The Military Revolution—Dutch and Swedish Reforms II

ARTILLERY

Before Gustav Adolf’s arrival on the scene, artillery was considered a specialty, and it was usually operated by civilian mercenaries. These were an unruly bunch that often showed utter contempt for military discipline. Gustav would not put up with this situation and formed the first military artillery company in 1623. By 1629 he had an artillery regiment consisting of six companies. He put this organization under the command of twenty-six-year-old Lennart Torstensson, undoubtedly the best artilleryman of his time. The artillery was thus established as a distinct branch of the army, manned almost entirely by Swedish soldiers.

Four of the six companies of artillery were true gun companies, one consisting of sappers, and the sixth of men, often called on during sieges, trained to handle special explosive devices. It was in weapons and the techniques of their use that set the Swedish artillery apart from that of other armies.

Gustav’s objective was not only to simplify the guns but to do so with the goal of making the artillery arm a full and equal partner with the infantry and cavalry on the battlefield. To be that partner, the guns had to be at the right place when they were needed—in other words they had to be mobile. This meant reducing their weights.

Gustav started out by discarding the heavy 48-pounder. He retained the 24-pounders and 12-pounders. They were useful for siege operations and long-range bombardment. He exchanged the 8-pounders with very mobile and relatively quick-firing 3-pounders.

Gustav first tackled the weight problem during the early period of the Polish campaigns. Improvements in the quality of gunpowder made it possible to equalize the pressure in the tube and reduce the thickness of the barrel. In the end, the Swedes had a field gun made that weighed only 90 pounds. It consisted of a copper tube (a metal the Swedes possessed in ample supply) reinforced by iron bands. It was also wrapped in ropes set in cement with a final layer of leather—hence the term “leather cannon.” The tube was removable since it became exceedingly hot after a few rounds and had to be cooled. This innovation was soon removed from the arsenal as it proved too fragile and dangerous for field use.

Gustav Adolf continued his search for a light field piece. Metallurgic advances made it possible to develop a short cast iron gun without the sacrifice of safety as was the case with the “leather cannon.” In 1624 Gustav had some of the old guns recast into new 3-pounders, with a caliber of 2.6 inches, a length of 48 inches, and a weight of 400 pounds. With its carriage it weighed 625 pounds. Four men or one horse could move the new gun during battle. These guns became known as “regimental guns” since they were assigned to the regiments. It was the first regimental field piece in military history.

The Swedes also developed the first packaged artillery cartridge for use with the regimental gun. It was a thin wooden case which held a prepared charge wired to the ball. The prepared charge increased accuracy and simplified loading. This led to a high rate of fire. The Swedish regimental gun could be fired eight times in the time it took musketeers to discharge six volleys.

At first, one gun was assigned to each regiment. This was later increased to two.39 The regimental guns changed the traditional role of the artillery and gave the Swedes an enormous advantage in battle, because for several years the Swedish army was the only army that possessed artillery pieces that could accompany the infantry into battle. The need for this type of firepower well forward has influenced all later tactical and organizational doctrines.

John Keegan appears to disparage Gustav Adolf’s innovations in weapons and tactics, in sharp contrast to what others have written. For example, he is the only military historian I know who labeled the infantry guns ineffective when he writes that in practice they did the enemy little harm. He appears to ignore the many battles from Breitenfeld onwards where these weapons had a devastating effect on thickly packed enemy ranks. Hans Delbruck writes that the entire socio-political situation of Europe was transformed with the new military organization.

Gustav Adolf also turned artillery into an offensive tool. He wanted to concentrate maximum fire at the decisive point in a battle. The new regimental guns with their mobility allowed Gustav to achieve this aim. Up till then, the artillery had been positioned before the battle and remained in those positions for the duration, unable to move. The light regimental gun could be moved at will.

Not only was the quality of the Swedish artillery impressive, but so was the quantity. Parker points out that the Dutch army deployed only four field guns at the Battle of Turnhout in 1597 and only eight at the Battle of Nieupoort in 1600. This stands out in sharp contrast to the 80 artillery pieces that Gustav brought with him to Germany in 1630.

When King Gustav appeared on the scene, the solid cast-iron projectile was still the artillery ammunition in use, but around 1580 there had been an improvement. Until then, the gunpowder in the hollow sphere was ignited separately from the propellant. It was ignited by a slow burning fuse before touching off the main charge. This meant that there was a serious problem if the main charge misfired. If the main iron ball was not removed in time, the whole gun could explode. This problem was overcome by a new type of fuse which was ignited by the propellant charge.

An exploding shell, where a bursting charge filled half the container, was invented in the late sixteenth century. There were also experiments ongoing with time and percussion fuses but these ideas were too far ahead of the contemporary chemistry to become useful. The early hand grenade made its debut but its handling was a cumbersome and dangerous operation. It was ignited by a slow burning fuse and Montross writes that: The soldier lighted the fuse and whirled the two-pound missile about his head to speed ignition before throwing. Accidents were frequent.

LOGISTICS

War in the patchwork of German states—some Protestant others Catholic— created a logistical problem. The question of food and ammunition became as important as the soldiers’ pay. Commanders resorted to looting towns and villages, both for supplies and valuables, to make up the arrears of their soldiers’ pay. Starving women and children became camp followers and their number often exceeded that of the armies. The Thirty Years’ War set up a tradition of looting as a legitimate operation in warfare.

Martin van Creveld defines logistics as the practical art of moving armies and keeping them supplied.46 This is a good definition as long as it is realized that “moving” and “supplied” are broad terms that involve a myriad of separate elements and actions.

Downing writes that the system developed by the Swedes represented a change from the normal practices of the period and relied on large staffs, but seemed little removed from plunder. The Swedes went about it in a very organized manner. Their quartermasters spread throughout Germany, inventoried the resources needed, and requisitioned them for their army’s needs.

At least it was, in the beginning, done without the pillage and massacres that other armies resorted to in living off the land, especially the mercenaries. A functioning supply system also tended to shorten wars since the enemy commander could no longer hope that by waiting his opponent would run out of supplies.48 Roberts writes that because the requisitions were usually spent in the same localities as they were made, the effects on the economy were not as injurious to the local populace as would appear at first sight. The long-term concern for future supplies from a particular region set the Swedish system apart from the practice of their opponents. However one looks at it, it was part of the philosophy that “war should be made to pay for itself.”

The alternative of letting soldiers forage for themselves often led to criminal behavior and desertions. In the case of Sweden’s Baltic campaigns in the second half of the sixteenth century, they had to deal with mutinies by mercenaries not properly paid and fed. The establishment of national armies in the seventeenth century with logistical commands led to better disciplined troops, as they had an organization to rely on for critical needs.

Logistic considerations always trump strategic and tactical ones. We will deal with several operations where logistical considerations prevailed over strategy. To plan a campaign without an adequate supply system is so full of risks that it should never be undertaken. Later we will witness what happened to Karl XII when he drove deep into Russia without an adequate line of supply. Napoleon also had to learn this truism the hard way.

The only two powers in Europe to establish a national logistic apparatus for supplying their armies were France and Spain. When France entered the war after years on the sidelines, it constructed a supply system consisting of magazines and private contractors in the local regions. This blend of government and private enterprise worked well. The Holy Roman Empire built a road system to supply its armies. The two principal roads ran from Vienna to the lower Rhine and from northern Italy to the mouth of the Rhine.

STAFFS

Military staffs have existed, in one form or another, throughout recorded history. At times they were primitive, composed mostly of informal group of specialists or trusted advisers relied on by the commander for advice. Like all other aspects of warfare, they evolved over time and became more sophisticated. As mentioned earlier, successful warfare is only possible when based on sound logistical preparation. We find that such preparations were present in the Roman Empire, but largely disappeared after its disintegration. It was not fully reestablished until Gustav Adolf revived it.

Again we find that Gustav took an existing concept and improved it. The Swedish regimental staff consisted of a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, a chief quartermaster, two chaplains, two judge advocates, surgeons, provost marshals, and a number of clerks.

The staff at army headquarters mirrored that in the regiments except it was considerably larger and had added experts, such as a chief engineer and contractors. Both levels had a number of messengers.

Gustav was a meticulous planner. He would sit down with his staff and lay out various options, possible enemy reactions to those options, and logical Swedish counters to those reactions. These courses of action would then be assigned to various underlings to develop further. His council of officers acting as a general staff would then meet to discuss the various options, though the final decision lay with the king as commander-in-chief.

When a course of action was settled upon, it was reduced to a numbered document similar to the later five-paragraph field order. All unit commanders would become familiar with not only their own tasks but those of adjacent units. One person always present at these planning sessions was the quartermaster general. This shows Gustav Adolf’s concern for proper logistic sup-port.

The troops received their provisions from magazines established along routes and kept filled through shipments from Sweden as well as enforced contributions from the countryside. A commissary staff distributed these supplies to a central location for pick-up and distribution by their counterparts at the regimental level. Local peddlers were licensed and encouraged to set up booths near the camps for the sale of small luxuries. The troops were sheltered in huts or tents in the fortified camps but as a rule they were mostly quartered in towns. A soldier could demand a bed, salt, vinegar, and a place to cook his meals from the host. All other demands were considered looting.

RECRUITING

Gustav set the rebuilding and reorganization of the army as his top priority when he inherited the throne after his father in 1611. The first decision he had to make was whether to base the new army on mercenary forces as his predecessors had done to a large extent, or to form a national army. His decision was to base his reorganization on a national conscription system, the first in Europe. Recruiting regions were established that were responsible for raising and maintaining units. Gustav and his advisors realized that the mercenary element could not be done away with in view of the nation’s manpower needs, and the end result was that the Swedish army had a national nucleus supplemented by mercenaries. Norway also adopted universal conscription in the middle of the seventeenth century. Thus the two Scandinavian states became the earliest to resort to this method for raising armies.

The system used to raise troops in Sweden and Finland was called indelingsverket (apportionment system), and had actually begun during the latter part of Karl IX’s reign. After a rather bumpy start the system was modified in the 1620s through a ratio provision discussed in the Introduction. Each parish had to equip and feed one soldier for every ten males in the parish who had earlier been subject to conscription. All males between the ages of fifteen and sixty owed military duty, and the unlucky one out of ten was chosen by drawing lots. There were many exceptions as for nobles, for the clergy, for men serving in the mining industries, and for the only surviving son of a widow. Bonde (farmer) was the most frequently listed occupation, by far, in the enrollment register.

Parker gives some statistics for the annual conscription by the government and the numbers are surprisingly low; ranging from 8,000 in 1629 to 13,500 in 1627. He also shows the disastrous impact the system had on a typical community—that of Bygdeå. It is worth quoting directly some of what he had to say:

The parish of Bygdeå in northern Sweden, for example, provided 230 young men for service in Poland and Germany between 1621 and 1639, and saw 215 of them die there, while a further five returned home crippled. Although the remainder—a mere ten men—were still in service in 1639, it is unlikely that any of them survived to see the war’s end nine years later. Enlistment, in effect, had become a sentence of death: of the 27 Bygdeå conscripts of the year 1638, mustered on 6 July before being sent to Germany, all but one were dead within a year.

Mercenaries and contract soldiers had long constituted an important source of manpower, although probably not as important as some have concluded. They came from all over Europe: Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Albania, Italy, and Scotland, to mention a few. Scottish regiments had served in Scandinavia since the 1560s in support of the Protestant cause, either in the armies of Sweden or Denmark. Parker put their number as high as 25,000. Conscription in occupied territories provided additional troops. Those coming from Scotland and Ireland had the problem of how to get to Sweden. Some of them came to the west coast of Sweden when there were no hostilities with Denmark. Alternative routes were north German ports or by crossing Norway. The latter route was not safe as they were to discover in 1612 when a force of about 300, under colonels George Sinclair and Alexander Ramsay, was ambushed and wiped out by a 500-man Norwegian peasant militia at Kringen near Otta, apparently in revenge for an earlier massacre of Norwegian conscripts.

TRAINING AND DISCIPLINE

The new Swedish military organization and weapons described above would have been useless without rigorous training and strict discipline. Recruits were given two weeks basic training after enrollment. Here they learned how to march to the beat of drums, how to load their muskets, and how to handle the pike. The troops were never idle. Maneuvers by units at various levels were held frequently.

Discipline was harsh but fair, and when taken together with the provision of regular pay, resulted in an army that behaved better than most in that period. The regimental staff had a judge advocate officer as a permanent member. The reason for this arrangement dates back to 1621, during the siege of Riga, when Gustav Adolf issued his field regulations. Since they proved so influential in the behavior of Swedish troops, it is worth quoting what an expert on the military staff, General Hittle, has to say about this arrangement:

Under these regulations the commanding officer of the regiment was the president of the court, and as in our present system, the other members who heard the case were chosen from within the organization that convened the court. There was a clear delineation of authority between the provost marshal and the courts, for although the provosts could arrest an individual they were prohibited from inflicting capital punishment, except under very special circumstances.

… in addition to the regimental court martial, there was to be a permanent general court martial, of which the royal marshal of Sweden was to be president and high military officers were to be members. The regimental courts had jurisdiction over thieving, insubordination, and all minor crimes, and the higher court took cognizance of treason and other major offenses.

Every regimental commander was required to read the Articles of War (as the 1621 regulations came to be called) to his troops once a month. Men accused of serious infractions had the right to appeal the verdict of the court to the monarch. Punishment for infractions of these articles was severe, and Gustav’s soldiers had a reputation for good behavior unusual for troops of the day.

In addition to those rules listed in the previous section, I note some others mentioned by Montross:

Theft, looting, cowardice and violence to women were punished by hanging.

Local thieves and harlots were drummed out of camp.

Minor culprits might be shackled or made to “ride the wooden horse” with a musket tied to each foot.

Prohibition against a rabble of camp followers. One imperial army of 30,000 fighting men is said to have been encumbered by 140,000 non-combatants—women, children and cripples which had been reduced to destitution by past devastations. The Swedish army permitted a man’s wife and family to follow the regiment. The children attended regimental schools. This allowed the Swedes to reduce their baggage train substantially and thereby increase the mobility of the army.

The effects of all these reforms and procedures were the creation of the first truly national army of modern times, one that was also, with great consistency, victorious on the battlefields.

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An Event as Important as the Invention of Gunpowder and Cannon?

