Leon Gambetta armoured cruisers (1905-1907)


Léon Gambetta underway.

The ‘Gambetta’ class were excellent steamers, able to make over 17 kts on half boilers and to maintain 18 kts for 72 hours continuously. Noted tor their very clear gun decks, the ‘Gambettas’ were better armed than their British contemporaries.

On the night of 27 April 1915, when 15 miles (24 km) south of Santa Maria di Leuca (the south-eastern tip of Italy in the Ionian Sea) in position 39°30′N 18°15′ECoordinates: 39°30′N 18°15′E, she was torpedoed twice by Austro-Hungarian submarine U-5 under the command of Korvettenkapitän Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp, patriarch of the Von Trapp Family Singers.

Léon Gambetta was part of the French fleet based at Malta blockading the Austrian Navy in the Adriatic, usually from a position south of the Strait of Otranto. At this time the blockade line was moved further north because of expected Austrian naval activity – the Allies were negotiating with the Italians which shortly led to them declaring war on Austria-Hungary. In spite of the growing threat from Austrian and now German U-boats in the Mediterranean, the armoured cruiser was patrolling unescorted at a reported 7 knots (13 km/h) on a clear, calm night just to the south of the Otranto Straits when she was torpedoed by the U-5.

Léon Gambetta sank in just 10 minutes. Out of 821 men on board, 684 including Rear Admiral Victor Baptistin Senes, commander of the 2nd Light Division, were lost along with all commissioned officers. There were 137 survivors. The French cruiser patrol line was moved South to the longitude of Cephalonia, western Greece. Other sources place her loss 20 miles (32 km) off Cape Leuca.


The return of armored cruisers also seemed like a favorable one to naval officials in many maritime powers owing to the ideas on naval warfare advanced by the U. S. naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. His book, The Influence of Sea Power on History, was published in 1890. Mahan asserted that, contrary to the French policy of war on commerce as the chief function of a navy, a country must have a strong oceangoing fleet to win control of the sea. This object, known as command of the sea, could be won only in battles where one fleet destroyed the opposing force of another. Once that goal was attained, the power whose fleet controlled the sea-lanes could project its strength around the world. The fleet of that nation could also protect worldwide trade and guarantee its place as a world power. Armored cruisers, despite the fact that Mahan called for a force of battleships at the expense of all smaller ships, still fit into this dogma. They and the largest protected cruisers were increasingly viewed, because of the large growth in size, protection, and armament, as second-class battleships rather than traditional cruisers.

The prime example of the return to the armored cruiser was Great Britain. Faced with the threat of France, Russia, and to an ever-growing extent Germany, the British completed a tremendous number of cruisers. The vast majority were large armored cruisers; the construction of second-class protected ships was discontinued. The Cressy-class comprised six ships completed between 1901 and 1904. These ships were a response to the French Dupuy de Lome and were designed to act as fleet reconnaissance and as a fast battle wing if necessary. This latter role was partially the product of the impression made by cruisers in the line of battle during the Sino-Japanese and Spanish-American wars.

The advantage of steel armor was obvious in these ships. Instead of a narrow armored belt, the new steel extended from the main deck to a depth of 5 feet below the waterline and covered the center of the hull, where the ammunition, barbettes, and engines were housed. This belt had a maximum thickness of 6 inches. Complementing this armor was a limited protective deck. They also had steel bulkheads, essentially walls that separated the compartments of the ship, which added strength to the hull. Finally, the vessel had armor of the same maximum thickness as the belt on its turrets and the barbettes underneath them, while the conning tower had 12 inches of armor. In all respects, this ship was an armored cruiser in the literal sense of the term rather than past ships with limited belt and deck protection.


France followed much the same course as Great Britain in the years leading to 1905. Although the French built seven protected cruisers, the emphasis turned to armored cruisers. France had already been the forerunner with steel armor when its naval constructors built Dupuy de Lome, but attention was paid to reviving this type because of the British building program. It was also partially the result of a continued emphasis on the commerce-raiding ideas of the Jeune École, although the power of the school had declined as each minister of marine that succeeded Admiral Théophile Aube pursued their own policy on the best course to strengthen the navy. Indeed, the chaos that ensued from this situation led in many instances to cruisers built solely for the reason that others were doing the same. From 1899 to 1905, France commissioned 15 armored cruisers. In general terms, these vessels had good speed and sufficient protection, but they suffered greatly as a result of light armament. Some of the last of France’s armored cruisers, the Leon Gambetta-class, were large ships that displaced 12,351 tons on a hull that measured 480 feet, 6 inches by 70 feet, 3 inches, but they mounted only four 7.6-inch guns as primary armament. This deficiency was offset a bit by a secondary armament of 16 6.4-inch quick-firing guns. These weapons, however, were shorter-range ones and could not all train on a target at once, as they were mounted on the sides of the ship. In a long-range battle, cruisers such as these would be severely hampered if they faced enemy armored cruisers, whose weaponry was generally larger.

These cruisers formed the bulk of the modern French Navy because by 1906 the battleships that existed were obsolete as a result of stagnation in their construction. Indeed, the French Navy as early as 1898 was no longer a threat to British naval power. This problem resulted from the disastrous effects of the Jeune École, which created a state of flux in French grand naval strategy, and consequently the building programs, as debates continued to break out between proponents of that school and traditionalists. Lack of clear naval policy hampered the standardization of design, so the fleet comprised a collection of test ships by the turn of the century. France was still a powerful force, but it was no longer number two in the world. By 1905, French weakness and the fear of Germany had led to the Entente Cordiale, a loose defensive understanding with Britain, the year before. Part of this agreement was rough naval plans for use in case of a common war with Germany.

The ‘March Retreat’ of 1918

Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye

Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye

German A7V tank in Roye, Somme, 26 March 1918.



The ‘March Retreat’ of 1918 is remembered as one of the worst defeats in the history of the British army. After four years of deadlock, in their spring offensive the Germans used innovative new artillery and infantry tactics to break through the trenches of the British Fifth Army and reopen mobile warfare. Fifth Army lost large numbers of men and guns captured, and were forced into headlong retreat. Fuelled by inaccurate newspaper reports, the rumours of disasters on the battlefield were given credibility by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. In a speech to Parliament on 9 April 1918, Lloyd George cast some aspersions on the performance of Fifth Army, and its commander, General Sir Hubert Gough, who had been sacked on the eighth day of the battle. In Gough’s bitter words, ‘All were … clear that the real cause of the retreat was the inefficiency of myself as a general, and the poor and cowardly spirit of the officers and men.’ But this traditional picture is deeply flawed. Fifth Army was not defeated as badly as some have claimed. Overall, the German spring offensives failed, and their failure represents a British defensive victory.

At the end of 1917 the Germans were presented with a rare window of opportunity to win the First World War. Russia, beaten on the field of battle, had collapsed into revolution, thus releasing large numbers of German troops for use on the Western Front: in the spring of 1918 the Germans could deploy 192 divisions, while the French and British could only muster 156. The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, introduced at the beginning of the year, had backfired disastrously. Not only had it failed to knock Britain out the war by cutting her vital Atlantic lifeline, it had prompted the United States to enter the war against Germany. As yet, the vast American war machine was still gearing up for action. Substantial numbers of American troops would not reach Europe until the middle of 1918. The German commanders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, had no desire to sit on the defensive and risk repeating the battering the German army had received at the hands of British at Passchendaele in 1917. They decided to stake everything on one last gamble: to strike in the West and defeat the British Expeditionary Force and French army before the Americans could intervene with decisive numbers. Ironically, the fateful decision was taken at a meeting held at Mons on 11 November 1917. Exactly twelve months later the war ended, in great part as a consequence of the decision taken on that day.

On 21 January the plans were finalised. Operation Michael was an attack on the British, whom the Germans correctly identified as the most dangerous of the Allied forces, in the Somme-Arras sector. Three German armies were to be employed opposite either side of St. Quentin. Opposite Byng’s British Third Army in the Arras area was von Below’s Seventeenth Army, while to their south, covering the Flesquières Salient (created as a result of the Cambrai battles at the end of 1917) and the northern portion of Gough’s British Fifth Army, was von der Marwitz’s Second Army. Both German formations belonged to Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Army Group. Facing Gough’s southern sector was von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army, also of the German Crown Prince’s Army Group. Broadly, the plan was to crack open the British defences, and then push through into open countryside, then wheel to the north and strike the BEF’s flank. Then further attacks could be launched. In the initial stages of the offensive, von Below and von der Marwitz were to capture the old 1916 Somme battlefield before turning north to envelop Arras, while von Hutier was to act as a flank-guard, dealing with any French forces that emerged from the south, and offering support to von der Marwitz’s forces.

The attackers had several advantages over the British. First, numbers. In spite of having greater reserves than the Germans, the British were now suffering from a manpower crisis that had forced divisions to be reduced from twelve infantry battalions to only nine. Haig was forced to make hard choices about where to deploy his divisions. Miscalculating the weight and axis of the German offensive and misled by German deception operations, Haig deliberately left his southernmost Army, Gough’s Fifth, weak. Haig correctly calculated that he could afford to give ground in the Somme area, while to yield territory further north would have been catastrophic. A short advance in the Ypres area, for instance, would have brought the Germans to within striking distance of the coast, which would have imperilled the entire British position. Thus Gough had only 12 divisions to defend 42 miles of front, although he faced 43 German divisions. Byng by contrast had 14 divisions on a 28-mile frontage against 19 German divisions. In the Michael area, the Germans had 2,508 heavy guns against only 976 – a 5 to 2 advantage. Haig gambled on Fifth Army holding out against heavy odds. ‘Never before had the British line been held with so few men and so few guns to the mile; and the reserves were wholly insufficient’.

