French Navy – The Liberation Of The France I


When the 2nd Armored Regiment of Marines, wearing their sailor hats with red pompons, led the liberating troops into Paris on August 24, 1944, it marked the return of the Navy of France to its native country. The City Hall was reoccupied that night at 10 o’clock to the clamor of bells announcing the news from every belfry. But the German troops still held several blocks of buildings in the heart of the city, and well into the middle of the next afternoon a piece of white bunting quartered with a black cross flew over the building that was the traditional home of the Ministry of the Navy, just off the Place de la Concorde. The flag was the personal emblem of the German Naval Command in France—“Admiral, Frankreich.”

However, for days the building had been under the secret surveillance of a group of men lurking in the adjoining buildings. These were all officers and men of the French Navy who, under the command of Commander Paul Hébrard, had organized a secret Navy headquarters in the city. With them were a number of ordinary seamen who had spontaneously collected around the French Navy group and who were identified by the makeshift uniform of blue and white striped jerseys which they wore under their jackets.

The object of their surveillance was the old Ministry of the Navy building in the Rue Royale.

Below, in the Place de la Concorde, General Leclerc’s tanks opened fire on the German admiral’s headquarters around three o’clock in the afternoon of the 25th. Under cover of this diversion, Commander Hébrard and his companions crossed over by a precarious temporary footbridge thrown across from the neighboring building, and infiltrated into the headquarters of the unsuspecting defenders. Within two hours the battle was over and the flag of France once more flew over the historic Ministry of the Navy. Hastily the Navy captors threw a guard around the premises, so that they might turn the building over, intact, to the new leaders when they should arrive.

The first of these was Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, who had been appointed Vice Chief of Naval Operations at the beginning of the month. Landing in Normandy with General de Gaulle, the admiral had accompanied De Gaulle on his entry into Paris on the 26th, when the admiral took command of all naval establishments in the liberated regions of the north.

On receipt of the news that Paris had been liberated, the members of the Provisional Government, along with the officers of the Consultative Assembly and a few other high officials, had embarked on the cruiser Jeanne d’Arc at Algiers on August 29, to make the passage to Cherbourg. On September 2, the Commissioner of the Navy, Louis Jacquinot, installed himself at the Rue Royale headquarters, where he was joined in a few days by Rear Admiral Lemonnier, coming by plane from the naval front in Provence.

But even while Paris and southern France were being liberated and the great inland drives of the Allies from Normandy and Provence were starting, the movement had begun to clear the invader from the Channel and North Atlantic ports also.

North of the Seine estuary, the Canadian First Army, under General H. D. G. Crerar, headed a drive along the coast to the north and east. Rouen was liberated on August 31, and Dieppe fell the next day without a fight.

The French Captain of the Port at Dieppe, Mr. Quesnel, had succeeded in convincing the German harbormaster that, in times of alert, the drawbridge which straddled the entrance to the wet basins should always be left open. Then, when the Germans were about to depart, he wrecked the bridge machinery while the bridge was in the open position, with its ends resting on the dock, so that when the Germans came along to blow it up in the entrance channel, they were unable to do so.

At Dieppe, also, the French intelligence network to which one of the authors of this book belonged had made contact with a young French woman for whom the German general commanding the division at Dieppe entertained very warm feelings. In accordance with instructions she constantly preached to her admirer on the uselessness of trying to defend Dieppe. Whether the general was convinced, or whether his instructions were different from those issued to other German commanders along the coast, the fact remains that Dieppe was abandoned without a fight, although pretty strong defenses had been erected there.

The Mayor of Dieppe was very indignant that this woman, who had publicly consorted with the enemy, was being protected by a prominent member of the Resistance from the harsh treatment that was given to other women who had shown a weakness for the enemy. He was amazed when the author pointed out to him that it was due to her that he still had his roof over his head, instead of lying under its debris, like his colleagues in other less fortunate cities.

After Cherbourg, Dieppe was the first French port to be reopened to Allied shipping. Though the Germans here, as elsewhere, had tried to destroy the installations, the French Captain of the Port had ingeniously prevented the sabotage from being effective. Three days after Dieppe had passed into Canadian hands, the Allies were unloading 6,000 tons of military supplies there daily.

The small port of Fécamp was also taken by the Allies without a fight. But stern fighting lay ahead at Le Havre, Boulogne, and Calais in the north, and even bloodier fighting for the ports of the Bay of Biscay, to the south.

The capture of Le Havre was almost a repetition of the assault on Brest. Throughout the Normandy campaign the port had served as a base for a small flotilla of German torpedo boat destroyers, which, along with the Schnell Boote of Cherbourg, harassed the invasion fleet like hornets until they were finally blasted to the bottom, one after another. To capture Le Havre required nine days of heavy fighting, supported by more than 10,000 tons of heavy bombs and the powerful guns of HMS Warspite and the British monitor Erebus. Almost 9,000 civilians paid the penalty for being caught in a city blasted by bombs from planes of friends.

The British had other and even more important reasons for a quick capture of Boulogne and Calais. First of all, these fortresses protected the several German V-1 launching sites in the vicinity—and these long-range flying bombs were causing serious damage and casualties in the English capital. Next, here and there about Cape Gris-Nez were the large German guns that not only menaced all passage through the Strait of Dover, but also threw shells into Dover roads as well.

Boulogne had been cut off from the rest of German-held territory by September 7, but it was not until ten days later that the heavy siege guns which had been used in taking Le Havre arrived and were emplaced. The assault lasted six days and ended with the surrender of the 10,000 German soldiers garrisoning the port. Calais fell on September 30, and the first troops entering the city were guided in by Engineer Officer Robert Levert and his Boulogne detachment of naval firemen.

The rest of the story of the liberation of the north and northwest of France belongs largely to the armies, except in part for those warriors of both sea and land, the Marines. For, when General Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division landed at Omaha Beach on August 2, to help drive the Germans back to the Rhine and beyond, his forces included the 2nd Armored Regiment of Marines, equipped with tank destroyer weapons, each of which had been christened with the name of a former French destroyer. Clad in British battle dress, but still obstinately wearing their sailor hats with red pompons, they participated, under the command of Captain Raymond Maggiar, in the pursuit of the retreating Germans. They distinguished themselves at the capture of Alençon. They were the first to march by the Arch of Triumph in Paris. It was in one of the closing engagements on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne that Lieutenant (junior grade) Michel Vassal fell. He had been one of the survivors of the tragedy which had befallen the French submarines in Morocco, two years earlier, at the time of the American landings. And it was still another Marine crew that manned the first French tank to reenter Strasbourg, on November 22, 1944.

But the war was far from over.

“We have found again the France of victory, but we do not forget that the war continues,” wisely declared the Chief of Naval Operations of the French Navy.

Still ahead were some of Germany’s most deadly surprises: on land, the great offensive in the Ardennes, the “Battle of the Bulge”; at sea, the advent of the snorkel and the Walther hydrogen peroxide engine which would give a new lease on life to the U-boat warfare; in the air, vastly increased airplane production (3,031 fighter planes in September as compared to 1,016 the preceding February) and the appearance of the revolutionary jet propelled Messerschmidt 262—“the most sensational fighter plane ever produced up until now.”

This was the opinion of the French aviator, Pierre Closterman. General Carl A. Spaatz, Chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe, had been warning America against this plane ever since July, and had pressed for early delivery of American jet planes to counter it.

The French Navy’s job in this final period was tremendous. There were captive ports still to be liberated; there were construction and repair jobs to be done in those already freed; there was liaison to be maintained with the empire; there were already omens of the coming trouble in Indochina; and, last but not least, there was the clearing of mines along the coasts.

Of all the Navy’s tasks this was the most thankless, yet the one that required the most men and ships; the least spectacular, yet the one most arduous and urgent. During the whole past four years the shallows, the harbor entrances, and the estuaries had been crammed with mines, laid by the Allies as well as by the Germans. So enormous was the task that, even with the assistance of the Allies, it would be impossible to clear the whole coast immediately. Accordingly certain “red zones,” forbidden to shipping, were left alone and every effort given to clearing, on a priority basis, the shipping lanes most urgently needed for the war effort and the civilian subsistence.

In the Mediterranean, the shores of Sète were swept between October 22, 1944, and February 12, 1945—at the cost of the French minesweeper D-202. Port Vendres was tackled next; that took from December 4 to March 28, and resulted in the severe damage of the D-252 by an acoustic mine. Other French sweepers were operating in the region of La Ciotat and Sanary, and in still unsafe corners of the Toulon roadstead.

All the Mediterranean sweeps were accomplished with equipment furnished by the Allies. But in the northern zone—the Atlantic and the Channel —there were available some nine old sweepers of the 1940 fleet, returned by the British but with their machinery well worn out. The Allies, however, agreed to sweep the entrances of the ports north of Brest, while the French undertook to clear those of Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, although to do so they had to call in some of the sweepers from the Mediterranean.

In addition there was convoy escort duty, which had to be kept up as long as the enemy had U-boats at sea. In this duty the Enjoué (ex-P.C. 482), commanded by Lieutenant Georges Decugis, was sunk with all hands by the U-870 off Cape Spartel on January 9, 1945. Twenty-two days later the Ardent (ex-P.C. 473) went down in collision with a British freighter off Casablanca, but fortunately without loss of life. Another two months saw the destroyer Combattante blown up on a mine off the entrance to the River Humber, with a loss of 68 killed or missing out of a crew of 185.

But while the French Navy was defending against enemy submarines in the Channel and the Atlantic, its own submarines were operating against whatever German ships could still be found anywhere. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Curie, commanded by Lieutenant Pierre Chailley, sank two German transports of 2,000 tons on October 2, 1944. Off the Norwegian coast the Rubis closed its glorious career by laying four minefields between September 24 and December 9, 1944. These reaped a harvest of seven victories, bringing the total of the Rubis’ victims to fifteen.

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French Navy – The Liberation Of The France II


On land, the French naval infantrymen, even if they did not have ships’ decks under them, had no cause to complain of lack of action. Lieutenant Commander Kieffer’s battalion, which had been engaged at Ouistreham, continued its operations with the British 1st Brigade of Commandos, and distinguished itself at the taking of Walcheren Island, blocking the mouth of the Scheldt, in November, 1944, and in raids on the companion island of Schouwen in December. The Naval Armored Regiment, forming part of the French 2nd Armored Division, participated in the drive to the Rhine. By February 9, 1945, they had destroyed 57 enemy tanks, 11 half-tracks, 27 armored vehicles, and caused numerous enemy casualties, at a cost to themselves of only 5 tanks, and 51 men killed and 215 wounded.

After being recalled westward for the Royan operation, the Naval Armored Regiment returned to the eastern front and was in on the taking of Berchtesgaden on May 5, 1945.