As Robert Doughty demonstrates throughout Pyrrhic Victory, French strategy was considerably better thought out than is usually allowed and the evidence considered herein previously suggests that French tactical practice and thought was likewise more competent than is usually accepted. Both the Marne and the Champagne operations of 1918, illustrated the essential problem of offensive operations on the Western Front. The close planning needed for a successful offensive appears to have been only possible in the initial period of an operation, usually indeed only in the first part of the first day of such an operation. After that, whatever measures were taken prior to the attack to continue the struggle, the offensive power of the attacking forces would slowly weaken, due to an increasing lack of cohesion and slowing of its operational tempo, as the defensive forces grew correspondingly more powerful. The weakness in Allied offensive strategy before Foch took charge had been the expectation that one large operation could be used to break the German defences and achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front. Only by mounting a series of co-ordinated offensives could the Germans be successfully pushed back across the Western Front, such as those that the Battle of Soissons and the Champagne operations were part of. Was the difficulty of maintaining the tactical success of operations after the initial advance an inherent and insuperable problem of fighting on the Western Front or a failure of the armies involved to find ways to avoid this? The evidence presented in this book strongly suggests that it was the former. It is difficult to see how with the means available operations could have been conducted more successfully. Without better mobility on the battlefield and communications equipment, such as arrived for the next world war, it was extremely difficult to regain cohesion in units that had been fighting for a day or more, which in turn prevented a high tempo of operations being maintained. Various ways of dealing with these problems were tried; at Champagne the front-line divisions with 21 CA were retired for a day to refresh themselves, a tactic that seems to have worked if we compare the results with those divisions that were kept fighting. It certainly helped maintain better cohesion among the attacking troops.

The major problems for the AS were that of its material and its effective integration with the infantry and artillery of the French army. In relation to the latter issue, there was simply not enough time to fully develop combined-arms warfare, although it seems likely that 1919 would have seen an even better developed French combined-arms approach. By then, the French infantry (at every level) should have been more au fait with tank tactics, as there would have been more time to disseminate effectively the established doctrine, particularly in relation to the infantry commanders. Foch had identified that tanks would be a crucial component of the Allied armies in 1919, when he expected the German army to be defeated. He said that ‘the aviation and the tanks should receive the greatest development possible’ for the campaign in 1919. The expected campaign in 1919, of course, never occurred but if it had there would have been a considerable number of tanks involved in the French army operations, including the new Char 2C heavy tank. Pétain wrote a memo to Foch on 8 September 1918 setting out his plans for 1919. He told Foch that ‘the battle of 1919 will be the battle of aviation and the tanks’. He was planning to use 360 heavy tanks and 3,360 light tanks per 30 kilometres of front for the next year’s offensives.

The evidence presented does not show that the performance of the AS was flawless; mistakes were clearly made at various junctures but in the midst of war this is only to be expected. An examination of the performance of the AS during the war shows it to be a military organisation that was adaptable and remarkably effective, particularly considering the primitive material it had to work with. This in itself suggests that the traditional view of the Great War French army, that it was steadfast but rather dim, is at considerable variance with the facts. In reality, it had became very effective by 1918 at fighting both in semi-open and positional warfare, although there is a clear need for more detailed research on this.

In relation to the tanks themselves, the issues revolve around two distinct areas; the technical problems and the organisation questions concerned with manufacture. Concerning the technical issues, most of these were probably inevitable as tracked vehicles were a new and undeveloped technology. However, certain problems really should have been avoided, such as the inadequate width of the St Chamonds’ tracks or the forward-mounted petrol tank of the Schneiders. The technical problems of the medium tanks were eventually for the most part solved by the end of the war, which is some achievement considering that they were in effect tested on the battlefield. The Renault was a very successful design, marred only by technical problems that were inherent in automobile technology of the time. Thus, of the three designs of tank used during the war, the light tank was excellent and the two medium tanks were serviceable. If the Schneider was simply an armoured box on tracks, primarily the result of wanting to get a tank into service as quickly as possible, the St Chamond was the victim of the over-ambition of its designers. However, it can be argued that the St Chamond was wrong for all the right reasons; if the track and engine problems had been cured it would have been a formidable presence on the First World War battlefield, particularly with its 36-calibre long 75mm high-velocity gun, a more powerful gun than initially carried on the Second World War German Pz. Kpfw. IV, for example. Both medium tanks were more sensibly armed than those of the British which, although heavier, carried only 57mm guns, in practice no more effective than the 37mm carried on the Renault. However, there was simply not enough time, resources and experience to resolve all the problems that arose during the war. In addition, 30 St Chamonds were still in combat as late as September 1918, so the effort of their manufacture was not entirely wasted. Where all the French tanks were poor compared with the British designs was in their trench crossing abilities; the Schneider and Renault could only cross a 1.8 metre-wide trench while the St Chamond was only slightly better (2.5 metres) but substantially less than the British Mark V (4.5 metres). Although Steven Zaloga characterises the Schneider as a ‘bitter disappointment’ to the French, this is far too harsh a judgement. The success of the French tanks on the first day at Soissons was as much due to the Schneiders (and to a lesser extent the St Chamonds) as to the Renaults, the latter only coming into action at the end of the day’s fighting. These designs were undertaken in wartime utilising undeveloped technology and brought from specification to use within 13 months, less in the case of the Renault. This is all the more remarkable when it is compared with later tank designs; for example, the German Tiger I took 15 months to enter service and the US M3 took 21 months during the Second World War.

The tanks of the Great War were pushing to the very limits of contemporary automotive technology. The mechanical reliability of the French tanks looks unimpressive but it is worth comparing experiences in the next world war, after a further 20 years of automobile development. For example, the French medium tanks’ propensity to catch fire was surprising to contemporaries but experience since then has demonstrated that this is an habitual problem for tanks. By comparison, fire was a considerable problem for the early Panthers; in a five-day period in July 1943, a quarter of the Panthers in an operation simply caught fire. In an attack on 11 July 1944, one German company lost 10 Tigers; only two were to enemy fire, the other eight caught fire. Eighty-two per cent of the Allied tanks hit during the Normandy campaign then caught fire. By comparison, Steven Zaloga believes the Renault’s performance and endurance was ‘miraculous by Great War standards’, which probably accounts for it still being in service, albeit modified, 20 years after the Great War. Estienne’s complaints in 1917 about the quality of drivers were still a concern for tank commanders in the next world war. For example, there were great difficulties with training tank drivers in Nazi Germany; many conscripts had not even driven before and this was in a society where motor vehicles were much more prevalent than during the Great War. The sorry story of the French heavy tank designs should also be compared with the difficulties in developing a heavy tank in the next world war and after, which are littered with unsuccessful designs such as the US T32 and M103 heavy tanks or the British A39.

While comparing the material of the two world wars, it is also instructive to consider some aspects of armoured operations of the Second World War. Many of these were not well-conducted, with less excuse as they took place after 20 years of armour developments. One good example would be Operation Goodwood during the Normandy campaign. Three British armoured divisions, with over 1,000 tanks, attacked well-organised German positions south of Caen. The tanks were given inadequate infantry support, which was also very badly co-ordinated during the operation. The plan required the tanks to advance on a 2,000-metre front across a 4,000-metre deep plain, with little cover and few hull-down positions available. Over 400 tanks were lost over three days, along with 6,000 casualties across the three tank divisions. In relation to tactics, as late as 1944, the Japanese Army was using tanks for infantry support in a manner that would have been recognisable to Great War armour practitioners; the tanks were used in direct frontal attacks and ‘after the infantry reached their objective the tanks were withdrawn without attempting to exploit the limited gains’. Tank-infantry training was also a problem in the Second World War; American Colonel Wright wrote in May 1943 of the difficulties that the US Army was having with this. The US infantry commanders were all agreed that this training was necessary but always had excuses as to why this had not happened; there was no time available, the infantry training was incomplete. He reported that the US 751 Tank Battalion was almost wiped out in one action because: ‘in four successive attacks, the infantry refused to follow him [the tank commander]. Four times he took the objective and each time he had to pull back, trying to pull the infantry forward, the Germans in the meantime re-obtaining the position.’ This situation would have been very familiar to AS veterans.

While considering the Second World War, it is worth noting that the French army’s performance in 1940 has cast a shadow over the French army’s performance in general during the twentieth century. The evidence considered in this volume strongly supports the idea that the French army developed an effective offensive methodology (often referred to as the bataille conduite or methodical battle) in the First World War, of which tanks were an integral part. That this methodology may have been outmoded from the late 1920s onwards is another argument but it is from the inadequacy of the French army’s inter-war doctrine and dismal performance in 1940 that the bataille conduite and French offensive methodology in 1918 have often been judged so severely. Specifically in relation to the French tanks, for example, André Loez argues that the failure of the French tank force in 1940 had its roots in the disastrous debut of the French tanks during the Nivelle Offensive, primarily because the experience in 1917 cemented the idea of the tank as an infantry-support arm in the collective mind of the French army. This argument fails to understand that the French tanks in the Great War were used as what would be known later as infantry-tanks because that was the only role that the existing technology could support. The AS was quickly amalgamated into the infantry after the war, something that Estienne opposed as he recognised that it could be developed as a highly mobile exploitation arm and needed to be separately organised to do this effectively. However, during the war he accepted that the tanks could do no more than act as direct infantry support, as all his wartime writing demonstrates. Thus, whatever failings can be traced in the inter-war handling by the French of their tank programmes, the French tanks during the war were used in the most sensible way and it simply unhistorical to argue otherwise.

The essential point to consider when evaluating the performance of the AS is that there was no prior experience of tank operations on which to base judgements about how these might transpire. Andrew Lambert has said about the submarine pioneers of the American Civil War that they had to ‘invent submarine operations’ and the AS officers and men had to likewise invent tank operations from scratch. Leader of the Great War British tank corps, Clough Williams-Ellis wrote that the difficulty of training the British tank crews was that no-one had any experience of tank warfare and therefore it was ‘upon the spirit of prophecy alone that they must rely in their preparations’. In evaluating the AS, the important factors are not what was got wrong, as mistakes were inevitable, but how effective the responses were to mistakes. The prime example of such a response was in the reaction to the terrible events of 16 April and the wholesale re-evaluation the AS made to its approach over the two weeks following this event. As has been described, there was a very rapid and effective re-evaluation of tactics made after the Juvincourt engagement, leading to a significantly better showing in the 5–6 May action at Laffaux. Indeed, such was the effectiveness of the AS and its officers that the French army had a sound tank doctrine in place by the end of 1917, after just three engagements, which only required small modifications to accommodate the differences between the medium and light tanks. Despite this, the tank regulations were subject to continuous discussions within the AS right up to the declaration of the Armistice. One example would be the discussion about the ratio of machine-gun to 37mm-gun Renaults, which continued into 1919. The final tank Instruction of 14 July 1918 was adopted in 1919 as the French army’s tank doctrine, with the most minor of changes from that of December 1917, mainly those needed to deal with the retirement of the medium tanks and their replacement by the British Mark V*.

The battles of Soissons and Champagne both illustrate that the French infantry commanders, from divisional level to below, frequently either misunderstood or decided to ignore the tank regulations, the latter being likely in the majority of cases. The French army cannot be accused of failing to promulgate information to its infantry and artillery commanders as numerous notes on tank use were sent out on a regular basis. Of course, in a conflict where infantry losses could be so high, it is easy to see why infantry commanders took every opportunity to mitigate their own losses, even if this was at the expense of the tank units. This led to many arguments between AS and infantry officers; most often when the former tried to insist on sticking to the prescriptions of the tank regulations. For example, the commander of 9 BCL had a ferocious row with General Massent (commander, 7 CA) about using the army reserve tank company on 21 July. This unit, AS325, was in the process of reforming; both personnel and tanks were in no condition for combat and 9 BCL’s commander refused to allow it to fight until it was properly ready. Massent asked Gouraud (commander, IV Army) to dismiss the tank battalion commander and he then issued orders for AS325 to go into combat the next day. The AS commander of IV Army, Chef de bataillon Michel, then countermanded Massent and returned AS325 to the army reserve. It can be observed that it took considerable courage for an AS major to countermand the orders of a General, even though the former eventually got Gouraud’s approval for his actions.

In addition, despite strenuous efforts to train as many infantry units with tanks, there was simply not enough time during the fighting in 1918 to train the whole army in combined-arms tactics. While we can sympathise with the frustrations of the AS officers who believed that the infantry commanders were not sufficiently aware of the tank regulations, this has to be balanced out with the difficulties the infantry commanders were already grappling with; their command was of vastly greater complexity than had been the case in 1914 and infantry losses appeared to be almost impossible to keep low. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the tank regulations gave very good results initially within each engagement, which then rapidly diminished but this was usually nonetheless sufficient to defeat the German defences, as has been discussed.

However, the French army and the AS certainly appear to have been let down by the ministère de l’Armement in relation to the production of the tanks. The ministers, Thomas and Loucheur, interfered on numerous occasions well beyond both their responsibilities and competence, undoubtedly reducing the effectiveness of the AS. Although most of the French writers after the war attribute little difference between the ministries of Thomas and Loucheur as far as the tanks are concerned, statistics show that production of the Renaults increased substantially after Loucheur became minister. In mitigation, as discussed, both ministers were hard pressed to overcome both the organisational difficulties connected with French industry and the lack of resources, particularly steel. What cannot be doubted, however, is their considerable organisational flair; for example, during his tenure as minister, Thomas increased 75mm shell production from 380,000 per month to over 6 million per month. In addition, in the end a prodigious number of Renault tanks were produced by the Armistice; nearly 2,000 by the Renault factory alone.

The attitude of Thomas and Loucheur to the tanks is probably most easily explained as a simple failure to understand the tanks’ worth. This appears to have been a genuine misunderstanding, although the difficulties they subsequently presented to the tank programme are inexcusable, particularly in their apparent determination to produce most of whatever tank the army wanted least. Here we have an example of civilian rather than military opposition to the tank, in contrast with the popular view that it was the civilians that promoted the tank during the Great War. There is also ample evidence that civilian bureaucratic in-fighting did nothing to help the French war effort; for example, petty arguments were constant between Loucheur’s and Thomas’ staffs; in 1916, a request by the former for more telephones was turned down by the latter, as they felt that Loucheur’s staff spent too much time on the telephone.

Although it has been argued that the French tank effort was both effective and intelligently handled, albeit not entirely without flaws, the question remains as to whether the effort was worth pursuing at all. There have been arguments about the effect that tanks had on the Great War battlefield ever since they first appeared. Estienne wrote in 1931 that ‘in my opinion, the intervention of mechanised chariots on the field of battle gives the historian the appearance of an event as important as the invention of gunpowder and cannon’. By contrast, Foch told Repington in September 1918 that ‘it was an idea of amateurs that tanks and aeroplanes could win a war’ and that tanks were ‘accessories’ to the infantry. More recently a number of scholars have gone further and suggested that armoured warfare in the Great War was ‘marginal’, tanks being a ‘specialized luxury’. However, for the most part contemporary opinion was much impressed by the tanks. Weygand contradicted his old chief, by stating in his memoirs that France had won the war thanks to the tanks, an opinion shared by Hindenburg. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Léon Dutil argues that the Germans lost the war largely because they did not have enough tanks. Herbert Sulzbach refers in his diaries to a meeting in August 1918 where he discussed with his regimental commander a secret paper by Ludendorff. There was general agreement that enemy tanks had an ‘unbelievable effect’ in recent battles. It is difficult to determine whether the weight given in many post-war German accounts to the effectiveness of tanks is not coloured by the quest to explain defeat in terms that did not include a straightforward Allied military victory. This seems unlikely with Sulzbach, who is a reliable front-line witness. Heinz Guderian was writing as an advocate of armour but he was not directly involved in any actions with French tanks during the war and it is clear from his narrative that he was largely dependent on Dutil and the French official history for his information on the French tanks. However, he was an insightful military critic, in addition to being a successful military commander, and therefore a useful judge of operational matters.

