By the time this treaty with Venice was concluded, Louis XII, King of France (1498–1515), was rid of one of his most determined opponents. Julius II died during the night of 20 February 1513. The new pope was Giovanni de’ Medici, who took the title Leo X. Much younger than Julius, he was not so belligerent and was far more subtle and changeable in diplomacy. Those who dealt with him would find him hard to read, except they soon discovered his fixed purpose to elevate the Medici into a princely dynasty: domination over Florence was not enough. Inevitably, his elevation to the papal throne strengthened his family’s position in Florence, and Leo would effectively dictate Florentine foreign policy.
As he prepared to try to recover Milan, Louis could not be sure what the new pope would do, nor count on the Florentines as allies. He might have hoped to have neutralized at least one opponent in Italy, making a truce with Ferdinand in April for a year. But the truce covered the border war between France and Spain, not Italy, so Ferdinand could still oppose the French there. Nevertheless, Cardona had already been ordered to return to Naples with the army, leaving the infantry behind in the pay of others, if possible.
Cardona had not left before the French invaded Milan. Under the command of La Trémoille and Giangiacomo Trivulzio, the French troops – 1,200-1,400 lances, 600 light horse and 11,500 infantry – crossed the Alps and mustered in Piedmont in mid-May, with 2,500 Italian troops. In late May Massimiliano was reported to have 1,200 Spanish and Neapolitan men-at-arms, 1,000 light horse, 800 Spanish infantry, 3,000 Lombard infantry and 7,000 Swiss. But Cardona, having sent troops to help Massimiliano defend the north-west of the duchy, quickly withdrew them, thus facilitating the rapid French advance. He kept his men at Piacenza, which he had taken over with Parma for Massimiliano after the death of Julius. In order to secure the pope’s support against the French, Massimiliano agreed to give them up to Leo, but no papal troops were sent to help him. The duke was left with the Swiss and what Lombards rallied to his defence. On the other side, d’Alviano was under orders from Venice to join up with the French only if the Spanish joined up with the Swiss. The Venetians were confi dent that, lacking men-at-arms, the Swiss alone should not pose much of a problem for the French, and the campaign would soon be over.
By early June, the French had overrun much of the west of the duchy. In Genoa, with the aid of a French fleet, the Adorno and Fieschi deposed Doge Giano Campofregoso and Antoniotto Adorno became governor there for Louis. In the east, the Venetian army under Bartolomeo d’Alviano took Cremona; Lodi and the Ghiaradadda rose against Massimiliano. The city of Milan, where a French garrison still held the fortress, was in confusion, waiting to see the outcome of the campaign. Only the areas around Como and Novara, where the Swiss were concentrated, still held for Massimiliano, who was at Novara.
Throughout the winter, Louis had been trying to come to an accord with the Swiss. The seriousness of his intent was signalled by his sending La Trémoille and Trivulzio to Lucerne to conduct the negotiations, and his ordering the surrender of the fortresses of Locarno and Lugano to the Swiss. Happy to have the fortresses, but not to have the French back in Milan, in response to the invasion the Swiss rapidly organized and despatched several thousand reinforcements. These headed for Novara; news of their approach made La Trémoille decide on 5 June to raise the siege of the city that had just begun. A column of 7,000-8,000 Swiss skirted the French positions and entered Novara that day, to join the 4,000 already there with Massimiliano.
By nightfall, the French had travelled only a few miles, and the units made camp where they halted, dispersed as they were for the march. Consequently, they were ill-prepared for the attack launched by the Swiss before dawn. The Swiss had little artillery and only a few light horse with them, and the terrain, divided by ditches bordered by bushes, could have favoured the defenders had they had time to take position behind them. But the Swiss kept their disciplined battle order under fi re from the French artillery and overcame the infantry. The stiffest resistance they encountered was from about 6,000 landsknechts, who took the heaviest casualties when they were left to fight alone after the French and Italian infantry were routed. The French men-at-arms made little effort to defend them; the ground was not suited to the deployment of heavy cavalry. Nearly all the French horse escaped unscathed, abandoning their pavilions and the baggage train to the Swiss. Their artillery was captured too, and the elated Swiss dragged it back to Novara, with their own wounded men.
The battle of Ariotta (Novara) marked the zenith of the military reputation of the Swiss during the Italian Wars. Around 10,000 men, the majority of whom had reached Novara only hours before after several days’ march (and without waiting for 3,000 further reinforcements who were hard on their heels), with virtually no supporting cavalry and very little artillery, had routed a numerically superior French army, including a contingent of landsknechts almost as large as the main battle square of around 7,000 men the Swiss had formed, over terrain ill-adapted to manoeuvring such a large formation in good order. It was a tribute to the training and discipline, as well as the bravery and physical hardiness, of the Swiss infantry. The element of surprise had of course helped them, together with the fact the French army had been so widely spread out and had not prepared a defensive position, but this did not detract from the achievement of the Swiss or the humiliation of the French.
After the rout of the French army, the Spanish finally joined the Swiss to drive them out of Italy. Cardona sent 400 lances under Prospero Colonna to support Massimiliano. He also sent Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, marchese di Pescara, with 3,000 infantry and 200 light horse to Genoa to assist the Fregoso faction in deposing Antoniotto Adorno on 17 June and replacing him with Ottaviano Campofregoso as doge. This displeased the Swiss, who had already made advantageous terms with Adorno. The Swiss took Asti, advanced in Piedmont and pillaged much of Monferrato.
It was evident that Louis could not send another expedition to Italy that year. In France, he was facing an invasion in the north by Henry VIII of England and Maximilian; Henry took Thérouanne and Tournai, and in August inflicted another humiliating defeat on the French at Guinegatte. That month the Swiss invaded Burgundy, laying siege to Dijon. La Trémoille made a treaty with them promising large payments and renouncing the king’s claim to Milan. The Swiss withdrew, but Louis would not ratify the treaty.
More than ever, the Swiss dominated the duchy of Milan. Massimiliano acknowledged the debt he owed for the blood they had shed to secure his rule, and agreed extra payments and compensation to those who had fought for him, totalling 400,000 Rhenish florins. But he did not have the money to satisfy them, nor could he afford to pay them to attack the Venetians, as Cardinal Schinner suggested.
Swiss and Landsknechts – Rivalry and Blood-Feud
Swiss ﬁghters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good ﬁghters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.
A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.
The ﬁght was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery ﬁre alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even ﬁght each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery ﬁre, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.
In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:
• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.
• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.
• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.
Generalmajor Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, 1 January 1945 – 8 May 1945
Fighting in the Neiße Area
On 18 March, 1945 elements of the 20th Panzer-Division were in the Neiße area, where the Soviets had advanced to Groß Giesmannsdorf, 5 kilometres west of the city of Neiße. There, elements of the 20th Panzer-Division held on for 3 days, launching hasty counter-attacks that finally forced back the Soviets. The 20th thus gained a defensive front in the line Nowag—Stephansdorf—Bielau.
Three companies of the Panzer regiment of the 20th Panzer-Division, with 10 armoured vehicles, took up a reverse-slope position, with their front facing the nearby pioneer training area. Most of the vehicles were Jagdpanzer. They were front heavy, due to heavy frontal armour, and became bogged down in the soft ground. An attack was launched at 03.00 hours in the early morning of 23 March against Heidersdorf, northwest of Neiße. It ran into a Soviet night attack that had just begun, and did not get through.
In the city of Neiße were Volkssturm, several alarm units, the city police and remnants of the 20th Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr. 1), from the pocket east of Neiße. Early on 24 March, Soviet troops entered Neiße, whereupon the civilian population was exposed to the orgies of rape. The Red soldiers set fire to the city, destroying about 80% of all its structures.
The 19th Panzer-Division had to launch an immediate counter-attack to recapture Neiße. Not all elements of the division made it back in time from other fighting. The attack failed. The division then launched an attack with Panzer-Regiment 27, along with the SPW battalion, forcing the Soviets to fall back. Between 22 and 24 March, the success of 6 to 7 kilometres in depth changed the situation near Neiße, at least south of the city. Large numbers of Soviet soldiers fled the city, offering only weak resistance. The German formations immediately pulled out of the front line again, to shift to Ziegenhals as reserves. The 19th Panzer-Division then engaged in an intermediate action in the area north of Jägerndorf, and then again at Oderberg.
Pilgersdorf, at the foot of the Sudeten, changed hands several times, finally ending up in Soviet hands. Suddenly, Soviet Il–2 ground attack planes attacked the town that was held by their own troops. Regardless of the ground troops’ demands to stop, one plane after another continued the attack.
At that point, at the end of March, the Soviets had less interest in the advance north of the Riesengebirge. Perhaps that was because the German divisions there had behind them the terrain obstacles of the Sudeten, such as Waldenburg in Silesia, Hirschberg in Silesia, and Lauban. The Soviets finally pursued other objectives, using the formations advancing north of Breslau to the west. At the end of March, their actions were restrained in several sectors, probably to redirect troop formations to commitment against Berlin. The capture of Berlin seemed more significant to the Soviets than the westward advance.
Although the fate of Berlin was already looming, in mid-April the Soviets also pushed on over the Lausitzer Neiße and on towards Dresden. That advance, related to the advance from Mährisch-Ostrau in the “Moravian basin”, and on towards Moravia, brought risks with it. The danger was that the 17th Armee, in its positions at the margin of the Riesengebirge, would be cut off if the Soviets advanced via Mährisch-Schönberg to the Glatz basin. Above all else, that would block the escape route for the retreats from central Silesia. The 17th Armee, therefore, pulled its right wing back to Mohrau, and shifted the main line of resistance into the prepared combat position of the Altvatergebirge. The 1st Ski-Jäger-Division was thereby released as a reserve. They were given the mission of shifting to Mährisch-Schönberg, to prevent penetration into the Glatz basin. The enemy spearheads advancing in that area were repulsed. More intensely than at the southern edge of the Altvatergebirge, the Soviets pushed onward in an east-west direction, their north wing against Sternberg. The commitment of troops, in the Olmütz area, was thus directly related to the Soviet effort to advance, south of the Riesengebirge, to the west. Thereby, they would simultaneously cut off the formations at the northern edge of the Riesengebirge.
The great frontal salient of the Altvatergebirge, reaching to Olmütz, could be held almost to the day of capitulation. However, with the loss of locally independent formations of the 49th Gebirgs-Korps being so great, they could not join the breakthrough to Olmütz. Nor could they get further to the west in time.
Defence at the Neiße
The line of defence at the Lausitzer Neiße held for a long time, approximately from 20 February until the new Soviet advance on 16 April. That offensive led in several parallel lines towards Cottbus, Spremberg, Senfenberg and Kamenz. It went past the existing German line of defence north of Bautzen, towards Riesa on the Elbe, and Torgau. The 20th Panzer-Division received no missions as a result of long-term planning in that region. Each time, its commitment was unexpectedly ordered, which placed substantial demands on improvisational ability. In any case, it was no longer able to carry out planned and prepared operations. There was no adequate supply of fuel and ammunition. Nor was there the prospect of any significant amount of renewed logistical support. The elements of the 20th Panzer-Division that were tied up in isolated actions, often had to dispense with the possibility of planned co-operation of their different groups. Repeatedly, they tried to delay the spearheads of the Soviet attacks. In the face of the immense Soviet superiority in personnel and materiel, they could attain no lasting success. Individual companies, indeed individual grenadiers, also the members of other specialist units, including pioneers and Panzer soldiers used as infantry, organised their positions for defence, and held fast. Again and again their self-reliance must, nevertheless, seem astounding.
Offensive on 16 April
On 16 April the Soviets started their offensive. After preparing for three defensive missions, from 15 to 17 April, the 20th Panzer-Division found itself on the move again, but by night. During the day the vehicles had to be camouflaged against enemy observation planes. On 18 and 19 April, elements of the division fought Soviet forces surging into the Odernitz—Niesky—Wilhelminental– Kodersdorf area. Before the start of the German attack on 19 April, shells from a Soviet tank struck amidst a discussion group, instantly killing two of the participating pioneers and wounding several others.
The next day, on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday, came orders to mark the main line of resistance with swastika flags. The troops got around that order by indeed, hanging out flags, but making sure that they could not be seen by any Red soldier from his position, let alone by any of their planes.
Soviet Advance on Cottbus
On 21 April the Soviets launched new attacks in the Muskau area. They broke through the German blocking positions and advanced on Spremberg and Cottbus. Warned during the night, elements of the 20th Panzer-Division moved out towards Görlitz. Due to the lack of fuel, the elements of the division brought most of their vehicles in tow, especially petrol driven vehicles. On 22 April they arrived at Landskrone, south of Görlitz. At that time the Soviets were on a broad front, stretching via Königshain, Niesky and Altmannsdorf to Bautzen. Görlitz itself proved to be free of the enemy. The artillery fired sudden concentrations on the location of the penetration point north of Görlitz. For that purpose, 10 stationary Flak batteries with abundant ammunition were attached to Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 92. They provided the grenadiers with good breathing space. The German counter-attack gained ground and closed off the Soviets at the point of the penetration. However, the civilian population suffered heavy losses as they had not evacuated houses directly in the combat zone, and thus were drawn into the fighting. As soon as they left the cellars of their houses, to flee to the west, both friendly and hostile fire fell on them
Further north, there were still German defensive forces such as the 24th and 40th Panzer-Korps. They crossed the Neiße to the west and south of Guben, and initially covered the area as far as the Spree River, staying until about 22 April. However, the 4th Panzer-Armee was responsible for the larger sector between Cottbus and Bautzen. It seemed out of the question to build a line of defence there as forces were lacking. Soviet forces, largely Polish, pushed forward to the west, thanks to good motor vehicles. They were supported by armoured formations. The artillery of the 20th Panzer-Division, in the Altmannsdorf area, had to fire to the west, while the Flak continued to engage the site of the penetration north of Görlitz. The Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division cleared Königshain and Niesky of enemy forces. They were then bogged down facing the next village. Its occupation required a difficult night march through shattered villages and woods and past the north side of Löbau. The Soviets attacked Altmannsdorf from the north and west. Friendly artillery fire worked over the margins of the woods so that the Soviets fell back. That also limited their Stalin Organ fire to the built up area and the firing positions, until Soviet ground-attack planes joined in at daybreak. The Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division attacked westward with 25 Panthers and broke through, followed by the artillery. The guns aimed direct fire into the enemy marching columns. Apparently that was a new experience for the Poles. They surrendered in droves. The Soviet 5th Tank Army encircled Bautzen, while the Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division held on east of Bautzen, and the garrison of the city held fast.
Battle for Bautzen
While advancing on the Löbauer Straße, the Panzer-Brigade knocked out over 20 T–34s that were approaching from the right at extremely short range. Troops occupying the city had made themselves at home in the empty houses. It was not only the Red Army soldiers. The Poles, too, had raged fearsomely among the populace. Almost all the houses around the Bautzen fortress were ablaze. The place had to be liberated in hand-to-hand combat with drunken Poles. The Poles drove German women in front of them as living shields against bullets.
The German relief force first fought their way to the fortress, whose German garrison still held on. At that point the north part of Bautzen was still in enemy hands. The attack on the fortress was to start at 09.00 hours on 24 April. However, the assembly position was hit by a strong air attack, putting their attack on hold. A Soviet bombing attack followed. At 14.00 hours the motorcycle troops of the 20th Panzer-Division, attacking from the north, reached the fortress and established contact with its defenders, liberating over 10,000 soldiers and civilians.
Another Schwerpunkt of the battle developed northeast of Hochkirch, southeast of Bautzen. There an entire series of T–34s, in serviceable condition, fell into German hands, along with numerous trucks. An entire Panzer company could thus be activated, but there was not enough fuel to take everything with them. For the same reason, the command stopped the progress of a successful attack and pursuit of the beaten Soviets east of Elstra, between Bautzen and Kamenz. There was no fuel. Indeed, the question was where the fuel had come from for the movements of the motorised forces up to that point. Search detachments had been formed, to pump what was left from the tanks of destroyed filling stations.
The 20th Panzer-Division then received orders to proceed towards Dresden. Berlin had to be considered almost encircled, unable to be relieved from that side. Nevertheless, it seemed possible that the 20th Panzer-Division might yet be ordered to relieve Berlin from the south. All sorts of supplies were found in Bautzen, rations and fuel, so the formations could move out towards Dresden.
East of Dresden the columns turned off and went into action south of Großenhain. Adjoining on the left was the 10th SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg” with the Dresden—Berlin Autobahn as its boundary. Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 112 was to occupy a position in the line Königsbrück, Ottendorf, Okrilla and Pulsnitz. The position was in open fields, with no significant roads, among small villages and rolling hills. Then, on 26 April, the report came that the Soviets and Americans had linked up in Torgau on the Elbe. In its own sector, the division expected a Soviet artillery division to arrive from the north, at the positions of the 20th Panzer-Division.
Therefore Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 112 dispatched patrols, principally to capture the bunkers in front of the position on the Königsbrück troop training ground. It was presumed to be already in the hands of a Soviet advanced detachment. For that purpose pioneers set up several so-called “Stukas zu Fuß” i.e. rockets in wooden launching frames.
The troops learned little regarding the situation. Word had gone round that Berlin was in a hopeless situation. In the meantime, the Soviets attacked on both sides of the Berlin—Dresden Autobahn. According to statements by prisoners, those were forces that had already been withdrawn from Berlin. The fact that the 20th Panzer-Division held its positions did little good. In light of the scarcity of German defensive forces, the Soviet forces advanced in areas that were nearly free of German troops, so they could avoid attacking the positions of the 20th Panzer-Division. In the areas between the defences they found no significant opposition. Nevertheless, on 29 April they strengthened their attacks, in particular using artillery fire on the positions of the 20th Panzer-Division. Apparently they used the expected Soviet artillery division’s guns of all calibres, from 7.5 cm cannon to heavy 22.9 cm howitzers. They fired with massive expenditure of ammunition and, indeed, in accord with the former German artillery manuals that they had taken over.
Preparation for the End of the Fighting
After Hitler’s death Generalfeldmarschall Schörner issued new instructions. The Americans should only be opposed where there would be difficulties with the withdrawal movements of the troops towards the south and west. It would be critical to maintain resistance to the east, to the extent that the infantry divisions and refugees could be brought back via Dresden.
In the first days of May, the Panzers drove from Ottendorf—Okrilla, 20 kilometres northwest of Dresden, into the area of the 4th Panzer-Armee towards the Dresden—Lübben Autobahn. They went into action driving northwest near Groß-Dittmannsdorf, Würschnitz and Klein-Naundorf. On 3 May, other elements of the division moved on into Dresden, via the “Weißer Hirsch” i.e. White Stag, after they had brought all but one vehicle out of the previous positions.