The 1st Naval Infantry Regiment, after its operations at Toulon, participated in the hard fighting in Alsace at the end of the year, and finally ended its activities in the Aution Mountains in the Italian theater. The 4th Naval Infantry Regiment was occupied in keeping the Germans shut up in Lorient. The 3rd and 5th Regiments were just being organized in the region of Arcachon, and would become the nucleus of the future Brigade of the Far East.

Although the Germans had been driven out of southern France they still held strong positions in northern Italy, where they remained a constant menace to Provence. After the American Army had driven north from the Provence beaches toward the Rhine, the only troops left to meet any eruption of the Germans were General Paul Doyen’s force, which was largely infantry, with practically no artillery and only a very small air force. What he needed badly was the support of naval ships.

Up until October 16, 1944, that support was provided by Rear Admiral Davidson’s Task Force 86. On that date Rear Admiral Auboyneau succeeded Admiral Davidson in command of the force, which was now largely made up of French ships. Less than three weeks later the force was reorganized and redesignated the Flank Force with a new commander, Rear Admiral Jaujard, flying his flag in the Montcalm. Although the composition of the force varied from time to time, it usually included 4 or 5 French cruisers, half a dozen French destroyers, and a number of escort ships, patrol craft, and minesweepers. In addition to the French ships, the Flank Force at the beginning included 4 destroyers, 12 minesweepers, some escort ships, and a flotilla of MTBs from the U.S. Navy.

Admiral Auboyneau had left on the Emile Bertin on a mission to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

French ships that served at one time or other with the Flank Force included the cruisers Montcalm, Georges Leygues, Gloire, Emile Bertin, Jeanne d’Arc, and Duguay-Trouin; the super-destroyer Tigre, and the destroyers Alcyon, Basque, Fortuné, Simoun, Tempête, and Trombe.

The cruisers, based on Toulon, constituted the bombardment group. The destroyers making up the support force also operated from Toulon. All ships of the force cruised continually, during daylight hours, some ten miles off the coast, between Ventimiglia and Cape di Nola. At night the destroyers took over the job of blockading the Gulf of Genoa.

At Cannes there was based a patrol group consisting, on the average, of four escort vessels and submarine chasers. This group was particularly effective against the floating mines which the enemy released in the westward current in the hope that they would interfere with the traffic out of Toulon.

Sometimes as many as 40 of these mines were destroyed in a single day; in all, 430 were destroyed in the approaches to Toulon.

Finally, the MTBs based at Golfe Juan, near Cannes, carried out night raids along the Italian coast.

It would be useless to try to describe all the various occasions on which the Flank Force fired against German batteries, communication centers, amunition dumps, and other such targets in support of the Allied armies operating ashore. The figure of 3,766 shells fired by the cruisers and 6,392 by the destroyers will give some idea of their activities.

But one of the most useful activities of the patrol craft of the Flank Force was the interception of “human torpedoes,” which made their appearance off the Provence coast subsequent to the landings. Three of these torpedoes, ridden and steered by enemy swimmers, were sunk on September 5, 1944, by the U.S. destroyer Ludlow and the French Malin. The Cimeterre also sank a human torpedo, and in December and January the Sabre and the Fortuné destroyed three Italian MTBs of the 10th MAS. The Javelot, the Cimeterre, and subchaser No. 105 each sank an explosive-laden motorboat also.

This flotilla was a part of the small fraction of the Italian Navy which remained loyal to the Fascist Republic created by Mussolini in the brief period after his spectacular liberation from the Gran Sasso on September 12, 1943.

After February of 1945, when Germany’s situation was becoming rapidly worse, the Flank Force had to redouble its activities in order to check any last minute acts of desperation on the part of the Germans. The cruisers stepped up their bombardments, the destroyers worked in closer to the shore. Three more enemy MTBs were sunk—one by the Lansquenet on March 15, another by subchaser No. 25 on April 11, and the third by the Trombe on April 16. But in the engagement the Trombe was struck by a torpedo from the enemy MTB which killed 19 men, probably the last casualties to be suffered by the French Navy at sea during the war. Eight days later the subchasers No. 112 and No. 122 and the Lansquenet sent six more MTBs to the bottom. Three others (two Italian and one German), which had left San Remo to carry out a raid on the Corsican coast, scuttled themselves in the Gulf of Porto on April 24, with all the crews being made prisoners. The war was nearing its end for Hitler’s forces in Italy as well as elsewhere, but, before evacuating the Italian Riviera, the Germans sank the last of the French ships scuttled at Toulon and later refloated by the Italians and towed to Genoa or La Spezia.

But before the Flank Force was dissolved on May 13, 1945, it had had to log one major disaster to its forces, and that was not caused by enemy action. On Christmas, 1944, the Terrible and the Malin, of the 10th Light Cruiser Division, were in collision during exercises off Naples. The Malin lost its bow as far back as No. 1 gun.8 The Terrible had one fireroom flooded and her superstructure razed from the after stack to No. 3 gun. After the collision, 69 men were reported dead or missing, of whom 61 were from the Malin.

The Malin was repaired by replacing the damaged section with the bow of the Indomptable, which had been scuttled at Toulon on November 27, 1942.

By now the dread German war machine that had once swept over most of Europe had been pushed back completely out of France except for strongly fortified pockets along the Channel coast south of Brest. Here they were hemmed in by 80,000 French fighting men coming for the most part from the former French Forces of the Interior (F.F.I.). But the improvised armaments of these besiegers would not permit their taking the offensive against an enemy so well entrenched, so well provided with artillery, and constantly in touch with its homeland by air. Furthermore, the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of French civilians had to be considered. They were, in effect, hostages in these German-held cities.

These communication lines were kept open by planes taking off at night from the base at Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance.

The cost of taking such grimly defended fortresses, only to win a wrecked city and an unusable port, had been only too well learned at Brest. That was the reason besiegers had refrained from assaulting Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, La Pallice, and La Rochelle.

Bordeaux, as described before, had fallen, intact, to the F.F.I. on August 28, 1944. But lying almost 100 kilometers up a river easy to mine, the port had never been used by the Kriegsmarine other than as an entry port for blockade-runners and, from September, 1940, to September, 1943, as a base for Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic. This last activity had brought down on the city some heavy Allied air attacks, one of which, on May 17, 1943, had caused the death of 172 civilians. The Allied bombs had destroyed the locks to the drydocks, leaving five Italian submarines stranded, and halting use of the harbor by the Axis for several months.

To avoid the dangerous passage of the Strait of Gibraltar after each patrol, the Italian Navy had obtained permission from the Germans to establish an Italian submarine base (Betasom) at Bordeaux. Twenty-seven Italian submarines from the Mediterranean were based here, as well as three others which joined from the Red Sea after General Wavell had captured their bases in Eritrea. Of these 30 submarines, three were sent as cargo carriers to Japan or the Indian Ocean, a few returned to Italy, and 16 were lost while on patrol. At the time of the Italian armistice there were only two at Bordeaux, both undergoing major overhaul.

It was from Bordeaux that Lieutenant Commander Prince Valerio Borghese, in the Leonardo da Vinci, carried out the trials of a small “pocket” submarine, which was to be carried on the deck of a large submarine to the entrance of the Hudson River in order to attack the ships in New York harbor. The trials were completely successful but the sudden turn of the war in Italy prevented the project ever being carried out.

When General von Blaskowitz had received the order from Hitler’s headquarters to withdraw his forces on August 17 and to regroup them where needed, he had given General Albert Nake, commanding in the Bordeaux region, the order to destroy all the harbor installations before leaving. But after negotiations with the encircling F.F.I., General Nake had agreed not to carry out this destruction in exchange for the pledged promise of the F.F.I. not to harry his troops in their retreat. The Germans probably thought that the obstructions they had already placed in the Gironde below the town would effectively prevent its use by the Allies. The F.F.I. promise had been kept, the Germans had moved out, and the national flag of France had again been run up over the city hall by Lieutenant Commander René Jalabert, who at the time was serving with the Maquis of Dordogne.

These obstructions consisted of seven ships, varying between 40 and 140 meters in length, sunk in two parallel rows across the axis of the channel. Although the work of clearing them away was begun in late 1944, it was not completed until February of 1946.

Even without the obstructions, the harbor of Bordeaux would have been unusable by the Allies as an unloading port, because the Germans still had strong garrisons heavily dug in at Point de Grave and around Royan, on both banks of the Gironde near its mouth.

Had not the ports of Cherbourg and Dieppe in the north been available to the Allies for supplying their armies as they drove inland, there might have been good reason for giving first priority to recapturing some of the large ports on the Atlantic coast of France. But thousands of tons of cargo could be poured in through those two channel ports alone every day, and, in addition, Marseilles was rapidly being restored to usefulness. Hence, despite the impatience manifested in some Government circles for “reasons of prestige,” the Allies had wisely decided to make the attack toward the Rhine their first concern, and leave the recapture of the Atlantic ports until more forces were available.

With the end of the land campaign on the Provence and Languedoc coasts, it seemed as though that time had come. The Moroccan 1st Infantry Division, from De Lattre de Tassigny’s Army, and the 1st Naval Infantry Regiment were detached for that purpose and ordered to the southwest front on December 18.

Then, within less than 24 hours, the Germans had erupted in that desperate winter offense in the Ardennes, with its ensuing threat against the pivot point of Strasbourg. The 1st Naval Infantry Regiment was immediately recalled to the threatened eastern front, and the projected attack against the coastal ports had to be postponed, even though an actual date— January 10—had been set for its beginning.

Through some error never explained, the air attacks which the Allies had been asked to make as preliminary bombardments on the Gironde pockets were never cancelled. On January 5, 1945, some 175 British bombers came over as originally planned, and dropped tons of bombs— not on the German pockets, but on Royan itself, which was destroyed from top to bottom, with 1,000 of its inhabitants dead in the ruins.

The French naval forces, not being able to do anything about the battles in the Ardennes and at Strasbourg, continued to plan for the eventual campaign against the German-held strong points on the coast. On the Gironde front, ever since October of 1944, there had been the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners, commanded by Commander Charles Touraille. For air support there was Naval Air Group No. 2, commanded by Commander François Lainé, which had been organized in November, 1942, by combining Lieutenant Félix Ortolan’s Fighter Squadron 3F with Lieutenant Raymond Béhic’s Fighter Squadron 4F.

Originating as a battery of four 155-mm. guns, and designated as the 1st Battery of Naval Gunners, it received an addition of four 90-mm. batteries after the Italian campaign and had been redesignated the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners.

