Army Group North’s Years of Hope and Frustration I

1941: Race to Moscow, German Army Group North, the leadership.

The German Push to Leningrad

The OKH issued the marshaling order—Aufmarschanweisung Ost (Deployment Directive East)—for the invasion of the Soviet Union on January 31, 1941. With respect to Army Group North, it called for an encirclement of major portions of enemy units west of the Dvina River. The main axis of advance would be from Dünaburg via Opocka to Leningrad. The town of Dünaburg is located on the Dvina River in the southeast corner of Latvia and the village of Opocka is located about 80 miles (130km) south of Pskov. This meant that the main effort was on the right. The missions assigned to Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North were:

1. Destroy the Soviet armies in the Baltic States.

2. Neutralize Kronstadt.

3. Capture Leningrad.

4. Link up with the Finnish Army.

The distance Army Group North had to travel was 500 miles (800km). Army Group North consisted of the Sixteenth Army with ten infantry divisions under the command of General Ernst Busch (1885–1945), and the Eighteenth Army with eight infantry divisions under General Georg von Küchler. Leeb planned to lead with the Fourth Panzer Group, under the command of General Erich Höpner (1886–1944). This Panzer Group was redesignated the Fourth Panzer Army in January 1942. On June 22, 1941, it consisted of XCI and LVI motorized corps with three Panzer, three motorized infantry, two infantry, and three security divisions.

When reaching Leningrad, Höpner was to continue north or northeast, depending on the situation. The Eighteenth Army’s mission was to clear the Baltic area and be ready to capture the islands off Estonia. The Sixteenth Army, on the right flank, was responsible for maintaining contact with Army Group Center and thus constituted a screen for the right flank of Army Group North.

Army Group North made rapid progress through the Baltic States mainly because, contrary to German planning assumptions, the Soviets did not intend to make a stand in those areas. General Fyodor I. Kuzuetsov (1898–1961), the commander of the Northwest Front, successfully withdrew his forces virtually intact and nothing came of the great encirclement the Germans had planned west of the Dvina River. The Soviet retreat allowed the Germans to overrun Lithuania and Latvia quickly and they entered Estonia on July 4, reaching the old Russian border on July 8. Soviet forces began to offer stiffer resistance when the Germans reached Rus sian soil, and the advance of Army Group North slowed to a crawl. Field Marshal Leeb began his final push from the area west of Lake Ilmen and Hitler reinforced him with an armored corps from Army Group Center. Such transfers were planned for in the Barbarossa directive, but only after the enemy in Belorussia had been routed.

The primary mission of the German Navy in the Baltic was the protection of the sea route from Sweden. Support of Barbarossa was accorded a lower priority. Recognizing their own inferiority to the Soviet Navy, the Finns and Germans had agreed before the war began to rely primarily on mine warfare to neutralize the enemy surface fleet. This fleet was substantial—2 battleships, 2 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and 68 submarines. In addition there were over 700 naval aircraft. Belts of mines were laid in the Baltic and Gulf of Finland beginning shortly before the commencement of hostilities. The German/Finnish tactics proved very successful and the Soviets were unable to make use of their naval superiority. The fleet remained, for the most part, bottled up in Kronstadt.

Army Group North’s drive toward Leningrad resumed on August 10, 1941, and it was rapidly approaching Leningrad. The question about what to do with Leningrad now surfaced. In line with his twisted ideology, Hitler decided that Leningrad should not be occupied. Its population would be reduced through a process of starvation and bombardment. In the end, it was expected that the city would be leveled to the ground. Halder notes in his diary that the decision was announced by Hitler on July 12 and Moscow was to be destroyed in the same way when that city was reached. Halder refers to it as a “humanitarian tragedy” that would strike communists and non-communists alike. The Finns had already expressed a desire to have the Neva River as their southern border and Hitler agreed that the territory north of the river should be given to them.

A memorandum prepared by the German Navy clearly lays out what had been decided. It reads in part:

The Führer is determined to raze Petersburg [Leningrad] to the ground. There is no point in the continued existence of this vast settlement after the defeat of Soviet Russia. Finland, too, has announced that it has no interest in the continued existence of a large city so close to its new frontiers.

The original request by the Navy that the wharf, harbor, and other installations of naval importance should be spared … has to be refused in view of the basic policy in regard to Petersburg.

It is intended to surround the city and then raze it to the ground by a general artillery barrage and by continuous air bombardment. Individual surrenders are unacceptable, because we cannot and do not wish to deal with the problem of quartering and feeding the population. We, for our part, have no interest in preserving any section of the population in the course of this war for Germany’s survival.

The Finns Go Their Own Way

Army Group North was ordered to encircle Leningrad, but not to enter the city or accept surrender. To isolate Leningrad, Army Group North planned to cross the Neva River near Schlüsselburg. It would then establish contact with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. It also intended to drive north to Volkhov and Tikhvin and link up with the Finnish Army of Karelia near the Svir River.

To assist in the accomplishment of its mission, Army Group North wanted the Finns to advance south on both the Karelian Isthmus and from the Svir River to meet the Germans moving north. These proposals were contained in a letter from Keitel to Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim (1867–1951) on August 22, 1941. Keitel’s proposal elicited a refusal by Mannerheim based on gloomy and somewhat contrived reasoning. The real reason was that the Finnish leaders did not believe it was in Finland’s interests to cross the Svir River or launch an offensive against Leningrad. The failure of proper pre-war planning was now coming back to haunt the Germans. In the end the Finns moved their front south on the Karelian Isthmus a short distance, not to cooperate with the Germans but for occupying better defensive terrain.

The letter from Mannerheim to Keitel created dismay at OKW and OKH. It resulted in an immediate message to Army Group North from OKH ordering it to link up with the Finns as quickly as possible, even at the cost of delaying the encirclement of Leningrad. Leeb was not impressed when Keitel informed him on September 3, 1941, that the Finns were moving their front south a short distance on the Karelian Isthmus. Leeb observed that a kilometer or two of territory was of no importance. What was essential was to have the Finns undertake operations to tie down the maximum number of Soviet troops on their fronts. If they failed to do that the Soviets could create serious problems for the Germans by withdrawing substantial forces from the Finnish front for use against his army group.

Leeb was correct. The Soviets quickly realized that the Finnish offensive on the Karelian Isthmus had ended. They had six divisions and several separate battalions and regiments defending Leningrad from the north. They quickly withdrew two of these divisions on September 5 and threw them against the Germans. Army Group North’s arrival in the Leningrad area in September 1941 coincided with the Finns reaching the Svir River and the start of their drive into East Karelia.

Early September was a momentous period for the Germans and the course of the war. Despite signs of an early winter and the exhausted state of his troops, Hitler decided that the time was right to resume the German offensive against Moscow, notwithstanding the wording of the Barbarossa directive stating that the offensive against Moscow would resume only after the objectives in Army Group’s North’s area—the capture of Leningrad and the link-up with the Finns—had been achieved. Hitler’s decision to resume the offensive against Moscow involved removing Höpner’s Fourth Panzer Group from Army Group North and transferring it to Army Group Center. This left only one mechanized formation in Army Group North, the XXXIX Corps. This corps had belonged to General Hermann Hoth’s Third Panzer Group and had been sent north after Army Group North paused in the vicinity of Lake Ilmen.

Schlüsselburg fell to the Germans on September 8, 1941, and the Germans now had a foothold on Lake Ladoga, and the city of Leningrad was encircled. This was the moment when OKW had planned that Leeb should send the XXXIX Corps on an eastward drive to Volkhov and Tikhvin. Leeb objected on the grounds that the operation would dissipate his strength at a time when he needed to make the ring around Leningrad secure. He was successful in his appeal—for the time being. Instead, the OKH ordered him to cross the Neva River and link up with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. However, he did not have the strength to cross the Neva.

The Soviets upset the German plans by launching heavy counterattacks against Schlüsselburg. Leeb pointed out to OKH on September 15, 1941, that the Soviets were withdrawing forces from the Finnish fronts and using them against the Germans. He urged that the Finns resume their offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and predicted that if they did, the battle for Leningrad could be decided within a few days. If they did not, he could not predict when he would be able to cross the Neva River.

There can be little doubt that Leeb was correct. The handful of mauled Soviet divisions north of Leningrad could have been brushed aside easily by the Finns, particularly if they had not transferred forces to East Karelia or if those transfers had been delayed until after the requested German operations on the Karelian Isthmus. Such operations would also have closed the one opening in the German encirclement—across the southern part of Lake Ladoga. The OKH answered Leeb on September 18, 1941. General Halder assured him that the Finns intended to resume their attacks both on the Karelian Isthmus and south of the Svir River. But there were conditions. The Finns told their brothers-in-arms that the offensive on the Karelian Isthmus would be undertaken as soon as the Germans had crossed the Neva River. The drive out of the Svir bridgehead would be pursued as soon as the effects of a German drive to the east became observable.

These conditions caused a conundrum for the Germans and doomed the hoped-for cooperation from the Finns, since the drive to the east had been cancelled temporarily and Leeb had just stated that he did not have the strength to cross the Neva River in force. It appears that the Finns were well informed on what was happening at OKH and used that information to their advantage.

The Tikhvin Thrust

OKW ordered Leeb to attack eastward on October 14, although there was no evidence that the Soviets had reduced their force levels in the Leningrad area to counter the offensive against Moscow. The plan was to drive eastward and envelop the Soviet forces south of Lake Ladoga. It was expected that XXXIX Corps would link up with the Finns in the area between Tikhvin and Lodeynoye Pole. It appears from this intention that the Germans still harbored hopes that the Finns would undertake operations south of the Svir River.

XXXIX Corps began its advance on October 16, 1941. The advance was slow due to strong Soviet resistance and the onset of rain that turned the roads and earth into mud. The mud and soft ground was so bad that the armored divisions were forced to leave their tanks behind after a few days. The situation became bleak enough for Hitler to want to cancel the operation, but OKH and Leeb persuaded him to continue.

By the first week in November, the Germans were still 6 miles (10km) from Tikhvin. They planned one final push on November 6. The attack succeeded and Tikhvin was captured on November 9, 1941. Thereupon, one division was turned north along the railroad toward Volkhov. However, the Russians were not giving up the fight for the town and began a counteroffensive against Army Group North with new forces. Some of these forces, according to General Waldemar Erfurth (1879–1971), chief of the German liaison detachment at Mannerheim’s headquarters, had been withdrawn from the Karelian Army front. The Soviet forces succeeded in virtually encircling the Germans and Leeb found it necessary to commit two additional divisions to hold the flanks of the Tikhvin salient. Any plans for linking up with the Finns in the Lodeynoye Pole area or of a continued advance to Volkhov were out of the question.

On December 3, 1941, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (1889–1962), who commanded the German drive to Tikhvin, reported that he would not be able to hold that town. Leeb gave him a “be prepared” order to withdraw on December 7, but not to execute it until Hitler had given his permission. Hitler then issued Directive 39 on December 8, 1941, which stopped all offensive operations on the Eastern Front. Tikhvin was ordered held and XXXIX Corps was fighting desperately to hold on to the town in the middle of a blizzard with temperatures well below zero. Leeb notified OKW that he intended to withdraw XXXIX Corps and Hitler grudgingly agreed, provided that the railroad between Volkhov and Leningrad was held. Tikhvin was evacuated on December 9 and Leeb decided to withdraw behind the Volkhov River, despite Hitler’s insistence that he should establish his new front closer to the town of Volkhov. Hitler relented on December 15 after Leeb told him that a failure to withdraw behind the Volkhov River would lead to the destruction of XXXIX Corps. That corps was behind the river on Christmas Eve; it had sustained heavy losses in the fighting for Tikhvin and in the withdrawal.

