THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE ARMIES 1000-1300

Medieval Prints by Graham Turner

Although firmly rooted and fairly well developed in the Rhineland, Franconia, Lorraine (the old Lotharingia) and Burgundy, feudalism in its widest sense was never as strong in Germany as in, say, France or England, and true knighthood and the customary granting of fiefs was unknown in Germany until the 12th century; the earliest recorded instance of knighting actually dates to 1146.

During the period under review Germany was basically a confederation of petty states led by princely families of tribal origin, of whom very few held their Lands as vassals of the crown. In the first half of this era, therefore, the king (or Emperor) had to depend almost entirely on the goodwill of these autonomous princes and dukes for military support, who recognised Imperial authority only when they deemed it expedient to do so. Their principalities had largely evolved from once-independent territories and sub-kingdoms (principally Saxony, Thuringia, Burgundy, Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia) and the princes continued to associate themselves with the ethnic origins of their lands. Without their support the Emperor had practically no army, and therefore no power, at all, and it was as a result of this dependence that the Imperial throne became elective in the second half of the 13th century, the most powerful princes becoming Kürfursten or ‘Electors’ whose one concern was effectively to ensure their own autonomy by the maintenance of a weak monarchy. Some idea of the princes’ military potential can be got from the fact that at a Diet (parliament) in Mainz in 1235, where they were nearly all present, their personal retinues are recorded to have totalled 12,000 knights. An individual prince might easily raise several hundred knights (mostly ministeriales, for which see below), the Archbishop of Cologne reputedly fielding 500 in 1161.

Other than for the king’s expedition to Rome to be crowned (the expeditio italica, after 1135 called the expeditio roma or Romfahrt, later Romzug) only the princes of the church -the abbots, bishops and archbishops- were actually obliged to render him military service, since they alone owed their positions to the crown, having been invested with their various estates and offices by the king; therefore it was on them that he relied predominantly for troops. In 1167, 1174 and 1176, for example, German armies operating in Italy under Frederick I Barbarossa consisted almost entirely of church contingents. However, the obligations of ecclesiastical princes differed from those of feudal vassals; with them it was more a case of administering an Imperial estate and, when necessary, financing contingents of troops from the proceeds. Sometimes such proceeds were inadequate to pay for the requisite troops and it was not uncommon for the church to have to mortgage or pawn property and estates in order to raise men. Most German bishops were therefore soldiers first and churchmen second and many even commanded Imperial armies in the field, despite the fact that for most of this era there was bitter enmity between Empire and papacy. In 1257 Richard of Cornwall wrote to his brother, King Henry III of England, about the ‘mettlesome and warlike archbishops there are in Germany. It would be a fine thing for you if you could create such archbishops in England.’

It was Frederick I (who added the ‘Holy’ to ‘Roman Empire’) who first sought to fully reorganise German feudalism on the model of France. Realising the necessity of pulling together the heterogenous elements that made up the Empire, Frederick made a concerted effort to ensure that all princes, both ecclesiastical and lay, were tied to the throne by bonds of vassalage, and by 1180 the structure of the feudal hierarchy had been firmly established; the princes and dukes were now tenants-in-chief (the princes of the church inevitably taking precedence over lay princes), with their vassals obliged to perform military service as knights. Where previously the king bad been able to solicit military aid from his nobility chiefly only by cash payments, the late-12th century saw them serving for a standard period of6 weeks per year, in addition to which, after an interval, their vassals could be called upon for further service of another 6 weeks at the expense of the tenant-in-chief or crown. Unfortunately after Frederick’s death in 1190 his successors were unable to maintain their hold on the nobility, his grandson Frederick II (1214-50, best known for his Sicilian and Italian exploits) issuing in 1231 the ‘Statute of Favour of the Princes’ which granted lay and ecclesiastical princes alike absolute autonomy within their lands and total freedom from royal interference; assorted exemptions from and limitations on obligatory military service followed (Bohemians and Saxons, for instance, could commute their obligation to participate in the Romfahrt by means of a token cash payment). Thereafter the German monarchy was purely elective and royal authority Little more than nominal. Rudolf of Habsburg (1273-91) appears to have been at least partially successful in forcing the nobility back into submission, though be bad to put dissidents down by force on a number of occasions and destroyed some 70 or more castles in the process. Nor were his achievements particularly lasting.

Since the princes were of dubious loyalty, and because the German peasantry were basically forbidden to bear arms by the late-12th century, it was inevitable that some reliance should be placed on mercenary troops (principally Germans), though they were apparently never employed in particularly large numbers. As early as the late-11th century it had been suggested to Henry IV (by Benzo of Alba) that mercenaries, paid for by a form of scutage, should replace the feudal or semi-feudal muster, and the suggestion was revived following the failure of Henry V’s French campaign of 1124and again after the decisive defeat of the Imperialists under Otto IV at Bouvines in 1214. Certainly Frederick I had depended on Brabanson mercenaries in Italy in 1166-67 (5-800 men, or perhaps 1,500 including Flemish mercenaries too) and 1174-75 (commanded by the Archbishop of Mainz), where they gained a morale ascendancy over the Italians, who were scared to death of them (or, rather, of their reputation); such Brabanzonen were only actively employed within Germany itself once, in Saxony in 1179 by Archbishop Philip von Heinsberg of Cologne, who fielded as many as 4,000 mercenaries, cavalry and infantry together, of whom the Brabansons constituted the latter. The Emperors themselves tended to rely heavily on mercenaries in their personal retinues to compensate for the indifference of their vassals; for a crusading enterprise of 1196-98 Henry VI personally raised a contingent of as many as 6,000 mercenary troops, 1,500 of them knights and a further 1,500 being esquires. Many such troops were paid with money-fiefs. Hungarians too were sometimes employed, about 600 horse-archers being recorded in an army raised in 1158, while as many as 14,000 are supposed to have been present under their king in Rudolf’s army at Marchfeld 120 years later.

Another considerable – and unique – element of the Imperial army (and of the ecclesiastical contingents in particular) was supplied by ministeriales (German Dienscleuten), a class of ‘unfree’ knights. These appeared in the first half of the 10th century, were only first introduced on a large scale by Conrad II (1024-39), when they were much used for royal garrisons. They were initially nonnoble freemen administering fiefs without actually holding them as vassals, and they could be granted by one lord to another, leased out as mercenaries, or even sold.

The building of fortresses was one of the duties of the levy, particularly in the Marches. Henry the Fowler (919-936, founder of the dynasty), introduced a system where every ninth man lived in a fortified town, helping to build and maintain it, while the other 8 continued their agricultural chores and stored one third of their produce within the town, taking refuge there themselves during Slav or Magyar raids. These men were lower-class vassals, sometimes referred to as agrarii milites, who were in many ways the forerunners of the mediaeval German ministeriales, unfree knights.

It was Conrad II (1024-1039) who actually introduced ministeriales on a large scale. A ministerialis is best described as an unfree man in possession of a benefice and performing the same military service as a free, feudal tenant would. They appear to have originally evolved as a result of church lands being obliged to supply feudal troops in the same way as the nobility had to; so as not to incur a loss of income by granting the land to free vassals to fulfil these obligations, unfree men were granted such lands instead and were obliged to supply the requisite military duties while at the same time, being unfree, not being permitted any of the benefits or income of a free vassal. This practice became widespread in Germany.

Many vassals therefore bad no need to involve themselves in subinfeudation, since they could utilise ministeriales to satisfy their military obligations without loss of land or revenue, and it was this aspect that made them particularly popular with the church. However, ministeriales often became important Imperial officials so that their status steadily improved. As early as 1126 we find ministeriales being made knights and by the mid-century they had to be paid for service beyond their master’s own domains. Many were by this time becoming powerful and wealthy enough to be considered capable of holding lands on their own account, so that their offices were subsequently convened into feudal possessions. Their ability to hold property and thereby have vassals of their own inevitably broke down and blurred the original distinction between the ‘unfree’ ministerialis and the free knight (to the disgust of the latter), one powerful ministerialis of Frederick I’s reign, Werner von Bolanden, even being reported as holding 17 castles and allegedly being owed the service of as many as 1,100 men-at-arms. By the mid-13th century when, in South German contingents at least, as much as 95 per cent or more of an army could be composed of ministeriales – they were indistinguishable from the nobility, a considerable proportion of the latter by then being of ministerialis origin, including even dukes, counts and bishops.

Some ministeriales appear to have served as infantry but most evidence indicates that they were cavalrymen. The same applies to the Sariants, or sergeants, who first appear in the 12th century. Nethertheless infantry were an important element of German armies. Many were still supplied by the Heerbann or its equivalent, the traditional Germanic levy of all able-bodied freemen which lasted up until the 13th century, though from the late-12th century the lower classes were being steadily excluded from military service. It lasted longest in the north and east, in Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria; Saxon and Thuringian infantry were present in strength at Bouvines in 1214 and fought in nearly every important campaign of the 11th and 12thcenturies.

The standard role of infantry in this period was of an almost entirely defensive nature, an attitude which remained prevalent until the beginning of the 14th century. They were either assigned to the cavalry units or organised separately, usually as close-order phalanxes. They could be drawn up before, behind, between or on the flanks of the cavalry depending on circumstances.

To strengthen the infantry and boost their morale many commanders chose to dismount at least a percentage of their knights, particularly in the late-11th and 12th centuries; this is especially true of English, Norman and German armies. Prior to the 13th century, in fact, German knights are recorded in a number of contemporary sources as better at fighting on foot than on horse. The 12thcentury Byzantine chronicler Cinnamus records them as being at their best fighting on foot with the sword, comparing them to the French who were better on horseback with the lance. William of Apulia, describing Swabian knights fighting on foot at Civitate in 1053, says they were ‘better with the sword than the lance since they are incapable of handling their horses or thrusting vigorously [with the lance]. But they excel with the sword.’ At Damascus in the Second Crusade we even find German knights dismounting to charge, William of Tyre telling us that this ‘was the custom of the Germans when circumstances obliged them to use it.’ Conversely, we are told that French knights were of little value on foot, while a source ofc. 1120 describes Breton knights as 7 times more effective mounted than they were when dismounted.

Other infantry were provided by town militias from the 11th century onwards, these participating in most of the civil wars which racked the reigns of every German king of this era.

They were obliged to go to war when ever called upon to do so by their sovereign (ie, the ruling prince, duke, bishop etc of the state in which the town stood, which in the case of Reichsunmittelbare towns-those under direct royal control- was the king or Emperor himself). In most cases, however, they were not expected to do much more than defend their own town walls, except in dire circumstances when they might be called upon to serve in the field locally (this obligation frequently being reduced in the 13th century so that service could not be called for further than a half-day’s march from the militia’s home town). Hence the reliance on Italian, Brabancon and other indigenous or mercenary infantry when campaigning outside Germany.

Auxiliaries were also employed, Magyars, Poles, Wends and other Slavs all being recorded in the 10th and 1th centuries. Even Danish auxiliaries are sometimes mentioned, by the mid-11th century apparently sometimes serving as cavalry As an indication of the numbers of troops available, 32 legiones were mustered for an attack on the Capetian Hugh the Great in 946, though these included Carolingian French and Flemish units, while at Lechfield in 955 there were 8 legiones, probably a more usual size for an army. Otto II, campaigning in Italy in 982, requested reinforcements of 2,080 feudal cavalry from Lotharingia, Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia, 1,482 of whom were supplied by ecclesiastical vassals; this may very well have been after his defeat by the Arabs at Cotrone, where he is recorded to have lost 4,000 men killed plus many more captured. In the mid-11th century Henry II had adequate troops to promise a Milanese rebel the loan of 4,000 knights (probably ministeriales).

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“Potsdamer Riesengarde”

The Potsdam Giants was the Prussian infantry regiment No 6, composed of taller-than-average soldiers. The regiment was founded in 1675 and dissolved in 1806 after the Prussian defeat against Napoleon. Throughout the reign of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia (1688–1740) the unit was known as the “Potsdamer Riesengarde” (“giant guard of Potsdam”) in German, but the Prussian population quickly nicknamed them the “Lange Kerls” (“Long guys”).

Frederick William I from the house of Hohenzollern became King of Prussia in 1713.