From December 9, 1944, until May 8, 1945, this air group carried out 1,108 sorties and dropped 532 tons of bombs. Its missions varied from reconnaissance and patrols over the lines and at sea to bombing the German defenses in the pockets. It lost altogether eight planes and four crews, but among its losses was Warrant Officer Paul Goffeny, who had already distinguished himself in Syria. On New Year’s Day of 1945 he and his whole plane crew were lost in the resulting explosion when he bombed a German tanker off Point Coubre at almost masthead height.

His name was honored by being given to the ex-German aircraft tender Max Stinsky, which had escaped from one of these German pockets and was interned in Spain until it was eventually turned over to France in 1946. As the Paul Goffeny it took an important part in the war in Indochina, and is today still in commission.

For the projected attack on the Atlantic pockets, the Navy had organized a French Naval Task Force (F.N.T.F.) on December 15, 1944, and had placed it under the orders of Rear Admiral Joseph Rue, flying his flag in the Lorraine. While waiting to take its part in the final assault operations, the F.N.T.F. had the responsibility of blockading the German pockets to prevent the Germans from bringing in supplies—often in neutral ships— or of escaping after destroying everything.

In a letter dated February 5, 1945, Admiral d’Argenlieu called attention to the constant traffic between the German pockets and the Spanish ports. He stressed the strength of the German force of 8 submarines, based at Saint-Nazaire and La Pallice, plus numerous armed trawlers and minesweepers, as compared to the French force of only 8 MTBs at Brest, plus a few submarine chasers and armed trawlers.

The F.N.T.F. had assembled at Cherbourg in December, when first organized. It consisted at that time of the Lorraine, Duquesne, Gloire, some 1,500-ton destroyers, and a group of minesweepers that had just come from the Mediterranean. But the German Christmas offensive had so disrupted the original plans that the Gloire and the destroyers had to rush back to the Mediterranean.

An attempt to begin operations on a limited scale in December had turned out badly also. The objective had been the recapture of the small islands of Houat and Hoedic, off the mouth of the Loire River. But the French armed trawler Abel Alain, with a small assault force of sailors, had run unto a flotilla of Germans who were on their way to Houat with a much larger body of reinforcements. The encounter, which had been brought about by a fog, resulted in the Abel Alain being beached, its commanding officer killed, and some 30 French sailors captured.

Later, an attempt by the Duquesne, with the destroyer escorts Hova and Somali, to bombard the German defenses of Belle Isle was thwarted by another fog. For the time being, the only activities continued were the duels between the batteries of the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners and the German antiaircraft guns on Point de Grave and in the La Rochelle-Royan region.

During this lull in the hostilities along the coast, the local French commanders and the German leaders of the garrisoned pockets—Vice Admiral Ernst Schirlitz at La Rochelle, and Colonel Hartwig Pohlmann and Rear Admiral Hans Michaellis at Royan—had made agreements aimed at reducing the suffering caused by the sieges. These agreements provided for the exchange of many prisoners, the evacuation of the civilian population who wished to leave the cities, and the preservation of La Rochelle and La Pallice from the destruction that had been visited upon other French cities by their German defenders.

This state of affairs, in which the Germans were being hemmed into their fortifications without loss of lives, could just as well have continued right up to the capitulation of Germany, of which many unmistakable signs were beginning to appear. Nevertheless, on April 13, at a time when the American armies were within 100 kilometers of Berlin and the Russians less than 50, General de Larminat, commander of the French forces in that sector, launched “Operation Vénérable,” intended to clear the entrance to the Gironde. And, 15 days later and only one week before Germany’s capitulation, he ordered the attack on the Ile d’Oléron designated as “Operation Jupiter.”

Although not in favor of these operations, the Navy carried out its commitments. The Lorraine and the Duquesne made up the bombardment group of the F.N.T.F., along with the destroyers Fortuné, Basque, Alcyon, the destroyer escort Hova, the frigates Aventure, Découverte, and Surprise, and the sloop Amiral Mouchez, plus eight French and a dozen British minesweepers. A squadron of seaplanes based on Hourtin and Lieutenant Béhic’s 4F Squadron from Cognac also played a prominent role in the operations.

The blockade of the German positions which had been carried out by light craft from Brest was augmented each night by the 23rd Flotilla of MTBs. Armed pinnaces patrolled the mouth of the Gironde. Fourteen enemy vessels which attempted to evade this blockade were captured, and only five slipped through to Spain.

On the night of April 5, the Surprise drove two German Class M minesweepers to shelter behind the German minefields, and on the following night the pinnace Coccinelle captured an enemy picket boat with two officers. On April 10 the Fortuné and the Hova captured the German-manned trawler Hasard off Les Sables d’Olonne. Another German trawler was captured by one of the French seaplanes, and six other ships were intercepted on April 18. The only active reply from the Germans was a very accurate salvo from the German batteries on the Ile de Ré which made the Surprise draw off to safer distance.

For Operation Vénérable, General de Larminat had considerable forces: 42 infantry battalions, 23 artillery groups, the equivalent of 4 armored regiments, and 2 engineer battalions—a total of 50,000 men, 300 tanks, and 280 guns, of which 190 were larger than 75-mm. In the artillery was the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners with four batteries of 155-mm. guns. For air support there were 100 French planes plus innumerable Allied planes so that on certain days there were “more friendly airmen in the skies than there were enemy troops in the defenses below.” Altogether these planes made 5,400 sorties, during the course of which they dropped 10,000 tons of bombs!

Such was the case on April 14 and 15, when the Royan pocket, with a total of only 4,600 defenders, was assailed by 1,000 Flying Fortresses and 8000 troops.

To prepare for the assault, the minesweepers had swept and bouyed the firing stations of the large ships on the night of April 14. The bombardment force, departing from Plymouth, arrived on station at 0745 on the 15th, and at 0800 the Lorraine, Duquesne, and the destroyers opened fire on Point de Grave. One of the main reasons for this bombardment was to draw the defenders’ attention to the Point de Grave side while the land troops assailed the Royan area. For two days the bombardment group kept up their fire without the slightest response from the enemy—no enemy planes, no submarines, no enemy shellfire, even. Then, informed that they were no longer needed, the F.N.T.F. returned to Brest, lighter by several hundred tons of powder and shells!

Seven magnetic or acoustic mines were swept from the stations which the bombardment ships were to occupy.

The defenders of the Royan pocket surrendered on the evening of April 17, Admiral Michaellis being captured in his own command post at Pontaillac. But on Point de Grave the fighting continued until the 20th. There a German lieutenant commander, commanding the Narvik Battalion, refused to surrender, and it became necessary to blast him out with one-ton bombs and tank destroyers.

Four thousand and six hundred Germans were captured at Royan, of whom 150 were officers. At Point de Grave the prisoners numbered 3,500. But the price paid for the victory was high—369 men killed and over 1,500 wounded, to say nothing of the obliteration of the communities and the casualties in the civilian population. And all of this was done simply to open, 15 days ahead of VE-day, a river which was so obstructed that it could not be cleared for traffic until the following year!

Although equally useless, Operation Jupiter, begun on April 29, at least had the merit of being less costly. The Lorraine’s big guns were not deemed necessary, so Admiral Rue had shifted his flag to the Duquesne. While covering the landing of the troops on the southern end of the Iie d’Oléron, the Duquesne expended five hundred and fifty 8-inch shells on the German batteries, and the destroyers fired 100 shots each. The following day, May 1, 1945, Oléron capitulated.

At La Rochelle, at Saint-Nazaire, and at Lorient, the French commanders had the intelligence to sit tight and wait for the end of the war when Germany as a whole would capitulate and these cities could be regained without bloodshed and without mass destruction.

Dunkirk also capitulated in the same manner, though here things were somewhat different. Whereas elsewhere the German defenders had remained within their fortifications and waited to be attacked there, Admiral Friederich Frisius, commander at Dunkirk, was a man of another caliber. He had formerly been the commander of the German naval forces on the Pas-de-Calais coast. When he had been forced to fall back to Dunkirk in September of 1944, he had drawn to himself all the German units on the Belgian coast which had been unable to withdraw to the Breskens pocket or to escape across the Scheldt. Now, during the closing days of hostilities, he enlivened matters by making audacious sorties that aroused quite a commotion in that region.

For instance, on April 9, he sent out a strong raiding party to disturb the sleep of the Allied troops. At that time the low lands behind Dunkirk were all inundated, as the Germans had blown up the dykes in order to have the additional protection of the flooded areas. The ground beyond was held by the siege lines made up of a Czech brigade, a few elements of British artillery, and three French battalions, formerly of the F.F.I.

Coming down a canal silently in rubber boats, the Germans scattered two companies of newly arrived besiegers and penetrated several miles inside the Allied positions. In the panic of surprise the English engineers blew up several bridges at Gravelines. Seasoned reinforcements had to be hurried up; these were found in a group of naval infantrymen whom the Commandant of the Navy at Boulogne had organized. Even so, the besiegers never did manage to dislodge the Germans from the strong positions they had taken, regardless of how many bombs the Allied planes rained upon them.

Admiral Frisius caused more troubles to the Allies than did his colleagues at Lorient and La Rochelle put together. In a way, it may be said that he never surrendered. When, in Germany, Marshal Alfred Gustav Jodl signed a capitulation on May 7, 1945, for all the armed forces of Germany everywhere, the redoubtable Admiral Frisius consented to quit fighting—two days later.

The French Navy in Norway

Starboard broadside view of Le Triomphant manning the rails

French destroyer Le Malin underway c1940

The French part in this campaign consisted in sending to Norway, via the British Isles, a total of approximately 25,000 men, 1,200 draft animals, 1,700 vehicles, 170 guns, and 12,000 tons of supplies. That at least was what was routed through the port of Brest for Greenock, the improvised base in Scotland, between April 15 and May 8. But there was time only to send some 15,000 men on to Norway before the expedition was cancelled and the country evacuated. To escort and transport these troops and their supplies, there was assembled 6 fine auxiliary cruisers, 13 passenger liners, and 23 cargo ships, each of which was equipped with antiaircraft guns (25-mm. and 40-mm.) before leaving Brest. The requisitioning of that many ships strained the national shipping program which was necessary to support the whole wartime economy of France. Since the original plan called for sending over a third French division of approximately 12,000 men, the English promised to provide the necessary transport. When they were unable to do so, the French had to choose between providing the additional shipping for Norway and suspending a good part of the vitally important traffic between North Africa and the French homeland. The plan for sending the additional division was therefore abandoned.

In the man-of-war category the French Navy at one time or another had the following ships engaged in the Norwegian campaign: one cruiser (which was replaced by another when the first was damaged by an enemy bomb), six super-destroyers (two of which were sunk), five destroyers, six auxiliary cruisers, three fleet-tankers, two base repair and supply ships, two patrol vessels, and a hospital ship. At the same time, in the North Sea but operating under orders of the British Admiralty, there were thirteen French submarines and their tender, which, along with the super-destroyers, took effective part in the war against the German lines of communications.

