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.

The Hessians Part I

“On the 28th of October the engagement at White-Plains took place. But it has been asserted, that, by my not attacking the lines on the day of action, I lost an opportunity of destroying the rebel army … Sir, an assault upon the enemy’s right, which was opposed to the Hessian troops, was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them, that I have political reasons, and no other, for declining to explain why that assault was not made.”

Howe’s narrative, April 22, 1779

Howe’s failure to launch a full-scale attack at White Plains was one of the vital points of his command, and one for which he had received the most vociferous criticism. Members of the House of Commons may have inched further forward on their seats as Howe came to this point. He had not managed to deal satisfactorily with any of the other debating points covered so far; failure to tackle the White Plains controversy head-on might bring an end to the patience of the House.

Howe, finally, did not disappoint. The delivery of his speech, with its emphasis on the key words “Hessian” and “was,” made it clear what had happened. To scotch any remaining uncertainty, Howe added that further details on the affair would “in no degree affect my honour or my conduct.” Nobody listening could be in any doubt. The Hessians had refused to go into battle. Howe’s “political reasons” were nothing more than an unwillingness to criticize men who were still fighting alongside British troops in North America. Howe had played his ace well, managing to clearly convey his meaning without inelegantly apportioning blame. The general, beloved of his army, was refusing to openly criticize any part of it, even foreigners. He was being generous. He was being noble. And he was lying through his teeth.

The participation of Hessian troops in the war had been controversial from the start. It was a time-honored practice, but many colonists were repelled by the idea that their mother country would bring German hirelings across the ocean to fight them. The reputation of the Hessians, in particular their reputed fondness for relying on their bayonets, resulted in them being viewed as objects of dread. In much the same way as the redcoats were in awe of the legendary American riflemen, rebel soldiers dreaded encountering the mustachioed, blue-coated soldiers from states including Hesse-Cassel and Brunswick. For Britain, there had been little option but to resort to hiring troops. Recruitment was never going to provide enough men and in any case, new recruits would take time to be trained. The Hessians may not have been the first choice, but they were experienced soldiers and could be relied upon to do their job.

There was no doubt that the soldiers who were provided would be effective, but Howe had revealed from the start that he was concerned about the officers who would command them. In a quite remarkable letter to Germain in April 1776, he had suggested that a bonus could be offered to the Hessian officers, which would be dependent on them receiving a favorable report from Howe. It may well have been considered insulting by the professional officers concerned, but Germain smoothed things over by offering reassurances that the officers supplied would be of a high quality. For the most part, that turned out to be so, but it was not the case in the most important instance of all, the Hessian commander-in-chief, General von Heister. Howe and von Heister disliked each other from the moment the elderly German officer stepped ashore on Staten Island. At the age of 69, he was “a stiff and completely militarily minded general” according to the Hessian liaison officer Friedrich von Muenchhausen. This was a poor match for Howe’s easy-going, informal nature; the two men were never going to bond over a late-night game of cards and a bottle of claret. If they had tried it would have been a strange affair, since they shared no common language.

Von Heister also displeased Howe by insisting his men needed time to recover from their long journey to Britain and then across the Atlantic. Having previously had no difficulty in finding reasons to delay opening his campaign, Howe was suddenly affronted by being offered another and he rather huffily prepared to press ahead without the Hessian contingent that he had waited so long for. There had been nothing to complain about in the Hessians’ conduct during the Battle of Long Island, but further friction between the two commanders was not long in coming. Wanting the rebel lines at Brooklyn to be razed, Howe had asked the Hessian troops to do the work. Perhaps feeling that his men were being treated as workhorses, von Heister had insisted they should receive extra pay for the manual labor. Howe instead had put British troops to work and made another mark on von Heister’s card.

Although disliking the commanding officer, Howe was delighted with the small contingent of Hessian jägers present in the first wave. These were exactly the sort of troops Howe dreamed of turning his own light infantry into. Referred to as “chasseurs” or “greencoats” by the British, they instantly took their place in the vanguard of the army, alongside the British lights and grenadiers, and when Howe made his first tentative request for reinforcements, he had asked for 800 more jägers.

Off the battlefield, there were problems. Howe was never able to get a grip on looting and pillaging and the Hessians were among the worst offenders, sometimes appearing to see America as a personal larder, to be plundered at will. “They slaughter milch cows for meat,” reported Loftus Cliffe, “depriving everyone of milk and butter. All houses are ‘damned rebel houses,’ especially if there is a good cellar.” Despite such depredations, and their fearsome reputation, the Hessians gradually earned a more favorable reputation among the Americans and many prisoners declared they received better treatment from the Hessians than from the British.

As Howe’s army prepared to move to confront Washington at White Plains, the second wave of Hessians finally arrived, nearly 4,000 strong, including a 125-man company of jägers. Howe was pleased to get the extra troops and delighted to have more jägers at his disposal. The commanding officer of this corps was the 60-year-old Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Howe may have suppressed a groan when he saw that another old man had been sent out to him, but von Knyphausen was to prove a far more effective and energetic commander than von Heister. Also stepping off the transports after the arduous journey was a jäger captain, Johann Ewald. A compact man with a soldierly posture, he was a stickler for protocol but in no way an unthinking martinet. He was one of the most imaginative soldiers in America at the time, with the priceless ability to size up the lie of the land quickly and grasp which ground could be held and which attacked. Just 32 years of age when he joined Howe’s army, he had already been a soldier for half his life and had fought in the Seven Years War. His most serious injury, however, had come during a drunken brawl with friends in which he lost his left eye and took over a year to recover fully. He was to become a firm favorite of every British officer he served under, including Howe, who reminisced with the young German officer about his own days as a light infantry commander in the previous war.

The crossing from Britain had been an ordeal (fresh provisions had been exhausted almost a month earlier and scurvy had broken out) and the bemused Hessians had then encountered the eerily quiet streets of New York. With a quarter of the houses destroyed by the fire and many others deserted and ransacked, it was a ghost town and the men were happy to be transported up the East River on October 22, to join the main army. The following day, Howe and Ewald met for the first time. Seeing something of himself in the German captain, Howe complimented Ewald on the appearance of his men and put him to work straight away.

Ordered to scout out the rebel positions, Ewald and his men joined with the 1st Jäger Company and advanced. Ewald declined the invitation to mix his troops with the more seasoned troops of the other company, declaring that he needed to get to know his men. He was given the perfect opportunity within minutes, as heavy firing broke out on his left flank. Ewald’s company had stumbled into an engagement with several battalions of Americans and required rescuing by British light infantry. It was an inauspicious start, costing the lives of six of his men, and Ewald received a sharp telling off from von Heister once back at camp. Partly out of his personal dislike of von Heister and partly due to his instinctive respect for Ewald, Howe took the trouble to reassure the Hessian captain and commended the bravery of the jägers in general orders the following day, referring to their “spirited behaviour.”

Ewald quickly proved himself to be a man of action and relished the opportunity to put his theories on partisan warfare (“which I had acquired through much reading”) to the test. On October 26 he learned of a large enemy supply depot and suggested an operation to capture it. With the support of a light infantry battalion and the 17th Light Dragoons, the depot was captured, earning Ewald another commendation from Howe. The Hessians were therefore very much on the credit side of Howe’s ledger as he prepared to advance upon the rebel lines at White Plains.

Henry Clinton, as ever, was full of ideas. He suggested to Howe that he should pretend to withdraw his army back to New Rochelle, threaten an attack in a different direction, and then suddenly swing back to attack Washington at White Plains. Howe had already shown his lack of appetite for such shenanigans and Clinton should not have been surprised at being ordered instead to advance on White Plains on the morning of October 27 and make a full report on the strength of the rebel position. His report was uncharacteristically cautious: Clinton could not recommend an assault on the Americans, believing their flanks to be secure and suspecting that a clear route of retreat was available to them if pressed. Despite this, Howe decided to attack the following day.

Clinton’s relationship with Howe was by this point under intense stress. Not only was his advice consistently disregarded, there is every reason to believe that Clinton had recently received two very worrying letters from London, which raked up the details of the embarrassing southern expedition all over again. Germain had written to Clinton on August 24, explaining how he was “extremely disappointed and mortified to learn by your letter of the 8th of July that you were still in the South.” Three days later, Clinton’s secretary, Richard Reeve, who had been dispatched to London to argue his case over the shambolic operation at Charleston, had sent a very gloomy report. Reeve had met with Lords North and Germain as well as General Harvey. Germain, according to Reeve, was “a good deal dissatisfied at your going to the southward,” while Harvey “expressed regret that Clinton had gone to South Carolina in the first place.” It is not possible to be certain when these letters reached Clinton, but communications from Germain to Howe, written at the same time, reached America on October 23. It is feasible, indeed likely, that as the Battle of White Plains unfolded, Clinton was fuming once more over the sorry affair at Charleston.

Unhappy over the decision to attack at White Plains in the first place, Clinton suggested that if it must go ahead, it might be best to advance in two columns, offering to command one of them. This Howe could agree to, and Clinton was given command of the right column, with von Heister commanding on the left. Von Heister encountered the enemy first. Once Washington saw the British move, he sent 1,000 men to slow the advance of von Heister’s column. The regular stone walls in the area made ideal defensive positions, and the rebels were able to fire from cover on the advancing column, made up of Ewald’s jägers, a battalion of light infantry, two English brigades, and two Hessian regiments, as well as part of the 17th Light Dragoons. The column numbered around 6,000 men and was too strong to be delayed for long by the rebel skirmishers, who steadily withdrew, taking up a position with more American defenders on top of Chatterton Hill, on the extreme right of the American line. Clinton had declared the American flanks to be secure, but Chatterton Hill was exposed and vulnerable. Separated from the rest of the American line by the Bronx River, it could not easily be supported. Howe decided to concentrate his initial efforts there.

On the right, Clinton was making slow progress. Believing that the rebels would withdraw from their position as soon as they saw him, he attempted to get around their flank without being discovered. From the left, Ewald watched his slow progress with puzzlement; “… why he [Clinton] did not move forward and resolutely attack the enemy is a riddle to me,” he recorded in his diary, “for he had no more difficulties to overcome than the left flank had.” Howe was unconcerned, believing that his first job was to clear the rebels from Chatterton Hill. With this in mind, he spoke to von Heister. What happened next is not clear. Without a common language the men could not speak directly to each other and von Heister would later complain that he often received orders written in English that he could not understand. The absence of a liaison officer to facilitate communication between the generals was a startling omission, one that was not put right until the following month, when von Muenchhausen was appointed to the critical role. On Chatterton Hill, close to 2,000 rebel soldiers waited, comprised of a mixture of steady troops and nervous militia, while the British and Hessian generals talked. In a deleted section of his narrative, Howe detailed what happened next. “The attack being intended upon the enemy’s right which was opposite to the Hessian troops,” he wrote, “I purposed the attack to General Heister whose consent I could not obtain and on that account it was deferred.” Howe’s words were ambiguous. Had he been unable to make von Heister understand what was required of him, or had there been a more definitive refusal on the part of the German commander? A point of the finger at von Heister followed by a gesture toward Chatterton Hill ought to have been enough to get the general idea across, and the draft of Howe’s narrative contains a further intriguing hint that von Heister had been uncooperative rather than uncomprehending. “I purposed the attack to General Heister,” he had started, “who would not…” But Howe crossed this out and substituted the far milder “whose consent I could not obtain.” Still, there was little room for doubt. “I mentioned General Heister’s dissent to General Clinton,” Howe continued, “and my intention of making it [the attack] with the British under his direction.”

After his abortive conference with von Heister, then, Howe had traipsed across the battlefield to find Clinton and ask him to lead the assault. This, clearly, was the event alluded to in Howe’s speech. He had ultimately decided to omit the explicit passage detailing von Heister’s “dissent,” confident that he could get his point across perfectly well without it, but the speech declared that this was the reason why the American lines had not been attacked. It could not have been, since the refusal of von Heister to lead his men against the hill only delayed the assault.