Fighting in Dresden
The sight of the destruction of Dresden gave rise to the conviction that there could be no hope of pardon with surrender. It became a matter of getting the columns of refugees into the mountains, in the hope that Schörner would keep his promise to make sure that nobody fell into Soviet hands. In the meantime the Soviets stood by, ready to attack with their armour. Swarms of Soviet bombers flew over Dresden towards Czechoslovakia, demonstrating their crushing superiority.
On the Reichsstraße to Dippoldiswalde, lines of refugees moved towards Bohemia between elements of a Waffen-SS division. As a precaution the batteries prepared new firing positions. The situation did not look good. One artillery Abteilung ended up in an enemy held village during its change of position, and remained missing ever after. The new position was near Frauenstein because the city itself was already in Soviet hands.
At that point the Americans were already in Karlsbad. Formations scouted minor roads to Brüx in the Sudetenland, in order to get all the men, vehicles and equipment that could be spared, over the mountains to Brüx and further on towards Karlsbad. The elements on trains were ordered to proceed there. The combat echelons merely formed the essential rearguard.
In the afternoon the Soviets attacked from Frauenstein, but 7 May too, passed with no order to retreat. The division intended to avoid being cut off. The Americans were to the west. The Soviets were coming from the north and east, so the only chance to escape seemed to be to reach the Sudetenland.
Elements of Panzer-Regiment 21 were ordered to block the Soviet advance near Neiße in Upper Silesia, and prevent them from crossing the Elbe towards Bohemia and Moravia. It was a mission that it could no longer accomplish. The Soviets proved to be faster. They had fuel, marched on whatever roads they chose, and brutally crushed the refugees fleeing on the roads. The German troops, on the other hand, had practically no fuel, and therefore had to drive in long strings of towed vehicles, and suffered other logistical difficulties. Waffen-SS formations and Fallschirm-Panzer-Division “Hermann Göring” also moved on the 20th Panzer-Division’s route of retreat, along with many refugees. The roads finally proved to be hopelessly jammed and blocked.
Part of the armour still made it, via Dippoldiswalde—Bärenburg to Altenberg. Other elements, particularly the trains, went via Heidenau, Pirna and Bad Schandau to Tetschen—Bodenbach, in order to cross the Elbe there. The railway elements entrained on 6 May to travel to Teplitz—Schönau, as well as Luhdorf. There they came under enemy artillery fire.
Dux—Brüx were already in Soviet hands. Trains assembled in a village south of Berlin, and off-loaded superfluous equipment and ammunition. It was planned to move out at 19.00 hours and drive as a unit into American captivity. During a last preliminary discussion, Soviet tanks suddenly appeared, standing in a semicircle on a hill facing the village. The last vehicles could still turn and leave from the other end of the village. Most, however, were unable to get away again. They were immediately captured by the Soviets.
Swinging in a wide arc, the vehicles that had escaped drove towards Saaz, past the airfield and the blazing German aircraft, on towards Karlsbad, which they reached on 9 May. There they ran into long German columns from Bohemia that had the same objective of escaping capture by the Soviets. Bumper to bumper, the vehicles were locked in a stationary traffic jam when suddenly, tanks opened fire on them from a hill to the left. However, it was not Soviet, but American tanks that had received orders to open fire to provide exciting scenes for the American weekly newsreels. Columns followed with American military police who escorted the German vehicles to prisoner assembly points near Falkenau. The next morning they were moved on to the Eger airfield, where about 9,000 soldiers arrived with many vehicles. The first releases began after 10 days. However, the Americans turned over the entire Marienbad and Pilsen camps to the Soviets.
By order of the division commander, the Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division moved out towards Prague. The German radio station, working around the clock in Prague, then transmitted that it was under siege and appealed for help. The Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung did not reach its objective. Early on 8 May, other elements of the division including Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 92, received orders to retreat, without clear instructions. Therefore the Abteilungen themselves had to see what progress they could make through forest cuttings, towards Teplitz—Schönau, with Karlsbad as their objective. When they learned of the surrender they turned off towards Aussig, until they too were caught up in a hopeless traffic jam. Some elements attempted to gain ground towards the southwest, moving cross-country over dry terrain. In the early morning of 9 May, Soviet tanks pushed into Aussig, triggering a wild panic. Some of the vehicles headed towards Bilin on country roads where they were met by Soviet tanks. Elements of the division went into captivity on 13 May. They were loaded on trains for Dresden, and proceeded from there on foot to the Königsbrück POW camp.
The French strategic cavalry was composed of ten cavalry divisions. This strategic cavalry would be reinforced by infantry battalions and artillery. Each French corps had a light cavalry regiment assigned (six squadrons). There was no divisional cavalry. French reconnaissance patrols were to avoid combat. In reconnaissance and security the French relied on combined-arms teams to confuse the enemy concerning the location of the main body and force him to deploy. The French thereby separated reconnaissance, which was conducted far forward by the strategic cavalry, from security, which was the responsibility of the corps cavalry and at the infantry division, by local foot patrols.
In August 1914 the French cavalry failed to perform both the reconnaissance and security roles. The French cavalry divisions manoeuvred almost aimlessly. The French corps cavalry remained so close to the infantry that tactical security was non-existent. As a result, the French higher commanders were poorly informed concerning German operational movements and the French infantry was repeatedly surprised.
French Enemy Estimate
Observing the density of the German rail net behind Metz, the Deuxième Bureau, the French General staff intelligence section, concluded that the Germans would concentrate up to 11 corps behind the Metz-Diedenhofen fortress complex and in Luxembourg as a mass of manoeuvre and then shift those forces into Lorraine or Belgium. The French did not obtain any solid intelligence on the location of the German assembly areas during the German rail deployment, and therefore retained the pre-war assumption that the Germans would mass behind Metz. On 9 August the French thought that 17 German acive-army corps opposed them, while four corps opposed the Russians. Since the French had 21 active army corps, the French thought they had numerical superiority. They estimated that there were five or six German corps in Belgium, five to eight corps located at Metz-Diedenhofen-Luxembourg, with more on the way, one to three corps in Lorraine, a corps plus in Alsace. Five corps were unaccounted for.
In fact, the German armies were evenly deployed from Alsace to the north of Aachen. The German 4th and 5th Armies were behind Metz and in Luxembourg, but did not have the decisive role that the French ascribed to them. The French intelligence analysts had been trained according to the theories of Bonnal, who doctrinally employed a large mass of manoeuvre, and were mirror imaging – writing the German plan as a French officer would have written it.
The pre-war calculation of the Deuxième Bureau was that the Germans could attack as of the 13th day of mobilisation. Expecting to find the Germans in the northern Ardennes, Sordet’s Cavalry Corps of three divisions was sent into Belgium on 6 August and reached the area west of Liège on 8 August. On 9 August he found nothing at Marche. Neither he nor French aerial reconnaissance could find any German forces as far east as the Ourthe River because there were no German forces there, nor would there be any there until around 18 August. Sordet’s cavalry had moved ten days too soon. Nor did the Belgians provide much useful information. By 12 August Sordet had moved to Neufchâteau but still made no contact; he then pulled back to the west bank of the Meuse on 15 August and was attached to 5th Army. Sordet reported that it was impossible to supply the cavalry in the Ardennes and that air recon was unreliable in the dense woods. His cavalry corps had conducted an eight-day march without obtaining any information concerning the German forces. In order to find the German 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies, the French cavalry would have had to advance across the Belgian Ardennes to the border with Germany and Luxembourg; it was unable to do so. The German deployment was not completed until 17 August and the German 5th and 4th Armies did not begin their advance until 18 August. The French had great difficulty understanding why the Germans were not as far to the west as they expected them to be.
By 10 August, the French saw indications that the Germans were digging in on the Ourthe between Liège and Houffalize. The French intelligence summary on 13 August reported that in the Ardennes there were only two German corps (VIII AK at Luxembourg and XVIII at Aumetz – the latter was actually XVI AK) and two cavalry divisions. The French were beginning to get the impression that there were no German troops in the Ardennes. This was not an illogical conclusion. It is more than 100km from the sparse German railheads in the Eifel, in the German Ardennes, to the Franco-Belgian border. The Ardennes is thinly populated and heavily forested, with few and poor roads. Crossing it would pose significant problems in supply and traffic control. At the end of the approach march lay the Meuse River, a formidable obstacle. It would seem unlikely that the Germans would commit significant forces from the very start of the campaign into such an out-of-the-way and difficult theatre of war.
In the skirmishes between cavalry and foot patrols during the first week of the war, the French thought that their troops were generally victorious, returning with prisoners, horses and weapons. The chief of staff of VI CA said that ‘this filled them with great joy.’ French pre-war predictions of the natural superiority of the French soldier seemed to be justified.
Between 7 and 10 August the French VII CA had advanced towards Mühlhausen in the upper Alsace and been thrown back into France by the German XIV AK and XV AK. On 14 August the French 1st Army and 2nd Armies attacked into Lorraine. Joffre was fully aware that the German forces to the east of Metz could attack through the fortress to the south into Lorraine: he gave the 3rd Army the mission of attacking any such German sortie in the flank with two corps, while on 15 August he told the 3rd Army to be prepared to invest Metz from the west
By 15 August the French recognised the strength of the German forces in the general vicinity of Liège. Joffre told the commanders of the 4th and 5th Armies that the Germans were going to make their principal effort ‘to the north of Givet’ with a second group marching on Sedan and Montmédy. The 4th Army estimate of the situation on 16 August said that these forces represented the German mass of manoeuvre, and that aerial reconnaissance showed that there were no significant German forces at Arlon or Luxembourg in the southern Ardennes. Joffre based on his plan of attack on the idea that the Germans had left their centre weak in order to strengthen the force north of the Meuse. He therefore decided to break the German centre in the Ardennes. On 15 August GQG ordered 5th Army on the left flank to march north to an area west of Givet. 4th Army was to be prepared to attack towards Neufchâteau. On 16 August the 3rd Army was told to hand over the area between Verdun and Toul to a group of reserve divisions in order to be able attack north of Metz towards Longwy.
The inability of the French cavalry divisions to obtain an accurate picture of the advance of the German 4th and 5th Armies led to serious mistakes in French operational and tactical planning. Due in great part to IR88’s success at Longlier, the French 4th and 9th Cavalry Divisions were pushed out of the way of XVIII AK and were not able to determine what the Germans were doing, nor hinder their movements. The anonymous author of the FAR 25 regimental history said that the French cavalry simply would not fight. From the smallest patrol up to the level of cavalry corps, the French cavalry avoided combat and when it unexpectedly did meet German forces, such as at Longlier, the French cavalry withdrew.77 The German cavalry was able to screen the movements of its own forces, while on 21 and 22 August it provided accurate information concerning the French advance.
3 DIC, Morning, 22 August
The Colonial Corps order, issued at 1800 21 August, directed the corps to march to Neufchâteau on 22 August, with 3 DIC on the right, marching through Rossignol, and 5th Colonial Brigade on the left, marching over Suxy. Because the Corps would transit the Forest of Neufchâteau–Chiny, the Corps cavalry regiment, the 3rd Chasseurs d’Afrique, would follow the advance guard. 2 DIC was held back west of Montmédy as the army reserve. XII CA was on the corps left, marching on Recogne and Libramont, II CA on the right, marching on Leglise. The corps order said that the only enemy forces in the area were those of the German 3 KD and 8 KD, which had been defeated by the French cavalry on 17–18 August.
The 3 DIC order of movement was 1 RIC, 2 RIC, Division Artillery (2 RAC), 3 RIC. 7 RIC followed, guarding the corps artillery (3 RAC); the column was 15km long. The movement order for 2 RIC conveys the prevailing attitude in the division: ‘Today a 33km march. Arrive at Neufchâteau at 1100 and billet. No contact expected.’
The advance guard battalion (I/1 RIC) missed its movement time at 0630 because it was in contact with German cavalry patrols. Then the rest of the regiment, which was to lead the main body, missed its movement time because the staffs did not know where the units were located and orders consequently arrived late. At 0800 the Colonial Corps was informed that II CA on the right was three hours behind 3 DIC, exposing the 3 DIC right flank. This was not an auspicious beginning. Heavy fog hindered movement until it lifted at 0700, revealing a clear, sunny sky.
Meeting Engagement, 3 DIC
A reserve cavalry squadron (6/6th Dragoons) provided security immediately in front of the 3 DIC advance guard. The choice of this reserve squadron, when a regiment of professional cavalry was available (the Chasseurs d’Afrique), can only be explained by the fact that the division did not expect contact. As usual, French cavalry stayed close to the infantry for protection. The Dragoons were engaged about 600m south of Rossignol by dismounted German cavalry, which withdrew. The Dragoons advanced through Rossignol and then 500m into the forest of Neufchâteau where they were again engaged by cavalry. At 0740, 23 August the Dragoons were engaged for a third time 1,500m into the woods, this time by infantry, and stopped cold. The commander of 1 RIC was told that this could not be a large German force because Germans were 35km to the east of Neufchâteau, and that it was important to move quickly through the woods. He therefore committed the advanced guard battalion, II/1 RIC. The forest was deciduous, mixed with pines. The undergrowth was very thick, and only the occasional clearing offered visibility up to 50m. A wall of fire met II/1 RIC. Immediately there were heavy casualties; the commanders of the 5th, 6th and 8th companies were killed, the CO of the 7th Company wounded. A violent standing firefight developed at point-blank range. The fight became hand-to-hand at several points. The rest of 1 RIC was committed; all three 1 RIC battalion commanders were killed while standing on the road, as if on manoeuvre.
The remainder of 3 DIC was strung out on the road. 2 RIC was entering Rossignol; the divisional artillery, 2 RAC, was crossing the bridge at Breuvanne; 3 RIC was entering St. Vincent. Two battalions of 7 RIC had taken a wrong turn and were marching cross-country to regain the correct route. At the rear of the column was the corps artillery, 3 RAC.
At about 0930 it was difficult for the commander of 3 DIC, General Raffenel, to judge the seriousness of the fight; all that he could see were the wounded coming to the rear. Although all of 1 RIC was engaged in the woods, he still refused to believe that he was in contact with a major enemy force. His concern was to bring forward 3 RIC and clear the woods.
By 0800 the lead element of the 3 DIC divisional artillery, I/2 RAC, had advanced until it was at the southern entrance to Rossignol, followed by II/2 RAC, whose last vehicles were at the Breuvanne bridge and III/2 RAC, which was south of the bridge. The firefight in the woods ahead prevented 2 RAC from advancing. As would soon become clear, the ground was too soft to move the guns off the road.
At 1015 I/2 RIC was sent into the thick woods to the right of 1/1 RIC, but became completely disoriented and strayed to the right. II/2 RIC was committed on the left. It took heavy fire from an invisible enemy, probably II/IR 63 on its left flank, lost most of its officers, including the battalion commander, and by 1100 the battalion broke for the rear.
German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.
While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.
It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.
Lessons Not Learned
Upon mature reflection, Charbonneau said that the defeat of the Colonial Corps was due to three factors; the superiority of German training and doctrine not being one of them.
The first was the failure of French reconnaissance. On 20 August the French cavalry reported the Germans moving north of Neufchâteau–Bastogne. On 22 August the Colonial Corps cavalry, ostensibly due to fog and wooded terrain, did not detect the German advance. For these reasons, the Colonial Corps was surprised. Why German operational and tactical cavalry had detected the French advance was not explained. On a tactical level, the 3rd Colonial Division and 33 DI were not destroyed because they were advancing rashly, but because the Germans counter-reconnaissance had blinded the French patrols, and the Germans manoeuvred at a rate of speed that befuddled the French division commanders.
Second was the failure of the French theory of the advance guard, that is, the idea that the advance guard could significantly delay the enemy, giving the main body time to manoeuvre. This theory had nothing to do with Grandmaison, but was the essential element of Bonnal’s doctrine, which had been implemented in the French army in the late 1890s. Charbonneau said that the advance guard concept failed if the enemy attacked at once ‘appearing like a jack-in-the-box’, not only against the front but also against the flanks. Again, French defeat was not a result of superior German doctrine, but deficiencies in French tactics.
Third, Charbonneau said the offensive à outrance failed because it did not incorporate the concept of fire superiority. He did not acknowledge that fire superiority was the foundation of German offensive tactics. He did say that disregard of the effects of fire increased in the French army as the lessons of 1870 slipped further into the past. Indeed, to Charbonneau the offensive à outrance had been taught as French doctrine for most of the period before the First World War, thereby absolving Grandmaison of instituting a radical change in French tactics.
Charbonneau steadfastly maintained that pre-war French tactical doctrine and training recognised only the offensive and that his division was defeated because it attacked recklessly. But neither 3 RIC nor 7 RIC made any attempt to conduct an attack of any kind, much less a reckless offensive à outrance. 3 RIC was pinned down by German fire, which eventually destroyed the regiment. There was no attempt by 3 RIC to ignore the effects of enemy fire charge with the bayonet. As Charbonneau well knew, his own regiment, 7 RIC, was overrun while attempting to hold a defensive position.
Given the choice between drawing conclusions from what he had seen with his own eyes and parroting the party line, Charbonneau came down foursquare on the side of conventional wisdom. Charbonneau’s cognitive dissonance is symptomatic of the subsequent problems in the discussion of the Battle of the Frontiers.
The 7th Cuirassiers’ charge by Franz Amling, 1890.
Prior to the dawn of mechanized warfare in the early twentieth century, and indeed for several decades thereafter, no element of the Western world’s armies so evoked the exotic and romantic aspects of war as the cavalry. For centuries the cavalryman’s kettle-drums and bugles were the sine qua non of martial music. For pageantry, nothing could surpass the panoply of the cavalryman: the sheer mass of his horse, his flowing regimental standards, snapping guidons, jingling tack, polished leather, and flashing steel.1 But it was not all mere show. Cavalry still evoked real fear. The shock value—and therefore the fear—of a massed cavalry attack was as old as the weapon itself and still persisted in the late nineteenth century. As he had for centuries, the mounted warrior still appeared to be forever “uncatchable, inescapable, unapproachable.” Long before the defeat of the foot-slogging Anglo-Saxons by the Norman horsemen at Hastings in AD 1066 and the great flowering of the Age of Chivalry, so fearsome were the mounted charge and its practitioners that they transformed not only European warfare but even European culture itself, as seen as early as the ninth-century Saxon Gospel, The Heliand. Indeed, historian H. R. Trevor-Roper, among others, placed the horseman at the epicenter of a fundamental societal change in the chivalric ideal; and no less a military historian than John Keegan speaks of a “cavalry revolution,” one in which massed horsemen literally reinvented warfare as a “thing in itself,” a means not merely to dominate one’s enemy but to annihilate him. War could now become, though it was not always in fact, a product of “militarism.”