What is rather easier to quantify than the effect of tanks in combat is their material and human cost, although in relation to the latter, calculating very accurate casualty figures is problematical. A variety of detailed post-war tallies give similar but not identical personnel losses and cross checking the official casualty list with these suggests we can have confidence that the official figures are broadly correct. The final official figures were for troops lost in combat; 302 killed, 2,350 wounded, with 253 missing, presumed dead, just over 13 per cent losses. This compares with infantry casualties over the war which ranged daily in combat from a maximum of approximately 40 per cent to a minimum of 22 per cent.

Although the AS took troops away from the other arms, the officers were initially mainly taken from the cavalry or the artillery depots and there were thus not many useful officers taken away from the infantry. As the war went on, officers coming into the AS were increasingly unfit for any other frontline duties and thus their service with the AS was a bonus for the army rather than a loss for the other arms. For example, when Maurice Constantin-Weyer started his training with the AS in early 1918, he could only walk with the aid of two sticks, two of his fellow officers had artificial limbs and another had lost one eye. Marcel Rime-Bruneau had been hospitalised for a year from his wounds in 1915 and then spent a year on non-frontline duties, while undergoing a long series of surgical operations, before joining the AS. In addition, the AS was comparatively small; on 1 August 1918, it comprised of 1,017 officers and 18,141 men, including the infanterie d’accompagnement with 45 officers and 1,581 men, serving over 3,500 tanks. This is compared with the artillery service which had over a million officers and men serving 12,000 guns and the air service with 95,000 officers and men serving 3,300 aircraft.

Deygas also points out that the lives of infantrymen saved by the tanks should be taken into account, although this is largely unquantifiable. However, there are numerous accounts of the AS saving infantry units from machine-gun positions, many of which have been discussed previously. In addition, the tank crews frequently dismounted when their tanks were out of action and added their machine guns to the infantry. For example, during the fighting on 18 July, a tank commander from AS35, Brigadier Cellier, dismounted his tank’s machine guns when the tank was immobilised and attacked the German strongpoint that had fired upon him, in conjunction with part of his crew and 15 US infantrymen. The German position surrendered shortly after, Cellier and his men capturing 15 officers, including a colonel, and 700 men.

The losses in material are rather more problematic to analyse, if we want to judge the effectiveness of the French tanks. Although the sources do not vary widely in relation to the total number of tanks lost or damaged, there is an interesting question that was first posed by Balland in the 1930s. He pointed out that only seven of the 29 tanks of Groupement XI (with 1 US ID), on 18 July 1918, actually got into the ‘zone of fire’ and, of those, six were destroyed. ‘Officially, the numbers of tanks destroyed in the two groupements was 30%. In reality it was 80%.’ Thus, it is clear that there is a problem revolving around which tanks are counted as having gone into action; for example, should one count all the tanks that left the waiting position (position d’attente) as getting into action, or should it be all that left the departure position? Or should we count only those tanks that reached the battle zone, as Balland suggests?

Jean Perré gives another variant on this. His figures count each tank’s engagement as a ‘tank engagement’, thus one tank could be engaged multiple times in a battle, each one adding a ‘tank engagement’ to the list. This has the unfortunate effect of masking how many tanks were actually in action against the enemy. In terms of judging the effectiveness of the tanks on the battlefield, Balland’s methodology seems to give a better indication of the vulnerability of the tanks to enemy fire than methods that count the total number of tanks engaged. However, there is simply not enough extant information to apply this methodology to all the engagements of the AS, although it strongly suggests that the official figures for tank losses in combat are lower than they should be. In terms of judging the overall effort and contribution made by the tanks to the French Army, these questions may be largely irrelevant, as it could be argued that the tanks’ impact on the battlefield was as much to do with their presence as with their direct combat fire.

The material cost of the French tank programme was carefully examined by Deygas in the 1930s. He calculated that the amount of steel and other metals used to construct the French tanks was around 35,000 tonnes. This should be compared with the 100,000 tonnes of steel per month being used in 1918 solely for artillery munitions. The total cost of the Schneiders’ manufacture was 25 million francs, the St Chamonds cost 40 million francs and the Renaults cost 150 million francs; a total of 215 million francs. Even adding estimated indirect costs, the creation of this new arm cost no more than 450 million francs. By contrast, the 20 August 1917 Verdun attack cost 700 million francs in artillery ammunition and Malmaison cost around 500 million francs. The consumption of petrol was relatively unimportant; in September 1918, the entire AS (i.e. the tanks and all other AS motor transport) consumed 3,000 hectolitres of petrol. During the same month, the French Army used 300,000 hectolitres for its 100,000 vehicles. Likewise, the expenditure of ammunition was negligible compared with the army’s consumption as a whole. For example, the tanks used 437 75mm shells during the Battle of Malmaison. By comparison, between 17 and 22 October, VI Army’s artillery fired just over 1.5 million shells at the German positions in the artillery preparation for this battle. Deygas estimates that the AS used less than 1,000 tonnes of shells throughout the war. He also points out that tank fire was generally direct-fire on an observed target, unlike artillery fire that ‘wasted’ many shells in general bombardments. These figures show that the French tank programme used a relatively small amount of the resources available to the French army.

It thus seems difficult to justify relegating the importance of the French tanks as they were an integral part of many successful French army operations during the war, for a comparatively small cost. Foch was, of course, right to say that tanks were not a war-winning weapon; only within what is now known as a combined-arms team could the tank operate effectively. It took the French a comparatively short amount of time to arrive at a relatively successful system of tank, infantry, artillery and air co-ordination, with all the pressures of unprecedented industrial warfare to contend with at the same time. Considering the resources devoted to the tanks, they repaid the investment in full. As Dutil points out in relation to the Renaults, a single machine gun required the same two-man crew as a tank, without the latter’s mobility or protection.

It is probably accurate to state that the French Republic had a ‘bureaucratic and unimaginative general staff’ at the start of the war but the evidence shown in this volume suggests that it adapted to the rigours of modern warfare, particularly in relation to armour, remarkably effectively as the war went on. As Michel Goya points out, the French army went through the deepest and most profound changes of its history during the war, finishing it as the most modern army in the world. The French army’s achievement is all the more remarkable considering the technological constraints of the time and its initial disastrous performance in 1914. This suggests a revision of GQG’s reputation is in order and it is clearly time for scholars to examine in detail other aspects of the French army’s performance during the Great War. Returning to Douglas Porch’s categorisation of the French army in the Great War, it is very hard to see how its performance could reasonably be considered unintelligent, particularly in reference to the performance of the officers and men of the AS.

Nachtjagd II


Josef Kammhuber

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 young RAF bomber pilots were enthusiastic and confident in their aircraft and equipment. The RAF believed that modern aircraft like the twin-engined Hampden, Wellington, Whitley and Blenheims with machine-gun turrets and flying in close formation to maximise defensive firepower against attacking fighter aircraft were unbeatable. The strategy was that these aircraft did not need fighter escort to reach and destroy targets but as the Luftwaffe would discover in the Battle of Britain (and much later the Americans from 1942 onward), this was all wishful thinking. The Handley Page Hampden and the Vickers Armstrong Wellington, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and Bristol Blenheim, all twin engined bombers, were the mainstay of Bomber Command early in the war.

Like many of its genre, the Wellington was weakly armed but quite often it was this bomber’s exploits, which featured in the headlines in the British press and sometimes in German papers as well. During the first month of the war the RAF mostly focused its bomber attacks against anti-shipping operations on the German Bight. Operations by 24 Wellingtons against elements of the German fleet at Heligoland on 3 September 1939 met with stiff opposition from fighters and flak. Although ‘Freya’ radar had warned the German gunners of the impending raid the thick cloud at their bombing altitude fortunately had hidden the Wellingtons from view. Four Messerschmitt Bf 109Ds of 1 Gruppe Zerstörergeschwader 26 at Jever led by Hauptmann Friedrich-Karl Dickore climbed and intercepted the bombers after they had bombed but their aim was spoiled by cloudy conditions. Even so, the two pairs of Bf 109Ds damaged two of the Wellingtons in the attack. One pair attacked from above and the other pair from below. Leutnant Günther Specht, who damaged one of the Wellingtons, was shot down by return fire. Specht ditched in the sea and he was later rescued. The German had been wounded in the face and later had to have his left eye removed. Luckily for the Wellington crews, the three remaining Bf 109Ds were low on fuel and they broke off the engagement, while sixteen Bf 109D/Es and eight of I./ZG26’s new Bf 110Cs arrived too late to intercept the bombers.

Continued bombing operations by the inexperienced Wellington crews were brave but foolhardy; especially when one considers that many of their battle-hardened opponents had honed their fighting skills in the Legion Kondor in Spain. On 14 December twelve Wellingtons on shipping searches were attacked Bf 109Es of II./JG77 that had taken off from Wangerooge together with four Bf 110s of 2/ZG26 at Jever and five Wellingtons were shot down. Air Vice-Marshal John Eustace Arthur ‘Jackie’ Baldwin, AOC 3 Group was compelled to compare it to the Charge of the Light Brigade. Worse was to follow. RAF bombers mounted a heavy attack against shipping off Wilhelmshaven on 18 December in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Heligoland Bight’. Twenty-four Wellingtons on 9 Squadron, 37 Squadron and 149 Squadron formed up over Norfolk heading for the island of Heligoland. Two aircraft aborted the operation due to mechanical defects, but the remaining 22 pursued the attack and as the Wellingtons approached the German coast near Cuxhaven, Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters of Jagdgeschwader 1, guided by radar plots of the incoming formation made by the experimental ‘Freya’ early warning radar installation at Wangerooge and directed by ground control, were waiting. The Wellingtons were easy pickings and the RAF crews were caught cold as the cunning German fighter pilots made beam attacks from above. Previously, attacks had been made from the rear but now the German pilots tore into the bombers safe in the knowledge that the ventral gun was powerless at this angle of attack. They knew too that the front and rear turrets could not traverse sufficiently to draw a bead on them. For almost half an hour 44 Luftwaffe fighters tore into the Wellingtons. In addition to the twelve Wellingtons lost and the two written off in crashes, three others were damaged in crash landings in England. Luftwaffe fighter claims for aircraft destroyed on the raid totalled 38, which later, were pared down to 26 or 27. Among these, Oberleutnant Johannes Steinhoff’s claim for two destroyed was reduced to one. Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck of 2./ZG76 who claimed two Wellingtons, force-landed his aircraft on Wangerooge after return fire from the bombers damaged his engines. Only two of I/ZG76’s sixteen claims were disallowed, one of which was Falck’s second. Falck’s wingman, Unteroffizier Fresia, was credited with two confirmed destroyed. Leutnant Uellenbeck limped back to Jever with no fewer than 33 bullet holes in his 110.

‘I was with the second formation on a course of 120 degrees, about fifty kilometres to the north of Ameland. Suddenly we came upon two Wellingtons flying 300 metres beneath us, on the opposite heading. I attacked the leader from the side and it caught fire. Then I opened fire on the second one, from the left and above. When he didn’t budge I moved into position 300 metres behind him and opened up with everything. The nose of the bomber fell and it dived towards the sea. It was at this time that I was hit by a bullet, between my neck and left shoulder; the round went clean through me and hit Unteroffizier Dombrowski the radio operator on his left wrist.’

Uellenbeck’s claims for two destroyed was upheld. Though RAF crews claimed twelve German single and twin-engined fighters, just three Bf 109 fighters were lost and a handful damaged or hit.

Wolfgang Falck, born on 19 August 1910 in Berlin, had begun his pilot training at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule (German Air Transport School) at Schleissheim on 7 April 1931. The course he and 29 other trainees attended was called Kameradschaft 31 among whom were men like Hannes Trautloft and Günther Lützow. Falck graduated from the Deutsche Verkehrfliegerschule 19 February 1932. In February 1933 he attended the Infantry School at Dresden for officer training and made Leutnant in October 1934. In March 1935 Falck became an instructor at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule at Schleissheim and in April 1936 he was promoted to Oberleutnant and transferred to JG132 ‘Richthofen’ at Jüterbog-Damm as Staffelkapitän of 5 Staffel. In July 1938 Falck was appointed Staffelkapitän of 8 Staffel of the new JG132 at Fürstenwalde. The new unit was later redesignated I./ZG76 and equipped with the Bf 110 Zerstörer fighter. Falck led 2./ZG76 during the Polish campaign from Ohlau in Silesia, gaining three victories over Polish Air Force aircraft. The unit was then relocated to Jever to protect the northern seaboard and the Kriegsmarine naval bases.

As well as Falck the ‘Battle of the Heligoland Bight’ also produced another pilot destined to find fame with the Nachtjagd, although success at night at first seemed to elude him. Leutnant Helmut ‘Bubi’ (‘Nipper’) Lent of 1./ZG76 in a lone Bf 110 Zerstörer was one of the pilots ordered to intercept and engage the attacking bomber force and he put in claims for three of the Wellingtons when he landed at Jever. Two of these, which were shot down at 1430 and 1445, were later confirmed. Both aircraft were on 37 Squadron and were captained by Flying Officer P. A. Wimberley and Australian Flying Officer Oliver John Trevor Lewis respectively and they crashed in the shallow sea off Borkum. Wimberley survived but his crew died. Lewis and his crew were killed also. It is likely that his third claim may have been Wellington IA N2396 LF-J on 37 Squadron, piloted by Sergeant H. Ruse, which he crash-landed on the sand dunes of Borkum with two men dead. Lent was refused the victory over Wimberley, as the Wellington was attacked by Lent after it had already been badly damaged and was about to crash. The Wellington was credited to Carl-August Schumacher. Lent later flew combat operations in Norway with 1./ZG76, where he scored seven victories and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class.