In fact, by the time Howe and Clinton returned from the right flank, the attack on Chatterton Hill was under way. The British had displayed indiscipline before, on Breed’s Hill, before the rebel lines at Brooklyn and on the Harlem Heights. Here they displayed it again, commencing the attack without orders from their commanding officer. Once more, the indiscipline proved costly. Four British regiments, the 28th, the 35th, the 5th, and the 49th, crossed the Bronx to storm Chatterton Hill, but their initial advance was repulsed with heavy loss. Clinton, watching the affair unfold in the company of both Howe and Cornwallis, blamed the commanding officer, who fired his musket at the Americans while climbing the hill and then stopped to reload, robbing (in Clinton’s opinion) the advance of its momentum. Whatever the reason for the repulse, the British quickly returned and Hessian units became involved as well, whether under orders from von Heister or out of shame at being left on the sidelines. British troops jeered as their German comrades struggled to cross the Bronx (having picked an unfortunately deep point for their crossing, one of their color-bearers was nearly swept away), but if their progress was slow, it was also dogged. Colonel Rall in particular played an important role in the fighting, attacking the Americans in their flank and helping to drive them from the hill. The rebel soldiers, featuring once more men of the Delaware and Maryland regiments, withdrew to the main American lines. Losses were fairly even, with British casualties numbering around 200 and the Americans losing around 175. It was a very steep price to pay for the occupation of a hill.

The blaming of the Hessians demands further investigation. Unless Howe had simply forgotten the details of the day by the time he came to prepare his narrative, he must have been aware that he was doing the German troops a great disservice. Yes, von Heister had clearly baulked at the idea of leading the attack on Chatterton Hill, but the attack had gone ahead anyway and Hessian troops had eventually played an important part in it. Howe was also bypassing the real controversy, which swirled around the fact that, having taken possession of the hill, no further attempt was made to assault the rebel lines. This was the attack that did not happen, and this was the decision for which Howe’s critics were demanding an explanation. The Hessians made for convenient scapegoats, but in reality Howe had no reason to resort to such underhand methods. There had actually been solid reasons why a further assault had not been made.

Following the capture of Chatterton Hill, Howe had considered his options for the remainder of the day, before deciding to launch a full assault the following morning. The rebels put the time to good use, strengthening their defenses to the extent that Howe believed reinforcements were needed if he was to tackle them. Percy was called up and duly arrived, on October 30, with men from the New York garrison. The attack was scheduled for the next day and Howe once again asked Clinton for his opinion. Clinton’s response was surprising to say the least. He was opposed to the attack and provided an exhaustive list of reasons to support his position, including, “… the strength of post, the difficulty of approach, the little protection from cannon, little chance of making a blow of consequence, the risk after a tolerable good campaign of finishing it by a cheque, the moral certainty of a junction with Burgoyne next year.” Clinton was not one for throwing compliments around, and Howe should have been well pleased with being credited with mounting a “tolerable good campaign,” but grudging praise aside, it was clear that Clinton had little appetite for anyone’s ideas but his own. He suggested that the British might limit their ambitions to the taking of another hill on the American flank in an attempt to force them from their lines.

Howe had made maneuvering Washington out of prepared defenses into his personal hobby, but this time he wanted more. To Clinton’s surprise, the commander-in-chief was determined to press on with his full-scale assault. Not even heavy rain could deter him and at 2 a.m. on the morning of October 31 he ordered the reluctant Clinton forward. It was too late. The Americans had withdrawn from their lines and taken up an even stronger position about an hour’s march away, at North Castle Heights. For two days Howe watched the American lines as the worsening weather hinted at the end of the campaigning season—frost now covered the ground in the mornings. Criticized as an overly cautious commander, Howe had fully intended to attack Washington at White Plains, but had delayed pulling the trigger for too long. On November 3, he turned his army away and marched back toward Manhattan. The Battle of White Plains had never properly started, but it was to claim one more casualty. Commanding the rearguard during the withdrawal, Clinton changed the order of march only to be informed by one of Howe’s aides-de-camp that he was to make no deviation from his orders. Seeing this as a petty interjection, Clinton lost his temper and blurted out that he would rather be in a detached command of just three companies than serve directly underneath Howe. The outburst brought into the open Clinton’s disdain for his commanding officer, and if Howe heard about it, then the two men might no longer be able to work together. Unfortunately for Clinton, he had been heard by Cornwallis.

The Hessians Part II

Howe had been frustrated at White Plains, and he declared to Germain that the Americans were proving to be unwilling to stand and fight. This was plainly not true, but Howe must have been aware that he was repeatedly failing to deliver the knockout blow he had talked about so freely in the build-up to the campaign. The change in the weather suggested that time was running out to finish the job in one campaign, and the taking of Rhode Island, long considered, may well have been the only move remaining for Howe before going into winter quarters. It would have made for a fairly anticlimactic end to the campaign, but a serious mistake by the Americans was about to hand him something much bigger. In fact, it was to give him his greatest success of the war.

The Americans left behind at the Harlem Heights were now completely isolated and the only sensible course of action would have been to evacuate them as quickly as possible across the Hudson. On the other side of the river, Fort Lee was by now complete and offered an obvious stronghold for the men to move to. At precisely the wrong moment, the American leadership decided to indulge in a game of passing the buck. Nathanael Greene, based at Fort Lee, asked Washington what he thought should be done. The number of men available to him fell between two stools: “If we attempt to hold the ground, the garrison must be reinforced,” he reasoned, “but if the garrison is to be drawn into Fort Washington, and we only keep that, the number of troops on the island is too large.” Washington, making one of his biggest blunders, insisted that Greene must make the decision since he was the man on the spot. Washington also stressed the importance of holding Fort Washington to prevent British shipping from sailing up the Hudson, a dream that had already been conclusively dispelled. There were nearly 3,000 men still on Manhattan Island, and time was running out to extricate them.

Washington was not oblivious to the danger. After Howe’s army turned back toward New York, he claimed to be unsure what the British commander had in mind. He did not believe the campaign was over, but was most fearful of a movement toward Jersey. News of British preparations for the capture of Rhode Island were dismissed by the American general as misinformation; Washington believed an expedition to the southern colonies was far more likely. As for Fort Washington, he believed the enemy would “invest it immediately,” but he made no comment of taking any action to counter this or to remove the men. Washington had an instinctive understanding that Howe would be feeling the pressure to achieve something more before the end of the year (“He must attempt something on account of his reputation; for what has he done as yet with his great army?”), but seemed to miss the point that the capture of nearly 3,000 men at Fort Washington would fit the bill nicely. Again, the specter of the British rampaging through Jersey was more troubling. In a letter to William Livingston, governor of Jersey, Washington advised him to prepare his militia and to pursue a scorched-earth policy; any forage that could not be safely removed was to be destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British. To help motivate Livingston, Washington painted an apocalyptic picture of the progress of the British troops: “They have treated all here without discrimination,” he warned. “The distinction of Whig and Tory has been lost in one general scene of ravage and desolation.”

As had happened repeatedly, Washington appears to have awakened only slowly to dangers that ought to have been obvious. By November 8 he was feeling his way toward an order to abandon Fort Washington, citing the failure of the fort to impede British shipping on the Hudson. “If we cannot prevent Vessels from passing up,” he wrote to Greene, “and the enemy are possessed of the surrounding country, what valuable Purpose can it answer to hold a Post, from which the expected Benefit cannot be had?” Rather than taking this line of reasoning to its obvious conclusion, however, Washington backed away at the last moment. “I am therefore inclined to think,” he continued, “that it will not be prudent to hazard the Men and Stores at Mount Washington; but, as you are on the spot, leave it to you to give such orders, as to evacuating Mount Washington, as you may judge best.” It was a shocking abrogation of responsibility, but everything Washington had seen of Howe up to that point would have convinced him that a direct assault was the last thing on the British general’s mind. An attempted siege was by far the most likely course of action.

Howe would need no further invitation. General von Knyphausen, with six battalions of Hessians, had been dispatched to Kingsbridge on October 28 and had been encamped on Manhattan since November 2. By November 12, British forces were concentrating in the area. Howe explained his decision to attack the fort to Germain, explaining how it “kept the enemy in command of the navigation of the North River.” It did no such thing, and Howe also mentioned that it was covered by strong ground and “exceeding difficult of access.” In short, it was just the sort of position that had deterred him on several occasions, and was a prime candidate for the sort of siege he had tried to implement at Brooklyn. Although hailed by some as impregnable, the fort was actually vulnerable, having no source of fresh water within its walls. A brief siege would see the cramped garrison surrender with little or no loss to the British.

Instead, Howe planned an ambitious assault. Tellingly, he originally intended it to be a Hessian-only affair, although British troops were later incorporated into the plan. Evidently feeling that the Germans needed to shoulder more of the burden, Howe was perhaps proving a point as much as anything else. Von Heister, whose stock with Howe was at an all-time low, was not involved; the Hessian troops were to be led by von Knyphausen. The addition of British troops also might have opened the door to Clinton’s involvement. He had led the way on Long Island, at Kip’s Bay, and at Throg’s Neck, and Howe had turned to him when von Heister had refused to charge at White Plains. At Fort Washington, however, there was no place for Clinton, suggesting that Howe might already have heard about his petulant outburst during the retreat from White Plains. Clinton had been given command of the planned descent on Rhode Island, but there was time enough for him to take part in the attack on Fort Washington, had Howe wished it.

Nathanael Greene was unconcerned in the face of the obvious preparations and believed the fort could stall the British for a considerable amount of time. He accepted that it could not prevent British shipping from moving along the Hudson, but argued, “I cannot conceive the garrison to be in any great danger,” adding that “the men can be brought off at any time.” The commander at Fort Washington, Colonel Robert Magaw, was confident that he could hold out until the end of the year, but what that would actually achieve was not specified. Washington himself arrived on the scene, although his primary purpose was to get troops into Jersey to counter the anticipated move there. He and Greene consulted on the situation on November 14, but no decision was made. Howe gave the Americans one last chance to see sense, on November 15. He also gave Magaw the thing longed for by every garrison commander: the opportunity to declare that he would defend his post “to the very last extremity.” Greene and General Putnam, who had been in Fort Washington at the time, were making their way across the Hudson when they met their commander-in-chief, mid-river, on his way to inspect the garrison. Assured by Putnam and Greene that the men were in good order and ready for the coming fight, Washington turned back. The following day, the attack began.

Howe was sending men against the same fortifications that he had declared untouchable a matter of weeks ago, but now they were held by a thinly stretched garrison of fewer than 3,000 men. The plan was to drive the Americans from their outer works into Fort Washington itself, and, to prevent them from concentrating their forces to resist, three sections of the defenses would be attacked at the same time. Johann Ewald, who had been asked to reconnoiter the defenses, had declared them to be very formidable, noting that American preparations had been thorough. Trees had been felled to give a clear field of fire, while the naturally difficult terrain had been enhanced with defensive works, including abbatis. Two of the attacking columns moved from the north, von Knyphausen leading a column of Hessian troops, with Cornwallis and Brigadier General Edward Mathew commanding light infantry, the Guards, grenadiers, and the 33rd Regiment. From the south, Percy headed a mixture of British and Hessian regiments. As if to underline the futility of holding the fort in the first place, HMS Pearl sat brazenly on the Hudson to provide fire support. Ewald reported that it took more than four hours for von Knyphausen’s column to dislodge American defenders from their strong positions (the British grenadier officer John Peebles recorded that they were “slow but Steady troops”), but Cornwallis and Percy made much swifter progress. Cornwallis landed his light infantry in 30 flat-bottomed boats and quickly took possession of a defended hill, forcing the rebels back toward the fort. Percy’s advance from the south was so rapid that Howe saw an opportunity to cut off the rebels’ retreat. Sending in the 42nd Regiment by boat, they were able to intercept many of the retreating Americans, capturing 170 of them.

