southward on the highway. They had penetrated another 40 miles southward toward the capital of British Malaya at Kuala Lumpur, and had reached a point north of the city of Kampar by December 30. Tsuji and a couple of aides had “requisitioned” an automobile in Ipoh and had decided to drive south “to share a glass of wine with the troops in the line to celebrate the New Year on the battlefield.”

As they approached Kampar, they came under fire from British artillery in the surrounding hills. The 11th Indian Infantry Division, temporarily commanded by Major General Archie Paris (of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade), had chosen Kampar to erect the sort of defensive barrier the defenders should probably have established on the Perak. Tsuji arrived just as the battle was being joined, and apparently he left shortly thereafter, as Kawamura’s troops undertook a bloody fixed battle that halted the Japanese advance for four days.

At exactly the same time that the battle of Kampar was taking place, Tsuji’s boss, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the commander of the 25th Army, was implementing a daring tactical move with which his planning officer, Tsuji, fervently disagreed. Indeed, it would result in a brief tantrum of gekokujo from Tsuji that threatened to mar the amazing precision and achievement of the operation thus far.

Yamashita’s plan – brilliant in retrospect as are all unorthodox plans that succeed – was to circle behind the British defenses. This plan, conceived before the battle of Kampar, was to outflank Archie Paris’s 11th Division line, which ran for roughly 30 miles, from Kampar to Telok Anson (now Teluk Intan), where the meandering Perak River flows into the Straits of Malacca. Using the motorized landing boats from the Singora landings that had been brought up for the Perak River crossing, as well as others captured along the way, Yamashita would land 1,500 men, mainly from the 5th Division’s 11th Regiment, behind the enemy’s lines, south of the mouth of the Perak.

Tsuji complained that he was sure the men would be intercepted by British air or naval assets, and not only the men, but vessels necessary for the eventual landings on Singapore’s fortress island, would be lost. In his memoirs, Tsuji writes dramatically that as he watched the regimental commander walk away to undertake the operation, “I could see the shadow of death on his back.”

The contingent put to sea late on December 30 from Lumut, and landed on January 4 near Sungkai. While en route, they were strafed once, but only once, by British aircraft. Realizing that they were sitting ducks for a determined air attack, they expected to be finished off at any moment, but the British never returned. The “shadow of death” that Tsuji had seen was merely an apparition. Yamashita’s plan worked.

In the meantime, Kawamura’s spearhead, reinforced by replacements rushing south from the Perak River crossing, were able to claw their way through the 11th Indian Division positions in Kampar and the surrounding hills. The 11th suffered severe casualties in the battle, but Japanese 5th Army’s 41st Infantry Regiment, which bore the brunt of the unexpectedly difficult fight, had to be withdrawn from combat to regroup.

Despite the damage inflicted to the Japanese at Kampar, this battle had been conceived as a delaying action, not as a counterattack, and in the aftermath, the British executed a further withdrawal, this time to the town of Slim River (now Sungai Slim), near the river of the same name. Meanwhile, any small measure of satisfaction that might have been gained from the successful holding action was offset for the British by the discovery of Japanese troops in their rear along the coast. This only served to hasten the withdrawal and add to the confusion.

By January 5th, 1942, the British were in full retreat from northern Malaya. They had suffered through a month of disastrous engagements, forced out of position after position by Japanese envelopments. On more than one occasion, the road bound British units had to attack through Japanese roadblocks to be able to retreat. This unbroken string of disasters had left its mark on all the British units engaged, particularly the 11th Indian Division, which had done much of the fighting. The men who were to occupy the defenses at Slim River were punch-drunk with fatigue and suffering the low morale of constant defeat.

The Japanese, on the other hand, were on a roll. Although fewer in aggregate numbers, they were able to more effectively mass their combat power along the maneuver corridors. Their tactics were simple but effective. Their advance guard, a reinforced battalion of combined arms elements, including infantry (often mounted on bicycles), armor, and engineers would advance down the maneuver corridor until they made contact. If not able to immediately fight through, the Japanese would launch battalion- or regimental-sized infantry envelopments to get behind the British positions, cut their lines of communications, and attack them on their unprotected flanks. The key to the Japanese success was their ability to sustain momentum and keep the pressure on the British.

By January 4th, the 12th and 28th Brigades of the 11th Indian Division moved into positions forward of Trolak and extending in depth back to the vicinity of the Slim River bridge. The division commander, General Paris, hoped to forestall the previous effects of shallow Japanese envelopments by lacing his troops in depth. To quote him:

“In this country, there is one and only one tactical feature that matters – the roads. I am sure the answer is to hold the roads in real depth.”

This statement is not as unreasonable as it may first appear.

Although the Japanese logistical tail was considerably shorter than that of the British, it still had to use the road system to sustain its force. General Paris reasoned that any Japanese attempt to conduct a short envelopment through the jungle, as previously experienced, could be counterattacked by the brigade in depth. The maneuver corridor did not present much more than a single battalion’s frontage, even considering outposts and security elements placed up to a kilometer into the jungle on either side. Instead of trying to extend their forces into the bush to confront the Japanese while they were infiltrating, the British would commit reserves to counterattack them when they appeared. This would keep their forces mobile along the road system.

The 12th Brigade took up forward positions with its battalions arrayed in depth, beginning in the vicinity of mile post 60 and extending back to mile post 64 (see map, following page). Two battalions of the Indian Army occupied the forward positions; the 4/19th Hyderabad occupied the initial outpost position and the 5/2nd Punjabi occupied the main defense about a mile back.

A third British battalion, the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, was positioned in the vicinity of Trolak village, where the jungle began to open out onto an estate road. The brigade reserve, the 5/14th Punjabis, was positioned at Kampong Slim with the mission of being prepared to move to a blocking position one mile south of Trolak near mile post 65. The 28th Brigade’s positions were south of the 12th along the maneuver corridor, and were arrayed as single battalions in depth, much like the 12th Brigade. However, on the early morning of January 7th, the brigade had still not occupied the positions, having been instructed by General Paris to rest and reorganize. The British infantry units had 12.7-mm antitank rifles and 40-mm antitank guns. The AT rifles were only marginally effective. The AT guns would penetrate any Japanese tank with ease.

A key to the defensive scheme would be the defenses and obstacles along the main road. The British should have had enough time to construct defenses that would have precluded a quick Japanese breakthrough. The British were also in the process of preparing to demolish numerous bridges along the main road. However, several factors were to conspire against them.

The first factor was fatigue. Their forces were tired, to the point where they didn’t do a good terrain analysis when setting in their defense. There were many sections of the old highway running parallel to the newer sections that had been straightened. These old sections ran beside the main road through the jungle and were excellent avenues of approach. There were also numerous side roads through the rubber plantations, and many of these roads were overlooked. Others were noted, but did not have sufficient forces allocated to them.

Secondly, the British units had all suffered numerous casualties. Many of their formations were under new and more junior leadership. These leaders were trying to cope with the monumental task of reorganizing their stricken units while conducting defensive preparations, and they were suffering from fatigue as much as (if not more so) than their troops.

Another critical British deficiency was communications equipment. The 11th Indian Division had lost a great deal of its signal equipment in the month-long retreat prior to the Slim River battle. As a result, there was not sufficient communications equipment to lay commo wire between the brigades. This lack of communications, combined with fatigue, also prevented the British artillery from laying in and registering its batteries to support the infantry positions. Lastly, the Japanese had complete mastery of the air. This precluded the British from moving up their supplies in daylight and severely limited the extent of their defensive preparation.