The second German advantage was in ‘fighting power’. For most of the war, the morale, tactics, and weapons of the two sides were roughly equal. But in March 1918, in terms of tactics, they were not. In the previous two years of almost constant offensives, the BEF had become highly effective at the art of attack. While much play has been made of German ‘stormtroop’ infantry tactics and ‘hurricane’ artillery bombardments used on 21 March 1918, in truth there was little for the BEF to learn from their enemy in this respect. Fighting on the defensive, however, was a novelty, especially because the British had introduced a new concept of defence-in-depth, modelled on the German pattern. In place of linear trenches, defensive positions consisted of Forward, Battle and Rear Zones, utilising machine gun posts, and redoubts. But in many cases, lack of time and labour meant that the Rear Zone was never constructed. Also, the concept was misunderstood at various levels. The Forward Zone was intended to be lightly held, to do little more than delay the attacker and force him to channel his attack where it could be more easily broken up in the Battle Zone by artillery, machine gun fire and local counterattacks. But as many as one third of British infantry were pushed into the Forward Zone. ‘It don’t suit us,’ opined a grizzled veteran NCO. ‘The British Army fights in line and won’t do any good in these bird cages’.

At 4.20 a.m. on 21 March the ‘Devil’s Orchestra’, conducted by Hutier’s innovative head gunner, Colonel Bruchmuller, began the overture to the offensive.

It was still dark on the morning of March 21st [1918] when a terrific German bombardment began – “the most terrific roar of guns we have ever heard” … The great push had started and along the whole of our front gas and high-explosive shells from every variety of gun and trench mortars were being hurled over. Everyone [in 54th Brigade] realized that the great ordeal for which they had been training and planning for weeks was upon them.’

Bruchmuller’s gunners hammered the British defenders to the depth of their position. Five hours later, assisted by a dense fog, the infantry assault broke on the battered and disoriented British defenders. By the evening, the situation was critical. The BEF had lost 500 guns and 38,000 casualties, and the Germans had captured the Forward Zone almost everywhere. Worse, in the extreme south Hutier had broken through Gough’s Battle Zone, forcing British III Corps to retreat to the Crozat Canal. Yet even on the first day of the Kaiserschlact, the ‘Imperial battle’, the British had achieved a modest, but nonetheless important success: they had denied the Germans their first day objectives.

German Seventeenth Army’s attack on Byng’s relatively strong and well dug-in Third Army achieved far less than had been intended. Similarly, German Second Army had failed to achieve the breakthrough it had sought. All this was at the cost of 40,000 German casualties. These were caused partly by clumsy tactics and relentless attacking, but also the British seizing the initiative at a local level. These acts of resistance in the early days of Operation Michael ranged from 18th Division’s counterattack at Baboeuf on 24-25 March, to the action of a Lewis Gun team of 24th Royal Fusiliers, led by two NCOs, who went forward to delay the enemy advance on their sector.

22 March saw the renewal of the offensive. British XVIII and XIX Corps fell back, in part as a result of confusion among the British commanders. Third Army was still holding its Battle Zone but was now being outflanked as Fifth Army was pushed back. To the South, von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army had advanced more than twelve miles, and this led Ludendorff to make an important error. He was painfully aware that the offensive was not going according to plan. He complained of the lack of progress of von Below’s army on 22 March, which had a knock-on effect on Second Army. Ever the opportunist, on 23 March – the day that saw the Germans capture the Crozat Canal – Ludendorff decided to make Hutier’s army the point of main effort. Hutier’s Eighteenth Army had originally been given the role of flank-guard, but now, accompanied by Second Army, it was to drive west and southwest to drive a wedge between the BEF and the French. Von Below’s Seventeenth Army and German forces further north were to push back the British. Any Staff College would criticise this plan as breaking two of the fundamental principles of war: to select and maintain the aim and to concentrate force. The resistance of the British defenders had led Ludendorff – whose grasp of strategy and operational art was tenuous at best – to change his plan on the hoof. Now, the Germans were dispersing their force, rather than concentrating it, with disastrous effects.

Nevertheless, the next few days were grim ones for the BEF as the Germans continued to advance. A British soldier wrote on 23 March that ‘we had to make a hasty retreat with all our worldly possessions – every road out of the village was crowded with rushing traffic – lorries, limbers, G.S. wagons, great caterpillar-tractors with immense guns behind them, all were dashing along in an uninterrupted stream …’ He could even look back with affection on normal army rations: ‘I never thought in the days when we looked with disdain on ‘bully’ and biscuits I should ever long for them and cherish a bit of hard, dry biscuit as a hungry tramp cherishes a crust of bread.’ On 27 March Gough was removed from command of Fifth Army. He probably deserved this treatment for the way he handled his offensives of 1916 and 1917; it was Gough’s bad luck to be sacked for a defensive battle that he conducted with some skill.

Even at this stage there were glimmerings of light for the Allies. On 26 March the crisis led to the appointment of the French general Foch as Allied Generalissimo, to coordinate the activities of the Allied forces. This averted the threat of the French concentrating on defending Paris while the British watched for their lines of communications. Moreover Byng’s Third Army decisively defeated the next phase of the German offensive, Operation Mars. On 28 March nine German divisions attacked north of the River Scarpe. The attackers used much the same methods that had proved so successful on 21 March. But this time they were attacking well-constructed positions, without the benefit of fog, and the British forces were numerically stronger and conducted a model defensive battle.

In the light of the completeness of the German failure Ludendorff ordered the assaults against Third Army to halt – he had no taste for an attritional battle. His appreciation was shared by an officer of German 26th Division, who wrote in his diary on 28 March of his hope that if German ‘operations north and south of us succeed the enemy will also have to give way here’: having seen the British defences he feared heavy casualties if ordered to attack. Michael was not, however quite dead, and a few spasms of offensive action remained. Ludendorff now scaled down his objective to that of taking Amiens. But even this was beyond the German troops. They were halted ten miles short of their goal on 4-5 April, at Villers Bretonneux, by Australian and British forces. On the same day Byng was again attacked, and again the Germans were thrown back. By this stage Ludendorff the gambler was prepared to throw in his hand. On 5 April, he called off the Michael offensive and prepared to renew the attack further north.

Normandie Groupe Air War: Kursk I



Wishing to avenge the defeat at Stalingrad and at the same time show the German nation that its armies could triumph over the Communist hordes, Hitler ordered the German High Command (OKW) to prepare an attack against the Kursk salient, an operation that would carry the code name ‘Citadel’. With orders to go back on the offensive the German Army started a massive build-up of men and matériel in the Kursk region in preparation for a major pincer attack against Soviet positions in the Kursk and Orel salient. Soviet intelligence had already gained information from its ‘Lucy’ spy ring, a group of Soviet spies operating from Switzerland. They had informed Stalin that the Kursk operation Citadel was planned to take place between 3 and 6 July. Then on 4 July 1943 a reluctant Yugoslav draftee from the German Army deserted to the Russian lines and informed his Russian interrogators that a massive German attack was due for the next day (5 July) at 2 a.m. He also identified the location where the main armoured force was gathering for the big thrust forward. The Soviet Army, already well prepared, now knew the actual time and place where the main enemy attack would start.

The German offensive in the Kursk salient would be the last major tank battle of the Second World War. It was to be the largest clash of armour ever to take place; it has been described as the biggest land battle in history. At the start of the battle the German forces consisted of 900,000 men, 2,700 tanks and 1,800 aircraft. The Soviets had over 1 million men, 3,300 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft. Both sides would send in heavy reinforcements as the battle progressed; in one instance a German train full of new factory-delivered tanks was caught by the Soviet Air Force and destroyed before its cargo could be unloaded. It was here the new Ferdinands, heavy-calibre guns mounted on massive tank chassis, would be given their baptism of fire. As well, the updated Tiger tanks would be deployed for the first time in large numbers; over 100 would go into action at Kursk. The Soviets deployed the new Yak-9T attack aircraft, which were to prove that the Red Air Force had yet another superb aircraft, this time with a heavy-hitting 37mm cannon firing through the aircraft’s nose cone.

By 7 July the Germans had penetrated about 7 miles. Then after a long dry period the rain started to fall during the battle fought at Prokhorovka, where the Germans lost 400 tanks and 10,000 men in one day. Guderian, the German general, watching from his command vehicle, remarked that he could see the Soviet T-34 tanks streaming like rats over the battlefield in numbers that were simply overwhelming. Another black day for the enemy was 10 July, when the Germans lost 200 tanks and over 25,000 infantry killed. The Kursk battle continued with unabated ferocity. On 12 July the Soviets launched a counter-offensive in the north on the right flank against Orel where they were facing Model’s 9th Army with 3rd Panzer Corps and numerous infantry divisions. To the south of Kursk, Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, which included Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps, was heavily engaged. It was near the town of Prokhorovka that a further 400 German tanks were destroyed during this desperate and determined clash with Soviet armour. Overhead the battle for control of the sky had become an important part of the overall conflict. Just as the ground battle below was being determined by the numerical might of the Soviet’s heavy armour, so the aerial combat strength of the Soviet Air Force was proving to be a decisive factor as the Soviets sent in mission after mission of bombers against the German tanks and massed infantry forces. Soviet covering fighters stormed in against the attacking Bf-109s and Fw-190s; the enemy had put up a massive aerial protective shield to assist their advancing ground forces. It has been estimated that 65 per cent of the Luftwaffe in Russia were involved in the Kursk battle, but what turned out to be the real disaster for the enemy was that 70 per cent of his tank forces on the Eastern Front were now engaged in this greatest of all land battles.

The Soviet Air Force was determined to defeat the enemy and win control of the sky over the battle area of Kursk and Orel. This it did, in the process destroying over 200 Luftwaffe aircraft on 10 July alone. During combat missions flown over the battle region, Normandie was constantly involved in escorting and protecting Pe-2 and Il-2 bombers. These heavily armoured aircraft had orders to attack the German forces around the Orel salient, where Model’s 9th Army was leading the attack in this northern sector. In the course of these covering missions Normandie was continually in combat with large groups of German fighters over the whole Northern Front. Normandie’s aggressive and successful fighting abilities were to prove second to none, although the price paid was high, with six pilots lost in combat during the Orel campaign. Kursk was a terrible and wasteful defeat for the Germans; their entire tank reserves were spent in this futile battle. Their tank production was never to make good these massive losses. The Soviets claimed 70,000 German dead and the destruction of 3,000 enemy tanks. The Soviet tank losses were equally heavy, but Soviet factory production was geared to replace them. The Germans claimed they had destroyed 1,800 Russian tanks in the southern sector alone.