Howe would later write with evident pride of the performance of his men, particularly his beloved light infantry, who had advanced “up a very steep uneven mountain with their usual activity.” It was Colonel Rall, who had earlier distinguished himself at White Plains, who had the honor of reaching Fort Washington first. Advancing to within 100 yards (90 meters), while retreating Americans crammed into the fort, he demanded their surrender. Forgetting his bold claims of the previous day, Magaw was obliged to accept. Close to 3,000 prisoners were taken, with around 150 killed or wounded. Howe did not mention his own losses in his report to Germain. These were considerable, with 78 men killed and 374 wounded. Howe, in fact, had lost more men in taking an isolated fort than he had lost in the Battle of Long Island.

Washington had a tricky job to do. The loss of the garrison at Fort Washington was the most severe blow yet endured by the American army and required explaining. His letter to Congress on the day of the action came uncomfortably close to an attempt to pin the blame on others. Assuring Congress that he had left the decision to Greene, Washington made it clear that it had been Greene’s decision to stand and fight. Washington’s account of the battle included the remarkable assertion that he had sent a note to Colonel Magaw after the British and Hessian forces had pushed his men back into the fort itself, ordering the American commander to hold firm. Washington had then planned to withdraw the garrison on the night of November 16. Perhaps Washington believed he could pull off another night-time evacuation, but his assessment of the situation was badly misjudged. The American losses extended to more than just men, since large amounts of supplies and ammunition also fell into the hands of the British. “I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things,” he confided to his brother, “and I solemnly protest, that a pecuniary award of twenty thousand pounds a year would not induce me to undergo what I do.” Greene was also deeply disturbed by the loss of Fort Washington and all too aware that the bulk of the blame might fall on him. He declared himself “mad, vexed, sick and sorry” and begged for news of how the defeat was being reported.

Howe’s position was obviously more comfortable, but he had his issues to deal with as well. Although the Hessians had gone a long way to recovering the confidence of their commander-in-chief, and the second wave had brought the more aggressive von Knyphausen as well as the mercurial Ewald, there was still the problem of von Heister. He and Howe were barely on speaking terms (not that they could understand each other anyway). The belated appointment of a liaison officer to smooth dealings between the two men came too late to repair their relationship. Von Muenchhausen was an effective aide-de-camp and might have brought Howe and von Heister closer together (von Heister spoke German and French, Howe English only, while von Muenchhausen was fluent in all three) if there had been any will on the part of the two generals.

The situation with Clinton might still have been rescued. Howe certainly attempted to keep their dealings on a professional footing, but Clinton was unreceptive. The second-in-command was becoming consumed by resentment over the southern expedi­tion fasco and Howe’s role in it. The two men would not work together again and Howe therefore found himself shorn of the support of his two most important subordinates. There were other men to lean on, notably Cornwallis, and so long as he retained the confidence of the politicians at home he had little to be seriously concerned by. Personal animosities were inevitable under the stress of a campaign, but Howe could afford to be pragmatic. He had every reason to believe that he was moving steadily toward a successful conclusion to the war.

That impression was reinforced four days after the fall of Fort Washington. The Americans had failed to remove stores from the white elephant that was Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Ineffective when operating in conjunction with Fort Washington, it was entirely purposeless now, but massive quantities of supplies and ordnance were still there when Cornwallis landed troops 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the fort, on the morning of November 20. It was not an easy matter to drag guns up what Howe described as the “narrow rocky road, for near half a mile, to the top of a precipice,” but capturing the fort itself proved more straightforward. The garrison evacuated quickly upon the approach of the British (several inebriated men were left behind) and the fort changed hands without a shot being fired. It could hardly have been a surprise to the Americans that Fort Lee would be the next target in the slow but remorseless advance of the redcoats, but kettles were still warming above fires as the British took possession and Cornwallis spent that night camped outside the fort, “making use of the enemy’s tents.” More importantly, between Forts Washington and Lee the rebels had lost 146 cannon, close to 3,000 muskets and around 400,000 cartridges.

The invasion of New Jersey had begun, but Germain would not read about it until the end of the year. Howe did not bother to inform the American Secretary of events following the stalemate at the Harlem Heights until November 30 and the letter did not reach London until December 29. It would have made for a pleasant late Christmas present, but Germain would have been justified in wondering why Howe had taken so long to inform him that the campaign was still alive and kicking; it was two months since he had last written. The general was gracious enough to offer an apology (“The service in which I have been employed … with advice to the reduction of New York, would not allow of an earlier time to send an account to your Lordship of the progress made from that period.”), and in any event, the contents of the letter, detailing the landing at Kip’s Bay, the capture of New York, the fighting near the Harlem Heights, the Battle of White Plains, and the capturing of Forts Washington and Lee, were so pleasing to Germain that he could afford to overlook Howe’s tardiness in writing. The general had obviously been busy and, condensed into a single letter, the events of the campaign took on a rather dashing air. Howe finished by reporting that Cornwallis was in hot pursuit of Washington through New Jersey and that all seemed well with the army. Clinton was singled out for praise, as were the Hessians. “The Hessian troops, under the command of Lieutenant Generals Heister and Knyphausen,” Howe wrote, “have also exhibited every good disposition to promote his majesty’s interests, and justly merit my acknowledgement of their services.”

There was no sign here that Howe believed they had in any way sabotaged his plans at White Plains, or in any way retarded the progress of his campaign. But then, the campaign was not yet over.

Allied Countermeasures against the snorkel-equipped U-boat I

The Illustrated London News, 23 December 1944. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt jointly announced to the public on 9 December that German U-boats were now equipped with a device that allowed them to remain submerged. Five days later First Lord of the Admiralty A V Alexander followed up with a public warning that with the appearance of this new device heavy losses should be expected by the public. The day after this illustration was published the snorkel and Alberich-equipped U-486 (VIIC) sunk the SS Leopoldville outside Cherbourg Harbour despite it having a Royal Navy escort, causing a significant loss of life among the US 66th Infantry Division being sent as reinforcements to the Western Front.

The snorkel was treated as a ‘secret’ development by the Kriegsmarine when it was introduced. Allied intelligence certainly intercepted wireless traffic about its existence through Ultra intercepts. However, it appears that the best information came from captured German crewmen picked up after their U-boat was sunk or scuttled.

The British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division’s C.B. 04051 (103) Interrogation of U-Boat Survivors, Cumulative Edition, June 1944 was the first known assessment of the German snorkel. The document revealed that the equipment as well as its basic technical schematics were known to the British at the very start of the Normandy invasion. While this document was descriptive, it did not contain any analysis of the snorkel’s operational or tactical potential as U-boat tactics had not yet evolved. Consequently, the report did not assess any impacts to ongoing Royal Navy Escort or Support Group tactical responses during a U-boat hunt.

This information acquired by British intelligence was accurate. It is clear that by June they had gained knowledge of the Type II non-flange mast as well as the replacement of the pulley system with a hydraulic piston lift. Both design improvements were starting to be fielded broadly across the U-boat fleet, as in the case of U-480, which received a second snorkel installation that summer, upgrading from the Type I to the Type II. The Admiralty report understood that the snorkel was intended for charging, but clearly did not opine the consequences of a non-existent U-boat profile on their detection gear, or the possibility that U-boats could remain submerged for almost their entire patrol. In November British forces that occupied the former German U-boat base at Salamis, Greece, found technical renderings of the Type II snorkel mast installation for Type VIICs, the first such technical documents of their kind obtained by Allied intelligence.

Four months later, US Naval Intelligence observed the stark drop off of actionable intelligence, defined by immediate, readable Ultra intercepts or HF/DF map plots that allowed them to ‘fix’ a U-boat’s location. The report noted the decrease in wireless transmissions and change in Enigma keys, as well as the atmospheric conditions that impacted reception in the North Atlantic. These observations prompted OP-20-G to publish a memorandum notifying US Naval leadership about the impact of these developments to anti-U-boat operations. What the report did not mention was the fact that a number of the intelligence impacts were caused by the introduction of the snorkel, suggesting that OP-20-G did not fully comprehend the correlation. A contributing factor to the lack of understanding was that most snorkel-fitted U-boats were being employed almost exclusively around the coastal regions of the British Isles and not in the convoy lanes of the North Atlantic.

A few statements of note in the 24 November 1944 report are of interest. ‘The problem of fixing U-boats in the Atlantic has become more difficult and will probably continue so …’ for the following reasons: ‘Approximately 90% of the D/F cases have involved U-boat transmissions of the ration of 30 seconds or less. Such short transmissions make it difficult to obtain any large number of high quality bearings.’; ‘the use of Norddeich Off Frequencies has become more general for all types of transmissions. It has been our experience that fewer bearings are obtained on all frequency transmissions of short or medium duration, thereby resulting in less accurate fixes’; ‘U-boats have been maintaining a rigid condition of radio silence. We have noted U-boats on patrol in various areas in the North Atlantic for periods as long as 30 or 40 days without making a single radio transmission’; and ‘ionospheric disturbances, in the North Atlantic in the winter have a detrimental effect upon D/F fixing’.

This resulted in the conclusion by OP-20-G that ‘the accurate locating of U-boats by means of Ultra information has progressively become more and more difficult’.

The OP-20-G memorandum balanced the fact that the dramatic reduction in reliable U-boat position signals was assessed as not impacting operations too significantly given the fact that few U-boats were operating in the mid-Atlantic. The report assumed that if traditional Wolfpack tactics were reinstituted in the spring of 1945 then a natural increase of signals would result in a resumption of accurate U-boat position information. Like the Admiralty report of June, this US Navy intelligence assessment failed to appreciate the paradigm shift introduced by the snorkel.

Overnight the snorkel rendered Allied radar detection almost ineffective and significantly reduced the value of Ultra in fixing U-boats for hunter-killer groups. Yet, a review of US and British intelligence reports revealed that it took both countries about six months to appreciate the snorkel’s impact on their anti-U-boat operations and implement effective countermeasures.

This was revealed by Ladislas Farago, who served as the Chief of Research and Planning in the US Navy’s Special Warfare Branch (OP-16-Z) during the Second World War. Writing after the war, he offered how unprepared the Western Allies were in the face of snorkel-equipped U-boats. The US Tenth Fleet was organised in May 1943 at the very height of the North Atlantic convoy battles as the first anti-submarine command. Its mission was to find, fix, and destroy German U-boats. To this end, its supporting missions included the protection of coastal merchant shipping, the centralisation of control and routing of convoys, and the co-ordination and supervision of all US Navy anti-submarine warfare training, anti-submarine intelligence, and co-ordination with the Allied nations. The Tenth Fleet had no organic naval vessels. Its commander, Admiral Ernest King, used Commander-in-Chief Atlantic’s (CINCLANT) vessels operationally, and CINCLANT issued operational orders to escort groups originating in the United States. The Tenth Fleet was also responsible for the organisation and operational control of hunter-killer groups in the Atlantic.

The Tenth Fleet was ‘misled in its appreciation of the snorkel by reports that tended to emphasise the deficiencies of the device’, according to Farago. Interrogations of German U-boat prisoners early in 1944 who had participated in the first snorkel trials and training in the Baltic spoke despairingly of the device. At this time no U-boat had conducted an operational cruise and not even the German U-boat command understood the device’s full potential. OP-16-Z produced a number of intelligence broadcasts that disparaged the device through the Tenth Fleet. By the summer of 1944 the Tenth Fleet dismissed the snorkel as a viable technological solution for the U-boat. This assessment changed by the late summer and early autumn of 1944 with the approach of U-518 (IXC) off North Carolina in August, followed by others off Canada (see Chapter 9). U-518 sank the SS George Ade, 100 miles from the US East Coast – the first American-flagged ship sunk by a snorkel-equipped U-boat. All Tenth Fleet efforts to hunt down this U-boat failed, leaving it concerned.

The Allies had no tactics or technology to counter the new threat, which was the responsibility of the US Navy’s Tenth Fleet. Farago noted in the early 1960s:

In a very real sense, then, the snorkel thus succeeded in doing exactly what Doenitz hoped it would accomplish: it provided effective protection from the U-boats’ most dangerous foe, the planes of the escort carrier groups. The protection was so effective, indeed, that from September, 1944, through March, 1945, the escort carrier groups managed to sink but a single U-boat, and a non-snorkeller at that, although they accounted for forty-six U-boats during the prior sixteen months.