Charles Darwin wrote that human beings, unlike livestock, had never been forcibly bred for select characteristics, ‘except in the well-known case of the Prussian grenadiers.’ To the amazement of fellow-rulers and trembling subjects alike, the Soldier-King (as Frederick was nicknamed) began to collect giant men as one would collect rare stamps. From all over Prussia he had his agents look for- and oftentimes kidnap- men suffering from gigantism. In striving to create his own personal soldier core of giants, the king instructed his subjects to immediately signal the authorities whenever they should become aware of exceptionally tall men in the vicinity. He also made clear to his political allies that they could keep their gifts of gold for themselves as long as they provided him now and then with fresh giants to fill up his stock. The strange and sinister request dripped down into every segment of Prussian society. Prussian teachers, eager to appease the morbid king, kept an eye out for tall children and promptly handed them over to him when they had the chance. Newborn babies, expected to grow unusually tall, were marked with a bright red scarf for identification purposes.

If someone was unfortunate enough to be over six feet tall and born in the Prussian sphere of influence (which was quite extensive at the time), he would sooner or later be noticed and assigned to the king’s private collection cabinet. Cautious parents, aware of the king’s eccentric cravings, made improvised shelters for their children to hide them from the ever watchful eyes of Frederick’s scouts- who feverishly roamed the land in search of specimens to satisfy his dark avocations. If the collection item-to-be happened to be well-to-do (or of noble descent himself) no expense was spared to acquire him- for the king reserved enormous amounts of cash just for the purchasing of giants. If one had the misfortune of being of modest means or descent, the conduct of the Prussian agents was altogether different: in this case they were given carte blanch to simply abduct the person in question, bring them before the Prussian king to be inspected, stamped with the royal seal and subsequently enslaved. It would sometimes occur that his agents were so eager in carrying out their assignment that their prey would not survive the brutal journey to the Prussian throne. This would always enrage the impatient king, and the agent in question could count on a swift reprimand for his negligence (usually on the unhappy end of a rifle). Some glitches aside, his collection grew steadily- and before long he managed to assemble his giants in a formidable ‘regiment’ which were regularly taken out on display when some befriended tyrant came to visit. But Frederick was not satisfied with merely collecting the giants to impress neighboring monarchs; Frederick took the whole thing to the next level.

Crossbreeding Giants

According to Washington Monthly author David Wallace-Wells, ‘King Frederick’s obsession was more than mere schoolyard eugenics.’ Indeed it was. Frederick was not the man for silly pet projects or idle pleasures. He was a Prussian king and that means thoroughness in absolutely every respect. With an ambition that would put Marie Stopes to shame, he gathered from all over Europe the most impressive ‘samples’ and selected each and every one of them personally before sending them to his sub-level experimentation chambers. The most notorious of these experiments was the stretching of his grenadiers on a specially constructed rack in an attempt to make them taller than they already were. Frederick would sometimes preside over these racking sessions himself while enjoying his lunch at the same time. However absurd and cruel this method, it revealed the king’s unwavering ambitions regarding all things inhumane. One of the first to venture into the world of methodical eugenics, king Frederick encountered the same difficulties as his future counterparts. When it became apparent that this method resulted in the death of the giants instead of gaining even an inch in length, he ended the practice lest he run out of giants. But putting a halt to this racking practice could not prevent the giants from dying in alarming numbers, for many of them sought refuge in suicide. As only a German blueblood could devise, the king forced his rapidly shrinking collection to interbreed with equally tall women so as to build a future army of giants, which would be the envy of Europe’s upper-class. Here he actually attempted to breed a ‘new man’, and it is said that the city of Potsdam, lair of the Hohenzollerns, was littered with unusually tall men at the end of the 18th century as a result. It is sad, this tale of the Potsdam giants. They fell victim to the elite’s bloodthirsty appetite and unwittingly became one of the first to be sacrificed on the altar of eugenics.

Conflict over the Bay, 1943

Gradually the boffins and engineers had improved the lot of the air crews by developing ASV radar, more reliable depth charges, anti-sub bombs and acoustic torpedoes, while they now had better aircraft. The fact that Dönitz had now effectively withdrawn from engaging in the mighty convoy battles of the North Atlantic, was as much due to the losses inflicted on his boats, as the losses, also in 1943, of boats traversing the Bay of Biscay.

As 1943 got underway for 19 Group, so the actions increased week after week. Space does not provide as much detail of these actions as described in previous chapters, but in my book Conflict over the Bay (Grub Street, 1999) full coverage is given in a blow-by-blow account.

In the early months of 1943, German tactics had not yet changed. The Leigh Light had prevented U-boat commanders crossing the Bay at night, and they were forced to travel for the most part on the surface, especially if their batteries need to be recharged and the boat’s fresh air supply replenished. This made them vulnerable as ASV could pick them up more easily.

By May U-boat captains had been ordered to remain on the surface and fight back, their chances, Dönitz believed, would be better if they deflected an aircraft’s approach in the face of gunfire at low level – and the big Sunderlands and Liberators particularly, offered a huge target for gunners who held their nerve. As mentioned earlier, Coastal Command’s counter to this was to circle some way off, and either call up other aircraft in the vicinity in order to make a co-ordinated attack from different angles, thereby dividing the defensive fire, or, if in luck, one of the Navy’s anti-sub escort groups might not be too far away and could be homed in.

The 2nd Escort (or Support) Group in particular seemed to be able to roam the outer Bay areas with impunity, and was constantly on the alert for U-boats, coming or going. Captain F. J. Walker CB DSO*** RN, with five sloops, would be responsible for a number of U-boats attacked, sunk and damaged. Sadly he died in July 1944, aged forty-eight, from cerebral thrombosis, brought on by overwork and exhaustion. He lost a son serving aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean in August 1943.

By this time too, the USAAF had joined the fray, sending Liberator squadrons to England where they, like the Iceland-based USN units, came under Coastal Command control, joining the Battle of the Bay. Their first success came on 20 February, First Lieutenant Wayne Johnson of 1 Squadron USAAF damaging U-211.

Six days later one of Coastal’s best pilots, Squadron Leader P. J. Cundy, flying with 224 Squadron (Liberators), damaged U-508. He had already flown many sorties with 53 and 120 Squadrons and his experience was about to pay dividends. Wellingtons were still being used by 19 Group, and so too were Whitleys of No.10 OTU, released by Bomber Command in order to help support the group. On 22 March one 10 OTU crew damaged U-665. Quite a few boats were damaged in these early months, but some were also sunk. Pilot Officer J. B. Stark of 58 Squadron put his Halifax over U-528 on 11 May and his depth charges sent it to the bottom. Four days later, Wing Commander W. E. Oulton DFC, CO of the same squadron, sank U- 266. The next day, the 16th, Flying Officer A. J. W. Birch made it three for 58 by sinking U-463 – a tanker supply boat.

Another new innovation by the Germans, now that they were beginning to stay up and fight, was the introduction of flak boats, carrying extra defensive armament. They were intended to be ‘flak traps’ to surprise and destroy attacking aircraft. One was U-441. Most U-boats encountered were the Type VIIC and it was a few of this type that were converted (others being U-211, 256, 263, 271, 621 and 953). Sailing for her first mission in her new role on 22 May, U-441 was found by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer H. J. H. Debnam. He attacked in the face of extreme anti-aircraft fire and, although he placed his depth charges around the sub, the boat’s gunners were on target and the flying boat dived into the sea with the loss of all on board. However, U-441 had been damaged sufficiently, and sustained crew casualties, for it to be forced to return to base for repair.

On the last day of May, Wilfred Oulton again encountered a U-boat, and began stalking it during an approach through cloud. Finally diving, he made a good straddle, leaving the boat in obvious difficulty and a second attack was made, after which the boat was seen to be trailing oil. Oulton kept the sub under observation while calling up another 58 Squadron aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer E. L. Hartley, but his charges fell short. A Sunderland of 10 RAAF Squadron was next on the scene and after two attacks the boat stopped and began to sink, with men appearing on deck in life-jackets. Another Sunderland arrived, from 228 Squadron, and made an immediate attack, bodies being seen thrown into the air as its charges exploded about the vessel. Oulton later received the DSO, and the two Sunderland captains received DFCs. There were no survivors from U-563.

“Biscay Excursion”
In March 1942, 236 Squadron RAF received the Bristol Beaufighter MkI.At first the squadron was used for shipping reconnaissance and escort duties, before in July it began operations against enemy shipping off the Dutch coast. At the same time detachments operated over the Bay of Biscay to protect anti-submarine aircraft against German attack.
David Pentland Art

These large four-engined aircraft were not the only aircraft operating over the Bay in 1943. The Germans had Junkers 88C fighters on the French coast and often made forays into the Bay to attack the RAF aircraft. It is amazing that the Germans did not make more of this, but fortunately they did not, although a number of running air battles between them did take place, and Coastal aircraft were lost. As a counter, the RAF sent Beaufighters out, hopefully to engage these Ju88s, but they also searched for U-boats. No. 236 Squadron also carried rockets and, on 1 June, Flying Officer M. C. Bateman found U-418 which he attacked and sank with his RPs. As these were still on Coastal’s secret list, Mark Bateman had to report sinking the sub with depth charges. He was awarded the DFC, although no mention of this attack was mentioned in his citation.

Another fight-it-out duel on the night of 13/14 June had U-564 shooting down a 228 Squadron Sunderland, from which nobody survived. The boat was damaged, however, and limped away, only to be located the next day by a Whitley of 10 OTU, piloted by Sergeant A. J. Benson RAAF. Buzz Benson shadowed the sub, and another boat (U-185) that had suddenly appeared to help, while carrying out homing procedure but was then given permission to make an attack. Benson selected U- 564 and also met gunfire, but his depth charges went down and finished her off. Benson’s Whitley was badly hit, with his hydraulics knocked out and one engine giving problems. He radioed base saying he was heading home but did not make it. He and his crew survived a ditching and were fortunate enough to be rescued by a French fishing boat, but when they suggested to the skipper that he take them to England, he had to refuse, as his family would suffer if the Germans discovered what he had done. Thus Benson and his crew were taken to a French port and ended up as prisoners, although he later heard he had been awarded the DFM and promoted to warrant officer. Survivors from U-564 were taken aboard U-185 although twenty-nine of them had been lost. U-564 had been a successful boat, having been credited with sinking at least nineteen ships and damaging others.

A Wellington of 172 Squadron sank U-126 on 3 July (Flight Sergeant A. Coumbis, who had damaged U-566 in April), while Peter Cundy of 224 sank U-628 on the same day. On board his Liberator was Lieutenant Colonel Farrant, an army officer helping to promote the use of a new anti-submarine bomb. These were called Hedgehog bombs, a 35lb device with a hollow charge. With enormous luck they found a surfaced U-boat and Cundy went in dropping depth charges and eighteen of these small bombs, that needed a direct hit to be effective. The boat engaged the approaching Liberator and did score some hits while the Lib’s gunners also hit the boat, knocking one man into the sea. In the first attack one depth charge actually bounced off the conning tower and in the second run more charges straddled the vessel. As the water cleared, several men could be seen in the water, and the Colonel was seen taking off his Mae West prior to throwing it down to the ‘poor devils’. He was, however, persuaded not to, as there might be a chance it might be needed for ‘the poor devils up here’. Cundy, who got home on three engines, received the DSO.

Despite the Germans staying up to fight, July was proving a successful month as far as kills were concerned. On the 7th one pilot, Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank of 210 Squadron, damaged U-267. It would not be his last contact with a U-boat.

Terry Bulloch was now in 19 Group, flying with 224 Squadron. He had lost none of his skill and on 8 July sank U-514. He had been given something of a roving commission to fly where and when he wanted, so now flew a Liberator equipped with rocket projectiles which he was testing. On board he had Flight Lieutenant C. V. T. Campbell, an armament specialist, who just happened to spot the U-boat in amongst a group of Spanish fishing boats. Turning towards it, Bulloch could see half a dozen men on the conning tower and fired a pair of RPs at 800 feet distance, two more at 600 and then four from 500 feet, from a height of 500 feet. The boat disappeared, but came up again stern first at about a 20-degree angle. Not in the official report was that Bulloch also carried an acoustic torpedo, which he dropped as well, plus a couple of depth charges for good measure. Whatever got the sub, it was fatal and U-504, set for South African waters, was destroyed.

