Operation Shingle – The Landings I

On the evening of Friday 21 January 1944, Berthold Richter, a nineteen-year-old engineer in 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, wrote a letter to his parents. ‘I am looking forward to some leave soon and hope to see you both. I miss you terribly … I have not been able to write as often as I would have liked and fear that I am not much of a son nor a brother. Please send my love to Anna and tell her that I miss her too. I would imagine that she has grown since I last saw her.’ He signed off ‘Your loving son, Bertie’ and attached a recently taken photograph of himself in uniform posing by the Coliseum. Grenadier Richter was a good-looking young man, with a shock of black hair and bright blue eyes. He had left his family in Hamburg for basic training twelve months before and had not been home since. Had he returned, those that had known him would have noticed that he had changed – he had lost a little weight, but he also stood differendy, and there was something unfathomable about his expression. Richter had seen his officer blown up during the fighting in Sicily, cradled his dying best friend in his arms at Salerno and been wounded twice during the fighting in the mountains. His division had eventually been pulled out of the line for a refit and a time in reserve near Rome. Here Richter had briefly – but fully—sampled the pleasures of the capital city where he drank and smoked heavily, and lost his virginity to a prostitute. He had no time to waste. Now he was at Anzio, one of a 380-man unit that had only the previous day been enjoying the sea air, conducted a little training, and making preparations for the demolition of the harbour. Richter slipped the sealed letter in his breast pocket, as a comrade staggered through the door of their seafront billet with two cases of ‘liberated’ wine. With the town evacuated and offering so little to entice the men, they settled in for some drinking, singing and gambling. Berthold Richter enjoyed himself, at one point falling off a table as he danced with a wooden chair, before falling fast asleep fully clothed on a mattress on the floor. It is likely that he was awoken by the sound of the approaching Allied landing craft and had gone to investigate. The shots that killed him had propelled his comrades out of bed and into the waiting arms of the Rangers. Before being escorted into captivity, Richter’s friends saw his body curled in the foetal position surrounded by a large puddle of blood on the esplanade.

Nearly 800 5-inch Allied rockets had crashed into the buildings and along the waterfront of all the invasion beaches. The wall of explosions killed and wounded some of the sentries, dropped masonry down onto the sleeping, cut telephone lines and detonated some of the mines. But its psychological effect on the enemy was even more impressive, sending those still capable of a fight reeling into the first waves of VI Corps. Their confidence boosted by the pyrotechnics, Lucas’s assault waves stormed the beaches to the sound of their own descending might, but silence from an overawed enemy. Assisted by lights (set up on the sand by two-man teams launched from submarines) the assault craft had landed accurately and on time. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recalls:

I braced myself for the shock of the searchlights stabbing out from the shore, followed by the tracers pouring over the waters. But again a silence more intense than ever held the whole area as the assault craft crept in . . . The incredible had happened. We had got the one thing we had never bargained for, utter, complete surprise.

The Allied landings were an unexpected success. An Irish Guards officer wrote: ‘It was all very gendemanly, calm and dignified’, whilst a less restrained 3rd Division officer declared: We hit the beach and shook Hider’s breeches … It sure was a relief after Salerno and that God awful practice.’ The real thing was far more successful than the rehearsals because Lowry and Troubridge had worked tirelessly to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated, and assisted by the benign conditions, they were not. Lucas noted in his diary: ‘We achieved what is certainly one of the most complete surprises in history. The Germans were caught off base and there was practically no opposition to the landing . . . The Biscayne was anchored 3½ miles off shore, and I could not believe my eyes when I stood on the bridge and saw no machine gun or other fire on the beach.’

The landing was an important first step which had been made accurately and securely in order to provide a stable base for further phases. The next step was to push Lucas’s troops and vehicles swifdy across the beaches to instil the attack with some forward momentum. In this intense task the Military Landing Officers (MLO) played an important role. Captain Denis Healey, a future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was an MLO on the British Peter beach. A veteran of landings in North Africa and the Calabria, Healey did not take part in the Salerno landing (where his replacement was killed), but he was an expert in his field. He landed as the engineers were clearing lanes in the minefields when his job was then ‘to make sure that the troops followed the white tape through the lanes, and the vehicles were on the laid metal tracks to stop them bogging … My three days at Anzio were busy, but not dangerous.’ The beaches were extremely busy, with bulldozers creating breaches in the sand dunes, loudspeakers directing the troops, whilst vehicles and guns spilt out onto the sand. Healey and his team ensured that 1 st Division’s paralysis was kept to a minimum, although there was little that they could do when the sand bar that had concerned Penney during planning caused delays. Lucas was not happy and visited an irritated Penney to demand greater efforts as troops waded ashore or were lifted by DUKWs. Had the German defences been stronger they may have been able to exploit such difficulties, an accurate artillery barrage for example might have caused Penney serious problems, but instead the Panzer Grenadiers were rounded up within minutes of the landing. Vaughan-Thomas wrote, ‘The only Germans we saw were a forlorn group standing under guard at a farmhouse door. They had been fast asleep when we landed and clad in pyjamas had jumped into their car and driven it through the door of the barn and had been rounded up before they had gone a hundred yards.’

The three Ranger battalions and the supporting parachutists were extremely grateful for the lack of opposition on Yellow beach in Anzio. Lucas had expected a tough fight to take the harbour and the Rangers had been specially selected for this mission after their excellent performances in Tunisia and Sicily. Their commander, Colonel William O. Darby of Arkansas, ‘a broad-shouldered, thick-chested man’, who ‘moved quickly and spoke with decision’, recognised the nature of the challenge that faced his force as the beach was narrow and overlooked by buildings. He told the planners at Caserta: When I run out of the landing-craft I don’t want to have to look right or left’, and that is exactly what happened. When Darby disembarked from his landing craft he ran straight up the beach, across the road and into the Paradiso sul Mare, the large white twin-domed Art Deco casino built in the 1920s. As he set up his command post, his men, followed by 509th Parachute Battalion, fanned out and within minutes were bringing back prisoners. It was during this time that Berthold Richter had been killed. Richter’s friend Ralph Leitner recalls: ‘I was lucky not to be shot like him. These soldiers had adrenaline pumping through their veins and itchy trigger fingers. They looked fearsome. I recognised them as Rangers from their dress and the black, red and white insignia on their sleeve and knew instandy to respect them.’ The newly arrived Town Commandant also lay dead nearby. He had been driven down the coastal road from Anzio to a headquarters in Nettuno in the company of a Lieutenant to ascertain the source of a droning noise that could be heard out to sea. Minutes into their journey they were caught up in the rocket attack which forced them to take evasive action, but at its conclusion they sped on. As their vehicle entered Nettuno the Rangers ambushed them, drilling them with fire. The driver tried to barge through, but crashed into a ditch. The commandant was killed, the driver was badly wounded, but the Lieutenant cowering in the back emerged unscathed and was taken prisoner. Within minutes he was standing in Anzio harbour, watching the continued landings. He told his interrogators back in England that he had been impressed with what he saw: ‘he never heard a word of command’, they reported, ‘and yet it seemed that everything went clock-work-like’. He could appreciate the careful planning: ‘it was like a big business without confusion, disorder, or muddle.’ The speed and surprise of the attack had given the Germans no time in which to react. The Times later reported on one illustrative action: ‘At a German command post, from which the occupants fled when the Rangers landed, rooms were left in disorder, even to the remnants of a meal which had included sardines, Czech beans, and Danish bacon. Near by lay two German soldiers, shot as they ran from their machine-guns.’ Some Germans did not even have time to get dressed. One American private remembers bumping into a half-naked man in the darkness of Anzio:

As our squad entered a gloomy narrow street I could see a pair of fleshy white buttocks wobbling in the opposite direction and I shouted ‘Halt!’ as loud as I could. The man stopped, raised his hands, turned and walked towards us. We could tell that he was shocked – and perhaps a little embarrassed—because he was only dressed in a vest. At first I thought that he might be an Italian, but he found his confidence when he knew that we were not going to shoot him and started swearing at us in German. His thin legs were shivering below a great pot belly. It was my first encounter with the Master Race.

The Germans were quickly overrun, and Anzio was secured by 0800 hours, with Nettuno secured two hours later.

Soon after 3rd US Infantry Division and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had landed on X-Ray beach, they began to push forward. ‘Once we knew that the division was going to get ashore in one piece and without any hindrance from the enemy,’ recalls Oliver P. Roach who was a Staff Sergeant with 15th Infantry Regiment headquarters, ‘our minds were on our next objective. Making a beachhead was very important, because we just didn’t know when or where the enemy would counter-attack us.’ This was a concern which was shared by the entire corps on the morning of 22 January, and in anticipation John Lucas had planned to create an initial beachhead area some two and a half to three miles deep which could be defended. To facilitate this, reconnaissance platoons were thrown forward and patrols were sent out by units in an attempt to ‘join hands’ across the front as quickly as possible. The probes forward were cautious, but firm. The Americans felt vulnerable as they moved through the open, flat, scrubby marshland on the right of the front towards the Mussolini Canal and an unmade road known as the ‘disused railway bed’ which ran across their front. The British, meanwhile, were circumspect about the prospect of traversing the dark Padiglione Woods. Leading the way on Penney’s left flank was 2nd Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment which advanced with two companies forward using a track through the Umbrella Pines that became known as Regent Street. ‘It was a little nervy being at the forefront of a corps attack striking out for Rome’, recalls an officer from battalion headquarters. ‘It was literally a shot in the dark. We didn’t know what was in front of us and had to constantly co-ordinate ourselves with the rest of the brigade. We were told to speed up then slow down, then speed up again. All we could really do was push on at a steady pace. The Colonel knew what he was doing.’ They ghosted through the darkness, their senses aching, their hearts pounding and their breath freezing at their mouths, expecting to be ambushed at any moment. But the division found no resistance in the wood and their attack developed unhindered in a breaking dawn towards the Moletta River, the Via Anziate and the flyover at Campo di Carne. The first organised German troops were encountered by the vanguard of both divisions after dawn. This weak defensive screen was established by the first German forces to be sent to the area and a number of their 88-mm guns opened fire on the beachhead and the landing vessels. It was the least that Lucas had expected and by mid-morning, as a weak sun gently warmed the embryonic beachhead, he had good reason to feel thoroughly satisfied. The landing had been a great success, and his divisions were forging a beachhead against negligible opposition.

Churchill wanted to be in London when Operation Shingle was launched and had arrived back at Downing Street on 18 January. He was still weak from illness, but his high expectations for Shingle helped sustain his morale. However, on the eve of the attack the Prime Minister was in a contrary mood, snapping at staff and colleagues alike, and clearly anxious about the operation. He found it difficult to concentrate on his work that evening, but within minutes of the first wave landing he received a message: ‘Personal and Most Secret for Prime Minister. From General Alexander. Zip repeat Zip’ – Operation Shingle had been launched. The lack of any further word on the situation at Anzio for several hours did not help the Premier’s mood. Having only slept fitfully for a couple of hours that night, he pounced on Alexander’s next communication at 0900 hours. We have made a good start’, it read. ‘We have obtained practically the whole of our bridgehead and most of the supporting weapons will be ashore tonight I hope.’ With that the Prime Minister relaxed – but he demanded frequent updates fearing German counter-attacks. Alan Brooke, meanwhile, went shooting. The newly promoted Field Marshal did not feel paternalistic towards Shingle which he viewed very much as Churchill’s baby; he allowed the Prime Minister to enjoy the ordeal of its delivery alone. ‘Very good shoot, only 4 guns: Cobbold, uncle Philip, Barney and I’, he recorded in his diary for 22 January. ‘Howling wind, almost gale force. Shot 172 pheasants. At lunch was called up by War Office and told that landing south of Rome had been a complete surprise. This was a wonderful relief!’

