A group of 13.2 mm-armed AMR 35s, belonging to 4e RDP, 1re DLM; the vehicle in front, N° 87347, is the second produced and shows the large rosettes typical of this unit from 1938.
The French believed that they had mastered the lessons of the Great War. They, of course, had entered the Great War with one of the most offensive-minded doctrines of any of the combatants and had suffered crippling casualties. Well into 1917 the French army continued to embrace the offensive, but tempered its doctrine. Failures along the Chemin des Dames led to the virtual refusal of some units to adopt anything other than a defensive posture. In 1918, cautious infantry attacks supported by massed artillery and swarms of tanks secured victory. The French, having turned their collective backs on the offensive doctrine of 1914, easily made a transition to a defensive doctrine. As a result, defensive-mindedness shaped French planning, training, and acquisition during the interwar period.
After the Great War, there were occasional calls for the development of a broader mechanized force capable of independent, and possibly offensive, operations. In the mid-1930s, a French army officer, Charles de Gaulle, went so far as to propose the establishment of a small, mechanized, and professional army to supplement the mass army that France had relied on throughout the history of the Third Republic. De Gaulle’s plan was a Gallic version of a somewhat similar proposal in Britain advanced by retired Captain Basil Henry Liddell Hart, who had suggested the conversion of the entire army into a professional mechanized force. While De Gaulle’s call for the development of a professional mechanized army appears reasonable, it was politically unacceptable and demographically and fiscally unrealistic. France was already committed to the development of the Maginot Line (see “The Maginot Line”), and given the lean years—the demographic population hole caused by the casualties suffered during the Great War—there were not enough men to support both forces. As a result, resistance came not only from most of the army’s senior commanders, but also from a broad spectrum of political leaders. Nor were the French people clamoring for such a development. De Gaulle’s proposal, whatever its military virtues, was inconsistent with the concept of a nation in arms and lent itself to offensive operations.
The French army remained committed to the defensive and the 1918 formula—what became known as the “methodical battle.” The high command envisioned tightly controlled engagements marked by heavy reliance on massed artillery and the commitment of infantry offensively, in short bounds, led by heavy support tanks, only when the prospects of victory were overwhelming and the likelihood of casualties much reduced. Given this doctrinal mindset, in combination with the popular revulsion to the horrors of the last war, it was easy for the French to adopt the defensive not solely as a doctrinal posture, but also as national policy.
It would also have been very difficult to alter that doctrine. First, under the French system during the 1920s and the early 1930s, draftees served for only a single year and then entered the reserves. Extensive reliance on the reserves during a general mobilization made it difficult, and disruptive, for the French to stage large-unit maneuvers to test new equipment and doctrine. Thus, the French rarely undertook divisional-level or higher training as often as did the Germans. Nor were the regulars in the army long enough to digest new ideas and concepts. Second, until the advent of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, subsequent German rearmament, and the formation of the first armored panzer divisions in 1935, the French army had no reason to suspect that its doctrine might be inadequate. While the Germans were able to quickly add an additional armored component to an already coherent military doctrine, the French faced the prospect of a veritable chaotic doctrinal and organizational revolution on the eve of crises that could easily lead to war.
Adherence to a predominantly defensive doctrine also had a deleterious impact on the development of French armored forces. For most of the interwar period, French tanks remained under the control of the infantry arm. Only slowly did the other arms participate in a broader mechanization. Nevertheless, by the mid-1930s, the French had developed a fair number of excellent armored fighting vehicles. In 1933, the French formed their first division légère mécanique (DLM), a converted cavalry division equipped with 240 armored cars, tanks, and other motorized vehicles, designed primarily to play a reconnaissance role. (The Germans had yet to form their first panzer, or armored, division.) As stocks permitted, additional cavalry divisions slowly made the conversion to the new mechanized form. When the French published a new doctrinal manual in 1936, the DLMs’ mission expanded to include employment in the main battle itself.
Nevertheless, the heavier French tanks remained committed to infantry support, and the DLMs lacked infantry, possessing only four battalions of motorized dragoons. As a result, when war began in 1939, the French had as many tanks as the Germans, but the tanks were not concentrated in powerful units capable of sustained combat. Not until 1940, after the fall of Poland, did the French hastily form their first division cuirassée de réserve, or armored division. By May 1940, when the Germans struck west, the French had formed three such divisions, with a fourth still forming. Unfortunately, at that time, the French had not yet fully developed a doctrine to employ their armored units.
Nor were many of the French tanks designed for mobile warfare. Most French models were well built and heavily armed and armored, especially compared to German tanks. In some technical respects—electric turret traverse and transmissions—French tanks were superior. But the heavier French models were designed primarily for infantry support during a slow-moving methodical battle. All but command tanks often lacked radios. In some models, tank commanders doubled as gunners. In fast-paced tank-versus-tank actions, French tank commanders quickly found themselves isolated and overwhelmed, unable to maintain a sense of what was happening while simultaneously attempting to sight their gun.
This doctrine also had a negative impact on the development of French infantry. The goal of the methodical battle was to limit friendly casualties through set-piece tactics that relied primarily on artillery and supporting tanks to suppress and destroy enemy positions. Infantry played a tertiary role in this formula. The basic French infantry platoon possessed fewer machine guns and generated far less firepower than its German counterpart. As a result, when the higher-than-expected tempo of operations of the spring of 1940 left French infantry without tank or artillery support, those units were at a severe disadvantage, not only unable to hold off German armor, but also unable to handle German infantry attacks.
The Illustrated London News, 23 December 1944. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt jointly announced to the public on 9 December that German U-boats were now equipped with a device that allowed them to remain submerged. Five days later First Lord of the Admiralty A V Alexander followed up with a public warning that with the appearance of this new device heavy losses should be expected by the public. The day after this illustration was published the snorkel and Alberich-equipped U-486 (VIIC) sunk the SS Leopoldville outside Cherbourg Harbour despite it having a Royal Navy escort, causing a significant loss of life among the US 66th Infantry Division being sent as reinforcements to the Western Front.
The snorkel was treated as a ‘secret’ development by the Kriegsmarine when it was introduced. Allied intelligence certainly intercepted wireless traffic about its existence through Ultra intercepts. However, it appears that the best information came from captured German crewmen picked up after their U-boat was sunk or scuttled.
The British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division’s C.B. 04051 (103) Interrogation of U-Boat Survivors, Cumulative Edition, June 1944 was the first known assessment of the German snorkel. The document revealed that the equipment as well as its basic technical schematics were known to the British at the very start of the Normandy invasion. While this document was descriptive, it did not contain any analysis of the snorkel’s operational or tactical potential as U-boat tactics had not yet evolved. Consequently, the report did not assess any impacts to ongoing Royal Navy Escort or Support Group tactical responses during a U-boat hunt.
This information acquired by British intelligence was accurate. It is clear that by June they had gained knowledge of the Type II non-flange mast as well as the replacement of the pulley system with a hydraulic piston lift. Both design improvements were starting to be fielded broadly across the U-boat fleet, as in the case of U-480, which received a second snorkel installation that summer, upgrading from the Type I to the Type II. The Admiralty report understood that the snorkel was intended for charging, but clearly did not opine the consequences of a non-existent U-boat profile on their detection gear, or the possibility that U-boats could remain submerged for almost their entire patrol. In November British forces that occupied the former German U-boat base at Salamis, Greece, found technical renderings of the Type II snorkel mast installation for Type VIICs, the first such technical documents of their kind obtained by Allied intelligence.
Four months later, US Naval Intelligence observed the stark drop off of actionable intelligence, defined by immediate, readable Ultra intercepts or HF/DF map plots that allowed them to ‘fix’ a U-boat’s location. The report noted the decrease in wireless transmissions and change in Enigma keys, as well as the atmospheric conditions that impacted reception in the North Atlantic. These observations prompted OP-20-G to publish a memorandum notifying US Naval leadership about the impact of these developments to anti-U-boat operations. What the report did not mention was the fact that a number of the intelligence impacts were caused by the introduction of the snorkel, suggesting that OP-20-G did not fully comprehend the correlation. A contributing factor to the lack of understanding was that most snorkel-fitted U-boats were being employed almost exclusively around the coastal regions of the British Isles and not in the convoy lanes of the North Atlantic.
A few statements of note in the 24 November 1944 report are of interest. ‘The problem of fixing U-boats in the Atlantic has become more difficult and will probably continue so …’ for the following reasons: ‘Approximately 90% of the D/F cases have involved U-boat transmissions of the ration of 30 seconds or less. Such short transmissions make it difficult to obtain any large number of high quality bearings.’; ‘the use of Norddeich Off Frequencies has become more general for all types of transmissions. It has been our experience that fewer bearings are obtained on all frequency transmissions of short or medium duration, thereby resulting in less accurate fixes’; ‘U-boats have been maintaining a rigid condition of radio silence. We have noted U-boats on patrol in various areas in the North Atlantic for periods as long as 30 or 40 days without making a single radio transmission’; and ‘ionospheric disturbances, in the North Atlantic in the winter have a detrimental effect upon D/F fixing’.
This resulted in the conclusion by OP-20-G that ‘the accurate locating of U-boats by means of Ultra information has progressively become more and more difficult’.
The OP-20-G memorandum balanced the fact that the dramatic reduction in reliable U-boat position signals was assessed as not impacting operations too significantly given the fact that few U-boats were operating in the mid-Atlantic. The report assumed that if traditional Wolfpack tactics were reinstituted in the spring of 1945 then a natural increase of signals would result in a resumption of accurate U-boat position information. Like the Admiralty report of June, this US Navy intelligence assessment failed to appreciate the paradigm shift introduced by the snorkel.
Overnight the snorkel rendered Allied radar detection almost ineffective and significantly reduced the value of Ultra in fixing U-boats for hunter-killer groups. Yet, a review of US and British intelligence reports revealed that it took both countries about six months to appreciate the snorkel’s impact on their anti-U-boat operations and implement effective countermeasures.
This was revealed by Ladislas Farago, who served as the Chief of Research and Planning in the US Navy’s Special Warfare Branch (OP-16-Z) during the Second World War. Writing after the war, he offered how unprepared the Western Allies were in the face of snorkel-equipped U-boats. The US Tenth Fleet was organised in May 1943 at the very height of the North Atlantic convoy battles as the first anti-submarine command. Its mission was to find, fix, and destroy German U-boats. To this end, its supporting missions included the protection of coastal merchant shipping, the centralisation of control and routing of convoys, and the co-ordination and supervision of all US Navy anti-submarine warfare training, anti-submarine intelligence, and co-ordination with the Allied nations. The Tenth Fleet had no organic naval vessels. Its commander, Admiral Ernest King, used Commander-in-Chief Atlantic’s (CINCLANT) vessels operationally, and CINCLANT issued operational orders to escort groups originating in the United States. The Tenth Fleet was also responsible for the organisation and operational control of hunter-killer groups in the Atlantic.
The Tenth Fleet was ‘misled in its appreciation of the snorkel by reports that tended to emphasise the deficiencies of the device’, according to Farago. Interrogations of German U-boat prisoners early in 1944 who had participated in the first snorkel trials and training in the Baltic spoke despairingly of the device. At this time no U-boat had conducted an operational cruise and not even the German U-boat command understood the device’s full potential. OP-16-Z produced a number of intelligence broadcasts that disparaged the device through the Tenth Fleet. By the summer of 1944 the Tenth Fleet dismissed the snorkel as a viable technological solution for the U-boat. This assessment changed by the late summer and early autumn of 1944 with the approach of U-518 (IXC) off North Carolina in August, followed by others off Canada (see Chapter 9). U-518 sank the SS George Ade, 100 miles from the US East Coast – the first American-flagged ship sunk by a snorkel-equipped U-boat. All Tenth Fleet efforts to hunt down this U-boat failed, leaving it concerned.
The Allies had no tactics or technology to counter the new threat, which was the responsibility of the US Navy’s Tenth Fleet. Farago noted in the early 1960s:
In a very real sense, then, the snorkel thus succeeded in doing exactly what Doenitz hoped it would accomplish: it provided effective protection from the U-boats’ most dangerous foe, the planes of the escort carrier groups. The protection was so effective, indeed, that from September, 1944, through March, 1945, the escort carrier groups managed to sink but a single U-boat, and a non-snorkeller at that, although they accounted for forty-six U-boats during the prior sixteen months.
The Allies devised a simple division of labour in terms of counter-U-boat operations from 1942 onward. The US Navy’s hunter-killer groups were given the responsibility for the central Atlantic and US East Coast, while the British and Canadian air and surface forces were responsible for their respective coastal regions as well as the North Atlantic. This generally placed the burden of counter-U-boat operations on the US Navy from 1942 until early 1944, when U-boats were non-snorkel equipped and operated in Wolfpacks. Once the snorkel was introduced the burden of anti-U-boat operations shifted to the British and Canadian forces through to the end of the war. This included the development of new tactics. It is made clear in reviewing available primary documents that by the end of the war the British and Canadian Royal Navies appreciated the fact that they were fighting a very different U-boat foe, and adapted accordingly. The US Navy and US Coast Guard, however, did not have that same appreciation due to a lack of operational experience against snorkel-equipped U-boats.
Allied Air Operations
In order to destroy a U-boat, it had to be located. By the spring of 1944 location and destruction was predominately carried out by radar-equipped Allied aircraft. The British Air Ministry published ORS/CC Report Nr. 325 on 5 January 1945 titled Operational Experience Against U-Boats Fitted with Snorkel, which summarised the negative impact the snorkel had on Allied air operations against U-boats during the previous six months. The report began: ‘Throughout the past few months the German U-boat fleet have been fitted with a “Snorkel” pipe, about 16’ in diameter and showing some 2–3 feet above the water, through which the air for the Diesels can be sucked in and the exhaust expelled. The consistent use of this device has very considerably reduced the efficiency of [aircraft] detection of U-boats – probably by a factor of about 10, and produced a return to close-in submarine warfare.’
Based on past operational results the following ‘recommendations and statements of fact are considered to follow fairly definitely from the scanty data on operations:’
1. Snorkels are usually seen by their wake and ‘smoke’, this ‘smoke’ is however only produced on some occasions, much more frequent in winter. Theoretical investigation in progress may enable this effect to be predicted. The average citing ranges are average ‘smoke’ 7 miles, (two cases of 20 miles!), wake 4½ miles, snorkel itself about 1 mile.