The Allies devised a simple division of labour in terms of counter-U-boat operations from 1942 onward. The US Navy’s hunter-killer groups were given the responsibility for the central Atlantic and US East Coast, while the British and Canadian air and surface forces were responsible for their respective coastal regions as well as the North Atlantic. This generally placed the burden of counter-U-boat operations on the US Navy from 1942 until early 1944, when U-boats were non-snorkel equipped and operated in Wolfpacks. Once the snorkel was introduced the burden of anti-U-boat operations shifted to the British and Canadian forces through to the end of the war. This included the development of new tactics. It is made clear in reviewing available primary documents that by the end of the war the British and Canadian Royal Navies appreciated the fact that they were fighting a very different U-boat foe, and adapted accordingly. The US Navy and US Coast Guard, however, did not have that same appreciation due to a lack of operational experience against snorkel-equipped U-boats.

Allied Air Operations

In order to destroy a U-boat, it had to be located. By the spring of 1944 location and destruction was predominately carried out by radar-equipped Allied aircraft. The British Air Ministry published ORS/CC Report Nr. 325 on 5 January 1945 titled Operational Experience Against U-Boats Fitted with Snorkel, which summarised the negative impact the snorkel had on Allied air operations against U-boats during the previous six months. The report began: ‘Throughout the past few months the German U-boat fleet have been fitted with a “Snorkel” pipe, about 16’ in diameter and showing some 2–3 feet above the water, through which the air for the Diesels can be sucked in and the exhaust expelled. The consistent use of this device has very considerably reduced the efficiency of [aircraft] detection of U-boats – probably by a factor of about 10, and produced a return to close-in submarine warfare.’

Based on past operational results the following ‘recommendations and statements of fact are considered to follow fairly definitely from the scanty data on operations:’

1. Snorkels are usually seen by their wake and ‘smoke’, this ‘smoke’ is however only produced on some occasions, much more frequent in winter. Theoretical investigation in progress may enable this effect to be predicted. The average citing ranges are average ‘smoke’ 7 miles, (two cases of 20 miles!), wake 4½ miles, snorkel itself about 1 mile.

2. An improvement in efficiency of two- or three-fold could be obtained by use of binoculars throughout.

3. Very little use has in fact been made of binoculars, even for recognition.

4. The operational range of detection on a ASV Mark V (4 miles) is about one third of the operational range on surfaced boats (13 miles), but

5. Radar efficiency is very low and sees more than Force 3 – because of the sea returns.

6. The proportion of snorkel U-boats seen snorkelling and subsequently attacked while visible, or less than 15 seconds dived, amounts to 70% of attacks.

7. Hence the depth charge setting for snorkels should be that proper to ‘snorkel depth’ itself.

8. The sighting range in Leigh-Lights at night is so low (about 400 yards media) that visual bombing holds out little hope. Radar bombing and or homing weapons will be essential.

It was noted in the study that U-boats could clearly be identified through the wakes left by the periscope or snorkel. In the last several months snorkels could be identified seven times greater through the ‘smoke’ trail. This ‘smoke’ was probably vapour caused by a snorkel riding too high out of the water, exposing its exhaust vent. However, the British assessment identified that the smoke, which was usually described as grey in colour, was ‘presumably largely water mist that became clearly visible and much more frequent in cold weather’. The results up to November, according to the assessment, ‘show so low a proportion of ‘smoking snorkels’ (9 out of 22 = 40 per cent) that this phenomenon must be due to some special weather conditions, more frequent in winter than summer’. It was made apparent by the study that the British pilots were not utilising binoculars during their air patrols and that a periscope or snorkel that was not smoking could be identified by binoculars at about 4.5-mile range, while the naked eye could only identify it at a range of 1.9 miles. Despite this fact, the study stated that very few periscopes or snorkels were in fact either first sighted or even recognised using binoculars. Even when air patrols used binoculars, they assessed that periscopes were identified only 16 per cent of the time, while snorkels only 33 per cent. By binocular ‘recognition’ it was meant ‘to identify the vague phenomenon: wakes, smoke, odd looking waves, etc. which are usually first seen’. The study also looked at the rate at which binoculars could identify a periscope or snorkel when radar contact had provided a rough bearing an exact range. It was determined that a binocular was used to confirm a radar bearing 19 per cent of the time. All this led to the conclusion that ‘there is room for considerable improvement in the use of binoculars, both regular scanning by lookouts detailed for the purpose whenever the neck disability is more than 5 miles and for recognition of radar blips. The second point could be met by the second pilots always keeping a pair of binoculars ready focused.’ What this assessment did not consider was the fact that U-boats predominately snorkelled at night as directed by BdU [Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote], limiting the effectiveness of visual identification even further.

A separate detailed analysis was conducted on daylight attacks against U-boats by aircraft during the period June to December 1944. This study focused on U-boats that submerged once they were attacked on the surface. The report was divided into attacks that occurred when a U-boat had been submerged for less than fifteen seconds, submerged between fifteen and sixty seconds, submerged more than sixty seconds, and were lost while the aircraft was manoeuvring to attack. The study found that whether the U-boat was identified operating with just a periscope or snorkel separately, or the U-boat was identified operating both simultaneously, it was impossible to obtain a kill once the vessel began to submerge. The kill rate per attack when the snorkel and/or periscope were still visible was only at 17 per cent. This was 50 per cent less than the 43 per cent kill rate for a completely surfaced U-boat. The study went on to state ‘the number of snorkel sightings leading to targets visible, partly visible or dived less than 15 seconds (41% of sightings, 74% of attacks) is so high that the DC’s against snorkels should have the depth setting proper to the boat actually snorkelling’. This data does support that the U-boat dipole mounted on the snorkel mast was effective in identifying attacking aircraft, giving U-boats the advantage of diving before an air attack commenced. A fifteen-second advantage was enough to gain survivability against an air attack regardless of how far out the aircraft identified the snorkelling U-boat. The realisation that snorkel ‘smoke’ was a marked advantage caused British Coastal Command to issue a memo that declared this study was only permitted to be circulated among those engaged in ‘Air Anti-U-boat Warfare’. Not even the Royal Navy was notified of this observation in order to maintain strict secrecy over this operational advantage. Given that this memo was issued on 22 March 1945, at the end of winter, it probably contributed little to the anti-U-boat effort. However, it does show how seriously the snorkel altered the balance sheet against Allied aircraft.

One effective Allied aircraft tactic against snorkel-equipped U-boats introduced was the use of sonobuoys. U-boat commanders noted in their short reports to BdU that Allied aircraft dropped sonobuoys in areas where their snorkels were presumably seen to alert other aircraft or anti-submarine groups to the U-boat’s diving points. All U-boats were warned of this tactic on 15 February by BdU, suggesting it was a recently employed tactic. There were two types of sonobuoys, one for listening and one for HF/DF. The HF/DF buoy was less effective as snorkel-equipped U-boats rarely transmitted wireless signals. It was the direction-finding buoy that was used with effect during the last six months of the war against the snorkel-equipped U-boat.

Sonobuoys were originally intended to be dropped manually from blimps. Parachutes were added when the decision to deploy them from manoeuvring aircraft was made. They were equipped with a stored, self-erecting antenna. The first operational passive broadband sonobuoy was known as AN/CRT-1. The operational frequency of the AN/CRT-1 was 300Hz to 8kHz, which was within the audible range of the human ear. The operator had to make real-time decisions based on his ability to distinguish various underwater sounds. The problem was that in shallow water the operator had to contend with a host of other noises caused by waves, currents and density layers, making identification of a U-boat operating on electric motors or even drifting with engines off problematic. An improved version, the AN/CRT-1A, also known as the Expendable Radio Sonobuoy (ERSB), had an increased frequency band of 100Hz to 10 kHz and lighter weight (12.7lb).

The improved sonobuoy contained enough battery power for four hours of continuous operation. It was not until June 1944 that these new sonobuoys were being employed by US aircraft squadrons operating in the central Atlantic. It was not until the autumn of 1944 that a single British aircraft squadron received the device for employment.

As an approximation, an aircraft equipped with eight sonobuoys could hold contact with a U-boat for sixty to ninety minutes, and if equipped with twelve, for as long as three hours. This was ample time to vector in a surface hunter-killer group or squadron. The drawback was that calm water was required to achieve these contact times.

The British also took a careful look at operational and practice data recording radar returns against the snorkel. The data the British collected was identified by their own intelligence analysts as ‘scanty’. The S-Band equipment, while operational, could not be compared effectively with the X-Band, which was not yet operational. However, in looking at the MK.V Liberator it was noted that the operational range to identify a periscope or snorkel was 4.7 miles compared with the average of 12.9 miles by day or 14.3 miles by night for this specific equipment on surfaced U-boats. It was thought that the ratio of a third would appear promising until it was realised that this fact implied the majority of these contacts would appear inside the ‘sea returns’ and thus be almost impossible to recognise by sight. The study predicted that in a calm sea the MK.V Liberator had a ratio of 10:1 to identify the snorkel or periscope, while the MK.III Wellington’s ratio was 6:1. In moderate seas the ratios were respectively 50:1 and 30:1. In rough seas it was considered next to impossible to make a radar contact. The conclusion was that the S-Band’s operational range against snorkels ‘appears to be about one-third of that on surfaced U-boats’. In addition ‘detection of snorkel radar in seas of Force 3 or higher is much more difficult than in calmer seas’.

While the above data was based on daylight attacks, a sobering assessment of night-time attacks was also made. The study concluded: ‘The sighting range of the snorkel at night is so low that the technique of attack hitherto used, i.e. radar contact – visual sighting – release of bombs by visual judgment – holds out little hope of success. It is suggested that either radar bomb sites or homing weapons or both are essential.’ This observation is interesting when compared with the procedures outlined to German U-boats by BdU that snorkelling should be carried out at night. This meant that if proper guidance was followed then a snorkel-equipped U-boat’s survivability against aerial identification and attack was very high. No calculations were made by the British in their report between snorkels camouflaged with anti-radar matting and those without. The process of covering snorkel masts with the Wesch anti-radar matting became commonplace in the autumn of 1944 and served to reduce the ability of Allied radar detection even further than already indicated in the above assessment.

The British knew the U-boats were there but were now unable to easily locate them or even effectively employ their aircraft and radar technology against them. The study noted that ‘of the conclusions drawn some are practically certain; others are open to some doubt as based on small numbers. It is however, considered that, in view of the urgency of the snorkel problem, these probable conclusions should also be drawn.’ Indeed, there was a snorkel problem. Six months into this problem the Western Allies were still struggling to identify probable countermeasures against an enemy that they thought was defeated in May 1943, but that had now returned with a vengeance.

Given the negative impact that the snorkel had on British air-based antisubmarine efforts, a series of meetings were convened starting on 22 November 1944 that were intended to address the issue. Meetings followed on 15 December, 19 January 1945, 29 January and 13 March to identify solutions to the troubling snorkel trend. These meetings were held in Room 71/II at Whitehall in the Air Ministry and were chaired by Sir Robert Renwick Bt, who looked for updates from Air Commodore H Leedham, CB, OBE, as the DCD (Director of Communications Development), and Dr A C B Lovell, as the TRE, on ‘actions taken by the DCD and TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment) to provide anti-Schnorkel measures …’ In the first meeting in November it was stated that ‘methods that could be introduced into existing equipment which it was anticipated would give some 20%–25% increase in the ratio of the snorkel responses as against those of sea returns’. In addition, Commodore Leedham believed that either X-Band or K-Band could be used but at least another month of experiments was required. It was confirmed in December that ongoing trials suggested that modifications to both the Wellington and Warwick systems would allow them to better pick up smaller targets. X-Band trials were still ongoing. It was also recommended that American detection systems be included in the testing programme.

In the 19 January meeting it was expressed that significant delays caused by wrongly specified equipment had prevented Coastal Command from equipping their aircraft with the new detection system modifications. K-Band was given the highest priority and X-Band results were promising. By 29 January, Coastal Command aircraft were finally receiving modifications to their radar sets that would allow for better detection of smaller targets. Interestingly, it was noted that the tests being performed off Llandudno, North Wales, in the Irish Sea against British submarine test targets had to stop due to the presence of actual U-boats in the testing area. The first X-Band-equipped Warwick Mk V aircraft were expected to be delivered in late March or early April.