The year 1941 had been full of disappointments for the Germans. They had not succeeded in convincing their co-belligerent to participate in the attack on Leningrad or even to take aggressive action to tie down Soviet forces north of Tikhvin and Leningrad. This doomed any hopes of capturing Leningrad. The Germans in Finland had not accomplished their objectives of severing the Murmansk railroad and/or capturing Murmansk. The support of the Finns became just a token gesture after the United States issued a virtual ultimatum with regard to the Murmansk railroad.

The Leningrad Front in 1942

The southern fronts in the Soviet Union were accorded the highest priority in the 1942 summer offensive, and Army Group North had its forces spread over an extensive area in a defensive posture. It was disposed in a very irregular frontline, a legacy of the previous year and the Soviet winter offensive. On the left, the Eighteenth Army held an arch around Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland. The front then bent eastward south of Leningrad, anchoring on Lake Ladoga at Schlüsselburg. From there, it bent sharply southeastward along the Volkhov River to the northern tip of Lake Ilmen.

The Sixteenth Army held a jagged line south of Lake Ilmen. The main feature of its front was a large salient jutting out from the main line in the direction of the Valday Hills, known as the Demyansk Salient, after the largest city in the area. From its easternmost point it curved sharply westward to Kholm and then southwestward to the northern boundary of Army Group Center, north of Velikiy Luki.

In 1942 the Eighteenth German Army was primarily involved in preparations for an operation that Hitler hoped would bring about Finnish cooperation in the prosecution of the war. The Twentieth Mountain Army had reached agreement with the Finnish High Command to undertake a major operation against the Murmansk railroad—Operation Lachsfang (Salmon Catch). The Finns promised to make 11 divisions available for a drive to cut the southern part of the railroad, while two corps from the Twentieth Mountain Army directed their offensive against the railroad further north, at Kandalaksha. The Finns stated that the forces needed would come from the Karelian Isthmus and Svir fronts and would be assembled as soon as the Germans captured Leningrad and moved their front eastward to give cover for the Finnish front on the Svir River. The Finns considered this pre-condition necessary in order for them to have the requisite forces available.

To accommodate the Finnish wishes, Hitler ordered the preparation of an operation—Nordlicht—to capture Leningrad. The German plan was rather simple. After a preliminary softening of the enemy by the Luftwaffe and massed artillery, the Germans planned to advance across the Neva River above Leningrad, link up with the Finns if that were possible, and then capture the city. The Eighteenth Army, in the Leningrad sector, estimated the Soviet Forces confronting it at 13 divisions and three armored brigades. The Eighteenth Army had five divisions and it would have four more with the arrival of Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army which Hitler was moving from Sevastopol in southern Russia. The Eighteenth Army was still eight divisions short of what it believed was necessary for Operation Nordlicht.

Georg von Küchler (now a field marshal), the new commander of Army Group North after Leeb asked to be relieved in January 1942, briefed Hitler on Operation Nordlicht on August 8, 1942. He pointed out that the Germans were outnumbered two to one in the Leningrad area and requested additional divisions. Hitler answered that Küchler would have to do with what he had, since he could not give him divisions that he did not have. Küchler indicated that he would be ready to launch Nordlicht at the end of October. General Jodl objected and pointed out that it would have to be launched earlier because it was not an end in itself but a preparatory operation for Lachsfang. Hitler set September 10, 1942 as the date of the offensive.

No one was happy with either the outcome of the conference on August 8 or Jodl’s later recommendation and Hitler’s acceptance that the mission of taking Leningrad be given to Manstein’s Eleventh Army. Küchler protested that a switch in the command of Operation Nordlicht at this stage would only create confusion in view of all the plans and preparations made by Eighteenth Army. This argument did not change Hitler’s mind.

The Eleventh Army headquarters arrived on the Leningrad front on August 27, 1942, and its staff began to plan for an attack on Leningrad. It was agreed that the Eleventh Army would take over that part of the Eighteenth Army’s front which faced north, while the latter retained responsibility of the Eastern Front on the Volkhov River. The Eleventh Army, which was made directly subordinate to OKH, ended up holding three sectors: the Neva sector from Lake Ladoga to the southeast of Leningrad; the assault area south of Leningrad; and the sector blocking the Soviet forces in the Oranienbaum pocket.

Manstein had grave misgivings about the operation and stated in his first meeting with Küchler on August 28, 1942, that he did not believe artillery bombardment would break Soviet resistance. He concluded that Nordlicht would be difficult and that the main attack should be made from the Karelian Isthmus or from both directions. Manstein wrote that “it would naturally have been of tremendous assistance to us if the Finns … had participated in the offensive.”

The lack of forces continued to plague the operation. Despite these difficulties, preparations for Nordlicht proceeded well and it held out great promise if successful. However, fate decided otherwise. The Soviets launched an offensive from the east along the south shore of Lake Ladoga on August 27, 1942, against the front of the Eighteenth Army commanded by General of Cavalry Georg Heinrich Lindemann (1884–1963). This area was referred to as the “bottleneck” and was that part of Army Group North’s front which projected like a wedge from Schlüsselburg in a southwest direction. This wedge was vulnerable to attack from both the west and east and had grown very narrow, less than 6 miles (10km) across in certain locations. The objective of the Soviet offensive was to lift the siege of Leningrad by opening a land route through the wedge.

After the Soviets achieved local breakthroughs over a wide stretch of the slender Eighteenth Army’s front south of Lake Ladoga, Hitler telephoned Manstein on September 4 and placed him in command of the break through areas, since they threatened the German hold on Leningrad. The first concern now was to restore the front. As usual, there was a scramble to find forces to restore the situation. The 3rd Mountain Division, already at sea from Norway to Finland, was diverted to Army Group North’s front on August 31, 1942. Four divisions planned for use in Nordlicht also had to be moved to the bottleneck area.

The Eighteenth Army front was penetrated south of Lake Ladoga by strong Soviet forces; the army, however, was able to seal the penetration, which progressed some 8 miles (13km) to the vicinity of Mga. The attack against the base of the pocket was carried out by the Eleventh Army using three corps, and the German encirclement was completed on September 21. Despite desperate Soviet attacks from both within and outside this pocket, Manstein writes that the Soviets lost seven infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, and four armored brigades in ferocious fighting.

The front was not restored until October 15. OKW, which had to watch helplessly as its own offensive plans evaporated, announced on October 20 that Operation Nordlicht was indefinitely postponed. This also doomed plans for Operation Lachsfang. The heavy siege artillery brought north with Manstein’s army was to be used to support incremental advances in the front around Leningrad as long as that could be done without a great commitment of troops. After their experience the past winter, the Germans, including Hitler, were wary about any offensive which would extend into the winter season. Manstein and his Eleventh Army were shifted to the Velikiy Luki area between Army Group Center and Army Group North.

Army Group North’s Years of Hope and Frustration II

The Demyansk Salient

The Soviets had managed to drive a huge bulge into Army Group Center’s front during their 1941/42 winter offensive around Toropets in the northern part of the army group’s sector. This bulge actually extended into Army Group North’s sector, and the Soviets hurled nine armies against Army Group North in the same offensive. Their aims were to break the siege of Leningrad and push the front away from Moscow by levering the Germans from the strategic Valday Hills.

The Sixteenth Army tied into LIX Corps of Army Group Center in the vicinity of Velikiy Luki. It was a long front, since it incorporated the large salient extending towards the Valday Hills. This is not the place, for reasons of space, to discuss the lengthy fight for the Demyansk Pocket, or Salient, located about 100 miles (160km) south of Leningrad. It nevertheless produced some of the most ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front. Two German corps of six divisions were trapped in the pocket and these forces were later increased. Since the location of the pocket presented a German threat against the gigantic Toropets bulge, the Soviets were eager to eliminate it, as well as a pocket around Kholm that served to block a possible Soviet thrust into the rear areas of both Army Group North and Army Group Center. It was also a good jump-off position for a renewed German offensive against Moscow; this was probably the greatest worry for the Soviets, who misread German intentions in their 1942 summer offensive.

Leeb was very concerned about the situation in the Sixteenth Army area. He considered the Demyansk Salient valueless unless it was planned to move against the Toropets bulge. He called Führer headquarters on January 12, 1942, and proposed that his armies be withdrawn behind the Lovati River. Hitler immediately turned down the proposal, and Leeb thereupon flew to East Prussia to argue his case personally. Hitler again refused. Leeb then requested to be relieved of his command and Hitler agreed. Küchler was given command of the army group, and his place as commander of the Eighteenth Army was taken by General Lindemann.

While the Germans were aware of the opportunities presented by the Toropets bulge and the fact that the Soviets were overextended, they were unable to do anything about it. The German armies were bled white in the 1941 offensive and the subsequent Soviet winter offensive. The bloodletting could not be offset by replacements, which were slow in arriving, and there were virtually no reserves. Despite this situation, Hitler refused to abandon both Kholm and Demyansk. After being assured by the Luftwaffe that the reinforced First Air Fleet could deliver the required 240–65 tons of daily supplies to the two pockets, Hitler ordered them held until re lieved. This air supply operation used almost all of the Luftwaffe’s transport capability, as well as elements of its bomber force. The supply operations involved both airdrop and airlanding operations and were generally successful, primarily due to the weakness of the Soviet air forces in the area.

The Luftwaffe flew 33,086 sorties before the Demyansk Salient was evacuated in March 1943. The two pockets—Demyansk and Kholm—received 64,844 tons of supplies.28 A total of 31,000 replacement troops were brought in and almost 36,000 wounded evacuated. Several writers maintain that this was the first air bridge in history. This is not correct. In the invasion of Norway in 1940, an air bridge was established from Germany and Denmark to Norway. Five-hundred and eighty-two transport aircraft flew 13,018 sorties and brought in 29,280 troops and 2,376 tons of supplies. Yet the successful re-supply of the Demyansk and Kholm pockets had an ominous legacy. It confirmed in Hitler’s mind that encircled forces could hold out until relieved, and thus contributed to a policy that was to have disastrous results for hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.

Army Group North continued to worry about the Demyansk Salient. Küchler sent a personal letter to OKH on September 14, 1942, in an attempt to persuade Halder that continuing to hold the pocket was useless. Küchler hoped to use the divisions freed by a withdrawal from the salient to form reserves for the army group. Halder answered on September 23 after raising the issue with Hitler. Hitler’s earlier Haltenbefehl (hold order) remained unchanged. Halder acknowledged that Army Group North would gain 12 divisions by abandoning Demyansk, but pointed out to Küchler that such a withdrawal could also free 26 Russian infantry divisions and seven tank brigades.

The spectacular success of the German Army in the southern part of the Soviet Union during the summer of 1942 had expanded the territory conquered by German arms to the greatest extent of the war. However, the Germans had not achieved their primary aim: the destruction of the Soviet Army. The Soviets, now more mobile, had learned to avoid encirclements. The military situation that had looked so good and hopeful for the Germans in the East during the summer turned downright deplorable by the end of the year. By the middle of November, the situation at the front in southern Russia became critical for the Germans and their allies. A largescale Russian offensive began northwest and south of Stalingrad on November 19, 1942, by vastly superior Soviet forces. The Romanian Third Army was routed and overrun. Disasters quickly followed on the neighboring fronts on the Don and Volga, and the Soviet avalanche brought Italian, Hungarian, and also German divisions into a vortex of defeat. Battles of tremendous size developed in the last third of November between the Volga and Don.

The situation on the German central front in Russia became grave when on November 25, 1942, the Soviets began their expected offensive on a wide front south of Kalinin. The fact that the Soviets retained the capability to launch so many large-scale offensives after suffering repeated defeats and enormous losses during the summer was dismaying to the Germans and a surprise to the world.