2. An improvement in efficiency of two- or three-fold could be obtained by use of binoculars throughout.
3. Very little use has in fact been made of binoculars, even for recognition.
4. The operational range of detection on a ASV Mark V (4 miles) is about one third of the operational range on surfaced boats (13 miles), but
5. Radar efficiency is very low and sees more than Force 3 – because of the sea returns.
6. The proportion of snorkel U-boats seen snorkelling and subsequently attacked while visible, or less than 15 seconds dived, amounts to 70% of attacks.
7. Hence the depth charge setting for snorkels should be that proper to ‘snorkel depth’ itself.
8. The sighting range in Leigh-Lights at night is so low (about 400 yards media) that visual bombing holds out little hope. Radar bombing and or homing weapons will be essential.
It was noted in the study that U-boats could clearly be identified through the wakes left by the periscope or snorkel. In the last several months snorkels could be identified seven times greater through the ‘smoke’ trail. This ‘smoke’ was probably vapour caused by a snorkel riding too high out of the water, exposing its exhaust vent. However, the British assessment identified that the smoke, which was usually described as grey in colour, was ‘presumably largely water mist that became clearly visible and much more frequent in cold weather’. The results up to November, according to the assessment, ‘show so low a proportion of ‘smoking snorkels’ (9 out of 22 = 40 per cent) that this phenomenon must be due to some special weather conditions, more frequent in winter than summer’. It was made apparent by the study that the British pilots were not utilising binoculars during their air patrols and that a periscope or snorkel that was not smoking could be identified by binoculars at about 4.5-mile range, while the naked eye could only identify it at a range of 1.9 miles. Despite this fact, the study stated that very few periscopes or snorkels were in fact either first sighted or even recognised using binoculars. Even when air patrols used binoculars, they assessed that periscopes were identified only 16 per cent of the time, while snorkels only 33 per cent. By binocular ‘recognition’ it was meant ‘to identify the vague phenomenon: wakes, smoke, odd looking waves, etc. which are usually first seen’. The study also looked at the rate at which binoculars could identify a periscope or snorkel when radar contact had provided a rough bearing an exact range. It was determined that a binocular was used to confirm a radar bearing 19 per cent of the time. All this led to the conclusion that ‘there is room for considerable improvement in the use of binoculars, both regular scanning by lookouts detailed for the purpose whenever the neck disability is more than 5 miles and for recognition of radar blips. The second point could be met by the second pilots always keeping a pair of binoculars ready focused.’ What this assessment did not consider was the fact that U-boats predominately snorkelled at night as directed by BdU [Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote], limiting the effectiveness of visual identification even further.
A separate detailed analysis was conducted on daylight attacks against U-boats by aircraft during the period June to December 1944. This study focused on U-boats that submerged once they were attacked on the surface. The report was divided into attacks that occurred when a U-boat had been submerged for less than fifteen seconds, submerged between fifteen and sixty seconds, submerged more than sixty seconds, and were lost while the aircraft was manoeuvring to attack. The study found that whether the U-boat was identified operating with just a periscope or snorkel separately, or the U-boat was identified operating both simultaneously, it was impossible to obtain a kill once the vessel began to submerge. The kill rate per attack when the snorkel and/or periscope were still visible was only at 17 per cent. This was 50 per cent less than the 43 per cent kill rate for a completely surfaced U-boat. The study went on to state ‘the number of snorkel sightings leading to targets visible, partly visible or dived less than 15 seconds (41% of sightings, 74% of attacks) is so high that the DC’s against snorkels should have the depth setting proper to the boat actually snorkelling’. This data does support that the U-boat dipole mounted on the snorkel mast was effective in identifying attacking aircraft, giving U-boats the advantage of diving before an air attack commenced. A fifteen-second advantage was enough to gain survivability against an air attack regardless of how far out the aircraft identified the snorkelling U-boat. The realisation that snorkel ‘smoke’ was a marked advantage caused British Coastal Command to issue a memo that declared this study was only permitted to be circulated among those engaged in ‘Air Anti-U-boat Warfare’. Not even the Royal Navy was notified of this observation in order to maintain strict secrecy over this operational advantage. Given that this memo was issued on 22 March 1945, at the end of winter, it probably contributed little to the anti-U-boat effort. However, it does show how seriously the snorkel altered the balance sheet against Allied aircraft.
One effective Allied aircraft tactic against snorkel-equipped U-boats introduced was the use of sonobuoys. U-boat commanders noted in their short reports to BdU that Allied aircraft dropped sonobuoys in areas where their snorkels were presumably seen to alert other aircraft or anti-submarine groups to the U-boat’s diving points. All U-boats were warned of this tactic on 15 February by BdU, suggesting it was a recently employed tactic. There were two types of sonobuoys, one for listening and one for HF/DF. The HF/DF buoy was less effective as snorkel-equipped U-boats rarely transmitted wireless signals. It was the direction-finding buoy that was used with effect during the last six months of the war against the snorkel-equipped U-boat.
Sonobuoys were originally intended to be dropped manually from blimps. Parachutes were added when the decision to deploy them from manoeuvring aircraft was made. They were equipped with a stored, self-erecting antenna. The first operational passive broadband sonobuoy was known as AN/CRT-1. The operational frequency of the AN/CRT-1 was 300Hz to 8kHz, which was within the audible range of the human ear. The operator had to make real-time decisions based on his ability to distinguish various underwater sounds. The problem was that in shallow water the operator had to contend with a host of other noises caused by waves, currents and density layers, making identification of a U-boat operating on electric motors or even drifting with engines off problematic. An improved version, the AN/CRT-1A, also known as the Expendable Radio Sonobuoy (ERSB), had an increased frequency band of 100Hz to 10 kHz and lighter weight (12.7lb).
The improved sonobuoy contained enough battery power for four hours of continuous operation. It was not until June 1944 that these new sonobuoys were being employed by US aircraft squadrons operating in the central Atlantic. It was not until the autumn of 1944 that a single British aircraft squadron received the device for employment.
As an approximation, an aircraft equipped with eight sonobuoys could hold contact with a U-boat for sixty to ninety minutes, and if equipped with twelve, for as long as three hours. This was ample time to vector in a surface hunter-killer group or squadron. The drawback was that calm water was required to achieve these contact times.
The British also took a careful look at operational and practice data recording radar returns against the snorkel. The data the British collected was identified by their own intelligence analysts as ‘scanty’. The S-Band equipment, while operational, could not be compared effectively with the X-Band, which was not yet operational. However, in looking at the MK.V Liberator it was noted that the operational range to identify a periscope or snorkel was 4.7 miles compared with the average of 12.9 miles by day or 14.3 miles by night for this specific equipment on surfaced U-boats. It was thought that the ratio of a third would appear promising until it was realised that this fact implied the majority of these contacts would appear inside the ‘sea returns’ and thus be almost impossible to recognise by sight. The study predicted that in a calm sea the MK.V Liberator had a ratio of 10:1 to identify the snorkel or periscope, while the MK.III Wellington’s ratio was 6:1. In moderate seas the ratios were respectively 50:1 and 30:1. In rough seas it was considered next to impossible to make a radar contact. The conclusion was that the S-Band’s operational range against snorkels ‘appears to be about one-third of that on surfaced U-boats’. In addition ‘detection of snorkel radar in seas of Force 3 or higher is much more difficult than in calmer seas’.
While the above data was based on daylight attacks, a sobering assessment of night-time attacks was also made. The study concluded: ‘The sighting range of the snorkel at night is so low that the technique of attack hitherto used, i.e. radar contact – visual sighting – release of bombs by visual judgment – holds out little hope of success. It is suggested that either radar bomb sites or homing weapons or both are essential.’ This observation is interesting when compared with the procedures outlined to German U-boats by BdU that snorkelling should be carried out at night. This meant that if proper guidance was followed then a snorkel-equipped U-boat’s survivability against aerial identification and attack was very high. No calculations were made by the British in their report between snorkels camouflaged with anti-radar matting and those without. The process of covering snorkel masts with the Wesch anti-radar matting became commonplace in the autumn of 1944 and served to reduce the ability of Allied radar detection even further than already indicated in the above assessment.
The British knew the U-boats were there but were now unable to easily locate them or even effectively employ their aircraft and radar technology against them. The study noted that ‘of the conclusions drawn some are practically certain; others are open to some doubt as based on small numbers. It is however, considered that, in view of the urgency of the snorkel problem, these probable conclusions should also be drawn.’ Indeed, there was a snorkel problem. Six months into this problem the Western Allies were still struggling to identify probable countermeasures against an enemy that they thought was defeated in May 1943, but that had now returned with a vengeance.
Given the negative impact that the snorkel had on British air-based antisubmarine efforts, a series of meetings were convened starting on 22 November 1944 that were intended to address the issue. Meetings followed on 15 December, 19 January 1945, 29 January and 13 March to identify solutions to the troubling snorkel trend. These meetings were held in Room 71/II at Whitehall in the Air Ministry and were chaired by Sir Robert Renwick Bt, who looked for updates from Air Commodore H Leedham, CB, OBE, as the DCD (Director of Communications Development), and Dr A C B Lovell, as the TRE, on ‘actions taken by the DCD and TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment) to provide anti-Schnorkel measures …’ In the first meeting in November it was stated that ‘methods that could be introduced into existing equipment which it was anticipated would give some 20%–25% increase in the ratio of the snorkel responses as against those of sea returns’. In addition, Commodore Leedham believed that either X-Band or K-Band could be used but at least another month of experiments was required. It was confirmed in December that ongoing trials suggested that modifications to both the Wellington and Warwick systems would allow them to better pick up smaller targets. X-Band trials were still ongoing. It was also recommended that American detection systems be included in the testing programme.
In the 19 January meeting it was expressed that significant delays caused by wrongly specified equipment had prevented Coastal Command from equipping their aircraft with the new detection system modifications. K-Band was given the highest priority and X-Band results were promising. By 29 January, Coastal Command aircraft were finally receiving modifications to their radar sets that would allow for better detection of smaller targets. Interestingly, it was noted that the tests being performed off Llandudno, North Wales, in the Irish Sea against British submarine test targets had to stop due to the presence of actual U-boats in the testing area. The first X-Band-equipped Warwick Mk V aircraft were expected to be delivered in late March or early April.
The Air Ministry wanted to increase their chances of a successful attack against a snorkel-equipped U-boat by 20 per cent. Most of their recommendations, however, were not implemented until the spring of 1945. The US was not involved in these meetings, primarily as they were not directly engaged in the snorkel war to any great extent. British findings were to be made available to the US primarily because it was thought they would ‘interest them’.
BdU issued new guidance on 3 March 1945 to their U-boats based on changes introduced by British Coastal Command air patrols. Specifically, Message No. 226C reminded U-boats to maintain depth discipline when snorkelling and avoid being observed. Seven days later, on 10 March 1945, a follow-on message was sent, followed by further guidance to maintain a low snorkel profile in calm surface conditions embodied in Message No. 228B.
What BdU did not calculate was that with the coming of spring, North Atlantic storms gave way to calmer water, as noted by the reference in Message No. 228B of a sea state 1. This increased the potential of a U-boat’s identification through a raised snorkel or periscope by Allied radar or visual recognition.
From the start of the war until mid-1944 BdU did not believe that U-boats could patrol effectively along an enemy’s coast. This self-imposed operational limitation was due to the belief that Allied aircraft combined with the critical limiting factor of a U-boat’s requirement that it had to surface in order to recharge its batteries simply prevented extended coastal operations. Just prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy the Admiralty conducted an assessment of the potential for U-boats to operate in the shallows, titled ‘Inshore Operations by U-boats’, where they concluded that once a U-boat conducted an attack in the shallows it would immediately proceed to deeper water in order to withdraw. The idea that a U-boat would ‘bottom’ at the scene of the attack, or move closer inshore, was ‘considered unlikely’ by the Admiralty. This view changed before the end of the war.
The Royal Navy’s ‘support group’ was the corollary to the US Navy’s ‘hunter-killer group’. The number of support groups in the North Atlantic grew to seventeen Royal Navy and seven Royal Canadian Navy by November 1944, the predominant number being assigned to the critical area of the United Kingdom’s coast. Despite the advantage held by the Allies in the number of anti-submarine surface vessels operating in familiar home waters equipped with state-of-the-art search gear, they found that hunting a snorkel-equipped U-boat in the shallows was difficult.
The first Allied experience against a snorkel-equipped U-boat in coastal waters occurred in the English Channel in the days immediately following the Normandy invasion. One particularly graphic account is provided by Lieutenant Commander Allan Easton (Distinguished Service Cross recipient), who commanded the destroyer HMCS Saskatchewan at the time. Operation Neptune was the code name for the Allied protection of the invasion area from U-boats operating in the English Channel. HMCS Saskatchewan was operating as part of 12th Escort Group in that operation. On 7 June, one day after the Normandy invasion, Easton’s ship was on escort duty accompanying four other vessels when a ‘low rumble was heard, the unmistakable sound of an underwater explosion’ at around 8pm. No one knew exactly what it was. The flag went up from the other escort communicating that it was searching for a contact it made via ASDIC. ‘Action stations’ was now called onboard HMCS Saskatchewan. A search began and a salvo of hedgehogs was fired that exploded without hitting any target. Three destroyers were now searching for the original contact with active ASDIC. The ASDIC officer onboard Easton’s destroyer, Sub-Lieutenant Coyne, noted ominously that: ‘I think the Channel is not going to be an easy place to locate submarines.’ He elaborated on his statement to Easton: ‘In the few days we’ve been in these waters, the H.S.D. [Higher Submarine Detector] and I have been watching the sound effects and so on of the ASDIC and they’re very confusing. Fish appear to be very plentiful. The tides may have something to do with it. To my mind the outlook isn’t particularly bright.’ He concluded his observation, while observing four destroyers now searching for a U-boat, that: ‘It’s not like the clear water of the mid-Atlantic, sir. There’s the place for good ASDIC condition!’ At that very moment an explosion was heard, immediately followed by a column of water that shot up into the air a mere 100 yards abaft Eaton’s destroyer.
As Easton observed the area of the explosion there were no track marks left by a typical torpedo’s stream of bubbles in the water. He correctly concluded that a defective electric-drive acoustic torpedo had self-detonated just four seconds before hitting their stern. As was the custom in a U-boat hunt, the destroyer’s loudspeaker was switched on as it was connected to an ultra-short range telephone on the bridge. It was assumed that the acoustic torpedoes had a short range so everyone was alert searching the immediate area. Eight minutes after the first explosion a report came over the loudspeaker from one of the other destroyers: ‘Torpedo just passed down starboard side running very shallow leaving slight swirl behind it. Heard on hydrophones. No explosion.’ The ASDIC operator on a nearby destroyer picked up multiple contacts, then almost immediately dismissed them as fish. The same false signals were heard by Easton’s ASDIC operator. Then a third destroyer picked up something slightly different and turned slowly to starboard to investigate when the slender pipe of a periscope broke the surface, just abaft to starboard.