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring

It is not certain who raised the alarm, but by 0300 hours the news had reached Kesselring’s headquarters in Monte Sorrate. The Field Marshal had been awoken with the words: ‘Case Richard.’ As he dressed hurriedly a staff officer appraised him of the situation – there had been a landing in the Anzio—Nettuno area, but details were scant – but it could be up to four divisions. Kesselring’s mind lurched into action, running through the implications of the news and various scenarios that it could lead to. But he made no assumptions until he had the facts. There had obviously been a massive intelligence failure. Spies had failed to spot Allied preparations, and its armada had not been spotted approaching Anzio. He had been wrong-footed, and it was now his job to restore stability, and to strike back. Within minutes he was in a large briefing room with Siegfried Westphal, where a clutch of befuddled officers were talking animatedly over a map of Italy. The briefing by the intelligence officer was short and at its conclusion Kesselring launched immediately into questions. Making his apologies, an NCO bearing papers interrupted proceedings with new information. Civitavecchia, a promising invasion area sixty miles to the north of Anzio, was being bombarded. Kesselring smiled and nodded; the Allies were toying with him. Already unsure whether the landings were a raid, a feint or a full-scale attack, this complicated matters. Albert Kesselring strode over to the map table and leaned heavily over it. We have a problem,’ he announced, ‘but not an insurmountable one’, and proceeded to launch into a speech which those present later recalled as a bravura lecture on Allied intentions. The Field Marshal declared that the landing at Anzio was the opening gambit of an attempt to seize the Alban Hills, which would cut Tenth Army’s lines of communication fighting in the Gustav Line thus blocking their route of withdrawal. He remained calm throughout, even joking occasionally at the expense of his colleagues. ‘We have been caught a little off-guard,’ he explained, ‘as we are over-stretched trying to contain the fighting in the south. But we can recover. The British and American aim is to threaten Rome, have no illusions about that, but can they seize the city swiftly? Not, gendeman, if I have a say in the matter – and I intend to be very vocal.’ Pausing, he turned to Westphal and demanded to know what assets he had between Anzio and Rome. ‘Virtually nothing in the landing area,’ came the reply, ‘and perhaps another 800 men in the vicinity in total.’ Kesselring nodded again and then smiled. Throughout he exuded a confidence that infected all those who listened to him that morning. Kesselring acted as though this was merely a long expected—and eagerly anticipated – exercise. His sang-froid was securely rooted in his anticipation of Allied landings, albeit not necessarily at Anzio and at that time, and the preparations he had made for it. The terse instructions that he issued that morning were not a knee-jerk reaction to events, but had been carefully prepared for such an eventuality. The aim was to have 20,000 troops in the area by evening.

By 0430 hours the words ‘Case Richard’ had been signalled all over Italy, alerting commands that an Allied amphibious assault was under way at Anzio-Nettuno and ordering certain units and formations to move to contain it. The military commandant of Rome, Lieutenant General Kurt Mältzer, was to block routes in to the city with all available forces, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Defence District of Rome (who was also the commanding general of all Luftwaffe forces in the Mediterranean theatre), General Max Ritter von Pohl, was to move all his flak formations stationed south of Rome into defensive positions. Major General Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Parachute Division, the majority of which was still north of Rome, was to move without delay to the beachhead whilst its spearhead, Kampfgruppe Gericke, was to be sent immediately to block the Via Anziate and the secondary roads in the area. A kampfgruppe from 29th Panzer Grenadier Division stationed near Velletri, as yet uncommitted against British X Corps on the Garigliano, was sent towards Cisterna to block the only other main Allied exploitation route. Thus by the time that Adolf Hitler had been informed of the landings at around 0600 hours, a small, but highly mobile force had already been deftly despatched to contain the Allies. That morning the Führer was at his Wolfschane (Wolf’s Lair) headquarters in an East Prussian forest east of Rastenburg. Although still under development it covered an area the size of twenty-one football pitches. Only a small percentage of the Wolfschanze contained underground bunkers, but these were impressively built with a shell of reinforced concrete six feet thick. Narrow corridors connected the rooms which all had electric heating, running water, fitted furnishings, and ventilation machinery which drew fresh air through the ceiling. Hitler’s personal bunker – the Führerbunker – also boasted air conditioning. It was cramped, claustrophobic, but safe. On receiving the news of the attack Hitler had been calm but intense, for Kesselring had shrewdly forewarned him about the likelihood of just such a landing. He had watched Mark Clark’s recent offensive develop with interest, but was confident that Kesselring’s defence would hold firm. He now relied on the Field Marshal to deal a blow to the Anzio-Nettuno landings, and provide a victory that would shake Allied faith in their ability to conduct successful amphibious warfare.

Hitler’s composure allowed him to maintain his usual routine without interruption on 22 January. There was the usual pre-breakfast situation report in the Map Room at which he was given the latest news about the landings, followed by a communal breakfast with his staff. Here Hitler always sat facing a large wall map of the Soviet Union and spoke passionately about the Eastern front and the evils of Bolshevism, but the main situation conference that morning was dominated by the situation south of Rome. By this time it was clear that the attack was no feint, but a major strike, and the meeting decided to send formations from other theatres to deal with it: 715th Infantry Division was to be moved from the south of France, the 114th Jaeger Division from the Balkans, three independent regiments – including the highly regarded Infantry Lehr Demonstration Regiment – from Germany, and two heavy tank battalions from France. The meeting also gave Kesselring the authority to use any division from Fourteenth Army in northern Italy, which were under the control of the Chief of High Command of the German Armed Forces (OKW), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. As a result the larger parts of 65th Infantry Division and 362nd Infantry Division, together with elements of the newly formed 16th SS Panzer Division, were ordered south of Rome. Kesselring also ordered Tenth Army to stop counter-attacking British X Corps and go onto the defensive all along the Gustav Line in order to facilitate the release of as many units for Anzio as possible. Von Vietinghoff was displeased, arguing strongly that Mark Clark’s offensive was still a threat, but was forced to concede. Tenth Army subsequently released 26th Panzer Division and elements of 1st Parachute Division from its left, and units from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, 71st Infantry and 3rd Panzer Grenadier Divisions from his right. The newly arrived I Parachute Corps headquarters was also returned to Fourteenth Army with Schlemm ordered to take command at the beachhead Anzio-Nettuno until General Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army headquarters could be moved from Verona. Hitler was impressed with Kesselring’s continuing sang-froid and the fact that his headquarters had not mentioned the word ‘withdrawal’. In the late afternoon, the Führer took tea with his secretaries and then sat down to dinner with Keitel and his aides where their strategy was discussed. There had been no panic at either the Wolfschanze or Monte Soratte.

The race between the belligerents to build up their forces at Anzio–Nettuno had begun. Several units had formed the defensive screen which the Allies had run into that morning. These included the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division Kampfgruppe which used its five armoured cars south of Cisterna to block the road from Nettuno. At 0715 hours it engaged an American reconnaissance force and took the first Allied prisoners of the battle. Shordy after the first troops from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division arrived at Cisterna, and the spearhead of 4th Parachute Division’s Kampfgruppe Gericke on the Via Anziate. Battalion Hauber blocked the road at Campoleone Station and sent a patrol out to Ardea where it stopped the British 1st Reconnaissance Troop as it drove up the coastal road. In a matter of hours the Germans had not only recognised Alexander’s intentions for Operation Shingle and set in motion a plan to heavily reinforce the area, they had also focused their activity on roads that Lucas would rely on to exploit the success of his initial landings. Moreover, by occupying Ardea, Campoleone Station and Cisterna, the Germans retained strong foundations for a counterattack. As if to underline Kesselring’s intent, several German Messerschmitt 109 fighters and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter bombers broke through to strafe the beaches, and drop light bombs on VI Corps at its most vulnerable point. Ross Carter of 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment wrote:

The deck of our LCI was crowded with troops standing around waiting to unload into the icy water and make the three hundred yards to the beach. Just as Berkely was reaching for one of Pierson’s cigarettes, a dive bomber came in and hell opened its doors. The bomb missed the bow by five feet or so, but the explosion lifted the boat clear out of the sea and blew a column of oily water into the sky which fell back on the boat and left us oil-coated for several days.

Stranded off the beach, one of the men swam ashore with a rope and tied one end to the strut of an amphibious Piper Cub, a light aircraft, sitting on the sand. Loaded up with equipment, weapons and ammunition, the men held the rope, jumped into the water and pulled themselves along. ‘The water’, the young paratrooper recalled, ‘was eight to ten feet deep and icy as a spinster’s heart.’ It was a fitting introduction to Anzio, for the men emerged from it ‘wet, cold, miserable, mad, disgusted and laughing,’ a list of adjectives that accurately reflect what troops were to feel during the coming battle. Indeed, as Carter says, he and his comrades had ‘embarked upon an adventure that staggers the mind.’ Private Robert E. Dodge, meanwhile, managed to get off his LCI safely, only to come under immediate aerial attack:

We doubled-time off the L.C.I. and kept going. We had run for quite a distance when Jerry planes came in strafing and bombing. Our anti-aircraft guns sent up such a cloud of aerial bursts, you wouldn’t think anything could fly through it. We instinctively hit the ditches. All around you could here the zap of shrapnel from our guns’ shells hitting the ground. The noise of the planes and guns was really frightening. This time no one was hurt, but now we realised it was for real. Before we could get out of the ditches, we were being urged on with shouts of ‘Move it’.

The Luftwaffe disturbed some of the Allied new arrivals on the first day of Shingle, but caused no significant damage due to their small numbers and the success of Allied Spitfire and Kittyhawk fighter patrols which accounted for seven enemy aircraft for the loss of three Allied. Thus, although the Germans had begun to move troops into blocking positions, and the Luftwaffe had been active, by noon the assaulting forces had reached Lucas’s initial beachhead line. British 2nd and 24th Guards Brigade were firmly lodged in the Padiglione Woods and patrols had reached the Campo di Carne flyover. It was a damp and exposed spot with a few farmhouses, but little else. ‘It gave me goose bumps’, says the 5ft 2in Corporal ‘Lofty’ Lovett of the North Staffordshires, ‘and it did not help when I was told that “Campo di Carne” translated to “Field of Flesh”. Here we were in the middle of God knows where, with precious little cover, waiting for something to happen. It was as still as could be, just the occasional boom of a German gun, or the noise of an aircraft, but otherwise quite quiet.’ Meanwhile, to Lovett’s right, 2nd Special Service Brigade had taken a position astride the Via Anziate two and a half miles north of a defensive line around Anzio-Nettuno created by the Rangers and 509th Parachute Battalion. The Americans had also occupied its soggy initial beachhead area with 7th Infantry Regiment on the left, 30th in the centre and 15th on the right, with patrols pushed forward to the Mussolini Canal where they prepared bridges for demolition to secure the flank.

Included in the invasion force into Anzio were 150 Carabinieri whose job it was to maintain public order in the towns after the landings. They were understandably extremely apprehensive at being part of a dangerous amphibious assault, but were relieved to walk ashore knowing that the Americans were already in control. Setting up a headquarters in a restaurant on the seafront, this armed police force, resplendent in their black uniforms, found that they had very little to do as the populations of Anzio and Nettuno had been evacuated. However, these native Italian speakers became extremely useful when refugees from elsewhere on the battlefield started to congregate in towns during the day. The first had started to arrive mid-morning, some carrying suitcases, children, and even family heirlooms. But there were others who had only too obviously run from their homes in a hurry, some without coats, and one or two still in nightclothes. A proportion of these were injured, their bruised and bloody bodies covered in a thick layer of dust. Many spoke of the dead that they had left behind. These people had lived with the war for years, but the violence had come with appalling suddenness on 22 January. Antonia Paolo who lived with her husband and four children on the edge of the Padiglione Woods recalls the experience:

Our farmhouse was sturdy, but not strong enough to stop the rockets. Only one hit our roof, but brought it down. Luckily nobody was hurt. The children were screaming and my husband grabbed them into his arms and carried them down into the cellar. We sat in the dark listening to the bombardment. It was the worst moment of my life and we prayed together. But it ended as quickly as it had started and within what seemed like minutes, a British officer who spoke fluent Italian was standing in our parlour apologising for the damage, and promising that somebody would be along soon to help us. My husband thought that they would help rebuild the roof and our demolished wall, but what he meant was that we would be escorted down to the port.