U-441, the converted flak boat, was back out after being damaged on 24 May, but it did not fare any better this time. She was found by Beaufighters of 248 Squadron on the 12th, and not some large Coastal aircraft that she could trap. The Beaus worked her over with their 20mm cannon, felling some of the crew who were on deck. After several strafing runs the boat went down, badly damaged, to return to home port once more. Ten of her crew had been killed and thirteen more wounded, including her captain. The flak-trap did not seem to be working.

Junkers Ju-88C-6 F8+BX, 13.KG40 Battle over the Biscay

No. 19 Group were still using their patrol areas; Musketry was mentioned previously. The areas did alter slightly from time to time, and other areas, named Derange, Seaslug and Percussion were also being used. Between 14 and 27 June patrols in Musketry had sunk one sub and damaged another, while outside them one had been sunk and five damaged. In July Musketry was extended, and within it Coastal sank seven and damaged two; outside it, four more were sunk and another damaged.

Another case where U-boat and aircraft were lost together came on 24 July. Flying Officer W. H. T. Jennings, 172 Squadron, was guided to a surfaced U-boat by his radar man and went in for an attack. The boat’s gunners opened up, hitting the Wellington and presumably killed or wounded the two pilots, for although the depth charges were released, the Wimpy ploughed right into the sub and blew up. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant A. A. Turner, survived. One charge had landed on the boat’s deck and exploded when the crew pushed it overboard. A Wellington of 547 Squadron arrived and attacked the crippled boat, its crew abandoning it. A RN destroyer later picked up thirty-seven Germans, but not, however, its captain, and, hearing shouts from the rear gunner some way off, found him too. Turner had been involved in two other damaging attacks earlier in the year, with other pilots.

Coastal Command HQ still had a fair idea where the U-boats were from the code breakers, but they needed to be on the surface if they were to be located by aircraft. One of the most dramatic events during this period occurred on 30 July. By this time the month had seen five sinkings, one by Flying Officer R. V. Sweeny, an American with 224 Squadron, flying with Pete Cundy’s crew. In company with another Liberator, from 4 Squadron USAAF, U-404 had been sunk on the 28th. The American B-24 had been damaged by the boat’s fire. Bobby Sweeney had been adjutant of the first American Eagle Squadron, his brother Charles having been the inspiration behind the Eagle Squadrons.

On the 30th, U-461, a type IV supply boat, was seen by Flight Lieutenant D. Marrows and his 461 Sunderland crew. By a strange coincidence, the aircraft letter was ‘U’, so it was U-461 meeting 461/U. U-boats were still making crossings of the Bay in groups for mutual protection, and the Marrows’ crew spotted three of them shortly before noon. Other aircraft had found them already, a Halifax from 502 Squadron coming over, and an American B-24, both of which were circling. As the B-24 made a move towards the boats – U-461, U-462 (another supply boat, a Type XI, and U-504, a Type IXC) – the B-24 met the full force of the boats’ gunners. This gave Marrows an opportunity to nip in, managing to straddle U-461 to good effect. Meantime, his gunners blazed away at the other two boats. As the water cleared, survivors could be seen in the water, and a dinghy was dropped, some sailors being seen to get into it. With one remaining charge on board Marrows went for another sub but gunfire made him break away after hits caught the Sunderland.

In the Halifax, Flying Officer August van Rossum, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, had seen the sloops of the 2nd Escort Group heading for the U-boats, and when he arrived, all three aircraft began making attacks, and even another Liberator, from 53 Squadron, joined in, but was hit by flak and headed off. By now the gunfire from the U-boats was making it necessary to bomb them from height, Van Rossum putting a bomb close to the stern of U-462, but he could also see that the U-boat attacked by the Sunderland was being abandoned. Just then shells from the approaching sloops began to explode near the subs. U-504, attacked by Rossum, limped away and began to dive, but the sloops harried her and depth charges finished her off.

On the first day of August, two Sunderlands, one from 10 RAAF, the other from 228 Squadron, sank two U-boats, U-454 and U-383, while on Musketry patrol but the Australian crew were shot down, just six of them being rescued by a sloop, and 228’s machine had also to limp back home, damaged ailerons making it impossible to turn. Everything was being thrown into the Bay battles, even a twin-engined Hampden of 405 RCAF Squadron, that, on the 2nd, assisted a US Liberator of 1 Squadron to sink U-706 in Musketry. This same day U-106 was destroyed by a 228 Sunderland flown by Flying Officer R. D. Hanbury, shared with a 461 Sunderland. Gunners on the boat continued to fight back even as their comrades were taking to dinghies, but then the sub blew up. Thirty-seven of its crew were picked up by a sloop.

A further U-boat group of three was spotted by the crew of a Wellington of 547 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer J. W. Hermiston RCAF, on the 2nd. They were on their return to base when the airman manning the front gun saw the wake of the first boat. Informing his skipper, he was instructed to take photographs and then open fire when in range. Knowing they would meet the combined fire of the boats, Hermiston decided to drop an anti-sub bomb from 2,000 feet. Sergeant W. Owens, manning the gun, opened accurate fire at the boat, as the others began to close up. Hermiston then decided to drop depth charges, lowering to fifty feet to do so, but they overshot. Bill Owens opened up on other runs, but then all three boats went under. U-218 had been their main target and, while undamaged, Owen had caused so many casualties that she had to abort her mission to Trinidad and return to Brest.

The Germans now countermanded the order to remain on the surface and fight, for this had obviously caused considerable losses. A few still did stay up, but these were generally cases where the boat was surprised and it was too late to dive safely. Those encounters on 2 August were the last for the month, and there were only two in September, a Wellington of 407 Squadron RCAF sinking U-669 on the 7th and a Halifax of 58 Squadron destroying U-221 on the 27th. However, in this attack Flying Officer E. L. Hartley and crew, which included their Station Commander, Group Captain R. C. Mead, was hit by flak as he went in, forcing Hartley to ditch. Two men did not survive the crash, and the others were not rescued for eleven days by the Royal Navy. They had not been searching for them and it was pure luck that they saw their signal flares.

November saw just three successful attacks with two boats sunk and one damaged and just one sunk in December. It had been a momentous year and desperate summer but, with the losses in the North Atlantic, the U-boat arm was all but smashed. However, with the coming invasion, the U-boats and 19 Group, would have one last encounter.

Memel Bridgehead 1944-45

During the remaining months of the war, Stalin referred disparagingly to the German presence in Courland as ‘the largest prison camp in the world’. But the Red Army wasn’t content to leave the Germans in peace, and launched six major assaults on the bridgehead. If the Soviet leadership was genuinely happy to tie down German divisions in this increasingly irrelevant area, why was so much effort and blood spent in attempts to destroy Army Group North? The answer probably lies in the fact that the Courland bridgehead formed the last remaining piece of territory, occupied by the Germans, that Stalin regarded as Soviet terrain. When he reassured Churchill and Roosevelt with comments about wanting to restore pre-war borders, he meant the borders of 1941, not 1939 – and by that date, the Baltic states were part of the Soviet Union.

By the end of 1944, the Red Army had launched three major assaults on the southern flank of the Courland bridgehead. All of these attacks – and three similar assaults in 1945 – were repulsed, with major losses on both sides. Slowly, the Germans were driven back into their bridgehead, and as the perimeter of the bridgehead shrank, German divisions were extracted and sent back to Germany. But this trickle of soldiers could achieve little; most of them disappeared into the inferno of the frontline. If the entire pocket had been evacuated en masse, sufficient troops might have been made available to intervene decisively, but Hitler would never have agreed to such a move.

Meanwhile, as the Red Army completed its encirclement of Memel, three German divisions – 58th Infantry Division, 7th Panzer Division and Grossdeutschland- scrambled to take up positions around the besieged city. Rittmeister Kühn was commander of a Panzergrenadier battalion, and was ordered on 10 October to secure Grossdeutschland`s left wing. When he reached his assigned sector, he found none of the prepared positions he was expecting, and ordered his men to improvise as best they could:

Scouting further north of the church I met a brave old rural police sergeant who was standing in front of his pretty white cottage in full war paint. He asked me rather timidly where our fighting troops were. When I told him that was us, he asked if he might now be allowed to withdraw to Memel, as he had received orders to fall back when the combat troops arrived. I felt sorry for the old man, and I couldn’t help thinking about the fairy tale about the steadfast tin soldier.

Kühn gave the old man permission to head for Memel. He then came across some border guards, whom he promptly incorporated into his battalion, much to their alarm. He needed every man he could get – even with this small additional force, he could barely manage a two-man rifle pit or machine-gun nest every 100m. He made contact with a coastal naval battery, armed with eight 128mm guns, and arrangements were made for fire support. A group of 60 Luftwaffe personnel appeared from the north, and were also incorporated into the battalion.

The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army and 43rd Army, which had pursued the Germans to the city, launched their first assault, starting with a heavy artillery bombardment on the southern and eastern defences at dawn on 10 October. Many local civilians – invalids, the elderly and the Hitler Youth – had been mobilized in the ranks of the Volkssturm, and these inexperienced soldiers, occupying reserve positions behind those held by the regular army, endured the bombardment with varying degrees of stoicism. As daylight grew stronger, bombers also joined the assault. In the meantime, the last refugee columns from the Krottingen area struggled into Memel, picking their way through the rubble-strewn streets. The city was engulfed in a dense cloud of smoke, lit by the flashes of fresh explosions. For the refugees, it must have seemed like a vision of hell.

When the assault began, the Wehrmacht units were ready for it. As a result of the various formations that retreated into the city, there were plentiful weapons and ammunition, and despite the limited time, good preparations had been made for a coordinated defence. On Grossdeutschland`s left flank, Kühn and his battalion came under attack during the day.

Late in the morning the half-tracks in Dargussen reported enemy tanks approaching from the northeast. The observers in the church spire also saw about 15 tanks moving west from the direction of Grabben. At first everything remained quiet opposite the battalions front. In the afternoon … enemy tanks attacked 1 Company’s position at the church from the north. The spire was holed by shells and the artillery observers and the timberwork in which they had positioned themselves began to give way. The valiant commander of the 18-man-strong 1 Company, Feldwebel Zwillus, was almost killed by a falling rafter. He sprinted into the rectory and, standing at the window, described to me by telephone the course of the battle. He was interrupted when the tanks began firing into the house and he had to lie down on the floor. An anti-tank gun, which went into position at the last moment, knocked out the leading tank right in front of the church. The rest remained beyond the stream that ran north of the church. The only way across the stream for the tanks was a small bridge at the policeman’s house, and consequently they had little opportunity to deploy.

Three German assault guns arrived shortly afterwards, and the position stabilized. Elsewhere in the Panzergrenadier regiment’s sector, the first wave of ‘Soviet’ attackers turned out to be Lithuanian civilians, collected together by the advancing Soviet forces and now ordered to charge into the German lines. Behind them were tanks, which were swiftly knocked out by naval gunners and Grossdeutschland’s remaining Tigers.

The Soviet infantry, with tanks in close support, repeatedly achieved penetrations into the German lines, only to be thrown back by determined counter-attacks. Off the coast, the Kriegsmarine intervened in the shape of the pocket battleship Lützow and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen: ‘[They] delivered astonishingly rapid salvoes from their enormous turrets with clearly visible effect. The physical destruction and damage to morale had as much effect on the Russian soldiers as the strength of the frontline soldiers’ defensive fire.’ Almost without exception, German first-hand accounts of the fighting in the closing phases of the war in the east give high praise to the fire support provided by the Kriegsmarine. The accuracy and range of the warships’ guns were phenomenal, as was their striking power. The effect on morale of these ships lying off the coast was enormous. They had sufficient anti-aircraft guns to make attacks on them by Soviet planes a tough prospect, particularly as, unlike their British, German, American and Japanese counterparts, the Soviet Air Force had few formations that specialized in anti-warship operations. The failure of the Soviet Red Banner Fleet, based near Leningrad, to intervene in any way other than limited submarine operations is curious. At this stage of the war it possessed a battleship, two cruisers and 17 destroyers and torpedo boats; had the Soviet fleet made a serious attempt to disrupt German shipping, the entire course of the campaign would have been different. Although there is little hard evidence to support the hypothesis, one can speculate that this restraint was a deliberate policy – Stalin wished to drive the Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, out of East Prussia, and therefore saw no point in closing their one escape route. Furthermore, many Soviet naval personnel had been re-assigned to land-based units during the long fighting around Leningrad, and it is unlikely that all of these warships would have been operational.