The Air Ministry wanted to increase their chances of a successful attack against a snorkel-equipped U-boat by 20 per cent. Most of their recommendations, however, were not implemented until the spring of 1945. The US was not involved in these meetings, primarily as they were not directly engaged in the snorkel war to any great extent. British findings were to be made available to the US primarily because it was thought they would ‘interest them’.

BdU issued new guidance on 3 March 1945 to their U-boats based on changes introduced by British Coastal Command air patrols. Specifically, Message No. 226C reminded U-boats to maintain depth discipline when snorkelling and avoid being observed. Seven days later, on 10 March 1945, a follow-on message was sent, followed by further guidance to maintain a low snorkel profile in calm surface conditions embodied in Message No. 228B.

What BdU did not calculate was that with the coming of spring, North Atlantic storms gave way to calmer water, as noted by the reference in Message No. 228B of a sea state 1. This increased the potential of a U-boat’s identification through a raised snorkel or periscope by Allied radar or visual recognition.

Allied Countermeasures against the snorkel-equipped U-boat II

Allied Surface Operations

From the start of the war until mid-1944 BdU did not believe that U-boats could patrol effectively along an enemy’s coast. This self-imposed operational limitation was due to the belief that Allied aircraft combined with the critical limiting factor of a U-boat’s requirement that it had to surface in order to recharge its batteries simply prevented extended coastal operations. Just prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy the Admiralty conducted an assessment of the potential for U-boats to operate in the shallows, titled ‘Inshore Operations by U-boats’, where they concluded that once a U-boat conducted an attack in the shallows it would immediately proceed to deeper water in order to withdraw. The idea that a U-boat would ‘bottom’ at the scene of the attack, or move closer inshore, was ‘considered unlikely’ by the Admiralty. This view changed before the end of the war.

The Royal Navy’s ‘support group’ was the corollary to the US Navy’s ‘hunter-killer group’. The number of support groups in the North Atlantic grew to seventeen Royal Navy and seven Royal Canadian Navy by November 1944, the predominant number being assigned to the critical area of the United Kingdom’s coast. Despite the advantage held by the Allies in the number of anti-submarine surface vessels operating in familiar home waters equipped with state-of-the-art search gear, they found that hunting a snorkel-equipped U-boat in the shallows was difficult.

The first Allied experience against a snorkel-equipped U-boat in coastal waters occurred in the English Channel in the days immediately following the Normandy invasion. One particularly graphic account is provided by Lieutenant Commander Allan Easton (Distinguished Service Cross recipient), who commanded the destroyer HMCS Saskatchewan at the time. Operation Neptune was the code name for the Allied protection of the invasion area from U-boats operating in the English Channel. HMCS Saskatchewan was operating as part of 12th Escort Group in that operation. On 7 June, one day after the Normandy invasion, Easton’s ship was on escort duty accompanying four other vessels when a ‘low rumble was heard, the unmistakable sound of an underwater explosion’ at around 8pm. No one knew exactly what it was. The flag went up from the other escort communicating that it was searching for a contact it made via ASDIC. ‘Action stations’ was now called onboard HMCS Saskatchewan. A search began and a salvo of hedgehogs was fired that exploded without hitting any target. Three destroyers were now searching for the original contact with active ASDIC. The ASDIC officer onboard Easton’s destroyer, Sub-Lieutenant Coyne, noted ominously that: ‘I think the Channel is not going to be an easy place to locate submarines.’ He elaborated on his statement to Easton: ‘In the few days we’ve been in these waters, the H.S.D. [Higher Submarine Detector] and I have been watching the sound effects and so on of the ASDIC and they’re very confusing. Fish appear to be very plentiful. The tides may have something to do with it. To my mind the outlook isn’t particularly bright.’ He concluded his observation, while observing four destroyers now searching for a U-boat, that: ‘It’s not like the clear water of the mid-Atlantic, sir. There’s the place for good ASDIC condition!’ At that very moment an explosion was heard, immediately followed by a column of water that shot up into the air a mere 100 yards abaft Eaton’s destroyer.

As Easton observed the area of the explosion there were no track marks left by a typical torpedo’s stream of bubbles in the water. He correctly concluded that a defective electric-drive acoustic torpedo had self-detonated just four seconds before hitting their stern. As was the custom in a U-boat hunt, the destroyer’s loudspeaker was switched on as it was connected to an ultra-short range telephone on the bridge. It was assumed that the acoustic torpedoes had a short range so everyone was alert searching the immediate area. Eight minutes after the first explosion a report came over the loudspeaker from one of the other destroyers: ‘Torpedo just passed down starboard side running very shallow leaving slight swirl behind it. Heard on hydrophones. No explosion.’ The ASDIC operator on a nearby destroyer picked up multiple contacts, then almost immediately dismissed them as fish. The same false signals were heard by Easton’s ASDIC operator. Then a third destroyer picked up something slightly different and turned slowly to starboard to investigate when the slender pipe of a periscope broke the surface, just abaft to starboard.

The periscope was indeed from a U-boat operating within 20m of the surface among four searching destroyers. Seeing the destroyers, the U-boat retracted its periscope and began evasive manoeuvres that quickly broke contact. Twenty minutes later a hydrophone operator noted that he distinctly heard blowing tanks. HMCS Saskatchewan quickly turned and gave chase, letting loose a salvo of depth charges, but they did not hit the mark. After the first detected torpedo the crew had dropped a trailing noise maker into the water that was designed to detonate acoustic torpedoes. It was a good thing, because no sooner had the depth charge explosions stopped echoing over the hydrophones than another explosion abaft of Easton’s destroyer was heard, accompanied by a column of water 100ft high. Another acoustic torpedo had been detonated by the noise maker.

Oberleutnant zur See Heinz Sieder (1920-1944), Kommandant Unterseeboote “U 984”, Ritterkreuz 08.07.1944

The U-boat Eaton encountered was U-984 (VIIC), which reported firing two T5 torpedoes and a LUT acoustic homing torpedo at a group of three destroyers on that day. Oberleutnant Heinz Sieder claimed ‘one missed, one detonated too soon, one probable hit after 7 minutes’. On both attacks against HMCS Saskatchewan Sieder set the running depth of the T5s at 4m. Both were launched at periscope depth. After the third torpedo, Sieder ordered the U-boat to bottom in order to reload the tubes. He believed that an hour later he was accurately located on the bottom by two destroyers that bracketed him with depth charges. While the destroyers had detected an ASDIC return they did not know it was U-984. The lights flickered onboard the U-boat and sea water began to leak into the bow compartment, but the boat withstood the concussions.

U-984 remained bottomed until the afternoon of the 8th as the destroyers criss-crossed the area. Sieder knew the destroyers were utilising a well-drilled tactic to starve the U-boat of oxygen and battery power in order to force it to the surface, where it was vulnerable. However, U-984 was a snorkel-equipped U-boat. At noon, Sieder decided to lift off from the bottom and move closer to shore, to the area of Ushant, France, where he planned to snorkel to recharge batteries and refresh oxygen. He noted in his KTB that ‘the air condition was exceptionally bad in the last 12 hours. The men literally gasped for air. A certain amount of relief was provided by breathing with potash cartridges. (Mouthpiece of the escape lung connected).’ By 9pm U-984 was snorkelling close to the coast. Sieder then decided to return to Brest, where he could recharge the batteries in a long snorkelling run, instead of the two it would require in the operational area.

U-984 returned to Brest on the 10th and after some minor repairs went back out to the operational area two days later. Sieder’s second foray into the English Channel was an extraordinary example of the snorkel’s new ability. He penetrated the Allied defensive screen and reached the invasion area off the Cotentin Peninsula. In the five days from 25 to 29 June he sank a British frigate, HMS Goodson, and subsequently sank three vessels and damaged one off the invasion beaches of Omaha and Utah. The Allied vessels were from Convoy ECM-17 and carried military equipment and troops for the invasion. His total tonnage for this patrol was 30,090 GRT. BdU noted in Sieder’s KTB after it was turned in: ‘Exemplarily executed enterprise carried out with high attack spirit. The Commander carried himself on 7.6 and 25.6 with iron calmness and toughness towards the destroyer and took advantage of every opportunity for attack. The attack on the convoy on 29.6 was a tactical masterpiece with magnificent success. The experiences of the boat are valuable.’ Sieder was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 8 July 1944 for his patrol.

Back on the surface, the rest of the night and following day were quiet. Then at around 7.30pm on the 8th a deep underwater explosion was heard and the previous night’s attack and counter-attack with a U-boat was repeated. Torpedoes were fired, missed their target or prematurely exploded, followed by ASDIC contacts, depth charges, and in Easton’s words, ‘dead or unconscious cod rising to the surface’. This U-boat, if it was an actual U-boat, was not U-984 as Sieder had already departed the area. If the encounter had occurred in the mid-Atlantic in 1943 the U-boat would have probably been destroyed in short order as clear ASDIC returns would have been acquired. Here in the shallows, four destroyers could not zero in on a U-boat due to the benefits gained from the rocky bottom, thermoclines and current.

The next afternoon Easton’s squadron fell in with six British destroyers that formed a line of ten abreast that began to search for U-boats. This was a formidable defensive line at the western end of the English Channel. The weather was overcast, with a rain squall, though visibility was still good at 3 miles. At some time after 5pm a puff of smoke was seen in the distance. Two destroyers began to turn towards the smoke, with one opening fire from its deck gun. Easton recalled:

On that instant I knew exactly what she was firing at. I altered course towards the smoke and rang for twenty-five knots as I saw our neighbour turning, too. A minute later the smoke had disappeared and nothing whatever was to be seen. What we had observed was a new German invention in operation, an invention with which we were acquainted but not familiar. It was the snorkel …

Easton and his fellow commanders were briefed on the German secret invention before the invasion. He recalled that in his briefing it was noted that the snorkel was to allow U-boats to operate in British coastal waters by allowing it to recharge batteries without surfacing. The report went so far as to note that it was equipped with a radar antenna on the snorkel head that would allow it to identify aircraft and surface ships. However, Easton noted: ‘It did not occur to us that a [snorkel] would smoke.’ This fact was kept as an Allied secret, as previously noted. Not surprisingly, the U-boat evaded all ten destroyers.

Improved detection of a snorkel-equipped U-boat was the Allies’ first priority. The snorkel evolved U-boat tactics to a degree that traditional detection techniques were rendered nearly irrelevant overnight. Usual detection sources such as the HF/DF of wireless signals, surface radar returns, or visual sightings of a surfaced U-boat could not be relied upon. ASDIC was only effective at short range and when used in shallow coastal water could not effectively discern rock from wreck from U-boat. During the convoy battles of previous years ASDIC had proved effective in maintaining contact with a U-boat after an initial detection, often from a visual source such as a surface vessel or aircraft that subsequently vectored in an escort vessel. From mid-1941 until mid-1943 most U-boats were initially detected through radar or visual identification on the surface, not by a chance ASDIC contact.

As BdU shifted focus from open-ocean convoys to specific coastal embarkation/debarkation routes, so did the support groups. Support groups were assigned coastal patrol areas with the intent that they learned all the sub-surface ASDIC signature returns given off by the shallow sea floor and various wrecks. This was believed to be a critical factor in the future success of hunting U-boats as the knowledge gained of the bottom conditions made the difference in distinguishing a U-boat sonar signature from a known sub-surface anomaly.

In August the Admiralty conducted a preliminary analysis of the problem that continued to hold true for the remainder of the war. Through the use of Ultra intercepts, analysis showed that search groups had probably passed over U-boats ten times, but made only one contact. The U-boat on the other hand, had detected 65 per cent of the escorts that passed within 3 miles of them by using their own hydrophones. At this range a U-boat had an excellent chance of slipping through the search screen or manoeuvring around their flank.27 Captain R Winn came to the judgement at the end of August that a U-boat was able to remain ‘submerged for up to ten days without presenting any target detectable by radar or visually except at short range’.