At the end of the battle the Soviet forces had captured more ground and were poised to advance into the Ukraine. By 6 August they had liberated Bielgorod. On the 23rd the city of Kharkov was liberated. The Normandie Groupe was mentioned in the Soviet ‘Orders of the Day’ for its successful part in this momentous battle. For its contribution to the victory, Normandie gained the battle honour orel, an honour title that would now appear on its regimental colours.


It was at this time that the French pilots started to hear of startlingly heroic actions undertaken by individual Soviet pilots during the air battles above Kursk. A new form of ferocious aerial combat was taking place that involved ramming enemy aircraft. The main aim was to slice the tail off the German aircraft with the propeller, a procedure that was to be known as the ‘falcon or taran attack’ (sokolnyjudar). All Soviet air regiments kept a record of these heroic and drastic events. During the Kursk campaign, which lasted eight weeks, aerial ramming of German aircraft was successfully carried out on forty-seven occasions. If the ‘falcon’ ramming attack was executed at sufficient altitude, there was always a chance for the Soviet pilot to parachute to safety. Of the forty-seven successful falcon attacks during the Kursk campaign, fifteen of the pilots did actually get their aircraft back or made forced landings, and nine managed to parachute to safety, but records show that twenty-three pilots were killed after these dramatic engagements. This form of aerial attack was not new to Russian aviation; in 1915 Kapitan Pyotr Nesterov rammed the German aircraft flown by Baron von Rosenthal, both pilots dying in this falcon attack.

The Soviet statistics for these heroic attacks are quite staggering: 595 confirmed falcon attacks took place during the Second World War: 558 by fighters, 19 by Il-2s (Stormoviks) and 18 by Pe-2 bombers. One Soviet ace of twenty-eight victories, pilot B. Kovzan, was the leading exponent of this feat; he had accomplished no fewer than four successful taran attacks. On his last ramming he lost his left eye, but after surgery and recovery he went back on combat missions to claim a further six German aircraft destroyed, shooting them down in traditional combat. Records confirm that two pilots each performed three successful taran attacks, and thirty-four pilots accomplished this form of deadly attack twice. Some of these rammings took place after guns had jammed or ammunition had run out; the frustration caused in the heat of the moment could lead to these heroic last-ditch actions. Eventually this form of suicidal attack was forbidden by direct orders from Stalin. In 1994 the Russian Federation struck a Nesterov medal to be awarded to Air Force personnel for exceptional service; on the obverse of the medal is the portrait of Kapitan Nesterov.


The Normandie Squadron Diary written at the time tells that from 10 July, starting at 10 p.m., an artillery bombardment of great violence was unleashed on the Orel front; bombers passed over all night long and the sky was illuminated by large explosions and flares. Artillery bombardments lasted all the next day and the following night; explosions formed a continuous rumbling. A truly big offensive was under way. At 8 a.m. on 12 July Normandie sent up fourteen Yaks; they were split into two groups and accompanied eighteen Pe-2 bombers, while a further 28 Pe-2s joined the mission, which was to bomb positions just a few kilometres behind enemy lines. The pilots reported that the anti-aircraft fire was still very heavy and German lines were hidden under a cloud of smoke. From the Soviet side of the lines Normandie pilots saw dozens of artillery blasts occurring at the same time. At the first passage of the bombers the anti-aircraft fire was very violent as the armoured Stormoviks, which were flying at low altitude, attacked the enemy batteries; at the second passage the Pe-2s found that the anti-aircraft fire was now much weaker. All the aircraft returned without having been hit. Enemy fighters did not intervene. Towards noon, shortly after the Pe-2s’ attack, artillery fire ceased and the Soviet counter-attack with tanks and infantry was unleashed. As the tanks rolled forward they were covered with Red Army soldiers, who clung to any hand grip available around the tanks’ turrets.

During the Orel offensive on 12 July, a German fighter pilot, who appeared to be suffering from exhaustion and combat fatigue, came in to land and surrendered his Fw-190, which was in perfect condition. This small drama took place on the landing strip immediately next to Normandie, whose French pilots on the strip at the time were amazed by the unexpected visitor. Later, those who were interested in the German Fw-190 went over to examine the enemy aircraft closely. Early that evening the same Fw-190 was taken up and flown by an experienced Soviet pilot, who executed combat exercises in company with two Yak-9s flown by pilots of the 18th Guards Air Regiment serving on the strip next to Normandie. On 31 July this same German Fw-190 was extensively comparison-tested against a Yak-9 at Katiounka.

In the evening Normandie sent up fifteen more Yaks to accompany ten Il-2s that were heading for the bridge at Tsin, which was being used by scores of German tanks and heavy equipment moving into action. This important objective was covered and defended by about twenty-four Bf-110s forming two defensive circles, one above the other, and circling in opposite directions. The Bf-110s got ready to attack the Stormoviks but the Yaks attacked first and forced the enemy to break the circle, after which the Bf-110s became vulnerable. And so it was that Littolff, Castelain and Durand each shot down a Bf-110. The Normandie pilots observed the Stormoviks successfully attacking enemy troop concentrations in and on the edge of the woods. All the Il-2s and Yaks returned to base safely. On 12 July the Red Army claimed that more than 300 German tanks had been destroyed during the day, and Normandie was told the Soviet counter-attack was going to continue throughout the night.

Normandie Groupe Air War: Kursk II



The battle for Kursk had taken a massive toll of German men and armour. With the best part of 3,000 tanks destroyed and reserves now depleted, Hitler was forced to order a halt to the offensive. The enemy started pulling troops and equipment out of the salient. It appeared that the Wehrmacht needed to redeploy troops and tanks to Italy. As the Allies had just landed in Sicily, Italy was going to become another front, forcing Hitler to deploy his extended forces. During the last days of the battle a train-load of German reserve tanks including some Tigers arrived straight from the factories to reinforce the crumbling front line, but this much-needed delivery was caught while it was being unloaded from flat railway wagons. Soviet bombers found and destroyed them before they could even leave the railhead.

Hitler’s gamble of a pincer movement around the Soviet forces at Orel and Kursk had failed and, with his dwindling reserves of heavy armour now further depleted, Hitler had no option but to end the battle and withdraw. This failed operation had lost so many tanks that factory production, suffering from Allied bombing and material shortages, would never again be able to catch up with operational needs. Although the Soviets lost about the same number of T-34 tanks, the Soviet factories were in full production and, not suffering from air attacks, made up the losses within six weeks. The destruction of German tanks had become such an important objective for Red Army tank crews that drastic measures were taken to achieve this end. Some individual tank crews, out of ammunition or with guns disabled, would ram the tracks off German panzers; they would do anything to stop the German tanks advancing. Here again Red Army foot soldiers took heroic risks to destroy the advancing enemy tanks. At the Anniversary Victory celebrations in Red Square in June 1985, Viktor Kanoyev reminisced, his story reflecting the heroic determination of the ordinary Red Army soldier during those crucial days. While Kanoyev was serving in the defence of Stalingrad, he used a desperate method of dealing with advancing German tanks when anti-tank guns or ammunition were not available. Placing himself squarely in front of an approaching tank in a crouching position, at the last moment he threw himself on his back between the two massive tracks, and as the tank passed over he attached a heavy limpet mine to the underside; a few yards further on the tank blew up. He repeated the same procedure on a second tank. His commander awarded Kanoyev the Order of the Patriotic War 1st class. He was wearing that same decoration forty years later at the soldiers’ tomb beside the walls of the Kremlin.

On 14 July at 7.30 a.m. a parade took place on the base in honour of the national day. French and Soviet personnel were gathered together in a clearing beside the landing strip. Paul de Forges read a fine order of the day from Commander Tulasne. Because of Normandie’s busy activity during the Orel offensive, the simple ceremony lasted only 10 minutes; on this day the tricolour flew over this little corner of French soil. The new dining room was inaugurated and, thanks to Aspirant Corot, the menu was varied and copious. In the afternoon seven Yaks commanded by Pouyade left to fly escort protection for Stormoviks that were going to attack enemy troop concentrations in the Balkov region. Four Bf-110s that were covering the enemy positions were immediately attacked by Pouyade, Préziosi, Béguin, de Tedesco and Albert. As a result two Bf-110s were shot down, one jointly by Pouyade and Béguin, the other by Albert; these two victories were confirmed by Red Army troops on the ground. Lieutenant de Tedesco did not return from the mission. A Yak-9 was seen by Albert to dive towards the ground trailing smoke, but searches in the area have so far not had any positive results. All the Stormoviks returned safely to base.

Castelain (Littolff’s winger) was attacked by three Fw-190s and was separated from his patrol chief. He assaulted an Fw-190 that spiralled upwards into the tail of an unknown Yak, whereupon it was fired on and exploded in a ball of flames. Castelain also attacked a Ju-87, part of a formation that was bombing Soviet troops. Castelain had to break off the engagement as he was very low on fuel, and was forced to land some distance away from the strip. He was collected and returned to base in the much-used U-2 liaison aircraft. Thus on 14 July Normandie honoured France with three certain victories and twenty-five combat sorties. Unfortunately, on this festive evening Lieutenant de Tedesco was not among his comrades; his gaiety and spirit were missed. General Zakharov, Commander of 303rd Air Division, together with about twenty Soviet officers were invited to dinner. During the evening Zakharov read a telegram of congratulations from General Gromoff, Commander of the Soviet First Aerial Army, addressed to the Normandie Groupe.