Germans on the Defensive and Finnish Loss of Confidence

A Soviet offensive to open a land bridge to Leningrad began on January 16, 1943. While they broke through the “bottleneck” and managed to open a corridor to Leningrad on January 19, the ferocious fighting lasted until the end of March and cost the Soviets 270,000 casualties. The Germans managed to restrict the Soviet corridor to a width of 6 miles (10km), which could be brought under artillery fire, thus reducing its usefulness.

By mid-January 1943 the fighting had drained off the last army group reserves. General Kurt Zeitzler (1895–1963), the new OKH Chief of Staff, told Küchler on January 19, 1943, that he intended to raise the issue of evacuating the Demyansk Salient with Hitler. Army Group North had just suffered a serious setback south of Lake Ladoga, and Zeitzler and Küchler agreed that the principal reason for the setback was the shortage of troops and that the only way to avoid similar mishaps in the future was to create reserves by giving up the Demyansk Salient. However, it was obvious to both officers that Hitler would adamantly resist such a proposal.

On the night of January 31, 1943, after a week-long debate, Hitler finally accepted Zeitzler’s arguments. The earlier setback around Leningrad influenced Hitler’s change of mind. He was anxious to keep Finland in the war and this involved holding around Leningrad. Küchler decided to conduct a slow withdrawal which began on February 20, 1943. He then collapsed the salient in stages, completing the last one on March 18.

On February 3, the day after Stalingrad fell, there was a high-level policy meeting at Finnish military headquarters which included Mannerheim, President Risto Ryti (1889–1956), and several influential members of the cabinet. Those assembled concluded that there had been a decisive turning point in the war and that Finland should conclude peace at the earliest opportunity. Parliament was briefed in a secret session on February 9, 1943, to the effect that Germany could no longer win the war. Mannerheim explains that the briefing “had the effect of a cold shower” on the members of Parliament.

The Germans were fully aware of the importance of Leningrad for the Finns. Hitler therefore ordered Army Group North to prepare an offensive in late summer to capture the city. This was wishful thinking. Army Group North, fighting defensive battles, was primarily worried about what the Soviets would do. It was especially feared that the Soviets would strike at the boundary between Army Group Center and Army Group North south of Lake Ilmen. This would split the German front and pin Army Group North against the Baltic coast. Nevertheless, Army Group North proceeded to plan for the capture of Leningrad—code-named Operation Parkplatz. Much of the siege artillery brought north by the Eleventh Army was still in place, but Army Group North needed eight or nine divisions in order to launch the offensive. These were promised only after Army Group South had completed its operation to pinch off the large Russian salient at Orel west of Kursk—Operation Zitadelle (Citadel).

Zitadelle was launched on July 5, 1943, but after initial successes, fortune turned against the Germans as the Soviets launched a strong counteroffensive, and the conflict developed into the largest tank battle in history. The Germans were forced to retreat and the much hoped for success turned into a serious German defeat. As the fighting spread, the Soviets broke through the German front on the Donets River by the end of July. In August and September the German armies were driven back from the Donets River to the Dnieper River. By the end of September the Soviets had captured Kharkov and Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s (1882–1944) Army Group Center was forced back to the edge of the Pripet Marshes.

Disastrous news for the Germans was piling up during the summer and fall of 1943. Sicily was invaded on July 9 and by August 17 the island was in Allied hands. Hitler’s ally Benito Mussolini was overthrown on July 24, 1943, and an armistice was signed with Italy. With their offensives making rapid progress in the south with enormous losses, the Soviets turned their attention to Army Group North. A full-scale offensive to lift the siege of Leningrad was launched on July 22, 1943. Repeated Soviet attacks south of Lake Ladoga were repulsed by Army Group North in July and August. However, the Germans knew that this offered only a temporary respite; OKH ordered Army Group North to prepare a new defensive line along the Narva River and Lake Peipus, 124 miles (200km) southwest of Len ingrad. These positions eventually became the Panther Line. This spelled the end of Operation Parkplatz.

OKW asked the Twentieth Mountain Army in Finland for its opinion about a possible withdrawal to the Panther Line. The answer stated that a withdrawal should not take place. The Twentieth Mountain Army argued that the Finns already felt let down by the failure of the Germans to capture Leningrad, despite repeated assurances to the contrary. Eduard Dietl, commander of the Twentieth Mountain Army, pointed out that after such a withdrawal the Finnish fronts on the Svir River and at Maaselkä would become indefensible and the Finns would be forced to withdraw. Dietl went on to caution that a likely result of a withdrawal to the Panther Line would be a Finnish approach to the Soviet Union for peace. If an acceptable peace was offered, the Twentieth Mountain Army would be cut off and a retreat to Norway over bad roads in wintertime would be extremely hazardous. Dietl’s warning was followed by a Finnish notice through Wipert von Blücher (1883–1963), the German Ambassador to Finland, that a withdrawal would have serious consequences for Finland. This could only be interpreted by the Germans as a forewarning that Finland would be forced to leave the war if the Germans withdrew to the Panther Line. Mannerheim also expressed concerns to General Erfurth about the reports of a pending German withdrawal. OKW sent an explanatory message on October 3, 1943, which stated that there were no intentions to withdraw, but that rear positions were being constructed in case of an emergency.

An OKW planning conference on January 14, 1943, made a complete revision of its view of Finland as a co-belligerent. It amounted to writing Finland off as an ally that could be counted on to carry its weight. The revised estimate concluded that the Finns would not be able to prevent setbacks in case of a major Soviet attack because their defenses were poorly constructed and they had few reserves. Despite the serious situation for Germany on other fronts, it was decided not to remove any units from the Twentieth Mountain Army.

A planning conference for the whole Scandinavian region took place at OKW in mid-March 1943. It included representatives from the OKW operations staff, the Chief of Staff of the Twentieth Mountain Army, and the operations officer of the Army of Norway. The conference recognized that the fall of Stalingrad had caused a decisive shift in Finnish opinion and that Finland’s government and military leaders no longer believed in a German victory. The Chief of Staff of the Twentieth Mountain Army opined that the Finns were preparing to exit the war and could only be prevented from doing so by a convincing German military victory in the summer of 1943, or by their inability to obtain acceptable peace terms from the Soviets.

Finnish leaders were fully aware that an offensive beyond the current positions would result in an immediate declaration of war by the United States, their only friend of any consequence in the Allied camp. The United States was viewed as Finland’s best hope of securing an acceptable settlement with the Soviet Union. Taken together with the view that Germany could no longer prevail in the war, this conclusion dictated a policy designed to keep the United States from declaring war. Finnish military leaders exercised great care not to put themselves in a position where they could be blamed by the government and parliament for a US declaration of war.

We can safely assume that Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States were fully aware of the Finnish dilemma. Germany’s knowledge of the state of affairs is undoubtedly the reason they did not press the Finns to undertake offensive operations in 1943. The Soviet Union’s knowledge allowed them to take the risk of removing great numbers of troops from the German–Finnish fronts in 1943. The United States was the trump card and Ziemke is right when he writes that an offensive by the Finns in late 1943 “would in the long run have been suicidal for the Finnish nation.”

The OKW operations staff informed Hitler on September 25, 1943, that there were increasing signs that Finland desired to leave the war and it was expected that they would take action in this direction if Army Group North was forced to withdraw. This warning resulted in the OKW issuing Führer Directive 50 on September 28. It dealt with a possible Finnish collapse and the preparations required by the Twentieth Mountain Army for a withdrawal to North Finland and North Norway. Parts of the directive read: “It is our duty to bear in mind the possibility that Finland may drop out of the war or collapse… . In that case it will be the immediate task of the 20th Mountain Army to continue to hold the Northern area, which is vital to our war industry …”

Jodl visited Finland on October 14–15, 1943. The reason for the visit was apparently to try to bolster the confidence of the Finns in Germany and also to discuss Directive 50 with Dietl. Jodl pointed out to the Finns that Germany knew about Finnish efforts to get out of the war. Commenting on this, Jodl stated: “No nation has a higher duty than that which is dictated by concern for the existence of the Homeland. All other considerations must take second place before this concern, and no one has the right to demand that a nation go to its death for another.”

In his discussions with Dietl, Jodl pointed out that Hitler was adamant about holding the mining districts since the nickel was critical to Germany’s war effort. He opined that communications to the nickel mines could be kept open via Norway. Dietl replied that he had no confidence in the ability of the navy and air force to keep the Allies from cutting the sea supply lines around Norway, and that included the ore traffic. While agreeing with much of what Dietl had to say, Jodl did not believe it possible to withdraw the Twentieth Mountain Army by any other route than through northern Norway.

The situation south of Leningrad continued to deteriorate at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944. The Soviets made a deep penetration southwest of Velikiy Luki at Nevel on November 5, 1943. This penetration tore open the front of the Sixteenth German Army. Only a lack of immediate exploitation by the Soviets averted the disastrous possibility of their outflanking the Panther positions, thereby causing the collapse of Army Group North’s front.

116th Panzer in Normandy

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The following information is from the excellent book by Niklas Zetterling entitled ‘NORMANDY 1944’.

The 116. Panzer-Division was formed by merging the remnants of the 16. Pz.-Gren-Division with the 179. Reserve-Pz.-Division. The division was established on May 1, 1944 in France. The manpower buildup was reported as follows:

April 1=5452

May 1=12494

May 15=13414

June 1=13621

July 1=14358

The Panther battalion (I./PzRgt 16) was forming at Grafenwoehr in Germany at the time of establishment so initially the Panther battalion of PzGren Division “GD” was attached while the division was working up and training prior to the Allied invasion. However “GD” was sent to the Eastern Front prior to the 116. Pz.-Division move to Normandy so the Panther battalion I./PzRgt 24 (from 24. Panzer Division) was attached to the 116. Panzer-Division and sent to Normandy. When it departed for Normandy there were 76 Panthers in I./PzRgt 24.

II./PzRgt. 16 went to Normandy with 86 PzKpw IVs.

The division also had a few extra AFVs that were not included in the authorized organization of the division. On June 8, 1944 it had 3 PzKpw III (7.5cmkz); 7 PzKpw III (5cm lg); 6 Marder IIIs and 6 StuG III (7.5cm lg). It appears that only 6 of the PzKpw IIIs and the StuG IIIs went to Normandy.

Panzerjaeger-Abteilung 228 received 21 JagdPanzer IVs in July 1944.

  1. Panzer Division arrived in Normandy in two groups. On July 20 the division began crossing the Seine in ferries. The first group (PGR 156,PAA 16, PGR 60, II./PR 16, PJA 228) arrived at the assembly area on July 24 with 86 PzKpw IVs, 21 JagdPanzer IVs and 6 StuG IIIs. The second group (I./PR24, PiB 675) arrived on July 26 with the 76 Panthers.

Panzer-Artillery-Regiment 146 had 29 operational artillery guns on July 1. This included 12 Wespe, 6 Hummel, 5 10.5cm towed howitzers, 5 15cm towed howitzers and 1 10cm towed gun.

Flak-Abteilung had no guns available and they did not receive any until the division and withdrawn from France.

The number of armored troop carriers stood at 252 vehicles.

Initially the division was in reserve southeast of Caen but due to the American breakthrough west of St Lo the division was ordered to move to the Vire area on July 28. It reached its assembly area there on July 29. On July 30 the division was assessed to have Kampfwert I (combat capability I) the highest rating available. All the battalions were considered strong and the mobility stood at 80%. During the German Mortain counterattack, I./PzRgt 24 was attached to the 2. Panzer Division. It advanced as far as Le Mesnil-Adelee.

On August 11 the division was ordered to move to the Alencon area. It remained in Alencon-Artentan area until August 20. The division broke out of the Falaise pocket.