Blenheim light bombers fared no better than the Wellingtons on daylight shipping searches in the North Sea. In the first and only encounter between Blenheims and Bf 110s, on 10 January 1940 in mid-morning, nine Blenheims on 110 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Ken Doran DFC took off from Wattisham in Suffolk in three ‘vics’ for a North Sea shipping reconnaissance. At roughly the same time, Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck led four Bf 110s of 2./ZG76 from Jever airfield near Wilhelmshaven on a westerly course over the North Sea for a routine patrol. When flying 200 kilometres north of Terschelling Island, one of the German pilots spotted a handful of specks on the horizon and warned his leader on R/T. Swiftly, the sleek Zerstörers curved onto the course of the British intruders. Within seconds, Falck identified the dots as Bristol Blenheims and ordered his Flight to attack. At 1152 the fighters dropped onto the tails of the Blenheims, which at that time, having no under armament, were very vulnerable to attack from below so Doran led the formation of three vics of three aircraft down to sea level in plus 9 boost. It was to no avail – Schwarmführer Falck’s cannon shells struck home and Blenheim P4859 of 110 Squadron exploded on the surface of the sea. Twenty-six year old Sergeant John Henry Hanne, married, of Maida Vale, London, his 23-year old observer, Sergeant George Llewelyn Williams, of Ynsddu, Monmouthshire and nineteen-year old AC1 Edwin Vick, WOp/AG of Morecombe, Lancashire, were killed. Two other Blenheims on 110 Squadron were badly shot up during the 25 minute engagement. N6203 crashed on return at Manby in Lincolnshire and N6213 was written off at Wattisham. These were claimed destroyed by Leutnants Helmut Fahlbusch and Maximilian Graeff. After expending all their ammunition, the four German fighter pilots broke off the fight and jubilantly flew back to Jever, all with slight damage. Following this encounter Doran continued with the reconnaissance, which earned him a bar to his DFC.

During the period from 14 February to the end of March 1940 Blenheims of 2 Group completed another 250 North Sea shipping sweeps, which resulted in the loss of only four aircraft and their crews. They all fell victim to German fighters. One of these was N6211 on 110 Squadron, shot down by Hauptmann Falck of 2./ZG76 on 17 February north of the Dutch Frisian Islands. Sergeant Frederick John Raymond Bigg, the 27-year old pilot, Sergeant William Barnard Woods, the 21-year old observer and AC1 Jack Orchard the 20-year old WOp/AG were reported missing and are commemorated on the Memorial at Runnymede for those members of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces who have no known grave. That same month Hauptmann Falck was appointed Gruppenkommandeur ZG1 at Düsseldorf. The Gruppe was relocated to the Baltic coast in April and on 9 April Falck led the unit during the invasion of Denmark. He recorded his seventh (and final) victory, shooting down a Danish Fokker C.V taking off from Værløse.

Serious losses finally convinced the Air Staff that a profound change of its daylight policy was necessary. Following heavy Wellington and Blenheim losses in daylight the elderly Whitley squadrons were immediately employed in night leaflet dropping operations and made no appearance in daylight at all. When RAF Bomber Command took the decision in May 1940 to start strategic bombing of Germany by night, there was little the Luftwaffe could do to counter these early raids. The subject of night fighting was raised at a conference of German service chiefs just before the war and according to Kommodore Josef Kammhuber who was present at the conference it was dismissed out of hand by Hermann Göring with the words, ‘Night fighting! It will never come to that!’

Up until May 1940 the night air defence of the Reich was almost entirely the province of the flak arm of the Luftwaffe. No specialised night fighting arm existed though one fighter Gruppe (IV./(N)JG2) was undertaking experimental ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ (illuminated night fighting) sorties with the aid of searchlights in northern Germany and in the Rhineland. IV./(N)JG2 flew the Bf 109D with the cockpit hood removed as a precaution against the pilots being blinded by the glare of the searchlights.

On the night of 25/26 April Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster of the 11th Staffel NJG2 shot down a Hampden on a mine-laying operation near Sylt, the first Bomber Command aircraft to be shot down by a fighter at night. The aircraft was L1319 on 49 Squadron. Pilot Officer Arthur Herbert Benson and crew were killed. Forster went on to claim two Fokker G.Is in Raum (‘Box’) ‘Rotterdam’ on 10 May and Hampden P4286 on 44 Squadron at Oosterhout on 14/15 May. Pilot Officer Leslie James Ashfield and his crew were killed. On 24 May Förster destroyed a Blenheim at Borkum. Förster also claimed Hampden I P1178 on 83 Squadron at Often near Aachen on 3/4 June. Flying Officer Francis John Haydon and crew were killed. On 9 July he destroyed a Whitley twenty kilometres north of Heligoland. Forster joined 2./JG27, scoring another six daylight victories. Hermann Förster was killed in action on 14 December 1941 flying with JG27 Afrika in North Africa. His last victory was on 10 December when he shot down a Boston III fifteen kilometres east of Bir Hacheim to take his final total to twelve Abschüsse.

On 22 June 1940 Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck, Kommandeur, I./ZG1 who had some experience with radar-directed night-fighting sorties in the Bf 110 flying from Aalborg in northern Denmark that April, was ordered to form the basis of a Nachtjagd, or night fighting arm, by establishing the first night fighter Gruppe, I./NJG1. While at Aalborg Falck had prepared a comprehensive tactical appraisal report on night interception. Thus after I./ZG1’s participation in the Battle of France General Albert Kesselring ordered Falck to take his unit to Düsseldorf and reform for the night fighter role. On 26 June Falck was appointed Kommodore of NJG1 and IV./(N)JG2 was incorporated into the first Nachtjagd Geschwader as III./NJG1. From Düsseldorf airfield Bf 110s and Do 17Zs of NJG1 undertook experimental night-fighting sorties in defence of the Ruhr with the aid of one flak searchlight regiment. In July the creation of a true night air defence for the Third Reich was dramatically accelerated when Göring ordered Josef Kammhuber to set up of a full-scale night fighting arm. Within three months, Kammhuber’s organisation was remodelled into Fliegerkorps XII and by the end of 1940 the infant Nachtjagd had matured into three searchlight battalions and five night fighter Gruppen. Major Falck received the Ritterkreuz in October 1940. He was to command NJG1 for three years and in partnership with General Josef Kammhuber develop a highly effective night fighter force.

Kammhuber organized the night fighting units into a chain known to the British as the ‘Kammhuber Line’, in which a series of radar stations with overlapping coverage were layered three deep from Denmark to the middle of France, each covering a zone about 32 kilometres long (north-south) and twenty kilometres wide (east-west). Each control centre or zone was known as a ‘Himmelbett’ (literally translated, ‘bed of heavenly bliss’ or ‘four-poster bed’ because of the four night-fighter control zones), consisting of a ‘Freya’ radar with a range of about 100 kilometres, a number of searchlights spread through the cell and one primary and one backup night fighter assigned to the cell. RAF bombers flying into Germany or France would have to cross the line at some point and the radar would direct a searchlight to illuminate the aircraft. Once this had happened other manually controlled searchlights would also pick up the aircraft and the night fighter would be directed to intercept the now-illuminated bomber. However, demands by Bürgermeisters in Germany led to the recall of the searchlights to the major cities. Later versions of the ‘Himmelbett’ added two Würzburg radars, with a range of about thirty kilometres. Unlike the early-warning ‘Freya’ radar, Würzburgs were accurate (and complex) tracking radars. One would be locked onto the night fighter as soon as it entered the cell. After the Freya picked up a target the second Würzburg would lock onto it, thereby allowing controllers in the ‘Himmelbett’ centre to obtain continual readings on the positions of both aircraft, controlling them to a visual interception. To aid in this, a number of the night fighters were fitted with a short-range infrared searchlight mounted in the nose of the aircraft to illuminate the target and a receiver to pick up the reflected energy known as ‘Spanner’ or ‘Spanneranlage’ (‘Spanner’ installation) literally translated, a ‘peeping Tom’. ‘Spanner I’ and ‘Spanner II’, a passive device that in theory used the heat from engine exhausts to detect its target, were not very successful.

Nachtjagd’s first official victory over the Reich was credited to Oberfeldwebel Paul Förster of 8./NJG1 when off Heligoland at 0250 hours on 9 July he destroyed Whitley V N1496 on 10 Squadron at Dishforth. Flight Lieutenant D. A. Ffrench-Mullen and his four crew who were on a bombing operation to Kiel, survived and were taken prisoner. Förster was a former soldier who trained as a pilot in 1936 and as a Zerstörer pilot he scored three day victories in 1940. After he was shot down and wounded he was assigned to the role of flying instructor and later served as a staff officer. In 1943 he retrained as a night fighter pilot and on 1 June 1943 he joined 1./NJG1 where Förster achieved four more night victories.

Often called ‘Father of the Nachtjagd’ Werner Streib, born on 13 June 1911 in Pforzheim, helped develop the operational tactics used by the Nachtjagd during the early and with the likes of Wolfgang Falck made the Luftwaffe’s night-fighter arm an effective fighting force against the RAF bombing offensive. After a spell in banking and finance, Streib had joined the Wehrmacht as an infantryman. A transfer to the Luftwaffe, as an observer in a reconnaissance unit followed and later he trained as a fighter pilot. In 1937 he was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ at Jüterbog-Damm. He then became a Bf 110 Zerstörer pilot in Wolfgang Falck’s ZG1 as the war began. The first of Streib’s 66 Abschüsse and the only one in daylight was a Bristol Blenheim on 10 May 1940. By the end of July I./NJG1 operating from Gütersloh airfield near Münster had a fortunate spell of operations, destroying six bombers in the ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ system. Streib, now Staffelkapitän, 2./NJG1, shot down Whitley V P5007 on 51 Squadron in the early hours on 20 July 25 kilometres northwest of Kiel. Flight Lieutenant Stephen Edward Frederick Curry and three others on his crew were killed and one was taken prisoner. This was followed on 21/22 July by Whitley V N1487 on 78 Squadron flown by Sergeant Victor Clarence Monkhouse ten kilometres north of Münster. All the crew were killed. Streib soon added to his score, claiming two Wellingtons on 30/31 August and three bombers on 30 September/1 October. Kammhuber realised that ‘Helle Nachtjagd’, entirely dependent as it was on weather conditions and radar-guided searchlights was only a short-term solution; it simply could not penetrate thick layers of cloud or industrial haze over the Ruhr and other industrial centres in the Reich. He soon concentrated all his energies in developing an efficient radar-controlled air defence system.

Nachtjagd III

In July 1940 Patrick Foss was promoted Squadron Leader and he joined 115 Squadron at Marham in Norfolk which was equipped with Wellingtons. ‘At the time’ wrote Foss ‘there were three RAF Groups operating night bombers, mainly against Germany. The Wellingtons were in 3 Group, Whitleys in 4 Group and Hampdens in 5 Group. Other Groups controlled the light bombers, fighters, coastal reconnaissance and so on. All three Groups of night bombers had twin-engined aircraft with crews of between four and six. Bomber Command’s attack plan called for raids each night, if weather allowed, on such ‘military’ targets as oil plants, factories, harbours and railway marshalling yards. When the moon was minimal one Group would fly each night. When there was a moon the three Groups doubled up, which meant we did a raid every other night. A raid was a major operation; a station complement of two thousand or more was needed to launch up to twenty Wellingtons on one night.

‘Aircrews lived a strange life. On our off days, on these comfortable, long-established stations, we lived like country gentlemen in a fair degree of luxury and almost as if the war did not exist. On flying nights, we stole out like cat burglars to venture out, each aircraft singly, over the seas and into enemy territory, where we felt hunted and watched every minute. We flew in a high degree of tension. The sight of shells bursting in the sky ahead, often seen for an hour or more before we reached a target, had a mesmeric effect on me as my imagination leaped around. Highly subjective feelings kept me thinking more about my skin than about the people in the dark far below me. I did not want to die, nor have my courage tested by a shell burst or a fighter’s attack.

‘I realised somehow I had to conquer this deep desire for self-preservation and treat the whole business as a surgeon would an operation. As each trip brought more near-misses by shells or close encounters with fighters, I became more and more conscious of the dangers and I also began to question whether what we were doing was of any real use in the war. This helped me to understand why some men, their fear building up raid after raid, failed to press home attacks on their targets and instead dumped their bombs in the area before turning for home. It meant, of course, that they told lies to the debriefing officers and their aircrew went along with them because they, too, were afraid.

‘It was the responsibility of a flight and squadron commander to know his men and understand the build-up of pressures, raid after raid. Each captain was different and the commander had to judge when each crew should come off operations to allow them to rest and re-think, as well as to train new crews in all that they had experienced. At this time Command had set a tour of 31 trips. The average loss rate was around 25 trips, so every raid over 25 gave a crew the sense they were lucky to be still alive.

‘During World War I men were treated as cowards when they lost their nerve; and some authorities took the same line early in World War II. It proved to be a useless course; it encouraged no one to do better. The desirable way was to get a man to be honest and admit his fears and seek the support of his brother officers. When I did this with men, particularly when I became squadron commander in Malta, it seemed to have a profound effect on them and on me too. I learned that the more afraid the average man is, the more likely he is to push home attacks and take risks, if only to prove he is not afraid. The bravest men, I found, were those who conquered their fear by facing it, not those who had no idea of the danger of what they did.

‘I could see that we lived double lives – our ‘gentlemen’s lives’ and our almost secret nefarious outings to Germany. It was a very personal war. If we did not fight it, no one else would. Almost all of us experienced ‘twitch’ and other symptoms of stress in the eyes, the lips or the bowels. But the stress did not lead us to dump bombs or pull away from attack. It boosted morale in a remarkable way, so long as it was contained by a relationship with each other which was honest and caring. Looking back at the raids we flew in the early days to attack ‘military’ targets, the marshalling yards and factories, I shudder at how amateur we were. The targets for new crews were the big railway yards at Hamm and Soest, on the edge of the Ruhr industrial area – Ham and Eggs was the obvious crew slang for them.10 They were large area targets and not so heavily defended as was the Ruhr area itself. There were planners who believed that bombing a railway yard would cause delays and disruption of communications. My own experience in 1938, before the war, of trial bombings of railway lines at the Army Corps of Transport railway experimental centre had convinced me – and the Army – that damage could be repaired in a few hours and did not cause much delay in a marshalling yard. These attacks were rather artificial, by low-flying Battles, but war experience confirmed that without continuous bombardment the yards were an unproductive target. However, our new crews did gain the experience of flying over Germany, of being shelled and hunted by fighters and of just how difficult it was to identify a military target from a great height in European weather.