Once down at Anzio, the Paolo family were quickly put on an LCI with around twenty other families, and by evening were being administered to by the Allies in Naples. Some families left the danger area at the first opportunity, others as the battle spread, but many had to be prised from their homes or waited until the fighting was on their doorstep before electing to leave. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas witnessed one family which only fled once their house was under direct German fire: ‘The battle was a mere few hundred yards down the road’, he wrote, ‘and the bewildered civilians, clutching their bedding and a few battered suitcases, would stumble through the darkness, the noise and the shell-bursts to the dubious safety of the rear.’ Over the coming weeks a constant trickle of civilians asked to be taken to safety and at times it was a major task feeding and sheltering several hundred often frightened refugees. A church on the outskirts of Anzio was eventually used as an embarkation centre, although it was frequently overflowing with people, a significant number of whom were very young, very old or sick. Occasionally there was panic when a shell landed close by, and sometimes the evacuees had to wait several days before a ship could be found to take them to safety, but eventually 20,000 were taken to Naples.


1st French Armored Division [ (DCR, Divisions Cuirassées de Reserve)] Destruction

Panzer IVs and a T(38) roll through another small French town.

5th and 7th Pz.Div. May 15, 1940

When the 6th Panzer Division reached Montcornet on the evening of May 15, the 9th French Army was in disarray. Not only had Reinhardt broken through, but slightly further north, Hermann Hoth’s XV Corps, comprising the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions, had also blasted a hole in the 9th French Army. Its commander, General Georges Corap, lacked the mobile units required to restore the situation. The 1st French Armored Division, commanded by Major-General Bruneau, had been diverted to Corap, but it fared no better as it met and clashed with German Panzer formations.

On the evening of May 14, the French armored division had advanced towards the bridgehead at Dinant captured by Major-General Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division. As the tanks had to be refueled, Bruneau ordered his division to halt in the Flavion area. He did not know that Rommel’s most advanced elements were only a few kilometers away. However, Rommel was just as ignorant about the presence of the French division.

In the engagement that followed on May 15, two different philosophies were pitted against each other. The French emphasized deliberate, well-planned and systematic action, but speed was not given priority. The German philosophy stressed mobility, combined arms and rapid decision-making and conduct.

On the morning of May 15, the German 25th Panzer Regiment, which was part of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, encountered French tanks at Flavion. A violent battle ensued for a few hours before Rommel decided to break off the action and send the 25th Panzer Regiment on an outflanking move towards Philippeville. At the same time, the German 5th Panzer Division, commanded by Major-General Max von Hartlieb, approached from the east and engaged Bruneau’s division.

NCO Nökel commanded a Panzer III that belonged to the 31st Panzer Regiment, one of the two Panzer regiments in the 5th Panzer Division. He moved near Flavion on the morning of May 15. The terrain was undulating and covered by thick vegetation. Abandoned French equipment littered the nearby woods and, in some places, also the road. Nökel proceeded calmly, but just east of Flavion he was interrupted by voices in his headset telling him that the lead tanks in the company had encountered French tanks at a range of 1,200 meters. The voice of the company commander immediately followed, ordering his tanks to take up firing positions.

While Nökel and the other tank commanders in the company maneuvered their tanks into firing positions, further French tanks were observed at the fringe of a wood. The range was approximately 1,400 meters. The enemy tanks had one gun in a revolving turret and also one mounted in the chassis front. They were of the type Char B1bis, a heavy French tank that was better armed and armored than the German models. The French crews did not seem to have spotted the German tanks, which held the advantage of higher ground.

Captain von Schönburg-Waldenburg, the company commander, ordered I Platoon to advance to a gentle crest around 300 meters away while II and III Platoons provided cover. Unfortunately for the Germans, the French saw the advancing tanks of I Platoon and opened fire. Nökel ordered his driver to take the tank to the crest as quickly as possible, as did the other tanks in the platoon. The Germans reached the crest unharmed, where they sought cover in copses. Nökel’s driver maneuvered the tank into a suitable firing position while the loader and gunner ensured that they could open fire. As soon as the tank had reached the intended position, Nökel ordered his crew to fire. The shell left the muzzle and could, due to the tracer, be followed during the good second it took to reach its target. To his dismay, Nökel saw the 3.7-cm shell bounce off the enemy tank as if it were a pea. The other tanks in the platoon were just as unsuccessful.

The Germans found themselves in a deteriorating situation. More French tanks appeared on the scene. They gradually reduced the distance to the German tanks, which awaited permission to fire. As the German guns had proved themselves wholly ineffective at longer range, there was no point in wasting ammunition. Nökel saw the silhouettes of the French tanks loom ever larger. He had not seen such large tanks before and had not even heard of them during training—not even during the session devoted to recognizing enemy vehicles. The tense situation made his pulse jump.

The company commander issued clear instructions on the radio, allocating targets for the platoons. When the range had shrunk to 250 meters, von Schönburg-Waldenburg ordered his tanks to open fire. Three French tanks were instantly hit and came to a halt. The crews bailed out and fled the scene. Other French tanks continued forward and exposed their sides. The Germans fired on the side armor, which proved to have a weak spot where a hatch for the radiator was located. This allowed the Germans to knock out some of the heavy enemy tanks. Over the radio, they informed the other German tanks about the weakness they had found in the enemy’s armor.

The excellent communications equipment allowed Nökel and the other soldiers in the German company to cooperate efficiently and compensate for the poor armament and weak armor of their tanks. The Germans were also aided by further advantages. Their tank turrets comprised a crew of three men—the commander, the gunner and the loader. This allowed the commander to focus on the terrain and the enemy and make suitable decisions. French commanders also had to aim and load the 4.7-cm gun mounted in the turret. Neither did they have the kind of turret hatch fitted to the German tanks, which allowed the commander to peek out and get a full view of the surrounding terrain. All this resulted in the French commanders being overburdened in battle, and they also suffered from inferior communication and means of observation.

In a way, the poor French radio communications are puzzling. As the French Army practiced a more centralized mode of decision-making, it was actually more dependent on good communication than the German Army, particularly in mobile operations. Considering their different doctrines, it would make more sense for the French to have devoted efforts to create robust communications. In fact, it was the Germans who possessed more and better means of communication. Additionally, the German emphasis on decentralized decision-making made them less prone to complete breakdown when communications failed.-*

The French 1st Armored Division suffered something that might be termed a breakdown near Flavion on May 15. Despite the fact that important elements of von Hartlieb’s division did not reach Flavion on that date, Bruneau’s division was outmaneuvered in a succession of small actions contributed to by German tanks and other arms of the 5th Panzer Division. At the end of the day, Bruneau ordered his men to retreat, but less than a quarter of his tanks remained operational. The 1st French Armored Division had ceased to be an effective formation.

Although the German losses were far smaller, they were not negligible. Nökel was one of the unlucky ones; his radio malfunctioned and he became separated from the company. He was also running dangerously low on ammunition. He caught sight of a few tanks from the company and ordered his driver to steer towards them. At this stage, Nökel was so disoriented that he did not know which direction he was driving in. Black smoke from burning vehicles obscured the sun to such an extent that it was of no help for orientation. Suddenly, Nökel’s tank was fired upon from the right. The driver immediately steered towards a building and managed to reach it before being hit. Nökel saw two enemy tanks firing on him. His gunner revolved the turret as rapidly as possible and fired a shell against one of the French tanks. The range was only 200 meters, and the first shot was a hit.

At the same time, another French tank fired upon Nökel’s Panzer III. The first shot landed in front of the target and the second behind. Nökel ordered his driver to reverse. At that moment, he saw a third muzzle flash. As the driver shifted to reverse gear, Nökel heard some kind of noise coming from the gearbox. It was the last sound he heard before a multicolored flame flashed before his eyes. The tank shuddered and sulfuric vapor reached his nose. He would never forget the smell. He could not remember how he managed to escape the tank, but once he was outside he realized that he had lost his hearing. He managed to find the crew, except for the driver, behind the tank. Still deaf, Nökel decided to check if the driver was still alive. He placed his fingers on the tank and could feel that the engine was still running.

When he reached the front of the tank, Nökel saw that the enemy shell had hit above and behind the driver’s position. The driver was still alive and halfway out through the hatch above his seat. He was laid on top of the tank’s rear together with the wounded gunner. Nökel crept into the tank, sat down on the driver’s bloody seat and turned the vehicle around. He drove to an asphalt road and turned left on it, hoping to find a dressing station.

Nökel drove as fast as he could down the road, but after 500 meters he could already see French vehicles in a nearby wood. They turned out to be horse-drawn baggage carts. Nökel promptly drove past them. A few minutes later, the German tank came near a small village where a bridge spanned a stream. It soon became clear that there were French soldiers in the village. However, their backs faced Nökel’s approaching tank. Without any deliberation, he gave full throttle and stormed across the bridge. Once on the other side of the river, Nökel again saw soldiers, but they wore German helmets.

Nökel and his crew had reached their goal. They received the medical treatment they needed and Nökel would slowly regain his hearing. However, almost four weeks would elapse before he could serve again.

Three Panzer corps comprised the spearhead of the German attack. After defeating the 1st French Armored Division, Hoth’s XV Corps advanced deep into the enemy territory. Similarly, Reinhardt’s XXXXI Corps headed west at high speed. Perhaps the most important attack was conducted by Guderian’s XIX Corps, which operated on the most southerly axis of the three Panzer corps in von Rundstedt’s Army group.


Johnen’s Bf-110 G-4 at Dubendorf.

In the dark skies over southern Germany on the night of April 28, 1944, a fierce shoot-out erupted when several squadrons of Luftwaffe fighter planes pounced on a British Royal Air Force bomber stream. During the confused battle, a three-seat Me-110 fighter, piloted by Leutnant Wilhelm Johnen, strayed into the airspace of neutral Switzerland.

Swiss antiaircraft-gun crews at Dübendorf Air Base bathed the German plane with powerful searchlight beams; then they fired red and green flares, signals for it to land. The plane approached the runway, and the searchlights were extinguished. Suddenly the Me-110 gained speed as if to escape, and the searchlight beams again caught the aircraft. The dazzling glare temporarily blinded Johnen and forced him to land.

Moments after the Me-110 rolled to a halt and the pilot shut off the engine, there was a tapping on the cockpit. A voice in German told the crew, “Please get out. You are in Switzerland. You are interned.” Glancing around, the Luftwaffe men saw that they were surrounded by twenty Swiss soldiers holding weapons aimed at the airplane.

Leutnant Johnen and his two crewmen promptly realized that they would have to take quick action to destroy secret devices on the Messerschmitt. The plane was equipped with the new night-flying radar, the Lichtenstein SN-2, which could track U.S. and British bombers from a distance in excess of four miles.

Also on board was an important new weapon that the Germans had given the nickname Slanted Music. It was a pair of top-mounted cannon that could fire directly upward and was designed to attack the vulnerable underside of Allied bombers.

Perhaps even more devastating to the German war effort should it fall into the hands of Allied intelligence was a set of top-flight Luftwaffe code books. Joachim Kamprath, the radio operator, had violated strict orders and brought the codes with him.

Before heeding the order to emerge from the Me-110, Kamprath tried futilely to badly damage the radar by kicking it. Paul Mahle, who manned the twin guns that fired upward, tried desperately, but failed to destroy them.

The tapping on the cockpit grew more insistent, so the Germans quickly stashed the secret code books into the pockets of their flight suits and climbed down onto the tarmac. After smoking a cigarette and chatting with the affable Swiss soldiers, Paul Mahle, the gunner, said he had to get back into the plane to retrieve some personal items. Without waiting for an approval, he scrambled into the cockpit.

Several Swiss soldiers were right on his heels, and they pulled the struggling gunner by one leg as he tried to reach a switch that would have touched off a delayed-action explosive device and blown up the aircraft.

Then the three interned menthe Swiss didn’t regard them as captiveswere escorted to the air base canteen, where they were given food and wine. After the Germans excused themselves to go to the men’s room, two Swiss soldiers followed, saw them flushing pages from the secret code books down the toilet, and snatched the remainder of the sheets from them.

Twenty-four hours later, the German high command in Berlin erupted in near-panic. Swiss officials refused to return the Me-110 that had violated their tiny nation’s airspace. Berlin feared that the secret equipment and the code books might be slipped to Allied intelligence by the Swiss.

Suspecting that the three Luftwaffe men had committed treason, the Gestapo immediately arrested their families. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, once a chicken farmer and now Gestapo chief and head of the elite Schutzstaffel (SS), probed the possibility of using Nazi espionage agents already in Switzerland to murder the three downed German airmen.