All of these factors combined to rob the British of their opportunity to build a cohesive defense. They had sufficient barrier material, in the form of mines, concrete blocks, and barbed wire to construct an effective obstacle system in depth, but at the time of the Japanese attack, only a fraction of it had been brought forward. In the location where the Japanese actually broke through, there were only 40 AT mines and a few concrete blocks emplaced when the Japanese attacked.

On the afternoon of the 5th, the British 5/16th (the covering force) withdrew, and soon afterward the advance guard of the Japanese 42nd Regiment, 5th Infantry Division, made contact with the forward elements of the Hyderabad battalion. The Japanese probed the Hyderabads’ forward positions and were repulsed. The Japanese advanced guard commander, Colonel Ando, decided to wait for tanks and other supporting troops. The 6th of January was spent by the Japanese reconnoitering the British defenses and preparing for their usual infiltration along the British flanks.

Major Shimada, the commander of the Japanese tank unit attached to the 42nd Infantry (a company plus of 17 medium and 3 light tanks from the organic tank battalion of the Japanese 5th Infantry Division) implored Colonel Ando to be allowed to attack straight down the road. Ando was at first skeptical, but finally acquiesced, reasoning that if the tank attack failed, the infiltration could still continue. The Japanese tank company, with an attached infantry company and engineer platoon in trucks, was set to begin the assault at 0330 the next morning.

The Japanese attack began with artillery and mortar concentrations falling on the 4/19th Hyderabad’s forward positions, while at the same time infantry units assaulted the forward positions of the Hyderabads, and engineers cleared the first antitank obstacles along the road. At approximately 0400, the Japanese armored column started forward, crewmembers initially ground-guiding their vehicles through the British obstacle.

The Hyderabads had no antitank guns, but did manage to call artillery fire on the Japanese, which knocked out one tank. The rest of the Japanese column swept through the breach and continued down the road to the next battalion position. Behind them, the remainder of the 3rd Battalion, 42nd Infantry, completed the destruction of the Hyderabad battalion, leaving only disorganized and bypassed elements to be mopped up later.

The Japanese column moved on. By 0430, it had reached the main defensive belt of the 5/2nd Punjabi battalion. The lead tank hit a mine and was disabled, and the remainder of the column stacked up behind the disabled vehicle almost bumper to bumper. The Punjabis attempted to knock out the Japanese tanks with Molotov cocktails and 12.7-mm antitank rifles, but were largely stopped by a heavy volume of fire from the Japanese tanks and infan try. At this point, the Japanese found one of the unguarded loop roads that paralleled the main road and took it, bypassing the Punjabi defenses and taking them in the flank. The Punjabis’ defense collapsed into a series of small units fighting where they stood or trying to escape. The Japanese armor continued on, leaving the tireless 3d Battalion, 42nd Infantry, and other elements of the Japanese advance guard to complete the destruction of the Punjabis.

Unfortunately for the British, this was the last prepared defensive position facing the Japanese. The Punjabis had emplaced only a single small minefield. In spite of this, they somehow managed to hold the Japanese for almost an hour, taking heavy casualties from the tanks’ fire, before the Japanese found another loop road and were off again. It was about 0600; the Japanese were exploiting like broken-field runners. Almost 1,000 British and Indian soldiers were dead, prisoners or fugitives in small groups heading south along the edge of the jungle.

Battle of Slim River II

Tragically for the British, no word of the fiasco had reached either the remaining battalions of the 12th Brigade (the Argyls and the 5/14th Punjabis) or the 28th Brigade. The Japanese armored juggernaut, (about 16 tanks strong at this point), with what remained of the accompanying infantry and engineers, continued south at a fast pace.

The next unit they encountered was the unsuspecting Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, who had established two roadblocks in their defensive sector. The speed of Japanese movement, and the abysmal nature of British communications, caught the Argyls unaware and unprepared. The Japanese column burst through the first blocking position almost before the Argyls could offer any resistance. The fight at the second roadblock took only a little longer, with the Japanese destroying several British armored cars before continuing on. The remainder of the Argyl battalion was engulfed by the follow-on Japanese infantry in much the same manner as the other battalions.

To their credit, the Argyls fought ferociously in small groups and held the Japanese infantry longer than any of the other battalions. This, in turn, increased the distance between the Japanese armored column and the follow-on infantry. Had the 28th Brigade been in a better defensive posture, this might have made a difference. As it was, the Argyls’ sacrifice was in vain.

The Japanese tankers took full advantage of the confusion in the British defense to continue their advance down the main road towards the Slim River bridge. Upon reaching Trolak, they scattered the engineers who were preparing the bridge for demolition. The lead tank platoon leader, Lieutenant Watanabe, personally dismounted from his command tank and slashed the demolition electrical wires with his sword. The lieutenant and his company commander sensed that they had the momentum in this drive and that it was urgent to keep the pressure on the disorganized British. The Japanese tanks and the few remaining infantry and engineers that had somehow stayed with them raced ahead. It was approximately 0730. South of Trolak, the Japanese armor encountered the 5/14th Punjabis, who were moving along the road in march column towards their designated blocking position. The tanks literally raced through the surprised battalion, machine-gunning a large number of the Punjabis before they could even get off the road. In only a few minutes, the 12th Brigade’s reserve ceased to exist as an effective unit. The Japanese armor continued its unchecked advance along the main road.

The British had lost track of the battle. General Paris was not informed of the breakthrough until 0630.6 He immediately ordered the 28th Brigade to occupy its defensive positions and to detach its antitank battery forward to the 12th Brigade. Unfortunately, the battery met the Japanese while moving up the road and was destroyed before it could unlimber its guns and engage the enemy. Thus, one of the few units in the 28th Brigade that was capable of stopping the Japanese armor was eliminated at the outset of that brigade’s fight. Incredibly, the 28th Brigade had not received word of the complete penetration of the 12th Brigade. The Japanese armor slammed into the 28th Brigade while it was moving to its defensive positions and swept it aside in a series of short bloody encounters. Like the 5/14th Punjabis, the 2/1st Gurkhas were surprised in march column on the road while moving to their defensive positions and suffered severe casualties before they could get out of the way of the Japanese armor. The other battalions of the 28th Brigade, 2/9th and 2/2nd Ghurkas, tried to engage the Japanese armor, but with no antitank obstacles and only a few 12.7-mm AT rifles, they were quickly bypassed.

The Japanese armor continued to move down the road, shooting up transport columns and disrupting demolition efforts on the road and at three lesser bridges. The Japanese tanks had by now completely outrun their accompanying infantry and engineers. The follow-on infantry battalions continued to fight through the disorganized defenses bypassed by the armor. The Japanese tanks next shot up two artillery batteries of the 137th Field Regiment before reaching the Slim River bridge at approximately 0830. The antiaircraft defenses of the bridge consisted of 40-mm Bofors antiaircraft guns. These engaged the Japanese tanks but were ineffective – their shells would not penetrate. Their crews took many casualties from Japanese return fire. The antiaircraft gunners and the engineers preparing demolitions on the Slim River bridge scattered. Lieutenant Watanabe (who was wounded by this time) directed the machine gun fire of his tank against the wires to the bridge demolition and succeeded in severing them. The Japanese force (by this time consisting of about a dozen tanks) left two of their number to guard the bridge and continued south along the main road. Finally, after continuing for two more miles, the Japanese ran into another British artillery battalion, the 155th Field Regiment. This artillery unit deployed its 4.5-inch howitzers in the direct fire mode and engaged the Japanese over open sights at less than 200 meters. The lead Japanese tank (commanded by Lieutenant Watanabe) was destroyed and the entire crew killed. Other Japanese tanks were damaged. Checked at last, the Japanese tankers returned to the Slim River bridge to guard their valuable prize. The Japanese infantry accompanying the tanks, not less than a company in strength, arrived a few hours later. The main body of the 42nd Infantry Regiment did not link up with the armored unit until almost midnight. The Japanese had lost about eight tanks, some of which were recoverable. Their infantry losses had been moderate, but replacable. Their morale was sky high.