‘My first bombing raid was on Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr – the target was a factory. When we arrived in the target area thick smoke and layers of cloud made it impossible to identify anything as small as a factory. I was very suspicious of our visual navigation, although I had an excellent navigator and had myself been an experienced navigator in peacetime. Since we left England we had seen nothing to pinpoint our position. We could only release our bombs in the general area and turn for home. The German reaction with anti-aircraft flak and searchlights was strong and accurate. As we flew towards Marham, 300 miles distant, our crew talked about the experience. Our conclusion was that if that was the worst we would meet, we had some chance of surviving our tour of operations. But in my mind was the question whether we had bombed the right town, let alone the specific factory. On this and other raids our great problem was finding and identifying a military target by our available means of navigation – map-reading, calculation and hoping to find some identification near our target. Our weather forecasters had only a general and limited idea of the local conditions 300 miles from the UK. They seemed unable to forecast smog or the height of cloud layers.

‘On this first raid my navigator and I had hoped that we might see the river Rhine and get a fix from that, but we never saw the river. There was one aid on which we came to rely heavily, the German range-type wireless stations, which they switched on to aid their own aircraft. We took bearings with our loop aerial. But these only helped us to get into a four or five mile area around the target. There came a night when we filed into the briefing room before a raid and were horrified to be told that no German radio station was on the air. It would not have surprised me to learn that each of our aircraft hit a different target that night.

‘On my next raid, to an oil processing plant at Wesseling, near Cologne we carried a photo flash bomb with our other bombs so that we could photograph our target. My navigator and I worked out a track to strike the Rhine at its junction with the Moselle. From there we would count the loops in the Rhine until we reached the one on which Wesseling lay. As we approached the Wesseling curve, my bomb aimer lay below me, looking down through the aiming window, directing me by intercom, while the other four crew manned the fore and rear gun turrets and the look-out in the upper astrodome. The second pilot sat beside me, acting as counsellor, lookout and ready to take over the controls, should I be wounded. In order to get a good photograph, the flash bomb had to be dropped at a precise height and the camera, fixed in the aircraft, had to be aimed so that the lens did not pick up the direct light of the flash, when the bomb burst after falling to about one thousand feet above the ground. The flash activated a photo cell which closed the camera shutter. This photography required that the Wellington be flown straight and level on a long run in. Straight and level at a precise height was a delight for German flak gunners!

‘This was another murky night, with a layer of cloud at the height we had planned to drop the flash bomb. We could see a Whitley bomber caught in the beams of searchlights, directly above our target, lit up by the reflection from the clouds as though in bright moonlight. Shells were bursting all round him. We decided to glide in below him, hoping the defences would not pick us up while they concentrated on the Whitley. We arrived over the target without being picked up and let go our bombs and the flash bomb. When the flash went off it seemed as though the defences were blinded for a few seconds. Then all hell was let loose at us. Shells began to burst around us; we could hear the explosions and see the black puffs of smoke. Our rear-gunner called that he thought he saw the lights of a fighter nearby. The searchlights bracketed us and I threw the Wellington into twists and turns to try to throw them off. They did not let go. Any moment could be our last. I sweated with fear as I pulled and twisted the controls. Then I offered up a prayer to be shown what to do.

‘At that moment an extraordinary impression came over me. I seemed to be outside the Wellington, away in the sky. I could see the aircraft in the lights and shell bursts, as though I were a spectator. Then I saw how I might break out of the defences if I made a highly dangerous manoeuvre. As I saw this, I had a feeling of confidence that what I should do was right. Then I was back in the Wellington, frightened and heaving at the controls. I pulled the aircraft up into a big stall turn, fell over and spiralled down towards the earth. Almost at once the lights shut off and we were falling in utter darkness. I eased the aircraft out of the dive to be parallel with the unseen ground. At that moment a single searchlight came on and lay along our track, showing us that we were a few hundred feet above the countryside and lighting up hills ahead of us. The light went out and we climbed to avoid the hills and return to operating height for the flight home.

‘Back in the interrogation room at Marham we commented, rather smugly, the Commander-in-Chief calls our bombing ‘gardening’ [not to be confused with minelaying operations which were called ‘Gardening’]. Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of Bomber Command, had been invited by our Station Commander to witness a demonstration of dive bombing by a Wellington. Afterwards the C-in-C talked to us about the pin-pointing of targets by night. He said we were digging up the German countryside with our bombs. It was not until 1942 with the introduction of the pathfinder force, which used radar to fix their positions and marked them with fires that the main force bombers could be sure where the area of the target of the night lay. A few minutes after our ‘gardening’ the print of our flash photo revealed a factory in a curve of the Rhine with four bombs bursting on the roof! Unfortunately, when we compared the photo with our detailed map of the target, it in no way fitted. Someone suggested that perhaps the map was wrong. Wearily, we trailed off to bed. Three weeks later a report arrived from the Photo Interpretation Unit. They had identified the place where our bombs had fallen – a tank factory in Cologne, ten miles from our intended target!

‘When the Luftwaffe made their bombing attacks on London in July 1940, the Prime Minister ordered us to attack Berlin. This was the longest trip we had ever attempted in the Wellington, close to our maximum range with full tanks and minimum bomb load. We set off for Berlin with half a gale blowing from the west, low and middle cloud and murk on the ground. We were given strict instructions to turn back after three and three-quarter hours flying, wherever we were, to be sure of returning to Britain against the gale. As I reached three and three-quarter hours we thought we might be in the Berlin area. We had failed to get any fixes on the route and the weather was heavy cloud and total blackness. We glimpsed below us lakes and forests, but never a light or other indication of a city. There was nothing worth bombing and no time for a search. We turned for home and began to plug back against the gale. After an hour or so we saw lights on the ground, which we identified as an airfield working night fighters. We made to bomb them but our bomb releases failed to work. We plugged on and finally, over the North Sea, succeeded in losing our bomb load, saving us some petrol. We landed at Marham with less than thirty minutes of fuel remaining after eight and a half hours in the air. Our other crews returned with similar stories. No one was sure he had hit Berlin. We hoped other stations had had more luck.

‘A few days later, we were ordered to bomb the Channel ports, Calais and Le Havre, our shortest trips ever. They were on brilliant moonlit nights and we could clearly see the lines of barges waiting to carry the German army to invade Britain. From 6,000 feet they looked like match sticks. We had filled every hook with high explosives and fire bombs. The Germans had only deployed light flak guns and these were less accurate at our height. I saw fires break out along the docksides and in the barges, followed by many explosions. On one raid I saw quite clearly water jets being played by fire-fighters – the first time we had seen a result of our attacks. Thanks to the efforts of our fighters, the Germans never achieved the air supremacy over southern England which they needed for a successful invasion. However, the destruction wrought by our bombers on the ports and barges must also have played a part in their decision to call off the invasion. That decision ultimately meant losing the war.

‘In August 1940 we made a long trip towards Magdeburg to attack an aircraft factory at Bernberg. The night was clear and moonlit and I could see the Hartz Mountains where I had visited friends in 1932. We passed near Goslar, the home of Renate, my pre-war girl friend. When we reached our estimated time of arrival we were delighted to see below us a cross of big runways and sheds, but I was not sure that this was our target so put the second pilot in my seat and went down to lie beside the bomb aimer to have a better look. I had been troubled by seeing, five miles to the south, bombs bursting and flak coming up and wondered if that was the right target. As we lay there, trying to decide, suddenly our Wellington went into a steep dive and then we saw our bombs leave and crash through the roofs of the sheds. As we pulled out of the dive, chunks of the roofs flew past us, very close. At once guns opened fire and I could feel strikes on our aircraft. At the same time a force, like a giant hand, seized our Wellington and threw it upwards. Once we were away from the target area the second pilot started making excuses for the attack, saying we were running out of time and he was sure that we had found the right target.

‘I went all around the aircraft to see what damage we had sustained and found nothing that was serious. However, I was very troubled that each of our three compasses seemed to be giving a different reading. We attempted to verify them by the moon, but without moon tables or a sextant we failed. So we averaged the three readings and steered a general westerly direction. Clouds now prevented us from fixing a position. When we expected to reach the coast we saw a coastline and a flashing beacon. In a discussion with the crew, one of them thought the beacon might be on the English coast, so we flew close and fired our recognition signal, a very light giving the colours of the day. It was answered by light flak and we dashed out to sea. In a couple of minutes we passed over a bund and then wave crests. This convinced me we must have crossed a part of the Dutch Zuider Zee and if so we were embarking on a flight of about 150 miles across the North Sea.

‘I checked our fuel gauges and found several were showing nil and others only small amounts of fuel, maybe half an hour’s running, certainly not enough to get us beyond the middle of the North Sea. We seemed bound for an emergency landing at sea, something none of us had rehearsed; indeed, I had no idea even how to activate the dinghies. I doubted whether air/sea rescue boats operated so far out. I asked the crew for their suggestions. One option was to turn back and land on the beach and surrender ourselves. No one would hear of that. So we continued westwards. As we strained our eyes looking for land, we kept seeing it, only to find it was cloud on the water.

‘When I asked the wireless operator to try and get a bearing from the Direction Finding service in England, he told me his wireless was playing up, but he would try. Then he told me he could hear several SOS calls and that meant that the D/F stations would concentrate on them. I insisted he keep trying and he finally received a bearing. I plotted it on the chart; it was almost due north and put us out in the English Channel.

‘I couldn’t believe it. I asked our operator if the bearing could be a false one put out by a German station. They were known to give false bearings to our aircraft in distress. If we were half way across the North Sea and turned north we would go down in the cold sea en route to Iceland. The operator assured me it was a good bearing from an English station. I swallowed my doubts and turned north. The sun was up, but cloud was solid below us. Suddenly there was a gap and I saw a green field. I pulled back the engines and dived for this break. I saw fields dotted with high posts and other antiinvasion obstructions; it must be the south of England. I gingerly opened up our engines again, noting that every fuel gauge registered empty.

‘Suddenly, right ahead, appeared a grass airfield, apparently empty. I dared not circle to look more closely because if we banked our wings the petrol might run away from the outlets and stop the engines. I shut down and went straight in. As we ran across the field I noted large piles of earth dotted about. We came to a halt beside a flying control building with no sign of life. We got out and began to look for someone. We came upon a sandbagged shelter and out of it peered a steel-helmeted RAF figure, a Pilot Officer.

‘What’s this place?’ we asked. ‘This is West Malling’ (in mid-Kent).

‘Funny sort of airfield,’ I commented, ‘full of molehills.’

‘Not moles’ he replied, ‘unexploded bombs; they’ve been going off all through the night.’

‘We jumped down into his hole, telephoned Marham and requested to be re-fuelled.

‘I went and looked over the Wellington and decided it was safe to fly on. A refueller arrived, manned by some very nervous airmen. We had never been refuelled so fast; then they were gone. We learned that on the previous day a big raid by German bombers flying towards London had been met by RAF fighters over West Malling and had dumped their bombs before turning back to France. The airfield had been evacuated, its fighters sent elsewhere. Only this one flying control officer had been left. We rumbled across the airfield to take off, my heart in my mouth, fearing our vibration might set off an explosion.

‘Back in the interrogation room at Marham our plots and timings were carefully analysed. Another crew had claimed to have hit the target factory and set it on fire. It was probably the fire we had seen to the south of us. The other Captain was a very experienced pilot from civil aviation and he was convinced he had hit the right place. We put a bold face on our story, although I had doubts. To complicate matters, the Group Air Vice-Marshal had telephoned to congratulate the station and added, ‘There is an immediate award of a Distinguished Flying Cross in this, please give me the name.’ Both crews were bone weary and it seemed impossible to decide who had hit the right target. The Station Commander invited us to toss a coin and the other Captain won. I was glad of it, especially when, a few days later, he was shot down. His wife had something to show off his gallantry.

‘Operations over Europe became steadily more hazardous week by week as the Germans developed their air defence from the coast to Germany, with permanent sites for radar, searchlights, flak and night fighters with their elaborate control. One night, as we returned from a raid on the Ruhr, our rear-gunner reported that he could see a fighter following us. He had first reported its white downward recognition light (which helped his gunners on the ground.) Then he reported blue and gold lights in the cockpit and he could count two heads. I asked him to keep giving me their distance behind us, estimated with his gunsight, but on no account to fire. I reckoned our firing would give our enemy a pinpoint to aim at and his cannons were much more deadly than our two Vickers guns firing at a head-on fighter. He crept up on us slowly. I turned left, he followed us. I turned right and dived and again he followed us. It was clear he could not see us, but had some device by which he could follow us. Before the war I had exercised with ground operators who listened to aircraft approaching England for air defence purposes and I had helped them to calibrate. In the course of doing this I heard a hint that there were other ways of picking up and fixing aircraft flying in. So I had a suspicion that this German fighter might be carrying similar equipment.

‘As we made our way to the Belgian coast we played a cat and mouse game. I could not throw him off and he did not have enough confidence to open fire. Finally I instructed the rear-gunner to aim and, when the fighter came within 150 yards, to shout. At once I pulled the Wellington up into a high stall. We hung there on the engines and then fell out of the stall, to find that the fighter was about one hundred yards ahead of us. He immediately began hunting around to find us on his screen, but he couldn’t see backwards. At the coast he dived away and we continued on our way to Marham.

‘Our Intelligence people appeared to be very interested in our report of this encounter. One hinted that this was a very early report of German airborne radar in use. The RAF had its own disinformation campaign about radar. Before each sortie bomber aircrews were handed red lozenges – we called them cat’s eyes – and were informed that they were carrots, to help us see better in the dark. After the war, I heard that the Germans, after many interrogations of shot-down crews, had put scientists to work to investigate the powers of the carrot, perhaps to explain their own bomber losses by night over Britain.’

On the other side of the North Sea Nachtjagd pilots began to rack up high scores. Oberfeldwebel Paul Gildner of 3./NJG1 claimed three aircraft over the Netherlands during September 1940. Gildner, born on 1 February 1914 in Nimptsch (Silesia), had volunteered for the Wehrmacht in 1934 as an infantry officer but had transferred to the Luftwaffe. Gildner was already serving as a Oberfeldwebel Zerstörer pilot when war began in September 1939, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 110 with 1/ZG1. Gildner flew intensively during the European campaign in May-June 1940 and also flew sorties during early stages of the Battle of Britain. In August 1940 after training in night flying he was transferred to 4./NJG1). He scored his first Abschuss on 3 September 1940 when he shot down Hampden I P4370 on 144 Squadron (which he identified as a Whitley) and which was detailed to bomb Ludwigshafen. The bomber crashed near Sittard just on the German side of the border with Holland at 0045 hours on the night of the 2nd/3rd when 84 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command attacked a wide variety of targets in Germany, France, Holland and Italy. Pilot Officer R. S. A. Churchill and one crewmember were taken prisoner; the two others were killed. On the night of 18/19th at 2230 hours near Groenlo, Gildner shot down Whitley V P5008 on 58 Squadron, which had been detailed to bomb Hamm. Sergeant Albert Alfred Ellis Crossland and crew were killed. Two hours later, at Zieuwent, Gildner shot down another Whitley, N1425 on 77 Squadron, which was detailed to bomb Soest. Pilot Officer Peter Ernest Eldridge and his crew were killed. After Falck and Streib, Gildner was the third Nachtjagd pilot to be awarded the Ritterkreuz, on 9 July 1941 after his 14th Abschuss.