At his battle headquarters at Wolfsschanze behind the Russian Front, Adolf Hitler flew into a rage on being told of the Swiss episode by his longtime trusted chief of staff, Generaloberst (four-star general) Alfred Jodl. However, the führer rejected Himmler’s murder plan and also a scheme by the Luftwaffe chief, rotund Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, to heavily bomb Dübendorf Air Base.

Instead, Hitler sent for one of his favorites, SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Otto Skorzeny, a folk hero on the German home front, a sinister figure known as “Scarface Otto” to the Allies. A burly 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 250 pounds, the “commando extraordinary,” as he came to be known in the Third Reich, was handed a seemingly impossible assignment: locate and destroy the Me-110 being held by the Swiss.

The mission would require exceptional stealth, cunning, and courage, traits that Skorzeny had in abundance. As an engineering student in his native Vienna, he had fought fifteen of the ritual saber duels popular among some Teutonic types. In one encounter, young Skorzeny’s left cheek to the tip of his jaw had been laid open. It was sewn up on the spot without anesthetic and the duel resumed.

After joining the SS in 1940, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Skorzeny fought in the Balkans and later in Russia, from where he was invalided home with severe head wounds. He commanded a desk until late July 1943, when the führer assigned him the daunting task of rescuing Hitler’s crony Benito Mussolini, who had been in almost absolute control of Italy for twenty-one years.

Mussolini had been taken prisoner by Italian partisans after having been booted out of his office by shy, diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III, and was being held prisoner in a peacetime tourist hotel on a towering peak in the Appenines known as Gran Sasso. After spending two weeks prowling around Italy in civilian clothes, Skorzeny had discovered where Mussolini was incarcerated.

On September 12 Skorzeny and a handful of Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) swooped down on Gran Sasso in gliders, snatched the deposed dictator from under the noses of more than two hundred Italian guards, and bundled the famous prisoner into a light Storch aircraft that had just made a dangerous landing near the hotel.

The bulky Skorzeny wriggled into the little plane designed to carry two passengers and, along with Mussolini and a Luftwaffe pilot, Hauptman (Captain) Heinrich Gerlach, lifted off from a short, boulder-strewn plateau. On reaching the edge of the plateau, the Storch plunged downward into a yawning valley and Gerlach was able to right the aircraft just before it crashed. Flying at treetop level, the pilot set a course for Rome, which was still in German hands.

Now Otto Skorzeny had been given an equally “impossible” taskfinding and blowing up the Me-110. As he had done in his search for Mussolini’s whereabouts, Skorzeny, a conspicuous figure because of his great bulk and ugly dueling scar, put on civilian clothes and slipped across the border into Switzerland at night.

Skorzeny ambled around the perimeter of Dübendorf Air Base, seeking some sign of the German aircraft, asking questions of natives living nearly and of civilian employees as they left the facility. Swiss authorities had moved the Me-110 deep within the mountainous country, the commando learned. Finding it would be akin to discovering the proverbial needle in a haystack. So Skorzeny, for one of the few times in his life, had to admit defeat.

Now behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering took place, and a strange deal was worked out between Nazi Germany and Switzerland. On the morning of May 17, 1944, Hitler’s military attaché watched intently as the Messerschmitt, which had been brought back to Dübendorf, with its secret equipment, was doused with gasoline and burned to a crisp.

For its part in the arrangement, the Swiss government was permitted to purchase from Germany twelve high-performance Me-109G fighter planes, a major concession since the seriously depleted Luftwaffe needed every available aircraft to combat the almost daily and nightly raids by British and U.S. bombers against targets in the German homeland.

As a component of the secret agreement, Leutnant Wilhelm Johnen, radar operator Joachim Kamprath, and gunner Paul Mahle were released from custody and returned to Germany. The three airmen were held blameless once the true details of the Dübendorf episode became known to German intelligence, and their families were released from prison.

Perhaps the airmen’s fate would have been different had the Gestapo learned about the Luftwaffe secret code books, most of which presumably were in the hands of Swiss authoritiesor maybe being scrutinized by U.S. and British intelligence.

Landshut Hijacking and GSG 9 Rescue in Mogadishu

October 13, 1977

By the late 1970s, cooperation between rejectionist Palestinians and leftist European terrorists had reached a high point. Joint training, weapons exchanges, operational insights, and trading of operational personnel freely flowed among the various wings of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), West German Baader-Meinhof Group and other German leftists, Italian Red Brigades, Irish Republican Army (IRA), Petra Kraus Group, Basque Nation and Liberty, and a host of other now-forgotten organizations. But government forces were similarly banding together against the terrorists, with quick reaction elite forces sharing training, tactics, and doctrine. The Israeli success at Entebbe led to numerous special operations teams armed with clipboards and light weapons to learn the lessons of the Israelis. They were put into practice in October 1977, when a West German team traveled thousands of miles to conduct a similarly daring rescue of its citizens from hijackers. The Entebbe and Landshut rescues led terrorists to all but abandon high-profile aerial hijacking sieges.

On October 13, 1977, Lufthansa flight 181, a B-737 (called a Landshut) scheduled to fly from the Spanish resort island of Mallorca to Frankfurt, was hijacked 55 minutes after takeoff. Two women hijackers reached into their boots, withdrew guns and hand grenades, and along with two male accomplices, diverted the plane to Rome. On board were 82 passengers and 5 crew. Hostages included a Spanish flight crew, Swedish passengers, an Austrian flight attendant, four West German crew, six West German beauty queens, and two Americans.

Two hijackers identified themselves as Harda Mamoud and Walter Mohammed, who appeared to be their leader. A statement in grammatical and concise Arabic delivered to Reuters in Beirut identified them as the Organization of Struggle against World Imperialism, which confirms the “objectives and demands” of the Red Army Faction kidnappers of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. The group demanded the release of 11 terrorists from the Socialist Patients’ Collective and Baader-Meinhof Group in West German jails, as well as the release of two PFLP terrorists held in Turkish jails since an attack on August 11, 1976. They demanded $15 million and 100,000 marks for each prisoner. The terrorists demanded to have the prisoners flown to Vietnam, Somalia, or South Yemen.

The hijackers took off for Cyprus, landing in Larnaca, although the Cypriot government at first barred their arrival. In what came to be known as Operation Oscar X-Ray, Hans-Juergen Wischnewski, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s troubleshooter, carrying satchels with millions of marks, set off in a German jet trailing the hijacked plane in the hopes of beginning negotiations. Simultaneously, a West German commando unit began practicing assaults on a similar B-737 in the Cologne, West Germany, airport hangar. Two squads of 32 men each boarded a third jet and headed for Cyprus that night. Soon afterward, the German jet carrying the commandos arrived in Akrotiri, Cyprus, 50 miles from Larnaca, Cyprus. Perhaps fearing an Entebbe-type raid, the hijackers took off for Bahrain.

On its way, the plane was refused permission on October 14, 1977, to land in Beirut, Damascus, Kuwait, and Iraq. Bahrain and Dubai, which were next on their itinerary, tried to prevent the plane’s landing. Vietnam, Somalia, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, named by the hijackers as candidates to receive the released prisoners, indicated their unwillingness.

The hijackers hoped to increase the pressure by their treatment of the hostages and establish an image of being willing to kill. They consistently refused requests to release sick, young, or female passengers. The leader of the hijackers called out the names of those he believed were Jewish and said they would be killed in the morning. The female hijacker took delight in brushing grenades against the heads of the passengers while the terrorist leader ranted against imperialism and Zionism. Pressure mounted when the hijackers fired three shots at Dubai engineers approaching the aircraft to attach a mobile generator because the plane’s lighting system had failed.

The plane now headed for Oman, but the Sultan refused permission to land. They went on to Aden, but Yemen attempted to prevent the landing as well. Pilot Juergen Schumann left the aircraft to inspect damage to the landing gear and wandered into an area cordoned off by security forces. He attempted to convince the authorities not to allow the damaged plane to take off again. When he got back to the cabin, he was forced to kneel in the aisle while a one-question trial was held on whether he tried to escape. The leaders of the hijackers fired a bullet through his head in front of the passengers.

The terrorists forced the copilot to head the plane for Somalia. When the plane landed at Mogadishu, the pilot’s body was dumped onto the runway. The hijackers tied up the hostages, poured alcohol from passengers’ gift-shop liquor over them and in the cabin for eventual burning, and collected passports to throw out so that passengers could be identified after the planned explosion.

International recoil at this action grew to recognition of the need for immediate, forceful response. The team members of Grenzchutzgruppe Neun (GSG 9) set off before the Somali government gave permission for the rescue.

The GSG 9 team moved on the plane at 2:00 A.M. on October 18, 1977. Approaching from the rear, the commandos set up four stepladders. They ignited an oil drum and rolled it toward the nose of the plane and away from the craft. The hijackers were drawn to the cockpit for a better look, allowing the commandos to open the plane’s doors simultaneously. The raiders threw in specially designed British flash-bang grenades. Rushing in, the commandos yelled, “Get down!” Two terrorists were killed in the cockpit. A third in the first-class compartment opened fire. Although hit by two bullets, he hurled a grenade toward the rear of the plane. Hit by more bullets, he detonated another grenade while falling, injuring several hostages. The fourth terrorist, a woman, opened fire through the door of the lavatory in the rear of the plane. She was quickly subdued. Six minutes after the beginning of the operation, the passengers were safely out of the plane. One commando and four passengers were slightly injured.

The euphoria of the Germans was tempered by the embarrassment to the government over the prison suicides of Baader-Meinhof members Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin, and the attempted suicide of Irmgard Moeller.

On October 27, 1977, the PFLP-Special Operations claimed credit, saying that the hijack leader was Zuhair Akkasha, whose fingerprints matched those of the killer of North Yemen’s former prime minister, Al Jehri, on April 10, 1977. The two other dead hijackers were identified as Nadia Shehade Doebis and Nabi Ibrahim Harb. Many suggested that the hijackers were members of an Iraqi-based group PFLP wing headed by Wadi Haddad.

In the wake of Japan’s embarrassment over caving in to hijackers during a September 28, 1977, incident in India and Germany’s jubilation over its success, many other nations felt pressed to establish similar commando rescue squads.

On March 20, 1993, Monika Haas was arrested for involvement in the Landshut hijacking. A warrant was issued for hostage-taking, kidnapping for the purpose of blackmail, and disrupting air traffic. She had been under investigation since March 4, 1993. She had written a book entitled The Red Army Faction–Stasi Connection. Haas was tried in 1996 for providing the weapons. She was sentenced in 1998 to five years in prison. A federal court dismissed her 2000 appeal.

On October 31, 1994, Der Spiegel reported that Palestinian Soraya Ansari, 41, was arrested in Norway and provided investigators with details of the Landshut hijacking of which she was the sole survivor. She stated that she knew Haas, who lived in Frankfurt, Germany. She said that Haas was the former wife of a Palestinian leader. Germany’s request for Ansari’s extradition was rejected by a lower court judge on December 9, 1994, citing humanitarian considerations. The decision was reversed a week later by an intermediate level court. She was freed just before Christmas.

As of January 6, 1995, Ansari, alias Souhaila Sami Andrawes, was fighting extradition. She admitted her role in the hijacking. A Somali court convicted her of air piracy and terrorism and sentenced her to 20 years. She was placed on a cargo plane to Baghdad and freedom in 1978. Beirut-born Ansari had been on Interpol’s wanted list since the early 1980s. Norwegian authorities said they did not know of her past when she, her husband Ahmed Abu-Matar, and daughter received residency permits after arriving from Cyprus in 1991.

Ansari claimed that Germany could not try her because of double jeopardy; she had already served time in Somali jails for the same crime. German officials said that a new German trial would be lawful because Somalia is not a signatory to international judicial conventions and that a year in jail fell far short of justice.

On November 19, 1996, Hamburg’s State Supreme Court convicted Suhaila Sayeh, a Palestinian woman, of murder and other crimes and sentenced her to 12 years in prison for her role in the Landshut hijacking. She was one of the four hijackers, but claimed she had no role in killing the plane’s pilot. The court ruled that she had been complicit. Sayeh was the only hijacker to survive the German GSG 9 rescue operation in Somalia that freed 87 hostages. She was arrested in 1994 in Oslo, Norway, and extradited to Germany.