The opening of the Norwegian campaign required the movement of all the Allied dispositions to the north. The English plunged into the Skagerrak, where they carved out some fine successes for themselves at the expense of the German invasion transports. The zones assigned to French ships—notably the approaches to the Heligoland Bight—proved less rewarding, though no less dangerous. French submarines in those waters were detected on a number of occasions, and were hunted and depth charged by the German patrols. In general, they came out of it well. The Calypso, caught in an antisubmarine net, managed to free herself; in a cruise of 10 days at sea she had to run submerged for a total of 187 hours. Human errors compounded the risks, while real opportunities for a shot at the enemy were rare. Only the Orphée succeeded in getting in two shots at a surfaced German U-boat, which, however, avoided them by putting her helm hard over.

Special attention must be made of the bold patrols carried out by French 1,500-ton submarines—such, for instance, as that of the Casabianca, which penetrated far into enemy-held Norwegian fjords. It was the same with the activities of the minelaying Rubis. On three separate occasions—May 8, May 27, and June 9—she skillfully planted her mines in the channels used by the Germans along the Norwegian coast. The first field was laid to the south of Egersund, the second off Bleivik, and the third in Hjelte Fjord, one of the entrances to Bergen. Inasmuch as the Rubis was at sea on this operation on June 4, when the others were recalled to France by Italy’s imminent entry into the war, she did not return with the squadron. It was because of the strong urging of the British that she stayed on to lay a fourth minefield—this one off Trondheim, on June 26, only eight days before the sad affair at Mers-el-Kebir—and that the Rubis became one of the first units of the Free French Naval Forces.

To upset the German antisubmarine dispositions, which were causing both the French and British trouble off the Skagerrak, the British Admiralty planned to stage a destroyer raid in these waters. But the Commander in Chief of the British Home Fleet opposed the raid as being too risky in light of the enemy’s air capabilities. It was finally decided to send in a division of French super-destroyers, whose high speed would permit them to go in and still get clear of the most dangerous areas before daylight.

Leaving Rosyth, the super-destroyers Indomptable, Malin, and Triomphant, of 3,200 tons each, and all capable of making 40 knots, crossed the North Sea during the day and swept the Skagerrak as far east as the longitude of Hamburg, which point they reached at 0100 the next morning without having sighted a thing. Reversing course and increasing speed to 34 knots, they had a brief engagement around 0300 with some German motor torpedo boats and two patrol trawlers. One of the latter was hit, but succeeded in escaping behind a smokescreen. One or two of the motor torpedo boats were also thought to have been hit and set on fire, but postwar information proved this erroneous. During the remainder of the morning, and despite the presence of British fighter planes, the super-destroyers were bombed by German planes, frequently at close range, but succeeded in returning safely to base. The only casualty was a propeller shaft on one of the ships which was thrown slightly out of line by a near miss.

The French Admiralty proposed that the super-destroyers be sent back immediately for another raid, but the British High Command preferred to employ them in Norway. They accordingly remained in the north until the threat of war in the Mediterranean obliged their recall.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the original plan of the campaign, a British brigade had made an initial landing at Namsos on April 17. Two days later Rear Admiral Jean Cadart’s three auxiliary cruisers—El Djezair, El Mansour, and El Kantara—approached the small harbor under strong escort. They carried three rifle battalions with their light equipment—in all, 3,000 men and 500 tons of supplies. During the course of the afternoon they were subjected to repeated enemy air attacks, during one of which the cruiser Emile Bertin, acting as protective screen, was hit and forced to retire. Because of the constant bombing, Admiral Cadart’s cruisers could remain in the harbor only during the three or four hours of darkness, but they succeeded in unloading all their troops and all the supplies onto the docks. Neither troops nor material were to remain there very long, however.

On April 22 the auxiliary cruiser Ville d’Alger arrived with reinforcements—1,100 men. A snowstorm and the damaged docks prevented her going alongside, and unloading had to be carried out by small boats. In order to clear the harbor before daylight the Ville d’Alger had to leave with 350 men, all the transport mules, and most of the antiaircraft guns still on board. However, on April 27 three daring French cargo ships succeeded in landing more food supplies, gasoline, 25-mm. guns, ammunition, etc. Unfortunately all this material was bombed and set on fire by German planes almost as soon as it was landed, thus depriving the troops ashore of material with which they might have been able to hold on.

Before these last ships could leave the harbor, even, the word was given that Namsos was to be evacuated. Taking on board 1,000 men, the ships got under way once again and managed to return home comparatively unharmed, despite a vigorous harassing pursuit by the German bombers.

The task of evacuating the remainder of the landing force was entrusted to a British cruiser and Admiral Cadart’s three auxiliary cruisers, the El Djezair, El Mansour, and El Kantara. Since the Ville d’Alger had been disabled in her last trip to Norway, these three ships, plus the British cruiser York, left from Scapa Flow and reentered the Namsos rattrap at 2300 on the 2nd of May. The city as well as the docks was still smoking from the previous bombing, and leaping flames occasionally reddened the night.

Reembarkation of personnel was begun immediately; there was no thought of trying to bring off any of the equipment. All that could be done with this was either to blow it up or to dump it into the sea.

As day broke, the troops already embarked grew nervous and impatient to get under way. But gray-bearded Admiral Cadart coolly made an inspection round of the whole dock area to make sure that all the British rear guard troops were off. Finally the ships pulled out, loaded with 1,850 French troops, 2,354 British, and a few Norwegians—plus 38 German prisoners.

The return trip was a nightmare. The German air attacks were continuous. A German dive bomber succeeded in hitting the super-destroyer Bison (Captain Jean Bouan, the 11th Destroyer Division Commander). The Bison’s magazines exploded. From the Montcalm, flying Admiral Derrien’s flag, one of the Bison’s 138-mm. guns, with its crew, could be seen flying high in the air. The survivors were picked up by a British destroyer, which itself was sunk only two hours later. Later on, what remained of the Bison’s survivors barely missed being wrecked still a third time—an experience which the participants would never forget.

The other Norwegian landings were the primary concern of the British, since their main objective was Narvik, the northern terminal of the iron ore traffic to Germany. This port was still held by 2,000 German soldiers, reinforced by some 1,800 sailors from the crews of the destroyers sunk there by the British on the 10th and 13th of April, plus 600 or more soldiers brought in by plane—a total of some 4,400 men.

As an opening move, a powerful British surface and naval air force clamped a tight blockade on Ofot Fjord, leading Narvik. Three English battalions had already been landed outside the port, but though they had the assistance of some Norwegian troops, they had made no headway. The terrain inland was broken, rugged, desolate, and still covered with snow. To assist in the Narvik operation the British Command called in two French forces: one consisting of three battalions of “Blue Devils” (Alpine mountain troops), and the other of two battalions of the Foreign Legion and four of Polish depatriated troops—a total of 11,800 men, with 2,000 tons of light equipment. The heavy equipment was following in many cargo ships.

Notwithstanding frequent enemy air attacks, the landings were carried out under far better conditions than those at Namsos—the only ship casualty was one French super-destroyer slightly damaged. The difficulties were mainly material in origin, rather than human: wharves too short, with no unloading facilities; a shortage of charts and pilots; and the irritating loss of anchors and anchor chains in very deep water. The Alpine troops were landed on the last two days of April, the Foreign Legion and the Poles on the 9th and 10th of May.

On May 27, a grand combined attack of the British Naval Forces, commanded by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery, and the French troops, commanded by General Marie Béthouart, drove the Germans out of Narvik with heavy loss. To the Norwegians was given the honor of being the first to enter the recaptured city. Only the two senior commanders knew, however, that for the past 24 hours they had carried in their pockets the order to blow up the port installations and to evacuate Norway.

As has been said earlier, the Norwegian operation was undertaken chiefly as a diversion—a flank movement permitting the utilization of naval forces not employed elsewhere—and the whole concept had been based on the supposed impregnability of the Maginot line. But 15 days before, the Germans had broken through this front and the sweep of their armored divisions threatened to encircle the whole left wing of the Allied armies. At the very hour when General Béthouart was making his entry into Narvik, almost 500,000 French and British soldiers stood compressed into the Dunkirk pocket.

Béthouart’s few thousand men would have made no difference at Dunkirk, even if they could have been transported there. However, their continued operation in Norway served no useful purpose, either. Furthermore, a declaration of war by Italy was imminent, and France had need of every man, gun, ship, and plane for the defense of the homeland.

The Allied troops at the Narvik bridgehead—24,000 men in all—were evacuated from northern Norway on June 8. Part of these French troops, in addition to those in Scotland who had not yet been transshipped to Norway, were still in Britain during the tragic days of the armistice.

Offhand, the whole Norwegian expedition would seem to have been a defeat for France and Britain. The objective of cutting Germany’s iron ore route was not realized. Instead, it was the Germans who, by capturing Norway, would for a long time deprive England of her share of the Swedish exports. And the tragedy of it all was that the results might have been reversed if the expedition had not been delayed for five fatal days by the bickering over Mr. Churchill’s pet scheme of sowing the Rhine with river mines.

Yet, there were a few bright entries on the opposite side of the ledger, too. The damages and losses suffered by the German Navy were far greater comparatively than those suffered by the Royal Navy—a fact which was to be enormously important to Britain in the future. And these German Navy losses7 at this particular time did not encourage it, in case there had been such a thought, to operate in the lower North Sea on the right flank of the German armies during those critical last days of the Battle of France.

Germany’s naval casualties were 3 cruisers, 10 destroyers, 4 submarines, 1 gunnery training ship, and 10 small ships lost; and the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau damaged. British ship casualties were 1 aircraft carrier, 1 cruiser, 7 destroyers, 3 submarines, 1 sloop, 1 antiaircraft escort ship, and 14 trawlers lost, plus 1 Polish destroyer. French casualties were 2 super-destroyers (the Bison, lost under the circumstances already stated, and the Maillé-Brézé, destroyed at Greenock on April 30 by the explosion of one of its torpedoes). Despite Germany’s Air Force and submarines, not one single British or French troop transport was sunk.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Norwegian campaign was the complete degree of collaboration achieved between the British and French Navies. It was during this campaign that the British Admiralty, fully occupied in northern waters, proposed that the French Navy assume responsibility for the Mediterranean.8 Never in history had there been more cordial relations than those established in the battle area of the sea off Norway. Not merely was this collaboration in the technical field, but in the far more important field of human relations—the spirit of comraderie between the French officers and their brethren of the Royal Navy. Whether they sailed with the Home Fleet or on escort duty off the fjords of Norway, French and British ships, side by side, learned to sustain and to parry the fierce attacks of Germany’s formidable Air Force.