The assault raged for three days. Positions changed hands several times – the estate at Paugen, just outside Memel, was lost and retaken by the Germans three times before they finally had to concede it to the Red Army. Eventually, on 12 October, the fighting died down, and the exhausted soldiers on both sides could take stock. The frontline had hardly moved. Bagramian must have hoped that a swift, powerful attack coming hard on the heels of the often chaotic German retreat to the coast would secure the city quickly; instead, the defenders made his assault formations pay a heavy price for minimal gains.

Both armies strove to resupply their frontline formations. Freighters continued to arrive at the bombed-out Memel docks, unloading precious ammunition and other supplies. The next great assault began on 14 October. The preparatory bombardment was even heavier than before, and lasted for two hours, before the infantry, supported by tanks and assault guns, moved forward. They were greeted by a tremendous tornado of fire from the defenders – artillery, tanks, coastal guns, anti-aircraft guns and the Kriegsmarine’s warships all contributed. Again and again, the attackers penetrated deep into the German defences, only to face furious counter-attacks. To the north of Memel, at Karkelbeck, 58th Infantry Division faced the Soviet 179th and 235th Rifle Divisions, and was forced to concede some ground, but everywhere else, the German front held firm.

The 7th Panzer Division was involved in hard fighting to restore the frontline where Soviet forces had made deep penetrations. Willi Hegen was in one of the division’s few remaining Panthers:

We set off – our tank group was led by Leutnant Müller – to the designated preparation area and waited for our deployment. At daybreak, the damned Il-2s were also constantly aloft again. Meanwhile, there were ever more attacks by enemy bombers, which dropped their loads on us. Our tank shook on its springs from the heavy artillery fire. Smoke and dirt was hurled into the air. Suddenly, the fire moved to our rear, and we knew that our foremost lines had been overrun. There soon came an order to counter-attack and, knowing the frontline positions in the Löllen-Paugen-Klausmühlen sector well from the fighting of the last few days, we ran into Russian assault guns and tanks after a few hundred metres. We were the lead vehicle and were able to deal with two assault guns in the moment of surprise. The vehicles of our battlegroup that were following were also successful, shooting up several Russian tanks. …

Slowly, guarding to either side, we rolled forward over an open meadow, of the sort that you often find in this terrain of dunes. This meadow was about a kilometre wide, bordered by a small wood. We advanced slowly over the open ground and drove the enemy from our former positions. Just before the wood, they mounted greater resistance and we drove into a firebreak. Our battlegroup still had four or five tanks, which came under increasing tank fire from the left flank. Unteroffizier Behren’s tank, which was on our left flank during the attack, reported a hit, as a result of which the viewport (which was made of armoured glass in the Pz. IV) shattered into the driver’s face. We were at the firebreak, under fire from the Russians, and we could not see into the firebreak clearly.

We therefore withdrew a little to one side and tried with our collective fire to pin down the enemy who was firing on us. After a while, our second tank was set ablaze. Suddenly, at about 2 o’clock to our right, next to the wood, we saw a Stalin organ that had been brought forward, firing its projectiles. The turret was swiftly turned – which was easily done with the hydraulic traverse of the Panther, and we fired a couple of high-explosive rounds at about 1,600 metres. This resulted in the rockets flying off like at a firework display.

When we turned our turret back towards the enemy who was firing at us, we saw a Pz. IV of the Waffen-SS ablaze; it had accompanied our battlegroup in our counter-attack. But we still couldn’t make out the enemy tank that was firing on us from a well-camouflaged position, let alone engage it. At that moment, Leutnant Müller cried: ‘Quick, there – a T-34 in the firebreak.’ It was moving very carefully and slowly out of the firebreak, in order to bring its gun to bear on us. The turret was turned – and the Russian tank was barely 50 metres from us. We fired, and missed – in my haste, I had forgotten to take my foot off the turret traverse pedal. But quick as a flash, the loader inserted another round, I fired, and the T-34 exploded.

We had never before seen so clearly the law of war: ‘you or me’.

There was no time for celebration. There was smoke everywhere. In front and around us were the impacts of tank rounds. We were the last tank from the counter-attack in an advanced position in this sector and our driver, Jackl Schneeberger, turned and drove away in zigzags. The turret was swiftly turned to 6 o’clock, and then there was a dreadful impact and the fighting compartment filled with flames. Our driver, radio operator and loader bailed out immediately. Leutnant Müller didn’t stir, and the gunner, for whom there was no hatch in a Panther, could only get out through the commander’s cupola. So I had to shove the commander, Leutnant Müller, out until I could exit myself. As I came out of the cupola, I saw Leutnant Müller, who had partly recovered from his daze and confusion, running away from the tank. I leapt from the tank in one bound and ran away from it; I had gone barely 30 metres before it exploded behind me. The cloud of debris hurled us to the ground. We found ourselves in no-man’s land and sought out a little cover. Here, we found that apart from singed hair and a few small burns, none of us was wounded.

Everywhere, Soviet infantry with heavy tank support pressed home its attacks. The few remaining German tanks were sent back and forth to stiffen the defensive line. Willi Friele was the driver of another of 7th Panzer Division’s Panthers, and by the afternoon his tank, commanded by a Leutnant Hopfe, had already accounted for nine enemy tanks, including a Josef Stalin, which sustained no fewer than eight hits before its crew bailed out. The Panther was now assigned a new task: At the end of this defensive action, we received an order from Hauptmann Brandes: ‘324 (our turret number), drive left and take up a position. There’s an infantry platoon amongst the ruined houses, expecting a new armoured attack.’

We set off and came across a Feldwebel and the remnant of his platoon there. They were delighted that we were taking up position with them, as they could hear constant Russian tank engines and track noises from enemy tanks driving around. The infantry’s fear of a new Russian tank attack didn’t please us, though, as we had fired off almost all our armour-piercing rounds.

Late in the afternoon came the desperately awaited supplies of ammunition and fuel. When Leutnant Hopfe told the infantrymen that we had to drive off in order to refuel and take on ammunition, there was near-chaos. They were fearful that we were withdrawing and going to leave them alone. All our explanations achieved nothing, and some even threatened to lie down in front of our tracks if we tried to drive away. We stayed with the poor Landsers rather than leave them. Overjoyed, they fetched us fuel and ammunition from the supply vehicles. We remained overnight with our new friends, on guard, and the next morning, when everything remained quiet, we pulled back to our start-line at the Klemmenhof estate and then back to the Bachmann estate.

The defenders reported they had destroyed a total of 66 Soviet tanks and assault guns during this latest assault, bringing the total of claimed ‘kills’ since the siege began to 150. As darkness fell over the ruins, the Red Army called off its attack. The toll on both armies was heavy. Swiftly, the opposing sides repaired the damage to their lines, and prepared for more fighting. The next – and last – attempt to storm Memel came on 23 October. It was the least powerful attack, and once more it was beaten off.

The fighting had exhausted the defending formations. The 7th Panzer Division was reduced to barely more than a regiment in strength, while the other two divisions, Grossdeutschland and 58th Infantry Division, could only field 40 per cent of their paper strength. Both sides went over to positional warfare. The Germans constructed extensive bunker positions, and improvised additional artillery from 7th Panzer Division’s Panther tanks; there was a shortage of armour-piercing ammunition, but plentiful supplies of high-explosive rounds. Four tanks were positioned on a reverse slope, and fired into the Soviet-held hinterland. Sceptical artillery observers were asked to look out for the fall of shot, and were astonished by the range and accuracy of the 75mm guns. The Soviet forces came to dread them, as their muzzle velocity, far higher than that of conventional artillery, meant that there was no warning whistle of an incoming shell. This gave opportunities to use them against special targets:

From intercepted radio signals, it was possible a week later to learn that an award ceremony for decorated [Soviet] frontline soldiers had been ordered, to be held in a warehouse in front of our sector. Even the time of the ceremony was included in the message.

During the next day, the batteries fired without particularly targeting this location. The warehouse was plastered with a concentrated bombardment at the last moment. The award ceremony was ended before it even began. This example showed the results of the enemy’s carelessness with radio communications.

The Courland armies were entirely dependent on their maritime connection with the Reich for supplies. The loss of the Baltic islands close to Riga had effectively broken the German anti-submarine barriers that held back the Red Banner Fleet’s submarines, but most attacks on German shipping were by Soviet aircraft. The pressure on German shipping, which had been minimal for much of the year, grew steadily. In the first eight months of 1944, total German shipping losses in the eastern Baltic amounted to 17 ships, totalling about 31,000 tonnes. In the remaining four months 53 ships with a total displacement of over 122,000 tonnes were sunk, mainly by air attacks.

The Füsilier was a transport ship that relayed elements of 58th Infantry Division to Memel from Riga, and subsequently shuttled up and down the coast, bringing supplies into Memel and taking away wounded. On 19 November, the ship set off from Pillau with about 250 soldiers aboard, mainly personnel returning to the front from leave. With a single escort, the Füsilier made the run to Memel at night, but in poor visibility the following morning was unable to make out the entrance to the port. A soldier from Memel who happened to be aboard went to the bridge to say that, based on his knowledge and what he could see of the coast, they had already passed Memel. The captain ordered the ship to turn towards the open sea, to avoid Soviet artillery batteries that were known to be on the coast north of Memel. At almost the same moment the coast was lit up by muzzle flashes as Soviet gunners opened fire on the Füsilier. The steamer was rapidly left powerless, and drifted slowly north along the coast, under constant bombardment. The ship’s three lifeboats took off as many men as they could, and as the remainder attempted to find lifebelts and other means of escape, Soviet aircraft attacked and inflicted further damage.

The ship swiftly sank, at which point the Soviet fighters turned their attentions to the lifeboats. One had already disappeared, and a second was now shot up and destroyed. The third survived repeated attacks, and led by the soldier from Memel its occupants sailed it through the day and following night to Libau. The ordeal of the exhausted men and two women in the lifeboat wasn’t over; high waves smashed it against the pier, capsizing it. Ten perished in the freezing water, and only 13 made it to safety.

Both sides began to run down their forces in and around the Memel bridgehead. The 7th Panzer Division was ordered to leave at the end of October, followed by Grossdeutschland, which was to be reorganized as a Panzer corps. They were replaced by 95th Infantry Division, which had fought at the southern edge of the Soviet assault in early October and had been driven back through Ragnit. After the briefest of pauses for recuperation, the weary soldiers of the division were dispatched to the devastated city on the coast, taking over the northern section of the city defences, with 58th Infantry Division holding the southern perimeter. Despite fears that the Red Army would take advantage of the winter to cross the frozen waterways around the city, there was little major fighting around Memel until it was finally evacuated in January 1945.

From the Soviet point of view, the offensive on Memel gained its main objective, of isolating Army Group North. Inadequate reserves, however, prevented opportunities on both flanks from being effectively exploited; in the north, the ‘aggressive defence’ of Betzel’s 4th Panzer Division also contributed to the rapid German stabilization. The assault on Memel itself, too, was a failure, resulting in considerable Soviet casualties. From the Soviet point of view, though, given the German setbacks during 1944, there must have been a belief that German defences would be unable to withstand a series of strong blows. The determined defence of Memel rapidly dispelled any such opinions.

Dornier 217s with glider bombs

In the summer of 1943, some Dornier 217s were modified to carry air launched guided missiles the first such weapons ever to be used in action. There were two quite different types of missile, though subsequent accounts have frequently confused them or treated them as one.

The first of the guided missiles to enter service was the Henschel 293 glider bomb. This weapon looked like a small airplane with a wingspan of just over 10ft. Prior to launch it weighed a little over 2,000lb, 1,100lb of this being the warhead. After release from the parent aircraft the rocket motor under the missile fired carrying the weapon to a speed of about 370mph. Then the motor cut out and the missile coasted on in a shallow dive, accelerating slowly towards its target. The range of the missile depended upon the altitude of the parent plane at the time of release. A typical operational range was five miles, for which the aircraft needed to be at 4,500ft. In the tail of the missile was a bright tracking flare. This allowed the observer in the parent aircraft to follow its movements. The observer operated a small joystick controller, the movement of which fed the appropriate up down left right impulses to the guidance transmitter, which in turn radiated them to the missile. Here, they were converted into control movements for the ailerons and elevators. The observer only had to steer the tracking flare until it appeared to be superimposed on the target, and hold it there until the missile impacted. The Henschel 293 was a low speed weapon compared with a normal gravity bomb and as a result had little penetrative ability. It was intended mainly for use against merchant ships and more lightly armored warships.