The periscope was indeed from a U-boat operating within 20m of the surface among four searching destroyers. Seeing the destroyers, the U-boat retracted its periscope and began evasive manoeuvres that quickly broke contact. Twenty minutes later a hydrophone operator noted that he distinctly heard blowing tanks. HMCS Saskatchewan quickly turned and gave chase, letting loose a salvo of depth charges, but they did not hit the mark. After the first detected torpedo the crew had dropped a trailing noise maker into the water that was designed to detonate acoustic torpedoes. It was a good thing, because no sooner had the depth charge explosions stopped echoing over the hydrophones than another explosion abaft of Easton’s destroyer was heard, accompanied by a column of water 100ft high. Another acoustic torpedo had been detonated by the noise maker.
Oberleutnant zur See Heinz Sieder (1920-1944), Kommandant Unterseeboote “U 984”, Ritterkreuz 08.07.1944
The U-boat Eaton encountered was U-984 (VIIC), which reported firing two T5 torpedoes and a LUT acoustic homing torpedo at a group of three destroyers on that day. Oberleutnant Heinz Sieder claimed ‘one missed, one detonated too soon, one probable hit after 7 minutes’. On both attacks against HMCS Saskatchewan Sieder set the running depth of the T5s at 4m. Both were launched at periscope depth. After the third torpedo, Sieder ordered the U-boat to bottom in order to reload the tubes. He believed that an hour later he was accurately located on the bottom by two destroyers that bracketed him with depth charges. While the destroyers had detected an ASDIC return they did not know it was U-984. The lights flickered onboard the U-boat and sea water began to leak into the bow compartment, but the boat withstood the concussions.
U-984 remained bottomed until the afternoon of the 8th as the destroyers criss-crossed the area. Sieder knew the destroyers were utilising a well-drilled tactic to starve the U-boat of oxygen and battery power in order to force it to the surface, where it was vulnerable. However, U-984 was a snorkel-equipped U-boat. At noon, Sieder decided to lift off from the bottom and move closer to shore, to the area of Ushant, France, where he planned to snorkel to recharge batteries and refresh oxygen. He noted in his KTB that ‘the air condition was exceptionally bad in the last 12 hours. The men literally gasped for air. A certain amount of relief was provided by breathing with potash cartridges. (Mouthpiece of the escape lung connected).’ By 9pm U-984 was snorkelling close to the coast. Sieder then decided to return to Brest, where he could recharge the batteries in a long snorkelling run, instead of the two it would require in the operational area.
U-984 returned to Brest on the 10th and after some minor repairs went back out to the operational area two days later. Sieder’s second foray into the English Channel was an extraordinary example of the snorkel’s new ability. He penetrated the Allied defensive screen and reached the invasion area off the Cotentin Peninsula. In the five days from 25 to 29 June he sank a British frigate, HMS Goodson, and subsequently sank three vessels and damaged one off the invasion beaches of Omaha and Utah. The Allied vessels were from Convoy ECM-17 and carried military equipment and troops for the invasion. His total tonnage for this patrol was 30,090 GRT. BdU noted in Sieder’s KTB after it was turned in: ‘Exemplarily executed enterprise carried out with high attack spirit. The Commander carried himself on 7.6 and 25.6 with iron calmness and toughness towards the destroyer and took advantage of every opportunity for attack. The attack on the convoy on 29.6 was a tactical masterpiece with magnificent success. The experiences of the boat are valuable.’ Sieder was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 8 July 1944 for his patrol.
Back on the surface, the rest of the night and following day were quiet. Then at around 7.30pm on the 8th a deep underwater explosion was heard and the previous night’s attack and counter-attack with a U-boat was repeated. Torpedoes were fired, missed their target or prematurely exploded, followed by ASDIC contacts, depth charges, and in Easton’s words, ‘dead or unconscious cod rising to the surface’. This U-boat, if it was an actual U-boat, was not U-984 as Sieder had already departed the area. If the encounter had occurred in the mid-Atlantic in 1943 the U-boat would have probably been destroyed in short order as clear ASDIC returns would have been acquired. Here in the shallows, four destroyers could not zero in on a U-boat due to the benefits gained from the rocky bottom, thermoclines and current.
The next afternoon Easton’s squadron fell in with six British destroyers that formed a line of ten abreast that began to search for U-boats. This was a formidable defensive line at the western end of the English Channel. The weather was overcast, with a rain squall, though visibility was still good at 3 miles. At some time after 5pm a puff of smoke was seen in the distance. Two destroyers began to turn towards the smoke, with one opening fire from its deck gun. Easton recalled:
On that instant I knew exactly what she was firing at. I altered course towards the smoke and rang for twenty-five knots as I saw our neighbour turning, too. A minute later the smoke had disappeared and nothing whatever was to be seen. What we had observed was a new German invention in operation, an invention with which we were acquainted but not familiar. It was the snorkel …
Easton and his fellow commanders were briefed on the German secret invention before the invasion. He recalled that in his briefing it was noted that the snorkel was to allow U-boats to operate in British coastal waters by allowing it to recharge batteries without surfacing. The report went so far as to note that it was equipped with a radar antenna on the snorkel head that would allow it to identify aircraft and surface ships. However, Easton noted: ‘It did not occur to us that a [snorkel] would smoke.’ This fact was kept as an Allied secret, as previously noted. Not surprisingly, the U-boat evaded all ten destroyers.
Improved detection of a snorkel-equipped U-boat was the Allies’ first priority. The snorkel evolved U-boat tactics to a degree that traditional detection techniques were rendered nearly irrelevant overnight. Usual detection sources such as the HF/DF of wireless signals, surface radar returns, or visual sightings of a surfaced U-boat could not be relied upon. ASDIC was only effective at short range and when used in shallow coastal water could not effectively discern rock from wreck from U-boat. During the convoy battles of previous years ASDIC had proved effective in maintaining contact with a U-boat after an initial detection, often from a visual source such as a surface vessel or aircraft that subsequently vectored in an escort vessel. From mid-1941 until mid-1943 most U-boats were initially detected through radar or visual identification on the surface, not by a chance ASDIC contact.
As BdU shifted focus from open-ocean convoys to specific coastal embarkation/debarkation routes, so did the support groups. Support groups were assigned coastal patrol areas with the intent that they learned all the sub-surface ASDIC signature returns given off by the shallow sea floor and various wrecks. This was believed to be a critical factor in the future success of hunting U-boats as the knowledge gained of the bottom conditions made the difference in distinguishing a U-boat sonar signature from a known sub-surface anomaly.
In August the Admiralty conducted a preliminary analysis of the problem that continued to hold true for the remainder of the war. Through the use of Ultra intercepts, analysis showed that search groups had probably passed over U-boats ten times, but made only one contact. The U-boat on the other hand, had detected 65 per cent of the escorts that passed within 3 miles of them by using their own hydrophones. At this range a U-boat had an excellent chance of slipping through the search screen or manoeuvring around their flank.27 Captain R Winn came to the judgement at the end of August that a U-boat was able to remain ‘submerged for up to ten days without presenting any target detectable by radar or visually except at short range’.
U-boats operated with two main weaknesses prior to the introduction of the snorkel. First, a U-boat could not remain submerged for more than twenty-four hours without surfacing completely to recharge its batteries. Second, when operating in the deep open ocean of the North and Central Atlantic, a U-boat’s sonar signal was often clear and distinct. Allied escort vessel tactics prior to the introduction of the snorkel were to leverage these two weaknesses in a ‘hunt to exhaustion’ whereby the U-boat, once identified through ASDIC, would be pursued until it was compelled to the surface after a loss of electric power caused by drained batteries. Once on the surface, the U-boat could be destroyed by surface gun fire or ramming. This tactic worked only when a U-boat was identified by ASDIC and contact maintained. In the shallows, density layers, thermoclines, currents, rocky bottoms, other wrecks as well as the tactic of bottoming for long periods, significantly diminished the effectiveness of ASDIC. Additionally, a U-boat only had to raise its snorkel mast just a few metres above the surface to recharge its batteries or suck in fresh air required for it to run full diesels and escape at high speed, thereby presenting the Allies with a very difficult target. Allied tactics had to change.
In September 1944, after four months of hunting U-boats in the English Channel, the Admiralty changed their conclusion on U-boat tactics. They now put out guidance that when a ship was torpedoed in waters where a U-boat could bottom effectively, that it would do so if immediate anti-submarine attacks occurred.29 They began to realise that a U-boat no longer attempted to run for deep water; its best defence was to hide in the shallows. By October 1944 the Admiralty issued new guidance:
U-boats can now operate inshore and are likely to adopt static tactics in place of the mobile tactics which we have been used to dealing with. Static tactics involve the use of curly and gnat torpedoes fired from U-boats which endeavour to lie in wait on the course of convoys. When no targets are available U-boats are likely to move with great caution and charge by snort [i.e. snorkel] mainly by night. On approach of a hunting force [the U-boat] will probably bottom or may drift with tide near bottom.
In addition to ASDIC, another source of submerged U-boat identification was through the sound emitted from inside the vessel. The Admiralty was interested in learning if there were ways to improve U-boat identification through hydrophones. The Admiralty Research Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, published a classified study on 22 February 1945 titled Supplement to the Detection of Schnorkel by Hydrophone. This was part of a series of reports designed to show the ‘probability of recognition of Schnorkel over a yearly cycle on various hydrophone systems’. As a baseline the probability model was based on a snorkel-equipped U-boat charging its batteries at a regular snorkel depth cruising at 2–3 knots. A subsequent report considered propeller noise in the calculus among other operational conditions, as well as practical results from test trials being carried out. What is interesting is how limited the report was given that it was nearly one year since the first snorkel-equipped U-boat became operational. The analysis factored in the rule that pressure is inversely proportional to distance, as well as the impact of temperature gradients based on the report ‘Sound Beam Patterns in Sea Water’ issued by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Massachusetts, on 10 October 1944. This latter point is interesting as it shows how little the Admiralty understood the impact of temperature gradients, especially now that the U-boats had moved back to operating inshore.
The study looked at all hydrophone and sonar systems across the spectrum of distances. It was based on depths of 150ft and 900ft, with the former having a bottom reflection coefficient of .3 and the latter being evaluated with a bottom reflection coefficient of both .3 and .7. All probabilities were modelled across sea states 1–4. Looking at a sea state 2, in 150ft of water with a bottom reflection coefficient of .7, we see that in order to have a 60 per cent chance of picking up a snorkelling U-boat that is charging its batteries, a 50ft vertical rod hydrophone has the best chance at 14,000 yards, followed by 15ft ASDIC at 10kc/s being 6,000 yards, 15ft ASDIC at 20kc/s being approx. 4,200 yards, a non-directional hydrophone suspended from a sonobuoy being 3,900 yards, and finally a non-directional hydrophone suspended from a ship being less than 2,000 yards. A calm sea would give greater distances, while a sea state 4 would reduce them significantly. These averages were compounded in shallow water by the extensive noises heard from a wide range of other vessels and differing gradients. The study was based on British submarine diesel noise trials. The results were not promising and confirmed the difficulty of submerged U-boat detection in coastal waters, already well known by support group commanders.
In addition to the use of technology, new search patterns were adopted by the search groups designed specifically to find a bottomed U-boat. These patterns were ‘Scabbard’ and ‘Artichoke’. Both made the assumption that a U-boat would in fact bottom near the torpedoed vessel, bow pointed in the direction of tide. The search patterns were designed to improve the chances of ASDIC detection by hopefully encountering the bottomed U-boat abeam. However, it is not clear if these patterns were routinely employed in practice as the tactical conditions of a U-boat encounter were often highly varied.
While the British wrestled with U-boat detection in coastal waters they also introduced a series of defensive measures designed to blind and confuse U-boats, which now operated almost exclusively in an underwater world of sound. Code-named ‘Foxer’, this noise maker was towed behind an Allied ship and was originally intended to confuse the German G7 acoustic homing torpedoes introduced in 1943–44. These were turned into buoys in the autumn of 1944 and employed in a static fashion around harbours and close-in waterways where Allied vessels manoeuvred to blind U-boats operating in these areas. BdU issued guidance regarding this Allied tactic to all U-boats on 3 January 1945:
It has been determined that the enemy has noise-producing buoys which reproduce the noise of a buzz saw. Apparent purpose: (1) Attempt to deflect Zaunkönig (2) Blocking our hydrophones. Details on the buoy not yet known. The following observations are important and are to be reported: (1) Appearance of buoy, if it can be determined by chance observation through periscope. (2) Length of the towing connection. (3) Does the buzz saw noise also occur in noise-producing buoys? (4) Is the noise produced by the movement of the current or by a special mechanism?
It was clear that BdU did not completely understand the buoy’s tactical use. This tactic was employed some six months after the introduction of the snorkel and the inshore campaign, highlighting how long it was taking the Allies to adapt to the new U-boat tactics.
A post-war analysis of the inshore campaign revealed the Allied struggle with locating and destroying U-boats. In the period from July to mid-September 1944 twenty-six ships were torpedoed. During that time only three U-boats were found and located immediately by Allied support groups after a torpedoing. From the period mid-September to December 1944, where U-boats were completing their evacuation to Norwegian bases and snorkel retrofittings were being completed on the existing operational boats, the number of U-boat patrols against the British Isles decreased. However, three Allied ships were sunk with no U-boats located after the attacks. From mid-December 1944 until February 1945, twenty-three Allied ships were torpedoed with only three U-boats sunk immediately after the reported attack. This period of the inshore campaign proved the most effective for snorkel-equipped U-boats and the most concerning for the Allies. The final period was from mid-February until May, 1945. This period saw a marked increase in operational U-boats sent against the British Isles, which resulted in thirty-five Allied ships torpedoed and eight U-boats identified and sunk shortly after the attack. This suggested that Allied tactical improvements were proving effective, though the number of operational U-boats deployed also increased at the same time. During these four periods the number of U-boats sunk by aircraft proved dismal, with only one each for the first three periods and six in the fourth.
There were other U-boats sunk around the British Isles during these four periods of analysis, however, they were identified by chance. In the first period there were eight sunk, followed by two, one and twelve. These numbers reflected a combination of contributing factors that ranged from some U-boats transiting British waters without a snorkel in July–September on their return to Norway to a large increase of U-boats sent on patrol at the end of the war.