On August 22 the following equipment situation was reported:

I./PR 24 had 11 operational Panthers

II./PR 16 had 4 operational PzKpw IVs

PGR 60 had 2 combat ready companies

PGR 156 had 2 battalions, combat-engineer company and heavy infantry gun company without guns combat ready

PAA 116 had 3 recon sections, 2 SPW platoons and 1 combat-engineer platoon ready

PJA 228 had 3 conditional operational assault guns

PAR 146 had 2 Wespe, 1 Hummel, 5 10.5cm, 5 15cm and 1 10cm guns operational.

When the division was sent to Normandy it arrived with 14,358 troops and in August they received 665 replacements and it appears that causalities during the action in Normandy amounted to around 3,800 in total.

The following status reports on the AFVs reported the following:

PzKpw IVs:

July 25=24 combat ready

July 27=64 combat ready and 15 in short term repair

July 30=30 combat ready

Aug 22=4 combat ready

Panthers:

July 25=39 combat ready

July 27=57 combat ready and 17 in short term repair

July 30=32 combat ready

Aug 22=11 combat ready

StuG III and JgdPz IVs:

July 25=25 combat ready

July 27=25 combat ready and 15 in short term repair

July 30=15 combat ready

Aug 22=3 combat ready

The data also seems to indicate that the division also suffered around 600 causalities during its retreat from August 22 to September 1 1944.

Pz.Rgt 16 July 44

– I/Pz.Rgt 24(attached) 79 Panthers in 4 Kp. plus the Stab

– II.Pz.Rgt 16 73 Pz.IV in 4 Kp. plus the Stab plus 3 PzIII in the Stab as well.

– 3 PzIII in the Pz.Rgt Stab

– 8 FkPzIV 3.7cm in the Rgt Flak Zug

Source Panzer Truppen Vol.2 and Panzers in Normandy

The actual strength of the 116 Panzer regiment of 116 Panzer division in Normandy

June 10th-13 Pz III/86 PzIV/6 StuG

July 1944-6 Pz III/73 PzIV/79 PzV

August 21th-12 Panzers Left, Type Unknown

The StuG most likely were assigned to the Panzerjaeger-Abteilung but Thomas Jentz’s book, Panzer Truppen II, does not say either way.

Besides the 6 already mentioned StuG III there were 6 Marders (38t) on strength the 8th June 1944. All came from 179. Reserve Panzer division and were attributed to PzJg Abt 228 with 12 Pak 40 having no towing vehicles (June 1944). Heinz G. Guderian (Ia of 116. Panzer division) suggested that the Division should retain this material, which GHQ planned to give away to other units. PzJg Abt 228 received its authorized 21 PzJg IV only in July. What actually happened with the StuG III and Marders I cannot tell for sure, but a clue might be the fact that II./Pz Rgt 16 had one Marder and one StuG III on strength on 14th September 44.

In a report dated 8th June 44 in addition to the 6 StuG III and 6 self-propelled guns, 3 PzKw IV (kurz), 7 PzKw III (lang) and 3 PzKw III (kurz) were also mentioned. Probably they were included in the count of 86 Pzkw IV and 13 PzKw III found in the strength report “Im Westen vorhandene gePanzerte Kraftfahrzeuge, Stand 10.06.44”, as the 6 StuG III from the report of 8th June are also noted.

The first 20 Moebelwagens rolled off the assembly line in March 1944. However, the first deliveries to combat units didn’t occur until June 1944.

On June.15.44, 24 Moebelwagen were issued, (8 each) to the Regimental Flakzuegen of the 9.Pz.Div, 11.Pz.Div and the 116.Pz.Div.

Because the Panther-Battalion fighting along 116.Panzer Division didn’t belong to the division, it was attached. It was I/24 Pz Abt from 24th Panzer Division.

The difference in Pz IVs could be explain with that in one case the regimental Pz IVs are included and in the other only the Panzer IV battalion. Or that one number (the lower) is operational while the higher is on hand.

Flying Circus

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Richthofen’s Flying Circus, by Nicolas Trudgian

An elite German fighter unit in World War I.

World War I was the first time aircraft were used in combat against each other. Before then the United States had used aircraft in scouting roles, and when World War I broke out, it was scouting that was the primary job of airmen on both sides. The need to stop aircraft from flying over one’s own armies brought about the development of fighter aircraft. By early 1915, some six months after the war’s inception, Roland Garros mounted a machine gun on the nose of his Morane airplane and bolted steel plates to the propeller to deflect whatever bullets failed to pass through. He was shot down behind German lines, and his idea was improved upon by a Dutch aircraft engineer, Anthony Fokker, who developed the interrupter gear. This allowed bullets to pass through the empty spaces of the propeller while interrupting the flow of bullets when the propeller’s blades passed in front of the machine gun. The Fokker E-1 was the first widely used fighter aircraft, and for a while it devastated British and French aircraft.

The life of an airman proved tantalizing to many, especially those who had spent time in the mud of the trenches in northern France. One such soldier who transferred to the air service was a German aristocrat named Manfred von Richthofen, for the cavalry to which he originally was assigned was rapidly becoming obsolete. Richthofen learned to fly reconnaissance planes, with a cameraman in the rear seat to photograph enemy positions. This proved too tame for his temperament, and he learned to fly the Fokker E-1. His early experience in the aircraft was not positive, but he underwent fighter training and quickly improved. In the spring of 1916 he was assigned to a Jagdstaffel, a German fighter squadron, which at full strength numbered 16 aircraft.

Like all young fighter pilots in the German air service, he idolized the “aces,” men who had shot down at least five enemy aircraft. The leading aces, who rapidly became national heroes, were Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelman, both assigned to No. 62 Squadron. When Immelman was killed, the German government wanted to keep Boelcke alive for morale purposes and so assigned him to behind- the-lines tours. When in August 1916 he returned to command the newly formed Jasta 2 (“Jasta” being an abbreviation of Jagdstaffel), he chose Richthofen as one of his pilots. Boelcke was regarded as the first serious theorist of fighter tactics, and Richthofen learned from the master. The British had been pioneering aggressive fighter tactics, but with the development of newer and faster German aircraft, the Germans took control of the air in the latter part of 1916.

By 1916, the war on the ground had turned into such a stalemate that there was a desperate need for heroes to maintain public morale. It was the fighter pilots who came to fill that role. The French press first in-vented the concept of the “ace,” which the commanders of the Allied air services at first resisted. The British in particular stressed teamwork over individual accomplishments, but the ace concept took on a life of its own. The French were the first to develop an elite squadron, called Le Cignones (the Storks); each aircraft had a stork painted on its fuselage in a different pose. This gave each pilot his individual marking while also promoting unit esprit de corps. The Germans followed suit to an extent: Flight leaders began to paint parts of their aircraft bright colors in order to be better seen by the pilots flying with them.

Jasta 2 underwent a major change after Boelcke was killed in a flying accident October 1916. In December the unit was renamed Jasta Boelcke. Richthofen was improving his skills and by the end of 1916 had shot down 15 enemy aircraft. January 1917 he was given command Jasta 11, and took delivery of the newest the German fighter aircraft, the Albatross D. III. Jasta 11 had yet to score any victories in air-to-air combat, and Richthofen set about whipping his men into a first class squadron. As squadron commander, he had followed the general practice identifying his plane with bright red paint on the wheels and the tail section. Soon, painted his entire aircraft a bright red. This was to serve a number of purposes. First, he made himself easily identifiable to his own pilots. Second, although he had experimented earlier in his career with camouflage and the German air service was also looking into the idea, his own flamboyance would not allow him to purposely remain inconspicuous. Third, he hoped that his becoming famous as an expert fighter pilot would make the red plane strike fear in his enemies. Soon, his entire squadron painted a portion of their own planes red, and the brightly colored planes came to be called the Flying Circus. Later, all the aircraft the Jasta were painted solid red.

Richthofen’s Jasta 11 came into its own in April 1917, by which time the Albatross D. III had become the standard aircraft the German air service. Nothing the British or French had could match the Albatross, and the month came to be called by Allied airmen “Bloody April.” In this month, Richthofen became Germany’s highest-scoring ace, surpassing the mark of 41 kills set by his mentor Boelcke.

Both the Allies and the Germans developed increasingly faster and more maneuverable aircraft as the war progressed, and neither side was able to maintain superiority over the other for long. No matter what planes the Allies introduced, however, Richthofen continued to increase his score. Although wounded in combat and forced at another time by the high command to take leave, he rested only as long as he was required to do so. Combat seemed to have become an addiction with him. He and his squadron grew in notoriety-both inside Germany and out-and he was undoubtedly the best-known soldier in Germany. His younger brother, Lothar, flew with him and took command of the Jasta on Manfred’s infrequent departures, and the family tie was one more item for the press to play up.

By April 1918, Manfred von Richthofen was the highest-scoring ace of the war, with 80 Allied aircraft confirmed destroyed. He had been promoted to command Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Group 1). On April 21, however, he was killed in combat in circumstances argued to this day. Credit for bringing down the Red Baron, as he had come to be called, went at the time to Captain Arthur Royal “Roy” Brown. Brown attacked the scarlet Fokker Dr. 1, the triplane Richthofen made famous, as it lined up on a British pilot on his first mission. Richthofen did not bring the enemy plane down quickly as he had become famous for doing, and he was shot down for flying too long in one direction. Richthofen’s plane landed behind British lines and the smoothness of the landing seemed to indicate a wounded pilot. Richthofen, however, was dead with a single bullet through his chest. It has since been argued that he was killed in flight by an Australian machine gun crew firing from the Allied lines on the ground. However he died, he was treated to a funeral with full honors by the British Royal Flying Corps.

Jasta 11 continued to operate under the command of Lothar von Richthofen, but he was never the public figure his brother had been. Manfred left behind the Air Combat Operations Manual, which de- scribed the necessary tactics for handling the larger Fighter Group he commanded at the end of his life. Ironically, it was the final dictum of that manual that he violated when he was shot down: “You should never stay with an opponent whom, through your bad shooting or his skillful turning, you have been unable to shoot down, the combat lasts for a long time and you are alone, outnumbered by adversaries.” Manfred von Richthofen also left a legacy of intensity, dedication, and professionalism that fighter pilots ever since have striven to emulate.

References: Bickers, Richard Townshend, Von Richthofen: The Legend Evaluated (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996); Gibbons, Floyd, The Red Knight of Germany (London: Cassell, 1932); Richthofen, Baron Manfred von, Der Rote Kampfflieger (Berlin: Ullstein, 1933).

 

German fighter pilots in the Phoney War 1940

The Phoney War, the period labelled by the British press the Sitzkrieg, covers the period from the British and French declarations of war on 3 September 1939 till 9 May 1940, the day preceding the unleashing of the Blitzkrieg against neutral Holland, Belgium and belligerent France. This period overlapped with the brief Polish campaign of September 1939 and the early part of the Norwegian campaign, and involved German fighter defence of the Western Front with France and the north German coastal areas and naval bases, as well as Luftwaffe bomber attacks on the British naval base at Scapa Flow. Reconnaissance activities by both sides in all these areas were ongoing and subject to interception by fighters from French, British and German air forces. Both RAF and Luftwaffe raids on each other’s naval bases were far beyond fighter escort range, as were long-range reconnaissance operations, and all suffered heavy casualties; short-range reconnaissance missions were generally escorted and sometimes led to intense actions over the Western Front with France. Other reconnaissance missions were performed by fighter aircraft and remained relatively unmolested, as experienced by Unteroffizier Alois Dierkes, Me 110 radio operator/rear gunner, V/LG 1: ‘From Wiesbaden-Erbenheim we were transferred in about February 1940 to Mannheim-Sandhofen, from where we flew our operations over France. Partly, we were employed as reconnaissance aircraft, with a large built-in camera and the two cannons removed to compensate for the weight; we flew along the front lines to be able to recognise new defensive works.’ German fighters claimed three Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft in this period, of which two can be confirmed, one flying from France and the other from the UK.