The glider bombs were used in action for the first time on 25 August 1943. Fourteen Do 217s of the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 attacked a Royal Navy U boat-hunting group off the NW tip of Spain. An observer on the sloop HMS Landguard later reported, after the aircraft had formed up off her starboard quarter at a range of about six miles:

‘Exactly like an aircraft’

‘A pall of smoke forming into a streamer appeared from the leading aircraft. At the time of firing the aircraft were on a reciprocal course to the ships, well out on the beam. The projectile was seen for some time apparently near the aircraft, but this was probably due to the fact that it was coming towards the ship at a constant bearing. Flashes were seen coming from the aircraft at about the time of the firing (almost certainly this was due to the tracking flare lighting up) but neither smoke nor flame from the projectile during the later stages of its run . . . . The projectile then banked exactly like an aircraft and set course towards the ship, descending at an angle of about 15° or 20°. When about two cables from the starboard quarter the bomb appeared to be pointing straight at the ship. Then it banked to starboard and lost height rapidly, falling in the sea one hundred yards off Landguard’s starboard quarter and exploding on impact.’

Two further bombs were aimed at Landguard, both of which exploded clear of her.

The only damage inflicted during the action was to the sloop HMS Bideford. A near miss caused splinter damage to her port side, holing her stores, Asdic compartment and forward messdeck and causing some flooding. She was able to continue in action, but was later in dock for a month being repaired.

Two days later 27 August the Dorniers again attacked British warships off the NW tip of Spain. This time the victims belonged to the 1st Escort Group comprising the destroyers Grenville and Athabaskan, the frigates Jed and Rother and the sloop Egret. Soon after 1200 the force of 18 bombers was sighted coming in from the north. The warships were heading southwards in a line abreast formation searching for U boats. The commander of the force, Captain Godfrey Brewer in Egret, immediately ordered ‘Repel Air Attack’. All ships went to action stations and ‘ increased speed. The ships swung into two columns of two ships in line ahead with two miles between columns. With her powerful AA armament of eight 4in guns, Egret was to move across the rear to support whichever column was threatened.

The attack began with four Dorniers flying along the ships’ port side. When they came within gun range Athabaskan and Egret opened fire. But the bombers held their course, and each launched a glider bomb at Athabaskan. ‘ The first three missiles fell harmlessly into the sea, but the fourth continued on and struck and destroyed near the base of her ‘B’ gun turret. The bomb smashed straight through the superstructure, shedding its wings and body in the process. The warhead finally detonated just clear of the ships’ starboard side abreast the forward end of the bridge. The explosion caused severe splinter damage. ‘B’ turret shell room, two fuel tanks, the torpedomen’s mess and lower power and gyro room were all flooded. The blast caused the fires in the boilers to flash back into the boiler rooms. This resulted in a minor oil fire. Athabaskan’s engines stopped. She slid to a halt.

Bitter fruits of gallantry

Meanwhile the German bombers were forming up on the starboard side and Egret departed to support the column there. But her gallantry was to bear bitter fruit. It was on her that the German crews now concentrated their attack. Within a short time seven glider bombs were streaking towards the sloop. The commander of Egret, Commander John Waterhouse, reported afterwards:

Several rocket bombs were now heading for Egret and I increased to full speed and put the wheel hard to starboard in an endeavour to point them and present the smallest possible virtual target. Two bombs passed close astern and a third was either hit by Oerlikon fire or else fell into the sea within thirty feet of the starboard side amidships.

After this escape a report was received from the engine room that all was well below and I assumed that any damage sustained was superficial. The ship was momentarily steadied on a west north westerly course with her main armament engaging the enemy, when two more bombs were reported approaching from just before and just abaft the starboard beam. I did not see the one approaching from aft, which I believe missed, but I was able to observe carefully the behaviour of that before the beam. Swinging fast under full starboard rudder the ship would normally have brought the bomb, which was flying level about fifteen feet above the water, within 30° of the ship’s bow and the bomb should have passed down the starboard side. In the event the bomb banked sweetly and turned smoothly to starboard like a well piloted fighter aircraft and so continued to head straight for the bridge . . . .

The missile struck Egret near her forecastle deck, and the warhead continued on into the ship before detonating. The resultant explosion, whose force was probably compounded by the detonation of one of the ship’s magazines, almost certainly blew out a large area of plating on Egret’s port side.

She listed badly to port. Within about 40 seconds of the explosion she had capsized completely. She floated bottom up for over an hour before sinking. Only 36 men survived out of a complement of 188. So it was that Egret gained the dubious distinction of being the first ship ever to be sunk by an air launched guided missile.

The crew of Athabaskan were able to effect temporary repairs to their engines and the destroyer returned to Britain under her own steam. Permanent repair work kept her out of action for over two months.

From German records it would seem that Leutnant Paulus and Hauptmann Vorpahl, respectively, had captained the Dorniers which sank Egret and damaged Athabaskan. It must be said, however, that the total of only two hits for an expenditure of 25 glider bombs during the attacks on 25 and 27 August was hardly impressive. During a subsequent investigation into the causes of the missile failures held at the bombers’ base at Bordeaux/Merignac it was discovered that several of the Dorniers had had their missile control transmitters sabotaged in a very clever way so that normal ground tests did not reveal the fault. The SS conducted a full investigation, but the culprit was never found.

While the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 was operating with its glider bombs, the Third Gruppe was preparing to go into action with a quite different type of missile. This was the Fritz X guided bomb  a high velocity weapon designed to pierce the heaviest armor. In appearance the Fritz X resembled an ordinary bomb, except that it carried four stabilizing stub wings mid-way along its body. It weighed 3,100lb and was unpowered. Released from altitudes around 20,000ft, it fell under gravity to reach an

impact velocity close to that of sound. In the tail of the bomb was a tracking flare, and after release the missile was guided down to its target in a similar way to the glider bomb. Since the Fritz X had to be released from high level if it was to reach the necessary impact velocity, III./KG 100 received the high flying K2 version of the Dornier 217. This model was similar to the normal K type except that its wingspan was 19ft wider.

For the Third Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 the big chance came on 9 September. The Italians capitulated and their battle fleet made its dash to Malta to surrender. The main body of the fleet sailed from La Spezia in northern Italy and included the modern battleships Roma, Italia and Vittorio Veneto. Early that afternoon Major Bernhard Jope, the commander of Kampfgeschwader 100, led a striking force of eleven Dorniers off the ground at Marseilles/ Istres. Each aircraft carried a single Fritz X under its starboard wing, close to the fuselage.

The bombers caught up with the Italian warships off the Straits of Bonifacio between Sardinia and Corsica. The German crews broke formation and attacked individually–aiming their missiles at the ships twisting below. After releasing the Fritz X each pilot throttled back his engines and climbed through 1,000ft. This brought the aircraft in line with the missile and the target during the final stage of the missile’s trajectory. It was now possible to guide the Fritz X on to the target. Apart from being essential for the control of the missile, this maneuver produced the useful bonus of throwing off predicted AA fire from below.

One of the first bombs scored a near miss on the Italia, temporarily jamming her rudder. A few minutes later another scored a direct hit on Roma, on her deck near the starboard side abeam her after funnel. The missile punched its way straight through the ship and exploded immediately underneath the hull, wrecking her starboard steam turbines and causing some flooding. Severely shaken, Roma’s speed fell to 16 knots and she began to list to starboard. A little later a second bomb struck Roma. This was almost certainly released from the Dornier flown by Oberleutnant Heinrich Schmetz with Feldwebel Oscar Huhn as observer. This missile hit the ship squarely just in front of her bridge and pierced deep into her vitals and then detonated. The explosion its effects worsened by being confined inside the armored structure knocked out the remaining steam turbines and started an uncontrollable fire which raged through to the forward magazine. With a violent explosion the battleship snapped in two like a jack knife, and sank. Only 622 officers and ratings survived, out of her crew of nearly 2,000.

Shortly after the second bomb hit Roma, Italia took a Fritz X on her bow, which blew a large hole. She took on about 800 tons of water. In spite of this, the battleship was able to limp to Malta unaided.

In the months that followed, the Dornier 217s of Kampfgeschwader 100 scored other successes. A direct hit and two near misses with Fritz X bombs on the battleship HMS Warspite put her out of action for seven months; a single Fritz X hit on the cruiser HMS Uganda, which required repairs lasting over a year. At the same time, Henschel 293 glider bombs sank the cruiser HMS Spartan and several destroyers. But the Allies proved able to take the measure of the new threat. Strong fighter patrols were maintained over all future concentrations of shipping. From the spring of 1944 it was rare for the missile carriers to reach their targets. They usually suffered debilitating losses whenever they tried. During the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 the Allied shipping not only enjoyed powerful fighter cover, but some of their number carried special transmitters which emitted jamming on the German missile control frequencies blotting out the radio command signals. As a result of these countermeasures, the missiles were virtually useless.

The German failure to contain the Allied invasion of Normandy coincided with the success of the Allied strategic bombing offensive against the German oil industry. This led to a crippling shortage of aviation fuel. One result of this was that the Luftwaffe bomber force was reduced to a shadow of what it had been. Most of the units were disbanded, their men being sent to the fighter units or into the army. A few Dornier 217s continued in use until the end of the war; but the majority of those that survived their bomber units ended their days in aircraft parks, where they swelled the scores of strafing Allied pilots.

Luftwaffe versus Operation Torch

Luftwaffe Raid on Portsmouth, 15 August 1943

Dornier Do.217E-4 Unit: III/KG 2 Dieppe raid, on August 19th, 1942.

Dornier Do.217E-4 Unit: 6./KG 2 Summer 1942.

Dornier Do.217M Unit: 2./KG 2 Netherlands, Winter 1943-1944.

Dornier Do.217M Unit: 9./KG 2 The aircraft equipped with DB.603 engines.

I & II./KG2, Oberstleutnant Karl Kessel, CO 18 May 1943 – February 1944

By this time, large scale German air attacks on Britain had come to a halt with the transfer of the bulk of the bomber force to the Eastern front. Do 217s concentrated on anti-shipping work. However, this quiescent period came to an abrupt halt following the powerful RAF attack which destroyed much of Luebeck on 28 March. Hitler demanded retaliation and in the month that followed German bombers, for the most part Do 217s of KG2, launched two sharp attacks on Exeter and two more on Bath. On the very night that Bath was under attack, however, the RAF was engaged in a series of four destructive raids on the German town of Rostock. Hitler was apoplectic at this affront and in an impassioned speech he spoke of taking a copy of Baedeker’s guidebook and marking off each British city as it was razed to the ground. Because of this the series of attacks became known in Britain as the Baedeker Raids. During the late spring of 1942, Bath, Norwich, York, Cowes, Hull and Poole, Grimsby and Exeter, all suffered varying degrees of damage. But the German bombers had to penetrate the increasingly powerful British night fighter and gun defenses, and suffered heavy losses. The series of attacks ended with three raids on Birmingham and one on Hull at the end of July, which cost the Luftwaffe 27 aircraft and caused only minor damage.

Following this battering Kampfgeschwader 2, which was now the only bomber unit operational with the Do 217, was withdrawn from operations over Britain to make good the losses suffered. But the respite was to prove short lived. On 19 August Allied forces launched the large-scale seaborne raid on Dieppe and virtually all operational Luftwaffe units in France and Belgium went into action in defense of the port, Operating by day, the Dorniers came up against powerful standing patrols of Spitfires. The Germans suffered catastrophic losses. Out of a total of about 80 planes committed by KG2 many of them flown by trainee crews 20 were shot down. Having started the year with an average strength of 88 trained crews, by September 1942 KG2 was down to 23.

KG2 took little part in operations for the rest of the year. At the end of 1942 two improved versions of the Do 217 entered service the K and the M. Both of these had more powerful engines and a redesigned low drag nose profile. The K model was fitted with the new BMW 801 D radial engine developing 1,700hp, while the M employed the similarly powerful liquid cooled Daimler Benz 603 in line. The two new variants were about 20mph faster than the earlier E model. In addition to their greater speed the new Dorniers had the advantage of carrying tail warning radar to reduce the chances of surprise fighter attack at night, and radio altimeters to make possible a low-level penetration of defenses at night or in poor visibility.