In his book Singapore Burning, Colin Smith quotes Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Harrison, a British artillery commander who was at the battle, as paying a respectful comment to Watanabe. “Heedless of danger and of their isolation they had shattered the [11th Indian Division],” Harrison admits. “They had captured the Slim Bridge by their reckless and gallant determination.”

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart, commanding the 12th Indian Brigade, meanwhile, accepted the blame for having not destroyed the line of tanks at the beginning of the battle when it might have made a huge difference in the outcome. As he wrote to the British Army’s official historian after the war, “I am rightly criticized for … not using the Field Artillery in an anti-tank role … It is no excuse, but I had never taken part in an exercise embodying a coordinated anti-tank defence or this type of attack. The use of tanks on a road at night was a surprise.” “Surprise” had been the purpose of the night attack, and this gamble, which might have failed, worked splendidly for the vanguard of Yamashita 25th Army.

If the time it took his engineers to rebuild the Perak River bridge is an indication, capturing the Slim River bridges intact shaved a week off Yamashita’s timetable. Meanwhile, the battle of Slim River devastated the 11th Indian Division. Its 12th and 28th Brigades were so badly mauled that they were practically erased, as was the 2nd Argylls. As many as 500 men were killed, and more than 3,000 were captured. Of those who were unable to retreat southward along the main road, a few managed to escape into the jungle. Some were captured and others simply disappeared. One man was found alive, still living off the land, in 1949.

Aftermath

The Japanese had won a smashing victory. In the space of about seven hours, with a single company of obsolete tanks supported by infantry and engineers, and followed by an infantry regiment, they had almost completely destroyed an entire British division. By the afternoon of the 7th of January, the British units the Japanese armor had bypassed were a jumble of disorganized fugitives. In the best shape were the infantry battalions of the 28th Brigade, who could retreat across an adjacent railroad bridge. In the worst shape were the men of the 12th Brigade; literally all of them were either killed, taken prisoner, or moving in fugitive groups trying to infiltrate back.

The losses to the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders were especially tragic to the British, as they had repeatedly proven themselves to be the best trained battalion in Malaya. Had they not been surprised by the Japanese armor, they could conceivably have held the Japanese advance long enough for the 28th Brigade to have reached its positions and unlimbered its antitank guns. The battle probably could not have been salvaged, but at least a more orderly retreat would have been possible, followed by the demolition of the Slim River bridge. As it was, less than one hundred men of this battalion managed to reach British lines. The magnitude of the disaster is reflected in the number of survivors from each brigade. Only 400 men of the four battalions in 12th Brigade managed to break out and rejoin the retreating British army. The 28th Brigade did slightly better, with approximately 700 men, but this unit was also clearly decimated. All in all, the British lost two brigades in the Slim River battle, along with most of two battalions of artillery, as well as transportation, signal, engineer, and other supporting units. Those British and Indian soldiers and units that escaped, escaped on foot. Not a single vehicle was retrieved from north of the Slim River.

The remainder of the Japanese pursuit of the British down the Malay peninsula retained the same flavor as the Slim River actions – relentless, aggressive Japanese pursuit of tired British units who had suffered too many losses in personnel and equipment and who could never keep the Japanese from operating inside their decision cycle. The Japanese did meet a series of reverses when they encountered fresh Australian troops of the 8th Australian Infantry Division. A cautionary note on headlong armored exploitation was sounded just 11 days later near the small town of Bakri. The Japanese attempted to repeat their Slim River success by sending a light tank company to attack down the main road. The Australians defending the antitank obstacle on the road coolly waited for the Japanese to begin negotiating the obstacles and then quickly knocked out nine Japanese tanks with antitank gun fire. The accompanying infantry was also temporarily stopped by the Australians, suffering numerous casualties. The Japanese formula from Slim River was unchanged. The defenders however, were fresh troops who had had the opportunity to emplace their defense properly. Unfortunately for the Australians, the rest of the British forces were simply too depleted from their earlier defeats to offer an effective resistance. As a result, they were compelled to retreat to the island of Singapore with the rest of the British army, abandoning Malaya to the Japanese on 30 January. Singapore would surrender two weeks later.

As the morale of the IJA soared with every victory, that of the Allied defenders plummeted. Kenneth Attiwill later wrote:

brooding above all, adding weakness to morale as well as to military efficiency, lies the jungle itself – a terrifying morass of tangled vegetation, steamy heat, nerve-racking noises and the discomfort of insects; mosquitoes by the myriad, moths, beetles, insects of all kinds, biting, buzzing, irritating and debilitating. Rubber, too, with its gloom, dampness and sound-deadening effect breeds a feeling of isolation. The enemy may be anywhere – everywhere – in front or behind to left or to right. Noise is difficult to pinpoint; men appear and disappear like wraiths. Rumor begins to spread. In the monsoonal season there is the added handicap of torrential rain, hissing down incessantly upon the greenery, dripping dankly on heads and bodies, humid, sweaty, destructive.

Speaking of himself, Attiwill went on to say that:

it was like this for the young and inexperienced troops who took up their places for the first defensive battle of the Malayan campaign, a battle which was noteworthy for two reasons – it was Britain’s first defeat in the jungle; it was the pattern of future defeat in all the attempted defensive actions down the Malayan peninsula.

Masanobu Tsuji recalls debriefing an unnamed British brigade commander who was among the large army of prisoners that had been captured, asking, “Why did your men raise their hands so quickly?”

“For what reason did you attack only on the front where we had not prepared to meet you?” replied the British officer. “When we defend the coast, you come from the dense jungle. When we defend the land, you come from the sea. Is it not war for enemies to face each other? This is not war. There will be no other way than retreat, I assure you.”

As Tsuji comments, “this criticism was characteristic of the British attitude throughout the whole period of operations, and was common to every front.”

The stunning British defeat at the Slim River and the equally surprising Japanese amphibious landings along the coast were met with great consternation by the British. The initial outflanking maneuver along the coast had worked so well that Yamashita conducted more of these using troops of General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division.