Perhaps the last great hurrah for this view of the cavalry was the Franco-Prussian War. Though all of the major European armies would still possess huge cavalry forces in World War I, and though the German army, for one, was still fielding new cavalry forces as late as 1943–1944, the last significant and sustained cavalry-versus-cavalry operations occurred in 1870–1871. The romance of the cavalry had yet to be blown away by the full mechanization of European warfare. Feats of the nineteenth-century mounted arm—indeed all arms—could still be celebrated in verse, prose, and song: Tennyson and, later, Kipling come first to mind for English-speakers. More germane, however, was the fact in the aftermath of 1870, German lights such as Theodore Fontane, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms celebrated the Reich’s victory over France in moving words and music. The “gigantic historical canvases” of painter Anton von Werner depicting German commanders on the field at Sedan or the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles could still effectively disguise the battlefield’s carnage at Spicheren and Wörth, Metz and Mars-la-Tour. Socially, sartorially, psychologically, European cavalry remained wedded to this military romanticism in spite of the rapidly changing technological world surrounding it.
Curiously, even earlier manifestations of the cavalry’s attempted adaptation to technology in the early-modern period, whether in the form of so-called horse-pistols, carbines, or even horse-artillery and the resultant designations of light cavalrymen as hussars, dragoons, uhlans, or chausseurs, did not succeed in permanently or completely divorcing the cavalry from the idea that cold steel remained the ultimate weapon. Very frequently, light-cavalry formations, such as those mentioned above, evolved into versions of their heavy-cavalry rivals—the cuirassiers in France and the Reiter regiments in Prussia—and became possessed of the same dictum, namely that the “consummation of the cavalryman’s purpose in life [remained] the charge en masse.”6 Notwithstanding the hussar’s braid-encrusted pelisse and rakish busby—a uniform that gave Prince Friedrich Karl von Hohenzollern (commander of the Prussian Second Army in 1870) the nickname “The Red Prince” because he wore it all the time—light cavalry also tended to aspire to the social status and panache of the heavy cavalry regiments, especially that of the armorplated cuirassiers, a status that remained attractive to even the uppermost crust of European society, particularly on the Continent. Even Otto von Bismarck, Prussian and, later, imperial chancellor, held a major’s commission in the 1st Heavy Reserve Reiter Regiment and often wore its uniform, much to the serious annoyance of many professional officers around him, one of whom commented “acidly” that wearing a cuirassier’s greatcoat was no particular aid to military understanding. And perhaps no mounted regiment in Europe surpassed the splendor of French emperor Napoleon III’s “Hundred Guards” cuirassiers, though their flamboyant uniform was not atypical with its mirror-finish steel cuirass and helmet, the latter with gilded crest; two helmet-plumes (white horsehair and red feathers); a sky-blue tunic trimmed with red collar, cuffs, and lapels; gold epaulettes; white trousers; black top-boots; and white gloves.
Fancy or not, the cavalry faced an uncertain future at mid-century. In Prussia and elsewhere after 1850, the cavalry’s role in modern armies was being re-examined. Following the victorious war against Austria in 1866, Prussia’s leading commander, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, did something rather unusual for victorious commanders: he analyzed what he and the Prussian army had done wrong. Insofar as the cavalry was concerned, several items were of note. On 27 June 1866 at Langensalza on the River Unstrut in Thuringia, the cavalry of the Hanoverian army (allied with Austria) had just managed to break Prussian infantry squares, suffering severe casualties in the process. This outcome seemed to confirm the cavalry’s traditional role as battle-winning shock troops. But in the very next month, on 3 July at Königgrätz, the Prussian cavalry found itself incapable not only of providing effective reconnaissance in the days before the battle but also of effective pursuit of the defeated Austrians afterwards. When Moltke subsequently critiqued his and his armies’ performance in a “sensitive memorandum” to the Prussian king in 1868, he gave vent to his views of what the Prussian (and eventually the German) cavalry’s future role should be. He stressed that the cavalry could and should still work in tactical concert with artillery and infantry as had the Hanoverians at Langensalza and the Prussians at Königgrätz. Nevertheless, the cavalry should no longer be held back primarily in order to deliver a massed charge at a decisive moment that might never come. While not entirely discounting the latter possibility, he wrote that cavalry should instead be used more extensively for screening, reconnaissance, and security. All these were missions for which horsemen remained uniquely suited. Precisely two years later, in July 1870, Moltke’s conclusions were tested in the Franco-Prussian War.
Despite Moltke’s admonitions, one roughly contemporaneous observer of the events of 1870–1871 wrote that German cavalry didn’t develop effective reconnaissance and screening capabilities until well after the war against France had begun; thus it did not emulate examples such as that set by the U.S. Army’s General John Buford during the Gettysburg campaign in the Civil War. The same author criticized the “stubbornness” and the “ill-informed” attitudes of the Europeans in their refusal to learn what he considered the proper lessons from the Civil War. Unlike their European counterparts for whom the cavalry’s specialization by type was still at least nominally in effect in 1870, American cavalrymen had long ceased to be functionally divided into “heavy cavalry” (for battle-winning massed attacks delivered with the arme blanche), “light cavalry” (for screening, reconnaissance, and messengerservice), and “dragoons” (essentially well-mounted infantry). Instead, “the traditional [American] cavalryman has ever been the light dragoon—a soldier trained and equipped to fight mounted or dismounted, to perform screening and reconnaissance, and to act as a scout or messenger. True heavy and true light horse have been rare.” Thus the cavalry of the American Civil War, whether Union or Confederate, did the bulk of its fighting on its feet. It broke no fundamental tradition in adapting to increasingly effective firepower. Though saber swinging melees did occur, as at Brandy Station, Virginia, in June 1863, most cavalry action during the Civil War was on foot, the horse serving as much as a means of transport as of attack. Evidently the American cavalryman did not feel morally obligated, as one author put it, to die on horseback, whereas his European counterpart still did in 1870.
Whatever difficulties they had in executing Moltke’s vision, the German cavalry of 1870 tended to exhibit much better understanding of their newly important role than did the French. At the beginning of the war, for example, the French cavalry was still guided by the regulations of 1829, the arm having “learnt nothing” in the meantime regarding more modern operations and tactics, according to one contemporaneous observer. Implicitly, this would mean that nothing was learned from the Crimea, the American Civil War, or even the much more recent Austro-Prussian War. Still, says this same observer, the French cavalry was conscious of its “past bravery and patriotism.” The absence of effective lessons learned was exacerbated by the fact that when the war began, the French cavalry “had no reserves of horses” and an “[unspecified but evidently large] portion of the effective strength were four-year old remounts.”
By contrast, Prussian and other German cavalry—almost always referred to by the French as uhlans whether the cavalry in question were actually lancers or not—consistently demonstrated an ability to reconnoiter more effectively than their French counterparts, even while stubbornly insisting on the ideal of the massed attack. As early as the frontier battle at Wissembourg on the borders of the Palatinate on 4 August 1870 and the roughly coincidental battle at Spicheren near Saarbrücken some forty miles to the northwest on 6 August, the French cavalry utterly failed to determine the scope of the threat facing Napoleon III’s armies. In part this was owing to the extraordinary directive of the French marshal Achille Bazaine dated 20 July wherein he stated that “our reconnaissance should not be aggressive.” Unfortunately for Bazaine, cavalry still constituted the sole reliable means of gathering information about an enemy’s dispositions beyond the line of sight. His directive, therefore, amounted to gouging out his own eyes during the critical phase of the armies’ concentration for battle. As it was, the French cavalry remained almost “completely inactive” throughout the period up to and including the Battle of Sedan as regards operational reconnaissance, even if at a tactical level French mounted forces were sometimes capable of effective action. Further, since French cavalry when it did patrol was “not accustomed to patrol far to the front,” French commanders typically assumed that German cavalry patrols were followed by much larger forces immediately to the rear even when this was not the case. This misapprehension helps explain French timidity when confronted with the constant presence of far-ranging German mounted units. And while perhaps the case could be made that cavalry proved to be of little practical value in the steep defiles around Spicheren, the same could not be said of the fighting at Wissembourg and the follow-on battles at Froeschwiller, Wörth, and Morsbronn. There the French desperately tried to retrieve their infantry’s fortunes through a sacrificial massed attack by General Michel’s and General Bonnemain’s reserve cavalry, including a full division of cuirassiers.
At Froeschwiller and Wörth, the French 2nd Cavalry Division’s 1st and 4th Cuirassiers of the Brigade Girard charged Badenese and Württemberger infantry over ground broken up by palisaded hop-fields and vineyards. As the horsemen were funneled by these obstructions into the intervals between the fields, the 4th Cuirassiers had to ride over twothirds of a mile under sustained rifle-fire. Both regiments suffered heavy losses “without having effected anything.” The division’s 2nd and 3rd Cuirassiers of the Brigade Brauer attacked over similar terrain made even worse by an “absolutely insurmountable” barricaded ditch. The 2nd Cuirassiers alone lost their colonel and 5 officers killed; more than 130 officers and men wounded; and some 250 horses killed outright or dying subsequently of their wounds. Throughout the attacks, the German infantry was “always out of reach and often out of sight” of the French horsemen.
In the view of recent scholarship of the Franco-Prussian War, the German infantry’s standing up to charging cavalry was still a radically new way for infantrymen to fight horsemen, dating back perhaps to Waterloo. Traditionally, infantrymen not formed in squares would tend to throw themselves to the ground to avoid blows from sabers and to make the horses shy away, presuming that the foot soldiers weren’t already running for their lives. Now, however, they “simply stood in lines and blazed away.” The results of such tactics for the French horsemen repeated themselves elsewhere that day. At the other end of the French line on the far right, for example, the 8th and 9th Cuirassiers of the 1st Cavalry Division’s Brigade Michel attacked German infantry in the village of Morsbronn. As earlier on the left, French troopers again charged through the intervals between hop-fields and vineyards and took heavy rifle-fire as they passed. The 8th Cuirassiers lost two-thirds of their horses before the cavalrymen even reached the village. Of the 9th Cuirassiers—and the supporting 6th Lancers of the division’s Brigade Nansouty— almost all troopers not killed before they gained the village were subsequently shot down and killed or captured along the village’s main street as the horsemen rode headlong into a blockaded dead-end. Afterward, dead horses and men lay so thickly in the street that passage along it was literally impossible. Witnesses and subsequent observers reported that the German bullets had “rattled like hail” against the cuirassiers’ steel breastplates and created “a strange music” in the process. The preponderance of unarmored lancers among the French dead at Morsbronn, compared to steel-plated cuirassiers, led at least one historian of the battle to conclude, erroneously, that the breast plate would therefore always be a part of the cavalryman’s equipment. Be that as it may, German riflemen had emptied hundreds of saddles and killed and wounded hundreds of men and horses. The French horsemen, for their part, had merely bought a bit of time for their infantry’s retreat.
As disastrous as these attacks had been, the French cavalry’s failure in reconnaissance had been equally faulty. As at Spicheren, so too at Froeschwiller the French suffered “a disastrous failure…to appreciate the strength and intentions of the Germans.” Indeed the day before the Bavarians attacked at Wissembourg (3 August), the local French commander, General Ducrot, reported that the Bavarians’ threat was a “simple bluff.” Only effective employment of the French cavalry in reconnaissance could have provided timely intelligence of unimpeachable character. By dramatic contrast, orders issuing from the Prussian Royal Headquarters, as well as from those of Prince Frederick Charles’ Second Army, often directed the cavalry specifically to “be pushed forward as far as possible.” Of course, not all orders were executed as given, and war’s inevitable friction affected the reliability of the information passed back up the chain of command. Nevertheless, in the war’s crucial opening phase, German cavalry operated consistently more effectively and widely than the French in the critical job of providing intelligence and fixing the enemy in place so that German infantry could be brought to bear.
In the aftermath of the fighting at Spicheren and Froeschwiller/ Wörth, and with the French armies in retreat across the board, the Germany cavalry—despite occasionally losing contact with the enemy—nevertheless showed itself willing and able to act boldly and range widely. In these instances, its behavior sometimes appears reminiscent of the “rides” of American Civil War generals Jeb Stuart, John Hunt Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Alfred Pleasanton, and Benjamin Grierson. Perhaps the most striking example, though still somewhat paltry when compared to the distances and consequences involved in that earlier conflict, was the German advance to the Moselle between 6 and 14 August 1870. German horsemen thrust in behind the French Army of the Rhine as it fell back on the fortress of Metz, cutting the telegraph connecting Paris and the depot at Nancy. The German riders thereby made cooperation with French forces still at Belfort all the more difficult. In some cases, German cavalry patrols forged as far as forty miles ahead of advancing main columns. On 12 August German cavalry reached the Moselle below Metz at Pont-a-Mousson and, farther south, at Frouard. In both places they crossed the river and again not only cut the telegraph but also the rail lines linking Metz with Nancy and, by extension, Chalons-sur-Marne where the French Government had ordered the formation of a reserve army. In point of fact, most of the German cavalrymen at Pont-a-Mousson were actually captured before they could complete their work of destruction. Nevertheless, they scored psychological victories as dramatic as in the war’s opening days when, on 26 July, the young Count Zeppelin and his mounted patrol had been captured while having lunch at the Shirlenhof Inn eight miles behind French lines at Niederbronn, or when Prussian uhlans blew up a French railroad viaduct near Saargemünd on 23–24 July. These examples were now being replicated up and down the line not only at Frouard and Pont-a-Mousson but also by the German cavalrymen who rode brazenly to the very walls of the fortress of Thionville, the gates being shut virtually in their faces, or who openly scouted within one-half mile of the main French camp at Metz. For their part, the French commanders in the latter city appeared to have failed utterly to use their available cavalry for anything like effective reconnaissance. On the contrary, they limited their efforts to placing staff officers as observers in the cathedral’s belfry. At a so-called council of war on 10 October, at least one corps commander recognized that the cavalry remaining in the city was “incapable of service,” evidently through prior mismanagement and the consequent collapse of morale. Presaging 1914, or even 1940, relatively small numbers of wide-ranging German uhlans and hussars created an effect “out of all proportion to their strength and achievements.” It was enough to create that terrifying picture of “‘the Uhlans’ [sic], ruthless, swift, and ubiquitous, which was to frighten the children of France and Europe for forty years to come.” Such operational success for the German cavalry most dramatically manifested itself soon thereafter with the stopping of the French withdrawal westward from Metz.
In this case the 5th and 6th Cavalry Divisions received orders to scout ahead to the Metz-Verdun road to try to determine the French army’s line of retreat. On 14–15 August German mounted units encountered French cavalry and other forces headed westward along the road in the vicinity of Mars-la-Tour and Vionville. The German cavalrymen took the French under fire with horse-artillery and stopped the column in its tracks. Other German formations advanced to the sound of the guns. For their part, the French failed to push their way through what still amounted to a cavalry screen in order to keep open their line of retreat. The result was the halting of the entire French movement along the line of Mars-la-Tour–Vionville–Rezonville–Gravelotte–Metz. Here the German cavalry, materially assisted by French hesitation, played the critical function of finding and fixing the enemy while the German infantry came up to try to cut off the French withdrawal. The German horsemen thus played precisely the roles assigned them by Moltke in his report to the Prussian king in 1868.
Of all the fighting along the road linking Metz and Verdun, certainly the emotional high point for German mounted troops was the so-called Death Ride at Mars-la-Tour of the 12th Cavalry Brigade under General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bredow. In this attack the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Squadrons of the 7th Cuirassiers and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Squadrons of the 16th Uhlans charged en masse against prepared French infantry and artillery in order to gain time for faltering German troops and guns to regroup. Taking advantage of swales to approach within several hundred yards of the French positions, the German cavalry burst from the gun-smoke obscuring the battlefield and “flashed by” endangered Hanoverian artillery batteries at the critical moment. Somewhat atypically, the attack was launched straight from the gallop with no preliminary trot to the canter. As the charge got under way, four attached Prussian horse-artillery batteries fired obliquely across the right front of the horsemen. This gunfire, “right before their [the horses’] feet,” according to one student of the event, helped pave the way for a successful attack and fit perfectly with Prussian artillery doctrine in 1870 by covering the cavalry’s deployment and preparing its attack by direct fire upon the enemy. Charging over a distance of some 1,500 yards (1,300 m), the Prussian cuirassiers and uhlans crashed headlong into the French gun-line, cut down at least two French artillery batteries’ gunners, destroyed a mitrailleuse battery, and smashed two squares of French infantry. Unfortunately, the Germans’ formations broke up as they went forward, a perennial problem for any massed cavalry attack at that or any other time. They then found themselves counterattacked in turn by French horsemen outnumbering them by a factor of about five. In the fighting that followed, described as “frenzied” and a “tornado” of violence in which all arms of both sides became completely intermingled and heedless of trumpeted commands, the Germans nevertheless managed to extricate themselves and retreat to the safety of their own infantry and covering artillery. In a similar fashion later that same day, but in an event much less well known, the Prussian 1st Guard Dragoons attacked French infantry advancing on and threatening the Prussian left flank’s 38th Infantry Brigade on the heights northeast of Mars-la-Tour. Once again, the charge went in under rifle- and mitrailleuse-fire so as to allow the German infantry to disengage. The dragoons rode headlong into the advancing French infantry and accomplished the mission, but with 5 officers, an ensign, 42 men, and 204 horses dead. Six officers, 2 ensigns, 76 men, and 42 horses were wounded. Five troopers went missing. This constituted about 30 percent of the regiment’s effective strength. In the case of Bredow’s brigade, the losses were more than 50 percent (420 killed and wounded of 800 engaged). They would presumably have been higher still had not the badly rattled French infantry shot down more than 150 of their own counterattacking cuirassiers in the space of a few minutes’ confusion. Though described as not merely a “rarity” but as perhaps the “last successful cavalry charge in Western European warfare,” Bredow’s attack had allowed the German infantry time and space to rally. That, in turn, kept the French from continuing their retreat to the west. The same could be said of the Guard Dragoons. Notwithstanding these terrible losses, losses soon to be far surpassed by French horsemen at Sedan, the German troopers’ success buttressed arguments favoring the cavalry’s continued utility for the next forty years.
Despite the German cavalry’s accomplishments following the war’s outbreak and their frightful success at Mars-la-Tour, lessons were being learned regarding cavalry’s future role. One of the most important of these lessons appeared to be that “the rifle bullet and the spade [had] made the defensive the stronger form of warfare,” at least temporarily. Consequently, and as witnessed by Moltke’s earlier memorandum of 1868, the classic cavalry charge against infantry was fast becoming a thing of the past. In the war of 1870, for example, the French chassepot rifle had a maximum range of about 1,300 yards (1,200 m), while the German Dreyse “needle gun’s” maximum range was about 650 yards (600 m). And while in both cases the maximum effective range would be much less, they remained a deadly threat to mounted troops. But even certain cavalry units such as dragoons now carried rifled weapons of their own. The Prussian light cavalry, for example, carried a shortened carbine-variant of Dreyse’s rifle. The rapid and increasingly widespread issuing of rifled weapons to both foot soldiers and cavalrymen since about 1850, when combined with the means to deliver unprecedentedly large numbers of men to the front via railroads, constituted an important change in European military affairs. What had not yet happened was a real opportunity to test the effects of this change on European battlefields. True, it may be argued that the elder Moltke’s initial deployment of Prussia’s armies by rail in the invasion of Saxony and Bohemia in 1866 served to show the European importance of at least one of these new technologies and on an almost American scale of distance. Further, insofar as cavalry still formed an integral portion of Prussia’s armies, Moltke made provision that rail cars have tether rings and removable partitions built into them so that horses and artillery of all types could be more easily transported. To the extent, however, that the Prussian campaigns of 1866 and 1870 depended at least in their initial stages on deployment by rail with a view to long-distance maneuvering for a decisive Kesselschlacht, one would have thought that the cavalry’s importance would have increased and not decreased. That is, while armies deployed to their frontiers by rail, they typically marched thereafter. Only later, as the enemy’s railroads were commandeered, would they be expected to bring up reserves and supplies using the iron horse.