U-boats operated with two main weaknesses prior to the introduction of the snorkel. First, a U-boat could not remain submerged for more than twenty-four hours without surfacing completely to recharge its batteries. Second, when operating in the deep open ocean of the North and Central Atlantic, a U-boat’s sonar signal was often clear and distinct. Allied escort vessel tactics prior to the introduction of the snorkel were to leverage these two weaknesses in a ‘hunt to exhaustion’ whereby the U-boat, once identified through ASDIC, would be pursued until it was compelled to the surface after a loss of electric power caused by drained batteries. Once on the surface, the U-boat could be destroyed by surface gun fire or ramming. This tactic worked only when a U-boat was identified by ASDIC and contact maintained. In the shallows, density layers, thermoclines, currents, rocky bottoms, other wrecks as well as the tactic of bottoming for long periods, significantly diminished the effectiveness of ASDIC. Additionally, a U-boat only had to raise its snorkel mast just a few metres above the surface to recharge its batteries or suck in fresh air required for it to run full diesels and escape at high speed, thereby presenting the Allies with a very difficult target. Allied tactics had to change.

In September 1944, after four months of hunting U-boats in the English Channel, the Admiralty changed their conclusion on U-boat tactics. They now put out guidance that when a ship was torpedoed in waters where a U-boat could bottom effectively, that it would do so if immediate anti-submarine attacks occurred.29 They began to realise that a U-boat no longer attempted to run for deep water; its best defence was to hide in the shallows. By October 1944 the Admiralty issued new guidance:

U-boats can now operate inshore and are likely to adopt static tactics in place of the mobile tactics which we have been used to dealing with. Static tactics involve the use of curly and gnat torpedoes fired from U-boats which endeavour to lie in wait on the course of convoys. When no targets are available U-boats are likely to move with great caution and charge by snort [i.e. snorkel] mainly by night. On approach of a hunting force [the U-boat] will probably bottom or may drift with tide near bottom.

In addition to ASDIC, another source of submerged U-boat identification was through the sound emitted from inside the vessel. The Admiralty was interested in learning if there were ways to improve U-boat identification through hydrophones. The Admiralty Research Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, published a classified study on 22 February 1945 titled Supplement to the Detection of Schnorkel by Hydrophone. This was part of a series of reports designed to show the ‘probability of recognition of Schnorkel over a yearly cycle on various hydrophone systems’. As a baseline the probability model was based on a snorkel-equipped U-boat charging its batteries at a regular snorkel depth cruising at 2–3 knots. A subsequent report considered propeller noise in the calculus among other operational conditions, as well as practical results from test trials being carried out. What is interesting is how limited the report was given that it was nearly one year since the first snorkel-equipped U-boat became operational. The analysis factored in the rule that pressure is inversely proportional to distance, as well as the impact of temperature gradients based on the report ‘Sound Beam Patterns in Sea Water’ issued by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Massachusetts, on 10 October 1944. This latter point is interesting as it shows how little the Admiralty understood the impact of temperature gradients, especially now that the U-boats had moved back to operating inshore.

The study looked at all hydrophone and sonar systems across the spectrum of distances. It was based on depths of 150ft and 900ft, with the former having a bottom reflection coefficient of .3 and the latter being evaluated with a bottom reflection coefficient of both .3 and .7. All probabilities were modelled across sea states 1–4. Looking at a sea state 2, in 150ft of water with a bottom reflection coefficient of .7, we see that in order to have a 60 per cent chance of picking up a snorkelling U-boat that is charging its batteries, a 50ft vertical rod hydrophone has the best chance at 14,000 yards, followed by 15ft ASDIC at 10kc/s being 6,000 yards, 15ft ASDIC at 20kc/s being approx. 4,200 yards, a non-directional hydrophone suspended from a sonobuoy being 3,900 yards, and finally a non-directional hydrophone suspended from a ship being less than 2,000 yards. A calm sea would give greater distances, while a sea state 4 would reduce them significantly. These averages were compounded in shallow water by the extensive noises heard from a wide range of other vessels and differing gradients. The study was based on British submarine diesel noise trials. The results were not promising and confirmed the difficulty of submerged U-boat detection in coastal waters, already well known by support group commanders.

In addition to the use of technology, new search patterns were adopted by the search groups designed specifically to find a bottomed U-boat. These patterns were ‘Scabbard’ and ‘Artichoke’. Both made the assumption that a U-boat would in fact bottom near the torpedoed vessel, bow pointed in the direction of tide. The search patterns were designed to improve the chances of ASDIC detection by hopefully encountering the bottomed U-boat abeam. However, it is not clear if these patterns were routinely employed in practice as the tactical conditions of a U-boat encounter were often highly varied.

While the British wrestled with U-boat detection in coastal waters they also introduced a series of defensive measures designed to blind and confuse U-boats, which now operated almost exclusively in an underwater world of sound. Code-named ‘Foxer’, this noise maker was towed behind an Allied ship and was originally intended to confuse the German G7 acoustic homing torpedoes introduced in 1943–44. These were turned into buoys in the autumn of 1944 and employed in a static fashion around harbours and close-in waterways where Allied vessels manoeuvred to blind U-boats operating in these areas. BdU issued guidance regarding this Allied tactic to all U-boats on 3 January 1945:

It has been determined that the enemy has noise-producing buoys which reproduce the noise of a buzz saw. Apparent purpose: (1) Attempt to deflect Zaunkönig (2) Blocking our hydrophones. Details on the buoy not yet known. The following observations are important and are to be reported: (1) Appearance of buoy, if it can be determined by chance observation through periscope. (2) Length of the towing connection. (3) Does the buzz saw noise also occur in noise-producing buoys? (4) Is the noise produced by the movement of the current or by a special mechanism?

It was clear that BdU did not completely understand the buoy’s tactical use. This tactic was employed some six months after the introduction of the snorkel and the inshore campaign, highlighting how long it was taking the Allies to adapt to the new U-boat tactics.

A post-war analysis of the inshore campaign revealed the Allied struggle with locating and destroying U-boats. In the period from July to mid-September 1944 twenty-six ships were torpedoed. During that time only three U-boats were found and located immediately by Allied support groups after a torpedoing. From the period mid-September to December 1944, where U-boats were completing their evacuation to Norwegian bases and snorkel retrofittings were being completed on the existing operational boats, the number of U-boat patrols against the British Isles decreased. However, three Allied ships were sunk with no U-boats located after the attacks. From mid-December 1944 until February 1945, twenty-three Allied ships were torpedoed with only three U-boats sunk immediately after the reported attack. This period of the inshore campaign proved the most effective for snorkel-equipped U-boats and the most concerning for the Allies. The final period was from mid-February until May, 1945. This period saw a marked increase in operational U-boats sent against the British Isles, which resulted in thirty-five Allied ships torpedoed and eight U-boats identified and sunk shortly after the attack. This suggested that Allied tactical improvements were proving effective, though the number of operational U-boats deployed also increased at the same time. During these four periods the number of U-boats sunk by aircraft proved dismal, with only one each for the first three periods and six in the fourth.

There were other U-boats sunk around the British Isles during these four periods of analysis, however, they were identified by chance. In the first period there were eight sunk, followed by two, one and twelve. These numbers reflected a combination of contributing factors that ranged from some U-boats transiting British waters without a snorkel in July–September on their return to Norway to a large increase of U-boats sent on patrol at the end of the war.

The Admiralty understood that the chance encounter provided the best opportunity to locate and sink a U-boat. This is revealed by the fact that out of thirty-seven U-boats sunk during the inshore campaign by surface vessels, only eleven were destroyed by surface ships escorting or supporting a convoy, while the other twenty-six were targeted by patrolling support groups. Most U-boats sunk in the inshore campaign were encountered en route to their patrol areas. Put another way, by April 1945 U-boats that reached the British coast found themselves in a very effective position. The Admiralty assessed that their escorts only had an 8 per cent chance of detecting a U-boat as it approached a convoy in coastal waters.35 The key was interdicting the U-boat before it reached the coast.

Acoustic Camouflage

The Admiralty did take note of the use of rubber coating of U-boats during the war. Survivors of U-485 were interrogated about this technology. The Royal Navy interrogator noted that the: ‘Rubber covering was against our ASDIC. His was one of the first boats to be so fitted, and he personally had had insufficient experience to be able to assess its value.’

In the autumn of 1944 the Admiralty took serious note of the development. In a report dated 21 November 1944, it reviewed the possibilities of what the rubber was used for and concluded: ‘In general, it is considered that there is a possibility of reducing echo strength from a submarine by protective coatings, and that any development along these lines must be carefully watched.’

The November assessment was indeed correct that developments had to be ‘watched’ as Alberich reduced the ASDIC effectiveness and gave U-boats a marked advantage when operating in coastal waters.

Strategic Countermeasures

Air raids were employed as a strategic countermeasure to U-boats. Starting in the spring of 1943 and lasting through to the end of the war, Allied air raids hit German shipyards and production centres. The result was that most shipyards experienced work stoppages of three to four weeks that delayed the VIIC construction and operational readiness of existing boats. In the last twelve months of the war air attacks reportedly contributed to preventing some 150 Type XXIs from being built. Diesel production was hit hard when a raid on the factory in Augsburg delayed work for nearly four weeks in June 1944. Battery production at Hagen and Hanover was paralysed by air attacks, causing a scarcity in them after February 1945. It was determined that due to this shortage, only half of the ordinary number of batteries required for the Type XXIs would be installed after December.

Despite the strategic bombing campaign, more U-boats were at sea or operationally ready in May 1945 than at any point during the war.

The Great War in the East Opens, August 1914

In the west, Imperial Germany launched the still debated Schlieffen Plan invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, a blueprint for a rapid victory on which all the hopes of the German general staff rested.

This encompassed a vast turning movement through Belgium that was to strike France in a “great right wheel” to concentrate all German forces in the west. This left the German east less well defended, in hopes of a quick victory against the western Allied armies that included a British Expeditionary Force that the Kaiser unwisely, but infamously, denigrated as “A contemptible army!”

The generals of this same staff had duly calculated upon East Prussia being invaded by the Russians, but they did not foresee at all the swiftness and massive strength with which it was done.

The German defensive forces in East Prussia that had already long been deployed to meet this expected Russian thrust was the 8th Army of fourteen divisions commanded by Gen. Maximilian von Prittwitz, who, as fate would have it, was a first cousin of von Hindenburg. Opposed to him were two full-sized and vaster Russian armies, both numerically stronger than his. Thus was East Prussia laid bare on August 15, 1914 to the advancing legions of the Tsar of All the Russias, the Kaiser’s own royal cousin, Nicholas II. Noted one military affairs commentator somewhat dramatically: “All Germany was bewailing the fire and sword that was sweeping East Prussia, and Wilhelm II’s pride was deeply stung.”

Although the Kaiser well knew that the Schlieffen Plan demanded utter concentration on the far more martially important Western Front, he nevertheless complained indignantly of the violation “Of our lovely Masurian Lakes!”

In the face of this great challenge, von Prittwitz hesitated in his immediate response, while his senior staff officer, Lt Col. Max Hoffmann, and two of his own corps commanders, Gens. August von Mackensen and Hermann von François, were champing at the bit to close with their eastern enemy in combat, but the nervous von Prittwitz held back.

On August 20, 1914, he telephoned von Moltke—with the suggestion of himself and his own staff chief—that, perhaps, the 8th Army should retreat en masse away from the oncoming Russian armies that might destroy his smaller command. This angered the Kaiser, and it put the count in a quandary as well. Both agreed that their two reluctant soldiers in the east would be replaced, but who by? That was the question.

Meanwhile, unknown to all of them, the Russian High Command had its own problems simultaneously.

Unquiet Allies! Gens. Rennenkampf and Samsonov

General of Cavalry Pavel (Paul) Karlovich Rennenkampf (April 17, 1854 to April 1, 1918)

Ever since Tannenberg, historians generally have seen him as that epic battle’s real loser and not the man blamed for it, Samsonov; the reason is that the former did not aid his colleague in need, thus allowing him to lose. Reportedly, the bad blood between them began during the earlier lost Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when there occurred a similar incident following the Battle of Mukden. The slight rankled, unforgotten, almost a decade later.