Bibliography Allen, Louis, Singapore 1941-1942, Associated University Press Falk, Stanley, Seventy Days to Singapore, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1973 Hall, Timothy, The Fall of Singapore, Mandiran Books, Australia, 1983 Kirby, Woodburn S., Singapore, The Chain of Disaster, Macmillan Co., 1971 Owen, Frank, The Fall of Singapore, Pan Books, London, 1960 Palit, P. K. Brigadier, The Campaign in Malaya, The English Book Store Press, New Delhi, 1960 Percival, Arthur, Lieutenant General, The Campaign in Malaya, Byrne and Spotteswoode Publishers, London, 1949 Stinson, Arthur, Defeat In Malaya, The Fall of Singapore, Ballantine Books, 1969 Tsjui, Manasoburu, Singapore, The Japanese Version, Oxford University Press, 1960 Wigmore, Lionel, The Japanese Thrust: Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957

Battle of Taku Forts (1859)

The London government had originally decided that the new resident ambassador to Beijing should be a very senior official. The French thought the same and offered their appointment to Baron Gros. He declined, on the sensible grounds that the Chinese emperor would hardly wish to receive in person people who had forced such revolutionary concessions on him at the point of the bayonet. But when it became clear that Elgin had, in effect, agreed not to exercise the right of permanent residence, Paris and London decided to appoint persons of lesser rank as ministers, rather than as full ambassadors. By mid-January 1859, it was decided to send Frederick Bruce out to China again to exchange those necessary ratification documents for the 1858 treaty and then to assume the post of non-resident minister plenipotentiary at the Chinese court. However, the government continued to insist that ratification proper must take place in Beijing, though Bruce could see the emperor privately rather than in a public ratification ceremony.

In addition, Bruce was told to relieve Sir John Bowring as superintendent of trade, though Bowring could continue as governor of the Hong Kong colony. Bruce himself should be established at Shanghai, as the base both for his Beijing mission and for the superintendency of trade. Frederick Bruce promptly left London and crossed paths briefly in Ceylon with his brother Elgin, who was now on his way home.

While he was on his way, there was more trouble at Canton. Ye’s successor as viceroy instructed his people to `Go forth in your myriads. and take vengeance on the enemy of your sovereign’. By now, too, the Russians had promised to supply the Chinese with 10,000 rifles and 50 cannon. Meanwhile, in February 1859, van Straubenzee at Canton had finally decided to do something about the guerrilla nuisance. He led a column to destroy a guerrilla fort some seven miles outside the city. Later, when some Chinese set an ambush for a party of military police doing their rounds, and killed seven of them, the general retaliated by demolishing the entire street where the ambush had happened. There was no more trouble. Hope Grant, the general who would command the British force a year later, said afterwards that his wife and Lady Straubenzee `were carried in sedan chairs through the crowded streets and by-lanes without meeting with any incivility’.

Bruce stayed only briefly in Hong Kong before sailing on to Shanghai, now accompanied by his new and fiery little French colleague, Count Alphonse de Bourboulon, the new French minister to China. The Frenchman was a lively professional diplomat, one of whose distinctions was to have married the tall, slim and statuesque Catherine Fanny McLeod during a posting in the USA. The social position of the de Bourboulons was much enhanced by Catherine’s claim that her family was connected with royalty. In any event, Bruce and de Bourboulon arrived at Shanghai in early June 1859, just as the political cycle in London was turning again to bring Palmerston back as prime minister, this time with Lord John Russell as foreign secretary.

Before leaving Hong Kong to sail north, Bruce learned that the emperor was so angry about the Tianjin Treaty that no envoy would be received in any kind of audience. He also heard that military preparations were going ahead not only at Tianjin and Beijing but also at the river’s mouth at Dagu, where new cannon were being cast, and that the task of preventing any foreign armies from approaching Beijing had been entrusted to one of China’s most eminent soldiers, who also seemed to have headed the pro-war party at court. This was the renowned Mongol cavalry general, Prince Sangkolinsin (naturally the cheeky British soldiery promptly translated that to `Sam Collinson’ and started a rumour that, far from being a Chinese prince, he was a rebellious Irish marine). He brought some 4000 elite Mongolian cavalry with him and was later said to have, altogether, some 50,000 Manchu and Mongol troops under his command. Sangkolinsin came from the Horqin Left Black Banner of Inner Mongolia that traced its ancestry back to the founding Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. In 1825 he became a Chinese imperial prince of the second degree. He also became adjutant-general under the old Daoguang emperor, who was his patron. After Daoguang’s death, he became in 1853/1854 a national hero when he and his Mongol cavalry pushed back a Taiping rebel drive into North China and captured one of its leaders. Two years later still he became a prince of the first degree. As the Anglo- French campaign loomed, he was appointed imperial commissioner to lead the campaign against the invaders.

He was very ready to sound warlike but was also a realist. Two of his memorials to the throne, presented back in 1858, were pessimistic about the defences between Tianjin and Beijing and stressed the low morale of his soldiers. All the same, it remained fairly obvious to the allies that, given Chinese preparations, the Franco-British mission would need to be backed by an adequate force if it was to make an impression. Not only that, but the news about Prince Sang only strengthened Bruce’s determination to insist on sailing upriver to Tianjin and showing the flag there, if only because `on the Mongol prince in charge of the works, the hopes of the war party (at Beijing) repose, and if he is defeated in his attempt to keep us out of the river, pacific counsels will prevail’. Moreover, Bruce was helped by the fact that, even before leaving China, Elgin, who knew how dilatory Seymour could be, had told the admiral to collect some shallow draught gunboats to escort his brother to the mouth of the Haihe.

At Shanghai, Bruce and de Bourboulon were told that the two senior Chinese commissioners who had negotiated the 1858 treaty had arrived and wanted to discuss a few points. The allies responded much as the Chinese had responded in previous years to allied pleas to tweak the texts of previous treaties: the texts were the texts and there was nothing to talk about. So now Bruce replied, with de Bourboulon’s agreement, that there was nothing to discuss until the treaty had been properly ratified at Beijing. When the two Chinese commissioners tried to argue, Bruce and de Bourboulon simply sailed north without seeing them and arrived at the mouth of the Haihe, but beyond the sand bar, on 18 June. This time, the allies had 16 warships in place, including one ship of the line, all commanded by Rear Admiral Sir James Hope, a Scot who had succeeded Admiral Seymour a couple of months earlier. Hope had joined the navy at age fifteen and reached the rank of captain by the age of thirty. The French had only two small ships present since most of the French navy in the East, and a force of some 4000 under Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, was now busy in Indo-China, in operations against Annam.

On arriving at Dagu, it was at once clear that the forts had indeed been greatly strengthened since the allies had so easily occupied them the year before. There were many more guns and men in place, and chains and heavy bamboo trunks had been installed as booms across the river entrance.

Here was obviously a foretaste of trouble. But, contrary to various later conspiracy theories, it was not, it turned out, that the Chinese necessarily wanted to bar all access to Beijing. It was true that the court still hoped to deal with ratification of the 1858 treaty at Shanghai, but it was willing to let the negotiators come to Beijing. On the other hand, the Chinese did want the embassies, if they had to come to the capital, to go to there by road after landing at Beitang, a small coastal town about ten miles up the coast from Dagu, not just because they wanted the details of the new Dagu defence arrangements kept secret, but for overriding reasons of national politics and morale. (Also, did the very idea of a British fleet of sixteen warships sailing up the Haihe seem too much like a victory parade?) In any case, on 18 June the Grand Council ordered that three buildings be prepared as residences at Beijing for the British, French and American ministers `in conformity with the precedents of various tribute-bearing barbarians’. So the buildings were outside the eastern gate of the capital.