The next day, during late afternoon, eight Yaks commanded by Durand flew protecting escort with six Il-2s in the Krasnikovo region. The Stormoviks attacked convoys of armour and mixed vehicles travelling along roads heading for the Orel front, also hitting some that were returning. There was no sign of any enemy aircraft. At 7 p.m. eight Yaks commanded by Tulasne accompanied Stormoviks to the Balkov region, north of Krasnikovo. On arrival at the target the Stormoviks were attacked by two Bf-110s coming in from the front at low altitude. Tulasne and de Forges dived at them and opened fire. The Bf-110 attacked by de Forges left his mate while trailing smoke; the commandant pursued the second, which was hedge-hopping, for about 10 minutes until finally it landed on its belly in a cloud of smoke and dust some 4km north-east of Orel. All the Yaks and Il-2s returned safely to base.

At 10 a.m. on 16 July, twelve Yaks left on a covering mission for troops on the ground in the Krasnikovo region. Three Bf-110s were spotted and attacked by Littolff and Castelain; Littolff shot down one, which landed on its belly. Castelain assaulted the second several times; the Bf-110 was hit and crashed to the ground in multiple pieces. During this time Pouyade, Préziosi, Béguin, Durand, Risso and Vermeil attacked a Fw-189 as it bombed Soviet troops. The assault of the six Yaks continued for quite a while and finally the Fw-189 was shot down, as confirmed by the troops in the area. All the fighters returned without having been hit. At 2 p.m. eight Yaks commanded by Tulasne left on a covering mission in the Krasnikovo area. On arrival in the region they noticed a group of fifteen Ju-87s heading for Krasnikovo. The Littolff, Castelain and Léon patrol, with the sun behind it in a classic attack mode, fired into the last group of the Ju-87s; the Pouyade and Bernavon patrol also attacked the Ju-87s; the Tulasne and Albert patrol stayed alert as protection at a higher altitude. The Littolff and Castelain patrol was attacked by three Fw-190s and three others made a strike on Léon, who turned in time and brought one down in a shower of sparks and flames. Léon was drawn upwards by the two remaining Fw-190s and found four Fw-190s awaiting him. He escaped by diving and returned towards Soviet lines by hedge-hopping, pursued closely by the four enemy fighters, which attacked him in turn. In the course of these assaults Léon succeeded in shooting down his second Fw-190 in the same sortie and returned safely to ground. On landing the groundcrew pronounced his aircraft a real mess, having been hit by so many bullets.

In his strike on the Ju-87s Pouyade shot one down in flames and was in turn attacked by an Fw-190, but although damaged he escaped by diving and was forced to make a heavy landing. At the moment when the Littolff– Pouyade and Tulasne–Albert patrols attacked the Ju-87s, they were in turn attacked by two Fw-190s coming from below. Tulasne climbed fast towards the sun and shot one of the Fw-190s down in flames. Attacked once again, he dived towards the ground and assaulted another Fw-189, without obvious results. Finally on his return he met four Fw-190s, attacked one without observing any results, and returned to the ground. In the course of these battles de Forges, now isolated, met two Bf-109s; he fired on one of them, which seemed to have sustained damaged. Littolff, Castelain and Bernavon did not return. Searches the next day did not disclose to the Groupe its comrades’ fate. The battle for Orel was increasing Normandie’s total of victories and also its casualties, which mounted day by day.

At 5 a.m. the following day, 17 July, nineteen Yaks took off to escort and protect nine Pe-2 bombers, which were part of a group of thirty-six bombers and thirty-eight fighters whose target was the railway station at Biela–Berega on the railway line from Briansk to Orel. The bombing of heavy armour moving along the railway to the Orel front was very successful; the bombs hit the loaded flat railway wagons. During this mission fifteen Bf-110s were spotted but for some reason did not intervene. Tulasne attacked one of them without obvious results. The anti-aircraft fire defending the rail target area was very heavy, but all the aircraft returned safely. At 8.40 a.m. ten Yaks left on a covering mission for troops in the Iagodnaia and Krasnikovo region. An engagement took place with some Fw-190s. Albert fired on three and shot one down in a ball of flames. All the fighters returned safely. At 1 p.m. ten Yaks executed a new sorties to protect heavily pressed Soviet ground forces. No enemy aircraft were encountered during this action.

At 5.10 p.m. nine Yaks took off to accompany Stormoviks in the Znamenskaia sector; these ground assault aircraft were ordered to attack lines of vehicles on the road from Boloto to Orel. Léon was attacked by two Fw-190s that he succeeded in escaping. Albert and Préziosi came to his aid, shooting down one Fw-190; Aspirant Bon attacked an Fw-190 without apparent results. At the moment when the Fw-190 appeared, Tulasne was seen for the last time gaining altitude; thereafter no information reached the Groupe about his fate. The patrol of Béguin and Vermeil, providing protection of the rear, was attacked by six Fw-190s. At the first burst of gunfire Béguin’s plane received a shell in a wing near the fuselage and another in the horizontal tail fin. Wounded by a shell splinter in his thigh, Béguin manoeuvred and succeeded in firing a burst of gunfire for two seconds at an Fw-190 from 50m behind. He was attacked again and, despite receiving a shell in the engine, returned by hedge-hopping. As he made his way back, in pain from the shell splinter, he was amazed at the sight of the massive Orel tank engagement taking place below him. Because of severe damage to his aircraft he was forced to fly at only 40 feet above the battlefield. His mind was briefly taken off the pain of his injury as he became aware that the ground below him was covered as far as the eye could see with the black shapes of endless German tanks, each followed by clouds of smoke and dust, yet not one of the many enemy guns only feet beneath seemed interested in his failing Yak. As he made his way further forward another spectacular sight presented itself: the German tanks were being engaged head-on by what seemed like several hundred Soviet T-34 tanks, all moving forward at speed through a blue haze of smoke, heading for the advancing enemy panzers. With his aircraft badly damaged and losing height, Béguin at last gained friendly lines but was forced to land his Yak just behind the Soviet advance. His damaged engine had forced him to fly so low over the battlefield that he probably had one of the best close-up sightings of this massive historic tank battle ever recorded.

Vermeil, lost from sight at the start of the battle, did not return and there was no news of him. At the time of these hectic aerial battles, Normandie was facing about thirty Fw-190s in this sector.

Commandant Pierre Pouyade, known in the Regiment as ‘Pepito’, had luck on his side when he survived a crash landing on the evening of 16 July 1943. After his aircraft had been badly damaged in the engagement he was forced to put down on very rough land. In the five days of furious action at Orel and Kursk, with 112 sorties carried out, six of the Groupe had been lost or killed: Commandant Tulasne, Capitaine Littolff, Lieutenant de Tedesco, Sous-lieutenant Castelain, Sous-lieutenant Bernavon and Aspirant Vermeil. Every day the Groupe hoped to hear news of them but, alas, no information about what had happened to the missing pilots was forthcoming. The Normandie victories included 9 Bf-110s, 6 Fw-190s, 1 Fw-189, and 1 Ju-87; of the 109 enemy aircraft entered in the log as damaged some would later be confirmed by Soviet ground forces as destroyed. These victories cost the Groupe dear, with six Normandie pilots missing in action during the first five days of the Orel–Kursk battle.

At 7.50 a.m. on 19 July seven Yaks commanded by Pouyade executed a covering mission for advancing troops in the Krasnikovo region; no enemy aircraft were encountered. At 12.30 p.m. six Yaks commanded by Albert once again left on a covering mission. Two Ju-88s were encountered; immediately Léon, de Forges. Albert, Risso and Bon attacked, one twin-engine Ju-88 burst into a cloud of smoke and flames before diving towards the ground, and crashed in a dramatic fireball. Troops watching the engagement from their positions confirmed the result. This was entered in the diary as the thirtieth victory for the Normandie Groupe on the Eastern Front. The next day General Zakharov, Commander of the 303rd Division, ordered Pouyade not to execute any battle missions without his direct authorisation for a period that was to be dedicated to rest and training.

Everyone was pleased to see Roland de La Poype return to the Groupe on 28 July. At 1 p.m. seven Yaks commanded by Albert took off to cover troops on the ground some 20km north-east of Karachev; no enemy aircraft were encountered. At 3.45 p.m. six Yaks once again commanded by Albert executed a similar mission, but this time a group of 30 Ju-87s protected by about six Fw-190s was encountered. A whirling battle began, in the course of which Albert, Durand, Risso and Mathis fired on the Fw-190s. No obvious results were confirmed. Préziosi was lost from view in the battle and did not return; there was no news of his fate. In the afternoon Lefèvre returned from Moscow, bringing with him Aspirant Largeau, a new pilot for the Groupe.

New France



The English were not the only Europeans to establish permanent colonies in North America in the seventeenth century. Merchants from France and the Netherlands would found colonies early in the century, encouraged by their respective governments who hoped to compete with Spain and profit from an American trade. The French colonies in particular would leave an indelible legacy, still obvious in parts of Canada today. Adventurers and priests from Spain would continue to develop their colony in Florida and establish a new one in New Mexico to help protect and consolidate Spanish holdings in New Spain. Other French and Spanish colonies would later follow. The full story of colonial North America involved a diverse array of Europeans, each interacting in different ways with groups of Native Americans and (usually) Africans as well.

Since the focus of our story is mainly on the 13 mainland British colonies that would form the United States in 1776, we do not attempt to provide the full details of this multifaceted story. Still, the mainland British North American colonies took shape in an era of globalization, and historians today concur that their history cannot be understood without considerable attention to the other European colonies that coexisted in North America along with them. Some of these colonies would produce economic competitors to English traders, merchants, and planters. Others would pose serious military threats that would limit the territorial expansion and the demographic development of British North America for more than a century and a half. To understand the history of the British colonies, then, we need to understand something about the other colonial North American societies with which they interacted. Since the French were their most direct competitors for much of the seventeenth century, we will begin with them.