The Admiralty understood that the chance encounter provided the best opportunity to locate and sink a U-boat. This is revealed by the fact that out of thirty-seven U-boats sunk during the inshore campaign by surface vessels, only eleven were destroyed by surface ships escorting or supporting a convoy, while the other twenty-six were targeted by patrolling support groups. Most U-boats sunk in the inshore campaign were encountered en route to their patrol areas. Put another way, by April 1945 U-boats that reached the British coast found themselves in a very effective position. The Admiralty assessed that their escorts only had an 8 per cent chance of detecting a U-boat as it approached a convoy in coastal waters.35 The key was interdicting the U-boat before it reached the coast.
The Admiralty did take note of the use of rubber coating of U-boats during the war. Survivors of U-485 were interrogated about this technology. The Royal Navy interrogator noted that the: ‘Rubber covering was against our ASDIC. His was one of the first boats to be so fitted, and he personally had had insufficient experience to be able to assess its value.’
In the autumn of 1944 the Admiralty took serious note of the development. In a report dated 21 November 1944, it reviewed the possibilities of what the rubber was used for and concluded: ‘In general, it is considered that there is a possibility of reducing echo strength from a submarine by protective coatings, and that any development along these lines must be carefully watched.’
The November assessment was indeed correct that developments had to be ‘watched’ as Alberich reduced the ASDIC effectiveness and gave U-boats a marked advantage when operating in coastal waters.
Air raids were employed as a strategic countermeasure to U-boats. Starting in the spring of 1943 and lasting through to the end of the war, Allied air raids hit German shipyards and production centres. The result was that most shipyards experienced work stoppages of three to four weeks that delayed the VIIC construction and operational readiness of existing boats. In the last twelve months of the war air attacks reportedly contributed to preventing some 150 Type XXIs from being built. Diesel production was hit hard when a raid on the factory in Augsburg delayed work for nearly four weeks in June 1944. Battery production at Hagen and Hanover was paralysed by air attacks, causing a scarcity in them after February 1945. It was determined that due to this shortage, only half of the ordinary number of batteries required for the Type XXIs would be installed after December.
Despite the strategic bombing campaign, more U-boats were at sea or operationally ready in May 1945 than at any point during the war.
The duty of my station when in engagements was to fill up the intervals occasioned by killed and wounded, and to receive and issue orders, etc. The duty of firing is left to the private men. The business of an officer is to see that they do their duty properly, level and fire well; and, if necessary, assist them with his exhortations to inspire them with courage, and keep them from breaking and confusion.
James Green, “Account of Green’s Services”
REGIMENTAL OFFICERS IN COMBAT
In eighteenth-century conventional linear warfare, the regimental infantry officer took part in four main activities: he motivated his men, directed them, kept them in good order, and engaged in personal combat. At least on European battlefields, perhaps the first of these four activities was the most important. Historians commonly assert that eighteenth-century common soldiers braved enemy fire partly because they were more afraid of their officers than of the enemy. There is some truth in this. As Wolfe put it in his tactical instructions to the 20th Regiment in 1755, in action the cordon of supernumerary subalterns and sergeants in the battalion’s rear were required “to keep the men in their duty.” This meant they used compulsion — even lethal force — to prevent the men from taking off: “A soldier that quits his rank, or offers to fly, is to be instantly put to death by the officer who commands that platoon, or by the officer or sergeant in the rear of that platoon; a soldier does not deserve to live who won’t fight for his king and country.” Roger Lamb, a veteran of the American War, later opined that this threat was effective: “A coward taught to believe that, if he breaks his rank and abandons his colors, he will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy.” British officers in America did occasionally resort to such threats in action, even if they do not appear to have carried them out. For example, Ensign John De Berniere wrote of the retreat from Concord that, as the militia’s fire began to take its toll, “we began to run rather than retreat in order. The whole behaved with amazing bravery but little order. We attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose: the confusion increased rather than lessened. At last . . . the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this they began to form under a very heavy fire.” Less happily, Tarleton recalled that “neither promises nor threats” availed the frantic efforts to recover the troops from their panic after the collapse of his line at Cowpens.
Although the threat of summary retribution must (if only subconsciously) have reinforced common soldiers’ readiness to brave enemy fire, eighteenth-century officers principally led rather than drove their men into combat. As previously discussed, this sometimes took the form of stirring exhortations that appealed to national or regimental identity. Similarly, the officers probably orchestrated the loud cheering in which the redcoats commonly indulged during combat. But the main way that the officer motivated his men was by maintaining a resolute, steady demeanor, particularly before and during the advance. As Bland pointed out in 1727, “the private soldiers . . . form their notions of the danger from the outward appearance of their officers, and according to their looks apprehend the undertaking to be more or less difficult.” For this the officer needed presence of mind and, above all, physical courage — the essence of the eighteenth-century cult of honor and sine qua non of the gentleman-officer. The need for these qualities intensified once the battalion engaged in close combat because the advanced position of the regimental officers who conducted the firings made them highly vulnerable not only to the enemy’s fire but also to that of their own men (whether accidental or otherwise). The officer’s prominent position also ensured that any momentary lapse in resolution would have been highly conspicuous. Any who failed in this respect almost certainly would have been pressured into quitting the corps, as happened to two unfortunate officers of the Queen’s Rangers after the battle of Brandywine.
Like courage, stoicism was a key element of the officer’s ability to lead by example. This manifested itself most often in reluctance on the part of injured officers to leave the battalion for medical treatment. A particularly impressive instance occurred at the battle of Freeman’s Farm, as later related by Thomas Anburey:
In the course of the last action, Lieutenant [Stephen] Harvey, of the 62nd, a youth of sixteen, and nephew to the Adjutant General of the same name, received several wounds, and was repeatedly ordered off the field by [Lieutenant] Colonel [John] Anstruther; but his heroic ardor would not allow him to quit the battle, while he could stand and see his brave lads fighting beside him. A ball striking one of his legs, his removal became absolutely necessary; and while they were conveying him away, another wounded him mortally. In this situation the surgeon recommended him to take a powerful dose of opium, to avoid a seven or eight hours’ life of most exquisite torture. This he immediately consented to, and when the Colonel entered the tent with Major [Henry] Harnage, who were both wounded, they asked whether he had any affairs they could settle for him. His reply was, that being a minor, everything was already adjusted; but he had one request, which he had just life enough to utter: “Tell my uncle I died like a soldier!”
Similarly at Bunker Hill (according to Captain the Honorable Charles Stuart), “not one officer who served in the light infantry or grenadiers escaped unhurt, and few had less than three or four wounds.”
In America courage was an even more essential commodity for British officers because the hazards run in action there were seemingly higher than in conventional linear warfare. European officers generally considered it taboo to target individuals of consequence. At Brandywine, for instance, Major Patrick Ferguson countermanded his order for three of his British riflemen to shoot down an unsuspecting mounted rebel officer and his aide de camp because “the idea disgusted me . . . ; it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” By contrast, rebel troops appear to have been positively encouraged to kill British officers. Indeed, at a dinner after the fall of Yorktown, captive Captain Lieutenant Samuel Graham noted that the unpolished Daniel Morgan “spoke with more volubility, perhaps, than good taste” on his riflemen’s role in Burgoyne’s downfall — and particularly of his having expressly ordered the shooting of Brigadier General Fraser during the battle of Bemis Heights.
To combat the rebel tactic of picking them off in action, British officers commonly toned down their appearance. In the case of the Guards, this process started even before the troops departed for service. Hence one English journalist noted how “[t]he [Guards] officers who are ordered for America are to wear the same uniform as the common soldiers, and their hair to be dressed in the like manner, so that they may not be distinguished from them by the riflemen, who aim particularly at the officers.” In America Howe issued a similar instruction to the British and Hessian officers in his army days before he opened the New York campaign. Although British regimental officers would have retained their scarlet (rather than brick-red) coats and their epaulettes and swords, they appear to have stripped the metallic lace from their button holes and hats, laid aside gorgets (and possibly also their crimson sashes), and (like the sergeants) taken up fusils. These sensible measures probably enjoyed some success. After the battle of Long Island, Captain William Dansey reported with relief that the threat the rebel sharpshooters posed was “not so dreadful as I expected,” though (as he added later) “such a bugbear were they at first [that] our good friends thought we were all to be killed with rifles.” Interestingly, when Simcoe was wounded and captured in October 1779 during the Queen’s Rangers’ raid into New Jersey, he heard one rebel regret that he had not shot him through the head, “which he would have done had he known him to be a colonel, but he thought ‘all colonels wore lace.’”
Nevertheless, whatever their appearance, British officers would have marked themselves out in action by issuing commands to and encouraging their men. Such was the case with the aforementioned mounted officer with the grenadiers at the battle of Monmouth, one rebel officer having recorded: “I ordered my men to level at him and the cluster of men near him. . . . He dropped [and] his men slackened their pace.” An even more striking instance occurred during the storming of Chatterton’s Hill, as related by Corporal Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment:
Captain [Lieutenant William] Gore, who commanded the right wing of our battalion, seeing the rebels which we engaged on the right wing were dressed in blue, took them to be Colonel Rall’s brigade of Hessians, and immediately ordered us to cease firing; for, says he, “you are firing at your own men.” We ceased for about two minutes. The rebels, hearing him, made answer that they were no Hessians, and that we should soon know the difference. . . . The aforesaid captain was killed upon the spot: the enemy in his front took as good aim as possible at him, and directed the most of their fire towards the place [where] he stood, for they took him for the officer that commanded the regiment.
Clearly the rebels singled out and peppered the unfortunate Gore precisely because he drew attention to himself in such spectacular fashion.
Officer casualties were probably disproportionately heavy in those engagements in America where British bayonet attacks failed to dislodge the enemy quickly because sustained fighting gave the rebels more opportunity to single out officers and shoot them down. Burgoyne later claimed that this had unfortunately very much been the case during the seesaw struggle in the center at the battle of Freeman’s Farm: “The enemy had with their army great numbers of marksmen, armed with rifle-barrel pieces. These, during an engagement, hovered upon the flanks in small detachments, and were very expert in securing themselves, and in shifting their ground. In this action, many placed themselves in high trees in the rear of their own line, and there was seldom a minute’s interval of smoke in any part of our line without officers being taken off by [a] single shot.” In a similar fashion, at Cowpens over two-thirds of Tarleton’s infantry officers went down in the fighting that preceded the final, catastrophic British charge, according to Roderick Mackenzie, who was himself wounded. Although officer casualties do not appear to have been grossly disproportionate in relation to those of the enlisted men, during the course of the war, some regiments and companies were clearly more unlucky than others. After the 52nd Regiment lost its fourth grenadier captain in three years at the battle of Monmouth, one of the corps’ drummers observed with black humor, “Well, I wonder who they will get to accept of our grenadiers now. I’ll be damned if I would take them!”
Considering how (as we have seen) eighteenth-century officers often carried spontoons (or, less commonly in Europe, firelocks) in addition to their swords, one might have expected that they would have fought alongside their men in action. As Mark Odintz has convincingly demonstrated, however, in America this does not appear often to have been the case. For example, when Brigadier General Alexander Leslie wrote to his brother about the death of Captain the Honorable William Leslie at Princeton, he reassured the earl, “I don’t find he was too rash, as you seem to fear, or that he was out of the ranks.” More explicitly, after the battle of Monmouth, Lieutenant Hale regretted the fact that he and three brother-officers of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers had recklessly outpaced their companies during the initial breakneck British advance. Hale shamefacedly added, “I am told the general [i.e., Clinton] has expressed his approbation of the ridiculous behavior of the four subaltern officers . . . who had got foremost.”
That Hale took especial notice of the fact that one of his brother officers had dispatched a rebel with his sword during the pursuit (“as we all might have done”) demonstrates that engaging in personal combat was an unusual exploit for an officer. Similarly, contrary to the recommendation of one officer and military writer who served in Britain, firelock-armed officers and sergeants in America were not encouraged to augment the battalion’s fire in action. At the opening of the Albany expedition, Burgoyne reminded his army that “[t]he attention of every officer in action is to be employed in his men; to make use of a fusil except in very extraordinary occasions of immediate personal defense, would betray an ignorance of his importance, and of his duty.” Likewise, in a memorandum composed around May 1776 at Cape Fear, Clinton complained that an officer could not properly command his men “while he is firing, loading, and playing bo peep behind trees.” According to the general, when this happened the soldier, “when things become desperate talks of every man for himself and sauve qui peut.” Months later, an incident at the storming of Chatterton’s Hill appeared to vindicate Clinton’s disapproval. He later described what happened when, having forded the Bronx River, two British battalions suddenly found themselves exposed to very heavy fire from the rebels atop the hill: “The officer who led them immediately formed in column for attack and advanced; the instant I saw the move I declared it decisive. But when the officer had marched forward about twenty paces he halted, fired his fusil, and began to reload (his column remaining during the time under the enemy’s fire); upon which I pronounced it a coup manqué, foretelling at the same time that they would break. It happened as I said, and I could not help remarking to Sir William Howe that, if the battle should be lost, that officer was the occasion of it. I had scarcely done speaking when Lord Cornwallis came up with the same observation.” Clinton’s judgment on the affair was unequivocal: “General Burgoyne and I have often represented the absurdity of officers being armed with fusils, and the still greater impropriety . . . by which they neglected the opportunity of employing their divisions to advantage. These had no confidence in them, and they became in fact as the worst soldiers in their divisions.” In short, the officer could not properly carry out his duty to orchestrate violence and simultaneously be a direct agent of it.
The third activity that officers were expected to perform in action was to keep the men under order. This responsibility included supporting the sergeants in their main duties of filling vacancies and dressing the ranks and files — an important job when the men’s natural instinct was to “bunch” under fire. To facilitate this task, in conventional linear warfare officers and sergeants customarily carried spontoons and halberds; which were less useful as weapons than as tools with which to manhandle misaligned men into position. As mentioned earlier, the formation of two ranks at open file intervals customarily employed by the redcoats in America from 1776 precluded them from maintaining perfect dressings in combat. Despite this, however, the officers and sergeants needed to preserve a certain level of order, without which their control over the men would have broken down. This was especially critical when the battalion came under fire, met unexpectedly aggressive resistance, or routed one enemy force only to encounter a fresh one in its path. Any of these scenarios was likely, at best, to have dampened the men’s ardor and to have temporarily diverted their attention from their officers. At worst, the battalion might have fallen into disarray, in which case it could neither have continued its advance, prevailed in the firefight, nor withstood a resolute enemy attack. Whatever the degree of confusion, it was the officers’ immediate and overwhelming priority to restore full control over the bewildered or excitable soldiery.