Because he was a favorite of the Tsar, the errant Gen. Rennenkampf managed to survive both martial blunders, however, continuing to lead his army well into 1915 no less.

Having beaten von Mackensen at the Battle of Gumbinnen, stumbling badly during Tannenberg, and being beaten himself at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes and at Łódź also—all in the summer of 1914—Rennenkampf was fired on October 6, 1915, over a year after the events.

Arrested and imprisoned after the February 1917 Revolution that overthrew his patron, the Tsar, Gen. Rennenkampf was charged with both embezzlement and mismanagement. His luck held again, however, and he was freed after the October 1917 Revolution that brought Lenin to office.

Then his luck ran out for good when he was executed on April 1, 1918 by the Reds for refusing to fight for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War.

General of Cavalry Alexander Vasilyevich Samsonov (November 14, 1859 to August 30, 1914)

A veteran horse commander during both the Boxer Rebellion in China and then the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria afterwards, Gen. Samsonov suffered the greatest defeat of any C.O. of any armed force of the Great War right at its very outset.

By August 29, 1914, his Russian 2nd Army was surrounded by the Germans in a forest situated between Allenstein and Willenberg in East Prussia, and the next day, he shot himself near the latter, his body—pistol in hand and bullet in head—being found later by a German patrol.

The International Red Cross arranged for his body to be returned to his widow in 1916.

General of Infantry Hermann von François, Disobeyer of Orders

Gen. Hermann Karl Bruno von François (January 31, 1856 to May 15, 1933) stands out in the early history of the Great War as the premiere disobeyer of orders of several superior commanders running. As such, he was staying true to one of the cardinal rules of all German officers: use your initiative at all times. This he did, in the very first triad of major battles on the Eastern Front: Stallupönen, Gumbinnen, and the all-important Tannenberg/Christmas Mountain.

Born in Luxembourg a Huguenot, von François began the war as commanding officer of the German 8th Army’s 1st Corps, tasked with defending the East Prussian frontier against any Russian Army invasion headed for the provincial capital of Königsberg, site in 1861 of the coronation of King Wilhelm I of Prussia, the last such ever held anywhere.

On August 15, 1914, East Prussia was suddenly and surprisingly invaded by the right wing of a double-pronged thrust of Russian Gen. Pavel Rennenkampf’s 1st Army. As von François dealt with this, his 8th Army commander, Gen. von Prittwitz, two days later ordered him to retreat in front of the Russian advance.

Col. Gen. Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron: First Fired!

Maximilian Wilhelm Gustav von Prittwitz und Gaffron (November 27, 1848 to March 29, 1917) has the distinction of being the very first commanding general of any army on either side of the Great War to be fired from his post; in this case, for being willing to abandon East Prussia to the invading Russian Army via a speedy retreat west of the Vistula River. Neither the Kaiser nor von Moltke accepted this, so von Prittwitz was replaced by the later-styled von Hindenburg, then Beneckendorff.

Prittwitz, like his cousin, had also fought in both the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and, unlike the then-retired von Hindenburg, in 1913 was both promoted full general at four stars as well as CO of the 16th Army Corps at Metz, opposite the French Army.

He commanded the German 8th Army defending East Prussia a mere three weeks to the day—August 2–23, 1914—but allowed himself to be spooked by the rapid invasion of his charge by a pair of Russian armies under veteran generals on August 15, 1914.

Alarmed by the near defeat at Stallupönen and the actual rout of von Mackensen at Gumbinnen, von Prittwitz decided on a complete withdrawal but was stopped in his tracks by the Kaiser and his CGS.

The cast-down commander lived in retirement at Berlin in the vast, dark, cold shadow of Tannenberg, dying of a heart attack at the age of sixty-nine, nicknamed “Fatty” by his detractors. His martial reputation has not yet recovered.

German 8th Army East Prussian Headquarters: Castle Marienburg at Malbork

Gen. von Prittwitz’s former military headquarters in East Prussia was in the famous Malbork red brick Castle Marienburg, built in the thirteenth century by the Knights of the Teutonic Order as their command center in what later evolved into Royal Prussia, completely abolished by the Allies in 1945.

Known as Marienburg in German when founded in 1274, the town was named for the order’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary, and remains today Europe’s largest Gothic-style fortress. The town and the fort were destroyed by the Red Army on March 9, 1945, and that June became part of today’s Poland as Malbork.

Von François Wins the Battle of Stallupönen, August 17, 1914

Overall, the Russians fielded ten full armies versus the Germans’ lesser eight for their projected march on Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, which they duly invaded in force on August 15, 1914.

Stallupönen (today’s Nesterov in Russia) was the very first conflict fought by the armies of Imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia on the newly opened Eastern Front on August 17, 1914, just two days later.

Von François pluckily and successfully waged an attack with his German 1st Corps against four full Russian infantry divisions, even creating a gap between two of them in what proved to be a minor victory, but one that made no dent in the enemy’s advance afterwards. Ordered by his superior, von Prittwitz, to break off this fight, François told his adjutant to reply thus: “Report to Gen. Prittwitz that Gen. von François will withdraw when he has defeated the Russians!”

True to his boast, the plucky François then withdrew 15 miles westward, and three days later, he engaged Rennenkampf again at the Battle of Gumbinnen that was a rout for German Hussar Gen. August von Mackensen—his first and only.

The Battle of Gumbinnen, August 17–23, 1914

Gen. von Prittwitz—emboldened by von François’s pluck at Stallupönen—attacked too soon at Gumbinnen, however, causing it to instead become a Russian victory, their first over the hated and arrogant German Army at what is now Gusev, Russia. Samsonov’s Russians defeated Mackensen’s Germans, despite the fact that the victors suffered 18,839 losses in all to the “beaten” foe’s 14,607 according to 2016 statistics. The German 8th Army numbered 148,000 men versus their enemy’s superior force of 192,000 soldiers.

Still fuming that von François had disobeyed his orders in engaging the Russians at Stallupönen just days before, now von Prittwitz disobeyed his own orders from Moltke not to give battle until the campaign in the west was won. He rashly decided to follow up his subordinate’s successful fight with one of his own at Gumbinnen, where Russian cavalry encountered German infantry on August 19, 2014.

This time, von François was given an order to advance against the Russians that night, his cavalry backing up the German infantry, but the resulting battle stalemated when the Russians ran out of artillery ammunition. Until that happened, though, their gunfire halted Mackensen’s advance against Rennenkampf and led to the German’s flank being turned, thus precipitating a rout to their own lines at Insterburg–Angerburg to the rear, with 6,000 POWs being bagged by the victorious Russians.

According to Brownell in First Nazi: “The uncharacteristic sight of defeated German soldiers streaming moblike to the rear really unnerved von Prittwitz,” who feared that his own army would be completely sandwiched, and thus destroyed between those of Rennenkampf and Samsonov: “Prittwitz panicked and—with a decision out of all proportion to the severity of the situation—ordered a general retreat to the Vistula River, leaving East Prussia to the Russians.”

Back at KHQ Koblenz, both His Majesty and von Moltke had visions of Russian Cossack horses trotting down the boulevards of Berlin itself, as had occurred during the Seven Years’ War that Frederick the Great almost lost to the Russian Army. Their solution had been to send the duo east, but they also wrongly detached a trio of infantry corps plus a cavalry division from the marching wing of the German Army in the west to march eastward, where they arrived too late to have any effect whatever on the Battle of Tannenberg, thus being useless on fronts both east and west simultaneously.

Despite his surprise victory against both Mackensen and von François, Gumbinnen caused Gen. Rennenkampf himself to pause and take stock of the aggressive German commanders to his front. By then, von Moltke had replaced the retreating von Prittwitz, and von François was on his way via rail to take on yet another Russian force. This was the 2nd Army of Gen. Samsonov, and, despite his disobedience at Gumbinnen, the new commander Beneckendorff entrusted the scrappy von François with the decisive aspect of the approaching Battle of Tannenberg as well.

How Tannenberg Evolved from the German Defeat at Gumbinnen

By now, the duo had reached their new command and jelled with the savvy Hoffmann as well. Meanwhile, a note had been found on the body of a dead Russian officer that changed the entire strategic picture overall.

Recalled Hindenburg in his postwar memoirs: “It told us that Rennenkampf’s army was to pass the Masurian Lakes on the north, and advance against the Insterburg–Angerburg line … to attack the German forces presumed to be behind the Angerapp, while Samsonov’s Narew Army was to cross the Lötzen–Ortelsburg line to take the Germans in flank.”

Thus forewarned, the duo stopped the German retreat, reversed course, and decided to attack instead their Russian foes, thus setting the stage for the Battle of Tannenberg, acknowledged by all martial historians as “One of Germany’s greatest victories.”

This saw von François as the spear point of the attack against Samsonov on August 27, 1914, plunging deep into the penetrated Russian rear. This led the new Chief of Staff Ludendorff to fear a counterattack from Rennenkampf to aid Gen. Samsonov, so von François was ordered to halt his advance. This the latter again refused to do, thus breaking orders for the second important time within days, continuing his own encirclement of a much larger force, that of Samsonov.

The new commander and his chief of staff got the majority glory for the victory, but they never forgot who had really earned it: Hermann von François.

Hermann von François

When Hindenburg and Ludendorff went south to lead the 9th Army in Russian Poland, François remained with his corps in East Prussia and led it with much success in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes the following month. When General Richard von Schubert, the new commander of the 8th Army, ordered him to retreat, he dispatched a telegram to the OHL describing his success and stating “the Commander is badly counselled.” The telegram impressed the Kaiser so much that he immediately relieved Schubert and, on 3 October, gave von François the command of the 8th Army. He did not hold it for long. When Hindenburg and Ludendorff prepared their counter-attack from Thorn in the direction of Łódź, François was reluctant to send the requested I Corps, sending the badly trained and ill-equipped XXV Reserve Corps instead. That was too much for his superiors. In early November 1914 von François was removed and replaced by General Otto von Below.

After some time spent “on the shelf”, François received the command of the XXXXI Reserve Corps on 24 December 1914, and after a spell in the West, he returned to the Eastern Front in April 1915 where he took part in the Spring Offensive that conquered Russian Poland. He continued to distinguish himself. He won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military decoration, on 14 May 1915 for his performance in the breakthrough at Gorlice, and had the Oak Leaves attached to it in July 1917, for outstanding performance during the Battle of Verdun. In July 1915 he was transferred back to the Western Front to take command of the Westphalian VII Corps in France, and in July 1916 Meuse Group West in the Verdun sector. However he never received any further promotion or serious commands under Ludendorff, and gave up his command in July 1918 and was placed on the standby list until October 1918 when he retired.

Operation Penguin I

On May 18–20, 1944, there was a V-2 demonstration at Heidelager. General Metz was present, and at the conclusion, it was apparent that another few months would be necessary before V-2 operations could begin. LXV Corps drew up plans for the V-2 opening attack, which would be code-named “Operation Penguin,” tentatively scheduled for September of 1944, while the V-1 opening offensive was planned for mid-June. The mobile strategy was agreed upon, involving only one battalion, as it was doubtful that all units would be ready by September. This gave General Metz another excuse to request his relief from such a small command. He believed it was ludicrous that a general officer should be required to coordinate between corps headquarters and a single battalion. However, he was persuaded to withdraw his request by General Buhle, who was Chief of Armaments for the Army, after Buhle promised that in time there would be a total of four complete V-2 battalions under two regimental staffs.