The proposal was presented by the British on April 16, and the French Admiralty immediately gave its agreement. But at a meeting of the Interallied Supreme Command on April 23, it was decided to maintain the status quo.

Swiss in French Service

The Swiss connection to the French king that had begun in the fifteenth century grew even closer under Louis XIV; he employed them not only as regiments in the army, but also as his household guard. There were two units protecting the king, the Cent Suisses (literally the 100 Swiss), who were his bodyguards, together with the Gardes du Corps, of French birth; the Gardes Suisses, together with the Gardes Françaises, were responsible for guarding the palaces. There were also eleven Swiss regiments which served valiantly in every war, adapting to the technological changes swiftly—dropping the traditional Swiss pike for the musket and bayonet even though this meant accommodating themselves to a minor role in the larger armies of the 18th century.

Swiss regiments were often employed where Frenchmen were reluctant to serve. For example, they helped garrison the fortress of Louisbourg on the God-forsaken coast of Nova Scotia. This was a location beloved of fishermen, who could dry their catch on the rocky shores, but no one else. Even before the siege by American colonial troops in 1745, the garrison was mutinous, but it fought well enough that if reinforcements had been able to arrive by sea, the fortress would not have fallen. It was, after all, the French Gibraltar in the Americas; and it was recovered in the peace treaty!

The Swiss Guards could probably have thwarted the most violent excesses of the French Revolution if King Louis XVI had been willing to approve the timely use of force against the mobs raging through Paris and other cities. However, the gentle king was reluctant to allow the army to fire on Frenchmen. In retrospect, the outcome seems inevitable: on July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob, believing that a counter-revolution was underway, marched on the Bastille, once the east gate of the city, but later converted into a seldom-used prison. Its military function had long since disappeared except as a gunpowder depot and housing for some eighty invalid soldiers. The prisoners, it turned out, were not victims of royal anger, but a handful of common criminals, religious dissidents and prominent malcontents; moreover, it could hold only about fifty inmates.

The Bastille’s evil reputation as a prison spoke more to popular dislike of royal absolutism than actual mistreatment—visitors were frequent, card games were allowed and there was even a billiard table. The food may have been more plentiful than tasty, but notables incarcerated there had fared well. Confinement itself, the isolation from the lively world outside, that was what made the Bastille feared; that and the knowledge that the king could imprison anyone for any length of time, without any judicial process (the infamous lettres de cachet)—the fact that this rarely occurred does not seem to have bothered anyone, certainly not to anyone who had ever heard the Marquis de Sade shouting down from the tower walks that the governor was intent on massacring all the prisoners. It was taken apparently as a matter of course that a governor would allow such behaviour; as was well-known, the Old Regime was not very well organised.

The Parisians’ march on the Bastille was merely the culmination of a process that had begun days before. As Simon Schama described the events in Citizens, crowds celebrating the removal of the unpopular minister, Necker, had got out of control. The first attempt by the authorities to disperse the mob in the centre of Paris had failed, the cavalrymen retreating to the Tuileries—at that time joined to the Louvre to make one vast palace. The crowd then grew in size and began looting shops selling guns, swords and knifes, then bakeries, and finally tearing holes in the wall surrounding the city in hopes of attracting tax-free food from the country. It was at this moment, Schama says, that Paris was lost to the monarchy.

Still, it did not look hopeless to contemporaries. Although the king was informed that the French troops could not be relied upon, his German and Swiss units might be. This estimate was soon outdated—80,000 citizens marched on the Invalides, the military hospital and arsenal across the Seine. There they seized 30,000 muskets and the powder that had not been sent to the Bastille. The foreign troops encamped only a few hundred yards away made no move to stop them.

The government, at last realising that the Parisian mob was dangerous, dispatched Swiss troops to hold the key points in the city. Thirty-two went to the Bastille, a number that could have held the fortress until help arrived, if the government had been willing to do so. A crowd of about a thousand gathered in front of the Bastille, warning the commander that they intended to arm themselves from the weapons stored there and that he might as well surrender.

The commander, Bernard-René de Launay (1740-89), had been born in the Bastille when his father had commanded the garrison there. His force—if it could be called that—consisted of about eighty aged veterans, some invalids. The Swiss reinforcements would be sufficient as long as the mob lacked artillery. Therefore, he refused to open the magazines as the leaders of the mob demanded.

The ensuing chaos was witnessed in part by Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as the American ambassador. He described the storming of the Bastille, remarking that there were so many different stories of the event that none of them could be believed. What is clear is that the ropes to the drawbridge were cut during the negotiations. That allowed the mob to stream across. When someone began firing, the confusion turned into a battle royal, that is, royalist troops versus Parisians who were becoming republicans. Though the rioters managed to break into the courtyard, they made little further headway against the handful of Swiss troops until a unit of the Gardes Françaises arrived with two cannon. This elite unit had been plagued by desertions for months; now, in the critical moment, it went over completely to the people. The garrison, already out of water and realising that no rescue was coming, then reconsidered its situation and surrendered. As the troops tried to march away, however, the mob fell on them, lynching the commander and several soldiers. Most of the Swiss Guards, having taken off their uniforms, were mistaken for prisoners and ‘liberated’.

Few realised that the Bastille was already on a list of fortresses to be demolished, to be converted into a public park. As the Parisians tore down the impressive building and carried away its bricks for private use, Louis XVI travelled from Versailles to Paris, with a tricolour ribbon on his chest to indicate his adherence to the revolutionary cause. Only a few months later a mob of women protesting the cost of bread (an event that should have been expected, considering the disorders in the countryside) made the royal family prisoners.

In June 1791 the king made an attempt to flee the country, to join counter-revolutionaries in the Holy Roman Empire. At a checkpoint near the border, however, he stuck his head out of the carriage window to ask what the delay was about. Since his profile was on every coin in France, he was easily recognised. As the armies of Prussia and Austria, supported by troops raised by exiled officers, pressed into northeastern France, the National Assembly became persuaded that unless the king and the remaining nobles and royal officials were dealt with, the Revolution would fail. However, the king was still protected by his bodyguard and the Revolutionary Army was at the frontiers.

By August 1792 the situation of the king was critical. Armed volunteers from around France were streaming toward Paris, singing La Marseillaise and looking for royalists to murder. One group ran in with the Irish regiment commanded by Theobald Dillon (1745-92), the last of the line of exiles to serve the French king; the Irish mistook the militia for Austrian troops supposed to be hurrying to rescue Louis XVI’s queen, who was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. Dillon became separated from his men, was captured, then murdered and mutilated. Word of this atrocity spread to all the foreign troops, especially to the Swiss, who were now Louis XVI’s last hope.

On August 10, 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, the foremost royal residence in Paris. The palace was defended by 900 red-coated Swiss troops, but running out of ammunition, the best they could do was to delay the mob sufficiently until the royal family escaped. As the immense building was consumed by flames, the defenders who managed to stagger outside were massacred. Over six hundred died; about two hundred perished in prison or were later executed.

In retrospect, we can see that the Swiss mercenaries had not expected to be slaughtered in the brutal manner that soon became normal for ‘the terror’. It was, as Schama remarked, the logical consummation of the revolution that had begun in 1789; bloodshed was not a by-product of the revolution, but provided the energy that moved it forward. Soon afterwards the National Assembly dismissed all Swiss troops and sent them home. The king was thenceforth helpless. Louis XVI thus lost his head twice—once in making poor decisions, the second time to the guillotine.

Battle of Houdilcourt

2nd Pz.Div. actions in the Houdilcourt area June 10, 1940.

Army Group A launched its offensive on June 9, four days later than the units near the English Channel. Guderian now had two Panzer corps at his disposal, both of which had been positioned in the Reims area. His grouping was the easternmost of the German mechanized formations and included four Panzer divisions and two infantry divisions. They were to be committed when infantry divisions had secured bridgeheads across the Aisne.

On June 9, Guderian’s units remained in reserve. One of them was the 2nd Panzer Division, which was cautiously moved forward. Although the main offensive had been launched, it remained important not to reveal the Panzer divisions and thereby disclose the overall intensions of the Germans. The commander of the division, Lieutenant-General Rudolf Veiel, continuously received information on how the attack progressed. He issued instructions accordingly to the battle groups formed in his division. They gradually moved south, troubled by traffic jams but not unduly hindered.

Early in the afternoon, alarming reports from the fighting infantry division were received. They indicated that French resistance was stiff. Heavy French tanks had also been observed, and so Lieutenant-General Veiel was requested to send tanks in support. He resisted, as he believed his tanks were inferior to the heavy enemy tanks and he did not want to reveal the presence of his division yet.

The 2nd Panzer Division’s preparations proceeded virtually according to plan, and early on June 10 it was ready to attack south. Veiel’s division had two Panzer regiments, the 3rd and 4th, with two battalions each. They belonged to the 2nd Panzer Brigade, which was commanded by Major-General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron. He had elected to advance with the 4th Panzer Regiment in the lead. It had taken longer than expected to cross the Aisne during the night, but at 6.30 a.m., the 4th Panzer Regiment attacked. An hour later, the 3rd Panzer Regiment joined in Beautiful summer weather accompanied the tanks of the 4th Panzer Regiment as they set out. The tanks made good progress across the billowy fields, but soon fire from a wooded area was aimed at the German tanks. The tankers asked for infantry to clear the woods. The request was first made on the radio, and then by a liaison officer. However, nothing had happened after fifteen minutes. The commander of the Panzer regiment did not wait any longer. The German tanks continued south and were soon able to report that the defenders had been defeated.

High tempo was vital to the German success. Accordingly, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued attacking, and soon after 7.30 a.m. it neared the village of St. Loup. The tanks had thus advanced approximately 5 km south of the Aisne. To maintain the tempo of the attack, one Panzer battalion from the 3rd Panzer Regiment was directed to outflank St. Loup to the east while the 4th Panzer Division attacked into the village as well as outflanking it to the west.

At this moment, the Germans observed French tanks moving north. The German tankers immediately opened fire and could soon see the French tanks turning south. Further west, the Germans found a French battery, which was also rapidly taken under fire. The French gunners tried to evade the attackers with their equipment, but the German Panzer IIIs and IVs continued to shell them. Only remnants of the battery managed to escape. St. Loup was captured without much trouble.

After this objective had been attained, the commander of the Panzer regiment ordered the advance to continue towards Houdilcourt, located approximately 8 km west-southwest of St. Loup. As was customary in the German Army, the brigade commander issued his orders orally by visiting his subordinates at their command posts. They did not find the brigade commander’s instructions surprising given the overall mission. The exact direction was, of course, not self-evident, but the brigade commander indicated it clearly.