On the evening of 16 October 1940 Leutnant Ludwig Becker of 4./NJG1 and his bordfunker Unteroffizier Josef Staub claimed Nachtjagd’s first ground radar-directed kill at Oosterwolde. Ludwig Becker was born on 22 August 1911 in Dortmund-Aplerbeck in the Province of Westphalia, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia. Joining the Luftwaffe volunteers in 1934, by 1939 he was a test pilot and a Leutnant in the Luftwaffe reserve. Serving with NJG1, he crashed a Messerschmitt Bf 110 near Winterswijk on 30 August 1940. On what was a perfect moonlight night on the 16th of October flying a Dornier Do 17Z-10 equipped with the experimental ‘Spanner’ night-vision device they were guided onto the tail of a Wellington by Jägerleitoffizier (JLO or fighter-control officer) Leutnant Hermann Diehl of the experimental ‘Freya’ station at Nunspeet in Holland. The Wellington, L7844 KX-I on 311 Czechoslovak Squadron at East Wretham, was being flown by Pilot Officer Bohumil Landa. Becker reported:

‘At about 21.20 I was controlled by Leutnant Diehl at Nunspeet using Freya mit Zusatz and Würzburg, using Morse on the tactical frequency. I was guided very well at the correct height of 3300 metres with constant corrections towards the enemy at his starboard rear and suddenly saw, about 100 metres to my left and above, an aircraft in the moonlight, which on approaching closer I recognized as a Vickers Wellington. I closed in slowly behind him and gave a burst of about five of six seconds, aiming at the fuselage and wing roots. The starboard engine caught fire at once and I drew my machine up above him. For a while the Englishman [sic] continued, rapidly losing height; then the fire went out and I watched him spinning downward and finally crash. I observed no one bailing out. I returned to my standby area.’

The Wellington crashed at 2145 hours near Oosterwolde/Doornspijk. Landa and three crew were killed. Sergeants Emanuel Novotny and Augustin Sestak bailed out safely before their aircraft was completely destroyed in the crash near Oosterwolde at 2145. Landa and three of his crew were found dead in the wreckage the next day. It was Becker’s first Abschuss. Becker, born on 22 August 1911 in Dortmund-Aplerbeck in the Province of Westphalia, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia, had volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1934 and became a Stuka pilot before joining the Bf 110 Zerstörer and becoming a night fighter pilot in July 1940. Serving with NJG1, he crashed a Messerschmitt Bf 110 near Winterswijk on 30 August 1940. In 1941-42 Becker became one of the leading ‘Experten’ in the Luftwaffe night fighter arm. He shot down forty bombers in 1942 and taught the new and young crews from his experiences. To them Becker ‘The Night Fighting Professor’ was an inspiring fatherly figure. Instrumental in introducing the Lichtenstein AI radar into the night fighter arm in 1941 though most night fighter aircrew were sceptical about it (they liked to rely on the ‘Mk I Eyeball’). Becker had one of the still experimental sets installed in his Do 217Z night fighter at Leeuwarden, 161 kilometres (100 miles) north of Arnheim on the Friesland coast. Guided by the revolutionary radar, his and Nachtjagd’s first AI victory was in the early hours on 9 August 1941 in a Do 215B-5 night fighter version of the Do 215 reconnaissance-bomber when 44 Wellingtons of Bomber Command attacked Hamburg. Becker shot down six RAF night bombers 8/9 August-29/30 September 1941. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross in July 1942 and he then served as a Staffelkapitän in 12./NJG1. By the end of the year, Becker had forty victories to his credit. Becker and his bordfunker Oberfeldwebel Josef Straub (who had taken part in forty victories) were posted missing in action on 26 February 1943 in a Bf 110G-4 while on a daylight sortie intercepting a Boeing B-17 formation over the North Sea and crashing north of Schiermonnikoog in the Netherlands. All his 46 victories were at night.

At midnight on 1/2 October 1940 Leutnant Hans-Georg Mangelsdorf of the 2nd Staffel NJG1 shot down a Whitley V near Hummelo, 21 kilometres east of Arnhem. His victim was P4964 on 78 Squadron at Dishforth which crashed at Sterkrade with the loss of New Zealand Pilot Officer Neville Halsey Andrew and crew. Two weeks later, on the 14/15th, Mangelsdorf was killed during aerial combat with a Hampden on 44 Squadron, crashing eight kilometres west of Gardelegen airfield. I./NJG1 at Venlo, Netherlands in order to more easily intercept the known RAF bomber routes into targets in the Ruhr, claimed five ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ kills. These included Hampden Is X2910 on 44 Squadron piloted by Sergeant Leonard John Burt and X2993 on 50 Squadron flown by South African Pilot Officer Arthur Howell Davies on a bombing operation on Berlin. Burt and two of his crew were killed, one being taken into captivity. Davies and one of his crew were killed, two others being taken prisoner. Three of I./NJG1 ‘s victories were credited to Oberleutnant Streib, a feat which earned him the award of the Ritterkreuz on 6 October with eight victories claimed. He was the first night fighter pilot to be honoured with the Knight’s Cross.

Nachtjagd’s final kills over the Continent during 1940 went to 4./NJG1. Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe Weissenfeld destroyed Wellington IC P9286 on 115 Squadron ten kilometres west of Medemblik on 16/17 November, the aircraft going down in flames at 0205 hours to crash near Winkel, Holland and with the loss of Sergeant Donald Ewart Larkman and crew. Twenty-nine year old Feldwebel Hans Rasper of the same Staffel destroyed Whitley V P5012 on 102 Squadron on 15/16 December ten kilometres northwest of Petten off the Dutch coast at Egmond. Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Thomas Hannah and his crew were killed. Rasper’s bordfunker, Erich Schreiber was killed in 1942. Rasper was taken prisoner on 26/27 April 1945 after he was shot down in Mittelfels, near Cham, by American ack-ack during a strafing run. He had seven Abschüsse. At least nineteen Bomber Command aircraft were destroyed July-December 1940 in the ‘Kammhuber Line’, as the continuous belt of searchlights and radar positions between Schleswig-Holstein and northern France was christened by the British bomber crews. About thirty bombers were brought down by flak during the same period. Apart from organising an effective short-range defensive Nachtjagd, Kammhuber also appreciated the value and effectiveness of ‘Fernnachtjagd’ (long-range night intruding) over Britain but the ‘Intruder’ force was never raised beyond one single Gruppe (I./NJG2) which operated the Ju 88C-6 and Do 17 from Gilze-Rijen in the Netherlands. It never exceeded 21 aircraft but despite this and severe operational losses (21 aircraft alone during 1940) ‘Fernnachtjagd’ made a promising start. The Gruppe’s first intruder victories were two Wellingtons destroyed by Feldwebel Otto Wiese 100 kilometres west of Texel and Georg ‘Gustav’ Schramm over the North Sea on the night of 22/23 July 1940. Weise was killed on 21/22 June 1941, shot down over Peterborough by Beaufighter R2277 on 25 Squadron piloted by Flying Officer J. M. Herrick and he crashed at Deeping St James. By December 1940 claims for another sixteen bombers followed. (By October 1941 the handful of crews in I./NJG2 had claimed more aircraft destroyed than all other Nachtjagd units combined). On 20/21 October 1940 when 139 bombers went to many targets in the occupied countries, Italy and Germany, a Whitley, ‘O-Orange’ on 58 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse, which crashed on fire, on the slopes of the Cleveland Hills near Ingleby Greenow in Yorkshire, was claimed shot down by Hauptmann Karl Hülshoff commanding I./NJG2, the specialist German intruder unit. Pilot Officer Ernest Henry Brown and two of his crew were killed. Two were injured, one of whom died two days later. Hülshoff claimed the Whitley as a ‘Hereford’. He destroyed four more aircraft over England during 1940-41, adding another seven victories before the end of the war. Hülshoff was awarded the Deutscheskreuz in Gold. He was taken prisoner on 10 March 1941.

Hamburg, the second largest city of the Reich, with a population of just over a million and a half, was one of many targets bombed on 24/25 October when 113 aircraft tried to reach many targets in the Reich. One Wellington was lost on the raid on Hamburg. At Linton-on-Ouse nine Whitley Vs on 102 Squadron were detailed to bomb the Air Ministry Building in the Leipzigstrasse in Berlin. Pilot Officer A. G. Davies took off at 2202 hours and just six minutes later he was shot down in flames near Tholthorpe by 21-year old Feldwebel Hans Hahn of III./NJG2 who claimed it as a ‘Wellington’ for his first victory. Davies was injured and the second pilot and the observer died in the aircraft. Sergeant Angus Stewart Wilson and Pilot Officer Terence Edward Lee died of their injuries on 2 November.

On 28 October Leutnant Heinz Völker flying a Ju 88C-4 attacked two Hampdens on 49 Squadron as they were returning from Hamburg to Lindholme. The first Hampden was damaged but was able to land safely. Völker then attacked a second, which went down in the North Sea half a mile off Skegness with the loss of all Pilot Officer John Raymond Bufton’s crew. Völker scored a total of twelve victories and was awarded the Ritterkreuz. He and his two crew were killed on 22 July 1941 when over Ashwell, Hertfordshire, their Ju 88C-4 collided with a Wellington of 11 OTU. All eight men on the Wimpy were killed.

Victory claims submitted by night-fighter crews in the Reichsverteidigung (Air Defence of Germany) coupled by the long-range intruder operations over the UK and the North Sea grew steadily. During January 1941 eight bombers were destroyed by Nachtjagd. Six were by the intruders of I./NJG2. The two others – Whitley V T4203 on 78 Squadron by 23-year old Oberleutnant Reinhold Eckardt of II./NJG1 on the night of 9/10th, which went down between Millingen and Kekerdom, Holland with the loss of Sergeant Charles Arthur Smith and crew – and Whitley V N1521 on 58 Squadron by Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld of 4./NJG1, which crashed near Callantsoog, Holland on the 15/16th. Pilot Officer William Edgar Peers and his crew also died.

German Army – Junior Commanders

This picture shows what appears to be the command detachment of a German infantry platoon. In the foreground, to the left of the radio operator, sits the Zugführer or platoon commander. His shoulder straps are obscured, but it can be assumed he is either an Oberleutnant or a Leutnant. His second in command, an Oberfeldwebel (Master Sergeant), can be seen sitting on an ammunition box in the centre, while one of his squad leaders (an Unteroffizier, or Sergeant – wearing an Iron Cross) sits on the edge of the trench smoking a cigarette and taking notes. From the captured Russian PPSh-41 submachine guns dotted around the position it can be assumed that these men are somewhere on the eastern front.

Far from being automatons, German junior officers were trained to be adaptable to deal effectively with the enemy and the terrain over which they conducted operations. They were the cement that held the German Army together and kept it fighting.

On the outer ramparts of the Third Reich in the final days of the war, the burden of holding together the battered remnants of the army fell upon the shoulders of a small band of veteran colonels and majors. When divisions were decimated time and again by massive Allied firepower or rolled over by Soviet tank hordes, small groups of German soldiers led by determined commanders formed ad hoc battle groups to try to close the breach in the frontline.

The German Army’s junior officer corps, i.e. between the rank of Oberst (colonel) and Leutnant (2nd lieutenant), was the backbone of Hitler’s war machine, and it was the vital link between the Führer, the Wehrmacht’s high command, and the ordinary soldiers. It was largely due to the junior officers that Hitler’s army kept fighting in spite of the overwhelming odds it faced.

Throughout the war the German Army was keen not to dilute its officer corps by directly promoting noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from the ranks, although in extreme conditions field promotions did occur. All potential officers first served in the ranks prior to selection for officer training before being given the appointment as “aspirant officer.” The basic educational qualification was set high, which meant that many NCOs were unable to progress into the officer corps. Potential officers who were selected during their basic recruit training had to have passed the university entrance examination, but more senior potential officers were exempt from this requirement. After serving several months in a unit under supervision, the aspirant officer would be dispatched to the Officer Training School at Doberitz near Berlin for a six-month basic officer training course. The majority of officers commissioned prior to the start of the war were conscripts, who were released to return to civilian life after their two years of national service.

In the early war years, the majority of colonels and majors had been professional soldiers in the old Reichswehr. They were the last of the old guard, and many were either aristocrats or the sons of career military families. The rapid expansion of the army and first wave of heavy casualties in Russia and Africa in 1941–42 meant that by the time Germany was forced on the defensive after Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, these men were leading divisions or serving as staff officers at high-level headquarters. As they rose in command their places were taken by men who had risen through the ranks to now lead frontline battalions and regiments.

The burden of leadership thus fell on men who had been commissioned as young lieutenants in the early years of Hitler’s rise to power and then progressed through officer training during the 1930s. This infusion of reserve officers after 1943 transformed the German Army officer corps from a peacetime professional force into one that reflected German society as a whole. The reserve officers were almost all from lower-middle-class stock, or university-educated professional classes. Nazi control of the German education system in the 1930s meant that this generation of officers was almost totally indoctrinated with the Führer’s racist ideology. In some divisions, this meant that more than a quarter of all officers were members of the Nazi Party.

Mission Command

A major contributing factor to the battlefield success of the German Army was the fact that its officer corps was trained in what is now known as Mission Analysis or Auftragstaktik. German officers of all ranks were trained to be able to fight without detailed orders, to make do with just a brief statement of their commander’s intentions. The commander told his subordinates what he wanted achieved, not how to do it. Subordinate officers were expected to be able to think on their feet and adapt their brief orders to meet the requirements of the situation on the ground.

German Auftragstaktik techniques differed fundamentally from the more rigid command procedures adopted by the Allies. The latter relied on what the Germans called Befehlstaktik, or detailed direction of all troops. The differences in command procedures were largely responsible for the ability of the Germans to recover from the brink of disaster time and time again.

After 1943, Allied forces regularly broke through German lines in massive set-piece attacks involving huge artillery barrages and air support. These were tightly choreographed operations and junior subordinates were allowed little freedom of action. However, these attacks invariably became bogged down or deflected. Allied commanders often showed little initiative. They just waited for further orders, for reinforcements, or for new supplies to come forward, leaving the weakened attacking troops vulnerable to counterattack.

This was the point at which the German command doctrine came into its own. It gave the commander on the ground the freedom of action to do what was necessary to stop the attack, without reference to higher command. In many cases, of course, such reference upwards was actually impossible, because the artillery bombardments or air strikes had severed communications with higher headquarters.