Despite the destruction of the French Huguenot colonies in South Carolina and Florida in the 1560s, French fishermen and traders had continued their yearly voyages to North America, becoming increasingly enmeshed in trading relationships with the various Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples who lived along the Atlantic coastline and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Near the mouth of the St. Lawrence lived Algonquians and Montagnais, with the Huron further upriver east of the Great Lakes. The dominant group in Acadia was the Micmacs, while the Abenaki peoples lived further south near the coast. Over the many decades during which their relationships developed, French traders learned to operate within the terms demanded by their Native American trading partners. For the Indians, as we have seen, trade implied more than a simple commercial relationship. It created a bond of something like kinship, imposing various reciprocal obligations beyond providing goods at a desirable price. In order to display the generosity and trustworthiness that their Indian trading partners expected of them, the French learned to proffer elaborate gifts, to participate in ceremonial rituals, and to refrain from sharp bargaining practices. They also learned, far better than their English competitors to the south, that their trading partners expected them to provide not only trade goods but also military assistance and protection against enemies.

Facing increasing pressure from English competitors, French merchants established trading posts in Acadia in 1598 and at Tadoussac, on the St. Lawrence River, in 1600. In 1603, partly to counter English attempts to encroach on the French fur trade, the French government granted charters to a merchant company led by Pierre Du Gua de Monts to establish a permanent settlement. The company hired the explorer and cartographer Samuel de Champlain to find an appropriate site for such a settlement. After several false starts, Champlain and a few dozen male settlers established a tiny fortified village at Québec, on the St. Lawrence River, in 1608.

The small size of Champlain’s colony as well as the settlers’ reliance on the Indian trade would shape the colony’s destiny, though it did so in ways its leaders could not have anticipated. Ironically, their miniscule numbers probably helped to ensure French survival, for the local Indians perceived this tiny new settlement to pose no threat to their own way of life. Indeed, they viewed the French as desirable trading partners and allies to be welcomed. For the first few decades after the French colonies were established, the French greatly strengthened the Hurons’ role as mediators of trade throughout the northern region. The effect of a permanent French presence was to bring many more native peoples into the fur trade, giving them access to coveted European trade goods. Items made from brass and iron were particularly sought after because of their utility, both as cooking implements and for use in making arrowheads that could penetrate wooden armor. But ornamental objects were also prized for the prestige they could confer when given away as gifts. In turn the Frenchmen depended heavily on their Indian trading partners for food and essential supplies, and were willing to accommodate their allies’ expectations in order to preserve their relationship.

To Montagnais and Huron peoples, the new alliance with the French had a profound political significance in addition to its economic effects. The peoples in the St. Lawrence region faced powerful enemies: the members of the Iroquois League, inland and just south of the St. Lawrence River as far west as the Great Lakes. By 1600, the members of the Iroquois Five Nations– the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas – numbered perhaps 25,000 people. Their confederacy was by now well established, and every year some 50 sachems representing each of the various clans in the Iroquois League met at the great long house of the Onondagas to exchange presents and renew their vows of peace and friendship. The alliance gave the Iroquois advantages that other tribal groups did not have. It created a mechanism for limiting unnecessary bloodshed, enabling the Iroquois to develop greater stability and cohesiveness than other peoples. It also made the members of the Five Nations a more formidable enemy when they made war upon neighbors from outside the confederacy, including the Susquehannocks to the south and the Algonquians, Montagnais, and Hurons to the north and east.

French presence in the region would change the balance of power between the Iroquois and their neighbors, for the St. Lawrence Indians expected the French to provide them not only with trade goods but also with military assistance against their foes. Indeed in July 1609, Champlain and his men lived up to expectations when their Montagnais and Huron trading partners launched a war party against the Mohawks. Though Mohawk warriors apparently outnumbered the French and Indian war party, they fled after suffering unexpectedly heavy casualties from the assault by French guns. Now, with French backing, the St. Lawrence Indians had suddenly gained the upper hand.

Very much like the English colonizers of New England, the French sought to convert their Native American trading partners and allies to Christianity, though in their case it was Catholic and not Protestant missions that were to be created. Missionaries were present in Acadia as early as 1611 and in Québec in 1625, and members of the Jesuit order embarked on a serious missionary effort during the 1630s. In the long run, French missionaries converted members of the Huron people in far larger numbers than English missionaries were able to achieve among the various tribal groups in southern New England. The question for historians has been why French Jesuits were so successful. One factor certainly was the support they received from the French Crown, encouraging the work of the Roman Catholic Church by providing it with large grants of land in New France, land which could then be leased to settlers. During the 1630s the French government in Québec also insisted that the Hurons allow Jesuit missionaries to live in their villages as a condition of trade. Another factor was the attractiveness of Catholic religious practices. Catholic missionaries invariably presented Christianity to the Indians as a source of spiritual power, and in that context Catholic rituals, saints, and material objects could be more plausibly presented as sources of powerful magic. Protestants, with their plain services and rejection of ritual, had less to offer.

Some historians have argued that French Jesuit missionaries succeeded because they were more culturally flexible than English Puritans, but other scholarship suggests a more complicated story, having to do with the indirect effects of sustained interactions between Frenchmen and native peoples. The French, just like the English further south, brought diseases which devastated local Indian populations – particularly among the Huron people, whose contacts with French traders and missionaries were both early and constant. During the 1630s and early 1640s, a small number of Hurons – mostly traders – converted to Catholicism. However, most Hurons resisted conversion, fearing that Christianity might actually be a malevolent force that was causing disease and death. It was only by the late 1640s, after a series of epidemics, famines, and stepped-up attacks by their Iroquois enemies that a large percentage of the Huron population finally gave in and decided to be baptized. In the end the surviving Hurons became deeply integrated into French Canada, living in Christian villages (called reserves) interspersed among French settlements. Other northern Indians would eventually convert to Catholicism as well, finding a close relationship with the French missionaries to be a helpful source of stability after their communities had been ravaged by disease or attacks from the Iroquois. The reserves became multicultural communities that included Algonquians, Mahicans, Ottawas, Hurons, and others, all of whose warriors were more or less explicitly allied with the French.

The French population in Acadia and Québec remained small for many years, numbering fewer than 200 for at least two decades. Champlain encouraged young male fur traders to live among the Indians rather than remaining inside the settlements, a policy which had the effect of strengthening French trading relationships with distant nations. The policy also extended French influence far inland into what became known as the pays d’en haut, territories which the French claimed as their own but never settled. In 1627, a trading company known as the Compagnie des Cent-Associés obtained from the French Crown a trading monopoly and land grant which included Québec and Acadia, extended northeast to Newfoundland and south through the Mississippi Valley. The company received the grant on the condition that it create a farming settlement. France’s aim was to consolidate French control over Canadian territory – a goal whose importance was reinforced in 1629, when English privateers captured Québec, took Champlain prisoner, and held the city until it was restored by treaty negotiations in 1632.

Once Champlain and the French investors regained control over New France, they became responsible for administering justice on the king’s behalf and distributing the land through a seigneurial system. Seigneurs, often French military officers or the Catholic Church, received large grants of land, laid out in strips perpendicular to the St. Lawrence River, which they held on the king’s behalf on condition that they ensure its improvement and development. The seigneurs then divided their lands among tenants, called habitants, who cleared and farmed the land in exchange for annual rents paid to the seigneurs. The seigneurs never became really wealthy, for rents remained small throughout the colonial period and farmers mostly grew food for their own subsistence rather than developing a cash crop. But the social structure did remain markedly different from that found in the English colonies. New France developed a sizable nobility, while most of its farmers remained permanent tenants. This gave it a distinctive character in contrast to New England, which never developed a nobility and where ordinary farming families typically owned their own land or paid only nominal rents.

Despite its obligation to do so, the company failed to bring settlers to New France in significant numbers, concentrating instead on further developing the fur trade. In consequence its trading monopoly was suspended in 1641, and the company was dissolved in 1662. Thereafter the colony was restructured as a royal province. Governing duties were carried out by a royal council consisting of a governor responsible for diplomacy and defense, an intendant who was in charge of finance and administering law and order, a bishop in charge of religious matters, and a five-person advisory council. The Crown filled each of these positions. Eventually the Crown also sent a permanent military force of French soldiers, called the troupes de marine, to the colony to man its garrisons and protect its settlements. The presence of professional soldiers also distinguished New France from the English colonies to its south, for the English colonies had no consistent military support from the home government until the eighteenth century.

Although migration to New France picked up after the reorganization of the government, French settlers arrived at a fraction of the rate achieved in the English colonies further south. During the early years of the colony, official French policy had limited migration to Catholics, although in reality the French government did little to hinder migration by Protestants. Between 1662 and 1671 the Crown actively encouraged immigrants by sending prospective settlers on royal transports as well as ships commissioned from merchants for the purpose. And yet the immigrants failed to come, for reasons that historians have struggled to understand. Peasants in seventeenth-century France, where famines were common and economic conditions grim, might have been expected to migrate in large numbers to a place with cheap, plentiful farmland and a low rate of mortality. In fact, however, few Frenchmen moved to New France voluntarily, and Frenchmen sent to the colony as soldiers or indentured servants were twice as likely to return to France as to stay in the colonies. Part of the reason for this reluctance was a widespread exaggeration among the French of the severity of Canadian winters. An even more important factor, historians have suggested, was the nature of French society and culture. Even when they were poor, French families were more likely than English families to provide patronage and material support for unemployed young people and to discourage their children from sailing away to an unknown land. As a result, French peasants (unlike their English, Scottish, and German contemporaries) simply refused to move away from home.

A census showed the presence of 3,215 European settlers in New France in 1666. Of these, about two-thirds were male, having arrived in the colony as either soldiers or indentured servants. In order to encourage marriage, the royal government in New France sponsored emigration by poor and unmarried Frenchwomen, much as the Virginia Company had done earlier in the century. About 770 filles du roi, as they were called, had arrived in the colony by 1673, whereupon they were encouraged to marry and begin new lives as the wives of French farmers. The importation of young women combined with a cold and healthy climate achieved, in the end, what earlier attempts to encourage immigration had not. Frenchwomen in the colony married young, experienced many pregnancies, and lived long lives, and the population at last began to grow at a rapid rate through natural increase. By the 1680s the population had grown to about 10,000 French-Canadians, more than doubling in less than 20 years.