From the St. Loup area, German tanks drove towards the slopes northwest of the village, but some of them remained at the village until the infantry arrived. Most of the 4th Panzer Regiment did, however, begin to move, initially without encountering any significant opposition. The 5th Company advanced on the left flank and the tank commanders raised their heads above the turret hatch to search for the enemy. They suddenly saw muzzle flashes from antitank guns north of Sault-Saint-Remy. One of the German platoons immediately opened fire and knocked out the French battery before any tanks were knocked out.

The battle grew fiercer as the German tanks approached Houdilcourt. The village was located along an east–westerly stretch of woodland. The German maneuver brought them alongside the woods. Concealed French antitank guns, fire controllers for the artillery and heavy infantry weapons lurked beneath the branches. After the command was given, they opened fire on the German tanks, which lacked supporting infantry at this stage. Neither were the German tanks accompanied by fire controllers for the artillery.

Despite their disadvantages, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued the attack and tried to envelop the French position by advancing west, which would allow it to roll up the defense. However, the attempt failed as the French flank extended further to the west than anticipated by the Germans. The 6th Company did manage to break into Houdilcourt and clear the village, but the strongest French defenses were located in the woods east and west of Houdilcourt. The French were also protected by minefields and the bridges across the Retourne river—the swampy banks of which extended westwards through the woods—had been barricaded.

The regiment commander regarded artillery support as necessary for successfully attacking the French position. Over the radio, he requested fire support from the divisional howitzers, but this could not be provided immediately. It was not until 12.20 p.m. that the tankers received any information suggesting that artillery support could be expected soon. The tanks in Houdilcourt were ordered to move out of the village to avoid being subjected to the artillery fire. The howitzers would commence firing at 12.45 p.m.

The German tank crews anxiously waited for the shells to hit the French positions, but despite straining all their senses, they could not see any artillery fire when their watches passed 12.45. Neither did they receive any information on the radio, leaving them with no option but to wait—they could not risk being hit by their own artillery.

A sort of stalemate resulted from the poor communication between the German tanks and artillery. Finally, tanks from the 5th and 6th Companies began to move in order to find firing positions on a slope, but they drew fire from French antitank guns. Several German tanks were knocked out by the well-concealed French guns, which the Germans were unable to locate. At this moment, the German tankers decided not to wait any longer, despite the uncertainty of the artillery fire. II Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment attacked east of the French position, thus rolling it up from the flank. Around 200 prisoners were captured, as well as five antitank guns.

Shortly thereafter, the Panzer regiment was able to establish a connection with the neighboring division, which detailed two of its artillery battalions to support the tanks. The latter could thus continue its attack and dislodge the defenders from their positions. The tanks could not pursue south in force until the minefields and other obstacles had been removed. However, the tanks and the temporarily subordinated artillery from the neighboring division fired upon the retreating French defenders.

Later in the evening, the 3rd Panzer Regiment took up defensive positions south of Houdilcourt, near the northern outskirts of St Etienne sur Suippes. The French line of defense had been broken, but at a cost. No fewer than twenty-one of the tanks in the 3rd Panzer Regiment had been knocked out, although it was possible to repair many of them. The 2nd Panzer Division recorded twenty-five killed in action, seventy-one wounded and three missing. Of these, three of those killed, twenty-one of those wounded and one of those missing belonged to the 3rd Panzer Regiment. Casualties within the 4th Panzer Regiment were far smaller: two killed in action, nine wounded and one missing.

In the evening of June 10, two pieces of news were received by the 2nd Panzer Division. The Allies had evacuated Narvik, and thus the campaign in Norway had come to an end. Also, Italy had declared war on Britain and France. This information was enthusiastically received, but the 2nd Panzer Division ad no time to rest on its laurels. During the night, the bridges across the Retourne were cleared of mines and obstacles. Another river, the Suippes, flowed across the German axis of advance further south, and the retreating French blew up the bridges spanning it. Nevertheless, the 2nd Panzer Division advanced on a broad front east of Reims on June 11.

The battles northeast of Reims had shown that the spirit of the French Army was not yet broken. However, once the Germans had broken through the prepared defenses, they could not be stopped. The losses suffered previously in the north had left France bereft of any significant reserves, and when the fighting became more fluid, the Germans held all the trump cards. No significant opposition would bother Guderian’s divisions after June 11.

Minden 1759 I

The day before Minden fell (11 July) Ferdinand received another carping letter from Frederick, chiding him for his Fabian tactics. Exhorting him to remember Rossbach, Frederick admonished his brother-in-law that it was better to join battle with the enemy and lose than demoralise the troops by constant retreat; in a particularly nasty jibe, Frederick suggested that Ferdinand was a second Cumberland. At the same time George II was growing anxious about the lack of good news from Germany and was also starting to nag him for results. The effect on a man already suffering self-doubt can be imagined. His particular current anxiety was that the French would move on Hanover and cut him off from his communications with Frederick; perhaps the Prussian king had spoken more truly than he knew and it was now to be his (Ferdinand’s) fate to suffer Cumberland’s 1757 humiliation. This was the moment when his secretary, Christian Heinrich Philipp Edler von Westphalen, stiffened his resolve with a famous letter, urging Ferdinand to follow his own lights and not just agree with the last person he spoke to. From a secretary, this sounds at first like impertinence, but Westphalen had already shown that, when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to waive protocol and to go beyond the bounds of his formally subordinate station. Devoted to Ferdinand, having been with him at the battles of Lobositz, Prague and Rossbach, Westphalen was the Prince’s chief planning officer and strategist, a devotee of boldness and imagination as against the sound space-time logistics of the military manuals. Ferdinand trusted him, listened to him and always took his advice seriously. On this occasion his response to Westphalen’s written homily was as decisive as his secretary could have wished. Ferdinand decided he would make no attempt to retake Münster but would march to the Weser river and establish himself on both sides of the river, daring Contades to dislodge him.

Contades though, exhibited the usual inertia of French commanders in Germany in the 1750s. Excessively circumspect, by covering all possible options he left himself with insufficient troops to mount an offensive. Even the capture of Minden was something of an embarrassment to him, as his distribution of numbers left him in no real position to take advantage of it. Nonetheless he decided that the town gave him another impregnable base from which to operate, so he dug in there. Ferdinand then tried all the ruses he knew to get Contades to leave his Minden position and fight before French reinforcements arrived, but Contades refused to take the bait. There were constant skirmishes along the Weser and both sides’ big guns blazed away pointlessly at each other. After failing to coax Contades out of his prepared positions, Ferdinand tried to threaten his communications at Minden by a march on Lübbecke. This operation he entrusted to his favourite commander, the twenty-four-year-old Erbprinz of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who had won Ferdinand’s undying respect and affection by serving under him even after his father (the Duke of Brunswick) had forbidden it. Ferdinand’s thinking was that Contades would have to deal with this threat either by turning south or giving battle. When the Erbprinz with his force of nearly 10,000 men brushed the French aside at Lübbecke on 28 July, Contades decided this was a challenge he could not ignore and sent the Duc de Brissac to intercept him. Brissac was told to buy time until reinforcements, expected under the command of the veteran Lieutenant-General, the Comte de St-Germain, arrived, guaranteeing overwhelming numerical superiority. The vanguards of the two armies collided near Bünde on 31 July, but this did not halt the Erbprinz’s probe and soon he had advanced as far as Kirchlengern and Quernheim. Now in serious alarm at the threat to his communications, Contades realised that inaction was no longer an option. But would he plump for retreat or battle? Ferdinand made contingency plans for either eventuality, detaching a liaison force under General Gilsa to make sure he was in constant touch with the Erbprinz, but meanwhile disposing his army so that it could operate at a moment’s notice in the Minden plain.

Contades had been in Minden for sixteen days, in a position of great strength, with his right resting on the Weser and Minden and his left covered by the Bastau marshes. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Bastau and Weser, Minden looked out to the north-west over a plain where on the horizon could be seen the villages and hamlets of Hahlen, Stemmer, Kutenhausen and Maulbeerkamp; the principal features on the skyline were a windmill and a cemetery. As one headed north and east from Hahlen, the landscape became more choppy, broken up by smallholdings, plantations and orchards abutting the hamlets. Contades’s idea was to recall Armentières from the protracted siege of Lippstadt, leaving Chevreuse to invest it and with the Armentières and St-Germain forces to overwhelm Ferdinand. Contades was irritated that the Brunswick prince had given him the slip since Bergen and wanted to finish him off in one go. His preference was to wait for Ferdinand to attack him, but he was under the same sort of nagging pressure from Belle-Isle and Versailles as Ferdinand was experiencing from Frederick and Berlin. He wanted to win the glory of being the French commander who made the definitive conquest of Hanover, and it was also in his mind that Versailles needed a decisive breakthrough in west Germany so that it could switch some of the 100,000 troops there to the invasion of the British Isles.

Contades therefore decided to launch a surprise attack on Ferdinand. But first he had to extricate his troops from the bottleneck – perfect for defence but not offence – between the Bastau marshes and Minden and this, he decided, was best done at night. Because of the difficult terrain, the infantry would have to be on the flanks of the cavalry instead of the other way round as in normal circumstances. Meticulous planning was necessary for the surprise attack, since while this night manoeuvre in unorthodox formation on a narrow front was going on, Broglie’s troops would have to be brought over from the other side of the river. At 6 p.m. on 31 July, therefore, Contades summoned his generals and issued his orders. Broglie was to march at dusk, cross the Weser by a stone bridge, proceed through Minden and link up with the artillery and eight battalions of Grenadiers. Situated on Contades’s right, at dawn he would launch a sudden attack of unparalleled ferocity, exposing Ferdinand’s left flank. The main army meanwhile would cross the Bastau by bridge and draw up, ready for daybreak, with the infantry on the flanks and the cavalry in the centre; artillery would cover the cavalry by enfilading fire from both flanks. Between Broglie’s corps and the right of the main army, a third column, eight battalions strong under General Nikolai (yet another veteran who would have to wait until his sixties to receive a Marshal’s baton) would support Broglie’s left and make sure the enemy could not drive a wedge between Broglie and Contades. Nikolai, whose forty-seventh birthday it was on the morrow, hoped to celebrate with a notable victory. Contades’s left meanwhile would be protected against flank attack by the Duc d’Havre and four battalions. Making sure that proper contact was maintained with the Duc de Brissac in the reserve, d’Havre would initiate the action by feinting across the causeway towards Ferdinand’s right just before dawn.