Combat in general was limited for most fighter pilots and for the ground forces also, hence the description of this period as the Sitzkrieg or Phoney War. Many pilots, such as Feldwebel Fritz Oeltjen with I/JG 21, spent long hours at various readiness states. ‘After the Polish campaign I/JG 21 (later III/JG 54) was stationed at Rheine airfield, to protect the Emsland area. I was posted to the 2nd Staffel, Staffelkapitän Oberleutnant Eggers. The readiness system consisted of one Rotte (pair of aircraft) with pilots in the Me 109 cockpits (Sitzbereitschaft) and one Rotte waiting beside their planes (Alarmstart-Rotte).’ Oberfeldwebel Artur Dau experienced a similarly boring period: ‘At the beginning of the war our unit (III/JG 51) moved to Böningstedt near Wesel on the Rhine. Our night quarters were residences in the town area. During the day we were all on the airfield so as to be rapidly employed if needed. On the airfield, tents served as our quarters.’ There were also humorous moments in the air, which Leutnant Hans-Theodor Grisebach still remembered: ‘In early 1940 I was transferred to a front-line unit (I/JG 2) in Bassenheim in the region of Koblenz. The first operations against France took place soon after. The French we only heard over the radio; we hardly saw anything of them although some combats did apparently occur elsewhere. The missions took place at very high altitudes. Strangely enough we had the same radio frequency as a French fighter unit. One of our Staffelkapitäns spoke very good French, and had also hosted a French officers’ delegation that visited Germany in 1938 and made friends with a number of them. He maintained a particularly good friendship with one of these officers and greeted these French fighter pilots at the first such radio contact with “Bonjour and Guten Morgen”.’

One of the most experienced and well-trained pilots in the whole Luftwaffe, never mind the fighter arm, was Hauptmann Hanns Trübenbach, Gruppenkommandeur of I/LG 2, who had begun his flying career in 1926. His comments provide a wide-ranging perspective at the beginning of the war.

We members of the old guard who had already received a long peacetime training already also had good flying experience and were equipped with the best aircraft material. In September 1939, the German Luftwaffe was the best and strongest air force in Europe in terms of quantity and technology. The ranking order of the European air forces could be given as follows, based on a qualitative and quantitative evaluation: Germany had 4,300 operational aircraft, England 3,600, Italy 2,800, France 2,500, and Poland 900 operational machines. The unknown factor was Soviet Russia at that time. No nation had much experience of war at the beginning of World War Two, from which admittedly arose the fact that we were superior in shooting ability due to our outstanding reflector gun sight. One should also not forget the assistance provided by the experience which the German armed forces had picked up in the Spanish Civil War and particularly the fighter tactics, which were conceptualised by Mölders during his time in the Condor Legion. The preferred fighter squadron formation from the First World War, based on vics of three aircraft, was changed to the modern fighter squadron formation of three times four aircraft, wherein the smallest unit was no longer the vic of three aircraft, but the Rotte comprising two aircraft, that hunted as grouped pairs in a Schwarm of four machines. In this tactic, the pair-leader did the shooting while enjoying the fundamental protection of the wingman.

In spite of the inherent advantages enjoyed by the German fighter pilots and indeed the entire air force alluded to above, even at this very early stage of the war, and disregarding the shattering impact of the first Blitzkrieg on Poland, Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe (who was also in charge of the German economy among several other high offices) was remarkably pessimistic about Germany’s chances following the declarations of war by Britain and France. Hauptmann Hanns Trübenbach, later Kommodore of JG 52 in the Battle of Britain, was a direct witness to this. ‘I was already informed exactly about the true war situation shortly after the Polish campaign, by one of the best friends of Göring, Hauptmann der Reserve Phillipp Remtsma. And thus a few of us knew already that the war could not be won any more. A few months later, after the Battle of Britain, I heard this also directly from Göring himself, when I was permitted to attend a supper in Holland, as the only Kommodore of the entire Luftwaffe to be present amongst the Reichsmarschall’s guests.’

Although action on the Western Front remained limited during the Phoney War, the effects on the individual could be significant, as Leutnant Josef Bürschgens, I/JG 26 experienced himself: ‘On 28 September 1939, I got my first aerial victory, which was also JG 26’s first victory of the war, over or near Metz, Alsace-Lorraine, against 11 French fighter planes, American-built P-36 Curtiss machines. Because I was seriously wounded during this fight, I only came back into action again on 9 June 1940, in the last days of the war in France.’ A few German fighter pilots suffered mishaps and were taken prisoner by the French, with treatment being generally harsh. One who recalled such treatment was Feldwebel Georg Pavenzinger, I/JG 51 who became a prisoner in the first month of the war.

On 25 August 1939 we in I/JG 51 moved westwards to a field base near Horb am Neckar. That we were actually going to war as a consequence of this relocation, hardly any of us believed. Even at the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939 against Poland we did not yet think about a larger-scale war. We were generally of the opinion that the western powers would not take up arms and that negotiations would continue and another option be found. However, on 2 September 1939, General Sperrle visited us, and he gave a short talk during which he said, amongst other things: ‘The Führer is of the opinion that the western powers will not join in the war, but we generals are of a different opinion.’ On the next day, 3 September 1939, England (sic) and France declared war against us. Immediately thereafter began the so-called Sitzkrieg. The pilots sat strapped in and ready for action in the machines, the mechanics also ready next to the aircraft. In the following few days border patrols were flown, and in between there were alarms and scrambles, when enemy reconnaissance aircraft were reported. About 20 September 1939 we moved to Speyer, where we again flew border patrols, but further over the lines into France. On 28 September 1939 at about 11h30 our 2nd Staffel was in the air with eight machines, when my engine stopped and I had to force-land in French territory – directly on the Maginot Line. What happened thereafter, from my capture till my return after the French campaign was over, is a story all to itself; to tell it fully would take much too long. I was taken into custody at great effort and expense, even motorised units were involved in this, and with arms bound and a great swirl of drums I was brought to the fortress at Dijon, where I was kept in perpetual darkness for seven weeks. I was sentenced to seven years of forced labour and there followed a further charge of a death sentence. However, this second charge never resulted in a trial before the French fortress tribunal, as the German armoured troops were too close.

Action against the few incursions of British bombers attacking north German naval targets led to intense air battles, particularly that of 18 December 1939, described below by Rudolf Petzold, Me 110 radio operator/rear gunner in I/ZG 76. Very soon, these battles showed the British that unescorted bomber formations were not capable of effective defence against fighter attack during daylight raids. Major actions were as follows: 4 September 1939, 15 Blenheims made low-level attacks against ships in Wilhelmshaven, five being lost, mainly to anti-aircraft fire; 4 September 1939, 14 Wellingtons flying against ships in Brunsbüttel lost two bombers to fighters; 29 September 1939, 11 Hampdens lost five aircraft to fighters while operating against ships at Heligoland; 3 December 1939, 24 four Wellingtons bombing ships at Heligoland got off scot-free and one German fighter was lost; 14 December 1939, 12 Wellingtons operating against a convoy north of Wilhelmshaven suffered five losses to fighters, one German fighter being lost in return. The climax that finally drove the lesson home came on 18 December 1939 when 24 Wellingtons went out to attack ships off Wilhelmshaven, with 12 lost to German fighters who suffered two casualties themselves. Thereafter such raids kept away from the coast, only attacking ships on the open sea, and losses in the few resultant fighter actions were much reduced. Unteroffizier Rudolf Petzold of I/ZG 76 was among the Me 110 crewmen who were stationed along the North German coast to intercept such raids and was an eyewitness to the combat on the big Wilhelmshaven raid.

After we had survived our baptism of fire in the Polish campaign well, with several victories in aerial combat, we moved with our Me 110s temporarily to Bönninghardt – a small grass field near Geldern – and on to the North Sea coast to Jever in Oldenburg. Here one expected incursions of British bombers into the German Bight from across the sea. Every day we flew patrols with two aircraft along the coast at Wilhelmshaven. The days passed and of English aircraft there was nothing to be seen. The crews who were not immediately at readiness passed the time playing cards or with snowball fights, which as an equalization sport provided much fun. As Christmas was approaching we had much to do to prepare for the first war Christmas. On 18 December 1939 the order for a number of crews to come to readiness and sit in the aircraft came like a bolt from the blue into the midst of these happy preparations. We did not really believe in an English attack at all, as we had experienced nothing more in the air since the end of the Polish campaign. Suddenly at 15h00 came the radioed order for a mission, course to the north. My pilot, Oberfeldwebel Fleischmann, an experienced flier from Spain, and I started at 15h09 and immediately took up our course towards the North Sea. In the distance we could already see the flak bursts in the sky and knew immediately that something was brewing! Right, throttles forward and off we go! We arrived at exactly the right time and saw an estimated 50 English bombers at about 2500 m altitude approaching above the coast near Wilhelmshaven. We closed in on the bomber formation – everything seemed to happen much too slowly – and recognised them as twin-engined Vickers-Wellington machines and realised that here caution was needed. These machines were equipped with 2 cm cannons and machine guns to defend them that could be aimed to all sides. My pilot Fleischmann, who had already registered victories in Spain and who had gained more experience together with me in Poland, was known as a reckless daredevil and immediately went over to the attack. He placed himself behind the Wellington flying closest to him. From the rear quarter he fired several bursts from all his guns into the engine and fuselage of the Englishman. The effect was not long in coming. A smoke trail showed us that the right-hand engine was on fire and the machine flew irregularly. The pilot was probably hit. As we turned away – we had to be careful and avoid ramming the Englishman – we were able to observe how the machine spun away below and hit the sea. That was our first downing of an English bomber. This victory really got Fleischmann going and I had my hands full to change the ammunition drums of our cannons so that we could tackle the next opponent. We did not have to search; today there were enough English bombers flying all around us. I reported over the microphone: ‘everything ready to shoot!’ Fleischmann went into his next attack straight away. He put himself behind a Wellington and shot – like the previous attack – several bursts, exactly from behind through the rear turret into the fuselage of the enemy machine. We received strong return fire from the rear gunner. The battle swung to and fro. Our cabin was shot through by the opponent’s shots and I had to report: ‘no more ammunition in the drums’. So, turn away from the enemy, reload and attempt a second attack. Fleischmann turned and hung behind the Englishman, who had in the meantime dived steeply, to fly just above the water on a course homewards. But Fleischmann, the old fox, did not let himself be shaken off. Now we flew very low close behind the English machine. Around us was nothing except water and sky! There where it had bubbled and boiled in the air a few minutes ago, where friend and foe were curving amongst each other and violent aerial combats took place, now there was peace and nothing more to be seen. Only this bomber and ourselves! We now thought we would be able to do for the English aircraft at our leisure! However, when Fleischmann pressed the firing buttons for the cannons, nothing came out, absolutely nothing! Our guns had jammed. Despite all our efforts, we could not remedy this. It is beyond possibility to describe what one feels in such a moment. In a fury over this mishap Fleischmann pulled up left of the Englishman and threatened him with a clenched fist – we could see him very well. It seemed as if the entire English crew, except for the pilot, were no longer alive. This all played itself out far out over the North Sea. We flew back to our base in Jever at nought feet. At 17h15 we returned waggling our wings, to show our success, and landed as the last aircraft, with uncountable holes in the fuselage and cabin. Our ground crew received us joyously and with many macabre remarks removed the many, many small flexiglass splinters from our faces. We had gotten away with our lives! Thus ended the air battle over the German Bight of the 18 December 1939 for us. When the next incursion into the German Bight by three Wellington bombers occurred, on 2 January 1940, all three Englishmen were shot down and I unfortunately seriously wounded. I was in hospital for eight months. During this time the Gruppe moved to Stavanger in Norway and my pilot, with whom I had experienced so much, got a new radio operator, Oberfähnrich Mirke. Both were killed after an operation from Stavanger when they hit a rock while landing.