As one instance of this, during the final assault at Bunker Hill, the adjutant of the 1st Battalion of Marines, Lieutenant John Waller, had to exert himself to restore order to the corps before it could resume its advance and storm the rebel position. Waller’s account is so vivid that it deserves to be quoted at some length:
when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy, but did not retreat an inch. We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails, etc. I did all I could to form the two companies on our right, which at last I effected, losing many of them. While it was performing, Major [John] Pitcairn was killed close by me, with a captain and a subaltern, also a sergeant, and many of the privates; and had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged [Lieutenant] Colonel [William] Nesbitt, of the 47th [Regiment], to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing while this was doing; and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.
Similarly, during Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood’s first attack at Princeton, a “very heavy discharge” at forty yards brought down seven of the men in Lieutenant Hale’s ad hoc grenadier platoon and forced the others to recoil some distance, where Hale “rallied them with some difficulty, and brought them on with [charged] bayonets.”
As Hale’s experience indicates, sometimes the officers and sergeants could not restore their men’s order while the enemy continued to present an immediate threat, in which case the whole had to retire some distance first. Thus at Concord, when the rebel militia’s fire forced Captain Walter Laurie’s three light companies at the North Bridge (in the words of one of the officers) “to give way, then run with the greatest precipitance,” the four remaining officers did not succeed in halting the men until they reached the cover of the grenadier companies marching to reinforce them. A similar phenomenon occurred at the battle of Eutaw Springs. There, when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart’s line collapsed, it was necessary for the King’s troops “to retire a little distance to an open field in order to form” under the cover of the fire from a detachment of the New York Volunteers, who posted themselves in an adjacent brick house.
The last of the regimental officers’ four main activities was to oversee the various maneuvers and firings of their troops. In theory, because the battalion was under the overall control of the field officers, this task did not demand a vast effort from the captains and subalterns. For example, if the commanding officer ordered the battalion to open fire at the halt by subdivisions, the eight officers in question simply had to step forward and give the signal in the predetermined sequence for their fire divisions to “make ready,” “present,” and “fire” (and then to “load”). Hypothetically, maneuvering the battalion generally demanded even less of the captains and subalterns, for most of the evolutions required no further verbal instructions than the initial command bellowed by one of the field officers. All the captains and subalterns had to do was to oversee their maneuver divisions as they executed the evolution — doubtless the sergeants would have shoved wayward men into place. In short, in conventional linear warfare the directorial role of the captains and subalterns did not require them to display a great deal of tactical initiative. But as will become clear later in this chapter, it was a very different matter in America. There the British considerably loosened the ties that ordinarily bound the maneuver and fire divisions of the battalion so rigidly into a single tactical entity.
In conventional linear warfare it was, as Bland had put it in 1727, “a fixed rule for every battalion to act, as near as possible, in concert with the whole, both in advancing, attacking, pursuing, or retiring together.” This was because a battalion that did not regulate its movements “according to the motion of the line” risked being “surrounded by fresh troops, and cut to pieces, before the line can come up to their assistance.” Here the principal threat was that the battalion might be “attacked on the flanks by the enemy’s horse, who are frequently posted between the first and second lines for this purpose.” In short, “the whole line must act like one battalion” or else risk destruction in detail: “While they [i.e., the battalions] keep in a body, they can mutually assist one another; but if they should separate in pursuing those they beat, the enemy may destroy them one after the other, with such an inconsiderable number of troops, that were they in a body, would fly at their appearance.” More succinctly, at the battle of Dettingen (1743), Lieutenant General Jasper Clayton directed one British regimental commander to “[k]eep your battalion in a line with the regiments on your right and left, [and] if you perceive any of them to give way, look sharp and guard your flanks.”
British commanders in America cannot have been unaware of the importance of what Bland recommended. Indeed, Howe made efforts to improve his battalions’ ability to maneuver together in preparation for the New York campaign by holding a series of exercises on Citadel Hill at Halifax. During the first series of exercises in the second half of April 1776, Lieutenant General Lord Percy exercised the line battalions three at a time (that is, in brigade strength), while Major Thomas Musgrave exercised the light infantry and grenadiers eight or so companies at a time (that is, at battalion strength). During the second series of exercises in May and early June, Musgrave took out the newly organized flank battalions (four in number) and Percy the First to Sixth Brigades (each of three battalions). Presumably, one of Percy’s priorities was to practice the brigades in deploying and maneuvering together, Howe himself having later testified that at Halifax the army “received great benefit . . . from the opportunity of being exercised in line, a very material part of discipline, in which we were defective until that time.”
Yet despite Howe’s exercises at Halifax, it does not seem that British battalions in America often regulated their movements in the manner recommended by Bland. This was largely because they did not need to do so. Since the rebels lacked the powerful cavalry forces maintained by European armies, and since only the cream of the rebel infantry was capable of maneuvering adroitly and aggressively, rebel field commanders often proved incapable of seizing the tactical initiative by, for instance, launching violent local counterattacks. Of course, the Continental Army did improve dramatically in quality over the course of the war. But even then the celerity with which the redcoats usually advanced, the extended frontage their battalions needed when drawn up two deep with open files, and the broken and/or wooded terrain that characterized most American battlefields all militated against the maintenance of a well-connected line of battle. As the journalist of the Hessian Feldjägerkorps put it in recounting the attack of Cornwallis’s division at Birmingham Meetinghouse at the battle of Brandywine, “We could not see the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry [on our right] because of the terrain, and while we received only a few orders, each commander had to act according to his own best judgement.”
Throughout the war then, it was common for British lines of battle to bulge and even to fragment entirely as their constituent battalions diverged from a single axis and rate of advance to engage whatever enemy units presented themselves. In fact this phenomenon was so marked at some engagements (such as Monmouth Courthouse) as to make the precise sequence of events almost incomprehensible for the historian. Captain John André’s account of the attack at Birmingham Meetinghouse illustrates vividly how the various corps conducted their maneuvers with only limited reference to those of their neighbors:
At about 4 o’clock the attack began near the [Birmingham] Meeting House. The Guards were formed upon the right, the British Grenadiers in the center, and the Light Infantry and Chasseurs [i.e., Jäger] on the left. The Hessian Grenadiers supported the Guards and British Grenadiers, and the 4th Brigade supported the Light Infantry and the left of the Grenadiers. The 3rd Brigade under [Major] General Grey was the Reserve. The Guards met with very little resistance and penetrated to the very height overlooking the 4-gun battery of the rebels at Chad’s Ford, just as General Knyphausen had crossed. The Hessian Grenadiers were to their left and not so far advanced. The British Grenadiers divided after passing Birmingham Meeting House, the 1st Battalion inclining to the right and the 2nd pushing about a mile beyond the village of Dilworth. The Light Infantry and Chasseurs inclined to the left, and by this means left an interval which was filled up by part of the 4th Brigade. The Light Infantry met with the chief resistance at a hill on which the rebels had four pieces of cannon. At the end of the day the 2nd Battalion [of] Grenadiers received a very heavy fire; the 64th Regiment, which was near them was engaged at the same time. The rebels were driven back by the superior fire of the troops, but these were too much exhausted to be able to charge or pursue. The Reserve moved centrically in the rear of the whole and inclined successively to the parts most engaged.
Howe’s Hessian aide de camp understated the case when he wrote that, after the Fourth Brigade moved forward to fill the gap between the grenadiers and light infantry, “The new front was somewhat more sloping.” In reality, by the close of the battle, the battalions had become quite widely separated. For example, as the journalist of the Hessian Feldjägerkorps put it, “as the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry had attacked so far to the right, we stood at a great distance from the army . . . until about seven o’clock in the evening.”
Where the fighting took place in thickly timbered country, it was plainly impossible to maintain a properly connected line during the advance. Thomas Anburey, who fought at Hubbardton as a “gentleman volunteer” with the grenadiers, later noted that “the woods were so thick, that little or no order could be observed in advancing upon the enemy, it being totally impossible to form a regular line.” Limited visibility was not the only factor that prevented the troops from maintaining a well-connected line of battle in woodland fighting, however. Some units inevitably encountered stiffer opposition than others, which consequently slowed their advance. As an anonymous Brunswick officer commented in the aftermath of the disaster at Bennington, “It is serious business fighting in wild woods and bushes, and one company may easily have better or worse luck than another.” A similar phenomenon was experienced at Guilford Courthouse, where, as Stedman later recalled: “The British line, being so much extended to the right and left in order to show a front equal to the enemy, was unavoidably broken into intervals in the pursuit of the first and second American lines; some parts of it being more advanced than others, in consequence of the different degrees of resistance that had been met with, or of other impediments arising from the thickness of the woods, and the inequality of the ground.” Lieutenant Thomas Saumarez, with the 23rd Regiment on the British left, highlighted the role of these “impediments” when he related that, during the advance against the second rebel line, “[n]ot being able to attack in front, the Fusiliers were obliged to take the ground to their left to get clear of the brushwood.”
Tarleton’s account of Guilford Courthouse conveys especially clearly how the British line became deranged as it fought its way through the woods. He recorded that, after Cornwallis’s line had routed the North Carolina militia and plunged into the dense woodland that blanketed most of the battlefield, “[t]he broken ground and the extent of the enemy’s front . . . occasioned the flanks to open from the center.” What Tarleton meant by this was that, because the units posted on the extremities of the first rebel line maintained the contest after the militia had flown, the brigades of Lieutenant Colonel Webster and Major General Leslie drifted to the left and right respectively, leaving a yawning gap in the British center. This gap was filled by the 2nd Battalion and the grenadier company of the Guards, which were ordered up from the reserve. But the integrity of the British line was not restored for long. As the battalions engaged and forced back the various units of Virginia militia in the second rebel line, the fact that some units encountered “less opposition and embarrassment than others” conspired with “[t]he thickness of the woods where these conflicts happened” and thereby “impeded the British infantry moving forwards in a well-connected line.” Consequently, some corps unknowingly outstripped the rest of the army and “arrived sooner in [the] presence of the Continentals.” First to break out of the woods, on the left, was Webster with his own 33rd Regiment, with which (supported by the Jäger and the Guards’ light company) he immediately attacked that part of the rebel third line that he could see across the open ground. Rebuffed in disarray, the mortally wounded Webster and his command remained in the woods “till he could hear of the progress of the King’s troops upon his right” — which effectively meant until the end of the action, when he “soon after connected his corps with the main body.” Next to emerge from the woods, in the center, was the 2nd Battalion of Guards, whose impulsive, unsupported attack the Continentals also bloodily repulsed. With the British left and center (if they could still be called such) now in confusion and the right stalled far behind in the woods, it was probably fortunate for Cornwallis that Greene now ordered a general withdrawal before the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Regiment and the 23rd Regiment came up. These had initially been part of Leslie’s and Webster’s brigades, but (in Tarleton’s words) “had inclined from the divisions on the right and left.”
In combat in America then, the field officers were compelled to display an unconventional degree of tactical initiative in directing their respective corps, as Major General Phillips admitted in general orders prior to his thrust against Petersburg in April 1781: “As the present movements will be made in a difficult country, it becomes necessary that officers leading columns and commanding corps, should use and exert the intelligence of their own minds, joined to the knowledge of the service, in times of an attack, when they cannot immediately receive the orders of the Brigadier General [i.e., Benedict Arnold] or Major General.” It is worth stressing once again that this kind of order would have been unusual in most conventional European campaigns.
Unlike conventional European linear warfare, on American battlefields it was common for the companies within the battalion to operate as semiautonomous tactical entities, each one under the direction of its captain or senior subaltern. Indeed, individual companies were not infrequently detached from the battalion during combat to perform particular tasks. Although this phenomenon was most marked in the case of the light infantry, line battalion companies also sometimes acted almost independently in action, particularly in woody country. For example, Captain the Honorable William Leslie recorded of the battle of Long Island that, as Major General James Grant’s and Brigadier General James Agnew’s Fourth and Sixth Brigades deployed on the British left, “my company [of the 17th Regiment] was sent as a reinforcement to the advanced guard, who were much incommoded by riflemen.” Similarly, when Sergeant Roger Lamb found himself separated from the 23rd Regiment during the attack on the Virginia militia at Guilford Courthouse, he suddenly espied a single company of the Guards advancing to the attack. He later commented: “The reader may perhaps be surprised at the bravery of troops, thus with calm intrepidity attacking superior numbers, when formed into separate bodies, and all acting together; but I can assure him this instance was not peculiar: it frequently occurred in the British army during the American War.” The Irishman was well placed to comment on this theme, for he not only participated fully in Cornwallis’s southern campaigns but also served in the northern wilderness with Carleton and Burgoyne in 1776 and 1777. He was therefore involved in some of the most confused and fiercely contested engagements of the eighteenth century.
Perhaps the earliest explicit expression of the unconventional degree of tactical independence that companies had to be able to exercise in action in America is contained in a series of tactical instructions that Major General Phillips issued to Burgoyne’s army in May 1777, shortly before the opening of the Albany expedition. The thrust of Phillips’s message to the captains was that Burgoyne required “that every company may form a respectable body singly, and though attached to its place in battalion, yet always ready to act separate from it, as the nature of the ground may require, or the nature of local service they may be sent on make necessary.” Having recommended that officers drill their own companies (to ensure that they were “perfectly acquainted” with their men and the latter were “accustomed to the sound of their [officers’] voices”), Phillips observed, “It is well understood, that all regiments exercise by companies; but it is usually done with a view of joining in battalion.” By contrast, he warned, the expected nature of the forthcoming campaign made it necessary “that each company should be led to consider itself as a small, distinct body, and [to] exercise in various evolutions independent of the battalion, with every possible view for single companies being taught to depend upon themselves.”
Phillips’s instructions also made it clear that, even when joined in battalion, each captain would have to exercise considerable tactical latitude in handling his company. This was because the companies were expected to draw up “with small intervals of distance” between them to enable them to exploit good defensive ground (trees, fences, banks, and such), to negotiate obstacles (enclosures, ravines, ditches, marsh, small rises, brushwood, and such), to facilitate changes of position and facing, and to traverse difficult ground. To facilitate command and control and to enable companies to act coherently, Phillips recommended “the commanding officer of a battalion to put himself at the head of one company, and to maneuver that company; while the other companies . . . follow the evolutions so given by the commanding officer.” Presumably this unconventional arrangement (which to modern eyes would resemble a cross between “follow my leader” and a “Mexican wave”) was intended to address the problem that a field officer at the center of the battalion could hardly have controlled all its companies (spread out over two hundred yards or so) simply by verbal command, particularly on wooded ground.