As late as 1866 the need for more effective cavalry employment was exacerbated by the fact that Prussian mounted formations were still often placed at the end of marching columns instead of being allowed to range far ahead. Indeed at Königgrätz, the Prussian cavalry still followed behind the infantry. The horsemen did not truly bring their great numbers to bear in the fighting and did not effectively pursue the broken Austrian Army at the end of the day (in part because of late charges by the latter’s heavy cavalry as they attempted to buy time for an Austrian withdrawal). Once again, Moltke’s report of 1868 noted such deficiencies. The war of 1870 changed all that and witnessed the combination of rail-deployment and massive cavalry operations, even though the latter sometimes had only disastrous tactical results.
Heinrich XVII, Prince Reuß, on the side of the 5th Squadron I Guards Dragoon Regiment at Mars-la-Tour, 16 August 1870. Emil Hünten, 1902.
Consequently, German and European cavalry in 1870 was not typically used in one of its most potentially important operational spheres, namely the regular, long-range interdiction of the enemy’s railways as had so often been the case during the American Civil War. In retrospect, employing cavalry for this purpose should have been self-evident given the railroads’ own significance. “If railway lines were intact, the trains smoothly organized [this itself being an important prerequisite], and supply from the railhead unhampered, armies could keep the field so long as there was blood and treasure in the nation to support them.” Interdiction of such lines of communication and supply could have played a critical role in making the eventual German victory even more devastating to France than it turned out to be. Using cavalry for this purpose provided “the chance of disorganizing by invasion or deep raids [emphasis added] the mobilization of” the enemy, thus “reducing his plans to chaos, and leaving him defenceless.” At least one prominent American military observer in 1870, General Philip Sheridan, saw the German cavalry in action and noted the absence of such efforts. In his view, the German cavalry performed well the traditional roles of covering the front and flanks of advancing armies; and he did not fault the bravery of either the German or French troopers in the massed attack. Nevertheless, he observed, German horsemen never had the far-ranging effect their numbers should have allowed. Had the cavalry “been massed and maneuvered independently of the infantry, it could easily have broken up the French communications, and done much other work of weighty influence in the prosecution of the war.”
Whatever shortcomings the German cavalry may have had in Sheridan’s estimation, it was nevertheless coming to grips with a salient feature of military operations in the second half of the century. Rapid technological change associated with breech-loading rifles, nascent automatic weapons, rifled artillery, and railways necessitated more effective combined-arms thinking. Defensive positions, otherwise strong and massing the defenders’ long-range rifle-fire, might still be overcome by determined opponents using the combined-arms assault of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Conversely, anything less than attack by combined arms ran the very real risk by 1870, if not by 1860, of decimation by the same massed rifle-fire. Interestingly enough, at Mars-la-Tour Bredow’s troopers closed successfully with the French gunners and infantry, in part, precisely because the Prussian horse-artillery fired diagonally across the front of the charging horsemen. This particular tactical doctrine still prevailed in 1914, even though an eventually stalemated Western Front had not yet been foreseen.
The German cavalry of 1870 also continued a tactical employment of horsemen and horse-artillery dating back to Napoleon I. The French emperor had pioneered the combination of artillery (to weaken an enemy’s infantry formations) with massed cavalry and infantry assault (to shatter them). Given the technology of the Napoleonic era, trotting horsemen covering some six hundred paces every two minutes (approximately 250 yards/228 meters per minute) could close with the typical artillery piece of the day (firing to a range of eight hundred to nine hundred paces) before the gun could fire more than one or two rounds. Of course, at the canter or gallop the distance closed much more quickly, and many charges covered the final 150 yards or so (137 m) at the latter gait provided that horses were fresh. Therefore, charging cavalry “did not suffer over-much from enemy cannon fire,” an observation excepting those unfortunate men and horses who were actually blown apart or eviscerated by canister or round shot. The employment of massed cavalry in corps formation at the decisive moment to defend one’s own position or to attack the enemy’s also dates to Napoleon. He’d established “the corps…as the largest organizational form for cavalry units.” But given the substantially increased range, hitting-power, and rate-of-fire of rifles and artillery by 1870, horsemen charging a prepared infantry formation became much more vulnerable. Indeed, cavalrymen began to experience this painful realization as early as Waterloo, despite the estimated maximum of only 5-percent accuracy for unrifled musketry fire beyond ten yards’ range. Unfortunately, the deadlier weapons of 1870 greatly increased the cavalryman’s exposure. Assuming the height of a heavy cavalry horse to be sixteen hands or nearly five-and-a-half feet (“hands” being four-inch increments measured from the forefeet to the point of withers with the horse standing square on a flat surface), the rider’s head rose to a height of not quite three yards (2.75 m) above the ground. Notwithstanding his helmet and/or cuirass, he was now extremely vulnerable at unprecedentedly long ranges; and this does not even take into account the horse itself. As a target for riflemen or artillerists, the horse possessed the terribly unfortunate combination of a thin skin and a high silhouette even when galloping for brief moments at perhaps thirty miles per hour (48 km/h).
Despite these critical vulnerabilities, cavalrymen—at least at a campaign’s beginning when their horses were not yet debilitated—could cover up to 50 miles (80 km) per day when riding hard. Even 80 to 100 miles (up to 160 km) in a twenty-four-hour period were not unheard-of for well-mounted light cavalry. All the while, the horse bore an average load approaching 250 pounds (113 kg). Furthermore, given its ability to swim, not even the tactical obstacles of streams and middling rivers necessarily stood in the cavalry’s way, even though rivers such as the Moselle above and below Metz demanded ferries or bridges in order for the cavalry to cross. Therefore, in a premotorized age, and indeed even later, a realistic alternative to horse-mounted units on the European battlefield simply did not exist. Scouting, patrolling, covering the flanks and rear, protecting the withdrawal, raiding—all of these missions remained the tasks of both pure cavalry formations and the mounted units attached to Prussian infantry divisions. By 1866 even the latter included four squadrons of approximately seven hundred horsemen.
Greatly aiding the German cavalry in 1870 was the detailed information they possessed on the French transportation infrastructure as the campaign began. German commanders were said to have had better maps of France than the French armies’ own staffs. German longrange cavalry reconnaissance and pursuit displayed persistence after the initial battles on the frontiers, even if it was not always completely effective. The French cavalry, on the other hand, were criticized by a contemporary not only for continued massing of formations when such mass was unnecessary but also for “never send[ing] out a single scout or vedette” in the long retreat westward from the Franco-German frontier. Such tactical ineffectiveness only worsened the logistical nightmares often accompanying French troops during their mobilization and initial deployments. At Metz on 1 August, for example, some two thousand wagons loaded with hay, straw, and oats clogged the city’s streets with no other apparent destination in mind. Similarly, French cavalry at Metz had to be employed “day and night as laborers,” using their mounts’ saddlebags to transport matériel from stalled supply-trains to the city’s depots. Not until 23 July did Napoleon III demand the attention of his Minister of War, General Edmond Leboeuf, to the matter of the “establishment of a [national] requisition and remount service” in order to supplement or replace the French cavalry’s extant system of regimental depot squadrons. It seems incredible that such a matter wasn’t undertaken before the French declaration of war, especially in light of the fact that such a service, among others, would normally “require months if not years of preparation.” By that date, the destruction of a goodly portion of the French cavalry at Wissembourg and Froeschwiller was barely two weeks off.
After all, it was not as though the French had no experience in long-range cavalry operations and the remount services necessary to support them. After Jena in 1806, for example, Napoleon I “unleashed his cavalry in a pursuit designed to complete the destruction of the enemy and the enemy state; a deep penetration to spread panic among the enemy population and destroy all hope of recovery.” Even so, he had seen in his cavalry not only “an exploitation force or reconnaissance asset” but also a “true shock force that could have effects disproportional to its numerical size” as at Eylau in 1807. If the latter were true, if the massed attack were still to be the French cavalry’s main reason for being, then massing them in the rear and holding them in place until the critical moment, though frequently condemned, would be a logical tactical disposition. In fact, the French cavalry had done as much even earlier, as before the revolutionary wars of the 1790s, and one could argue that the idea in fact came from the example of the armies of Frederick the Great at Rossbach in 1757 and Zorndorf in 1758. Unfortunately, between 1807 and 1870, French commanders had apparently forgotten the former examples and remembered only the latter ones. As a matter of common sense, for French commanders—and implicitly for German ones—holding the cavalry in reserve until the decisive moment always brought with it the danger of having the mounted forces sitting useless altogether or being committed too late to make a difference. And despite the greatly increased firepower on the part of the infantry, dismounted combat for the European cavalry was still considered the exception. In any case it could only be undertaken by horsemen armed with the cavalry carbine such as dragoons and hussars in Prussia or chevaulegers in Bavaria. In the event, French dragoons in 1870 often dismounted to volley-fire their carbines on advancing German cavalry. Evidently, however, these defensive tactics were insufficiently tenacious and the dragoons’ marksmanship was insufficiently accurate. Consequently, except for this sort of occurrence, only the German cavalry in 1870 managed to be not only consistently wide-ranging in reconnaissance and screening but also able to deliver massed attacks when called upon to do so.
The cavalry’s role as envisioned by Moltke in 1868 was certainly not limited to him alone. Cavalry’s employment had been studied with renewed interest by Prussian cavalry officers and theorists from about 1863 onward. That does not mean, however, that there existed uniformity of view among them. Colonel Albrecht von Stosch, an officer of the Prussian General Staff who fought in 1866 and 1870 and eventually (and somewhat curiously) became Chief of the Admiralty, wrote that American cavalry in the Civil War had been essentially mounted infantry. Their reliance more on firepower than cold steel for battlefield effectiveness ran counter, he said, to the cavalry’s putatively true value as a shock force, a “typically conventional” European view. Other Prussian officers, however, noted in their work that the American use of cavalry as long-range interdiction forces against strategic lines of telegraphic and railroad communications constituted what later generations would call a wave of the future. Nevertheless, and “almost without exception,” Prussian students of the cavalry still maintained in 1866 and 1870 that the mounted arm’s first duty was to stay mounted, avoid dismounted combat unless absolutely necessary, and attack with cold steel. The prevailing view remained that dismounted cavalry’s role in the American Civil War arose from the uneven and overgrown nature of North American battlefields, not from significant changes in firearms’ evolution. The dismounted role, it was felt, did not apply in Europe. Nor was the strategic raid viewed as of great military value. As late as 1900, therefore, the German cavalry—like other mounted forces in Europe—would still count the sword and the lance among its principal weapons, and apart from the reconnaissance and screening missions so much emphasized by Moltke, German horsemen would generally be held in reserve for the breakthrough battle that, at least on World War I’s Western Front, never came. Therefore, despite Moltke’s admonitions and their own successes up to the Battle of Sedan, German cavalry officers preferred to “trust to their own experience” and a recollection of the smashing successes of Frederick the Great. Fundamentally altering the role of the cavalry to follow any other model, particularly an American one, was still alien to German and the larger European traditions in 1870. Both German and French cavalry officers remained “fatally fascinated” by the shock-effect of massed formations of horsemen.
Of the two nations’ mounted arms, it is ironic that the French did not more readily adopt another cavalry doctrine, particularly one emphasizing more long-range patrolling. After all, French cavalrymen had been active throughout the 1830s and 1840s in Algeria, where they had responded to the guerrilla war against French colonial rule with the creation of light, wide-ranging mounted units. These included the Ottoman-inspired light cavalry known by their Turkish designation as sipahis and the so-called Chassuers d’Afrique. Eventually, three regiments of the latter were also posted to Mexico in the 1860s to bolster the shortlived regime of the French-supported Habsburg emperor Maximilian. Among the noteworthy features of these particular units was the adoption of the Iberian-influenced Barb as the mount of choice, incomparable in its ability to thrive in the arid environments of both North Africa and the high plains and mountains of central and northern Mexico. These were the “little grey Arab horses” whose dead bodies, along with those of their riders, would soon carpet the hillsides above Sedan.
It was toward that city that the German armies marched in the wake of the French defeat at Mars-la-Tour and the following battle at Gravelotte-St.-Privat. In advancing generally west-northwest, the Germans aimed to disrupt the French Government’s attempt to raise a relief force for Marshal Bazaine’s army now trapped at Metz. This period witnessed the French relief armies’ movement and their pursuit by the German from Chalons to Rheims to Sedan from 20 to 28 August. During these days, the German cavalry once again ranged far ahead of the advancing infantry, often by as much as forty or fifty miles (up to 80 km). As they had after the battles on the frontier at the war’s beginning, the German horsemen hounded the French and provided vital intelligence. Even so, the riders sometimes lost contact through no fault of their own; the French armies were subjected to what historian Michael Howard called “lunatic change[s] in direction” in their line of march as they tried to maintain contact with faulty supply lines. Once the German cavalry found their quarry, however, they helped delay and harass French forces sufficiently to deflect them ever farther northward toward the borders of Belgium and the fortress of Sedan. All the while the German infantry came up remorselessly from the east and southeast.
At Sedan one sees perhaps the most pointless waste of cavalry in the whole of the war. This occurred in the attempt by the French horsemen, under the command of General Margueritte, to pierce the German lines above the village of Floing to allow for a French breakout to the west. Shot through the face while reconnoitering the German lines, Margueritte could not ride with his troopers. They nevertheless went in gallantly according to observers, including King William of Prussia who witnessed the charge from across the Meuse. As had happened several times since the war’s beginning, the result was “a useless and terrible sacrifice…a fearful loss of life with no result whatever.” The two brigades of the cavalry reserve making the repeated charges not only didn’t effect a breakout; “they did not delay the German infantry five minutes.” With the exception of a number of German skirmishers cut down in the initial French charge, the German infantry simply waited and “mowed [the French horsemen] down with volleys.” As at Morsbronn near Froeschwiller in the war’s opening days, the French cavalry “were shot down before they could get within fifty yards. It was a useless, purposeless slaughter.” The five regiments involved suffered some 350 men killed, not counting the wounded and those taken prisoner. One unit of two squadrons had only 58 survivors from the 216 who made the charges. The entire time that the French had been under fire was said to have been perhaps one-quarter of an hour. Rallying twice, the French horsemen came on three times in total. By the third attempt, the cavalry horses were not so much charging as picking their way gingerly over the corpses of the fallen.
Even for those managing to survive the destruction of Margueritte’s cavalry, the losses suffered by French mounted and horse-drawn units at Sedan were terrible. At least ten thousand horses were captured in the French surrender. Of those, the Germans killed huge numbers deemed too broken down to keep. One Bavarian battalion alone killed three thousand after being ordered to destroy “any that looked sickly.” At distant Metz, too, horses of the French cavalry, artillery, and transport units found themselves not only hated for eating up scarce supplies of grain intended for the nearly starving garrison but slaughtered for food themselves. These units were ordered to cull forty horses each for slaughter, and by 20 September fifty percent of the garrison’s cavalry mounts had been butchered. Similar fates also befell large numbers of military horses in the French capital. Once the city was invested, the Parisian diet deteriorated largely to “scraps of bread, red wine, and horse meat.”
With the strangulating encirclement of Paris and the subsequent occupation of most of northern France after Sedan, the German cavalry’s role became one very familiar to German horsemen in Russia seventy years later: anti-partisan duty. In late 1870 and early 1871, the partisans were the francs-tireurs. Sometimes actual guerrillas, sometimes remnants of former French army units, sometimes newly raised formations, the francs-tireurs often provided more effective intelligence to French commanders than had the French cavalry whose traditional role it was. The francs-tireurs also harassed German patrols and attempted to sabotage the Germans’ supply lines still stretching back to the Rhine. In this second phase of the war, German cavalry routinely undertook far-ranging patrols to the south and west of Paris in order to alert Moltke to the possibility of a French attempt to relieve the capital. Those same cavalry units carried out missions to extend the system of requisitions ever deeper into the French countryside to supplement their own armies’ logistics. Ultimately, they were ordered to “sweep the country clean of francs-tireurs.”
In the process, the war assumed ever-deeper levels of brutality as a heavy winter arrived. The siege of Paris dragged on, and the French continued stubbornly to resist (even while eventually fighting among themselves during the Commune). Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck raged that all francs-tireurs should be summarily shot or hanged. Villages sheltering them, he said, should be burned to the ground. Indeed, reprisals against real or suspected partisans were savage, what one historian of the war called “a wholesale Americanization” of the conflict reminiscent of William T. Sherman’s intention to make his Southern enemies in Georgia “howl” during the Civil War. Fortunately for France, the German cavalrymen and their commanders couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill all Bismarck’s wishes.
In that winter of 1870, the German cavalry’s own difficulties made punitive expeditions questionable if not actually impossible. Supplies and remounts became relatively scarce and roads often so badly covered in ice and snow that troopers had to lead their horses instead of riding them. The horsemen were nevertheless forced to keep to the roads because the countryside was sometimes impassable with deep snow. To add insult to injury, German cavalry now also frequently had to be accompanied by infantry. Precisely because of the threat posed by the francs-tireurs in ambushes of slow-moving, road-bound mounted columns, German commanders had to ensure they had infantry support. Of course, tying the cavalry to the speed of the infantry deprived the horsemen of their principal advantage. The long-range capability of the cavalry disappeared “the moment it had to march under the protection of the infantry.” The German cavalry’s war of movement became a sort of snail-paced war of attrition until the spring thaw arrived. And when the spring did come, so too did France’s surrender. The Treaty of Frankfurt of May 1871 recognized not only the humbling of France but the arising of a new Great Power in Europe, a once and future German Reich.