This map shows the German nightfighter defences in early 1942. The coastal chain of dark fighting Freya-AN Dunaja zones is backed by a line of Himmelbett boxes ranging from Denmark into France. Each Freya and Himmelbett station could control only one fighter at a time. By mid-1942 the searchlights had been withdrawn to the cities, creating large illuminated zones (here marked in a lighter green) where Konaja, and later Wilde Sau, fighting could take place.

Luftwaffe night fighter control methods.

On 14 May 1940 the Luftwaffe set out to break the dogged Dutch hold on the north bank of the Maas by a mass attack on Rotterdam. As the bombers neared their target, the Dutch opened negotiations for surrender. The Luftwaffe recalled its bombers, but one unit – the fifty-seven Heinkels of KG 54 – had already done its work and started fires which gutted the heart of the Old City. Far worse attacks had been made on Polish cities, and later on Belgrade, but for some reason this incident made the Allied leaders recoil in horror. On the following day Winston Churchill, just appointed British Prime Minister, announced that henceforth the RAF could bomb Germany. That night ninety-six heavies set out against specific oil and rail targets in the Ruhr. Only twenty-four even claimed to have located their objectives.

Later, a bomber pilot visiting TRE said, ‘They used to tell us to bomb Krupps, but we were lost as soon as we left the aerodrome.’ Clearly, Bomber Command had a long and difficult road ahead; but so did the Luftwaffe. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the famed head of the Luftwaffe, had promised in August 1939, ‘We will not expose the Ruhr to a single bomb dropped by enemy aircraft.’ He had just inspected some of the Luftwaffe’s heavy Flak emplacements near Essen, with 88, 105 and 128 mm guns radar-directed by the new Würzburgs. By a very wide margin indeed, it was the best AA artillery in the world. But radar-directed Flak took a long time to come into general use, and the Luftwaffe had no night-fighter aircraft at all. In its first four months of unrestricted bombing of Germany between May and mid-September 1940 the RAF lost only 163 aircraft, about two per cent of the 8,000-odd sorties. Goering was bothered, because the occasional bomb was falling on the Ruhr; one or two even hit their intended targets. In July 1940 he instructed Colonel Josef Kammhuber to form a special force of night fighters.

Kammhuber was not impressed by the existing German defence system. The Würzburgs and heavy Flak formed a formidable combination, but there were still only 450 guns and a mere handful of radars. Night fighters were another story. Nobody in the Luftwaffe had even dreamed of putting radar into a fighter, and the only method of operation was Helle Nachtjagd (illuminated night fighting). A few day fighters, nearly all Bf 109s flown by bolder or more experienced pilots, would take off on radar early-warning of a British raid and orbit a radio beacon. Often they would keep their navigation lights on to avoid a mid-air collision, and sometimes they would have to fly to a second beacon and orbit again. Interceptions were achieved solely by watching the searchlights and trying to see the enemy bombers. Throughout the summer this method resulted in just one success: on 9 July 1940 Feldwebel Foerster of JG 2 managed to shoot down a Whitley. He would probably have admitted that this was mainly by luck.

Kammhuber could see the need for bigger twin-engined night fighters, with adequate endurance for the long night patrols. The Bf 110 was an obvious choice, but an even better one might be the Ju 88C. This sub-type had begun life as a long-range day and anti-shipping fighter, with the Ju 88V7 prototype flown on 27 September 1938, which had an unglazed nose mounting two cannon and two machine-guns. Some pre-production C-0 fighters were used for ground attack during the Polish campaign, but plans to build the fast C-1, with two BMW 801 radials, were shelved to enable all effort to be applied to building A-series bomber versions. In 1940 the BMW 801 went into production, but with priority for the Fw 190 single-seater, so the C-1 was abandoned and instead the Luftwaffe began to receive the Ju 88C-2, a rather hasty conversion of the A-1 bomber with Jumo 211 engines and a nose armament of one cannon and three machine-guns. Instead of being ordinary day Zerstörer (destroyer) fighters, these were now regarded as primarily for use by night. They were the forerunners of the aircraft that were to play the biggest part in the biggest night air battle in history.

While giving much thought to the last long-term system for the night defence of the German-controlled continent, Kammhuber acted quickly to create a night-fighter force. On the day of his appointment he picked the premier Bf 110 Staffel, I/ZG 1 commanded by Major Wolfgang Falck, and transferred it to Düsseldorf to serve as the nucleus of a night-fighter research and training school, with the unit designation of NVS 1 (Nacht und Versuchs Staffel). Three days later it was redesignated I/NJG 1 (Nacht jagdgeschwader = night fighter wing), on 20 July 1940. Falck was promoted Geschwaderkommodore of NJG 1, and a second squadron, II/NJG 1, was formed with twenty newly delivered Ju 88C-2s. Hauptmann Gunther Radusch took over I/NJG 1, and the force swiftly expanded by adding III/NJG 1 with Bf 110Cs from IV(N)/JG 2, and IV/NJG 1 from Zerst Sta/KG 30 with Bf 110Ds; a fifth staffel was also added, partly based on a special unit that had been formed to operate the first Dornier night-fighter conversions, the Do 17Z-6 Kauz 1 (Screech Owl I) and Do 215B-5. On 11 September II/NJG 1 was redesignated as the nucleus of the second wing, I/NJG 2, and a new II/NJG 1 was promptly formed from I/ZG 76, one of the most famous Bf 110 units (they shot down the twelve Wellingtons in December 1939) under Hauptman Graf von Stillfried. Another unit became the nucleus of a third wing, I/NJG 3, with Radusch taking over as Kommodore.

Kammhuber was eventually promoted Major-General and set up his HQ in the beautiful castle at Zeist in Holland. He reported to Colonel-General Hubert Weise, in overall command of the German air-defence organization. With constant changes and improvements, the main effect in the first few months, in the autumn of 1940, was the rapid build-up of a well-equipped force of large night fighters, each with a pilot and observer (and gunner, in the case of the Ju 88s and Dorniers), heavy nose armament and endurance of seven hours. In general, the Bf 110 units were deployed geographically to intercept bombers already over Germany, and were alerted by Freya early warning and guided to their targets by the Freyas and the searchlights. The bigger Ju 88 and Dornier aircraft operated around the periphery of Europe in the intruder role, unhesitatingly following bombers right back to their English bases if necessary, and using bombs as well as guns. At this time the Luftwaffe was indisputably the supreme air force in the world. It was easily the best equipped, and the unpalatable failure to subdue the RAF by day had not noticeably affected its morale. It had an abundance of skilled crews, and it was still conditioned to believe in a succession of swift victories (one of its few shortcomings was that no provision had been made for a long war). Not least, it had the backing of a large and competent equipment and radio industry, and by a rapidly increasing margin the world’s best aircraft guns.

What was less good was the makeshift night interception system. None of the fighters yet carried their own radar, so they were strongly dependent upon the searchlights. The latter were grouped around the target cities, so not much could be done to intercept the bombers on their flight to and from their targets except as they crossed the belt of searchlights along the coastline. Over the target the sky was full of Flak, and at that time there was no way for the German Flak to tell which were RAF bombers and which were NJG fighters. Accordingly, during September 1940 Kammhuber took the bold decision to move nearly all his searchlights from the cities to a single dense belt stretching from Liège (Belgium) to Schleswig-Holstein (near Denmark). Virtually all RAF bombers had to pass through this belt, within which no German aircraft were permitted after dark except NJG fighters on patrol. This immediately stopped the wastage of night fighters shot down by their own Flak, but it was by no means a complete solution. The Flak gunners now had hardly any searchlights, and were still waiting for their Würzburg radars. And it needed only a thin cloud layer to wreck the whole system.

It was obvious that what was required was a more sophisticated defence using Würzburgs not only to direct the Flak but also to direct individual night fighters. This radar sent out a fine pencil beam focused by a large circular dish reflector. Nothing like it had been seen before, and as the movable dishes gradually appeared all over northern Europe they excited much comment, most of it concerned with ‘giant mirrors’. The bearing and elevation of the aerial could be read off with great accuracy, and the discrimination was good enough to distinguish two aircraft less than 500 feet apart at over 20,000 feet. On the other hand Würzburg’s extreme limit of range of 25 miles meant that Freya would be needed to give early warning, and get the Würzburg and night fighter into the right positions beforehand. Perhaps the biggest problem was the inability of Freya to indicate the hostile target’s altitude. The night fighter would therefore have to scramble and climb up to a likely altitude by guesswork. In 1940 a good attacking height for a Wellington or Hampden was 15,000 feet, with a Whitley appreciably lower. Only in the final few minutes could the Würzburg suddenly pass an accurate height.

In September 1940 the first trials took place using night fighters directed by a ground controller. Luftwaffe fighter pilots argued heatedly about the supposed loss of initiative and freedom of action in accepting such control – a psychological problem that was much less evident in Britain at this time – and the record shows that the Germans were at first far from eager to accept any of the new radar methods. The first GCI radar tried by the Luftwaffe was a Freya, excellent for early warning but hopeless in the GCI role, because no controller could separate the fighter’s blip from that of the bomber once the range had closed within a mile. Despite this, it was a Freya that was rigged up near Zwolle, Holland, together with a naval height-finding radar, and trials began against ‘Auntie Ju’ (Ju 52/3m) transports. On the whole they were as unsuccessful as those in Britain at this time, but on 16 October 1940 Leutnant Ludwig Becker of IV/NJG 1 suddenly found himself in visual contact with an unidentified aircraft flying east over Holland. Flying a Do 215B from Gilze-Rijen, Becker closed slowly and identified the aircraft as a Wellington. With little difficulty he hit it hard in a five- or six-second burst and watched the bomber eventually spin into the ground. But this was the exception that proved the rule, and it was gained in bright moonlight.

By 1941 Kammhuber had masterminded a completely new defence system, and his organization had placed large orders for an improved GCI radar, Gigant (giant) Würzburg. The need for such a radar was obvious, because Freya had inadequate accuracy and discrimination, and Würzburg had inadequate range. It was not uncommon for RAF bombers to pass through the defence belt while the NJG fighters were still trying to reach the same approximate position and height. A further problem with Würzburg was that reflections from the ground began to mask the target blip at flight levels lower than 6,000 feet (though, of course, few RAF night attacks came down as low as this). Gigant Würzburg accordingly had a much larger aerial dish, roughly twenty-five feet in diameter compared with Würzburg’s ten feet, which concentrated the energy into a narrower beam capable of giving a clear blip at a range of more than forty miles with typical aircraft targets. Telefunken hurried the improved set into production at the end of 1941, by which time the Luftwaffe had placed large orders.

Kammhuber needed several hundred Gigant Würzburgs to equip his grand design to defend the Reich, which became popularly known to the RAF as the Kammhuber Line but was officially designated Himmelbett (heavenly bed, i.e., a four-poster). This code-name stemmed from the fact that Kammhuber divided up the airspace round the north and west sides of Germany into notional boxes, each having a rectilinear shape like an old four-poster. Each box was about twenty miles wide, and there were 750 of them strung in a vast curve from Denmark round the north of Germany, across the Low Countries and south through eastern France to Switzerland. Somewhere in each box was a GCI station equipped with a Freya early-warning radar, a Gigant Würzburg to track a chosen bomber, and a second Gigant Würzburg to track the NJG fighter assigned to that box. At least, that was the intention; the tracking radars were mainly earlier Würzburgs until well into 1942.

Himmelbett had many good features. First, each box was a definite functioning system, technically capable of putting a night fighter very accurately onto the tail of a hostile bomber. It had enough width, something like 150 miles of electronically guarded sky, for there to be plenty of time to set up the interception long before the raider had passed out of the box, let alone out of radar range. And as Kammhuber set up the line just outside his searchlights, the latter were ready to take care of any bombers that the night fighters missed under GCI. By this time the searchlights were arranged in groups of five, one of which was a radar-directed master. The latter, with a brilliant beam having a bluish tinge, was alight all the time, normally pointing straight upwards. Once the associated Würzburg had locked-on to the bomber, the master searchlight would suddenly swing right onto it, much too fast to be dodged. At once the other four beams would snap on and light up the unfortunate bomber; then the master would return to the vertical, waiting for the next customer. Whether this was done to aid fighters or Flak, it was heartily disliked by the Bomber Command crews. Only an exceptional pilot could shake off the cone of beams on a clear night, and it made night-fighter interception almost easy.