With these technical improvements the revitalized KG2 recommenced its operations over Britain early in 1943.

During these night attacks the Do 217s exploited every possible stratagem to avoid the attentions of the defenses: a low-level approach, climbing to medium level to bomb then letting down to low level for the withdrawal; a high-level approach, bombing during a shallow descent and making the withdrawal. Since the bombers’ targets were rarely more than 50 miles inland, these methods helped a lot to keep the German losses down. Even so, the defenders were able to take their toll. During March 1943 alone, Kampfgeschwader 2 lost 23 complete crews.

Typical of the German raids on Britain in the summer of 1943 was that by 91 planes on Portsmouth, on 15 August. The Dornier 217s of the First and Third Gruppen of KG2 operated from St Andre and Dreux respectively, both near Paris. After takeoff the bombers funneled together over Cap D’Antifer near Le Havre and headed NW across the sea flying at an altitude of 200ft, beneath the prying beams of the British radar. At a point 24 miles south of Brighton the bombers commenced their climb, aiming to arrive over Portsmouth at 15,000ft. The actual attack was delivered soon after 0100 on the morning of the 16th. It lasted about 10 minutes. Afterwards the bombers turned to port and withdrew along the route they had come. Such a low-level approach to a coastal target should have given the raiders the advantage of surprise. But the RAF night fighters proved their alertness by shooting down five of the attackers – all Do 217s. Four of the bombers fell to the Mosquitoes of No 256 Squadron, based at Ford near Bognor, Sussex.

The Dornier 217 was involved in the resurgence of air activity over Britain in early 1944. But the units operating the type represented less than a fifth of the force involved. By that time the performance of the Do 217 was not good enough to enable it to survive without heavy losses in the face of the powerful defenses.

Nuremberg Night 30/31 March 1944

This would normally have been the moon stand-down period for the Main Force, but a raid to the distant target of Nuremberg was planned on the basis of an early forecast that there would be protective high cloud on the outward route, when the moon would be up, but that the target area would be clear for ground-marked bombing. A Meteorological Flight Mosquito carried out a reconnaissance and reported that the protective cloud was unlikely to be present and that there could be cloud over the target, but the raid was not cancelled.

795 aircraft were dispatched – 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and 9 Mosquitoes. The German controller ignored all the diversions and assembled his fighters at 2 radio beacons which happened to be astride the route to Nuremberg. The first fighters appeared just before the bombers reached the Belgian border and a fierce battle in the moonlight lasted for the next hour. 82 bombers were lost on the outward route and near the target. The action was much reduced on the return flight, when most of the German fighters had to land, but 95 bombers were lost in all – 64 Lancasters and 31 Halifaxes, 11.9 percent of the force dispatched. It was the biggest Bomber Command loss of the war.

The bomber dived violently and turned to the north, but because of good visibility we were able to keep him in sight. I now attempted a second attack after he had settled on his course, but because the Lancaster was now very slow we always came out too far to the front. I tried the Schräge Musik again and after another burst the bomber fell in flames.

The words belong to Oberleutnant Helmut Schulte of II./NJG 5 as he describes the last moments of a Lancaster on the night of 30/31 March 1944. The target that night was the ancient city of Nuremberg, the shrine of Nazism, and flying a Bf 110G-4 fitted with Schräge Musik his success contributed to what turned out to be Bomber Command’s worst night of the war.

The choice of target, deep in the heart of Bavaria in southern Germany, was an interesting one, as it was not considered to be of industrial importance. There were, however, several small factories around the city and it was a central link in rail and water communications. But any route taken to Nuremberg meant passing close to known heavily defended areas. Furthermore, the moonlight meant that it should have been a period of stand-down for the Main Force but a favourable weather forecast, with protective cloud cover all the way to the target and clear conditions over Nuremberg, led to the decision being made to go ahead with this distant raid.

The Bomber Command pump was again full-on with the squadrons producing aircraft and crews in large numbers. It had been less than a week since the last raid against Berlin (which had involved 800 aircraft) and just four nights since Essen (over 700), but, even so, 795 aircraft were made available for the Nuremberg raid.

For the Beetham crew of 50 Squadron it was to be their twenty-first op. Their experience that night is best told through the words in Les Bartlett’s wartime diary:

Such a nice day today, little did we know what was in store for us. Briefing was getting later each day as the days grew longer, and today it was 5 pm, so we all had an afternoon nap. The target was Nuremberg. Where was that? ‘Oh, this should be a nice quiet stooge’, someone said, but that remained to be seen. At 10 pm we taxied out and were first airborne. Everything was quiet during the climb to 20,000 feet over the Channel. We crossed the enemy coast and it was eyes wide open. As we drew level with the south of the Ruhr Valley, things began to happen. Enemy night fighters were all around us and, in no time at all, combats were taking place and aircraft were going down in flames on both sides. So serious was the situation, that I remember looking at the poor blighters going down and thinking to myself that it must be our turn next, just a question of time. A Lancaster appeared on our port beam, converging, so we dropped 100 feet or so to let him cross. He was only about 200 yards or so on our starboard beam when a string of cannon shells hit him and down he went. We altered course for Nuremberg, and I looked down at the area over which we had just passed. It looked like a battlefield. There were kites burning on the deck all over the place – bombs going off where they had been jettisoned by bombers damaged in combat, and fires from their incendiaries across the whole area. Such a picture of aerial disaster I had never seen before and hope to never see again. On the way into the target, the winds became changeable and we almost ran into the defences of Schweinfurt but we altered course in time. The defences of Nuremberg were nothing to speak of, a modest amount of heavy flak which did not prevent us doing a normal approach, and we were able to get the target indicators dropped by the Pathfinders in our bombsight to score direct hits with our 4,000lb ‘Cookie’ and our 1,000lb bombs and incendiaries. We were able to get out of the target area, always a dodgy business, and set course for home. To reach the coast was a binding two-hour stooge. The varying winds were leading us a dance. We found ourselves approaching Calais instead of being 80 miles further south, so we had a slight detour to avoid their defences. Once near the enemy coast, it was nose down for home at 300 knots. Even then, we saw some poor blokes ‘buy it’ over the Channel. What a relief it was to be flying over Lincoln Cathedral once more. Back in debriefing, we heard the full story of the squadron’s effort. It was the worst night for the squadron.

Bartlett and his crew had been lucky. It appears the weather forecast had been wrong and several wind-finding errors were made, causing the Main Force to become scattered. One-in-five bombers, it is reckoned, missed one of the turning points by at least 30 miles.

For the experienced crews who had spent the past few months clawing their way through varying densities of cloud to attack the major cities in Germany, including Berlin, the conditions just did not feel right. An attempt to deceive the German controllers of the intended target had failed; the lack of H2S transmissions coming from the Mosquitos carrying out spoof attacks against Cologne and Kassel making these attempts to deceive the defences easily recognized for what they were. And if this was not bad enough, a long straight leg of 270 miles to the target made the actual area of attack predictable.

Everything seemed to favour the defenders. Not only had the bombers become scattered over a wide area, the atmospheric conditions meant that condensation trails from their engines formed at a much lower height than normal. Also, there had been little or no cloud over much of Belgium and eastern France, and even where there was some cloud it was very thin and offered little or no protection. Over Holland and the Ruhr the sky was clear and the bright half-moon lit up the trails, making the bombers visible from many miles away.

The first night fighters appeared before many of the Main Force had even reached the Belgian border, enabling them to constantly harass the bombers for the next hour. Falling bombers merely presented a trail of fires as they crashed to earth. By the time the Main Force approached Nuremberg some eighty bombers had been shot down with dozens more having aborted their mission either because of damage sustained or for other technical reasons.

Helmut Schulte was one to get amongst the main bomber stream at 20,000 feet with ease. In Spick’s Luftwaffe Fighter Aces Schulte described what happened next:

I sighted a Lancaster and got underneath it and opened fire with my slanting weapon. Unfortunately it jammed, so that only a few shots put out of action the starboard inner motor. The bomber dived violently and turned to the north, but because of good visibility we were able to keep him in sight. I now attempted a second attack after he had settled on his course, but because the Lancaster was now very slow we always came out too far to the front. I tried the Schräge Musik again and after another burst the bomber fell in flames.

For the bomber crews that did make it to Nuremberg they arrived over the city to find it covered by thick cloud, which extended up to 15,000 feet. It was not at all what had been briefed. Having expected the target to be clear of cloud, the Pathfinders carried mostly ground markers, which, of course, could not be seen through the cloud. Most of the bombs fell in residential areas, with only slight damage caused to industry.

Because of the problems caused by the wind, more than a hundred bombers had become so straggled that it is likely they bombed Schweinfurt, to the north-west of Nuremberg, instead. This belief is backed up by some post-raid reports of crews that had passed to the west of Schweinfurt on their way home. Pilot Officer John Chatterton of 44 Squadron, an experienced skipper flying his twenty-third op that night, later recalled what his crew had seen after leaving Nuremberg for the long journey home:

… after several minutes they [his air gunners] called our attention to another target away over to our right which seemed to be cloud free and with a lot of action. Tongue in cheek I asked Jack [his navigator] if he was sure we had bombed Nuremberg and received the expected forceful reply, with added information that the burning town was probably Schweinfurt.

Helmut Schulte, meanwhile, claimed three more bombers before coming across another Lancaster to the south of Nuremberg. When the bomber went into an immediate corkscrew he knew he had been spotted. With his Schräge Musik jammed, Schulte had no choice but to opt for his forward-firing guns but on this occasion his attack did not bring any success as he later recalled:

As soon as I opened fire he dived away and my shells passed over him. I thought that this chap must have nerves of steel: he had watched me formate on him and then had dived just at the right time. He had been through as much as I had – we had both been to Nuremberg that night – so I decided that was enough.

Schulte’s performance that night was impressive but it was bettered by another Bf 110 pilot, Oberleutnant Martin Becker, the Staffelkapitän of 2./NJG 6, who claimed seven bombers during the raid. Six of his victims – three Lancasters and three Halifaxes – all came down over Wetzla and Fulda in central Germany in a matter of minutes while the seventh, another Halifax, was claimed over Luxembourg while Becker was returning to base. These latest successes took his score past twenty, thirteen of which had been claimed in just over a week, earning him the Knight’s Cross and command of the 4th Gruppe.

Not only was the Nuremberg raid a failure, it turned out to be the worst night for Bomber Command of the war. Ninety-five aircraft were lost, of which seventy-nine fell to the night fighters. These figures might have been even higher had some Bf 110s not have been sent too far to the north. A further ten more bombers were written off after crash-landing back at base and a further fifty-nine had sustained considerable damage.

Leaving aside those aircraft that had been damaged, the overall loss rate for the raid was in excess of 13 per cent, with a reported 535 lives lost and a further 180 wounded or taken as prisoners of war. The Halifax force had again suffered the heaviest losses. Including the five written-off back in England, thirty-six of the 214 aircraft taking part in the raid had been lost (16.8 per cent). 51 Squadron based at Snaith in Yorkshire had suffered particularly badly with six of its seventeen Halifaxes failing to return, with the loss of thirty-five lives.

One young Halifax pilot to be killed that night was 22-year-old Pilot Officer Cyril Barton of 578 Squadron based at Burn in North Yorkshire. Flying Halifax ‘LK-E Excalibur’, Nuremburg was his nineteenth op. For most of the transit to the target he had been fortunate to avoid any trouble but the first he and his crew became aware of immediate danger was when they spotted pale red parachute flares, dropped by Ju 88s to mark the position of the bomber stream.

The sky was clear and the crew watched in horror as night fighters suddenly appeared. One by one their colleagues were picked off. They knew it would soon be their turn but they were now on the final leg towards the target and there was to be no turning back. Suddenly, two night fighters appeared in front. They were seen attacking head-on just as cannon shells ripped through the Halifax, puncturing fuel tanks and knocking out the aircraft’s rear turret and all of its communications while setting the starboard inner engine on fire.

Barton threw the aircraft into a hard evasive manoeuvre just as a Ju 88 passed close by. Corkscrewing as hard as he dare, the Halifax went down. For a while it seemed the danger had passed but no sooner had Barton resumed his course towards Nuremberg than the Halifax was attacked once again. Shells raked the fuselage for a second time. Again, the Ju 88 broke away but it was soon back again, scoring more hits on the crippled bomber before eventually turning away.