At Froeschwiller, Wörth, Mars-la-Tour, and Sedan the massed cavalry charges of both the Germans and the French were not typically intended to shatter fixed infantry formations, though that could sometimes be a fortunate result, as in Bredow’s “Death Ride.” Rather, in all cases, massed cavalry attacks were launched to retrieve situations in which one’s own infantry had been driven from the field or were threatened with that fate, as had also been the case with the Austrian cavalry charge late in the day at Königgrätz in 1866. The objective was to give the infantry sufficient time to retreat and/or re-form. The massed charge therefore became the means not so much to crown the victory as to stave off a defeat. Occasionally, of course, cavalry were ordered to attack under the false impression that the enemy was actually broken and could be pursued. The most egregious example of such a mistake shows in Prussian general Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz’s ordering of a mounted attack against the French lines at Gravelotte through a ravine on a raised causeway already choked with the bodies and debris of earlier, failed Prussian infantry assaults. The predictable result was the “slaughter by the hundreds” of the units in question. A “dreadful” French rifle-, automatic-weapons-, and artillery fire hit the cavalry full in the face without the horsemen’s “having the least chance of returning it.” Naturally, the fault in this case lay not with the cavalry itself but in Steinmetz’s gross misjudgment of the tactical situation.
At the same time the cavalry’s real worth re-emerged in missions that only horsemen could execute in the nineteenth century: long-range reconnaissance, flanking movements, and the interdiction of the enemy’s rail lines and communications. German cavalry proved consistently more adept at these tasks than did the French. After Sedan, however, the German cavalry’s operations against the francs-tireurs; the guarding of lines of supply and communication stretching back to the German States; and foraging for the occupation forces assumed precedence. And while these important missions could still be effectively executed by the Germans’ mounted troops, these nevertheless found themselves increasingly tied to the infantry for protection against roving columns of French partisans. Thus the German cavalry ran the risk of losing their most significant operational assets—speed and mobility.
As effective as the German horsemen tended to be, one question remains: why did they not emulate the American example of the strategic “ride” so much in evidence in the Civil War? It turns out they did, after a fashion, and somewhat unintentionally. To the extent that German horsemen routinely rode far in advance of marching infantry columns, one sees a long-range, mounted reconnaissance capability similar to that seen in the Civil War. This capability is most evident in the form of wide-ranging German patrols, though not very large ones. They often occurred only in squadron-strength or less. One of the most striking examples of their success showed in their cutting the rail lines at Pont-a-Mousson south of Metz in the follow-up phase after the battles at Spicheren and Froeschwiller. At times in this particular pursuit, the German troopers rode as much as forty miles ahead of their infantry, a figure corresponding closely to the distances covered daily by John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in Kentucky in 1862. German cavalry played an even more important role in helping find and fix the French army in its attempted retreat from Metz to Verdun. The mounted units thus significantly contributed to setting the stage for—and, of course, fighting in—the resulting battles at Mars-la-Tour, Vionville, and Gravelotte-St.-Privat, and, ultimately, the bottling up of the French back in Metz where they’d started. German cavalry also materially helped extend the invaders’ reach in the encirclement of Paris after Sedan and in long-distance foraging during the subsequent siege of the French capital. Perhaps most important, throughout the war German cavalry enjoyed what earlier generations called moral superiority over their French opponents. That confidence, despite occasionally very heavy losses, contributed in turn to their ultimate tactical and operational superiority.
One does not, however, see German cavalry engaged in the longrange strategic raiding as conducted by both Confederate and Union horsemen between 1862 and 1865. As often as not, those earlier forays aimed at capturing entire towns, operational theaters’ supply dumps, or thoroughly wrecking vast stretches of railroad. The absence of this kind of raiding in 1870–1871 is all the more interesting given the evident Prussian attention paid to the technical aspects of Civil War–era use of railroads for theater-wide deployment of forces, not to mention the importance of railroads in Prussia’s victory in 1866 as well as in keeping German armies supplied in 1870. German interest in the Union’s and Confederacy’s use of railroads did not appear to translate into a changed attitude toward the cavalry’s tactics or strategy based upon the American example, at any rate certainly not before 1870. Many German students of the Civil War dismissed both Union and Confederate cavalry as merely mounted infantry, a new type of dragoon, who (somewhat ironically) relied too much on firearms for their effectiveness, rather than on “the ‘vehemence and force’ of shock tactics,” as was evidently still preferred in Continental Europe. This attitude persisted despite the particular admiration for the Confederate cavalry in Prussia by as prominent and successful a Prussian cavalry officer as Prince Friedrich Karl von Hohenzollern.
On the other side, why did the French cavalry not emulate the American example set during the Civil War? Several possible explanations suggest themselves. In the first instance, no prominent French soldiers wrote about the Civil War before 1870, a period in which French armies were often already at war in North Africa or Mexico. Their own lessons learned in mounted operations would presumably have sufficed. Secondly, the American Civil War had occurred “at a distance [greatly removed from France] and in the midst of special circumstances.”Not the least of these circumstances was the perceived amateurishness of American armies, Union and Confederate. Consequently their experiences’ applicability to the French army was judged to be of limited value at best, though surely the French cavalry school at Saumur recognized that the distance from France to Mexico was not less than that from France to the borders of the Union or the Confederacy. Finally, it was maintained that the heavily “populated, cultivated, and civilized” nature of Western Europe made a French replication of strategic raiding as undertaken by Grierson or Morgan unlikely, if not impossible, despite the fact that more obscure French observers noted the strategic-raiding role that cavalry might still play. Indeed, one might argue that precisely the thickly woven nature of Western Europe’s transportation infrastructure would have made strategic raiding even more valuable in offering many more targets than had been the case earlier in the still relatively sparsely settled reaches of Kentucky or Mississippi. As noted at the outset in reference to the French cavalry’s lackadaisical reconnaissance and interdiction in the war’s opening days, there existed in Paris an “imperturbable complacency” until 1866; and despite rousing itself after Königgrätz to adopt the chassepot and new siege artillery and enact, in 1868, a plan for a thoroughgoing reorganization, the French army in 1870 was frequently simply outfought. And when not outfought, it suffered catastrophically bad leadership. In the forty-three years following the Treaty of Frankfurt, as the new German Reich and the French Republic girded themselves for the next round in their centuries-old rivalry, the cavalry of both countries remained integral to their respective armed forces, as did horsemen in all other European armies. For the victorious Germans of 1871, the question was not so much would there be cavalry in the next war, but rather to what great victories would they ride?
The story of German military aviation stretches back to the end of the nineteenth century, when a small balloon section was established during November 1883, initially incorporated into a railway troop but becoming autonomous after four years. Experimental large rigid airship designs developed by former Army Officer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin eventually steered an almost reluctant military towards airships, while in 1908 the German General Staff concluded that the aeroplane must also become part of the future military arsenal. Within two years a flying school was formed in Döberitz and the first military aircraft acquired by the German Army entered service, forming the nucleus of the Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps), which in October 1916 would become the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Combat Forces).
Successful Army experiments with balloon reconnaissance also led the German Navy to reopen investigations into their viability after initial trials had been cancelled in 1890. Their primary role was to be scouting for enemy units and minefields, roles traditionally carried out by destroyers and high-speed small craft. However, communications failures between a torpedo boat and the crew of its towed balloon during trials near Kiel led to the cancellation of all attempts at developing aerial reconnaissance. The decision resonated with Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the Imperial German Naval Office, who had previously dismissed the idea out of hand as contrary to his faith in surface ships fulfilling this purpose.
But for the enthusiasm for naval aviation of Prince Heinrich of Prussia, younger brother to the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, the matter may have rested there. Heinrich, promoted to the rank of Großadmiral on 4 September 1909 after thirty-eight years of naval service, was arguably more popular than his older brother, particularly abroad, where his diplomatic skills far surpassed those of Wilhelm. Heinrich, in his role as Inspector General of the Imperial Navy, attended the Döberitz flying school and graduated as Germany’s first naval pilot determined to develop a seaplane force. He remained instrumental in the development of naval aviation, unmoved by Tirpitz’s general disapproval of the diversion of resources that included a 200,000-Mark investment by the Reichsmarineamt which he considered better used by the surface fleet. Meanwhile, after British naval authorities enquired about the purchase of German-made Zeppelins, Germany was finally spurred into the building of their first naval airship, L1, which was ready for testing in October 1912. Following successful trials, the Navy Airship Detachment (Marine Luftschiffabteilung) was formed on 8 May 1913 under the command of Korvettenkapitän Friedrich Metzing.
However, the entire German airship project soon suffered two heavy blows. Metzing and fifteen of his crew were killed when L1 crashed in high winds during fleet manoeuvres in September 1913, and the second airship commissioned, L2, exploded at altitude, killing all on board. Nonetheless, the new commander of the Airship Detachment, Kaptlt. Peter Strasser, was able to steer his fledgling unit through the minefield of critics determined to see the airship programme aborted, and L3 took to the skies in May 1914.
Parallel to Strasser’s airship unit was the Naval Flying Detachment (Marine Fliegerabteilung) which had been established in 1911 following Heinrich’s graduation as a pilot. Early trials were made using civilian aircraft on loan, as initial expectations of interest from German aircraft manufacturers proved misplaced. Seaplanes were far more expensive and specialised to construct than land-based aircraft, and naval specifications demanded that all naval aircraft be amphibious. This, combined with the fact that the majority of manufacturers were located considerable distances from Germany’s coastline, conspired to keep the fledgling service arm impoverished. It was not until May 1912 that the first pair of German-built Albatros B1 two-seat reconnaissance aircraft were received by the Naval Air Service.
Nevertheless, the detachment gradually grew in size and the pace of seaplane development increased. An experimental centre for naval aviation was established in West Prussia near Putzig, forty-four kilometres north of Danzig. Boasting a concrete slipway, an 800m airstrip and all necessary buildings and workshops for a functioning airfield, the first aircraft, a Fritzsche Rumpler, arrived to be equipped with floats during the autumn of 1911. On 3 May the following year an Albatros D 2 took off from the solid runway and successfully alighted on water, as it had been decreed that all German naval aeroplanes were to be of amphibian configuration. This, however, was a difficult requirement to meet owing to the weight of a dual float-and-wheel assembly and the marginal engine power then available. By discarding the wheels fitted to the central Coulmann float of the Albatros WD 3 (70hp Mercedes), Oblt.z.S. Walter Langfeld was able to make the first water take-off on 5 July 1912. When the wheels were fitted again, a system was used that enabled them to be raised clear of the water. To reduce water resistance further and allow acceleration to flying speed, the wingtip floats could also be raised by means of a large handwheel on the port side of the engine nacelle. However, official dissatisfaction with the slow progress of the marine aeroplane led to the first German Seaplane Competition, held at Heiligendamm in August-September 1912. Various manufacturers submitted what were basically landplanes fitted with floats, and although only two (Aviatik and Albatros) met the stated requirements, the official view was that the problems of amphibious operations had been solved.
On 1 June 1913 the 1.Marine Flieger Abteilung was formed in Kiel- Holtenau with a complement of 100 officers and men. To evaluate current foreign marine aircraft techniques, several machines were bought from other countries, including an Avro 503 seaplane from Britain. Following acceptance tests, Langfeld flew the Avro to Heligoland in September 1913 for the autumn fleet manoeuvres, carrying a passenger; the first flight by a seaplane from the German mainland to Heligoland. Four seaplanes were deployed in the manoeuvres, three of which were considered unsuitable for operational use, but the Avro produced excellent results. Meanwhile, the production of a single-engine biplane with floats, the Friedrichshafen FF 29, began at Flugzeugbau Friedrichshafen, and the FF 29 entered service with the Imperial German Navy in November 1914, by which time the nation had been at war for four months. That same month Oblt.z.S. Friedrich von Arnauld de la Perrière, brother of the soon-to-be famous U-boat commander Lothar, was placed in command of the first German naval air unit deployed on foreign soil after he established Seeflugstation Zeebrugge on the harbour mole. A former passenger terminal was converted to form the core of the seaplane base, with hangars, ammunition storage and personnel quarters added or requisitioned. A railway spur linked the base with Lisseweg, where German forces had established a major aircraft repair facility.
The Marine Flieger Abteilung began the war with a strength of only twelve seaplanes; six in Heligoland, four in Kiel (to where the detachment had moved its headquarters) and two in Putzig; between them mustering thirty officer and three NCO pilots, with few trained observers. Naval air observers (land or sea) did not have to hold commissioned rank, as was required in the Army Air Service. Although underequipped and predominantly relegated to reconnaissance, with limited attacks on enemy shipping, the naval aircraft detachments gradually grew in strength, as did Strasser’s airship numbers as they proved their worth both in reconnaissance and as part of the aerial bombardment of Great Britain, authorised by the Kaiser in January 1915. Indeed, Strasser was a known advocate of area bombing, writing to his mother after the commencement of Zeppelin raids on British cities:
We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as baby killers and murderers of women. What we do is repugnant to us too, but necessary. Very necessary. A soldier cannot function without the factory worker, the farmers, and all the other providers behind them. Nowadays there is no such animal as a non-combatant; modern warfare is total warfare.
Germany fielded seventy-eight naval airships during the First World War which flew a combined total of 1,148 reconnaissance missions and hundreds of bombing raids, delivering 360,000kg of bombs, the majority against British harbours, ports, towns and cities. Strasser had been named Führer der Luftschiffe (F.d.Luft) and continued to fly combat missions until he was killed on 5 August 1918 during a raid on Boston, Lincolnshire, when his airship, L70, was shot down near the Norfolk coast by a British D.H.4. aircraft, all twenty-three men aboard being killed.
Nordholz, near Cuxhaven on the North German coast, was the main naval airship base and F.d.Luft headquarters, with subsidiary bases on the North Sea coast and within the Baltic. Small numbers were also employed within the Adriatic and Black Seas, and L59 attempted a supply journey from Bulgaria to East Africa, turning back at Khartoum when the planned rendezvous area with German troops was overrun by British forces.
Naval aircraft were concentrated in 1.Marine Flieger Abteilung at Kiel- Holtenau, 2.Marine Flieger Abteilung at Wilhelmshaven and the Marine- Freiwilligen Fliegerkorps in Berlin-Johannisthal. During September 1915 the former two units were renamed Seeflieger Abteilungen, reporting directly to Befehlshaber der Marine Luftfahrt Abteilungen (BdL, Commander Naval Air Units), Konteradmiral Otto Philip. Large numbers of seaplanes were ordered, the Hansa Brandenburg KDW being introduced in 1916 as a single-seat seaplane fighting scout alongside forty Rumpler 6 B1s, and 114 Albatros W 4s were built beginning in 1917. Additionally, naval units had begun to field land-based aircraft, initially to protect U-boat bases and other naval installations on the Western Front, and on 21 December Oblt.z.S. Egon von Skrbensky arrived at Mariakerke (Ghent) with 113 officers and men to create the 1.Marine Landflieger Abteilung (Naval Land Aircraft Unit). Since the Navy had no facilities of its own for training single-seat pilots, when Fokker E monoplanes were introduced into naval landplane units naval pilots were sent to the single-seater school attached to Kampfeinsitzerstaffell (Kest I) on Sonthofen aerodrome near Mannheim, the first pilot to undertake this conversion course, Flugmaat Boedicker, being attached to 2.Marine- Feldflieger-Abteilung at Neumunster.
The basic unit of the Imperial German Naval Air Force was the Seeflugstation (Seaplane Station) or Landflugstation (Landplane Station). By mid-September 1916 there were some forty single-seat land fighters operating with the Marine Flieger Abteilungen, most of them Fokker E monoplanes. While a number of these were concentrated in Nieuwmunster for defending conquered Belgian territory, at least half of the fighter strength was deployed defending airship bases from Allied air attack. As the service grew during the war, a number of semiautonomous Staffeln (flights) were created; the Marinefeldjagdstaffel (Naval Fighter Squadron) commanded by Lt.z.S. Sachsenberg, operating with success in the area of the Fourth German Army occupied by the German Marine Corps. As air-to-air fighting activity increased, the Staffel was joined by other naval landplane fighter units until, towards the end of 1918, the five Marinefeldjagdstaffeln were formed into the Marinefeldjagdgeschwader under Sachsenberg’s command, with a strength of over fifty fighters. This was achieved despite aircraft production and allocation being held firmly under Army control, rendering naval fliers the junior partners in aviation matters. However, the success of the naval aviators was undeniable. During 1917-1918 they sank in the North Sea four merchant vessels, four patrol boats, three submarines, twelve other ships and a Russian destroyer. They had also managed to gain aerial superiority over the North Sea, shooting down 270 Allied aircraft for a loss of 170 of their own.
Two other major developments in German naval aviation took place in 1917. Firstly, the order to create three Küstenflieger Abteilungen in September for the patrol of coastal waters and assistance in coastal artillery spotting against enemy warships, and, secondly, the establishment that same month of the 1.Torpedostaffel, flying Hansa Brandenburg GWs, Friedrichshafen FF 41As and Gotha WD 11s in Germany’s first torpedo plane squadron.
Bombing had also been pursued by the German Navy. The landbased Riesenflugzeug (literally ‘Giant Aircraft’; a large bomber possessing at least three engines) was evaluated as a possible addition to the naval airship for bombing and long-range scouting purposes. However, experience with the Staaken VGO 1/RML 1 (Reichs Marine Landflugzeug 1) was plagued by difficulties. Engine troubles and structural failures of undercarriage assemblies had eventually been overcome, and the aircraft participated in some bombing operations on the Eastern Front, until, during a fully-loaded night take-off late in August 1916, a double engine failure resulted in a crash into a Russian forest. The machine was completely rebuilt and modified to take an additional two engines. At this time a transparent Cellon covering intended to render aircraft partially invisible and reduce searchlight illumination was under consideration, and the fuselage and tail unit were covered with this material. On the first test flight, at Staaken aerodrome near Berlin on 10 March 1917, engine failure resulted in the aircraft yawing wildly, and this was compounded by a control system malfunction. The pilots were unable to prevent the machine from crashing into the corner of one of the airship sheds.
Shipboard aviation had also begun in earnest almost immediately after the outbreak of war, largely due to Heinrich’s command of the Baltic Sea Fleet. The British freighter SS Craigronald had been seized as a prize while moored in Danzig at the outbreak of war and renamed Glyndwr, and the 2,425-ton ship was immediately impressed into service as an aircraft mother ship. Although no hangars were built on board, four seaplanes could be carried on the fore and aft decks. A heavy cargo crane was used to load and unload the aircraft, and the vessel was initially used as a training ship in the Bay of Danzig for the fledgling naval aircraft service. Two German cargo ships were also converted into bona fide seaplane tenders within the Baltic Sea; the SMH Answald and SMH Santa Elena, commissioned into the High Seas Fleet as Flugzeugschiff I and II respectively. Both received hangars fore and aft which could hold three and four aircraft each. Anti-aircraft guns were added, though the initial conversion proved unsatisfactory and they did not see action until 1915, following further modification. However, once in service they contributed greatly to the power of the German Baltic Fleet, keeping Russian naval forces on the defensive. The ex-British freighter SS Oswestry, which had been taken as prize in August 1914 and renamed Oswald, was also converted in 1918 to the role of aircraft tender and attached to IV Torpedo Boat Flotilla, carrying four FF 29s.