Although Phillips intended these company-level instructions to confer tactical flexibility on the battalion in action in close country, he acknowledged that even a single company would occasionally be too unwieldy a tactical entity to execute some maneuvers. He therefore indicated that, when it was necessary for the battalion to furcate in order to negotiate multiple obstacles, the officers might have to tell off their companies into even smaller maneuver divisions, each commanded by no less than a sergeant (curiously, Phillips did not simply recommend that the company should break up into two platoons). But as soon as the separated maneuver divisions had negotiated the obstacles in question, and as soon as the ground permitted, they were to reform: first into companies, then into battalion.
Even more explicit evidence as to the degree of tactical autonomy allowed for companies in action in America is provided by a set of tactical instructions that Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hope drew up for the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers in August 1780. These guidelines incorporated the same basic unorthodox, staggered manner of operating in battalion that Phillips had prescribed three years earlier:
Whatever company or division in the battalion may be first ordered by the commanding officer to perform any movement, the same is always to be immediately followed by the two next on their right and left, and so on through the whole battalion without waiting for further directions — the men receiving the word of command from their own officers. . . . When the battalion is ordered to march in line, the whole is ordered to march by that particular division in front of which the commanding officer marches; the officer of which will give the greatest attention to keep the direction in which he moves, that the same file continue to cover him as when first put in motion.
Like Phillips, Hope clearly envisaged that when the battalion was in line, the various companies could not all be expected to take their dressings from one particular point of the battalion, as was usual in conventional linear warfare. Consequently, each company was to dress itself on one of the two officers posted on its flanks: “In marching by companies or division[s], the officers commanding each should at all times caution his division to which flank he would have his men dress . . . remembering always that they should never be required to look in a different direction from that which [it] is intended they should incline to. And to facilitate this still more, there should be always either an officer or sergeant on each flank when the battalion breaks off into companies or divisions (as far at least as the numbers will admit of their being so distributed), [so] that the men may have some superior to look to for regulating their movement and [to] dress by.” Although the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers may never have employed Hope’s command-and-control method in action (the last occasion on which the grenadier battalions were hotly engaged was the battle of Monmouth), it is interesting that it appears to echo Phillips’s instructions to Burgoyne’s army. Once again, since it would have been impractical for a field officer to bellow oral commands to the battalion’s companies over an extended frontage, particularly in woodland, it is tempting to speculate that Hope’s instructions may simply have represented an explicit codification of the method of operating in battalion that was already in widespread use.
If the companies within line battalions often performed as semi-independent tactical entities in action in America, particularly in broken country, then light infantry companies commonly enjoyed even more tactical freedom. For example, as Knyphausen’s column approached Chad’s Ford at Brandywine, Captain Patrick Ferguson’s riflemen cooperated with the companies of the Queen’s Rangers in dislodging strong rebel delaying parties from successive prepared positions: “they remained planted like cabbages whilst our parties divided, gained their flanks, [and] turned their breastworks.” Once the Queen’s Rangers had successfully crossed Chad’s Ford, Private Stephen Jarvis’s company and one other were detached to occupy an eminence upon the left; from whence “we saw our brave comrades cutting them [i.e., the rebels] up in brave style.”
Perhaps the most striking example of the kind of tactical freedom enjoyed by companies of a light battalion was the role of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry in the attack at Birmingham Meetinghouse, also during the battle of Brandywine.62 The account that one of the officers who participated in the attack penned later is so dramatic and striking that it deserves to be quoted at length:
As soon as the [first] line [of Cornwallis’s division] came to Dilworth Church [i.e., Birmingham Meetinghouse], the enemy opened a fire from five fieldpieces [on Birmingham Hill]. The churchyard wall being opposite the 17th [Regiment’s] light company, the captain [William Scott] determined to get over the fence into the road; and calling for the men to follow, ran down the road and lodged the men without loss at the foot of the hill on which the guns were firing. The hedge on the left side of the road [was] much cut with the grape shot. By a bend of the hill, [we] had a view of a part of the enemy’s line opposite the [two battalions of] grenadiers [to our right] and opened a fire from about half the company on it, no more being able to form on the space. Presently, [we were] joined by the 38th [Regiment’s light] company. Some of their gallant soldiers wanted to ascend the hill immediately; [which was] objected to as too imprudent. The 33rd [Regiment’s light] company joined immediately afterwards, and the men of [these] three companies . . . ascended the hill. . . . Their [i.e., the rebels’] line advancing on us, we were compelled to throw ourselves on our knees and bellies, and keep up a fire from the slope of the hill. [The] enemy repeatedly attempted to come on, but were always drove back by our fire, although their General (Lincoln) [sic, Major General Sullivan] very much exerted himself. At this time a most tremendous fire of musketry opened from both lines. Looking back to see how far the grenadier line was off, from which alone we could receive immediate support, to my surprise I saw close to me Major [the Honorable Charles] Stuart of the 43rd [Regiment]. . . . Recollecting the 43rd [Regiment’s] grenadier company was the left of their line, we persuaded Major Stuart to run down the hill and prevail on that company to hasten to our support. He did so, but before he could return, to my inexpressible joy, [I] saw Captain [Charles] Cochrane of the 4th [Regiment’s light] company on my left throw up his cap and cry “Victory!”; and, looking round, [I] saw the 43rd [Regiment’s grenadier] company hastening to our relief. We dashed forward, passed the five pieces of cannon which the enemy had abandoned, and made some few prisoners — the enemy running away from us with too much speed to be overtaken.
This account makes it perfectly clear that the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry’s companies (totaling together around five hundred men) did not fight at Brandywine as a single tactical entity under the close direction of its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie. Nor even do they appear to have operated in the staggered manner laid down by Phillips and Hope (in other words, the individual companies did not remain loosely coupled and take their tactical cue from the company at the center). Instead each of the officers commanding the various companies exercised near-total independence in conducting his men, which enabled the companies to pick their way forward according to terrain and the strength of the opposition to their front. Indeed, most tellingly of all, at a moment of crisis the officers of the 17th Regiment’s light company were able to request the immediate support of the 43rd Regiment’s grenadier company. This was, of course, part of another unit altogether, namely, the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers (to the right of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry).
The letters of Captain William Dansey, who commanded the 33rd Regiment’s light company from 1776 to 1778, offer further evidence that the companies of a light battalion did not keep in formation and operate in a closely coordinated fashion in combat. Instead Dansey’s references to his company’s performance in action (like his verdict on the affair at Harlem Heights, that this was an engagement “in which the light infantry were chiefly concerned, and my company among the first of them”) tend to give the impression that the light companies were unleashed against the rebels rather like a pack of savage dogs. Occasionally one or more other light companies came to Dansey’s assistance when his men were hard pressed. For example, of the battle of Long Island, Dansey observed: “I led my company into the very thick of them [i.e., the rebels] and had a most miraculous escape. In about three minutes I had three men killed and six wounded out of thirty, [and] Mr. [Richard] Cotton my lieutenant got a graze upon the shoulder. We were well supported by three companies or there would not have remained a man to tell the story. I have to thank God for my safety under the heaviest fire of musketry ever people escaped from.” In his next letter he elaborated on this close scrape: “I was lucky in my escape, for I had my right hand man wounded and left hand man killed. I had three killed and six wounded in my company in about three minutes, having fallen in with about 400 riflemen unawares. They are not so dreadful as I expected, or they must have destroyed me and my whole company before we were supported by anybody else. Afterwards they were all either killed or taken. My company, though obliged to retreat (not having 20 yards the start and being only thirty men) killed two officers and two men before we gave way. We had got in among them.”66 In other engagements, however, Dansey and his men appear to have maneuvered and fought with almost no support from the rest of the battalion’s companies. This appears to have been the case at one point during the battle of Monmouth, of which he recorded: “I have only to tell you I had a very narrow escape from being taken prisoner with my whole company. We were obliged to run up to our middles in a bog to get away from the rebel light horse, and I had only one man taken.”
Because light companies appear commonly to have enjoyed near-total tactical independence in action, their captains required a high degree of individual initiative and skill. As might be expected, Dansey’s letters give a fascinating insight into his personal role in directing his company in combat. For example, in recounting his part in a major skirmish that developed during a foraging expedition in New Jersey (on 23 February 1777), Dansey explained how he had employed an elementary ruse de guerre to induce the enemy to retreat:
I faced two hundred of the rebels with my company only in a wood, for two minutes, myself not twenty yards from some of them, and received all their fire. Our friends thought we were cut to pieces. Another company joined me, and I drove the rebels and had only one man wounded in the arm. We killed six and wounded sixteen of them. I was so near as to call to them, “By God, my lads, we have you now” in the hopes they would be bullied into surrender, but that would not do: they answered me with a heavy fire. However, when I got my men to the trees round about me, and the other company coming up to my support, I bullied them another way. Seeing them snug behind the trees and showing no disposition to run, and too many of them to charge (as we were rather too thin), I cried as loud as I could hollow, that they might be sure to hear me, “By God, soldiers, they run, have at them my brave boys” which had the desired effect. One thought the other [had] run, and they all set off as if the Devil drove them. We cleared the wood of them and they never [showed?] themselves within shot again that day.
The opportunity to exercise this level of personal initiative and tactical skill in combat made the light company captain’s battlefield role markedly different from that of captains of the battalion companies. Indeed, in March 1778, after one of his brother officers was rewarded with the post of aide de camp to Major General William Tryon, Dansey grumbled with obvious frustration about the limited recognition that fell to successful light company officers like himself, especially when they faced the added danger of professional disgrace in the event of mishap:
I am almost wishing for a smug [illegible: berth?] of that kind, for I find there is nothing to be gained by fighting with light infantry but — Lord knows — broken bones. And as to the honor of it, if it was not for self-satisfaction it is all a farce. Merit goes by favor, and we are only tools for the favorites to work with, [so] consequently generally fall into ignorant, unskilful hands. And like the mechanic’s tools, we suffer; and if the work does not succeed we are blamed, [while] if it does [succeed] we have no more merit than the carpenter’s axe or saw. In short, an officer of the light infantry’s character is always at stake; and if he does ever so well, the merit becomes other people’s, whose impudence or sycophancy gains them the ears of people in power. But I’ll persevere. I may be lucky, [and] therefore will not draw from the lottery of preferment yet.
Other examples can be cited to show the level of initiative that light infantry officers had to display in action. For example, at the action at Spencer’s Ordinary, teenaged Lieutenant Charles Dunlop of the Queen’s Rangers “led on his division on horseback, without suffering a man to fire, watching the enemy, and giving a signal to his men to lay down whenever a party of theirs was about to fire.” Similarly, in September 1776 Lieutenant Loftus Cliffe, a subaltern in the 46th Regiment, marveled at the coolness and flair with which Captain Mathew Johnson conducted the regiment’s light company at the affair at Harlem Heights: “Johnson and his . . . company behaved amazingly. He goes through his maneuvers by a whistle, for which he has often been laughed at. They either form to right or left, or squat or rise, by a particular whistle, which his men are as well acquainted with as the battalion [companies of the 46th Regiment are] with the word of command. He (being used to woods fighting, and having a quick eye) had his company down in the moment of the enemy’s ‘present!,’ and up again at the advantageous moment for their fire, killed several, and had not one of his company hurt during the whole time he drove the enemy before him.” The 46th Regiment was Howe’s own corps, and it may be that the commander in chief himself influenced Johnson to adopt his sensible command-and-control system. Howsoever the case, that Johnson was able to practice such a system, and that his less imaginative brother officers derided him for it, signifies not only how much latitude the light infantry captain exercised in “fighting” his company in action but also that not all officers were fit to be entrusted with so demanding a situation.
In conventional linear combat, the captain and subaltern were likely to be involved in four main activities: motivating their men, keeping them in good order, engaging in personal combat (occasionally), and directing their men. This latter role especially was at a premium in America, where conventional methods of command and control were not always feasible. Because it often proved unnecessary and even impracticable to maintain a well-connected line of battle during the advance, field officers were compelled to exercise a far higher degree of tactical initiative in “fighting” their battalions than was usual in European campaigns. To enable the field officers to synchronize the actions of the battalion’s loosely deployed companies in combat, particularly in woody country, some corps appear to have adopted an innovative, staggered method of maneuvering. Finally, in the case of the light battalions, the field officers nominally in command seem commonly to have exercised little overall direction over the companies in action. Once these latter engaged, they appear to have cooperated only loosely, the respective captains enjoying the kind of tactical independence that demanded flair far in excess of that expected of the officers of the line infantry.
The battle of Pydna, of course, was not the end of the contest. The Roman legion would go on to fight more variations of the phalanx in the centuries to come, taking on the other armies influenced by the Hellenistic phalanx and employing, to varying degrees, similar methods. There was a Fourth Macedonian War, followed by a war against the Achaeans, and the kingdoms of Numidia and Pontus, in north Africa and north Turkey, respectively. But the writing was already on the wall. The phalanx had met the legion on multiple occasions, in all variations of leadership, terrain, weather, states of troop discipline and supply, and the various morale-influencing factors of divine inspiration and omen. The legion was the hands-down winner, and would continue to dominate the battlefield for hundreds of years to come.
But we already knew this. Again, the interesting question is, “why?” let’s take some time to go over the evidence, and more importantly, to return to Polybius’ original statement as to why the legion won out over the phalanx, agility, flexibility and adaptability. So, was Polybius right?
Was Polybius Right?
The answer, supported by the evidence of the six battles we’ve just examined, is “yes, but only partly.”
Let’s take a look. Polybius is certainly correct in that while both the legion and the phalanx required tight unit cohesion, and were limited by the fundamentals of the battle line, the legion certainly required less of it. The short sword is, by its very nature, a weapon well suited to both whole unit combat and individual fighting. Legionaries deployed at larger intervals, which gave them more space to maneuver as individuals, able to absorb the shock of a charge, to dodge incoming missiles, to fence with an opponent if required. More importantly, they were trained to do this very thing. The sword was their weapon, and they were skilled in employing it both as an instrument of a formed maniple, and as an individual fencer.
Contrast this with the phalangite, whose primary weapon, the massive pike, was only effective when formed. Fighting as an individual, a phalangite was left with little option but to drop the giant weapon and draw his own sword, with which he was not nearly as well trained as his Roman enemy.
There’s a great example of the ineffectiveness of the phalangite pike in an individual duel in Diodorus. He tells a story of a fight that breaks out in the camp of the army of Alexander the Great at Alexandria – not Alexandria, Egypt, but a different city named for him in modern day Uch, Pakistan. Coragus, one of Alexander’s Macedonian phalangites, had a bit too much to drink and got into it with Dioxippus, one of the Athenian allied soldiers in Alexander’s army.