Undaunted, Barton again resumed his course for Nuremberg. He was finally able to gather his thoughts and to assess the damage to his aircraft, only to find that three of his crew members had gone. Unable to communicate with their skipper, and with the bomber repeatedly under heavy attack while corkscrewing towards the ground, the navigator, bomb aimer and wireless operator had all abandoned the aircraft to become prisoners of war.

Left in a desperate situation, Barton decided what to do next. With a crippled bomber, one engine out, leaking fuel, his rear turret out of action, no communications or navigational assistance, and now with three of his crew missing, he would have been fully justified in aborting his mission. But he decided instead to press on to the target with just his two air gunners, Sergeants Freddie Brice and Harry Wood, and his flight engineer, Sergeant Maurice Trousdale, left on board.

The four airmen struggled on as best they could. By working together and using the stars to navigate, they eventually reached the target and completed their attack before finally turning for home. Remarkably, they managed to keep out of further trouble as Barton nursed the crippled Halifax back towards safety. It was an outstanding feat of airmanship for a pilot so young. But the crew were still not out of danger and although Barton was satisfied they had coasted-in somewhere over eastern England, they still had to find somewhere to land.

It was just before 6 a.m. and still dark but the Halifax was now desperately short of fuel. As Barton eased the bomber down he was all too aware that the remaining engines were about to give up. With his three crew colleagues braced behind the aircraft’s rear spar, he was all alone in the cockpit.Visibility was extremely poor and suddenly a row of terraced houses appeared in front. Yanking the control column back in a desperate attempt to hurdle the obstacles before him, a wing first clipped the chimneys before the Halifax came crashing down, demolishing everything in its way.

The Halifax had come down in the yard of Ryhope colliery in County Durham. One miner on his way to work, 58-year-old George Dodds, was killed in the wreckage. Remarkably, though, the three crew members braced in the rear of the fuselage had survived; all to later receive the DFM. Fortunately for them, the rear section of the aircraft had broken away on impact. The forward section, however, still with the gallant young pilot inside, was a wreck of twisted metal. Barton was pulled from the wreckage and rushed to hospital but he died from his injuries the following day.

It was an extraordinary act of courage and words are difficult to find. A few weeks later came the announcement of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Cyril Barton. The citation, which appeared in the Fifth Supplement to the London Gazette on Friday 23 June 1944, concludes:

In gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds, this officer displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty.

Pilot Officer Barton’s Victoria Cross was the only one awarded during the Battle of Berlin, which had now officially ended.

The disastrous raid against Nuremberg was yet another costly reminder that large-scale raids deep into Nazi Germany were still extremely hazardous and often resulted in heavy losses. Unfortunately for all the bomber crews lost during the long and hard winter of 1943/44, they had come up against the Luftwaffe’s night fighter force at the peak of its effectiveness.

It was, for now, the last all-out offensive against the German homeland and brought to an end Bomber Command’s long-employed tactic of massed attacks against major targets. Not until the Allies enjoyed air superiority over north-west Europe would Bomber Command employ such tactics again. If it had not been apparent before then it was certainly apparent now – the war would not end until Germany had been defeated on the ground. However, everything Germany needed to maintain both military and civil defence – water, electricity, transport and emergency services – as well as the raw materials to keep the factories going, had drawn heavily on its resources throughout that hard winter. In truth, Germany was slowly grinding to a halt. The Nuremberg raid had also marked the Nachtjagd’s last great victory of the war.

Most of the returning crews reported that they had bombed Nuremberg but subsequent research showed that approximately 120 aircraft had bombed Schweinfurt, 50 miles north-west of Nuremberg. This mistake was a result of badly forecast winds causing navigational difficulties. 2 Pathfinder aircraft dropped markers at Schweinfurt. Much of the bombing in the Schweinfurt area fell outside the town and only 2 people were killed in that area.

The main raid at Nuremberg was a failure. The city was covered by thick cloud and a fierce cross-wind which developed on the final approach to the target caused many of the Pathfinder aircraft to mark too far to the east. A 10-mile-long creepback also developed into the countryside north of Nuremberg. Both Pathfinders and Main Force aircraft were under heavy fighter attack throughout the raid. Little damage was caused in Nuremberg; 69 people were killed in the city and the surrounding villages.

DIVERSION AND SUPPORT OPERATIONS

49 Halifaxes minelaying in the Heligoland area, 13 Mosquitoes to night-fighter airfields, 34 Mosquitoes on diversions to Aachen, Cologne and Kassel, 5 R.C.M. sorties, 19 Serrate patrols. No aircraft lost.

Minor Operations: 3 Oboe Mosquitoes to Oberhausen (where 23 Germans waiting to go into a public shelter were killed by a bomb) and 1 Mosquito to Dortmund, 6 Stirlings minelaying off Texel and Le Havre, 17 aircraft on Resistance operations, 8 O.T.U. sorties. 1 Halifax shot down dropping Resistance agents over Belgium.

Total effort for the night: 950 sorties, 96 aircraft (10.1 percent) lost.

Division Grossdeutschland

Motorcycle BMW R-12 attached to a reconnaissance unit, of the elite Division Grossdeutschland, in the background a Sd.Kfz. 222 Leichter Panzerspahwagen. Juan Carlos Ciordia

The German reconnaissance units were the eyes and ears of the armored units and one of the essential elements for the effectiveness of the “Blizkrieg”. The BMW firm already produced motorcycles when the German army asked him to design a machine capable of crossing through all kinds of terrain conditions. BMW copied the technology developed by the firm Zundapp in its model KS-750, with which the third wheel of the “side-car” was attached to the rear wheel of the motorcycle, thus creating a true three-wheeled vehicle.

The Grossdeutschland Panzer Division was the German Army’s premier armoured formation. Staffed exclusively by volunteers, and attracting the cream of Germany’s young officers, it quickly established a reputation for excellence on the battlefield. But such elite status meant it was thrown into desperate battles against the Red Army on the Eastern Front, which gradually exhausted its reserves of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and men.

After Hitler launched his armies at the Soviet Union in June 1941, he increasingly called on so-called “fire brigade” units to spearhead vital attacks or plug gaps in the line after overwhelming Soviet attacks had shattered the German front after 1943.

While the panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS are most commonly thought of as the “Führer’s fire brigade”, the German Army also created its own elite armoured force. Originally only a motorized infantry regiment, Grossdeutschland grew in the space of six years into a panzergrenadier division and then into a huge armoured corps, nominally containing four divisions and two brigades. The Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps was destined never to fight together, and many of its units existed only on paper.

The very name Grossdeutschland, or Greater Germany, summed up the ethos of the unit. It was no ordinary line unit but the German Army’s premier fighting force, containing its most experienced and professional officers and soldiers. It became a matter of pride that the German Army could field elite units to rival the panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS. The name betrayed the ideological underpinning of the unit – its sole purpose was to lead and win Hitler’s war of aggression, first in western Europe and then Russia. Grossdeutschland was Hitler’s ambition to create a German state that dominated continental Europe. Those nations or races that had no place in the Führer’s plans were to be expelled or exterminated. By naming its elite unit after Hitler’s maniac scheme, the German Army High Command clearly demonstrated that it had signed up to their Führer’s crazed plans to create a “master race”. Except for a few small elements, from 1941 onwards Grossdeutschland units fought almost exclusively on the Eastern Front against the Red Army.

The Early Years

The origins of the Grossdeutschland lie in the German Army’s Watch or Guard Troops, which were formed in 1934 to secure the High Command’s buildings in Berlin. When the Waffen-SS was formed, the army decided to form a rival elite force and the Guard Troops were expanded into a regiment, soon to be named Motorized Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland. This regiment, four battalions strong, was lavishly equipped with trucks, light artillery, mortars and flak and anti-tank guns.

It saw action for the first time during the campaign in France and then spearheaded the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. Later that summer, it was in the thick of the action as German troops surged into the Soviet Union, advancing into central Russia and then moving south into the Ukraine as part of the force sent to encircle the huge Soviet army defending Kiev. After a brutal winter, holding the front against the Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow, it lost almost 1000 dead and more than 3000 wounded, but established its reputation as the one of the Wehrmacht’s most professional and effective fighting units.

In the spring of 1942, orders were issued to expand the regiment into a motorized infantry division, complete with 14 Panzer III and 42 Panzer IV tanks, 21 StuG III assault guns, as well as dozens of SdKfz 251 armoured halftracks, Marder 76.2mm self-propelled anti-tank guns, 88mm flak guns, and towed 170mm and 150mm heavy artillery. The vast majority of the division’s infantry still had to travel in soft-skinned trucks and halftracks, so would dismount just outside enemy machine-gun range before going into action on foot. One company of the panzer battalion was equipped with the new Panzer IVF2, which sported the then new L/43 long cannon that was designed to defeat the heavy armour of the Soviet T-34 tank.

The up-gunned and up-armoured Panzer IVF2s would spearhead the Grossdeutschland’s advance during the coming summer offensive, dubbed Operation Blue by the High Command. Its aim was to smash the Soviet armies in southern Russia to open the way for German troops to seize the strategic oil wells in the Caucasus. Grossdeutschland was assigned to the Fourth Panzer Army, which was on the most northerly wing of five German armies.

During the advance to the River Don the Grossdeutschland panzer crews had a taste of the easy victories experienced during the Blitzkrieg years. The Soviet frontline troops put up the same lamentable performance as the year before and the Germans were soon motoring eastwards. A Soviet tank corps was ordered to counterattack and drive straight into the Grossdeutschland, only to be engaged and devastated by the Panzer IVs and IIIs. In the space of a week, some 200 Soviet tanks were knocked out and the Soviet counteroffensive was smashed, trapping 100,000 Red Army soldiers. But the attack was a desperate holding action and it worked. The bulk of the Soviet troops escaped and the Grossdeutschland spent the next six weeks chasing ghosts across the empty steppe. Fortunately for the division, it was diverted north to help Army Group Centre around the Rzhev salient rather than joining the Sixth Army for its doomed advance to Stalingrad. Nevertheless, it was not destined to have an easy time. The Rzhev salient pointed towards Moscow and Stalin had ordered a major offensive to destroy it. This was intended as a sequel to Operation Saturn that had trapped the Sixth Army. The Grossdeutschland panzer troops were formed into a hard-hitting reserve that rushed from one crisis point to another, as the salient held through a miserable winter.

In January 1943 Grossdeutschland was ordered to be pulled out of the line and moved south to join a major offensive to relieve the Sixth Army. By the time the division made it to its assembly area near Kharkov it was joined by the remainder of the newly formed Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland, which boasted a full battalion of 42 Panzer IVs and a company of 9 new Tiger I heavy tanks. These 58-tonne (57-ton) monster tanks were armed with the deadly 88mm cannon that could destroy a T-34 at 2000m (2188yd). Almost as important, the new arrivals were led by the regiment’s commander, Colonel Count Hyazinth von Strachwitz, who was soon to become famous as the “Panzer Count”. He was already a hero from World War I, when he had led a German raiding party into Paris.

The division had only just escaped from encirclement in Kharkov, when the newly reinforced panzer regiment was ordered to lead a major German counterattack to turn back the Soviet winter offensive. Von Strachwitz led his panzers forward with considerable dash during March 1943, pushing forward at a great pace until it was engaged by the Soviet II Tank Corps. In the first clash of a bloody week, 46 T-34s were knocked out by the Grossdeutschland’s panzer regiment. The German offensive now started to gain momentum, with village after village falling to von Strachwitz’s panzers. The following day they ran into a network of Soviet anti-tank guns, called a “pak front” by the Germans, in prepared positions and backed by a large number of infantry bunkers. The Tigers came into their own, standing off and systematically blasting the anti-tank guns out of their bunkers. Flamethrower tanks then finished off the position.