The new American minister, John Ward, did as the Chinese demanded. He had also arrived at Dagu on his way to the capital for the ratification of his treaty and was also invited to go, with an escort, via Beitang. He did. He was left to cool his heels at the small port for some three weeks. Then, on the first stage of their 160-mile journey to Beijing, the Americans were taken along the Haihe River in large sampans and then by some rough carts pulled by mules – a normal mode of transport for subject peoples and tribute-bearers – over some very stony roads. The carts were so uncomfortable, having no springs, seats or cushions, that for the last stretch of the week-long journey the Americans chose to walk. By now, of course, they were entirely in the hands of the Chinese without any support or protection of their own. They entered Beijing on 27 July before a crowd eager to see the vanquished enemy make his submission – after all, had not the Americans had a hand in the Dagu battle? Ward’s group was accommodated in large, comfortable houses and given servants and food. But they were not allowed to fly their own flag and were prevented from moving around the city or from contacting the Russians (who had already ratified their own 1858 Treaty of Tianjin with the Chinese; this had been done on 24 April by the Russian representative and Sushun, the president of the Board of Revenue). Ward wanted to hand over President Buchanan’s letter of credence personally to the emperor, in the manner normal in the West. But that immediately ran into the problem of the kowtow. The Chinese explained that though the emperor regarded the US president as quite his equal, the formalities would have to be maintained. They had to insist on having the envoy at least bow and kneel. And if the formalities of an imperial reception for the minister had to be omitted, the normal formalities of handing the president’s letter to the emperor would have to be omitted as well. The American refused to kneel, so talks broke off, Buchanan’s letter was handed to Guiliang for transmission to the emperor and the American delegation returned to Beitang. There, on 16 August, the ratification ceremony was held with Guiliang and the governor of the province, and the Americans left to sail home. In effect, the Chinese had skilfully managed to ft the American approach to Beijing into the traditional manner in which tributary princes and delegations normally approached the throne, which was precisely what the British insisted on avoiding. The minister, deeply conscious that his mission had ended poorly, submitted to the president a request allowing him to retire.

However, President Buchanan professed himself entirely content with this outcome. He put it this way to Congress:

On the arrival of Mr Ward at Peking he requested an audience of the Emperor to present his letter of credence. This he did not obtain, in consequence of his very proper refusal to submit to the humiliating ceremonies required by the etiquette of this strange people. Nevertheless, the interviews on this question were conducted in the most friendly spirit and with all due regard to his personal feelings and the honor of his country. When a presentation to His Majesty was found to be impossible, the letter of credence from the President was received with peculiar honors by Guiliang `the Emperor’s prime minister and the second man in the Empire.’ The ratifications of the treaty were afterwards, on the 16th of August, exchanged in proper form at Beitang (Pehtang). It is but simple justice to the Chinese authorities to observe that throughout the whole transaction they appear to have acted in good faith and in a friendly spirit toward the United States. The conduct of our minister. has received my entire approbation.

The British envoy, Bruce, was, of course, from the start very conscious of the overriding political importance of the style and manner of his approach to Beijing. The foreign secretary had given firm instructions that he should approach Beijing by travelling via Tianjin `in a British ship of war’. Lord Malmesbury had not only told Bruce to beware of possible Chinese treachery but warned that every detail of his visit to Beijing, being the first mission of its kind to the Chinese capital, would inevitably be taken by the Chinese as a precedent for the future.

Admiral Hope therefore requested peaceful passage up the Haihe River. He asked that the Chinese barriers be removed so that the emissaries could sail through. Nothing happened, so on 21 June Bruce and de Bourboulon gave formal permission to the admirals to clear the obstacles. Four days later Bruce received a letter from the local viceroy, Heng Fu, suggesting that he make his way to Beijing, not via Dagu but through Beitang. For the usual reasons, the Chinese also wanted the allies to use a more indirect, modest and quasi-tributary way of getting to the capital. There were additional reasons for Bruce to find Heng Fu’s note unhelpful. Among other things, in the Chinese note the name of Queen Victoria had been written at a lower level than that of the emperor – in Chinese usage a not very subtle assertion of superiority, even dominance. In any case, Malmesbury had already stipulated that Bruce should go to Tianjin in a warship. That was not just to make a demonstration. Only if Tianjin was threatened by the guns of a British warship was a British envoy likely to be properly treated by, and in, Beijing. Conversely, if Bruce did go via Beitang and travel overland, with his gunboats still outside Dagu, his chances of success at Beijing itself would obviously be greatly reduced.

However, by the time Bruce saw Heng Fu’s letter he could in any case no longer communicate with Admiral Hope, who was on the verge of launching his attack on the Dagu forts. Hope therefore went ahead. But his movements were slow and, reflecting a confidence in British superiority, undertaken virtually without proper reconnaissance. Only after 2 p. m. 25th June, did one of the British boats, the Opossum, start to cut a passage. Only when she, followed by three other gunboats, got to the second barrier did some thirty to forty Chinese guns open an uncomfortably accurate fire. Within a few minutes the gunboats were heavily damaged and had to retreat behind the first boom. Admiral Hope himself, on board the Plover, was twice severely wounded and fell down. His own gunboat was left with only nine men left standing out of a crew of forty. The artillery duel continued but had died down towards evening, by which time 6 of the 11 British gunboats were out of action, most of them with heavy casualties and some even aground.

The American naval contingent on the scene, there to observe events but remain neutral, also got involved. Its colourful commander, Commodore Josiah Tatnall, had been appointed flag officer of the US Asiatic station in the previous October. Shortly before the allied action began he found his own flagship aground and having to be towed off by the English. Later, when he rowed over, through Chinese fire, to see his wounded friend, Admiral Hope, he could not stand the sight. A good many of his American sailors seem actually to have helped to man British guns during the fighting. He even ordered his own steamer to tow several launches filled with British marines into action and others, filled with wounded, away from the fire. Later, when pressed on all this, he famously replied (since the English were, after all, cousins) that `blood is thicker than water’ and found himself backed by public opinion and the government back home. When the American civil war broke out shortly afterwards, Tatnall resigned his commission and became a captain in the Confederate Navy and commander of naval defences in South Carolina and Georgia.

In any case, by 6 p. m. it was clear that if the Dagu forts were to be taken that day, the storming parties would have to go ashore at once. It would be risky because some of the Chinese guns were still in action and it was clear that behind the walls of the forts were lots of Chinese troops with infantry weapons. On the other hand, a British withdrawal and resumption of the attack next day would mean simply abandoning the four gunboats now aground within easy reach of the forts. Withdrawal would therefore mean rescuing the crews but not the ships. With Admiral Hope being too badly wounded to make a sensible decision, his number two, Captain Charles Shadwell, made it, deciding to press the attack.

By now, though, the tide was out and the landing boats had to leave the marines to wade across deep mud to reach land, with ammunition and weapons often soaked and no protection from heavy Chinese fire for the 150 or so men who landed. Some fifty of the landing party managed to reach the wall of the southern forts but were pinned down there.

Eventually they were ordered to withdraw, with their wounded, and the evacuation was completed at 1:30 in the morning. Altogether, the British lost 519 soldiers and sailors killed and 456 wounded out of the 1100 engaged. Some of the men who were veterans of the Crimean War were heard to mutter that they would rather fight the Battle of Balaclava again three times over than have another go at the Dagu forts. (Later, Palmerston even thought that the Chinese guns had been so effective that they must have been manned by Russians.)