After the fall of Paris, the office of HARKO 191 under General Metz was ordered to withdraw from France. All V-2 related personnel and equipment was evacuated by way of Ypres to Turnhout, then to Dongen near Tilburg en route to Germany. On August 29, 1944, there was a conference between General Jodl, General Buhle, and SS General Kammler at which tactical command of all troops was given to HARKO 191. Hitler had ordered the start of Operation Penguin to commence as soon as possible. When detailing the plans for the operation, Hitler decreed that half of the rockets should be aimed at Paris and half at London. On August 30, the General Staff issued orders to LXV Corps to begin the preparation of launch sites near Ghent for an impending rocket attack against Paris. The following day, LXV Corps requested proof of the Führer’s order and asked General Keitel, because of Kammler’s involvement, for confirmation of the current chain of command. Kammler assumed the confusion had been laid to rest when he informed commanders in the west that he had been given provisional supervision of the rocket project. Per Himmler’s orders, the opening V-2 attacks would commence on September 5. He ended by stating that if anyone needed to get in touch with him, he was traveling to Brussels.

A few days later, on August 31, 1944, the important players gathered in Brussels for what was believed to be the final planning meeting for the rocket offensive. SS General Kammler had called the meeting, but General Heinemann presided. Present were various Chiefs of Staff, including Colonel Walter, General Metz, and General Dornberger. In an attempt to subdue those present into concession, Kammler boldly announced that he was taking control of not only rocket production and administration but also tactical deployment, a move that did not sit well with LXV Corps commanders. Kammler began issuing commands for units in the field and detailing the operational strategy. A heated argument ensued, after which General Heinemann demanded to see his papers from the Armed Forces High Command. The SS general could produce no such papers. Then, Colonel Walter, LXV Corps Chief of Staff, proceeded to read a communiqué from the High Command that confirmed the authority of LXV Corps over tactical deployment of the rocket. The message went on to stress Kammler’s complete irrelevance. The legitimacy of Kammler’s claim collapsed and his power grab was averted, but not for long.

Two days later, Himmler confirmed General Kammler’s complete authority. The Armed Forces High Command instructed LXV Corps to brief Kammler on the preparations for the offensive. At this point, LXV Corps would still conduct the operation, although Kammler would be in command. Himmler’s appointment gave Kammler total control of the program, including operational deployment. He would be subservient to only Himmler and to SS General Jüttner, the head of the SS leadership office, which acted as general staff for the Waffen SS. To solidify his control, Kammler immediately launched a campaign to isolate Dornberger. He asserted the right to issue direct orders to Dornberger’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Thom. No doubt Kammler’s intentions were meant to cut the legs out from under his rival and force Dornberger out of the program completely.

Even before Kammler’s ascendancy, Dornberger was struggling to retain what little influence he still processed. He was no longer commander of Peenemünde, the Army Ordnance Department saw him now as an outsider, and LXV Corps had replaced him as commander of the rocket batteries. Kammler’s ruthless acquisition of power over the rocket project left Dornberger in complete despair. It seemed he had lost everything. On August 29, 1944, he drafted his resignation only to be convinced by his Peenemünde colleagues to change his mind. Ironically, it was SS General Jüttner who ultimately rescued Dornberger from Kammler’s malevolence. When Colonel Thom, on Kammler’s orders, reported to Jüttner in Berlin to complain about Dornberger and request his removal and transfer of his staff, the reaction from Jüttner was probably not what Kammler expected. Jüttner was outraged at Kammler’s treatment of Dornberger. He felt it was insufferable that Kammler had threatened to have Dornberger shot if he dared approach Jüttner himself. Considering Dornberger’s background and knowledge of the rocket, Jüttner refused to expel him. He ordered the two men to work together for the good of the program. Dornberger would soon become General Kammler’s representative on the home front, responsible for training the rocket troops, weapon improvements, and coordinating supply of materials to the firing areas.

The opening of the rocket offensive was set for September 5, 1944, and per Kammler’s request, the Armed Forces High Command issued the necessary orders to start the movement of the rocket battalions to the firing areas on September 2. Kammler put Dornberger in charge for getting the movement organized and underway. The next day, more than 5,000 personnel and approximately 1,500 vehicles were moving to the firing areas. General Dornberger had promised to have the V-2 batteries ready for action by September 15, 1944. These included the first and second batteries of Battalion 485, the second and third batteries of Battalion 836, and Training and Experimental Battery 444. The third battery of Battalion 485, along with the first battery of Battalion 836 and the SS Werfer Battery 500, were still in training and would not be ready for the start of the campaign.

On September 6, 1944, General Kammler issued his first command order. After reaffirming his authorization from Reichsführer SS Himmler, he ordered the troops divided into two groups: Gruppe Nord (Group North) and Gruppe Süd (Group South). Kammler dictated that the operational commanders for each group would answer to him personally and that no important decisions would be made without first gaining his approval. Group South, consisting of about 2,000 troops, was under the command of Major Weber, who had been in charge of Battery 444 since the beginning. His units consisted of Battalion 836 and Battery 444. Group North—about 3,000 troops—consisted of Battalion 485 (which was later joined by SS Werfer Battery 500), and was initially under the command of Major von Ploetz, although he would be replaced several weeks later by Major Schulz. Each of the firing batteries was appointed a designated technical battery and support groups. All units associated with the deployment of the rocket, over 8,000 men, were under direct command of SS Gruppenführer Hans Kammler, who had come up with his own name for his command: Division zur Vergeltung (the vengeance division) or Division z.V., which stood for Special Employment for Retaliation.

The missile, dressed in its ragged camouflage scheme, stood motionless on its sturdy firing table, hidden completely by the dense trees of the Ardennes. About 40 feet away, the measurement platoon had situated two optical aiming collimators that established the vertical positioning of the device. After the power supply vehicle had run a series of preliminary tests, the firing crew electricians had climbed the rungs of the Meillerwagen arm to install the 50-volt flight control battery, along with the two 27-volt batteries for the gyros. The fins of the rocket were situated in four pedestal slots attached to the rotating ring of the firing table. The crew used a hand crank to rotate the rocket on the table so that fin number one was aligned with the pitch axis toward Paris. The protective jet covers had been removed from the venturi in the combustion chamber, and the fragile carbon-graphite exhaust rudders were carefully bolted in place. It was a few minutes past 8 o’clock in the morning; the convoy of fueling vehicles would soon approach.

As a result of the two launch failures and because of the partisan attacks of a few days earlier, the firing crews of Battery 444 had moved from the launching position at Petites Tailles to a new position six miles to the east, near the tiny village of Sterpigny. On Friday, September 8, 1944, the first V-2 of the German rocket campaign lifted off at 8:40 AM heading toward Paris. While the firing crews must have been elated to finally get operations underway, indications are that the rocket exploded at high altitude, breaking up before hitting the target. However, two hours later, a second rocket fired by Battery 444 came down southeast of Paris, at Charentonneau à Maisons-Alfort, killing six people and injuring 36 others. It was the first ballistic missile attack in history, but it caused little commotion.

Because of the sweeping Allied advances just weeks earlier, many Dutch people in the province of South Holland were betting the war would be over by the end of the year. On September 5, 1944, there were many rumors about the fast-approaching Allied armies. However, the citizens of Holland were unaware of the overextended supply lines slowing the advance, which would soon become a crawl. The suffering for the Dutch was far from over. After several years of occupation by German forces, residents of The Hague (Den Haag, or officially, ‘s-Gravenhage), the administrative capital of the Netherlands, had become accustomed to the various sounds of war: the drone of aircraft, the blast of falling bombs, and the thud of antiaircraft guns; but now they were about to be introduced to a new sound, one that would soon bring trepidation.

Following an early morning storm, it was a warm, sunny afternoon in the affluent suburb of Wassenaar, just northeast of The Hague. On that day, September 8, 1944, the local residents heard a strange sound. A tremendous roar filled the air, furniture and windowpanes shook, and the ground began vibrating. Dutch civilians exited their homes in time to witness two pointed projectiles, about 50 feet long, rising slowly above the treetops. A cloud of smoke rolled through the streets after the rockets had cleared the trees. They gained speed rapidly with flames emerging at the rear extending to more than half their lengths. As the rockets moved higher and higher into the heavens, a white trail appeared in the form of a spiral. The smoke disappeared at a height of about 12 miles, and the projectiles accelerated rapidly, their trajectory flattening out somewhat. They finally disappeared traveling at a terrific speed. Under the command of Colonel Hohmann, the second battery of Battalion 485 had launched two rockets simultaneously at 6:36 PM from the picturesque neighborhood streets: one from the intersection of Lijsterlaan, Konijnenlaan, and Koekoekslaan; the other, about 150 feet away, from the intersection of Lijsterlaan and Schouwweg.

The firing crews had hoped to get an earlier start in the day, however, the strong winds from the passing storm had knocked down a tree, which fell on one of the radio tents in a position several miles away where the signal to shut down the rocket’s engine in flight would be broadcast. Finally, late in the afternoon, German trucks and odd-looking vehicles were seen driving up to the Wassenaar sites from different directions. One of the vehicles was described by eyewitnesses as a long trailer having 16 wheels with some sort of lifting apparatus. Others included tanker trucks and trailers, which were filled from a railway wagon at Wassenaar Station, and an armored halftrack, which had been left about 1,000 feet away from the launching positions. Occupants of the nearby houses had been evicted the day before by German military guards who ordered them to leave their doors and windows unlocked; no one was allowed within half a mile of the area, but the noises and flurry of activity prompted a few daring souls to venture closer for a peek. The launching crews consisted of about 20 soldiers who, when fueling the missiles, were completely clad from head to toe with asbestos-like protective overalls and helmets. It was later discovered that the projectiles were fired using a power cable brought out from a nearby electrical supply point. The Germans had installed a number of these electrical cables, connected to normal power mains, which were laid in the neighborhood via the roads Rijksstraatweg and Rust En Vreugdlaan.

Less than 200 miles away, in the West London suburb of Chiswick, people had already arrived home from their jobs. London was on double summer time, while Holland was on daylight savings, so the hour was the same in both cities. Those who were still on the streets were in a hurry because of the increasing drizzle that threatened to become a steady downpour. Sixty-four-year-old Robert Stubbs was one who was running late. Stubbs had taken care of some last-minute chores before leaving his job as caretaker of the Staveley Road School. Crossing the school playing field, he noticed a serviceman moving briskly down the street past several houses. At 6:41 PM, without any warning, Stubbs was flung 20 feet across the field by a terrific blast. One of the rockets launched from Wassenaar had ended its five-minute journey traveling three times the speed of sound; it slammed into English soil at Staveley Road in Chiswick.

A description of a V-2 impact would be as follows: first, a “whip cracking” sound of the blast wave was heard, created by the rocket moving faster than the speed of sound, which bounces off of the point of impact split seconds before the flash of impact; this was followed by the chaos of the explosion with debris and earth churned skyward. Immediately afterward, as if in reverse order, the whine and rush of whistling air was heard as the sound of the rocket descending through the heavens caught up with the rocket, followed by the roar of the incoming rocket, which tapered off to silence. There could be no warning.

After coming to his senses, Stubbs was shocked to see the devastation all around him. The bomb, which landed at the Burlington Lane end of Staveley Road, had demolished houses on both sides of the cherry-tree-lined street and left a 30-foot crater in the road. A 65-year-old woman, Mrs. Harrison, came crawling out of the shattered home at No. 3, covered in dust. Stubbs tottered over to help her, but there was little he could do; by the time help arrived, Mrs. Harrison had died. The explosion had killed three people, including Private Frank Browning, who was in a hurry that payday to visit his girlfriend’s house. Seventeen other people had been seriously injured in the blast, covered by the debris of their wrecked homes until rescue workers pulled them free.

Newspapers in Britain for September 8, 1944, came out with headlines proclaiming the end of the (V-1) assault on London. The articles featured photographs of Duncan Sandys from his news conference the day before. Over at the Air Ministry Scientific Intelligence Office, Dr. R. V. Jones and his colleague Charles Frank had been discussing the validity of these optimistic calculations. During their conversation, there was a double bang in the distance; the two men looked at each other knowingly and then exclaimed almost simultaneously, “That’s the first one!” The V-2, as if to scoff at the day’s headlines, had finally made its appearance. Moments later, another sonic boom was felt; it was the second rocket from Wassenaar, which fell harmlessly in a field at Parndon Wood, some 16 miles north near Epping. The world had entered into a new type of warfare: the age of the ballistic missile.