The French government in New France also continued to encourage exploration and the expansion of the fur trade. A mission established at Ville-Marie in 1642 to convert the Indians became a major fur-trading center by the 1660s, attracting Indian traders from the north as well as west along the St. Lawrence River corridor as far as the Great Lakes. After the English Hudson’s Bay Company founded a colony north of New France in 1670 and began to compete with the French for the northern fur trade, the French government became an enthusiastic promoter of further exploration so that the French could expand their share of the trade. In 1682, Robert de La Salle explored the Mississippi and Ohio valleys on behalf of the French government, and laid claim for France to the surrounding territory. It was named Louisiana, and became part of New France.

Operation Blücher



Operation Blücher proposed a three-army attack along the Chemin des Dames: another frontal offensive, this one across the same terrain that had contributed so heavily to the French debacle in 1917. Ludendorff nevertheless approved as a means of drawing French reserves from a British front that he still expected to rupture decisively somehow at some future time.

Mounting Blücher required the transference of significant infantry and artillery from Rupprecht’s army group. Even then German strength was insufficient to replicate March 21 with a single coordinated attack. Results would have to be sought in a sequential series of attacks. That meant in essence using the same resources again and again, shifting their positions rather than relieving them to rest and prepare for the next round. Blücher succeeded in replicating Michael in the secrecy of its preparations—aided, according to some accounts, by the nightly croaking of thousands of frogs in the marshes and on the river banks. Thirty-nine divisions, two-thirds of them assault formations, were available. If the number of guns was fewer than optimal, Bruchmüller was in charge of them and supplemented tube artillery with over twelve hundred trench mortars. The Allies were taken by surprise when the German barrage, three million painstakingly coordinated and devastatingly effective rounds, opened on May 27. To make matters worse, the French sector commander insisted in front-loading his positions, at the rate of one division per five miles of front-line trenches. Finally, the initial weight of the attack fell on four British divisions badly mauled in the earlier fighting and sandwiched into this quiet sector to recover.

Tactically the attack was a virtuoso performance, even compared to Michael. Planning and serendipity enabled the Germans to advance as much as fourteen miles on the first day—the war’s largest single-day ground gain on any front. As the offensive attack continued to progress, Ludendorff applied the by now shopworn principle of following up tactical success with a set of operational objectives as vague as they proved ephemeral. He wrote of threatening Paris. Instead, Blücher devolved into an offensive to nowhere in particular as Allied reserves shored up the line and exhausted, disgruntled Germans found solace in captured supply dumps and their stores of liquor. Material results were impressive: 127,000 Allied casualties including 50,000 prisoners; 600 guns; an advance of almost forty miles in four days. But the vital northern French railway network was still uncut, its centers uncaptured. Blücher and its subsidiary operations had cost over a hundred thousand Germans dead, wounded, missing—replaceable in neither numbers nor quality. And a new player was making an appearance: the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

The improvised American Army had the obvious and predictable shortcomings: inadequate training, ineffective equipment, inappropriate doctrine, inefficient officers, inflexible organizations, inexperienced men. Two further factors exacerbated the Yanks’ initial difficulties. One was the strained relations between the Americans and their war-experienced mentors, the French in particular. A sense of saving the day at the last minute reinforced frequent dismissal of the poilus as burned out, prone to panic and reluctant to fight. In fact, as German casualty lists attested, the French remained on the whole first-rate combatants, skilled alike in minor tactics and larger combined-arms operations, making up in craft what they had sacrificed in élan. The confidence of inexperience limited the Americans’ ability to benefit systematically by observing their veteran allies. And that inexperience was red meat to the Germans who faced them.

In the “little war” of patrols, raids, and small-scale attacks that characterized the Americans’ early tours on the front line, the Germans consistently set the pace in battlecraft, initiative, and effective courage. The Americans were more than willing to fight. They simply did not know how, even against the third- and fourth-rate German divisions holding down the relatively quiet sectors that were the AEF’s test beds. The AEF’s higher commands and staffs were no less caught up in the higher mechanics of combat and logistics on scales heretofore unimagined at West Point or Leavenworth. The divisions were on their own. From Seicheprey and Château-Thierry through Belleau Wood to Soissons, Americans learned by experience, observation—and sometimes pure serendipity. Their learning curves could be steep, but too often the lessons learned were in a context of two steps forward, one sideways, one back. Their tactical deficiencies remained: poor cohesion and worse liaison, ill-defined objectives, misplaced initiatives. Their casualty rates were swingeing—on the scale of 1914–15. Too many officers in too many positions were still not up to their jobs. Tactical cooperation with the French was, if anything, growing worse. Nevertheless, the doughboys passed their first tests with credit, given where they had begun eighteen months earlier. They would play significant roles in checking the final German offensive and the resulting Allied counterattacks.

That, however, lay in the future. Present reality was Ludendorff’s reaction to the huge salient Blücher had created. Almost forty miles across, over sixty miles long, difficult to defend and more difficult to supply, it offered a stark choice as either a magnet for a major Allied counteroffensive or a springboard for another German attack. An initial effort in early June failed for the first time in months to achieve anything worthwhile tactically, to say nothing of operationally. The Allies were increasingly able to cope with storm troop tactics. The storm troop principle of infiltration, bypassing strong points in the way water seeks the easiest path, led to a downward focus that negatively complemented Ludendorff’s strategic principle of “punching a hole and seeing what happened.” In both cases there were no objectives—just processes, ultimately leading nowhere in particular. The result, as casualties mounted and reinforcements dwindled, was the reduction of assault divisions and storm battalions to isolated combat teams that could be frustrated, destroyed—or stopped in their tracks.

At command level, Ludendorff’s next operational decision was easily made: an attack towards the Marne, with the initial objective of—finally—capturing the railroad hub of Reims, and with Paris on the horizon as a prospect. There were more or less vague thoughts at OHL about using this offensive as a preliminary to a final, decisive blow against the BEF in Flanders. But what the Allies called the Second Battle of the Marne had first priority. If this was not an all-or-nothing effort, it was as close as the German Army could come. Forty-eight divisions, 900 aircraft, 6,300 guns, and Georg Bruchmüller were committed to the attack that began on July 15. This time the initial successes were limited, the offensive was stymied, and a series of well-coordinated Allied counterattacks retook almost all the ground lost during Blücher. Lossberg, a supreme realist and sufficiently junior to escape the predictable consequences, set the war’s “precise” turning point as July 18: the first day of the final Allied offensive on the Western Front. There might be errors and misunderstandings along the way, but from that date the Allies never looked back and the Germans always fought on the back foot, ever closer to home.

English-speaking historians remain prone to give the palm of decisive victory to the BEF’s attack on August 8, “the black day of the German Army” according to Ludendorff. It is more accurate to credit the empirical British with developing the first modern combined-arms team: a doctrinal, institutional, and technological synergy among infantry, artillery, tanks, and air power, coordinated by radio systems. The artillery sealed the flanks of an attack, conducted counter-battery fire against German gun positions, and provided an initial creeping barrage. Within the “artillery zone” the tanks sought targets of opportunity while the infantry probed for soft spots, each supporting the other as needed. Aircraft provided reconnaissance, artillery observation, and, increasingly, ground support: by August 1918 the Tank Corps had an RAF (Royal Air Force) squadron attached.

The complex interaction of these arms could not be controlled in any modern sense with the communication technology of 1918. Radios, still bulky and unreliable, were impractical below brigade level. Above all, even in the war’s final stages, technique and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. The Third Republic had the doctrine and possessed the tools for modern combat. French staff officers proclaiming “the battle of 1919 will be a battle of aviation and tanks” were, however, less expressing principled conversion to high-tech war than recognizing that their army had finally run out of men. By the time of the Armistice, “the emptiness of the battlefield” was more than just a metaphor in French sectors. The Americans were still chewing their way through the Argonne Forest on what amounted to a rifle-and-bayonet basis, suffering in under seven weeks the largest number killed of any battle in America’s history. They learned as they died, impressing the Germans with a fighting spirit long since eroded in their own ranks. But the AEF was still a long way from being able to implement smoothly the “semi-managed” battle, with attacks only able to move forward in a lurching progress that grew steadier with practice. It is similarly appropriate to speak of a “semi-mobile” battle, with men, vehicles, and firepower pushing back the German front as opposed to rupturing it. The initial gains of August 8 were in a sense deceptive. Neither the tactics nor the technology of 1918 was quite up to breaching even improvised defensive positions at acceptable cost. What they could do was maintain a steady pressure that compelled an eroding army to fall back steadily, never giving it time to recover.

Relative to its opponents, moreover, the German Army was demodernizing. The Fokker D-VII had acquired a reputation as the best fighter on the front, but the Jagdstaffeln were being whittled down by growing Allied numbers and increased Allied skill. A new generation of French and British air superiority fighters was coming from the factories to the front. Manfred von Richthofen had been killed on April 21, probably by ground fire. By mid-August his famous Fighter Wing 1 had been consolidated into a single squadron due to its heavy losses, the first of several times it would similarly be bled white. In May and June alone the Luftstreitkräfte used twice the amount of fuel that reached the front, and subsequent introduction of rationing limited some fighter squadrons to ten sorties a day. Whether a unit was fighter, attack, or observation, old hands carried the main burden and were making fatigue-related mistakes that too often proved fatal, even with the episodic introduction of parachutes in the war’s final stages. On the ground, the few tanks available achieved nothing in particular. Their numbers were too limited. Their technical shortcomings were too many. The overhanging chassis was vulnerable even to slight obstacles and irregularities. In operational contexts, officers of other arms had no serious idea of what tanks should or could do. Nor, indeed, did the tankers themselves. Armor doctrine, insofar as it existed, emphasized maintaining close contact with the infantry, using surprise when possible, avoiding rough or heavily shelled terrain. On one occasion a single cannon-armed A7V prevailed against no fewer than seven British Whippets carrying only machine guns. On another, the tanks encountered a river reported as fordable that in fact proved too deep to cross. On a third an Abteilung of A7Vs drove into an artillery position and was constrained to beat a hasty retreat. It was a far cry from June 1940.