Additionally, the cruiser SMS Friedrich Carl had been provided with two aircraft in 1914, but was sunk by mines shortly thereafter and the aircraft were operationally unused. On 15 January 1915 an FF 29 became the first aeroplane to be launched from a submarine, the U12. The unarmed scout aircraft was lashed to the U-boat’s forward deck and piloted by the Zeebrugge naval airbase commander Oblt.z.S. von Arnauld de la Perrière. The U-boat’s bow was submerged after releasing the aircraft’s ties, and de la Perrière successfully took flight. However, Imperial Navy observers were unimpressed, and the decision was made not to use U-boats as aircraft carriers thereafter. Elsewhere, the battlecruiser Derfflinger, light cruiser Medusa and several Sperrbrecher made effective use of embarked aircraft, as did the armed merchant cruiser SMS Wolf.
When SMS Wolf left Kiel on 30 November 1916 on a 15-month voyage, during which she traversed three oceans as a commerce raider. She carried a Friedrichshafen FF 33E seaplane on board for scouting purposes. Named Wölfchen, the seaplane played an important part in Wolf’s marauding activities and carried out over fifty flights in this role. During the voyage Wölfchen was operated without the display of any national insignia other than the German War Ensign, which was flown from the innermost starboard rear interplane strut as occasion demanded. Crewed by Lt.z.S. Stein and Oberflugmeister Fabeck, the seaplane contributed to the Wolf sinking or capturing twenty-eight Allied vessels and returning home laden with booty from her victims.
Within the North Sea, German naval command finally came to understand the value of shipborne aircraft and ordered the construction of seaplane tenders capable of matching the speed of the Grand Fleet, something that mercantile conversion could not achieve. Two cruisers were ordered to be adapted, the SMS Roon and Stuttgart, and work began on Stuttgart on 21 January 1918 at the Imperial Dockyard in Wilhelmshaven. On 16 May she was commissioned as an ‘aircraft carrier’. Two large hangars had been installed aft of the funnels, with space for two seaplanes; a third was carried atop of the hangars. Stuttgart provided air cover for minesweeping operations within the North Sea but was never used in the offensive mode employed by Prince Heinrich within the Baltic.
Though Stuttgart had finally provided an aircraft tender that could keep pace with the High Seas Fleet, her small payload of only three aircraft was unsatisfactory, and plans were drawn up on Heinrich’s insistence for the construction of a flight-deck-equipped ‘true’ aircraft carrier. The answer was found in the incomplete hull of 12,585-ton Italian turbine-powered steamer Ausonia, which had been under construction in Hamburg’s Blohm & Voss shipyard at the outbreak of war. Conversion plans were drawn up by Lt.z.S.dR Jürgen Reimpell of 1.Seeflieger Abteilung, his final design proposals being completed by 1918. The ship was to carry two 82m hangar decks for wheeled aircraft and a third 128m hangar deck for seaplanes, all mounted above the existing structural deck. The flight deck itself was 128.5m long and 18.7m wide, and the ship was designed to carry either thirteen fixed-wing or nineteen folding-wing seaplanes, along with a maximum of ten wheeled aircraft. Ausonia could carry up to ten fighter aircraft and a combination of fifteen to twenty bombers and torpedo-floatplanes, but she was never completed. With the emphasis placed on U-boat construction, the final building drive of the Imperial Navy was never to reach fruition, as the war ended in November 1918, with Bolshevik revolution within the Kaiser’s Navy.
Of 2,138 naval aircraft fielded between 1914 and 1918, 1,166 were lost. The years of war yielded many ‘aces’ within the Marine Flieger Abteilungen, including three winners of the coveted Pour le Mérite: Theo Osterkamp with thirty-two victories, Gotthard Sachsenberg with thirty-one and Friedrich Christiansen with thirteen. However, the armistice did not see the end of their fighting as Sachsenberg was approached in January 1919 by General von der Goltz while demobilising the Marinegeschwader with a request to form a volunteer air unit that could serve in support of the ‘Iron Division’, composed of Freikorps troops and the remnants of the German 8th Army in the Baltics. Within weeks, Sachsenberg had recruited many former colleagues and formed Kampfgeschwader Sachsenberg, officially designated Fliegerabteilung Ost. Sachsenberg’s unit was despatched by German Defence Secretary Gustav Noske to join the fighting against Russian Bolshevik forces encroaching on German interests within the Baltic states. The Inter-Allied Commission of Control had insisted in the armistice agreement that German troops remain in the Baltic countries to prevent the region from being reoccupied by the Red Army, though the true motivation of the Iron Division was deeply rooted in the desire to install pro-German leadership within the region and possibly instigate the fall of the Bolshevik government of Russia, returning the monarchy to power. Sachsenberg’s approximately 700 personnel were based at Riga, Latvia, and gave aerial support to Freikorps units fighting ‘Reds’ on the Baltic borders of Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Sachsenberg managed to amass a considerable number of aircraft before the Versailles Treaty of 28 June 1919 banned German military aircraft production. They established local air superiority and were mainly used thereafter for reconnaissance and ground-attack missions in support of Freikorps operations. However, after fierce fighting against Estonian troops and Latvian nationalists who had turned against the Germans following several reported massacres, the Iron Brigade was forced to retreat. Increasing international pressure from countries concerned about German expansion in the Baltic region finally prompted Reich President Friedrich Ebert to issue an order to end all official military operations. Volunteer units began to withdraw from the Baltic states during September 1919, and by December Kampfgeschwader Sachsenberg had returned to the East Prussian town of Seerappen and disbanded, its aircraft being recycled.
Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, German air forces were banned, although the German Navy had been allowed to retain a small number of aircraft for mine clearance work:
The armed forces of Germany must not include any military or naval air forces.
Germany may, during a period not extending beyond October 1, 1919, maintain a maximum number of one hundred seaplanes or flying boats, which shall be exclusively employed in searching for submarine mines, shall be furnished with the necessary equipment for this purpose, and shall in no case carry arms, munitions or bombs of any nature whatever.
In addition to the engines installed in the seaplanes or flying boats above mentioned, one spare engine may be provided for each engine of each of these craft.
No dirigible shall be kept.
Within two months from the coming into force of the present Treaty the personnel of air forces on the rolls of the German land and sea forces shall be demobilised. Up to October 1, 1919, however, Germany may keep and maintain a total number of one thousand men, including officers, for the whole of the cadres and personnel, flying and non-flying, of all formations and establishments.
Based at Nordeney and Holtenau, the aircraft provided great assistance for the hard-pressed minesweeping ships. By October 1919, 11,487 fixed and 12,386 drifting mines had either been swept or destroyed. Within two months all of the minesweeping aircraft were then scheduled to have been handed over to Allied authorities for disposal, but Kaptlt. Walther Faber, a former combat pilot with the Marine Flieger Abteilung and later Adjutant and Training Advisor to the Naval Air Service Chief of Staff (Adjutant und Referent Chef des Stabes Marineluftfahrt) from August 1917, managed to retain six operational machines within the Baltic well into the 1930s, despite the naval air service having been officially dissolved during 1920.
When war was declared with Great Britain and France on 3 September 1939, the Heinkel He 115 was beginning to enter service. However, owing to the imperfections of the LT F5 torpedo, the new floatplane was unable to carry the weapon as it was incapable of flying slowly enough to launch it successfully without stalling. During October 1939, trials conducted by the TVA in altering the torpedo’s aerial rudder to allow use by the He 115 resulted in an unacceptable 50 per cent failure rate. Nevertheless, the He 115 began operational missions, relegated to reconnaissance and bombing roles. By 2 September the Kriegsgliederung der Luftwaffe reported the See-Luftstreitkräfte standing at a strength of thirty-one He 59s (thirty of them operationally ready), eighty-one He 60s (sixty-six operationally ready), sixty-three Do 18s (fifty-four operationally ready) and eight He 115s spread among its squadrons; the carrier group 4./Tr.Gr. 186 numbering twelve Ju 87s, and 5. and 6./Tr.Gr. 186 twenty-four Bf 109s between the two Staffeln.
Two distinct operational commands were established to allow smoother control over operations in the North Sea or the Baltic Sea. These were Führer der See-Luftstreitkräfte West and Führer der See- Luftstreitkräfte Ost respectively; each tactically subordinate to the relevant Marinegruppenkommando (MGK) that had been established to co-ordinate surface forces within the same regions. At the formation of the two posts Generalmajor Hermann Bruch, former Chief of Staff to Zander at Luftwaffenkommando See, commanded the western branch, while Generalmajor Joachim Coeler headed that in the east, both men having been former naval officers before transfer to the Luftwaffe. However, their positions changed almost immediately war was declared, when the two officers swapped posts. The allocation of available Staffeln to each regional command was made by the Kriegsmarine; Ritter was responsible for all related administration and logistical support pertaining to the deployment in his role as Gen.d.Lw.b.Ob.d.M.
Küstenfliegergruppe 106, Obstlt. Hermann Jorden, Norderney
Stab/Kü.Fl.Gr. 106: no aircraft
1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106: He 60, He 115 (Hptm. von Schrötter)
2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106: Do 18 (Oblt. Bischoff)
3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106: He 59 (Hptm. Stein) (based at Rantum)
Küstenfliegergruppe 406 Maj. Heinrich Minner, List
Stab/Kü.Fl.Gr. 406: no aircraft
1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406: He 115 (Hptm. Lienhart Wiesand)
2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406: Do 18 (Maj. Bartels)
3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406: He 59 (Hptm. Bergemann)
Bordfliegergruppe 196, Wilhelmshaven
1./B.Fl.Gr. 196: He 60/Ar 196 (Maj. Lessing)
Küstenfliegergruppe 306, Obstlt. Heinz von Holleben, Dievenow
Stab/Kü.Fl.Gr. 306: 1 x He 60, 1 x He 59 (moved to F.d.Luft West command on 4 September, based at Hörnum)
1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 306: He 60 (Hptm. Heyn) (moved to F.d.Luft West command on 4 September, based at Hörnum)
2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 306: Do 18 (Hptm. Hartwig)
Küstenfliegergruppe 506, Obstlt. Wolfgang von Wild, Pillau
Stab/Kü.Fl.Gr. 506: 1 x Ju 52, 3 x He 59
1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506: He 60 and He 114 (Hptm. Hermann Busch)
2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506: Do 18 (Hptm. Herbert Hartwig) (moved to F.d.Luft West command on 4 September and placed under staff of Kü.Fl. Gr. 306)
3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506: He 59 (Hptm. Ludwig Fehling) (moved to F.d.Luft West command on 12 September)
Küstenfliegergruppe 606, Kamp (Formerly 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 706)1
2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 606: Do 18 (Hptm. Hans Bruno von Laue – temporarily replacing Hptm. Rudolf Wodarg on attachment to Staff/ Luftwaffenkommando East Prussia) (moved to F.d.Luft West and placed under the staff of Kü.Fl.Gr. 306)
Küstenfliegergruppe 706, Obstlt. Hermann Edert, Kamp
Stab/Kü.Fl.Gr. 706: 1 x Ju 52
1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 706: He 60 and He 114 (Maj. Kaiser) (based at Nest)2
3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 706: He 59 (Hptm. Gerd Stein) (moved to F.d.Luft West and placed under the staff of Kü.Fl.Gr. 106
Bordfliegergruppe 196, Holtenau
5/B.Fl.Gr. 196: He 60 (Hptm. Wibel)
II./Trägergeschwader 186 (established in Kiel-Holtenau), Maj. Walter Hagen
Stab II/Tr.Gr. 186:
4./Tr.Gr. 186: Ju 87B (based at Stolp)
5/Tr.Gr. 186: Bf 109B (based at Brüsterort)
6/Tr.Gr. 186: Bf 109B (based at Brüsterort)
Outside of direct Kriegsmarine tactical control, Luftflotte 2 had been allocated the task of investigating aerial naval operations, and Felmy ordered the creation of a specific command for maritime operations using high-performance land-based aircraft, the 10.Fliegerdivision, established in Hamburg on 5 September 1939, commanded by Generalleutnant Hans Ferdinand Geisler and based initially at Blankenese. Geisler took aboard as his Chief of Staff the gifted and experienced Maj. Martin Harlinghausen of AS/88 fame. Within less than a month Geisler’s command was renamed X.Fliegerkorps. Stationed in North Germany, the main force incorporated Heinkel He 111H bombers of Generalmajor Robert Fuchs’ KG 26 and, from November, the new Junkers Ju 88 bombers of KG 30 under the command of Geschwader Kommodore Generalmajor Hans Siburg (replaced by Obstlt. Walter Loebel in January 1940). Until 1941, most of KG 26’s observers were either members of the Kriegsmarine or Seeluftstreitkräften, and the crews as a whole had already been introduced to a new training regime incorporating the techniques required for nautical warfare; ship identification and marine navigation, as well as weather patterns and their relative sea state. They began their first small-scale joint manoeuvres with Kriegsmarine units in waters south of Norway.
During September, Hptm. Edgar Petersen began to lobby for the adoption of a relatively new aircraft to enable long-distance maritime reconnaissance. The former Army flight instructor and Staffelkapitän of 1./KG 51 had been moved to the staff of Geisler’s fledgling 10.. Fliegerdivision as a navigation specialist, and began pushing for the use of the Focke-Wulf Fw 200. He had initially favoured the Junkers Ju 90, but was swayed by the fact that only two prototype aircraft existed and there was, as yet, no established production line for more. The Fw 200, on the other hand, had already proved its endurance during peacetime.
The prototype Fw 200 V1 (initially civil registered as D-AERE and named Saarland, then re-registered D-ACON and named Brandenburg in the summer of 1938 in preparation for its record flight to New York that August) had first flown at Neulander Field in Bremen, the Focke-Wulf factory airfield, on 27 July 1937. At the controls was Kurt Waldemar Tank, a former First World War cavalry officer who had become a leading aeronautical engineer and test pilot. Tank was working for the prestigious Albatros Flugzeugwerke when the company was merged with Focke-Wulf in 1931, and during 1936 began design work on the Fw 200 Condor long-range commercial transport to specifications agreed with Lufthansa. British and American airlines were developing and using large four-engine flying boats for transatlantic journeys from Europe to South America, though their weight and bulk prevented them from carrying large payloads. Instead, Tank developed a sleek, lighter landplane; an all-metal, low-wing monoplane crewed by four and capable of carrying twenty-six passengers. The aircraft was designed to operate at a maximum ceiling of 3,000m, allowable without the use of oxygen and a pressurised cabin.
To prove the aircraft’s potential, at 7.30am on 10 August 1938 D-ACON lifted off from Flugplatz Berlin-Staaken to begin a Great Circle course across the North Atlantic, and landed at Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York, at 1.50pm local time the following day. The flight, which had carried no passengers, had covered 6,371.3 kilometres in just a fraction under twenty-five hours, and marked the first non-stop flight between the two points by a heavier-than-air aircraft. The crew comprised Lufthansa pilot Kapitän Alfred Henke, Luftwaffe Hptm. Rudolf Freiherr von Moreau (co-pilot), Paul Dierberg (flight engineer) and Walter Kober (radio operator). Two days later the aircraft made a return crossing, shaving five hours off owing to more favourable winds.
The Condor had proved itself as a long-distance aircraft, and made a series of demonstration flights, including Berlin to Hanoi, French Indo-China, during November, during which it set a new speed record, though the aircraft was eventually wrecked after ditching near Manila on 6 December 1938 due to fuel starvation, either through crew error or mechanical malfunction. There were no casualties, and though the Condor was recovered it was deemed beyond repair.
Nonetheless, a military variant of the Condor, the Fw 200 V10, had been requested by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and at the outbreak of war four such aircraft were near completion in Bremen. They were purloined by Petersen and combined with six existing civilian models for the formation of his new unit on 1 October 1939: the Fernaufklärungsstaffel (long-distance reconnaissance squadron), initially under the direct command of Ob.d.L., though non-operational until 1940. During the pre-war development of the Luftwaffe the late Walther Wever had been a strong advocate of strategic bombing by long-range aircraft, leading to the Dornier Do 19 and Junkers Ju 89 prototypes. However, following his death the concept of strategic bombing had been abandoned by men who favoured tactical aircraft, particularly the dive-bomber. This frustrated German bomber design thereafter; even development of the heavy He 177 was delayed through an irrational desire to incorporate a dive-bombing capability. The Fw 200 was a compromise between the two camps, but although its later reputation among the Allies as the ‘Wolf of the Atlantic’ was born from some reality, the aircraft was never entirely suitable for its intended role, and one wonders what could have been achieved if Wever’s original vision had been allowed to flourish. Among the deficiencies of the Fw 200 were lack of a proper bombsight and relatively poor forward vision, particularly compared with the Heinkel He 111H and its extensively glazed cockpit. This forced Condor crews to attack at low level, approaching targets at a height of around 50m before releasing bombs only 240m or so from the target. Crews came to know this manoeuvre as the ‘Swedish turnip tactic’, allowing the highest chance of a damaging hit or near miss, but also rendering the relatively fragile airframe vulnerable to small-calibre anti-aircraft weapons that were soon issued to merchant ships. Furthermore, the barometric altimeters in use at that time were notoriously unreliable at low altitude, requiring instead good spatial judgement and timing on behalf of both pilot and observer for a successful attack.
On the front line in the days leading up to war the Seeluftstreitkräfte was engaged in reconnaissance of the North and Baltic Seas. As the Wehrmacht began its invasion of Poland on the morning of 1 September the floatplanes were immediately in combat, its first casualties being suffered less than twenty-four hours after fighting began, in an accident when He 60 M7+NH of 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 crashed while taking off for a reconnaissance of the Bay of Danzig. Pilot Uffz. Hans August Damrau misjudged his take-off run and the aircraft’s floats struck the harbour mole in Pillau-Neutief. The Heinkel crashed into the sea and caught fire after impact, killing Damrau and observer Lt.d.R. Hoffmann. In the West, Do 18 M2+JK ‘I’ of 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106 crashed in darkness and bad weather on 3 September. The wreckage was later recovered by the Seenotdienst ship Günther Plüschow, which had been despatched to investigate a large oil patch believed to be from the missing aircraft, and the bodies of observer Oblt.d.R. Georg Müssig and pilot Uffz. Friedrich Römermann were found six days later.
Newly trained observer Lt.z.S. Paul Just later recalled the beginning of hostilities in his post-war autobiography:
I am ordered from the school to the front: Küstenaufklarüngsstaffel 1./306 on the North Sea island Norderney. But the English remain inactive like the French. We landed our float biplane on a lake in Pomerania and prepared for combat missions. With the single-engine Heinkel He 60 we are to bombard the last Polish units in small bunker positions on the Hela peninsula . . . We wear leather aviator overalls, with hood and glasses. The observer has binoculars, and in the on-board compartment are the nautical chart, compass and navigation triangle, in front of his knees the radio. With Morse signals he can relay reconnaissance information to the command post.