Both men were, by all accounts, tough as nails. Coragus was a veteran of many battles, and had secured a solid reputation as a fighter. Dioxippus had won the boxing title in the Olympics of 336 BC. It’s not clear if Dioxippus had won at ancient boxing, which was mostly similar to the modern sport, or at pankration (all-force), a kind of mixed martial art that combined throws, holds, punches, kicks and whatever else you could think of, apart from biting and eye-gouging. Either way, Dioxippus was nobody to take lightly, but that didn’t scare Coragus, who wound up challenging him to a duel. The whole thing turned into a kind of contest between the Macedonians and the Greeks, with each side cheering on their respective champion.
Everybody cleared a space for them to fight, and Coragus put on his armor. Dioxippus showed up naked and oiled. Coragus appears to have brought his pike and a javelin, while Dioxippus brought only a club. Now, we don’t know how long this club was, but it makes more sense to me if it was a short, one-handed weapon, not all that different from the Roman sword. You should keep in mind that the club was the favored weapon of the mythical hero Herakles, which lent a symbolic flair to Dioxippus’ choice.
The fight began, and Dioxippus easily dodged Coragus’ thrown javelin. Diodorus alternately calls Coragus’ weapon a “spear” and later a “long lance,” which likely means he’s talking about the pike. Whatever the weapon, Diodorus is clear that Dioxippus got inside the weapon’s effective range, slammed the pike shaft with his club, and snapped it.
Coragus doesn’t appear to have had time to reverse the weapon to make use of his butt-spike, so he drew his sword, but Dioxippus was already close enough to grab his wrist and execute a wrestling throw, evidence that Dioxippus had won at pankration and not boxing, to put Coragus on his back. Then, boot on his opponent’s neck, Dioxippus raised his club and proclaimed victory.
It was a great moment for Dioxippus, but it ultimately led to his downfall. The Macedonians were furious at the embarrassing loss, falsely accused him of theft and the poor Athenian wound up committing suicide in protest. He was largely ridiculed for this overreaction, but Alexander was furious at the senseless waste of a powerful life.
Now, Dioxippus was not a Roman legionary, but the story does illustrate the effectiveness of a fast-moving individual armed with a short weapon against a Hellenistic phalangite who is without the protection of his formed phalanx. It is possible that the Roman legionary had some speed advantage. The average phalangite wore the linen or bronze cuirass, helmet, shield and greaves and carried the pike. The hastati front line of the Romans would only have worn a much lighter pectoral, and possibly a single greave. The Roman shield was much heavier, but the lighter armor, in the front line at least, may have given the hastati a speed edge in engaging the phalanx.
Even more importantly, the Romans introduced a tactical innovation, in that they combined the missile functions of the skirmisher with the shock combat function of the heavy infantry. The Roman legionary, possibly with the exception of the triarii, had a limited missile weapon role – it was most often used to soften up the enemy line, but also could be used to return missile fire from skirmishers in a pinch. The pilum was purpose-built in a way that most ancient javelins were not – uniquely designed to cause an enemy to discard his shield, thus preparing the battleground to allow the legionary the chance to engage in close combat under the most advantageous circumstances possible.
Roman legionaries did not skirmish as the velites did, but their hybrid role as a limited kind of missile troop is often underappreciated. The argument can be made that this is because it wasn’t new. The famous Persian “Immortals” of Xerxes I, who fought Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, are described by Herodotus and depicted in carvings at Persepolis – modern day Marvdasht in Iran – as being spear- and shield-armed heavy infantry who also carried bows. But the general belief is that the Immortals acted either as formed groups of either archers or spearmen, and didn’t combine the two as the Roman legionary did, using their missiles to soften up the enemy just before the charge to close combat, a similar tactic to the 17th century cavalry cuirassier, who discharged his pistol at point-blank range just before his charge hit home.
The effectiveness of this combining of skirmishing and shock-combat capabilities in a single infantry class is illustrated by the abolition of the velites during the Marian reforms of 107 BC, after which the legions had no dedicated skirmishing body (though auxiliaries still skirmished). Each legionary had their javelins, and that was that.
Polybius is certainly right that terrain played an important role. Looking at the tactical subunits of the Hellenistic phalanx and their respective depth and frontage gives us some clues. The Hellenistic lochos of 16 men would have been useless, just a long line of 16 men in single file, and even the tetrarchia of 64 would still have only had a frontage of four men, or 16 feet, and would therefore be easily enveloped. At the speira level of 256 men, you’re covering a little less than 50 feet, which still isn’t great. It isn’t until you get up to the chiliarchia level of 1,024 men that you’re getting to just under 200 feet of frontage. And all of this assumes that the phalanx is deploying in the usual lochoi of 16 soldiers. In many instances, as at Cynoscephalae, the phalanx’s depth was doubled, with the resulting loss of 50 percent of its frontage.
Now, compare this with the Roman legion. We’re not sure of the exact depth of the maniple (the sources point to either three or six ranks deep) but we are still looking at units of approximately 120 soldiers. If we assume they’re three ranks deep, and we believe Polybius’ statement that the soldiers have 6 feet each, we’re looking at almost 250 feet of frontage for a single maniple. And this doesn’t even count the likelihood that the two centuries were able to function independently of one another (after all, each had its own centurion), which would result in two tactical units covering over 100 feet of frontage each. The checkerboard deployment of these units would have allowed them to operate independently of each other without having to worry too much about their flanks. If one maniple or century was attacked on their exposed flank, there would be another one not far off who could come to their aid. And any unit that hit a Roman flank would in turn have to expose their own flank to the other maniples.
Polybius is right that the Roman system was much more flexible, and it is clearly geared to take maximum advantage of the legionary’s ability to fight in all directions, and even on his own if need be. Further, the smaller units, stationed at intervals, allowed the Romans to handle broken terrain much more easily, weaving around boulders or sinkholes or whatever other irregularities the battlefield presented.
The phalanx could only fight in one direction, and because it was so reliant on its depth (without at least five ranks, you wouldn’t have the interleaving pike heads critical to defending the front rank), it required far more troops to be effective. And because it could only fight in one direction, protecting the flanks became even more critical than usual, and it was pretty damn critical already. The best way to protect the flanks was to expand the frontage of the phalanx, with the result that phalanxes tended to deploy, as we have seen in all six of the battles we’ve examined in this book, as more or less one enormous line. This is necessarily more vulnerable to terrain than a checkerboard deployment, and made the phalanx far more dependent on flat, level ground to prevent gaps from forming in the line.
Another thing you may notice when you look at these battles is the role of the general in the fighting. Roman generals certainly could and did participate in battles directly, fighting hand to hand in the front ranks and exposing themselves willingly to danger. In fact, one of the highest honors a Roman general could earn was the spolia opima (rich plunder), which were the weapons, armor and other treasure stripped from an enemy leader killed in single combat.
The Romans in three battles we examined had a recent example of this – the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who in 222 BC met Viridomarus, king of the Gaesatae tribe of Gauls, in single combat and killed him. The winning of this high honor cemented Marcellus’ place in history, and would certainly have encouraged other Roman generals to get out front in the fighting. This wasn’t a one-off event. Over a century and a half later, Julius Caesar would grab a shield and join his own front line fighting against the Nervii in what is now northern France. Casualty rates among Roman centurions were notoriously high, in part due to the culture of valor and risk-taking that dominated.
But at least in the battles we’ve examined here, that appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Note Flamininus’ moving to his right wing at Cynoscephalae when he realized he couldn’t salvage things on his left. Witness Paullus moving bodies of troops around as events unfolded at Pydna. The general impression is that the Roman consul led from immediately behind the battle line, on horseback, which not only made him more mobile for purposes of acting as an observer and giving orders, but gave him a higher vantage point from which to see the evolution of the battle and to allow him to direct his troops.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with Hellenistic generals. They were stamped in the mold of Alexander the Great, a general famous for his personal role as a warrior. In many of his most famous battles, Alexander charged at the head of his cavalry, acting as a tactical unit in the fight and personally giving and receiving blows, almost at the cost of his life at the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC. It is believed that Alexander set his troops in line before the battle, but once the order was set, he abdicated actual command to his subordinates in favor of acting as a fighting cavalryman.
Remember that all of the Hellenistic generals we’ve examined were descendants of the successors of Alexander, and likely considered themselves the rightful inheritors of his legacy. The stories of his personal valor and style of command would have been much fresher to them than they are to us.
We see this in the behavior of the generals here. Pyrrhus of Epirus is always in the thick of the fighting, and is killed, though not in the most heroic manner, in a battle. We see Philip V personally leading his troops on the ridge at Cynoscephalae, and Antiochus leading the cavalry charge that breaks the Roman left at Magnesia. It seems likely that they, in the tradition of Alexander, were happy to lay out their general plans for the battle and then leave it to their subordinate commanders to enact it while they rode off to fight.
This makes sense in the plodding, defensive context of the phalanx. Here was a formation that wasn’t expected to move much. It was supposed to be laid out in a position and then to hold that position, or to march straight forward from it, while other units conducted any more complex maneuvers required. In fact, it’s generally considered that during the time of Alexander at least, the phalanx’s job wasn’t to win the battle at all, but merely to pin the enemy battle line in place long enough for Alexander and his heavy cavalry to strike the critical blow that would begin the rout. The formation’s tremendous depth, along with the difficulty of maneuvering with the enormous pike, lend it to this style of generalship. We don’t see Hellenistic generals breaking off pieces of their phalanxes to respond to contingencies the way the unnamed Roman tribune does at Cynoscephalae. We also don’t really see them rallying up small units of phalangites as Marcus does the Roman routers at Magnesia.
It’s possible that this focus on personal heroism on the part of the commander deprived the phalanx of much needed leadership in the thick of battle, but it’s equally possible that it was simply part of the Hellenistic military ecosystem. A static, defensive formation like the phalanx wouldn’t require as much attention from the general of the entire army, freeing him to engage in the kind of personal heroism that would inspire everyone, boost morale and thus prevent the infectious panic that could be the end of a battle.
Some of this may also be due to the nature and position of the Hellenistic versus the Roman leader. Romans had despised the word rex (king) ever since the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king, in 509 BC, and the government of the Republic was carefully devised to prevent any one person from amassing too much personal power. A Roman consul was, despite his enormous authority, a servant of the Roman civitas, the social body of Roman citizens. Abstracting loyalty to a state, instead of a person, is a sophisticated concept, and one that the Romans excelled at, at least until their first civil war. Personal glory was absolutely a priority for the Roman consul, and Rome’s history is rife with unnecessary military action specifically brought on by a Roman public official’s need to win glory in battle. This need was driven partly by the limited term of office. Roman commanders only held imperium for a short period, and once it expired, so did their authority to lead an army. But, at least conceptually, the Roman consul was a public servant.
The Hellenistic king was a royal monarch. His military authority never waned. The army, like everything else in his kingdom, was his personal property.
Command and Control, Independence of Action and Initiative
There’s something else, the extent to which command and control is pushed down to the lowest level in the Roman army.
Command and control (also known as “C2”) is a modern military concept that refers simply to the ability to command military actions and personnel. C2 obviously accrues to the highest in rank, who have the authority to make more and bigger decisions. When that C2 is assigned to officers and soldiers of lower rank, it’s said to be “pushed down” or “pushed out” to a lower level. This is a judgment-neutral statement, and military theorists can disagree about whether or when pushing C2 down is a good idea. The Coast Guard is known for pushing C2 down as far as it can.
A lot of evidence of distributed C2 in the army of the Roman Republic that isn’t in evidence in their Hellenistic opponents. We’ve already talked a little about the power and influence of the Roman centurion, and we’ve seen them taking individual initiatives at Pydna to get their troops into the phalanx as the gaps opened up. We also know that senior centurions participated directly in counsel with the consular leadership of the Roman army, and that there was some interplay between these operational leaders and the highest ranks of Roman society, as evidenced by the 1st century AD Roman consul C. Silius Italicus’ poem Punica, which tells the story of the centurion Ennius, whose feats endeared him to the famous Scipio family to the degree that he was buried in their family plot.
The casualties among Roman centurions were extremely high. Julius Caesar, writing in the 1st century BC, describes casualties at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Roman centurions (per capita) died around 700 percent more frequently than milites (soldiers, common legionaries). This is a clear indicator of the personal initiative they were expected to show in leading their troops into combat, and may be an indicator of a military culture that encouraged the seizing of tactical initiative at this comparatively low level. We also hear of the velites wearing animal skins over their helmets, in part to distinguish themselves and make themselves visible to their superiors who could then mark them out for reward, promotion or praise. This isn’t absolute proof, but it is certainly evidence of individual initiative on the part of the average soldier.
But we have more concrete examples, and in the battles we examine here, no less. At Cynoscephalae, we see a tribune feeling confident enough in his ability to make major strategic decisions without consulting his general or the overall commander, to the degree where he wheels off 20 maniples from the rear of the line to execute a flanking maneuver that may well have won the battle.
At Magnesia, we see a tribune taking it upon himself not only to rally fleeing troops, but to punish them with death, re-form them, and then lead them in a countercharge, all on his own initiative and without any consultation.
At Pydna, we see an allied commander make the call to throw the unit standard into the enemy ranks in order to motivate his own troops. It’s a precursor of Caesar’s standard-bearer in 55 BC, jumping into the sea to motivate his frightened comrades. All of these decisions appear to be self-initiated, made in a split second, and without consulting higher command.
Correlation is not causation, and these are just a few data points, but they are enough to give the feeling of a military culture that rewarded initiative and personal resourcefulness to the degree where comparatively lower-ranking individuals felt comfortable making operational decisions.
We have no comparative examples in the Hellenistic armies we’ve examined. At Heraclea, Megacles dons Pyrrhus’ armor, a decision which, if anything, nearly jeopardizes the outcome of the battle. At Cynoscephalae, Nicanor hurries with his foraging troops in a column over the ridge, at the command of his superior. Nicanor is unable to make any tactical decision that might have saved his men, such as forming them up before setting off. We don’t hear much of individual brilliance during the battles we’ve examined. Some of this may be due to history being written by the winners, but reckoned as a whole with the cohesive nature of the phalanx, the royal system of government that accrued all personal power with a king, a picture of a more rigid system that discouraged individual initiative starts to make itself seen.