More prosaically, artillery horses were dying in their traces by the score, limiting when not crippling the guns’ mobility, increasing the problem of providing effective fire support in what was becoming increasingly a war of movement. The deeper penetrations Allied tactics and technology enabled not only left more front-line units isolated, but made retreat an increasingly high-risk option. The result was a growing number of “ordered surrenders.” Three hundred forty thousand German soldiers surrendered between July 18 and November 11, 1918. These were mostly group capitulations, organized by company officers or senior NCOs, often brokered in part or accompanied by providing detailed information on a sector’s defenses and strong points as a good will gesture and to avert any later misunderstandings. It was a long way from August 1914.

The Germans’ fighting retreat was predictably tenacious and predictably skillful. They inflicted more casualties than they suffered. But in David Zabecki’s words, “they were truly burned out.” Hunger, influenza, typhus, and traumatic stress shredded the ranks at the front and in the rear. By default it was becoming an infantryman’s war that the infantry could not sustain indefinitely. Over 400,000 more men were dead or wounded. More ominously, almost 350,000 were counted as prisoners or missing. By early October an army corps with seven divisions in its order of battle was reporting its infantry strength at less than 5,000 men—less than 10 per cent of authorized tables of organization. One regiment could count only 200 men. Another mustered 120, organized in four companies instead of the regulation twelve. Units with such low strengths fell far below the critical mass necessary to sustain cohesion as a combat force. Battalions and companies depended increasingly and disproportionally on the remaining alte Hasen and the Korsettenstangen, the “old hares” and the “corset stays”—the machine gunners in particular—that the front’s artisan groups continued to produce. But as summer gave way to autumn the combat effectiveness of these groups eroded in favor of their survival aspects. Getting home alive became a primary objective of the Korporalschaften that in the course had become Kameradschaften as well as Kampfgemeinschaften. Wilhelm Deist describes the result as a “camouflaged strike,” with the “proletariat” of the war machine downing tools in a Marxist model of behavior. One might refer as well to Robert Darnton’s model of pre-industrial protest: challenging a system by defying its norms. Even before the army fell back towards its own frontiers, its rear areas contained increasing numbers of men who had drifted away from the front war. The will to enforce more than the minimum forms of discipline eroded, less from fear of a bullet in the back than a sense that it no longer mattered.

The German Army did win final victory—over its own government. Since August Ludendorff’s behavior had grown increasingly erratic. He blamed the continuing sequence of defeat on the failures of subordinates. He insisted deserters be executed out of hand and officers enforce orders with handguns. He had not, however, entirely lost touch with reality. On October 1 he presented a general review of the military situation. The war, he declared, was lost. The only way to save the army from disaster was for the government to request an immediate armistice. His auditors broke into fits of sobbing as the quartermaster-general finally confirmed the long-standing aphorism that “Prussia was an army with a country.” Two days later, Prince Max von Baden became chancellor. His first official act was to request an armistice on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s call for “peace without victory.” He received a dusty answer. Wilson demanded that any terms make German resumption of hostilities militarily impossible. He insisted on refusing to negotiate with the emperor and the generals. The protests of Ludendorff and Hindenburg amounted to spitting into the wind. William’s last imperial act was to replace Ludendorff as first quartermaster-general with Wilhelm Gröner. It would be Gröner the problem-solver who would negotiate William’s abdication as the Second Reich collapsed into mutiny and disorder in a matter of days. It would be Gröner who silenced the fire-eaters demanding an all or nothing end game on German soil. And it would be Gröner who arranged the compromise with an embryonic republican government that committed the army, what might remain of it, to maintain law and order if the republic restricted revolution to the political sphere.

Those, however, are stories for another time and another book. The generals’ rebellion that deposed the emperor and the domestic revolution that ended the monarchical order are alike remarkable for the limited influence they exercised on the army as an institution. Conscript national armies are held together by a complex interface between front and home, military system and civil society, incorporating varying combinations of compulsion, patriotism, and ideology. Underlying all of them, however, is an implied contract between the soldier and the system. When the nature or the conduct of a particular conflict breaks that contract, soldiers are likely to respond negatively. To speak of a “strike” is to minimize the emotional factors, especially the sense of betrayal that accompanies the process. One might be better advised to talk of alienated affection. By November 1918, the German High Command could count no more than a dozen or so of its divisions as able and willing to fight anyone. Its storm troop battalions were increasingly used as headquarters guards. Far from being “stabbed in the back,” the German Army was beaten in the field, beaten to a degree sufficient to break its social contract and erode its cohesion.

For the most part, the desires of the disaffected soldiers were expressed in the counterpart to a joke common among American GIs in World War II. A suitably edited version is “when I get home, I’m going to do three things. First I’ll have a beer. Then I’ll make love to my wife. Then I’ll take off my pack.” Such a mind-set may not make revolutions, but it can halt wars. The Imperial German Army ended its existence with a collective sigh of relief.

1916 Somme Air War I




The Somme Offensive was the crucible in whose heat the RFC and the Luftstreitkräfte found their definitive shapes. The series of actions launched by the Allies in an attempt to break through the German lines called for maximum effort by the RFC and Aviation Militaire; which in turn put pressure on the Luftstreitkräfte to exert itself to the utmost. From the outset air activity was greater than at Verdun. The British put 185 aeroplanes into the battle; the French, 200. The long preparatory bombardment, which lasted a whole week, gave the enemy ample warning; they mustered 130 aeroplanes to try to control the air space.

The Allies, then, began with an advantage; which, even before the artillery barrage opened on 1st July, was made all the greater by the removal of their two most formidable opponents: one permanently, the other temporarily. In April, Immelmann, known by now as “The Eagle of Lille”, with thirteen kills to his credit, had been granted a regular commission. His brother officers celebrated the event by hiring a band to play at dinner in their mess. Hundreds of troops gathered on the road to listen and to cheer the hero. The Crown Prince of Saxony had decorated him with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of St Heinrich, which, being a Saxon, Immelmann rated higher than the Pour le Mérite, a Prussian order.

He was still as unsophisticated as when he joined the Service. He wrote to his mother: “Now I am a full lieutenant and all of a sudden one of the senior comrades. It has been a quick business. I think my career is unparalleled. Only a year ago I was an acting officer without any distinction … and today!!”

On 18th June, he took off to attack an FE2B of 25 Squadron which had crossed the German lines, flown by Second Lieutenant McCubbin with Corporal Waller as observer. After his first diving pass, Immelmann zoomed into the half-loop that was the first phase of the turn he had invented. As he was about to roll upright at the top, Corporal Waller fired at him. The Fokker broke in two and fell to the ground.

The RFC awarded Waller the kill. The Germans insisted that Immelmann had shot off his own propeller. They said his gun was not synchronised. It had been fitted just before he took off and a new propeller had been bolted on; in the wrong position, they claimed: there had not been time to ensure that the two were in harmony. The matter has never been resolved. A 25 Squadron pilot took the risk of flying over the enemy airfield at fifty feet to drop a wreath “To a gallant and chivalrous opponent”.

It was a great compliment to the Vickers FB5, the Gunbus, that in the enemy records the encounter was entered as having been with “a Vickers”. So impressed were the Germans with the Gunbus that they used to refer to the DH2 as “a Vickers” and to the FE2 as “a Vickers two-seater biplane”.

Immelmann’s death was a demoralising shock to both his Service and his nation. Determined that Boelcke, who was now a captain and still in the thick of the fighting, should not be the reason for further damage to pride and confidence, the Kaiser ordered him to be grounded and sent on a public relations tour of the Eastern Front.

A radical reorganisation of the German Air Service, to combat the Allies’ air superiority over the Somme, brought him back within two months. The flying units were to be renamed “Jagdstaffeln”, literally hunter squadrons — fighter squadrons, in fact — and their establishment was increased to fourteen aircraft. Jagdstaffel No. 1 existed only on paper, so the first to be formed was Jagdstaffel (shortened to “Jasta”) 2 and Boelcke was given command of it. While visiting the Eastern Front he had renewed acquaintance with Manfred von Richthofen, whom he had met in 1915 in the dining car of a train on which both were travelling on leave.

Boelcke at that time had four victories. Richthofen, who was still an observer, asked him how he did it. His reply was the same as Fonck or Navarre, Ball or Mannock, Rickenbacker or Baracca might have given: “Well, it’s quite simple. I fly close to my man and aim well, and then of course he falls down.”

“I have done that, Herr Oberleutnant, but my opponents don’t go down.”

“The reason is that you are in a large machine and I fly a Fokker monoplane.”’

Richthofen often recalled those words. On their second meeting he made such a good impression that Boelcke invited him to join Jasta 2.

The FE2B and D, the Gunbus and the Martinsyde Scout, before its relegation to bombing and reconnaissance in October 1915, had shot down many Fokkers, even though they in turn had suffered worse. The Sopwith two-seater 1 ½ – strutter, which the RAF and the RNAS began to receive in 1916, was the first Allied aircraft with a machinegun firing through the propeller arc. Initially, the Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear was fitted for the pilot’s gun, but was soon replaced by the Scarf-Dibovsky gear. Originally, also, the Lewis gun for the observer in his rear cockpit was on a Nieuport mounting: which was exchanged for the more efficient Scarff ring. But it was the DH2 that mastered the Fokker on the British Front, while the Nieuport II was doing the same in the French sector.

Not until a few months before the Somme Offensive did a British pilot first receive the same adulation in the press as Boelcke, Immelmann, Guynemer, Nungesser and Navarre. Albert Ball was nineteen years old when he joined No. 13 Squadron on 18th February 1916 to fly the BE2C, which was by now outclassed by practically every other aeroplane in the Flanders sky. Here was a young man who epitomised the most dangerous military material: sent out into the world straight from the strict discipline of boarding school, where he had been imbued with obedience, respect for authority, religious faith and the high ideals of bravery, patriotism and honour. It was not the lad who had been hardened by a life of deprivation in the back streets of an industrial city or London’s East End, in which he had had to survive by his wits, his resilience, his fists and his boots, who was potentially the most lethal in battle. It was the public school product who was potentially the readiest and most determined killer: instantly acquiescent to the orders of his superiors, made strong and healthy by compulsory games, cross-country runs, cold baths and a sensible diet; with a strong sense of responsibility and an awareness of a privileged upbringing that imposed obligations of leadership and self-sacrifice on him.