The plan might have worked had not Ferdinand almost simultaneously decided that he would launch a surprise attack on the French after a night march. The army was to be ready to march at 1 a.m., the right was to seize the Hahlen windmill and the left to occupy the hamlet of Stemmer. The best scholarship discounts the idea that Ferdinand was forewarned of French intentions by a peasant who brought him a package containing Contades’s battle orders; what is not explained in the traditional story is how a peasant with anti-French sentiments could have been entrusted with top-secret documents – and ones, moreover that were in clear and not coded. The most likely explanation is that Ferdinand simply intuited what Contades intended and beat him to the punch. By this time he too probably wanted a decisive confrontation. The strain on him of the chivvying and carping George II and Frederick was not assuaged by an extremely difficult relationship with the British commander, Lord George Sackville.

Estimates of Sackville’s character range from the moderately critical to the outright denunciatory. According to Lord Shelburne, who knew him well, Sackville was the avatar of all the vices: he was incompetent, cowardly, an intriguer, a vindictive enemy, a lover of low company and an unbalanced individual who swung violently from spurious optimism to false pessimism. The reference to ‘low company’ was code for the consistent canard that Sackville, even though he was married and would sire five children, was a homosexual. Even his friends conceded that he was a difficult man, reserved, haughty and socially isolated even among his peers and equals. Relations between Ferdinand and Sackville by 31 July 1759 were icy, and it is clear that at one of the many conferences Ferdinand liked to convene, Lord George had given deep offence by something he had said. The most plausible explanation is that Sackville expressed his frustration with the constant retreating before the French and threatened to pull the British troops out of the campaign. The threat could not be presumed to be idle, for in the War of Spanish Succession the great Duke of Marlborough had done just that to his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The upshot of the two converging night marches was that by dawn on 1 August Contades’s army was drawn up along a line stretching from Hahlen to Maulbeerkamp and Ferdinand’s from Hartum to Stemmer. The British troops during their night march had noticed that the fields and hedgerows were teeming with wild red and yellow roses, so they picked the flowers and put them in their hats. Broglie’s corps completed the march as planned, made contact with the enemy left at about 5 a.m. and opened fire. Lieutenant-General Georg August von Wangenheim, the Hanoverian commander who enjoyed the best relations with the British – he had been a battalion commander in England in 1756–57 during the invasion scare – was taken by surprise as a heavy pre-dawn thunderstorm drowned the noise of the approaching attackers. But the French plans began to unravel almost immediately. Instead of pressing home his advantage, Broglie waited for Nikolai to come up in support, giving Wangenheim time to get his big guns ready. There followed a pounding artillery duel, in which Broglie’s leading troops, the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties. By 6 a.m., with Wangenheim’s artillery gaining the advantage, Broglie sent Nikolai to try to loop round the enemy and occupy Kutenhausen. But, cautious like all French commanders, he first reconnoitred and seems to have persuaded himself that a German cavalry charge was imminent.

Contades, realising that his plans were already behind schedule, sent a mounted messenger to find out why Broglie had not advanced. Broglie then wasted further time by galloping over to Contades’s headquarters to explain his fears. In the meantime Contades, as dithering as his second-in-command, became alarmed by a supposed threat to his left, so told Broglie to return and contain the enemy right, until the situation on the left wing was sorted out; he even discussed with Broglie contingency plans for withdrawal. So, only two hours into the battle, things had already gone seriously awry; instead of launching a dawn attack, Broglie was now in limbo and even thinking of retreat. He could scarcely feel pleased with the morning’s work. He should not have waited for Nikolai, but attacked Wangenheim without delay; since Wangenheim was caught unawares, Ferdinand’s left would then have been turned. Broglie showed himself indecisive: he mistook a movement by Wangenheim’s men when taking up their position as an attack and therefore decided to wait for Nikolai. And so Broglie’s advance, on which the whole battle plan of Contades was supposed to turn, petered out. The unintended consequence was that he spent the rest of the battle containing Wangenheim – a stalemate that was compatible with Ferdinand’s tactics, but not with Contades’s.

Meanwhile Contades’s infantry had been delayed crossing the Bastau. They saw the sky lit up by flashes of gunfire and assumed that Broglie’s attack was proceeding as planned. The consequence was that the Comte de Lusace, on the French left, commanding fifteen battalions of Saxons, came to a halt near Hahlen at dawn, in close contact with another sixteen French battalions who were already in the village. This was the precise moment when Ferdinand, unaware that the enemy was present in strength, ordered forward Karl, Prinz von Anhalt-Bernburg and his men to occupy the village. Luck was with the Germans that morning. As they stormed forward into a potential death-trap, houses on the western side of the village caught fire, probably from incendiary shells. The wind caught up the fire and fanned it into the faces of the French defenders, who were driven back by the fierce heat and blinding smoke. The first British troops seriously engaged in battle in Germany now came into play as Foy’s Light Infantry Battalion collided with the French at the windmill just north of Hahlen. Seeing his attack now well under way on the right, Ferdinand ordered Wangenheim on the left to advance, and also gave the signal to Spőrcken’s corps on the right centre to close the gap left as Anhalt advanced.

General Freiherr von Spőrcken was, at sixty-one, the oldest officer on the field that day, an unspectacular plodder as a soldier but very popular with his men. Although nominally a German column, Number Three column (Spörcken’s) was actually comprised largely of British troops, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (51st Foot) and the other troops commanded by General Waldegrave and Colonel Kingsley, six regiments all told. Spörcken’s column came on at the double, at first hidden by woods, then deploying as it emerged from the sylvan darkness. To his alarm Ferdinand noticed Spörcken’s men getting ahead of the rest of the army and sent word for them to slow down. They made a brief halt in a copse but then recommenced their advance at the same rapid pace. Swerving to the left, and thus not hitting their intended target, they caught the left flank of the French cavalry. So on Ferdinand’s right, the situation was that the leading British and Hanoverian infantry were not only ahead of the rest of their comrades but had cut across them and were beginning to crowd them out. Nobody knows exactly why Spörcken’s men decided to fight virtually at running pace. Some say the orders were garbled in transmission because of language problems, but since Spörcken was in command this hardly makes sense. Others say the British wanted to show the other regiments their mettle, as they had been criticised for being raw troops. Doubtless a combination of élan and naivety caused the near-fiasco. Having dislocated the order of battle and being caught alone out in the open, they should have been severely punished and defeated in detail. But luck was with Ferdinand in all sectors this morning.

The battle for Hahlen now settled into a grim slugging match between the big guns of the French and those of Spörcken. This was a critical moment in the battle for, as Spörcken’s men stumbled towards them, the French infantry should have been able to seize the big guns before the artillery duel began. Unaccountably they failed to do so – later it was said they had been blinded by smoke and dust from the battle. That Ferdinand’s artillery was able to engage the French big guns was a hugely significant development, as the French were thereby prevented from sweeping away the opposition facing their own cavalry. Had these German guns not come into play at this juncture, the right flank of the British infantry would have been at the mercy of the French guns, causing heavy casualties and possibly affecting the entire result of the battle. In a letter to his mother written on the afternoon of the battle, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery of the 12th Regiment of Foot explained the atmosphere that morning:

We advanced more than a quarter of a mile through a most furious fire from a most infernal battery of 18-pounders, which was at first upon our front, but as we proceeded, bore upon our flank, and at last upon our rear. It might be imagined, that this cannonade would render the regiments incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount almost any difficulty.

Minden 1759 II

(German) Map of the Battle of Minden 1759. The work is based on a seperate map in Großer Generalstab / Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung (Hrsg.): Der Siebenjährige Krieg 1756–1763, Bd.11: Minden und Maxen, Verlag Ernst Siegfried Mittler & Sohn, Berlin 1912 (= Die Kriege Friedrichs des Großen, Theil 3).

Relentlessly the British battalions pressed forward onto the French cavalry, 7,000 strong, who could do nothing to stop them as they were equipped with sabres and pistols, and not muskets. Seeing that they were in danger of becoming sitting targets, the cavalry commander gave the order to charge. Commanding the cavalry was the Due de Fitzjames, yet another forty-seven-year-old at Minden that day. Grandson of James II of England and son of the Duke of Berwick, the Jacobite warrior who was killed at Philipsburg in 1734 (the young Fitzjames was at his side when he died), the Duc de Fitzjames was a veteran of a dozen battlefields, first in the War of Austrian Succession and more recently at Hastenbeck, Krefeld and Lutterberg. Now he ordered the Marquis de Castries to lead the first cavalry wave of eleven squadrons in a daring attempt to demoralise and rout the enemy. Spörcken’s infantry had just one round apiece, after which it would be a combat of bayonets against sabres. Every round had to tell.

A series of crashing volleys from the superbly disciplined British regiments tore the heart out of the French cavalry; those who survived the deadly fire and got through to the enemy were finished off with the bayonet. As the French retreated, their tormentors reloaded and stood ready for the next charge. Fitzjames then ordered his second line – twenty-two squadrons – to charge. Now, if ever, the British proved their calibre for their casualties were mounting and yet there was no sign that they were losing their heads or becoming downhearted. Lieutenant Montgomery summed up the situation nonchalantly: ‘These visitants [i.e. the first French cavalry wave] being thus dismissed, without giving us a moment’s time to recover the unavoidable disaster, down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the person of the Gens d’Armes.’ Once again murderous volleys tore holes in the careering horsemen; once again a few French horsemen got through only to be skewered at point-blank range; once again the German infantry reloaded and stood ready. This time they did not wait for a third charge but surged forward. In so doing they exposed their right flank, and the Comte de Guerchy on Fitzjames’s left saw his opportunity.

Forced to turn their second line half-right to meet this new challenge, the hard-pressed Spörcken’s infantry now had just three battalions to pit against a new enemy nearly three times as strong. It would have gone hard with them, had not Ferdinand spotted the new development and ordered to their support five battalions of Scheele’s men (situated on Spörcken’s right) and a brigade of heavy artillery. Ferdinand had only just plugged this hole when the French launched another cavalry attack, this time under General de Poyanne and 2,000 horsemen. This was not a frontal attack like Fitzjames’s but an enveloping movement on Spörcken’s left flank and rear. This was the crux of the battle, for Poyanne’s attack was the most dangerous French movement so far. Lieutenant Montgomery continued his recital: ‘The next who made their appearance were some regiments of the Grenadiers of France, as fine and terrible looking fellows as ever I saw. They stood us a tug, notwithstanding we beat them off to a distance, where they galded [goaded] us much, they having rifled barrels, and our muskets would not reach them. To remedy this we advanced, they took the hint and ran away.’ But how much longer could the British regiments really withstand this dual envelopment, by infantry to the right and cavalry to the left and rear?