In the next few days Admiral Hope recovered and managed to make all his boats seaworthy again – except three. By 1 July he acknowledged to Bruce that he could not tackle the forts again. It was clear that everyone would have to move back to Shanghai, where there were no signs of any Chinese wish to open a new `front’ against the allies, whose governments were anyway happy to think that there was no need to expand the war, especially to places where peaceful trading with the Chinese was still possible. Indeed, Lord John Russell, the new foreign secretary, took care to tell Bruce later that, whatever might have happened at Dagu, `there are no reasons for interrupting friendly relations with the Chinese at Shanghai, Canton and elsewhere’.

Among the allies, both in China and back home, the Dagu defeat was so entirely unexpected that a series of conspiracy theories were immediately concocted to account for it, including stories that the Chinese had indeed been helped by Russians. The most important theory was that the Chinese had never intended to ratify the Treaty of Tianjin but had simply laid a trap for the peaceful British negotiators: the Chinese had wantonly attacked the British, who were trying, peacefully, to go about their diplomatic business by sailing upriver. Tom Wade, thinking it over once he was back in Shanghai, had an only slightly less complicated explanation. As he wrote on 14 July: `The Chinese knew we were coming to Peking. If the Government had said, you don’t go by such or such a route, which is closed for military reasons, I don’t see how, professing peace, we could have forced the door; but they carefully kept all officials out of the way. The villagers who met our marines at Taku (Dagu) maintained that none were near, and that the works were all the work of the people for the exclusion of pirates etc. I am much puzzled and believe that pride, vindictiveness, treachery, and yet great cowardice are all jumbled together in the producing causes of the collisions.’.

UOR – The Jackal

Supacat’s Jackal 2 in all its glory represents over 7 tons of armoured reconnaissance vehicle; note the vital V-shaped hull at the front designed to reflect mine or IED blasts away from the crew. Armoured plates on the sides also offer the occupants some protection from small arms. The ability of the Jackal 1 and 2 to tackle almost any terrain meant that the vehicle soon won favour with British troops serving in Afghanistan.

Factory fresh, the Coyote is essentially a 6×6 derivative of the Jackal.

The Foxhound being put through its paces in Afghanistan – this vehicle was initially known as the Ocelot before joining the British army. Like the Jackal, its hull tapers out to deflect mines and IEDs away from the crew compartment.

The American 6×6 Cougar mine-resistant infantry mobility vehicle. Depending on its configuration it is known as the Mastiff and the Wolfhound protected patrol vehicles in British army service. The British also used the 4×4 version dubbed the Ridgeback.

The Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) thrown up by the British army’s deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in the provision of a plethora of new military vehicles. Force protection became the primary focus for armoured vehicles, rather than the more traditional mechanised warfare role. While offensive battle groups still played their part, getting forces from A to B and conducting patrols unscathed in the face of a mounting IED threat became a greater priority. In total some 2,700 vehicles were supplied to the British army during the period November 2008 to April 2011 consisting of 18 different types.

UORs saw the successful provision of such force-protection vehicles as the Jackal, Mastiff and Ridgeback to the front line in Afghanistan, followed by the Panther and Springer. The Husky 4×4 and wolfhound 6×6 were part of the deliveries, while the tracked Viking was replaced by the newer armoured Singaporean Kinetics Warthog. Notable among them was the Jackal, which provided off-road mobility, firepower and armoured protection for reconnaissance and convoy security duties. This served to complement and support the British army’s fleet of Mastiff/Wolfhound 6×6 (US Force Protection’s Cougar – British integration work was carried out in Coventry by NP Aerospace), the 6×6 Pinzgauer Vector (LPPV), Panther 4×4 command vehicle and the Husky 4×4.

The Ministry of Defence announced the purchase of 130 new weapons-mounted patrol vehicles in mid-2007 under an UOR for Iraq and Afghanistan. The Jackal I high-mobility weapons platform designed by Supacat and manufactured by Babcock/Devonport Management Ltd (DML) at their facility in Plymouth delivered a much-needed boost to the existing greatly maligned WMIK fleet (weapons Mounted installation Kit – initially installed on Land Rover Defenders), offering more firepower, a better range and crucially all-terrain mobility. The vehicle was fitted with a range of heavy firepower (including a .50 calibre machine gun or an automatic grenade launcher and a general purpose machine gun), as well as carrying a crew of four with their personal weapons.

Drawing on operational lessons, the £74 million follow-on order for about 110 state-of-the-art enhanced Jackal 2 and more than 70 Coyote Tactical Support Vehicles was awarded to Supacat in early 2009. The latter is based on a 6×6 derivative of the Jackal. Both vehicles were bought as part of the Ministry of Defence’s £700 million Protected Patrol Vehicles package. While Babcock secured the contract for the Jackal I, Supacat was the prime contractor for the Jackal 2. The company has a long history of supplying military vehicles, but is perhaps best known for the compact Supacat 6×6 All-Terrain Mobility Platform (ATMP). This is now in its third generation with over 200 currently in service with the world’s airborne and special forces.

In part thanks to the ATMP Supacat has made itself a leader in high-mobility transporter technology. Its first customers for its High Mobility Transport vehicles (HMT – known as the 4×4 Jackal and 6×6 Coyote in British service) were the world’s special forces. Operational requirements in Afghanistan soon meant that it filled a much wider capability gap. While Jackal I was essentially the HMT 4×4 with bolt-on armour and an armoured bathtub arrangement for the driver compartment providing protection against mine and IED blasts, Jackal 2 evolved increasingly into a true armoured vehicle with much of the armour as an integral part of the vehicle itself. Additional steel plating protects the passenger seats. The upgrade also saw engine enhancements that pushed its gross weight up to 7.6 tons. To ensure a 360-degree fire arc for the main armament the weapons cupola was raised.

Jackal 2, with its bigger engine, an extra body length of 14in and an extra crew seat, was a much better vehicle than its predecessor and was aimed at providing extra space for much-needed equipment. Speed was important in Afghanistan and with its 6.7 litre Cummins engine (replacing a 5.9 litre) and top speed of 80mph (130km/h) on roads and 55mph (90km/h) cross-country it ensured that it had a better chance of dealing with trouble at its own pace, quickly and effectively.

With the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) having assumed responsibility for security across the country in 2013 there was concern about what would be left behind. The British armed forces had 137 bases; in central Helmand by this stage there were just 13. In addition, British troop levels were reduced from 7,900 to 5,200 as Task Force Helmand slowly wound down. British Forces HQ in Afghanistan relocated from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion. Task Force Helmand had been based at Lashkar Gah since 2006 when Britain first increased its involvement.

There was speculation that many of the vehicles procured under UORs might be abandoned or gifted to the Afghan army. Many of them were acquired to meet particular operational conditions, not least to provide protection in the unending war against Taliban IEDs. This idea was not taken up by the Ministry of Defence and 99 per cent of vehicles were to be returned to Britain.

As a result, an £11 million site was established in Afghanistan to process equipment ready for its homeward journey. Vehicles such as the Coyote, Foxhound, Husky, Jackal, Mastiff and Panther all have to be bio-washed in a process that can take up to 24 hours. According to the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation, once this process was completed 2,700 vehicles were returned – 200 more than announced to Parliament. In early 2013 Lord Astor told the House of Commons that the Ministry of Defence was seeking to recover around £4 billion of inventory, the equivalent of 6,500 20ft containers and about 2,500 vehicles. On top of this, 400 tonnes of brass cartridge cases and 100 pallets of ammunition were retrieved. Likewise, 300 tonnes of lithium batteries were salvaged.