At this point it comes instantly to mind that the twenty most successful fighter pilots of the war include several Frenchmen and Germans who had never even heard of the British public school system. Britons such as Mannock and McCudden, and Canadians like Collishaw, Bishop and Barker had never set eyes on a boarding school of any kind. And if the fighting on the Austrian Front had been on a bigger scale, and if America had entered the war sooner, there would have been Italians and Americans with more than forty victories who were the product of very different systems of education from that of the British middle and upper classes, with its rigorous insistence on unquestioning obedience, Spartan conditions and frequent corporal punishment. Among the average sort of soldier, sailor or airmen, however, the ones who took most easily to obeying orders and putting on a brave face when their bowels were deliquescing with fear, which is the essential requirement in action, were those with a background like Ball’s. Autres temps, autres moeurs: we are considering a breed of an era long past.

Ball went from Trent College, in Nottinghamshire, into the Sherwood Foresters and transferred to the RFC on 29th January 1916. He had already learned to fly. While in camp on the outskirts of London in 1915, he had taken lessons at Hendon, airborne at first light so as to be back on parade at 6 a.m. Although 13 Squadron’s main task was artillery spotting, in April he enabled his observer to shoot down one hostile machine and force down two more. On 7th May he was posted to No. II Squadron, which had eight FE2Bs, four Vickers Fighters, three Bristol Scouts; and was being re-equipped with Nieuport IIs, of which three had arrived. It was on this last type that he began to score conspicuous successes.

His letters to his parents reveal his immaturity as well as his self-discipline and sense of duty. There is nothing in them to suggest the fighter pilot prowling about the sky like a predatory beast, powerful, menacing, confident. There is nothing in their style, either, that indicates an expensive education. Before leaving England: “I do hope that as you say, I shall come home fit and well, and work hard at my work, but one job at a time is enough for a boy of my age. I simply long to have a smack, but my turn is really a long time coming.”

On reaching his first squadron: “At last we are in for the sport and really look like having plenty of it. The machine I am flying is a BE2C, so I do not consider my luck very good, however I shall have a good smack. Oh! I can see heaps of sport ahead, but it really is mad sport.”

Three months later: “I must say that although my nerves are quite good, I really do want a rest from all this work. I can stand a lot, but really I have been coming on in leaps and bounds in the last few days, and it is just beginning to tell on me. I always feel tired. I have struck a topping lot of chaps in this squadron and they look after me fine. But they all think me young and call me John. Well, this is no hardship and I am really very happy.”

A few days after that, having scored his first solo victory: “Well, I have just come off my patrol on the new machine. You will be pleased to hear that I brought down a Hun Albatross [sic]. He was at 5000 over his lines. I was at 12,000. I dived down at him and put 120 shots into the machine after which he turned over and was completely done in.”

In July: “No. 13 has lost four machines and passengers in the past week and our squadron two, and four crashes. However, mad Lonely One is still going strong. They call me John the Lonely One now.”

He was already going off on his own to hunt the enemy. His maiden kill was made with a Nieuport II and is indicative of his skill. The Albatros was a fearsome recent arrival at the Front. A handful had appeared late the previous year and were now proliferating as a deadly successor to the Fokker. It carried two machineguns firing through the propeller, was faster and a better climber than the Fokker, but less nimble. The Nieuport IIs rate of climb and top speed were superior to the Fokker’s. But the Albatros D1 was the most beautiful aeroplane of its generation, as its successive marks were of theirs. The most hackneyed description of it was “sharklike”. In fact, it was torpedo shaped, the space between its upper and lower mainplanes was very narrow and it had the sweet, rakish, murderous lines that were unmatched until the Spitfire was seen in the sky more than twenty years later. It is an old axiom in the aviation industry that “if it looks right, it’ll fly right”. The Albatros amply confirmed this.

A faster Nieuport, the Mk 17, had come into service with the French and a very few had started to reach some British squadrons. No II had just received one and Ball was itching to take it up and make his next kill.

Air fighting falls into few categories. Descriptions of air combat become repetitious and tedious to read. Most actions consisted of one killing dive out of sun; a dive that missed and necessitated an immediate zoom with gun firing; a twisting, switchbacking duel between two adversaries; one aeroplane, or a section, outnumbered and fighting off concerted attacks. Ball’s favourite method was to stalk his victim patiently, slide up astern and beneath, and despatch him with a short burst from a Lewis gun mounted on the upper wing and pointing obliquely upwards. The machinegun on a Nieuport could be moved by hand on a Foster mounting, named after a sergeant on II Squadron who had designed it. This was a quadrant down which the gun was slid to facilitate changing the magazine. It could be returned to the horizontal, pointing dead ahead, or at any upward angle. Ball’s canny furtive approach was interestingly in contrast with his frankness of manner and straightforward attitude. It worked extremely well, although its practice evidently imposed considerable nervous tension on him.

His home letters divulge as much about his daily life, intimate emotions and combats as any second party could try to convey by going into details. To his father, l0th July: “You ask me to let the devils have it when I fight. Yes, I always do let them have all I can, but really I don’t think them devils. I only scrap because it is my duty, but I do not think anything bad about the Hun. He is just a good chap with very little guts.” This is not a judgment that all Allied Aircrew would have endorsed. “Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you can see it is either them or me, so I must do my best to make it a case of them.”’

18th July: “At night I was feeling quite rotten and my nerves were quite poo-poo. Naturally I cannot keep on for ever. So at night I went to see the CO and ask him if I could have a short rest.” The Major referred this to the Corps Commander, who ordered Ball detached to No 8 Squadron to fly BE2Cs: not only retrogressive after Nieuport 17s, but also highly dangerous. But Ball was lucky. Vindictive, ignorant and cruel though the General was, his failure to understand the mental strain imposed on fighting airmen might have been worse. The usual response to such a request was to send the pilot into the trenches. “This is the thanks after all my work …” Ball’s score had been mounting. “It is a cad’s trick.”

He soon asked to return to II. He was posted to No. 60, under Smith Barry, where he cultivated a garden outside his tent. “The peas are topping.” He had several crashes. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He wrote on 31st July: “Re rests, I am afraid that they are out of the question, for they don’t give you a rest unless you are quite a crock.” He forgot that 14th August was to be his twentieth birthday, until his parents sent him a present. Thanking them, he said he would be glad to be home for good.

29th August, to his mother: “A French major called to congratulate me yesterday. He says I have now got more Huns than any pilot out in France. They make it out to be sixteen crashed in eighty-four flights and also a balloon. The major had a long talk with me today. He is very pleased and says I may have leave. Oh! won’t it be AI. I do so want to leave all this beastly killing for a time.”

On 15th September he was in action again. At 3 p.m. he took off in a Nieuport armed with one fixed Lewis gun on an offensive patrol at 7000 feet. An Albatros, Type A, with guns front and rear, flying at an estimated 80 m.p.h., came in sight. Here is his Combat Report. “Albatros seen going south over Bapaume. Nieuport dived and fired one drum when within 50 yards after which the gun on the Nieuport came down and hit me on the head, preventing me from following the H.A. (hostile aircraft) down.” This was a hazard of the Foster mounting when firing at high elevation.

Later that evening he was up again, this time armed with Le Prieur rockets in addition to his Lewis gun. “Five Rolands seen over Bapaume in formation. Nieuport dived and fired rockets in order to break up formation. Formation was lost at once. Nieuport chased nearest machine and got under it, firing one drum at 20 yards. H.A. went down quite out of control and crashed N.E. of Bertincourt.”

These reports are made out in the name “Lieut. A. Ball, MC.”

Before his next fight, 21st September, his Distinguished Service Order was gazetted, to add to his Military Cross, for the Combat Report of that date is accredited to Lieut. A. Ball, DSO, MC. Decorations came more quickly than in 1939-45.

He met six Rolands flying at about 90 m.p.h. “H.A. seen N. of Bapaume in formation. Nieuport dived and fired rockets. Formation was lost. Nieuport got underneath nearest machine and fired a drum. H.A. dived and landed near railway. Nieuport then attacked another machine and fired two drums from underneath. H.A. went down and was seen to crash at side of railway. After this the rest of the H.A. followed the Nieuport towards the lines and the Nieuport turned and fired remainder of ammunition after which it returned to the aerodrome for more. Second machine was seen to crash by Lieut. Walters.”

On 25th September he ran into two formations of Rolands and Type A Albatroses, and saw them both off. “Nieuport could not see any H.A. over Bapaume at a reasonable height, so it went along the Cambrai road. After being there for a few minutes, two formations came along. Nieuport attacked the first. The H.A. ran with noses down, but, when another formation came near it turned towards the Nieuport. The Nieuport fired one drum to scatter the formation after which it turned to change drums. One of the drums dropped into the rudder control and for a few seconds the Nieuport was out of control.

“Nieuport succeeded in getting drum on gun and attacked an Albatros which was then flying at its side. Nieuport fired 90 rounds 1 in 3 Buckingham at about 15 yards range underneath H.A. H.A. went down quite out of control and crashed. The remainder of H.A. followed Nieuport, but in the end left. In order to keep them off at a safe range Nieuport kept turning towards them. Each time this was done H.A. made off with noses down.”

Combat at so close a range risked collision, or his own aeroplane catching fire when he set alight to an enemy with Buckingham incendiary rounds.

He had been promoted. This report is by “Capt. A. Ball, DSO, MC.”

On 18th September, between whiles, he had written most touchingly to his father: “Oh, you did make my leave a topper, and if I live to be a hundred I shall never wish for a more happy time.”

He would not live to be twenty-one.