In this combat of 2 January 1940, described in detail in an overstated newspaper article, Fleischmann had again charged in to the attack without hesitation and as a result received the combined return fire of all three Wellingtons, hitting the Me 110 20 times, mostly around the cabin, and wounding his radio operator/air-gunner Rudolf Petzold with a bullet in the leg as well as metal splinters in the upper jaw, chin, nose and mouth. Fleischmann fired back and the Wellington exploded, for his seventh victory. He returned to base on one engine, as did the Schwarmführer of the four attacking Me 110s of I/ZG 76, whose aircraft was hit eight times.

German fighter pilot claims during the Phoney War period, as identified from the web-published lists of Tony Wood, total 135 over the French front (Western Front) with a further 65 over the North German coast against British bomber incursions. The latter encompassed 47 Wellingtons, six Hudsons, two Hampdens and 10 Blenheims; of the 65 thus claimed over the German coast at least 36 can be confirmed from British bomber unit records, but some or all of the Hudsons were likely Coastal Command aircraft rather than Bomber Command losses. Of the 135 claims over the Western Front, approximately 99 can be confirmed by careful post-war research, an overall rate of 73 per cent. This is relatively high, as will be seen in later chapters from much more intense conflicts and air battles, and will have been strongly influenced by the limited aerial combat and relatively small individual actions of the Phoney War period. As is well known, larger numbers of aircraft in a battle always leads to higher over-claiming, for all air forces; the relevant example is of the action of German fighters versus 24 RAF Wellingtons over the German Bight on 18 December 1939 discussed earlier, with 12 RAF losses against 32 confirmed German claims in total. The over-claiming resulting from larger numbers is also often greater when multi-engined aircraft losses are involved, as multiple pilots often attack the same aircraft. This sort of thing is no reflection on the pilots involved but a natural outcome of rapid and intense fighting. In addition, any measure of losses is always clouded by damaged aircraft, especially those which force-land but are repairable. Interestingly, in the claims over the Western Front, one Geschwader stands out: JG 53, which made 76 of the 135 claims. For one Gruppe thereof, I/JG 53, all 27 claims can be confirmed from French and British records; II/JG 53 also made 27 claims but only 13 can be confirmed with some certainty, and for III/JG 53 the figures are 16 out of 22 claims. German fighter losses during the Phoney War period amounted to 36 Me 109s in aerial combat (16 pilots killed, 10 POW, four wounded) and six Me 110s (seven crew killed, one POW, four wounded). In addition, one Me 109 and pilot were lost to anti-aircraft fire.

The top-scoring Luftwaffe fighter pilot of the Phoney War period was Hauptmann Werner Mölders, Staffelkapitän 1/JG 53 until 30 September 1939, when he was promoted to Gruppenkommandeur III/JG 53. He made 10 claims; of these two appear to have no confirmation in Allied records, five do, and the other three were all hit, damaged (force- or crash-landed; one pilot lightly wounded, one seriously) but were repairable. This illustrates the difficulties in judging a victory – if an aircraft is hit, crash-lands and has a wounded pilot, this can be equated as a shot-down victory (in German, an Abschuss), but if the aircraft is later repaired, and the pilot recovers, both can serve again. The German term Luftsieg (literally ‘air victory’) implies a fully destroyed aircraft and reflects what might be termed a total victory, irrespective of whether the pilot survives or not. Mölders was acknowledged at the time, and even more so since, as one of the Luftwaffe’s most outstanding pilots and aces, and certainly a very honest man, but still even he was subject, like all fighter pilots of all nations, to the inevitable over-claiming bogey. On the Western Front, German claims against the Morane 406 fighter showed the highest overestimation of actual successes, with 41 claims against 22 losses to fighters. This is not unusual, with fighter-versus-fighter claims often being thus overestimated. Interestingly, Mölders is credited with four of the nine British Hurricanes actually lost, and appears to have twice shot down the earliest famous ace of the RAF, F/O ‘Cobber’ Kain, with one forced-landing (Hurricane repairable) and one total destruction (Kain bailed out successfully, slightly wounded).

German fighter pilots in the Denmark and Norway 1940

Operations began for the invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 and continued until the capitulation of the Norwegian army on 10 June 1940. The British had evacuated their last forces from the Narvik area on 7 June 1940, and the next day the Royal Navy aircraft carrier Glorious and two escorting destroyers were sunk by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Glorious took with her the remaining aircraft of the RAF’s 46 (ten Hurricanes) and 263 (ten Gladiators) Squadrons, which had miraculously landed on the ship from their Norwegian bases on 7 June; eight of the Hurricane pilots were lost and all 10 Gladiator pilots from 263 Squadron as well. Scharnhorst was badly damaged by a torpedo hit and limped into Trondheim; British naval and land-based air attacks continued against her there and later in Stavanger until 21 June 1940, thus ending the aerial action related to what the Germans had named Unternehmung Weserübung. This codename translates as Operation Weser (River) Exercise, which can perhaps be taken as sarcastic, bearing as it does allusions to a mere military river crossing.

German fighter units employed in this operation were limited to I/ZG 1 (Me 110s) and one Staffel of I/LG 2 (briefly) over Denmark, and I/ZG 76 (Me 110s) and II/JG 77 (Me 109s) in Norway; II(J)/186 (Me 109s; later renamed III/JG 77) was posted into the Scandinavian theatre on 2 June 1940.3 Despite the invasion of Denmark being generally described as bloodless, in fact two Danish fighters did get off the ground and both were shot down by Me 110s and their pilots killed; one claim was awarded to Stab I/ZG 76’s Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck.

On 9 April 1940, poor weather conditions played havoc with planned German paratroop drops and airborne infantry landings over southern Norway; six of an original eight Me 110s of 1/ZG 76, who were supposed to have landed after the initial paratroop attack to refuel at Oslo-Fornebu airfield, ended up capturing it basically single-handed as the first Ju 52 transport finally landed. 1/ZG 76 had arrived first over Fornebu but were bounced by nine Norwegian Gladiators from out of the sun, losing two Me 110s and both crews; in return two of the Gladiators force-landed on the airfield and were set on fire on the ground by the remaining six Zerstörer. The latter had another aircraft written off when an already damaged Me 110 made a crash-landing on Fornebu. A Sunderland flying boat was also claimed by this Staffel during the day. Other Me 110s of I/ZG 76 en route to cover airborne landings at Stavanger lost two of their number and both crews to the dreadful weather along the way.

I/ZG 76 (operating mostly from Stavanger and Trondheim) and II/JG 77 (flying mainly from Kristiansand, Stavanger, Trondheim) rapidly became established on southern Norwegian airfields, and most air combat was against British bombers (including Coastal Command aircraft) flying from the UK, plus Royal Navy carrier-borne aircraft. Accredited fighter claims totalled 57: eight Wellington heavy bombers; 12 Hampden medium bombers; eight Blenheim light bombers; 14 Hudson patrol bombers; five Skua and two Roc carrier aircraft; two Sunderland flying boats; one Danish Fokker; five Gladiators (two Norwegian, three British). Most victories went to II/JG 77 (36) and I/ZG 76 (14), with one Hudson to I/ZG1 over Denmark, five victories to the Zerstörerstaffel of KG 30 and one to II(J)/186. German bombers claimed one Hudson for a grand total of 58 confirmed victories for the campaign. They also accounted for most of the aircraft of 263 Squadron RAF, flying from a frozen lake at Lesjaskog – on 25 April 1940, the day after 18 Gladiators had taken off from a carrier, 13 of them were destroyed by bombing and strafing of the German bombers on the lake, two of them after force-landing with combat damage from the bombers. The remaining five Gladiators were rapidly decimated by lack of repairs and maintenance plus combat damage, and by 29 April the squadron was withdrawn. They were back on 21 May 1940 with 18 new Gladiators; of these only three were lost in aerial combat, with two pilots killed and one wounded. I/ZG 76 claimed a Gladiator on 27 May and two more on 2 June 1940. Others were damaged in combat and two lost in crashes. The remaining 10 Gladiators flew out and landed on the carrier Glorious on 7 June 1940 and were lost when she was sunk next day. The 18 Hurricanes of 46 Squadron RAF arrived from a carrier on 26 May and operated from Bardufoss in northern Norway. They had many combats, mainly with German bombers, but also with Me 110s of I/ZG 76; a major action occurred on 29 May 1940, when nine Hurricanes took on 26 He 111s of Kampfgruppe 100 and KG 26, escorted by elements of I/ZG 76. Although two He 111s and one Me 110 (crew POW) were shot down, three Hurricanes were lost and two pilots killed; at least one of the Hurricanes fell to I/ZG 76. By the time 46 Squadron was withdrawn, eight Hurricanes had been either shot down, lost in accidents or damaged beyond repair, and the remaining 10 landed on the aircraft carrier Glorious on 7 June 1940, as already related.

II/JG 77 flew into Danish airfields on 9 April 1940, moving to southern Norway three days later. On 13 April, in a combat against Hampdens, of which they were credited with eight against six actually lost, five Me 109s were also shot down with four pilots killed, an inauspicious start to their long stay in Norway. Better success attended their efforts against carrier aircraft attacking the damaged Scharnhorst in Trondheim harbour on 13 June 1940, when four 4/JG 77 Me 109s together with four I/ZG 76 Me 110s fought against a formation of 15 carrier-borne Skuas, the JG 77 pilots claiming four. Six days later, when UK-based Beaufort torpedo bombers attacked this patched-up vessel on its way from Trondheim to Stavanger, another six victories were credited to II/JG 77. At this stage in their history, this Gruppe was saddled by a commander to whom it was difficult to relate; on 30 May 1940, in a drunken state, Hauptmann Karl Hentschel threatened some of his pilots with a drawn pistol, which they were able to take from him soon afterwards. He was replaced in September 1940 after a delegation of the Gruppe’s officers went to higher authority. An unusual ‘Luftwaffe Hauptmann’ arrived in the middle of April 1940 and joined II/JG 77 for about four to six weeks, flying operationally; he was none other than Obergruppenführer (SS rank of full general) Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Intelligence and Counterintelligence services of the SS, and later a leading organiser of the death camps and the Holocaust. Soon after his arrival he wrote off his Me 109 on take-off and was lucky to get away with it. Soon after this crash he is reported to have refused the award of the Iron Cross 2nd class (EK 2), awarded for combat missions flown, due to having written off his own aircraft. However, many photos show him wearing both EK 2 and 1, plus the Frontflugspange (Front Flying Clasp) in Silver (awarded at 60 operational missions), so the refusal could not have been permanent. In June 1941, after flying briefly with I/JG 1 over the North German coast, he joined the JG 77 Gruppe again, this time without permission, and flew some operations on the Russian front, and after a short time was shot down by flak and crashed in no-man’s land from where he was fortunate to be rescued unharmed.

II/JG 77 stayed in Norway till 9 November 1940, when they were transferred to the Channel Front. After 21 June 1940 a further 45 victories were credited to them, including a notable success on 13 August 1940 as ‘Eagle Day’ was launched in the Battle of Britain. 12 Blenheims of 82 Squadron, thinking to take advantage of the Luftwaffe’s attention being elsewhere, raided Aalborg airfield in Denmark, where 5/JG 77 had just been transferred. 11 were shot down against 15 claims by the fighters and one by anti-aircraft (AA). The leading ace of II/JG 77 in Norway was Feldwebel Robert Menge, who was awarded 13 victory confirmations. II(J)/186 (the later III/JG 77), which had arrived in Denmark on 2 June 1940 and moved to Norway two days later, only claimed two victories in their time there. At the end of July 1940 they were transferred to the Berlin area, relieving I/JG 77 who moved to the northern coastal areas of Germany. After II/JG 77 was notified on 13 August 1940 of re-equipment with captured Curtiss P-36 fighters from France due to a shortage of Me 109s, which were reserved to replace expected losses over England, 12 P-36s were finally supplied in mid-September; they remained with the Gruppe till the end of October, when Me 109s were received in their place.