On the other hand, there were plenty of shortcomings in the system. It could handle only one bomber at a time per box, and the most rapid interception rate a skilled set of Himmelbett and night-fighter crews could possibly hope for was six aircraft per hour for any single box. In 1941 this was not a serious problem, because the lumbering twin-engined heavies crossed enemy territory at about 165 mph in a thin stream, often many miles apart, generally unsure of their position, and often having to spend as long as an hour taking astro shots, working out revised winds and searching for their target. One crew in a Whitley actually spent over 2¾ hours in the general target area trying to find the place they had been sent to bomb (München-Gladbach). In its first eighteen months the Kammhuber Line was able to pay close attention to the majority of the RAF bombers that attempted to cross it, but the situation was to change dramatically.

A less apparent drawback was that, almost unbelievably, the Gigant Würzburg perpetuated a basic feature of the earlier radar which made it unsuitable for the GCI function. The original Würzburg had been designed for directing Flak, and accordingly gave its information in the form of numerical bearings and ranges. This could easily have been converted in Gigant Würzburg into the ideal form of presentation, the PPI, such as was being used in Britain. Such a display had been developed between 1936 and 1939 by Baron Manfred von Ardenne in his laboratory at Lichterfelde (Berlin) under the name Panorama Sicht Gerät (panorama display equipment). By 1940 he and the short-wave expert Dr Hollmann had prepared this for production with the Radio-Loewe company, and at Christmas in that year a deputation made a presentation to Goering. They explained it in such simple terms that even Goering – the epitome of the technology illiterate, whose opinion of radar was that, ‘It consists of boxes with coils . . . I do not like boxes with coils’ – could not fail to see the advantages. With PPI a controller has a perfect real-time picture, with the aid of which he can use his judgement to tell the night-fighter pilot exactly when to turn, onto what heading, and at what rate, to bring him up astern of the bomber. Goering gradually saw how it worked and what it did, and even he was forced to admit that it was better than a mere list of ranges and bearings. But it was Christmas 1940, and he told the electronics expert, ‘Such a comprehensive development is no longer worth while; the war is already as good as won!’ So Gigant Würzburg provided nothing but ranges and bearings. To provide a PPI picture for the controller, a clumsy device called a Seeburg table was necessary. An operator was told the ranges and bearings of the bomber by telephone, set them up on a rotary and sliding scale in front of him and, in doing so, moved a red spotlight on a large ground-glass table at an upper level. A second operator, connected by telephone to the radar tracking the fighter, moved a spot of blue light in the same way. At the upper level, a third operator with red and blue wax crayons marked the tracks of the two aircraft. The mind boggles at the number of places where errors and inaccuracies could be introduced.

Despite this, the Himmelbett system worked. By the end of March 1942 Kammhuber had about half his initial order for 185 Gigant Würzburgs, and Telefunken was delivering thirty a month. But by this time, in a single bold stroke, the British had made up for their amazingly inept radar intelligence, and learned all they needed to know about the original Würzburg. Though a slight digression from night fighters, it is a thrilling story. For years the British learned nothing about German radar, despite the valuable clues in the Oslo Report. In February 1941 a low-flying reconnaissance Spitfire brought back pictures of circular objects at Auderville, west of Cherbourg, and an interpreter noticed that a narrow object in one of the circles had changed its bearing between one exposure and the next. The British had at last discovered Freya. In November 1941, when a number of Freyas had been pinpointed, interpreters became interested in a small black blob on a path trodden between the cliffs and a large house, at another Freya station at Bruneval, north of Le Havre. Flight Lieutenant Tony Hill went and took pictures at low level with his Spitfire (twice, because the cameras failed the first time) and also had a good look himself. The upshot was one of the earliest and most successful Commando raids ever mounted. On 27 February 1942 twelve Whitleys dropped 119 paratroopers near Bruneval. Next day the 111 survivors, seven of them injured, landed back in Britain with all the vital parts of the Würzburg, plus three prisoners, one of whom was a skilled radar operator. In subsequent weeks the Luftwaffe showed the British the locations of all its other coast radars by surrounding them with masses of barbed wire, which showed up beautifully in reconnaissance photographs. (The Bruneval raid alerted the British to the exposed position of the vital TRE, and it was accordingly moved to Malvern.)

Of course, by this time Würzburg was an old set, fast being supplemented or replaced by the Gigant variety. For better early warning, Freya was being supplemented by a huge new radar called, appropriately, Mammut. This had an aerial like two bedsteads back-to-back measuring 45 feet high and 90 feet wide, with electronic switching through an arc of 100°. This rapid switching, which was much later to become a feature of night-fighter radars, allowed the beam to sweep across the sky while the aerial stayed fixed. The other early-warning set was Wassermann, with a rotating aerial about 130 feet high and 30 feet wide. Both the new sets had narrow beams enabling them to see aircraft 150 to 200 miles away. In most respects, they were superior to Britain’s prehistoric CH system, though neither was a patch on the monster MEW (Microwave Early Warning) radar developed in the USA. This was first installed at Start Point, Devon, where it could see every aircraft in southern England and northern France on D-Day.

The British in the Aegean September 1943


A Bristol Beaufighter releases its bombs toward the further of two German flak vessels attacked by aircraft of No. 201 Group, south of the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese. Inadequate air support helped doom the British campaign in the Dodecanese. Imperial War Museum photo.



In late June 1943, raiders from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) landed on the south coast of Crete to strike at three airfields that could be used by the Luftwaffe during Husky. The mission was only a partial success. Explosive charges were placed against several aircraft and a fuel dump at Kastèli, but the Germans had abandoned Timbáki airfield while Heraklion was no longer in use as a major air base. A fuel dump was selected as an alternative target. In 1942 there had been similar operations on Crete and Rhodes.

Hit-and-run raids had an undeniable nuisance value, but little or no effect on the bigger picture. The North African campaign had ended with the surrender of the Afrikakorps in May. Operation Husky commenced two months later on 10 July. The Allies made rapid headway and with the Italians facing an invasion of the mainland, Mussolini was ousted on 25 July and replaced by Maresciallo Pietro Badoglio.

By August a British plan of action had been approved in anticipation of a suitably favourable development in the Aegean and the Balkans. Among the proposals were an emergency ‘walk-in’ in to Rhodes and other islands in the event of Italy’s collapse and the withdrawal of German forces, a quick Accolade against German opposition only, and a full-scale Accolade (though not before 1944). On 3 August the British Chiefs of Staff advised:

Should the Italians in Crete and the Aegean area resist Germans and deadlock ensue, our policy should be to help the Italians against the Germans wherever possible.

It was recommended that a force be made immediately available together with ships for use as troop transports. Mediterranean Air Command (formed in February under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder) was approached for additional transport aircraft sufficient to lift a parachute battalion group. Four squadrons of American P-38 Lightnings were also requested. The latter were essential, for apart from Bristol Beaufighters, there were no fighters in the Middle East with the range to operate over the operational area. The paratroopers and their aircraft were to be in position by 14 August; the Lightnings were required to arrive in Cyprus by the 15th, and the seaborne element was to be ready to sail at any time after 18 August. Much depended on the destruction or containment of Luftwaffe units in the region, but this was achievable only if available bombers were released from all other commitments.

Faced with mounting pressure by the British to re-allocate resources to the eastern Mediterranean, an exasperated General Eisenhower finally relented. On 7 August, Allied Force Headquarters advised the Middle East that the required troops could be provided, though not before 14 August. Certain ships could also be released, but current requirements meant that no aircraft would be spared: no transports were available for parachute operations, and Lightning squadrons were fully employed in escorting the Strategic Bomber Force in attacks against Italian targets and were specifically required for Operation Avalanche – the Allied landing at Salerno, in Italy. In Eisenhower’s opinion, seemingly shared by both the Naval and Air commanders-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Accolade should have been abandoned. Eisenhower was assured that Accolade would take place only if conditions presented a reasonable prospect of success with the forces available and when the situation in Italy might allow the release of the all-important Lightnings. The target date of readiness was postponed to three days notice from 19 August, by which time Operation Husky had been concluded successfully and the Allied armies were about to push north into Italy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler and his Staff prepared for the inevitable as Badoglio’s government negotiated surrender terms with the Allies. At the same time in the Middle East, the British stood by to move into the Aegean. With Italy on the point of collapse, 8th Indian Division was embarked to undertake the capture of Rhodes and was to have sailed on 1 September. However, as a result of Quadrant on 26 August, the troop transports were released to India for the proposed operation against the Arakan (previously discussed during Trident), and 8th Indian Division was ordered to Italy. On 8 September, when the Italian armistice was announced, the force had been dispersed and with it went any opportunity for a rapid deployment. Furthermore, the Commander-in- Chief, Middle East was kept in ignorance of events and only learned about the armistice just before it was made public. Having anticipated Italy’s volte-face the Germans responded with countermeasures under the code name Achse (Axis), and moved swiftly to take over from the Italians in Crete, but were slower in reacting to the situation elsewhere. General Wilson decided therefore to act on recommendations of the Joint Planning Staff. The task of securing Rhodes was reallocated to 234 Infantry Brigade – 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (Faughs) and 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment having recently arrived in the Middle East from Malta. Italian cooperation was essential to British planning. A prerequisite to occupation was an unopposed entry into the port of Rhodes and the provision of an airfield either at Maritsa in Rhodes, or on the island of Kos. A military mission was to precede the expedition, while the SBS spearheaded the occupation of other islands including Kastellorizo, Kos and Samos. The British Prime Minister was a keen advocate of the plan, which was approved by him on 9 September: ‘Good. This is a time to play high. Improvise and dare.’

By then, events were already well underway. On 7 September the SBS commander, Major Lord Jellicoe, was dining with a fellow officer and his new bride at the St George’s Hotel in Beirut, when a military policeman arrived with orders for him to make his way to Raiding Force Headquarters near Haifa. There, Jellicoe was instructed to collect his battledress and field kit and present himself at Haifa airport, where an aeroplane was standing by for a dawn take-off for Cairo. On arrival, he was taken to Middle East Headquarters, shown to a room and seated with others around a large table. To his surprise, Jellicoe learned that the Italian armistice was taking effect that day and that it had been planned to try and occupy Rhodes with the assistance of the island’s Italian garrison. It was hoped that an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had forewarned the Italians, but no one had been able to contact him due to a breakdown in communications. It was proposed therefore to send a landing party by fast craft from Alexandria. Jellicoe recalled:

After about 20 minutes I really couldn’t contain myself any longer and I said, ‘I’m surprised at this. Would it not be much easier for a small party to drop in this evening, as clearly it should be done as quickly as possible.’ Why all of this was being done at the last moment; why the Italian armistice had not been anticipated; why our Raiding Forces had not been alerted, God alone knows.

It was decided that Jellicoe would parachute in to Rhodes, establish contact with the Italian governor, Ammiraglio Inigo Campioni, and ask for his support for a British take- over. Subject to the success of Jellicoe’s mission, Colonel D. J. T. Turnbull of General Headquarters was to follow up to discuss matters in detail. Major Count Julian A. Dobrski, a Polish SOE officer with the nom de guerre Dolbey, asked if Jellicoe spoke Italian. Jellicoe did not, and readily agreed to the multilingual Dolbey joining him as an interpreter. A wireless operator, Sergeant Kesterton, completed the ad hoc team. They took off in a Halifax that evening, but adverse weather conditions combined with an inadequate briefing prevented the crew from locating Rhodes.