The medieval and early modern world saw their share of phalanxes. There’s a great translation of Aelian’s tactics published in 1616 by John Bingham under the title of The Tactiks of Aelian or Art of Embattailing an Army After Ye Grecian Manner Englished & Illustrated Wth [sic] Figures Throughout: & Notes Vpon Ye Chapters of Ye Ordinary Motions of Ye Phalange. The book is remarkable for, apart from its great title and equally amusing English, its illustrations of phalangites in 17th century armor. They wear the crested morion-style helmets you might see on one of Cortes’ conquistadores, and iron peascod breastplates over buff leather coats. These men are as far from a Hellenistic phalangite as you could imagine, but the legacy is clear and the connection to it is powerful.
The fact remains that the people reading Bingham’s translation of Aelian weren’t doing so for nostalgia’s sake. The 17th century AD was every bit as bloody as the 3rd century BC, and the commanders looking to writers like Aelian were hard-bitten war leaders like the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus and the Holy Roman Empire’s general Count Albrecht von Wallenstein. They were looking to the ancient world because they genuinely believed that the military methodology of the period still had value, and it’s fair to argue that it did. The “pike and shot” formations that were the core of 17th century armies married the Hellenistic phalanx of pikemen with the emerging firearms of the period.
Even here we see the legacy of the ancient world. The matchlock arquebus (an early type of firearm), much like the Hellenistic pike, was of little use on its own. It was only truly effective deployed in a tightly packed formation that could pour on concentrated volumes of fire. Worse, it was incredibly slow to reload, far slower than the bows and javelins that were still used on early modern battlefields. In order to employ them effectively, you had to marshal thousands of arquebusiers to maneuver, reload and fire in perfect unison, as part of a giant and complex formation.
There’s only one way this kind of military operation can be accomplished: constant and relentless drill. Make no mistake: these are concepts that grew out of the ancient military experience and of the legion and the phalanx in particular. It may seem like a silly point. Of course all soldiers drill constantly. How else would they ever be effective? The truth is that in pre-modern armies, it’s a lot rarer than you think. Outside the organized city-state cultures we’ve examined here, many cultures fought as warbands, and even inside them, they could frequently not resist the temptation to pursue individual honor and glory at the expense of critical unit cohesion.
But even if it seems simple, even if it seems commonplace, it remains the fact that the notions of troop cohesion, drill, keeping formation and even conceptions modern professional militaries take for granted (numbered corps, uniform standards, military retirement, span of control, etc …) reached a level of refinement in these two formations that endures to this day. The legion and the phalanx certainly didn’t invent these concepts, but they cemented them. They are timeless because these concepts are universal and effective. They endure, all around us, every day.
The result was a massive cultural shift. The same is true of the legion and the phalanx. In their organization, esprit de corps, deployment, method of arming, and in hundreds of other fine details, they represent an expression of how people mobilize for war that seems so incredibly familiar.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the legion and the phalanx is how they were, ultimately, expressions of culture – of a Rome struggling to come to grips with brutal Celtic invasions that swept away its burgeoning hoplite phalanx and put its nascent city to the sack. Of a fractious Greece with disparate city-states constantly striving against one another, until the threat of the enormous Persian Empire gave them a common enemy, if only for a little while. These cultures bled into and informed one another, and in a way we can see the conflict between the legion and the phalanx as a conflict between two branches of Greek legacy, drifting apart and then coming together again.
But in the end, it is this above all: a great story, full of blood and sweat and adventure and more than anything – people, fascinating, complicated and ambitious.
The campaign against the Soviet Union in 1941 began in the same manner, in what had now become standard Luftwaffe doctrine. The Russian Air Force was attacked with great effect, which resulted in the destruction of over 1200 Soviet aircraft by noon of the first day. Support was then shifted to aiding the army in making penetrations and providing Close Air Support to rapidly moving ground units. However, it quickly became evident that the Luftwaffe was not large enough to cover the extensive expanses of the battlefields on the eastern front. Even as early as 1941, Luftwaffe units were subject to frequent lateral movements on the front in order to provide Close Air Support to outnumbered German ground forces to allow them to maintain momentum.
By the end of 1942, the use of airpower along the front lines in direct support of the army no longer assured victory. Because of the increasing capability of the Soviets to re-supply and reinforce the front lines, the Luftwaffe began to shift its emphasis toward interdiction. Changes were made to make the tactical forces of the Luftwaffe more flexible. At the same time units became more functionally oriented. This new orientation led to the creation of such elements as night harassment squadrons, used against Soviet troop concentrations; anti-tank squadrons using Hs-129, Me-110, Ju-87 and Ju-88 aircraft; and railway interdiction squadrons using the Ju-88.
The backbone of the Luftwaffe’s tactical support inventory was the Ju-87 Stuka. This aircraft was a single-engine, fixed-gear dive-bomber crewed by a pilot and a rear-facing gunner. It was developed during the 1930’s by Ernst Udet, the head of the Air Ministry’s production division. Udet had been infatuated by dive-bomb tactics developed in the United States. The Stuka was built not so much for its load-carrying capacity or range but because of its accurate ordnance-delivery capability. It was accurate because it could withstand the steep dive angles necessary for pin-point bombing. The Stuka proved itself well in the role for which it was designed, but in later years of the war its limited speed and maneuverability became liabilities in the face of increased Soviet counter-air capability.
The aircraft which was to take the place of the Stuka was the FW-190. This aircraft was much more maneuverable, although it carried about the same bomb load as the Ju-87. One advantage of the FW-190 was the outfitting of some models with heavy caliber rockets, allowing the Luftwaffe to institute low altitude delivery techniques against concentrations of troops and supplies. These tactics decreased exposure to antiaircraft fire and greatly increased the survivability of the FW-190 as compared to the Stuka. Later versions were equipped with 30mm cannon and given a purely anti-tank role. However, production was not started on the FW-190 until late 1941 and then only in an air-to-air version. Despite its effectiveness, it was not delivered to ground attack squadrons until just before the Battle of Kursk, and then in limited numbers.
The Henschel Hs-129 was a twin-engined aircraft designed as a tank destroyer. It was heavily armored and heavily armed with from 30mm up to 75mm cannons. The 75mm gun fired a round with a weight of 26 pounds, capable of penetrating any armor. Hs-129 squadrons were responsible for repulsing the attack of an entire Russian tank brigade during the Battle of Kursk. However, as was the case with many German aircraft by the end of the war, increased numbers of Soviet aircraft made the Hs-129 extremely vulnerable to the point where per mission losses were excessive, sometimes running as high as 20%.
Two bombers made up the remainder of the Luftwaffe’s direct support forces. The first, the Ju-88, was a twin-engined bomber served by a crew of four. It could carry a bomb load almost three times that of the FW-190 or the Ju-87 and was equipped with 30mm cannon on some versions. The second bomber, the Heinkel He-111, also had two engines but one more crew member than the Ju-88. The He-Ill was significantly slower than the Ju-88 and had shown itself to be vulnerable to fighter attack as early as the Battle of Britain. These two bombers were used in this role mainly due to the lack of sufficient numbers of ground-attack fighters. By late 1943 both were switched back to the mission of strategic bombing.
A point here about equipment needs emphasis. The Luftwaffe’s slowness in developing and fielding the ground-attack version of the FW-190 was a significant error. The Ju-87 needed a minimum ceiling of 2600 feet to operate effectively. This limitation often denied ground forces support in time of poor weather. Additionally, the high altitude approaches required made dive bombing a highly vulnerable tactic in the face of effective antiaircraft fire. In fact, as early as 1934 von Richtofen had stated that advances in antiaircraft made dive bombing techniques “complete nonsense.” Until the Battle of Kursk, however, the Luftwaffe had been very successful with the Ju-87. Therefore, they neglected the FW-190 as a ground-support aircraft and the warnings of von Richtoffen as well.
The Luftwaffe was also ill-prepared to face the Soviets with regards to the proper types of munitions. Standard high-explosive bombs were not effective in stopping heavily armored vehicles and tanks. Rapid work was done to improve and deploy ordnance with penetrating capability such as cannon and shaped-charge munitions. This development was somewhat successful, although the fitting of a particular weapon to an aircraft was often done in an improvised manner as exemplified when external cannons were mounted on the Stuka. The result was a decrease in speed and maneuverability in an aircraft already lacking in these critical areas.
Headquarters were organized two different ways. Initially they were assigned directly to the Army Command. In such cases the army decided the tasks to be carried out; however; the Luftwaffe staff made all decisions regarding mission execution, This concept was modified in 1942 in order to give the Luftwaffe more operational control over its own forces. After that time, Air Fleets were attached by air liaison office to the army command, normally at the Army Group level. This new system economized on the size of Luftwaffe staffs. An attempt was still made to align an Air Fleet to each Army Group’s area of operation.
Luftwaffe personnel were trained early in their service in the intricacies of providing tactical support to the Army and in army tactics in general. These tactics were taught at the Luftwaffe Air Command and General Staff College as well as in other joint schools. There was also a separate dive-bomber school which specialized in the tactics of providing Close Air Support, Training doctrine always emphasized that the Luftwaffe was designed to attack the enemy’s rear areas in the interdiction role. In the field, the army maintained an instructional staff at Luftwaffe units to keep them well briefed on the latest ground tactics. Additionally, many tactics bulletins were disseminated, giving the views of senior Luftwaffe and army tacticians.
By mid-1943, the doctrine embraced by the Luftwaffe was a modification of that which had been originally printed in Air Field Manual No. 16. As late as the eve of the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, interdiction was considered by Luftwaffe leaders to be the most decisive mission for airpower and this point continued to be stated doctrine. Attacks were to disrupt the enemy’s flow of supplies, troops and equipment to the front. Since these targets would be large and concentrated they would prove to be extremely vulnerable to attacks by the Luftwaffe. Attacks along the front were to be avoided since the targets there were necessarily dispersed and would not provide good results. Finally, Luftwaffe commanders felt airpower used to improve force ratios of ground units was to be avoided at all costs since such use was least effective. This last mission was later to become the one most commonly assigned to the Luftwaffe at Kursk.
The planning for Battlefield Air Interdiction missions was begun at Army Group – Air Fleet levels where the Luftwaffe’s capability to carry out a mission was analyzed. If the Luftwaffe staff determined that the mission was within the capability of the Luftwaffe, the mission statement was issued. The assignment of specific missions was accomplished by the flying units themselves. The combination of fighter-bombers and fighter escorts was determined by the Air Fleet staff based on aircraft availability and the status of the Soviet threat. The Luftwaffe operated under the overall tactical principle that once a target was engaged it would be engaged by multiple attacks until it was destroyed. Therefore, extensive use of aerial reconnaissance continued. Dive-bombers were generally assigned point targets which required greater accuracy, while low-level attacks were used against area targets. It was also felt that low-level attacks could produce the extra benefit of affecting the enemy’s morale.
Timely engagement of interdiction targets was critical. By early 1943 the Luftwaffe realized that strikes at interdiction targets would have an effect on the front line siguation within a few days. Soviet strategy all along the eastern front was to fight a battle in one area and then shift emphasis to another. Lateral mobility became an extremely important factor in Soviet and German plans. By 1943 interdiction became essential in combating the lateral movement of Soviet forces. Later in the war, notably after the fall of Orel in August 1943, the inability of the Luftwaffe (and the entire German war machine for that matter) to move rapidly to counter Soviet thrusts would prove to be decisive to Soviet victory.
The Soviets were fond of massing troops in large concentrations close to the front lines in preparation for any operation. In 1941, the Luftwaffe often engaged Soviet troop columns in excess of 100 34 yards wide. However, the best target was the Russian rail system. This was true for a number of reasons, of which the lack of an effective road system over which large amounts of heavy equipment could be transported was primary. Rainy weather often made the few available roads impassable. The Luftwaffe had initial problems in determining the correct way to go about interdicting rail traffic. Luftwaffe planners assumed that interdiction of single track routes where no bypass could easily be constructed would be most effective. For this reason transshipment points and railway depots were neglected. Later, however, it was discovered that rapid repairs could be made to sections of track along primary routes with relative ease. In fact, the only real result of attacks made on track was the tying up of a great deal of Soviet manpower in prepositioned sites as railway repair crews. Attacks on transportation centers were more successful since they usually destroyed a certain amount of supplies and equipment and effectively cut routes for a longer period of time. One drawback was that such critical areas were easier to defend and Soviet antiaircraft often took a heavy toll. A Soviet air defense officer at the time confirmed that Russian air defense fighters and the bulk of antiaircraft artillery were stationed very close to transshipment points like railway junctions. Another method of cutting routes on a more permanent basis was to concentrate on destroying railroad bridges. Bridges, however, were also easy targets to defend. (This was a lesson which the USAF was destined to relearn in attacks against the transportation system of North Viet Nam.) The most effective way of cutting the rail system was to attack locomotive repair facilities and the locomotives themselves. The Soviets attempted to deceive Luftwaffe pilots by instructing their engineers to release quantities of steam to simulate destruction. This tactic proved ineffective since the timing of the deception was critical. Luftwaffe pilots soon became adept at determining when a locomotive was truly hit.
The Luftwaffe developed an excellent system of studying areas of expected action ahead of time to determine the vulnerabilities of the rail transportation system. This information was then compiled into a publication entitled “Instructions for the Strategic Assembly and Conduct of Combat Operations.” This detailed study was coordinated ahead of time with the army so that German mobility would not be effected. Such coordination was not as important later in the war when movement of the front was generally east to west. What was especially noteworthy about this system was that it gave the Luftwaffe the option to plan action early and allowed timely attack of enemy concentrations and routes.
Certain realities prevented the Luftwaffe from carrying out a more extensive and effective interdiction campaign. Principally, by 1943 the Luftwaffe was tied to an overall strategy whose objective was to blunt Russian offensive action and force the Soviets to collapse due to heavy losses. To this purpose, Hitler decreed that battles of attrition were to be fought and forced the German Army to hold every piece of ground as if it were located in downtown Berlin. Defensive patterns were static and even encirclements were accepted in hopes that the Soviets would wear themselves out in such actions. Therefore, the Luftwaffe was tied more and more to the success or failure of the ground forces by bolstering the wall against which the Soviet forces would expend their might. Additionally, air superiority became more fleeting as Soviet air forces began to recover from the disasters suffered in 1941. Also, by 1943, the most experienced pilots were being drained from the eastern front to counter the air threat of the strategic attacks against Germany by forces of the RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force. Consequently, less escort was available to allow fighter bombers to attack safely behind the front lines. Armed reconnaissance missions which had been successful under earlier situations of at least local air superiority could no longer be accomplished effectively. Such was the state of the Luftwaffe as it made preparations in early 1943 for the Battle of Kursk.