The initial tasks allocated to the naval fliers during the first days of war with Poland revolved around attacks on the Hela Peninsula and its heavy gun emplacements, and in bombing the garrison at Gydnia. Just and his He 60-equipped Staffel joined in the attack, a task for which the He 60 was not designed:
But here we are supposed to be a bomber. The explosive bombs with detonators in place weigh five kilos each. To prime them, I have to remove a safety pin. Bomb mountings are not available in the He 60, so I put the bombs under the seat. If they roll around, I have to hold them with my feet
More appropriately, the dive-bombers and fighters of the Graf Zeppelin’s Trägergeschwader 186 had also been taken on to the strength of F.d.Luft Ost, and were in combat from the outbreak of hostilities. Indeed, the first Luftwaffe loss attributed to enemy action was a Junkers Ju 87B-1 of 4./Tr.Gr.186 that had been thrown into action against Polish targets. Equipped with heavy SC500 bombs, the Stukas were provided with air cover by Bf 109 fighters of Trägergeschwader 186, both squadrons operationally subordinated to Jagdgeschwader 1, commanded by Obstlt. Carl Schumacher.
During the last days of peace the carrier squadrons of Trägergeschwader 186 had moved from Kiel-Holtenau to the east: the fighter squadrons 5./186 and 6./186 on 22 August and 24 August respectively to Brüsterort, the Stuka Staffel 4./186 to Stolp-West in Pomerania. Major Walter Hagen, the commander of Trägergeschwader 186, was a highly experienced pilot, having served with the Seeflieger during the previous world war and spent years in the interim as a pilot and test pilot for the German airline industry. Joining the Luftwaffe in 1935, he had continued his role as test pilot before being appointed commander of the Graf Zeppelin’s aircraft group. Stuka pilot Helmit Mahlke later wrote of him:
A modest individual, he was a superb pilot who had played a pivotal role in the earliest days of naval aviation. He was also an incomparable leader of men who treated those under his command with respect, consideration and absolute fairness. We could not have wished for a better commanding officer.
A mixture of naval and Luftwaffe personnel had flowed into Hagen’s command during the weeks leading to war. They were hurriedly formed into operational units at Kiel-Holtenau, with a few He 50s available for training alongside the newly available modified Stuka Ju 87Bs finishing production. The squadron was treated as an extension of the Graf Zeppelin complement, and by 1 September only one Stuka Staffel was fully equipped and operational, having been posted to Stolp for what the men believed were impending exercises.
Hauptmann Erich Blattner’s 4./Tr.Gr. 186 was in fact the strongest single unit within Generalmajor Hermann Bruch’s F.d.Luft Ost command, which had established its headquarters at the Seefliegerhorst Dievenow (Pomerania), on the north-east corner of the island of Wolin. Blattner, a former Lufthansa pilot, led his squadron into action, initially against Polish naval bases, beginning with a one-and-a-half-hour attack on Gdynia Harbour beginning at 0215hrs on 2 September. The next morning Uffz. Wilhelm Czuprina and his gunner/radio operator Funkmaat Erich Meinhardt were killed when their Stuka was hit and brought down by flak during an attack against the Hela Peninsula. During this bombing raid the Stukas severely damaged the 2,250-ton modern minelayer Gryf, hits on her bow setting her ablaze, as well as 1,540-ton destroyer Wicher, which was hit amidships, the tender Smok, and a patrol boat.
The Polish minelayer Gryf had already been attacked by Stukas of the Luftwaffe’s Lehrgeschwader 1 (LG1, formerly Lehrgeschwader Greifswald) on the first day of hostilities, while travelling in company with six minesweepers from Gydnia to lay mines at the entrance of the Bay of Danzig. With the Gryf damaged by several near misses and with twenty-two men killed, including the commander, Captain Wiktor Kwiatkowski, the 290 mines were jettisoned, and the ship was taken to the Hela Peninsula to serve as a flak platform. There German destroyers briefly shelled them, Gryf being hit twice before a return hit on Z1 Leberecht Maass forced the Germans to retreat. Moved to the floating dock for repair, she was then hit repeatedly by the carrier squadron’s Stukas, and left burning and partly submerged. The coup de grâce did not come until 4 September, when the Staffelkapitän of 3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 706, Hptm. Gerd Stein, led his He 59 aircraft in an attack that afternoon and finished the ship off with more hits, the hulk continuing to burn for two days. The He 59 seaplanes of both Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 and Kü.Fl.Gr. 706 were added to the offensive against the Hela Peninsula by this stage of the battle, though Obstlt. Wolfgang von Wild, commander of Kü.Fl.Gr. 506, harboured grave doubts about the aircraft’s suitability for what would be a conventional night bombing role against artillery positions. In his War Diary, the entry from 5 September clearly records his opinion:
Kdr. Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 repeatedly informed F.d.Luft several times by telephone of his doubts concerning the military expediency of planned attacks by bomber squadrons on 6 September 1939. A successful attack cannot be counted on as the small target can only be properly targeted from low level. The attacking crews will meet very heavy flak (ten heavy anti-aircraft batteries and between thirty and forty anti-aircraft machine guns). The battery has so far been bombarded with 50 tons of bombs, of which 20 tons were SC500s, without any success whatsoever. Considering the defence, the operation seems unwarranted and a waste of ammunition, especially since the Gruppe’s request to attack the Westerplatte was originally rejected in order to save ammunition.
Nonetheless, the attacks went ahead between 0400hrs and 0420hrs on 6 September, and Lt.z.S. Claus Münscher’s He 59 M7+XL of 3./ Kü.Fl.Gr. 506, was brought down by flak from a height of 500m, all four crewmen being killed. The aircraft hit the sea, and a Polish patrol boat despatched to the site collected a pilot’s glove, collar, and pieces of the wing for identification.
Attack carried out according to orders. Heavy defensive fire. Aircraft ‘X’ shot down. Success of attack equal to zero. Request F.d.Luft: Should the ordered additional attacks be carried out?
Response from F.d.Luft: No further attacks.
Too late for Münscher and his crew, on 6 September, SKL prepared the following order to Group Baltic, to be issued four days later:
Multipurpose aeroplanes are no longer to operate against heavily protected objectives on land. The use of multipurpose aeroplanes for long-range reconnaissance operations in the North Sea is more urgent: thus, the aeroplanes are to be spared during operations in the Baltic Sea which are still necessary for the time being.
The Stukas of Trägergeschwader 186 had been despatched to sink Polish gunboats which fired on German positions around Rewa, before spending an extended period in support of ground operations, two aircraft making forced landings after being hit by ground fire, and another being shot down in flames during the battle for the marshlands at Oxhöfter-Kämpe on 14 September; Oblt. Hans Rummel and Oberfunkmaat Fritz Blunk were both killed. Stuka crewmen reported enemy machine-gun fire from the quarantine station east of Amalienfelde (marked by a large red cross on white ground), returning fire in what they considered a violation of international convention.
After the British declaration of war on 3 September, several units were removed from the Baltic battlefield and transferred west, creating a confused tangle of administrative hierarchy as individual Staffeln were placed under different Gruppe commands. On 12 September, 3./ Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 was the latest assigned to F.d.Luft West and ordered to transfer to the North Sea. Following the expected defeat of Gdynia Blattner’s Stuka squadron, redesignated two days previously from 4./ Tr.Gr. 186 to 3.(St)/Tr.Gr. 186, was also to be placed at the disposal of Marinegruppenkommando West (MGK West), leading SKL to issue notice to Ritter that ‘for reasons of tactical command Naval Staff no longer needs a Commander, Naval Air, Baltic, for the Baltic Sea due to the reduction of staff and senior personnel’.
Following the subjugation of all Polish naval bases and the clearingup of defensive minefields that had clogged Danzig Bay, Commanding Admiral, Baltic, considered the minimum allocation of aerial forces suitable for his requirements to be one long-range reconnaissance squadron, one Stuka squadron and three multipurpose squadrons for the effective maintenance of reconnaissance and combat operations for control of the Baltic Sea. However, on 20 September the Luftwaffe’s Chief of General Staff, Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, expressed ‘the urgent desire’ for Blattner’s Stukas to be removed from naval control and transferred to Luftflotte 1. The Naval Liaison Officer attached to Luftwaffe General Staff, Fregattenkapitän Mössel, received the following reply to Jeschonnek from SKL:
a. Naval Staff considers that there is still a limited number of tasks for the Stuka squadron in the Baltic Sea area at present, not only as support for the fight on Hela, but also for possible employment in the fight against submarines etc.
b. Some time ago Naval Staff issued an order that this squadron is to be assigned to Group West for tasks in the North Sea as soon as there are no more tasks in the Baltic Sea.
c. The Naval Staff believes that if this squadron were assigned to Luftflotte 1 in the course of the general transfer of air forces from the east to the west, the Stukas would not immediately be able to operate against land targets there. On the other hand, the Naval Staff sees possibilities for using this squadron in the North Sea theatre against sea targets. As a matter of fact, possibilities for such operations have already presented themselves.
d. However, if it appears in the further progress of the war against Great Britain that, owing to limited range of the Stukas or to lack of opportunities for attack, the squadron is in the wrong place, Naval Staff will at once make it available.
e. Naval Staff therefore asks to have 3.(St)/Tr.Gr. 186 left with the Navy at present.
Within five days the Kriegsmarine had their answer, as Göring himself ordered the Stukas immediately placed under the command of Luftflotte 2. Raeder and his staff were predictably and justifiably outraged at yet another incursion into what small amount of control the Kriegsmarine still exercised over aerial units:
The withdrawal of this squadron is opposed to the demand of Naval Staff, who will feel the loss of the squadron for breaking resistance on Hela Peninsula as well as for operations against naval targets in the North Sea all the more, as by order of Armed Forces High Command the naval air units are tactically assigned to Commander in Chief, Navy, and the order of Commander in Chief, Air Force, is, therefore, contradictory to the basic instruction issued in agreement with the Führer.
Nonetheless, the decision was taken, and the highly effective Stuka unit was shortly removed to purely Luftwaffe control. Blattner’s squadron transferred briefly to Danzig, from where it continued to batter the Hela Peninsula, before moving to Radom, south of Warsaw, for two days, where it was temporarily subordinated to Stukageschwader 77. By 28 September Blattner and his men and machines had returned to Kiel-Holtenau. As the inter-service wrangling continued in the higher command echelons, the men of 3.(St)/Tr.Gr. 186 were pragmatic when informed of their impending reassignment.
Our personnel had come exclusively from the ranks of the Navy before being transferred to the Luftwaffe. But because it was not known at this juncture just how long it would be before our aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin, entered service – which, in the event, she never did – the Luftwaffe was demanding that, in the interim, our Gruppe should be placed under the control of its own Luftflotte 2. The Navy’s opposition to this demand – made mainly as a matter of prestige, I suspect – was put to the OKW, which came down firmly on the side of the Luftwaffe. Naturally, we knew nothing of these goings-on at our lowly level. We were simply surprised and delighted when, at the beginning of November 1939, we received orders to transfer to Wertheim, near Würzburg, for service under Luftflotte 2. On 8 November 1939 we landed at Wertheim, thereby taking our place as a tactical unit on the Luftwaffe’s operational order of battle alongside all its other Stukagruppen. The move was very welcome from a flying point of view, but it did pose a number of problems for our ground staff, which would continue to plague the Gruppe for a long time to come. Still nominally a carrier-based unit, we had been furnished with very little transport of our own. The Gruppe itself had been allocated a single Ju 52 transport aircraft, while the HQ and each Staffel was provided with one 3-ton lorry, one small car and one motorcycle for use while lying in harbour. Obviously, this was totally inadequate for a normal Stuka unit’s day-to-day operations, let alone for a rapid transfer from one airfield to another.
German Naval Aviation War II 1939 Part II
While the aircraft of Trägergruppe 186 were soon removed from F.d.Luft Ost, the remaining squadrons continued their activities over Poland and the Baltic Sea. On 16 September SKL suggested that boarding commandos be formed from personnel of both 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 306 and 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 706 to augment the naval forces already tasked with the interdiction of merchant ships carrying contraband to Great Britain. Each small commando unit would comprise a naval officer observer supported by a Luftwaffe radioman and one or two soldiers drawn from the ground staff. They were to be carried into action aboard an He 59, which was capacious enough to accommodate the extra men, two float-equipped Ju 52s able to carry larger parties of men if required also being added to the complement. The officers received basic training in the intricacies of Prize Law and were soon operational within the Baltic Sea. The interdiction missions were mounted by pairs of aircraft, one maintaining a protective circle above while the other landed near the target vessel, which had been requested to stop by gunfire, a thrown message from the Heinkel, or flashed Morse signals. Once alongside, the officer was able to inspect the ship’s manifest. Any vessel suspected of carrying contraband was directed to Swinemünde, where it would be more thoroughly inspected and possibly interned as a legitimate Prize of War. Following their brief training in the art of boarding merchant ships, on 24 September SKL recorded that: ‘Naval air forces are permitted to carry out war against merchant shipping in compliance with prize regulations’.
It was soon found that prevailing winds often prevented safe landings, and that the most effective method of inspection involved signalling the suspect vessel while remaining aloft, directing the ship toward a German port or one of the Vorpostenboote waiting in predetermined locations. Once again, Paul Just was at the forefront of this new Küstenflieger initiative, this time as observer and aircraft commander aboard a Kü.Fl. Gr. 306 Heinkel.
The He 59 is a good aircraft, but the two 600hp BMW engines can only give a maximum speed of 240km/h, the highest cruising speed only 205 km/h. The He 59 was intended for four men: Pilot and navigator up front, the radioman who doubled as an air gunner behind, and another gunner, the flight engineer, astern in the lower hull . . . Eight to ten aircraft are constantly on the move, and every day sixty to eighty merchant ships are inspected by the Vorpostenboote. It puts a great strain on the crews, with no possibility of collecting military glory . . .
My pilot, Bootsmann Brötsch, sits behind and above me. If I want to enter the control dome for a turn at the stick, I knock on his leg. He trims the machine, we understand each other with a look, and he drops out of his seat in the hull, I pull myself up. Of course, the change is prohibited, but the He 59 sails so well through the air, that probably nothing can happen; until the day it happens. When I’m up in the pilot’s seat, I unexpectedly see a crooked horizon. The machine is suddenly leaning almost 45 degrees to port. Brötsch is back in his seat in a flash. The machine straightens up, but the drone of the port motor is missing; the propeller has stopped. Theoretically, one engine should be sufficient to keep the He 59 airborne. Brötsch gives the starboard engine full power. The flight engineer, who also takes constant care of the aircraft when on the ground, feverishly searches for the cause of the failure. We can only hope that he is successful, because the aircraft has started to lose height.
Brötsch doesn’t need to say anything: we will be down soon. Worried, I look at the sea state, which is quiet, but with a few foam heads. Two steamers are all that are in sight, and as we go further down they disappear behind the horizon. We turn to face against the wind and wave direction. With the slow-running starboard engine we hold ourselves on course above the sea. But the He 59 lurches powerfully and it looks for a moment like the ends of the floats could hit the water and submerge. The fierce vibrations of the floating aircraft puts a great strain on us . . .
We radio a distress signal, because if the motor stops we will not be able to get it going again on our own. [The engineer shouts] ‘Everything is okay, I can’t find anything. Brötsch, give it another try!’ The starter makes the [port] engine pop and puff, the propeller turning in fits and starts before suddenly the engine runs again. We are amazed, and the pilot is happy.
In the west, co-operation between Admiral Alfred Saalwachter (MGK West) and both Joachim Coeler’s F.d.Luft West, Felmy’s Luftflotte 2 and Geisler’s 10.Fliegerdivision was initially very positive. Despite the fact that the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine had failed to co-ordinate the most basic tenets of cohesive maritime war (each used different map grids, there was no established mutual communications net, no common code or cypher system, and inadequate telecommunications between operational headquarters and command stations), an element of goodwill had been fostered, not least of all due to Coeler’s obvious enthusiasm for his aircraft to begin maritime operations. Overcoming the difficulties imposed by the joint control of naval air units, local organisational measures were taken between the various headquarters: Saalwachter based in Wilhelmshaven, Coeler in Jever thirteen miles to the west, Felmy in Brunswick, and Geisler’s office located in Hamburg, which boasted a highly developed signals net. The Luftwaffe and Naval offices immediately exchanged grid-square charts, enabling a composite overlay to be created to ease operational co-ordination. Communications systems were rapidly improved upon, and a Luftwaffe liaison officer was quickly assigned to Saalwachter’s staff. Felmy requested that a U-boat be assigned the task of sending direction-finder signals to aid aircraft navigation, but this was refused by B.d.U. on the grounds of meagre U-boat strength available for the war against British trade, a converted trawler Vorpostenboot being allocated instead for the same purpose.
Over the North Sea, aircraft controlled by F.d.Luft West mounted continuous reconnaissance missions to form a picture of shipping movements and the distribution of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet. Aircraft also monitored the entrance to the Skagerrak for any indications of enemy minelaying, as well as any British naval forces despatched to reinforce Poland. First blood was drawn by one such reconnaissance flight within two days of the start of war with Great Britain. During the morning of 5 September eight He 115s of 1./ Ku.Fl.Gr. 106 took off from Norderney to fly their parallel search patterns. At approximately 0600hrs the crew of Lt.z.S. Bruno Bättger’s M2+FH sighted Avro Anson Mk.I K6183, VX-B, of 206 Sqn, RAF, south of the Dogger Bank, and attacked. The Anson was also engaged on maritime reconnaissance, as part of the new Coastal Command, having taken off from its home airfield at Bircham Newton to hunt for U-boats. Pilot Officer Laurence Hugh Edwards, a New Zealander who had trained with the RNZAF, engaged the He 115, and a fifteenminute battle followed. The Anson’s dorsal gunner, 22-year-old LAC John Quilter, was killed by gunfire. Edwards was unable to bring his forward machine gun to bear, and the Anson was soon on fire as it went down into the sea. Two other occupants, 23-year-old Sgt Alexander Oliver Heslop (of 9 Squadron, RAF) and 18-year-old AC1 Geoffrey Sheffield, were both killed, but Edwards manage to swim free of the wreckage despite suffering burns to his face and other minor wounds. The victorious He 115 alighted and rescued Edwards, who became the first RAF officer to be captured during the Second World War. Bättger’s triumph was to be short-lived, however, as his aircraft was shot down on 8 November by a 206 Sqn Anson. Bättger was posted as missing in action, but the bodies of pilot Uffz. Friedrich Grabbe and wireless operator Fkmt. Schettler were later recovered.
However, Coeler’s F.d.Luft West staff also suffered casualties during the first week of war. On 5 September a Junkers Ju 52 transport carrying six passengers was misidentified by flak gunners aboard the ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer and shot down. All aboard were killed, including Hptm. Günther Klünder, former commander of AS/88, who had been seconded to the staff of Führer der Seeluftstreitkräfte.