The following night, Lieutenant Commander L. F. (Frank) Ramseyer, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), and a landing party composed mainly of SBS under Major David G. C. Sutherland, arrived off Kastellorizo in two motor launches (349 and 357) to secure the island as a staging post for Aegean operations; a two-man team was parachuted into Kos to prepare the Italians there for the arrival of British troops, and a further effort was made to infiltrate Rhodes which had become a battleground between pro-Badoglio Italians and Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleeman’s Sturmdivision Rhodos. Major Jellicoe:

The next night [9th] we took off again. By that time they [the aircrew] had brushed up their geography … and we were dropped at Rhodes. Just before we dropped, Major Dolbey said to me, ‘I think I must make a confession to you. I said that I was parachute trained. I’m not. I’ve never actually dropped by parachute, so give me a push if necessary.’ … He dropped on to the main coast road near Lemnos, on the east of the island and broke his leg, his thigh, extremely badly. I was dropped, as was the wireless operator, Sgt Kesterton, on to the hills above [a few hundred yards away] and shot at quite fiercely. The shooting continued – we were behind rocks by then. We didn’t know who was shooting at us. I had a letter from General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, C-in-C in Cairo, for the Italian commander, Admiral Campioni. I was told that in danger of capture by the Germans this should be got rid of. I had no idea whether they were Germans or Italians firing at us and there was nowhere to get rid of this letter – it was very rocky, hard ground. Of course, they were getting closer so I decided the only thing to do was to eat it which was not the most appetising meal I’ve ever had. And then I heard them approaching and I heard that they were shouting to each other in Italian. I shouted, ‘Amici! Amici!’, etc. Then, after a little bit of discussion and explanation I persuaded them to take me in their transport into Rhodes to Italian headquarters. All this had taken the best part of an hour or so and the major had already been found and taken in and there he was with Admiral Campioni. We had a long discussion with the Italian Admiral. We talked to him for a large part of the next hour or two. He was very enthusiastic to begin with and thought we were the precursor to substantial reinforcements. Although I said that we had further Raiding Forces standing by, I really couldn’t inflate their number. Accordingly I informed Campioni that in the next few days he could only expect some 200 reinforcements. Thereafter it would be some days before additional forces could reach Rhodes. As this sank in Campioni’s enthusiasm started to wane. All this time … Dolbey who had been speaking and interpreting so well and so nobly was in acute pain.

Dolbey, who had a compound fracture, was evacuated, first by fast craft to Symi, then by Italian seaplane to Kastellorizo and on to Cyprus. For the time being, Jellicoe and Kesterton remained in Rhodes and tried to stall Campioni, while in the Middle East frantic efforts were made to find enough landing craft to dispatch 234 Brigade. As this could not be achieved before 18 September, one battalion was stood by and ordered to embark in motor launches and RAF craft, while preparations continued for transporting the rest of the brigade. Jellicoe continues:

I stayed all the next day [10th], seeing, when I could, Admiral Campioni, getting messages through to Cairo, explaining the position and saying it was highly desirable that it was necessary to provide substantial reinforcements within a few days if Campioni was to be persuaded to hold out. The most, however, that I was able to promise him was a non- assault-loaded brigade within six or seven days. Of course, the sudden transfer from one side to the other was asking a great deal of the Italians. So, although I spent all the next day, whenever I could, talking to Admiral Campioni, and although he remained extremely friendly, at the end of it he was convinced it was not on as far as they were concerned. He sent me [and Sergeant Kesterton] off in an Italian fast craft with his chief of staff with all the maps of their minefields to Castelrosso [Kastellorizo], which, in fact, a squadron of mine had occupied that day.

In the haste to occupy the Aegean, Special Service troops, intelligence operatives and conventional forces were deployed by all available means. Poor communications, lack of coordination and the actions of a few who seem to have looked on the occasion as an adventurous outing sometimes resulted in an island being singled out by more than one interested party. On 8 September, Colonel L. F. R. Kenyon concluded his appointment on the General Staff of Force 292 and immediately joined the Aegean Mission as a representative of III Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sir Desmond Anderson. The Mission had been instructed to visit Rhodes, and after arriving at Kastellorizo, Kenyon discussed the possibility with Group Captain Harry G. Wheeler, senior RAF Staff Officer in Force 292 (and soon to be appointed senior RAF officer on Kos). So it was that when Major Jellicoe arrived at Kastellorizo from Rhodes on 11 September, Wheeler and Kenyon were en route from Kastellorizo to Rhodes. Kenyon reported:

15. On arrival we heard some A. A. [anti-aircraft] fire, and saw a number of craft “swanning” about outside RHODES harbour (I found that on an air alarm craft were ordered out of the harbour). The ITALIANS replied to our signal by a refusal to allow us into the harbour. I suggested asking the ITALIANS to take off one officer in one of their own craft, and to this they agreed, and a M. A. S. [motoscafo armato silurante: Italian motor torpedo boat] shortly after came alongside. No question had arisen as to who should go, and I transhipped. WHEELER had some doubts as to the advisability of my visit, but these were solved by a large bomb which fell on RHODES. The commanders of both vessels had the same idea, and the R. A. F. launch drew off at speed to the East, while my M. A. S. went to the West.

16. I was met by an ITALIAN Naval Captain, who at once struck me as being a good fighter, and who gave immediate evidence of his intense dislike for the GERMANS. He spoke good English, and failed to conceal (or succeeded in conveying) his lack of confidence in the advice being tendered to CAMPIONI by the senior ITALIAN General in RHODES.

17. As I drove up to the [Governor’s] Palace, there was a fairly heavy air raid in progress. I was led through a number of kitchens, and was presented to CAMPIONI in a dark scullery. He seemed embarrassed, and led me to his state reception room upstairs.

He informed me that his military advice was that the troops, having been pushed off the anti-tank obstacle covering RHODES, could not survive another GERMAN attack. He understood that the BRITISH would reinforce in about 5 days time. He stated that the best he could do was to temporise with the GERMANS to gain time. This course was not possible if the enemy knew he had BRITISH officers with him, and as the place was full of spies, he wanted me to go.

At my request he then outlined the facts on which his military advice was given. The crux of the whole advice was the presence of the GERMAN tanks, which seems to have paralysed the entire ITALIAN command. But for this factor, he said, he could fight on, and so on.

I knew something of CAMPIONI’s record and personality, and formed the opinion, to which I still adhere, that in a difficult position, he was playing an in and out game, and halting between two policies. I was in some doubts as to whether the best course would be to compromise him thoroughly with the BRITISH, and so cut off his chances of making terms with the GERMANS, and increasing the fighting spirit.

He then intimated that I must really be off, as he was expecting some GERMAN officers at once, with whom he was going to “temporise”. He refused my suggestion that I should wait to hear the result of his Conference. He ordered an M. A. S. to take me to CASTELROSSO [Kastellorizo], and I was disguised in a long black cloak, and taken from the Palace to the port. By this time I was convinced that he was intending to capitulate, and that his main preoccupation was to get rid of me before the GERMANS learn of my presence, and insisted on his handing me over.

18. At the harbour I was entertained to a good and much needed English breakfast by my former contact, who now spoke much more frankly. He said the General had always wanted to surrender, but that there was considerable opposition from some of his officers. He said the troops were not good, and were shockingly led. For himself, he was going to set up in a small fort, and kill as many GERMANS as he could. My own view was that we could do nothing to influence the general situation, but that we might save something out of the wreck. I told him, therefore, that it was his duty to arrange the total evacuation or destruction of all craft in the harbour, and said that we should welcome him and the Naval craft particularly at CASTELROSSO or LEROS. He promised to do all he could; some craft appeared later at CASTELROSSO, and I believe more at LEROS.

19. A further message then came from the palace ordering me off at once, and I went in an M. A. S. which was later retained and did good service …

21. I wrote my report on the way back to CASTELROSSO, and an hour or two after its despatch, we got news of the ITALIAN capitulation.

That day, Sturmdivision Rhodos, numbering approximately 7,500 men, seized control of Rhodes and took prisoner 35,000–40,000 Italians, thus ending British hopes of an assisted take-over. Rhodes had been the first Accolade objective and involved considerable forces. Indeed, the very success of Aegean operations was dependant on acquiring the island, as explained by Colonel Kenyon:

It is significant that every plan, no matter how much the expected military opposition was written down, contemplated the capture of RHODES as a preliminary to any extension to the north; and that every plan was profoundly influenced by the necessity of capturing at the earliest stage a number of Advanced Landing Grounds, and by the great difficulties to be overcome if this was to be possible.

It therefore became necessary for the British to revise their planning and strategy. Future operations were to be on a reduced scale and, as it was essential to act quickly, they had to be improvised. German resources in the Aegean had been stretched by their deployments in Rhodes and Crete. It seemed possible that by a rapid move the Middle East forces might obtain control elsewhere in the region, and by doing so detract from recent enemy successes, enhance British prestige throughout the Middle East and act as a diversion for operations in Italy. In spite of the reluctance of Eisenhower to divert resources, there was hope in the British camp that, even with the limited means at their disposal, the occupation of other islands such as Kos, Leros and Samos could still succeed. The number of German aircraft in Greece and Crete did not yet represent a serious threat, and with British fighters operating from Kos the possibility of major German seaborne or airborne operations seemed slight. It was thought that with Italian co-operation British forces might maintain themselves in Kos and Leros until an attack could be launched on Rhodes from the Middle East. The task of reinforcement and supply was to fall largely on the Royal Navy.





Ludwig Bockholt

Though streng geheim, the secret purpose of the super Zeppelins being built in the cavernous sheds at Friedrichshafen, the Luftschiff mother base, in September 1917, had long been known to every urchin on the streets of the town. And to Central Power allies as far away as Constantinople. And of course to the Room 40 code breakers, and to the intelligence staff of the British War Office—perhaps alerted, as Woodhall claimed in his Spies of the Great War, by his mysterious Bulgarian/American agent.

An officer of the Kaiserlich Marine’s Airship Service on a train from Friedrichshafen to Berlin was approached by a random passenger with questions about the new Zeppelins: Were they really going to Africa? And would the officer have the honor of going with them? Having been sworn to silence, having even signed very serious papers to this effect, the officer feigned ignorance. But perhaps silence lacked pertinence to a morale-boosting mission everyone in Germany—and elsewhere—already seemed to know about.

By May 1917, von Lettow had become a national hero. Valiantly fighting to preserve German honor in a lost colony, completely isolated by the enemies of the Fatherland, he now lacked nearly everything, even the most basic supplies. His Schutztruppe lived off the land at the edges of the Makonde Plateau in the Mahenge country; most of his askaris fought with rifles and ammunition captured from the British. To the Kaiser and to others in the High Command, von Lettow’s long struggle in an African backwater had become a matter of great strategic importance: Both the Allies and the Central Powers expected the war to end in a negotiated settlement; at the peace talks it would help the German cause if Germany could claim her forces still held the field in Africa, fighting for possession of at least one of her overseas colonies. Unfortunately, von Lettow’s situation now seemed more desperate than ever. How long could he continue the struggle without material aid from the Fatherland?

Professor Dr. Max Zupitza, zoologist and medical doctor, came up with a singular answer to this question. Zupitza, an old Africa hand from the Karl Peters era, had survived both the Maji-Maji Rebellion and the Herero-Hottentot War, and at the outbreak of the Universal Conflict in 1914 was the chief medical officer of German South West Africa. Captured by the British after the fall of Windhoek, he spent a year cooling his heels in a POW camp in Togo, where he heard tales of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s impressive victories in GEA. Exchanged in 1916, he returned to Germany, determined to help the Oberstleutnant in his unequal struggle—but how? Then, in July 1917, Zupitza read in the Wilnaer Zeitung about the endurance flight of LZ 120, which had recently spent more than 100 hours circling the Baltic. Fired with enthusiasm that “an airship could remain aloft to accomplish a voyage to Africa,” he petitioned the Kolonialamt with a wild scheme to outfit a Zeppelin to resupply the beleaguered Schutztruppe.

In desperate times, government officials are often willing to listen to wild schemes; the wilder the better. Zupitza’s proposal, forwarded by the Colonial Office to the navy, found favor with naval chief of staff Admiral von Holtzendorff, who passed it on to the Kaiser. The German emperor, nearly as obsessed with von Lettow as Smuts had been, readily gave his imperial blessings. Construction of the first of the super Zeppelins, the ill-fated L57, began in October 1917. Zupitza immediately proposed himself as medical officer for the expedition and was accepted. It seemed fitting that the originator of the Zeppelin-Schutztruppe resupply mission, now code-named “China Show,” should share its fate.