For the execution of Auftragstaktik, command procedures required highly trained, experienced, and confident commanders. Central to German officer training at this time was the concept that the aspiring commander should be trained to take over the job of his immediate superior. So company commanders had to be ready to take over command of their battalion if its commander was incapacitated. Likewise, platoon leaders had to be prepared to take over from their company commander if he was killed or injured.

Periods of work in staff posts then prepared officers to command a combined-arms battle group or Kampfgruppe. A working understanding of how infantry, tanks, antitank guns, artillery, mortars, combat engineers, and aviation could work together was developed through staff training and on maneuvers. Training courses started with instruction on the capabilities of the various arms and equipment found in the Germany Army, then progressed to training exercises without troops where students were given tactical problems to solve, and they walked the ground with instructors discussing the best solution. Students then graduated to full-scale field exercises with demonstration troops. On these exercises students were swapped around between command appointments to give them experience of working with different arms and equipment.

The Kampfgruppe concept was so successful for the Germans because it grew from an all-arms combat doctrine, centered on the idea of unity of command, or Einheit. The German Army had long since dropped the idea of single-service combat units. Every corps, division, regiment, and battalion contained different types of weapons and sub-units. On the battlefield it was routine for further mixing of weapons and types of unit to occur as Kampfgruppen were formed for specific missions and then disbanded when they were completed. In the Allied and Soviet armies the forming of all-arms units was constantly being frustrated by arguments about command relationships, such as tank commanders not wanting to be under the orders of the infantry. In the German Army, the role of the Kampfgruppe commander was clear cut: he was the boss, period.

There were well-practiced procedures for establishing Kampfgruppen and transferring command of sub-units to them. It was usual to build a Kampfgruppe around an existing battalion or regimental headquarters to ensure all the necessary planning and communications capabilities were readily available for the Kampfgruppe commander. While a specific Kampfgruppe might be centered on a specific battalion or regiment, it was usual for a variety of supporting sub-units to be thrown in the pot to round out its combat capabilities. These generally included combat engineers, communications units, antitank guns, assault guns, medical support, logistic units with additional ammunition and combat supplies, reconnaissance troops, military police for traffic control, intelligence specialists, heavy mortars, rocket launchers, artillery planning staff, and observers. The latter were of particular importance because they determined the level of fire support available for a specific operation.

The most successful German battalion and company commanders were usually in their late twenties or early thirties. They motivated their men by leading from the front, sharing the privations of their frontline troops. Examples of these men included Dr. Franz Bake, who achieved fame as the commander of a Kampfgruppe of Panther tanks that led the rescue attempt to open a route to the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944. They also had to convince their troops that they had their interests at heart and were not going to waste their lives in stupid or fruitless operations. But in the extreme conditions on the Eastern Front, commanders also had to act ruthlessly to maintain discipline. The point at which units cracked under pressure was difficult to judge, but if panic was to be nipped in the bud then sometimes waverers had to treated harshly. This was particularly the case when units were in danger of being surrounded. After Stalingrad in 1943, ordinary German soldiers were very frightened of being trapped in pockets, or Kessels, and units occasionally collapsed when Soviet troops got behind them. This symptom became known as “Kessel stress,” and the Germans thought it had to be dealt with carefully if commanders were to keep their units fighting to give them a chance to break out or launch a counterattack against the enemy.

Although desertions were rare, especially in Russia where the local population was almost universally hostile to the Germans, officers were regularly urged to take harsh measures against ill-discipline. Field court martials were increasingly common as the war progressed. Junior officers were empowered to shoot on sight any soldiers who wavered in the face of the enemy, or were spotted crossing over to enemy lines. However, at the end keeping the troops fighting was an increasingly difficult task as the ordinary soldier’s faith in the Führer started to waver.

The Spanish Test Bed and Stimulus

Far more significant pointers were to be obtained from the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936 between left-wing Republican forces and right-wing Fascists, because several nations used it as a proving ground for the latest theories and weapons. At a time when the major navies had embarked on construction of all kinds of vessel from battleships and aircraft carriers to minesweepers and submarines, the meagre Spanish navy, mostly sailing under Republican colours, had little to offer by way of innovation. The sinking of a pre-war dreadnought by Republican bombers taught less than the interesting experience of the British destroyer Hunter when mined on an international patrol intended to enforce non-involvement in the war. Her welded construction was shown to be far more damage-resistant than would have been a rivetted ship. Blockade and counter-blockade, to a large extent applied by aircraft from both sides, by Italian and German submarines on behalf of the Fascists and by minelaying, certainly achieved results although none too thoroughly. Most air attacks were on ships in port with far more hits than those attempted against moving targets at sea where, out of 18 warships attacked, none were sunk. Submarines had their successes and were but slightly deterred by air or depth charge attack. It was only now that the British navy at last came to realize the inherent shortcomings of sonic detection and the inadequacy of Asdic.

Threats from above or below the surface failed to deflect the hierarchy of naval officers, most of whom were gunnery specialists, from according priority to battleships. They concentrated construction upon ships with improved guns, ammunition, protection, range-finding paraphernalia and gyro-stabilized searchlights which would have turned the tables at Jutland. In 1932 France laid down a 26 000-ton battleship; Italy responded with two 41 000-tonners in 1934. Then Germany laid down two 32 000-tonners (announced as 26 000 tons) followed in 1936 by two 42 000-tonners (announced as 35 000 tons). Britain tardily replied to this with two 37 000-tonners in 1937, the same year as the Japanese laid down the two biggest-ever battleships – the 64 000-ton Yamato and Musashi with their 18.1-in guns each firing a 3200-lb projectile. Naturally the USA had to match this threat with a programme of six 35 000-ton ships armed with 16-in guns. All were at vast cost and distractive of other industrial effort, but justified on the familiar grounds of indispensability.

Gunnery addicts might discount the air threat but they tacitly admitted its danger by specifying that secondary armament of battleships and main armament on smaller vessels were to be high-angled for air protection. They also added batteries of multiple 20-mm – 40-mm cannon and multiple machine-guns to deal with low level attacks. And while declaring that aircraft carriers would occupy only an ancillary role to battleships, they initiated extensive aircraft carrier construction, incorporating the experience gained with earlier types. All would mount batteries of anti-aircraft guns and be enlarged, both above and below the flight deck, to carry 70 or more aircraft. Some, like most cruisers and battleships, would be fitted with compressed air operated catapults (long after the American Theodore Ellyson first took off from one in 1912). To ensure the safe return of aircraft at the end of a mission by day or night, all carriers would be fitted with radio homing beacons (of which the British Type 72 DM, successfully tried out during 1931-33, was a prime example despite a tendency to distortion by high-tension electric cables) and, in the case of the British Illustrious class, vitally ahead of the time with a well-armoured hangar and flight deck.

War on land in Spain at first differed little from 1918 for the simple reason that the armies were equipped with the weapons of the First World War. The tanks sent by Italy and Germany were light types armed only with machine-guns because in 1936 neither nation had anything better. Those sent by Russia were superior because, although lightly armoured, both the slow Vickers-type T 26 and the fast Christie-type BT2 were armed with 37-mm guns. Their employment reflected the furious debates then raging between the old and new schools of thought concerning armoured warfare. The old school argued that AFVs should be subservient to the infantry and move at infantry pace, as at Cambrai; the new school claimed that if tanks with accompanying mechanized artillery, engineers and infantry were driven through enemy lines in deep penetration raids (as Fuller wanted) a strategic decision would be obtained. General Pavlov, the Russian in command of Republican armoured forces in Spain, attempted two deep penetration attacks but failed to reach his objectives because the tanks had insufficient infantry and artillery in attendance. General Franco, for his part, insisted on using German and Italian tanks for close infantry support only – and with reason, since light tanks were hardly a dominant weapon.

None of this boded well for the German General Heinz Guderian, who was on the verge of forming three so-called Panzer (Armoured) Divisions composed of all arms with the tank as dominant weapon. It was not only that the reports from Spain seemed to decry the deep penetration concept; they also denigrated the need for wireless to control these fast-moving formations. Guderian was not only a General Staff officer of outstanding drive and vision, but also a signals specialist. He took as his model the series of British experiments between 1927 and 1934 which had progressively and publicly demonstrated the kind of `mix’ suitable for modern, all-arms formations up to divisional level, and had shown how effectively one man could sit in a mobile command post with a short-wave, crystal-controlled radio set and control the movement of a considerable number of tanks by voice. He had seen, too, how on exercises (no matter how unrealistically arranged) these formations could out-manoeuvre and surprise much larger conventional formations. Guderian was completely convinced that radio was the key instrument in making armoured forces function to their full capacity, even if their armour and guns were inferior to those of the enemy. His concept also included an entirely new tactical method in which the tank and infantry element of a panzer division acted merely as the spearhead of infiltration to seize vital ground which the enemy could not afford to surrender. Having seized it, his tanks were intended to withdraw to allow anti-tank guns and infantry to beat off subsequent enemy tank attacks and thus destroy the enemy armour while preserving his own.

In Spain the latest anti-tank guns with 2000 + f/secs velocity demonstrated their ability to knock out all known tanks at ranges up to 600 yards with a 5 to 1 chance of scoring a hit (a much higher accuracy than lower-velocity field artillery). Of course, the existing 20-mm to 47-mm solid shot did not guarantee a `kill’ with each hit. That was reserved for a quite devastating weapon with a pedigree reaching back to the 77-mm anti-aircraft guns which had shot so well at Cambrai. Now it was the latest 88-mm anti-aircraft gun with a muzzle velocity of 2657 f/secs and an armour-piercing shot weighing 21 lb which could wreck any medium tank with 60-mm (let alone 30-mm) armour beyond 1200 yards, and very likely hit it at the second or third attempt. This gun was tried out in Spain.

The moment was near when the 88-mm gun and its counterparts in other armies were the only pieces capable of penetrating at 800 yards the latest heavy tanks. Once the French and British had concluded in 1931 that a mass of fast-moving, lightly-armoured AFVs were unacceptably vulnerable to the smallest anti-tank guns, they stepped up the gun/armour race by embarking on the construction of slower, heavily- armoured tanks which in the 1920s had seemed prohibitively expensive. In the lead were the French. They rejected 70- to 80-ton models in favour of the Char B weighing 32 tons, armed with a turret 47-mm gun and a short, 75-mm howitzer in the hull, and with 60-mm frontal armour which was proof in most conditions against the German 37-mm gun. This, on paper, was a useful machine with a 300-hp engine giving a speed a little under 20 mph. Unfortunately for the crews, the French remained wedded to the one-man turret, first adopted in 1917. This might have been satisfactory when the gunner, who was also commander, had only to load, aim and fire a machine- gun; but once he had to perform those duties with a cannon and also control his driver and, over the radio, other tanks, efficiency decreased. Far more formidable was the British heavy Matilda II tank, ordered in 1938, with its three-man turret, 80-mm frontal armour, 40-mm gun, 174-hp twin engine and 15-mph speed.

As each nation began to expand its armoured forces it met the problems of inferior industrial knowledge and facilities. In 1932 only the British firm of Vickers and the French Renault company could be said to possess an adequate tank-building capacity – and even they were incapable of meeting the sudden demand for mass production employing many new techniques (such as casting of armour) and designs such as regenerative steering. A shortage of experts, technicians and factories delayed the immediate delivery of high-quality, combat-worthy AFVs. Several armies were compelled to buy inferior machines in order to begin training crews. All might have been well given wholehearted desire among service ministries and general staffs to rectify these shortcomings. As it was, armies, and notably tanks, were held quite low in estimation and order of priority for re-equipment. The navies took their traditional share; air forces were given high, sometimes top, priority; and land forces had to make do with what was left over.

Aircraft factories of 1932 were not, in any case, coiled springs primed for dynamic release. The wariness of air forces and civil operators, restrained by economic recession and confused imaginations, was anathema to capital investment. Contradictory theories still abounded in 1936, and were being explored in the skies above Spain. The opinion that civil airliners were readily adaptable as bombers (thus making it easy for Germany to assemble an air force under the guise of her civil airline) died hard. Such adaptations were frequently unsatisfactory if only because a good passenger cabin does not readily convert to a bomb bay, and the mounting of special defensive armament is not efficiently improvised. Yet the Junkers Ju 52 tri-motor transport had its successes in this role. Franco benefited from it tremendously at the start of the civil war when 20 of these aircraft, later joined by nine Italian Savoia SM 81 bomber-transports, ferried 13 523 troops and 570 000 lb of war material from Morocco to Spain to establish the core of the Fascist army and make the revolution possible by over-flying the Republican naval blockade. And on 14th August 1936, before people had awoken to the peril, a Ju 52 planted two bombs on a Republican battleship from 1500 ft, putting it out of action.

The theory that fast, well-armed bombers would survive (particularly if flying in tight formations protected by interlocking fire from their machine- guns) held water at first – but only because the fighters of 1936 lacked the speed to reach them and the, armament to do serious damage. For example, a Russian Tupolev SB-2 twin-engine monoplane with a speed of 255 mph was a difficult target to intercept by an Italian biplane Fiat CR32 with a top speed of 233 mph – although on occasion this feat was performed. Evidence of this sort underlined the widespread opinion of those, such as the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, that `the bomber will always get through’. It was assumed that this technical imbalance would persist and that, in any case, fighter actions would be impossible if their speeds increased much beyond the extant 220-mph mark. A natural reaction was to build bigger, faster and heavily-defended bombers in the pious hope that their existence would deter an aggressor from using his bombers – in much the same way as it was hoped that the possession of gas would deter its use.

In practice, only two nations wholeheartedly created strategic air forces mainly equipped with large, four-engined bombers: the USA and Britain. The former rather drifted into it, as the Boeing 299 of 1934 (which evolved into the B-17 Flying Fortress) was originally conceived as an anti-shipping machine. British specifications of 1936 called for long-range, four-engine bombers, defended by power-operated machine-gun turrets, which could survive in daylight. Russia and Germany also laid plans for a four-engine bomber strategic air force. But the former’s Tupolev TB-3 machine was far too slow and vulnerable for this and mostly achieved fame as a transport for the men of the first-ever parachute assault division created in 1934. Germany abandoned its ambitions for political reasons associated with the Spanish Civil War and technical requirements related to the perennial struggle of naval and land forces to achieve closely coordinated support for their operations.

Germany’s movement towards abandoning a long-range bomber force began in June 1936 when its main advocate, the Chief of Air Staff designate, ex-infantryman General Walther Wever, was killed flying. His successor, ex-artilleryman General Albert Kesselring, not only leaned slightly towards naval, and above all army, support air forces, he was almost at once faced by the need to recast long-term German plans which aimed at being ready for war by 1943. Action in Spain and the aggressive utterings of his C-in-C, General Hermann Goring, compelled Kesselring to rationalize equipment under development and concentrate on machines in readiness for an outbreak of war in 1938 or 1939. The four-engine bomber fleet was incompatible with this time scale. Its viability was also in question as Kesselring reasoned that the low state of the navigational art precluded finding and hitting targets at long range.