Only three He 60s were lost during the period between the opening of hostilities with Poland and the end of the year, all during September 1939. As well as the fatal crash in Pillau on 3 September, a second He 60 from 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 crashed in the harbour on 11 September, shortly before alighting, after the pilot was momentarily blinded by sunlight. However, both he and the observer escaped unscathed. On 22 September an He 60 made an emergency landing off Kaaseberga near Kivik, Sweden, owing to engine problems during a reconnaissance sweep of the Bay of Danzig. Drifting toward Swedish territorial waters, the aircraft was subsequently taken in tow by the Swedish destroyer Vidar and landed at Ystad. Both the pilot, Oblt. Gerhard Grosse, and observer Lt.z.S. Helmut von Rabenau were initially interned but repatriated on 8 June 1940. The aircraft was not returned to Germany until 4 November of that year.
On 26 September the second He 59 destroyed during the month was lost when M2+SL of 3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106, one of nine patrolling the North Sea, was forced down by failure of the port engine. Observer Oblt.z.S. Deecke could see that the aircraft was steadily losing height and stood no chance of making landfall, and so ordered pilot Fw. Worms to put the Heinkel down, a strong breeze running the sea to a moderate and potentially dangerous swell. Unfortunately, as soon as the aircraft touched down, the starboard float struts broke on the choppy water and the wing cut under the sea surface. The aircraft was completely written off, its wreckage being recovered by the salvage ship Hans Rolshoven and the crew rescued and landed at Borkum.
Three of the few unsatisfactory He 114s in service were also lost during September. On 6 September T3+NH was destroyed while being lifted aboard the supply ship Westerwald, which was idling near Greenland in support of the ‘pocket battleship’ Deutschland. The aircraft smashed against the ship’s hull and was dropped back into the water, its engine later being salvaged. Five days later, observer Lt.z.S. Ralph Kapitzky and his pilot, Uffz. Nowack of 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506, were both slightly injured while alighting at their home base at Putzig following action against Polish troops at Grossendorf. During the attack on infantry positions, rifle and machine-gun fire had damaged the aircraft’s control system, causing Nowack to lose control during the landing run. Theirs was one of ten He 114s operated by the Staffel. A second was lost a week later when it crashed while alighting owing to an unexpectedly strong tailwind, though there were no casualties.
Six of the long-range reconnaissance Dornier Do 18s were also lost during September. Four days after the fatal crash of Do 18 M2+JK in Baltrum, an aircraft of 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 606 capsized during a night alighting at 2304hrs at Hörnum, after being diverted from Witternsee because of fog. Of its crew, observer Oblt.z.S. Helmut Rabach was posted as missing, his body never being recovered, flight engineer Uffz. Karl Evers was killed, pilot Uffz. Ernst Hinrichs was badly injured, and wireless operator Hptgfr. Herbert Rusch slightly injured. The aircraft, 8L+WK, was virtually destroyed and later written-off, and Hinrichs died of his injuries in hospital two days later. The Staffel 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106 lost two aircraft within a day of each other, the first following an emergency alighting with engine trouble in the North Sea. Kapitänleutnent Karl Daublebsky von Eichhain rescued the crew, adrift in their lifeboat, with his coastal Type II U-boat U13. He also attempted to take the aircraft in tow, but repeated attempts failed in a worsening sea state. During the following morning the seaplane tender and Seenotdienst ship Günther Plüschow reached their position and also attempted to take the crippled Dornier in tow, but the waterlogged aircraft subsequently flooded and was finally sunk by gunfire at 1230hrs on 13 September.
That same day, near the sand dunes of Ameland, Do 18 M2+LK of the same Staffel washed ashore after being damaged by Dutch Fokker D.XXI fighters of 1st JaVA. Unlike the other Low Countries, The Netherlands actively defended their territorial air and sea space, and the Dutch fighters had been scrambled after a naval reconnaissance Fokker T.VIII-W floatplane was attacked six miles outside territorial waters off Schiermonnikoog Island by a German He 115 floatplane of Küstenfliegergruppe 406. The German crew had not recognised the approaching aircraft as Dutch, maintaining that, as it came out of the sun towards them, the national insignia of tricolour roundels looked either British or French. The Heinkel crew opened fire and brought the aircraft down, whereupon the T.VIII-W capsized. Recognising their error too late, the Heinkel crew descended alongside the upturned Fokker to assist the crew, some of whom were slightly injured. However, the He 115 was also slightly damaged by a short steep sea, and further assistance arrived in the form of the Do 18 flying boat commanded by Lt.z.S. Horst Rust. This too suffered minor damage upon alighting, but the Heinkel was eventually able to take off and transport the injured Dutch crew to hospital on Norderney. Meanwhile, alerted to the drama unfolding at sea by observers ashore, a patrol of three Fokker D.XXIs took off from Eelde, intending either to force the German aircraft to remain stationary and await naval interception, or attack should they attempt to flee. By the time they arrived at the scene the Heinkel had already left, but they sighted the stationary Dornier and fired initial warning shots ahead of the floatplane to prevent take-off. Pilot Fw. Otto Radons initially set course for the flying boat to head towards the Dutch coast, but then attempted to lift off and escape. A second strafing attack hit the Dornier, puncturing its hull, which began to leak in the heavy swell. Abandoned, the aircraft drifted ashore and was virtually destroyed by the surf, while Rust and his crew, who had taken to their lifeboat and paddled to the coastline, were captured and interned at Fort Spijkerboor, being taken to Great Britain as prisoners of war in May 1940.
Although the Luftwaffe immediately apologised for the incident, Dutch authorities also admitted some measure of culpability, and in an attempt to minimise such an event recurring, the Dutch Air Force substituted an orange triangle for their tricolour roundels, and their established red, white and blue rudder markings being changed for orange overall. This, however, did not prevent the misidentification of a Dutch DC-3 on 26 September, which was attacked by an He 115 of 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406, damaging the airliner and killing Swedish passenger Gustav Robert Lamm.
The forces available to F.d.Luft West were steadily increased as the war in Poland progressed in Germany’s favour. Gydnia fell on 14 September, Polish forces withdrawing to the Oksywie Heights, which in turn fell within five days. The Hela Peninsula was isolated and finally battered into submission by 2 October, and four days later the final Polish military units surrendered following the battle of Kock, marking the end of the German’s Polish campaign.
While ‘Fall Weiss’ neared completion in the east, the units of F.d.Luft West shared with Luftflotte 2 responsibility for the reporting of shipping movements and naval activity within the North Sea. The picture that was forming at MGK West instigated an intensification of operations against merchant shipping sailing in defiance of the declared blockade of Great Britain, in which both Kriegsmarine surface forces and naval aircraft could co-operate. The Luftwaffe crews of Luftflotte 2 still lacked the required naval training to guide German destroyers effectively towards suspicious merchant vessels, so the onus fell to F.d.Luft West, with its contingent of Kriegsmarine observers.
On 26 September 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 306, 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406 and 2./Kü.Fl. Gr. 506 were scheduled to mount eighteen separate reconnaissance flights over the North Sea in what had become a familiar routine. However, on this occasion they located strong elements of the Royal Navy Home Fleet that had thus far eluded them. Three main groups were reported and, to maintain contact, aircraft of 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406 and 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 (transferred from the east and placed under the direction of Karl Stockmann’s Stab/Kü.Fl.Gr. 406) were also despatched to strengthen the reconnaissance sweep. The first group (Home Fleet) was observed heading east, and comprised two battleships, one aircraft carrier and four cruisers. The second (Humber Force), was sailing west, and consisted of two battlecruisers, (mistakenly) one aircraft carrier and five destroyers, and the final group, ‘heading for the west at high speed’, comprised two cruisers and six destroyers. Rather than spread the aircraft too thinly, contact was maintained on the two heavy groups only, and all W/T transmissions from the shadowing aircraft were immediately forwarded by F.d.Luft West to 10.Fliegerdivision so that they could prepare a bombing attack. Furthermore, Coeler ordered two multipurpose torpedo-carrying Staffeln to prepare an attack to follow-up the bombers, though the time taken to prepare the aircraft delayed take-off until 1330hrs.
At 0830 on 25 September the Home Fleet, comprising the battleships HMS Nelson and Rodney (of the 2nd Battle Squadron), the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (with the Blackburn Skuas of 800 Sqn, the Blackburn Skuas and Rocs of 803 Sqn, and the Fairey Swordfish of 810, 818, 820 and 821 Sqns embarked), and the destroyers HMS Bedouin, Punjabi, Tartar and Fury, had sailed from Scapa Flow, steering a westerly course to provide cover for the cruisers and destroyers of the Humber Force returning to British waters, escorting the submarine HMS Spearfish which had been damaged by German depth charges. The destroyers HMS Fame and Foresight were already at sea, and soon joined the main force, followed later by the destroyers HMS Somali, Eskimo, Mashona and Matabele.
At 1100hrs GMT three of the distant shadowing Dornier flying boats were sighted by Swordfish reconnaissance aircraft from Ark Royal, and nine Skuas were flown off in groups of three at hourly intervals to intercept. The first flight had trouble locating the shadowing aircraft, finally sighting 2./Kü.Fl.Gr. 306 Do 18 K6+XK and engaging in a protracted air combat, hitting the Dornier thirty-six times before it escaped using its superior speed. A second Do 18 of the same Staffel survived forty minutes in combat against Skuas of 803 Sqn, suffering fifty-five hits before managing to escape and later making an emergency landing. It was later recovered successfully. However, Leutnant zur See Wilhelm Frhr. von Reitzenstein’s Dornier Do 18, M7+YK of 2./ Kü.Fl.Gr. 506, was attacked by a flight from 803 Sqn at approximately 1203hrs GMT. Reitzenstein was sighted flying close to the surface of the water, and Lt B.S. McEwan RN and his air gunner, Acting Petty Officer Airman B.M. Seymour, disabled the Dornier’s engine, forcing it to make an emergency descent. All four crewmen took to their liferaft and were captured by HMS Somali, their crippled aircraft being sunk with gunfire. The shooting-down of Reitzenstein’s Dornier was the first confirmed German aircraft lost in aerial combat. A second Do 18 of 3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106 was also lost, but to engine malfunction rather than enemy action. It made an emergency descent near Juist, whereupon the starboard float struts broke apart and the wings hit the water. Although it was later recovered by the Seenotdienst ship Hans Rolshoven, the Dornier was written-off. Nonetheless, the Küstenflieger aircrafts’ dogged perseverance in maintaining contact allowed a co-ordinated bombing attack to be made on the Home Fleet.
In the morning our air reconnaissance contacted heavy enemy forces north and west of the Great Fisher Bank. Despite strong enemy fighter defence and anti-aircraft gunfire, the shadowing aeroplanes succeeded in guiding four dive-bombing Ju 88s and one squadron of He 111s of 10 Fliegerdivision to the attack by sending out direction-finder signals.
The ships’ positions had been successfully reported and at 1345hrs, when the British Home Fleet was approximately 120nm west of Stavanger, HMS Rodney’s Type 79Y radar reported aircraft approaching. Nine He 111H bombers of the only operational ‘Löwen Geschwader’ Staffel, 4./ KG 26, from their forward airfield at Westerland, and four Ju 88A-1 bombers of 1./KG 30 from Jever airfield, were closing on their target at an altitude of 2,000m, attacking in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire of all calibres but no fighter cover. All of the defending British aircraft had landed and been struck down to defuel, as dictated by Royal Navy policy at the time, which relied on anti-aircraft fire for fleet protection. Despite the strong defensive fire, no attacking bombers were hit, although it at least prevented German success.
All four Ju 88s targeted the Ark Royal, that flown by Uffz. Carl Francke, a former aeronautical engineer, being one of the last to make his dive-bombing attack with Ark Royal manoeuvring below him. A single SC 500 bomb exploded off the port bow, sending a huge column of water higher than the flight deck and causing the ship to whip and list alarmingly. Aboard the Ju 88 the water column was sighted along with a visible flash, though none of the crew could confirm whether it was an actual hit or simply the flash of gunfire obscured by smoke and water. One of the two bombs dropped was an established miss, but the second Francke reported as a ‘possible hit on bows; effect not observed’. Overoptimistically, MGK West counted the hit as definite, and by the time Francke had landed the wish had solidified into fact.
Result: One 500kg bomb hit by a Ju 88 on an aircraft carrier; two 250kg bomb hits by He 111 on one battleship. One miss by a Ju 88 on a cruiser. Results of hits by a Ju 88 on another battleship and a second aircraft carrier(?) were not observed owing to interception of the aeroplane. The fate of the hit aircraft carrier, which was not sighted again by further air reconnaissance, is unknown. If not sunk, at least heavy damage is presumed by the effect of the 500kg bomb. Own losses: Attacking formation; none. Reconnaissance formation; two Do 18s.
No British ships had actually been damaged, though HMS Hood had suffered a glancing blow from a bomb dropped by Lt. Walter Storp’s Ju 88 that bounced off the armoured hull plating, a large patch of grey paint being removed to show the red primer beneath. A second wave of bombers from KG 26 and KG 30 was cancelled, as arming the aircraft had taken too long, while F.d.Luft West was soon informed that his own He 59 torpedo bombers, which were almost ready to take off, would be unable to operate against the enemy owing to the extreme range. Nonetheless, the Germans believed that they had been triumphant. Further reconnaissance missions located heavy ships but failed to find any trace of HMS Ark Royal, though she docked in Scapa Flow two days later. In fact, the Kriegsmarine were not inclined to believe that the carrier had been sunk. They instead correctly reasoned that, as a result of incorrect location fixing, the aircraft had in fact sighted the Humber Force, which they no longer believed included an aircraft carrier. Nonetheless, the co-operation of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine in this operation had proceeded smoothly and without significant issues. SKL recorded their summary of the event:
The success of the aerial attack by the operational Luftwaffe without any losses, entailing a distance of over 300 miles, is most satisfactory. It must be rated all the higher since it was the first operation of the war by the British Fleet in the North Sea, which has shown it in a very impressive manner the dangers of an approach to the German coast and, beyond that, the striking power of the Luftwaffe which threatens it. Any attempt by surface forces to penetrate into the Heligoland Bight or through the Kattegat and Baltic Sea entrances into the Baltic Sea must appear completely hopeless to the British Fleet after today’s experience – if it should be included at all in its operational plans.
The disposition of the bomber formations of the operational Air Force – providing for only four dive-bombing Ju 88 aeroplanes on Westerland at present, out of the small number so far available – rendered a more extensive use of the particularly suitable dive-bomber formations impossible. This must be regretted all the more as, after today’s experience, the British are not likely to repeat the operation, and the use of stronger Stuka formations would probably have had an annihilating effect. The co-operation of the reconnaissance formations of the Naval Air Force with the attacking formation of the operational Air Force, which is still rather inexperienced in flying over the sea, is particularly satisfactory: they stubbornly maintained contact with the enemy with remarkable persistence and despite the strongest fighter defence. Our Radio Monitoring Service worked well. In addition to the observation of heavy enemy forces in the North Sea yesterday, it was possible to gain important information as to course and speed of certain enemy groups by the decoding of enemy radiograms to enemy aeroplanes. The enemy anti-aircraft defence was of medium strength. The enemy fighters proved inadequate as to speed and daring.
German propaganda seized on the thin evidence of success and triumphantly reported the sinking of the Ark Royal, the Völkischer Beobachter and the Luftwaffe magazine Der Adler both publishing graphic artists’ impressions of the carrier wreathed in smoke and flames. Francke received a telegram of congratulations from Göring, and was promoted and awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class, though at no point did he claim to have actually sunk the ship.
However, while the Kriegsmarine appeared content with the result of the combined operation, the resulting analysis by Luftwaffe staff had far-reaching consequences, as it contributed to an overinflated view of the effectiveness of Luftwaffe forces acting in isolation in action against enemy naval units. A report forwarded to Göring on 30 September by his Operations Staff Officer summarised that:
a. It can be assumed according to available data that the aircraft carrier was probably sunk. (The aircraft carrier not visible on the second comprehensive reconnaissance.)
b. According to the observations of the Ju 88 which attacked the carrier, it seemed that the strongly-cased 500kg SD delayed-action bomb caused an explosion inside the carrier among the oil reserves. (Apparent fires, smoke clouds.)
c. Even small Luftwaffe forces (thirteen aircraft) are in a position to inflict considerable damage on heavy naval forces.
d. In the rough sea (state four to five) the ships’ anti-aircraft guns were unable to break up the attack.19
Göring published an order on 29 September that all long-range reconnaissance over the North Sea was henceforth to be handled by Luftflotte 2, and frequent mistakes in Luftwaffe navigation resulted in an increased number of erroneous sighting reports which, though generally considered unreliable by MGK West, still required investigation by naval air units. The resultant waste of resources in duplicated and fruitless missions served to upset the uneasy calm that had been reached over operational jurisdiction between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine tactical control.
On 3 October SKL enquired to Luftwaffe General Staff, Operations Division, about the possibility of the operational Luftwaffe conducting war against merchant shipping in accordance with prize regulations, and any plans for the conduct of war against merchant shipping during the ‘siege of Britain’. The answer, noted in the SKL War Diary, was both disappointing and predictable:
1. War against merchant shipping in accordance with prize regulations cannot be carried out by the units of the Luftwaffe.
2. Luftwaffe General Staff regards the main objective of the fight against Great Britain up to about spring 1940 to be against British Air Force armament factories. Suitable aircraft in sufficient numbers for effective participation in the blockade of Britain by sea west of Ireland will not be available until the end of 1940 or the beginning of 1941. Up to that time the blockade in the North Sea area by the Luftwaffe remains a task of secondary importance. It is planned effectively to support the blockade by combined attacks on the main enemy ports of entry and naval bases.
Meanwhile, elements of the Küstenflieger were also engaged in support of German destroyers attempting to intercept contraband merchant shipping in the Kattegat and Skagerrak bound for Great Britain, though this resulted in few seizures of cargo ships. In the Baltic the Naval Air Units continued to maintain their own blockade by stopping and searching steamers. Thirty-one had been intercepted by 9 October, and six taken as prizes to Swinemünde. Beginning on the evening of 27 September, aerial reconnaissance reported many ships hugging the coasts of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, sheltered by those nations’ neutrality. Only four steamers were successfully seized as prizes out of a total of forty-four stopped and searched, the majority travelling in ballast. However, the German concentration of aircraft, U-boats, S-boats and armed trawlers in the Skaggerak approaches had all but paralysed Danish export trade to Great Britain, and gave rise to Royal Navy Admiralty orders for a special reconnaissance patrol of Lockheed Hudsons to search the entrance to the Skagerrak to confirm reports of continuous German aerial patrolling, and ‘attack if circumstances prove favourable’. However, bad weather intervened during the following day, and most of the planned missions were cancelled. Grimsby fishing trawlers reported frequently sighted German flying boats; never more than two flying together, flying very low over the fishing fleet at between 200 to 500ft, though thus far no trawlers had been attacked.