They chose Bockholt for his boldness and also because he was expendable. But following the disastrous incineration of L57 at the forward Luftschiff base in Jamboli, Bulgaria, on October 7, 1917, Korvettenkapitan Peter Strasser, the steel-souled mastermind of the Zeppelin blitz on London and commander of the Naval Airship Division, had wanted Bockholt removed from command of China Show. The floundering, storm-racked airship, Strasser believed, had been mishandled by her commander. An inquiry had revealed that, at the height of the gale, with the ground crew still clinging desperately to L57’s mooring ropes, Bockholt had ordered riflemen to shoot holes in the Zeppelin’s hydrogen cells, hoping to release enough gas to bring her down. Not only did this gesture show a poor understanding of basic Zeppelin mechanics (a few bullet-sized puncture wounds wouldn’t make much difference), the bullets probably ignited the volatile hydrogen/oxygen mixture, causing the blaze that destroyed her.

But forces higher up the command structure of the German Navy intervened. Some saw the Kaiser’s hand in it, as Bockholt was not popular with his immediate superiors or his fellow officers—many of whom thought him a selfish careerist who put personal advancement above the good of the service—though all agreed he did not lack courage. Had he not captured the schooner Royal by Zeppelin at sea, an event unique in the war? Still, “Every commander wanted to make the African flight,” so said Emil Hoff, elevator man aboard Zeppelin L42, “and matches were drawn,” selecting another. To no avail; Bockholt kept his job.

“A fine airship commander and a skillful flyer,” Strasser allowed at last, bowing to the Imperial Will. Though he added, “He has not enough experience of the capabilities of airships.”

The same lack of experience characterized L59’s crew—not the best men available, but adequate—and also, like Bockholt, because of their inexperience, expendable. Most, fairly new to the airship service, had been chosen because the mission didn’t come with a return ticket. Once its payload of armaments, ammunition, and supplies had been delivered to von Lettow, L59 would be disassembled on the ground in East Africa and all her parts cannibalized to aid the war effort there, captain and crew included: Like the men of the Königsberg before them, they would join the Schutztruppe and fight alongside von Lettow’s askaris in the jungle until the end.

Strasser privately saw the African mission as little more than a morale-boosting stunt in a military backwater and, though popular with command staff, of secondary importance. All his fearsome energies were directed toward the destruction of England, all his best captains and crews reserved for this imperative. He still believed—as he had written in a memo to Vizeadmiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet—that “England can be overcome by means of airships, inasmuch as the country will be deprived of the means of existence through the increasingly extensive destruction of cities, factory complexes, dockyards, harbor works with war and merchant ships lying therein, railroads, etc. . . . The airships offer certain means of victoriously ending the war.”

Ironically, in the end, Strasser came to agree with the Kaiser’s choice of Bockholt for China Show. It saved better men for the real Zeppelin war, which to him belonged to the darkened skies over London, to the bombs falling on the Theater District and perhaps on Buckingham Palace itself.


L59, pushed by a tailwind from the direction of the German Reich, rumbled south from Jamboli in the freezing dawn of November 21, 1917, at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. The great lumbering airship cast her shadow over Adrianople in Turkey at nine forty-five a.m., and over the Sea of Marmara’s chop a short time later. At Pandena, on the southern shore, she picked up the railroad tracks to Smyrna, a steel ribbon barely visible after sunset. At seven forty p.m., L59 pulled free of the Turkish coast at the Lipsas Straits. Now the Greek Dodecanese Islands—Kos, Patmos, Rhodes—passed below, nestled like dark jewels in the black Mediterranean waters, notoriously stormy this time of year. But tonight, the Zeppelin surged forward beneath a clear sky and brilliant stars. Bockholt, who had made his life in the navy, had long ago learned to steer by them when necessary.

L59’s crew of twenty—excluding Bockholt and Zupitza—included twelve mechanics to service the five Maybach 240-horsepower engines (one in the forward control car, two opposed on the belly one-third of the way back, and two aft, each driving a single, massive twenty-foot propeller); two “elevator operators” (the elevators, movable flaps at the tail, controlled the upward or downward incline of the nose cone); a radio operator; and a sailmaker, whose job it was to sew up tears in the muslin envelopes affixed within the belly filled with the flammable hydrogen/oxygen mixture that kept the massive airship afloat.

As in the seaborne navy, watches divided the day into four-hour increments. As L59 approached the island of Crete at eight thirty p.m., a quarter of the crew just gone off watch opened their dinnertime cans of Kaloritkon, a bizarre sort of self-heating MRE. These undigestible, oversalted tubes of potted meat literally cooked themselves via a chemical reaction when exposed to air—heating food over open flame and smoking being strictly verboten aboard the flammable airship. The Kaloritkons, which everyone hated, took much water to wash down, and water was scarce, with barely 14 liters allotted per man for the duration of the voyage.

At ten fifteen p.m., L59 passed above Cape Sidero at Crete’s eastern extremity at 3,000 feet. Then the stars by which Bockholt had been guiding the Zeppelin to Africa suddenly disappeared, blotted out by a solid mass of black, churning clouds, shot through with bright veins of lightning. The Zeppelin headed into this cloud bank and, buffeted by thunderclaps and driving rain, was also suddenly consumed by a strange, vivid flame, cool to the touch, that seemed to dance across every surface of the doped canvas envelope.

“The ship’s burning!” called the top lookout—alarming, but no cause for alarm: This was St. Elmo’s fire, named after Erasmus of Formia, the patron saint of sailors. Technically a luminous plasma generated by coronal discharge in an atmospheric electrical field, it burned a vivid violet-blue and, in nontechnical terms, was entirely beautiful. For uncounted centuries the phenomenon had been interpreted as a sign—of what, exactly, no one could say—of God’s blessing, or God’s curse: It had been seen dancing above the obelisks of the Hippodrome just before the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453; it would be seen later, curling along the cockpit and around the spinning props of the B-29 Bockscar as she dropped Fat Boy on Nagasaki in 1945.

Not a quiet phenomenon, St. Elmo’s fire now hissed and sizzled and popped as L59 passed through the storm, fading at last as the super Zeppelin broke into clear air and dazzling moonlight. Now Africa glowed faintly dead ahead, the pirate seaports of the northern coast. For the duration of the storm, L59’s radio antennae, three long delicate wires trailing below her vast belly, had been wound in. Muffled in radio silence, the Zeppelin had been unreachable by any communication from Germany.

As it happened, three and a half hours into the flight, officials at the Kolonialamt having been informed somehow—how, exactly, will become a critical question—of British advances into the Makonde Highlands, last known gathering place of the Schutztruppe, decided to recall the mission. The Kolonialamt relayed this decision to Admiral von Holtzendorff, who broke the news to a crestfallen Kaiser. The Zeppelin handlers at Jamboli, soon informed of the recall, attempted to contact L59 but could not; she had passed beyond the limits of their frail transmitter. Jamboli called this failure back to Berlin: “L59 can no longer be reached from here, request recall through Nauen.” The radio transmitter at Nauen, near Berlin, the most powerful in Germany, then took up the recall message and continued to broadcast it all night long. But with her antenna wound in, deaf to these entreaties, L59 kept on her course for East Africa.

At five fifteen a.m., the sun cracked the rim of earth and the huge airship passed over the African continent at Ras Bulair on the Libyan coast. Miles of desert lay ahead; no Zeppelin had flown across such a landscape before. Now the level wastes of sand and rock stretched monotonously below L59’s keel, from horizon to horizon. Soon, the sun, blazing down, began to dry her canvas skin, still drenched and heavy from the storm. The airship grew lighter as the watery sheen evaporated; lighter still as fuel consumption continued apace. Then the gas in her envelopes, expanding with the heat, blew out the automatic valves into the atmosphere and soon, L59 became dangerously light and increasingly difficult to handle. To compensate, Bockholt flew her “nose down” throughout the day, shifting 1,650 pounds of ballast aft as a counterbalance.

In the late morning, hot desert air rose in bubbles of buoyancy, alternating with heavy downdrafts of cooler air. This caused a roller-coaster effect that made most of the crew violently airsick. Even the hardened navy veterans among them, used to storms at sea, were not immune to the stomach-churning sensation of weightlessness as L59 plunged into the downdrafts and precipitously rose again. Despite all this, L59 plowed ahead and made the Farafra Oasis around noon. This incandescent patch of green slid by below, its date palms rustling in the hot wind. The Bedouin tribesmen gathered there looked up in wild surmise, shading their eyes as the massive Zeppelin slid by overhead, still watching as she disappeared toward the west, the grumbling of her five Maybach engines audible long after she had vanished into the clouds.

Three hours later, the airship reached another oasis, at Dakhla. In this remote place, at the very heart of the desert, many of the tribesmen gathered with their camels around the murky spring had not heard of the war, or been aware that men could take to the air in flying machines. The sight of L59 looming above them like a visitation from a strange new god filled them with fear. (Years later, in 1933, a German aviator passing through the Dakhla Oasis saw crude images of a Zeppelin scrawled on the walls and doors of native huts. Questioning a Bedouin sheikh as to the meaning of these renderings, he was told the scrawl represented the shape of a “powerful sign from the heavens,” which had appeared twenty years before, and that it was worshipped as “a herald of Holy Grace.” Even now, he said, his people watched the skies for its return.)

From Dakhla, where apparently L59 had just inspired its own cargo cult, Bockholt aimed for the Nile. Flying across the endless desert, some of the men in this last era before the ubiquity of sunglasses had gone half-blind from the dazzling glare of sun on sand. Others had been visited with splitting headaches. A few, mesmerized by the persistent drone and the featureless monotony passing below, had become prey to hallucinations: Mirages rose out of the desert, ancient cities, half as old as time, full of jinn out of the Arabian Nights.

Meanwhile, the prosaic Bockholt in the forward gondola used the ship’s shadow crawling along the desert floor as a navigational tool. L59’s exact length, known to the millimeter and factored into a preset equation, measured both ground speed and drift. The Zeppelin sailed through the hot afternoon toward the Nile at sixty miles per hour, functioning perfectly until four twenty p.m. when a juddering sensation preceded the failure of her forward engine. Presently, the big propeller spun to a stop. Mechanics soon determined the reduction gear housing had cracked; they repaired it as best they could but took the engine out of service for the remainder of the journey. Now L59’s radio could not send messages, as this engine drove the radio generator—though radio signals could still be received.

Just before dusk, a flock of flamingos, vividly pink in the setting sun, flapped below L59’s nose cone; a moment later the marshes of the Nile came into view and the airship flew over mile after mile of verdant wetlands. Bockholt made for the great river, crossing over it at Wadi Halfa. Here he turned south, skirting the Nile’s broad flow and droning onward toward Khartoum and the Sudan beyond the last cataract.

Flying a Zeppelin is a difficult undertaking under the best conditions: Gas expands and contracts according to changing temperatures; lift and buoyancy fluctuate; all must be counterbalanced ceaselessly by the release of ballast water, the measured shifting of cargo, the canting of nose or tail via clumsy elevator flaps—and all this becomes doubly difficult over the desert. Bockholt had lightened his airship by 4,400 pounds of ballast in the last full heat of day and had even tossed some boxes of supplies overboard. He knew the rapidly cooling temperatures of the desert at night would contract the gas, causing the Zeppelin to sink. To counterbalance this sinking effect, he had planned to fly the ship at four degrees “nose up” on her four remaining engines.

But he had not counted on the humid, dense air of the Nile Valley. Even at 3,000 feet, ambient temperatures had reached sixty-eight degrees by ten p.m.; they rose steadily after midnight and still L59’s lift capacity gradually diminished. Finally, at three a.m., L59 began to lose altitude precipitously. The engines stalled. Forward thrust gone, the Zeppelin sank through the atmosphere from 3,100 feet to just under 1,300, not high enough to clear a looming desert escarpment; a minute later, her main radio antennae sheared off upon contact with an outcropping of red rock.

Now Bockholt ordered his crew to lighten the ship even further. With all engines stopped, 6,200 pounds of ballast and ammunition went overboard. The crew watched cases of ammunition, much needed by the Schutztruppe, shatter and explode on the ragged slopes below. But this sacrifice had its desired effect: Gradually, the sinking super Zeppelin stabilized; slowly, she rose into safer atmospheres:

“To fly steadily at 4 degrees heavy at night can easily be catastrophic, especially with sudden temperature changes in the Sudan, as at Jebel Ain,” Bockholt later confided to L59’s war diary, “particularly if the engines fail from overheating with warm outside temperatures. . . . Ship should have 3000 kg of 4 percent of her lift for each night to take care of cooling effect.”

Clearly, it was a complicated business.