So Germany’s air force, like most others, concentrated on twin-engine medium bombers; single-engine fighter-bombers and single-engine reconnaissance machines, plus a few specialized flying boats, sea planes and four-engine, long-range naval reconnaissance aircraft salvaged from the strategic project.

The shape of the next generation of twin-engine medium bombers appeared in the USA in 1932. The Boeing B-9 was a cantilever wing monoplane, all-metal with a top speed of 188 mph and a retractable under¬ carriage – its contribution to improving aerodynamic designs. Almost simultaneously, the Martin company went a stage further with their B-10 which had two 775-hp radial engines, could fly at 207 mph, climb to 24 000 ft and had a range of 600 miles. With fully enclosed crew cabins and bomb bays, along with a rotatable gun turret in the nose, the B-10 allowed for operational efficiency in the cold of extreme altitudes, dependent as it was on skilled aircrew working in as comfortable an environment as possible. Within a few years, bomber speeds in the region of 260 mph were normal, momentarily keeping ahead in 1937 of the latest fighters in service and providing, incidentally, a useful vehicle for high-altitude reconnaissance with machines such as the German Dornier Do 17, equipped with the latest high-definition cameras. But it was the German Heinkel He 111 with a bomb load more than twice that of the Do 17 which made the biggest impression. It hit the headlines when, in conjunction with Ju 52s on 26th April 1937, it was used to pulverize the town of Guernica. A prime example of justifiable tactical bombing of a strongly defended locality this may well be – and successful, too, since Guernica fell without resistance two days later. But to the world it was presented as a callous experiment in the strategic and psychological process of undermining enemy morale through terror. Guernica became the symbol of air power’s crushing influence, and a warning to weaker nations who dared to withstand Germany’s predatory intentions.

In fact, the Germans undertook no deliberate major strategic attacks in Spain, their current doctrine eschewing it as they concentrated more upon the use of fighter-bombers to attack ground targets by low-flying and dive-bombing. The debut in this role of the latest biplanes (and the last in German service) was not entirely a happy one. Against the latest Russian Polikarpov I-15 biplanes (229 mph) and I-16 monoplanes (321 mph), the Heinkel He 51 biplane at a mere 210 mph was cannon fodder, as was the Henschel Hs 123 biplane dive-bomber (211 mph) which on test had exhibited a nasty habit of shedding its wing in the high-speed dive. But formations of nine He 51s, dropping six 20-lb bombs each on fortifications from 500 ft (each machine sometimes flying seven sorties a day) had a stunning effect on enemy troops and convinced the Germans of their vital importance to the army. This conviction was redoubled when they experimented with heavier bombs carried by the Hs 123s and, in 1937, the latest Junkers Ju 87 monoplane dive-bomber. But despite these robust aircraft proving their worth as heavy artillery, it was also realized that if they were to survive, they needed escort fighters of a calibre higher than those which were coming into service.

Although many air forces continued to specify biplane fighters (the RAF took delivery of the Gloster Gladiator, the last of its line, in 1937 and the Italians their Fiat CR42 in 1939) the writing was on the wall for biplanes, even those with retractable undercarriages. It was clear that these aircraft had almost reached the limits of their development and that another revolution was impending. Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic in a monoplane in 1927 did more than anything else to overcome prejudice, which was further eroded when nearly all the seaplanes entered for the Schneider Trophy in the late 1920s were monoplanes. From 1927 onwards, monoplanes monopolized the world air-speed record, 300 mph being exceeded for the first time by an Italian Macchi M52 that year. Even so, doubts about fighting monoplanes were not removed until the air war in Spain dispelled the objection that gravitational forces (radial acceleration, expressed as g) precluded violent manoeuvres at high speeds such as were to be expected in the traditional dog- fight of the First World War. High-speed racing fliers of the 1920s had sometimes lost consciousness momentarily when applying more than 4g in tight turns, and their aircraft often suffered structural failures. Experience in Spain indicated that these forces were tolerable up to a point and that, in any case, the tail-chasing dog-fight was but one transient phase in air combat. Most attacks consisted of a fairly direct line of approach prior to opening fire, followed only subsequently by the mad scramble of tail-chasing which seldom ended in a `kill’ because it was impossible to bring guns to bear in a turn. As an alternative, deflection-shooting in head-on or beam attacks improved somewhat with the introduction of optical, reflector sights. These were better than the existing ring and bead sights, but still left the pilot as the sole arbiter of the correct moment to open fire, a decision requiring much practice and fine judgement.

Shigeyoshi Inoūe: the visionary?

Accounts of the Japanese submarine exercises of 1939-41 clearly show that Japanese navy training attempted to be comprehensive, rigorous, and innovative in the development of the submarine as a weapon to attack regular fleet units. Tactical training was carried out at night as well as during daylight. Long- and short-distance operations were practiced. Coordination was attempted between submarines and aircraft. New weapons, like the type 95 torpedo, were tested, and novel techniques, such as “submerged firing,” were practiced.

Japanese submarine commanders developed zembotsu hassha (submerged firing) because, although their boats had proper range finders and devices for ascertaining exact bearing, they could only be used on the surface. Preferring to stay submerged when attacking fleet units screened by destroyers, submarine commanders would submerge, expose the periscope for a final optical reading of bearing and range, keep the periscope down for the final closure to the firing point, and then fire on sound bearings. This technique was hardly unique to the Japanese navy; American submarine commanders practiced something very much like it (“sound shots”) before the war, but having little luck, dropped them.

It is not surprising that the Japanese also developed the idea of naval air war to make up for numerical inferiority in battleships to the US Navy. It was generally assumed that  they were to fight the decisive battleship engagement somewhere in the Western Pacific. With the 10:6 advantage the Americans enjoyed, even after the US Navy suffered from wear and tear during the long voyage from the American West Coast to the Western Pacific, they’d still enjoy their superiority. The Japanese naval men therefore sought to reduce American battleship strength by naval guerrilla war at sea. Using aircraft and submarines, the Japanese would set up a series of ambush points along the most likely lines of American advance. By hit and run tactics, they would try to damage or sink American battleships before they could reach anywhere near Japan. By the time they had their naval showdown, hopefully, the opposing battle fleets would have a rough parity in the number of battleships they could deploy. Then, the Japanese believed, they would enjoy advantage over the Americans as they were fighting closer to home. They were more highly motivated as they were defending their own home country; their sailors were in a fresher state, in contrast to the tired Americans; and their battleships would be better serviced and in an optimal condition to fight a fleet battle.

During the 1930s, Japanese thinking drifted towards more offensive-defensive ideas. At first, many naval thinkers, both Japanese and Western, believed in the idea of a naval showdown in or near Japanese waters or the Philippines. Towards the eve of the actual war in the Pacific, however, the Japanese were getting increasingly reluctant to wait until the American navy came to them. Surely, Americans would not repeat the mistake of the Russians? They’d rather fight the decisive battle on the ground of their own choosing. And  so would the Japanese. Moreover, the Japanese valued offensive spirit. The idea of fighting a defensive naval war simply because they had fewer ships than their opponent just didn’t sit well with their mentality. Admiral IsorokuYamamoto, who was the overall commander of the Japanese naval forces since the summer of 1939, thus sought to deliver a massive blow to the US fleet at the very opening of hostility in a surprise attack, aiming at destruction of not just the US fleet but also that of morale of the US public. In order to do so, Yamamoto could not risk losing any of his battleships as they had to be preserved for the coming showdown, so he preferred using naval air forces to achieve this.

Therefore, the ‘naval revolution’ which the supposed genius of Yamamoto initiated was to a large extent just a logical extension of the battleship era thinking. In fact, most Japanese naval leaders continued to think in terms of fighting a decisive fleet action by big gun battleships.  Yamamoto certainly believed in the power of naval air arm, more so than most of his colleagues, yet it is doubtful he thought that airpower could completely replace the battle fleet. Airpower was only useful to keep American battleships at bay while Japan could achieve its strategic aim of destroying US morale, which was the most vital war aim for him. Yamamoto, who had lived in America for a few years, was too aware of massive economic and industrial potential of the US. He felt that unless American will to fight could be destroyed, the US would simply outbuild Japan. How does he achieve this? The Japanese navy had to win and win big so much so that Americans would get so discouraged to fight war thousands of miles from their own home. Waiting for the US to mount its offensive, even a Japanese win in a defensive sea battle would not affect American morale that much. To reduce American battleship strength, his naval air forces would strike en masse, delivering a crippling blow to the US battle fleet to such an extent the final battleship duel would even be unnecessary. His aim was, ideally, a total sea denial to the US naval forces in the western Pacific.

Thus, another point that is not widely recognised is that Japanese strategic thinking was defensive in orientation. As Japan was waging a very aggressive war of conquest, there is a general sense that Japan’s war with China and the Western allies were an offensive war aimed at imperial expansion. However, Japanese thinking was dominated by concerns for defence of what they considered as their sphere of influence. On a map, Japanese gains from the end of 1941 up to the summer of 1942 look impressive. What they achieved was large territorial expanses to ensure that Japan would keep a self-sufficient, autarkic empire. Only by achieving such goals, their country’s social stability, economic welfare of its people and respectability in the new international community would be ensured, or so did they believe.

Therefore, both their strategic and political goals was to acquire colonies to build and defend an empire and force the Western Allies to accept the fait accompli. Given the level of threat the US and the Allies posed, the Japanese thought, Japan needed to acquire and control as much territory as possible, in order to absorb the shock of American counter-attack. In May 1942, Japan was embarking on what appeared to be the conquest of Australia, landing troops in New Guinea. This operation was in fact designed to cut off communication between Australia and the US mainland, and so to deny the Americans the use of Australia as the base for the anticipated counter offensive. They wanted to keep the Americans in check just long enough. They knew they could not fight a long war, even though they did not know how to ensure the war would be short. They just hoped that the US would be too busy with war with Germany and the US public was not very keen on war for Asia. By the time the war weary US public forced their government to sue for peace, Japan’s empire should still be large enough to maintain its territorial and economic integrity. In hindsight, they utterly underestimated the US public’s ability to endure a long, bloody war. Some Japanese naval men suspected that their plans were based on unrealistic assumptions, but political atmosphere of the day made them hesitate to admit the doubt, let alone to speak out.

A few did. In the early 1941, Rear Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoūe was one of the  least popular figures in the Imperial Japanese Navy because he often called his fellow admirals stupid. When the navy put forward a plan for a massive naval expansion to keep pace with the latest American naval programme in anticipation of war, he shocked his colleagues by allegedly blasting, ‘Who came up with this? Are you retards or something?’ This caused consternation among other admirals. Japan was about to launch her war against America within several months. Strategy had been agreed upon and a new naval building programme had been approved. Now he’s saying what they are doing is nonsense! The insulting way he put it made them even more angry. They demanded that Inoūe articulate what he would do then. In response, he produced a short paper presenting his views. While, in hindsight, his proposals do not show great spark of genius, when it comes to what the US would do, he was so dead-on, if anyone should be called a prophet of war, Inoūe is the one who fits the bill.

His thinking shows strong British influence. But he did not just copy British ideas. Like his British counterparts at Greenwich, he worked the problem from the very basics: geography and technology.

Geographically, he pointed out, a big, continental country like the United States had an advantage of strategic depth. It was simply impossible for Japan to invade the continental America and to reach its capital. Japan could not hope to wipe out American military forces. On the other hand, the US was capable of doing this to Japan and taking even the capital Tokyo.

He also pointed out that the sheer vastness of the Pacific Ocean meant that the likelihood of the decisive battleship action happening was practically nil. Finding an enemy battle fleet alone would be next to impossible. He also asked, surely you don’t expect Americans to be stupid enough to rush to fight our fleet prematurely only so that we could annihilate their battleships? Indeed, the Japanese were to be frustrated by lack of opportunities to use their super battleships for a showdown. The biggest battleship ever built, the Yamato, failed to sink anything of value throughout the war.

As Inoūe repeatedly insisted that aircraft and submarines changed naval warfare so fundamentally, his enemies attacked him as self-interested, for he was the head of naval aviation of the Japanese Navy at the time. Nevertheless he was certainly correct that the US would employ submarines in the western Pacific to disrupt Japanese sea communication. Hence, he preached that Japan needed to devise anti-submarine strategy and tactics, though he could not offer anything in detail, as Japan had little experience in this area of naval warfare. The British experience during WW1 was the only guide: all he could do was to recommend that more escort ships should be built for convoy duties.

Remarkably, Inoūe predicted the island hopping campaign employed by the Americans. To him, this was only logical. While the British emphasised that sea control must be established by winning major fleet actions, he understood that without winning bases and facilities, sea control could not be won. For warships without fuel were useless. Therefore, what was to come was a series of deadly struggles for bases, which were mostly on tiny islands in the Pacific. Only by winning this contest, Japan had any realistic chance of winning war.

He even went on to say that the navy could afford to sacrifice battleships and heavy cruisers as they would be of little practical value. This naturally did not go down well with his peers (and on this he was perhaps wrong, as the US Navy actively used these types of ships for escort and anti-air duties and shore bombardment), as the belief in decisive battleship action was too strong.

Most Japanese officers spurned Inoūe’s views. Unfortunately his battlefield performance did not help either. He was the overall commander of the task force to attack Australia in the spring of 1942. In the ensuing battle, known as the Battle of Coral Sea, he managed to sink the US carrier Lexington, while losing one light carrier of his own (the Shoho) and getting a fleet carrier (the Shokaku) damaged. Thus he called off the operation, for he feared that aircraft carriers were too vulnerable to enemy attack and did not want to take unnecessary risks. For this he was considered as lacking offensive spirit and was removed from command. He was unpopular as a mouthy and brainy aristocrat (he was of old Samurai stock) without charisma or killer instinct, unlike the popular Yamamoto. He was to be made full Admiral only towards the end of the war when some Japanese leaders began to realise that Japan was losing and that someone had to represent Japan in search of peace with the Allies. For this, he was derided as an admiral who was only good at losing.

Most regrettably, his political views were totally ignored and overruled before the war. He was against war with the US and thought it unwise to jump on the ‘German bandwagon.’ After Japan’s defeat, Admiral Inoūe retired unceremoniously and lived quietly and in poverty, earning meagre living by teaching children English and music. It was long after the war his predictions of US strategy were belatedly recognised by the astonished Americans. It was only after his death that some of his pupils and friends began to see his talent and insight. In 1941, however, no one would listen to him. The war was on.