This was the supreme moment of glory for the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who have had Minden among their most prized battle honours from that day on. Ably supported by the Hanoverian Guards, they fought like lions, taking the brunt of a frenzied attack from front, flank and rear. The hindmost ranks turned and faced about, knowing there was no reserve behind them. For a brief moment they wavered and looked likely to break. Vicious fighting ensued with the French tearing large holes in the defence and the British holding firm and closing the gaps. Again and again Guerchy’s infantry tried to make the breakthrough but were driven off by close, precise fire, with the Anglo-Hanoverian artillery joining in during the final stages of the titanic struggle. Finally Ferdinand was able to get reinforcements to the vital arena. Wutginau’s column (from the centre and thus immediately to the left of Scheele’s) came up, and its right wing, composed of Hanoverians and Hessians, caught the French in the flank. More slaughterous close-quarter and often hand-to-hand fighting resulted. Poyanne’s cavalry were the first to snap. Soon the flower of French horsemen, the Gendarmerie and Carabineers, were streaming away in defeat, having lost half their numbers. By this time General Imhoff ‘s column on the Anglo-German left centre had come into line. They were late onto the field partly because they had marched all night and partly because Spörcken’s column crowded them out by advancing so quickly and impetuously. Their arrival completed the disarray of the French who had been trying to rally. The remaining French cavalry were especially devastated. As Fitzjames desperately tried to get them to regroup and mass, the big guns further decimated them. Finally Fitzjames ordered his remaining horsemen to charge, but their attempt was flung back with ease by an allied army already confident of victory.

It was now about 9 a.m. and Anhalt sensed a great opportunity not just to defeat but to annihilate the French army. Ferdinand sent orders to Lord George Sackville to enter the fray and tip the balance decisively with his fresh troops. Sackville had found the waiting period exasperating and began to fume at the delay and inaction. But now began one of the most disgraceful incidents in the Seven Years War. Two separate aides arrived from Frederick but with what Sackville claimed were contradictory orders, making no sense and in no way conforming with the battle plans discussed the day before; further confusion arose from the fact that the two messages were delivered independently and no one could agree which of the aides had arrived first. In the end Sackville rode to Ferdinand to find out exactly what his orders were. Ferdinand, already nursing a giant grievance against the British commander for the threat to leave him in the lurch, listened to Sackville’s explanation of confusion with icy politeness and then replied: ‘My lord, the situation has changed, my dispositions of yesterday can no longer have any effect; and in any case it is enough that I want it so and I beg you to do it immediately.’ Sackville bowed and withdrew but then took an unconscionable time about drawing up his cavalry on the heath and getting them into position. What was the reason for this slowness? Was Sackville confused by the earlier contretemps and still slightly dazed at Ferdinand’s words? Was he simply incompetent at cavalry tactics? Or was he, as his critics suggest and as seems most likely from his psychological profile, deliberately dragging his feet and ‘working to rule’ in rage at Ferdinand’s publicly delivered rebuke?

The battle continued without Sackville’s intervention. The French centre was by now decisively broken, but Contades riposted by throwing his sole hitherto uncommitted troops into the struggle. Eight battalions of Beauprieu’s in the right centre, to the left of Broglie and Nikolai, were just preparing to launch a shock attack when they were overwhelmed by a combined onset of nineteen Prussian and Hanoverian cavalry squadrons, backed up by four bayonet-wielding Hessian infantry battalions. Contades’s last forces were thrown back onto the pitiful remnants of the French cavalry. The only part of the French line still holding firm was the axis formed by Beaupréau’s second line and the ten squadrons of cavalry from Broglie’s left flank. But at this precise moment Wangenheim, hitherto on the defensive, unleashed his cavalry, all sixteen squadrons, who smashed through Nikolai’s two brigades and collided with Broglie’s cavalry. The thrusting, slashing combat of horseman against horseman was almost Contades’s last throw. On the left the Comte de Lusace and his Saxons meanwhile made a last effort against Spörcken’s infantry and performed valiantly. The Saxons actually forced the British heroes of the earlier struggle to give way, only to be beaten off when they came under artillery fire north of Hahlen. Seeing the day lost, Contades reluctantly ordered a general retreat. He was in danger of rout and annihilation, and all that was needed was the charge of the twenty-four cavalry squadrons that Sackville continued to manoeuvre around Hartum. They never appeared on the field. While Sackville was away receiving his reprimand from Ferdinand, his deputy Lord Granby actually ordered the cavalry forward on his own responsibility and they were just setting off at a trot when the peevish Sackville, smarting from the ‘insult’ offered by Ferdinand, returned from the interview and countermanded the order.

Ferdinand’s other chances for destroying Contades also came to nothing. Wangenheim’s infantry were slow to leave their entrenchments and in the end did so only after direct orders from Ferdinand, so whatever pursuit there was of the French right came from the heavily encumbered artillerymen. Broglie successfully covered the retreat of the French right, and by 11 a.m. the French were back across the Bastau, with Broglie occupying a position protected by Minden fortress. Even so he was hard pressed and soon found himself retreating right back through Minden itself. Brissac, covering the retreat of the French left, was theoretically in danger from the Erbprinz’s mobile columns, for Ferdinand had intended that he should envelop Brissac and close the road behind him, thus trapping the French left between Minden and the Porta Westfalica. But the Erbprinz, instead of pressing on to the bank of the Weser, allowed his worries about the forces under Armentières and Chevreuse to prey on his mind; in short, he feared that while he sought to trap Brissac, he might be ambushed himself and the two French commanders not at Minden might suddenly appear on his flank with superior numbers. At any rate the French made good their escape and by noon all firing had ceased; Contades got his army across the Weser and did not stop retreating until he reached Kassel.

The allies pitched their camp between Hahlen and Friedewalde and started sifting through the battlefield wreckage. Ferdinand had every reason to be proud. He had successfully enticed Contades to come out and fight, the French had been driven from Westphalia and Hanover was no longer threatened. The victory at Minden was crucial. Since Frederick of Prussia was defeated by the Russians at Kunersdorf on 12 August, if Ferdinand had lost at Minden and been forced to retreat east to Prussia, Frederick would have been in a desperate situation. Indeed, he came close to losing his nerve altogether after his defeat. A brilliant beginning to the battle, when he broke the Russian left wing and captured 180 cannon, petered out after furious fighting, when he was first thrown back and later routed. He had two horses killed under him and for two days could barely speak with rage and disappointment. To his favourite Frenchman, d’Argens, he wrote: ‘Death is sweet in comparison to such a life as mine. Have pity on me and it; believe that I still keep to myself a great many evil things, not wishing to burden or disgust anybody with them, and that I would not advise you to escape these unlucky countries if I had any ray of hope. Adieu, mon cher.’

Frederick was in the doldrums, but Ferdinand’s reputation, in danger of dipping after his first twelve months on a roll, was now once again sky-high. He had proved himself a good general who could think quickly and turn subordinates’ mistakes to his advantage. He had handled his artillery superbly, especially on the right as, but for the big guns, Spörcken’s corps would have been badly mauled and perhaps ‘eaten up’. Bergen had taught Ferdinand the importance of artillery and he had learned the lesson well. A delighted George II awarded him £20,000 and the Order of the Garter when he received news of Minden.

But for Contades the battle was a disaster and his reputation was in tatters. Belle-Isle wrote to his friend the Marquis de Castries, who at thirty-two had now added Minden to a long list of battle honours (Dettingen, Fontenoy, Roucoux, Lawfeldt, Rossbach, Lutterberg; he probably saw more front-line service than any other senior French commander in the eighteenth century): ‘I can’t understand why sixty squadrons at the height of their powers could not break nine or ten battalions of infantry, especially as the same British infantry also put to flight four of our infantry brigades who on their own were numerically superior to them.’

So alarmed and despondent was Belle-Isle that he sent the veteran sixty-four-year-old Marshal d’Estrées, now also a member of Louis XV’s elite Council of State, to Germany, officially as Contades’s ‘adviser’ but really to oversee operations and report directly to the War Minister, since Belle-Isle had lost confidence. As all the senior French commanders were madly jealous of each other, it was not surprising that d’Estrées immediately found much to criticise. He wrote to Versailles as follows:

I can’t recover from my surprise when I reflect that, in less than two months, a strong French army of 100,000 men has been reduced to about half that number. Here are the finest regiments in the French Army and one can hardly recognise them. To help poor Contades, against whom the duc de Broglie, the comte de Saint-Germain and Saint-Pern make such loud and derisive cries, I have made the least wounding report possible to the Court; but despite that, the mere reading of a factual recital of this battle is enough to ensure his immediate recall, unless he receives the protection of the woman of whom we have spoken so many times [i.e. Madame de Pompadour].

D’Estrées did not like what he saw in Germany and cannily resisted pressure from Versailles (and the despondent Contades himself) to take over command. But if Contades clearly had to be replaced to restore morale and credibility, who could replace him? Broglie was the obvious choice but he was not popular at court and was junior in rank to many would-be marshals who considered themselves just as good he was. But in the end Austrian pressure was decisive, and Broglie was confirmed as French Commander-in-Chief in Germany in November.

In many accounts of the Seven Years War in Germany, Minden receives scant mention compared with Rossbach and Krefeld, and especially the terrible maulings Frederick took from the Russians on the eastern front. But it is worth emphasising that it was a colossal military achievement. With 41,000 troops ranged against Contades’s 51,000, Ferdinand’s army inflicted 11,000–12,000 casualties; among the French infantry alone, six generals and 438 officers were killed. Ferdinand’s total losses amounted to 2,762, of whom 1,392 were from the heroic six British regiments, which lost an incredible 30 per cent of their fighting strength. These six regiments had seen off altogether thirty-six squadrons of cavalry and forty battalions of infantry; truly, as was said at the time, ‘at Minden the impossible was achieved’.

Although Minden relieved the pressure on Frederick, it was not the decisive battle it might have been had the war in west Germany been a self-contained affair. Ferdinand quickly cleared Hesse of the French and wanted to take Frankfurt and then push the French back to the Rhine. But he wasted time on triumphalism, with Te Deums being sung and fireworks (feux de joie) being let off. And after Kunersdorf Frederick’s pleas for help became so insistent that Ferdinand had to abandon his more ambitious plans. Frederick pressed him to move on Leipzig instead of Frankfurt, but Ferdinand was unwilliing to move to the eastern front until he had cleared the French out of Münster; otherwise they would retain it as a base for future threats on Hanover. Since Münster did not surrender until 22 November, it was only then that Ferdinand felt able to transfer troops to Frederick. Once again the western front restored Frederick’s fortunes. His defeats at Maxen (20 November) and Meissen (3–4 December), which made 1759 as black a year for Prussia as it was for France and Louis XV, restored the balance of continental fortunes to the Austrian coalition, even after Ferdinand (and his replacement Wangenheim, during the Prince of Brunswick’s frequent absences to confer with Frederick) had checkmated the initial moves of the new French commander, Broglie.