Operation Tonga Part I

Supermarine Spitfire PR.XI

ERWIN ROMMEL (1891-1944). German Field Marshal. Rommel, commander of the German Afrika Korps, inspecting the German position at the Atlantic Wall near Fecamp, Normandy, France. Photographed 17 January 1944.

The Mark XI PR Spitfire relied on speed and agility for protection. Travelling at 400 miles per hour, the aircraft, which flashed low over the Merville Battery at 1,000 feet, had been ‘cottonized’. By stripping out their guns and radios, the weight of their airframes had been reduced to allow them to carry a configuration of photographic reconnaissance equipment. The sortie that flew over Rommel and his party were fitted with F.24 cameras with fourteen-inch focal lenses, which enabled them to take low-level oblique-angle photos. The aircraft could also carry F.52 cameras with larger lenses to take vertical pictures from altitudes of up to 30,000 feet, but the mission they flew over the Merville Battery required greater detail and that meant going in low.

Each Spitfire carried one sideways-looking F.24 mounted in a porthole behind the cockpit on the port side of the fuselage. Producing a five-by-five-inch negative, each exposure provided a coverage of 1,667 by 1,667 yards of ground. Once enlarged, the negatives produced a 1:12,000 scale image, with sufficient detail to pick out a single man, or a group of men running for cover. But it wasn’t just the scale that was important. Two additional F.24s, with smaller five-inch lenses, were fitted under the wings and angled towards each other so they could take overlapping photos of the same target. When consecutive photos were viewed with a stereoscope, they gave a three-dimensional effect, akin to looking at a still from a modern film with 3-D glasses.

Achieving the 3-D effect depended on the interval of exposures between frames being matched against the speed of the aircraft. Consequently, flying a low-level ‘dicing’ mission to get the necessary detail was a tricky and intricate business that required skill and entailed risk, as, lacking height, the pilots were more vulnerable to enemy aircraft above them and flak below them.

To capture the right image, the pilots’ navigation had to be spot-on; even a small deviation from the pre-planned flight path could lead to missing the target by several hundred yards. Flying close to the ground at high speed, the lead pilot had little time to line up his aircraft and aim the camera by aligning a tiny black cross etched on the blister of his bubble canopy with a small black strip painted on his aileron. At the same time he had to mentally calculate his speed and adjust the camera control box on his joystick to ensure it was set at the right exposure to start taking the pictures.

Trusting that his wingman was with him, the aviator glanced at his airspeed dial, checked his bearing and then focused on the crosshair and target alignment. He thumbed the camera control switch as the terrain of green fields and hedgerows flashed past beneath him; at the moment when all three points of reference lined up, he flicked the switch on his control column and the cameras started taking photographs at one-second intervals.

Surprise was also an important part of the aircraft’s protection and the pilot put more faith in it than in the single sheet of armoured plating in the back of his seat. He knew he had to get the alignment right first time. There would be no second chance. He had to bounce the target and get in and out fast, before the anti-aircraft gunners had time to react and fill the air around him with flak. If he missed the target, or his photos were not of the right quality, he would not be allowed to revisit the target for several days.

The pilot in the lead Spitfire was concentrating too hard to realize that the gunners of the single 20mm 38 Flak gun at the battery had failed to get their cannon into action against him or his wingman. He hoped he had got what he wanted as he flicked off the camera control switch and pulled back aggressively on his joystick to begin climbing hard for altitude.

The danger was far from over. The pair of reconnaissance aircraft may have been too fast for the crew of the 20mm gun mounted on the cookhouse bunker of the battery, but they still had to run the gauntlet of the nearby anti-aircraft positions stationed along the coast if they were get home safely with the information they had captured. By now the Germans were alerted to the presence of enemy fighters in the area and thick black puffs of exploding flak and tracer marked the air as the Spitfires pulled up steeply to reach a height of 5,000 feet to give them a chance of evading enemy fire as they crossed the coast. This is where the two-stage supercharged Merlin 60 engine, with its excellent climb rate, did its business.

The engines screamed for power, calling on the maximum performance of their 1,560-brake horsepower to get their aircraft out of trouble. Both pilots fought against the crushing effects of the G-force, as the horizon dropped away below them and their airframes surged upwards. They were not out of it yet. As the blood began to drain to their lower extremities, they struggled to remain focused. The need to keep scanning the skies above them and the rear-view mirror for enemy aircraft was paramount, as was checking that the aircraft’s fuel gauges, oil pressure and heading were all still good.

Within an hour of clearing the coast the two aircraft were back at their base at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As their props feathered and wound down at their stands on the apron of the airfield, the ground crews of the squadron’s photographic section were already waiting to meet them. While the crews switched off their engines, unstrapped and climbed out of their cockpits to head for debriefing by the intelligence officer in the operations room, the magazines of the cameras were being unloaded. The film was taken to a requisitioned manor house in the neighbouring village of Ewelme, where it could be developed. Within forty-eight hours the negatives had arrived at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire for detailed analysis.

Medmenham was a sister organization of Bletchley Park and specialized in photographic intelligence and interpretation. Much of the work they conducted was in 3-D using a stereoscope. The stereoscope was a bi-optical viewing device, akin to a pair of magnifying spectacles mounted on a small four-legged metal frame. When positioned over an overlapping air photograph, it gave the 3-D image. Being able to view captured images in three dimensions was crucial, because it brought the enemy landscape and installations they studied to life, and allowed the interpreters to examine features of an object, such as the angles of shadows, to make assessments about the height of a particular structure or weapon types. It was a monotonous and painstaking task, but the photographic intelligence work at Medmenham was instrumental to the planning of D-Day in assessing enemy dispositions, strengths and capabilities.

In the run-up to the invasion, the teams of interpreters at Medmenham would study and file reports on 16 million photographs of enemy-occupied territory. It was an immense undertaking and the interpreters worked round the clock to provide those charged with planning D-Day with vital information. The majority of effort was concentrated along the coastline between Calais and Cherbourg, but no one area received particular attention so as not to give away the intended location of the invasion.

The stereoscope was Medmenham’s secret weapon; while the British and Americans worked in three rather than two dimensions, the Germans did not. Scouring the prints of the Merville Battery for every detail, the interpreters could give an appraisal of the progress of the casemates’ erection, noting that two had been completed and that two remained under construction. They could also provide an estimate of the thickness of the concrete protection, pick out the detail of perimeter defences and compare the progress of the work against later photographs. This was all important information, but the study of the photographs could not confirm the calibre of the guns at Merville. It was a vital piece of missing detail, as the position of the battery and the frantic work being conducted to improve its defences were of profound concern to the man responsible for planning the Allied invasion of France.

By January 1944, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan had been working on the planning for D-Day for several months. At a meeting in Washington in May 1943 the Combined British and American Chiefs of Staff had taken the final decision to invade Nazi-occupied north-west Europe and had set a provisional date of May 1944. Morgan had been selected as the Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Command. As COSSAC, he and a small team of Anglo-American officers were responsible for the joint planning of the largest, most complex combined arms operation ever to be mounted. They had decided to codename it Operation Overlord and had also decided that it would take place in Normandy.

COSSAC’s detailed planning had identified the advantages of landing in Calais, but their work also confirmed that it was heavily defended. The disaster of Dieppe highlighted the need to avoid landing in areas of main enemy troop concentrations and had been reinforced by the experience of Allied landings in Sicily and Italy. German troop dispositions in Normandy were more thinly spread and could be more readily isolated by bombing the bridges over the Seine, which the bulk of German reinforcing units would have to pass across. Intensive reconnaissance and intelligence analysis had also confirmed that the gently sloping beaches along the Cotentin Peninsula were suitable for a landing and were within the range of Allied fighter cover. Additionally, the terrain and inland road network were suitable for the logistic build-up of a beachhead and subsequent breakout towards Paris.

While Normandy offered clear advantages to Morgan and his planners, it also had its problems. One was a matter of logistics. Cherbourg was the nearest major port most suitable for the subsequent logistical build-up behind the main beach landing, but its heavy defences precluded a direct assault from the sea. This was overcome by the simple, but ingenious decision to take a port with them in the form of the Mulberry portable harbours and by laying fuel pipelines under the Channel. But the issue of neutralizing the gun battery at Merville was an altogether thornier problem, which could not be overcome by the application of physics and science alone.

On the other side of the River Orne from the Merville Battery lay the small seaside resort of Ouistreham, where the mouth of the river flows into the Bay of the Seine and the beaches of Normandy start their long curve west along the flat shelving shoreline of the Cotentin Peninsula towards Cherbourg. Codenamed Sword by the Allied planners, the beach at Ouistreham was at the eastern end of the Allies’ chosen landing area. It was also where the left-hand British assault division would touch down on the morning of D-Day.

Given their position, the guns at Merville were capable of sweeping the entire length of the beach with artillery fire. Drawing on the lessons from Dieppe, where British and Canadian troops had been caught out in the open shingle as they disembarked from their landing craft, Morgan and his team were in no doubt of the devastation that a well-defended battery could wreak on troops struggling to get ashore on Sword. Additionally, the position of the guns meant that they would be capable of engaging ships out to sea as well as the slow-moving landing craft as they ran into the beach.

Although it had not been confirmed by photo reconnaissance, the COSSAC planners suspected that the guns were 150mm-calibre field howitzers. While none of the artillery pieces had been captured on camera, when viewed under a stereoscope the shape and shadow at the rear of the casemates indicated that large entrances were being constructed. If they were naval ordnance, the guns would have been bolted permanently inside the bunkers and would have no need of large rear entrances. Consequently, photographic interpretation suggested that the casemates were designed specifically to take field guns, which could be manhandled in and out of the concrete shelters.

Given the extraordinary lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the guns, it was logical for the planners to deduce that they would be one of the heavier and more valuable Wehrmacht field types. The largest standard field gun the Wehrmacht possessed was schwere or ‘heavy’ Feldhaubitze 18. It had a calibre of 150mm and could hurl a shell weighing sixty pounds over ten miles, a distance that brought every inch of Sword Beach within range and meant that vessels could be engaged several miles out at sea.

While the Allies placed a heavy emphasis on PR aircraft to gain intelligence on the Atlantic Wall defences, they were not their only source of information on the preparations being made on the other side of the Channel. The build-up of German troops at the beginning of 1944 and the frenetic building activity had not gone unnoticed by the French Resistance. Eugène Meslin was the Vichy government’s chief engineer in Caen and was responsible for handling relations with the Todt Organisation. Meslin was also the head of the Resistance’s intelligence section at their western headquarters based in the city and his job meant that he was ideally placed to conduct the principal Resistance task of spying on the German coastal defences and reporting on their progress to the Allies. Through his network of fellow engineers and artisans working for the Germans on the defences, the details of every pill-box, wire entanglement and gun emplacement were being reported back to London by Meslin’s outfit.

Louis Bourdet was a member of Meslin’s network and had been subcontracted to work on the gun position at Merville. When completing electrical work at the battery he had managed to slip his hand into the mouth of one of the guns. Once his shift had finished, Bourdet raced home and measured the span of his hand with the aid of a piece of paper and a ruler. The ruler showed 120mm and the information was duly fed back to London. The Germans did not possess 120mm-calibre field guns, but the measurement of Bourdet’s hand suggested that the guns in the casemates were definitely larger than the Wehrmacht’s other standard-issue field howitzer, the smaller leichte or ‘light’ Feldhaubitze 18, which had a calibre of 105mm.