Constant instability in neighbouring Pakistan meant that the Ministry of Defence could not rely on the southern transit route to Karachi and the Arabian Sea, so sought to secure a northern line of communication through the Central Asian republics and Russia. After much horse-trading, which involved gifting surplus British equipment, three transit agreements were reached with Uzbekistan. These allowed the movement of non-warlike stores and motorised armoured vehicles by rail as well as the movement of war-like stores and personnel by air in return Uzbekistan got surplus Leyland DAF trucks and Land Rover spares after it was decided they were unlikely to be used for human-rights violations or internal repression.

Despite all this activity, Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan’s security continued. In October 2013 7th Armoured Brigade assumed responsibility for Task Force Helmand under Operation Herrick 19.

British Military Vehicle Deliveries

90 CVR(T), Coyote and Springer                 August 2009

119 Husky, Mastiff, Jackal and Vixen          September 2009

8I CVR(T), Husky and Jackal                      October 2009

66 Jackal, Ridgeback and Vixen                 November 2009

105 Jackal, Wolfhound and Vixen              December 2009

222 Jackal, WMIK and Wolfhound             January 2010

260 Husky, Jackal, Mastiff, Wolfhound       February 2010

and Vixen

The Battle of Gazala – Rommel’s Masterpiece

26 MAY-21 JUNE 1942

“It was only in the desert that the principles of armoured warfare as they were taught in theory before the war could be fully applied and thoroughly developed. It was only in the desert that real tank battles were fought by large-scale formations ” Erwin Rommel

The wide open spaces and lack of inhabited areas have always given desert warfare its own particular quality. In World War II, the campaigns fought in the coastal desert of Italian Libya had their own special importance for believers in the tank and in the blitzkrieg. They offered the chance of manoeuvre and the interplay of rapidly moving armoured forces almost in their purest form. It was in this arena that Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most famous of all the German generals of the war, earned his formidable reputation as a winner of armoured battles.

The battle that was fought south of Gazala in eastern Libya, between 26 May and 14 June 1942, is crucial in that it was Rommel’s greatest victory over the British Eighth Army. His German Afrika Korps, combined with substantial Italian elements, took on and decisively defeated British, Imperial, and Allied forces which were dug-in behind minefields in a strongly defended position. Furthermore, the Eighth Army had a narrow superiority in numbers of men, tanks, and guns. This might seem unexceptional, were it not that orthodox tactics required a 3:1 advantage to the attacker, which was precisely what Montgomery demanded before he attacked Rommel at El Alamein 6 months later. Seen in this light, Rommel’s victory was nothing less than miraculous. Yet it should also be remembered that it almost never came to pass, and that for 12 hours at the battle’s crisis it was Rommel who contemplated surrender.

The British Plans

The British Eighth Army was no easy opponent for Rommel. Not only had it tasted victory over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941, but it had also driven back an over-extended Afrika Korps to El Agheila in `Operation Crusader’ at the end of 1941. In May 1942 it was in position covering Tobruk (held by its 2nd South African Division), because it had been forced back there by Rommel’s outflanking manoeuvre in January. Yet Rommel had been compelled to halt before the apparently well-planned defences of the Gazala Line. Almost 60 miles of minefields (known as the `mine marsh’) stretched south from the coast to the fortress at Bir Hacheim, designed to protect the desert flank of Eighth Army from encirclement.

About 100,000 strong, the bulk of Eighth Army formations were concentrated into `boxes’, independent strongpoints combining infantry and artillery. In the north, there was the 1st South African Division, then the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division, stretching as far as the Sidi Muftah box in the centre of the position. A brigade-sized force of Free French under Major General Joseph Pierre Koenig held Bir Hacheim, yet 20 miles of mine marsh between these two boxes was left uncovered by artillery.

In addition, the British commander Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie had forgotten the lessons of the early desert war. While one of his successful predecessors, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, had recognized the need to keep a deep cushion of reconnaissance forces between him and the enemy, Ritchie had almost all his infantry in the front line. His tank formations, 1st Armoured Division, and the famous 7th Armoured Division (the `Desert Rats’), were kept a little to the right rear of the main position, but they were not properly integrated into the defence and not capable of coordinating with the other arms to best effect. This was despite reforms instituted by the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck (known as The Auk’ to all). The `Crusader’ operation, although eventually successful, had proved the inflexibility of grouping armour and infantry in separate divisional formations, so Auchinleck broke them down into self-contained brigade groups with their own engineers and supporting artillery. By the start of the Gazala battle an armoured division was, theoretically at least, composed of an armoured brigade and two motorized infantry brigade groups, and the intention was to combine armour and anti¬ tank weapons in imitation of successful German tactics.

Yet the Eighth Army lacked the tactical doctrine to operate these novel formations effectively, and the infantry and armour were condemned to fight separate battles. Ritchie’s unimaginative deployment was matched by the clumsy command structure. The area north of the Trigh Capuzzo highway he designated as under XIII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General William (`Strafer’) Gott. South of this line lay XXX Corps under Lieutenant General Baron Willoughby Norrie, who commanded troops in the boxes as well as the two armoured divisions, an unhappy arrangement further worsened by their scattered dispositions. Auchinleck advocated a concentration of armour centrally around the box code-named `Knightsbridge’, but Ritchie did not take this advice. Both British commanders were aware that a sweep around Eighth Army’s left or desert flank was a likely option; but they were expecting an attack on the centre of their position along the Trigh Capuzzo.

The German Plans

The German attack was code-named `Operation Theseus’. Field Marshal Rommel’s plan, as expressed in his planning order of 1 May, was no less than the destruction of the enemy forces opposing him and the subsequent capture of Tobruk. This fortress had held out against an eight-month siege in 1941, and seizing it was crucial to the wider plan of Rommel’s attack upon Egypt. Axis forces numbered about 90,000, including 561 tanks, although 228 of these were of Italian manufacture, known to the British as `mobile coffins’. Rommel’s 333 German tanks, or Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw), included 220 PzKw IIIs, most of the rest being PzKw IVs with short-barrelled guns more effective in the infantry support role. There were also upgraded versions of both types, known as `Specials’, whose long 75-mm guns gave them greater penetration, but Rommel had only 4 PzKw IV Specials and 14 PzKw Specials at the beginning of the battle. This was important because it meant that the Germans did not have the decisive qualitative superiority in armour with which they have so often been credited. The British possessed an enormous numerical superiority in armour – 849 tanks – although only 167 were the new US-built M3 Grants, which carried a 75-mm gun and were superior to the PzKw Ills.

A crucial part of the Desert War was fought in the air. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe, Rommel’s immediate superior, was acutely conscious of the need to keep the Panzerarmee supplied with petrol, food, and other necessities. In order to do this he directed an intensive bombing campaign against Malta, the British island base which threatened the Axis supply route from Naples to Tripoli. The results led to Kesselring prematurely declaring on 11 April that: `Malta as a naval base no longer demands consideration’. In the build-up to the Gazala battle, supplies reaching Rommel greatly increased. In January 1942, the Afrika Korps received 60,000 tons of fuel; in April this had risen to 150,00 tons. Also, on 26 May, Kesselring was able to assemble some 260 aircraft to support Rommel’s attack. Against them, the British Desert Air Force could only muster 190 aircraft, and its US-built P-40 Kittyhawk and Hawker Hurricane fighters proved inferior to the new Messerschmitt Bf 109F. As a result, the Germans were able to maintain a considerable air superiority throughout the battle.