As the attack rolled forward, on 16 March another 30 T-34s were destroyed by the panzers when they surprised a Soviet tank brigade in its assembly area. More Soviet tanks were thrown into the battle two days later, but von Strachwitz heard the tanks coming and quickly deployed his panzers to surprise the advancing Soviets. The panzers were driven into peasant huts to hide them and von Strachwitz ordered his gunners to hold their fire. Soviet tanks cautiously edged forward until they were actually inside the village. With nerves of steel, the panzer crews held fire for several hours. When the Soviet tanks exposed their side armour to the Germans, von Strachwitz fired his 88mm cannon, which took the turret off a T-34 with ease. This was a signal for the rest of the regiment to open up. In a few seconds, 18 T-34s were in flames. It was then that the Germans moved forward to attack. By the end of the day, 90 Soviet tanks had been destroyed. Soviet attacks continued for more than a week as several infantry divisions and tank brigades were thrown at the Grossdeutschland lines. All these efforts were rebuffed with heavy losses among the attackers. At the end of March Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the Inspector-General of the Panzer Troops, came to view the Grossdeutschland’s handiwork. With pride, von Strachwitz was able to show the father of the German panzers a tank graveyard north of Kharkov containing hundreds of smashed Soviet T-34s.

Kursk

As heavy rains turned Russia into a mud bath, both the Germans and Soviets turned their attention to reorganizing and refitting their forces for the coming summer campaign season. The Army High Command was determined that Grossdeutschland would have the honour of spearheading Operation Citadel to cut off the Soviet defenders holding the Kursk salient, which jutted more than 80km (50 miles) into the German front. It became fashionable among aristocratic, middle-ranking officers to join the Grossdeutschland as a way to gain battle experience, medals and promotion. It was also seen as important to ensure the German Army was not totally eclipsed by the Waffen-SS. The rank and file soldiers were now some of the most battle-hardened on the Eastern Front, while a higher than average proportion of the junior officers were Nazi Party members.

Grossdeutschland was allocated two battalions of Panther tanks, the newest and most modern tank in the German arsenal. It was developed in response to the T-34 and featured sloped armour and a long-barrel 75mm cannon that was almost as powerful as the 88mm carried in the Tiger. Hitler considered the Panthers crucial to the success of Operation Citadel, and he repeatedly put back the date of the offensive to ensure that 192 of the new “wonder” tanks were ready to lead the attack.

The other elements of the division were also brought up to strength during this period with extra deliveries of tanks, until its two panzer battalions boasted 80 Panzer IVs and 15 Tigers. Enough armoured half-tracks to fully equip Grossdeutschland’s armoured infantry, combat engineer or pioneer and reconnaissance battalions were also delivered to the division, together with self-propelled 150mm Hummel and 105mm Wespe howitzers. Grossdeutschland was redesignated a panzergrenadier division in the days before the Kursk offensive. With four battalions of tanks, the division was the most powerful armoured formation on the Eastern Front in July 1943.

Grossdeutschland’s panzergrenadiers opened the division’s attack on the Kursk salient on 5 July. The first objective was a key piece of high ground needed to open a path for the panzers to roll forward to attack the Soviets’ southern flank. The Tiger company led the attack with the new Panthers poised close behind and almost immediately ran into a firestorm of anti-tank fire. An interlocking network of pak fronts had been built by the Soviets all around the Kursk salient. Several Tigers struck mines and had to slug it out with the Soviet anti-tank gunners. To try to move the offensive forward, the Panther tanks were committed, but many soon started to burst into flames. This was not as a result of Soviet fire or mines – the new tanks were proving to have teething troubles. They were, however, easily able to see off a counterattack by a Soviet tank brigade equipped with American-built General Lee tanks.

This set the pattern for the next six days. Rather than being a Blitzkrieg, Operation Citadel turned into a bloody war of attrition. Grossdeutschland panzergrenadiers and panzers struggled forward to breach line after line of Soviet defences. Each day they knocked out dozens of Soviets tanks and guns, and took hundreds of prisoners. The cost was grievous, though, with the Grossdeutschland Panzer Regiment only able to put 22 Panzer IVs, 38 Panthers and 6 Tigers into the field on 12 July. That was the day the Soviets committed their tank reserves. Hundreds of T-34s surged forward and penetrated the division’s front in several places. Panzer counterattacks restored the situation.

The German attack rolled forward again the following day, only to run into fresh pak fronts containing more than 100 dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns. This was just too tough a nut to crack. Grossdeutschland’s attack was now stalled.

During the course of the battle the division claimed to have destroyed more than 263 Soviet tanks, 144 anti-tank guns, 22 artillery pieces and 11 multiple rocket launchers. Grossdeutschland’s own tank losses were a modest 10 Panzers IVs and 43 Panthers, but scores of other vehicles were damaged and unfit for action. Less than a third of the tanks that went into action on 5 July were ready for action. Losses among the division’s panzergrenadiers were equally grievous.

With Operation Citadel bogged down the Soviets now launched their strategic reserves against the northern German attack force. It was soon reeling back in disorder, so Hitler ordered Grossdeutschland to be pulled out of the line to move north to restore the situation. The division had barely time to unload its vehicles and equipment from its railway flat cars when another massive Soviet offensive broke through the German lines around Kharkov, and so it was on its way southwards to help plug the gap in the line.

Holding the Line

Four Soviet armies had smashed open a breach 80km (50 miles) wide in the Fourth Panzer Army’s front and more than 2000 T-34s were motoring southwards. While the Waffen-SS panzer divisions Totenkopf and Das Reich attacked from the south, Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer were to hit the northern flank of the Soviet advance. As the division gathered for its attack, the newly-formed Tiger battalion joined von Strachwitz’s regiment. He had more than 100 tanks, including some 40 Panthers, 40 Tigers and 30 Panzer IVs. The Grossdeutschland started to be called a “super panzer division”, even though it was officially still a panzergrenadier division, because it boasted the strongest tank force in the German Army.

Once committed to action, the division found itself engaged in a swirling tank battle against waves of hundreds of T-34s advancing across an almost flat steppe. Tigers and Panthers picked off the Soviet tanks at extreme range in cornfields, while the Grossdeutschland’s panzergrenadiers had to fight off human-wave attacks of Soviet infantry. Daily kill rates of 40–50 T-34s were recorded during this period, creating major problems for the division’s maintenance crews who had to institute a crash programme to repair worn-out tank cannon barrels.

The counterattack at Achtyrka was a major tactical success for Grossdeutschland, but the remainder of the German front was still weak and a retreat to the River Dnieper was ordered. Grossdeutschland formed the rearguard as Army Group South pulled back. The Soviets gave the Germans no respite, though, and they were soon across this mighty river barrier. For three months Grossdeutschland found itself being rushed from one crisis zone to another as the Soviet steamroller ground forward. By March 1944, the German front had been pushed back to the Romanian border and the Soviets at last seemed to run out of steam, giving the Germans a chance to reform and regroup their battered divisions. Grossdeutschland was now led by Lieutenant-General Hasso von Manteuffel, perhaps its most famous commander. Although only 1.5m (5ft) tall, the aristocratic officer was a bundle of energy and led his division from the turret of a Panther tank.

By late April, von Manteuffel had been able to concentrate his division around the border town of Targul Frumos and build up a strong defensive position. His panzergrenadiers were deployed forward, holding a network of trenches and bunkers to hold off the Soviet infantry. Artillery batteries were positioned to sweep the division’s front with fire, and 88mm flak guns were dug-in to deal with any enemy armour that broke through the frontline. Von Manteuffel held his panzer regiment, with 25 serviceable Panzer IVs, 10 Tigers and 12 Panthers, plus an assault gun battalion, with 25 StuG IIIs, in reserve. He located his command post on a hilltop overlooking the whole of his sector. The scene was set for a one of the classic defensive battles on the Eastern Front.

After spending a day blasting the German lines with rolling salvoes of artillery fire, the first Soviet tank attacks went in on 2 May. The panzergrenadiers on the frontline allowed the first wave of 25 T-34s to pass over their trenches and let the 88mms take them on. More than half fell to the flak gunners and the remainder were easily finished off by panzers. Another probe by 30 T-34s was destroyed for no loss by the assault gun battalion, which ambushed them from a hull-down position on a ridge just behind the German front.

The Soviets than committed seven of their Josef Stalin II heavy tanks armed with 122mm cannons, which began engaging von Manteuffel’s panzer group at more than 3000m (3282yd) range. The Tigers were called up to drive them off, but their 88mm rounds simply bounced off the armour of the new Soviet tanks. They had to advance to under 1800m (1969yd) before they managed to punch through the weaker side armour of four of the Josef Stalin tanks. Pursuing Panzer IVs destroyed them as they turned tail.

Another Soviet thrust managed to break into a village on the right flank of the division and then more T-34s surged into the breach. Von Manteuffel led a Panzer IV company to the critical sector, knocking out 30 Soviet tanks and driving off the rest.

For two more days, this pattern was repeated with massive Soviet tank and infantry attacks along the Grossdeutschland front. Time and again, von Manteuffel’s frontline troops held their nerve until the panzers rode to the rescue. On 5 May, the Soviets pulled back. They left the remains of 350 destroyed tanks, and von Manteuffel estimated a further 200 Soviet vehicles were damaged. Just 10 German tanks were lost.

Last Stand

The following month, in June 1944, the biggest Soviet offensive of the war smashed the German Army Group Centre and ripped open a huge gap in the Eastern Front. German troops were driven from Soviet territory and retreated back into Poland. By 1 August 1944 Red Army troops had reached the Baltic, cutting off Army Group North around Riga. The situation was desperate. Grossdeutschland was called upon to spearhead an effort to reopen a land route to the trapped troops.

After safely unloading from its trains, the division was first sent to destroy a Soviet Guards Tank Corps at Wilkowishken on the East Prussian border with Lithuania. Some 350 tanks and other Grossdeutschland armoured vehicles were launched into action, and soon found that they were up against hundreds of heavily armoured Josef Stalin tanks, backed up by SU 100 and SU 122/152 heavy assault guns. Avoiding a head-to-head fight, von Manteuffel manoeuvred his outnumbered tanks to fire on the weak side armour of the Soviet vehicles. The Soviets eventually withdrew, leaving some 70 tanks and 60 anti-tanks guns behind.

Towards the end of August, the division was ready to spearhead the drive to open a corridor to Riga. Some initial penetrations were made but the Soviet defences were just too strong. When the attack ground to a halt on 23 August, all the division’s tanks were out of ground to a halt on 23 August, all the division’s tanks were out of Panthers arrived could the panzer regiment be considered fit for offensive action.

The Soviets had by now gathered 19 infantry divisions and 5 tank corps to renew the offensive and when they struck in October, the weak divisions around Grossdeutschland collapsed. For several days the division was effectively surrounded. Under protection of its Tigers and Panthers, Grossdeutschland managed to form a rearguard to allow several other German divisions to pull back into Memel. Grossdeutschland then withdrew, with Soviet tanks hard on its heels. The town was dubbed a “fortress” by Hitler but this was a myth. It was a hell-hole, bombarded relentlessly by Soviet guns. Eventually its garrison, including the remnants of Grossdeutschland, were withdrawn by sea to East Prussia.

As it reorganized in East Prussia during December 1944, the division was ordered to detach several units to help form the Panzer Corps Grossdeutschland. On paper this was supposed to contain the original Grossdeutschland Division, the panzergrenadier divisions Brandenburg and Kurmark, the Luftwaffe panzer division Hermann Goering, along with the Führer Grenadier and Führer Begleit brigades. These units were never to go into action together. Combat losses and supply shortages meant they never received anything like enough equipment and men to replace the horrendous losses at the front. When the next Soviet offensive broke in the middle of January 1945, a much-depleted Grossdeutschland Division rolled into action for the last time. Heavy fighting raged for weeks in the woods and forests of East Prussia as the division steadily fell back towards Königsberg. On 17 March the last panzer counterattack was launched by three of the division’s Tigers to protect its precarious toehold on the Baltic coast. Their crews fought to the last to screen the evacuation of their comrades to the Samland peninsula. For almost a month the division’s survivors fought on here as infantry until they were finally evacuated by ship to Denmark. In the space of three months more than 17,000 Grossdeutschland soldiers were killed in action. Only a few hundred men of the division made it to the relative safety of British captivity.

It was typical of the Grossdeutschland Division that it went down fighting. As the German Army’s elite panzer unit it was created to spearhead Hitler’s war of conquest in the East. When the Blitzkrieg faltered, time and again the division was thrown into the breach to hold the Eastern Front together. Equipped with the latest and most powerful tanks Germany’s factories could build, Grossdeutschland’s panzer regiment regularly achieved amazing tactical success. Only in the autumn of 1944, when the Soviets fielded huge numbers of their monster Josef Stalin tanks, did the division’s panzer crews find themselves the prey rather than the hunters.