Operation Tonga Part II

Map of the assault on the Merville Gun Battery 6 June 1944

The lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the battery, combined with the information provided by the Resistance, was enough to convince Morgan that the guns at the battery must be of 150mm calibre. When considering the significance of artillery, size matters. The circumference of the barrel dictates the weight and the explosive content of the shell, which in turn dictates its lethal effect. The weight of the projectile it fired meant that a shell bursting from a 150mm gun would have a lethal splinter distance radius of up to 200 metres. A salvo from four 150mm guns, firing in close proximity, could spread their jagged metal shrapnel over the area of a football pitch and would easily devastate a unit of infantry advancing over an open beach in a matter of minutes.

The existence of the battery, set back a mile from the coast, presented a significant threat to the landings and it was vital that it was eliminated before the troops touched down on the beaches. Bombing lacked precision and offered no guarantee when the casemates could withstand anything but a direct hit from the heaviest Allied bombs. Morgan therefore needed an insurance plan that the guns would be put out of action before the troops landed on the beaches. A pre-emptive attack launched from the sea entailed too much risk; getting a raiding party to the battery undetected would be no easy task and could alert the Germans in advance of the landing of the main invasion force.

Morgan’s bosses shared his concern and had no illusions about the hazardous nature of mounting an amphibious landing on a defended shoreline against fifty enemy divisions who were expecting an invasion. General Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment as Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion had been confirmed at the Tehran Conference in December 1943, where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt decided to open the second front. Ike had arrived in Britain in January 1944 to assume command of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at the same time as General Bernard Montgomery returned from commanding the 8th Army in Italy to take over command of the British contribution to the landings. As well as commanding 21st Army Group, Montgomery had been selected to command all the Anglo-American land forces under Ike and was tasked with overseeing the planning for the entire operation.

The experience of Dieppe and near disaster of the invasion of Sicily and Italy a year earlier increased Ike and Monty’s apprehension of what the Allies were about to undertake. If the invasion failed the implications for the conduct of the war would be significant: an Anglo-American landing could not be reattempted for some considerable time, and defeat in France would allow Hitler to transfer the bulk of his divisions to face the onslaught from the Red Army in the east. Consequently, like the Germans, the Allies saw the success or failure of the invasion as a strategic decision point and agreed with Morgan on the need to eliminate as many risks as possible to get the maximum number of troops safely ashore.

While one of the risks centred on neutralizing the Merville Battery, Ike and Monty agreed with Morgan’s assessment that the risk of counter-attack by German mobile reinforcements into the flanks of the landing also needed to be reduced. But in reviewing Morgan’s plan they felt that his intended invasion frontage of three assaulting divisions in the first wave was too narrow. With Eisenhower’s agreement, Montgomery expanded the length of the invasion area to include the whole of the Cotentin Peninsula. He also increased the number of divisions in the first wave from three to five, landing on five separate beaches instead of three. Two US divisions would land in the western sector along two beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha. One Canadian and two British divisions would land to their east along Juno, Gold and Sword beaches.

The Allies had thirty-seven divisions stationed in England for the invasion, but it would take days and weeks to take them all across the Channel. To Montgomery, success depended on breaching the Atlantic Wall and getting enough troops ashore to consolidate the beachhead before the Germans could bring the combined weight of their panzer divisions against him. Like Rommel, he saw the first hours and days as critical. A successful breakout from Normandy could only come after the Allies had won the race to build up sufficient force ratios ashore to beat off the panzers as they moved to counter the landing.

In line with Morgan’s initial estimate regarding the risk of German attacks into the flanks during the early phases of the operation, the one aspect of the COSSAC planning work that Montgomery did not change was the simultaneous dropping of US and British airborne troops on the eastern and western ends of the invasion beaches. The east flank of Sword Beach where the 3rd British Division would land was a particular concern, given its proximity to the concentration of the majority of German formations around the Seine. Focused on responding to a threat of invasion in the Pas de Calais area, the panzers would come from this direction once the enemy realized that the real threat was in Normandy.

The quickest and most direct approach for German reinforcements moving westwards towards Sword Beach lay across the Dives and Orne rivers, which ran into the sea astride the wooded high ground of the Bréville Ridge. If the German mobile divisions were able to cross these rivers they would have an opportunity to roll up the flank of the invasion from east to west before the Allies had time to land sufficient numbers of their own armoured forces to counter such an attack.

The western side of the ridge, closest to Sword Beach, had the added benefit of the Caen Canal. Fed from the mouth of the Orne, it flowed beside the river along the bottom of the ridge towards Caen. There were only two bridges across the double water feature at the villages of Bénouville on the Orne and over the canal as it passed through Ranville. The bridges were the vital ground and the ridge was the key terrain to defending the left flank of the invasion. Whoever held the bridges would control the most direct access to Sword Beach, and whoever held the Bréville Ridge would have a marked advantage in controlling the high ground that dominated them.

Trying to take the ground from the sea by landing on the beaches to the east of the River Orne would bring the invasion fleet into the effective range of the Germans’ large-calibre naval guns at Le Havre. Consequently, Morgan’s plan to protect the left flank advocated using the British 6th Airborne Division to seize and hold the vital ground and terrain by dropping them behind the Atlantic Wall during the night immediately preceding the arrival of the main seaborne forces on the morning of D-Day. It was a daring and ambitious plan and not without its detractors, particularly among the British Air Staff.

Its leading opponent was Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Following the catalogue of errors that had occurred during the Sicily landings, the chief air planner in COSSAC had profound misgivings. Leigh-Mallory pointed to the heavy losses of gliders in the Mediterranean and the inaccuracy of the parachute drops where many of the paratroopers had been dropped wide of their drop zones, or DZs. Leigh-Mallory doubted that the fate of airborne forces in Normandy would be any different. In fact he expected it to be worse. The troops landing by parachute and glider would be lightly armed and dispersed, whereas their opponents would be able to concentrate and bring their heavier weapons systems, in terms of tanks and artillery, against them. Given the circumstances, he forecast that the airborne troops would expect to incur 75 per cent casualties.

The more powerful voices of Eisenhower and Montgomery were convinced of the utility of airborne forces and the critical role they had to play in D-Day. Sicily had been the first mass use of Allied glider and parachute troops. While it revealed the need for many improvements, landing airborne troops in advance of the main seaborne force had made a significant contribution to the success of the landing and also convinced Churchill of its possibilities in Normandy. Endorsed at the highest levels, and as a subset of Overlord, the British airborne phase of the invasion would be called Operation Tonga.

Although backing the use of airborne forces, SHAEF’s final adjustment of the plan was one of timing. The shortage of assault landing craft for the invasion meant that the date was put back to 5 June. Delaying by another month allowed more time for the pre-invasion bombings to continue to soften up German defences, and would also align the date of the Allied assault on the beaches with the launch of the Red Army offensive in the east. Additionally, it would provide more time to build up the capability of the airborne forces and improve on the lessons from Sicily. Monty had wanted to increase the number of British airborne troops taking part in the operation, but had been frustrated by the lack of available aircraft to lift them. While the US 82nd and 101st airborne divisions could be lifted in their entirety and dropped on the right flank at the western end of the Cotentin Peninsula, the RAF had insufficient aircraft to fly in all of 6th Airborne Division. With a month’s delay Monty hoped that he might just get the additional aircraft he needed in time.

Two weeks after the photographs of the Merville Battery had been taken, the nominal head of British Airborne Forces was in less optimistic mood as he drove to the headquarters of 6th Airborne Division to give its commander his orders for D-Day. Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning was a bright young Guards general with a dapper dress sense who had spotted the potential of parachute forces as a brigade commander at the start of the war. His early interest in the development of the airborne arm had led to his rapid promotion, command of the first British Airborne Division and his further promotion as it expanded into a corps-sized capability. But he didn’t feel particularly bright about the message he would have to give to its commander, General Richard Gale.

In terms of appearance, Richard Gale, or ‘Windy’ as he was nick-named, was everything Browning was not. With his regulation military moustache, he had the look of a typical Indian Army ‘Poona’ officer or affable uncle, who would not have seemed out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel. Although aged forty-three and without a trace of grey in his hair, he looked older and had a portly air about him, not helped by his incongruous style of wearing an open-zipped parachutist’s Denison smock and riding jodhpurs over standard-issue Army boots. He was awarded the MC as an infantry subaltern in the First World War, and might have ended his career as a passed-over lieutenant colonel had it not been for the outbreak of war in 1939. But by 1944, Gale had already worked on airborne staff matters in the plans directorate of the War Office and commanded a parachute brigade. Gale awaited Browning’s arrival with anticipation, eager to discover the role his division would play in the invasion. He was about to be disappointed.

Browning informed Gale that his division would be dropped at the British end of the beaches, around the Bréville Ridge and would then secure the left flank of 3rd Division prior to its landing on Sword Beach. But due to the shortage of lift for his two Para brigades and brigade of glider troops, he was told that he would have to accomplish it by providing only one of his parachute brigades under command to 3rd Division. For a commander who had built up his division from scratch since its formation in April of the previous year it was a bitter blow.

Gale’s single parachute brigade was given three principal tasks. The primary mission was to capture and secure the bridges across the Orne and Caen Canal and destroy the heavily fortified gun battery at Merville. These tasks were to be completed no later than half an hour before daylight on D-Day, prior to the start of the landing of the seaborne forces. The secondary task was to delay the movement of enemy reinforcements westwards by blowing the bridges over the River Dives not more than two hours after the landings, and then by holding key access points across the Bréville Ridge.

It was an ambitious undertaking for one brigade. Composed of 2,200 men formed into three battalion groups, each of approximately 750 soldiers, including supporting arms, such as engineers, signallers and medics, the units would be without the support of heavier conventional forces until the leading elements of 3rd Division landing across the beaches could link up with them. Until that happened, they would have to rely on naval gunfire support to bridge the gap in their limited firepower.

Gale was convinced that what he had been asked to do was beyond the means of one brigade. As he lobbied to be allowed to take his whole division, his staff began to make their plans for the mission with what they had been given. The majority of their planning took place in a heavily guarded farmhouse that had been requisitioned as the intelligence cell of 6th Division’s headquarters. The Old Farm at Brigmerston House was in the village of Milston two miles north of Bulford on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It was ringed with a thick concertina barbed-wire perimeter and a detachment of military policemen; no one got in or out of the building without a specially issued pass.

The precautions taken at the farmhouse reflected the tight ring of security and secrecy regarding all the planning for D-Day. Operation Tonga was no exception. The circle of knowledge beyond COSSAC was kept to an absolute minimum of a few key officers on Gale’s staff and the commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, Brigadier James Hill, whose brigade Gale had selected for the mission. The rest of the division were kept deliberately in the dark about what was afoot. But as the war tipped irrevocably against the Germans and the inflow of Anglo-American manpower and materiel began to build up in England from January 1944, most people knew that the second front was coming. But like the Germans on the other side of the Channel, they knew neither when nor where. As the planning continued in the Old Farm at Milston the lives of thousands of men of the 6th Airborne Division were being irrevocably drawn into the events that would unfold on 6 June 1944.

The 6th Airborne Division was one of two battle-ready airborne divisions stationed in England at the beginning of 1944 and had been raised specifically to take part in the invasion. Since its formation, Gale had worked the division hard to declare it ready for operations by the end of the year. It was a major accomplishment and although the division was still to be tested in battle, and regardless of the paucity of aircraft to lift it, the fact that the British could lay claim to having two airborne divisions in their order of battle was an impressive achievement in itself. Four years previously, the very existence of airborne forces was little more than a pipe dream in the minds of a few men and the vision of one man in particular was of seminal significance.