The Opening Moves

Rommel launched his attack on the afternoon of 26 May. Gruppe Cruewell under Lieutenant General Ludwig Cruewell, himself a former Afrika Korps commander, consisting of four Italian infantry divisions under X Corps and XXI Corps, attacked the British and South African positions north of the Trigh Capuzzo. This was a feint to persuade the enemy that Cruewell’s was the main point of attack.

In fact, Rommel was already leading 10,000 vehicles southeast. At about 9.00 p. m., on the pre-arranged codeword `Venezia’ (Venice), Rommel swung this force around Eighth Army’s southern flank. On the inside of the wheel were the Italian Trieste Motorized Division, then their Ariete Armoured Division, then the German mobile forces: 21st Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division, and, on the extreme right flank, 90th Light Division. The last named carried aircraft propellers to create more dust and convince the British that theirs was also a tank formation.

At 6.30 a. m. on 27 May the Ariete fell upon the surprised 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade and, although held up momentarily, dispersed it with the help of a few tanks from 21st Panzer Division. One hour later, 90th Light Division came into contact with the 7th Motorized Brigade (part of 7th African Division) was supposed to coordinate with 22nd Armoured Brigade’s 156 tanks, but this simply failed to happen because the infantry and armour had not trained together. In the north, an attack by 32nd Army Tank Brigade was struck in the flank by German panzers, and of the 70 Matilda and Valentine infantry tanks only 20 survived the attack.

On the afternoon of 5 June the Germans counter-attacked; a pincer movement with 21st Panzer Division and Ariete in the north and 15th Panzer from the south. That evening, Major General Messervy’s headquarters was overrun again, and the Indian units’ command and control broke down completely; 22nd Armoured Brigade was unable to provide any support, having already been withdrawn into leaguer for the night. It too had been severely handled, losing 60 tanks. The following day 15th Panzer struck through Bir el Harmat to close the line of retreat: 3,100 prisoners, 96 guns, and 37 anti-tank guns fell into German hands. Eighth Army had lost over half its cruiser tanks (down from 300 to 132), and 50 out of 70 infantry support tanks. Rommel’s assessment of the situation was that Ritchie had missed a great opportunity to form a Schwerpunkt (`critical point of an attack’) in front of 21st Panzer Division.

One area in which the British did enjoy success was in raids upon the German supply line. On 8 June, Italian positions were overrun by four troops from 8th Royal Tank Regiment supported by South African armoured car and reconnaissance units. On the same day an infantry column of 2nd Rifle Brigade destroyed over 40 lorries, 4 tanks, and 7 artillery pieces. Important though such moves were, they were no more than flea bites in comparison to the kind of response that was needed to hold Rommel in check. With the hapless British assault crushingly repulsed, he was able to turn his attention to the destruction of the isolated Free French at Bir Flacheim.

Crisis at Bir Hacheim

From 2 June to 9 June there were 1,300 German air attacks on the Bir Hacheim position, 120 on the last day alone. Rommel appreciated the difficulty of the task, since he considered the carefully prepared strongpoints within Bir Hacheim as `practically proof against air and artillery attacks’. Effective ground attacks began on 6 June, the day that Rommel broke out of `The Cauldron’, when two attacks by infantry with tank support were beaten off. On 8 June, 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division, combined with 15th Panzer Division and supported by heavy Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive- bombing attacks, eventually began to the crack the position – `the thorn in my side’, as Rommel described it. Attacks the next day left 250 Axis dead in front one defending battalion’s position alone. But by the end of 9 June it was apparent to Koenig that Bir Hacheim could no longer be held.

Still, Rommel was unwilling to try and overrun the position with tanks because of the heavy losses which he knew he would have to take. On 11 June, Koenig engineered a breakout which left only 500 men in German hands, although losses in equipment had been heavy. By holding on so determinedly the Free French had bought time for their Allies. Could this now be used to the best advantage? Although Rommel had turned Eighth Army’s flank, all was not lost for the British. They held a strong defensive position stretching from the original Gazala Line in its northern portion and along the Trigh Capuzzo from the Knightsbridge box over 20 miles east to Sidi Regezh. This was defended in depth, and behind lay the garrison of Tobruk, although crucially, the town’s fortifications had not been repaired since its recovery six months earlier. Also, the Afrika Korps had taken substantial damage. It was below half its original strength and some, infantry units were down to a third; the Germans had 160 tanks and the Italians 70 tanks, although the Axis artillery was almost entirely intact, and was to be increased in strength by the large numbers of captured British guns which were distributed to its units.

The End of the Battle

For the next phase of the battle, Rommel was determined to repeat the medicine as before. Once more he intended the total destruction of the enemy. On the afternoon of 11 June, 90th Light Division moved south and leaguered for the night 7 miles south of El Adem, while 15th Panzer followed as far as Naduret el Bhesceuasc. The new British plan was to break through southeast to Bir el Gubi with 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, which would bring them upon the flank of 15th Panzer as it attacked El Adem. But the British armour was still forming up on 12 June when it was attacked from the north by 21st Panzer and Ariete and counter-attacked from the south by 15th Panzer. Although 22nd Armoured Brigade came to the assistance, it was severely mauled by German tanks. The other armoured brigades were then surrounded and destroyed. Although the figures are uncertain, it seems that on the morning of 12 June there were some 250 cruiser tanks and 80 infantry tanks available to the British; by the next day these had been reduced to 50 and 30 respectively, with 4th Armoured Brigade having only 15 tanks, and 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades only 50 tanks between them.

On 12 June, Auchinleck flew up from Cairo to assume direct command from Ritchie, but he was too late to save the situation. Almost the only factor in Eighth Army’s favour was the extreme exhaustion of the German forces, whose attacks began to falter towards the end of 13 June. The Gazala Line had become untenable. Auchinleck drew up plans for a new defensive position, centred upon Acroma, to prevent the investment of Tobruk, and Eighth Army troops west of this line were effectively abandoned to the enemy. On the night of 14 June, the South Africans in the north of the original line fell back down the Via Balbia to Tobruk. Elements of 50th (Northumbrian) Division actually broke through the Italians opposing them and swung through the desert, escaping to Egypt. For the rest of the British forces, Tobruk provided an illusory refuge. They fell back in disorder to a position that had not been maintained to provide an effective defence. Unlike the previous year when the garrison had held out for eight months, the situation was to prove impossible, and by 21 June the town had fallen. Some 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including over 13,000 South Africans) were taken prisoner, together with huge amounts of guns, ammunition, and especially fuel essential to the Afrika Korps’ continued mobility.

After the Battle

Rommel’s plan had succeeded brilliantly. Although it had come near to failure on 29 May, and he himself had been prepared to surrender, Rommel was able to rescue the situation and inflict upon Eighth Army the most severe defeat it had ever suffered. His signal of 21 June epitomizes his style of command: Tor all troops of the Panzerarmee… Fortress of Tobruk has capitulated. All units will reassemble and prepare for further advance’. Five days later he was at El Alamein, the last-ditch defence line before Egypt – but that is another story. – Summer 1942 was the zenith of Rommel’s career in North Africa. He himself summed up why the British could not beat him by asking, `What is the advantage of enjoying overall superiority if you allow your enemy to smash your formations one after another; your enemy who manages in single actions to concentrate superior forces at a decisive point?’ That was the essence of the kind of war he practised: blitzkrieg.